Category: Easter

The Beautiful Ones and the Rainbow Children: Sixth Sunday of Easter(Narrative Lectionary)

The Beautiful Ones and the Rainbow Children: Sixth Sunday of Easter(Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

May 17, 2020

Read: I Corinthians 13:1-13

 

Reflection

 

You will usually hear 1 Corinthians 13 read at weddings.  While it is a nice passage to read to the wedding couple, the apostle Paul meant for a wider audience that relates more to our political and cultural climate today than to the nuptials of two people.

To understand 1 Corinthians 13, you have to look at chapter 12.  In chapter 12, Paul likens the church to the Body of Christ. Before we go to Paul’s understanding of the church as the body of Christ, a little more background.

The Corinthians were using their gifts as a status symbol.  Some gifts were deemed more important than others.  Paul tells the Corinthians that while people have different gifts, they all come from the same God for the common good.

This is where Paul starts to talk about a body and how different parts all work together with a common purpose.  Listen to what Paul says starting with verse 12:

12 Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many. 13 We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink. 14 Certainly, the body isn’t one part but many. 15 If the foot says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not a hand,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? 16 If the ear says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not an eye,” does that mean it’s not part of the body?17 If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearing? And if the whole body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God has placed each one of the parts in the body just like he wanted. 19 If all were one and the same body part, what would happen to the body? 20 But as it is, there are many parts but one body. 21 So the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” or in turn, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.”

-1 Corinthians 12: 12-21

Paul closes chapter 12 with verse 31 where he tells the Corinthians that there is a better way.  Chapter 12 has Paul saying that the Corinthians should not compare gifts with each other.  In chapter 13, he shows what we are to be doing as the body of Christ.

While 1 Corinthians 13 is used in the pacific scene of a wedding, Paul was writing it to a fractious church that needed to understand what grounds the church what holds it together.

As mentioned before, Corinth is a diverse church.  While we celebrate diversity today, we need to be reminded that diversity can also be a challenge.  The church was filled with Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, slave and free.  All of this caused division and weakened the church. But while diversity could cause problems, Paul was adamant in keeping Corinth diverse.  He believed this is what God wanted for this church even if it is difficult. Paul’s letter was a rallying cry: to not segregate, to love each other in spite of differences.

But again, this wasn’t the type of love displayed at a wedding ceremony. This was something that was far more challenging. As theologian Shivley Smith notes:  “The love Paul is talking about here is not passive and fluffy. This kind of love is an up at dawn, feet on the ground, tools in hand, working kind of love. It builds communities. It nurtures positive social interactions, and not just social networks (which many of us have come to prefer). “

Paul is noting that loving others, even in the confines of a church is challenging.  Love governs how to we talk to each other, how we break bread together, how we fellowship with each other.   Love in chapter 13 is a verb, it is active and it isn’t easy. For Paul, the measure of a faith community is not what it does, but it is about knowing each other face to face in the way that God knows us.

Paul talking about love is not an ode to a community that has accomplished love, but to one that is far away realizing it.  Which is why this can seem like an odd choice for a wedding ceremony. 

Unless…one look at it not from the day of the wedding, but months and years later, when the allure has worn off and there is a disagreement over money or some other issue.  If married couples and pastors looked at this not as celebrating the love present, but dealing with the relationship down the road when it will inevitably encounter challenges, then this passage can fit better in weddings.

Theologian Karoline Lewis wrote of a recent trip to the Middle East and how it can be hard to love the other:

“A couple of evenings ago on our trip, we had a presentation by the Parent’s Circle, a grassroots organization for Palestinians and Israelis who have lost loved ones due to the conflict. The representatives who spoke to us were two fathers, a Palestinian and an Israeli, who had both lost daughters because of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. We had a very honest discussion about the conflict and about life before and after the Separation Wall… They each went through their own moments of wondering how life could possibly carry on given the death of their children due to such senseless, mindless fighting. They could have chosen revenge to ease their pain but instead realized that the only way forward was to talk to each other.

In each other, they found the way to carry on because, in their words, “our blood is the same color, our tears are just as bitter.” They found a way to carry on that chose peace instead of revenge, conversation instead of fear, life instead of death because “it is not our destiny to kill each other in this Holy Land.” At stake for both fathers was peace. Simple as that. This is the gospel. This is love.”

In chapter 12, Paul was chastising the church for focusing on themselves.  Chapter 13 is a vision for the church, a place where people love each other, not focusing on their needs, but on the needs of others.

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

People of the Cross: Fifth Sunday of Easter(Narrative Lectionary)

People of the Cross: Fifth Sunday of Easter(Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

May 10, 2020

Read: Acts 18:1-4 and I Corinthians 1:10-18

 

Reflection

 

It was about 25 years ago, that I attended a large Baptist church in Washington, DC.   The church was an odd mix, or at least it would be odd today.  Evangelicals and liberals were somehow able to worship together, alongside a healthy dose of members from Latin America and Asia.

The church decided at some point to hire a pastor to join the good-sized multi-pastor staff.  The person chosen was a woman with great pastoral care skills.  At the time, there was a bit of controversy because she was pro-gay and some of the evangelicals in the church weren’t crazy about that.

I was at a meeting where a member of the congregation stood up.  She was one of the evangelical members of the congregation and she had what could be considered a “traditional” understanding on homosexuality, but she spoke in favor of calling the pastor.  You see, the pastor had been involved with the congregation for a few years and the two had gotten to know each other.  “We don’t agree,” I recall this woman saying when talking about the issue they didn’t see eye-to-eye on.  But this woman was a good friend and she saw her as the right person for the job.

What’s so interesting about this story is that I don’t think it could happen today.  Churches like the one in DC really don’t exist anymore.  Evangelicals and liberals have sorted themselves into different churches and don’t really know each other.  Which only makes it easier to highlight differences and demonize each other.

Paul faces a nascent church in Corinth that was split into various factions, with each one trying to undermine the other.  Paul tells them that they are to be united, to not have any divisions.  This didn’t mean that they didn’t disagree, but it was a problem when it began the threaten the health and mission of the church.  Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are a people of the cross, of a Jesus who lived and died for all, not just for a certain faction.

In the end,  it has to be about being the church- the Body of Christ. In my Disciples tradition, we place a lot of emphasis on the Table. It’s at the Lord’s Table that everyone is welcome and everyone is equal. Distinctions end when we come to God’s table. I tend to believe God isn’t asking for party affiliation when we come to have communion.

My Lutheran friends remind me that the Cross is also a great leveler. We are all sinners, all of us. We are all in need of grace and love. We are all damned by the cross, but it is also in the cross that we are saved and made whole.

So when we read or watch the latest “outrage” on Fox or MSNBC and you are ready to hit the “send” button and share your two cents on how bad the other party is, I want you to stop and think for a moment: how is this building up Christ’s body? How is it showing that we Christians are different? Do we really need to dress up our partisan leanings in God talk to make it look pretty? Can we find a way to remember the Table and Cross as much as we hold fast to Donkeys and Elephants?

Addendum: In 2014, blogger Scott Alexander wrote a post that became viral called, “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup.”  In it, Alexander writes about how political liberals relate to conservatives. Check it out and think about how it relates to the church.

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Raised with Christ – Lectionary Reflection for Easter A (Colossians 3)

Colossians 3:1-4 NRSV

 

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

************

                Although Easter has arrived, this particular year (the year I write this), churches won’t be gathering for in-person services (or at least they shouldn’t be gathering in person). Instead of in-person gatherings, most of us are trying to find alternate ways of being together online. While we grieve the loss of this opportunity to join in singing the great Easter hymns (Christ the Lord is Risen, Crown Him with Many Crowns) and share in all the other elements that make Easter special, it might be worth remembering that on that first Easter morning, the followers of Jesus were either scattered to their own homes or perhaps hiding out in an upper room, while a few brave souls, including Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John checked out the tomb. They didn’t gather in a sanctuary colorfully decorated with lilies and tulips. While I find the organ to be a powerful instrument on Easter morning, they didn’t have organs either.

With that reminder concerning the first Easter morning, might we hear the witness to the resurrection offered to us by the Colossian letter? Whether the author is Paul or not (and for the sake of simplicity I’m assuming Pauline authorship), this letter offers us one of the most robust discussions of the Cosmic Christ in the hymn (Col. 1:15-20). While the reading for today comes from chapter 3, which has a more practical application, I think it is appropriate to consider that hymn as the backdrop to this reading.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Col. 1:15-20)

The one, whose resurrection, we celebrate is the “image of the invisible God.” In him, all things were created. In him, the “fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” This is the one whose resurrection and exaltation we come to celebrate. We have been raised with Christ who sits exalted at the right hand of God. Yes, Easter has cosmic implications. Death has met its match. So, let us “crown him with many crowns.”

                In these four verses of chapter 3 of Colossians Paul applies the message of the resurrection to the daily lives of the Christians gathered in Colossae. Note the realized eschatology present here— “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above.” Paul is assuming that they were already resurrected with Christ, maybe not physically, but they received the promissory note of resurrection, so in Paul’s mind, they should live accordingly. That is they should “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” Yes, Paul presumes that the heavens lie above the earthly realm, so looking up is an appropriate metaphor. We might not view the universe in quite the same way as first-century folks did, but I think we can work with the metaphor. Paul wants the church to focus on the things of God, rather than on earthly things. That may sound like an encouragement to live our lives in such a way that we’re so heavenly minded that we’re of no earthly good, I don’t think so. Instead, the concern here is the orientation of our lives. Do we orient our lives to the ways of God, or do we follow the lead of a narcissistic culture?  

 

                As we read this word, we might want to think in terms of baptism. While it’s not explicit here, we could read this in light of Romans 6, where Paul makes a clear connection between one’s baptism and one’s participation in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. This is the word we read in Romans: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4).

                While Paul assumes that our resurrection is accomplished in the resurrection of Jesus, we still live mortal lives. We still await the full revelation of Christ’s glory, but the promise is there. If you read further along in the chapter, from verses 5-11, you will find more specific instructions as to what it means to live a resurrection life.  

But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11 In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!  (Col. 3:8-11 NRSV)

With this word of admonition, might we celebrate the day of Christ’s resurrection? And, If we understand this word in light of the letter’s cosmic vision, the resurrection of Jesus has turned everything upside down, or perhaps better right-side up. We have drawn into that cosmic vision because we share in the resurrection in Christ, and we can enjoy the blessings of that event.

                As John of Damascus declared many centuries in the past:

                Now let the heavens be joyful! Let earth its song begin!
                                The world resound in triumph, and all that is therein;
                Let all things seen and unseen their notes of gladness blend;
                                For Christ the Lord has risen, our joy that has no end
—“The Day of Resurrection!” Chalice Hymnal, #228, vs. 3
               
               

 

If Necessary: Easter 5 (Narrative Lectionary)

If Necessary: Easter 5 (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

May 19, 2019

Read Romans 1:1-17 (CEB)

Reflection

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“Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

 

For many modern Christians, evangelism is something that strikes fear in their hearts.   No one wants to be pushy or mean to people. No one wants to have a faith forced upon them. That’s why this above quote attributed to St. Francis is so popular. It’s kind of an escape clause to get out of preaching the gospel.

But, the fact is as Christians we can’t escape evangelism.  Christ calls us to go and make disciples. The book of Acts shows the disciples and Paul going throughout the known world to share the gospel or good news of Jesus.

Today, we read the first few verses of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.  This is a church that Paul had not visited yet, even though he wanted to. Paul would end up visiting Rome, but just not under his own will.  He came to Rome as a prisoner to stand trial and some think Rome is where Paul was executed.

In the opening verses of Romans 1, Paul greets the Romans by saying that he is a servant or slave of Jesus Christ “called to be an apostle and set apart for God’s good news.”  The word apostle comes from a Greek word which means “one who is sent.” Paul was called to be sent out into the known world to preach God’s good news. To be sent, you have to be called and Paul also acknowledges that.  Paul is saying that God has called him and sent him to tell the Good News to others. Being called is not limited to pastors.  Even those sitting the pews are called to be God’s sent people. You are called to be apostles, to be set apart for God’s good news just like I am.

Then we go to verses 16 and 17 where we read that Paul isn’t ashamed of the gospel.  Those are strong words for us modern Christians because we tend to be very ashamed of the gospel.  Maybe we’ve had bad experiences in church, or maybe we don’t want to look like weirdos. Whatever it is, we don’t want to upset our family and friends. Some of what we see as evangelism seems more interested in “making the sale” than it is about sharing the good news of Jesus with those around us.

But Paul isn’t interested in making the sale.  No, Paul’s sharing of the gospel, the sharing of Jesus is because his faith is deeply embedded in his life.  Paul is not ashamed of the gospel, not ashamed of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that he has to tell others, not in a way that is pushy, but in way that he talks about how God has worked in his own life.

The quote used at the beginning of the lesson is attributed to St. Francis, but it is not really something he said. This quote really was said by Francis:

“It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.”

Paul lives the gospel so that it is obvious in his life and they are not just mere words. Yes, we talk about our faith, but we also live by our faith.

We know that Jesus has saved us, saved all of creation.  We know that Jesus makes a difference in our lives. It is something that we should talk about, just not like we need to sell a car today to make your commission.

A number of years ago my mother took a flight from Michigan to Minnesota.  She was seated next to a woman who it turns out was Jehovah’s Witness.  My mother was dreading an hour and a half flight with someone pushing her faith on my Mom.  

Instead, the two had a conversation.  Both were able to share their faith, but not in a kind of used car salesman way.  Instead, they shared what mattered to them and it was an honest conversation about faith and life.  My Mom told me she had a good talk with this woman; it was the sharing of lives, not trying to guilt or force someone to believe a certain way.

This what it means to be sent out, to be called by God to share the good news.  It is when we share God in our daily lives when we are not willing to keep quiet, but we aren’t willing to disrespect our family and friends and thereby ruin our witness. 

 

Questions

What comes to mind when you think about evangelism?

Knowing that the word apostle means sent, what does it mean to be an apostle in this day and age?

Have you ever had a discussion with a friend, relative or even stranger about faith? What was that like?

 

Notes:

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Every Kind of People: Easter 4 (Narrative Lectionary)

Every Kind of People: Easter 4 (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

May 12, 2019

Read Acts 13:1-3 and 14:8-18 (CEB)

Reflection

faces-2679755_1920It takes every kinda people
To make what life’s about, yeah
Every kinda people
To make the world go ’round*

 

 

Benny is someone you just can’t forget.

Benny is a man in his mid-60s who is developmentally disabled and a part of the congregation in Minneapolis where I once served.  Every Sunday, someone from the church would pick him up at his apartment and bring him to church.  He seems to always have a smile on his face.

But Benny can be a handful.  For one, he doesn’t really have an inside voice.  This means when he talks, everyone hears.  Which meant you might not want to share your deep dark secrets with him.  Speaking loudly in the hallway before worship service is one thing.  But you see, Benny also talks like this in worship.  Every so often as the worship service would progress, one of the pastors would say something and Ernie would respond in his loud voice.  When this would happen, we would simply and calmly answer his question and continue with the service.  

Sometimes sitting next to Benny was Norman, a man in his 50s.  Norman is schizophrenic and it always seemed that he was just on the edge of sanity.  It was not unusual during the time for prayer that he would ask for prayers because he was hearing the voices again.

After a while, we learned something about Norman; he was a budding artist.  He drew these futuristic drawings in black and white and also in color. They were jaw-droppingly beautiful.

What is wonderful to see is that both Benny and Norman are considered full participants in the community.  While I was a pastor at this congregation, no one ever complained about Benny or Norman’s antics at time.  People learned to roll with the punches with these two.  I was thankful to have been a part of a church that welcomed folks like Benny and Norman and were not embarrassed by them.

The text brings up several points to consider:

First, the church at Antioch is diverse. Acts 13:1-3 is just three verses and it lists some of the leadership of the church in the city of Antioch. At first glance, it just seems like a lot of names, mostly of people we don’t really know.  There’s Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul also known as Paul. What’s interesting is that all of these people have a different background.  We have Lucius of Cyrene, who is probably a non-practicing Jew since there was no temple in town. Then we have Simeon who is also called Niger, possibly a North African. Then there was Manaen. He had some kind of connect to Herod Antipas the current vassal king of Israel and the killer of John the Baptist.  And let’s not forget Paul. He held the coats of those who stoned Stephen a deacon who worked to feed the widows and orphan. If you want to talk about a diverse congregation, this was it.  What does it mean that this church is diverse and what does it say about our modern churches? Are we open to all people, even those like Benny and Norman?

Second, this is a local congregation.  This is not the “headquarters” in Jerusalem. Peter and the other disciples are not here.  This a local congregation far away from the center wanting to do mission.  What message is here for the local congregations of the 21st century?

Third, the congregation sought the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  As the congregation was doing mission, they wanted to seek what God wanted them to do and the Holy Spirit answered! What would happen if in our own churches if we listened to what the Spirit is saying?

Fourth, the calling of Paul and Barnabas shows that the call to ministry is not just for pastors. The church has made a big mistake in making it seem like vocation or call, is only for those interested in ordained ministry.  But Paul and Barnabas were just members of the congregation and they were chosen by the Holy Spirit. In countless churches in every setting, the Holy Spirit is calling people to ministry.  Are we listening to the Spirit and encouraging those called to ministry?

In Acts 14:8-18, Paul and Barnabas are in the city of Lystra.  They meet a man who can’t walk.  Paul can tell this man has the faith to be healed and does just that.  When the crowds see that the man who couldn’t walk now walking, they decide that Paul and Barnabas must be gods.  Since they were speaking in a local tongue and not in Greek, Paul couldn’t immediately understand what they were saying. 

Why did the crowd think Paul and Barnabas were gods?  And why were they considered Zeus and Hermes? There is a folktale about Zeus and Hermes visiting a town in the area. No one in the town recognized them and they weren’t treated with hospitality.  Because of this, the gods destroyed the town.  Having heard such stories, the townsfolk didn’t want to make the same mistake when they heard of the miraculous news.

While Paul is the major character in Acts, here he is playing second fiddle to Barnabas who was considered the chief God, Zeus.  Why wasn’t Paul considered Zeus?  Hermes was considered a messenger of the Gods and messengers tended to speak more than the gods. 

But the important note in this text is that the crippled man already had faith that God would heal him.  How?  How did he know that the God of Israel would save him?  What Paul, the early church and the modern church learn is that sometimes mission isn’t about bringing God someplace, but going to where God is already at work.  Paul could heal the man not because he had great power, but because the man believed that this God could work a miracle.  As the modern church, we need to learn that mission is as much seeing where God is at work than it is going where there is need.

The church is made up of “Every kind of people.”  The people who made up the church in Antioch were people from various parts of society.  The church is made up of people like Benny and Norman.  Paul and Barnabas went to foreign places preaching the gospel to every kind of culture. Are we making sure that our churches are places where “every kind of people” are in mission together?

 

Questions

Who are the Bennys and Normans in your church? How are they treated?

How does your church do local mission?

Have you ever felt called by God to something that was not ordained ministry?

Read Matthew 10:40-42. How do Jesus’ words relate to today’s text?

 

Notes:

“Every Kind of People.” Sung by Robert Palmer, written by Andy Fraser. © Universal Music Publishing Group, 1978.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Acts of the Spirit: Easter 3 (Narrative Lectionary)

Acts of the Spirit: Easter 3 (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

May 5, 2019

Reflection

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Photo by Frans Van Heerden from Pexels

What is the Spirit up to?

If the above sentence made you scratch your head, you aren’t alone. Among mainline Protestant Christians, there is a lot of questions about the Holy Spirit. We might understand God and Jesus, but the Spirit?  We just don’t get it and if we are aware of Pentecostals, it might just freak us out.

But the book of Acts is really about the work of the Spirit.  Yes, it is about the beginnings of the church, but you would not have the church if it wasn’t because of the third person in the Trinity.  In Acts 8, we see Phillip moved and guided by the Spirit to witness to the Ethiopian eunuch. In today’s text, we see the Spirit moving in two people; Cornelius and Peter.

Cornelius is a Roman and a God-fearer.  He is generous towards the Jews and prays to God.  He is visited by an angel that tells him that God has heard his prayers and that he is to send for Peter.  Cornelius obeys and has some men make the journey to where Peter is.

At the same time, Peter is up on the roof of a home and has a vision.  He sees a sheet full of unclean animals and was told to kill and eat.  Peter was an observant Jew and knew that he couldn’t eat the animals.  The voice tells Peter what was God made clean is not unclean.  God had transformed animals that he couldn’t eat into animals he could eat.

Peter hears that he is being called by Cornelius’ men and goes with them to preach the Gospel to Cornelius and those gathered in his home. Peter ends by professing that God shows no partiality.

God in the Spirit was at work in Peter and in Cornelius.  Throughout the book of Acts, the Spirit sends people hither and yon to preach the Gospel.  The good news goes from Jerusalem to the far-flung places in the Roman Empire and that happened all because of the Spirit.

As many churches struggle to figure out their future in a changing environment, it is always important to figure out what and where the Spirit is at work.  Too often, congregations think it’s all on them to be a witness in our communities.  But notice that the Spirit was already at work in Cornelius when Peter is asked to go visit him. Phillip was told by the Spirit to visit the eunuch. As congregations, we need to discern where the Spirit is moving and then follow.  It’s not about having a great worship service, but it is about the willingness to be led by the Holy Spirit.  But be warned, when Peter says God shows no partiality, we should prepare ourselves to be led to places we never expected to go, to meet people we never expected to meet.

 

What is the Spirit up to in your church? In your community?  In your world?

Questions

What did it mean that God didn’t make anything that is unclean?  What have you thought was unclean?

Who was converted in this story?  Peter? Cornelius? Or both?

How would you describe the Holy Spirit?

Read the story of Phillip and the Eunuch in Acts 8:26-40.  How is this story similar to Peter and Cornelius? How is it different?

What does it mean to see what the Spirit is up to? How is that lived out in your life? In your church?

 

Notes:

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Some Doubted: Easter 2 (Narrative Lectionary)

Some Doubted: Easter 2 (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

April 28, 2019

Read Matthew 28:16-20 (CEB)

Reflection

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Image by photosforyou from Pixabay 

Note: My apologies for not writing a reflection the past few weeks.  The day after I wrote the previous reflection for Lent 4, I became very ill. It turned out I had a mild case of pneumonia. (I say mild, because I had another case of pneumonia that placed me in the hospital for two weeks when I was in my 20s.) I took some time off, partially because I was ill and also to make sure I was getting the rest I needed.  I’m still recuperating, but I’m better than I was.  

“When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.”  There is a lot in this sentence.  Why did some of the disciples doubt? What were they doubting?  The text never tells us. It could be that some of the disciples were still wondering if this really was Jesus.  After such an amazing few days, seeing their friend tortured and killed, it was too much for some to think this really was Jesus.

And yet, the text says “they worshipped him.”  Everyone worshipped and some doubted.

Can faith and doubt exist at the same time?

When I was a kid, I remember having questions about God and heaven. Did all of this exist? What if it didn’t?  Where is heaven? Why can’t I see God? Truth be told, I still have those questions at times.  I believe, but I also doubt.

So there are some among the disciples that are wondering if what they are seeing is real.  But as we read on where Jesus gives the charge of the disciple to go among the Gentiles, he doesn’t say, ‘Only those who have never doubted.'” Jesus calls all of the disciples, doubters included.  We are all called to teach the faith to people, to form Christian communities, to form people to become Christ-followers and to baptize people in the name of the Trinity,  even when we aren’t so sure.

The church I pastor is a small congregation that seeks to be more connected to the wider community and to be a public witness in the world.  But we really want to see more people become members of our church. People come to visit and don’t come back.  As a pastor, I start to doubt myself and wonder if I don’t believe enough.  But in reality it doesn’t matter if we have faith the size of Mac Truck or the size of a mustard seed, God is with us as we try to be the church in this suburb of the Twin Cities.

As humans we doubt.  At the end of the day, it is not doubt that matters to God, or that we have a perfect understanding of the resurrection or the Trinity.  What matters is faith, to place our trust in God, in the Risen Christ, in the Trinity even when none of it makes sense.  We trust in sharing our faith, we trust when we teach the faith, we trust when we are baptized and when we baptize.

What makes this passage so amazing is that all of the disciples worshipped, all of them placed their trust in Jesus and at the same time, some of them doubted as well.  And yet, they all are commissioned to go into the world.

Christ calls you and Christ calls me.  Even if we don’t understand, even if we doubt. Thanks be to God.

 

Notes:

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Easter and the New Creation – Lectionary Reflection for Easter Sunday (Isaiah 65)

The Peaceable Kingdom (Edward Hicks)
 
17 For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.
 
*********************
                “Low in the grave he lay, Jesus my savior, waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!” When “up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph o’er his foes, he arose a victor from the dark domain, and he lives forever with his saints to reign.” [Chalice Hymnal, 224]. Yes, Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and with his resurrection is born the new creation. The old is past and needs to be forgotten. The past no longer holds sway over our lives. The journey to the cross and then to the tomb has led to this point when something new is born, for out of death comes life, like an acorn that falls from the tree and is reborn as another oak tree.
                The reading from Isaiah speaks not of resurrection but new creation. At first glance it doesn’t read as an Easter text, and yet it serves to deepen our understanding of resurrection. It speaks to the implications of the resurrection, but not directly.
It’s likely that few will preach from this text on Easter morning (I am of those who will place it at the center of my sermon), and yet it might have something important to say to us, even as it spoke to the original recipients. Authorship is attributed to the post-exilic prophet whose words of encouragement and guidance are found in the book called Isaiah. The author is often designated as Third Isaiah, and he speaks to a people living with shattered dreams. Once a nation that at least thought of itself as being independent, the nation of Judah was scattered and sent into exile. The Temple was destroyed, along with the city of Jerusalem. The people of Judah had heard words of promise from the one we call Second Isaiah while still in Babylon. Now, with the exile ended, and the people (a new generation that was born in Babylon) having returned to Judah, they still aren’t complete free. They live not in the form of a nation, but as a province of the Persian Empire. They may have come home with high hopes of seeing their nation restored, but things aren’t turning out as expected. This new generation has heard stories of what once was, and what became of their people, as well as prophetic visions of a new beginning, but it still doesn’t feel right. The hoped-for transformation of their lives is not happening, at least not in the way they expected. That new beginning has yet to emerge. So, the prophet tells them to forget the former things. Forget the past. Instead take hold of a new vision. Consider the promise of a new creation. This new vision takes us back to the beginning of creation, to the garden, where all of creation lived in harmony. This is the vision of the new creation that will come upon the people. It is a vision that deepens our understanding of the resurrection.
                To get to the new creation, we need to return to the first day of the week, when in Luke’s account, women came to the tomb to finish preparing the body that was hastily laid in the tomb. Resurrection is a sign of new creation, but they’re not yet ready to experience it. When the women reach the tomb, they find the stone rolled away and the body missing. It does appear they expected to find Jesus still lying in the grave. Instead, they encounter two men in dazzling clothes (angels?) who tell the women Jesus has been raised from the dead and will speak to the community soon. When they arrive back at the place where the church is gathered, their report is received with disbelief. Jesus may have spoken of resurrection, but this message hadn’t sunk in yet. But Jesus had risen from the dead (Lk 24:1-12). The old had passed away, and the new had emerged in the resurrected Jesus. In his resurrection he embodies the vision of a new creation.  
 
                The Gospel accounts in Luke and John give us the story of Jesus’ resurrection. They remind us that death could hold him. Death had staked its claim, but God proved too powerful, and Jesus, whom the world discarded, was vindicated. Resurrection wasn’t and isn’t a singular event. It’s not just about overcoming death and moving on to the heavenly realm. Resurrection is about new creation, a new vision for the people of God. The word we hear in Isaiah is that God is about to create new heavens and a new earth. There will be a new Jerusalem where joy will be abundant. Weeping will be absent. People won’t labor in vain. The “wolf and lion shall feed together, while the lion shall eat straw like an ox.” It’s a vision that strikes us as one of peace. Now, I understand the biology of wolves and lions. They’re carnivores, not herbivores. Nevertheless, the image is striking enough to get our attention. It is the vision of a return to the Garden, where life is lived in harmony. 
 
                For those who gather on Easter morning, this vision offers comfort and perhaps a balm for the soul. It might offer a word of encouragement and empowerment. These are words that seem in short supply these days. For a moment the Easter gathering offers us an opportunity to dwell in the new creation. Our realities might change in an instant. We still must go out on Monday morning to face what is often an unfriendly world, but we go forth with this vision of a new creation as a light to the pathway we take.
                When we gather on Easter Morning, having traveled a path that led through Golgotha, we will have acknowledged that Jesus suffered, died, and was buried. Now that it is the third day, we gather to celebrate the news that Jesus is risen from the dead. With his resurrection, the old has passed and the new has emerged from the tomb. This news has cosmic implications. As Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi writes: “Jesus’ resurrection is not only a witness to the promise of life after death. It is also a testament to the promise of resurrection grounded in a life given to others against all manifestations of evil.” In this new cosmic order that is initiated by Jesus’ resurrection, “relationships embody the joy of God’s creative power” [Feasting on the Word, p. 358]. These relationships are the ones represented by the Wolf and the Lamb, both are God’s creatures, and in the new creation that live together in harmony. Perhaps the word we hear as we gather to celebrate Easter is that in Christ, God is transforming our relationships with one another and with creation itself into something new.
                Too often Easter becomes little more than an opportunity to show off new clothes and share an Easter basket. There’s nothing wrong with such things, but they are not at the heart of Easter. What is at the heart of Easter, it is the triumph of “the steadfast love of the Lord,” which “endures forever” and evidenced by the new creation in Christ’s resurrection. We may not see it fully revealed at this moment, but as Paul reminds us, the resurrection of Jesus is the first fruits of that new realm of God (1 Cor. 15:23).   

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain, wheat that in dark earthy many days has lain; Love lives again, that with the dead has been; Love is come again like wheat arising green. [John M. C. Crum, Chalice Hymnal, 230].

 

Retirement is Over: Pentecost 17

Retirement is Over: Pentecost 17

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 16, 2018

Read Genesis 12:1-9 (CEB)

Introduction 

Most of us (hopefully) are saving for retirement.  Little by little we set aside a portion of our income for that future time when we decide to stop working or work less.

Or maybe we are already retired and starting a new life traveling or volunteering, things you wanted to do in your working years but couldn’t.

What many of us don’t do or don’t plan to do is start something new.  We don’t expect the elderly to start something entirely new like a new business.  A small number do, but most don’t.

This week we continue with the running theme of covenant.  In the previous reflection, we talked about Noah and the covenant God makes with him and with all creation; to never again destroy the earth with water.  God creates a rainbow to remind God of the promise and to find other ways to redeem creation.

One of those ways is to make a covenant with a people, a nation that will be the light to the rest of the world.  Today, we see God call Abram a man of 75 years who is called on a new journey to found a new nation.

Engaging the Text

The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.

-Genesis 12:1-2

The story begins with Abram and Sarai, whose names are later changed to Abraham and Sarah. This lesson covers their entire journey and so, for sake of consistency, “Abraham” and “Sarah” are used throughout. At the core of their journey is the establishment of a covenant between God and the descendants of Abraham. It is important to remember that the covenant is with the descendants of Abraham, and not exclusive to Abraham and Sarah.

Chapter 12 of Genesis is a turning point in this first book of the Bible.  Chapters 1-11 are full of foundational stories like the creation, the fall and the flood.  Starting with Chapter 12 until the end of the book, we start focusing on one particular family and it all begins with Abraham.

In verse one of chapter 12 we are introduced to Abraham.  The story tells us he’s 75 years old (we don’t know if the ancients counted in the same 12 month year as we do or not, but the age indicates he was getting on in years).  So Abe wasn’t a spring chicken.  To put it in modern terms, you could imagine an elderly man living with his wife in some retirement community in Florida or Arizona.  We have no idea what he did before in his life (and the writer of Genesis doesn’t seem to care), but we do know he is old and just living his life.

It’s then that Abraham gets a call from God to leave everything he has known to become the father of a great nation.  God says that Abraham will be blessed and that all nations will be blessed through him.

Now, you have to imagine the absurdity of this.  Abe is 75.  His wife Sarah has never bore him a child and yet God is talking about Abraham becoming the father of a great nation.  What’s even more amazing is that Abraham just packs up and does what God says.  He takes his wife as well as his nephew Lot and heads for the land of Cannan. When it means Abraham left he really left.  In fact, the Hebrew states the word go means go-immediately!

Let’s go back to our modern interpretation.  A retired man all of the sudden feels the need to sell his house in the retirement community and packs up his wife to head to Silicon Valley to start a new software company.  This is how odd God’s call is.  It’s just not something that is done.

Abraham’s leaving his country was in a way abandoning his identity.  God called Abraham to leave his “kindred” to leave the web of familial relationships, to even leave his father, meaning severing of the nuclear family and even his nationality.  This God that is unknown to Abraham tells him to leave it all behind and trust God.

Abram’s response comes down to a matter of trust.  He believed God, even though God didn’t do a good job at explaining how somethings would take place, like that whole you-gotta-have-a-baby-to-have-descendents part.  This story is an example of God calling a person to do something.  When a person decides that they might want to become a pastor, that person might be asked if they felt “called by God.”  Like Abraham,  the potential pastor was contacted by God to start on a new journey, with all the details filled out later.

This account is one of the first accounts where God calls someone.  Throughout the Bible, there are stories where a person is just doing his or her thing and is called by God.  The call of God is not something that is limited to just Bible characters or pastors.  Everyone is called by God to do something to further God’s kingdom.  Abraham was called to step out of the life he had set up for he and Sarai and trust God.

Theologians and pastors love to show Abraham as a model of what it means to hear the call of God and place total trust in him.  But don’t we wonder if Abraham doubted?  Did he wonder what in the world he was doing?  Did he sometimes think that maybe it was last night’s pizza and not God calling him?

The Bible never tells us what Abraham was thinking- all we know is that he followed God and left all that was familiar, all that brought him comfort.  What we do know is that Abraham believed- even when the facts told him this made no sense.  Alexander Campbell (one of the founders of the Christian Church-Disciples of Christ) had this to say about the faith of Abraham:

There was nothing more extraordinary ever believed by any man, than that he, an old man, ninety-nine years old, and his wife ninety, who had in her youth, and through all the years of parturition, been barren; should, by this woman, became the father of many nations, and have a progeny as innumerable as the countless myriads of the host of heaven. This was contrary to nature. When Abraham considered his own body as good as dead to these matters, and when he looked at the poor, wrinkled, shrivelled, and drooping old Sarah, and thought that they two, old and faded as they were, should become the parents of immense nations, it transcended all the powersof reason to believe it upon any otherpremises than the omnipotence and inviolate truth and faithfulness of God. To these he gave glory and rested assured that God would make good his promise.

The distinguishing peculiarity of Abraham’s belief was, that contrary to all evidence from the reason and nature of things, he embraced, with undoubting confidence, the promise: obviating all the arguments against his confidence, arising from nature and the common lot of men, by the power and faithfulness of God.2

One of the words used to describe Abraham is “pioneer.” He was taking a big risk to leap into the unknown, to stake out new territory.  This is the opposite of what culture expects of us.  We are told to go into the world as young people to make a name for ourselves.  They make a name for themselves, become popular and then are forgotten.  Abraham is risking everything to go into the unknown and will be made known through his ancestors.  Because of his faith he is regarded a hero of sorts, being willing to risk and trust even when nothing is clear.

There is one more hero here: God.   We like to talk about choosing God, but in effect, God always chooses us.  Abraham didn’t go to the Promised Land all by himself, but he was chosen by God.  Time and again, God chooses, calls us.  When God calls, how will we respond?

What is God calling you to do?  What journey is God asking you to partake?  Are we willing to leave all that is familiar and take a step in faith?

 

 

Conclusion

In Luke 9:57-62, Jesus calls several people and time and time again, the people who get the call come up with excuses.  One says they need to bury their father.  Jesus says, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Another person was called and they wanted to say goodbye to those in their house.  Again, Jesus brushes away what he sees as an excuse: “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”

God seems to call people immediately, even if it mean to leave behind what you know.  But that passage also shows how hard it is to live by faith in God.  It is not natural to us, we prefer the known to the unknown.

Theologian Dan Clendenin has this to say about the call of Abraham and how it relates to us today:

Abraham left Haran in faith, not knowing where he was going, or even why except that God had commanded him. He acted whole-heartedly without absolute certainty.1 In so doing he defied both the inner propensities of human nature and the outer pressures of cultural conformity to cling to the familiar, the self-serving, and the broad and easy road. Abraham journeyed from what he knew to what he did not know, from what he had to what he did not have, from the the comfortable to the strange and the unpredictable. He journeyed “like a stranger in a foreign country” (Hebrews 11:8–9). Today, most everything in our culture, education and employment encourages us to journey in the opposite direction: from the unknown to the known, from what we do not have to what we think we want and need, making every effort to remove the strange and unpredictable in order to guarantee the safe and the secure. We demand certainty and act timidly.1

God chooses. We follow.  Easier said than done, but as Abraham shows, it has been done.

  1. Dan Clendenin, journeywithjesus.net, February 2005.
  2. Alexander Campbell, The Christian Baptist, 1828.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Reset or Renewal: Pentecost 16

Reset or Renewal: Pentecost 16

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 9, 2018

Introduction 

The winter of 1996-97 was quite harsh and long in the Upper Midwest.  There was snow, and freezing temps well below zero for months.  The record amounts of snow meant floods come spring.  The spring of 1997 brought record floods throughout Minnesota and North Dakota wreaking havoc in various communities. One of those communities affected by the flood of ’97 happened to be Grand Forks, the state’s 3rd largest city.  Despite a noble effort by citizens and volunteers, the rising flood waters of the Red River could not be held back.  Fifty thousand people had to flee their houses as a result.  Houses and businesses were now filled with the waters of the Red. As the waters filled the city, another tragedy hit the downtown area.  A fire started in one of the buildings downtown.  Water everywhere and now a fire.  The Grand Forks firefighters tried to deal with the fire using boats.  The situation looked hopeless.

A photographer for the Grand Forks Herald snapped a photo that became iconic.  In the midst of flood and fire, there was a rainbow.  The rainbow became a sign of hope to a beleagured community, a promise that things would be better. Things were bad and you couldn’t ignore that, but the rainbow said that there was hope.

The flood story found in Genesis is one that many know all about.  But maybe the correct thing to say is that we think we know the story.  Go into a Sunday School room at a church and you will see a drawing of the flood with animals smiling and a bearded Noah that looks like Santa Claus.  It is a happy story.

But the thing is, it isn’t a happy story.  This story has more in common with apocalyptic tales like the nuclear war drama the Day After than it does with any children’s cartoon.  

However, like the picture of the rainbow amidst the fire and flood, the Flood story is one about hope, the hope of salvation for all of creation.

Engaging the Text

“I am now bringing the floodwaters over the earth to destroy everything under the sky that breathes. Everything on earth is about to take its last breath.”

-Genesis 6:17

God isn’t happy.  God looks on all of creation and sees a creation steeped in sin. It’s not included in today’s passages, but earlier in Genesis 6 we hear God express regret. in verses 5-6 we hear God’s anger and anguish. “ The Lord saw that humanity had become thoroughly evil on the earth and that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil. The Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and he was heartbroken.” The passage opens with God giving Noah instructions on how to build the ark and get ready for the coming deluge.

What God is doing here is undoing creation.  The waters that were separated in Genesis 1 are brought back together again. God is winding down the world and that means getting rid of all life on earth save Noah, his family and the animals in the ark.

Even though the people who perished in the flood were considered sinful people who deserved to be punished, this story should bother us.  We have to wrestle with the fact that God is not the merciful, loving, God that we think God is.  Instead, we see a darker God, one that is so upset and sad, that God is willing to start over and rebuild the earth.

The flood story shows us two sides of God.  Chapter 6 shows us the God who believes in justice.  When we see in Exodus that God has heard the cries of the Israelites dealing with the misery of slavery, we are seeing a God that is a just God.  God sees what is going on and God sees that there was injustice in the land. What we learn here is that God believes in justice. The sinfulness of creation breaks God’s heart. It’s easy to understand that, but where things get worrisome is that God’s justice meant destroying all of creation, including every man, woman and child in the world.

But the flood, God as judge is only half of the story. Yes, God is a just God, but God is also a God that loves mercy.   God is also a loving God and we learn that even in the midst of destruction, God brings salvation and promises to relate to creation in a new way.

God tells Noah and his family that God will set a “bow in the clouds.”  This rainbow will grace the heavens as a reminder that God would never again destroy creation. This is not a promise to humans, instead it is a reminder to God.  In modern parlance God is placing a giant post-it note in the heaven to remind God to not unleash such violence on creation ever again.

When God makes this promise, it doesn’t mean that creation will never break God’s heart.  All you have to do is keep reading the Bible to see how again and again creation disappoints God.  At some point people would start being evil again and God would become angry at the injustice going on.  God might want to send judgement, but God made a promise.  No more hitting the reset button. From here on out in scripture, we see God trying to reconcile with God’s creation in a different ways.  God will use a specific people, starting with the Israelites as an example to the world to return to God.  Finally, God uses God’s chosen people to bring forth God incarnate, namely Jesus who would bring salvation to all of creation.

 

 

Conclusion

If you remember the Far Side comic, there is one where God is watching a man walking down the street on a computer screen.  When you look at the keyboard, you can see that God is contemplating if now is the time to hit the “smite” button.

The creator of Far Side was on to something there, because that is how many of us see God.  God is sitting there, waiting for us to slip up. 

But what we learn from today’s study that God is more pained than God is angry at creation.  God is angry to be sure, but we are so focused on God’s actions through the flood that we forget how all of this sin breaks God’s heart.  As Geoff McElroy notes:

Too often, however, I think we focus on the wrong aspect of the flood narrative.  Too often we hone in on humanity’s corruption and God’s wrathful judgment, either reveling in or being repulsed by it.  In that regard, we are often like we are when we pass a bad car wreck on the highway, not being able to look away, either because of our horror at what has happened or our fascination to know just a little bit more about what had taken place.  Either way, our eyes are glued to the scene.

But in doing so, in focusing on the theme of judgment, we miss the deep pain expressed in the story.  That pain, of course, being the pain at the very heart of God.  The flood narrative is not one that is about a vengeful God, watching and waiting for a screw up so that God might smote the evil-doer, which is the image a lot of people when we speak about the judgment of God.  If that is the understanding of judgment that you bring to the flood narrative, then you’ll quickly miss the point.

Judgment is not something God revels in, takes pleasure in, especially according to the flood narrative.  God does not chuckle gleefully as God throws lightning bolts at random sinners.  Instead, the reality of evil and God’s judgment of it is something that breaks God’s very heart.  “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Genesis 6:6).

The story of the flood and the promise of a rainbow tells us of a God that is heartbroken and longs for a day when all creation will be made whole.

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.