A Weighty Text

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This week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE question looks back at the text the Good Book Club had assigned for Sunday.  In it, we find Jesus caught up in several different theological confrontations.  It began with some wondering if Jesus was harnessing the power of Beelzebul to cast out demons, and somehow, devolved into a series of “woe to yous” against the Pharisees and canon lawyers.  Our question comes from Jesus’ strong rebuke of the lawyers, “Woe also to you lawyers!  For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not life a finger to ease them.”

What burdens does the church carry or load on people today that it needs to ease?”

This question came to mind last night and again this morning as I reflected more and more on that most famous line in motor racing the Bible, John 3:16.  It seems there are two starkly contrasting ways in which this passage can be used.  One camp reads “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” and focus on the perish bit.  They read this as a pronouncement of God’s judgment upon those who do not believe.  Specifically, and quite often, a judgment upon those who do not believe exactly as they do.  It is, I would argue, the burden the church has carried since the Enlightenment.  As knowledge became the idol and the ideal, more and more religious leaders have focused on the modern equivalent of hand washing routines; getting bogged down, most often, in a specific theory of atonement as the means-by-which-Jesus-saves-us-hands-down-and-to-question-is-to-be-of-Beezebul.

Others choose to read John 3:16 and focus on the love part.  The action of God sending the one and only Son wasn’t meant to be an action of judgment or condemnation (cf. John 3:17), but was an act motivated by God’s steadfast love.  The measure of belief isn’t one of intellectual assent to a prescribed set of theological tenants, but rather one of relationship.  To gain eternal life doesn’t require one to believe in every jot and tittle of Penal Substitutionary Atonement  Theory, but rather, to believe in God’s never-failing love, to place one’s trust in it, and to live one’s life as a means of sharing it.  Eternal life, then, isn’t something we gain access to when we die and are judged worthy, but rather, it is something we are invited to take part in creating.  Eternal life is life in the Kingdom of God, and that life is readily available everywhere the goodness of God’s love is believed and enacted.

So, what burden does the church carry or load on people that it needs to ease?  Well, it seems in a tradition that prides itself on having learned clergy and a well-educated laity, is to get out of our heads, roll up our sleeves, and believe the Kingdom of God into existence wherever God has called us to be.


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Believing is Seeing

Audio of today’s sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or you can read the text here.


Lost in the busyness of Holy Week was a publication by the Gallup pollsters that once again reminded the Church of the importance of good preaching.  In a survey that asked people what factored into their decisions about church attendance, 76% of respondents said that “sermons or talks that teach you more about scripture” were a major factor in where they went to church.  75% also listed “sermons or lectures that help you connect religion to your own life” as a major factor.  With no offense intended to my colleague Ken Stein, only 38% suggested “a good choir, praise band, cantors or other spiritual music” as a major factor.[1]  These statistics are nothing new.  I’ve been hearing about the need for quality preaching since before I went to seminary.  Seminaries, to their credit, do the best they can within the confines of a three-year curriculum to help would-be preachers begin to hone their craft.  At VTS, we were required to take a semester and a half of homiletics during our Middler year.  Much to my benefit as a preacher, I had the Rev. Dr. Judith McDaniel for a full semester.  Judith’s teaching style matched me to a “T”: she is exceedingly Type-A and loves rules.  She worked hard to mold us into good preachers.  Her goal was to teach us how to “proclaim the gospel in such a way it can be heard by the head and the heart.”  Even though I violate most of them on a regular basis, including at least two in that last clause, I still have Judith McDaniel’s patented “12 Homiletical Norms” saved in my files.  I will never forget her number one rule in preaching: “Settle for one point, well made.”  She was so serious about the need for one clear point that without an obvious thesis statement in the body of the first paragraph, your sermon could not be graded as an A.

Having now violated that norm as well, I can say that I am in good company.  It isn’t until his Gospel is almost over (and some scholars think maybe it was over) that John finally gives us a clear statement of his purpose for putting the story of Jesus to parchment.  “These are written,” John writes, “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  All the poetry, the signs, the discourses; all the time spent on the high priestly prayer and the Passion; all the details and the care with which he wrote them, were included so that we might come to believe.  It might feel like this thesis statement is simply an appendix, tacked on after the story has been told, but I think John decided to include it here on purpose.  This thesis for belief comes right at the tail end of a story that shows us what belief requires.

This story takes place while it is still Sunday, the first Easter Day, the first day of the week and the first day of new life.  That whole scene at the tomb that we heard about last week had just happened that morning.  John and Peter had seen the empty tomb and gone home when Mary came barging in, breathlessly declaring, “I have seen the Lord.”  And what did the disciples do with that news?  There was no Alleluia Party, I can tell you that.  No shrimp cocktail.  No champagne punch.  No cake.  Only fear, disbelief, and locked doors.  This pattern of testimony and skepticism wasn’t new.  Back at the very beginning of John’s Gospel is the story of Andrew who, after he had encountered Jesus, went to tell his brother Peter.  Peter needed his own encounter, and so off they went to meet Jesus.  The pattern repeated the very next day when Philip ran off to find Nathaniel who is famous for responding to Philip’s testimony with, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  Belief based on the testimony of someone else proves challenging in John’s Gospel.  John knows that belief in Jesus is easiest with a personal encounter. [2]  But after the Ascension, John also understands that coming to faith based on the testimony of someone else is the norm, and so he wrote his story, that we might come to believe having never seen.

Back in that locked house on Easter evening, other than Mary Magdalene, we have no idea if any of the disciples gathered there actually believed that Jesus was really risen from the dead.  If anyone did believe, they were likely the most afraid.  When Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead, it sealed the deal on his execution.  Imagine what havoc Rome and the Temple would wreak upon Jesus’ friends if he really had the power to come back from the dead!  Those who were still unbelieving likely had similar fears with the added thought of how awful it would be to get yourself killed for following some guy whose tragic death was made more pathetic when he wasn’t resurrected like he said he would be, but his body was stolen to perpetuate some ridiculous hoax.  The disciples had heard Mary’s testimony, but they couldn’t come to believe, when suddenly, Jesus appeared in their midst.

That morning, Mary’s encounter with the risen Lord was simply her name.  Now, the disciples were offered peace and his wounds, and like Mary, they rejoiced at the sight of their risen Lord.  Well, not all of them.  For whatever reason, Thomas wasn’t there.  Like Andrew going to find Peter and Philip running off to find Nathaniel, the disciples went in search of Thomas with the Easter proclamation of Mary Magdalene on their lips.  “We have seen the Lord!”  Here is where most preachers will go off on a tangent about Doubting Thomas, but I refuse.  Partially because Judith McDaniel’s voice is reminding me that I’ve already failed pretty miserably at settling on one well-made point.  But mostly, I refuse to beat the dead horse of Doubting Thomas because I think calling Thomas “doubting” is a bad reading of the Scripture.  Thomas didn’t have any less faith than the rest of the disciples had shown the week before.  All he asked for was what Mary and the rest all received on Easter.  He wanted to see and touch Jesus.  Like everyone else in John’s Gospel, before Thomas could believe, he needed to encounter the risen Lord.

It took eight days, but Thomas got his chance, when back in that same locked house, Jesus once again appeared in their midst.  Again, he offered peace.  He invited Thomas to touch his wounds and asked him to give up his unbelieving ways just as the rest of them had a week earlier.  Jesus invited Thomas into a relationship, which is what belief is all about.  Believing in Jesus means that we trust that he is who is says he is and will do what he has promised to do.  It means that through his resurrection, we can enter into an ongoing relationship with him by following where he leads.

It is into this relationship that John hopes all of us will enter.  Both he and Jesus know how difficult that will be for those of us who would come later.  Unlike Andrew and Peter, Philip and Nathaniel, Mary, the Ten, and eventually Thomas, we don’t have the opportunity to encounter Jesus face-to-face.  Much as we would like him to, Jesus isn’t likely to miraculously appear in our midst, offer us peace, and invite us to touch his wounds.  We who believe without seeing are blessed, Jesus assures us, because ours is a faith much more challenging to maintain.  The disciples came to believe through seeing.  We will have to come to see through believing.  Eventually, if we stick around long enough; if we can hang on to belief through its infancy; if we are open to the Spirit, we will have our own opportunities to see Jesus, to receive his peace, to feel his wounds, and to know the power of his resurrection.  Through belief, Jesus enters our lives, despite whatever doors we may have locked in fear, and we are blessed.  He enters offering peace, and invites us to abundant life in his name.  God knows, it isn’t easy to maintain an Easter faith without seeing Jesus face-to-face, but when we can, we are assuredly blessed in believing.  Amen.

[1] http://www.gallup.com/poll/208529/sermon-content-appeals-churchgoers.aspx

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3222

In What do you Trust?

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The Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office has joined in the growing number of police departments that have added “In God we Trust” to their patrol cars.  As a member of the clergy, I should probably be more excited about this growing trend, but so often these moves feel like they are done in spite, which makes me feel icky (a deeply theological term).  Anyway, no matter how I feel about the new sticker and fully aware that my judgmental nature is well outside the “radiating the glory of God” category, I’ve actually found myself drawn to these words that we find printed everywhere from Sheriff’s patrol cars to the almost useless penny.

In God we Trust

This is such a profound creedal statement, that if it were really true, would change the face of the earth.  In Sunday’s various lessons, we hear a lot about trust, which in theology is called faith or belief.  For Abram to believe that Sarai was going to bear a child at 90 required something deeper than the intellectual assent we post-enlightenment westerners associate with belief.  Rather, Abram had to trust in God fully.  He placed his whole stake trusting that God would keep his promise. As a result of that trust, the entire course of human history was changed.

Paul, in his letter/sermon to the Hebrews offers a helpful way of looking at trust/faith/belief.  “Faith,” he writes, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is having trust in the one who makes promises, which, again, if we really believed this, the world would be a vastly different place.

Which leads us finally to Jesus’ final word on the parable of the foolish rich man that we heard last week. As he explains the parable to his disciples, the tells them that “where their treasure is, their heart will be also.”  He lays it down before them, wondering, do you trust my word enough to follow me fully in heart, mind, soul, and body? Or, is your trust in someone or something else? Is your trust bifurcated? Are you willing to follow me fully?

Placing our full trust in God is not easy. There are plenty of forces: powers and principalities; that clamor for a little chunk of our trust – us tiling fear, frustration, and the promise of a better future than God has prepared.  To stake out future solely on God can be frightening, but as Jesus, Paul, and Abram show us, the reward is well beyond anything this world can offer.

My Lord and My God

As many of you know, the original Greek and Hebrew of the Bible did not contain punctuation marks.  More often than not, this isn’t too big of an issue, as the context allows scribes the ability to discern where sentences end, which one’s are questions, and if something is said an an exclamation.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, however, we have one of those places where a lack of punctuation in the original text leaves some question about the author’s intent.

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We are all very familiar with the story of “doubting” Thomas.  For whatever reason, he was not a part of the gathering in the upper room the night of Jesus’ resurrection.  He didn’t have the opportunity to see Jesus appear out of thin air, to hear his word of peace, to examine the wounds, or feel his breath waft across the hair on his neck as it stood on end.  The disciples shared with him what they had experienced, but Thomas needed to experience it for himself.  A week later, he gets the chance to see Jesus appear out of thin air, to hear his word of peace, and to examine the wounds.  His response is recorded verbatim by John:

“My lord and my God”

Older translations tend to end this famous phrase with a period, while newer ones are more apt to use an exclamation point.  I’m not sure it makes an earth-shattering difference which one you choose, but I don’t think it is meaningless.  To choose an exclamation point makes these words from Thomas a word of overwhelming excitement and joy; while a period makes them words of reverence and awe.  Robertson’s Word Pictures say that the case of this phrase indicates the latter, that “Thomas was wholly convinced and did not hesitate to address the Risen Christ as Lord and God.”

For me, this encounter with the risen Jesus seems to have more power if it ends in a period.  It is a moment of deep realization for Thomas as doubt, worry, frustration, and stress melt away in a moment of deep knowing between Jesus and Thomas.  Jesus gave Thomas precisely what he needed to believe in the resurrection, and in so doing, offered Thomas the chance to fully see and know that his friend, rabbi, and savior had risen from the grave.  Thomas’ response, then, was one of hushed restraint, as he realized that in that moment everything had changed.

“My lord and my God.”

Joy and Disbelief

The Easter story is a story of perplexing dichotomies.  On Easter Day we heard the story of the resurrection from Mark’s Gospel which ends in a very ominous tone, “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  On Easter 2 we found ourselves in John’s Gospel with the well worn story of Thomas and his disbelief, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  By Easter 3, you’d think everyone would be on board with the fact that Jesus had actually risen from the dead, but here in Luke’s Gospel we find the disciples with their hands on the wounds of Jesus filled with a mixture of joy and disbelief.  The aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is delightfully perplexing.

There is a tendency in the Church to idealize the apostolic age.  In liturgics, we look to it as if there was some sort of monolithic Apostles’ Book of Common Prayer to which we all should subscribe, but alas, it doesn’t exist.  In theology, we look to the Apostles, especially Paul, as the preeminent theologians, those whose theologies should never be questioned.  Even in faith, we tend to ignore the failings of Peter and the persecution by Paul and, to some extent, even the doubting of Thomas and assume that from the very beginning everyone was on board with this whole resurrection business, which is why, I think, the Lectionary spends three weeks reminding us that Jesus rising from the grave was not what the disciples thought was going to happen.

When doubts creep in, and they do for all of us, it is helpful to remember that even the Apostles struggled with faith.  When the world seems dark and gray, when the idea that Jesus triumphed over evil seems impossible to believe, when doubt seems a whole lot easier than faith, it is good to know that we are in good company.  Once we find solidarity with the Apostles, then it seems a bit easier to move back toward faith, to read the great stories of their Acts, to hear of their perseverance, to listen to their witness, and to know that even in the chaos and the darkness, the light of Christ remains.

The life of faith is perhaps best summed up in Luke’s Gospel as a life joy and disbelief.  The Good News is that God is in present in both.

credite evangelio

The Season after the Epiphany is all about how Jesus is revealed to the world.  After all, that’s what the word Epiphany means: a manifestation of a divine being or a moment of sudden realization.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we hear how Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John suddenly came to follow the Jesus, the Son of God, having realized something amazing in him from only a few words.  The Old Testament lesson, though not about Jesus, is about a whole city coming to realize the error of their ways.  Those are both powerful stories that will make for good sermons, and I’ll deal with them as the week goes on, but today I was struck by the Psalm and the lesson from 1 Corinthians.  Both seem to be about what happens after an Epiphany, that is, the hard work of ongoing faith.

The title of this post is “credite evangelio” which is the Vulgate (Latin) translation of the end of Jesus’ proclamation in Mark 1:15.  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  Credite evangelio, believe the good news.  That’s the second step.  First we realize that Jesus is who he says he is, and then we get about the work of believing.  The problem is, we’ve all but ruined that word over that past 400 years or so.  These days, belief is often equated with intellectual assent.  To say, “I believe in God” means that I’ve done the math, and despite a few doubts in my work, I’m reasonably empirically convinced that God exists.  That’s not what it mean when Jesus said it.

Credo, the Latin word with gets translated as “believe” wasn’t about intellectual assent, but rather, it was about trusting in another person.  Diana Butler Bass, in her book Christianity After Religion puts it this way:

“To believe” in Latin (the shaping language for much of Western theological thought) is opinor, opinari, meaning “opinion,” which was not typically a religious word. Instead, Latin used credo, “I set my heart upon” or “I give my loyalty to,” as the word to describe religious “believing,” that is, “faith.” In medieval English, the concept of credo was translated as “believe,” meaning roughly the same thing as its German cousin belieben, “to prize, treasure, or hold dear,” which comes from the root word Liebe, “love.” Thus, in early English, to “believe” was to “belove” something or someone as an act or trust or loyalty. Belief was not an intellectual opinion. (p. 117)

As we realize what God has done for us in Jesus of Nazareth, we are then compelled to hold dear that gift.  In this sense, when we say, “I believe in God” it means more like “I give my heart over to God, and trust his will for my life.”  Or, more to the words of Jesus this Sunday, when I believe the good news (credite evangelio), I treasure the news that the Kingdom of God has come in the person of Jesus Christ and take my place in its upkeep.

What if I don’t want to preach the Trinity?

If my Facebook page is any indication of the sentiment of the wider church, the format proposed by my homiletics professors, that we should attack the themes of feast days first and the texts second, doesn’t have much of a foothold in contemporary preaching.  I can’t say that I’m 100% sold on the idea, but it is the academy after all: a place intentionally set aside for experimentation with new ways of doing things.  So, for the next three weeks, I’ll do my best to pretend to try to think about preaching the feasts based on their inherent theological themes.

Well, at least I will after today.  Today, I’m wondering, what if I don’t want to preach the Trinity?  What if I don’t feel particularly compelled to read the Trinity into Genesis 1?  What if I’m not sold on the passing reference to the Trinity in 2 Corinthians?  What if I don’t really believe that Jesus made such a clear trinitarian reference in his Great Commission?  Then what?

It seems obvious to me that if you don’t want to preach the Trinity on  Trinity Sunday and you are a lectionary based preacher, then you have to preach the resurrection encounter from Matthew 28.  Earlier, the Angel of the Lord had told the women who found the empty tomb that Jesus had gone on to Galilee and that his disciples should meet him there.  Our lesson for Sunday opens with the craziest detail, the disciples ACTUALLY go to Galilee; to the mountain that Jesus had told them about.  It is worth noting that in Matthew’s account there is no Emmaus Road story, no encounter with Jesus in the upper room after Easter supper, no race to the tomb between Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved.  In Matthew’s version, the disciples simply do what their told, even though, and this, I think, is key, “some doubted.”

Believing in the resurrection is difficult.  So difficult, in fact, that even some of Jesus’ closest companions aren’t sure about it.  But Jesus loves them just the same, and he encourages them, even in their doubt, to go and share the story.  Believing in the Trinity is even harder.  It seems like a doctrine pushed backwards onto scripture.  Three in one and one in three is hard to comprehend.  Pictures like this one

don’t make it any easier, but the lesson we get from Matthew 28 this week is simple.  Tell the Good News, even as you struggle to believe it yourself.