Cross

Children, There Is Truth

1 John 5:9-15 (NLT)

Since we believe human testimony, surely we can believe the greater testimony that comes from God. And God has testified about his Son. All who believe in the Son of God know in their hearts that this testimony is true. Those who don’t believe this are actually calling God a liar because they don’t believe what God has testified about his Son.

And this is what God has testified: He has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have God’s Son does not have life.

I have written this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know you have eternal life. And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for.


This is the final sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.


“What is truth?” This must be the question of questions. Pilate, the Roman governor in Jerusalem, asked it in the presence of the King of Kings, the source of all truth.

The scene, found in John 18:33-40, is particularly sad because Pilate doesn’t seem to want an answer.  I imagine the tone of his rhetorical question, aimed more at the air than at Jesus, to be weary and cynical.

We should do better. We at least need to take the question seriously. What is truth?

When I say “we,” I’m addressing Christians, of course. Non-Christians, like Pilate, have to wrestle with the question in a different way, beginning with the notion of whether there is any truth at all.

The Great Story

Christians sometimes forget what it means to have “Christ” as part of their religious moniker. Such forgetfulness is a little strange, if you think about it, but we also have to remember how we remain immersed in a world trying on a daily basis to ignore or challenge Christian versions of truth. Perhaps it is not surprising that we sometimes listen to those voices, rather than the voice of God expressed in the Bible through faithful writers.

Children of God-Communion LookhalfsizeThe author of 1 John certainly is one of those writers concerned with the notion of truth. He recorded the “what is truth” scene in the Gospel of John, and in the letter we’ve been studying, he asserts the answer to the question.

Understanding Who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ is doing lets us define truth. If you were in Life Groups last week, you talked about evangelism, the act of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. To evangelize successfully, you have to grasp the truth, which is rooted in a story you are called to relate to others.

Who is Jesus? He is the Son of God. To John, the word “son” means much more than a simple biological progression, a passing of genes from one generation to another. The spiritual essence of the man known as Jesus is God, and that aspect of God has always existed. The Word took on flesh to live among us. Again, see the opening of the Gospel of John.

What is Jesus doing? He is the fulfillment of promises made long before God took on flesh. These were promises of restoration and healing, assurances God would provide people a way out of sin even though we deserve nothing but condemnation.

In a great act of sacrificial love, Jesus fulfilled these promises by going to the cross and dying for our sins. Through the centuries, Christians have tried to describe how salvation works in more ways than I can count.

Jesus bore the punishment for us; he served as a ransom to free us from Satan; he accepted our shame; he bridged the divide between us and God—likely, every orthodox explanation takes us in the right direction, but alone, each also falls short of describing the magnitude of what God has done as Christ.

John is clear about the result, however. Instead of death, we have eternal life. Death is now but a veil, something we pass through to begin our life fully aware of the presence God.

This Great Story, and all the little stories that fill it out, are remarkably beautiful when we let them sink in. The Great Story has penetrated nearly every culture on the planet for a reason. God’s grace is something every human has the potential to understand.

And yes, the claims we make about Jesus’ identity and work representing truth are quite exclusive. To have eternal life, we must know God as expressed through Jesus Christ. As John writes in the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John, quoting Jesus: “I am the way, the truth, the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.”

The Unevangelized

This brings us to a sticky point in Christian theology: What is the fate of people who never get to hear about Jesus Christ? It seems unfair for them to be condemned.

As Dr. Ben Witherington at Asbury Theological Seminary has pointed out, salvation is not about what is just or fair. Thank God! None of us would be very happy if we thought we were to get what we deserve when standing before God.

Salvation is about grace. God’s grace makes it possible for all people to sense the presence of God, the reality of God, if only through the limited ways we sense God in nature.

Says Dr. Witherington: “You are held accountable for what you know about God, and what you do with what you know about God.” It is reasonable to expect that God will give those who never heard of Jesus Christ the opportunity to respond to his work on the cross in some way we cannot currently understand.

Back to Us

Of course, not knowing about Jesus Christ is strictly theoretical for us. We’ve heard of him. We know the story, and by calling ourselves Christians we are accountable to the truth of who Jesus is and what Jesus is doing in unique ways.

As Christians we are truth bearers. I mentioned earlier how the non-Christian world approaches the question of truth differently, either denying there is some universal truth or debating what the standard for truth might be.

We don’t want to attack them; that kind of approach led to some of the great sins of the Christian world. But we also certainly should not ignore them. God calls us to go into the world and declare who Jesus is and what he is doing.

As Americans, we are particularly blessed to live in a place where we can enter what is supposed to be a marketplace of free ideas and explain what we believe. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we should learn to do this winsomely—we have the greatest love story ever told on our side!

Do you know the story? Can you tell the story in your own attractive way?

One of the great things about being in a church is we learn the story and celebrate its truth in worship until we can tell it well. It is a joyous duty, and I pray we all learn to take more seriously this call to declare truth.

 

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Get on Mission!


Mark 8:31-38 (NRSV)

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”


If you were in 11 a.m. worship at Luminary UMC last week, you heard me express despair during the prayer time. Something stirred in me as I made several rat-a-tat observations: poor attendance in worship of late, our average age, and our general lack of success in reaching the many people around us who need to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Several of you nodded in agreement.

That low moment in my heart did turn into a good week of prayerful learning. I was in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., most of the week, at a continuing education program we call Ministers’ Convocation. The theme was most appropriate, centered on how we establish the appropriate church culture in difficult circumstances. And let me tell you, folks, our circumstances aren’t nearly as difficult as some.

I also had today’s text in mind, and all sorts of concepts seemed to come together as I considered the words of my colleagues, this story of Jesus and his followers, and plans we have for our near future.

We could sum our text up this way: Peter got off mission, and Jesus let Peter have it. Then Jesus proceeded to unload on the disciples and the crowd tagging along behind them, just in case they also were not understanding the hard work and sacrifices that must be made, first by Jesus and then by his followers.

At the time Jesus was speaking, there was immediate work to be done to make the arrival of the Kingdom of God possible. He had to suffer, be killed by his own people’s leaders, and then rise from the dead.

It seems Peter thought Jesus needed to tone down the frank, negative-sounding talk. Jesus called him Satan, indicating how far Peter was from God’s plan.

Beyond the immediate mission, Jesus also indicated there would be long-term work to be done by his followers. And it would get messy for them, too.

We have to stand up for the truth. We have to tell the story. If we’re going to call ourselves Christians, we are going to have to make some sacrifices in finances, in pride, in reputation and even in our sense of safety as we reach out to those around us.

Some of us may even be called to sacrifice our lives. In the soft kind of Christianity we so often practice in America, martyrdom seldom happens, and we forget just how many Christians sacrifice their lives for their faith on a daily basis.

Martyrdom is how far we might be called to go, however. The phrase “take up your cross” certainly has connotations of impending death. If that bothers you, at least try to cling to another of Jesus’ prominent teachings, “Fear not.”

It’s not a great message for the church brochure or the sign out front, is it? “Hey, come suffer and maybe even die with us!” But out of such intense commitment to the mission of the church comes a kind of greatness we struggle now to imagine.

I’ll tell you two ways your Luminary church leaders have decided you can individually dive back into the church’s mission this year. If we do these two things right, with God’s blessing, we may not be feeling so much despair in a few months. And there’s an extremely good chance you won’t have to die to do these things.

First, we are forming Life Groups at Luminary, details of which we have already heard. The risk here is making ourselves vulnerable to people we don’t know as we invite them to these groups. While we certainly will benefit from the experience ourselves, these groups are in many ways for people who are not yet part of our church.

Second is an idea new to many of you. Just last week, our Church Leadership Council approved what we’re currently calling the Summer Music Program.

Again, it’s great if our children and grandchildren attend, but what we’re really hoping to do is reach unchurched people around us by offering the gift of music, a gift we love so dearly here. For two weeks, children will have the opportunity to learn about Jesus through different kinds of music, regardless of how much singing or instrumental ability they may have.

Again, for us the risk is opening ourselves to people we don’t know, people who may be very different from us. There also are rewards to being on mission, however, even before the whole eternal life thing kicks in.

We will make friends and draw in people who will bring new spiritual gifts, making our community more dynamic. We will develop a sense that what we have now as a church will continue after we have passed on. And we will take joy in knowing we have done what we said we would do when we took on the title, “Christian.”

I conclude today with a modern parable. In short, it tells the story of a seacoast lifesaving station that evolved into a club, ultimately leaving people to drown. If you haven’t heard this story, take time to experience it here.

We exist for one reason, folks. We save people from eternal death. It is the only reason we exist; we are not a club.

People are drowning all around us in a sea of pain, pain from drug abuse, from broken homes and damaged relationships, and from the general, pervasive presence of evil that remains in the world.

Find your boat and start rowing!


The featured image is James Tissot’s “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan,” circa 1890.

Overwhelmed by Reality

Mark 9:1-9 (NRSV)

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.


If we’re going to understand this story called the “transfiguration,” we first have to acknowledge that we do not see reality in full.

We like to trust our eyes, but you don’t have to be a religious person at all to understand there is more to the universe than meets the eye. Just ask any amateur astronomer. Many of our best discoveries have come because we built instruments capable of seeing wavelengths beyond the visible light our eyes can process.

We also see differently from other animals in creation. For example, biologists say birds and bees can see ultraviolet light, while we cannot.

Our inability to see in full is a common theme of the Bible, too. For example, in 2 Kings, chapter 6, the prophet Elisha appeared to be surrounded by an enemy king trying to capture him. His servant, alarmed, pointed out the approaching enemy.

Elisha prayed his servant’s eyes be opened, and voilà, the servant suddenly could see God’s horses and chariots of fire ringing the mountains around them. The enemy king’s soldiers proved to be no problem for them.

From birth, sin obscures our ability to see reality in full. Paul, writing in 2 Corinthians 4, said Satan, acting as ruler of this world, “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

Even for believers, a full grasp of reality is difficult. In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul also wrote: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

As believers, however, we also are being drawn into deeper understandings of reality. In our transfiguration story from Mark, we are invited into a moment where the veil is briefly lifted and three broken human beings who also happen to be disciples are allowed to see Jesus Christ in full.

Not that they know how to process what they’re seeing. Jesus’ clothes are whiter than white, whiter than anything in those Tide commercials that ran during the Super Bowl. Peter, not knowing what to do, starts talking, seeming to babble through the greatest vision he has ever witnessed.

Funny thing is, Peter is partially grasping the situation. His desire to build what sounds like a camp is rooted in the Jewish belief of the day, the idea that when God comes to dwell with his people, they return to a nomadic existence, God’s presence being all they really need for survival.

Peter’s response was essentially right; you’ll note there were no stinging words from Jesus to put Peter in his place. It simply was too early to sit down and dwell in God’s glory. There was work to be done. There is work to be done.

Let me teach you a word you may not have heard before. Peter believed he was experiencing the parousia, the full and complete presence of God among us, what we sometimes call the Second Coming of Christ. In the parousia, everything will be as it was meant to be. God’s reality and glory will no longer be filtered and dimmed for us.

There were and are steps to get there, though. This is why Jesus told his three key disciples to say nothing about what they had seen until after the resurrection. Jesus had not even gone to the cross yet, and certainly his death was necessary to pay for our sins.

Christ’s resurrection would serve as proof the cross had worked, that death is defeated. That first Easter morning brought us a step closer to glorious parousia—we are but one step away now, even though it has seemed like a very long step to take.

Just before the transfiguration, Jesus had been laying out all the steps. He warned the disciples he must die and rise from the dead, a concept they could not grasp at the time. They wanted the glorious presence without the necessary work of salvation Jesus was willing to undertake. They had forgotten the price of sin.

He also mentioned his followers would have to take up their own crosses as they came to believe in the work he would do on the cross. Some of his disciples, Peter included, would do so literally, crucified as leaders of the early church. According to church tradition, Peter asked to be crucified upside down, saying he was unworthy to die in exactly the same manner as his Lord and Savior.

As Jesus’ followers, we are all called to follow our own particular Via Dolorosa, the sometimes difficult, painful path that joins us to Christ. Some of you already know what it means to surrender certain aspects of your life to the greater glory of God, seeking the growth of the kingdom in the hearts of people around you.

As you have these cross-bearing experiences, never forget that we move toward a glorious presence we cannot even begin to understand in full. I say this from time to time, and it’s worth saying again: Imagine the greatest experience your mind can concoct, and then understand your imagination has fallen far, far short of what you, as a follower of Christ, will actually enjoy when fully in the presence of God.

Years after the transfiguration experience, Peter wrote about it in a letter, what we now call 2 Peter. He focused not on what he saw, but what he heard, the voice from heaven declaring once again that Jesus is the Son of God, the same declaration we imitate as we tell others about living a life in Christ.

“So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed,” Peter wrote. “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

Amen; may we work with our hearts attuned to God’s glory.

Crux of the Solution

Romans 3:21-31 (NLT)

But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.

Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law.

After all, is God the God of the Jews only? Isn’t he also the God of the Gentiles? Of course he is. There is only one God, and he makes people right with himself only by faith, whether they are Jews or Gentiles. Well then, if we emphasize faith, does this mean that we can forget about the law? Of course not! In fact, only when we have faith do we truly fulfill the law.


Yes, Paul emphasizes the fact we all have sinned. But what should be a sad or even terrifying message becomes instead Good News that brings great joy to all people, to borrow a phrase from the Gospel of Luke.

This is core gospel, folks. People sometimes ask, “Why doesn’t God just fix everything?” He did; he continues to do so. The work done on the cross fixes broken creation in ways we can barely begin to imagine.

There is one particular assertion in Paul’s words today I find astonishing. When I read them, I get the sense that the final work of the cross may permeate creation far more deeply than the human mind can grasp.

Jesus once said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough” (Matthew 13:33). But what if we were to discover the woman’s yeast also managed to permeate all the unleavened bread that had existed for thousands of years before she was born?

It’s a strange idea, I know, but not any stranger than Paul’s when he writes, “This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time.”

The translation we are using for this series brings the matter forward a little more plainly than others, but the assertion has always been there in Paul’s original Greek, which uses a long, complex sentence to express the thought. More traditional English translations talk about God’s “forbearance,” a word that can slip by us. The point is, the cross is effective for the cancellation of all sins in all times.

When I try to grasp the fullness of the cross, I think of a now-closed attraction in Atlanta called the Cyclorama. It featured a 42-foot-high, 358-foot-long 19th-century painting of the Battle of Atlanta on the inside of what was essentially a huge cylinder. Audiences viewed it from the inside, of course, and three-dimensional dioramas at the foot of the painting supplemented the image.

Imagine if all of history, every event from beginning to end, could be captured on such a painting. (The painting of the battle of Atlanta would be a mere thread in such a larger work.) Christ’s death on the cross would not be on the painting itself—it instead would be in the center of the room, the gracious light of the moment touching and changing everything on the canvas.

The Christ light touches Adam and Eve as they bite into the fruit and tremble with fear.

The Christ light touches Cain as he attacks and kills Abel.

The Christ light touches the wicked as they drown before the closed doors of Noah’s ark.

The Christ light touches the people of Israel as they dance before a golden calf of their own making, defying the God leading them toward holiness.

The Christ light touches the 10 spies who have seen the goodness of Canaan but place fear in the hearts of the Israelites, condemning a generation to desert wandering.

The Christ light touches Korah and his followers as the earth swallows them for rebelling against Moses.

The Christ light touches the leaders of the Kingdom of Israel as they turn from God repeatedly: as Saul resorts to witchcraft, as the priests extort the people, as David lusts for a woman not his, as Solomon’s many wives cause him to seek the favor of other gods.

The Christ light touches the prophet Jonah as he sits sulking.

The Christ light even manages to touch King Herod and the soldiers who execute babies in Bethlehem in an attempt to thwart the Messiah.

We receive a few hints in Scripture of how this Christ light might work backward through time. In 1 Peter 3:18-20, we hear that the gospel was preached to “the spirits in prison.” That and other obscure texts are the origin of the line in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended to the dead.” As Methodists, we often skip the line entirely, unless we are reciting it as part of the baptismal liturgy.

When we do say it, we are asserting that somehow during Jesus’ time in the grave the Spirit of Christ was able to witness to those who had died and awaited judgment.

All of that is tough to work out theologically and remains mysterious. Bible scholar Robert Mounce once called 1 Peter 3:18-20 a passage that is “perhaps the most difficult to understand in all of the New Testament.”

But here’s what we can take away from this complex assertion with great certainty. The power of the cross is infinitely pervasive, yet easily accessed by having faith in it.

Never think for a moment God cannot reach you. Never for an instant believe there is no hope for you.

The Christ light is perfectly capable of touching every corner of your soul, if only you will let it.  Many of us have some kind of ongoing sin we cannot shake, and it’s easy to think, “That shame will always be there.” It need not be. Let it go.

Many of us bear pain from sins committed against us. That pain can be so great it keeps us from knowing God in full. Our anger may even cause us to commit new sins as we cope in very wrong ways, hurting others in the process. This also need not be. Let the light of the cross heal that pain.

The Christ light shines into our future, too. It changes all of creation so much that we are told a day is coming when “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Such a vision of the future is truly panoramic.

The Deepest Kind of Riches

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 (NLT)

This letter is from Paul, chosen by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and from our brother Sosthenes.

I am writing to God’s church in Corinth, to you who have been called by God to be his own holy people. He made you holy by means of Christ Jesus, just as he did for all people everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.

May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace.

I always thank my God for you and for the gracious gifts he has given you, now that you belong to Christ Jesus. Through him, God has enriched your church in every way—with all of your eloquent words and all of your knowledge. This confirms that what I told you about Christ is true. Now you have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns. God will do this, for he is faithful to do what he says, and he has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.


Some churches seem to have everything. And yet, when they forget one thing, trouble ensues.

In writing to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul began with a joyful, thankful tone. And he was right to do so. Many blessings had fallen on the Christians in Corinth, even as they lived in the midst of a cosmopolitan economic hub full of competing ideas about religions and morality.

In particular, Paul noted, the Christian Corinthians had received “spiritual gifts,”  a subject he discussed in greater detail later in the letter, in the part we mark as chapter 12. There, we learn he meant specific abilities given to Christians by God’s Holy Spirit so we can better serve Christ’s kingdom. Paul specifically mentioned gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment and languages. Like most of Paul’s lists, this one was not meant to be exhaustive; instead, he was just highlighting some key abilities any Christian community would value.

In chapter 12, he was also quick to point out that no one Christian has all the gifts—this was in part to emphasize their need to work together. For you see, the Christians in Corinth had a basic problem. They were not working together, and often for the silliest of reasons.

Within the church, the Corinthian Christians had developed what we might call personality cults. One group would claim, “I follow this person,” while another would say, “No, I prefer to follow this guy.”

Paul himself was perceived as one of these factional leaders, even though he did not want to be one. There also was a Christian leader named Apollos, known for his eloquent preaching. Some claimed allegiance to “Peter,” presumably the Apostle Peter, and others took the high road, saying they followed Christ.

Paul’s solution was to point these Christians back to their core reason for existing. Focus, he told them, on one thing: the Good News, what he also described as “the message of the cross.”

The world around them likely would find the message foolish, he warned them. But preach it, teach it, and live it just the same, he was saying, for it is a special kind of foolishness, one designed to unravel what the world calls wisdom.

We are much like the Corinthians, living in a world where many ideas come together, and where we have access to almost anything we want, assuming we can afford it. This extravangance can be distracting, and certainly, we can be driven into factions, even within churches.

But can we not all agree on one thing—why we gather as Christians? We gather because of Jesus Christ and how he has revealed himself on the cross.

I have wondered if some people struggle with building their lives around “one thing” because they’re afraid they will somehow get bored. If that is so, it is unlikely they have truly explored the idea of Christ and the cross.

Most religions have mysteries to be explored, ideas that confound and obsess their deepest followers. These ideas require meditation and prayer to explore, and through that experience, the follower is changed. Zen riddles (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?) come to mind.

Christ’s work on the cross is our riddle, our mystery to explore. The problem is we have come to take it for granted—we have let the strangeness and the mystery of it all slip away.

In American culture, we are too quick to explain it. Often, we talk about the cross in terms of transferred punishment, with the Son of God absorbing what was meant for us. It is certainly one good way to understand the cross, but if you really take time to explore that idea, it does have its weaknesses. So God’s not satisfied until the one he calls “Son” is horribly abused and killed?

Over the centuries, other theories have been put forth. Was Christ essentially the payment of ransom to Satan, who held us captive because of sin? Did Jesus come to replay the role of Adam, providing a sort of “do over” for humanity? Did Jesus enter the realm of death so he could battle and defeat evil, winning the truly ultimate Ultimate Fighting Championship?

I have particularly enjoyed studying how views of the cross change with each culture. When the Japanese began to hear of Christ, most of the European views of how the cross worked did not resonate with them. But being in a culture where shame was the worst thing that could happen to you, Japanese Christians understood the cross in terms of Christ absorbing the shame we all share for sin.

It seems as if looking at the cross in so many ways could in itself be divisive. But however it works, the cross is an act of love, a unifying love that makes no sense. It is the act of an infinitely strong God choosing to love weak, broken beings so much that he would do anything to save them.

It also results in unyielding hope. In death, even shameful, horrible death, there is resurrection! Out of such nastiness comes eternal joy and bliss!

The truest, deepest kind of riches are to be found in the Good News. Understanding this becomes our great motivation as Christians and as the church. It is only reasonable and natural we share this truth with others, not only as an idea, but in action, as we draw on our richness of spirit to help others.

And in the process, as we preach the cross, teach the cross, meditate on the cross, and continue to live the message of the cross every day, we of course find unity and strength.

The Long Arm of the Lord

John 6:24-35

Today is a communion Sunday. In just a little while, we will share some bread and some grape juice, and in doing so we are supposed to be drawn into the mystery of God’s work in the world.

Every time we perform this ritual, we all need to ask the same question. Do we get it? Are we penetrating the mystery deeply enough so that it changes our lives? I’m not saying we can grasp what is going on completely—I call this moment a “mystery” for a reason—but if we gather here and go through the motions of this act we call a sacrament, we want it to make some sort of a difference, right?

We don’t want to be like the crowd in our gospel reading today. We don’t want to be pursuing Jesus but completely missing the magnitude of his work.

A little background: Just before our reading in the Gospel of John, Jesus fed the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish. Sensing the crowd was about to seize him and declare him king, he withdrew to the nearby mountains. That evening, he walked on stormy water to catch up with his disciples who were crossing the Sea of Galilee by boat, arriving in Capernaum with them.

By the time we reach today’s story, the crowd had actually decided to pursue Jesus in a flotilla of boats, showing up in Capernaum themselves. Why? Well, they were thinking Jesus seemed a whole lot like Moses. Their stories told them Moses provided free food and liberated people from political oppression. Jesus certainly had provided a lot of free food recently. Even if he never got around to the liberation part, all the bread and fish you could eat seemed like a pretty good deal.

But when they again asked for a sign—what they meant was, give us more food—Jesus tried to adjust their perspective. In essence, he told them, your ancestors missed the big picture, and you are missing it now. It was God who sent the manna from heaven; it was God who provided the Israelites quail in the desert and water from a rock. And while those signs, like Jesus’ signs, were to demonstrate power, they were not an end unto themselves. God was doing something much bigger. God’s reach is far greater than we usually want to admit, touching every point in time and space.

In the case of the Israelites in the desert, God was trying to teach a group of people to follow and obey. They were a ragged bunch of recently freed slaves wandering the desert, doubting and arguing the whole way. And yet God could see how through them he could heal a fractured universe.

Jesus was trying to get the crowds to understand the bigger picture, too. Specifically, he wanted them to see that he was the Christ, the apex of the plan that was unfolding in the desert thousands of years before when manna fell from the sky. When Jesus said, “I am the bread of life,” and later, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” he was saying, here is the great opportunity from God, the life-sustaining gift. Simply believe to receive.

The bread metaphor followed Jesus all the way to the cross. On the night in which he gave himself up to death, he took bread and broke it, using that simple act to show what would happen to his body because of our sins. The wine stood in for his blood.

And when the real body was broken and the precious blood was shed less than 24 hours later, everything changed. Sin was vanquished; the devil lost his hold on us as the holy, perfect God-man died like the worst of sinners. A night followed by another night followed by a glorious morning proved the victory over death in the resurrection.

Do you get it? Do you see how God has been at work from the dim moments of prehistory through Christ up to now to make it possible for all of us, each and every one of us, to be in union with him?

I know it’s hard to understand in full. I work with these ideas every day, and I cannot grasp them in full. To say you can understand God’s work in full is to claim you have the mind of God, that you can see the very fabric of the universe disrupted by sin and then put back together by a holy carpenter nearly 2,000 years ago—a carpenter still at work through the Holy Spirit in us today.

But we can get it in the sense that we can be in awe of what God has done and is doing. We can see past our immediate concerns and wants and live as people who know there is something more.

Members of this congregation (and readers of this blog) may have heard me tell this story before in other settings, but it bears repeating. About ten years ago, I learned the power of communion by taking it to an elderly couple who roomed together at a nursing home, sleeping on floor mats near each other. In an odd twist, both had developed dementia within about a year of each other, and by this visit, they could barely speak.

Having lost everything—possessions, positions, even knowledge of who they were—they responded to communion with the awe I have mentioned. The wife took communion first, leaning on one elbow, and said the only words she could find that day: “Hallelujah.” Her husband said nothing at all, but he too propped himself up and received the bread and juice eagerly. His wife watched from her mat and said the words for him: “Hallelujah. Hallelujah.”

When you come to take communion today, approach the table like people who have nothing. Upon taking communion, know you have everything. The God of the universe lives among us and has died for our sins. When we believe, we have eternity.

Saying It, Living It, Part 2

Matthew 16:21-28

“Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus said to Peter. Ouch.

Last week, we heard how Jesus declared Peter to be the rock, the foundation for the church that will exist for all time. That blessing was rooted in Peter’s declaration that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

How quickly the mighty can fall. To go back to a lesson we first learn in kindergarten, actions speak louder than words.

In defense of Peter, he was navigating uncharted theological waters. He was right to declare Jesus the Messiah, the Christ. His problem was that he had not fully grasped the role Christ plays in the universe. Like most Jews, Peter had reduced the expected Messiah to a warrior king, a recycled David who would form his army, take back Israel for the Jews and establish a physical, righteous kingdom for all the world to emulate.

It was a big, exciting concept, but it wasn’t big enough to capture the role Jesus came to play.

Matthew tells us that Jesus began speaking plainly, telling his disciples how his ministry would actually play out. Ultimately, he told them, he would suffer at the hands of the Jewish religious leaders of the day, be killed, and then be raised from the dead.

Peter responded like a tactful public relations manager. He didn’t confront the boss in front of others; he pulled Jesus aside to provide a little counsel. When he told Jesus, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you,” Peter was focusing on the torture and death part of Jesus’ prediction—none of that seemed to fit the clear path to victory he was envisioning. How could the masses get behind a warrior king who planned to lose?

And in a way, Peter was right, at least from a human perspective. The masses abandoned Jesus once the beatings began. In Matthew, only a handful of women followers are recorded as witnessing the crucifixion.

God’s plan was not dependent on human understanding or support, however. The last part of Jesus’ prediction, that he would rise again on the third day, came true, marking the great turning point in history. The inevitability of death ended on the first Easter Sunday. Christ’s resurrection made clear that death’s power was gone, replaced by eternal life through Jesus Christ. It is the core truth of Christianity sustaining us today.

We should also remember that Jesus didn’t call Peter “Satan” just to rebuke or insult the disciple. The phrase “Get behind me, Satan!” is there to remind us of an earlier story found in Matthew 4. There, the devil tempted Jesus to abandon God’s master plan and define his ministry in terms of worldly success.

As Peter argued there must be another way, a way fit for a warrior king, he reminded Jesus of his duel with the devil, and the very real temptation that went along with it. Peter was inadvertently tempting Jesus again. Jesus knew with his divine mind he needed to go to the cross for our sakes, but his very human side also clearly did not want to suffer. Midway through Matthew 26, Jesus’ prayer just before he was arrested makes clear his reluctance to suffer and die: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

After upbraiding Peter, Jesus went on to tell his disciples about the cost of following the Messiah, knowing they would face similar difficult choices themselves as leaders of the church. It’s a lesson for all of us. We could have our own bitter cup of death to drink; certainly, many of our brothers and sisters in Christ are facing such choices now. We all have our own crosses to take up. By that, Jesus meant we have to take up his cause and give up whatever causes or desires we may have that conflict.

In choosing Christ, there could be some sort of human glory, I suppose, but glory, riches, fame or other worldly goodies should not be counted on or even sought. There are preachers becoming rich by telling their followers that faith automatically begets worldly success. They are wrong, and they need to listen to Jesus’ teachings more closely.

The only glory we are promised—the reward for drinking from that cup, taking up that cross—is, of course, eternal life. The concept sounds vague and distant to us now, but on our deathbeds and beyond, nothing in this life will compare.