True Hospitality – a sermon

You can hear this sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it here.


I can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons Episcopalians are so hesitant to engage in evangelism isn’t the fear of hearing “no,” but rather the fear of hearing “yes.”  I know that has been true for me at times.  I’m always on edge when I know a friend is coming to church.  “Will they feel welcomed?”  “Can they find a parking space?”  “Will they know which door to enter?”  I’ve been thinking a lot about this as recently we welcomed Mark Richard as a Ministry Intern, and today we welcome our new Associate Rector and Chaplain to WKU, the Reverend Becca Kello.  Will they see the church as the loving and beloved place that I do, or will they instead notice the stained concrete near Moore Hall, the weirdly hidden in plain sight coffee pots in Surface Hall, or, as Mark already has, that the State Street doors are inaccessible 97% of the time?  (That’s the actual percentage – I did the math.) It can be nerve wracking to welcome a friend into one’s church, which is why I’ve spent a good chunk of time during my first six months here talking about evangelism, but thinking about hospitality.

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There are more church hospitality gurus out there than K-Cup options at Kroger, but one thing they agree on is that you have very little time to make a first impression on a guest.  Usually, within 10 minutes after the service has ended, a visitor has already decided if they will ever return.  You might not have noticed it, but during our three-Sunday journey with Jesus as he commissioned the twelve to preach the Good News on his behalf, we have heard Jesus lay the foundation for quick first impressions in the church, though the context is, admittedly, a bit different.  Two weeks ago, as Jesus began this teaching, he told the disciples that as they enter a house, they should offer greetings, and “if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.”  Jesus didn’t invite his disciples to be patient or to give a place a second chance at making a first impression, but rather, he was clear that they would know in an instant whether the Spirit was present and a place was ready to welcome a stranger.

In this morning’s lesson, Jesus circles back around to the topic of hospitality, and although he is speaking to those who will be welcomed, as we hear it today, Jesus offers a lesson on hospitality for Episcopalians who repeatedly affirm that we will seek and serve Christ in every person, especially those who walk through our doors.  God sends every guest that we receive.  Our task, if we are taking Jesus’ words seriously this morning, is to realize that when we welcome a guest, we welcome Jesus, and when we welcome Jesus, we welcome God into our midst.  This isn’t always easy.  I get that.  Sometimes guests look and smell more like Jesus the first century Galilean than we would like.  Sometimes guests have different ideas than we do.  Sometimes, they might even sit in the pew that your family has sat in for the last fifty years.  Every guest we welcome will change us, and to be truly hospitable is to be willing to allow that change to happen.

Truth be told, the Church has been struggling with how to welcome strangers since the very beginning.  Outlined in Acts chapter fifteen, the First Council of Jerusalem was called because the Apostles couldn’t agree on how to welcome Gentiles into the faith.  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds his audience of the fundamental call of the church to welcome guests, admonishing them to “not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”  Even those whose lives are dedicated to hospitality can find it difficult. One of my favorite church stories, one that you will tired of hearing someday, comes from Kathleen Norris’ spiritual memoir, Dakota.  Norris reflects on the tradition of hospitality that has been a part of monastic life for hundreds of years, noting that a wayward traveler has always been able to find safety, rest, and a meal with the monks who welcomed them as they would welcome Jesus into their dwelling.  Yet even in the monastery, true hospitality can be difficult to maintain.  Norris recalls a story of an older monk talking to a younger monk about the challenge of welcoming every guest as he would welcome Jesus at the gate: “I have finally learned to accept people as they are,” the older monk says. “Whatever they are in the world, a prostitute, a prime minister, it is all the same to me. But sometimes I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, is that you again?’”

To welcome a stranger as we would welcome Jesus is a hard standard to live up to.  Every congregation struggles with it to some degree.  I know that in the search process that brought me here, Christ Church did some work coming to terms with the reality that this wasn’t as hospitable a community as you thought you were.  Like many Episcopal congregations, y’all tended to be more friendly than welcoming.  That is to say, you were really good at making sure each other felt welcomed on Sunday, but often, a newcomer ended up as nothing more than a blip on the radar as she passed by the closed conversation circles in Surface Hall and slipped out the back door.  The good news is that you’ve taken it to heart and your Hospitality Team is hard at work looking for ways to help the entire Christ Church community be more welcoming.

One of the fundamental questions we have to ask in this process is “what does hospitality look like?”  Specifically, how does hospitality differ from simply being friendly?  While it may seem like Jesus doesn’t give us much to work with in this morning’s lesson, he shares a basic feature of true hospitality when he tells the twelve that “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple– truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”  Offering hospitality doesn’t mean a grand buffet every Sunday, though I do hope we’ll have an honest to goodness coffee hour after the 10 o’clock service someday soon.  Hospitality doesn’t require a Starbucks, a glitzy Welcome Center with a credit card reader for first time givers, or even highly trained volunteers.  The key aspect of hospitality that Jesus highlights in our lesson this morning is the ability and the willingness to notice the other.

I cannot offer a cup of cold water to someone if they remain invisible.  To know that a person is in need of water, coffee, or a simple handshake requires first and foremost that I see them.  Seeing them not as an interloper, a pew stealer, or simply as a passerby, but as a human being, made in the image of God, who deserves to experience God’s love in this place.  Being hospitable means having our eyes open and our heads on a swivel to see the family searching for the nursery, the man wondering where the closest restroom is, or the woman unsure of which door to use to enter the church.  Being hospitable means recognizing the person in the next pew who can’t figure out why we speak the King’s English at 8 o’clock, or why there is an S in front of the next hymn at 10, or where to kneel at the communion rail.  Being hospitable means that before you catch up with that good friend after church, you spend three minutes seeking out and talking to someone you have never met before.

Being hospitable means seeing the other, discerning their need, and, in the model of Jesus, showing compassion by doing something to alleviate that need.  It doesn’t require heroics, but rather, hospitality is about inviting the other to experience fully the little things that make church a comfortable place for so many of us.  In so doing, we invite our guests to experience the love of God, the grace of Jesus, and the refreshment of the Holy Spirit.  And maybe, just maybe, if we are all doing our part to make Christ Church a welcoming community, we will be more inclined to invite a friend to join us, knowing that when they walk in, they will be welcomed as an honored guest, even as Jesus Christ himself.  Amen.

The Commissioning Part III

As we enter our third week of Gospel lessons from Jesus’ commissioning of the twelve with its concurrent warning of the persecution to come, the astute preacher will note that the tenor of the conversation has changed dramatically.  From rejection by family and being dragged into court, Jesus turns his focus back on what sort of welcome his disciples can hope to receive as they enter various towns and villages.  You’ll recall from two weeks ago (in the optional portion of a lesson that we rarely hear in the Season after Pentecost therefore effectively castrating this three-part lesson, but I digress, as is my wont, in ranting about the failures of the RCL) that early on, Jesus imagined for his disciples what hospitality might look like.

“Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.”

In Sunday’s lesson, he circles back around to the topic of hospitality, perhaps to end this commissioning on a positive note, but more likely, given the growing number of travelling missionaries by Matthew’s time, to encourage the wider audience to not give up on the several Hebrew Bible injunctions on hospitality.  To welcome a messenger of the Gospel, like one of the twelve, and later Paul, Barnabas, and Priscilla, to name a few, was to welcome Jesus himself into one’s home, and to welcome Jesus was to welcome God almighty under one’s roof.

As I’ve talked about over the past few weeks, being a disciples of Jesus was dangerous for the first three hundred or so years of Christianity.  Being an Apostle of Jesus, one who is sent to proclaim the Good News, was even more so.  The call to martyrdom was answered by thousands in those early years, and yet, those who went and those who welcomed them remained faithful.  While we focus on the great evangelists of the day, the Acts of the Apostles reminds us that without people like Lydia and Mary the Mother of John Mark the Gospel of Jesus would not have been able to spread like it did.  As we reflect on our own call to go and tell, it would behoove us also to think about how we might open our homes to welcome prophets, apostles, and even Jesus himself.

Go, have no fear, take risks, and share the Good News – a sermon

You can hear this sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it here.


It was pointed out to me after last Sunday that thanks to a couple of baptisms and Vacation Bible School, I had escaped a pretty difficult Gospel passage for another three years.  Without thinking, I laughingly agreed, and gave the old “phew” sign.  Monday morning, I realized that I had breathed a sigh of relief just a little too soon.  Unfortunately for me, the Lectionary has split Jesus’ warning into three sections, the toughest of which we hear this morning.  If you’ll recall from last week, Jesus’ ministry has become increasingly successful.  He toured many of the cities and villages of Israel, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near, and the crowds continued to grow.  As Jesus looked at the throngs of hurting and helpless people who were following him, his heart was broken.  They were like sheep without a shepherd, and Jesus knew that for every one that had heard his message, there were hundreds of others who had yet to hear the Good News.

So, Jesus called together the twelve and commissioned them to go: cast out demons, cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and proclaim that the Kingdom of heaven has come near.  Before they departed on their evangelistic expedition, Jesus offered a word of caution.  Well, actually, it’s more like eight hundred words of caution.  The task will not be easy.  There are plenty of people who do not want the Jesus Movement to take off, and many of them are in positions of power.  “You will be brought before councils, flogged in the synagogue, and dragged before governors and kings,” Jesus told them in last week’s Gospel, “but don’t worry, the Spirit will give you the words you need.”  “You will be hated by friends and family alike,” Jesus goes on to warn them, “but with God’s help, you will endure.”  His rhetoric heats up in this week’s passage.  Jesus reminds the disciples that “out there” they are calling him Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that is, Satan himself.  “What do you think it will be like for you,” Jesus asks, “as you take my message and help it to spread.”

Consistently throughout these dire warnings about the struggle that is to come, Jesus pauses to offer the word that God always offers in moments of anxiety and struggle, “Have no fear.”  The work will not be easy.  There will be pain.  There will be broken relationships.  There will be rumors and innuendo.  There might even be a call to die, but despite all that, Jesus says, “have no fear, for even if they kill your body, they cannot touch your soul… Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

When Jesus talked about giving up one’s life and that “one’s foes will be members of one’s own household,” he was dead serious.  To give up one’s faith in the Jewish tradition and follow Jesus was akin to walking away from one’s family.  The same was true of Pagan Gentiles who converted.  In a world where men followed in the family business and sons took care of their aging parents, this was a significant issue.  To disrupt the religious, political, and economic status quo was the threaten the stability of the whole region, and governments are not fond of instability.  It was not safe to be a disciple of Jesus.  In fact, for the first three hundred or so years of Christianity, there was an almost constant, real threat of death, and so these words of comfort were of crucial importance.

Hearing a similar chunk of Matthew 10, this Thursday, the Church remembered Saint Alban, the first British Christian for whom we have a name.  Alban lived just outside of modern day London during the third century.  He was a pagan when he met a priest who was fleeing the most recent wave of Roman persecution.  For reasons that will forever be unknown, Alban decided to hide the priest in his home.  For several days, they had nothing to do but talk with each other.  Over time, Alban was so impressed by the faith of the priest, that he became a Christian.  When soldiers got word that the priest was hiding at Alban’s home, they came to arrest him, but Alban quickly donned the priest’s cloak and gave himself up instead.  Alban was tortured in hopes that he would renounce his faith, but when he withstood the flogging with patience and joy, the judge ordered him beheaded.

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As Alban and his executioners made their way to the hill where he was to be killed, they came upon a fast-flowing river.  The bridge was so clogged with onlookers that the execution party couldn’t cross the river, but the excited new convert was so ready to lose his life for the sake of the Gospel that he “raised his eyes to heaven and the river dried up.”  The first executioner, amazed by the miracle, put down his sword and offered to be killed in Alban’s place.  Ultimately, both men were beheaded atop a hill that now bears his name.  Legend has it that as he made the fatal blow, the second executioner’s eyes popped out and dropped to the ground along with Alban’s head, which then rolled down the hill and a spring of fresh water burst forth from the ground at its final resting place.  Martyrdom stories tend to get embellished over time, but even if all the details aren’t exactly true, the reality is that for Alban and thousands of others like him, following Jesus in those early days of Christianity was a life-threatening endeavor that they willingly took on buoyed by the assurance of Jesus in passages like this one.

From the comfort of our mortgage free building that sits in the heart of the Bible Belt, and is filled with relatively comfortable, middle class, “mainline” American Christians, this message doesn’t have the same impact.  In fact, it can be downright difficult to begin to make sense of it.  When I hear these warnings about persecution, I can’t help but wonder if I can even consider myself a disciple.  Life as a 21st century American Christian just seems too easy.  What are we to do with a text like this?   I think the answer is two-fold.  First, these words from Jesus should call to mind the millions of Christians outside of our safe little American bubble who face the threat of death every day.  These words from Jesus remind us to pray with fervor for the Coptic Christians in Egypt and Iraq, for Anglicans in Sudan, and for Christians around the globe who are under the real threat of violence for their faith in Jesus.

Secondly, I think these words of warning should inspire us to evangelistic action.  In a country where there is no actual threat to our faith, but where the face of Christianity is often closed-minded, abusive, or worse yet, a self-seeking get-rich-quick scheme, to not speak God’s word of love for the world God created is to fail to live up to the expectations Jesus has for us.  Instead of choosing to love father and mother more than Jesus, many Episcopalians have decided to love polite society or our own comfort more than him.  When we choose the easy route, we fail to take up our cross and follow him.  When we ignore the call to proclaim the Kingdom of God in word and deed, we deny Christ before others, and, tough as it might be to hear, Jesus promises that he will deny us in the same way.

If it weren’t for the faithfulness of those early disciples, who withstood persecution and proclaimed Jesus Christ as Lord, we wouldn’t be here today.  It is our responsibility, then, as committed, albeit comfortable, disciples of Jesus, to continue to share the Good News that the kingdom of heaven has come near, to share a message of God’s love and grace in a world that hears mostly of God’s anger and vengeance, and to show that following Jesus doesn’t mean condemning those who are different from us, but rather, embracing the reality that God loves everyone, no exceptions.  In a world full of vitriol and strife, the message of hope, grace, and love that we have to offer is too important not to share.  So, go, have no fear, take a risk, and tell out the Good News that the kingdom of heaven has come near.  Amen.

Cost Benefit Analysis

In yesterday’s post, I used the example of a college student selling Cutco knives to family members to try to explain what I thought was happening in the rather intense prep session that Jesus gave the twelve before they embarked upon their first evangelistic tour in Matthew’s Gospel.  To hear Jesus tell them that ” I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” is difficult to hear, even if it is a rough quotation of the prophet Micah’s lament over his rejection by the people.   As I’ve struggled with what to do with this passage as a preacher, this Cutco image continues to play in my mind.  It seems to me that Jesus is inviting the disciples to think long and hard about the cost of what they are taking on.

Sure, they have spent considerable time following Jesus, but what he is preparing them for is something quite different.  They are about to move from being the students of a less-than-well-pedigreed Rabbi to being the carriers of his message in the world.  As Jesus notes, it is one thing to simply follow one said to be of the house of Beelzebul, it will be quite another to multiply his message in towns and villages all around Judea.  Before, these idiots who followed a fool weren’t worth the effort.  Now, they will be the target of some pretty brutal attacks with collateral damage that will threaten the livelihood of their entire family.  Jesus wants to be sure they have counted the cost before they weigh the benefits.

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Like the Cutco knife salesperson, the key to understanding the cost, is being fully aware of the benefits.  Jesus isn’t promising that proclaiming the Kingdom will be easy, but, he is quick to assure the disciples that “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven…”  If one is willing to take the risk of evangelism, the rewards will be exceedingly great.

So, like I asked yesterday, what does this have to do with us in the 21st century?  Well, I would suspect that a lot of the anxiety polite Episcopalians have about evangelism has to do with our images of it.  The cost of sounding like a Bible thumper who stands on a street corner and tells people they are going to hell seems awfully high.  The fear of ostracizing oneself from relationships because of a deep desire to see the whole world come to know the joy of the Kingdom is a significant cost.  What the Church hasn’t been so great at, and, quite frankly, this passage doesn’t do all that well either, is highlighting the benefits of a life of evangelism.  Without the full picture, one can’t make an informed decision.  In our lesson, Jesus is trying to give his disciples an idea of the cost.  In time, they will come to know the benefits.  This week, the preacher might do well to offer a look at both so that our people can do their best cost benefit analysis and decide for themselves if becoming an Apostle is something their faith life can handle.

Looking for wiggle room

The good news is that soon there will be an Associate Rector here at Christ Church.  The bad news is that she won’t arrive in time to preach this Sunday’s really difficult Gospel lesson.  I should have looked at the Lectionary more closely while negotiating her start date.  Yesterday, I was able to use our Vacation Bible School curriculum to deftly avoid the whole “Go nowhere among the Gentiles” and everybody’s Father’s Day favorite “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.”  It seems that this Sunday, I’m stuck preaching the hard stuff.

I suppose you can’t blame me, though, for looking for some wiggle room in Jesus’ continued difficult teaching to the disciples turned Apostles who are preparing for their first missionary journey.  To be fair, Jesus is doing exactly what any good leader should be doing.  He is preparing his disciples for the hardship they are going to experience.  Certainly, they have seen the mixed reaction to Jesus during their time with him.  Only a fool would think that taking his message out would mean being welcomed with open arms and joyful acceptance.  Still, rather than sending them out with false hope, Jesus offers a clear warning that the message of the Kingdom of God is going to be unpopular with some; and that difficultly might start in one’s own family.

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You too can put all your family in debt in order to buy an ill-fitting suit

Like a college student selling Cutco knives, the disciples would logically begin their evangelistic tour with family members.  It would make sense that one’s family, those who have seen what a difference Jesus made in their life, would be open to the Good News of God’s saving love in Christ.  However, like the Cutco knife example, there are likely just as many hard feelings and a begrudging sense of obligation.  These disciples had dropped everything to follow Jesus.  Imagine being Peter’s wife’s family.  Sure, Jesus had healed their matriarch, but what about the wife (and children?) left behind that they had to take care of.  Or, what about the other son’s of Zebedee?  Losing two members of the family fishing crew couldn’t have been an easy thing to overcome.  Even Matthew, the “author” of this Gospel, must have worried about how he might go home to a family that was no longer able to live comfortably off his tax collections.

It is no wonder that Jesus spent so much of this time dealing with family dynamics.  Surely, he knew how difficult it would be for the twelve to share with family the story of God’s Kingdom when it seemed like it had left them all behind.  Now, how does this preach in 21st century America when the more likely version of this story is the children of devout church members who will never darken the door of a church again?  I’m still working that out.  Like I said, I’m looking for some wiggle room this week.  Unfortunately, I’ve not found it yet.

How not to worry

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As the rubric at the bottom of page 888 of the Book of Common Prayer reminds us, “Any Reading may be lengthened at discretion.  Suggested lengthening are shown in parentheses.”  This Sunday, our Gospel lesson has one of those “suggested lengthenings”; taking us well into Jesus’ rules for his apostles.  The part where he tells them not to take a bag or a cloak or extra sandals gets plenty of press, but what is often overlooked are his instructions on what should happen should you get arrested.

they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

Worry seems to be the number one deterrent to evangelism.  Those of us in 21st century America don’t have to worry about getting flogged or dragged before the authorities.  Our worries tend to be much more superficial.  We worry about offending someone.  We worry about embarrassing ourselves.  We often worry that we won’t have any idea what to say.  We worry when there is absolutely no need to.  Jesus has shown us what we need to eliminate the worry of evangelism.  In Baptism we are given what we need to eliminate the worry of evangelism.  If only we would tap into the Spirit of God that is ready to be at work in our lives, we have no need to worry about evangelism.

It isn’t so much that we can just open our mouths and the Holy Spirit will make us say what needs to be said.  Instead, if we invite the Spirit into our relationships, and begin to see the other through the eyes of God, then all our our interactions will be fodder for evangelism.  It isn’t about having the perfect apologetic, understanding the hypostatic relationship of the Trinity, or knowing precisely how the Cross saves us.  Instead, through the Spirit, it is about how the Kingdom of God is at work in our everyday lives.  It is seeing peace when others see anxiety.  It is choosing love when others would choose hate.  It is showing compassion when it would be easier to ignore the needs of the other.  When the Spirit is at work in our lives, then these things happen naturally, and the deeper conversations of faith just happen because faithful living is happening all the time.

Jesus promised his disciples that the Spirit would speak for them in front on the authorities, but I am a firm believer that the Spirit is always at work, sharing the love of God with everyone we meet.  Our job is to allow the Spirit to work, to free ourselves from worry, to live lives of the Kingdom, and to be willing to share the Good News.

Wanted: FT Laborers for the Harvest

As I scrolled through my Instagram feed this morning, I came to several realizations.  First of all, I noticed just how many of my friends are involved in pyramid sales programs.  I say this with no condemnation since my wife wold Mary Kay for several years.  I can see the value in the system of a leader training underlings and gaining value from their contribution.  It is a fair system that rewards those with the drive to work. As  the old adage goes, “When you work for yourself, you can work whenever you want to, as long as you always want to work.”  I have friends who are selling personal fitness lifestyles, personal care products, and some strange patch that helps you Thrive.  Those wraps and Advocare seem to have fallen out of vogue, but over the years, I’ve seen it all.

My second realization, which prompted a post on social media, was that “on the whole, my friends who sell shakes, patches, and face creams are better evangelists for their thing than my clergy friends are for Jesus.”  That is, by and large, these friends who are selling a product are using every opportunity to do so.  Their feed isn’t filled with extraneous noise, but is on message all the time.  Whether it is a post about family, about vacation, or about the product, each one comes with the message that whatever it is they are selling makes whatever it is they are doing better.  Several of these friends are team leaders, and I assume they are modeling for their team members what it means to “live the life.”

On the contrary, posts from my clergy friends and those who are strong lay leaders rarely have anything to do with “living the life.”  Sure, you could extrapolate that the post from a quasi-news site about the latest bad thing the President has done is about the Christian call to justice, but it certainly isn’t explicit.  You could notice that the pictures from an exotic vacation are actually of the Camino pilgrimage in Spain, but the hashtag wouldn’t lead you to Jesus.  In this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Jesus commissions his disciples as laborers for a plentiful harvest.  The task is singular: to stay on message that the Kingdom of God has come near.  Everything they do: cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons; is about “that abundant life.”

How can we, as followers of Jesus, use our lives as witnesses of the Gospel?  Is there a calling in this culture of consumerism, in which even my 8 year old has noticed that somebody is always selling something, to share an alternative message of God’s steadfast love?  How do we use our influence to share the Gospel, literally the Good News, that the Kingdom of God has come in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus?

The religion on the Greeks

“Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way…” (Acts 17:22)

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That’s one long word!

It seems as though religion has always been a neutral word, even if it can be taken with either positive or negative connotations.  When Paul begins his famous sermon in front of the Areopagus (Mars’ Hill for my King James friends), I tend to hear him with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.  “I see how extremely religious you are in every way,” doesn’t exactly sound like a genuine compliment.  Of course, one could read it just as easily the other way.  A.T. Robertson says that “the way one takes this adjective here colours Paul’s whole speech…”  It would behoove the preacher, if she is looking at Acts this Sunday, to take some time an consider whether Paul means religious as a good or not.

The word Luke uses that gets translated as “religious” is that crazy long Greek word above.  Like it is in English usage, it can mean a genuine piety – devotion to one’s belief system.  Or, it can mean superstition or slavish rigidity to system of faith.  As Robertson notes, “Thayer suggests that Paul uses it ‘with kindly ambiguity.'”  The Vulgate and the King James Version both choose to read it negatively, translating the Greek to mean “superstition,” while most modern translations choose “religious” with all its inherent ambiguity.

So what are we to do with it?  First, I would say that I agree with Robertson in thinking that Paul wouldn’t have been helped by being overtly negative toward his crowd.  Paul was a smart man, and a wise preacher.  He had studied rhetoric and knew how to work a room.  I doubt highly that he would have chosen a word that undermined the religious sensibilities of the audience he was trying to convert.  Still, as I noted above, in his mind, I’m willing to believe that there is no way Paul would have held the religion of the Athenians on par with his beloved Judaism or the fledgling faith tradition of Christianity.  I’d be willing to suppose that Paul used this word, with all its ambiguity, very intentionally; in order to keep the ears of his audience open while not also betraying his own theological understandings.

This, then, is where we can learn a thing or two about evangelism from Paul.  As I noted earlier this week, evangelism requires that we be fully committed to the validity of our own faith tradition while entering into conversation with the faith of the other with humility and reverence.  Paul didn’t start a riot by calling the people of Athens no good pagans.  Instead, he lifted up their hunger for faith and communion with their gods as an opportunity then to think more fully about the God that Paul would present, whose Son came to redeem the world.

The “The” Question

Thomas said to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” – John 14:5-6

Anecdotal evidence suggests that one of the most popular questions in search processes these days is how one handles the “the’s” in John 14:6.  While many liberal mainliners would like to simply ignore them and change Jesus’ words to read “a way,” the reality is that in the Greek, the definite article is there.  Jesus, at least according to John, claimed himself to be “the way.”  So, what do we do with that in an increasingly pluralistic society?  How do live into our baptismal vow to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” while also “respecting the dignity of every human being”?

It is a delicate balance to hold on to the scandal of the particular of Jesus while also embracing the radical hospitality of Christ’s all encompassing loving embrace.  When we focus too much on the “the,” we lose focus on the grace of God.  When we focus too much on radical welcome, we forget that all have fallen short of the glory of God.  In recent years, the answers seems to be some sort of “lowest common denominator” spirituality that basically says, “if you are a good person, you’re ok.”  In this worldview, evangelism is unnecessary, so long as we all give to the Millennium Development Goals.  That’s not helpful either.  So, what are we to do?

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First, I think we need to be honest about the “the.”  As Christians, we believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.  We have found access to the Father through Jesus, and as a result, we are eager to help others find that access as well.  Recently, I have been a part of the General Convention Task Force on Leveraging Social Media for Evangelism, which developed a tweetable definition of Episcopal Evangelism.

We seek, name and celebrate Jesus’ loving presence in the stories of all people – then invite everyone to MORE. #EpiscopalEvangelism

Our story is the story of Jesus.  That’s the only story we can tell.  That isn’t to disparage the story of our Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or None neighbors, but rather to be honest about our hope and what we believe to be the source of our salvation.  Do we hope for conversion?  Absolutely.  Do we coerce? No.  Are we emotionally abusive?  No.  Do we use scare tactics?  No.  Embracing Jesus as the way doesn’t require that we drag others kicking and screaming, instead, it means being honest about who we are, where we place our hope, and inviting, gently and with love, others to experience that same gift of life.  It isn’t an easy balance to strike, but it is, I believe, our calling as disciples of the one who claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life.

In remembrance of me

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There are a lot of ways to understand what is happening in the Eucharist.  Transubstantiation, Transignification, Real Presence, Memorialism, Receptionism, and the list goes on.  This theological murkiness has occurred, in part, because Jesus wasn’t all that specific in what he meant when he said, “this is my body,” “this is my blood,” and “do this in remembrance of me.”  Depending on one’s tradition, one or more of these phrases (or even the words within them) can be given undue influence.

In our Gospel lesson for Sunday, as well as the Collect for Easter 3, we are put to mind that, for Luke, the common meal of Christians, commonly called the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, Holy Communion, and the Great Thanksgiving, among other options, is about anamnesis: the remembering of an event based on past experience.  Cleopas and the unnamed disciples recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread because four days earlier, they had seen him do the exact same thing.  Not that blessing and breaking bread was uncommon in 1st century Jewish life, but that this blessing, this breaking, was different.  It was the blessing of their Rabbi, now their risen Lord, who had commanded them to break bread and share the cup in remembrance of him.

Two thousand years removed from that first Last Supper, we who are people of broken bread don’t have the recollection of the past event to draw on for ourselves.  What we do have, however, is the unbroken history of bread being broken from a Thursday evening in first century Jerusalem all the way up to today.  Our remembrance, our anamnesis, is based on the shared experience of generations of believers.  We remember because we have been told the story by those who have been told the story… by those who lived the story.  When we pray that our eyes might be open, we are asking God to tap us into the ongoing unveiling of the story, that we might take our place in remembering and sharing the good news of the risen Lord.