From Master to Lord

Luke’s version of Jesus calling his first disciples feels like something of a non sequitur.  After a chapter full of stories of teaching and healing in and around Galilee, it feels like Jesus has a bit of crew hanging around him.  Yet, by the time we get to chapter 5, Luke feels compelled to let us in on how the band first got together.  As if by way of a flashback, Luke begins the story of Jesus calling Peter, James, and John with, “Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God…”

So, once upon a time, Jesus was hanging out by a lake with a crowd so large he couldn’t hear himself think.  Quick on his feet, as the Son of God should be, Jesus decided to use the natural amphitheater of the lakeshore to his advantage and he asked Simon (Peter) to put his boat out into the water a bit so that he could teach the crowd.  When he was finished with his sermon, presumably on the nearness of the Kingdom of God, Jesus asked Simon to head out into the deep water in order to catch some lunch.

Simon (Peter), exhausted from a long night of fishing but not catching, reluctantly follows the Rabbi’s instructions, but not without a good, passive aggressive, gibe.  “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.  But, if you say so, I’ll let down the nets.”  Master caught my attention this morning because it clearly isn’t Lord, which is what people usually call Jesus in the Gospels.  In the Greek, the word translated as master is the generic word for someone who is appointed over someone else – a superintendent or an overseer.  In the culture of his day, Simon no doubt recognizes that this itinerant Rabbi is of a higher class than him, but he is also pretty sure that lifetime of fishing on that lake made him an expert.  In the parlance of the South, it might be as if Simon (Peter) says to Jesus, “OK, hoss, we’ll do it your way.”

What follows is a most miraculous event.  The catch of fish is so large that it almost sinks two boats.

jesus-and-the-miraculous-catch-of-fish-on-lake-of-genesareth-sea-of-m5yrj6

What is the most ridiculous part of this stock image of the scene?  My vote is on Lazy Jesus.

Luke tells us that everyone who witnessed this event were amazed at what they say.  No doubt the crowd gathered on the lakeshore knew as well as Simon did that fish don’t bite that late into the morning.  Yet, there before their very eyes, was a catch such that they had never seen before.  Simon Peter is moved from skeptic to believer in that experience.  Jesus is no longer simply master, but now he has become Lord.  Peter fell to his knees and worshiped Jesus saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”  He wasn’t exactly sure what this Jesus guy was, but he knew that God was with him.

Many followers of Jesus since then have had deeply profound encounters with Jesus that helped them come to faith.  Many others, myself included, have simply been a part of the Way their whole lives.  Being called as a disciple doesn’t require the miraculous catch, but rather, a willingness to see Jesus as something more than simply a special teacher, a master, but rather as Lord.

Advertisements

Jesus prayed

Lent it coming!  This is not a drill! Lent is coming!  This Sunday brings with it the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration, which can only mean one thing, Lent is coming!  Every year, on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, which is also the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, we hear a version of the Transfiguration story.  This being Year C, we get Luke’s brief account, which brings with it a detail that I have never noticed before.  Maybe it is because the Transfiguration is so full of pyrotechnics.  Maybe it is because I’m already thinking about Lent.  I’m not sure the reason, other than I’m probably reading quickly past the story’s setup to get to the meat, but I’ve never before picked up the particulars of Peter, James, and John joining Jesus on the mountain.

That isn’t to say that I’ve never known they were there: it is hard to read the story and not notice at least Peter.  What I’ve never seen before it the fact that they really have nothing to do while they are up there.  According to Luke, Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him, but it seems that only Jesus was in seek of space to pray, and it was while Jesus was praying that his clothes became dazzling white and the appearance of his face was transfigured.

jesus-prays-alone

I like Chillaxing Jesus

So, what were Peter, James, and John up to?  Luke says they were exhausted.  Maybe they just needed time to rest and recharge.  More likely, it seems, is that Jesus took them along because he knew what was fixin’ to happen.  In Luke’s Gospel, the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism seems to be only heard by him, and so here, roughly half-way through his ministry, eight days after Peter pronounced him as the Messiah, Jesus brought witnesses along so that others might hear and know the Truth.  Like so many other events in the course of his life and ministry, the Transfiguration seems to be masterfully choreographed by Jesus, but this only happens because of the first part: Jesus prayed.

Jesus was in the habit of prayer.  For Jesus, prayer was a conversation: both talking and, more importantly, listening, and so he was well tuned to the voice of his Father.  Every major event in his ministry was perfectly put together because he was following the Way his Father had laid out.  Jesus prayed, and we, like Peter, James, and John are all beneficiaries of those prayers.

Denying Self

Jesus called the crowd and his disciples and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

I’m about 99% certain that we have no idea what these words from Jesus really mean.  As 21st century, American Christians, we can’t even begin to imagine what it meant for someone to follow Jesus in 1st century Palestine.  This isn’t inherently bad, mind you, it is merely coming to terms with the fact that the circumstances of life in  America today are just so vastly different than they were 2,000 years ago in the Jordan River Valley.  The good people over at WorkingPreacher.org’s Sermon Brainwave did some digging into this point.  It is worth a listen.

They point out what many of us learned in seminary, but probably forgot, that the concept of the self has only developed into an individualistic idea over the last 400 years or so, and even then, only in the west.  Throughout most of the East and the Global South, selfhood is a communal concept.  In 21st century America, who I am as a person is the sum of me: my job, my family system, my living situation, my education, and my religious preferences.  I am Steve, a Low Church Episcopal Priest, a first-born to my parents, but a middle-child to my Father, and a married father of two who is 3/5th of the way done with a D.Min from the University of the South.  To deny myself and take up my cross in that context simply means to do that which I would not normally choose to do.  In the Ancient Near East, the self is defined by the sum of all the people with whom I am in relationship.  I am the son of Pat and John, brother of Ed, Mike, and Lisa, husband to Cassie, father of Eliza and Lainey, co-worker of Keith and Penny, Facebook friend of 1,270, and a priest to hundreds more.  To deny myself in that context is to brave the realistic possibility that you’ll be leaving behind family, friends, and job in order to take an entirely new identity as disciple of Jesus.

The only real opportunity cost for most American Christians is giving up the ability to sleep in [every-third] Sunday morning.  So how do we live into Jesus’ mandate to deny self and follow Jesus?  If denying self is, as I suggest, about a fundamental change in identity, then it would seem that following Jesus requires us to take on his characteristics.  This means doing the hard work of loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and the even harder work of loving your neighbor as yourself.  For example, loving the woman you cut you off in traffic this morning or loving the guy who didn’t wipe down the machine at the gym or loving that family member who always calls at the worst time to talk about nothing in particular or that coworker who smacks his gum in the cubicle next to you or the judge who struck down your state’s same-sex marriage ban or the judge who argues that his interpretation of God’s law trumps federal law, or… you get the idea.  Living in love is probably a good first step on the way to a fundamental change in identity from Steve to Disciple of Jesus: a first step that will probably take a lifetime plus to take.

Jesus Gets Famous

Maybe it is the celebrity obsessed culture in which we live, but as I read the lessons for Epiphany 4B this morning, one word jumped out at me like never before: fame.  “At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.”  I began to wonder what that word meant in first century Palestine.  There was not paparazzi, as far as I can tell.  Cameras weren’t invented until 1816.

Jesus didn’t face a crowd like this

Like any normal person would, I went digging into the text.  Most of the English translations I looked at, from Young’s Literal to the English Standard Version uses the word “fame.”  Even ol’ King James uses the word.  I wonder what fame meant in 1611?  Anyway, I was not satisfied, so I went into the Greek and found the word translated as fame to be akoe.  In the Greek alphabet is looks more like akon, which sent me down a short Gwen Stefani rabbit hole.  See, Gwen did a song called “Sweet Escape” featuring an R&B artist named Akon.  I had hoped that Akon took this stage name because he was a fan of Mark’s Greek New Testament, but alas, his full name, given by his West African parents is Aliaune Damala Bouga Time Bongo Puru Nacka Lu Lu Lu Badara Akon Thiam.

Where was I?  Right, fame, akoe.  The funny thing about this word is that the definitions for it never mention the word “fame.”  The BibleWorks Greek translation is report, news, or preaching.  The Vulgate, interestingly enough, translates it as rumor.  So where’d we get this word fame?

I’m gonna live forever!

What exactly does it mean that Jesus got famous after this event so early on in Mark’s Gospel?  Let’s look back at the story.  Jesus is baptized by John, driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit where he fasted for forty days, and he returns to town preaching the good news of God, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news!”  As he walked and talked, he met four men on the shores of the Sea of Galilee: Simon (Peter), Andrew, James, and John; and invited them to follow him, which they did.  Our story picks up here, as the five of them make their way to Capernaum, the hometown of Simon and Andrew, where on the Sabbath, Jesus, as a visiting Rabbi, was invited to give a word.  The people were amazed by what they heard, he taught with authority that they had never before seen.  Not everyone could handle his teaching however, and a man, possessed by a demon confronted him.  With that same authority, Jesus sent the demon packing, and the crowd is again amazed.  Note what Mark has the crowd saying, “What is this?  A new teaching – with authority!  He command even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”

Jesus gets famous because his words match his actions.  He speaks of repentance and good news: release for the captive, sight for the blind, care for poor; and he lives it by setting free this man who was bound by an unclean spirit just as each of us is bound by sin.  Jesus walked the walk and talked the talk, and he did so with a new authority, one that only comes from an intimate relationship with the Father.  That’s what made him famous or made the news spread about him or had people preaching about him.  Whatever word you choose to describe it, Jesus had the attention of the people because of the authority given to him by his Father in heaven, and his fame spread throughout the surrounding region.

On Following a Leader

A Monday holiday, a post on Tuesday, a Wednesday in the car, means a meager week here at Draughting Theology.  I’m sorry for that because the texts this week are good.  They are short and sweet and packed with preaching material.  My Rector is pondering Jonah, which I find exciting; it a great story worth being unpacked from time to time.  To make matters worse, we don’t read Scripture in a vacuum, which is why I can’t be a member of the sola scriptura party.  The way I read the Bible is influenced by my life, by the life of my Parish, and by what is happening in the wider world.  I’m also not preaching this Sunday, so my thoughts are less about what I might say to my congregation and a much more general interpretation.

That being said, here’s where I am.  Last night, at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Daphne, AL, I attended the third and final Walkabout sessions for the four finalists for the 4th Bishop of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast.  Over the course of about three hours, I had the chance to hear from The Rev. Cn. Dan Smith, The Very Rev. Ed O’Connor, The Rev. Russell Kendrick, and The Rev. Chuck Treadwell as they attempted to cast a vision for the future of our diocese all while tap dancing around hot button issues and trying to put as good a face forward as possible.  Obviously, each of them is already a proven leader in their ministry context, otherwise they wouldn’t be a finalist in our search, but last night, along with Jesus’ calling of four disciples by use of two words, got me thinking about what it means to follow a leader.

Jesus said to them, “Follow me” and the damnedest thing happened, they dropped everything and followed him.  What was it about Jesus that led them to follow?  Was there already a relationship established between them?  Had they heard of his teaching and healing ministry? Or was there just that “je ne sais quoi” about him?

During the Walkabout last night, one of the four candidates led me to write this in my notes, “The room is silent as he speaks.  Authority seems to rest on him.”  Some people just have it.  When they speak, people follow.  Their authority is earned, sometimes even in a brief encounter, for many different reasons, but when a real leader is in your midst, everyone knows it.  Some react positively; they drop everything and follow her.  Others react negatively; they push back against him because they are jealous or because they don’t like the direction they are being led or they… whatever.  Either way, leadership is acknowledged and accepted or rejected.  As my diocese completes its discernment toward an election on February 21st, my prayer is that we will find a leader, empowered by the Holy Spirit, who will invite us to follow him like Jesus invited Andrew, Simon, James and John; an invitation to be co-workers in the Kingdom to the glory of God.

Almighty God, giver of every good gift: Look graciously on your Church, and so guide the minds of those who shall choose a bishop for this Diocese that we may receive a faithful pastor, who will care for your people and equip us for our ministries, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, 818)

Come and See – a sermon

Technical difficulties prevented me from recording my sermon today.  If you’d like to get the gist of it, you can read it below.

For Christmas this year, Santa brought Eliza a really cool art set.  It is an easel with a chalkboard on one side and one of those dry-erase white boards on the other.  The girls’ favorite part, however, is the roll of paper that lives in the center of the easel that can be used to paint.  Painting is messy, which means it must be done as often as humanly possible.  The easel has made its home in the girls play room, which has linoleum floors that are easily cleaned, and they often engage in their artist expression unsupervised.  As soon as a new painting is complete, the young Rembrandt comes running out of the playroom, hand outstretched, saying, “Daddy, come and see.  Come and see.”  Most of the time, I love to hear the joy in their little voices as they come to share their work of art with me, but I’ll admit that there are times, often during a football game, when I feel a whole lot like Nathaniel in today’s Gospel lesson, “can anything good come from the paintbrush of a two-year old?” Of course, the quality of the art is not what the invitation to come and see is all about.  The invitation to come and see is an invitation to enter into a relationship, to join a community, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

The invitation to come and see is at the heart of John’s Gospel and serves as the model of all Christian evangelism.  It all starts on the banks of the Jordan River with a man named John the Baptist, who was sent from God to witness to the light so that all might believe through him.[1]  One day, John was standing with two of his disciples when they saw Jesus walking by.  As they watched Jesus pass, John said to his friends, “Look, there goes the Lamb of God!”  Without hesitation, the two left John’s side and began to follow Jesus.  Jesus noticed them and asked, “What are you looking for?”  Not quite sure what to say, they replied, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”  And Jesus said, “Come and see.”

Jesus invited those two men into a relationship with him.  They spent the day together in the place where he was staying.  The Gospel writer doesn’t tell us what they talked about, but we know that they were changed in their encounter with Jesus.  They had answered his call to come and see and their lives would never be the same.  In fact, one of John’s disciples, a man named Andrew, was so excited about what he saw in Jesus that he ran off and found his brother, Simon Peter, to share the Good News and bring him to come and see Jesus.[2]

Our story picks things up the next day.  Jesus was again walking around, this time on his way to Galilee, when he encountered a man named Philip who he called and said “follow me.”  Philip did, and like the two the day before, his encounter with Jesus forever changed his life.  Again, we have no idea what went on while Jesus and Philip were hanging out.  We don’t know what Jesus said other than, “follow me.”  We don’t know if he performed any card tricks or turned water into wine.  All we know is that Philip was so enthusiastic about what he saw in Jesus that he ran off to find his best friend, Nathaniel.  Breathless, Philip shared with his friend, “We have found the very person Moses and the prophets wrote about! His name is Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.”[3]

Nathaniel is not swayed by Philip’s description of Jesus.  Perhaps he’s been duped before.  Jesus wasn’t the first person to come around and claim to be the anointed one of God.  Maybe Nathaniel had run across a few David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite, and Jim Jones types.  There was a charlatan selling his magical healing powers on every street corner.  Nathaniel isn’t convinced that Philip has found what Philip thinks he has found.  He is cautious at best, most likely skeptical, and perhaps even cynical of the whole thing.  “This Jesus character is the son of a carpenter from Nazareth?  He wasn’t born in Jerusalem to a member of the old royal family?  He wasn’t educated at Yale Divinity School?  You just met the guy this morning?  Really, Philip?  Think about it.  Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

Philip took a risk that many of us are too afraid to ever attempt.  He reached out to a friend to tell him about Jesus, and he received one of the worst case scenario responses.  Nathaniel scoffed at the very idea of Jesus being the Messiah, but notice Philip’s response.  He didn’t get defensive, but he didn’t back down either.  He didn’t start into a long list of reasons why he said what he said.  He didn’t get angry.  Instead, he said three simple words, “Come and see.”  Despite his misgivings, Nathaniel goes off to meet Jesus and like Andrew and the unnamed disciple of John, like Simon Peter and Philip too, Nathaniel’s life is forever changed by an encounter with Jesus of Nazareth.

Over the past several years, Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church has grown by nearly 15%.  We are blessed by visitors most Sundays.  Some show up because they’re in town and Googled “Church in Foley,” but most come for another reason.  Most newcomers land at Saint Paul’s because they were invited by someone.  Someone cared enough to say to a friend “come and see.” A 2008 study by Lifeway Research found that 63% of non-church going Americans would consider attending church if invited by a friend or neighbor.[4]  The number one reason for trying a church for the first time is not its size or reputation; it’s not the beautiful buildings or the service times; it’s not the style or quality of music or even amazing preaching by two good looking priests.  The number one evangelism tool is an invitation from someone just like Andrew, just like Philip, and just like you.  “Come and see” are three of the most powerful and wonderful words in the world: they can be an invitation to a life changing encounter with Jesus.

In the First Letter of Peter, the author admonishes us to “always be ready to give an account for the hope that is within us.”  Most often, that’s what we think of when we think of evangelism, we need to be able to tell someone about Jesus; about how he makes a difference in our lives.  That’s well and good, but in reading through how Jesus gathered up his first disciples, I’m beginning to think that telling people about Jesus isn’t the best way to get things started.  Showing them Jesus seems to work much better.  It’s as simple as inviting them to come and see. Come and experience what it feels like to worship God in the beauty of his holiness.  Come and see what a community of faith caring for each other and the needs of the wider world looks like.  Come and join our merry band of hypocrites that is doing its best to live into the Kingdom of God.  Come and see, and then we’ll talk.  We’ll eventually get to the details about the source of that hope, faith, care, and love, but first, just come and see what a difference Jesus Christ makes.

It is a risky thing to invite someone to come and see Jesus.  They might scoff. They might say “no way.” But the risk offers eternal rewards: the saving grace of God through Jesus Christ. Who wouldn’t want that?  What’s holding you back from sharing it? The invitation is as simple as three words, come and see. Amen.

[1] John 1:6-7

[2] John 1:35-42

[3] John 1:45, NLT

[4] http://www.lifewayresearch.com/2010/12/20/lifeway-research-finds-christmas-is-prime-time-for-church-invitations/

Well Done Good and Faithful Servant

As the Virginia Theological Seminary Class of 2007 departed campus to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth, the Very Reverend Martha J. Horne, Dean and President of VTS also transitioned into a new phase of life called retirement.  She was the obvious choice for our commencement speaker, and in the back of the Lettie Pate Whitehead Auditorium (now Interim Chapel) there hung a sign that read “Well done good and faithful servant” in thanksgiving for her many years of devotion to VTS, the Church, and most importantly, the saving love of Jesus Christ.

Blessed Martha

                     Blessed Martha

Having served as Student Body President that final year, I got to know Dean Horne a little bit, and quickly came to realize that she is probably not the type of person one would expect to serve as Dean and President of the largest seminary in the Anglican Communion.  Unlike her successor, Dean Markham, Dean Horne is a highly introverted person, soft spoken, and unostentatiously genteel.  She didn’t command a room, but she was most certainly in charge because she utilized the gifts and talents with which God has blessed her to lead VTS with wisdom and love through the tumultuous days of the early 21st century.  The sign which hung at our graduation spoke to her service and to the Gospel witness that God desires that we use the gifts he has entrusted to our care.

Each of us has been given gifts and talents.  Some are our birthright, others come through the Holy Spirit in baptism, and still others are bestowed in our hour of need.  To squander those gifts out of fear and/or laziness is as egregious a sin as any other.  As disciples of Jesus, we are called upon to use our many and diverse gifts to build the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  This means that we don’t make excuses for our gaps in other areas, but instead we trust in God to surround us with the right people to complete the mission.  Virginia Seminary had outgoing and gregarious leaders during the Martha Horne administration, it had prophetic voices, it had the occasional clanging cymbal, and it had Dean Horne as the non-anxious presence, steady at the helm.  The sign the hung at our graduation ceremony was for Dean Horne, but it really was for all of us.  It is only in community that our talents are used to their fullest potential, that the Kingdom can come near, and that we can all hear the words of the Master.

“Well done, good and faithful servants.”