Receive the Gospel with the joy that is inspired by the Holy Spirit.
—1 Thessalonians 1:6
My name is Peter Mikelic, and I have felt called to be a pastor since my early teen years. Many aspects of parish ministry are important and have drawn me. Yet the art and science of hermeneutics and homiletics are the gift that I’m most inspired to share. In real language, that means I really like to interpret scripture, write sermons and preach!
My wife Sherry delivers very brief and pointed sermons, mostly to me! But I find more time is involved. Exploring the depth and breadth of that intersection between the meaning of God’s Word and its relevancy in today’s complex world takes time, prayer, and soul searching. My purpose is to shed light on life in the here and now.
I hope these brief excerpts from recent sermons are meaningful to you. If you would like me to email a copy of any of the full sermons, please contact the office or let me know. Better yet, come on Sunday to hear one!
Inspiration for the Mind: Brief Sermon Excerpts
“When I go, you will not be left all alone: I will come back to you” said Jesus. Jn 14:18
Dear Friends A woman who had been a member of my London congregation came to see me years later when I was in Kitchener, as she had moved there. We had much to talk about, including that her mother had died in the meantime. The mother had lived a long, happy and full life. She had done most of the things she wanted to do: most importantly, she loved and had been loved by a good husband, dear children and grandchildren. “Although I would not wish her back, Pastor Peter, but when she died, suddenly I was nobody’s child,” she said to me.
Whenever I bury a last remaining parent and I see the forlorn eyes of the children carrying out their last most onerous responsibility of burying a mother or father, I’m reminded of their loss and vulnerability, as “nobody’s child.”
And I suspect that’s true of most of us reading this sermon. It’s true of me. Both my grandparents who raised me are deceased. My mother died bringing me into this world, and when my father died in June of 2005 in Adelaide, Australia, it was as if the final torch had been passed to me. I felt exactly like “nobody’s child.”
Suddenly I felt alone—an emotion which I had never felt before.
While most folks are nobody’s child by bereavement, others are so by estrangement or separation, divorce or abandonment. It’s a startling statistic, MF. Some 5-6 million Canadians who live alone and most of them are seniors. That’s almost one quarter of the adult population of our country. In fact, that’s almost 4x as many people who now live alone than in 1970. Many of these people want to live alone. They love it and have no wish to change.
But many others can hardly bear it. Loneliness is a fatal affliction for most people in our needy society. There are statistics to prove that there are far more suicides among people who live alone and who find themselves not only alone, but lonely. For some, it’s of crisis proportions. I know a 30 plus year-old man who is so needy that he threatens suicide if his girlfriend pressures to leave him, or if his mother does not attend to his every need. Although he lives with his mother to this day, he acts like he’s nobody’s child.
I also know a woman who is nobody’s mother, not because she has no family or children, but because she is estranged from them. They don’t write, call, or visit. The fact is, MF, a great deal of sentimental nonsense is communicated in our society and media when it comes to home and family, which are often far from ideal or even sensible, and that’s why many young people leave their homes as soon as they decently can.
Tension is also and often created by parents who can’t let their children go; who insist on treating them like children long after they’ve grown up. With 40 years of parish ministry behind me, I’ve met dozens and dozens of bright, independent and successful people who are diminished by parents who treat them like little kids, who know nothing and must be instructed and questioned about everything. Many unthinking and inconsiderate parents often do not recognize that their relationships, even the most affectionate, need to change, and can do so without becoming inferior.
Unhappiness is not always the fault of parents who won’t let their children go. It may be caused by children who will not let their parents go. I once knew a man who had been divorced 6 times. His mother kept on interfering in his marriages. Of course he allowed this to happen. So, one day I said to him, “You keep divorcing the wrong person. You need to divorce your mother.” But by that time, it was much too late. That man was my uncle.
Unless children let go of their parents, they will never begin to grow up and mature. In fact, when there is no disengagement between parents and children, the result is often anger, hostility and estrangement—all of which are most unhealthy and psychologically detrimental. There are too many people who live this way their whole lives long, including Christians, who of course are not exempt from these kinds of crises.
I once knew a 20 something year old boy who brought every problem he had home to his mother. He wore her out with his manipulations and neediness. She lived in a state of such stress and pain that her marriage to her second husband suffered immensely. She did not have enough energy to live her son’s life, as well as her own. Because she could not distinguish the difference between her life and his, their lives became intertwined. I could never tell where the pain started, nor where it ended, it was so pervasive.
In a previous sermon, I mentioned an old Hindu saying about a melon and a knife. “Whether the melon falls on the knife or the knife falls on the melon, it’s always the melon that suffers.” And so it is: some folks hurl themselves at life, while others crouch and wait for it to roll up over them. I could tell you many stories of how we are our own worst friends or enemies, for that matter—men as well as women, because no one is immune—no one—not even pastors! Simply put, MF: We orphan ourselves from one another.
I could tell you the story of a man I know, whose family fled Europe when he was just a boy and how he grew up a stranger, like an orphan, in another land. And how he struggled to renounce the part of him that was foreign now, and to adopt the ways that were thought well of in the place where he now was. And what it cost him then, and costs him still, and how he even now tries to pass, but in doing so, he orphaned himself.
Or, I could tell you about a woman who orphaned herself. The first person she ever loved, was her father, whom she could never please, and this hard distant man she was trying so hard to win, the one with the iron band locked around his heart, was just a substitute for the father, someone with whom she could play at trying to please her father again, and again.
It would be wrong of me to suggest that life is simple, when it is not; or that there is a cause for every effect; but I will say, as Oscar Wilde once did, “We don’t need a god to punish us, to abandon us, to orphan us.” We do a good job of it ourselves, which means that it is often very difficult to tell the wound from the knife.
In my first parish in Montreal, I once buried a man who was estranged from his son, who lived in Ecuador. Because the father had died suddenly, the son had no recourse in bridging the tremendous gulf between them. I told him to write a letter to his father explaining his feelings of sorrow and guilt, and then place it in the casket the morning of the funeral service. Because his father was alive in the palm of God’s hand, God would read the letter and understand and forgive. The letter could never change the past, I told the son, but would change his attitude about the past and about his father, as well as soothe his guilt and sorrow, and begin the healing process.
Well, MF, our sense of being orphaned has many roots: bereavement, estrangement, lack of friends, failure in our relationships, etc. Being “nobody’s child” simply touches everything and everybody, for it is part of our human condition. We can be homesick, even within our own homes and in our heart.
Jesus addressed our homelessness in quite a specific way. At the end of his ministry, when the time came for Jesus to leave his disciples, he strengthened their troubled hearts by telling them that he would not leave them comfortless—would not abandon them, nor orphan them. In fact, the word John’s Gospel uses is the Greek word, “orphanos” which means exactly what it sounds like: orphan. Jesus would not allow them to become orphaned, so they need not be afraid. He would never leave them, nor us.
Think of this in terms of a little child who awakes in the night, afraid of the dark and the silence. But one glimpse of his mother or father’s face and all his fear is gone. He knows he is where he belongs, that he is safe at home. Well, MF, how may we strengthen the sense of our belonging, of our being at home, children of our heavenly Father/Mother in his world?
First and foremost, we need to acknowledge that love is the epi-center of absolutely everything God created. Love is the reason for creation and the reason for our life and living, our giving and forgiving, our thanks and thanksgiving. Love is the real purpose of who we are: to love someone, to count for someone, to stand up for someone, to take sides with someone, to be there for someone, to have our love make a real difference for someone! That someone is always you and me. That someone is always the subject of our love, whether it’s our spouse or fiancé, our lovers or friends, our children or grandchildren, our neighbours—even our enemies.
The love which saves you and me from the loneliness of being orphaned is the same love with which God saves the world. The unconditional love which God gives us is similar to the kind of unconditional love we need to give those who need our love the most. For when love is unconditional, we don’t have to deserve it. It’s freely given because of who we and not what we have done or failed to do. God loves us before we have done anything to deserve it. We are his children whom he loves with the life of his Son. God’s true love for us always means the best and wants the best for us. And that’s because unconditional love has no limits.
For you and I who still live on this side of the grave, we try to give unconditional love, but it’s always tinged with conditions, isn’t it? As parents we say, “I love all my children equally.” Of course that’s not true. How could we ever love our children equally? Our children are not all the same. We may try to treat their children equally, but we cannot love them equally. No one can divide his/her love into equal parts and distribute it equally. Neither can God.
Each child is loved uniquely, just like God loves us uniquely. As the Irish say, “Parents bring their own love with them.” And indeed we do. Our love for our children is like God’s love for us. It has no limits. Each of us receives all of God’s love. He loves you, MF, as if you were the only person in the world. And once we believe that, it brings an enormous sense of security and confidence. We live in the certainty that “nothing can separate us from the love God,” as St. Paul put it. It means that we may always safely will for ourselves what God wills for us, for we know that God’s purpose is the intention of her love.
MF, we also know that we are not orphans! Why? Because we are loved in the next world, just as we are in this one. In other words, MF, we are loved eternally, beginning in this life already. If we are not loved eternally, then even the deepest love in this life fails us. After all, what sort of love is it, which only loves us for a while, which only loves us so long as we do this or that?
Yes, we love our dear ones so much that the thought of losing them is excruciatingly unendurable. But we do lose them, don’t we, and we still endure it? Yes, we also desire the immortality of our loved ones, but we cannot achieve it. Yes, we love them in this life, but they die however much we love them and with broken hearts we put them into the ground. It is not that we are resigned, MF, it’s that we are helpless.
And God understands all of this better than we could possibly know. To be loved by God means that love is stronger than death–it always has been and always will be. To be loved by the Eternal is also to be loved eternally, which is to be loved beyond the grave. And that’s why the Christian church teaches and we believe in, what we call the “communion of saints.”
And what an enormous comfort that is, MF. The love of my mother, Elizabeth, who gave me life, still surrounds me. I dwell in it, as her love once gave me life. In fact, there’s a sense in which she loves me more now, than she did then. After all, heaven means belonging, and we belong where we are deeply loved. That’s why Christians speak of “going home” when we die. The love of our dear ones not only surrounds us on our earthly pilgrimage; it awaits to receive us and welcome us home.
The blessed dead, MF, are not beyond our reach and we are not beyond theirs. They love us still and forgive us freely, knowing how much they themselves have been forgiven, and understanding better than they ever did on earth, our actions and the remorse we feel because of them. This is especially true, given the hundreds and hundreds of nursing home deaths from COVID-19, where children are unable to hold a funeral after the death of their parent, much less hold their dying parent in their arms.
Nobody’s child? We never are, MF!! For those who loved us, love us still. And if, unhappily, no such love ever reached us from another human being, it is Christ’s promise that he will not allow us to be orphaned, for he loves us like my mother loved me, enough to give his life for us.
So, MF, do not be afraid. You are God’s child in your Father and Mother’s world. He will uphold you with his power and keep you safe in her love. She will whisper in the deep dark night that all is well. He will bring you at last to the Promised Land, to the Country of our Great God, to the universe of our King. Alleluia! AMEN
Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen.
I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by me! Jn 14:6
Dear Friends. On this Fifth Sunday of Easter, I’ve got a question for you: Is Jesus the only way to God? I’m sure you’ve already have an answer, as I do too. But allow me not only to preface my answer with a short explanation, but hear me out, including an interpretation which may well come as a “surprise” to you.
I’ve been a Christian all my life—all 72 years, since my baptism in a refugee camp by an Orthodox priest on the second day of my life. And, I’ve been a pastor for over 40 years. I’ve always believed that, more than anything else, God is a God of love—one who loves the whole world, so that he sent his son, to be born in the obscurity of a manger for the world. This means that, if God is selective in his loving, if only the 2 billion Christians in this world will be saved because God loves only us, and will therefore condemn the other 5 billion to hell—if this is true, then my answer to the question “Is Jesus the only way to God?” must be a clear NO!
From that point of view, Jesus cannot be the only way to God. If the only way to God is through Jesus, who came in the first century AD, then it automatically denies access to God by every human being who was born before Jesus. If the only way to God is through Jesus, and if the other 5 billion in this world are not Christians, then they have no access to God! MF, if there is only one true living God, then she must be the God of all people, everywhere, past, present and future, regardless of race or religion, color or creed, nationality or ethnic origin, sexual identity or orientation. I’ve believed this all my life and still do! Maybe you do too!
If God is God, then he is the God of Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, although each of them call him by a different name, whether Jehovah, God or Allah. And according to the Christian New Testament, the Moslem Koran and the Hebrew Scriptures, the followers of each religious faith are descendants of Abraham, who is the Father of many nations, whom God said he would bless.
Now, because Jesus was born, raised and died a Jew, he believed what Judaism had affirmed for centuries that God is One. God is the creator and he is Love. The prophets before Jesus, like Moses and Elijah, had already declared this. It was all part and parcel of Israel’s faith, which Jesus learned over the course of his life. If Jesus were the only way to God, then it would deny the entire heritage of faith into which he and millions of Jews entered before he was born in the obscurity of a manger. It would further deny St. Paul’s proclamation that God will not go back on his promise to save his “Chosen People”—the Jews!
Now, if you’re still with me: If Jesus is the only way to God, then think how impoverished our worship services would be. Anything from the O.T., anything from before Jesus birth would be excluded, which serves to bring home to you and me our enormous indebtedness to the faith of Israel. And this indebtedness is not a recognition of Israel as another faith, but an acknowledgement that Judaism is the root of our own faith, as it is the root of Islam, and as it was the root of Jesus’ faith.
After all, Jesus was a life-long Jew. Jesus wasn’t even the first Christian. His disciples were. And, like Martin Luther, Jesus did not intend to start a new religion, but reform the one he already had. Christianity regards Judaism as its foundation and is therefore part of our faith. The faith of Israel is the rock from which we Christians are hewn. It reminds me of a lady in my London congregation who was so indignant when I said that Jesus was a Jew, she said, “Well, Jesus may have been a Jew, but God is a Lutheran.”
Although the roots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam go back to Abraham, the father of the faith, this doesn’t mean that these 3 religions are identical. Of course not! Christianity is the only one which makes truth claims about who Jesus is: that he is God’s Son made flesh—God incarnate, God with us. Christianity proclaims Jesus is the Christ, the Saviour, the Messiah. Judaism, you may know, is still waiting for a Messiah and Islam acknowledges Jesus only as another prophet.
My question is this: What are we Christians to do when we differ fundamentally with other religions, which of course goes to the center of John’s words from Jesus in today’s gospel text? How are we to understand that Jesus is the only way to God? Does it mean that God saves no one unless she or he believes in Jesus the way we Christians do? Does it mean that unless a person is baptized, he or she is going to hell? If that’s the case, billions of people, including innocent babies, infants and children never baptized are suffering in the flames of perdition, as I write and your read.
Having said that, I’d like you to listen with great care to what I am about to say/write, for I don’t want any misunderstanding. For me, taken very literally, Jesus is not the only way to God. Millions of people have found God and believed in him/her for thousands of years before Jesus was born in a manger. But here’s the crux of the matter: While Jesus never said he was the only way to God, he did say that he was the only way to the Father! Jn 14:6, “I am the Way the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except by me.” So, that’s my interpretation. But what does this mean?
To believe in God you can be a Christian, Jew, or Moslem. But to believe that this God is a Father, you can only accept by way of Jesus. Why? Because no one but Jesus shows us that God is Father. Since Jesus reveals the Father, that means Jesus is the Son. And if we reveal the Father, then we are also his daughters and sons, because God is our Father, which is what Jesus taught us to pray: Our Father who art in heaven. But let me say that if Jesus lived in a matriarchal society, he would’ve revealed God as Mother.
Jesus called God Abba which is Hebrew for Father, or more specifically, Papa or Daddy. No one else said that God is Father in such an individualist, personal and intimate way, and certainly no one in Jesus’ time revealed God as Father to the Jews. I mean, for the Jews, you couldn’t even speak God’s Name, or write God’s Name, it was so holy. Therefore when we come to God as Father, we do so because Jesus first came to God as Father. And precisely because of Jesus, you and I have first-hand experience of God as Father.
The uniqueness of Jesus does not consist in what he taught us about God. Rather the uniqueness of Jesus is that Jesus is the truth of his teaching. He is the way: meaning, when we love and forgive as he loved and forgave, even his enemies, then we are following him—even if those who are loving and forgiving are Moslems, Hindus, Jews, Bahai, or any and every other religion—or even no religion, like so-called atheists!
The fact is this MF: There are many people who are not Christians and yet who follow in the path which Jesus trod! Why? They may not “talk his talk” as you and I do, but more importantly, they “walk his walk,” you see. It’s not only what you believe which counts, but how you believe—how you live which counts more. If we want to know God intimately, then we must look to Jesus who showed us God as Father. Why? Because Jesus is the Father’s very presence in a personal way no one else has ever been!
Having said all this, MF, let me also tell you that when I affirm that no one comes to the Father but by Jesus, that doesn’t mean that I’m attacking other religions! Otherwise, I’d be guilty of a terrible arrogance—as if I alone or we Christians alone have the truth, because God is in our pocket. I’m simply saying that my understanding of God as Father is inseparable from Jesus of Nazareth who has revealed God in this unique way. The entire 14th Chapter of John’s Gospel is nothing else but the revelation of God as Father by Jesus.
Now, does all this mean that those who do not believe in Jesus will not go to heaven? Many Christians think so! I do not agree! Absolutely not! I think that such a belief is wrong, no matter what parts of the Bible you choose to interpret in this selective way. For some Christians to say that others will go to hell because they don’t believe in the Bible is not only wrong, it’s immoral and evil! Who made their interpretation of the Bible correct? More importantly, who made them God? We must, said Martin Luther, let God be God. As much as we Christians might like to enclose God within the walls of our church and lock him away within the limits of our Lutheran theology, the fact is that God is always free. She is always free!
Let me close with this last important consideration: Of course it’s important to state the substance of what it is we believe, but much more important is how we believe, which is what faith is: Faith is how we believe. How we live our faith is much more important than what we believe—however important belief and believing is—and it is crucial to be sure. The creeds were written to set a standard about what it is that we believe about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Church, the Bible, heaven and hell, etc.
But much more important is this: Jesus lived the truth of his faith. Time and time again, Jesus showed us how to believe; how to live our faith; how to give and forgive, how to love and live; how to turn our enemies into our friends.
To our shame, too many Christians have witnessed to their faith in a way which denies God’s loving Fatherhood, Motherhood or Parent-hood. We have sometimes preached love, lovelessly; sometimes declared the Gospel of God’s grace, gracelessly; sometimes spoken of God’s mercy, mercilessly; sometimes failed to radiate God’s redemption because we ourselves don’t look redeemed. IF we do not practice loving, as our Father loves us, then it doesn’t matter what we believe or say we believe and no matter how right our belief and believing may be. The fact is this: Too often belief has been used as an instrument of humiliation to diminish the faith of others, But MF that only discredits our own belief.
We need to practice being little Christ’s, as Luther liked to say. This means being a brother and sister to our fellow human beings It means that all the things that Jesus was—we need to also be: We need to be shepherds to others. We need to be the door and the light for others; the way and the truth for others. We need to be bread and wine for others. We need to be little Christs for our world which so desperately needs us, so the world can find Jesus and finding Jesus, the world will be find a merciful Father and a loving Mother who is God—the one true living God who chose all the inhabitants of the world to be his/her people.
MF, with God as heavenly Father, Mother and Parent, we can practice our sonship and daughterhood in God. God has blessed us to be a blessing to and for others. Let us make it so. AMEN
Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen.
John 10:1-10: They will not follow a stranger, says Jesus, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers. (vs.5)
Dear Friends: However enduring the image of sheep is in our churches and theology, the fact is that for most people, especially those who lives in big cities, like Toronto, not a great number of folks have seen real sheep up close. The closest perhaps they’ve come to seeing sheep is when in trying to sleep, they’re counting ‘em. On the other hand, if a cure for insomnia were ever to be found, you know, it would put thousands of sheep out of work.
Without turning my sermon into a report on the benefits and/or hazards of sheep, let me ask 3 questions for your thoughtful consideration: 1. What is it that has kept the image of shepherds and sheep alive throughout centuries in the church? 2. Why doesn’t this age-old picture turn on us and simply go away? 3. How might this likeness of sheep make any sense today when many folks, ourselves included, have never seen a real shepherd, except on Christmas cards?
First, MF, what is it that has kept the shepherd and sheep image alive over 2 millennia? More than anything else, it’s gotta be the role sheep play in the Bible. In the OT, eg, God is Israel’s Shepherd, leading his people “like a flock” (Ps.80:1). We all know and sing or chant Ps. 23: The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.
But God’s shepherding is not just poetry—it was embedded in Israel’s history. When Jerusalem was laid waste and thousands of Jews were deported to Babylonia by Nebuchadnezzar II in the 6th century BCE, the Lord promised: “I myself will shepherd my sheep.” In the NT, it is Jesus who is pre-eminently the Shepherd. He sees himself as “sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus is also the “Good Shepherd” who “lays his life down for the sheep.” Later in the life of the early church, the community leaders are also seen as shepherds. The risen Jesus commissions Peter to “tend” his sheep, to “feed” them. (Jn 21:16-17)
No doubt about it, MF, shepherds and sheep stud the pages of Scripture—white ones and black ones, because there’s a black sheep in every family—which compels my second question: Why doesn’t this image of sheep keep us from yawning?
Well, one answer is our very limited experience as city dwellers. Sheep and shepherds don’t exactly loom large on the Canadian landscape. Outside of the Laurent Plateau, there are few sheep in Canada. Not like the land Down Under, Australia, which has 1 dozen sheep for every person or New Zealand which has about 2 dozen sheep for every inhabitant.
The fact is this: sheep and shepherds give off baaaaad vibes. Sheep are mute animals, except for an occasional baaa. They’re not exactly extremely intelligent animals. I mean, sheep are sheep are sheep! You can’t change ‘em. They do what they’re told. They don’t have qualities of leadership. Have you ever heard of a “lead sheep” in a team of sheep? I mean, the first sheep in a herd of sheep is still only a sheep. The job of sheep is to follow, and if they haven’t got enough sense to do that, then an Australian sheep dog would certainly keep them in line.
Even Webster’s Dictionary calls people “sheep” if they’re too meek and submissive. People who act like sheep are wimps! “He who lieth with sheep,” wrote George Herbert back in 1651, “riseth to be fleeced.” Ha. And when it comes to black sheep, families always try to keep them black. Ever heard of the black sheep of the family changing colors? Don’t think so, although many black sheep would sooner be called a “dark horse.”
Back in my London parish, I once played a black sheep with 4 white hoofs and a bushy white tail in a SS Christmas pageant. That would have been quite a sight, eh? Down on all fours, this big black sheep led about a dozen children, dressed as little white lambs down the center aisle of the sanctuary on the way to Bethlehem. Baaa. Bleeeet. Bleeet. Baaa.
Well, MF, a few humorous anecdotes about sheep aside, sheep is not our favorite image for Christians. We are not dumb animals. We are human beings with reason and freedom and speech. We don’t mind following, but we don’t care to be led by the nose. Most of us have a healthy respect for authority, but we do not want the sheep dogs yapping and snapping at our heels. But for some Christians with unfortunate experience, the bishop’s staff in the shape of a shepherd’s crook, recalls only the original purpose of the crook: to catch the back leg of a straying sheep.
So, my third question is this: How might this image of sheep and shepherds make sense to us and speak to us in 2020—we who might never have seen a shepherd or our children or grandchildren who have seen sheep only on cards or TV? First of all MF, let us not surrender the symbols of Scripture too quickly. After all, symbol—whether cross and crib, sheep and shepherd—is one of the ways in which God speaks to us, even us modern scientific computer literate folks. Symbols speak to us like the way paintings and poetry, sculpture and architecture, music and dancing, books and movies communicate. Symbols have a language, a value and meaning all their own.
And so it is with today’s symbols from John’s Gospel: sheep and shepherds. We should not shrug them off, just because we don’t find any sheep grazing between Zion’s tombstones. God is still trying to tell us something very important.
For me, the shepherd without peer is the Good Shepherd, the Jesus who took our flesh and still wears it before his Father. Oh yes, others are called shepherds—bishops and archbishops, pastors, priests and popes, even kings and counselors. But they are shepherds only in the measure that they resemble Jesus. And why is shepherd so seemly for Jesus? In a word MF, because Jesus cares. He truly cares!
Dear God, how Jesus cares! The only Son of the living God could have left us to our hellbent sinfulness. But no! He borrowed our skin, grew in it as we grow, sweated in it as we sweat, faced Satan in it the way we also must, bloodied that skin as an act of love unique in human history. And not only for reasonably respectable folks like you and me! He found his supreme joy when he left the 99 docile sheep to search for the single sheep that had strayed. Why? Because the needs of the one outweighed the needs of the 99? Why? Because Jesus cares!
And what does Jesus do when he finds the strayed sheep? Does he curse it roundly, beat it with the shepherd’s staff, as we might have done to our disobedient children? No, MF! He “lays it on his shoulders rejoicing.” And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them: “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.”
But even more than that, MF. This shepherd cares for and loves all his sheep, each and everyone of them. Not in some kind of shapeless mass. Not like Linus of Peanuts’ fame, who confessed to Charlie Brown: “I love humanity! It’s people I can’t stand.” Jesus cares for you as a unique person, unrepeatable, shaped for ever in his image and likeness, destined to live his life, to live with him, not simply today, but days without end. As Jesus himself put it: “He calls his own sheep by name,” somewhat as Palestinian shepherds today have pet names for their favorite sheep: “Long-ears,” “White-nose,” and so one.
Jesus knows his sheep personally and they also know his voice and respond only to his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will follow him because they know and recognize his voice.
When I was in Australia, visiting my father in 1993, we were driving around the countryside and among a few wineries, also stopped at a sheep farm run by a family friend. The man welcomed us and then took us out to where his sheep were. He then invited me to call the sheep in. He taught me the right words to say in the Serbian language. So, I called the sheep, but they didn’t even bother to look up! Just kept on chewing the grass.
But right thereafter, the man called the sheep, using exactly the same words I said. Of course the sheep looked up and immediately gathered around him. The sheep were taught to respond to one voice only, you see. They were taught to trust that single voice and no other. This way thieves can’t come and steal them away in the night.
Today MF, you make a commitment to distinguish the voice of Jesus from all the other voices in your life. It’s an awesome challenge and it’s a challenge which will last a life-time.
Jesus knows you and me more intimately than we know ourselves. He knows what makes you tick, what turns you on or off, and why. He knows how thrilling and how tough it is to be a human of flesh and blood, of matter and spirit, of intelligence and freedom. He suffered it himself and rejoiced in it. And no matter how far you stray from him, he never stops loving you, will ceaselessly search for you, track you down and when he finds you, MF, please let God cradle you in his arms.
Which brings us from the model shepherd to us sheepish sheep. I admit, to see ourselves as following like sheep can bring bile to our throats, make us gag. But only if wooly sheep make us woolly-headed. Only if we forget whom we are following and why and how. Following Jesus is Love enmeshed. It is Love that gave life itself for you. It is Love that at this moment is a living prayer for you before the Father. To follow him is not mute slavery, mindless submission, leaving your brain at the back door. Rather, to follow him is the most human, the most sensible thing we can do. To follow him is to return his love—that love which is actually Jesus’ only hold over us, the only bonds with which he draws us.
To follow Jesus is also not for the fragile, the timid or the self-centered. To return his love is to love as he loved: intelligently and passionately, freely and with every fiber of our being. To love as he loved is to care as he cared: not for a misty mass called humanity, but for every sister and brother who crosses our path; not simply those we like and who like us, but those we dislike on sight, those who have no socially redeeming qualities, the weirdos, those who live, think and even sin differently from us.
But more than anything else, MF, to love as Jesus loved is to care for the sheep that limp and are lost, those who hunger for bread or justice or love; those who have no pillow for their head, no shoulder for their troubled heart; those who are imprisoned behind bars or within their tortured selves.
My good and dear Friends! I hope with all my heart that the Jesus whom the First Epistle of Peter calls “the shepherd of your souls” (2:25) will spark you with fresh enthusiasm for an inspired image. But in the last analysis, the picture and symbol of sheep is not all that important. You can pass St. Peter’s gates in total ignorance of sheep. You can refuse to be called sheep.
But what you dare not refuse is to follow your shepherd. To be Christian, you must dare to care, dare to let yourself love, in spite of the cost, in spite of the vulnerability and pain, in spite of the risk, to gain everything or even lose everything. To follow your shepherd is to open your arms wide to an entire world, a global village which is desperate for your compassion. Do that, and when the Good Shepherd finally calls you by your own name, you won’t have to look…..sheepish! AMEN
Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen.
So Jesus said to them, “Why are these doubts coming up in your minds? …He showed them his hands and feet; but they still could not believe. Lk 24:38,40
Dear Friends. Victor Frankl, the great Viennese psychotherapist of last century, once said: “The basic need for human beings is to have purpose and meaning in life.” This may sound elementary to our ears, but his statement was borne in the crucible of war—in Nazi concentration camps. Frankl was a Jew, for whom life without meaning and purpose was simply intolerable. While doubting is part of the human condition, it becomes obsessive, said Frankl, when doubt blocks our human search for meaning and purpose.
Frankl studied the differences between people who were able to survive the horrors of prison camps and those who were destroyed by them. Those who survived were those who had clearly defined goals for life and living, while those who doubted big time, quickly capitulated to the subhuman conditions created by their captors and died.
Today’s gospel from Luke is not a re-creation of 20th century concentration camps, but it is a parallel to the kind of doubt which, if left unchecked, could easily have defeated the disciples and the early church. By challenging his disciples to touch his hands and feet, by eating fish in front of them, Jesus transformed their doubting into a meaningful and purposeful belief, and thereby refitting and re-commissioning them to spread the faith. Otherwise, serious doubt would have stopped their gospel work on behalf of Jesus.
The question this morning is: What about you and me, MF? Is serious doubt blocking our work in Jesus’ Vineyard?… that our work isn’t good enough, that it doesn’t matter, that we don’t have time or interest, or that we’re preoccupied with other things which have priority in our lives? I believe that it is of ultimate importance for every person to know that God is inviting him or her into a relationship in which a purpose and goal can be worked out and delineated. But first, serious doubts need to be dealt with before we can know what God’s intentions are for us.
The problem is not day to day doubt. In fact, doubt is integral to faith. Without doubt we’d never question anything and we’d still be back in the dark ages in terms of what the church taught. It’s not normal, day to day doubt which is our problem, MF! It’s compulsive, obsessive and debilitating doubt which is a huge hindrance when it comes to the faith. In fact, if I had a patron saint, it would have been “doubting Thomas.”
MF, it is important to affirm that there is something great that we will never do, unless you and I come to Jesus with real daily living faith. That there is something wonderful that God will never be able to accomplish through you and me, unless we surrender to his will. And there is something of ultimate importance that God wants you to achieve for her: namely, that your mission is to work in his vineyard on her behalf. That vineyard is here, where you live and that mission is today. After all, Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t just for life after this one, but it was for life in the here and now…abundant life right now, as I write and you read.
While there are still lots of Christians who devote their lives to working for Jesus, tragically, too many still think that the Christian life is only a bunch of rules—dos and don’ts—especially the don’ts. I suspect that teenagers growing up in church-going-homes know a lot about the don’ts. I remember when I was a teen—just a couple of years ago—and was given a long list of the things I wasn’t supposed to do. There was so much negative stuff, I wasn’t sure what I was still allowed to do. I remember our youth group, back in the 60s, well we had a little verse we boys would chant:
We don’t dance & we don’t drink.
We don’t smoke & we don’t swear.
We don’t cheat & we don’t chew.
And we don’t date girls who do!
Now, being a Christian, for me, back then, was essentially defined as “not doing stuff,” the giving up of worldly things and pleasures, etc. It would never have dawned on me back then, that Christianity had anything to do with commitment to work in God’s vineyard.
I also remember evangelists coming from Germany to our German speaking church in Hamilton. And I specifically recall this one dude, pounding his fist on the pulpit and shouting: “Dancing stimulates the lust of the flesh!” I mean, after that, you could hear a pin drop, and my home church seats about 400 people. This hell-fire-and-brimstone preacher then went on to describe in erotic detail the ways that dancing pumped up the hormones and stimulated sexual cravings. And I remember thinking to myself—Hey man, this dude must have some first-hand experience to speak in such detail, but for a teenager like myself, this stuff sure sounded interesting.
I think I once told you about another German evangelist, the one who said that Christians weren’t allowed to go to the movies. “What if you’re in the movie theatre when the trumpet sounds and Jesus returns?” he thundered from the pulpit. “What if Jesus suddenly returns to earth and finds you at the movies?” Well, I gotta tell you good folks, as much as I tried to slide under the pew, it seemed that that preacher was pointing his finger right at me!!
And of course, every time I went to the movies after than sermon, I was scared half to death. I was sure I’d never see the entire film without a heavenly trumpet sounding and the Lord Jesus returning and saying to me: “Peter, what are you doing in the movies?” On the other hand, I would fret that I wouldn’t get to see the end of the movie, not to mention lose my 1 buck 50.
Smoking was another “no-no” among our church young people back then. At youth group we used to say, “The family that smokes together, chokes together,” and as a teen, I always felt that kissing a girl who smoked would be like licking an ashtray. On the other hand, some smokers tell me that it’s better to smoke here on earth, than below in the hereafter. (A little humor there!)
MF, don’t get me wrong. If we think that Christianity is simply a matter of giving up stuff, not doing certain things, then we’ve completely misunderstood the faith. The truth is that we can give up all of these things and then some, and still be nowhere near to what it really means to be a Christian and lead a Christian life-style. After all, what does it really mean when Jesus said, “If you wish to be my disciple, take up your cross, come and follow me”? What does it cost us to be Christians? For most people, the price is simply too high, and that’s why church and Christianity nowadays is a matter of convenience, and not priorities, much less commitment. Merely following rules, however important the negative rules might be, is no substitute for loving sacrifice.
I’ve talked about commitment from many pulpits, many times. There’s also a tendency for many people in our “me-first and my rights” society to make Christianity into a commitment to abstract principles, rather than making it into a commitment to people—to love and care for them. And so, there are many Christians who think that being a Christian is simply a matter of believing the right stuff, being conservative or orthodox in what they believe about God or Jesus, the church or the Bible. We can very easily delude ourselves into assuming that simply having the right theology, or being Anglicans or Lutherans, Roman Catholics or Pentecostals—that that makes us great Christians and makes us God’s children. Sorry folks. It just ain’t so. The Epistle of James says that Satan believes all the right stuff, but that doesn’t make him a Christian.
Being a Christian is much more than believing the right stuff. Being a Christian is giving yourself and all that you are and have, to the One in whom you say you believe, as doubting Thomas and all the doubting disciples eventually did. Being a Christian is giving yourself, without reservation, to God in Christ, you see. Our theology—whether it’s Anglican or Lutheran—may be all well and good; but do we love Jesus? Do we love and care for others, or do we only use people for our own ends and means?
Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish Lutheran theologian of the 19th century, once described how he went into the great cathedral in Copenhagen and sat in a cushioned burgundy seat and watched as sunlight streamed through the exclusive stained-glass windows. He saw the Lutheran pastor, up at the front, dressed in elegant flowing robes of purple velvet, take his place behind the fine-grained mahogany pulpit, open a gilded Bible, turn to the page with the silken marker and read: “Jesus said, ‘If you would be my disciple, sell what you own and give it to the poor; then, come and follow me’.” Kierkegaard then wrote, “As I looked around the sanctuary, I was absolutely amazed that nobody was laughing.”
MF, when Jesus saved us with his death and resurrection, he did so for a high and holy purpose. He saved us in order that he might use us to meet the needs of others—and there are many who have needs in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic we all face; that we might begin to transform this world into one of care and compassion; that we might be God’s instruments through which her love can flow into the lives of the hurting and doubt-filled.
Let me close with an illustration I may have used before, about a friend, whose doubt moved him to a greater faith commitment. When I was a doctoral candidate and teaching as an adjunct instructor at the College of William & Mary in historic Williamsburg, Virginia, quiet some years back, my friend Ron was also a doctoral graduate and a lecturer at a Lutheran university in Roanoke, VA. One day Ron walked into the dean’s office and said, “I quit and I’m not coming back!” The dean said, “It’s the middle of the semester Ron. You can’t do that.” “Watch me!” Ron said and walked out.
Now, his mother called and asked me to speak with Ron asap, which I did. Ron was living in an attic apartment which was crammed with books, posters and stereo equipment higher than the CN Tower. He said, “Sit down Peter,” and so I sat in this bean bag chair. You know the kind. It looks like an amoeba, ready to swallow you up on the spot. So, I’m sitting there, not knowing what to say. Ron finally says, “I quit.” I say, “Yeah, I heard. But why?” I ask. Ron says, “I doubt that I can teach those students anymore! Every time I walk into the classroom and try to lecture, I die a little bit.”
Now, I understood that. I was teaching at the time also. I know what it was like to walk into a classroom, pour out your heart and soul to the students and then some skinny little kid in the back row puts up his hand and says, “Hey prof, do we really have know that for the final exam?” Or, in confirmation class, after I’ve shared some of myself and my feelings about God, some confirmand says, “Oh Pastor, is the gown from the church I have to wear gonna match the colour of my blue dress?” I mean, it makes you wanna puke!
Anyway, so I say, “Ron, what are gonna do?” He says, “I’m gonna be a mailman.” I said, “A Ph.D. mailman???” “Yup,” he says, “There aren’t too many of us.” “Well, then be the best mailman you can be,” I say to him. But he then says, “I’m a lousy mailman!” “Why” I asked quite puzzled. “What do you mean?”
Ron says, “Well, Peter, everyone else gets the mail delivered by one o’clock. I don’t get finished until about 6.” I say, “What in the world takes you so long?” He smiles a long, slow smile and says, “I visit!” “You what”?” “I visit,” he says again. “Yup, you wouldn’t believe how many people on my route never get visited until I come, and I share the Gospel of God’s love with them. It means a great deal to them.”
“I visit all the time,” Ron says, “but I don’t sleep at nights.” “Why not?” I asked. “Well, how can you sleep after you drink 20 to 30 cups of coffee every day?”
Suddenly I realized what happened. Yes, Ron had stepped down several notches on the socio-economic ladder because of his doubt in reaching students with the Gospel. But Ron was carrying out a commitment—to love and serve other people. He didn’t change jobs because he was against teaching. He left teaching because it did not allow him to carry out and live his commitment.
Commitment determines who we are and what we do, regardless of doubt. Commitment is more than a job, career or profession. It’s infinitely more than what you get paid to do. Commitment is the essence of our identity, MF, and commitment to Christ is the essence of our identity as Christians. And when we have that commitment, then we’re ready to go anywhere and do anything for the Lord. We just have to accept where he sends us. AMEN
Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen
Thomas! Put your finger here and look at my hand; then stretch out your hand and put it in my side. Jn. 20:27
Dear Friends! Easter is always a tough act for every preacher to follow. Me too! The crucified Christ rising from the rock more alive than ever before, his risen body a triumphant cry: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” A body so gloriously alive that even dear Mary Magdalene does not recognize the love of her life, nor are the disciples ready to believe the foolish tale of inferior women without some kind of hard, physical proof.
“April is the cruelest month,” T.S. Eliot wrote. Why? Because April involves rebirth, and like Mary Magdalene, we’d rather remain dormant, not realizing life is staring us down. But just as we Christians must walk in love, we must also walk towards fear. Like Thomas, we must touch the wounds of pain, the aching scars to know what hurts and then look it in the teeth. However glorious, Jesus’ resurrection is not without the scars, you see—not without the painful, wounded reality of this world and the brokenness of our own lives.
It takes many people, including Christians, a lifetime to begin to see a pattern to their scarred lives and most never do or they do too late. Which means that a lot of people remain hostages to their negativity and narrow mindedness, hostages to their grudges and griefs. Meanwhile, many abandoned children remain abandoned even into adulthood—grown children walking around in adult bodies. People who feel insecure usually feel that way for a long time. Their lives continue a burning blight begun generations ago; but the pain is no longer felt, because it’s been repeated so often. They’re so used to the scars that they don’t see them anymore, much less feel the sores under the scars.
That Jesus rose with the scars still evident in his hands, feet and side was not simply because it was the means by which the disciples identified Jesus as their Lord and Master—whereas Mary Magdalene only needed to hear the sound of his voice. Jesus’ scarred risen body, you see, is a way of reminding all of us that though this world continues to wound and scar, to bleed and die, ever so slowly, ever so relentlessly, without mercy and without compassion, we Christians need to walk the walk and talk the talk of the resurrected life. Why? Because only the resurrected life is the life of love over hate, sharing over greed, giving over taking, thankfulness over complaining, humor over dour and sour, and compassion over violence.
Yes, there are scars and wounds, aches and pains, little dying and the big death—and these will all continue in this life—in yours and mine. But MF, I believe this: Scars and wounds do not diminish our life, nor our faith. Rather, they help our faith be realistic. That’s why we need to face our wounds and pains head on. Only then will we meet the risen Jesus of the Scars whose wounds will heal us, because only wounds can heal other wounds.
There’s an old Hindu saying about a knife and a melon. “Whether the knife falls on the melon or the melon falls on the knife, it’s always the melon which suffers.” Some people hurl themselves at life, while others crouch and wait for life to roll up over them. But if we’re astute enough, we can usually tell who it is who is taking on life and who it is who is fending it off. And whether it’s the new game in town, or the same old game, life is often like a Greek tragedy: the scars of our pain are apparent already in the first scene.
The thing about Jesus’ resurrection, MF, is not so much that it brought life after death, but it brings life before death. Jesus resurrection brings life before death. His resurrection breaks the old patterns to which we’ve become so accustomed. Is it any wonder that Thomas, like the other disciples, wasn’t ready to believe that the old habitual blueprint of birth to death was broken. The resurrected Christ, whom the disciples—ourselves included—barely recognize, is the Jesus of the Scars, crucified but a mere 10 days ago!
In other words, our Jesus of the Scars is visible in our world today by the scars we humans carry—the scars of the verbally and physically abused, the emotionally neglected, the mentally bereft and the spiritually lost. Our Jesus of the Scars is present in the hundreds of thousands of starving children in the Sudan and many other parts of Africa, in the millions of homeless refugees of Syria, in the endless conflicts in Ukraine, Iran and the Middle East, the victimized in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of course the 2.3 million plus confirmed COVID-19 cases around the world and the 157,000 plus global deaths, with over 1,300 deaths in our country, and 2 out of every 3 Toronto deaths in long-term care or nursing homes. The Jesus of the Scars is present in all of these human beings and still more—in you and me—present in every man, woman and child who walks this earth. For Jesus is our brother—brother to every human of God’s green earth.
Like Jesus, we too are often bruised and beaten by the battles of life—some more, some less—in which we have also been our own worst enemies from time to time—men and women, because of course no one is immune from the wounds we inflict upon one another and the scars which we bear as battle regalia.
So, for instance, MF, I could tell you about a man I know whose family fled Europe when he was just a little boy, and how he grew up a stranger in new land. And how he struggled to renounce the part of him that was foreign now and adopted the ways that were thought well of in the place where he now is. And what it cost him then, and costs him still, and how he tries to heal his wounds and conceal his scars, but cannot, because he’s lost—lost to himself and to others.
Or I could tell you of another man I once knew, whose parents had divorced when he was small, and how his mother’s anger at his father, and her stories of how he’d done her wrong, made him hate his father, and therefore hate himself. I could tell you about the years it took him to find out who he was. And all the scars and the wounds he inflicted upon himself, not to mention the pain of them, all because he didn’t want to find out that he was very much like his father, whom he vowed never to be like. The last I heard, the battle wounds had almost killed him.
Or I could tell you about a friend with whom I have lost contact. Like the cat who is said to always return to the place where it once lived, this friend went home again and again. The first man she ever loved was her father, whom she could never please. But this man she was trying so hard to win, the one with the iron band locked around his heart, was just another substitute for the father she loved—someone with whom she could play at trying to please all over again.
I could also tell you of a boy I once knew, who was born deathly sick in a refugee camp in Europe after the war, while his mother died 3 days later and his father returned to the land of his ancestors. So the boy’s grandparents set sail for a brave new world—a foreign land which became his home. And I could tell you how the boy grew up living in fear of abandonment and how he lost his childhood, because he had to be courageous and grow up quickly. I am that boy.
It would be wrong of me to suggest that life is simple, or that there is a cause for every effect, so let me just tell you as Oscar Wilde once did, “When we wish to punish ourselves, we answer our own prayers.” Which means that it is often very difficult to tell the knife from the melon and the wound from the knife—the knife merely being an extension of the person who used it to inflict pain and suffering, not unlike those who nailed Jesus to the cross, and those who ordered it, and those who urged it on, and even those who did nothing, preferring to watch from a distance, for they too held the knife.
The unvarnished truth, MF is that we’ve all held the hammer which pounded the nails and drove the spear into the side of Jesus and we’ve all beheld the wounds and scars of the crucified one in the face of our neighbour, and in the mirror, after our morning coffee. Our complicity started at the beginning, if we knew where the beginning was, but none of us knows for sure. I only suspect that it starts with the first deep wound, and after that, like a person who limps or cradles their withered arm close to their side, we favor the place where the knife went in.
Like Jesus of the Scars, each of us carries with us an inner knowledge about the way we have been hurt and betrayed by others, and how we will hurt and betray others again and again. And so, there are those who believe we make it happen out of our unrest. But maybe it’s simply that great needs cause great fears, and great fears keep us needful long into the cold, dark night.
MF, I do not know the answers. I only know that our hurts and fears happen far more than we would wish, which is why so many Christians remain only pilgrims in this life and never really come to live the resurrected life which is offered them.
There are few men who dare to utter the intensely personal prayers which they make to God. Over the course of 40 years of parish ministry, I have made such prayers public. MF, if I had one prayer, I’d pray that my mother had stayed longer in this world—long enough at least for me to better spread my wings than I already do. I cannot of course help but wonder, how my life would have been different if my mother had not died when I was three days old. Whether I would have grown up to be a different person than the one that I now am—one who is a garden, as well as the gardener—one who did not always have to be brave and strong—one whose wounds and scars are hid from the world and even from myself from time to time.
There are no answers to questions like these, at least not in this life, and so I will never know what I would have been like, or even whether I would have liked me, if I’d have met me with the heart and wisdom I have today.
But the good news for me is that in a very real sense, my mother has never left me—none of our loved one ever have, because through the mystery whom we call God, we are in communion with the saints and they with us, as we confess in the creed. You and I are part of all that we have met and who have ever met us.
Having said this, I suspect that most of us would have skipped a chapter of our lives here and there, if we were the ones to choose the pages and chapters of our lives. But in the end, you see, it doesn’t matter what happened in the past to you or me which has helped make us who and what and how we are. What matters is who we are today—that our faith is an act of love today for our Jesus of the Scars, who not only meets us in our neighbour, but also in the mirror, the one who feeds us in order that we remain here and be whom he calls us to be today. For at that graced moment, MF, Jesus’ risen scarred body will continue to heal us in preparation for the unbounded love which first comes in this world, before it can come in the next.
Let me close with this sparkling commercial which I may have used before. Now, in my eighth decade of life and living and after more than 4,000 sermons later—in both English and God’s Mother Tongue, it’s sometimes hard for me to remember what I said and to whom I said it So, let me close with this sparkling commercial which claims: Diamonds are…??? Yes… forever. I’m not a gemologist, and so I cannot comment. But some women say that they don’t care who casts the first stone at them, so long as it’s a diamond.
This much I do know: For us Christians, there is a still more enduring gem: Jesus of the Scars is forever, and we who have also been wounded and scarred—me too—stand within the wings of his healing power. Like the world, we are healed by his wounds, for that’s the only power by which we be can be healed! AMEN
P: Christ is risen. C: He is risen indeed! MF, this is the one and only message of Easter that really counts! P: Christ is risen. C: He is risen indeed! Jesus lives, MF, and I believe that as firmly and faithfully as I always have and always will. Simply because it is reality for me—always has been and always will be.
Now, how Jesus rose from the dead, and how he now lives and what kind of spiritual body with which he lives today—at this very minute—well, that’s quite another matter, MF, to be sure! I believe in God. I believe in the Risen Lord Jesus. I believe in the Holy Spirit. I believe in the Bible from cover to cover. I believe in the 3 ecumenical creeds. But how I believe in these is, again, another matter altogether. That’s because the unexamined life, like the unexamined faith, is not worth much!
I am now 72 years of age. I live in the present, learn from the past and hope in the future. I am both a man of faith and of science, because I believe that genuine faith and true science are not in disagreement. Nor will I deny the critical questions which the expanding knowledge of the last 500 years inevitably poses for my faith, as a modern scientific man of faith in the 21st century.
So, for instance, I take very seriously the pioneering work of Sir Isaac Newton who, as an English physicist and mathematician, was one of the most prominent and culminating figures of the 17 century Enlightenment. Newton’s scientific discoveries did much to remove from our human consciousness the categories of magic, superstition and witchcraft, as well as eliminate the “God” who could be controlled by humans, especially when we had to invent divine reasons for events and consequences we could not understand or accept at the time. This was especially true when it came to medical illness which all have their genesis and cures in real science and nothing to do with divine punishment or protection.
Let me give you two modern day illustrations. Maybe you saw the TV clip of a female parishioner at a Louisiana church whose pastor was arrested for holding church services during the state shutdown. When a reporter asked the woman why she would risk contracting the corona virus by attending church, she responded that “the blood of Jesus protects her against all illnesses.” I would ask that parishioner why she believes that God should protect her from this pandemic, when God gave her the intelligence to safeguard herself and secondly, why she insists on disobeying the commandment: “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.”
2. Perhaps you also heard the reason President R. ya Muungano of Tanzania gave his citizens for keeping churches open for worship during the COVID pandemic: “Satan cannot dwell in holy places,” he said. In other words, for him, the coronavirus is not a medical ailment, but a satanic affliction, which cannot reside in holy spaces, like churches. Now, if I could, I would remind him that if Satan can read and utter the holy words of Scripture (Mt.4:1-11), surely he can also inhabit churches, which are just as holy as this world which God created.
In short, MF, my post-Newtonian thinking does not put God in a box, outside of which she cannot operate. Too often, churches and our narrow religious thinking has put God in a box. Here I can give you many more illustrations: Not too long-ago Christians believed that if God wanted us to fly, he would have given us wings. MF, God gave us brains to use for good, and it precisely with my God-given brain that I can assert that God raised Jesus from the dead.
I also take very seriously the criticism of Christianity made by Sigmund Freud, who, at the turn of the 20th century, recognized the dreadful anxiety that death creates within our hearts and the unconscious. That’s why Freud was correct in asserting that wishing something about God to be true, does not make it so. I am quite aware that much of the language in which the Christian story is framed, reveals unconscious desires, oedipal conflicts and superstitious assumptions. But it is precisely as a post-Freudian Christian, that I can and do assert that God raised Jesus from the dead.
I am also a student of what is called the historical-critical approach to Scripture, and as such I am quite well aware of how the Bible, and in particular the NT, came to be constructed, written by flesh and blood people, faithful believing folks, just like you and me.
Some of you know that back in the mid-70s, I taught NT Theology in university for two years as an adjunct instructor in Virginia. MF, there is a definite and developing oral and written tradition in the stories of Jesus’ resurrection, which can be traced from Paul’s letters in the early 50s to the Gospels—Mark written in 70 CE, Matthew in 80, Luke in 90 and John’s Gospel written at the turn of the first century 100 CE—70 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Although the Gospels tell the story of Jesus’ resurrection, they are exceedingly different in relating the facts of the resurrection. Mark, for instance, quite abruptly ends his gospel with the women running away from Jesus’ tomb in “great fear and trembling” because his body was no longer there, whereas the other 3 gospel each have numerous sightings and conversations with the resurrected Jesus.
In spite of and even because of the clear textual anomalies in them, I can and still do assert that God raised Jesus from the dead: that the Easter claim is true and that life, not death, is our ultimate human destiny. And it is a destiny MF, not just for us Christians, but also for Jews and Moslems, for people of every religious stripe and non-religious persuasion—a destiny made possible for all the inhabitants of the entire world—past, present and still to come.
But MF, I am also a student of the Hebrew roots of Christianity, because I am also keenly aware of the Judaic origins of Jesus’ faith. The fact is Jesus was a Jew and a devotee of Judaism—the religion he daily practiced. Which is to say, Jesus was not a Christian—not even the first Christian. Jesus remained a Jew even on the cross. Nor did Jesus intend to start a new religion. His followers did that, just like the followers of Luther established the Lutheran Church, even though Luther himself simply wanted to reform the Roman Catholic Church. I suspect that Jesus may also have simply wished to reform Judaism, so that it could reach beyond itself, which, btw, is precisely what Jesus did, and was crucified for it.
MF, Jesus’ resurrection reflected an enormous power. Although his disciples were first scattered in fear and despair, a moment of incredible power did occur and occurred within them, such that this massive and deep power called them out of their cowardice and into courage, out of hiding and into publicly proclaiming what God did in this man Jesus from the hick town of Nazareth whom they now proclaimed to be the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior of the world.
Something dynamic transformed this humble band of poverty-stricken fishers of fish, to become fishers of men—men who dared to go beyond what their religion taught them, who dared to speak of this holy God whose name could not even be spoken by Jews— who dared to identify this living God with one human in particular—a man who became the model of what it means to be truly human.
But, as they say: Ya ain’t heard the half of it, MF. Whether the disciples lived or died, were tortured or imprisoned, their own lives became quite secondary to their compelling need to tell others of the lordship of Jesus, whom they were absolutely convinced, God raised from the dead. And the power of that resurrection would become the forerunner to the resurrection of all people everywhere…the resurrection of all of humankind—regardless of race, color, creed, ethnic origin, language, religion, no religion, even regardless of sexual orientation. And it would be the resurrection of everybody in every place and every time: past, present and future—till time is no more.
Engaging the scientific words of Albert Einstein, the fact is this: “Nothing is ever lost in this life—all energy and matter, all living things, all power and mass, go on, albeit in different forms.” How great and grand is that, MF?
The power of Jesus’ resurrection has taught me that when I risk, when I venture, when I dare to walk beyond the religious and secular definitions that have bound me in this life, a new future beckons from beyond myself. Truths that were once hidden and realities that were once unseen, begin to emerge, when I allow the power of Jesus’ resurrection to open my eyes, open my mind and heart, as it did the first disciples.
Gentiles, for instance, did ultimately find welcome in the church. Slavery was finally abolished as an acceptable practice in the church. Racism and racially motivated segregation and apartheid in the church also had their backs broken. Once regarded as pieces of property, women were finally elevated to equality in the church, including ordination to the priesthood, and made equal in their relationship with their husbands.
All this and much more has changed because of the power of the resurrection to change thinking and attitudes. Mentally ill people were finally understood and treated as sick people and not “crazy.” People whose depression led them to suicide were finally buried within the walls of the church. Divorced people were nor longer rejected but were offered a second and third and more chances at marriage and happiness. MF, I know something about that. Even left-handed people were eventually accepted by the church.
And finally, in our very own generation, two critical things changed: firstly, the Church finally recognized its abhorrent contribution to anti-Semitism throughout the centuries, and for which our Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada officially apologized in 1993.
And secondly, gays and lesbians finally received the welcome of Christ into the church without the barriers to willingly “reform”—ie., become someone they were not created by God to be—nor did they cave into a guilt-laden celibacy imposed upon them as the price of becoming Christians and joining the church.
But much more than even this, MF: Homosexuals can now finally be married to each other and be ordained for church ministry in our denomination. And I know something about that also, since I was a member of National Church Council when NCC forwarded the motions for the same to be accepted by the ELCIC at its ratifying convention in 2009.
All these people, all these human beings—Children of God everyone of them—once rejected by the Church, were finally accepted by the Church in its application of the power of the resurrection to change institutional thinking, believing and acting! How great and grand is that, MF?!
What has this got to do with Jesus’ resurrection? Everything! Absolutely everything! Jesus wasn’t raised by the power of God just so that the church can prattle on about a private salvation scheme for Christians only, so that when we die, we get go to heaven, while everyone else is on their way to hell in a hand basket. Jesus was raised by God’s power so that we might have life now, and have it abundantly now, which means that lives can only be transformed and the church can be reformed, once we admit and refuse the limits imposed on us by our culture and education, imposed upon us even by our prejudices and the narrow-mindedness of our vision and thought, behavior and practice.
MF, the fact is this: The power of the resurrection resides within you, as it does within me. And for me the power of the resurrection means that God empowers me to live as fully as I can, by loving wastefully and having the courage to be all that God created me to be. Which is also to say that the power to transform lives and change thinking lies within us all. We cannot worship God and give thanks for the resurrection of Jesus without being an agent of change and humanity, an agent of abundant life and unconditional love to others.
The pathway to God opens us to the truth, that it is only in giving that we receive; it is only in forgiving that we are forgiven; it is only in loving that we are loved; and it is only in dying to self and our obsessions that we find the fullness of life in the here and now.
The resurrection means that, like Jesus, we give our life away in love, we live for and love one another. Love lowers our barriers and exposes our fragile security systems. Love opens us to move beyond ourselves into the shoes and space of another. Real love always moves us into God herself/himself. And in God, all things are different. Jesus, for instance, lived out God’s love as he embraced lepers, Samaritans, outcasts, demented, women, Gentiles, executioners, adulterers, betrayers, deniers, children, terminally ill, and tax collectors! Jesus embraced all these people and more—even those who forsook and fled him, when he needed them the most.
Love emerges as the very power of the resurrection, which means that love is not fair. Love can be as generous to those who worked one hour in God’s Vineyard, as it is to those who have borne the burden and heat of the day. Love embraces the prodigal son who wasted his father’s inheritance in a life of prostitution, as it also embraced the elder brother who stayed home and always did his duty. Love values the single lamb that strays from the flock, as much as it values the 99 sheep that stay securely inside their boundaries.
When God’s love is personally experienced MF, when God’s love is heard and seen in the life of Jesus, then you and I can surely understand why the first disciples met the holy God, when they met the Risen Christ.
Easter is much more than some kind of supernatural miracle. Easter is the touch of a new reality that breaks into our consciousness—a reality centered in a self-giving, loving God. Death cannot destroy Jesus, because love is stronger than death. God made love stronger than death. Love is stronger than death! Always has been. Always will be. And that’s why the resurrection of Jesus holds out to me the promise that when I live inside the powerful love of God, death cannot destroy me either. Nor can it destroy you, MF, nor anyone else who abides in the power of God’s love. No one, absolutely no one, regardless of religion or lack of it, is destroyed if he or she lives in genuine love, which is what God is. And one can live in God’s love, even if God’s Name or Jesus’ Name is never spoken. MF, I’m convinced that’s also true.
This Easter morning I assert that I believe in the resurrection of Jesus and I commit myself to continue to live my life, as one who can accept vulnerability, and love wastefully, for in doing that, I enter Easter and I myself become a resurrected child and son of God, just like Jesus. And this morning MF, I invite you to commit yourself to live your life fully, accept vulnerability and love wastefully—all through the power of the resurrection, and thereby become a resurrected child of God, a daughter or son of God, just like Jesus. Alleluia. AMEN
Dear Friends! In one of his more remarkable novels, At the Gates of the Forest (1966), the Jewish storyteller and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, has one of his characters, Yehuda, gently reprove his troubled, reserved friend Gregor:
It’s inhuman to wall yourself up in pain and memories, as if in a prison. Suffering must open us to others. Suffering must not cause us to reject them. The Talmud tells us that God suffers with man. Why? In order to strengthen the bonds between creation and the creator: God chooses to suffer with man in order to better understand man and be better understood by him. But you, Gregor? You insist upon suffering alone! Such suffering shrinks you, diminishes you, my friend. That is almost cruel!
MF On this austere Good Friday, you have hopefully read the Cross words of Jesus from John’s Gospel (noted above). You’ve read the story of Jesus’ passion and suffering. This morning, therefore, calls for a minimum of preaching/reading, and a maximum of reflection, meditation and musing. So, let me share with you three thoughts that struck me forcefully, as a I pondered the passage from Wiesel—Christian thoughts which I lay reverently upon the insights of the Jewish Talmud.
First: “God suffers with man.” For us, MF, that startling statement from the Talmud should be fearfully real. No exaggeration here! No fantasy run amuck! God suffers with us! Plain & simple!
Then combine that reality with the story of Jesus real passion: that God’s own Son borrowed our flesh. No! Not borrowed, but took our flesh and then took it forever. And in that flesh, he lived from dawn to dusk and dusk to dawn, pretty much as we do. He spoke and slept, danced and drank, loved and laughed, gave and forgave, grieved and wept. And like us, he also died. And yet unlike us in so many other ways, he died.
On Calvary there is no need to exaggerate: the plain unvarnished truth is staggering enough. It’s sufficiently difficult to believe that God could become a man. It is even more incomprehensible to accept that this divine-human being from a little hick town—Nazareth—unknown to the world, could die, and die as he did, the way he did. But there it is: “Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his Spirit” Yes MF. God indeed suffers with us women and men of all stripes and colours, of all religions and non-religions, of all sexual orientations—with all of humankind.
But why? Really!!?? Why all this pain and grief? Why all this sorrow and suffering? Why all this aching and heart-breaking? The answer, MF, is not self-evident—not at all! Yes, of course. I know as well as you do, MF, that our Christian religion has its answers to that question, but so does the Talmud. The Talmud says God suffers with man to [quote]: “strengthen the bonds between creation and the creator; to better understand man and be better understood by him.” [unquote]
Love, MF…. Love is the reason for the shame and suffering, the grief and sorrow, the death and dying. Love is what strengthens the bonds that link us to God and deepens our understanding of God. For Calvary is not just another tragedy, the execution of one more innocent man/victim. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…”
That’s why God sent the Son into the world, for the world, that all of the world, all humankind, every human being, each and every woman, man and child—past and present and still to come—will be saved through him. This, in the very last analysis, is why “God suffers with man.”
But, if that’s true, Pastor Peter, then where is God in our pain and suffering? Where is God in our death and destruction, our wars and warring upon each other? Where is God during this COVID-19 pandemic, when over a million and a half cases have now been detected globally and over 60,000 have died, while here in Ontario up to 15,000 deaths are being projected?
Or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it so starkly and succinctly: Where was God during the holocaust, when over 6 million Jews were slaughtered by Lutheran and Roman Catholic Nazi soldiers? “Where was God?” asked Bonheoffer? “He was there, hanging on the gallows! He was there, gassed in the death chambers!”
God suffers with us and for us, MF! This is not simply something merely to be mentally understood and to understand, much less to be accepted as an acceptable answer. That God suffers with us is first and foremost an experience—a personal experience—an act of love for you and me and our entire human race. And that’s why the crucifixion of Christ is, first and foremost, also an experience—a personal experience—an act of love, you see! It is a love that saves and redeems, because it is a love which suffers with us and for us—a love that transfigures and transforms suffering into sacrifice and pain into gain.
Jesus of Nazareth—the God-Man—not only suffered with us, he suffered for us. “The life I now live in the flesh,” said St. Paul, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). It is not sheer crucifixion which changed the world; but it is crucified love which changed the world and which alters you and me, transforming and reconciling us and the world to God. Jesus made it possible for you and me to be one with God through grace by faith, with hope and in love.
This leads directly to my final musing: “Suffering must open us up to others,” says the Talmud. Otherwise, as Yehuda warned Gregor, suffering can only diminish and demean us, shrink and shrivel us, making us bitter and biting, insulted and aggrieved.
History and our own memories are crammed with men and women imprisoned in their pain. The death of a dear one, disenchant- ment, depression; feelings of guilt or of utter worthlessness; acne or alcoholism or terminal cancer; the vast encyclopedia of illness and decay; simply growing old in a world that does not seem to care, because it’s so fixated and obsessed with youth and wrinkle-free skin. A thousand and one afflictions, MF, we list under “suffering,” which wall up within us, in pain and memories as if we were imprisoned within ourselves.
Such turning in on ourselves, which the church calls sinning—such sinning with such ego-centrifugal force MF, may be understandable, and at times, even beyond our control. But it is always inhuman and always un-Christian. Why? Because the curving in on myself, my selfishness always keeps me from living and breathing Christ in the here and now, and therefore keeps me from helping my neighbour who is need and who requires my help right now.
In other words, MF, just like my love for God is not a private matter, neither is my suffering, nor yours, a personal affair. As a Christian, as a member of Christ’s own Body—whose Body we call Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Maple—and just like Christ himself, I dare not “insist on suffering alone.” Suffering is our sharing in the passion of Christ. I suffer with him. We suffer with him. He suffers with me and he suffers with us!
Like myself, I’m sure you have heard and seen numerous coronavirus pandemic stories which chronicle the bravery of doctors and nurses, health care professionals and front-line responders in our country and around the world. The stories of the families of long-term care residents who have died in nursing homes are particularly poignant and heart rending. Why? Because the most elderly are among us are some of our most vulnerable and defenceless citizens, and we who are on the outside looking in, can do nothing to assist. At the time of this writing, 55 nursing home residents in Ontario have died of COVID-19—almost one-third of the total number of virus related deaths in our province.
Margaret Calver recently celebrated her husband Wayne’s 84th birthday at Markhaven Home for Seniors in Markham. Wayne is quarantined along with all the other residents. Margaret says she worries about how staff will cope following a COVID-19 outbreak in the facility. Like many Canadians with loved ones in long-term care, being denied the ability to visit during the pandemic has been very difficult for Margaret, who at 81, used to volunteer daily at her husband’s residence.
Personally speaking, I think of Sherry’s mom, Marion Row, at Trilogy Nursing Home, a 10-minute drive from our Guildwood house—she will be 95 this month and unable to celebrate this milestone with us and her entire family. In fact, because of our vacation, Sherry & I haven’t seen Marion in over 3 months.
All of which raises for me the urgent question: What does Jesus’ living & dying mean for my living & dying? After all, God’s Son did not visit this earth, share my flesh, the way I might spend a week on an Indian reservation: to broaden my own experience of loneliness, poverty, joblessness and seeming hopelessness.
No, Jesus suffered and died for me to free me from my sin-soaked self; to free me from my small egotistical self, severed from my sisters and brothers by the mark of Cain; to flood me with her love that I might be able to reach out to others, including my enemies; and to see death, not as a door to darkness, but as a horizon beyond which my eyes cannot see, but my heart can: that to die with Christ is to live.
That God suffers with me means that my dying is not an isolated event, a disagreeable episode which I must endure. As with Jesus, so with me, my entire life must be a journey to Jerusalem. As with Jesus, so with me, I must ceaselessly let go—let go of yesterday. And to let go is to die—at little at a time.
Let go of the Glory that was rightfully his, and to walk the way of Golgatha. Let go of secure little Nazareth and become an itinerant preacher. Let go of his mother, whose own deep hurt must have tormented him as she stood at a distance from him on the cross. Let go of Lazarus and Mary and Martha, his friends whom he loved. Let go of his beloved Twelve, who still had so much to learn. Let go of the hill of Transfiguration and the Garden of Gethsemane. Let go, last and hardest of all… let go of the sheer miracle of being alive. Jesus had to let go; otherwise he would never have set his face towards Jerusalem, and his dying would never have become our living!
And so, for you and for me, MF, to live as Christians with Christ is die as Christians with Christ. Not in two stages: dying here and rising in heaven. No! Dying and rising is one inseparable continuous reality. In our dying is our rising—now, today, this very moment as I write and you read. To journey the road less traveled with Jesus, MF, we have to let go of where we’ve been, so we can live now—this very moment—and live fully with him.
Postscript: I know quite well how terribly painful that letting go can be and is; for I’ve been there more times than I can tell you. The past can have such an iron-clad hold on us, that we can not break free. I don’t know what your past is, MF; but I do know that it is real, and a very real part of you.
The peril is not in remembering the past; the peril lies in living in the past. The peril lies in not forgiving the past, even if I can’t remember the wound which caused the pain or that my mistrust becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Christ is now, not yesterday. Only by a self-emptying similar to his can we grow into him and he into us, to be shaped day after day, hour after hour, into his likeness. Only by reaching out in faith and hope and love to whatever tomorrow may hold, we will discover—we will experience how much God suffers with us so that he may live in us.
It is what Paul found so exciting: I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Gal 2:20
MF. Good Friday is the epitome of God suffering with us and for us. Jesus died; but the pain of that experience needs to be transformed into a fresh existential joy with which you finish reading this sermon and get up to live life to the fullest you can. Our Lord Jesus didn’t simply die. He died for you. If he loves you that much, you must be quite extraordinary. The least—no, the best—you can do in return is: Don’t simply live! Live for him!
God bless us and you reading. God bless our living and dying to Christ. AMEN
Dear Friends. If the title of this sermon sounds more than vaguely familiar to the oldsters among us, I stand guilty. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a 1967 movie in which a couple’s racial attitudes are challenged when their daughter Joey unexpectantly brings her African-American fiancé, a distinguished surgeon played by Sidney Portier, home for dinner. The movie won best actress Oscar for Katherine Hepburn and arrived in theatres just in time for Christmas cheer.
Which is to say, MF: it is now Maundy Thursday of Holy Week during Lent and hardly a time for merry making by those who commemorate this solemn and somber occasion. Nor was there any guess work associated with who was coming to dinner that night. It was pretty much the same uniform crew who were invited the two previous years: Simon, called Peter, who would deny him, and his brother Andrew; James and John, Philip and Bartholomew, Matthew and Thomas, who would doubt the Resurrection, James son of Alphaeus and Simon called the Patriot, Judas son of James and Judas Iscariot, the one who kept their common purse and who would betray him by handing him over to the Roman authorities that same night.
It was also pretty much the same instruction that evening, as it was for other Passover meals. The commemoration of the night, when the Lord of Hosts passed over the houses the Israelites, marked with the blood of a Lamb without blemish. Except that this night, of all nights, Jesus himself was the spotless Passover-Paschal- Lamb, whose blood was shed, in order that the Lord of Hosts would forgive, not only the sins of Israel, but that of the world.
There was also no guess-work associated with the Seder Meal of bread and bitter herbs that night, as it was also the same as it had been over the centuries: the Matzah and Marror, the Chabad and Charoset, the Karpas and Shulchan, and of course the red wine, flavoured and full-bodied. And, as in previous years, Jesus arranged the supper in advance, located this time in an Upper Room for that Thursday night. The meal, likewise, was prepared in advance by the women of the company: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and other women who served Jesus and his disciples from their headquarters in Galilee. It was the same women who followed them from Galilee to Golgatha and who were to come early Sunday morning with spices to the tomb where the Body of Jesus, their Master, had been laid.
There were no big treatises that Passover evening. No gigantic explanations. No extended sermons. No lengthy discourses. Just a supper of commemoration, reminding them of 400 years of bitter slavery under the yoke of Pharaoh and the Egyptians, but also reminding them of the strong hand of deliverance by the God of their ancestors.
But then, suddenly, after dinner, the Master initiated a mysterious demonstration of love. He was never one to observe custom for the sake of custom—in fact, he often turned tradition upside down as he did that night: It was Jesus, their Master and Teacher, their Rabbi and Friend, who washed their feet. “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later,” he told them. It was only the beginning of what would turn out to be the slow disappearance of much that was familiar over the course of the previous 3 years of following him through thick and thin, during which they thought they knew him. Only afterwards, as he said, would they understand what had happened and why.
Now, that particular Passover was also the prelude to the handing over in the garden with a kiss. It was the preface to the dead night of silence from their Master whom they mistook for a geo-political Messiah—thinking that he would lead an armed revolt against the dreaded rulers of the known world—the Romans—and that God himself would be at the head of the army. But instead of a political messiah, the night of the Passover was the door that lead to a crucified messiah, an empty tomb and scattered linens. MF, it is the night which also marks for us, when the linens of altar and pulpit are scattered and removed; when the altar itself becomes the tomb of the Body of our Master and Friend.
Tonight—the night of Maundy Thursday—marks the beginning of the end. Tonight, the time for words is over. Tonight is the evening of the Last Supper, as the Master called it. Tonight is the final dinner for 13. An odd number: a dinner for 13. But it is also a dinner in which we are unexpectantly invited (if it wasn’t for COVID—19)—a dinner which encompasses gestures and feelings, perhaps too great for human language to convey: the giving of the bread as his body and cup poured out as his blood.
And perhaps the strangest action of all this night: the washing of feet by Jesus—24 feet and all 120 toes. Here MF is a sign and a symbol which perhaps can never be captured by our human aspirations. For many people nowadays, feet are unspeakably ugly. In ancient cultures, however, feet were unspeakably filthy, always filled with desert dirt, sand and soil—and hence their washing fit only for the job of a servant. Only a radical host capable of drastic hospitality would ever lower himself, quite literally, to wash the feet of his guests. And yet, we too are invited to join in. The many feet and countless toes represented by each one of us reading this meditation—the washing of our feet and toes is something we can accomplish in the privacy of our homes, if we are daringly servile.
It’s a humbling and humiliating act, MF—not only by the one who is doing the washing, but by the one who allows it to happen to her/his feet. I mean, such lavish, magnanimous gestures would upset our well-ordered 21st century apple cart. They disturb the neat hierarchy of the way we think things should be. And yet, it is precisely at this juncture, between the human and divine, between the sacred and secular, that we encounter the God who stoops to save, and in so doing, we find the gracious gateway to God open for us and for all who seek her/him.
So, that’ll be dinner for all of us, please, including wine! And, that’ll be foot washing for all us, including toes!
Now, the Passover itself, which wasn’t exactly New York sirloin, but bitter herbs as a reminder of 400 years of Jewish bondage in Egypt under Rameses II, and to be concluded with bread—the staff of life—and wine—the fruit of the vine. Bread and wine—sounds sumptuous enough, wouldn’t you say, if it wasn’t for the fact that it was a reminder of a body broken and blood spilt, only to be followed with the washing of feet? Sure, it’s nice to have clean feet, but who goes to a dinner invitation with dirty feet in the first place. “Not I Lord. You will never wash my feet,” we would cry out with Peter, I’m sure of it!
But, here’s the deal, MF. At this table, dinner for 13, is Jesus who is our host, who also partakes and who also serves us. And he is recalling the Father’s love, present from the beginning of time. God’s largess has been there from when there was ex nihilo—when there was nothing, after which and from which he made everything that is. In fact, even God’s Incarnation was made from his creation.
Jesus the Christ came forth from the womb of Mary to offer his life, to share his body and blood, and to serve by washing feet, the very feet collecting dust and following him everywhere for 3 years, step by step, in every direction, on every journey, every path—except the last one–Golgatha—the one where he needed them the most…. but they scattered like sheep without a Shepherd.
Jesus’ hospitality that night was intended for his friends, his disciples, the inner group of twelve. This gesture was made especially for them in what remains their most intimate encounter as a small, inner circle of his most trusted friends. Church ministry, MF, if I may draw a parallel—church ministry is perhaps impossible to imagine without coming back to this moment in time: the defining act of priestly service in humble self-giving, surrender and intimacy with the Lord of loving service. Which means that this evening, Jesus wants to fit us, like the disciples of old, with the joy and the burden of service.
MF, it is a service that can never be removed; for it is invisible and given by this same Lord of life who himself serves. The call to service comes on this night—this last dinner for you and me, with our Lord as host, in union with him as the Servant of all. It is a service which is not only bound to this parish and parishioners whom we love, but to this world, at the very altar of God. It’s a service Jesus demonstrates this night, of all nights, on the eve of his final passion and death, as it unfolds like a rare but solitary flower whose petals open, only to close briefly, and then open again—but this time forever.
Our words fade away this night, only to leave us with a Lord who surrenders in his service to us and to the world in the nakedness of a cross. It is the most complete and compelling act of service that we know, and which continues until the end of time. And so, on this hallowed and holy night, in this sombre and solemn dinner, our Master also invites us to participate. We humbly accept his offer. Instead of taking flight, Jesus washes our feet with his love and tears for us, and then refreshes our bodies and souls with bread and wine.
This is a night of memory, when the bread and the cup were forever transformed and transfigured into the manna we need for our life’s journey on the good Mother Earth God gave us. It is a dinner, not just for 13, but for all who participate—and not only a meal of memory, but a sacramental supper, through which God’s love and grace, his giving and forgiving, is forever infused into our minds and memories, our hearts and souls. One day, soon we hope, we will again join Jesus and his 12 for the Last Supper—a meal of profound, never-ending love—till human time is no more. AMEN.
Jesus then called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped in grave cloths, and a cloth around his face. “Untie him,” said Jesus, “and let him go.”
Dear Friends. On this 5th Sunday of Lent, let’s raise a glass of Chardonnay to playwright Eugene O’Neill—not for his Pulitzer-winning Anna Christie, nor for the brutal Desire under the Elms, and not even for the pessimistic Iceman. Rather for one of his lesser plays which, though muddled, has rather unexpected insights. Entitled Lazarus Laughed, this acclaimed O’Neill play deals with the life of Lazarus after Jesus had summoned him from the grave.
It is the story of Lazarus, who was more than follower of Jesus. He was a man whom Jesus loved, says John’s Gospel. It is the brief story of a man who had tasted death and saw it for what it really is—the story of a man whose one invitation to us here this morning is his constant refrain: Laugh with me! Dance with me! Death is dead! Fear is no more! There is only life! There is only laughter!
In the play, O’Neill writes: “Lazarus begins to laugh, softly at first, then full throated—a laugh so full of a complete acceptance of life, a profound assertion of joy of life and living, so devoid of all fear, that it is infectious with love, and so infectious that, despite themselves, his listeners are caught by it and carried away.” And so are we, MF.
At the root of O’Neill’s play lies John’s Gospel proclaimed to us this morning. And from that Gospel, O’Neill captured dramatically as truth that Martha recognized, but one which Martha herself missed. Subsequently, my sermon asks 3 significant questions: 1. What’s the basic truth of today’s gospel? 2. What deeper level did Jesus communicate, which even dear Martha missed? And 3: What does the risen Lazarus have to say to us this morning, if anything?
First MF, what is the Lazarus story about? Consider the basic facts. A dear friend of Jesus falls terribly ill. His sisters, Mary & Martha, also friends of Jesus, send word to him: “Lord, he whom you love is ill!” What does Jesus do? Does he speed off to Bethany to heal his friend, as he did for so many others, whom he had never met before? Against all expectations, Jesus delays 2 entire days! Finally, Jesus arrives in Bethany only to find that Lazarus had been dead for 4 days. Martha implores him: “Lord, if only you had been here, he would not have died!” Even some of the grieving Jews weren’t impressed with Jesus’ tears at Lazarus’ death: “If he opened the eyes of the blind, could he not have kept this man from dying?”
But Jesus’ love for Lazarus goes well beyond what his sisters and the crowd had been asking” “Jesus! Don’t let him die!” That love is revealed in Jesus’ dialogue with Martha. “Your brother will rise again,” says Jesus, to which Martha replies, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus then says, “Martha, I myself am the resurrection. He who believes in me, even though he dies, he will come to life.” In other words, the believer, like the unbeliever, will go to the grave; but the life which Jesus gives will conquer sheer physical death.
To prove he himself is the Resurrection and what he says is true, Jesus calls Lazarus back to life—back to life in Bethany with his sisters Martha & Mary: “Lazarus, Lazarus! Lazarus! Come out!! Come out I tell you!” And so, Lazarus comes out!! Well my good friends! Doesn’t this just send needles and pins up and down your spine? Lazarus comes out to eat and drink again, to dance and play again, to laugh and weep again, to pray and believe again, to hope and love again, to give thanks and be thankful again. But, to also be a living witness, for the first time, to Jesus’ astonishing claim: I am the Resurrection! He who believes in me will never die!
Second. If this were all, MF, it would surely be enough: to rise from the dead and share in new life from God’s Son! What an elation! What an exclamation! But there is something still deeper, even more remarkable than dying at 8 or 88 and rising again like Lazarus.
When Jesus spoke to Martha, he didn’t simply say: “I am the resurrection,” he said: “I am the Resurrection and the Life!” And with that, Jesus didn’t mean that you had to wait till the last day to receive eternal life. Jesus meant that because he is the resurrection now, we can have eternal life right now—eternal life which begin today and ends before the very face of God, herself. Never die?! Exactly, MF. Never? That’s right! Never! Physical death is but another door in life’s revolving doors. Death in this life is but another doorway, another entrance, another entry to a spiritual dimension unknown in this human life. Eternal life, MF, does not begin with death. It begins here and now, in this life already.
And that’s why, you see, Jesus consoled a mourning Martha and Mary as he did. Jesus was not satisfied with their belief in another life—or as Martha put it: “I know my brother will rise again on the resurrection on the last day.” In other words, Jesus not only has life. He is life. Just like God is much more than existence. God is being itself. God is Spirit itself. So, when Jesus bowed his head on the cross and gave us his Spirit to God, at that moment Jesus was gloriously alive and alive forever more.
MF, to say this again: Eternal life does not begin with death! Eternal life has its beginning today, this morning, as I speak and you listen! Jesus isn’t satisfied with our belief in another life somewhere, at the end of time! Why? Because Jesus not only has life, he IS life. He is the resurrection right now, well b4 we’re 6 ft under. MF, this is not some pious pap from your preacher and pastor! This is the most significant facet of Christian life and living in the here and now! Eternal life not simply a gift you hope for, yearn for—a life you desire to live beyond the grave. Eternal life is the life you and I are already living. To be one with the God of Love is have eternal life right now. “If you love me,” says Jesus, “my Father will love you, and we will come to you and make our home with you” (Jn.14:23).
And this, MF, is the beginning of eternal life. You and I share in the life that God gives and lives. Human spirit and divine Spirit are marvellously intertwined. And because this is true, we are different people. We are in Christ and he in us. We have a fresh dignity: daughter of God and son of God, by love and grace. And because we recognize who we are—God’s children—we can and will act differently. We can and will put aside all obsessions with self, can and will love indiscriminately, can and will give and forgive enthusiastically.
Last Question: What might the risen Lazarus say to you and me this morning? Let me suggest that Lazarus would first repeat the refrain O’Neill put on his lips: Laugh with me! Dance with me! Death is dead! Fear is no more! There is only life! There is only laughter! MF, I would add that you and I can echo that refrain with a deeper understanding than the Lazarus in O’Neill’s play. Why? Because you and I know why “fear is no more”; we know why “there is only life”; we know why “there is only laughter.” Why? Not only because Christian laughter is not hysteria and not a belly explosion over a vulgar joke; but sheer joy in living and loving. But more importantly, “there is only life” because Jesus is the resurrected life right now and not just at the end of our lives. Jesus gives us life now, as I speak and you listen.
The trouble is, very few Xians really live that abundant life. Here we are MF, women and men who are shrines of the HS, women & men who believe in a living, loving, dancing God. And yet we resemble, not Lazarus come back from the dead—but resemble a leading character in another one of O’Neill’s plays, entitled The Great God Brown who said: “Why am I afraid to dance, I who love music and rhythm and grace and song and laughter? Why am I afraid to really live, I who love life and the beauty of flesh and the living colour of earth and sky and sea? Why am I afraid of love, I who love love?”
Yes, of course, I know that we dance, we come alive when we love. But, do we dance and come alive in the power of the HS? Believe me, MF, I marvel at our society’s ability to dance. I envy the vitality of the young. I am moved beyond telling of the love between a man and a maid. But what distresses me is that so many, who even consider themselves Christians, are insensitive to the power of the HS which lurks within them and within each of us—me too.
The fact is this: That Spirit of God only needs a Yes to be released, a Yes to charge our little acre with spiritual energy—that acre in which God planted us to grow and bloom and blossom on his behalf —and so change you and me—transform you and me from a mediocre pedestrian Christian to an energized and invigorated Christian.
As I move quickly towards ¾ of a century in age, there is really only one wish for you and this congregation I cherish above all other wishes. I want you to know how special you are. I want you to experience a joy, a thrill, a deep satisfaction in God’s presence which is already within you—a presence which rivals love and loving and love-making—a presence which rivals any one of Toronto’s professional sports teams winning big-time—a presence which rivals the downing of a icy Lowenbrau on a sizzling summer day—a presence which will not dampen your natural ardour or put a lid on your inherent happiness.
Rather, the spiritual presence of God will only intensify these. The HS will inject a Christian sense into our unconcealed sadness, darkness and the tragedies which shadow our human existence. Really living life in the HS will keep us from turning stoic or cynic, from sheer resignation to evil and adversity to which we can do little or nothing about. The HS will keep you from spinning helplessly between manic and depressive like a yo-yo.
MF, I am thoroughly convinced that only the HS within us can shape our lives to conform to Jesus, who called Lazarus from the grave, as he calls us also from the grave of self-doubt, resignation and death. Only in the power of the HS can we respond with a resounding “Yes!” to the question God asked of Ezekiel: “Son of man, can these dry bones live?” Only in pulsing consciousness of the HS will we learn and live, change and transform.
Only in the power of the HS does life leap from death—the death of the God-man on the cross to his rising to new life 3 days later to our own ceaseless dying to sin and self. Only when we truly surrender to the HS without condition or reservation—“Lord of life, do with me as you will”—can we expect to exult “Laugh with me! Dance with me! Death is dead! Fear is no more! There is only life! There is only laughter!” Only then will our laughter be Lazarus-like, full-throated—“a laugh so full of complete acceptance of life, a profound assertion of joy in living, so devoid of all fear, that it will be infectious with love!”
Hard to believe? Perhaps so. But, as they once said in the Big Apple: “Try it. You’ll like it!”
Dear Friends: Let me depart from the gospel reading this morning, for a change and tell you about a famous abbey located on an island off the southeast coast of France, called the Abbey of Lerins and inside is a rather unusual sculpture. The sculpture is a life-size figure of the Christ nailed to a rugged cross. His head is leaning slightly to the right. His eyes are closed, seemingly in death. But what makes this sculpture so rare is the shape of Jesus’ lips: On his lips, there is a soft, serene smile—a gentle perhaps mysterious smile lightens the burden of his pain, and maybe ours too. The sculpture, appropriately enough, is entitled, “Le Christ souriant,” which means “The smiling Christ.” How beautiful, MF, how inviting, how meaningful—how miraculous—at least for me.
This “Smiling Christ” is the springboard for my sermon this morning. Now, if you need a Bible text to test or prove my theological point of view, I give you Jesus who, appropriately enough for our Lenten journey, said: “When you fast, do not look gloomy and do not put on a sad face like the hypocrites!” (Mt.6:16) MF, I don’t know if this smiling Christ raises a problem for you, but if so, the quarrel is not with me, but with Jesus, who causes us to think seriously, not only about the real meaning of Lent, but also about what kind of Jesus we believe in—whether he can smile or not, much less smile during Lent. I mean, I’ve had German members leave my last parish over stuff like this.
Anyway, this reminds me of a Peanuts cartoon in which Linus says to Charlie Brown: “I think you’re afraid to smile, Charlie Brown. Are you afraid that smiling would be bad for you? “Oh, I don’t know,” says Charlie Brown. “What are the side effects?” So MF, does a Lenten Jesus who smiles have negative side effects for you, this morning?
So, three questions for you: 1. Did Jesus really smile? 2. Is Lent for laughing or crying? 3. What can a smiling Christ mean for us on this 4th Sunday in Lent? First: Did Jesus really smile? Or, did he actually laugh? As far as the Gospels tell us, No—Jesus never laughed. In fact, it seems he disapproved of laughter: “How terrible for you who laugh now. You will mourn and weep!” (Lk.6:25b)
Yes, Jesus probably had a “joy of the spirit” and a “merriment of the soul,” but for outright smiling, big grins and laughter—it seems not—at least the gospels don’t record it.
Well, I don’t know about you MF, but I can never understand how one who was like us in everything, excepting sinning, could have wept from sorrow at the death of his friend Lazarus, and not also laughed for joy at the resurrection of Lazarus? How could Jesus fail to smile when a child cuddled comfortably in his arms, or when the headwaiter at Cana wondered where the good wine had suddenly come from, or when he saw little Zacchaeus up in a tree, or when Jarius’ dead daughter awoke to life at his touch, or when Peter displayed foot-in-mouth disease, yet again? Or, to use this morning’s Gospel story, how could Jesus have failed to smile at the joy of the man born blind, now healed, now seeing again for the first time?!!
MF, I don’t know about you, but I for one refuse to believe that Jesus did not laugh when he saw something funny, or when he experienced in the depths of his manhood the celebratory presence of his heavenly Father. Too often, we Christians have been so aware of Jesus’ divinity, that his humanity has become somewhat unreal and artificial. No MF. Jesus was exactly like us, including smiling and grinning, mirth, amusement and laughter—from the belly.
Of course, I don’t say that Jesus smiled when his fellow townsmen threw him out of the Synagogue, ran him out of town and were ready to throw him over a cliff. Nor do I pretend that Jesus laughed in the Garden of Gethsemane. And I don’t know if he died with a smile on his lips, as the Statue in the Abbey of Lerins would suggest. Of course, there are moments in life, when it makes no sense to laugh. That Jesus attracted fishermen and centurions, but also children and simple down to earth folks—Jesus could never have done this with only thunderbolts for words and a stern expression for a face. Rather, his lips would have had to break out into a smile and even merry laughter from time to time. I’m convinced that’s true, especially when I consider this Jesus’ words from his sermon on the mount: Don’t look gloomy and put on a sad face, like the hypocrites do!
2nd Question: Is Lent for laughing or for crying…or both? If we grant that Jesus smiled, and surely he must have—otherwise, he would not have been human, the question is this: Is there any place for a smiling Christ during Lent, or is it all gloom and doom, ashes and lashes? To answer this question MF, is to understand a crucial fact: In Lent, we are not pretending—as the hypocrites do.
Mentioning ashes and lashes, reminds me of a couple of stories from the younger days of my two daughters, Elizabeth and Maria. One Ash Wednesday, we were coming home from church and Elizabeth says: Daddy, is it really true what you said about people turning to dust and ashes when they die? Yes, Elizabeth, it’s true. Elizabeth thought for a moment and then said: Well daddy, then I guess there must be a lot of dead people under my bed.
In other story, Maria, the younger daughter says to me one Lenten Sunday: Daddy, why do you pray before you preach your sermon? So the Lord Jesus can help me preach a good sermon, I said. To which she said: Then why doesn’t he?
Lent is not a time for pretending MF, not for my daughters, nor for you and me and certainly not for Jesus. In Lenten living day to day, we dare not make believe. Even in Lent and especially in Lent, you and I still need to smile and laugh, still need to live as forgiven Christians and risen Christians! Yes, during Lent we follow Jesus to Golgatha. We carry our cross, as he carried his—all in all an awesome responsibility. But we do all of this as risen Christians who can laugh and cry, succeed and fail, erupt in joy and sorrow, happiness and sadness.
MF, we must be vigilant to continuously re-produce the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem, not only symbolically and liturgically in church, but must also do so in our bodies and bones, and in the wrenching of our spirits, in the dark nights of our souls.
And that’s precisely why our laughter is never completely full-throated. That’s why it is through tears that we smile. That’s why we pray with Jesus: “Father, remove this cup from me.” (Lk.22:42) We will only be transformed with Jesus when we go up to Golgatha with Jesus. MF, just like there is no Christmas without a manger for a bed, there is no Easter without crucifixion—not for Jesus, nor for us. Why? Because it’s a smiling Christ who hangs on the cross for the world.
So, is Lent for laughing or crying? What do you think? I say, Lent is for both. But this morning I am stressing the laughter of Lent because it is so far removed from our personal and collective spirituality. It is almost as hard to find a laughing Christian on Good Friday in church, as it is to find a “smiling Christ” in crucifixion art! Those Christians, who do not take Lent and Easter seriously, only confirm Frederick Nietzsche’s cutting critique about the millions of Xians who do not look redeemed…which is why Nietzsche did not believe in Jesus, whose followers did not model him. Nor did they look redeemed…and many still don’t.
The 3rd/last question is: What does a smiling Christ have to do with you and me now, here in the middle of Lent? Yes, Lent cries out for repentance. But however turned away from sin you and I are this morning, Jesus also says that we are in need of constant conversion. “Except that you be born of the Spirit, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God!” says Jesus. It’s not enough just to believe in Jesus! We must live what we believe, which is what faith is: a day to day turning to Christ in faith & hope, in giving & forgiving, in love & loving. Belief informs us what to believe; but faith transforms how we live as Christians.
I once said to a middle aged man: “Why are you so hard on yourself?” His answer was quite revealing. He said: You know Pastor Peter, being hard on myself is the only self-denial I know: keep my rebellious nature under control; be intolerant of imperfection—my own and everyone else’s! Always be at the top of my game, because only the person who comes home with the most toys wins!” In other words, to really follow Jesus means giving up something sweeter than Black Magic, hotter than sex, more interesting than our net worth and more destructive than a Mac Attack.
What we really need to give up is our perpetual self-absorption. In other words, finally give up on your non-stop narcissism… where you take yourself all too seriously, where the days and nights revolve and rotate only around you!—your heartaches and headaches, your haemorrhoids and hernias, your successes and failures, your problems and frustrations, your arrogance and vanity, your argumentative mentality and stubborn attitude, your defensiveness and deprivation! This Lent MF distance yourself from yourself, see yourself in perspective, as you really are, as your friends and foes see and experience you!
I mean, a human being is wonderfully, yet fearfully made: a bundle of paradoxes and contradictions. We believe and doubt, hope and despair, love and hate. We are exciting and boring, enchanted and disillusioned, manic and depressive. We are “cool” on the outside but hurt within.
We Christians often feel bad about feeling good, and are afraid of too much joy and happiness. We feel guilty if we don’t feel guilty—guilt—the gift that keeps on giving. We humans are trusting and suspicious, selfless and selfish, wide-open and locked in. We know so much, and yet so little. We are honest and yet we still play games. Aristotle said we humans are rational animals. But I say we are angels—angels with an insatiable appetite for pretzels and beer, wine and cheese! Take your pick!
MF, if there’s something incongruous—something which does not fit into your life—then it’s a cause for some humor. Smile at yourself. Laugh at yourself. It’s a great dose of medicine. If I didn’t have a weirdo sense of humor, MF, I’d be 6 ft under a long time ago—not to mention the 626 funerals I’ve conducted over 40 years of ministry—these 626 who were all dying to see me. They’re now 6 ft under. Let the humorous Christ into your life, for a change. Don’t worry—you won’t be laughing sacrilegiously at Jesus. He’ll be poking gentle fun at you—through your tears. Why? Because your entire Christian attitude should reflect cheerfulness, rather than sadness. Look redeemed MF! Act redeemed—maybe for the first time!
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Every pastor can pretend to be serious; but no pastor can pretend to be funny. Real humor is looking at the world, at others, at yourself, with the eyes of love—being in love without restrictions and conditions, and it is the smiling Christ who serves them 2.
So MF, not far from you is someone who needs you, someone who is afraid and needs your courage; someone who is weak and needs your strength; someone who is heavily burdened and needs your listening ear; someone who is lonely and needs your presence; someone who is without humor and needs your laughter; someone who is unloved and needs your touch; someone who is old and needs to feel you care. Many people look strong on the outside; but they’re tired of always having to be strong, to put up fences and defences. They need your support and encouragement. They need your shared weakness and shared strength.
Last Page. It’s about time, eh? Sometimes the most helpful and healing words I can speak to those who are in need of me, of my time and skills, my care and concern, my touch and embrace, or when they hear that I too am in need and am troubled from time to time. MF, you will rarely know greater happiness, than when through you, a smile is born on the face of someone in pain. You will then have given birth to the smiling Christ—for her or him, for them, for yourself and for God herself! Amen.
Each year we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism—a story we think we know very well. But, when something is too familiar, we need another look. So this morning, we’ll re-examine this all too familiar story from the eyes of all 4 Gospel writers: Mt, Mk, Lk & Jn. Maybe we can learn something new and gain a new perspective.
Firstly, as I told the Bible Study group of 8 last month: theology is not a simple matter. I wish it was. It can be very complicated, not only because 20 centuries has elapsed since the gospels containing Jesus’ Baptism were written, but how we see things today is not how they were understood back then. So, let me explain.
The first version of Jesus’ baptism is from Mark’s Gospel, written around 70 AD, some 40 years after the baptism took place. As our Bible Study group learned: Mark’s Gospel was written at the end of a 4-year war between Israel and Rome—66-70 AD—a war the Jews lost big time—but a war in which Paul believed Jesus was going to return on the clouds of heaven……but did not.
MK’s Gospel is the shortest of the four and so he gets right to the point. Mark omits the first 30 years of Jesus’ life and begins with Jesus’ baptism which he describes in a mere 3 verses. MK is preparing his readers for Jesus’ immediate return, in order to set up the Kingdom of God which is imminent. And to prepare for Jesus’ Second Coming means to be baptized for the remission of sins. And so, Jesus allows himself to be baptized. “Repent and be baptized, for the Kingdom of God is at hand” Jesus tells us, according to MK.
But, as our Bible Study Group of 8 also learned, MT has a huge problem. He includes over 125 OT verses to prove to the Jews that Jesus is the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. But the Jews don’t buy it!! They reject Jesus as the Messiah. Why? Two reasons. 1. The Jews are expecting a Messiah like King David, who would drive out the Romans with military force to re-establish greater Israel. Jesus, however, disavows the sword, renounces militarism, and says that his kingdom is not of this world.
2. The church proclaims Jesus the Son of God. But the Jews were strict monotheists for centuries, well before Jesus was born. Commandment #1: I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me. So, when the church says there’s another god, Jesus—the Son of God—and still a 3rd god: the HS—how can the Jews transgress Com #1 at the penalty of death? And if that’s not enough, Jesus still does not return for a 2nd Coming.
MF, it’s a crisis of faith. St. Paul believes Jesus is he’s going to return in his lifetime; but Paul is executed by the Romans in 65 AD. No 2nd Coming would save Paul from Roman crucifixion. The Gospel writers, MK, MT & LK, writing between 70 and 90 AD—they all believe Jesus is going to return—that the Kingdom is at hand, as Jesus said many times. But the first C comes to an abrupt end, and Jesus still has not returned. Why not? What to do? What to believe? Well MF, along comes John’s Gospel to the rescue.
I believe we need to return to the Christianity of the 1st C, in which Christianity was a movement, in which each of Xian was a living gospel to his neighbor—each Xian was a living spiritual transformation which is what Xianity meant back then: to change, to reform and be transformed by the HS.
MF, let me put it to you this way: Jesus never said to his disciples: “Hey fellas. We’re going to start a new, centralized, institutional religion and name it after me.” Instead, Jesus was a nonviolent leader, who started a messianic movement with the classic words of a movement: “Follow me!” He then empowered his followers with the HS. And instead of demanding uniformity, he recruited diverse disciples who learned—by heart—his core vision and way of life. Then he sent these disciples out as apostles to teach and multiply his vision and way of life among “all the nations”—so says MT’s Gospel (28:19).
In dangerous global times like these, and where the church in NA and EU is on the verge of collapse, we must produce generations of dedicated, courageous, and creative Christians who will join God to bring radical healing and change to this damaged world, before it’s too late. MF, we need such a movement—not someday, maybe, but right now, definitely.
We Christians need to finally live and love as Jesus taught and embodied.” Rather than a top-down and top-heavy church concerned only about in-house salvation, Christianity must once again become a messianic movement which places the love of God, neighbor, self, and all creation at the center.
Everyone knows about the 3 Kings of Orient are, traveling by camel to hick town Bethlehem, to find the baby Jesus and present him with gifts of “gold, frankincense and myrrh.” No surprises here to anyone. After all, we’ve all been singing the carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are” for 163 years, ever since the Anglican Rev John Henry Hopkins Jr composed it in Williamsport, Penn. Likewise, everyone knows that the 3 kings mingled with the Shepherds and the sheep, the camels and the cows at the stable, with the Star above, Mary & Joseph below, and the Baby in the manger.
Nothing shocking here, MF, unless we pay attention to what is actually written in the birth stories by MT and LK—as our little Bible Study Group of 8 did back in Dec. With the festival of Epiphany—the arrival of the Wise Men taking place tomorrow—at least legend has it—what can we say about their arrival?
First is that the Wise Men were not Kings. They were astrologers who followed a star for many months and arrived at a house in Bethlehem, where the child was. No one knows the date of their arrival, just like no one knows when Jesus was born. These dates—Jan 6 and Dec 25—were chosen from other possible dates by the church fathers in the 4th century—300 years after Jesus.
The fact is this MF: The birth stories according to MT and LK were written by different writers, who did not know what the other was writing, which is the reason why the stories so very different.
LK’s birth story has angels, shepherds, sheep, and a manger (a feeding trough actually) with Baby Jesus in it. MT’s story has wise men, gifts, a star, King Herod, a child in a house, a slaughter of children and an escape to Egypt. LK’s story has Joseph & Mary residing in Nazareth and leaving for Bethlehem where the baby is born in a stall and laid in an animal’s feeding trough, because there was no room in an inn. In MT’s version, the couple already resides in Bethlehem, in a house, where the Wise Men arrive quite some time later—between 6 to 18 and possibly 30 months after the birth, to find Jesus, no longer a baby, but a child. And btw, LK has no donkeys and MT has no camels in their respective birth stories.
Although each story is about Jesus’ birth, they have no relationship with one another. They are completely different birth stories, which means that the Magi never met the shepherds, nor were the shepherds led by a star. Angels told the shepherds where to find the baby Jesus; whereas the Star led the Wise Men to a house where Jesus lived. Which is to say that our nativity scenes simply do not reflect historical reality. But, MF, that’s alright. It’s ok to put all of these figures together for one holy and silent night, provided we recognize that they are symbols of historical realities which have meaning and purpose in our lives on Christmas Eve.
So MF, it is not Jerusalem which becomes the birth place of this new born king of the Jews, but tiny unpretentious Bethlehem, a hick town by comparison to the once mighty capital city. It is no wonder that the Magi, now smitten by this divine foolishness, which is wiser than human wisdom, went home by an alternative route.
The story of the Epiphany offers us two communities: Jerusalem with its great arrogance about the past and its hold on the future, and little, tiny, unassuming Bethlehem—a hick town by comparison—Bethlehem, with its modest promise known only to Micah. Which is also to say MF, that Jerusalem and Bethlehem are also two different ways of living between which you and I are always choosing. The first choice is the one we most often take, the one represented by all the luxuries and excesses of big city life, with all its consumer spending and accumulating, all its technological baubles, beads and bangles, its representation of the so-called good life and all that that life has to offer, and, of course, its “me-first and my rights mentality” at all costs. Jerusalem—the good life and all which it offers!
All of which, put us Christians in immediate touch with other people and for which no ordination is needed. Ordination would probably even get in the way. Either we see Christ in everyone, or maybe we don’t even see Christ in anyone! Frankly, my hope for Christianity is that it becomes less “churchy,” less men dominated and driven, and more concerned with living its mission statement than with endlessly reciting creeds and beliefs about Jesus who gets me into heaven. There seem to be very few actionable items in most Christian lives beyond attending worship services, which largely creates a closed and self-validating system.
MF, are we still willing to travel the 20 extra kms with the Wise Men to create a practical, practice-based Xianity? Simply put, any notion of a future church must be a fully practical church that is concerned about getting the job of love done—and done better and better. Centuries emphasizing art and architecture, music, liturgy, theology, preaching, prescribed roles and the bottom line—finances, of course, all have their place, to be sure, MF! But their over-emphasis has made us a top-down and decorative church that is constantly concerned with its own in-house salvation. And that MF must change if the church is ever to survive. But it means that we must be willing to walk the extra long and hard 20 kilometers, just as the Wise Men did.
So, here we are, MF, starting another New Year 3-days from hence: Anno Domini 2020. Christmas Day 2019 has come and gone, but not forgotten. Here we are, where we left off 5-days ago. It’s an important consideration for us, as it was for the shepherds who also had to return to where they had left off. I mean, had the sheep not returned and a cure for insomnia found, it would have put thousands of sheep out of work. There’s also the question about the black sheep in the herd. They probably remained black because there’s a black sheep in every family and it usually stays that way.
Or what would have happened to those magi from the east had they not “returned to their country by another way” as Mt’s Gospel tells us? I mean, what would their wives have done? They probably were just happy that their husbands were the first wise men to attend a baby shower, although like most wives, they probably had serious reservations about the gifts their hubbies were bringing this child. I mean, gold, frankincense and myrrh would have made great gifts for the wives! But for a little baby? The wives didn’t think so.
Now, had the husbands brought pot-luck, that would have been more appropriate. Mary, Joseph and the shepherds were probably cold and hungry. But the wise men weren’t Lutherans or Anglicans and so didn’t bring potluck or casseroles with them. Now, if the wives had gone to the stable, they would have brought practical gifts for the child, like diapers, a stroller and a decent crib, for heaven sakes. I mean you can’t have the Son of God sleeping in a feeding trough for 2 years. I mean, what would the animals eat out of? After that, the wives would have cleaned out the stall, hung Christmas lights, and since they were Wise Women, we would’ve had real Peace on Earth.
Well MF, with that little humour, I’d like to point out that for 20 centuries, we Christians have combined the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke into one story, as if the writers meant it to be that way. But the fact is, as our little Bible Study group discovered, both Mt and Lk wrote two very distinctly different birth stories. Neither Lk nor Mt saw each other’s story. Mt wrote his birth story 80 years after Jesus’ birth. Lk wrote his 90 yrs after Jesus’ birth.
According to Luke, the home of Mary and Joseph is Nazareth, but because of the Roman census, they travel to Bethlehem, where Jesus’ birth occurs in a stable. Luke’s version says that angels tell the shepherds where the baby is to be found in Bethlehem. So, off they go, minus the sheep, to find Jesus wrapped in linen cloths and lying in a feeding trough. Together with the angels, the shepherds praise God for this special birth.
But in Mt’s version, Mary and Joseph already reside in Bethlehem, which is Joseph’s home town, and where they own a house and Jesus is born in that house. The Star which the Wise Men were following for months, after all the East is very far away—the Star rests over a house. The Wise Men enter the house, and find, not a baby, but a child and his mother—meaning Joseph wasn’t there. He was probably working at a carpentry shop somewhere else in town. The Wise Men present the child with gifts and worship him.
Scholars estimate that Jesus was between 12 to 30 months old when the Wise Men arrived. That’s also why King Herod had all the Jewish male infants slaughtered who were 2 years and under. The family then goes to Egypt, to escape the slaughter, and return to Nazareth 3 years later. By the way, Luke mentions no travel plans to Egypt. In fact, Lk says, “When Joseph and Mary had finished doing all that was required by the law of the Lord, they journeyed straight to Nazareth where the child grew up full of wisdom.”
Well, MF, here we are 20 centuries later and these differences perhaps only matter to theologians and historians, but to folks like you and me, we ask the question: Where do I now begin, where I left off 5 days ago with the Xmas Eve celebration? After all, the shepherds and wise men had to ask themselves the same question: Where do I now begin, where I left off a week ago with Baby Jesus in the manger or the Child Jesus at the house? Has what I have seen and experienced changed me in any way?
Is the world any better because of this past Christmas—or any Christmas for that matter? Is the church any better, because it proclaims the good news of Christmas? Is the pastor any more perfect than he was before Christmas? Does Christmas make you a better person than you were before Jesus’ birth? If the answer to these and other similar questions is NO—then why not?
For Christmas to make a real difference in your life and mine, as we move into a new year, we must practice what we believe about the mew born Child. If we believe he brings us light and love, we must shine light on the path for ourselves and others. If we believe Jesus brings us truth, then we must live truthfully. If we believe Jesus expects us to do the right, then we must do the right, but also do it for the right reason. MF, if Christmas transforms us, then we ourselves are changed and are therefore in a position to be an effective, change agent for others who need us.
A shabby, tired-looking couple appears at the door. The woman is expecting a child. The man says that the baby is going to come very soon, and so asks for a room in the inn. We sigh, a long depressing sigh. It’s most unfortunate, we say. But the inn is already full…that is, full of paying customers, we think to ourselves. We are even somewhat relieved that there isn’t room, because this couple, you see, just doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the clientele.
But there’s something about them that pulls at our heart strings—something about the man’s rugged resolve and the woman’s serene countenance. And so, we give them room in a stable out back, out of sight and out of mind, because we just can’t shut them out altogether, you see. Shipwrecked at the stable door, little do we realize, that upon this small act of half-kindness, depends the very hope of humanity.
The Baby is born in the compressed heat of the night. He comes into the world like any other child: crying, helpless, defenseless and vulnerable, needing warmth, protection and nourishment. And so he’s fed at his mother’s breast and then rocked back to sleep in her loving arms and heart.
The Baby sleeps peacefully in its straw-filled feeding trough, all the while is heard the cacophonous sounds of the cattle, as their musky aroma fills the dense night air. A tenuous disquieting joy overtakes the family and little do we realize, just how uniquely special this rather common birth, in the crude unsophisticated surrounding, actually is.
MF, each year we re-enact this simple scene. Amidst rounds of parties, gifts, decorating and feasting, our society makes limited space for the birth of this Baby. But, of course, we’re all at the mercy of our own material inventions, time restrictions and psychological defenses. Shipwrecked at the door of the stable, sometimes we’re not even able to enter. And so we gaze from afar, even though we are invited to hold the Baby in our own arms.
In each heart here tonight, there lies an inn, where each one of us must ultimately answer whether there is room for the Christ Child. If not, we will then consign him to the stable of our lives, at whose door the timber of many shipwrecks lie. MF, we all come to the stable this evening—me too—with our wounds and our lists of who did what to whom—all ancient wounds and historic hurts which resurface, especially at Christmastime.
Like each of us, Jesus was also born absolutely vulnerable and helpless, which oddly enough, is the best disposition for the beginning of a spiritual journey. Why? Because the deeper the awareness of our vulnerability as humans, the more willing we are to finally reach out for help—to turn ourselves over to God who can and does heal us from the inside out. MF, God works with us in the long journey of dismantling our emotional and psychological baggage, our fears and anxieties, our obsessions and preoccupations—all of which we’ve allowed to accumulate over decades, all the while convincing ourselves that we’re ok.
But the cruel irony is that each one of us here tonight knows what it feels like to be shipwrecked—me too!—shipwrecked and at war with an enemy of our own making. Each one of us knows that we in the West—here in NA & EU—are starving spiritually—starving for a life that is personal and connected, spiritual and meaningful, not only to one another here this silent & holy night, but to our global village, to Mother Earth and to God herself.
So MF, when I speak of mtg our spiritual needs, it is not to keep cranking out more and more consumer goods, which we think we need, but which are planet killing at the expense of those who have little or nothing in this world—all the while, we pray and prattle on about angels and shepherds, wise men and stars—however important they are. Rather, we must finally begin to treat relationships to one another, to Mother Earth and God herself as vital and sacred. Because they simply are.
Christmas does not automatically nor immediately change everything in your life or mine. How could it? But if you prepare your life by making room to worship him—he who came to you in the obscurity of a manger, where he wants you to invite him into your life and heart, then Christmas will have found you and you will be changed.
Ultimately, there are only two kinds of religion. Most people believe in the first one which says: If I change, God will love me. But the 2nd one says: Because God loves me, I can change. So MF, because God already loves you, you can change and be transformed. You can make room for the Christ Child. You can let go of your old ways, which isn’t easy. Because the old will always defy the new. The old willy always deny the new. There is only one way to bring in the new and that is to let go of the old.
If “thy Kingdom come and thy will be done,” as we pray in the LP MF, then we must first let go of our man-made kingdoms and our own stubborn wills. Jesus does not come into our lives uninvited; otherwise, we’d be just robots. Jesus wants a disciple who freely choses to love him in return for his love. MF, if you make room for the Christ Child, then he will not only form and inform you, he will reform and transform you in his likeness, which is what Christmas is really about! Alleluia! Amen!
MF, we all know the Reason for this Season, don’t we?! It’s the birth of the Christ Child in an obscure manger in Bethlehem. Jesus is the Reason not only for this Season, he’s the reason for all seasons. And yet, with all the gift-giving this season, I often ask myself: Just whose birthday is it anyway? I mean, we give and receive gifts to one another—over 3 billion $$ worth. But MF, it’s not our birthday!
Now, don’t get me wrong, I really like giving and receiving gifts. I mean: a gift of candy means friendship; a bouquet of flowers is the gift of love. And the gift of a diamond means real business. But Christmas, MF, isn’t your birthday or mine! It’s Jesus’ birthday! So what will we do to celebrate Jesus’ birthday this Christmas? It’s the only question whose answer really matters this morning. This morning, let me tell you a little story, which has relevance to the question: Just whose birthday is it, anyway?
This Christmas Eve, MF, we will celebrate the birth and birthday of the Christ Child. We are—you and me—we are always the stable into which the Christ Child is born. And all we can really do is keep our stable honest and humble, and the Christ Child will surely be born there, as he was born in that first stable, and as Agnes was re-born that November night in the stable of Mel’s Diner.
MF, did you know that every major religion in the world—Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and all the eastern religions—all agree, but each in their own way, that finally we are all called to a transformed consciousness, a new mind, a new body being “born again,” a second time in some way. Each religion has different words and experiences for it, but somehow they all point to God’s union with us, which for us Christians is what Christmas is about. Emmanuel. God with us. God in us. Incarnation. God becoming one of us. He is in us and we are in her.
Perhaps this morning you feel something like Agnes. You had not thought about a birthday party. Although Christmas is about many things, maybe you’ve never thought of Christmas as a birthday party for Jesus. But then, what could we possibly give Jesus for his birthday? Now, the Wise Men once gave him gold, frankincense and myrrh. What could we possibly give him? What could he possibly need, which we can afford? The really precious gifts are priceless: love, mercy, truth, for openers. For everything else, there’s Visa.
MF, the very best gift we could give Jesus for his birthday is invite him into our heart and life; invite him to be born into our day to day living. The Christ-Child who was once born in a manager now wants to be born in your life and mine—and not just on Christmas, but everyday. The Christ Child wants you and me, wants Agnes and our world to be transformed by his birth. God wants us to be transformed, inside out, by throwing a birthday party for his Son.
MF, only transformed people can transform other people. Where we ourselves have changed and healed is where we can be effective agents of change for others. God wants us to give birth to the Christ Child—that our bodies become his stable, our hearts his home and our souls his spirit!! That’s Christmas MF!! That’s Christianity. Religion is for people who are afraid of hell and afraid of God. But Christianity is for people who have been through hell and experienced God first-hand and therefore experienced transformation—experienced new life and new living.
MF, we cannot think ourselves into a new way of life and living. We must live ourselves into a new way of thinking and believing. Without action and without lifestyle decisions, without concrete practice, words alone will never cut it. You know MF, here in NA and in Europe, we have created a pseudo-happiness, largely based in having, in possessing, in purchasing, in texting and tweeting, etc—instead of a genuine happiness created in who we are: God’s children. We are so over-stimulated that the ordinary no longer delights us. We cannot rest or abide in our naked being in God, as Baby Jesus was. Christmas is always more than just what we believe about Jesus. It is more than Christmas trees and candles, music and laughter. Christmas is each of us giving birth to the Christ Child. Christmas is celebrating his birthday, and then, not just once a year, but every day—every day making living and breathing Jesus.
MF, each of us is pregnant with the Christ Child. He lives within us and now wants to be born by you and me; wants to be our Saviour; wants to be the Saviour of the world. And so, Christmas Eve, give birth to the Christ Child in your life. Let him shine from your life as he has never shone before.
The word that is translated into English as “repentance” is the Greek word “metanoia” – which means a radical change of mind and heart. And for the church to foster a culture of repentance simply means that, what is needed is a radical change of mind and heart to reflect the image of God within us, which then changes what we do and how we behave. MF, God allows us to make U-turns in the middle of our lives, and this is part of the process of repentance and spiritual transformation. A culture of repentance means that this capacity to change our heart and mind is what fuels our spiritual transformation and growth. MF, God is not finished with us! She’s never finished with us! We must grow in God and grow spiritually all the time, or we die. The fact is: Too many Christians have simply stopped growing after confirmation, which has become a glorified graduation exercise out of the church.
When we preach love without conversion, then we will not have lasting love. If we don’t call people to grow and grow up, to change and mature, to call our values and priorities into question, our behaviour and thinking into question and go to a new level of consciousness, then we can never sustain real love. That’s why the church has been forced to an honest and humiliating conclusion: Too much of our ministry has been concerned with “churching” people into an all too comfortable, ethnic and racial belonging system, rather than a spiritual repentance, conversion and transformation into who God is and what she expects from us.
I suspect that too much ministry has focused on pastors and priests who go about church business as usual, rather than the need for prophets like John the Baptist who challenge us to repentance and conversion, to reformation and transformation.
Christianity must do more than just disguise the ego behind a screen of church going and 1-way tickets to heaven. Jesus intended discipleship to be a real and vital movement toward the living and loving God. There needs to be an authentic, bona fide urgency with respect to repentance and the need for spiritual transformation, not only by the institution of the church, but also by its own members, too many of whom are members only on paper
Try to imagine, for just a moment:
A society without guns and high-powered weapons used to kill each other. A society without McMansions in sprawling suburbs, without mountains of unnecessary packaging, without tons of plastic bottles and wrap floating in our oceans and in the stomachs of whales and sharks, now dead in the water, without giant mechanized monofarms, without energy-hogging big-box stores, without electronic billboards plastered everywhere spewing dollar deals, cloaked in lies, without endless piles of throw-away junk, without the overconsumption of consumer goods no middle class person really needs.
We in the West are starving spiritually. We need spiritual nourishment, like we need air to breathe. We are starving for a life that is personal and connected, spiritual and meaningful to one another, to our world and to God. So, when I speak of meeting our spiritual needs, it is not to keep cranking out more and more consumer goods which are planet killing at the expense of those who have little or nothing in this world—all the while, we Christians pray and prattle on about Christmas angels and shepherds, wise men and stars. We must finally begin to treat relationships to one another, to Mother Earth and God herself as vital and sacred. Because they are.
How is it that so many churches and Christians have managed to avoid what Jesus actually taught?We’ve evaded major parts of the Sermon on the Mount (MT 5-7): Eg, Jesus’ claim that the poor of this world—and not the rich—will inherit the Kingdom; his warning about idolizing wealth; his clear directive and example of nonviolence; and Jesus’ command to pray for and love our enemies. Perhaps we think his teaching is just some nice words in theory, but very impractical in real life. I mean, we don’t turn the other cheek, because nonviolence changes nothing—or at least so we think.
One reason for our failure to follow Jesus’ clear teaching on nonviolence, on learning war no more, lies in the fact that the Gospels have primarily been expounded by a small elite group of white, educated EU & NA men. The bias of Caucasian males is typically power and control. From this perspective, MF, nonviolence and love of enemies, of course, makes no sense. It’s simply impractical.
Trouble is: Because we Christians haven’t taken Jesus’ teaching and example of non-violence seriously, much of the world refuses to take us seriously. Christians talk of a new life, critics say, but the record shows that most Christians are afraid to live in a new way—a way that is responsible, caring and nonviolent. Too many think that going to church, being saved and a 1-way ticket to heaven is what Xianity is about. The fact is Christianity is precisely about changing people from the inside out and therefore changing the world. Xianity is precisely about allowing ourselves to be transformed by the power of the HS and therefore transforming the world.
Hate is not only a prelude to personal vengeance, but to retaliation on a national and global scale. That’s why in his Sermon on the Mt, Jesus said whoever hates is also guilty of murder. That’s why Jesus also stood on the side of the 10 Commandments which say that “You shall not kill,” and yet we deliberately kill and do it with impunity. Then we rationalize every possible means to prove to ourselves that killing is right and even necessary for our survival.
From tribal wars to world wars, we have violated every standard of justice and civility, every standard of reason and morality, in which the innocent have been sacrificed on death’s altar in untold millions. Their names are legion: Auschwitz, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, My Lai, Basra, Belgrade, Rwanda, Armenia, Somalia, Kosovo, 9/11, Palestine, Israel, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan etc.
MF, we’ve come to believe that war is somehow redemptive, that war will end war. That’s what was said about WWI. It was the “last great war,” it was said. MF, the opposite is actually the case. War only generates more war. War only spirals into more war. We, our children and children’s children, have been totally indoctrinated, that the violence of war is the only solution to our human conflicts. In 1964, PM John Diefenbaker said, “There are only two species that actually go to war, men and ants. There’s no possibility of any change in the ants.” War and hate are not inherited, MF: they are taught.
Jesus, Gandhi, Teresa, Mandela and King transformed evil without resorting to evil—a revolution which changed them, as well as those who opposed them. The love of enemies requires not only the meltdown of defense-mechanisms and the painful gut-wrenching understanding of foes, but the daily application of love which is always non-violent.
Last Sunday I said that the reception of HC is often rote and ceremonial in many congregations. After administering HC a few thousand times to communicants, I often wonder about our personal responses. While it’s important to be thankful for the forgiveness of sins, MF, let me tell you: That’s just the beginning! Why? As I also said last Sunday: We are what we eat. We eat the bread and drink the wine—meaning: We become Jesus’ Body. We are Jesus’ Body.
The Eucharist is a transference of Jesus’ identity to you and me! We are now the living, breathing Body of Christ in this world, or as Luther liked to say: We ourselves are the little Christs of this world. We are the moving Tabernacle of the OT, just like the Ark of the Covenant. MF, if you haven’t realized it yet, that’s a huge deal!! It’s much more than forgiveness. It is life transforming and life-giving.
MF, we do the same, whenever we make the emphasis of Jesus’ Gospel as something which is “out there” or “up there,” but never what is “in here”—inside the depth of the here and now. For instance, insisting on a literal belief in the virgin birth of Jesus is a very good starting point. But unless it translates into a spirituality of interior poverty, humility and human vulnerability—unless it translates into a readiness to give birth to the little Christ within us all, then the VB is only a belief of the brain. It “saves” no one.
Likewise, believing that Jesus rose from the dead is a good start. But unless we are struck hard by the awareness that the Risen Jesus is travelling the same journey with us, right now—and that this journey is the destination with him, right now—then MF our belief in the resurrection is harmless, if not harmful—because it is a belief that will leave us and our world unchanged. MF, we need to stop our fixation on heaven, or we’ll never see the forest from the trees.
Practice-based Xianity has been avoided, denied, minimized, ignored, delayed, and sidelined for too many centuries, by too many Christians who were never told that Xianity was anything more than church attendance or a belief system which supposedly got them to heaven. I know Lutherans and Catholics who would never step foot into each other’s church for fear of theological pollution & eternal punishment.
MF, let me tell you as honestly as I can. There is no Lutheran or Pentecostal way of being spiritual, for the HS moves and motivates without rules. There is no Mennonite or Salvation Army way of living Jesus’ simple and nonviolent life. There is no Presbyterian or Christian Reformed way of being right, for Jesus never said “You shall be right!” He did say: “Have faith. Be faithful.” There is no United or Baptist way to baptize, as if only adult immersion or child sprinkling has God’s stamp of approval. There is no Anglican or Catholic way of burying the dead, and then doing so in sacred soil, as if all other soil is immoral and impure.
Lk 21:27: Then the Son of Man will appear, coming in a cloud with great power and glory.
1 Thess. 4:16-17 The Lord himself will come down from heaven. Those who have died believing in Christ, will rise to life first. Then we who are living at that time will be gathered up along with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.
MF, I’m not making this stuff up. It’s too bizarre to make up. The fact is: Nowhere in the entire NT is the word rapture used or found. But, if you reread today’s Lucan gospel, and then reread its parallels in MT and MK, which together with 1 Thess, the Rapture sure sounds like a kidnapping to me. The word rapture was not even used in the first 1900 years of Christianity, until the Scofield Bible, published in 1909, used the word in a heading, together with margin notes. The Moody Bible Institute and other US Bible schools spread this “rapture” message and spawned an entire “rapture racket” in which millions of dollars are being made.
MF, the concept of the “Rapture” has proliferated in evangelical circles in parts of the US and Western Canada. Rapture is actually a new form of an old heresy, called Manicheism, which says that the world is evil and the goal is to escape it, which is what God does through the Rapture. But that’s not the Gospel, MF. Xianity is not about escaping an evil world which God first made and pronounced good. The Gospel is about receiving the Kingdom of God, here and now, as Jesus said many times over.
MF, it is also interesting to note that those who believe in the Rapture, also believe that we are in the end times and that Jesus will return any minute. Let me tell you, back in the 1st C, the church also believed Jesus was going to return any minute. In fact, St. Paul believed Jesus was returning in his lifetime. In today’s epistle, Paul says: “We who are still living will meet the Lord in the air.”
Well, Jesus didn’t return during Paul’s lifetime, nor did he return in the first century, as the early church thought he would. Nor did Jesus return at 1,000 AD, nor at 2,000 AD when, you may remember, thousands of “rapturites” sold all their belongings and waited on US mountain tops for Jesus’ return on the clouds with armies of angels. But he did not. It’s now 2019, and Jesus still hasn’t returned. Nor have I seen churches holding fire-drills in expectation of his return.
1. What you probably don’t know MF is that tiny Israel initiated that war with the mighty Roman Empire, believing that that would force Jehovah to intervene to send the real Messiah and save his people, the Israelites/Jews. Meanwhile, Christians thought that this war would cause their Messiah, Jesus, to return and save them and his church. Not only did Israel lose the war, Jehovah did not intervene, nor did Jesus return. Why not? I don’t know. But I do know that Thou shall not tempt the Lord, thy God.
2. In reading Mt, Mk & Lk, it seems that the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple is an event which will happen in the future, unless you know that the gospels were written after the war with Rome. Mk was written in 70; Mt in 80 and Lk in 90 AD—all after Jerusalem and the Temple had fallen to the Romans in 70 AD and the Jews then dispersed throughout Europe.
3. MF, you also need to know that with respect to the rapture, ie, meeting Jesus in the air to escape this Jewish-Roman war—these words from Paul sounds very literal because, you see, they’re taken from a cosmology which differs radically from our 20th C cosmology. Until Galileo and Copernicus of the 15th C, everybody believed that the world was small and flat. If you walked or sailed too far, you’d simply far off. Now, above the flat earth and sky was a dome over which God lived. When you looked up, you couldn’t see the dome, because it was invisible, as was God. Below the earth and seas was hell, where Satan lived. So, when Jesus returns, he returns inside the dome where everyone on earth will be able to see him up in the clouds. The righteous will join him up there, but everyone else will be swept away, into the fire below. Sounds grim, eh?
MF, St Paul was a great theologian, but he wasn’t a scientist and that’s not his fault. All disciplines, science and religion included, take time to evolve and mature. That includes Xianity! The end of the world will come, but not as the NT writers foresaw or as rapturites believe. How could it? The NT writers lived in a different time and place. The Book of Revelation, eg, saw the world ending in Armageddon, a final battle on the plains of Abraham. I understand why the writer of Revelation saw it that way, writing during violent times for Christians under Emperor Nero or Domitian in the first C.
MF, the world will end, but not at the hands of the 7-headed beast or by a man who has 666 stamped on his forehead—both of whom are in the Book of Revelation. The world may very well end in atomic destruction and/or radical climate change bringing world and civilization ending floods, scorching heat or even a new ice age.
Jesus never came to start a new religion, but to reform the one he had. His disciples started Christianity, which means Jesus was not the first Xian. Jesus was a lifelong Jew who believed in Judaism, which is to say, Jesus’ religion is one thing, but what happened over the centuries in the church is that the religion of Jesus eventually became the religion about Jesus and his sacrifice.
While Jesus preached the coming of the Kingdom of God, the Church preached Jesus as the personification of that Kingdom, now made available in Bread & Wine. That’s why the Eucharist eventually began to focus more and more on the sacrifice of Jesus’ death, and less and less on his radical invitation for hospitality at an Open Table Fellowship where everyone is invited.
That’s why the RC, Anglican & Lutheran denominations are sacramental churches which refer not to a Table, but to an Altar where a sacrifice of body and blood have taken place, just like in the OT where animal sacrifices took place. The other Christian Churches, United, Presbyterian, Mennonite, Christian Reformed, Salvation Army, etc, refer to a Table and HC as a Rite (Rite) and not a sacrament. For these denominations, bread and wine or grape juice are only symbols of Jesus’ body and blood. Then, in the 20th C, the church made the following theological and practical changes to HC:
1. Only the properly initiated, confirmed & educated, who shared the same beliefs, were welcomed to the Lord’s Table. Children could not take HC because they were not really true believers. Why? Because they could not yet comprehend the meaning of the Eucharist.
2. The new sacramental meaning of Bread & Wine now required ordained priests to dispense the elements. Why? Because only they were called by God and, given their holy life, they alone could change bread & wine into Body & Blood, or at least bless them.
3. As a practice within an institutional church, HC was no longer the welcoming of everyone and the transforming of society, but was the enactment of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. HC now became a sacred activity within the membership of the church and meant only for them. Jesus’ Open Table became a Closed Altar, which had a fence or rail around it, setting it aside from the secular and the public, and which only priests and pastors could approach.
MF. Think of all the denominations which do not allow other Christians to their Communion table. It’s an indication of the restrictions the church has placed on an originally welcoming and openness to all by Jesus. There are thousands of priests and pastors of the RCC and other Lutheran denominations, plus some Pentecostal, Baptist, Christian Reformed and thousands of independent sectarian parishes where sincere, honest Christians are denied HC. Why? Because they don’t agree with all the teachings of these churches. Even Joe Biden was recently denied HC in his own RCC. Why? Because as a politician, he agrees with abortion.
It’s absolutely tragic and heartbreaking how we’ve turned Jesus’ Open Table Fellowship into a closed, self-righteous, arrogant and absolutist activity in Christ’s Church. 2.000 years of the church playing god, which is the farthest removed from Christ’s vision to be all welcoming and all inclusive. MF, it is always the Lord Jesus himself who invites you and me and everyone. all 7 plus billion inhabitants, to his Table of Bread & Wine.
MF, if you’re still with me—I know that most communion services seem rote and ceremonial. The experience of eating bread & wine can be comforting, but it should also be deeply discomforting. Why? Because forgiving sins is not enough. It’s only the beginning, MF, which is why Jesus pushes us even further, meaning “We are also what we eat.” We become Jesus’ Body in this world. We eat his Body and so we are his Body, which means we are to act like his Body. Which means we now feed the world on behalf of Jesus who is no longer here. He hasn’t been here for 2000 years. We’ve taken his place, you see. Now, it’s our job to feed the world.
But Jesus pushes us still further, MF. We’ve become his body, and becoming his Body, Jesus calls us to live in solidarity with the body and blood of every person whose blood has been unjustly shed on this earth, as was Jesus’ blood. Eating & drinking bread & wine, we are consciously uniting with all unjust suffering in the world, from the beginning of time till its bitter end. Wherever there is suffering, including Jesus’ suffering.
In Mt, the Beatitudes are part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In Lk, the Beatitudes are part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. But Lk has a major addition: After 5 or 6 Blessed’s, Luke ends with 4 Terrible’s: If you’re rich now, you will be poor later; if you’re full now, you’ll be hungry later; if you’re laughing now, you’ll be weeping later; and if people are speaking well of you now, you will be derided later, as were the prophets.
Both Mt & Lk begin with the same one-liner from Jesus: “Blessed are the poor, for the Kingdom of God belongs to you!” This one liner is a real sizzler, especially if your bankbook is filled with green dough and your stomach with cookie dough, or if your mouth is filled with laughter and your life with love. MF, let me try to get inside this Jesus who pronounces blessedness to the poor, but terribles to the satisfied.
So MF, do you know what made Jesus such a loving person? Not only “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” but because Jesus knows what hurts us. He knows what hurts the human heart. He knows our pain firsthand: from the woman caught in adultery in danger of stoning to the sinful woman who touched him and the scandal of his host; from the Samaritan woman at the well, to the women of Jerusalem who wept for him on his way to the cross.
To all of these folks and many others, Jesus reached out from his very insides to each of them. For each person who hurt, his heart was torn…not some sweet, sticky, syrupy, sentiment. Rather, Jesus felt what they were personally feeling, you see. Why? Because Jesus was so human, that he was attuned to all that was human. Not attuned to adultery, but to the adulteress; not to leprosy, but to each leper; not to the priceless perfume poured over him, but to the woman in tears and pain; and attuned not to a dead Lazarus, but to his sorrowing sisters and to his own tears for his friend.
MF, if you want to be like Jesus—to know what hurts another—then you need only to be there for him/her, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. Listen to him/her with your whole self, to everything that is being said, but especially to what is not being said. And if you do this well—it’s not easy—it takes work—if you really do this well, you will hear what they are hoping and fearing, you will hear where they hurt and you will feel their pain, all of which they sometimes can’t even acknowledge to themselves. And, like Christ, you will be able to live with them in their world and share what they feel inside. That’s what it means to love someone, MF, really love someone—no matter who it is—family or friend, someone inside the church or outside.
40 years of pastoral ministry has taught me a great deal. I believe that worship services are the very centre of the life of every parish. No matter how well everything else goes in a congregation, unless the heart of a church is its weekly gathering for worship, that parish will die a slow death or simply become another club for personal interest groups, one of which often revolves around the pastor or some other prominent member or group within the parish. Jesus is the reason for every season in the church year. Jesus is the master of this house and we are his disciples and his Body in this world. That’s why we gather for weekly worship—to be fed and to feed!
The work of the church is not easy, and that’s an understatement—big time! After all, in addition to politics, there’s no business like church business. The church needs to have both a long and a short view of its life and mission. The church needs to do the right things for the right reasons. It’s all too easy to get side-tracked. MF, we live in a seductive culture of instant gratification, where to be informed is maximized, but to be transformation is minimized. Most Christians don’t think they need transformation because they’ve already got the truth with a capital T, and so there’s no need to change.
Too many Christians operate on cruise control. Meaning: Our responses are habituated reactions. We react out of years of habit, and not from fully conscious decision-making. We may have moments when we are conscious of our real motivations and actual goals, but it takes years of practice, honesty and humility to be consistently awake, in order to make loving choices. Spiritual maturity is to become aware that we are not the persona—not the mask, we usually present to others—and that includes us Christians.
I’ve said it numerous times: To believe in Jesus is only the first step in the journey of faith. The crucial step is how we believe, how we live out our faith from day to day and year to year; and how we make our faith come alive inside these walls, but more importantly, outside these walls! That’s real, actual, bona fide, living faith MF!
It is extremely difficult for most Christians to be spiritually hungry. Too many Christians are complacent, while others disagree with the direction of the church, the in-fighting and finger pointing, the narrow-mindedness and pettiness which characterize too many congregations, where the bottom line is either money or the pastor. It’s no wonder that so many churches are almost half empty.
MF, only those who love rightly, can see and hear rightly, and be the vehicles who transform the church into a sacred place where we meet the God who transforms us.
Trouble is: Jesus always subverted the social hierarchy by inviting people who had no business sharing a mutual meal at the same table. He broke down the well-established social and religious hierarchies. One of the most damning accusations levelled at Jesus by his opponents was that he ate with sinners—wine bibbers, adulterers, social outcasts and the poor—meaning Jesus upset the hierarchy big time!
The fact is this: Almsgiving to the poor was the last great refuge of the rich and famous against the terror of having to sit down with the poor and the very poor—sit down with people who are not your equal—people whom you loathe and despise, folks whose poverty and illness was a clear and compelling punishment from God. In other words, giving alms to the poor is much easier than having to sit down with them and actually talk to them and help them!
Almsgiving, you see, leaves the lines of social distinction and status in place; whereas sharing a meal with the poor obliterates those lines, which of course is precisely the gospel. Jesus invited the sinners and untouchables to dinner and actually eats with them.
A true story: A white South African woman found herself sitting next to a black man on a British Airlines flight, just when apartheid was about to collapse. She called the flight attendant and demanded to be moved to another seat. The economy section is full, explained the attendant, but there is a seat still available in first class, she said. The flight attendant then turned to the black man and said: Sir, if you’d like to get your things together, your first-class seat is ready!
Sermon: 4 Decades of Learning Lessons the Hard Way
40 years ago tomorrow, August 26, 1979, I was ordained in my home parish, St. John’s Lutheran Church, downtown Hamilton….And so, this morning, MF, I’d like to reflect on some of the important lessons I’ve learned over these 4 decades of parish ministry….
What I’ve learned reminds me of a Peanuts cartoon, where Lucy—remember her? —“the crabgrass in the lawn of life”—she was constructing 2 lists of stuff she learned. Charlie Brown happens along and asks “Why is one list longer than the other?” “The longer list,” says Lucy, “is the stuff I’ve had to learn the hard way!”
Now, the very first lesson I learned the hard way is that I’m not the only minister here this morning. All of us are God’s ministers, not only to care for one another, so that no one slips away from us ignored—but equally important, to minister to our neighbours and to God’s world. Luther called this “the Priesthood of all Believers.” We are all priests and pastors who work for the Lord in his vineyard—all of us! The church’s ministry is for all the baptized everywhere. There are no exceptions MF—not a one!
Last Lesson #7 It is the most difficult to learn, because it requires change, if we Christians want to grow, and not stagnate and die. MF, there are only 2 kinds of religion. One believes that God will love me if I change. The other believes that God loves me so that I can change. The first is common and a substitute for the second. But the second is grounded in a spiritual experience of God’s love. God loves me so that I can change. But will I change? And if not, why not? Why not? Because as Christians, we want to grow, to strive and thrive and we also want that for our church. Why? Because the church is in major decline. It is in crisis. We’re already closing church doors. That’s why change is absolutely imperative!
You and I need to be the change the church requires—just like Jesus was the change necessary to shake up Judaism, the Roman Empire and begin Christianity; just like Buddha was the change necessary to shake up the prevailing suffering to reach a state of spiritual oneness; just like Martin Luther was the change necessary to shake up the Roman Catholic Church and its papacy of the 16th century–its exploitation, corruption and theology to start a new church; just like Gandhi was the change necessary to shake up Hinduism, challenge the British Empire and show the nations how non-violent pacifism actually changes the world; and just like Martin Luther King Jr was the change necessary to shake up black conformity to white power and America’s segregationist society.
But we can and must walk their talk, and talk their walk, in order to shake up today’s church here in North America and in Europe, to find a path forward. We must be the change the church so desperately needs. Otherwise, we and the church will die.
1 Corinthians 1:11b-13
Two young boys were friends. The one asked the other to come to his church; but he could not. “Why not?” he asked. “Because I belong to a different abomination.” Denominations, MF, can be an abomination.
The Christian Church is divided into four major divisions, each represented by the names in the passage for 1 Corinthians: St. Peter & the Roman Catholic Church; St. Paul & the Protestant Church; Apollos & the Orthodox Church; Christ & the independent Christian Churches.
First, there is the Church of Saint Peter, which is the church of Rome—the RCC. You may remember the story in Matthew in which Jesus gave Peter the power of the keys and said that Jesus will build his church up him….Tragically, the RCC today still practices closed communion. There are 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.
Now my grandfather who raised me was RC. He didn’t care for me to become a pastor. On the other hand, he was glad I didn’t become a RCC priest, because, as he put it: “I would have to give up my sex life, but also listen to everyone else’s sex life in the confessional booth. So, little Peter, as a Lutheran pastor, you can have your own sex life.”
Lutherans and Anglicans have much in common, theologically and liturgically. They both believe that Jesus walked on water. But Canadian Lutherans believed he walked on water in the wintertime.
The miracle this morning is that Christian unity is not a matter of every Christian holding exactly the same view. After all, church families, like nuclear families, are still families even when they don’t agree with each other. Rather, the miracle for unity is for all Christians to listen to the same voice and respond by going beyond tribe and clan, beyond race and religion, beyond denominationalism and “abominationalism.”
Those folks who don’t like to lighten up in church say: “Pastor, religion is serious business. You don’t see Jesus laughing or telling jokes, do you?” Of course they don’t have to argue with George Bernard Shaw who said: “If we sing in church, then why can’t we also laugh?” Or, listen to the wicked wit of Oscar Wilde: “If you’ve not got any humor, then you’re finished. You might just as well be a clergyman.”
Every pastor can pretend to be serious, but on pastor can pretend to be humorous. And that’s because humor is not a state of mind, but a state of the heart. Humor is a gift from God and she expects us to use it, especially in church. Now, you may remember the principle to which most church members adhere: Do not associate with the pastor during the week, lest you find yourself in the sermon at the end of the week. After all, to all things clergic, most folks are allergic.
Now, in case you think I’ve lost my marbles, there are times when I do say something sensible and judicious. For instance, no long after the gardening episode, Sherry and I were sitting down to have supper. I began to eat without offering my customary prayer. “What? No prayer for God to bless the food?” Sherry asked.
To which I responded: My dear wife. I have prayed for God’s blessing on these leftovers on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Additional blessing over the same food is simply not necessary, even with the best of human and divine intentions.
We don’t own laughter. Laughter from the belly owns us. It is a gift of God which keeps on giving. It’s the work of the soul. It heals the heart and keeps the church from suffering cardiac arrest.
Greed: unbridled, unfettered, unvarnished, unadulterated greed. The gift that keeps on taking and taking and then some. Why? Because more is never enough. It’s one of the original deadly sins—not because it’s wrong to own a lot of stuff; but rather because the stuff ends up owning us, you see! Trouble is: We never see it or accept it. Our human capacity for denial is incredibly profound.
But Jesus tells this younger brother, as well as you and me, to think critically about where our greed is leading us. If we use our inheritance to amass more wealth, to whom will we leave it? Will this wealth make them better people, more sensitive and empathetic, more caring and sharing? Will our inheritance build the character of our children and build up the Kingdom of God, by helping the poor and the refugees of this world? Or will our inheritance cost relationships, family breakdowns and marital breakups?
The fact is: Inheritance is a soul-issue. It’s a spiritual matter, as much as it is a material and monetary one. Greed always originates from a perception of scarcity: believing that I will never get enough or that there will never be enough.
In the end, like at the beginning, everything, but everything belongs to God. The only inheritance that will ever make us really happy is to bloom and blossom in the little corner of God’s Kingdom where she has planted us.
“Hallowed be thy Name” is the reverence evoked in God’s presence. But when this reverence is directed towards cars and lifestyles, towards, actors and athletes, rock stars and celebrities, then this is plain and simple idolatry.
“Thy Kingdom come.” But how can God’s Kingdom come, unless our petty little kingdoms first go?
Do you know that one of the scariest verses in all the Bible is in today’s Gospel from Luke? “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” And when Jesus says ‘sins’, there’s no telling what you see: the stolen chocolate bar, the rumpled sheets of bed you shared without someone else’s spouse; a large pipe spilling orange sludge into a once-blue river, a clutch of homeless people sitting around a fire built in a vacant lot between skyscrapers. The picture will be different for everyone, but the experience is one that makes a part of our insides die, which is how transformation begins.
Sin is a broken relationship with self, with others, with enemies, with God and with Mother Earth. And the only way to restore these broken relationships is through forgiveness. Forgiveness is the willingness to put justice and mercy ahead of revenge and retribution. This alone breaks the violent cycle of an eye for an eye and a toot for a tooth. Without forgiveness, we’d all be blind and needing dentures.
The fact is: The Lord’s Prayer breaks down the illusion of self-sufficiency and cultivates an attitude of gratitude for God’s good gifts.
Jesus isn’t saying to Martha that one casserole would have been quite enough. Rather, the one singular prerequisite for being a follower is listening to God’s word and therefore learning to live as a disciple. Listening and learning is the better part. Martha was everything good and right about Jewish women. But one thing she was not: She was not present, not living in the moment, not rooted in the reality of what was happening in her own house, right then and there.
Presence is always being present to and for someone with one’s whole self and being…and to do so without the distraction of the chattering monkey mind. How we do the moment is what counts. Everything else is secondary—even the personal ego-driven pursuit of salvation.
It’s all too easy and frequent to not only misplace priorities, but lose values, especially spiritual ones. Now, I don’t mean to imply that domestic chores are misplaces priorities, when in fact, domesticity is an authentic issue of social justice.
True spirituality is always about letting go of the ten thousand things which occupy and preoccupy us, that condition and precondition us, that keep us from letting go and letting God take over—letting go of my private little kingdom so that God’s Kingdom can come and happen to us. Are we listening and learning at Jesus’ feet , so that we may be formed, reformed and transformed by the Holy Spirit?