But who do you say that I am?

In the list of Top 5 Moments in the ministry of Jesus, the average disciple would probably list, in some order:

  • The Baptism of Jesus
  • The Temptation
  • The Transfiguration
  • The Crucifixion
  • The Resurrection

Number six would probably have some significant variation.  Some might include the Ascension.  Others would think of Jesus turning the tables in the Temple, feeding the 5,000, or walking on water, but I would like to submit that event #5a in the ministry of Jesus should be Caesarea Philippi, which we will hear this Sunday.

Before the Transfiguration solidified for Peter, James, and John just how special Jesus really is, this moment in a Roman resort town built to honor Caesar, commonly called the son of god, is the first real opportunity that Jesus and his disciples had to unpack everything they had seen and heard.  Miraculous healings, profound teachings, and all kinds of run-ins with the religious powers-that-be had already happened.  Surely, the disciples were constantly talking amongst themselves, wondering just how powerful this man was to whom they had hitched their wagons.  Could he be Elijah?  Was it somehow John the Baptist, back from the dead and disguised like former Mets manager, Bobby Valentine?  Or was this Jesus character another in the long line of prophets God had sent to proclaim a word of challenge and hope to the people of Israel?

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JBap, is that you?

It is during this intentional time away, the world’s first vestry retreat, that Jesus invites his disciples to dig deep into that conversation.  “Who does the world think that I am?” he asks them first, to get the ball rolling.  And then, he dives in by asking this group of faithful souls who have dropped everything to follow him, “But who do you say that I am?”  Who do you think you are following?  What does your experience of me suggest is happening here?  Are you able, unlike my own people in Nazareth who tried to stone me, that God’s hand is at work here?

I’m always caught short by this encounter between Jesus and his disciples because I wonder what my answer might have been.  More accurately, I wonder what my answer to this question is.  Yes, I believe in my heart and confess with my lips that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, but do I live that reality every day?  Do I choose to follow Jesus as Lord in each moment?  No, of course I don’t.  No one does.  In those moments when I’m following my own path, when I focused on my own selfish goals – when I’m feeling jealous or frustrated or bored or burned out – in those moments, who do I say Jesus is?  This difficult question that Jesus poses to his disciples is a helpful one for us all to remember on our daily journey of faith.  In this moment, as I do this thing, make this decision, walk this path, who am I saying Jesus is in my life?

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Gains and Losses

As Pumpkin Spice Season returns, congregations around the globe are turning their attention to the next great liturgical season, the Annual Stewardship Campaign.  More than the start of school marking a new program year, or the beginning of Advent marking the new liturgical year, or even Ash Wednesday marking the start of the long journey toward the cross, the Annual Stewardship Campaign holds a, no, more likely, THE MOST prominent place in the congregational life cycle.  This makes sense, of course, because a church cannot pay its bills without income coming in.  So, we plan elaborate processes by which we will invite our members to support the budget, which is mostly clergy salaries, for another year.

As is well evidenced on this blog, I am not one for pulling the words of Jesus out of context to use them as proof texts for one’s theological position.  However, occasionally, as I’m reading a text, it happens naturally.  As was the case this morning, as I read the passage from Mark appointed for Proper 19B, which has nothing, at all, to do with the Annual Stewardship Campaign, and yet, rang so true to the wider experience of “fundraising” in the church.

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It seems to me that the pendulum swing away from stewardship as spiritual discipline to fundraising to make the budget is an exercise in gaining the world while losing the very life of congregational ministry.  It is, as others have suggested, another step in the process of the church becoming nothing more than a social services agency that holds weekly meetings.  If the goal is simply to bring in enough money to pay a clergy person, keep the lights on, and make sure my church is here for me when I need it, then we might as well funnel that money into the Rotary Club or United Way’s coffers and close up shop.  Instead, it seems to me that the goal of the Annual Stewardship Campaign ought to have very little, if anything, to do with budgets, and should instead be focused on the spiritual discipline of giving.  It should be rooted in giving from the abundance of God rather than filling holes of scarcity and fear.  It should be aimed at giving life rather than staving off death.

What does this have to do with the scene at Caesarea Philippi?  Not much, except that maybe when we come to follow Jesus as the Messiah, who gave his very own life out of the abundance of God’s mercy, we might take a moment to consider what we are seeking to gain and what we might lose in the Annual Stewardship Campaign.

Faith In Action

Audio of this sermon will be available on the Christ Church website.


One of the things that drew my family to Bowling Green was the romantic ideal of four honest-to-goodness seasons, with real springs, falls, and winters.  In lower Alabama, it was said that there were really six seasons, each lasting two months.  Three of them were summer.[1]  Currently, they are suffering through “Hurricane Summer,” which I remember as the season in which you began to forget what outside looks like as you move from building to car and back again as quickly as possible.  In Bowling Green, the summer of 2018 has felt a bit like a lower Alabama summer, but even if it is raining, today shows us the promise of more fall-like temperatures on the horizon.

The church has its own equivalent of a six-month Gulf Coast Summer, which is commonly called Ordinary Time.  The Season after Pentecost usually runs from May or June all the way to December, and can feel like an interminable stretch of green.

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During the dog days of Ordinary Time, the Lectionary does us a favor by occasionally taking long walks in a particular portion of the Scriptures.  You might remember our five-week visit in the Bread of Life Discourse last month.  For the month of September, we’ll spend five weeks bouncing around the Letter of James, which holds a special place in my heart.  James is an often-misunderstood letter, that has become the scorn of Protestants ever since Martin Luther called it an epistle of straw.  Luther’s main objection was with the final three verses of today’s passage, which seem to undermine the Protestant overemphasis on St. Paul’s thesis of justification by grace through faith by suggesting that works are required to get into heaven.  I don’t think that’s a fair reading of James, but we’ll have to come back to that in a minute.

What I so appreciate about James is how straight-forward it is.  Unlike Paul’s sometimes serpentine-like run-on sentences about lofty ethics and big theological constructs, James was written, as Mother Becca told us last week, to be a letter of universal appeal.  James wrote about real things that congregations were struggling with in the first century.  These same things happen to be real things that congregations are still struggling with in the twenty-first century.  The not-really-hypothetical example that opens our text this morning shows that not much has really changed in the church in the last two-thousand years.  Human beings are still human beings, whether they have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, or not.  We are pre-disposed to play favorites, to defer to the rich and the powerful, and to look down on those who are living on the margins.

It is in this not-really-hypothetical example, that I think we really come to understand why James makes so many people uncomfortable.  He isn’t afraid to go from preaching to meddling – naming the evil he sees in the church, namely the rich getting preferential treatment over the poor – as sinful.  Here, James is in total agreement with Saint Paul in suggesting that the chief sin of most Christians is idolatry.  By judging our neighbors, we put ourselves in the place of God, and directly violate both the first and second Commandments.  “So, you didn’t murder anyone or commit adultery this week,” James says somewhat sarcastically in my imagination, “Congratulations!  But. If you judged your neighbor because of his disheveled appearance, you have still fallen short of the glory of God.”

“So, what are we to do then?” we might rightfully ask.  Christianity according to James is downright difficult.  If the standard for faithfulness to the Gospel is not killing anyone, we are all in pretty good shape, but when the bar gets raised up to “don’t make distinctions among yourselves,” we are all in a heap to trouble.  Here’s where we circle back around to that stuff that made Martin Luther so uncomfortable.  What if, when James writes that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” he is not being prescriptive, but descriptive.  Instead of reading James 2:17 as saying, “if you don’t do good works, God isn’t going to give you entrance into heaven when you die,” perhaps we should read this as saying that the only way we know that God is at work in our lives is through our good deeds.  This isn’t James undercutting salvation by grace through faith, but rather James’ honest assessment, based on his experience in the church that only when it walks like a Christian, talks like a Christian, and acts like a Christian, is it really a follower of Jesus Christ.  Or, as Saint Paul might have described it, if you can see the fruit of the Spirit at work in someone’s life, even when they occasionally fall short, you can be sure that God is there.

Over the last month, Christ Church has received an additional gift in the midst of the dog days of Ordinary time thanks to three baptism Sundays in four weeks.  Today, [at 10 o’clock] we welcome into the Household of God two people who are, in many ways, strangers to most of us.  Lindsay and Evelyn are here from Central America, where Lindsay’s husband, Ryan, serves in the Marine Corps.  Lindsay is a life-long friend of the Mitchell family, and so, we join with them in celebrating this momentous event for the Swoboda family.  Even more, our Prayer Book teaches that Holy Baptism is “full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church,” which means that today we act on behalf of the Church Universal to welcome Lindsay and Evelyn into the community of those who are on a daily basis striving to follow Jesus.  As we do at every baptismal service, [at 10 o’clock] we will reaffirm the Baptismal Covenant, a series of eight questions that summarize for us what it means to be a Christian.

Like it was for James, for the authors of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, it was important that the life of a Christian be summarized not just in a series of theological concepts which must be believed in order to be saved, but that being a disciple of Jesus requires us to act as well.  We will affirm our faith in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the words of our most ancient statement of faith, the Apostle’s Creed, but if we stop there, James would warn us, then our faith, by itself, is dead.  We must go on to seek God’s help in living that faith daily by way of engaging in the Apostle’s teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayers, by working hard to resist the temptation to judge our neighbors, among other things, and when we fall short, returning to God’s grace, by proclaiming the Good News in word and deed, by loving our neighbor, and by respecting the dignity of every human being.

Being a Christian is hard.  If it were just an exercise of the mind, merely a system of belief that required no action on our part, it would be so easy, but the rubber meets the road, as we learn from James and from our Baptismal Covenant, when our faith comes alive and we put our belief in God to work.  As the dog days of Ordinary Time roll on, may the Lord who has given Lindsay, Evelyn, and all of us the will to do the good, hard work of Kingdom living, continually give us the grace and power to perform them.  Amen.

[1] https://www.al.com/living/index.ssf/2013/10/finding_our_own_seasons.html

A Failure in the Kingdom? – a sermon

The audio for this sermon will soon be available on the newly updated Christ Church website.  Click here to listen, or read along.


This afternoon I’ll be flying out of town again.  After my delightfully awkward 20th high school reunion, it might seem odd to rush off again, but this time, I’m headed to a continuing education event at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  The two-day course is called “Stepping up to Staffing,” and there I hope to expand upon my year and a half of on-the-job training supervising a team of high-quality employees.  This continuing ed. opportunity, like every other one that I’ve ever attended, assumes that the goal of every congregation is to move forward, to maintain health, and to grow.  There just doesn’t seem to be a market for continuing ed. events that will teach you how to shrink your church, but given the trajectory of the last five weeks in John 6, maybe that’s something we should be studying.  The ministry of Jesus wasn’t always popular.  It didn’t always grow.  In fact, sometimes, it was an exercise in ineffectiveness to the glory of God.

As you might recall, our triennial summer excursion into the Bread of Life Discourse began with Jesus looking out upon a crowd of more than five thousand hungry followers and having compassion on them. With five loaves and two fish, he fed the multitudes with such an abundance that twelve baskets of leftovers were gathered.  In our time, that was a month ago, but in the context of John’s Gospel, it was only yesterday.  Yesterday, there were more than five thousand people following Jesus around the Galilean countryside.  It had likely been days on end that the crowds followed Jesus, listening to his teaching, experiencing his healing ministry, and longing for the salvation that he was promising.  Yesterday, the crowds were so impressed with Jesus that they openly proclaimed him as a prophet.  Yesterday, the fervor grew with such intensity that it looked like the crowd was going anoint Jesus their king.

A good church growth consultant would point out all the good things that Jesus did yesterday.  He preached the Gospel of grace.  He offered true healing.  He connected with his community, learned what they needed, and worked to make a difference.  To the hungry, he gave food to eat.  And when it became clear that the crowd was missing the point, trying to make it all about Jesus and not the Kingdom of God, Jesus retreated into the wilderness to pray for strength, to take stock of his ministry, and to give the crowd time to figure it out on their own.  Jesus was doing a lot of things right, and as a result, his ministry was flourishing.  Yesterday.

Today, things are very different.  By morning, Jesus and his disciples were on the other side of the lake.  Many weren’t willing to travel that far to continue to listen to Jesus, and so they returned to their daily lives.  Some were so desperate that they followed Jesus, if only to call dibs on the twelve baskets of left-overs from last night’s meal.  As Jesus looked upon this smaller crowd, he again had compassion on them.  It wasn’t just that they were hungry.  John tells us that this time Jesus’ compassion wasn’t for their physical needs, but rather for their spiritual ones.  “They were like sheep without a shepherd.”  They were lost, wandering in the wilderness, destined to follow anyone or anything that would offer them the relative security of food, water, and shelter.

Today, after yesterday’s miraculous feeding, Jesus chooses to feed the soul rather than the belly, and so we get the Bread of Life Discourse.  This short teaching by Jesus is less than 900 words.  It probably took him less than 10 minutes to preach it, and in that time, he managed to finish the miraculous shrinking of his ministry from more than five thousand to a grand total of twelve.  That is some unprecedented contraction.  Every step along the way, the crowd has asked questions, and for every question, Jesus had a more pointed and difficult response.  By the time this fifth passage from John 6 opens, Jesus is commanding the crowd that is still gathered to chew on his flesh like a cow chewing its cud and to wash it down with a cup full of blood so that they might live forever.

Yesterday, they were eating their fill in the wilderness.  Today, in the Synagogue in Capernaum they are being asked to gnaw on their teacher.  Not on his teaching, mind you, but to actually munch down on Jesus.  “This teaching is difficult,” they say, which doesn’t seem like an outlandish reaction to the direction Jesus’ teaching has taken over the last ten minutes.  “Who can accept it?”  Already Jesus has lost most of his followers.  Yesterday, it was a crowd of five thousand.  Here, all that is left are his disciples, his most faithful students, who had followed him for close of a year now.  Whether this group consists of 70 or a couple of hundred, it is already much smaller than the enamored and hungry crowd that approached Jesus on the hillside twenty-four hours ago.

This teaching from Jesus is difficult.  He is asking for their full faith.  He’s hoping that after more than twelve months together, they might be willing to follow Jesus no matter the cost, to risk hunger and thirst, to risk personal danger, to risk family embarrassment, for the sake of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus is pressing in the hopes of figuring out just how far his disciples are willing to go for the bread that gives life.  It turns out that for many of them, they just aren’t willing to go quite that far.  What we don’t know is what actually scandalized these would-be disciples. Was it the eat my flesh stuff or the running away from being crowned king bit?  Were they disgusted by the imagery of bone and blood, or were they afraid they had hitched their wagon to a loser? Whatever it was, they begin to grumble, just as their ancestors had in the wilderness when God gave them manna – the bread of heaven.

Just like their ancestors, these disciples were unable to trust fully in what God had in store for them.  Lost in the wilderness, their ancestors cried out to Moses, “Why did you bring us out here to die?  Wouldn’t it have been better to die in Egypt?  Oh, that we could return to the fresh produce, meat, and wine that Egypt had to offer.”  Ultimately, they didn’t have much of a choice but to continue to move forward.  Returning to Egypt would have meant certain death, but for the disciples of Jesus who are having trouble trusting in the promises of God, turning back seems easy.  Most of them would have been from Capernaum and the surrounding areas.  Their families would be glad to have them back.  Whatever they had lost to follow Jesus, they could have picked most of it right back up again.  And so most of them leave.  They walk away from the gift of eternal life for the relative safety of the here and now.

From five thousand followers to twelve in 24 hours is no way to run a ministry.  The church growth consultants would certainly recommend that Jesus choose a different path, and yet, the story ends with a note of promise.  Jesus turns to the twelve who are left and challenges them, “Do you want to turn back too?” Among them are Judas, who will betray Jesus to the Temple authorities; Peter, who will deny Jesus three times on the night of his arrest; Thomas, who will go missing for more than a week after the crucifixion; and at least eight others who will flee from the scene when the going gets tough.  Yet, this rather inauspicious group will, one day, take the message of the Kingdom forward.  Despite the challenges that are to come, it is this occasionally faithful remnant who will abide with Jesus, confident that the word Jesus brings is eternal life.

“Where else could we go?” Peter wonders.  No one else in the world was offering eternal life like Jesus was.  From this remaining group of twelve, some two thousand years later, 2.3 billion people[1] now call on the name of Jesus, the Holy One of God, for the bread that brings eternal life.  As we wrap up our five-week tour through this challenging teaching, I’m grateful for this final word of hope.  It won’t sell a continuing education event, but there is much to learn from the scandalizing message of Jesus in John 6, and I give thanks for five weeks to gnaw on the Bread of Life.  Amen.

[1] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christians-remain-worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe/

Flesh and Blood

It is never helpful to split the world into broad-brush, false dichotomies, but there seems to be two kinds of people in this world: those who can handle blood and gore, and those who cannot.  I’m mostly in the latter category.  I hate horror movies, not because I don’t like to be scared (though the older I get, the more I don’t like that either), but because of my weak constitution when it comes to blood and guts.  Even war flicks are too much for me, and as a result, I’ve missed out on classics like Saving Private Ryan.  I chose to do my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) training in a tiered-care retirement facility rather than the Level 1 Trauma Centers all of my friends were flocking to.  I’ve resisted the urge to volunteer as a police chaplain, because I don’t want to be the new guy in the corner, puking my guts out.

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It may come as a surprise, then, that one of my favorite prayers in the Book of Common Prayer is the Prayer of Humble Access.  This is an optional prayer as part of the post-fraction in Rite I.  It may or may not be said, with the congregation joining in or not.  We say it most Sundays here at Christ Church, even though in the wider culture, its themes would seem to by fairly unpopular.  For those who maybe don’t know it, I’ve copied it form page 337:

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful
Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold
and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather
up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord
whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore,
gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ,
and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him,
and he in us. Amen.

From the uncomfortable reference to that time Jesus made a racial slur, to the idea that we might be somehow unworthy of God’s grace, a wildly unpopular concept in 21st century mainline Protestantism, to the imagery of eating flesh and drinking blood, this prayer challenges the modern American mainline Protestant at every turn.  Yet, this prayer is also profoundly, if uncomfortably, biblical.  Sunday’s Gospel lesson is round 3 of our five week foray into the bread of life discourse.  This week, Jesus doubles down on the idea that the bread that God has given for eternal life is his very own flesh.

There is some comfort in the knowledge that this was as difficult to hear at the time as it is now.  Yet, there is also the ongoing reality that we need the nourishment that can come only from Christ’s own self.  For those, like me, who don’t enjoy blood and gore, this imagery can be hard to swallow, but Jesus is clear that we need to come to the Table, to eat the flesh of God and to drink the blood of Christ, in order to be continually renewed for the ministry to which we are called.

Spanger

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Nope, not that Spanger

This morning’s God Pause from Luther Seminary, written by Joe Natwick, introduced me to a new word, more a portmanteau, that I had never heard before: spanger.  Just as one can become hangry -hungry and angry – when they have not had enough to eat and their blood sugar begins to drop, the author suggest that those of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus can experience spanger – spiritual anger – when we see the world around us falling so short of the dream of God.  Natwick goes on to suggest that the only cure for spanger is a heaping helping of the truth.  That is, as disciples of Jesus, we are called to speak the truth in the face of injustice, oppressing, and degradation.

A quick Google search shows that Natwick cannot take credit for having created the word, spanger, however, he might be the first to use it as a combination of spiritual and anger.  Ironically, according to that ever-trusted resource, wiktionary.com, spanger’s previous use is as a pejorative term to describe a beggar.  Again a portmanteu, this earlier usage comes from combining spare and change, as in, one who begs for spare change.  This older usage, which dates all the way back to 2007, actually creates a scenario in which both uses of the word would work.

“My encounter with that spanger outside the coffee shop left me feeling spanger.”

This rather long introduction can be blamed on the Apostle Paul (or one of his disciples), who, in the letter to the Ephesians gives the Christians there permission to get angry, but with the strong caveat not to fall into sin.  This anger that the author of Ephesians speaks of is that righteous indignation that comes when we look around and see a world full of corruption, violence, and oppression, often under the guise of Christian virtue, that is so obviously not what God had in mind at the beginning of Creation.  This righteous anger should, as Natwick suggests, lead us to action.  It should spur us to speak the truth in love.  It should motivate us to work toward justice and peace.  It is God at work within us, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, that propels us out into the world to break the bonds of oppression, patriarchy, racism, xenophobia, classism, etc.

The portion of the letter to the Ephesians that we will hear on Sunday is the perfect response to those who would suggest that Christianity isn’t political.  Christianity, because it is interested in bringing the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven, is, by its very nature, political, calling the kingdoms of this world to leave behind selfish desires and to remember the poor, the needy, the orphan, and the widow.  May our spanger over this world being so out of sorts compel us to good work to glory of God.

I’ll give you…

… Something to be angry about!

As our interminable summer foray into John 5 and 6 continues this week, our Gospel lesson doesn’t just start where the last one left off, it helpfully includes the last verse of last week’s lesson as the first verse for this week (then immediately skips five verses that actually help that first verse make sense in context because RCL).  Having taught the hungry remnant of the 5,000 what the miraculous feeding was meant to represent, Jesus declares himself to be the bread of life.  Those who eat of this bread, Jesus says, will never again know hunger or thirst.

If one were to try to figure out the most offensive thing someone could say in the 1st century Jewish context, this was pretty close.  As I noted last week, this “I AM” statement by Jesus, the first of seven in John’s Gospel, would have been fairly obviously blasphemous, unless that person really was the Messiah, the Anointed one of God.  To claim the holy name, that which has gone unspoken even about God in Judaism, for one’s self would have been unimaginable.  Yet, in a very public setting, Jesus was willing to say “I AM.”

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The tetragrammaton – the Hebrew name of God

When confronted by the crowd for making such a bold statement, Jesus essentially says, “U MAD BRO?  I’ll give you something to get mad about!”  Jesus doubles down on his claim – saying twice more “I am the bread of life” and “I am the living bread.”  He claims that he will raise those who believe up on the last day.  He is even so bold as to suggest that the true bread that gives life to the world is his flesh.

One of the leading complaints about Christianity in the early days was that it was a cannibalistic cult.  Jesus does himself no favors here, and yet, he feels compelled to make such outlandish claims because he knows that all of it is true.  Jesus is “I AM.”  Jesus is the bread of life that God has chosen to offer to the world.  Jesus’ flesh, in the bread of the Eucharistic feast, will be the nourishment of all who come after and the sign by which Christ’s Church will signify the ongoing life of faith.

It would have been hard to imagine Jesus going further off the deep-end than his initial “I am the bread of life” statement, but deeper he went.  All the while, even in this polemical rhetoric, Jesus is offering an invitation.  “If you want eternal life.  If you want the salvation that comes from a relationship with God.  If you want to know life abundant, then believe what I am saying, as outlandish as it may be, for these words which I speak are the true bread that gives life to the world.”