Discipleship as giving my life back to God

I’m writing this blogpost somewhere in the air between Philadelphia, PA and Nashville, TN.  I’m too cheap to pay for inflight wifi, so it’ll be posted from the ground somewhere, but that sentence just felt cool to write.  I’ve spent the last three days at the Discipleship Matters Conference at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Whitemarsh or Port Washington or some such place.  It seems nothing in the Philadelphia suburbs is actually located in the town in which it claims to be.  For three days, I’ve been immersed in the deep end of God’s work in calling the Episcopal Church to deeper relationship with God and with one another.  The plenary sessions were live streamed and the recordings can be viewed on the Diocese of Pennsylvania Facebook page.  I especially encourage you to check out the opening panel discussion (starting at about 16:30), not because I was on it (at least not only for that reason), but because of the depth of passion and engagement present in my three co-panelists and the closing panel discussion because of the deeply practical ways in which St. James’ Madison Avenue, a resourced New York congregation, has created a culture of discipleship that doesn’t require resources.

With the last three days swirling in my mind, my attention is beginning to turn to a sermon for Sunday.  It seems logical to me that these two things would be blurry as I breathe recycled air at 36,000 feet.  It may fall into the category of eisegesis, but I can’t help but read Jesus’ answer to the trick question of the Pharisees as a call to something deeper than the separation of church and state.  Instead, I think it is a call to a life of discipleship.

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Photo by the Rev. Cn. Stephanie Spellers

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.”

As I consider this passage, I can’t help but realize that everything belongs to God.  My very life, every breath I take, comes from God.  If I am going to take seriously these words for Jesus, then I have to be willing to give my whole life back to God, which isn’t a bad definition of discipleship.  I give my mind back to God through studying scripture and theology.  I give my heart back to God by using the compassion that comes from it to motivate the loving service of others and by opening it up to God in prayer.  I give my hands back to God by writing this blog, sermons, and notes of thanks, concern, and welcome.  I give my feet back to God by walking into hospital rooms, dining rooms, and standing behind the altar.  I give my wealth back to God by tithing for the upbuilding of the Kingdom.  I give my spiritual gift of administration back to God by effectively leading Christ Church into the future that God dreams for it.

What does discipleship look like for you?  Are you reading the Bible?  Are you praying?  Are you giving? Are you serving? Are you studying? Are you working at building the church?  Are you sharing the Good News and the hope that is within you?  How are you giving back to God everything that is God’s?  What are you holding back?  What is God asking you to offer him today?  If discipleship is being a good steward of the things that God has given us, then maybe this week is an opportunity for a personal stewardship campaign: an invitation to give back to God everything that he has so graciously given us.

Approaching Jesus with good intentions

This Sunday is one of those weeks where preachers can do a lot of unintentional damage.  I’ve done some, over the years.  I’d be willing to be most of us have because when it comes to the dichotomy setup between Jesus and the Pharisees, it all seems so easy.  The Gospels often use the Pharisees as a foil against Jesus the hero.  They are the theological straw men upon which the Gospel writer builds their theology of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Pharisees play interlocutor to teacher Jesus so that he can expound a deep piece of wisdom.  And we, 21st century preachers, don’t know enough about the Pharisees/inherit two millenia of anti-Judiasm/succumb to the temptation of supersessionism and we put them before out congregations as sacrificial lambs for our sermon’s narrative arc.  We can do better, if, for on other reason than we are the modern day Pharisees and we ought to be careful.

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Matthew tells us that Jesus can read the intentions of the Pharisees.  As a reminder, it is Holy Week, and tensions between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day is about to boil over.  He’s come to town riding a donkey to cries of “Hosanna” and “Son of David.”  He has flipped the tables of the money changers in the Temple.  He has engaged in theological debate.  He has threatened their understanding of the way in which God works.  That Jesus perceives malice in their question about paying taxes makes perfect sense.  This up and coming Rabbi is threatening not just their piety, but the foundation of the Pax Romana, and when one upsets Rome, the collateral damage is extensive.

It would be easy to say, “those Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus, don’t be like them,” but how often do we approach the throne of grace with 100% pure intentions?  What percentage of the time are our prayers self-serving?  How often does fear of losing the comfort of the status quo motivate us to pray?  When do we not come before our Lord hoping to get something from him?  If Jesus was able to discern the motivations of the Pharisees, he is able to do the same with us.  As you say your prayers today, come with a clean heart and a settled spirit.  Come not looking for anything in return.  Don’t expect good feelings, comfort, or joy.  Before we look down our noses at the Pharisees, we ought check ourselves.

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The Challenging Call to Preach

Being called to preach the Gospel is a noble and dangerous calling.  As the Letter of James says, “teachers will be judged more strictly.”  This is especially true on weekends like the one America just experienced.  After an unplanned rally of torch wielding white nationalists marched through the bucolic campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the whole nation seemed on edge.  By early afternoon on Saturday, the simmering pot had boiled over.  One woman was dead, twenty others injured as a man, now known to be a white supremacist, ran his car into a crowded street of counter-protesters.

On social media, there were many who called on preachers to immediately scrap their sermons and preach against racism.  Many preachers did just that; throwing out sermons that had been prepared to talk about Peter and Jesus walking on water, in order to name the sins of racism, white supremacy, and violence.  I applaud those preachers.  Others took a harder look at their texts and made changes to name the power that fear has in our lives.  The text explicitly invited that reading, and I applaud those preachers as well.  Still others chose to do nothing.  They preached the same sermon on Sunday morning that they had planned to preach when they woke up on Friday.  I don’t begrudge these preachers either.  These topics are weighty and with less than 24 hours to make changes without time for critical thought and fervent prayer sermons dealing with them could have easily caused more harm than good.

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True, but what does one say next?

That pass runs out this morning, however.  Sunday’s Gospel lesson and a full week to study and prayer leaves no wiggle room for the preacher to avoid the topic of racism, violent rhetoric, and hate.  The challenge will come when the preacher names the sin of racism in the context of a story in which Jesus, whom Scripture and tradition tell us was without sin, makes a clearly racist statement.  He calls the woman of Syrophoenican descent a dog, and there is no way around it.  What are we to do?  I think the task is two-fold.  First, we have to talk about the reality of systemic sin.  It can be true that Jesus the Christ lived without personal sin while also being true that Jesus the first century Jew lived in a culture of systemic sin.  His response to the woman was perhaps as close as Jesus ever got to allowing the sinfulness of the system in which he lived to flow into personal sin.  We need to say that.  And then we need to be willing to say that Jesus learned something in that encounter, and that he grew beyond the closed-minded racial system of his time to see that the Kingdom of God is much wider than even his human will could have imagined.

Episcopalians will likely stop there.  We are very comfortable with talking about systemic sin, but this Sunday will also require us to talk about individual sin as well.  We need to talk about how we as individuals perpetuate racism in our own lives.  We need to talk about how the words that come from our mouths show the sin in our hearts.  We need to be clear that the way forward in our society isn’t through anger, hateful speech, or violence, but through love of neighbor.  We need to be willing to say the unpopular thing, that the sin of the man who organized the “Unite the Right” rally is on par with the sin of the man who threw a punch at him on Sunday morning.  The Church, if we are to have a distinctly Christ-like voice in the struggle toward a more just society, must distance itself from violence, must be willing to admit that Jesus meant it when he said that if we are angry with another we are guilty of murder, and must be able to move beyond partisan politics to offer a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus would have us help him build.

It will be a challenging week for Lectionary preachers.  Moving beyond emotional immediacy toward a considered, theologically sound, sermon will not be easy, but it is our call as preachers, and the Gospel lesson demands it of us.  You will be in my prayers this week.  I invite you to pray for me as well.

Show your work – a sermon

Unlike some Episcopal priests I know, I have always enjoyed math.  For the most part, it comes naturally to me, though I’ve often had some help along the way.  Coming of age in the mid-1990s, I found myself reaping the benefits of the Texas Instruments graphing calculator.  In high school, I had a TI-83, the swankiest model available at the time.  It could do algebra, trigonometry, and graph parabolic functions.  Of course, the favorite feature for me and my friends was that you could program it to play Tetris.  In preparation for studying engineering at Pitt, I upgraded to the TI-92 for use in my calculus courses.  College calculus was the first time that math didn’t just make sense to me, and so I used my TI-92 as a crutch through Calc 1.   Why they let me use it, I have no idea, but it made it all the more difficult when I got to Calc 2 and the professor uttered words that struck terror into my soul.  “Show your work.”

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No longer was it sufficient to have the right answer, which my TI-92 could so easily provide, now I had to show the stuff below the surface.  My professor had a good point, even if I didn’t like it very much.  The key to math isn’t getting the right answer, but learning the process by which every right answer will come.  One’s motivation shouldn’t be an A on the exam, but the reward of having learned the concept inside and out, and that can only be proved by showing your work.  The same is true in the life of faith: it isn’t about doing the right things so you can get to heaven when you die.  Instead, it is about what is happening on the inside, the unspoken motivations, the work of holiness.

Last Sunday, Jesus invited his disciples to show their work, and just like when I heard it from my calculus professor, I really wish Jesus had never said it.  “I tell you,” Jesus said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Now mind you, the scribes and the Pharisees were the professional interpreters of the Law.  They were the ones who defined the right answer.  How far is too far to walk on the Sabbath?  Ask a Pharisee.  Do I wash this pot or that spoon first to keep kosher?  Ask a scribe.  These men were the holders of all that was right and holy, and Jesus was so bold as to say that we should be more righteous than that.  How could anyone possibly live up to that standard, we could reasonably ask.  Jesus answers my concern with six of his own interpretations of the Law that at their core teach the profound truth that having the right answer, living the right way, isn’t really enough, it is about knowing what underlies that right action that really matters.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder.”  Jesus was not one for subtlety, but rather he jumps right into the deep end on this line of teaching.  One of the Big 10, “thou shalt not murder” is as well known a law as any of the other Commandments.  It is also one of the easier ones to keep.  Most human beings are not predisposed to taking the life of another human being in anger.  It would be fairly easy to feel morally superior for having not murdered anyone, but Jesus pushes it further, “show your work.”  “If you are angry with your brother or sister, you are liable to the same judgment,” Jesus says.  It is a lot harder to hold oneself as smugly self-righteous if the bar is now “being angry.”  Who hasn’t felt anger toward a brother or a sister, be they actual siblings or figurative ones?  If you insult your brother or sister, literally in the Greek it says, “if you call your brother an idiot,” you can be brought up on charges.  If you say “you fool,” you’ll go to hell.  I am liable to the fires of hell thanks to my ride into work on Thursday morning, but I’m sure y’all are better Christians than I am.

Notice what Jesus is doing there, he’s not abolishing the law, but taking it to its core.  The commandment “thou shalt not murder,” isn’t about killing someone in anger, it is about the destruction of relationships.  If we are really honest with ourselves, a whole lot more damage is done on a daily basis by those who harbor anger, who hang on to resentment, and who look down on their sisters and brothers than any murderer can accomplish.  God cares deeply about our relationships, and in order to make them life giving and fulfilling, we are called to show love and compassion rather than anger and contempt.  In fact, God cares so much about our relationships, that in verses 23 and 24 Jesus says he would rather we spend time tending to our broken relationships than come to church.  Jesus is serious about us showing our work, checking our motivations, and examining our hearts in this relationship stuff.

“You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’” Another perfectly reasonable commandment from God that Jesus takes deep to its roots.  “But I say that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  It isn’t enough to simply not have sex with someone who isn’t your spouse, but it is about how we treat our neighbor.  God did not create human beings to be used by others simply to satisfy the desires of the flesh.  In fact, the way we treat one another is so important that God would rather us injure ourselves before we harm someone else.

The same is true for divorce.  In Jesus’ day and time, women could be divorced by their husbands for any number of ridiculous reasons including burning a loaf of bread.[1] Jesus is clear, just because there is legal precedent for something, doesn’t make it right.  People aren’t disposable; we can’t just throw them away when they no longer meet our needs.  Show your work, check your motivations, and know that these life-long relationships matter deeply to God.

Finally, Jesus turns his attention to the swearing of oaths.  “But I say to you, do not swear at all… Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” Here again, Jesus cuts down deep to the fundamental meaning of the commandment not to bear false witness by asking us to consider why an oath is necessary at all.  It seems to me there are two possible reasons.  On the one hand, we swear oaths because the stakes are too high not to.  In a court of law, a witness is asked to swear to tell the truth because the ramifications of lying are so very profound.  When an elected official takes their oath of office, they make solemn vows because the ultimate threat of treasonous activity is the end of the Republic.  On the other hand, and more, I think, to Jesus’ point is the need to swear an oath because one can no longer be taken at their word.  If one cannot be trusted to keep one’s word on small things, the whole of their character is called into question.  If I have promised to love my neighbor, and later I am seen treating her with disrespect, how then can I again be trusted?  Worse yet, how is my witness of the Lord Jesus Christ negatively impacted.  Indeed, how is the whole of the Gospel tarnished when one disciple fails to live up the standard of yes means yes and no means no.

Jesus invites his disciples, and by extension each of us, to show our work when it comes to developing fruitful relationships.  It isn’t enough to sit comfortably and say, “Well, I haven’t committed murder or adultery” when inside our hearts there exists a cesspool of anger and lust.  It isn’t enough to simply fulfill the letter of the Law, but as followers of Jesus, we are invited to go deeper, to check our motivations, and to work to make our inner-lives match our outer-lives.  Of course, this ethical standard is so high as to be impossible, and Jesus knows that, but it is the work that matters.  By constantly examining our own hearts and our deepest motivations, we learn, slowly but surely, the core concepts of holiness, and in so doing, we find ourselves coming ever closer to the heart of God.  Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2033

Facebook is for Murderers

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If we are really honest with ourselves, every disciple of Jesus subscribes to a smorgasbord theology of holy Scripture.   That is, we pick and choose what we like, and leave behind that which we don’t.  Both sides, if there is such a thing, accuse the other of this all the time.  The right says that the left chooses to ignore Scripture’s moral code.  The left says the right forgets about the love stuff.  The truth of the matter is that both are true.  None of us is perfect, and so all of us fall short of the ideal of living out God’s will in every facet of our lives.  This is playing out with blatant obviousness when one reads Jesus’ difficult words in Sunday’s third installment of the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

Compare these words with what you see on your social media news feed and it quickly becomes clear that there has been a whole lot of murdering by anger and insult of late.  This is not me be all judgey either.  This is something of a confession of my own behavior, even as I see many of my sisters and brothers doing the same thing.  There is something all together too safe and too easy about hurling insults on social media.  Yet, if we were taking Jesus’ words seriously, we would take pause.

Is what I’m about to say true?  Is it up-building?  Is it judgmental or angry or insulting?  Because if it is, I probably shouldn’t say it.  Is it something that I would say to my brother or sister’s face?  Because if it isn’t, I probably shouldn’t post it.  Maybe we should all take a breath, re-read this section of Matthew 5, and slow down a bit.  The world is already a pretty angry and hate-filled place, perhaps we shouldn’t add to it.  These words from Jesus are difficult to swallow, and I’m sure we’d all rather leave them on the buffet, but the truth of the matter is that we don’t get to choose what we want to leave behind.  The commandment to love is a call to moral impeccability.  We can’t accomplish it on our own, but through  Christ, perhaps we have a chance to stop being murders on social media. 

Jesus does more than save you

Sunday’s Gospel lesson is probably better suited for a Bible Study or academic lecture than it is a sermon.  As John is wont to do, the language that makes up this two day interaction between Jesus and John the Baptist and his disciples is careful, studied, and layered in meaning.  One could take 45 minutes to unpack the verb meno which is translated as “stay.”  A whole class could be devoted to the word Jesus uses for “looking” when he asks the two men “What are you looking for?”  But what struck me late yesterday afternoon as I perused my go-to sermon prep resources occurs much earlier in the story.

As the scene opens, it is some time after the baptism of Jesus.  We don’t actually get that story in John’s Gospel, just JBap’s interpretation of it.  We can’t be sure how long it has been since that momentous day.  It isn’t clear if this story happens before or after Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, but we do know that the experience left a lasting impression on John.  As he sees Jesus once again approaching the River, John says to anyone who will lesson, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  Again, you could spend an entire Bible Study trying to discern what it means to call Jesus “Lamb of God” (a phrase that only occurs in John 1), but what I have found fascinating is the word that gets translated as “world,” cosmos.

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Cosmos not Cosmo

Translating cosmos as world is already a step to point out the broadness of Jesus’ salvific activity.  To say that he came to take away the sin of the world would already be contrary to the prevailing wisdom of the Judaism which thought that God’s grace was given to the Jews exclusively.  To say that God’s grace extended to the whole world means that God’s love is poured out upon Gentiles, heathens, and depending on your political persuasion, Republicans or Democrats.  <Gasp>  But here’s the thing, cosmos carries a much broarder meaning than simply “world.”  What Jesus did wasn’t simply take away the sin, that is offer salvation to, the world, Jesus came to set right the entire universe that God created.

This may not seem that important to you, and I’m not arguing for life on other planets, in case you were wondering (though I wouldn’t rule it out).  What this really means, at least in my interpretation, is that God really is in control of everything God has made.  It isn’t just that humanity messed up the earth through sin, but that through sin, everything was put out of whack.  In Christ, God sets the whole thing right again.  In Christ, the vision of Eden is restored.  In Christ, the harmony in which the Triune God made everything is restored.  Now, it may not seem like this is true.  There is still plenty that is out of whack – plenty of sin to go around – but the promise, spoken by the last Old Testament Prophet, John the Baptist, is that in Christ, all shall be set right again.

Title vs. Name

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For two days now, this blog has paid particular attention to the power of name.  This is very much in keeping with the Biblical tradition that treats naming with great seriousness.  In the Old Testament stories, especially, we are often given the specific meaning of the name of a person or place in order to make it very clear that names mean something.  From Adam (Heb. for Man) and Eve (Heb. for Life) to Israel (Heb. for God prevails) at Peniel (Heb. for Facing God) the Scriptures are rich with names and their meaning.  The Christian tradition has followed suit in this.  In Baptism, the neophyte is named.  Ordination was traditionally an opportunity for a name change.  Even to this day, Bishops are allowed to carry the name of the See City as their last name, should they choose (I’m looking at you Justin Cantuar).

While names are of significant importance, so are titles.  Whether one is called king or prophet makes a whole lot of difference.  Paul relied heavily on his title as Apostle, even if he felt he had to justify it with regularity.  In modern times, there is the ongoing debate between the various titles that clergy can carry: Father/Mother, Sister/Brother, Pastor, Preacher, Doctor, etc; although we should all agree that Reverend is grammatically incorrect and should never be used (The Reverend being appropriate only as written honorific), but I digress.

I bring up the importance of not only name, but title as well because Matthew seems very intentional to set this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, the very abridged story of Jesus’ birth in the context of name: Jesus and Emmanuel as well as title: Messiah.  In fact, one could argue that the whole of Matthew’s Gospel is wrapped up in the title Messiah.  Verse 1 of chapter 1 says it all, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”  The same happens here at the opening of this passage, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”

Messiah isn’t the word Matthew used.  It is the Hebrew version of the word that Matthew put into Greek as “Christ.”  Either way, the meaning remains the same.  Jesus is the Anointed One, with the capital letters used very intentionally.  Others have carried the title anointed one: kings were anointed with oil as a symbol of God’s blessing upon their reign, but Jesus is the Anointed One, the King of kings, the one, chosen of God, to rule for eternity.  Emmanuel, God with us.  Jesus, God saves.  Messiah/Christ, the Anointed One.  In one brief story that skips the details of the birth narrative that Linus has made so famous, Matthew makes it clear that the infant we are dealing with is God’s Anointed One, and more than that, he is the very God who has come to walk among us in order that we might be saved.

Is Jesus the one? a sermon

You can listen to this on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.


What a difference a few months can make.  It was just last week that we heard the story of John’s bustling ministry down by the riverside.  John was a baptizer, but more than that, he was a prophet.  To say he got it honest would be an understatement.  His father, Zechariah, was a priest, and his mother, Elizabeth, was from the priestly tribe of Aaron.  Even before he was born, John was already in touch with the power of God, leaping in his mother’s womb when he heard the voice of Mary the Mother of our Lord.  Thirty years later, John was out in the wilderness, on the banks of the Jordan River, baptizing people and calling them to repentance in preparation for the Messiah who was coming.  Matthew tells us that John’s life and ministry were the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah some seven hundred years earlier.  He was the one who was sent ahead of the Messiah to prepare a path.  As Bishop Russell told us, John’s job was to smooth out peoples’ hearts in preparation for the love of God that was enfleshed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

There on the shores of the River Jordan, John the Baptizer seemed so confident.  He was even willing to challenge, head on, the religious leaders of the time.  He called the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers,” right to their faces.  He promised them that judgment was coming upon them and upon the whole world.  The one who would follow him was coming with a winnowing fork, and the chaff would be burned with unquenchable fire.  When Jesus came to be baptized by him, John balked at the idea.  He wasn’t worthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals, and yet he was faithful in his call, and watched as the heavens opened, and the dove descended, and the voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

If anyone had reason to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, it was John the Baptist, and yet here we are, just a few months later, and doubt seems to be creeping in.  Of course, a lot has happened in the meantime.  John is no longer working down by the river.  His brash preaching style went too far when he openly challenged King Herod’s marriage.  See, Herod’s wife, Herodias, had been married before – to Herod’s brother.  Aside from being generally uncool, this sort of marriage arrangement was unlawful, and John made sure Herod knew about it, which of course didn’t sit well with the King or his wife, and so John’s ministry came to an abrupt end when he found himself arrested and put in jail.  We can’t be sure how long John was in prison by the time our Gospel lesson for today takes place, but context tells us it’s been a while, and John has had plenty of time to think.  Too much time, in fact.

While it was the state that could put you in jail in Roman occupied territories in the first century, it wasn’t the state’s responsibility to take care of you once you were there.  Food and clean clothing came to prisons from their families and friends, which meant that communication lines with the outside world were wide open.  While John was behind bars, he was able to keep up with what his cousin Jesus, the Messiah, was up to.  The first thing he heard was that Jesus decided to set his basecamp in Capernaum, a small fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, at least a four days hike from Jerusalem.  Why had the Messiah who had come to save Israel from her captors, to set her free from oppression, and to restore right religion in her Temple decided to set up shop so far from the seat of power?  John could not have been too happy with this turn of events.

Next, he would have heard of the crowd with whom Jesus surrounded himself.  Guys like Peter and his brother Andrew, James and John, all small-time fishermen from Capernaum and Matthew, a tax collector from the same backwater burgh.  Who were these people?  What could they possibly do to help Jesus in his role as Messiah?  They weren’t military strategists.  They weren’t men of much means.  There wasn’t anything about any of them that was particularly impressive.  What good could possibly come from Jesus hanging out with this ragtag group of country bumpkins?

Eventually, word came to John about Jesus’ ministry; how he was preaching repentance and the coming of the Kingdom of God.  Certainly this made John feel a little bit better, their messages were in agreement, Jesus must have been on the right track.  Not long after that, however, heard about a big sermon Jesus gave from the mountainside.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit?”  “Blessed are the meek?”  Blessed are the peacemakers?”  No, no, no!  This wasn’t right at all.  If Jesus was the Messiah then he was supposed to come with power and might.  His message was to be one of revolution and God’s vengeance of those who had led Israel into sin.  What was Jesus doing?!?

Finally, he heard of the miracles.  There might have been just a little relief in John when he heard that Jesus was tapping in to his God given power, and yet, the miracles he was doing, what was the goal?  Healing a leper?  The servant of a Roman Centurion?  A couple of blind men?  Even raising the daughter of a synagogue official from the dead?  To what end?  What was Jesus up to?  Why was he wasting his time on these small time parlor tricks?  Why lavishly waste the power of God to help a Centurion or synagogue leader?

John had heard enough.  After months of bouncing around a jail cell with nothing but thoughts to fill his time, John needed some reassurance.  Was Jesus really the one he had been waiting for?  Was the scene at his baptism for real, or had he imagined it in a hope filled hallucination?  Is Jesus the Messiah or not?  And so John sent a few of his disciples to go and ask Jesus plainly, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus stops short of answering “yes” to the question, but this might be the closest thing we ever get to a straightforward answer from Jesus.  Note that his response is exactly what caused John to ask this question in the first place, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard.”  What John has seen and heard has him doubting the whole enterprise, but Jesus turns it on his head.  “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought to them.”  Like John in his ministry, Jesus goes back to the prophet Isaiah.  There, in the thirty-fifth chapter, Isaiah describes what the restoration of Zion will look like, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

John, like many others in his day and ours, had fundamentally misjudged what God was going to be up to when his Kingdom came to earth as it is in heaven.  Instead of coming with power and might, God comes to us in the form of a child, born in a stable, to a frightened, unwed mother.  Instead of overthrowing the religious and political powers-that-be with armies of men and violence, Jesus took down the power of evil by being crucified by those very same powers-that-be.  In the years in between, God didn’t coerce, he didn’t surround himself with the rich and powerful, he didn’t do favors for the elite.  Instead, Jesus ministered to the poor, the vulnerable, the meek, and the outcast.  Jesus brought the Kingdom of God to precisely those who never thought it could be for them so that he could bring the Kingdom of God for everyone: even John the Baptist, even a Centurion, even a Synagogue official, even you and me.  This Advent, we once again prepare for God to come to earth in a most unexpected way and to bring about his Kingdom for a world that desperately needs it.  We may doubt God’s way of doing things, and we would be in good company, but Jesus reminds to see, to hear, and to take part in his work in the world about us: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and poor have the good news brought to them.  That is good news my friends, Good News, indeed.  Amen.

Paradise

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I grew up fifteen miles from Paradise, Pennsylvania.  It, like Intercourse, Bird-in-Hand, and other strangely named south-central Pennsylvania towns was a gorgeous bucolic setting with rolling hills and farmland as far as the eye can see.  Because I was brought up in that area, I can’t help but picture it every time I hear Jesus tell the thief who repented “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  It might be a boring piece of God’s creation, but there are far worse places than Paradise, PA to spend eternity.

This is, of course, said tongue in cheek, but I do wonder what the average person in the pew thinks when they hear Jesus say these words.  I mean, our understanding of heaven and hell is so skewed by Dante and popular culture, that it is really hard to even begin to give a real thought to what Jesus had in mind as he promised the thief entrance into his kingdom in that most holy hour.

The English word “paradise” is basically a transliteration of the Greek “paradeisos,” but it has roots that are even more ancient.  Originally, the word comes from the Avestan language, an Eastern Iranian dialect that is known to us only through the scriptures of Zoroastrianism.  In Avestan, the word is “pairidaeza” and it means a grand enclosure or park.  By the time it came into Greek, the word carried a royal connotation.  It is the park of the king’s palace.  In Judaism, it was the portion of Hades set apart for pious souls to wait for the resurrection.  Others thought it was the paradise of heaven.  By the time of the Church Fathers, Paradise was thought to be the Garden in which Adam and Eve first lived; a place that didn’t exist either in heaven or on earth, but outside of both.

This promise of Jesus makes for interesting theological discussion.  Did Jesus mean that the thief would be with him in heaven?  Was there, as many early thinkers have suggested, another place of waiting for the righteous?  If when we die, we no longer exist inside the confines of space and time, does this place of waiting really exist at all?  Can’t we skip immediately to the final judgment?  What did Jesus have in mind?

In light of this lesson being read on the Feast of Christ the King, what strikes me over and above all these “how many angels fit on the head of a pin” debates is the fact that even in his final moments and in the face of a shocking amount of doubt and derision, Jesus was able to assert his kingship by welcoming this outsider, this criminal, into his kingdom based on only one criteria: faith.  This unnamed criminal had faith that Jesus was who he said he was, and that was all he needed to gain entrance into the Kingdom.  His faith was exercised in a moment of great pain and terror.  Would that we might be able to show such faith in times of crisis, or even in our moments of relative comfort.  Jesus, the King of kings, invites us to join him in Paradise.  Will you enter?

Jesus came to bring what?

“Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!”

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Even if Jesus came to bring long division to the earth, I wouldn’t like this passage.  As I’ve said all week, these words from Jesus are difficult to hear.  This isn’t the Kumbaya Jesus of modern day prophets – you know, the kind that the prophet Jeremiah spoke against in Sunday’s Track 2 Old Testament lesson – who wants to give you “your best life now.”

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No, this is the Jesus who has come to stake his claim on your life so that the world might come to know the kingdom of God now.  Living a life of the kingdom of God in a world hell-bent on the successes of the kingdoms of power, privilege, money, and self-interest will cause division, of that there is no doubt.  However, this reality seems to be difficult for many preachers to name.  Instead, we hem and haw about how in the time of Luke’s Gospel, following Jesus might mean getting kicked out of the Synagogue or your family business, but we don’t really know those struggles today.

What we do know is that there continues to be an ongoing battle between the kingdom of God and the powers and principalities of this world.  Following Jesus in 21st century  American means doing such unpopular things as caring for the poor, showing hospitality to immigrants, honoring the sanctity of all human life, forgiving those who have hurt you, praying for your enemies, showing compassion to the weak, respecting those with whom you disagree, and generally loving your neighbor as yourself.  This is 100% counter to the politics of this age that are built upon fear, mistrust, anger, and self-preservation.

Those who are called to live lives of the kingdom today will, no doubt, find themselves at odds with the rhetoric of the day.  They won’t fit in with the Republicans or the Democrats, which will make them seem as strange outsiders.   It will cause division in a world that is increasingly bipolar; seeing the world only in black and white, or red and blue, with no room for the beautiful color palette that makes up the middle.  Jesus came to bring division, but not the sort of division that  FoxNews and MSNBC have come to create.  Jesus came to tear us away from hateful rhetoric of this world in order to see the beautiful peace of the kingdom of God.