disciples

Tough Words

Luke 9:51-62

Tolerance is a catchword these days. Lord knows, we need tolerance. It is not all we need, but it is a good place to start.

Regarding the first part of today’s verses, Scottish theologian William Barclay asserts, “There is no passage in which Jesus so directly teaches the duty of tolerance as this.”

While passing through Samaria, the disciples wanted permission to deliver some tough words. The Samaritans in a particular village had refused to show Jesus and his followers any hospitality—not surprising when you consider how the two groups had been at odds for centuries. In short, the Jews considered the Samaritans half-breeds, the descendants of Jews who had mixed with invaders. Usually Jews avoided Samaria entirely. I suppose the Samaritans saw the Jews as a little uppity.

Feeling disrespected, James and John wanted Jesus to empower them to imitate Elijah, calling down fire from heaven, this time on a village of people rather than an altar. (They also likely had God’s ancient air strike on sinful Sodom and Gomorrah in mind.) We’re told Jesus rebuked the disciples, a “Let it go, already” coming directly from God’s Son.

His tolerant attitude was rooted in the somber task ahead of him. We are told Jesus had “set his face” toward Jerusalem. The point is so important it is repeated. This is Luke artfully saying Jesus was now certain his ministry was taking him toward torture and death on a cross. There was no other way out of sin and death for humanity.

Jesus was about to do a new thing. It would bring life, not death, for everyone, redemption free for the taking. And on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus would not have his redemptive ministry punctuated by a violent act.

The tolerance Jesus demonstrated marks the starting point for how we deal with others, particularly when others have opinions radically different from our own. Tolerance is the basis of civilization. We cannot have a truly modern society until people say, “We may disagree, but we’re not going to destroy each other.”

It is obvious people are struggling with this idea in many places now. Radical Islam is the most extreme example, built on the idea, “Disagree with me and die.” I’m reminded of ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s terrorist puppet: “Silence! I kill you!” The psychology of Dunham’s routine is pretty obvious: We’re nervously laughing at the very behavior that could destroy modern culture, hoping if we ridicule it, no one will want to behave that way.

Jesus was teaching the same lesson we learn in Luminary’s church-based karate class: If you can walk away, walk away. Words and ideas should not lead to violence. Jesus’ tolerance of the rude Samaritans and of sinners in general was a big shift in theology, an expanded understanding of God’s will.

Tolerance is something anyone in the world can learn. And for Christians, there’s an additional twist, some extra behaviors we must incorporate. In case you haven’t picked up on it in Scripture, we’re supposed to be helping grow the kingdom. Ephesians 1:22 tells us the church is now Christ’s body, “the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

To make the world a different place, we have to be a different people. This is where some tension arises in our lives as Christians. It’s easy to say, “Let’s all be tolerant,” sing “Kumbaya” and head for the house. Today’s text takes us further, though.

We’re told that as Jesus continued along the road, some would-be followers approached him. Finally, Jesus offered tough words, just not the kind the disciples had first sought permission to use.

His responses had a basic theme. Following Christ is going to be difficult. It may cost you home and family, assuming home and family prove to be in conflict with God’s kingdom. And there is truth to be told, the kind of truth people are not always ready to hear. Proclamations are calls to change! Again, people may kill you when they don’t like your ideas. The Jewish leaders killed Jesus because he was an ideological and political threat.

Regardless of the dangers, we are called to be holy examples in an unholy world, drawing people toward what is godly. Understanding God’s will requires much study and prayer. If you believe the Bible, then you from the earliest chapters have to believe our minds and bodies are too broken to fully grasp God’s will on our own. What feels right may be very wrong, simply because our minds and souls are a little fractured.We need guidance, from God’s written word and God’s Holy Spirit.

Intertwining tolerance and holiness can seem strange at first. Our instincts tell us they do not go together, but Christ made it clear they do. Using them together, we help the kingdom grow.


The featured image is the Monument of Tolerance in Jerusalem. Photo by Avishai Teicher, 2009, used with permission via Wikimedia Commons.

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Four Parts of Worship: Sending Forth

Matthew 28:1-10

At the end of each worship service, I “send us forth,” to use the language of fourfold worship. The obvious question is, “Send us forth to what?”

The answer, of course, lies in the word of God.

Our text today is typically used as an Easter reading. Easter—the day we celebrate the resurrection of Christ—also is the key to understanding “sending forth,” however. We’re going to use Matthew’s story of Christ’s resurrection, focusing on the characters, to help us better understand what we’re sent forth to do.

Jesus doesn’t appear until late in the story, but as he is the starting point for all things, we’ll begin with him. Even if you’ve heard this core story of Christianity a thousand times before, try to hear it with fresh ears today.

In the resurrection, Jesus is revealed fully as the Christ, the son of God, the promised gift of God sent to redeem the world. As we understand the resurrection more fully in the context of other holy writings, we see he is God in flesh, God among us.

In Jesus’ resurrection, we are exposed to the most effective mystery creation has ever experienced. It is mystery because how it works can never be fully grasped in this life; it is effective because it proved in a single moment that sin and its result, death, were overcome by holy Jesus’ wrongful death on the cross.

The other characters in Matthew’s version of the resurrection are two Marys, an angel of the Lord, Roman soldiers assigned to guard the tomb, and Jesus’ disciples.

The two Marys. One is clearly identified as Mary Magdalene, a woman Jesus freed from demon possession. She was clearly devoted to Jesus. The “other Mary” is less easily identified; Matthew would never have referred to Jesus’ mother in such a way. She was likely the “mother of James and Joseph” identified as being at the cross. If you haven’t figured out by now, Mary (Miriam in Hebrew) was a very common female name in Jesus’ day and place.

What I take away from their part in the story is faithfulness, likely combined with an expectancy that something more was to happen. Unlike the other gospels, Matthew says the Marys merely went “to see the tomb,” rather than going with a specific purpose, such as to anoint Jesus’ body more thoroughly. I think that unlike many of the male disciples, the women had fully heard Jesus’ words about what was to come after his death, and hope remained in their hearts.

Through their faithful attendance to Christ, even when all seemed lost, they became important witnesses to mighty events surrounding the resurrection, standing at an intersection of heaven and earth. They also became the first humans to declare the truth about the remarkable event that changed the world.

The Angel of the Lord. The angel leaves no doubt that the resurrection is a God-ordained event directed from heaven. He brings glory and majesty to the story, a reflection of the One who sent him. The angel’s job was simple; roll back the stone and deliver a message. How he did his job underscored what had just happened.

I would think mighty angels have little need to sit and rest. This one sat on the stone, however, a symbolic act reminding us once again that death has been defeated. His decision to take a seat has almost military overtones, that of a conqueror forcing something into submission. It also comes across like a challenge: “Anyone want to try to roll it back?”

His message to the women had two parts: Jesus has been raised from the dead; go tell others he has been raised from the dead, in particular, the disciples.

The Guards. Let’s understand something here—these are Roman soldiers, part of the toughest fighting force on the planet. They represent worldly power, a kind of power that seemed insurmountable to the people they had conquered. But when faced with just one of God’s angels, they collapsed into a quivering mass. The word translated as “shook” in relation to these soldiers has the same root as the word used to describe the earthquake that occurred when the angel rolled the stone away. All that was worldly trembled at the resurrection.

The Disciples. Just as they were Jesus’ primary audience in his three years of ministry, they seem to be his primary audience immediately after the resurrection. The angel told the two Marys to go to them with word of the resurrection. Jesus repeated this instruction when he appeared to the women suddenly, as they ran to the disciples.

Later in Matthew, we’re told something interesting about the 11 remaining key disciples—despite seeing Jesus, some doubted. I wonder if they muttered in Aramaic, “It’s just too good to be true.” Jesus told them to go forth and spread the word of the resurrection, however, baptizing believers in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. It’s clear they finally did believe. After all, we’re here on the other side of the planet, worshiping Christ as Savior.

As people who gather to worship Christ, we have the potential to fulfill some of these roles today. Where do you fit in the story?

I would assume we have taken at least one foot out of the world. By that, I mean a full-blown encounter with God won’t leave us on the ground, quivering like a jellyfish. At a minimum, we’re like the disciples, following Jesus, even enamored with Jesus.

And yet—doubt creeps in. The question is, can we join the Marys? Can we declare what has been revealed to us through God’s word? Can we live as if we expect greater things to happen?

That is what we’re sent forth each week to do. We’ve gathered here week after week and equipped ourselves through the word. We’ve celebrated what has been declared.

Now share the good news about Jesus Christ with those who so desperately need to hear it!

***

Note: Any good church does more than just tell its members to tell others about Jesus. We also equip people to tell the story successfully. If you’re near Cassidy UMC, you’re invited to join a small group where we develop our evangelism skills and keep each other in loving accountability. If you’re interested, contact me.

Doubts

John 20:19-31

What is doubt? And what is doubt’s antidote?

In the 20th chapter of John, beginning at the 19th verse, we find the story of Jesus appearing to a terrified band of disciples. Mary Magdalene had told them Christ is risen from the dead, but the news gave them no comfort.

Certainly, these disciples were afraid of the Jews who had crucified Jesus. It’s also likely that they, having failed Jesus in his time of need, feared what the risen Christ might say or do. They doubted the resurrection had really happened; and if it had happened, they doubted where they stood with the one who had overcome death.

The door to the room where they huddled was locked, but a lock is no barrier for a body that has defeated death and is now indestructible, infused with the unrestrained power of the divine. Jesus appeared among them. It was not to chastise them, however. Instead, the risen Christ told them repeatedly, “Peace be with you.”

And peace they had, it seems. They moved from fear to rejoicing; doubt had vanished.

All of Jesus’ key disciples were present except Thomas. When he returned, he refused to believe in the appearance until “I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side.”

A week later Jesus appeared to Thomas with the same message: “Peace be with you.” He even invited Thomas to touch the scars. And of course, Thomas believed.

So, what is doubt? Looking at this story, it seems to be more than just lack of evidence. It is a guardedness brought on by a belief that a situation cannot improve, despite what others are saying. Certainly, we are more likely to feel doubt when we find ourselves in a particularly sticky mess.

There is a lot of doubt in our world today, and I’m not talking just about religious doubt. People feel stuck in all sorts of ways, and a lot of them don’t feel any kind of institution, agency, cause or movement can free them.

As the church, bringing people an experience of the risen Christ is our way of helping to cure some of that doubt. We are, after all, a people who believe in the resurrection, a people of hope. Our rallying cry is “Peace be with you.” And there are actions that must coincide with our words, actions that bring peace.

Somewhere in our community, there are children who fear each day because they face abuse, hunger or neglect. The true church, acting as Christ’s body on earth today, finds them, rescues them, feeds them and loves them, bringing the peace of Christ to their lives. We participate in such activities now, but we need to do more.

Somewhere in our community, there are people suffering a crisis of identity, people who feel they have no value because they lack a job or a family or a relationship. The true church finds them, helping them learn they are first and foremost children of God. We brush against these people occasionally, but it’s time to fully embrace them.

Somewhere in our community, there are sinners, hard-core sinners, sinners who believe their evil is so great that nothing can be done to redeem them. They feel they can only smirk at or fear the church.

The true church tells them the work of redemption already is complete; belief is all that is required. And like the cowering disciples, these sinners find that in a relationship with Christ, there is no condemnation, only peace. We say our doors are open and we wait for these people to come to us, but we need to learn to go to them.

Somewhere in our community there are the mentally ill, the drunks, the drug abusers, the unwed mothers, the prisoners, the sick, the dying. The true church finds ways to rely on the Holy Spirit and creatively say to them, “Peace be with you.”

After all, we are the body of Christ on earth until Christ returns.

Sounds Crazy

Mark 3:20-35

You may be a Christian, but are you willing to be crazy for Christ?

In the Gospel of Mark, there’s no real information about Jesus’ birth or early life. Instead, we begin with a prophet’s declarations about who Jesus is. Jesus then is baptized, the Spirit falls upon him, and “immediately”—a word used regularly in Mark—we enter a cycle of preaching and healing that rapidly creates a following among astonished Jews. They press in, wanting their share of this powerful, loving grace handed out so freely.

Jesus seems completely immersed in his ministry. There’s no evidence of detailed planning, a formal schedule, or even time for regular meals. Everything is just happening; energy and excitement rule the day, and Jesus, the Son of God, follows the Father’s will perfectly.

He is, of course, the perfect model for how to respond to the Father, showing us how to love God and our neighbors with passionate energy. Those of you who are Christians likely remember being filled with a similar excitement when you first understood Jesus to be your Lord and Savior.

Do you remember? Did anything else seem to matter? Did anything else take precedence, even food, family, or work? If you really experienced conversion, I suspect you’re remembering an all-consuming experience, the fire of Christianity burning bright in you.

It’s hard to sustain, I know. Life starts to get in the way. In fact, life can pound away at you like a relentless surf, and over time, the flame can seem to cool. Satan could not overcome Jesus, but Satan still wants to overcome us, if only to slow us down, to delay his inevitable destruction.

To do that, he works through people to use some of the same techniques we see at work in today’s text. The first is to make the Christian message seem out-of-step with whatever “normal” is supposed to be. Essentially, he wants observers of a passionate Christian to say what the observers of Christ said: “He is out of his mind.”

You can hear Satan whisper: “Yes, great things are happening. Yes, there’s excitement in the air. Yes, lives are being changed. But careful—the whole thing sounds crazy. Better stay away from crazy.”

But here’s the problem when we as Christians succumb, when we fade back into the background out of fear of being called crazy. We fail to be the followers Christ sought.

Christianity is not supposed to look normal. It is countercultural. We declare the world is capable of being something it currently is not.

We declare that a man died on a cross nearly 2,000 years ago and then walked out of his tomb, remade and eternally alive, so that what the world considers normal—suffering, sickness, cruelty, violence, death—could be turned upside down.

I’m sorry, but if you think being Christian somehow means you’re normal, then you’ve never understood Christ’s work. When you accepted your baptism, you did a very odd thing in the eyes of the world, so odd that people might consider you dangerous if you really begin to live your faith.

And if you really try to live it, Satan may even go so far as to twist what is evil and what is good, in the hope that people may reject your Christian behavior as evil. It’s happening all over the world right now. People in the Middle East, in huge portions of Asia, in Africa, in Europe and in many other places are labeled a threat to “normal” society for preaching the crazy idea that Christ is remaking this world and will remake it in full one day.

Often, they lose their jobs or their status in society. Sometimes they lose their lives, joining the ranks of the martyrs, the people who die rather than allow their beliefs to be co-opted.

It’s going to happen here, if the divide between secular values and Christian values continues to grow. (I’m careful to say “if.” This nation has experienced Great Awakenings before, and can do so again.) Already, when Christians say the Bible clearly defines what is and is not sin, and try to live accordingly, we are called “intolerant,” code language designed to set us apart from “normal” society.

I am concerned for those who attack Christianity as evil. Christians have debated for years precisely what it means to commit the unforgivable sin, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. But certainly, it has something to do with describing the presence of God as evil, and also certainly, the presence of God is found in the church, among Christ’s followers today.

Mostly, though, I look to this elaborate text for inspiration. Oh, to feel such excitement in every moment of ministry—to see people so stirred up for healing and words of grace that meals must be foregone and schedules tossed out as the crowds press in.

Remember, it is in such raucous, upside-down moments that Jesus finds the people he calls his brothers and sisters.

Peace Be with You

John 20:19-29

If you’ve been a regular the past few weeks, you’re aware we’ve been focusing this Easter season on some of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. I’ve not been concerned about keeping them in any kind of order; we’ve seen the risen Jesus at the tomb, on a beach, traveling a road, and in all his glory in heaven.

This is the last Sunday of Easter, and I want us to go back to the Gospel of John, looking at one more of those early resurrection appearances. We should hear a message similar to what we’ve heard in previous weeks, but it’s time to also talk seriously about whether we’re going to respond to what we’ve heard.

In the 20th chapter of John, beginning at the 19th verse, Jesus appears to a terrified band of disciples. Mary Magdalene has told them Christ has risen from the dead, but the news has given them little comfort.

Certainly, these disciples were afraid of the Jews and Romans who had crucified Jesus. It’s also likely that they, having failed Jesus in his time of need, feared what the risen Christ might say or do.

The door to the room where they huddle is locked, but a lock is no barrier for a body that has defeated death and is now indestructible, infused with the unrestrained power of the divine. Jesus appears and tells them repeatedly, “Peace be with you.”

All of Jesus’ key disciples are present except Thomas, who refuses to believe in the appearance until “I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side.”

A week later Jesus appears to Thomas with the same message: “Peace be with you.” He even invites Thomas to touch the scars. And of course, Thomas believes.

“Peace be with you.” There is so much of importance in this story, from the nature of the resurrection to the need for the Holy Spirit to the importance of faith. But that simple assurance from Christ, “Peace be with you,” is the church’s rallying cry.

Somewhere in our community, there are children who fear each day because they face abuse, hunger or neglect. The true church, acting as Christ’s body on earth today, finds them, rescues them, feeds them and loves them, bringing the peace of Christ to their lives.

Somewhere in our community, there are people suffering a crisis of identity, people who feel they have no value because they lack a job, a family or a relationship. The true church finds them, tells them they are first and foremost children of God, and again, the peace of Christ is present.

Somewhere in our community, there are sinners, hard-core sinners, sinners who believe their evil is so great that nothing can be done to redeem them. They feel they can only fear or smirk at the church.

The true church tells them the work of redemption already is complete; as Jesus tells the woman caught in adultery in John 8, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” And like the cowering disciples, these sinners find that in a faithful relationship with Christ, there is no condemnation, only peace.

Somewhere in our community there are the mentally ill, the substance abusers, the unwed mothers, the prisoners, the sick, the dying. To all of them, the true church finds ways to rely on the Holy Spirit and creatively say, “Peace be with you.”

Do you know what happened to Thomas after he saw and believed? Early church writings indicate he traveled as far as India telling people about the risen Christ. That would mean he traveled farther than any other apostle.

When your doubts are replaced by the peace Christ brings, incredible things happen. We are not to “rest in peace” while in this life. Peace is a gift to be shared with others.

On the Beach with Jesus

When I studied what is known as narrative preaching in seminary, I learned to respect the text—to let the selected Scripture drive the sermon.

This approach can place me in a quandary, however. There are stories in the Bible that are so powerful that I find it daunting to try to expand or elaborate on them in any way. To do so is like standing before a beautiful painting and breaking the holy silence in the gallery by saying, “Note how the lines merge at this point.”

In this Easter season, I want to share with you such a text. It is, by the way, my favorite part of the Bible, the story I turn to for comfort. For me, it captures everything being revealed about God from Genesis to Revelation in one simple story.

And yes, I feel like I’m already over-explaining it.

As a reader, do me a favor. I know we often read blogs as part of our hurried lives, our eyes racing over the words while our e-mail and texts beep for attention. Don’t do that today.

Please, either slow down or come back when you have more time, and carefully read John 21:1-19 the way you would read a really good novel. There are characters in pain in this story; remember, the disciples know Jesus is alive, but they also know they ran and hid when Jesus needed them most. And most of all, there is the resurrected Jesus, bringing healing.

—————–

Now that you’ve read it, I just want to share with you a few of the thoughts this text has given me over the years.

  • Even when faced with miraculous evidence of God’s presence, the best of us, when confronted with our sinful weaknesses, may want to turn back to what we used to be.
  • Because of the resurrection, we are a people of abundance. We simply have to see and accept that abundance.
  • The resurrected Jesus is exalted and glorified, and yet he meets us where we are, with love, grace and forgiveness, even if the sin is abandonment and betrayal. (I wonder, had Judas lived, how would Jesus have offered him forgiveness?)
  • And of course, as we are restored by Jesus, there is a mission—perhaps a difficult one—but a mission that gives us purpose beyond our former lives.

Because of Jesus, we know we worship a God of love, a God who asks only that we return to him by accepting the free gift of forgiveness and salvation and then respond accordingly.

God forgive me if I just got in the way of a good story.