Category: Easter

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.

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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.

When the Spirit Moves, Pentecost

When the Spirit Moves, Pentecost

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

May 20, 2018

Introduction 

We are living the middle of times that are troubling.  Our society has become a little less nicer and a whole lot more meaner.  We are less tolerant of people who have views different than our own. A woman is hit in the head with a glass by another woman after speaking to a friend in Swahili. Angry people carry tiki torches and march through a college town. Anger towards immigrants and refugees.  Looking down at people from the working class. Men abusing women. It goes on and on.

What can be done? Who can stand up?

The church has a role to play in our world.  The church has a public mission in the world.  Now sometimes we confuse a partisan mission as the church’s mission.  But that’s not what the church is supposed to do. The public mission is that as we are guided by the Spirit, we should start acting differently.  If we are a community led by the Spirit, we want to see each other as a child of God, as a person of worth and value. I am not saying we are trying to be better, but that we allow the Spirit to change us.

The world needs a witness of a community that’s  united. They need an example of people who work together, who learn to love each other in spite of our differences.  This is the public mission of this church. It isn’t to adopt a progressive political agenda or a conservative one. Instead we are called to model a different way of being, where divisions are healed.  We are called to leave the walls of this church and model that love wherever we go.

But we also live in a time when it seems like the church and religion in general seem less and less relevant to the current context. Churches are losing members, facing shrinking budgets and divisive social issues. How in the world can the church be a witness when it seems like its in such bad shape?

Today is a big day in the life of the church. This is Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the church. It is also the day that we focus on the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2:1-21 we see the Holy Spirit as the prime mover, the One that transforms the timid disciples into fearless apostles, a community huddled in a room is sent out by the power of the Spirit into the world.

I’m guessing that the disciples didn’t understand what was going to happen.  It was already hard enough to understand Jesus dying, rising again and then floating away. What was the Spirit? What was its importance?   

Today, we talk about the Spirit and the church.

Engaging the Text

They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

-Acts 2:4

Our text from Acts opens with the disciples holed up in a room in Jerusalem. These were the same bunch of people who never seemed to understand what Jesus was all about. And when the going got rough for Jesus, they abandoned him. This group was hardly the group that was going to lead the church.

And then, a wind comes through and envelopes the room. And then fire descends on each of them and they began to speak in other languages, which was quite a feat for these simple small-town men from Galilee. Peter addresses the crowd with wisdom we have never seen before. He tells them that in the last days, God would pour out the Spirit and sons and daughters would prophesy, young men will see visions and old men will dream dreams and even the slaves would prophesy.

Methodist minister William Willomon says that the only way to talk about this is through narrative.  Paul’s letters which we thick with theology couldn’t do it justice.  This event,, was so mysterious that it could never be told straight.  There are always interpretations that are not so obvious and there is more than one way to look at it. So no matter who you are, a pastor with degrees in Biblical Studies or a lay member that learned the faith from his Sunday School teacher when he was seven, this is a story that is meant to experience than a lesson to be learned. Take it as the story that it is.

When the tounges of fire settled on the disciples, they couldn’t just stay in that room.  They had to get out, they had to get out and make their praises known to God publicly.  So they did just that. It just so happens a religious festival is taking place with Jews from around the known world.  They were amazed as they heard these uneducated country hicks from Galilee praise God in their mother tounges. Well, some were amazed of what was happening.  Others scoffed thinking the disciples were drunk.

That cynical take on the event, that the disciples were really drunk, is a way to show how people don’t always understand the spirit. The don’t understand it because it doesn’t make sense. So, they have to find some way to explain what is going on.  William Willmon notes, that this is how some try to understand the un-unstandableness of the Holy Spirit:

That power the church proclaims as gift of God the world explains as inebriation. The inbreaking of the Spirit is profoundly unsettling and deeply threatening to the crowd in the street, and so it must devise some explanation, some rationalization for such irrationality.1

It’s also important to note that this is not the first coming of the Holy Spirit.  The writer of Luke and Acts, shows other times when the Spirit comes to one person like when Mary sings the Magnificat (Luke1:46-55). But Pentecost is more of a “democratic” coming of the Spirit to everyone.

Many of us, especially in Mainline Protestant churches,  don’t really know what to do about the Spirit. We know what to do with God. We are pretty sure what to do with Jesus. God is our Father and Mother, Jesus is the Son, the Lamb of God, but who is this Holy Spirit? We don’t know what to do with this third person. And, well, the word spirit brings up thoughts of ghosts and goblins…things that are rather creepy.

When most of us think of the Holy Spirit, if we ever do, we tend to think of our Pentecostal brothers and sisters. They are the ones that will sometimes dance up and down the isles and speak in something that sounds like complete gibberish. But “sophisticated” mainline Protestants look at such things with fear, because we most definitely don’t want to be like that. So, mainline Protestants tend to ignore the Spirit. If rolling around is what makes one “filled with the Spirit,” we will stick to our more sedate and sensible brand of worship, thank you very much.

But in throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we tend to miss seeing the world through God’s eyes and in the end, we end up missing God.

One of the few things this writer remembers from his seminary days is that the word for wind and spirit in Greek is the word pnuema. For the more mature people in the congregation, this is where we get the word pneumatic tires from- tires filled with air. I think it’s interesting that this word mean both spirit and wind, because it give us some insight into what the Holy Spirit is all about. The wind is something that can’t be contained; it goes where it wants to go. God’s Spirit is not contained in churches, but is alive beyond these walls in the world. Our job is not to bring the Spirit to people but to find out where God is already at work and join God in that work.

The Hebrew word for spirit is even more fasicinating. That name is ruach, which also means breath. Think back to the creation story when God creates humans. God fashions the bodies, but they were still dead- until God breathes into their bodies and then they come to life. Spirit here means life, because to breathe means you live, you aspire. To not breathe is to expire, to die.

It’s easy to believe that the Spirit is something interior, that it has to uderstanding outside our own thoughts. But the coming of the Spirit is not an interiour event.  It is like breath, it has to come out.  When Luke describes the Spirit, he talks about wind, fire, confusion.  Sometimes the Spirit makes one seek salvation.  When Peter preaches his sermon based on the prophet Joel, the answer of many in the crowd was, “brothers what must we do?”  When Jesus spoke to his neighbors at the synogogue in Nazareth, he said that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him. His neighbors responded, “This is Joseph’s son, isn’t it?” The Spirit doesn’t always lead people to God, but it always gets a reaction.

Pentecost is about the arrival of the Spirit and the beginning of the Church.  The spirit is here and present with us. It doesn’t matter if we are a church of 1000 or a church of 10, the Spirit is present here now and if we pay attention to the Spirit, God just might kick us out of this building and into the world. Pentecost is about a church on the move, the car on the journey.  The church isn’t a destination, but it is the means with which we travel.

Give Thanks

Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks.

-Philippians 4:6

And now a brief word on the text from Philippians.  We finish Paul’s letter with chapter 4. Paul opens up the text by saying the church needs to rejoice in the Lord all the time.  What that means is that joy comes taking part in God’s redemption story. But taking part in the redemption of creation includes suffering.  So Paul is telling the church not to just believe in Jesus, but also be willing to suffer for Jesus.  When Paul talks about that joy, it doesn’t come from achievment, but simply being with God in the good times and the bad times.

When Paul calls for the Philippians to show gentleness to others, it is a call for the church to reach out to their neighbor with compassion.  Again, we do it not to spread the gospel or as a mission tactic, but simply because this is what a Christian does.

Every Sunday we come to church and pray prayers for the church and the wider world.  Why?  What is the point of sharing our prayer concerns? Paul responds that we pray to recieve the Peace of God. While we imitate the love of Christ, the peace of God is something that God gives.

Conclusion

Last year, a commentary appeared in the Dallas Morning News with the provocative title, “For the sake of our democracy, go back to church (or synagogue, or mosque).”  The writer, Joshua Whitfield reminds people how going to a place of worship can bring the domstic tranqulity that politics fails to produce. He writes:

Aside from various theologies, going to church or to the synagogue or to the mosque is good for us individually as healthy social beings and collectively as diverse citizens. And that’s because in faith communities we learn about the goods and virtues of belonging, and especially belonging among some people we wouldn’t normally have chosen to belong to.

And that’s what all local faith communities do in some form, gathering relatively diverse people together to practice virtues of commitment. They offer what the poet and farmer Wendell Berry simply calls “membership,” the sort of belonging that is accepted rather than purchased. It’s the sort of unbought, unsubscribed belonging that makes demands upon us but also nourishes us. It’s the sort of belonging that comes from loving and serving people you may have otherwise never thought to love or serve, discovering thereby deeper human solidarity. It’s the sort of belonging that teaches us how to love people simply because they’re there.

The church started because a group of people who were seated in a room, was touched by the Spirit and changed.

A pastor I knew used to ask  how we knew how God is at work in our lives. So, have you seen God at work? Were you paying attention?

Pentecost is in many ways a question.  We are asked to look back to see all the mighty deeds that God has done for God’s people, to see how Jesus showed us God’s love in his life, death and resurrection and to see the Holy Spirit descend in wind and flame.  We are asked to see all of this and ask, “So what are you going to do about it?”

As we worship in our churches this weekend, as preachers prepare to preach yet another sermon on the Acts text, we might want to ask our congregations the same question.  “So, what are you going to do about it?”

The “so what” for the disciples was that they started telling the story of Jesus all over the known world.  They didn’t go back to their old lives, but forged ahead, being empowered and led by the Spirit to some new territory.

The wind, fire and the speaking of different languages is a pointed question to us.  What does all of this mean to you?  Does it affect you?  Does it change your life?

As Christians our lives are shaped by a calling; a calling from God, exemplified by Jesus and sent by the Holy Spirit. It is when we serve others, teaching children about God or befriending a person battling addiction that is when we begin to answer the question that is Pentecost, it when we do something about life in response to all the amazing acts God has done for us. For all of us.

So, what are you going to do about it? I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Can you see the wind? Can you breathe in the Spirit? That’s a question only you can answer.

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.

It’s Hard to Be Humble!, Easter 7

It’s Hard to Be Humble!, Easter 7

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

May 13, 2018

Read Philippians 2:1-13 (CEB)

Introduction 

About a number of years ago, I was driving down Interstate 35W  from the suburb of Edina, Minnesota to Minneapolis. All of the sudden, the traffic just stopped. Now usually if there is a traffic jam, the traffic slows down, but it rarely just stops. I looked at the other lane and it was devoid of any traffic…at all. It was strange to see a freeway not have any cars on it at all, especially at the middle of the day.

Just then, a caravan of black cars made its way down the empty lane. One of those cars was a limousine with flags donning the hood. It was the that I realized what had just passed me by: a presidential motorcade. Then-President Bush was in town to make a speech in a western suburb and as is the case whenever the president is in town, all roads leading from the airport to the location where the president will be are shut down totally to offer he or she protection.

Frankly, I think it’s kinda cool that as president you don’t have to worry about traffic jams. Ever.

It makes sense why roads would be  shut down in order to make sure that the leader of our nation is protected from threats. But it was also a reminder of the power of the Presidency.  When the President walks into a room, please stand up. Sometimes it’s even followed by music, “Hail to the Chief.”

Even in a democracy, there are trappings of power. It just comes with the territory.

In his letter to the Phillipians, Paul writes a concise understanding of who Jesus was and what his life, death and ressurrection meant.  Paul talks about how Christ emptied himself, giving up his status in the Trinity to become “a slave,” to become a fragile human. He lived as a servant, healing people spiritually and physically.  Jesus never claimed any special privileges that he was definitely worthy of. Instead he was obedient in life and obedient in death, even in the most shameful way of dying- by crucifixion.

In the gospels, this Jesus is arrested, beaten, forced to carry a wooden cross and then was nailed on that cross to die.  All the while the guards and religious leaders made fun of him being the king of the Jews. Some king.  He couldn’t even save himself.

The cross is an embarassment.  Why would a king, why would any leader humiliate himself this way?

Engaging the Text

Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.

-Philippians 2:3-4

Paul writes these words to the Christians in Philippi and they are in a jam. They are facing persecution, worried about Paul who is inprisioned, and to leaders in the congregation are bickering with each other. In the midst of all this turmoil is these words about how Christ being equal to God, but knowing gave up his status and position to become a servant even to the point of death. And then he talks about how all of this made a difference in our lives and to top it off Paul calls us to imitate Christ and learn to lead lives of service towards others.

There are two themes we want to focus on here.  The first is humility and the second will be unity.  But first, humility.

Humility is a major theme in Philippians, especially in chapter 2:3 and 8. In modern culture, we consider humility a virtue. But in Greco-Roman culture, humility was not a virtue, but was at odds with its ethical system. A humble person was someone who is low, insignificant, weak and servile. Humble people were viewed not with admiration, but with pity.

Jewish and later Christian culture saw humility in a positive light; indeed, it shows how to properly respond to God through service and obedience.

In this clash of cultures, it is important to look at where people are placing their focus. In Greco-Roman culture, the focus was on those of high position, who look down at those considered subservient, and humble. But in the Hebrew (Old Testament) God is focused on the downtrodden. In short, it is a “solidarity of the humiliated.”

An example of this humility is in verse 7 where we see the Christ “emptied himself.” In Greek it means to make void to become nothing. It means that Christ set aside the position and power that he had to become a servant, and he willingly became a suffering servant for the sake of others. Now, none of this should be used as a excuse for someone to do violence towards another, but it is a reminder that as followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to set aside our standing and status to serve others. This is what it means to be humble.

Kara Root, who is pastor of Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis recounted a story in the early history of the church that is a wonderful example of being emptied for others. Two major plagues hit the Roman Empire in the years after the church began. It was during these times that Roman doctors literally headed for the hills. Basically, anyone that was not sick, took off and let the sick and dying fend for themselves. Everyone did this; except the Christians. They were the ones who took care of the ill. Why did they do this? Why did they put themselves in harm’s way when they could have ran off as well? Kara notes that they did this because they saw those sick and dying as the sisters and brothers and decided to be in service to them.

Another way to see humility or self-emptying is in it’s Greek word, kenosis. What does it mean to be humble when you might belong to a group that has had to be “humble?”  Pastor Melissa Tidwell explains what it means to be humble even if you are of low estate:

 

The self-emptying Paul describes can be a difficult idea to embrace. Doesn’t exalting servanthood exalt a distorted view of human worth? Some of us never had the choice about servitude. Many of us—women, LGBT people who have had to fight for the right to even have a self—are wary of the idea of emptying our hard-won individuation.

But Christ did not erase the self he possessed, he offered it. I sometimes hear lonely people say they have a lot of love to give, and it seems they might be imagining their love in a vessel, filled to brimming, with no right place in which to pour out the devotion that is waiting inside them. The giving of the divine Christ, entering into human life as he loved the disciples, the sick who came to him for healing, the crowds who flocked to his stories, was that pouring out of the love he had to give, extended as a gift, a libation. And perhaps it was for Jesus and for us that in the pouring out the gift, we find it, like the waters of abundant life, welling up to regenerate the love freely offered.

Now to unity. In chapter two, Paul seems to put more weight on the unity of the church over its witness.  This runs counter to American culture, where churches tend to focus more on activity; investing in local and national issues.  Very little is placed on community building.  It might be because so much of 21st century American society is based on sorting into like-minded communities. But the community that Paul talks about goes against the spirit of rights, choices and self-expression. It is easier to focus on a social issue probably because it allows us to sort into those like-minded communities and Paul is calling us to do something that can’t be completed in an afternoon.

The community-building Paul talks about is challenging.  It means putting the needs of the other, which you sometimes can’t stand, above the your own needs. So for example, in Paul’s world, it would mean the owner had to cater to the needs of the slave. For Americans, it means crossing racial/ethinic/socioeconomical lines, which even for someone who likes “diversity” is a challenge.

Paul reminds the American church that we have things backwards. We think the public witness of the church is found in social action. But its public witness has to come from the internal unity and strength.

In Paul’s time, Roman society was a stratified by class and social rank.  Even Paul was a Roman citizen, a step above most other people. Unity meant treating people the same regardless of their standing. That was unsettling to people back then.  Think about it; Paul was saying that a slave and the owner were the same.  A Jewish immigrant would be equal to a Roman citizen and so on.  Sameness and equality is something the bothers us today as well. When Paul talks of unity it means God is no respecter of persons as Ephesians 6:9 notes:

because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do,whether they are slave or free.

And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.

The unity Paul speaks of was costly for the first century church and it is costly for us in the 21st century.  What does it mean to cross boundaries in our own day for the unity of the church?  It might mean talking to someone who voted for Donald Trump. It might mean that a white pastor steps down from their post, allowing for a person of color to be the Senior Pastor. Instead of serving the poor, it might mean welcoming the poor to the church, to be full members.

In our humility and unity,  calls us to servanthood. The act of servanthood by Jesus was something that set us free from the powers of sin and death as my Lutheran friends like to say. Our own servanthood is not only a way to pay homage to what God did in Jesus Christ, but it can also free people. Helping an immigrant, or feeding someone at a soup kitchen or giving someone a shelter who doesn’t have one, being a servant to these folks can give someone life.

 

Conclusion

If you were watching the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, you might have caught a commercial that has gone viral.  It was an ad for Cadillac and features a well-dressed man comparing hard-working, some might say overworked Americans to Europeans that take a large amount of time off.  At the end of the commercial, the name walks up to the subject of the commercial, the ELR, Cadillac’s plugin hybrid.

If Cadillac wanted to get some attention, it got it in spades.  The general feeling from people was that it was too focused on gaining things over having a life.  Ford did a “parody” of the commercial with a woman from Detroit who has started a business making dirt to give to the urban farms springing up in the city.  While there are advantages to working hard over and against the more European attitude, there was something about the Cadillac commercial that leaves one  feeling uneasy.  The commercial is a tale of success. If you work hard, good things will happen. But what happens when one works hard and bad things happen?

You can’t totally fault the guy in the Cadillac ad.  People like having a nice house, and a nice car.  But as followers of Jesus life is more than things and more than living the good life. We are called to enter into the crosses of suffering in this world and do the work of healing and justice in the same way that Jesus did.

2. Craddock, F. B. (1985). Philippians (p. 12). Atlanta, Ga.: J. Knox Press.
3. Cohick, L. H. (2013). Philippians. (T. Longman III & S. McKnight, Eds.) (p. 31). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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.

Letter from a Philippian Jail, Easter 6

Letter from a Philippian Jail, Easter 6

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

May 6, 2018

Read Philippians 1:1-18 (CEB)

Introduction 

Sometimes the most meaningful words come from jail cells.

Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail , for example, was a declaration of necessity of nonviolent struggle for civil rights.

The apostle Paul was not a stranger to prison cells.  A few weeks ago, we talked about Paul and Silas being in prison in Philippi.  Now, he is sitting in another jail cell, this time with Timothy.  He decides to write a letter to the church in all of all places, Philippi. Being in jail might make one rather angry, but Paul’s letter to the Philippians is filled with joy and gratitude. His entire letter is one that exudes joy. Paul is not in denial, he is quite aware of what is going on.  But he is focused on the joy that Christ brings in his life, even life inside of a jail cell.

Today, we focus on the open notes to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul’s Ode to Joy.

Engaging the Text

 While Paul waited for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. 

-Acts 17:16

Paul starts things off in verse 1 with his greeting, “Paul and Timothy, salves of Christ Jesus.”is

The word “slave” can be a fraught word in American culture.  Our history of slavery of African Americans can make the word, slave, one that is troublesome. Many tend to use the word “servant” in place of slave and indeed, the greek word or slave, doulos, is sometimes considered the greek word for servant. However, some Greek resources say doulos means “someone who belongs to another; a bond-slave, without any ownership rights of their own. ” The word servant in greek is diakonos (where we get the word, deacon). But the original Greek says “slave.”  What is Paul getting at here?

Doulos doesn’t simply mean “slave” but “bond-slave.” What’s the difference?  Not as much as you might think:

 

“Bond-slave” arises from the same origin and is a direct (albeit emphatic) synonym to “slave,” again meaning an owned or purchased slave, one bound to a master as opposed to a free person. These words aren’t used today outside of Christianese, which lends them to easier misunderstanding. The translations that use “bond-servant” are actually trying to distance themselves from the KJV, which simply uses “servant,” which isn’t really the right word to translate δοὐλος today, since “servant” in modern English implies a free person in distinction from a slave bound to an owner. But many translations are a bit twitchy about using the word “slave” in these cases due to the extremely negative connotation attached to this word today (thanks to our history of race-based slavery). Thus, some 20th Century translations elected to go with the somewhat archaic but more precise “bondservant” (NKJV & NASB) or “bondslave” (again the NASB, which isn’t consistent w/its rendering of this word).

This led to the fanciful interpretations going back to the “voluntary” slave of Exodus 21, explaining that this is why Paul would call himself a “bondslave” as opposed to just a “servant” or “slave.” Of course, it’s all completely wrong. Paul simply uses the basic Greek word for “slave.” There’s no inherent notion of volunteerism in this word—it’s the same word that was used for a slave that was purchased at a slave market or from another owner—nor is this a unique word, as the archaic translation “bondslave” might suggest. Rather, Paul merely uses the basic word for a person who is owned by another person.

When Paul uses the word “bond-slave” he is differentiating from the word “debt-slave.”  Again from Jason Staples:

“Bond-slavery” is the more severe enslavement—a permanent one in which one is owned as property, as opposed to debt-slavery, which was to be limited in its timeframe. Either way, by Paul’s day, the debt slavery outlined in Exodus 21 (and the practice of voluntary slavery) had long ceased; in his introduction, Paul was straightforwardly using the standard word for “slave.” It is extremely far-fetched to think of this as an intentional reference to Exodus 21, and it’s even more unlikely that his audience (who were accustomed to hearing δούλος in everyday speech) would have connected Paul’s self-identification as a slave to ancient Israelite slavery regulations.

So, when Paul says that he and Timothy are slaves to Christ Jesus, he means what he says.  Again, that can be troubling to modern readers, especially in the American context and especially to modern African Americans (like the writer of this reflection).  But it’s important to remember what Paul is getting at here. This is not an endorsement of slavery in any time, but it is a description of Paul’s relationship to Jesus, that Jesus is his Lord and Master. He is not simply loyal to Jesus, but bound to Christ, he is claimed by Jesus and can’t just do as he pleases.

It’s also important to remember that Paul uses the same word, doulos to describe Jesus in chapter 2.  Jesus gave up his status to become not even a servant but a slave.

Paul is showing a similar humility. Paul is a well-travelled evangelist and could have presented himself in that way . Instead he presents himself as low on the pole. Paul then calls the Philippians “God’s People” or “holy people.”  The Greek word used here is , hagioi, which means “saints.” In modern  usage, we think of saints as special people, like Saint Francis or Saint Augustine.  But Paul is using the word saint or holy as one that is set apart. Paul is probably thinking of his ancestors as was written in Exodus 19:5-6 that if the people of Israel kept God’s commandments, they would be a holy (set apart) people. Paul is calling out the church at Philippi for living differently, living so differently that they are noticed. The late Disciples of Christ theologian and pastor Fred Craddok further explains:

The letter is to “all the saints in Christ Jesus.” The term “saints” or “holy ones” refers primarily to God’s act of claiming them as God’s people, consecrated, bound in a covenant (Exod. 19:6; Deut. 7:6). It is in a derived sense that the term came to refer to the moral character of those so set apart, but this secondary meaning should not be negated in order to underscore the primary one. Paul knew perhaps better than we how easily grace can degenerate into sentimental “acceptance” without moral earnestness.2

Another theme that factors in this first chapter of Philippians is the concept of koinōnia, or partnership.  What you notice in today’s passage is how Paul doesnt’ see his ministry as a one-man show.  Instead he sees himself as part of a larger team working for Christ. He is in ministry with Timothy and Silas, and he sees the Philippians as partners in ministry. “ I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now,” he says in verse 5. They are praying for Paul and preaching the gospel themselves in their home town. Paul prays that they might grow in Christ, maybe hoping they would grow to become preachers and teach this to others. And because they have shown love to Paul, he is showing love right back at them. It is a relationship of mutual admiration and prayer.

The final thing to talk about here is Paul’s imprisonment.  Putting Paul in prison might seem like a way to slow the movement of the Spirit, but instead of stopping the gospel, it only expanded. Some are spurred on by Paul’s imprisonment to spread the good news far and wide. Others use the gospel for their own selfish ends. This should bother Paul and it probably does, but he is also happy. “What do I think about this? Just this: since Christ is proclaimed in every possible way, whether from dishonest or true motives, I’m glad and I’ll continue to be glad.”

 

Conclusion

There is a lot in this passage that we never got to talk about.  But we learn in these opening passages what it means to be a Christian: to be one that is bound to Jesus, that is a saint, and is happy even when the gospel is used for less than honorable ends.

We began this talking about Martin Luther King and his writings from a southern jail.  King is an example of what it means to live as a “slave” for Jesus, living as Jesus did, giving up status to become a slave for Jesus…even unto death.

Martin Luther King was born Michael King.  He visited Germany when he was a child.  His father, also named Michael, was so taken by the trip and by the German religious leader, Martin Luther, he returned to the states and changed his name and his son’s name after the famous pastor.  The younger King said it was hard to live up to his namesakes’ legacy in the South he grew up in.

King realized he was in service to something much larger than himself. He was a slave for Jesus Christ in order to bring freedom for African Americans if not all of America that was bound to racial prejudice and a system that kept African American’s down.

The night before he was assisnatied in Memphis, King gave his last speech that showed his obedience to Christ. While others were seeking his life, he expressed joy in the face of danger:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live—a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.3

How are we living? Do we see ourselves as “slaves” to Jesus? Do we know that we are not alone in our work to spread the gospel? Can we express joy even in the darkest of times?

2. Craddock, F. B. (1985). Philippians (p. 12). Atlanta, Ga.: J. Knox Press.
3. Cohick, L. H. (2013). Philippians. (T. Longman III & S. McKnight, Eds.) (p. 31). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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.

Get Out! Easter 5

Get Out! Easter 5

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

April 29, 2018

Read Acts 17:16-31 (CEB)

Introduction 

In college, I learned how to share Jesus with someone.  There were several different methods including the Four Spiritual Laws, using the cross as a bridge representing Jesus as the bridge between humans and God and so on.  This way of sharing your faith always seemed forced and not very real.  It was never something that made you feel that you were just striking up a conversation.

A lot of people run away from the word evangelism.  People have images of men and women that try to tell others about Jesus in ways that makes people want to run away and sour on the church.

Sometimes we aren’t afraid of evangelism as much was we are complacent.  We take Jesus words of going into the world and have twisted them.  Jesus and Paul called on the early church to get out and make disciples, but churches now want to bring people to church. Methodist pastor and theologian Allan Bevere shares what Paul did and then how we twisted the words around:

The strategy here should be obvious: establish communities in places with population, ease of travel, and resources, and then move out to the hinterlands to found new churches. If someone in today’s world were to do some kind of complicated sociological analysis of how to go about such a mission, the person doing the study would conclude that Paul’s strategy was indeed the best and most effective one available. In other words, the strategy is to preach and live the gospel for conversion, found new communities of faith, disciple those communities, and then send them out to preach and live the gospel in order to establish new churches. This strategy makes such perfect sense it is hard to quibble with it.

But that is exactly what many in the 21st century Western Church are doing– they are taking issue with Paul’s missionary strategy– not in words, but in their continued failure to have a missionary strategy at all. That lack of strategy is appropriately called “staying put.” 

“Staying put” means trying to do something; hiring a young pastor, starting a new program, anything that gets people into the doors of the church. Instead of going out into our neighborhoods, we want to have people come to us.

But that wasn’t how Paul saw the sharing of the gospel.  Paul is an extreme example, but he is an example that we aren’t called to sit in our church buildings, but we are called to go out and engage the culture.

In today’s text, Paul comes to Athens, the intellectual center of the Roman Empire. He takes in the sites and decides to engage the men seated in the center of town.  Paul is an example of what it means to reach out not just way back then, but in the Mars Hills of our day.

Today we talk about Paul in Athens.

Engaging the Text

 While Paul waited for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. 

-Acts 17:16

Paul is waiting in Athens for his travelling partners, Timothy and Silas.  Since he has some time to kill, he decides to look around.  Athens was one of the centers of Greek power.  During Roman times, Athens might no longer be a seat of political power, but it is still an intellectual and religious capital in Greece and the wider Roman Empire. He walks through town that is littered with statues to idols.  Paul’s Jewish background comes to the fore as he probably remembers the edict of having no other gods.  His annoyance is no big shock.  How he responds is worth noting. He connects with the local synagogue and also strikes up conversations in the marketplace in Athens. Some thought Paul was a “babbler,” but others find him interesting enough that they invited Paul to Mars Hill, a place that was away from the bustling crowds of the Athens marketplace. Always interested in the latest new idea, they wanted to know more about what Paul was talking about.  Daniel B. Clendenin gives a good description of Mars Hill or Areopagus:

The “Areopagus” was both a place and a group. It’s a small rocky hill northwest of the Acropolis in Athens (Greek for “hill of Ares” or in Latin “Mars Hill”). More importantly, the Areopagus was the most prestigious and venerable council of elders in the history of Athens, so-named because it met on that site. Dating back to the 5th-6th centuries BCE, the Areopagus consisted of nine archons or chief magistrates who guided the city-state away from rule by a king to rule by an oligarchy that laid the foundations for Greece’s eventual democracy. Across the centuries the Areopagus changed, so that by Paul’s day it was a place where matters of the criminal courts, law, philosophy and politics were adjudicated.

Paul starts off noting how the thinkers around him were people that were interested in spiritual things.  “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way,” (Acts 17:22). He doesn’t start off attacking their idolatry, instead he praises their religiosity. He also notes that he saw the statue marked to an unknown God.  This was probably not marked for God, Paul saw an opening to use to explain who God is. “What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you,” Paul says in verse 23. 

Paul then goes about explaining the faith speaking in a way that the Stoics and Epicureans around him might understand.  For example, he use the Stoic teaching of reason to see God as the source of logos or reason, a reason that created the cosmos and that implanted reason in each of us in order that we might connect with God. God didn’t just implant reason into us, but God is the source all, God created the world, meaning we are because if God or as Paul put it in 17:28,  “In him we live and move and have our being.”

He wraps it up by calling on the men of Athens to repent. The time will come when we will be judge by a man appointed by God one raised from the dead. Some scoffed at the idea of a resurrection, but others were intrigued. The passage ends with two people who heard and believed. Paul then leaves Athens to head to Corinth.

 

Conclusion

Many of us sit in our churches and wonder,  longing for the days when the pews were full. Churches are dealing with dwindling church attendance and longing for the days when the churches were full of people. We want to know what we can do to turn things around.

The thing is, we haven’t realized or we are only just now figuring it out, that the culture around us has changed. Fifty years ago, we were a culture where Christianity was synonymous with being an American. Sunday was truly a holy day in that nothing was open. People went to church because that was what you did.

Somewhere along the way, things changed. The culture is not as predominantly Christian as it once was. Not everyone knows the old Bible stories. People have other things to do on Sundays than going to church. And many churches are wondering what to do in this changing culture.

Sometimes we think we need to do something to bring people into the church like plant community gardens.

Andrew Forrest is the pastor of Munger Place Church, a Methodist Congregation in Dallas. He has said in an interview that “Every dying church in America has a community garden.” The meaning here is that churches tend to think that a certain strategy will get people into the pews instead of doing what Jesus called us to do: make disciples.  Jesus in Acts 1:8 says that we are to go to the ends of the earth.

Paul engaged the people of Athens, by paying attention to the culture around him.  He knew Athens was an intellectual and spiritual place and used it to tell the story of Jesus. What are the Mars Hills, and marketplaces in our cities and suburbs?  What ways can we talk about Jesus that isn’t pushy, but acknowledges the context?

Paul didn’t for people to come to him, he went out to meet people. He tells the people of Athens that God created the world and everything in it, a God that claims us as God’s children.

Paul isn’t doing this in a chauvinistic way, instead, he uses points along the way to link it to his faith and persuade those gathered to consider another way- the way of Christ.

So, what would happen if we decided to actually engage the culture around us? What if we were willing to share about the God in whom we live and have our being in our places of work and in our social places? What if we went to where people are hurting- places where people are dealing with lack of food or housing and help them pursue those things in Christ’s name?

That is what Paul’s discussion on Mars Hill is all about. It’s about getting out of our pews and sharing Christ’s message with others by living our lives, by being Christ followers.



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.

Water! Baptism! Time to Rejoice! — Lectionary Reflection for Easter 5B

Water! Baptism! Time to Rejoice! — Lectionary Reflection for Easter 5B

Acts 8:26-40 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

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

Here lies one of the most unique passages in scripture. It involves two primary characters—Philip, one of the Seven called by the church to serve tables (Acts 6) and the Ethiopian Eunuch, who is traveling home from Jerusalem by way of the road leading from Jerusalem to Gaza (most likely to pick up a ship that would transport him toward home). There is also an angel of God, who sets up a meeting between these two men. Standing behind this encounter is the church’s mission statement found in Acts 1:8. In that verse Jesus tells his followers that when the Spirit comes, they will bear witness to him beginning in Jerusalem, and from there to Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth. Philip has already participated in that expansion by preaching in Samaria, in what was the first outreach of the early church beyond the original core Jewish audience. Now, with this encounter, it appears that the expansion continues, with Ethiopia being opened up to the message of the gospel. But not only that, but there is a word of inclusion of one who had been excluded or at least marginalized.

It would appear that Philip was still in Samaria when the angel appeared to him and directed him to go down to the road leading from Jerusalem to Gaza. The angel doesn’t tell him what to do or who he would meet. The word is simply go down to the road, and he follows the lead of the angel. Low and behold, when he arrives at the road he hears a man reading the scriptures while riding in a chariot. As for the man in the chariot, we quickly learn that he is Ethiopian, a royal official (apparently, he is the head of the department of the treasury), and he is a eunuch. This latter fact is central to understanding the story. He serves the Queen, the Candace, and being a eunuch, he is trustworthy (see the book of Esther for the role of eunuchs in a royal administration). While he is a trusted official, he is also excluded from the worship of Israel. We’re told that he was returning from Jerusalem, where he had gone to worship, but that would have been difficult since, according to Leviticus he would have been excluded from the Temple (Lev. 21:20).

While he might not have been welcomed into the circle of worshipers, he was a student of scripture. We’re not told if he was of Jewish background, a convert, or a God-fearer. Whatever his religious location, in this moment in time he is reading from Isaiah. The passage has messianic implications. In fact, when Philip flags him down and gets in the chariot, the Ethiopian asks Philip about the identity of the one spoken of in the prophecy—is it the prophet or another? That gives Philip the opening he needs to share the gospel. What all he says is not written down. What is noted is that the Ethiopian responded positively to the explanation and went on to ask whether he could be baptized. After all, there was a pool of water by the side of the road. What prevents him from being baptized? Philip, who had already baptized Samaritans, without authorization, can’t see why he should withhold the water in this case. So, they get out of the chariot, go down to the pool, and Philip baptizes him. As soon as the man comes out of the water, the Spirit snatches Philip away, delivering him to another area needing evangelizing.

The reading opens up a number of questions, including the question of who authorizes baptism. It’s not in Philip’s job description, which involves table service. But Philip has a bigger sense of call, and his ministry is affirmed by the Spirit. How do you say no to the Spirit of God? Then there is the status of the Eunuch. We know something about the barriers to his inclusion, but that doesn’t appear to be a problem here. Philip doesn’t seem to care. He just shares the good news, and when the request for baptism comes, he goes for it. There is here an immediacy to the sacramental act that many of us might be uncomfortable with. It’s true that over time, the churches moved from immediate baptism to prolonged instruction prior to baptism. I don’t know if either is the correct method, but at least in the New Testament baptism accompanies profession of faith rather quickly.

Perhaps the message here concerns the work of the Holy Spirit, who in Acts seems intent on pushing boundaries. It’s not that there are no rules or rites of inclusion, but they are not as narrowly drawn. Better yet, they are expansive. They force a person to fit a particular set of cultural expectations, even as one experiences a change in identity. That is, the man remains an Ethiopian and a eunuch, but through his baptism into Christ, he becomes a new creation. That which had once defined him spiritually no longer does.

We as church are often content to remain within our circles of comfort. We tend to sit in the same pew; sit with the same people at coffee hour; talk with the same people after church. We don’t mean to snub the new-comer, we’re just comfortable with our context. The Spirit of God, however, has an uncanny ability to upset our comfort zones. With the case of this encounter, Willie James Jennings notes that this is a “story of divine compulsion.” In other words, Philip doesn’t initiate the encounter, God does. Jennings writes further: “The Spirit is driving a disciple where the disciple would not have ordinarily gone and creating a meting that without divine desire would not have happened. This holy intentionality sets the stage for a new possibility of interaction and relationship” [Acts: Belief, p. 87]. In Jennings reading of Acts, he reminds us that in the history of the church, too often we have combined the invitation to discipleship with a vision of “civilization” that has nothing to do with the Gospel. So, here in this story, we have an invitation to celebrate our differences, knowing that realm of God is a diverse realm, and through the Spirit’s work, we are brought into relationship with each other.

As we hear this story of a divinely set up encounter between a follower of Jesus and seeker of God, we are invited, in my reading, to enter the lives of others, people who are different. We enter their lives, sharing the good news of Jesus, but without expecting them to become “just like me.” But, together, in our differences and diversity, we move toward the realm of God, each being transformed by the Spirit (not by any cultural visions). In the case of the Ethiopian Eunuch, the differences include ethnicity and sexual identity. These are not changed by the encounter, but the heart of this man is drawn toward Jesus, into whose life he is baptized. From there he rejoices in his encounter with Jesus.

Without any further ado, Philip is caught up by the Spirit and deposited at Azotus, where he begins preaching again as he journeys toward Caesarea. As for the Ethiopian, nothing more is said. One can assume that he returned to Ethiopia, where like so many others in Luke-Acts, he shared the good news. While Christianity was officially established in the fourth century CE, could a see have been planted much earlier, all because of a Spirit led encounter?

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

Oh, Freedom, Easter 4

Oh, Freedom, Easter 4

 

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

April 22, 2018

Introduction 

Towards the end of June, African Americans in places throughout the United States take part in Juneteenth.  This is the holiday commemorating President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, that said that slaves in the then Confederacy were free. The message didn’t get to some slaves until 1865, some two years after the proclaimation. People who definitely were not free, all of the sudden found out that they were.  The chains that bound them, the overseers that watched them like a hawk, no longer had any power over them. They were now free.

Our text today is about freedom and slavery.  The main part of Acts 16 is when Paul and Silas are in jail singing songs to God. How were they able to sing their hearts out when they lost their freedom?

Paul and Silas end up in prison and there were reasons that this happened. Their faith got then in the slammer.  But even though they lost their freedom, they are free.

The whole theme of today’s text is about freedom.  Some who seem to be without freedom are free, while those that seem free are not really free.

One note: the text for today starts at verse 16, but we are going to start at verse 11.  Both the Narrative Lectionary and Revised Common Lectionary bypass the story of Lydia, a selller of purple cloth who becomes a believer.  Because she is a woman and because we so often look over texts concerning women, we will start with Lydia before we move on to the “main text.”

With that, today, we learn about Paul, Silas and freedom.

 

Engaging the Text

29 The jailer called for some lights, rushed in, and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He led them outside and asked, “Honorable masters, what must I do to be rescued?”

-Acts 16:29-30

Several years have past since Saul’s encounter on the road to Damascus. He has changed his name to Paul. He started his ministry with a partner, Barnabas.  A disagreement caused them to go their separate ways and Paul continued his ministry with Silas. Chapter 16 opens with them meeting Timothy who would follow them along in their journeys.  Later, Paul has a dream where a man tells him to come to Macedonia, which is what Paul and Silas do. One of the first people they meet in Macedonia is Lydia, a seller of purple cloth. She becomes the first convert in Macedonia, though God’s work.  Lydia’s conversion matters for several reasons. First, she is a woman. In the book of Luke (which is written by the author of Acts), Jesus talked to women and they were the first evangelists, telling the disciples that Jesus had risen. So Paul talking to Lydia is keeping in the tradition. The early church could be considered radical in how the treated women, with a measure of equality that wasn’t seen in the wider culture. She is also a businesswoman which was probably not very common in that culture. This Gentile woman was converted, baptized and let Paul and Silas stay at her place for a while.

So, why does Lydia matter?  Paul and Silas were sent to Macedonia and when they are there, the first few days were quiet.  Then a few ironies happened. First, a man called Paul to Macedonia, but the person who becomes the first convert is a woman.  Second, Lydia came from a region that the Holy Spirit told Paul to not go to. Finally, verse 14 notes that “the Lord enabled her to hear Paul’s message.”  No matter how good Paul was in speech or rhetoric, it was only through God that Lydia’s heart was opened. Her heart was open not just to accept God, but to open her house to Paul and Silas. That’s a reminder when we think our churches have to be places that dazzle people instead of places that allow for God to work. When we recieve God’s freedom, that should open our heart making us free to serve others in need.  

We next see Paul and Silas finding a place to pray.  A woman starts following them. She is considered to have some kind of spirit and in her state she screams, “These people are servants of the Most High God! They are proclaiming a way of salvation to you!”  Scripture says she does this for several days.

If you are hearing this no matter where you go in town, when you are shopping or even having dinner, you would tend to get testy.  After Paul heard this day in and day out, Paul got annoyed. He looks at this woman and commands, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave her!”  With that, the spirit left her.

This woman had been bound by a spirit, doing something that she might have not wanted to do.  She was now Free. But freedom always comes at a price, and that price was the lost of money by her owners.  The people who owned her were upset, because they have lost precious income. The owners grab Paul and Silas and place them before the ruling authorities. “These people are causing an uproar in our city. They are Jews who promote customs that we Romans can’t accept or practice.” These businessmen who felt they had lost freedom to make money, resorted to racism to keep the Jewish visitors in their place. The local authorities arrest Paul and Silas, have them flogged and placed in jail.  Paul and Silas had freedom to go from place to place, but now they aren’t able to go anywhere,confined to a jail cell.

But were they no longer free?  On one level, no they weren’t free.  Their feet were chained with stocks. However the scripture tells us that Paul and Silas were sitting in a jail cell unable to move about and still singing songs of praise to God.  This is not unlike the many “Freedom Songs” sung by protestors during the Civil Rights movement. Even though millions of African Americans were not free to vote or even move about, they were free in their souls and could sing songs giving praise to God and hope for a better future.

An earthquake strikes the jail and the jail cell doors open up.  We learn the jailer is ready to kill himself. Why? He thought all of the prisoners escaped. Because if the prisoners escaped then there was a fear that he could suffer the same fate.  He was about to lose his freedom and he’d rather take his life than have to suffer the fate of his supervisors. Just as he is about to fatally stab himself, Paul yells out to not harm himself, because everyone was in the jail. The jailer comes to Paul’s cell and he asks something strange: “Honorable masters, what must I do to be rescued?” Some versions say “saved,” but here we see the word “rescued,” which means the jailer saw himself as someone that was not free.  Seeing the freedom Paul and Silas showed even while in chains was something that he wanted and needed. The passage ends with the jailer and his whole family becoming saved.

 

Conclusion

There is an episode from the 60s television show the “Twlight Zone” that has always been with me.  A couple wake up one morning in a strange house. They were at a party the night before and the wife drove home and then they find themselves at this odd place.  No one is in the house. They go outside and the neighborhood was also void of people. They go to a park, where a woman tries to pet a squirrel that falls to the ground.  The husband realizes its a fake, not real. He leans on the tree and it falls over, showing that it was also fake. They hear the sounds of a train and they run to grab the train. They celebrate that they are leaving this strange place, but then they discover the train went in circles. At the end of the episode, we learn that the two people were grabbed by aliens to be part of their little girl’s play set.  Two people who were free, find out that they are now in a prison.

“Christ has set us free for freedom. Therefore, stand firm and don’t submit to the bondage of slavery again,” Paul says in Galatians. We see in this chapter that even when life might take our freedom, we are free in Christ, free to love others and free to bring healing.



 

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.

Sometimes By Step, Easter 3

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection

April 15, 2018

Read Acts 9:1-19 (CEB)

Introduction 

If you even have a passing interest in superhero stories, you know that most of our comic book heroes have what is called an “origin story” something that tells us how this superhero came to be.  For Spiderman it was the bite of a radioactive spider that gave him enhanced powers. For Batman, it was the murder of his parents by a robber. Superman was an orphan that escaped the destruction of his home planet Krypton and was given powers by Earth’s sun. In all of these characters and countless more, something happened in their lives- a turning point.  What they once knew was no more and they were opened to a brand new reality.

The man we know as the Apostle Paul started out as Saul.  He had set on his path which happened to be persecuting the new Jewish sect that would become the Church.  On the way to the city of Damascus he has an encounter that changes his life. He had one reality and slowly but surely gave way to a new way of living becoming one of the enduring leaders of the early church, the one that moved the faith from a sect of Judaism, to the worldwide religion called Christianity.

Let’s take a look at the conversion of Saul.

 

Engaging the Text

The Lord replied, “Go! This man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites. I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

-Acts 9:15-16

Saul’s change is actually part of a string of conversions that take place in the book of Acts. It starts in Acts 8:4 with a group of Samaritans, then it goes to the Ethiopian Eunuch. In chapter 10 we will see the conversion of Cornelius a Roman soldier.  With the inclusion of Saul, we see each conversion moving us farther and farther away from Jerusalem, putting the words Jesus said in Acts 1:8 into action: “Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

So who was Saul and why did he become Paul? It’s important to note that “Saul” is a Jewish name, while “Paul” was a Latin name.  The name change is a way showing what the Saul was going to be doing, preaching to the Gentiles. But it also reflected the young man’s double identity: Jewish and a Roman Citizen.

Saul grew up in Tarsus a large commercial and cosmopolitan city.  The city was known for its intellectual life, and it in many ways rivaled Athens when it came to thought and philosophy. Saul would have been raised in a Jewish home, but the Jews who live in Tarsus were influenced by the Hellenistic (Greek) culture around them. The everyday language would have been Greek, not Hebrew. Even the scriptures used for study and worship would have been a Greek translation of the original Hebrew.

You would think living as a minority in a Hellenistic culture would have made Saul more open to other ways of thinking, but that was not the case.  Instead, Saul became a zealot for his faith and he was hellbent on trying to destroy this new Jewish sect. In a way, he was at war with himself, the zealot for his faith going against the Hellenistic Jew.  The first glimpses of Saul are not the cosmopolitan man from Tarsus, but as a violent young man that breathed threats and murder as Acts 9:1 describes him.

Saul is on the way to Damascus to persecute followers of this new sect when he is struck by light.  This bright light is blinding and he can hear a voice that ask, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?”  Paul has an encounter with Jesus and it is interesting that the voice allies itself with the suffering- a reminder that God stands with those who suffer. Pastor Jay Wilson explains:

 

The risen Lord confronts Saul with the question, “Why do you persecute me?” And the query shows just how closely God associates himself with his people. From here a sermon could address how God always stands in solidarity with those afflicted and suffering (think of Jesus’ own ministry to the least of these, or Yahweh’s attention to the enslaved Hebrews back in Exodus 3:7-9). One might even suggest how, ever since Jesus’ resurrection and subsequent gifting of the Spirit to His people, the Church is now, in a mysterious way, the Body of Christ.

 

But Jesus also taught and practice loving the enemy. Stephen, consider the first martyr, prays for his enemies even as he is being stoned to death.  Saul is being confronted, but is considered by God a chosen instrument. The encounter on the road is both judgement and mercy; where God closes one door for Saul and opens a new one for Paul.

So what’s the point of this conversion experience? Theologian and pastor William Willimon explains that this story shows a few things. First, what Saul went through is something that God does.  It is not a self-improvement project. God is in the business of choosing people that most of us would never choose like Jacob who was a thief and a crook or even Moses who killed a man. By showing such extreme examples, we show that God is the one that changes us and not us.

The other thing to remember is that conversion went from independence to dependence, which is incredibly countercultural. Here was a guy that knew what he wanted and where to go. He meets God and now has to be led by the hand.  Progress in God’s kingdom is actually going backward at least in our world.

The people with Saul who are wondering what’s going on, will pick him up and carry him to a house in Damascus.

It’s then that we have this side story with Ananias.  He is a follower in Damascus and God calls on him to go and tend to Saul.  Ananias has second thoughts and probably third and fourth thoughts. “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man. People say he has done horrible things to your holy people in Jerusalem. He’s here with authority from the chief priests to arrest everyone who calls on your name,” Ananias says in verses 13-14. But God commands him to go and heal Saul because he is the agent chosen by God to preach to “kings, Gentiles and Israelites” (9:15).  Ananais obeys and heals Saul so that he can see again.

In this large story Ananias is an example of being a disciple, and sometimes that means showing mercy to those you really, don’t want to show mercy to at all.  He is faithful and trusting of God and does what he is called to do. While this is the story of Saul, there is a smaller story about a simple man in a town called to do something for an enemy and he obeys.  We never see Ananias after this event.

Conclusion

In 1993, Laramiun Byrd age 20 was shot and killed by Oshea Israel in Minneapolis. Israel was sentenced and served time in prison for the murder.  Towards the end of that sentence he received an interesting visitor, Mary Johnson, the mother of Laramium Byrd. She wanted to know if he was the same man who killed her son or if there had been any change. Back then, she wanted to hurt him, but after a long conversation with Israel, she ended up hugging the killer of her son.

 

It was then she realized that all of the anger and hatred she had carried over the prior decade was gone. She had moved from bitterness to forgiveness. As she changed, so did Israel’s life. He became her adopted son and he gained a mother.


Conversions, changes of heart, are not things that happen immediately and more often than not, they are not things we do. Instead, it is an internal process that changes people, be it a man in the Middle East or a mother in Minneapolis that make the impossible, possible. Change is not about learning to be a better person, but allowing God to make us better persons, persons on a mission.


1.Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of John (Vol. 2, p. 292). Louisville, KY: Edinburgh.

 

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.

Just Believe, Easter 2

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection

April 8, 2018

Read John 20:19-31 (CEB)

Introduction 

A number of us have scars. Some are scars from an accident, some are surgical scars. I have a scar on one of my eyebrows from the time I banged my head against a marble coffee table when I was about a year old. I have another scar from the time the placed a catheter into my side to drain the fluid that had built up around my lungs when I was battling a major infection two decades ago. My mother and aunt have reminders of their battle with breast cancer in that there are scars from having a breast removed or a lump removed.
All scars involved pain at some point. Even long after we get better, those scars remind us that things were not always well, that there was sickness. Scars remind us that the world can be a very unfair and cruel place.

In today’s passage, we see the disciples locked up in a room fearful of the religious and political authorities. Peter had just seen the tomb was empty and might have wondered who took the body and who was coming for them next. Would they suffer the same death Jesus did? Would their bodies be taken away by the authorities, not giving their loved ones a body to mourn.

Then, Jesus appears. Jesus, who they thought was dead, was alive. The disciples were joyous, except one: Thomas. He couldn’t be joyous since he wasn’t there. Why he wasn’t there, we don’t know. But when he does show up, he is not convinced by the disciple’s joy. He wanted to see Jesus for himself, in fact he wanted to see the wounds himself.

Today we talk about the resurrected Jesus and the disciples as they come to terms learning that their friend that was dead is now alive.

 

Engaging the Text

It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.”

-John 20:19

We didn’t read the earlier parts of John 20, but here is a recap:  Mary Magdalene went to the tomb on that first Easter morning and found the stone rolled away.  She tells Peter and the disciple who Jesus loved, that Jesus was gone.  Peter and John go to investigate and it’s true; the body is gone.  Mary stands outside the tomb, devastated and weeping. In time sees the Risen Christ.  Seeing your friend, alive and well isn’t something you keep to yourself, so she goes to tell the disciples saying , “I have seen the Lord!”

Locked Up

If someone tells you a friend that was dead was now alive, hiding in a room wouldn’t be the first impulse.  But even after they had heard the good news, the disciples locked themselves in a room in fear. These disciples should not be confused with the Eleven (formerly Twelve), but an unspecified number of Jesus’ disciples. (Remember, that there were more than just 12 disciples.) They hear the “fear of the Jews” (meaning, fear of the Jewish religious leaders) more than they hear the joyous report of Mary. A question to ask is why the disciples were more willing to let their fear speak to them more than Mary’s report.

We will get to Thomas, who has forever been given the name “Doubting Thomas” for refusing to believe the disciples when they saw Jesus was alive and well.  But Thomas wasn’t the only one who doubted.  Mary Magdalene had told the disciples that Jesus was alive and well. She told them that she not only saw Jesus but touched him and he spoke to her. Despite all of this the disciples were still locked in a room.

Why were the disciples fearful of the Jewish leaders? They were very much like the parents of the man born bling in chapter 9. The parents were afraid of how the leaders would treat them and they knew their son would be kicked out of the synogogue.  They disciples feared a similar fate or even worse and fear can sometimes cloud the truth.

When Jesus appears, he says “Peace Be With You,” which was a common greeting of the time.  But uttering those words also spoke to the disciples fear, with Jesus offering peace to those who felt no peace at this point in their lives.

Jesus repeats the offering of peace to the disciples who are filled with joy. When Jesus breathes on his disciples to receive the Holy Spirit, he commissioning them to continue the work he started.  The gift of the Spirit is part of this commissioning, which means their new mission is one that will be sustained by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus breathing into disciples remind us of God breathing new life in the valley of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37. It was taking something that seemed to have no hope of being anything and breathing the Spirit to make the impossible, possible.

In verse 23, Jesus tells his disciples, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”  When Jesus talks about sins here, it isn’t about an act of penance to individual deeds, but it is in relation to recognizing and embracing the revelation of God in Jesus.

The work of the third person of the Trinity, can be rather subversive, doing something that we would not normally do. Pastor Ben Cremer notes how the Spirit is not one that colors inside the lines:

We need to remember that the subversive reality of the Holy Spirit is one that deeply unsettles us. While we may sing songs glorifying and inviting the Holy Spirit to fill us, we often do not take into account how it may subdue our fears and send us directly to those who have a vendetta against us. Moreover, the Holy Spirit may lead us to be the very ones who upset the status quo, which we tend to admire especially if we have helped to bring the status quo about. The disciples were on the one side of two extremes. Rome was determined to maintain the status quo of “Pax Romana” (peace of Rome) at any cost, while the disciples wanted to “make Israel great again.” However, both extremes detailed a clear picture of greatness that relied upon who should be included and who should be excluded. In his ministry, Jesus did not show favoritism towards anyone, but ministered to his disciples and Roman centurions alike (Luke 7:1-10; Matt. 8:5-13). Jesus was primarily concerned about inviting others out of their own picture of life and into the true life of God. The Holy Spirit will breakdown anything that limits our faith in God and our relationships with one another. Even at the expense of our own normal. To be filled with the Holy Spirit is to understand that the moment we place ourselves in the position of deciding who is including and who is excluded, we will find ourselves on the opposite side of God. For God is not in the work of limiting and dividing, but of redemption and reconciliation. 1

So now we know what happened to the disciples save one.  One person wasn’t there to see Jesus; Thomas.  Let’s learn his story.

Not Doubt, but Belief

Thomas wasn’t there for that event.  When the he finally comes to the room, the other disciples tell him that Jesus is alive.  But Thomas is unmoved.  Unless he sees the nails in the hands of Jesus, he can’t believe.

Traditionally, we have viewed Thomas as “doubting Thomas.”  We see this story as a lack of belief or a story about doubt.  However, it is important to note an underlying theme here; it is important to have a personal experience with the risen Savior. Mary believed not because someone told her, but because she had a personal experience with Jesus.  The same happened with the other disciples, they had an intimate encounter with Jesus.  Thomas wanted to the same. He didn’t want to learn about Jesus second-hand.

The story that many pastors will lift up is the one of Doubting Thomas and how we should not be like Thomas.  Indeed, some translations use the word, doubt in verse 27.  But the Greek says apistos, which means unbelief, not doubt. Again, the emphasis here is on relationship not about doubt or belief.  What should be lifted up is that Thomas wanted a personal encounter with Jesus, he didn’t want to take what the disciples said as gospel.

Why do we think Thomas needed to see the scars? The God we serve is not a God that is disconnected from life. This God came and walked among us and suffered like any human being. The wounds remind us that this was truly the Immanuel, God with us- one that shared our common lot.

Thomas didn’t want to just meet a Jesus that all was all well and better, as if he never suffered. He wanted to meet a Jesus that had really gone through hell; anything else was just an apparition, a figment of the imagination.

Jesus wants us to touch the wounds of the world outside the walls of this church. We are called to touch the wounds of the hungry, the outcast, the lonely and see Jesus in them.

Conclusion

When you read this week’s gospel in John about good ole “Doubting Thomas” you might think about how Tom wanted proof of Jesus’ existence.  There will be talk about how doubt is important in the life of faith and we will try to hold him up as a modern hero who didn’t just want to believe something because someone told him.

These are all good things to note in the text, but what if there’s something more here that we aren’t seeing.  What if this text is not just about doubt and faith, not just about the Risen Savior, but also a message for the church,  the body of Christ?

In his lectionary reflection this week, Russell Rathburn expresses his interest in the actual body of Christ:

After crashing through all that at break neck speed, John slows it down to spend the majority of this verses focusing on his Body. Thomas says he wants to see the Body, see the wounds. Jesus arrives and very graphically shows him the wounds, and in a very intimate gesture, invites him to place his finger/hand inside them. There can be no doubt that this is the Body of Jesus the Christ, very man, very God.

That Jesus literally, physically rose from the dead is the foundation of the Christian faith. This Sunday’s reading starts and ends with it, giving just a verse each to the Great Commission, Pentecost, the rest is all about the Body. After so much emphasis on the Body of Jesus through the Lent and Easter seasons, how do we preach with out one? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe? There really are not any other options are there?

The question  here is Russell’s talk about the body of Christ when there isn’t a body anymore.

But what if there is a body?  What if as some modern theologians ponder, Christ’s resurrection wasn’t only about the physical resurrection, but also about how the resurrection lives in the life of the gathered community, the Church?

Thomas wanted to experience Jesus for himself.  He did not want to rely on the experience of others.  Belief for Thomas was not about accepting creedal statements, but about a relationship and if he couldn’t experience a body, then what’s the point?

Now for a moment, think about the body of Christ as the church, because in the here and now that’s what modern Thomases are looking at when they want to see Jesus.  They aren’t looking to just accept a doctrinal statement, but they are looking to commune with the Body of Christ.  In this present age, there isn’t a physical body to talk about, but Christ is found in the Church, the folks who believe in Christ and abide with him.

Maybe, just maybe, if the church can live as a community called, gathered and sent by God to preach the good news, then our modern Thomas will see Christ.  Maybe if we live as a community of forgiven sinners, then our modern Thomas will see Christ.  Maybe if we welcome all to the doors of our churches, then our modern Thomas will see Christ.

As you prepare to preach or teach this Sunday after the Resurrection, think about what it means to be the Body of Christ in our world.  How do we witness to the Living and Risen Christ?

1.Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of John (Vol. 2, p. 292). Louisville, KY: Edinburgh.

 

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.