peace

The Mission

We are in what I think of as “the long goodbye” in Romans, a typical conclusion for one of Paul’s letters. As we explore Romans 15:14-33, let’s break it into pieces and consider what the apostle is saying.

I am fully convinced, my dear brothers and sisters, that you are full of goodness. You know these things so well you can teach each other all about them. Even so, I have been bold enough to write about some of these points, knowing that all you need is this reminder. For by God’s grace, I am a special messenger from Christ Jesus to you Gentiles. I bring you the Good News so that I might present you as an acceptable offering to God, made holy by the Holy Spirit.​

Paul treats these Roman Christians he has yet to meet as knowledgeable about their faith. But like us, even knowledgeable people need a reminder from time to time about what is important. That’s an important function of Paul’s letter to the Romans: It reminds us of core truths that must never be forgotten by Christians.

There is what Paul calls the Good News, of course, the truth about Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection and what that means for a world struggling against sin. Paul also gives us a call to holiness.

Paul’s “acceptable offering” language creates an interesting metaphor. It is as if Paul puts himself in the ancient role of priest, doing all he can do to make the sacrifice holy and acceptable to God. But no longer are animals slaughtered in sacrifice; instead, we rely on Christ’s perfect sacrifice for all sin. Sanctification now happens as we allow the Spirit to make us holy in anticipation of eternal life with God.

So I have reason to be enthusiastic about all Christ Jesus has done through me in my service to God. Yet I dare not boast about anything except what Christ has done through me, bringing the Gentiles to God by my message and by the way I worked among them. They were convinced by the power of miraculous signs and wonders and by the power of God’s Spirit. In this way, I have fully presented the Good News of Christ from Jerusalem all the way to Illyricum.

Paul is happy to declare the great miracles that have occurred during his ministry, but he is careful to give credit to God. He has followed a long, circuitous path as he has spread the Good News, and God has been with him every step of the way.

We should remember the kind of man Paul was before his almost forced conversion. He was a dangerous enemy of Christians, bent on their destruction. But God had need of him, and he became just as passionate a servant of Jesus Christ.

This also is a good time to remember the miracles associated with Paul in the Book of Acts. If you want a little extra study time, look for miracle stories in Acts 13, 14, 16, 19, 20 and 28. In a couple of them, it’s interesting to note how Paul suffered for doing God’s work.

My ambition has always been to preach the Good News where the name of Christ has never been heard, rather than where a church has already been started by someone else. I have been following the plan spoken of in the Scriptures, where it says,

“Those who have never been told about him will see,
   and those who have never heard of him will understand.”

In fact, my visit to you has been delayed so long because I have been preaching in these places.

But now I have finished my work in these regions, and after all these long years of waiting, I am eager to visit you. I am planning to go to Spain, and when I do, I will stop off in Rome. And after I have enjoyed your fellowship for a little while, you can provide for my journey.

When we call Paul an “apostle,” we specifically mean he spread the Good News where it had not been heard, staying long enough to establish Christian communities before moving on. His desire to continue such work remains, but he also is seeing a refinement to his calling. God is about to send him in a new direction, and to do so, he will need fresh relationships and a support system based in Rome.

For us, Paul’s situation is a reminder to seek whether God is calling us to make adjustments in how we serve the kingdom. We want to be committed in our work, but perhaps it is a dangerous thing to become too comfortable in our work. We must remain ready to adapt.

But before I come, I must go to Jerusalem to take a gift to the believers there. For you see, the believers in Macedonia and Achaia have eagerly taken up an offering for the poor among the believers in Jerusalem. They were glad to do this because they feel they owe a real debt to them. Since the Gentiles received the spiritual blessings of the Good News from the believers in Jerusalem, they feel the least they can do in return is to help them financially. As soon as I have delivered this money and completed this good deed of theirs, I will come to see you on my way to Spain. And I am sure that when I come, Christ will richly bless our time together.

Before going to Rome, Paul is hoping to bring some healing to a serious rift in the church, the one between Christians of Jewish descent and Christians of Gentile descent. The dispute over whether Gentiles should be made to live like Jews if they want to be Christians has created hard feelings. The very Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem has fallen on difficult times, and despite the rift the Gentile Christians have cobbled together a significant gift to help them.

Rather than sending someone in the role of courier, Paul wants to deliver the funds himself, to ensure the good-hearted intent of the gift is clear and fellowship is restored. This is a dangerous strategy for him. Once a budding leader among the Pharisees, Paul is now a pariah among Jews who do not believe in Jesus. But he believes there is an antidote to this danger:

Dear brothers and sisters, I urge you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to join in my struggle by praying to God for me. Do this because of your love for me, given to you by the Holy Spirit. Pray that I will be rescued from those in Judea who refuse to obey God. Pray also that the believers there will be willing to accept the donation I am taking to Jerusalem. Then, by the will of God, I will be able to come to you with a joyful heart, and we will be an encouragement to each other.

The antidote, of course, is prayer. Yes, Paul clearly has God on his side. Yes, Paul has been able to do great signs and wonders. And yet Paul still humbly covets the prayers of other Christians.

Why do we pray? There are lots of reasons, but here’s a practical one you may not have considered: The Christians who have exhibited the greatest power and most effective ministries in history have rooted all they do in prayer. Why question what works?

We also see that Paul has an unusual concern about Jerusalem. He fears that once he gets there, the Jewish Christians may reject a gift from “unclean” Gentiles. He’s praying their hearts be accepting and full of love.

And now may God, who gives us his peace, be with you all. Amen.

Paul, in the midst of so much contention and so much concern, speaks of peace so freely. We’ve seen a lot of strife and anxiety in our world the past few months. I pray that we continue to sense God’s peace, and to be bearers of peace to others.

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Misunderstood

Mark 11:1-11

Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem looked and sounded like a celebration. It actually was one of the great misunderstandings in history, however, with none of the onlookers really understanding what Jesus was trying to communicate.

As Jesus passed through the gate into Jerusalem, all sorts of conflicting interests would have come together to watch the raucous scene. Some studies estimate Jerusalem’s normal population of 30,000 certainly doubled and possibly even tripled during this highest and holiest of Jewish holidays, the Passover. The formal city limits had to be temporarily extended, so travelers could say, “I was in Jerusalem for Passover this year.”

And in the midst of all of this, along came Jesus, riding on a donkey colt. It was a deliberate, overt act, one any good Jew would have recognized from prophecy. In particular, there were the words in Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The miracle man, the one who had already impressed so many with healings and feedings, was declaring himself king. The common people who gathered in the streets partially understood this sign, reacting by rolling out a palm-and-cloak carpet and shouting, “Hosanna!” Literally they were crying, “Save us,” although by this time “hosanna” was more a shout than words with real meaning.

Even his disciples failed to remember Jesus’ teachings, however, especially the one about his need to go to Jerusalem, die, and then rise on the third day. The disciples and the common people had their minds set on worldly salvation, failing to grasp how much more they could receive from God. They also missed the significance of the donkey, something a king would ride only if he came in peace. Their failure to understand what it truly means for Jesus to come in peace, readied to make the great sacrifice, would become evident as the week progressed.

And of course, there were others watching Jesus strike a match near what they considered a political powder keg.

There were the Sadducees, the Jewish faction in control of temple worship. They were experts at accommodation, fine with the system as it was, and they kept one nervous eye toward the Roman occupiers, hoping they weren’t picking up on the symbolism of Jesus’ ride.

There were the Pharisees, like Jesus reformers, but reformers deeply annoyed by Jesus’ constant criticism of their highly refined legalism and jealous of his miracles and popularity.

There were the Zealots, revolutionaries carrying sharp blades beneath their cloaks, hoping Jesus’ rousing of the crowd would lead to Roman blood in the streets.

And there were the Roman politicians and soldiers, fully armed and on high alert because of the crowds, determined to keep this backwater province under control.

Palm Sunday marks Jesus’ willing entry into the valley of the shadow of death, a place where worldly factions fall on you with little warning, and where those who cheer you on may call for your death just a few days later. And he entered it for us, to free us from the power of sin and death.

As Christ’s followers, we’re called to walk through this broken world in the same way. Philippians 2:5-8:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

“Let the same mind be in you,” in whatever we do. In politics, we are to be little kings of peace, remembering the Sermon on the Mount. And where there is a thin understanding of Jesus Christ and his role as Savior, it may require deep sacrifices on our part to give that truth weight.

When we consider Jesus on the cross, our following his example almost seems like a losing proposition. It would be, except for what we celebrate next Sunday.

But that’s a story for next week. This week, remember the boldness, and the all-important death that cleanses us.

Farewell

2 Corinthians 13:11-13 (NRSV)

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

————–

This has happened to me before. About the time I think the occasion is special, and that I’ll probably have to deviate from the standard lectionary texts for the week, one of the prescribed readings provides us with exactly what we need.

On my last Sunday in the pulpit at Cassidy UMC, the lectionary practically begs me to use Paul’s benediction in his second recorded letter to the church at Corinth. I’m no Paul, but I’m certainly comfortable using the same words to say goodbye to the people of Cassidy that Paul used to close his letter.

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell.

This actually is the most difficult part to translate. A lot of other translations say “rejoice” rather than “farewell.” I’ll just go ahead and conflate the two possibilities today, even if it’s not good use of the Greek. This is farewell, but we also should rejoice.

Yes, we’re experiencing changes, but we are a people who can go through such transitions without fear. We gather in worship and in service because we know God is with us in all we do. His Holy Spirit is upon us, and that constant knowledge gives us constant joy, even when a less familiar future stands before us.

The Holy Spirit is in the people of Luminary UMC and in me and my family, so I know I can rejoice in where I am going. God’s work will be done. The Holy Spirit is in you and is in Pastor Tom Hancock and his family, and I know God’s work will continue to be done here.

Put things in order.

You have put things in order, and will continue to do so, I am sure. Despite the struggles we’ve had in recent years, struggles tied to personal losses and a decline in giving, we have managed the situation well. The debt is gone. Church revenue and spending are about equal, leaving our reserve intact. You are well-positioned to make sound ministry choices in coming years.

Listen to my appeal.

How do I boil down three years of appeals from the pulpit to a sentence or two? How about this:

Stop inviting people to church. Never do that again; I should have said it this directly earlier. Instead, start inviting people to a relationship with Jesus Christ.

“Church” is perceived by the lost as a place, a building on a piece of ground. The lost also might at first glance judge the people inside the building to be too old or out of touch. But Jesus Christ, known through his radical teachings and his sacrifice, is attractive to all when properly understood.

Every other appeal I might make would be rooted in this change in attitude. Understand the difference in these two invitations, and you’ll understand the need to go off site to reach people. Your soul will work like a lost person detector, and with time and prayer the Holy Spirit will guide you to reach the lost with your actions and words.

Invite people to know Jesus Christ, and the part about people coming to church will take care of itself. Some of your new friends in Christ will naturally want to be with you on Sunday.

Agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss.

I don’t know if I have much to add to Paul’s words here. It is the ideal state for any church. It is my prayer you exist always in such a state. Last week, we talked about the power of the Holy Spirit falling on the church at Pentecost. Deep prayer and the study of Scripture tune us into God’s will, and a willingness to obey what we hear brings peace.

As for the holy kiss part—well, that’s an act from a different time and culture. Instead, do those things we do now to show we’re in communion with each other. Look your brothers and sisters in Christ in the eyes, touch hands, touch shoulders, and say, “I love you.” Offer forgiveness when mistakes are made and personal hurts occur. Lord knows, the world needs such love.

All the saints greet you.

Remember, we are one church, regardless of what buildings we may enter on Sunday. We are one in Christ for all eternity. This includes the saints who have passed into the full presence of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you at Cassidy, now and forever. Amen.

 

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.

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.

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.