Back to Basics

Scripture:

Today’s scripture reading—while short—is but a piece of another story: that of the Last Supper. Jesus and the disciples are participating in this ritual meal together. He has already washed their feet. Jesus has foretold of his betrayal, and Judas has departed. While still in this moment—in the midst of this ritual meal and communal sharing—Jesus offers today’s scripture text as a word of teaching and a charge of ministry. After it, Jesus will foretell of Peter’s denial, before addressing their anxiety and promising the coming Spirit of God. In fact, from the point of our scripture lesson until Jesus’ arrest, his sole concern seems to be to communicate to his disciples how to live as his apprentices in his absence.

That lesson begins here: John 13:31-35.

The Plot Twist

I don’t remember where I found it, but I once came across a line that went like this:

The most unnerving realization is that you already knew it.

Think about it. It’s not those things that are completely-out-of-the-blue that knock us off our foundation. It is when we realize something we should have realized a long time ago. When we become aware of something we didn’t even know we knew.

Movies love to utilize this trope. You get to the climax, and all of a sudden there’s this great reveal—some sort of plot twist that is supposed to blow your mind. But to take it to the next level, the directors spend the next 60 seconds on a journey backward through the movie—highlighting all the subtle clues you missed. And somehow, it all makes sense—as though you knew it all along on some subconscious level.

 

The more I read Jesus in the gospels, the more I see Jesus doing the same sort of thing—over and over he reveals to them things about God that they (deep-down) already knew. As I mentioned last week, the gospel readings during Eastertide are actually intended to reinforce this disorientation-reorientation experience. These verses from John’s gospel certainly do.

As I mentioned when introducing the scripture, this is a tense moment.

They are in the midst of one of the most significant religious rituals they have.

Jesus has washed their feet—itself an experience full of drama and mixed emotions.

Jesus has anticipated his betrayal—but no one except John and Judas seemed to know who he was talking about.

And Jesus is about to tell Peter that Peter will deny him three times.

 

So with all this going on:

When Jesus starts to say things that sound like the end [John 13:31], the disciples are going to get nervous.

When Jesus outright says that he will be with them “only a little longer” [John 13:33a], they will feel their breath get short.

When Jesus tells these folks who have been following him everywhere that they “cannot come” where he is going [John 13:33c], they cannot help but feel unmoored.

And when Jesus says “I give you a new commandment” [John 13:34a], you better believe they are going to be listening with every fiber of their being..

 

This—no doubt—is going to be the big reveal.

This is going to be the teaching to end all teachings.

This is what they’ve been following him around for.

This is where he’s going to fully initiate them into this Kingdom and its power.

You can almost feel the disciples lean in and edge forward on their seats. “I give you a new commandment.” What’s he going to say?!?

Forty-Two

There’s a scene in the book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that comes to mind here. There’s this supercomputer named Deep Thought; it is so enormous it is the size of a small planet. And for 7.5 million years, Deep Thought has been calculating the “ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything.”

When at last, Deep Thought has completed its computations, there is a tremendous celebration. Millions upon millions gather and cheer as they anticipate their lives are about to be forever changed.

Slowly, Deep Thought announces: “The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything…… is…… 42.”

Not exactly what the universe had waited 7.5 million years to hear.

Back to Jesus

“I give you a new commandment……”

What’s he going to say?

“I give you a new commandment……”

What’s it going to change?

“I give you a new commandment……”

Whatever it is, everything’s going to be different, am I right?

“I give you a new commandment……that you love one another.”

[screech!!] What???

Just like the crowd Deep Thought was addressing, I imagine Jesus’ crew was more than a little confused here.

But unlike with Deep Thought, the problem here wasn’t that they didn’t understand the answer. The disciples‘ problem is that they understood the answer all too well. It was information they already knew. It was information everyone already knew. Because Jesus’ “new” instruction had been enshrined in their Torah for hundreds of years [Leviticus 19:18b]. It had been taught to them as children, as it had to all Jewish children.

The disciples undoubtedly expected something radical and game-changing, yet Jesus offered something obvious and already known; it was the definition of anti-climatic.

Only One Job

And yet, what Jesus offers here is something radical and game-changing—even if the disciples didn’t realize it until later. Yes, the gist of Jesus’ “new” commandment was nothing new at all. But there is something remarkably rare happening here too.

The four gospels that tell of Jesus’ life on earth record many instructions that he offers to individuals, to his disciples, to religious leaders, and to the world at large. Depending on how you count duplications between the gospel accounts, Jesus uses an imperative to tell someone what to do somewhere between 450-565 times.

But only one time—ONE TIME—does Jesus tell his hearers that this is an actual “commandment.” And this is that time.

Jesus the rule-breaker…… Jesus the anti-religious-establishment…… Jesus the radical…… he is forever turning their understanding of the commandments—of the bible—upside down. And here he offers a “new commandment.” You better believe it’s important.

 

In a sense, Jesus calls us back to basics. As I said earlier, Jesus begins here a section of teaching aimed at instructing his followers in how to live in his absence:

“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34b-35 NRSV).

For all disciples of Jesus—all followers, all of his apprentices throughout time—the single defining characteristic is to be love. Love is what the world should see as the central hallmark of those called by the name of Christ. Jesus is unequivocal about this. He is straightforward. He is simple.

Failure & Hope

But for 2000 years, we have stubbornly refused to listen.

No one can dare claim that “love” is the reputation that Christians have in this nation or in the world at large. It is not true, and Jesus is the Truth [John 14:6].

This week has been filled (once again) with news stories about self-righteous people leading political crusades in the name of Jesus. Laws have been passed, capital punishment has been carried out, commencement speeches have been given, and war has been flirted with. All of it is tinged with religious language and justified by people claiming to follow Jesus.

When the world at large looks at those of us who call ourselves “Christian,” it is not love that they think. It’s not love that we demonstrate.

 

Why do we fail?

I think one reason is that we do not trust God to be Lord. Not really. It’s that same old sin that drove Adam and Eve in the garden, and has driven each of us since then. We simply don’t trust God to be God; we simply are not content to be subject to any Lord or King, no matter how compassionate and kind. Our selfish pride resists any outside influence, which—perhaps ironically—opens us up to every outside influence except God…… because God is the only entity in the cosmos that loves us enough to not impose itself upon us.

 

Why do we fail? Well, because we do not really trust God, we try to do it all ourselves—with our love, and our power, and our way. But control of others is not love. There are a lot of Jesus’ teachings that touch on this. We are not to control others with manipulative language, or by wielding our emotions, or by holding grudges against them. We are to love them enough to stand with them even when we disagree with them—even when they actively work against us. The apprentice of Jesus has been so transformed by God that she naturally seeks the welfare of even her enemies.

This is not natural to us. This is not something we can do on our own. We cannot love others as Jesus loved us by trying harder.

We can only do it after we have experienced reshaping in his image.

We can only do it because God enables us through the power of the Kingdom Among Us.

We can only do it when we have learned to trust God more than we trust ourselves.

This is why we have failed. But this is also why we can succeed.

The Kingdom remains among us.

God is still about the work of transformation.

The Spirit continues to work within us and through us.

We simply have to go back to basics. We have to re-enroll in kindergarten with Jesus…… become like little children, all fresh and new and born again. We have to restart our apprenticeship and actually believe that the Way of Jesus matters in this life.

Jesus somehow knew we had to have a command of some sort, so this is the one he gave. If there’s anything at all in scripture and faith that we have to hang our hats on, it is this. This is who Jesus calls us to be, but we can only get there with God’s help.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34–35 NRSV)

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The Disciple’s Journey

Scripture: John 10:22-30

PSA

First: a public service announcement.

A long way back in our history as Christians, we sought to structure worship in ways that drew our various congregations together, even when we were not physically in the same space. We also intended to intentionally engage a wider swath of the wisdom of the Bible in our readings and reflections together. And so, following the Jewish tradition out of which we sprang, we developed lectionary cycles.

Now, all a lectionary is (technically) is a schedule of readings. It prescribes that you read the story of the resurrection on Easter and that of Jesus’ birth on Christmas. It lines up the Pentecost story with…… you guessed it…… Pentecost, and other stories with the Christian holy days associated with them. And all those in-between weeks are filled with other readings. 

Some of our Christian cousins in other denominations follow the lectionary explicitly. The prescribed texts are the ones they follow, read from, and preach about—without variance.

We Baptists, however, have the liberty to do what we want, though it is expected that “what we want” is discerned through the leading of the Spirit. 

You may not know it, but most weeks we do follow the lectionary here at First Baptist. That’s why you may notice—in speaking with a friend at another Christian church—that their pastor may have spoken about the same text that we read on any given Sunday. 

 

I bring this up because the lectionary does an interesting thing post-Easter. 

The gospels each have only a couple stories about the post-resurrection Jesus. And the Ascension—itself a holy day fixed in the calendar—does not occur for 40 days. In other words, the season of Eastertide needs more post-resurrection material than what the gospels provide. 

So what the lectionary does is it moves backward to earlier points in the Jesus story…… almost like flashback memories of the teachings of Jesus and the experiences of the disciples. The focus is on those times when Jesus tried to make it clear who he really was—episodes that others (especially the disciples) seemed to misunderstand at the time. 

In these weeks of Eastertide, we—alongside the disciples—remember and realize what Jesus was talking about all along. These are stories of an increasing “awareness”: a growing awareness of Jesus that not only reinforces our discoveries about the power of the Kingdom of God to rule even over death and life, but also an awareness that provides further insight in how we—as Jesus’ followers—are to live our day-to-day existence.

The Text

Such is certainly the focus of today’s text.

It begins when Jesus is asked directly: Are you the messiah?

And we might be tempted to believe that Jesus evades the question. But that could not be further from the truth: Jesus rather insists that he has already answered their question [John 10:25a]. They didn’t listen then, and they won’t listen now. It’s a question that has been “asked and answered,” as a teacher of mine used to say.

Jesus even insists that he has answered them with his actions as well as his words [John 10:25b-26]. He has demonstrated the answer to their question by the works he has done—-works that are enabled, empowered, and performed “in my Father’s name.”

Then why couldn’t they see all this? Why didn’t they “believe”? [John 10:25a]. Well, Jesus insists that it is because they belong to another shepherd. 

Jesus likes this image of shepherd and sheep when talking about those who follow him. Earlier in this chapter, he fully claims the image for himself, offering: “I am the good shepherd” and revealing “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” [John 10:11].

He returns to that image again in these verses, but not to communicate something of himself this time. In what is so often Jesus’ way, he is responding to an opportunity—a teachable moment, if you will—utilizing the occasion of happenstance to speak against the dominant patterns of the world at large and illuminate the Kingdom Among Us.

Jesus does this by talking about sheep and their relationship with their shepherd. All who are his followers will walk the path he lays out here. It is (in essence) an imagining of the disciple’s journey—the path that is followed by anyone and everyone who invites Christ to govern their lives.

This is what he says:

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27–28 NRSV)

It may or may not be entirely linear, but I think Jesus outlines here the experience of all true disciples—from their first experience of God into the Great Ever After. There are six steps along the way.

1. Hear the Voice

The first is that the would-be disciple of Jesus must “hear the voice.” As simple as this sounds, a few reminders are in order. 

First, we do ourselves a tremendous disservice when we underestimate the power of God’s voice. As Genesis 1 tells the story, it is God’s voice that brings all of creation into being. Psalm 33 immortalizes this in song and prayer, proclaiming:

“Let all the earth fear the LORD;
let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
For he spoke, and it came to be;
he commanded, and it stood firm.” (Psalm 33:8–9 NRSV)

Similarly, remember the way John’s gospel begins: 

“In the beginning was the Word [the logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:1, 3 NRSV). 

That Greek word logos is hard to translate in a way that encompasses its wide range of meaning. But one newer translation argues for “voice” instead of “word.” They make some convincing arguments that “voice” reflects the personal, distinct, and dynamic means by which God created the world, sustains it, and continues to act in it—especially as it is described in John. Considered this way, these opening verses communicate something of value for our reflection today:

“Before time itself was measured, the Voice was speaking. The Voice was and is God… His speech shaped the entire cosmos” (John 1:1, 3 VOICE).

My sheep hear my voice, says Jesus.

 

But it isn’t really as easy as just hearing, is it? 

There are, of course, lots of other voices competing for our attention and our hearing. And as that familiar story of Elijah meeting God at Horeb illustrates, the Lord is not in the wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire—but the Lord is heard in the “still, small voice” (KJV) or “sheer silence” (NRSV). It was a Voice that Elijah heard in that moment, asking him “What are you doing here?” [1Kings 19:13]. And it is a Voice that we hear in our encounters with the living God, as that same Voice often asks us the same question: “What are you doing here?”

It may not feel like we naturally have “ears to hear,” as Jesus instructs four times in the gospels [Mark 4:9, 23; Luke 8:8; 14:35]. But that couldn’t be further from the truth, either. We are made to be in relationship with God. We are made to hear God’s voice…… to speak and to listen and to be in constant conversation with our Lord and Master. It is only because we have learned from another teacher that we have lost the ears for hearing.

But God has ways of breaking through. God possesses both infinite creativity and unrelenting desire for our friendship. And so this is where the path of discipleship begins—well before the disciple has even become a disciple. It begins with an encounter with God…… a hearing of sorts. 

Think about it: When and how did you first become aware that there might actually be something or someone like God…… something bigger than you out there somewhere?

2. Be Known by Jesus

The next step on this path is being known by Jesus [John 10:27]. Now, of course we could easily argue that this step happened long before the voice of Jesus came to be heard. But that’s not the point. The point here is to understand the perspective and the journey of the disciple. 

It is not until after one has heard the voice of Jesus that they come to know that they are known—deeply known—fully known—completely known by Jesus. Jesus knows our every success and failure. He knows our ever desire—however noble or ignoble. He knows “what you did last summer” and every day of your life. 

The psalmist even muses [Psalm 139:13, 15-16a] on how God knew us before our bodies were even constructed, before we took our first breath, before we were even alive (as our ancient forbearers conceived of life).

We may not often think about it, but God knows us far more fully and far earlier on than we know God. Being known by Jesus happens long before we know Jesus. And even once we begin to know something of Jesus—and even after we have lived and trained as his apprentices for decades, we still only know Jesus in part. Paul, in expressing his hope for the return of Jesus to reign on earth, says:

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1Corinthians 13:12 NRSV)

A disciple must have heard the voice of her shepherd, and she must realize that she is fully known by him—if she is to follow the path of Jesus (if she is to become a disciple at all).

3. Follow Jesus

This being known by Jesus is important, because it rightly orients our self-identity, rooting it in the way God sees and values us instead of the way the world (and even we ourselves) value our life. 

The fact is: we do not share all of ourselves with one another. We just don’t. We guard our inner self, aiming to protect ourselves from the big, dangerous world and all the people who can hurt us. 

But what would it mean to have a friend who knows absolutely everything about you? 

Who knows all your struggles and your failures, your hopes and your dreams? 

Someone who knows you better than you know yourself? 

Someone you might as well be completely honest with, because they know it all already? 

And even knowing your deepest secrets, someone who still loves you deeply and powerfully all the same?

Those of us who have learned to hear the voice of Jesus, and who have realized the profound acceptance of being known and loved by him—we have such a friend. And there is no other response so readily and freely given to such a friend as the desire to follow him, which means to become like him.

In the teaching of Jesus and the context of his earthly life, to follow someone in discipleship was an obvious and simple thing. We want to be like them, so we order our affairs to that end. We engage in an intentional relationship with someone so we can learn to do what they do. And in Jesus’ case, the thing his followers wanted to do was to learn how to utilize the abundant resources of the Kingdom Among Us in their own lives. This is what they saw Jesus doing, and this is what his followers sought. 

To follow Jesus today still means the same thing. It means that we willfully and intentionally engage in practices—disciplines, we usually call them—that give our lives the form and shape to receive and contain that transforming power of God. In this context of the disciple of Christ, such disciplines are intended to enable God’s transforming work in us—work that cannot be accomplished by our own human will. 

As one writer has so challenged: “Am I a disciple, or only a Christian by current standards?… Being unwilling to follow [Jesus], our claim of trusting him must ring hollow. We could never claim to trust a doctor, teacher, or auto mechanic whose directions we do not follow” (Dallas Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 265)

To be a disciple of Jesus is to be a follower of Jesus. To be a follower of Jesus is to trust and obey him, to intentionally order the affairs of life according to his priorities, and with the purpose of becoming like him… It is to live your individual life the way that Jesus would live your life.

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” 

4. Receive Abundant Life

I’ve got to pick up the pace a bit now, but the rest of these are a bit more deeply intertwined, so that should work out.

Jesus next promises his sheep eternal life. In contrast to what we typically associate with the concept, “eternal life” in the biblical sense might be better translated “lots of life.” 

But the thing to note is that “lots of life” in the biblical perspective has more than one dimension. It doesn’t just refer to a long life, but a “wide” one, too—which means a good, full life. When Jesus says that his sheep are given “eternal life,” he is referring yet again to the abundant and good life we were created to lead…… the abundant and good life for which our soul longs…… the abundant and good life of the Kingdom that is available to us beginning now and continuing without end.

5. Endure Beyond This Life

Of course, this “without end” or “long life” sense is underscored in Jesus’ next phrase: “they will never perish.”

There is no part of we human beings that is eternal—not if we believe the witness of the bible. We are built of both spiritual and physical matter, but nothing about us is created to exist forever on its own. It is only through the sharing of God’s life with us that we can possibly live on into what we now call eternity. 

When we are “born again” in Christ—following the pattern Jesus began with Nicodemus in John 3—we begin to participate in the life of God in a way wherein God shares God’s own life with us. This is the reality Paul talks about in Galatians 2 when he insists “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (v.20a NRSV).

One author has written: 

“For most people, perhaps, the thing they most treasure is staying alive on earth. As a result they live their entire lives in bondage to fear of physical death (Heb 2:15)” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p.210).

This is part of what Jesus liberates us from. When we have heard the voice of our Shepherd, when we realize we are fully known by him, when we follow him (willingly and regularly positioning ourselves so God can transform us into his image), when we begin to experience the abundant life right now (utilizing the resources of the Kingdom Among Us), then we realize:

“Eternity is now ongoing. I am now leading a life that will last forever” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p.208).

6. Know Security

This is why Jesus suggests that the one living in the abundance of the Kingdom Among Us will have no use for anxiety. “Don’t be afraid… you are of greater value than several sparrows” [paraphrase of Matt 10:31].

Or as he puts it here: “No one can pry them out of my grasp. Those Father has given me are more important to me than anything else, and no one can pry them out of my Father’s all-encompassing hands” [paraphrase of John 10:28b-29].

Jesus’ followers—the sheep he’s describing here—will know a kind of security that escapes the rest of the world. When you know how important you are to God, and when you learn to see your life and world from God’s perspective, then there really isn’t much to be afraid of. 

We will be cared for better than a parent cares for a child [Matthew 7:9-11]. 

We will be provided for better than the free-wheeling birds that swoop and peep around us [Matthew 6:26]. 

We will experience a lavish abundance that surpasses the wildflowers that ornament an ordinary field [Matthew 6:28-30].

Why? Because this is who we are to God. And because this is where the disciple’s journey takes us, in Jesus, and in the power of the Kingdom Among Us.

 

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27–28 NRSV)

Thanks be to God.

 

 

Called Back to Ourselves

Scripture: John 21:1-19

A Painful Text

As we continue our reading of John’s resurrection account, we come this week to one of the most challenging, painful, and hopeful texts of the entire bible. 

Here, we ride an emotional rollercoaster that spans the gamut of human feelings.

Here, failure is faced head-on, though not willingly.

Here—through the disciples—we find out something of who we really are.

Remember the back story:

At Jesus’ arrest, the disciples scatter.

Peter follows for a bit, but denies knowing Jesus three times.

Judas dies by suicide out of grief for what he has done.

The remaining disciples cloister themselves behind locked doors out of fear.

Mary Magdalene proclaims the resurrection to them, but no one believes her because she’s a girl—so they stay hidden away.

It is behind those locked doors that the risen Christ finds them—not once, but twice!—offering words of peace.

Yet even when they have all become convinced of the resurrection of their teacher Jesus, they still—as we see in today’s verses—they still go back to their life as it was “BC”: “before Christ.”

On one hand, it’s hard to fathom. So many of us think—even if we never admit it out loud—we think that if only we could have that kind of experience of Jesus…… if only we had been there…… if only we had seen what they saw…… if only we had experienced what they experienced…….

The assumption, of course, is that if we had then our life/faith/activity would be fundamentally altered for the better. We think we would sin less, practice the spiritual disciplines more, and readily and openly talk about this Jesus with those in our life. 

The reality, however (as the disciples remind us), is that we would do no better. We would have run away afraid. We would have denied him. We would have given up hope…. And we know that we would do these things because we have done these things. 

The reality is that even though we have the abiding presence and power of the Spirit and the Kingdom right here available to us 24/7, we do not do any better.

Identity

I am constantly challenged by the ways Jesus’ teachings and the stories of the scriptures confront us and drive us to questions of identity…… and this passage is no different. Among the questions of identity raised by these verses, I find myself asking:

Who am I really?
Who are you really?
What do my choices have to do with my identity?
What about my failures? 

Within the scope of life and the choices and failures thereof, we human beings tend to think in one of two ways:

We might think (fundamentally) that a person’s good choices reveal their true self. 

What choices do they make to be kind, or generous, or compassionate—especially when it costs them personally? 

How much are they willing to do for other people? 

If we think that a person’s true identity is revealed by the good they choose to do, then these are the kinds of things we watch for and we consider trustworthy indicators.

 

But more often, we seem to think that a person’s bad choices reveal their true self. It is their worst moment—whether we like to admit it or not—their worst moment by which we judge their whole life. In such moments of weakness, we believe their true heart is revealed—and thus the only fundamentally good person is the one who never falters, even in the blackest trials. 

Now……

How do you think the disciples felt about themselves in these weeks after Jesus’ crucifixion? 

How do you think they looked on their worst moments, which the Gospels have on full display? 

What impact did they believe those bad choices had on their life, and faith, and (most importantly) their relationship with this Jesus, who is now risen from the grave?

What do you think?

No Future

I think: the fact that these fishermen go back to fishing tells us a lot.

This was not a recreational activity for them. 

Nor were they bi-vocational and simply doing what they would normally do when not more directly engaged in Jesusy-things.

This is a regression…… a return, to the way things were before.

It seems that even though Jesus is raised from the dead, these disciples do not see a future with Jesus anymore. And as far as I can figure out, that can only mean a limited number of things:

Either they believe that Jesus has no future—because of Roman threat or his own choice or whatever.

Or else they believe themselves now disqualified—that Jesus wouldn’t want anything to do with them since they’ve “proven” themselves so unreliable.

Now friends: I have trouble imagining the first of these options to be true. 

If Jesus had been brutally crucified by the Romans and then came back to life, what threat could the Romans really offer next? 

Or if Jesus had only ever done what “the Father” enabled (as he says [for example] in John 8:28), and if (subsequently) God the Father responded with such power to raise him from the dead, then why would the disciples assume that life with Jesus was now a spiritual dead-end?

If Jesus is raised from the dead, it just doesn’t add up.

Guilt/Failure

What does make perfect sense to me……is guilt. 

And shame.
And remorse.
And regret. 

Failure has been an all too common companion in my life. I know what it’s like to feel as though your failure—your bad choices—have disqualified you from something good. 

Or from new opportunities.
Or from even God forgiving you and trusting you with the most menial of tasks.

I know what it feels like when you give up, because giving up seems the only way to move past your screw-up.

And I believe this is the head-space occupied by Peter and these other disciples on that day—lo! those many years ago.

They go back to the beginning—back to their lives BC (before Christ)—because they cannot imagine any other path available to them now. They have messed up too badly. Their mistakes are too widely known. Their screw-ups too hurtful. Their weakness too weak. 

They believe it is over between them and Jesus. And they are convinced that they are the ones who drove the nails in their own coffins. 

These actions demonstrate their belief that those worst moments revealed their true selves. And now that those true selves have been exposed, they think that the Jesus chapter of their life is closed to them. 

They were not good enough.
They were not strong enough.
They did not believe enough.
They did not trust enough.
They were: “not enough.”

I’m not going to ask for hands, but I can see on your faces that some of you know all too well something like what those disciples wrestled with that morning.

Found

This is where they were—both emotionally and geographically—when Jesus finds them…… when they are found. 

Isn’t that a beautiful word?—”found.”

The gospel tells us that the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus at first [John 21:4]. That seems to be a common theme with the Resurrected Jesus—people who know him best don’t recognize him right away. But in this particular story, it is worth noting as well that depression clouds our ability to truly see other people. 

When Jesus is at last recognized, it is clear that he has broken through another threshold—this one the expectations of Peter and the others about how Christ would regard them. Peter, the story tells [John 21:7b], hardly got his pants pulled on before he leaped out of the boat and swam to Jesus. 

It must have felt so good to be found by Jesusespecially when they so clearly did not expect Jesus would want anything to do with them. Not anymore.

But there—on the shore of the Sea of Galilee—as the disciples unexpectedly breakfasted with Jesus, the awkward silence of broken relationship again began its penetrating advance. Nobody wanted to talk about it—and John’s gospel is even written in such a way [John 21:12] that makes it unclear what they didn’t want to talk about.

Peter

And then…… Peter is drawn by Jesus out of this silent reverie. 

Peter, do you love me? [John 21:15]
Yes, I love you.
Then feed my lambs.

Peter, do you love me? [John 21:16]
Yes, you know I love you.
Tend my sheep.

Peter…… Do. You. Love. Me? [John 21:17]
Yes! For God’s sake, Yes! You know it! You know I do, Jesus. I love you.
Feed. My. Sheep.

The text doesn’t say so, but it’s hard to not imagine that it was at this moment—following three questions and professions of love—that somewhere nearby a rooster crowed the morning. 

 

We know: this is a moment of reconciliation.

We know: this threefold declaration of love parallels the threefold denial of a few chapters prior.

We know: that Peter here is not just restored to Jesus in relationship, but also given a commission: “Feed my sheep” [John 21:17]; and of course: “Follow me” [John 21:19]—which is the same call offered at the very beginning [Matthew 4:19].

What we sometimes miss is that Jesus is not calling Peter to anything new. He is simply calling him back to himself. Jesus is calling Peter back to his true self in life and faith. And this is important, because it means that Peter’s true self was not that of a betrayer or denier…… but of a believer and a follower and a servant.

In Jesus‘ eye, Peter is so much more than his worst mistake. His failings do not reveal his true character, but they frame a deviation from his true character—an abnormal blip. And yet it was a blip that could have destroyed the rest of his life, had he insisted on seeing things his own way instead of trusting in the sight of his Savior. 

Walking Away

I have seen so many people walk away from God because they believe they simply cannot be forgiven. Because they are all too aware of their own mistakes to expect God or anyone would trust them ever again. Because they know they do not deserve a second, or a third, or a thousandth chance. So they believe that God—even God—especially God would want nothing to do with them ever again.

Peter could have so easily walked away that day. He could have refused to listen to Jesus—I’m sure it was painful just sitting near him and remembering (knowing!) how he failed Jesus. 

He could have continued in despair, as well. For his colleague Judas, the remorse and grief over betraying Jesus became too much to live with, and he died by suicide. Yet I believe that even Judas was more than his worst mistake……. that even Judas could (and would) have been reconciled to Jesus had he lived long enough to have the chance.

Reconciliation

You see: it does so often seem there are two types of people: those who think you are your worst mistake, and those who think you are your best moment. 

But there is only one God, revealed through Jesus Christ. And as Jesus demonstrates here and elsewhere, God thinks you are more than your worst and best moments. God knows you are more than you even imagine you could be.

And that’s why (I suspect) reconciliation ends up being such a focus of God’s activity in the world. It is only through reconciliation that we are capable of becoming more. 

Within our human relationships, a lack of reconciliation anchors us in past hurts and prevents us from living fully in the present and future.

Within our relationship with God, a lack of reconciliation isolates us from the penetrating and transforming love of God that is available to us through the Kingdom of Christ, and that moulds us and makes us new in the image of Jesus.

It is the language of reconciliation that Paul uses to frame both the work of Jesus, and the work that Jesus entrusts to us. After telling the church at Corinth [2Corinthians 5:16] to no longer regard anyone from a human perspective but to adopt God’s perspective, and after reminding them (and us!) [2Corinthians 5:17] that the work of God in us is the work of re-creation, Paul says:

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2Corinthians 5:18–20 NRSV)

Be reconciled.
Christ calls us back to ourselves. 

But the “ourselves” to which we are called is both who we have always been, and who we have never fully been. It is both who we are, and who we are not yet. It is who we were created to be, and who we will only be when we are fully
re-created by God.

Because our true self—our true identity—is more than our worst mistake, and it is more than our greatest triumph. It is the fulfillment of every true longing, and it is the free gift of the abundant Kingdom of God. It is who we will be when we are truly who we are.

And God is so excited to help us achieve that. Just consider all that God has done!

Receiving + Forgiveness

Scripture: John 20:19-31

Another Contrast

In this second week of Eastertide, we continue our reading of the resurrection narrative as told by John the evangelist. And given the time we spent last week reflecting on Mary Magdalene, it is worth pointing out (as we begin today) yet another stark contrast between Mary and the Twelve. 

Mary, as we read last week, was already at the tomb, well before daylight. It may be that she had never left the body of Jesus, and only that morning found an opportunity to perform the necessary embalming procedure. 

Regardless, it is she that first encounters the risen Christ. She pursued him, to be sure; and this made clear by the fact that she was there when no one else was willing to come. While Mary didn’t know what she was going to find, she and she alone was looking for Jesus—and she found him with breathless joy.

 

The Twelve disciples, in contrast, are not looking for Jesus. In fact, Luke tells us [Luke 24:10-11] that most of the disciples outright refused to accept the proclamation of Mary, chocking it up to the hysterics of emotional women. 

The disciples do not go looking for Jesus, so Jesus has to go looking for the disciples. In fact, Jesus goes looking for the disciples not once but twice, because even the men refuse to believe each other about this supposed resurrection of their Teacher. 

 

But this isn’t a “be like Mary” thing, or a “don’t be like the men.” It simply stands as a contrast—and it is a contrast that the gospel writer purposely highlighted in telling this story. There is intentionality here, but it’s not to say “be good, not bad.” 

Instead, it’s a reminder of the lengths that God will go to in pursuit of us. To reach back to Jesus’ famous story of the prodigal son and the loving father, that father was likely scanning the horizon for his son looong before his son even began his turning back home. So it is in life—God is moving toward us long before we move toward God. 

Sometimes—as with Mary—we meet in the middle. 

And sometimes—as with the Twelve—God comes all the way to us, without us giving up an inch. 

But that just demonstrates how much God loves us.

Forgiveness

And all this really does form a nice preface to the topic I really want to be attentive to this morning: forgiveness…… and especially what is presented regarding forgiveness in vv.22-23 of our scripture lesson. There we read: 

“When he [that is, Jesus] had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.'” (John 20:22–23 NRSV)

Or in another translation, for variety:

“Now [Jesus] drew close enough to each of them that they could feel His breath. He breathed on them: ‘Welcome the Holy Spirit of the living God. You now have the mantle of God’s forgiveness. As you go, you are able to share the life-giving power to forgive sins, or to withhold forgiveness.'” [VOICE]

Powerful stuff.

There are two things here that Jesus charges to his followers: a hospitality toward the Spirit, and the power to forgive or withhold forgiveness.

Spirit-Hospitality

Let’s first talk about breathing. 

Deep breath in……
Deep breath out……

The exercise of breathing bears some pretty significant powers. Aside from…… well… maintaining life, intentional breathing brings considerable health benefits. Intentional deep breathing lowers our blood pressure, reduces stress, and slows a heightened heart rate. It increases the oxygenation of our blood, which promotes the removal of toxins and advances healing. It encourages healthy digestion and even builds core strength.

The ancients may not have had all these scientific studies to back up their perspective, but to them breath was life. It was that simple. Without breath, there is no life; more breath, better life. 

There’s a reason that such intentional deep breathing has been a part of every meditative technique ever developed. 

 

Here, [John 20:22] Jesus breathes on his followers.

In the native language of Jesus and those disciples, the word for breath is the same as spirit: ruach. 

Receive the Holy Spirit. Receive the Holy Breath. 

Breathe in Jesus’ breath. Breathe in Jesus’ spirit.

Take that which animates Jesus‘ body and life, and let it animate your own body and life.

Now, since we’ve got not just the story of Jesus and his disciples, but also that of the early church, we know that the Holy Spirit doesn’t fully come upon the disciples until Pentecost—fifty days after the resurrection [Acts 2:4]. That’s the story of Acts 2. And it’s hard for me to think that John got the timeline so wrong that he completely forgot about Pentecost…… I guess tongues of fire and tornadic winds just seem memorable to me.

 

That means: John much be communicating something else. 

And in the context of Jesus’ life and ministry in this particular gospel, I think that something else is rooted in what I’ll call “spirit-hospitality.” I think Jesus—as John tells this story—is trying to impress upon his followers the importance of being receptive to the Spirit of God. 

And this receptiveness he hints at is a kind of hospitality.

Just as we might order our homes in such a way to host others—through space, patio furniture, or whatever. 

Just as we might order our lives in such a way to incorporate others—through time, meals, connections, and so on.

In the same way, we can order ourselves in such a way to welcome God’s abiding presence.

“Receive the Holy Spirit” [John 20:22] may just be John’s way of calling all Christ-followers to the Kingdom life that Jesus described and demonstrated. Given the interplay between spirit and breath, it may even be that John wants us to see this spirit-hospitality as vital for our very life and survival: breathing the Spirit and ordering our lives so as to welcome Her is just as essential to life as breathing oxygen and consuming other nutrients.

Forgive or No?

Which brings us to the second charge [John 20:23] in this text: the power to forgive or withhold forgiveness.

Now, like many of you, I was taught from an early age that only God forgives sin. In fact, that was one of the reasons the pastors I grew up with would frequently condemn the Catholic church next door—”those Catholics” believed human beings could forgive sin (or so my pastors misunderstood their doctrines). 

It was that and the gambling (bingo). 

But sadly, these pastors were not true to the Bible or Jesus in their claims. We can clearly see that here, and Jesus makes the same claim in other places. Matthew twice records Jesus insisting that his followers have this power (16:19; 18:18). And across the board, Jesus maintains that this is not merely forgiving someone who sins against us (cf. Matthew 18:21), but it rather involves the entire cosmic realms of both the human- and God-spheres [Matthew 18:18]. 

Somehow—in ways we do not comprehend—we have the power to forgive the sins of others. And—even more disturbing—we have the power to obstruct their receipt of forgiveness.

Frightening, isn’t it?

I mean: Why would God give us such a power? 

Why?—when we have demonstrated such a readiness to abuse one another?

Why?—when we have so eagerly purposed each other’s destruction for our own gain?

Why?—when we have so consistently held grudges and sought the harm of our enemies?

Why would God give us such power?

The answer, I suspect, is because God intends to draw more good out of us than we even imagine can exist. It is because God wants to include us in all of God’s expansive and loving purposes.

A Christ-Shaped Life

And here is where that spirit-hospitality and forgiveness come together. Here is where we find that being revived by the breath of Jesus has implications for our life together as human beings.

You see, throughout the story of Jesus we find descriptions—depictions, really—of the Christ-shaped life…… or, as we might say, the Kingdom life.

We grossly misunderstand Jesus when we think his teachings are simply a new set of rules we have to follow. When we believe such, we reduce Jesus to a new kind of Pharisee-ism. We make Jesus into a new version of the very slavery from which he sought to liberate us [Matthew 5:20]. 

Instead of giving us a new slate of rules to follow, Jesus uses object lessons and teachable moments to describe the kind of person God intends us to be—what we might call genuinely good people living genuinely good lives—which (as it turns out) we are not capable of doing without divine intervention.

As Jesus describes the person living this “kingdom life,” we discover that kingdom people are those “who, from the deepest levels of their understanding and motivation, are committed to promoting the good of everyone they deal with—including, of course, God and themselves” (Dallas Willard, Divine Conspiracy, p.187).

As author Dallas Willard has written: 

“In kingdom life we extend the respect to others that we would naturally hope others would extend to us. That is how love behaves.” (DW, DC, p.217)

It’s the Golden Rule, right? “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31 NRSV).

Take the Beatitudes of Matthew 5 for instance. 

Jesus is not instructing us to be poor in spirit [Matt 5:3], 

or to mourn [Matt 5:4], 

or to be meek [Matt 5:5], 

or to hunger and thirst for righteousness [Matt 5:6], and so on. 

That would be exchanging one kind of works-righteousness for another. That would be trying to achieve our own salvation through what we do ourselves. 

Instead, Jesus is painting a picture of what the Kingdom life looks like. Anyone has access to this Kingdom and its power, even and especially those that everyone else would discount: like the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those longing for justice, and so on. As the Sermon on the Mount progresses, we see Jesus paint a picture of a person who is rooted in the Kingdom of God. This is a person who naturally embodies the behaviors Jesus describes—out of the transformation of their heart, their actions will flow (and not the other way around!).

So the truly good person is one who has no use for anger or contempt, who has an intense desire to help, who does not cultivate lust, who does not employ verbal manipulation, who wills good even for those who have harmed them, and so on.

This is what Jesus describes as chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s gospel play out.

We see this descriptive approach in the writings of Paul and the other New Testament authors as well. Take the famous “fruit of the Spirit” passage from Galatians 5: 

The truly good person—the person living in the Kingdom—the person who has been born again into the abundant life that begins here and now—the Christ-shaped life is one that demonstrates “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” 

Like Jesus, Paul is not telling us to “fake it ’till we make it.” But he is rather insisting that: if we spend time with Jesus in God’s present Kingdom, our hearts will be so transformed that we naturally demonstrate these things with our life. 

To quote Dallas Willard again:

“When we enter the life of friendship with the Jesus who is now at work in our universe, we stand in a new reality where condemnation is simply irrelevant. There is before God, Paul says, ‘no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Rom 8:1).” (DW, DC, p.227)

Outro

I think this is an important reminder as we turn our attention back to John’s text.

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.'” (John 20:23 NRSV)

You see, as frightening as it may be that we have the power to withhold forgiveness from those who need it (and who among us doesn’t?), Jesus knows that such an action would be an anathema to one who is being transformed into Christlikeness. 

He is again describing the one who lives fully in the Kingdom of the Heavens. Such a person—a person who embodies spirit-hospitality—a person who has received the Spirit of the living God—such a person will not hold grudges, because such a person desires even their enemies be reconciled to God and blessed.

That is not a call to try harder.
It is instead a call to stop trying harder, and to let God do the hard work.

It’s a call to the disciplined life of a true disciple…… to let the living waters rush over you…… to eat of the bread of life…… to be born again, each and every day—forgiven, restored, renewed by wave after wave of God’s love…… the millisecond we reach into the ever-present Kingdom of Christ.

As Jesus spoke to his disciples that day: “Stop doubting and believe” (John 20:27b NIV).

The Kingdom is here. It is at hand. It is within us and available to us.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29 NRSV).

It Had to Be

Scripture: John 20:1-18

The Second Most Important Person on Easter

The story of Easter began long before that resurrection morning. The John who wrote the gospel, usually called “John the Evangelist,” anchors its origins all the way back to “The Beginning”—when “the Word was with God,” and that Word brought all things into being (John 1:1-3).

But I’d like to pick up the story where it connects with perhaps the most important person on Easter outside of Jesus himself. 

And no, I’m not talking about a bunny.

The first time we encounter Mary Magdalene is in Luke 8. [Verses 1-3 are behind me] There, we learn a couple important details about Mary.

First, we learn that her life has been dramatically impacted by Jesus and the power of his Kingdom. Mary is numbered among a group “who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities.” And since HIPAA did not yet exist, Luke is able to reveal specific additional details about her medical condition—details that we do not learn about the others in this group (that says something about Mary’s prominence and respect among the early church). 

We discover that Jesus had cast out of Mary “seven demons.” 

That’s going to leave a mark on your life.

But we also learn that Mary did not experience healing only to walk away from Jesus and charge her own course. Quite the opposite! Mary is among a group of women that are considered here alongside the Twelve. 

Like the Twelve, these women seem to accompany Jesus as he travels around and announces the availability of the Kingdom. 

But unlike the Twelve, these women also “provided for [Jesus ministry] out of their resources.” Mary was among the first to participate in Jesus’ GoFundMe. And it stands to reason that without her support, much of the ministry of Jesus could not have happened.

 

Contrary to the persistent myth, there is nothing to suggest that Mary Magdalene had ever been a prostitute, or even that the she was the “great sinner” in Luke 7 who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair. But there are a couple further details we can extrapolate here:

That she could support Jesus’ ministry suggests that she was a person of some means—perhaps the widow of a wealthy man?

But the fact that she was regarded as demon-possessed certainly meant that she had no social standing whatsoever.

These two facts made her someone who was visibly (and probably painfully) on the margins of society. And that made her a perfect inclusion among Jesus’ island of misfit toys.

Don’t laugh! That’s what they are? (That’s what we are!)

 

Think about it—Jesus can’t go anywhere without getting criticized for who he’s with.

This one time [Luke 5:29ff], Jesus is eating at a Chick-fil-A—(just kidding, it was a banquet catered by Chick-fil-A)—and some random dudes come up and start giving him grief about who he’s eating with. Over the melodic tones of a soprano sax playing “As the Deer,” these buzzkills might talk smack, but Jesus plays it cool. He turns their own superiority against them, and reminds anyone who would hear that he has “come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32 NRSV).

This kind of thing seems to come up over and over again. The “Chick-fil-A Incident of 31 AD” (as it came to be called) was but the beginning. 

By the time we get to Luke 7, Jesus already sounds a bit exasperated that this keeps happening, and he calls out their hypocrisy: “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Luke 7:33–34 NRSV)

And then by Luke 15, this just seems to be a regular part of Jesus’ bad reputation: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”” (Luke 15:1–2 NRSV)

So you see, a reasonably well-off social-misfit who’d been possessed by demons fits right in.

 

In fact though, that little glimpse into Mary’s life in Luke 8 is all we know of Mary prior to the stories of Jesus’ crucifixion. 

As all four gospels tell the story, Mary is part of a small crowd who watched and waited vigil at the cross. She stands alongside Jesus’ mother, a couple other women, and young John (who would become the gospel-writer). They are all that is left of Jesus’ band of followers. The others have abandoned him, denied him, and allowed fear to separate them from Jesus and the Father.

Was it Mary who first saw that Jesus wasn’t strong enough to carry his own cross?

Was it Mary who advocated for a drink, when she noticed the crucified Jesus was thirsty?

Was it Mary who helped Joseph of Arimathea fund and perform the hastily carried-out funeral ritual?

I don’t know.

 

But I know:

It had to be Mary who first witnessed the resurrection. 

It had to be Mary who first discovered the empty tomb. 

It had to be Mary who first encountered the risen Christ. 

It had to be Mary who was first commissioned to preach the Easter message of our Risen Savior. 

She is the only person named in all four gospels as among the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection.

It just had to be Mary Magdalene—Because Mary represented everything the world needed to know about Jesus.

Resurrection Had to Be

It’s worth noting today that the resurrection itself “had to be,” too. That’s not something universally accepted today, even among Christians.

A long time ago—like a thousand years ago—an important theologian (cough cough Anslem cough) decided to reimagine the work of Jesus through the language and culture of his own world—the world of medieval, feudal England. 

But in order for his symbolic reinterpretation to work, he had to emphasize the cross over and against everything else. As Anselm described things, the singular mission of Jesus’ life was to restore God’s honor, which we had tainted by our sin. In order to do that, Jesus had to die. It was that simple.

But one significant problem with Anselm’s presentation is that it completely omits the resurrection. In order for us to be “saved” (according to Anselm’s imagining), Jesus only had to die—the resurrection of Jesus serves no function whatsoever.

 

As you might expect, I have a problem with this—particularly because the scriptures testify to the fact it was actually Jesus’ resurrection that was the most significant event in Jesus’ life. His death on the cross was important, but it was through the resurrection—through God raising Jesus from the dead—that the bonds of sin and death are broken and we become enabled to overcome all obstacles through the power and the abundant life now available to us. 

As Paul will say, Jesus paves the way for us to experience true life—the kind of life that God desires for us to achieve. In 1Corinthians 15, Paul writes:

“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” (1Corinthians 15:12–14 NRSV)

(Paul then continues a little further down in v.20)

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” (1Corinthians 15:20–22 NRSV)

Without the resurrection the cross was pointless.

It Had to Be (Because God)

But I want to take things a step further even than this. I would argue—and I believe there’s a good deal of Christian history supporting me—that the resurrection “had to be” simply because of who God is. You see, God’s identity (as revealed throughout history and scripture) is mercy, and mercy is the root of what is revealed in the resurrection.

The New Testament treatise of 1John insists that “God is love” and that God’s love was revealed among us by opening up the way to abundant life through the Man-Who-Is-God: his son Jesus. (cf. 1John 4:8b-9)

The Torah of the Hebrew Bible—the first five books of our Old Testament—teach consistently of God’s identity. What is God like?… God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6–7a NRSV)

It is possible to find verses speaking about God’s honor and such in the scriptures, but more often than not, the way God reveals God’s own identity is to anchor it in mercy and grace. That’s important. Among other things, that assures us that the God we know revealed through Jesus is the same Being revealed through the Old Testament. 

 

And what—pray imagine—does this Being whose heart is infinite love and mercy feel at the death of Jesus, the son of God, Immanuel (God with us)? What does God feel as Jesus hangs on the cross?

Grief?
Sadness?
Compassion?

So what—if you will continue to imagine with me—what would you expect this infinitely loving and merciful and powerful Being to do about it?

The resurrection simply had to be, because of who God is.

Outro

Now here’s the part at the end where you need to perk up and listen. Ready?

God loves you.

God loves you more than your parents, your siblings, and your best friend combined.

God loves you more than you can even realize, without your head exploding. 

God loves you…… like God loves Jesus.

So what—pray imagine—does this Being whose heart is infinite love and mercy feel upon seeing and knowing your pain?

And what—keep the imagination train going—what would you expect this infinitely loving and merciful and powerful Being to want to do about it?

 

You see: Resurrection isn’t just something that will happen on a far-off day. Resurrection is what God brings into our lives with: 

every reconciliation,
every restoration,
every provision,
every protection,
every hope,
every peace,
every joy,
every love,
every good that crosses our path.

Resurrection had to be.
It has to be.
Because that’s just who God is.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ is coming again.

Amen.

The Regression of Progress

Preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church of Atchison, KS

Good Friday

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 52:13-53:12

The Regression of Progress

I appreciate the genuine friendship I have with your pastor, and the generous invitation to preach tonight. But I’ve got to warn you: Hell hath no fury like a preacher in someone else’s pulpit.

I do intend to let my hair down tonight… to put on the apron of service… and to get on my knees for Christ’s Kingdom.

And with God’s help, I pray we both survive.

 

Tonight, I believe God is calling us to think about the regression of progress. [repeat]

When you see what I mean, some of you will find this idea quite familiar. Just stay with me a minute:

Think about the times…… it feels like you’ve taken two steps forward and one step back. The regression of progress.

Think about the times…… all your forward momentum grinds to a painful halt. The regression of progress.

Think about the times…… that what other people call progress doesn’t look so good for you and yours. The regression of progress.

Think about the times…… when moving forward looks a lot like backing up. The regression of progress.

You know what I mean now, don’t you?

 

Sisters and brothers, you know I’m not approached the scripture lesson this evening, and I can already feel that prophesying Spirit of God bushwacking through the weeds of this world, embarking on an expedition into the dark heart of each one of us here.

God has some things to tell us today…… am I right?

God wants to help us truly see ourselves and our world…… that’s what we’re doing here, correct?

Well to do that, God intends to remove the blinders of sin’s deception from our eyes…… do you believe that? I do.

 

As we begin considering the regression of progress, I can’t help but acknowledge the obvious: things don’t seem to be getting better in our world. 

There were gains we had made—in the sciences, in economics, in racial justice, in peace——there was progress I thought we had made, that we seem to have lost. The last years appear (to me) to have had more backward than forward movement in almost every measure of merit.

The regression of progress is where we are living right now. It is our “current address.”

Let’s see where the Spirit takes us, eh?

Prosper?

In Isaiah 52, God through the prophet Isaiah speaks to the faithful—and indeed to all the world. Tonight’s reading begins:

“See, my servant shall prosper;
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.” (Isaiah 52:13 NRSV)

I don’t know if you’ve noticed before, but sometimes the Spirit just smacks you in the face as soon as you start looking, you know?

Isaiah begins: “See”—or as the old translations would say, “Behold!”—”my servant shall prosper” (Isaiah 52:13).

Prosper. 

Prosper?

Did anything that that followed in that scripture passage sound like prospering to you? Because it most certainly did not to me. All this suffering servant stuff sounds like the opposite of prospering, if I’m going to be honest about it.

brutalized beyond recognition;

despised and rejected;

suffering, sick;

stricken, struck down, afflicted;

wounded, crushed, punished, bruised.

None of that sounds like prospering. It sounds like dying, and not even dying peacefully in your sleep.

Prosper??!?

[pause]

The Cross

And yet……

And yet we, on this side of the cross, realize that death does not have the final word.

We, on this side of the cross, see how traveling through this “valley of the shadow of death” enabled a new kind of redemption for our lives both now and eternally.

We, on this side of the cross, know that this suffering servant is indeed lifted up and seated at the right hand of the Father. (Glory be to God!)

 

That cross and all that led up to it was the literal embodiment of everything evil in this world. 

It was the embodiment of violence, of racial prejudice, of economic power, of political control, of murder,

of “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language” (Colossians 3:8)

of “strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy…and the like” (Galatians 5:20-21)

The cross was the embodiment of all the things in all the lists in the bible that describe the opposite of the life of Christ…… All of them were embodied in this bloody passion and death of Jesus.

 

Put yourself there, all those years ago. Think about all the progress Jesus had made. 

Three years he traveled around Galilee and Palestine. 

Three years he healed the sick, drove out demons, and proclaimed the availability of the Kingdom of the Heavens and its power. 

Three years he taught his followers a better way to be human—he taught us the only true way of being human: by allowing God to reign in our lives, we are able to achieve a deeper and more fulfilling reality than any we could ever achieve of ourselves.

All of that progress…… destroyed on the cross. 

It’s no wonder the disciples ran away and hid…… 

As far as they could see, there had been a regression of progress, and the best they could hope for (now that Jesus had been killed) was to be able to fade back the way things were before, assuming they weren’t themselves hunted down and killed because of their association with this toxic “Jesus.”

[pause]

And yet.

And yet God wasn’t done, was God?

 

Someone once suggested we never write a period where God places a comma. There’s something to that.

The cross—though it looked like a once-and-for-all period (and maybe even a “the end”)—the cross is the biggest comma in history, transitioning us from what was to what can be in this Kingdom of Christ.

Everything Happens for a Reason

There’s something I hear Christians say to each other quite a bit: “Everything happens for a reason.” You ever hear someone say that? You ever say it yourself?

When we say this, I think we are trying to say that life is not completely chaotic, and that God is involved in the world and the circumstances of our lives. And all that is true. 

But more often than not, I think we inadvertently communicate that God made those bad things happen in someone’s life—and that, most certainly, is not biblical.

The picture of God that we have in the bible is not of some far-off cosmic deity that is strangely and cruelly fixated on interfering with your day. It is not of a bloodthirsty savage god who can’t wait to hurl lightening bolts in revenge on you for the slightest transgression.

What we encounter in the bible—more often than not—is a God who redeems even our bad choices, and who bends even the most horrible evils towards good (cf. Half Truths p.43). That’s what Paul is talking about in Romans 8:28 when he says “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 NRSV).

This is a picture of God, bending even the most evil of intentions, towards the accomplishment of God’s ultimate (and infintely good) desires. 

 

Here’s another example: If you remember the story of the ancient Israelites, they ended up in exile in Babylon because they put their trust in politicians and political alliances to protect them and bring them abundance. Now that’s a cautionary tale we need to hear right now, too; but I’ll have to leave that one in Rev. Kelley’s capable hands.

Instead, I want you to remember to their time of restoration. You see, no kingdom lasts forever, and the fall of the Babylonian empire—as violent and bloody as it may have been—it was redeemed by God. A vicious king named Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon—war, death, destruction…… right? Yet God in Isaiah 45 calls Cyrus his anointed—his messiah! What?? This violent, pagan, megalomaniac…… called God’s messiah?

How does that happen? Friends, it happens when God forces even evil itself to accomplish good.

 

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is famous for saying: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the full context of that quotation. He said:

“Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’”

 

Friends, it is unbelievable what the redeeming, resurrecting power of God can do. Just like our scripture reading says:

It’s enough to “startle many nations,” to render rulers dumbfounded, and to make anybody stop and think (53:15).

“Who has believed what we have heard?” (53:1)

Notre Dame

Like many of you, I was shocked this week to watch as the Notre Dame Cathedral burned.

It startled me, rendered me dumbfounded, and made me stop and think, for sure.

Now, God did not burn this church. But it may just be that Notre Dame is the symbol of resurrection we need this holy week. 

After all, the selfishness and sin and power and control of we human beings brought about Jesus’ death—we sent him to the fires of Gehenna for suggesting a better way than the one the world has sold us.

But the purest gold can suffer any fire, and only be proven again and again.

This regression of progress symbolized by the cross was no derailment of God’s redemptive plan.

 

In the same way, Notre Dame—this thing that is so precious to us—it burned but was not consumed. It almost seemed that the interior of the cathedral was being shielded from the fiery chaos above. 

It will be rebuilt—even if it will never be the same. 

And if what I have heard among my own circles of acquaintance is any indication, it seems that through this inferno, many Christians are thinking differently about the Cross, and the church, and the world as a whole. And if God can utilize the tragedy of Notre Dame to change our thinking—to call us back to our fundamental hope in Christ—is there any greater miracle you can imagine?

The Tragedy

But there’s also a dimension here I’m afraid we’re missing. And for that, I’ve got to get real with you. 

Notre Dame burning is an incredible tragedy. I don’t want to suggest anything different. But within a day or two, over a billion dollars was given towards its rebuilding. 

A billion! As in a thousand million! 

That’s how important this building is to the world…… and it seems that some of the multi-million dollar donations were even given by non-Christians who value the building for cultural and historical reasons. 

Notre Dame burning is a tragedy.
But the real tragedy is what it reveals about our hearts.

Why aren’t we that upset…… about the fact there was a fire burning at the exact same time at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the third holiest sight in Islam?

Why aren’t we that upset…… about those three black churches in Lousiana that were set fire by the son of a sheriff’s deputy?

Why aren’t we that upset…… at the fact that synagogues around this nation are being vandalized with swastikas and hate speech?

Why aren’t we that upset…… about those good-ol’-boys down ’round Garden City who just got sentenced for intending to blow up a bunch of Somali immigrants?

What is it about Notre Dame that merits such extraordinary concern and financial support?…… when all these other churches and houses of worship are filled with ordinary, regular people struggling to pay their bills, get medical care, put food on the table, and simply survive. 

Why is it that we have so little concern for them, and so much concern for a building?—a beautiful building, a historically significant building, a culturally significant building—but a building no less. 

 

Should not our concern be greater: for the “buildings” that are not made with human hands? 

Should not our concern be greater: for the “building” that houses the Spirit of God—the Temple, the Tabernacle—that Paul says is in fact the body of each and every believer? 

(1Corinthians 6:19: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?” NRSV)

And if we dare go so far, should we not be so concerned with every “building” that houses the very breath of God, animating us and making us into living beings?

Should we not in fact care for all that has breath in God’s good creation?

Where is our concern for those needing medical care?

Where is our concern for hungry children?

Where is our concern for single mothers?

Where is our concern for neighborhoods infected by violence?

Where is our concern for the immigrant and refugee?

 

Where is our concern the good creation of God that we are destroying through our use of plastics, 

and which we are brutalizing through our addiction to oil and energy, 

and which we are quite literally throwing away in the name of a god we call “convenience”?

 

What of our commission to protect and care for this great Garden we call creation?

What of our concern for the only world in which we capable of surviving?

 

Sisters and brothers: What we spend our money on reveals our heart.

Within two days—and without even trying—a billion dollars was raised to restore a building. 

Don’t believe anyone who tries to tell you that there isn’t money to solve important issues.

There’s money to fix the water in Flint, Michigan.

There’s money to rebuild Puerto Rico.

There’s money to fund schools.

There’s money to provide healthcare and food programs for children.

There’s money. It’s out there. But the hardened hearts of the world just don’t care.

And before we self-righteously castigate those with more financial resources than we do ourselves, take a moment:

Take a moment and think about who you voted for. Or whether you voted. Or why you voted the way you did.

Take a moment and think about how much of your resources you spend actually addressing all those problems that you complain about on Facebook. 

Take a moment and consider whether it has cost you anything at all to live out your faith in Jesus Christ. Think haaaard, friends, because this one really matters. If living out your faith has cost you nothing, then your faith is not in Jesus the Christ.

Discipleship

You see, Jesus is really clear about what following him looks like. 

And—spoiler alert—it doesn’t look like progress.

In John 12, Jesus is approached by some folks who want to see him. There is a lot of theological significance to this encounter—as there is to most of what John tells us about Jesus. But for now, just realize that this encounter is further proof in John that Jesus is who he says he is; and it sets Jesus on the path that leads to the cross. In v.24 of John chapter 12, Jesus says:

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” (John 12:24–26 NRSV)

Standing on our side of the Cross, we cannot miss the way Jesus speaks of himself here. He is the seed that falls to the earth and dies, bearing much fruit through the resurrection that God will bring about.

But Jesus does not linger long on himself—instead, he rapidly transitions to a call to all of us who would be his disciples, who would discover the fulfilling and abundant life of the Kingdom he enabled and taught.

Just as Jesus has done, so are we to do.

 

Because of this redemptive, resurrecting power of God…even what looks like dying can really be planting the seeds of a new and better tomorrow.

Because of this redemptive, resurrecting power of God…even what looks like hating your life can be redeemed into a meaningful and fulfilled existence.

Because of this redemptive, resurrecting power of God…even what looks like serving the lowest and least can be redeemed into an honor that surpasses our imagination: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master” (cf. Matthew 25:21, 23).

The regression of progress, it turns out, is not the end of the world.

Gerasene Demoniac

I’m almost done now. There’s just one more story I can’t skip over. 

As we read in Luke 8, Jesus has been gaining fame and appreciation for his healing and teaching ministry in the area around Galilee. Around v.26, Jesus encounters a demon-possessed man in the Gerasene region. The demons name themselves to be Legion, and Jesus pulls them out of the man and puts them into some nearby pigs. Given how the forces of evil are always bent toward violence and destruction, it is no wonder that these pigs soon drive themselves into the sea and drown.

It is here we encounter Jesus. He has a successful and productive ministry of power, his reputation for healing is spreading (it is everything our local churches could want, am I right?).

But what is the response of the community? Do you remember? 

Essentially, they say:

“Go away, Jesus; this is scary.”

You see, Jesus’ ministry messed with perceptions of how things are (the so-called “natural order”). Jesus’ ministry messed with their ideas about what is possible in this world. 

They could not handle it then, and (sisters and brothers) they cannot handle it today either.

But consider also what happened next—where Jesus himself could not serve, God prepared another. The very man who was healed is commissioned by Jesus to “declare how much God has done for [him],” and so: “he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.”

But we’re not done yet! The next story (vv.40ff) is another healing, this time the daughter of an important synagogue leader. The two stories go together: When Jesus healed the wrong kind of people, the community was afraid and asked him to leave. But when he healed the right people, they welcomed him. 

I’ll let you draw your own connections to current events and ministry.

Outro

But keep this in mind: When we define progress in the world’s terms, we are going to be at odds with what God is doing.

But also: When progress regresses, watch for where God is at work. 

 

Friends: Our God is not silent.
Our God is not inactive.

When the world builds a cross, God draws us to a crossroads—a place where anything can happen, because the Kingdom of God is more real and fundamental than the very matter that makes up our bodies.

When progress regresses, we do not lose heart! We hope!

We hope because we believe in a God who is able to overcome even death with life!

We hope because we know a Savior who has been to hell and back for us, and he calls us friends!

We hope because we have among us and in us an advocate—the Spirit of God—whom Jesus says enables in us greater works even than those he was able to do himself!

We hope because God doesn’t give up. And you better believe I’m hitching my life to the not-giving-up train. 

Life Is Like a Mountain Railway

There’s an old mountain song about this. It goes:

Life is like a mountain railroad,
With an engineer that’s brave;
We must make the run successful,
From the cradle to the grave;
Watch the curves, the fills, the tunnels;
Never falter, never quail;
Keep your hand upon the throttle,
And your eye upon the rail.

Blessed Savior, Thou wilt guide us,
Till we reach the blissful shore,
Where the angels wait to join us
In Thy praise forevermore.

You will roll up grades of trial;
You will cross the bridge of strife;
See that Christ is your conductor
On this lightning train of life;
Always mindful of obstruction,
Do your duty, never fail;
Keep your hand upon the throttle,
And your eye upon the rail. [Refrain]

You will often find obstructions,
Look for storms and wind and rain;
On a fill, or curve, or trestle
They will almost ditch your train;
Put your trust alone in Jesus,
Never falter, never fail;
Keep your hand upon the throttle,
And your eye upon the rail. [Refrain]

(and finally)

As you roll across the trestle,
Spanning Jordan’s swelling tide,
You behold the Union Depot
Into which your train will glide;
There you’ll meet the Sup’rintendent,
God the Father, God the Son,
With the hearty, joyous plaudit,
“Weary pilgrim, welcome home.” [Refrain]

Blessed Savior, Thou wilt guide us,
Till we reach the blissful shore,
Where the angels wait to join us
In Thy praise forevermore.

 

O God! Be praised in these words!
Be praised through this service!
Be praised with our lives!

O Blessed Savior, come alongside us and guide us
Till we reach the blissful shore,
Where the angels wait to join us
In Thy praise forevermore. Amen.

A Tale of Two Processions

Palm Sunday

Psalm Reading: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

Scripture Reading: Luke 19:28-40

Easy Celebration, 1st Century Edition

Today is a day of easy celebration.

As Eric read and talked about earlier, this is the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem to shouts of hope and praise. He may or may not have looked like a messiah to the people, riding on that donkey as he did—but they certainly recognized him as such. 

And so they sing his praises—literally. 

They call him king.

They recognize that he has been sent by God, the Lord.

They know that his coming means big things for the entire cosmos, including “peace…and glory” in the heavens (the realm of God).

Here—at last!—was the Messiah, God’s anointed: the promised one through whom they would be delivered, and by whose reign the wrongs of the world would be righted.

They had everything to celebrate. 

In fact, the whole created order had something to celebrate—as Jesus himself testified: “If these [folk] were silent, the stones would shout out” (Luke 19:40 NRSV).

Easy Celebration, 21st Century Edition

Today is a day of easy celebration for us, as well. 

We sing upbeat songs, as joyful children parade in. 

A familiar tale is told, which we know inside and out.

We put on our big smiles, and we blend into the throng—the masses—that surround Jesus and hail him as king.

Many of us have been doing this long enough that we know there is something to celebrate here:

These common folk recognize who Jesus is…… which means (in a sense) that they are we—or the “we” of 2000 years prior. Through their eyes and hearts and celebration we profess to recognize Jesus as our king, and we as well sing his beatification.

Warm Up?

Yet for all this joy, the easy celebration of Palm Sunday sometimes seems to be a kind of warm-up for next week—Easter (or more properly, Resurrection Sunday). 

After all, our worship has been building toward Easter through this entire Lenten season. Combine that with the fact that no one can participate among the church for any length of time without discovering that the Easter story is the cornerstone of everything that matters for followers of Jesus. 

That’s why Easter is when we really pull out all the stops:

Choral anthems

Special children’s programming

New outfits

A big fancy lunch

For some people, Easter and Christmas are the only days important enough to even attend a worship service with a local church.

Palm Sunday—in contrast, and being the week prior—almost seems something like a dress rehearsal for the celebration we want to achieve on Easter.

And usually, that’s kind of the route we take to get there:

Out of the darkness of Lent, we rise in celebration on Palm Sunday…… a celebration that continues to crescendo until the last Easter egg is found and the final slice of ham is put away.

[pause]

This is not, however, the way of the scriptures.

The gospel writers preference this last week of Jesus life—over and against all the rest of it. 

It is within this week that Jesus has his most telling encounters with the establishment. 

It is during this week that Jesus offers his most significant teachings to his followers.

It is during this week that we encounter the origins of some of the practices that will become mainstays of the Way of Jesus.

 

Consider some statistics:

In Luke’s gospel—from which we are reading today—there are 24 chapters. There are 24 chapters to Luke. Palm Sunday is in chapter 19, the resurrection is in chapter 24—that’s 6 out of 24 chapters. That means: the stories of Jesus’ final week (between the entrance into Jerusalem and the resurrection) make up a quarter of the entire gospel. One in every 4 chapters in Luke is about the week between Palm Sunday and Easter…… and we—moving quickly from one holiday to the other—skip over all of it, including Jesus actual death.

Now the really remarkable thing about this is that Luke is the gospel writer who emphasizes these stories the least:

In Matthew’s Gospel, almost 1 in every 3 chapters takes place during these 8 days.

In John, it is just over 2 in every 5 chapters.

And for Mark, just over 1 in every 2 chapters describe these 8 days—more than half the gospel!!

This final week of Jesus’ pre-resurrection life is of upmost significance for the early church, and we just skip it right over—moving from celebration to celebration…… from mountaintop to mountaintop.

 

And in the process, we lose sight of who we are in this story of Jesus.

Like the crowds in these chapters—in these two processions—we peak and trough…… we get it, and we miss it.

Like the disciples, we claim we will follow Jesus wherever he will go; yet also like them, we abandon our Savior as soon as the going gets tough.

When all we do is jump from Palm Sunday to Easter, we forget that our own voice can so easily shift from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!”

 

Friends, remember that this Palm Sunday procession is not the only parade Jesus is involved in this week.

On Friday, after being betrayed by his friend, abandoned by his disciples, and arrested without cause; after being subjected to both common and incomprehensible cruelty; after being pronounced innocent yet sentenced to death—Jesus marched through the streets once more.

It was not “Hosanna!” that was echoing through the city of Jerusalem that day.

At this point, the gospels tell us Jesus was so weak from the abuse that he could not even carry his own cross anymore—as the Romans forced their victims to do.

We pick up Jesus’ story in Luke 23, starting with v.26:

The Second Procession (Luke 23:26–33 NRSV)

“As they led him [Jesus] away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. 

But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.” (Luke 23:26–33 NRSV)

What of Us?

Here at last we get to the meat of things, at least in terms of what I believe God is challenging us to think about this week. 

Many have taken Jesus’ words here to speak of that future Day of the Lord that the prophets described, and that John the Revelator also anticipates. And certainly, in those places there are words of caution that the coming of the Messiah is not going to feel very good to everyone—those perpetrators of injustice and violence (especially against the vulnerable) will have to answer for their actions.

But think about this line here, where Jesus says: “For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:31 NRSV)

It seems to me that Jesus is clearly speaking of himself and his time in the first half of this verse. His physical presence in the world is the lifeblood in question, being pumped and pulled from the Root of All Creation into every dimension of the created world. It is Jesus’ presence that makes this “tree” green. 

And even though green wood is not good for burning, just look what the world is doing with it—Jesus is being carted off and sent to the symbolic fires of Gehenna.

If they do this when Jesus—God-actually-with-us-Jesus!—is with them……

If they do this to Jesus—the long-awaited-messiah-Jesus!……

Then what do you think will happen when Jesus is not physically with us? when the “green” has been taken out of the branches? What will happen then?

We need all the days between Palm Sunday and the Resurrection, or we end up with a feel-good, happy-go-lucky, every-day-is-sunshine-and-roses Christianity that looks nothing like Jesus and the Kingdom life he enables for us.

 

Remember all the way back in Luke 6—when Jesus was talking about the blessed and good life that is available to all—Jesus insisted there that we still have access to this blessed and good life even when (not “if” but “when“!) “people hate you, and when the exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man” (Luke 6:22 NRSV).

Peter himself will remind his church about these matters in 1Peter 4. He says: 

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.” (1Peter 4:12–14 NRSV)

 

These are just a couple quick connections. Time keeps me from running this down further.

Following Jesus doesn’t always look like Palm Sunday. And while we (at least once or twice a year) shout the resurrection from whatever mountaintops we can, the actual disciples spent that day afraid and hidden behind locked doors. Despite being with Jesus daily for years, they didn’t realize the insight Jesus offered to the crowd in this Palm Sunday procession. 

 

“For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
(Luke 23:31 NRSV)

If this is how the world treated Jesus, what will happen to us?

If that doesn’t reorient our expectations about the faithful life, I just don’t know what will.

Remember: Jesus says [Luke 9:23] that his disciple is the one who takes up their cross and follows him.

A Prayer (based on Psalm 31:9-16)

O Lord,

We pray today for your servants—
All those followers of Jesus near and far
Who are committed enough to the Way of Christ
That they are willing to pay its high cost.

We pray:
For those in distress,
For those who grieve,
For those whose lives weigh heavy upon them,
For those whose health is affected by their service in your cause,

We pray for those scorned by adversaries,
Looked upon with horror by neighbors,
Dreaded by acquaintances,
And avoided by all.

We pray for those treated as though they were dead (or better off dead!),
For those handled with kid gloves as though they were broken,
For those victimized by gossip,
Conspired against by friends and enemies alike,
And for all in need of your deliverance.

May your face shine upon them.

And may we trust in you, O Lord;
May we claim you as our God to such an extent,
That we are numbered among these unfortunate yet blessed folk.
For such is the way of your Kingdom
and the abundant life you enable in us.

May the sap of your Spirit run rich in us.

Amen.