Jesus Christ

A Good Yield

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Sower_(Le_semeur)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall

The Sower, by James Tissot

The start of today’s parable, commonly called “The Parable of the Sower,” is a bit puzzling. It seems like we should call it “The Parable of the Sloppy Sower,” as seed seems to be flying all over the place, with little consideration of its chance to land in a good place to grow.

But since the sower is God—in particular, Jesus walking among us as God in the flesh—I hesitate to use such a title. There must be something deeper going on.

Now, some would argue that parables are best left unexplained, so the hearers can meditate on them in their undiluted form, allowing the Spirit to instruct them in a deeper understanding of the story’s meaning. But Jesus explained this parable to his puzzled disciples, as well as one about weeds and wheat growing together, so I feel comfortable trying to break his lesson down for you.

The seed is humanity, but there seems to be something extra thrown in, an infusion of holy DNA made possible by the coming of Jesus Christ. What I hear in this parable is that we all have in us the potential to grow in holiness because of Christ. We are also supposed to bear fruit, spreading holiness to other people and growing the kingdom of heaven here on earth. Properly tended, holy fruit begets holy fruit.

What I also hear is that it helps to land in the right setting. Sadly, some people land on the path—that is, they find themselves in a place or time where it’s difficult for their understanding of what Christ means to the world to even begin to germinate. For example, imagine being a child born in one of these places:

  • A Muslim household in Taliban-controlled country.
  • A village in North Korea.
  • An atheist home in the United States.

These children may hear the name of Jesus at some point, but the devil will have a much easier time keeping them from developing their potential as followers of Christ.

For those of us who gather in church to worship Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, it’s probably more important that we focus on the other places where seed may land. We first need to understand where we’re trying to establish roots.

In the other three examples—rocky ground, thorny ground, and good soil—something does sprout and begin to grow. There is a point where all three types would call themselves “Christian.” The distinctions among the three depend on the end results. And among us in church today, it’s distinctly possible we’re a mix of the three growing together. Particularly in our part of the world, the developed, affluent part, it’s hard to distinguish the three.

Rocky ground types normally don’t last long when persecution comes because of their Christian beliefs, but persecution is not something we have to contend with in any serious way. Would our faith be strong enough to sustain us if we found ourselves unemployable because of our beliefs? Would it sustain us if we were tortured because of our beliefs? What if we were threatened with death because of our beliefs? Many of our Christian brothers and sisters in other countries know the answers to these questions we seldom face.

There’s a very good chance many of us are growing among the thorns. The United States of America is one of the thorniest plots of ground on earth. Thorns represent distractions, those things that draw us away from the light that sustains us. Those thorns eventually can grab us and entangle us in ways deadly to our faith, and the whole time, we’re acting like old Brer Rabbit, happy to be in the briar patch.

What has hold of you that keeps you from a deeper relationship with God? Sports? Suddenly, they’re everywhere, in your community and on TV, and Sunday morning is no exception. Other leisure activities? There’s nothing wrong with enjoying life, and everyone needs a vacation, but does leisure enhance or detract from your relationship with God?

Work? Hey, if you’re a workaholic, you can stay at it 12 hours a day, seven days a week. You’ll probably get rich, or at least find yourself moderately well-off. But is your understanding of those big questions of life any deeper? Will the money and possessions sustain you when those questions trouble you?

Good soil is where we want to be, of course. It is made up of all sorts of nutrients, a mix of God’s word, prayer, self-discipline, and religious practices like worship, study and the taking of communion. Whenever we root ourselves in these activities, the Holy Spirit enters us, changes us, and makes us more like what God intended us to be.

Now, if you’re finding yourself a little frustrated or concerned, here’s an important secret to reading parables. Like all metaphors, they break down if stretched too far. The plants in Jesus’ Parable of the Sower are stuck where they land. You are not stuck. You can move to better soil. You can reach down and improve the soil around you.

And fruit will come. You’ll see it in yourself. You’ll see it in your children and grandchildren, who eagerly look to you for guidance. And that fruit will continue to spread. Some of you may even find yourselves plowing ground where there once was only an infertile, hard-packed path, going to people who need to hear about Christ for the first time.

As for all that sloppy sowing by God—well, all we’re talking about is potential goodness finding its way into the world, right? Of course God puts that potential everywhere, even in the difficult places. His kingdom will one day be complete.

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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!

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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.

Beatitudes III: Making Peace

In our continuing series on the Beatitudes, I choose to pause at one particular verse because it seems to be where Jesus’ introduction to the Sermon on the Mount comes to a point.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Up to here, we’ve been hearing descriptions of characteristics of citizens of the kingdom of God. Within those characteristics, some action is implied, but we’ve been talking largely about a state of being.

But now we’ve reached peacemakers, what sounds like an occupation along the lines of carpenter or construction worker. Something gets done; something new exists once these people are at work. And in the case of peacemakers, it is a God-like work, a creative and restorative activity.

Assuming we have at least some of the necessary precursors within us, the attributes found in Matthew 5:1-8, how do we go about making peace?

It helps to look to Jesus, of course, to examine the greatest act of peacemaking in the history of the universe. Sin had destroyed the relationship between God and humanity, but Christ’s death on the cross made restoration possible. Thanks to Jesus, God among us, there once again is peace between Creator and creation.

Clearly, deep, sacrificial love—shown even to those who don’t deserve it—is a key part of peacemaking.

It also seems important to have internal peace, to have largely overcome the battle between good and evil going on in our minds. Again, we win this battle not by striving, but by inviting the Holy Spirit to do the work, by meeting God in those places he said he would always be: prayer, Scripture, worship, and Christian fellowship.

When we find ourselves ready for peacemaking in the world, we take on a high calling, one of the most difficult tasks a human being can attempt.

There have been a lot of peacemaking strategies employed in the history of the Christian church. I have always admired pacifists, the people who forgo violence in any form, although I have never been able to fully embrace pacifism. Perhaps God will correct my understanding one day, but for now my own experiences tell me there are situations where a pacifist response can turn into a sin of omission, a failure to act to prevent evil.

The opposite approach concerns me more, however. When we decide to be “people of action,” those who would battle evil with force, it’s amazing how quickly we can become what we fight against.

In terms of large-scale conflict, the early church tried to counter this tendency toward moral entropy with something called “Just War Theory,” but even the most noble-sounding wars we’ve fought seem to break some of the Christian boundaries for a righteous war. In World War II, we fought a very real evil, but we also managed to drop atomic bombs on civilian populations, violating one of the basic principles underlying the just prosecution of a war.

It’s clear historically and today we need more of a focus on Christian peacemaking. We see the need on the large scale—if last week’s photos of nerve-gassed children from Syria don’t make the point, I don’t know what does. We see the need on a small scale. Anyone ever been involved in a church war, where two sides line up against each other over some nonessential matter, destroying ongoing ministry in the process?

To equip myself as a peacemaker, the only thing I know to do is continue beyond the Beatitudes and delve more deeply into the Sermon on the Mount, particularly three of Jesus’ very difficult teachings clearly related to peacemaking.

In all three cases, Jesus is employing some holy hyperbole, describing behaviors that seem humanly impossible. We’re told not to be angry, and that speaking out in anger is as bad as murder. We hear we should not resist an evildoer. We’re shocked to learn we’re supposed to love our enemies.

Even with God’s help, I’m not sure I can ever maintain such a perfectly holy approach where I perceive the presence of evil. But perhaps by dwelling on these teachings and keeping them consciously before us, we can all make a real difference in bringing peace to the part of the world we occupy.

This past week, some of you may have heard the story of Antoinette Tuff, a Christian woman who drew heavily on her faith as she calmly convinced a mentally ill man to lay down his rifle after he fired a shot in the Georgia school where she works. If you haven’t heard about her strategy, take time to do so. She reached out to a lost man with empathy and love and made a real difference in the world in just half an hour.

Surely she is blessed, and surely she is evidence of what can be achieved.

What Went Up

When we think of what Jesus accomplished for our benefit, the concept of his ascension into heaven often vanishes behind the darkness of his crucifixion or the brilliant life-giving light of his resurrection.

The ascension is a critically important part of our salvation, however. In many ways, it completes the work done by God in the crucifixion and resurrection.

The key to understanding the ascension is to comprehend what is carried up.

Luke, a companion of the Apostle Paul, gives us accounts of the ascension in the end of the gospel of Luke and the beginning of the book of Acts. After appearing repeatedly to his followers in his resurrected form, Jesus led them about two miles outside Jerusalem to Bethany.

He then did several important things: He opened their minds to understand the Jewish Scriptures, in particular how they predicted Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. He told his followers they would spread throughout the world the good news that salvation is available. He promised them the Holy Spirit would come to empower and support them.

And then the ascension happened. It’s described a bit mysteriously; in Luke, Jesus “withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” In Acts, we get a little more detail, where we learn “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”

The point is that Jesus physically left this world and entered the realm of the holy, God’s abode, the place where only things unstained by sin can go.

Later in Acts, the first martyr, Stephen, cried out shortly before being stoned to death, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” From this we see that the earliest Christians understood that after the ascension, Jesus resumed his role as part of what theologians sometimes call the “Godhead,” God in all of his aspects.

 I know these ideas are theologically “heavy,” perhaps even painfully so. God expects Christians to think a little, though.

So, why does it matter that Jesus went “up”? Well, it matters because of what Jesus took with him—his resurrected human body. Human flesh now exists as part of the Godhead, a strange change in the nature of heaven. What was unacceptable anywhere near the throne is now on the throne.

And that is why salvation is now so easy for us, if we will only believe that Jesus died to free us from punishment for our sins. When we appeal to God, we are appealing to the one who loves us so much that he made himself like us in order to save us.

I also should point out that the ascension left something of a void. For a brief time, humanity was again separated from the full presence of God. But then, just as Jesus had promised, something came down, another aspect of God, the Holy Spirit.

That’s an event we celebrate next Sunday, which is Pentecost.

A View of Heaven

Fourth in a Sermon Series

Fourth in a Sermon Series

Revelation 4:1-11

Pay attention now. I’m going to tell you up front what really needs to be heard today.

The door is open. The door remains open.

When John of Patmos looked through the door, what did he see? Well, God, of course. And despite seeing, he could not find words for what he saw. The best he could do was describe exotic items of our world—jasper, carnelian, emerald, crystal—and say they somehow look like God and what surrounds God in heaven.

John’s vision reminds me of Plato’s allegory of the cave, written 380 years before Christ. Plato compared unschooled people to people who have lived all their lives shackled in a cave, their backs to the opening, seeing nothing but shadows against the wall before them. The shadows would be their reality.

If one of these prisoners were to break his shackles and escape through the cave’s mouth, he would find reality incomprehensible. There would be no way initially to connect the movement of the beings and objects outside with the shadows that had seemed so real. And if the man were to go back to his shackled friends and try to explain, they would think him mad.

John of Patmos was like Plato’s escaped prisoner. Instead of a cave opening, he looked through the open door of heaven. And he found it very difficult to describe in words what he witnessed.

There are aspects of his vision that remain familiar, however, and we’re reminded we can get at least a glimpse through the open door. We have moments where we’re lifted just high enough to briefly peek over the threshold, particularly in worship and prayer.

In John’s view of heaven, God is the point of worship, as God should be here on earth. In heaven, beings both bizarre and familiar to us sing of God’s holiness and exist in a constant state of pure and perfect worship.

There also is evidence in John’s vision that our worship here lets us participate in worship there. As we read on into chapter 5, we see the prayers of the saints—those of us here on earth—used as incense, our smoky praises and petitions floating before God.

We also see Christ in the midst of this vision, described as the “Lion of Judah” but appearing as a slain lamb. He passed through the door and came our way to be with us and die for our sins, and then returned through it at the ascension, carrying our humanity with him. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, he has complete power over our fates and how history is to unfold.

Yes, the strangeness of the vision is surprising, but just as surprising is how we are connected to what goes on in heaven. That’s why it makes sense that we have those moments where we feel God’s presence in difficult-to-explain ways.

Whew—that’s a lot of ethereal thinking. But the point of this sermon series is to talk about what’s in it for us now, how we benefit from church involvement in an immediate, temporal way.

Well, a view of heaven changes everything, doesn’t it? At least for as long as we can remember the view, hold onto it, cherish it, and revisit it through worship and prayer.

A view of heaven should make everything look different. People who look lost suddenly have infinite potential. Situations that look hopeless are full of promise.

This shift in thinking happens because we see those people and situations against the backdrop of the open door. The light that shines through, twinkling as if it has passed through jasper and carnelian and crystal, makes us a people who live like we are infinitely hopeful.

God’s hope, embedded in your heart, will change for the better everything that shapes your life—your planning, your decisions big and small, your relationships. A view of heaven is a constant benefit of being in the body of Christ.