The Greatest Disciple – Lectionary 10/17/2021

Mark 10: 35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Sermon Text

            We talked a few weeks ago about how the disciples fought with one another over who would be greatest. The lesson they received soon after their argument on that Judean backroad was that only the most lowly among them would be considered great in God’s kingdom. God sought to move our definition of strength and power away from simple doctrines of might making right and toward an understanding of a Kingdom ruled by slaves, putting even the greatest of rulers to shame by the love and mercy they showed to those around them. This teaching was not simply a positive encouragement to do what is right. Jesus remained clear that an inability to repent would be equally as dangerous as repentance would be blessed. The life of the Christian is split between the reality of our sin and the promise of our righteousness.

Jesus would teach for some time in Capernaum. He taught on the importance of fidelity in marriage, the dangers of wealth, even upon the sanctity of children within his Kingdom. The people gathered were amazed at his teaching, they were challenged by his words, yet they listened on. They listened, that is, until Jesus again returned to his most difficult teaching. This teaching being that the end of his ministry was not going to be in a triumphant victory over worldly powers, but a shattering of death itself through the death of the messiah. Jesus taught, once again, that the victors in this universe would ultimately be found among the broken, the poor, and the servant, not among kings.

The response that Jesus gets to this teaching is almost identical to the previous time he taught this. However, rather than all the disciples arguing behind Jesus’s back, two have learned well enough that they can approach Jesus with questions. They have, all the same, failed to learn what about their ministry draws them closer to Jesus. Rather than asking Jesus how they may be better servants or how they might better prepare themselves for Jesus’s passion, they simply as for Jesus to give them places of honor.

The other disciples find out about this and lash out at James and John for their boldness. Jesus, ever the teacher, sees that he is still fighting an uphill battle in leading his disciples into the Kingdom. When we look at the Gospels, Mark tends to be the most direct when it comes to telling Jesus’s story. However, because Mark is so direct, there is more obvious repetition of certain events. While Matthew and Luke fill the space between the disciples continued questioning and misunderstanding of Jesus, we see almost from one page to another how the disciples continue to struggle with Jesus’s identity. The alternative community which Mark is offering in the way he tells Jesus’s story is a lofty goal for the disciples to become a part of and reading through Mark we find again and again what details are most important and what obstacles stand the most firmly against us.

The repetition of this lesson also shows us how Jesus’s disciples are growing in their understanding of Jesus and his ministry. The first time Jesus taught that he was to be killed, it led to a public confrontation with Peter. The second time it led to the disciples fighting over who among them was “the best.” Now there are at least two disciples who, while still not fully understanding of Jesus, are at least speaking directly to Jesus about their desires. As self-serving and convoluted as their request to be placed beside Jesus is, it shows that they have begun to realize that if they want to know about the Kingdom of God, Jesus is the person to go to.

Jesus responds to his disciples’ request in a way that acknowledges that growth. Rather than chastising them, he redirects their thinking away from questions of who will be top dog toward more practical concerns of weathering the storms of this life. Jesus poses the question, “Can you drink from the cup I am about to drink and be baptized with the same baptism,” but regardless of how James and John answered this question the conclusion of Jesus’s teaching would be the same. If they stayed in Jesus’s ministry they would suffer as Jesus suffered.

That was the basic expectation, they were not afforded any special privileges for simply doing what was the natural conclusion of their work. Jesus was clear that to follow him was to give up any expectation we had of a life free of sacrifice. The anger of the other disciples when they learn what James and John had asked is likely tied to two equal yet opposite ideas. On one hand, James and John were likely seen as acting unfairly by asking such a question.

The disciples rejected them asking for honor out of a perceived righteousness they saw in themselves, saying something along the lines  of “I would never ask such a selfish thing!” On the other hand, the disciples may have been frustrated that James and John had thought to just walk up and ask Jesus such a question. This concern takes form, not because they see this request as wrong, but because they had not thought to ask that question themselves. The sons of Zebedee had realized that asking Jesus led to answers, while the other disciples still believed they could argue their way into the kingdom. The disciples, in either case, pushed against James and John for doing something they had not tried – trusting Jesus enough to directly ask for what they wanted.

Where Jesus gently redirected James and John, his response to the other disciples has a harder feeling to it. To disrupt the angry crowd his followers had suddenly become, Jesus speaks in his most direct language yet regarding the attitude his disciples should apply to their lives. Jesus accuses the disciples of acting like Gentiles seeking Roman political power. Counter to the idea they may have had that they were being pious by having these arguments, Jesus places their behavior as secular at best and “Gentile,” at worst. In first century Judea, that sort of insinuation would have carried weight.

Jesus goes on to describe this Gentile-Leadership mindset. The NRSV, and most other translations I read, does a poor job at rendering Jesus’s words here. While the translation we just read speaks of people, “Lording,” authority over one another and acting as “tyrants,” Jesus’s words are more general than bad leadership.  Jesus is speaking here to how people lead generally, not just to the worst examples of leadership. Despite the strict hierarchies and power struggles present in the world around them, Jesus called his disciples to see their greatness coming from a willingness to serve one another. The people of God cannot see one person as exceedingly great over any other, because all people are servants – from the oldest and most senior elder to the newest member.

The Church does not always follow Jesus’s model of leadership. We can point to periods in history and plenty of our own personal anecdotes that show the people of God seeking power and influence and control rather than trying to serve one another.  This problem is most obvious among clergy because we have more opportunity and systemic backing than most people in the Church. Yet, the tendency to seek after power is not limited to any group within the Church, it is a temptation we all can give into. It is something that can appear in friendships, workplaces, even in our families. The desire to get what we want, no matter that cost, that is never far from us.

Of all the teachings of the Methodist Church, few are more important than how we see the organization of the Church. As any of us gathered here may attest, the exact organization of the Methodist Church can seem arcane at times. Committees and charges and districts and conferences all flow into a complex web of oversight and reporting. Despite this reputation, the intent of our structure is to be as egalitarian and democratic in nature as possible. The chair of the council of bishops is not any more important or spiritually significant than any believer seated in a pew. If you are a Christian, the United Methodist Church sees you as just as worthy and capable as any other Christian.

Leadership in the United Methodist Church is therefore meant to be seen as people being called to take on leadership among equals. When someone accepts a nomination to a committee or a call to ministry, it is not as though they suddenly become more important or holy than others, but that they are living out their service to God in a particular way. Even Bishops, having taken on as much responsibility as they have, are no more significant than any other faithful member. We are all of us servants to one another, even if our gifts lead us to serve one another in specific ways or through leadership positions, we can never assume we are greater than one another, because we all serve with the same expectation to seek one another’s good.

This does not always seem to be the case and it often is not the case. We all see our positions in life as ways to get what we want, at least occasionally. Whether that is gathering praise and benefits for our work or getting our name attached to a successful ministry, we adore the idea of climbing the ladder. In some ways, this is not inherently bad. “A worker is due their wages,” after all and we should celebrate the achievements of those around us. (Luke 10:7) This includes standing up for ourselves and standing together in solidarity with others whenever we can.  Whether that be in Unions or one on one advocacy, asking to be respected and seeking our honest due is no sin. The problem emerges when the desire for more authority and power overcomes our desire and real capacity to do good.

When we live a life in line with Christ, we will find opportunities to take the lead. Sometimes this means career advancements, other times just the chance to raise another person in the faith. I say “just,” because we often times see things like that as lesser than any career goal we may have in mind. The reality is, of course, that there are few manifestations of love and servanthood as obvious as helping one another grow.  This can be growth in knowledge, in the trust we show toward God, or any other number of skills – but that growth should always be tied to growth in general goodness.

Jesus tells us that the greatest people in the Kingdom of God are those who serve one another. Jesus goes further still by removing any criteria about what will define glory in the world to come. The only guidance we have is to live into Christ’s teachings through our service to one another. If we apply this attitude to all aspects of our life, then we will benefit. We will benefit, not because of any rank we attain, clout we collect, or wealth we acquire, but because our service to one another will be a gift even in itself. Jesus speaks as though Heaven may have some hierarchy, but even this seems an earthly way to describe something presently beyond our comprehension. If we truly seek only to love and serve one another, then no title or power will overcome our plain desire to love and the satisfaction that comes from selflessness.

If we wish to be great in God’s economy of Grace, then we must ask ourselves often and honestly how we can serve one another. This mindset begins at home and goes out into the world. We often encourage our children to think about how they can serve their parents, but I encourage parents to ask the same question for how they can serve their children. Spouses should ask this of themselves. We should ask it about all the people we regularly meet in our life. Why don’t we do that now?  Because we are used to only one person in a relationship putting that kind of effort in. Truly, unless we are all willing to put service before self, we will see inequalities from some people doing what is right and others taking advantage.

Yet, if we want to transform the world we live in, we have to begin living a life of service in every way we can. If we can begin that here in this church, by loving and serving one another in our household and this sanctuary, we will begin to see transformation. We will all grow together; we will see the blessings of the Church made plain to us. If we go beyond asking to see blessing and begin living as a blessing, then we will truly know what it is to be great and what God’s kingdom really looks like. – Amen.

Revised Common Devotional – 10/13/2021

Luke 16:19-31

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Meditation Text

            What defines a person who is living a life worthy of God’s calling? This kind of question is entrenched in pretty churchy language. We do not understand our daily life in terms of “worthiness” or “calling,” but we cannot escape what these words mean to us. To live “worthily,” into what God would have us do is not to earn our way into Heaven – that would be impossible. Every aspect of our life, nonetheless, has something evaluative behind it. I cannot simply say that I have a job or that I am married, we naturally follow up any category of our life with, “Am I good at my this thing?” Am I good at my job? Am I contributing to a healthy marriage? Beyond the simple categorization of our life into what we are, there is the question of whether or not we are truly living into what that categorization would suggest we believe.

            The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is one of my favorites in all of the Gospels. In it we see a comically rich man eating at a table covered in every kind of good thing while a poor man sits at his gates every day, sick and tired, and starves. The two men are not described as having lived particularly holy lives, yet when death comes to call the rich man finds himself in a place of torment and Lazarus finds himself comfortably seated with Abraham. The rich man is baffled, but Abraham states the matter plainly. Because the rich man received an abundance of wealth and food and comfort in life, he now faces torment in death. The poor man, however, who knew only pain, now experiences eternal comfort. There is no complex formula here, the rich man’s desire for more and better has left his eternal destiny to be consumed in less and worse.

            As we make our way through life, we need to define how well we are living in terms that are not tied to how much money we are making or how much stuff we have. We can have all the stuff in the world and never be satisfied and after a certain point, money is no longer a means to take care of ourselves but just a way to get more that we do not need. Wealth is a dangerous thing, and possession of it quickly turns to love of it, which we all know is the root of all evil. (1 Timothy 6:10.) We must all be careful that we are not too enraptured by the wealth we have around us, it will ultimately lead us closer to Hell with every penny we acquire. Only generosity can define how much a soul has accepted Christ, because Christ is, at the end of all things, hospitable beyond measure.

            While we live in a country that demands a great deal of money from us in order to have even basic necessities, we cannot deny that simply living above the poverty line in the United States makes us incredibly rich in global terms. It can be difficult, in the midst of paying bills and repaying loans (especially student loans in my case,) to remember the great amount of wealth that regularly passes us by. We know more plenty today than anyone in history has ever known. How do we use it? Do we spend money to get more things? How often do we ever use our money to help people in this world? Especially those who live all around us.

            The fact is that we all love money more than we ought. Returning to our opening question, we are usually more concerned with living a life worthy of money, of Mammon, than we ever are worried about living a life worthy of the Gospel. We collect money to buy more clothes, or electronics, or entertainment. When we come to our final rest, what will our bank account show we loved? God and God’s people, or consumption and leisure? We have to connect our financial habits to our moral disposition, not for any other reason than Jesus clearly does. I do not pretend to be sinless in this matter, but even as I write this out I feel conviction seeping from my wallet. The sting of every dollar meant for the poor I spend on myself, and every check I could write to help the needy I use to feed my own desires.

            Let us all strive to love God and one another more, much more than we love money.

Our Bitter Complaint – Lectionary 10/10/2021

Job 23:1-9

Then Job answered:

“Today also my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning. Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.

“If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I

Sermon Text

 The book of Job is a tragic masterpiece. Though often overlooked or relegated to specific times in our life, it is a wonder of poetic and rhetorical composition. Few books contain such raw emotional force or as decadent of meditations upon pain as what we see in Job. The story of a man who loses everything, of someone doomed to suffer seemingly in spite of his goodness – captivates us beyond any feel-good story we might otherwise be drawn to. The protagonist of our story is someone we can relate to throughout our lives, a good man who suffers, a good man who seeks answers, a good man who can ultimately only shrug at the enormity of his own question.

This book is often said to be the first canonical book of scripture to be written. Before Moses composed the law or the Chronicler wrote the history of Judah, someone wrote the story of Job. This is partially true. The plot of Job takes place in the Patriarchal period. We are meant to read Job as being alive at the same time as Abraham. Similar stories to Job were written as far back as 3,000 BCE, predating the oldest parts of the Torah by nearly 2,000 years. However, the present version of Job we have today was written after Babylon conquered Judah. Likely, the book as we know it today was still being edited and finalized when Jesus walked the shores of Galilee.

Job, it should also be said, is only a story. Unlike most of scripture, it is not a recounting of historical events. Like the book of Esther or the Song of Songs, Job is a narrative written to teach a lesson, but not a record of history. This is why we see images of a divine court in Job that resemble ancient throne rooms, why Satan and God can bet one another about what Job will do. We are not meant to read Job and receive literal accounts of how God and Satan interact or how a man named Job suffered, we read Job to understand how we as human beings respond to grief, and through the Spirit of God how we can push on through even the hardest times.

To refresh our memory about what has happened to Job up to this point, we go to the very beginning. Job was a man who was blameless before God and humanity. If Job ever did wrong, he begged forgiveness and paid restitutions. Job was rich, but also generous, he had money and family and cattle a plenty. Satan, God’s prosecuting attorney, turns his attention to Job after God brags about his righteousness. Satan scoffs and assures God that if Job did not have all his riches, God would immediately see a different side of Job. God allows Satan to kill Job’s family, his livestock, and to even steal away his health after all else was gone. Job loses everything, keeping only his life, his heartbroken wife, and three friends.

 After sitting in total silence for days, Job speaks. He does not thank his friends or offer any wisdom. Instead, he begs to die. More than this he asks God to wipe out his entire existence. Job asks that God would reach back in time and uncreate the day he was born, letting it sink into the “shadow of Death,” that existed before creation. Where Job’s friends had hoped that healing would have come out of Job’s silence, they were now faced with the reality that a few days was not enough. Job did not cry out hallelujah, he just let out a cry. Weeping, the broken man asked God again and again – “Why me? Why me? Why?”

Job’s friends stepped in and offered numerous answers. They blamed Job, saying he must have sinned, or else God would have spared him this pain. They looked at God and said, “God is good, so this much actually be a good thing that is happening to you.” The friends took their own understandings of God and applied it to this moment, refusing to budge an inch. They believed, not that they might not understand God, but that they knew everything about God. They look at their friend and, counter to everything they know about him, decide he must secretly be a villain, rather than allow themselves to question whether or not there might be more to suffering than crime and punishment. Still Job, now having to defend himself, returns to his question, “Why?”

The section of Job we read today captures a moment when Eliphaz, the first to accuse Job of wrongdoing, has just finished laying another laundry list of possible sin at Job’s feet. Job takes a deep breath and refuses to budge. He looks to Heaven and asks for an audience with God. The courtroom we saw at the opening of the book is the place Job longs for above all others. Job wants to see God, to tell God all he has suffered, to voice his pain even just a little. “If I could only do that,” Job says, “Then God would at least listen to me.” Job does not want to fight God, he just wants God to acknowledge his pain, to have God admit his suffering is unprovoked, to be healed simply by knowing he is not acting irrationally.

Yet, Job is sure that wherever he goes, he will not find God. Job knows God is real, he dreams of an audience with him, but he feels he will never get that chance. The knowledge of God is not enough for Job, he craves more, he seeks to understand why his is suffering, but more than that he just wants to know that he is not alone. Where he had three strong friends at the outset of the book, he now seems to only have three bullies in front of him now. Instead of peace, he finds more reason to cry as they speak to him. Job just needs a single person to stand up for him, even if it is after he is dead, he wants one person to tell the truth about his life.

The book goes on back and forth with Job testifying his innocence and his friends arguing falsely about both Job and God. Finally, God decided to show up. Job received his audience and is told all about the things God does daily. God fights sea monsters and giant personifications of chaos. God makes the stars to sing and feeds every animal and person. God lifts up the enormity of creation and Job responds simply by saying, “I’ve seen enough!” Job’s final words are him refusing to speak again. This does not mean that Job is saying God has answered his question fully, but that Job has now accepted that his question has no real answer. God chastises Job’s friends but commends Job for standing up for himself and for God.

There are times where we, like Job, have to stare suffering in the face. We lose someone we love, we are diagnosed with a dangerous condition, or we fall into a run of plain bad luck. The response we have in those moments says a lot about how we have oriented our lives. Sometimes grief tears us apart, leaving us trapped in its darkness. Other times it can cause us to lash out, seeking to take control through violence. Still, another response might be to simply stop feeling at all, to let the trouble stand on its own and seek peace some other way. I do not believe anyone should be held too closely accountable for their first, instinctual response to trouble. Job took days to even be able to speak, perhaps because his first responses to suffering were too raw to share with others just yet.

Yet, when Job does speak, he gives us a model for how to talk to God when we are in pain. Job does not sugar coat his feelings, he begs for death and demands that the unfairness of his suffering be made known. Job does this while constantly affirming God’s goodness. Job is not upset that bad things happened to him, he is upset that a good God has allowed for them to happen. Job asks to speak to God face to face because he trusts God, he loves God, and his experience of God is currently in conflict with what he knows to be true about God. God looks at Job at the close of this book and affirms his feelings of hurt and confusion, because God knows that Job is justified in feeling that way – it proves Job’s trust in God.

When we experience hurt, we in the Church often rush to explain why we are not really all that sad. Our loss is seen in light of Heaven, our pain is written off as part of God’s plan, our sadness as just a hiccup in a life of joy. None of that is wrong in itself, but when our piety prevents us from truly feeling our grief, we harm ourselves and those around us. When we feel life is unfair, we should let God know. When we cannot see a light at the end of the road, we are on we need to shout our for a lantern. We are called by Paul not to “grieve as those without hope,” But we are never told not to grieve. (1 Thes. 4:13) Life is hard and life can really hurt sometimes. We, like Job, should raise up our bitter complaint to God whenever it is needed. We cannot silence our weeping when it is our tears which bring us healing.

The dangers we face as a Church when we do not know how to mourn is that we become like Job’s friends. Standing in the ash pile with people who have lost everything, we offer up platitudes in place of support. The book of Job is dangerous to read because four out of the six speakers in it are actively lying throughout it. Job’s friends – Bildad, Eliphaz, Zohar, and the elusive Elihu, all offer up really religious answers to explain Job’s trouble. “Job, this is just what happens to sinners, you need to repent!” “Job, God works in mysterious ways.” “Job, you deserve worse, be glad you had anything good to begin with!” The chorus of Sunday school answers to life’s biggest question drowns out the central truth of Job – we just do not know why good people suffer.

The question, “How can a good God allow for evil to exist?” is answered in many ways. This line of questioning is called, “Theodicy,” and usually assumes God is three things – all good, all powerful, and all knowing. The problem with answering why bad things happen is that in order to reach an answer, we usually have to remove or limit one of God’s “all,” attributes. We say God limits knowledge of the future, or allows free choice, or has concepts of “good,” we cannot understand. The problem with making any of these arguments is that, if we imagine God as a three-legged table, then shortening one leg of the table makes the whole thing wobble. To attempt to answer why suffering happens is to immediately reach an unsatisfactory answer.

The book of Job is a template for us in our response to pain because it is honest about what grief feels like. It hurts to lose those we love; it isn’t fair that the wicked succeed and the good suffer, there is something fundamentally wrong about this world we live in. This can cause us to doubt God, to question our faith, but it does not have to lead us to despair. Job shows us that we can trust God is good, we can know in our hearts that there is an all-loving advocate for us who oversees all of the universe, and still feel things are unfair. The cry of Job to be seen and heard by God is answered by the end of this book and I believe we all will receive an answer to our own cries we let out to God. If and only if we are unafraid to voice them. We have to trust God is big enough to take on our worry and disappointment alongside our praise.

God, throughout all of scripture, is willing to suffer alongside us. God does not stand up in Heaven and watch as we all go through the hard things of life. We are constantly given examples of God bending down to interact with us, to lift us out of the trouble we are in and into something more. The ultimate manifestation of this comes in the incarnation. God could not tolerate any separation between humanity and divinity any longer. God took on our flesh so that God could feel all our pain, know all our fear, see all our suffering. God knows what it is to lose a parent, a friend, to suffer illness and pain – Jesus felt it all. There are days we would rather weep than praise, and we can feel confident doing so because Jesus wept at Lazarus’s tomb. There are time we have questions for God, and we have to remember Jesus’s frantic question on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We can look to the hope of the resurrection because Christ did his time in the grave.

The lesson for today, if we may take one way, is that God is willing to hear us cry out when we cannot make sense of our pain. The question of “Why?” is never going to have an answer we can accept, but God wants us to ask it anyway. When we cry out, when we let loose our fear and worry and sorry, we allow God the chance – if not to answer it – then to come close to us. We trust God because when we asked God to show God truly cared, God stepped down from Heaven and suffered beside us. The story of scripture is a story of a world that is broken, of God calling people to come together to fix it, and when that project does not work out, of God sitting with us in the ash heap. We await joy and resurrection, but if that is not where your heart is today, then let God know it!  God waits for us to voice our bitter complaint. God hears you. God sees you. – Amen.

God of All People(s) – Lectionary 10/03/2021

Ephesians 4:1-6

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Sermon Text

The celebration of communion is something we have discussed together at length. Once a month this ritual gives us a chance to think deeply about what it means to come together and this Sunday in particular calls us to look beyond even our usual definitions of community. Today, as we celebrate “World Communion Sunday,” a formerly Presbyterian tradition, we look at how the entirety of the world comes together at God’s invitation. We are asked to be intentional about our thoughts, to see beyond life in this town, in this nation, and see instead the life we share with all believers. As we pray we are able to hear, distant and remote, the prayers of all the Church – in every language and style, in all places and at all times.

The Church began, almost 2,000 years ago, as a small group of believers who came together to form their own distinct branch of Judean faith. Amidst the apocalyptic fervor of the first century, under the oppressive thumb of Roman occupation, light burst out into the darkness of this world. Out of the ancient scriptures of Israel, a young teacher out of a backwater town began to preach. Just thirty-odd years-old, yet all who heard him knew he taught in a special way. He made scripture come alive, he healed the sick and freed the demon oppressed. Jesus of Nazareth, God given flesh, worked his wonders.

Jesus would be executed by the Roman government in order to keep the peace after his opponents painted him as a dissident. The followers of Christ, once numerous, were scattered across Judea and shrank away. When Jesus reappeared, resurrected into a new life in line with his eternity, it took weeks for the Church to reunite. Soon there were just over one hundred believers, waiting and praying for God to send the Spirit to them. When the Spirit did come, pushing them into the world like a strong wind, they began to preach in every language and mode of speech they could. The Gospel was going out into the nations, and nothing could trap it.

Yet, there was an instant concern in the Church. You see, with the Roman occupation, and the Seleucid before it, there was not a single “Judean,” identity anymore. Some Jews spoke Greek, others Aramaic, and only some used Hebrew scriptures – others using Greek or other local languages. Samaritans, the remnant of post-Assyrian Israelites, were shunned from mainstream society even as they worshipped the same God as the Judeans. Still more confounding was the introduction of Gentiles into Jewish worship spaces. Since Judaism had spread across Roman territories, non-Jews had become interested in this ancient faith. While conversion to Judaism was not yet possible, these Gentile “God-fearers,” were allowed partial participation in the community.

The Church was then forming amidst a diverse group of people. This naturally produced challenges. Are Greek Jews equal in dignity to native Judeans? Can God-fearers join Christian Community? If so, do they need to adopt Jewish practices? Beyond these general questions, bigotry set in between all groups and prevented equitable solutions to be found. Judeans saw Hellenists as inferior, relegating them to their own synagogues. Hellenists were more diverse in their attitudes than Judeans, but were often extremist in their adherence to the Law, pushing back on accusations they were not “Jewish enough.” God-fearers and other Gentiles often, upon joining the Church, seemed to think they were better than Jews because they had Christ alone to save them.

This diverse and problematic jumble is where the Church was born. Stranger still, it is where the Church flourished! How could that be possible? On one hand we can point to the Spirit which worked within the Church, but the Spirit did not magic the Church into being. God called people to lead the Church that contributed important perspectives on the problems they faced. With the diversity of believers being what it was, diverse leadership was necessary to bring the people together.

The first conflict of the Church related to the identity of its members is recorded in Acts 6-7. Here, Greek widows are not receiving the same amount of food and resources as Judean ones. It is never stated if this is an intentional act of discrimination or a supervisory oversight, but either way the disciples are quick to respond when this racial inequality is brought before them. Rather than claiming innocence, the disciples accept that they have not been leading properly in this regard and appoint seven deacons to oversee the giving of food. They appoint these Deacons out of the body of Greek believers, doing ministry with the affected group, rather than imposing their ideas of how it should be upon them. They built a bridge alongside those they were building the bridge to.

Despite this action, there was still a wedge between Greek and Judean believers, and still nothing being done for Gentiles. God responded to this by raising up an unlikely apostle. Saul, as he was known in Judea, was born to a Greek-Jewish family in Tarsus, a port town in modern Turkey. Saul was raised in Jerusalem and rejected his identity as a Greek. He wanted to be a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” and actively fought against the Church and its syncretic tendencies. (Phil. 3:5) The story of Acts is, in part, about how Saul grows to accept, not only his place in the Church, but his own ethnic identity. After his conversion, he returns home to Tarsus and reconnects with his roots, soon referring to himself exclusively as “Paul.” While this is often taught as a name change on Paul’s part, it is more likely that “Paul,” is his birth name, something he gave up when he came to Judea.

Paul would go beyond reconciling Greek and Judean believers and began the first major ministry efforts the Church launched to the Gentiles. Only two other apostles had undertaken such initiatives up to this point, Philip and Thomas. These two founded, indirectly in Philip’s case and directly in Thomas’s, two communities that would become the oldest surviving Christian populations of our modern era. Any guesses where they are? They are the Ethiopian Coptic Church, which traces itself back to the Eunuch baptized by Philip in Acts 8, and the Thomistic Christians of India. My brother-in-law, incidentally, is part of this community of Indian Orthodox Christians.

Keeping in mind the cultural potpourri which the Church began in, I hope that we can begin to remove the rose-colored glasses we often apply to Scripture. When we read the Epistles or the book of Acts, the people described are far from perfect. They are bigoted, they are mean, they are prone to fighting over anything they can get their hands on. The letters of Paul are as intense as they sometimes are because the Church has always been a broken group of people, even at its most Spirit-filled moments. We of the Church love to fracture ourselves on social and ideological bases. We in the United Methodist Church are poised to split at our next general conference because we cannot abide the idea of coming together beyond our differences. We are proud to shatter the Church because we see conflict and rejoice in our “righteousness.”

The Church is, however, definitionally non-homogenous. It was founded by native Judeans, brought in Greek speaking Jews, then Ethiopian God-fearers, and then people of all tongues and nations. There were Roman citizens, the enslaved, freedmen, and people of all social strata. If we think that there were not divisions among these first believers, we would be deceiving ourselves. Yet, the Church moved from more divided to more united over time, not the other way around – at least in those early days. Scripture is a story of people coming together, not of people pushing one another out.

The first step to achieving an awareness of one another sufficient to overcome our problems is to remove ourselves from the center of the story. Beyond the fact that the Church only has one “protagonist,” that is Jesus Christ, we must not see Christianity as a single block of people with no differences between them. Even just in North View, we have multiple Churches with different styles, ideas, and beliefs – but all worshipping the same God and hopefully working to do that God’s work in the world. Globally, the picture of Christianity is much different than the people gathered in this room.

Close your eyes and picture what you think the average Christian looks like in the world. Picture their clothing, their skin-color, the language they speak, the particular denomination they are a part of. What kind of music do they sing in worship? Are they Protestant or Catholic? What are their political ideas? Now open your eyes. While I cannot give a definitive answer to what the average Christian looks like and believes globally like I might for American Christians alone, the Pew Research Center conducted research to give us a rough idea. The average Christian in the world is Catholic, they live South of the Equator, and they speak one of three languages – Spanish, French, or Portuguese. While I cannot tell you which nation they come from specifically, or what politics they hold, we can assume that they are far more diverse than we can imagine.

The point of me drawing this sketch of the average Christian is not to centralize any specific identity in the Church. Instead, I hope we can decentralize our own images. The Church is not white, it is not Protestant, it is not American, and it is not any one political or ideological strain of thought. It is the people of God called together to go out and live into the Kingdom which God has made for us to be a part of. The differences between us are real, the cultures we have are important and worth celebrating, but they are not the primary identity a Christian should hold.

We are a continuation of the same Church that Paul worked to spread across all the world. Yet, we are not even willing to work out our differences with our neighbors, between pews, with those who look, and act like us. How can we ever grow beyond where we are, when we cannot even be of one body together? We saw a call to racial reconciliation last year that was bigger than anything we had seen since the Civil Rights era. Yet, little has changed since then because we have let the differences between races and cultures overcome even the most basic aspects of our common human identity. We were told to acknowledge other people matter and all we could do was list the people we would rather prioritize than the people who were crying out.

The greatest threat to the Church is always division, it has never been differences. I will say it again, the greatest threat to the church is division and not difference. Country folks are different than city folk, they can still be a Church together. White folks are culturally different than people of color, but these differences are superficial and not definitional. Liberals and conservatives are different, but until recently they could come together in pursuit of the common good in society, in their home, in their church.

Difference is the consequence of being individuals. I think differently than all kinds of people but those I relate to I come together with me to form communities. Cultures are born out from the unity of the past and present, they can be particular to a space as small as a Church and as large as language group. When cultures meet, there can be conflict, but there can also be untold beauty that comes from their union. Difference brings contrast into the world; it allows for life to flourish in a way that monochrome existences never could.

Division is not a consequence of difference, but a tool of evil to drive different people apart. Division segregates differing voices that are in conversation and sets them at odds. Division is a Spirit that grows angry at the mention of this group or that group, of this idea or that one. Division disguises itself as discernment, as a wisdom that separates good from bad, when really it simply seeks to keep the body of Christ from coming together to do God’s will. It should also be said, briefly, that acknowledging and asking for problems to be dealt with is not “being divisive,” but that is a conversation for another time.

Our scripture today asks us to identify our faith with something beyond our race or politics or nation, to see it within Christ and Christ alone. We are not brought together to be one thing or another, but to be identified with an unassailable unity. We are one body, in one Spirit, called by one Lord, through one baptism, and brought to worship one God who is Father of all, who rests upon us all, and who is in us all. This uniting identity asks us to look at others firstly as people called to serve God, or if they have not answered that call, to see them as beloved of God. Our primary identity is never white or American or Republican or Democrat, it is only ever Christian.

What this means is that we cannot let our own identity become the axis on which the world turns. Christianity cannot be defined as people who are “like us.” It does not matter that people worship like me or vote like me or look like me, it matters that we together seek the good of one another and the will of God. It means that we should not see a need to make people more like us, but that we should see a need for all people to be more like Christ. Christ the first century Jew, Christ the homeless preacher, Christ the pacifist killed as a rebel. We all are far from what Christ was like, if we wish to be more like him, it will take all people of all nations.

Yet, to gather in that way takes work and time. What can we do today? I recommend reading a book by someone from a different country or of a different race. Watch a news channel you wouldn’t normally watch. Give a chance to those who are different than yourself. Still be a discerning consumer of information, listening only to people acting in good faith and telling only the truth, but we must begin the hard work of understanding those who are unlike ourselves. We must come together as people who are different, because this table we will soon eat at has been set for more people who are unlike us than those who are like us.

Will we greet them as friends in the one Christ who moves through us? Or as strangers we never knew? That choice is ours alone. Choose to understand and choose to bridge gaps rather than tear down roads. – Amen.