mystery

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.

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A Temporary Goodbye

He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

Many of us who are Methodists make this statement every Sunday as part of the Apostles’ Creed. This declaration of the importance of “the ascension” seems to flow naturally from our affirmations that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins, and that he was resurrected from the dead.

In conversations with fellow churchgoers, however, it sometimes seems the ascension is more tightly wrapped in mystery than the idea of the crucifixion and resurrection. (Not that we can fully grasp those two astonishing ideas!)

As best we can, we want to understand all three ideas—crucifixion, resurrection and ascension—so we can see how they work together to make salvation possible.

The key to understanding the ascension is to comprehend what ascends, 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.”

When explaining all this to Luke, Jesus’ followers were trying to describe something almost incomprehensible, the visible crossing of Christ from one plane of existence to the next. They struggled for words as children sometimes struggle when confronted with a new idea.

A couple of years ago, at the funeral of my wife’s aunt, the preacher had a unique habit of kneeling whenever he prayed, even if he was standing behind the pulpit. At one point as he kneeled to pray, disappearing like a puppet behind a box, a three-year-old girl asked loudly, “Where’d he go?” I wonder if some of Jesus’ followers uttered a similar phrase in Aramaic as the Christ vanished from sight in such a mysterious way.

The point of the account as described by Luke 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.

So, why does it matter that Jesus ascended into heaven? 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 in heaven, we are appealing to the one who loves us so much that he made himself like us in order to save us.

We’re also to understand that Christ’s return, perhaps to occur while we are all alive, will be a real, physical event, a moment when God-in-flesh will once again stand within his creation and claim it as his own.

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.

Forgetting Easter

Several years ago, back when I could easily call myself a young adult, I awoke after sleeping in one Sunday morning and went about my usual routine. I ate a late breakfast, watched television on the couch, and wandered through the day carrying out some other activities that must have been fairly mindless, as I cannot remember them now. It was only later in the day, prompted by an item on the evening news, that I discovered something: It was Easter Sunday.

Realizing I had let Easter go by almost unnoticed left me more aware than ever of a strange, empty feeling that had been within me for awhile. Partly, I was nostalgic, missing the childhood connection to the day. My parents had always made sure my little brother and I went through the rituals that made Easter fun—the coloring of the eggs, the basket with the hollow chocolate bunny (one year the basket itself was made out of candy), the afternoon trip to Granny’s house. In my memories, Easter always happened on a warm spring day, although that couldn’t have been true every Easter.

I also sensed, however, that my emptiness really had little to do with my need for a chocolate bunny. There were other pictures in my mind, too, glowing pictures full of stained glass and candles, reminders of the mystery of Easter Sundays in church. Smells and sounds from worship remained alive in my mind, too, and they all came back to me at once.

"Resurrection of Christ," Michelangelo, c. 1532

“Resurrection of Christ,” Michelangelo, c. 1532

Those images, sounds and smells existed to declare a powerful message: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. It’s a truth we should hear declared every Sunday, and it should be declared in an especially powerful way on Easter Sunday.

Yes, even for adults, the concept of the resurrection is a mystery. As a pastor, I try to explain as best I can that the resurrection is evidence sin and death have been defeated, and we have nothing to fear. But even the greatest theologians cannot fully explain the magnitude of what God is doing through the resurrection.

That’s a good thing; the mystery surrounding Christianity is evidence God, not humanity, is at work. We need to learn to revel in the fact God has done something inconceivably great and immeasurably loving through Jesus. Hey, that’s why we need the light, the smells and the music in worship. We’re trying to grasp a truth beyond words.

I say all of that to say this: Easter Sunday is April 5 this year. If you want to worship by coming to Luminary United Methodist Church, we’ll have a sunrise service outside (weather permitting) at 7 a.m., and worship services in the sanctuary at 8 a.m., 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. No special clothes or fancy hats required—just come expecting God to fill the emptiness.

God’s Big Secret

1 Corinthians 2:1-16

As we move further into 1 Corinthians this week, Paul begins to talk about spiritual maturity and mystery. He has been talking about the message of Christ crucified, but we begin to understand there is deeper knowledge to pursue.

I’ll begin with a word of caution. The idea that there are deeper mysteries to be explored in our faith is true, but it’s also an idea that has been severely abused throughout history. One of the earliest heresies of the church was the gnostic movement, which claimed there were secret mysteries available to only a select few.

We’re not talking about spiritual elitism, however. The deeper aspects of our faith spoken of by Paul are available to any thinking person tuned in to what the Holy Spirit is constantly trying to reveal to us. Your baptism initially opened you to these deeper revelations, and your continual faithfulness to God opens you further and further.

Let’s go back to the basics for just a minute. Salvation is relatively simple. Through Jesus Christ, God intervened so our sins cannot destroy us. Jesus’ death on the cross cancels out the power sin has over us. All we have to do is believe the story is true.

We don’t even have to fathom how the cross works—we just have to believe that it does. This is why children are able to understand the message well enough to have a renewed relationship with God.

We’re called to go beyond the basics, however. In fact, once the Spirit is at work within us, I don’t see how we cannot want to go deeper. We are invited to take on the mind of Christ, at least as much as humanly possible.

Here’s what I believe is the key to going deeper. We develop our understanding of the meaning of the word “grace,” and then we begin to apply that understanding to every situation we encounter.

The definition of grace is pretty simple. Grace is love you receive even though you don’t deserve it. We talked about the cross just a few minutes ago; it is the great act of grace. We are sinners, but despite not deserving eternal life in the presence of God, the cross provides this glorious joy to us.

Eternal life is just the first gift, though. There are other gifts we receive in this life. We simply have to accept them, holding out our hands through prayer and worship. The Natural Church Development program lists 30 gifts available to Christ’s followers; it’s a thorough, useful, biblical list. And of course, there are the fruits of the Spirit, a new outlook on life we can receive.

You would think that after the first experience of grace, we would receive those other gifts with open arms. Grace can frighten us, though. First of all, it implies a need to change, and a lot of us don’t like the idea of change.

Grace also complicates life by interfering with strict systems of rules. Grace is wonderful wherever it appears, but it also brings us into conflict with the comfort we find in rules. Christianity, properly understood, is subversive, constantly asking, “Yeah, that’s the rule, but what about grace?”

Rules can be important, of course. God spent thousands of years interacting with the Jews through the law for a reason. Sin blurs our view of right and wrong. God’s laws are the corrective lenses.

But we’re also a people saved by grace and called to show grace toward others, especially sinners. One of my favorite biblical examples is the story of the woman caught in adultery.

A more modern example would be the issue of homosexuals in the church. Some denominations have what is essentially a “do not enter” policy for homosexuals. On the other end of the spectrum, there are denominations who do not call homosexuality a sin, ordaining and marrying people in active homosexual relationships.

My denomination’s position is nuanced and takes a moment to explain. We follow the Bible, saying “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” but at the same time we welcome all people into worship and fellowship, believing the life-changing and sustaining grace of God should be available to anyone seeking it.

Certainly, we don’t want to condone sin, but at the same time, we never want to stand in the way of God’s powerful grace. And when we balance the two, we find ourselves occupying some difficult middle ground.

It’s also simply not in our best interests to help the church or any other institution act as if certain sinners are cut off from God’s grace. If any of you are, to use an old Methodist term, “perfected,” I’ll apologize in advance, but the odds are that the vast majority of you struggle with some kind of sin from time to time.

Which sin are we next going to condemn as unforgivable, as unrepairable by God? Lust? Dishonesty? Greed? Pride? If we start erecting barriers for sinners, the church will soon be an empty place, and useless as a wellspring of God’s life-changing grace.

Next week, I’m going to explore further what it means for your life if you choose to dwell in the deeper mysteries of faith.