Christian Community-part 3

Acts 2:42-47

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Recently I found myself at a busy intersection, trying to make a left-hand turn at a stop sign. I tend to be a pretty safe driver. The only accident that I was ever in was when I was 16-years-old, and my truck was the only vehicle involved. So I admit right up front that I don’t like to push it; it’s better safe than sorry.

After waiting at that intersection for what was probably 10-15 seconds, there was a clearing to my left and a small break to my right. I debated trying to fit my Subaru into that small break in the traffic, but decided that I would wait for the next opportunity. Just because my car will fit into a break in the traffic doesn’t mean that I need to make it fit. But as soon as it became obvious that I was not going to stomp on the accelerator and pull out into traffic, the driver of car behind me made sure to offer his opinion on the matter, and he thought that I should have tried it. He made it known by laying on his horn. And it wasn’t just a little “beep, beep.” No, he held down the horn until I went, “beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep!”

Of course, when we came up to the next stop light, he pulled right up next to me. That’s always awkward. I smiled at him and nodded. I think he waved at me with a special, secret wave that only involves one finger. I can’t say for sure, because I was too busy looking at his car. What I noticed about his car was that it was a fairly-modern car, with a dented front fender, cracked bumper, and I would describe the color as a combination of Bond-o and primer gray.

Please don’t misinterpret what I’m saying. I’m not laughing at his busted-up car. I’ve had my share of rough vehicles in my life as well. What I’m saying is that maybe this guy isn’t the best person to be offering me driving tips. If your car looks like it’s been through a war zone, perhaps you shouldn’t be telling people when it is a good idea to pull out in front of oncoming traffic.

Today we are concluding our sermon series on Christian community. So far we have addressed learning in community, fellowship, prayer, sharing bread, and sharing goods. We conclude today with giving and receiving counsel.

Here’s the thing about this mark of the Christian community: we really like half of it. We really like to give counsel. The guy driving the car behind me really liked telling me when to pull out into traffic. We like to tell people when and what they should or should not be doing. You shouldn’t eat that! You don’t want to go there! This job is perfect for you! You really shouldn’t treat your wife like that.

But that’s not how we do things in the Christian community. I have two words that I think describe that kind of relationship, one of which is a little nicer than the other. When all we do is tell other people what to do, that’s more like being a coach, or worse, like being a dictator. Players don’t tell a coach what she should be doing; subjects don’t tell a dictator how to run a country. We like to give counsel, but in the Christian community we both give and receive counsel.

The giving and receiving of counsel is so important in our faith tradition that it is often a part of our baptismal vows. We know how difficult life can be. And it doesn’t necessarily get easier when you become a Christian. So when we receive a new member and we ask if they are willing to give and receive counsel, we are essentially saying, “This world is really challenging. I need help, and I assume you do, too.”

Before we look at a biblical argument for this mark of the Christian community, I want to break things down a little further. There are two main areas where we as a community are called to give and receive counsel: in the discernment of God’s will and in mutual accountability. You could probably convince me of others, too. I am, it would seem, open to your counsel, but this will have to do for now.

How do we discern God’s will? You might say things like read the Bible and pray about it. And I would say that you are right, those are very important parts of the discernment process. But we as a church also discern together.

Remember that this is not a dictatorship. I cannot simply tell you what you should be doing and shouldn’t be doing. I’ve tried that in my own household, and I have failed miserably! Even Jesus—if anyone had the right to just sit there and tell us what to do, it was Jesus—entered into discernment with his disciples. He asked questions like, “Who do you think that I am?” He told stories and parables. Jesus engaged his disciples so much through dialogue that when he would say things like he had to die and rise again, his disciples thought that this too was up for debate!

This process is probably most clearly presented to us in Acts 15. This is a story about the early church and how they had to make some decisions, how they had to discern God’s will, about what was to be required of converts to Christianity. Essentially, the argument was about whether a person had to practice Jewish rituals in order to be a Christian. It really came down to two concerns: Jewish food laws and circumcision. One group of really godly, well-intentioned men said that converts had to keep all of the Mosaic Laws to be a Christian. Another group of really godly, well-intentioned men said that these Laws were keeping people from becoming Christians.

So they called each other heretics and started their own churches.

No, they got together. They formed a committee, which we call the Jerusalem Council. They studied the scriptures. They discussed what Jesus taught. They prayed about it, and against all odds, they came to an agreement. In Acts 15:28a, we read this in their final letter: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you…”

This wasn’t a decision that one person made on his or her own. They discerned together what God’s will was.

How many times do we try to discern God’s will on our own without consulting the body of believers around us? I believe that God can speak directly to an individual, but I also think that more often than not, God speaks to us communally.

I heard about a pastor who was invited to go on a study trip to Israel. It was a several-week-long trip, which meant that he would be away from church duties for those weeks. This sort of thing isn’t uncommon for pastors to participate in. You just need to use vacation time, scratch up the funds, and plan accordingly.

But this pastor didn’t approach this scenario in the way I would suggest. He really wanted to go to Israel and was excited about the chance to go with this group. So when he met with his church council, he said to them, “God is calling me to Israel, and for the church to pay for it.”

I have a lot of respect for what the church council did. They said, “Let’s pray about it.” And after they spent some time discussing it, they said that it did not seem good to them and the Holy Spirit. This pastor just was excited about the chance to go on a great trip and wanted the church to cover the significant cost associated with it.

What I think this story illustrates is that discerning God’s will isn’t just about the huge things, like observing the Mosaic Law. We can come together to discern God’s will about other things, things that are still important, but on a different level. People have come to me and asked me to pray for them when they are considering changing jobs, moving, or changing their kids’ school. I think that this is really important because sometimes our judgement can be clouded by our excitement, our fear, and our other emotions. The pastor that I spoke about thought that God was calling his church to pay for his trip, but maybe he was just excited about the idea of fulfilling a dream of visiting the Promised Land on someone else’s dime.

One part of the giving and receiving of counsel in the Christian community is to discern God’s will. But what about the accountability part?

Don’t judge me, you don’t know me!

That’s right! Judging people is wrong. Jesus says that if we judge others we will be judged ourselves. Take that plank out of your eye! But there is a difference between judging and keeping one another accountable. Judging goes one way. You don’t even need to know someone to judge them. But the mutual accountability practiced in Christian community involves knowing someone and knowing why they do what they are doing.

I say right now for you all to hear, if you see me doing something that is harmful to myself, to others, or to my relationship with God, please say something to me. You are my friends, you are my church. You know me and my story, and I want you to help me live as best as I can. If you see me acting inappropriately, please say something. If I say something or do something that offends or hurts someone, please let me know.

I don’t say this because I like to be told when I do something wrong. I say it because I want to be better. I want to be a better father, husband, pastor, and Christian.

But why is this different from judging? It’s important to know someone to practice mutual accountability. First of all, I just invited you to comment on my life. So you aren’t judging, you are doing what I asked. Second of all, you know my situation.

If you saw me stealing a loaf of bread, I hope that you would stop me. You know I have a job and can pay for that bread. But if you didn’t know me, you wouldn’t know if I was stealing that bread to save the life of my starving children. That doesn’t make it right, but maybe it makes it a little less wrong. Mutual accountability requires us inviting other people into our lives, inviting them to speak into our situations, inviting them to give us feedback, even when that feedback is negative.

Let’s move from the hypothetical to the real. I’ve always encouraged people to come to me with any questions or concerns that you may have about my teaching and preaching. I’m accountable to you about what I say. Some of you have taken this invitation quite seriously and frequently approach me after a sermon or Sunday school lesson. And that’s a good thing. I grow through challenges. I am forced to go back and dig deeper, asking what I really believe and why I believe it.

Often when I am approached it is about small things, like the way I word something or how you interpret something that I said based on your own experiences. Sometimes I can clarify things a bit by restating something in a different way. Other times we just don’t end up agreeing on a subject. But I hope that you always know that I don’t come to my theological convictions lightly. And I’m never trying to intentionally mislead you. I’ve grown through our conversations, emails, and letters.

As many of you know, my sermons are also available through our church’s website. You can click through and read what I intended to say or listen to my sermon audio, what I really did say. People are free to leave comments after my written sermons, which I imagine should have a similar effect to allowing you all to respond after a sermon on a Sunday. And many people have responded, leaving questions, voicing concerns, and occasionally even agreeing with me.

Recently, however, I arrived at church and found a letter in the church mailbox. The letter was addressed to me, and there was no return address on the envelope. I get all sorts of things in the mail here, so I didn’t think too much of this, except that the letter, including the envelope, was all written on a typewriter. This is the kind of thing that you do when you don’t want to be recognized, when you want your identity to be concealed. And sure enough, inside I found an anonymous letter, criticizing something that I had preached about several months earlier.

There were a number of things about this letter that bothered me, but I can handle that. I know that when I say something a little controversial that people will push back, and that’s okay. What bothered me the most about this letter is that it was sent anonymously, and I did not have any way of responding to the writer. How am I supposed to be able to have a dialogue or enter into a conversation with someone if they don’t offer any contact information or even give their first name?

The writer of this anonymous letter wasn’t interested in the giving and receiving of counsel. He just wanted to give counsel.

This example doesn’t quite fit perfectly with Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 18, but I still think it applies. In Matthew 18 Jesus teaches what we should do if a brother or sister sins against us. Verses 15-16 from the NIV read like this: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

If a brother or sister sins, write them an anonymous letter? Nope, go to them in person and talk about it.

The thing that bothered me the most about receiving the anonymous letter had nothing to do with the criticism offered in the letter itself. I was ready for that. But I felt like a failure as a Christian because I felt like another brother or sister in Christ didn’t feel comfortable approaching me in person.

I am dedicated to the idea of giving and receiving counsel, no matter how uncomfortable it might make me. This includes both discerning God’s will together and holding one another accountable. When we voice our opinions to a stranger, when we write anonymous letters, or when we tell someone what they should do and refuse to hear back from them, we are not being a Christian community. We are judging.

My friends, this world is tough, and sometimes we make it tougher on one another. That’s not the role of the church, and that’s not our reason for living in Christian community. The giving and receiving of counsel isn’t supposed to make life harder or more difficult on someone. If it does, you’re probably doing it wrong. Together, we discern God’s will. Together, we hold one another accountable. Together, we can do better.

The Christian community learns together, fellowships, prays, shares bread, and goods. We also give and receive counsel, because there is strength in numbers. We are stronger together. Or as Jesus says, anywhere two or three are gathered, he is with us.

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Christian Community-part 2

Acts 2:42-47

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Last week we began a sermon series on the early church as depicted in Acts 2. During my first sermon, I lifted out three different marks of the Christian Community: learning in community, fellowship, and prayer. Today we are going to cover two additional marks, and I will close out this series on May 28 with our final mark of the Christian Community. Spoiler alert: it will be on the giving and receiving of counsel. So I counsel you to not miss that one!

Today we are going to look at the significance of breaking bread together and sharing our goods. Last week after the sermon, one person said to me, “Thanks for your Marxist sermon.” I stepped back a little bit and said, “Just wait until next week, that one will sound Marxist!” You know, with the exception that Marxism discourages the observation of religion.

But what I interpreted as Marxism was intended as marks-ist, a sermon on the marks of Christian Community. So without further ado, we will continue our marks-ist sermon series with our fourth mark of Christian Community: the church values the shared meal.

Over the last few years we have seen a rise in awareness of something that we Christians already knew: eating together is important. In our busy, 21st-century world, many families are finding it more and more difficult to set aside 20-30 minutes each day to share an evening meal (Is it supper or dinner?). Youth sports, late nights at the office, ballet, television, and nontraditional family systems all come into play and keep us from sitting down together to eat. And who has time to bake a meal? If we are able to grab a Happy Meal on the way to some extracurricular event, we really aren’t doing too badly. I consider it a small victory if I remember to feed the children some days. And if we are honest that’s what the kids really want anyway, because at least my children aren’t huge fans of the massaged kale and walnut salads we sometimes offer them at home.

So the secular professions and family therapists are saying that families should try to eat together several times throughout the week. The Child Development Institute claims that a shared meal leads to better nutrition compared to everyone just grabbing something out of the fridge or the drive-through window. There is an opportunity for shared responsibilities, as even young children can wash vegetables, set the table, and help with the dishes. There have been studies that link a shared meal to kids doing better in school and a reduced chance that they get involved with illegal drug use and underage drinking.

But do you know what the most important aspect of the shared meal is? It isn’t the food itself, but the time spent together. Something magical happens when we sit down to a shared meal: our mouths keep moving even after we swallow our food. We talk to one another. We ask how one another’s day went. We ask about issues at work and school.

We all need to eat. That’s how we provide our bodies with the nourishment required to live and move and have our being. When we share a meal, it becomes a communal event where more than just stories are shared, lives are shared. And more than just our waistlines are shaped, we are shaped through these practices of responsibility and caring.

That seems like pretty good reason to eat with your family, and again, this is just from a secular perspective. We haven’t even gotten into the theological reasons for eating together!

Let’s look again at verse 42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” And the second half of verse 46, “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.”

Why was eating together so important to the early church? First of all, think about who was a part of the church in the 1st century? Rich people, poor people, tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, religious leaders, rabbis. You get the idea. You had rich and powerful people like Zacchaeus and Joseph of Arimathea, and people like the many unnamed social outcasts of the day. And it seems like they were eating together, in one another’s homes, on a regular basis!

Recall all of the trouble that Jesus got into for eating with the wrong people. Mark 2:15-16 tells one such story, “While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’”

In the first century, sharing a meal with someone meant that you accepted them and saw yourselves as equals. And in many ways, this hasn’t changed to this day. Consider the cafeteria at any high school and you will see people sitting according to social status. The cheerleaders sit with the jocks, the bad kids sit together, the farmers, the grungers, the nerds, geeks and dweebs. They sit with their own kind. Schools bring kids of all different backgrounds together to learn, but they quickly sort themselves out when they get the chance.

Church can do the same thing. Different kinds of people may gather together on Sunday morning, but even churches, especially bigger churches, get cliquey. We need to interact with one another. That is why we must not give up on the practice of eating together.

In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul gives a critique of the way the church has been sharing meals. Yes, they are eating together, but they are missing the point! They are eating based on divisions, namely economic divisions. The rich are eating and drinking in excess, gorging on food, getting drunk on wine, while the poor Christians at the same party are made to wait and they go hungry. The shared meal is about equality. The shared meal is about community. And the shared meal is about loving one another in spite of your differences.

I’ll say one more thing about eating with people who are different from you, and this thought is inspired by the teachings of my own mother. This ever-important rule is one that I’m sure your mother taught you as well: don’t talk with your mouth full.

Now the reason my mother taught me this is not the same reason I lift this important doctrine up to you today. My mother taught us that it is rude to talk with your mouth full; people can see your half-eaten chicken, sometimes bits of masticated food flies from your mouth. It ain’t pretty. But from a theological/ecclesiological/social perspective, I would say that if you make a commitment to not talk with your mouth full, you’re going to do a lot more listening. And when we are gathered with a diverse group, listening is very important.

I know that I can do a better job of this. When we eat with others, I will sometimes look down at my plate and realize that I’ve barely touched my food while others are almost done eating. Believe me, it’s not because I’m a slow eater. It is because I’m always yakking! The early church saw breaking bread, eating together as a diverse group of believers, as a mark of Christian Community. We share responsibility in preparing the meal and in cleaning up afterwards. And we share stories, we share what makes us who we are, over food.

But that’s not all we share! The second mark of the Christian Community that I wish to address this morning, which is the 5th one we’ve considered so far in this series, is that followers of Jesus share their stuff.

Again, I offer an homage to my mother. I am the second of three boys, which means I am the middle child. And I am the stereotypical middle child. I never got the attention that the oldest child or the baby received. I never got the respect. And I never got new things. My toys were hand me downs; my clothes were hand me downs. Do you know how I feel about hand me downs?

I love them.

I love that today we receive clothes for our children from friends whose children have outgrown their clothes. And I love that my sister-in-law gets excited every time we pass on a tote of clothes for my twin nephew and niece. And I really love the way my children get excited to see pictures of Max and Grace wearing their old clothes.

My mother taught me to share, and I am glad that your mothers taught you to share as well.

Verses 44-45 read like this: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.”

As I said last week, I’m not a complete Communist, and I don’t believe that you need to sell everything and give away your money to be a follower of Jesus. I do think we could all probably live off a little less and give away a little more, but that’s a message for another day.

I sometimes need to catch myself because I get caught up in my own desire for private ownership. If we shared more, we could free up a lot of resources to help other people out. And there are some things that we use so infrequently that it doesn’t even make sense for everyone to own their own. There are times when we have to admit that our mothers do know best and that we need to share.

When Sonya and I purchased our first home twelve years ago, we got a few added bonuses with the house. That’s the nice way of saying that the previous owners left some of their junk in the basement for us to sort through. I got an old cordless drill, without a battery or charger. I got an assortment of fasteners: nails, screws, and tacks. I also got this strange-looking device that looks like a mouth opening and closing, chomping on some imaginary circle.

I later found out that this device is a crimping tool for pex water pipe. If you have done any plumbing in the last 10 years, you’ve probably used pex, a flexible, durable, cut-able pipe that is fastened with copper rings. The tool that I received with our house is a ring crimper. You cannot fasten pex piping without a tool similar to this.

Of all the people I know who are not professional plumbers—which is most of the people that I know—I am the only one who owns my own pex crimping tools. I have lent this tool out to at least seven different people in two different states. I haven’t used it myself for years, but some in our church have used it as recently as earlier this month. And if anyone else wants to borrow it, just let me know. It is usually just sitting in my basement.

Sure, if you’re going to do a major plumbing project, you might spend $50 and buy your own crimper. But if you just have a little project, please borrow mine. And if you just need to get rid of that $50, donate it to the Valley Mission, to Mennonite Central Committee, to Love Inc., or to Staunton Mennonite Church. You see, the more we share, the more there is to go around.

Maybe you’re not into plumbing, but where else could we learn to share and go against the culture of private ownership? I keep kicking myself because this spring I needed to purchase a new lawn mower. I got a cheapy and spent about $150 on a push mower. But that mower sits in my little shed for 167 hours each week. I use it for one hour each week, and only for a few months out of the year. And my neighbors on either side of us have a mower, too. Their mowers also sit for 167 hours each week. I know it wouldn’t be feasible for some people, but why is it my automatic response to go out and buy my own mower rather than talking to my neighbor about sharing? It is easier, for sure. And our world is getting more and more private, so much to the point that we don’t even know the people who live beside us. But I come back to the early church and see how they shared everything. And because they shared everything, there was no need among them.

Some churches take this sharing of goods to an extreme, and please know that I’m using this as an example and not saying that we need to go to this length in order to be good Christians. Our Anabaptist siblings, the Hutterites, farm communally. The church pools their resources and buys up large sections of land in rural places like South Dakota and Manitoba. The farms are very efficient, as several families come together to share the work and the equipment of the farm. Now, rather than every farmer on the block having their own tractor, combine, wagons, and other pieces of equipment, several family units work together as a community. And if something happens, like an accident that would keep a farmer from being able to tend to his crops, the community works together, sharing the responsibility. And when the farm gets above a certain number of participants, they start another farming community.

If the rural imagery doesn’t work for you, I encourage you to look into Reba Place just outside of Chicago. Reba Place Fellowship is a Christian community that shares their financial resources. There are people making six-figure incomes living together and sharing their goods with people who make six dollars an hour.

I know that these are starting to sound more and more like communism! But here is the difference between communism and Christian communities who share their goods: in a communist country, everyone has to participate. In a Christian community of shared goods, the members choose to participate. And if you don’t pull your weight, you are asked to leave. If a Hutterite man woke up one day and decided he was just going to let the rest of the community do the farming that week, he would find himself outside of the community.

A Christian community that shares its goods only works if everyone is willing to pull their own weight. Everyone must contribute in some way. If you don’t contribute, you are not a member of the community; you are a moocher.

I’m not at the same place as the Hutterites, nor am I at the same place as the members of Reba Place, or even the early church. But I know that I can do a better job of sharing. Let’s just think of a few things that we could do better when it comes to sharing.

I’ve got a closet full of perfectly good clothes that I don’t wear. Most of them are even pretty stylish, because, as you know, I’m a snappy dresser. What if every year I simply decided that if there are clothes that I haven’t worn in the last year that I’m going to donate them to one of several thrift stores around town? I like to do home improvement projects around the house, and I’ve got a pretty good collection of rarely-used tools. What if before I buy another tool, say anything over $50, I simply stop and ask, “Can I borrow someone else’s instead of buying this?” And let’s combine these two marks of a Christian community for the last one. We often prepare more food than we can eat in one sitting. And most of this is consumed throughout the week as leftovers, but sometimes things are just wasted or I eat more than I should to finish off a pot of spaghetti. What if we made the commitment to have more people over, even last second invitations when the house isn’t in perfect order, for a shared meal? You don’t have to be a Hutterite, a member of Reba Place, or a communist to share. You just have to listen to what your mother probably taught you growing up. Sharing is caring.

The early church dedicated itself to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, prayer, shared meals, and shared goods. How we do these things has surely changed over the last 2,000 years, but I believe that they are still just as important today.

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Christian Community-part 1

Acts 2:42-47

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Happy 4th Sunday of Easter! Today we are looking at the end of the second chapter of Acts, six little verses that hold the potential to change the way we see the church. Or they can be totally ignored, you know, because they are just six little verses And Jesus isn’t even named in this passage, so why bother?

I am planning to spend the next two weeks explaining to you why we should bother with this text, and it all comes down to one word: community.

Community is a hard word to really pin down. A good dictionary definition for community is a group of people living in proximity to one another who share a common set of values. But we could easily find exceptions to that definition. What about the online community? With modern technology, you may feel more connected to someone who lives thousands of miles away than you do to your own neighbor. Or, as we will be looking at the word today, what about the Christian community? There is something that is connecting us to Christians worshipping around the globe right now. I might even call a Christian in Indonesia or Africa my brother or sister.

So just what is community? Before we actually look at this text, I want to address some of the concerns that have been offered over the years about how our scripture for this morning has been interpreted. The first thing that we notice is that nowhere in this text does it say that we must live exactly as these early Christians did. So if you want to get fancy, you might ask the question, “Was this meant to be prescriptive or descriptive?” Was this meant to be an example of how followers of Jesus Christ should live in all situations throughout time, or does this text simply describe how the early church lived?

I’ll give you a very deep, theological answer to that question: I don’t know.

A second concern that people raise involves the timing of Jesus’s return. Many scholars have made the observation that the early church seemed to believe that Jesus was coming back soon. The events of Acts 2 occurred within the first two months after Jesus’s death and resurrection, so they may have expected him to come back any day. These people often point to verse 45, which says, “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” Yes, if you think Jesus is coming back in the next couple of days, you aren’t going to be worried about things like properties, savings accounts, or 401(k)’s.

I think that is actually a really good question, though I’m also not convinced that the first-century Jewish Christians had the same apocalyptic expectations that many Christians today have. But still, I think that to sell everything and cash in your retirement would be bad stewardship, and you would then be a burden for other Christians.

So no, we don’t know if this Christian community was meant to be a model for how to be the church, and we don’t know how or if the apocalyptic expectations of this community might have affected how they interacted and existed as the church. But what we do know is that for those first Christians, this is how they understood what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. And of these men and women, some had the chance to learn from Jesus himself or from his original disciples. So what we absolutely cannot do is dismiss this community based on a few questions to which we have no answers.

Today we are only going to get through verse 42. That’s right, one verse for the next 20 minutes. But do not worry, there are three things that I want to look at from this one verse as we seek to better understand the concept of Christian community. Verse 42 says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” So today, we will devote ourselves to the study of the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, and to prayer. We will save the breaking of bread for next week as this practice comes back up again in verse 46. That’s right, eating was so important to the early church that two out of these six verses focus on it.

The first mark of Christian community is the focus on the apostles’ teaching. We can safely assume that when we are told that the Christian community focused on the apostles’ teaching that this means the remaining faithful of the original 12 disciples. And what were they teaching about? I would assume that they are teaching about Jesus, and not obscure algorithms or something like that.

Recall again that we are just about two months after Jesus’s death and resurrection, so where would this young movement go for stories about Jesus and for instructions on what he taught and said? They aren’t going to turn to their New Testaments, because they hadn’t been written yet. The Gospels aren’t going to be written down for another generation or so. And even if they had been written down, most of the people of the day would have been illiterate and not able to read them anyway. So for the early church to learn about Jesus, they had to gather together, to listen and share stories and teachings.

Today, most homes have at least one copy of the Bible stashed away somewhere, as I believe that the Bible is still the best-selling book in world. Even if you don’t have a print version of the Bible, you can access it online, with your smart phone, laptop, or tablet. Now don’t get me wrong, I think that it is great that the Bible is so available to people today, and I encourage you to read it! But one of the signs of Christian community is that we gather to discuss the teaching of the disciples, or our contemporary version would be to say that we gather to discuss the Bible or other teachings about Jesus.

We probably all know someone who is a Christian, reads their Bibles, maybe even listens to sermons online, on the radio, or on television, but they have no interest in going to church, participating in a small group, or interacting with other Christians. Without a doubt, you can learn that way, but at what cost?

Think of how Jesus actually taught. He always called people to a deeper understanding by not just telling people what to think and do, but by asking them questions, encouraging them to dig deeper. Jesus and his students often went back and forth, question, response, question, response. You can’t ask questions and you can’t get a response from a book or a television show.

Our Sunday school hour is meant to encourage you to ask questions and enter into conversations. Even my sermons are not meant to be one person teaching all the rest of you. This is why we allow a time of response after the sermon. Often you all point out things that I hadn’t considered or you share stories that bring new meaning to the things that I was speaking on. Sometimes you seem to miss the point entirely and I wonder what sermon you were listening to, but that’s okay. The point is that we, as a modern form of Christian community, dedicate ourselves to the teaching of the apostles.

The second mark of Christian community that I want to lift up this morning is fellowship. We sing about fellowship in songs like “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.” Many churches have fellowship halls, rooms or even entire buildings dedicated to fellowship. Fellow is sometimes used as a synonym for a man or boy, as in the song, “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” But the word also suggests that you have some similarity with a person, like when we sing, “Think of your fellow man/ lend him a helping hand/ put a little love in your heart.” So fellowship is obviously when there are people like you who are on the same boat.

I joke, but yet metaphorically, we are on the same boat. The Greek word for fellowship is koinonia. Koinos is a prefix that means to share something, and is often placed before words that mean purse, home, or mother. The disciples had a shared purse. Some shared a home. James and John shared a mother, or we would probably say that they were brothers. Koinonia simply means to hold something in common, to share something.

So when you sit around after church talking with others, you are experiencing koinonia, you are sharing a conversation. When you eat with another person, you are experiencing koinonia, you are sharing a meal. Koinonia isn’t limited to “Christian” activities. Some of you like golf and you hit the links together. That is a shared experience, and even though some people have been known to lose their religion on the golf course, when you golf with others, that is koinonia. That is fellowship.

Koinonia also doesn’t have to be a shared experience of something good. When people get together in support groups, like a cancer support group, or an addicts’ support group, koinonia, fellowship happens there. You have a shared experience.

Koinonia/fellowship is also used to describe our relationship with God. Interestingly, koinonia is only used to describe our relationship with God after Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came and dwelled within the hearts of the disciples. When we spend time in prayer or study, we are experiencing koinonia, we are in fellowship with the divine.

In a world that values independence, we Christians value fellowship, an interdependence on one another. In good times and in bad, we are together. We are in this together.

The third and final aspect of Christian community that I want to lift up this morning is prayer. Prayer is a simple thing with a difficult pronunciation in Greek: proseuchomai. Proseuchomai is a compound word, formed by the word “pros,” to or for, and “euchomai,” which means wishes or desires. Eucharisto is a very similar word, which means “thanksgiving.” So a pros-euchomai is to offer God your wishes or desires. A pros-eucharisto is to offer God your thanksgivings.

All of that is just a fancy way of describing talking to God. The early church talked to God. Thanks for this, God. And if you can, would you mind helping out here, God? We make prayer a lot more difficult than it needs to be.

This makes me think about what Jesus said right before he taught the disciples how to pray what we commonly call “The Lord’s Prayer.” In Matthew 6:5, Jesus says, “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.”

You’re not supposed to be doing this for other people. You’re just talking to God. Sometimes you do it out loud, sometimes you do in silently. You can do it standing, sitting, or on your knees, it doesn’t matter. Eyes open, eyes closed. This is about talking to God, not performing for an audience.

When you walk outside in the morning and the sky is blue, the sun is shining, and the birds are singing, you can say, “Thanks for the beautiful day.” That counts! You don’t have to say, “Lord, we thanketh thee, almighty creator of heaven and earth. And we do beseech thee to guide us in thy ways.”

I have a friend who is also a pastor that happens to be serving in a different denomination than I am. Without a doubt, our traditions are different from one another. He is in more of what we call a “High Church” tradition, where the pastors wear robes and stoles, they light a lot of candles and say a lot of liturgy. They even require a Master of Divinity, a three-year graduate degree, for their pastors to be ordained. There’s a place for that, and yes, I’m going to be a little critical of these practices, but all-in-all, we agree on a lot theologically, even if our practices might be different.

Recently, this friend was sharing a story about when he started at his church and some of the practices that he wasn’t entirely comfortable with. This is totally natural, and every pastor does this when they start in a new church. There are always going to be things that the pastor is uncomfortable with, especially because they are not familiar with the tradition of that practice. There were some things that I changed 11 years ago when I started at Staunton Mennonite Church, and I’m sure that I didn’t always do my part in understanding those traditions before I changed them. So if I offended any of you, I apologize.

As I was talking with this friend, he was joking about what we call our congregational prayer time, where you all are given a chance to share your prayer concerns and praises. This time usually immediately follows our sermon. This friend said, “I’ve put a lot of work into my sermons, and I just spent 20 minutes trying to give a powerful and moving sermon. Why should we let the congregation share after that?”

His thought was that his sermon should be one of the last things that the people hear before heading out the door so that they are charged up and ready to face the world. But when he started, there was a tradition that the people in the church could write down their prayer requests before the service, place them in a basket, and then the pastor would pray for them after the sermon.

So on his first Sunday, when my friend was handed this basket of prayer requests, he intentionally just left them on the altar rather than praying for the specific prayer requests. He was afraid that the people would pray for silly little things.

I get that. And as some of you who have served as worship leader know, we can get some strange prayer requests. But I always come back to this one thing: If it was important enough for that person to share it, it is important enough for me to pray about it.

My initial thought when my friend shared his story was to think of Jesus’s critique of the hypocrites and their prayers. Here is my friend, standing up front, wearing his robes and stole, he is a highly-educated white man, and he gets to decide which prayer matter?

No sir. Who devoted themselves to prayer in the early church? “They” did, the church did. Every man, woman, and child. If some kid wants to pray for their dolly, God is there to listen. If you want to pray for your great Aunt Agnes and her hemorrhoids, God is there to listen. And though it might be awkward from time to time, we are there to listen as well. Because one of the marks of the early church was that they talked with God.

The early church devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, and to prayer. I think that those are pretty good things to begin with when we talk about forming a Christian community.

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7 Mile

Luke 24:13-35

Today is the third Sunday of Easter, and yet our text is still stuck on that first Easter Sunday. Last week we had to jump around a bit because Jesus showed up at the disciple’s home and then came back again a week later. But notice that today’s text is from “that same day.” It is evening on Easter Sunday when “two of them” were going from Jerusalem to Emmaus. We know nothing about these people, other than that one is named Cleopas and they seem to have been followers of Jesus. There were likely in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, and now they were heading back home. They may have been husband and wife, they may have been roommates. All we know for sure is that they were very aware of what happened that weekend to their leader, Jesus, and they were also very disappointed.

As they walk back to Emmaus, they are talking about the events that took place in Jerusalem when who shows up out of the blue? It’s Jesus. But they don’t know that it is Jesus because he apparently hides his identity from them. And the hidden Jesus essentially asks them, “What cha talking about?”

At first they say, “Duh, what else would we be talking about! They continue, “About Jesus of Nazareth…He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people…they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”

I think that those are some of the saddest words, not only in the New Testament, but in the English language. “We had hoped…”

Past tense. That hope is now gone.

We had hoped that this time rehab would be able to make a difference. We had hoped that she would finish high school. We had hoped that this time he would be able to keep his job. We had hoped that this time the little stick would turn pink. We had hoped that she would get better. We had hoped that he would be a different kind of leader.

If you can’t sympathize with these two travelers on the way to Emmaus, then you’re simply not living. We all understand disappointment. We all know what it is like to have our hopes dashed against the rocks of reality.

These two walkers also knew that the story didn’t end there. They knew that some women found the tomb to be empty that morning, and some of the disciples were able to confirm that the tomb was empty. The women even claimed that an angel told them that Jesus had been risen from the dead.

But, really. Who believes those women? If we back up a few verses to verse 11, we find the disciples’ response, “But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”

That’s the nice way to put it. Some translations call it the “women’s idle talk.” The Greek word used there is “leros,” which is really a PG-13 word that can suggest that the women were delirious, or that what they spoke was bull hooey.

What’s Jesus doing here on the road to Emmaus? He could have just shown up like he did with the disciples locked in the Upper Room, but this is a teachable moment. So before he goes right into it, he needs to understand where these travelers are. What do they know, how much do they comprehend.

This is just good teaching. My daughter will start kindergarten next year, and this week we are going in for an assessment. They want to know if she can count, recognize letters, and remember basic facts. You can’t just start a 5-year-old off with advanced algebra, and you don’t need to start with the ABC’s if they can already read. If you want to be an effective teacher, you start by seeing how much someone already knows and you build upon that knowledge and you build upon their experiences, making frequent references back to what is already known.

Now notice what Jesus does. He doesn’t have to start at page one, teaching these men about God creating heaven and earth, the fall of humanity, and so on. But what he does is to go back to the texts that these men already knew and give them a new interpretation. And it isn’t as if he says, “Everything you ever thought you knew is wrong.” He simply points them in a different direction. We are told that he specifically went back to Moses and the Prophets to show how they spoke about the messiah and how the messiah had to suffer and die. In verse 27, “[Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

I called this sermon “7 Mile,” which is a reference to the distance between Jerusalem and Emmaus, as we learn in Luke 24:13, and also a reminder of a 2002 movie called “8 Mile.” 8 Mile is that story of a young man who grew up in a part of Detroit known as 8 Mile. This is an economically impoverished part of a city that has had a difficult couple of decades. 8 Mile is the roughest of the rough city of Detroit. Drugs, alcohol, single-parent and abusive families seem to be the norm.

Echoing the words of the travelers on the road to Emmaus, the people of 8 Mile had hoped that things would turn out differently.

But in 8 Mile, the lead actor, an aspiring rap artist played by one Marshall Mathers, uses his experiences to craft his music. As the movie nears its end, Mather’s character, who goes by the name “Rabbit,” enters a rap battle.

In this battle, Rabbit names the things in his life that have formed him into the person he is. He owns his experiences, his failures and his successes. The deadbeat dad, the alcoholic mom, the poverty, the neglect. All of these things have been preparing him for this one moment. For this one opportunity. And he can either run from it, or seize it. So he seizes it, and wins the battle.

I’m not endorsing this movie; it isn’t what I would call a “Christian movie.” But the story seems helpful. It was only when Rabbit took the time to look back at all of these formative experiences that he was able to see a bigger picture. And on the 7 Mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, Jesus invited the two travelers to reach back and see how all of the formative experiences of Israel have been pointing to something else. They have been pointing to him.

Let’s jump ahead a bit, in Luke 24:44, Jesus is talking to his disciples after our event on the road to Emmaus and he says, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

When Jewish people talk about the Law or Torah of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms, this is a way of referring to their Holy Scriptures. They didn’t just call them the Old Testament. So Jesus is saying that there are references to him throughout the Hebrew Bible.

Now look at John 5:39, where Jesus is having his own rap battle with the religious leaders, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me.”

And in verse 46, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.” Go back and dig through our Scriptures and you will find that they all point to Jesus.

I know that I can be pretty critical of the first followers of Jesus. The disciples spent three years with him and they never seem to get it. Other believers see him, hear him, and experience his ministry in person, and they don’t seem to get it either. And this is one of those times when I’m tempted to just say, “Duh.” As in, “Duh, of course Jesus had to suffer, die, and be raised again.”

But these scriptures are not always as straight forward as we would like them to be. Consider Isaiah 7:14, a verse that you are probably all familiar with: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”

Obviously, who is this passage talking about? This is Jesus! I know that, you know that. Do you know who didn’t know that? The Israelites. In fact, this passage referred to something and someone else altogether. In fact, if you read many of the prophesies that Jesus fulfills in the Gospels, especially the book of Matthew, you will find that Matthew seems to cherry pick a bit. He takes verses out of context, applying totally unrelated stories to the birth of Jesus.

But here is what Matthew and the other writers are saying: in the light of the resurrection, these stories, these prophesies, they now have a new purpose. They now have a new meaning.

One of the problems that we fall into when we look at the Bible toady, particularly what we call the Old Testament, is that we view it as a collection of unrelated stories. There’s the story of the Fall, the story of David and Goliath, the story of the Exile. But rather than looking at the Bible as a collection of independent stories, what if we read it as one story, where each book, each story, builds upon previous stories and previous books? And all of these stories and all of these books are pointing us to the central figure and event of Jesus breaking into the world! Yes, these stories have meanings of their own, just like the passage that I read from Isaiah had a meaning of its own. But when we read them all together, as one grand narrative, then we can see that they have one central purpose: to point to Jesus. Even some of the really bad things that happen in Scripture point us to Jesus.

Let’s go back to the movie 8 Mile again. I wouldn’t say that God caused the bad things that happened to Rabbit. God didn’t cause his father to leave or his mother to drink heavily. God didn’t cause his family to live in poverty. But all of these things pointed him in a direction that led up to the pinnacle of the movie. And you don’t see that if you look at each individual story. You have to look at the big picture to find new meaning in it all.

I don’t think God caused Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. I don’t think God caused the Israelites to worship the Golden Calf. But now in light of the resurrection of Jesus, we can see how God used those events to point to Jesus. Where humanity failed, Jesus was faithful.

So I wonder, how does the resurrection of Jesus make us rethink the events of our lives? Again, I’m not claiming that God caused bad things that happened in our lives, but that God can give them new meaning.

So you lost your job, or you recently went through a difficult divorce. On this side of things, can you ask how God might work through this? How might you be able to better minister to someone else? One of the most-respected recovery models out there is seen in organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous, where recovering addicts are helped by other recovering addicts. Again, I’m not saying that God caused these things to happen. But how might God use them, use you, to point toward resurrection?

Notice that this is not the end of the story. We don’t stop with Jesus explaining how the Old Testament needs to understood through his life and death. As the travelers arrive at Emmaus, they encourage Jesus to stay with them as their guest. They offer hospitality to this stranger. Again, remember that they do not yet know who this person is.

They sit down together for a meal, which is an extreme act of welcome and acceptance. Jesus, the guest, offers a blessing upon the food, presents his traveling companions with some bread, and they finally see him for who he really is. And just like that, Jesus disappears.

Here I find one of my favorite verses in the Bible, right after “He stinketh.” Verse 32, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

Notice that Jesus could teach them lessons, quote scripture and explain it to them at length. They probably had about a two-hour journey/conversation from Jerusalem to Emmaus where Jesus taught them many things. But they only really saw Jesus in a shared meal.

My friends, we have all experienced moments like these travelers when we say “We had hoped…” On this side of hope, we will experience disappointment. But with the help of others, even sitting down for a shared meal can become an eye-opening experience. How are these moments pointing us to Jesus? How can we know him better?

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The Missouri of Disciples

John 20:19-31

 

Happy Holy Humor Sunday! This is an old tradition that seems to be picking up again as Christians celebrate the second Sunday of Easter by telling jokes. The idea is that on Easter, or Resurrection Sunday, Jesus played a huge joke on death, sin, the devil, and evil. Maybe next year we can dedicate an entire sermon to joke telling.

As I mentioned, today is the second Sunday of Easter. According to the Liturgical Church Year, Easter is not just a single day, but a season that lasts 50 days, bringing us right up to Pentecost. I think this is actually a better and more helpful way to think about Easter as well. We know the story of Easter: Jesus was raised from the dead, the women found the empty tomb and told the disciples. Some disciples ran to see for themselves, others waited back at their rented room. We don’t know what they believed or how much they understood. It seems to have been an ongoing process of understanding.

To look at Easter as the period from Easter Sunday through Pentecost is a way of recognizing that for the disciples and other followers of Jesus, there wasn’t an instance on that first Sunday were everyone just kind of looked at each other and said collectively, “Ahh, now I get it!” No, this was a process, and it took something as significant as Pentecost for them to wrap their minds around what had just happened.

So if it took the disciples 50 days to understand the resurrection, we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves if it takes us a little bit longer to wrap our minds around this difficult subject!

Our scripture for today picks up right were last week’s left off, on the evening of that first Easter Sunday. The disciples have enjoyed a big Easter supper, they’ve sang “Up From the Grave He Arose,” and they have hid and found all of their Easter Eggs. No, most of them are together in a room, possibly still the same upper room that they rented to celebrate the Passover meal, and they have the door barricaded. They are trying to keep safe from a very intimidating group of people: the Jewish leaders.

The disciples are afraid of the Jewish leaders because they know that they may be next. They had Jesus killed on Friday, Saturday was their Sabbath—because, you know, we try to keep the religious killings to a minimum on the Sabbath—and now it is Sunday. The disciples are jumping at every noise in the alley, every knock at the door.

Maybe this is why Jesus shows up in the middle of the room, rather than trying to get in the front door. The disciples aren’t going to open the door for anyone, and do you really think they are going to fall for the whole, “But it’s me, Jesus!” trick? But it is Jesus, and he just shows up in the middle of the group and says, “Peace be with you!”

We are told that Jesus shows them the scars on his hands and the hole in his side where he was pierced by the spear. At this, we are told the disciples are overjoyed. This isn’t some lookalike, or even some spirit returning to them from the other side. This is Jesus standing before them in the flesh and blood. He is the living, breathing Messiah that they have been following for the last three years.

And we know that he is breathing, because John tells us that Jesus breathed on them. And Jesus said, “Tell me the truth, does my breath stink? I have been dead awhile.” No, he says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

All of that is great! These disciples have seen the Lord and they are starting to put it all together. Except for one thing: Thomas wasn’t home. He stepped out for some reason, and he missed Jesus’ visit! Thomas thinks they are pulling his leg, they are misleading him, just joshing around. And Thomas says in verse 25, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

So Thomas gets a nickname: we call him “Doubting Thomas.” I feel bad for Thomas, one mistake and he is labeled for the rest of his life. If you think about it, we don’t call Peter Denying Peter; Judas isn’t called Betraying Judas. So why do we almost always think of Thomas as Doubting Thomas?

I think we like to emphasize Thomas’ failures because it makes us feel like less of a failure when we doubt. I’ll probably never betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver or deny even knowing Jesus to save my own skin. But do I doubt? Absolutely. And it turns out that I’m in good company.

Notice that even before Thomas was given the nickname “Doubting Thomas,” he had another nickname. Verse 24 tells us that Thomas is also called “Didymus,” which is a way cooler nickname that Doubting Thomas. Didymus is Greek for “twin.” There are a lot of guesses out there as to why Thomas was called “The Twin.” Some say that Thomas and Jesus looked a lot alike, which is why Judas had to point out which one was Jesus to the Roman guards. Others suggest that maybe he just was a twin and had a doppelganger running around town.

I like a different approach (though I also admit that it is less likely). When John refers to Thomas as the twin, John is calling Thomas his twin. Not in appearance, but his twin in the faith. I think that when John calls Thomas the twin, he does so because Thomas is his twin in that he too has his doubts.

There are surely people out there who do not have their doubts, and I say God bless you. Perhaps you have grown up hearing about Jesus and it just always made sense to you. If that’s the case, I’m a little jealous because I’m more in line with Thomas, I’m his theological twin.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t doubt the resurrection, and I don’t doubt God’s existence. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have my fair share of questions.

NT scholar David Lose suggests that we take the time here to pass out 3×5 cards and invite you to write on them your questions, your doubts, and collect these and read them. Everyone can take a card, and write on it your questions about the Christian faith. You might not quite call it a doubt, but questions about life and why the world is the way it is are appropriate. David warned us to expect everything from “Why did God create mosquitos?” to “Why did God let my wife die from cancer?” Whatever question or questions you have, whatever doubts you are dealing with, are fair game. If you don’t want to have them shared aloud, please either don’t put the card back in the basket or draw an X across the face of the card. The point isn’t to criticize you for your doubts, because most of us have doubts or questions. The point is to give you space to ask the difficult questions that you are dealing with and I will respect those questions by not giving an easy answer.

Some of you may be asking why I am lifting Thomas, Doubting Thomas, up as an example for us all today. Consider where our text goes after Thomas reveals his initial doubt. We fast forward one week, and we find the disciples, including Thomas, gathered in the same house. The door is still locked, Jesus appears again, and Jesus says the same thing, “Peace be with you!” But then Jesus turns to Thomas and he says to him, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

First of all, does Jesus seem upset that Thomas had his doubts? No, we have no reason to think that Jesus was upset at all. Jesus gets it, he had suffered from a condition that few people come back from: death. And the one person that Thomas had seen bring someone back from the dead was now dead himself. So no, Jesus understands why Thomas would doubt.

Second, Jesus invited Thomas to touch his wounds and even put his hand inside of Jesus’ cut side. This suggests and intimacy between Jesus and Thomas. I think of when we cut our fingers or scrape our knees, we don’t just let anyone look at our wounds or touch our ouchies. My children will sometimes hurt their selves and refuse to let me take a look at them. They want their mother. So not only is Jesus not mad at Thomas, he shows trust and confidence in Thomas.

But the most important thing that I can find in this entire story is Thomas’ response. In verse 28 Thomas proclaims that Jesus is, “My Lord and my God!” There are other times in the New Testament where professions of faith in Jesus are made, but it is Thomas, Doubting Thomas, who first proclaims that Jesus is not only Lord, but also God.

Thomas, Doubting Thomas, seems to have a clearer understanding of who Jesus is than any of the other disciples.

Let’s take some time here to read a few of the doubts that you have written down on your note cards. And rather than criticizing people for their doubts, and rather than trying to answer these challenging questions, when I finish reading a card, I just want you all to treat the person like they sneezed and say, “Bless you.”

I’ve called Thomas the “Missouri of Disciples.” Missouri is known as the “Show Me State,” though the origins of that name are debated. Some claim that it came from a member of the House of Representatives from Missouri that gave a speech where he claimed that “frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.” Others have said that the phrase comes from a coal miners’ strike where workers were brought in from other states, and when the foreman was explaining the work that needed to be done, he told one of his workers, “This one’s from Missouri, so you can’t just explain it to him. You’ll have to show him how to do it.”

Either way, I think that it is okay to be a Missouri Christian. When we have our doubts, when we have our questions, we cry out to God, “Show me!”

How many of us have ever gone to a pastor, a teacher, or another person who we respected in the church, shared with them our struggles, and had them say something like, “Oh, you can’t ask those questions!” For some people, that’s enough reason to stop believing in God altogether!

No, for those who question why does God allow bad things to happen, I encourage you to be like Thomas, and say, “Show me, God!” For those who don’t understand the Trinity, pray, “Show me, God!” For those who don’t understand why terrorism and wars seem to be so prevalent in our world today, don’t stop believing in God, pray that God shows you more.

But don’t stop there, because it requires something of you as well. God will show you more, but you may need to read a book, study your Bible, and spend some time in prayer. Our High School Sunday School class is digging through the Bible and looking at violent images of God in the Old Testament and asking how this aligns with the “love your enemies” Jesus of the New Testament. That’s hard work, and this process may not be pleasant. You may have to adjust the way that you understand God and your relationship to the rest of the world. I’ve had to change my understanding of God from a genie in a lamp to something a little less Aladdin-y. But in my search, I’ve found a loving, just, righteous God, who may not look like previous versions of God, but is still Biblical and fits much better with my reality.

And I’m not done asking questions. I’m not done crying out, “Show me, God!” I’m not done being a Missouri Christian.

Remember that doubt is not the opposite of faith. In fact, I would say that asking those difficult questions that we have been keeping to ourselves will cause us to dig deeper. Jesus didn’t criticize Thomas for asking for some more evidence, and Thomas seemed to understand Jesus’ role and identity better than anyone else.

In moments of doubt, in moments of questioning, be a Missouri Christian. Dig deeper, get closer, and cry out, “Show me, God!”

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The Cross of Redemption

Matthew 28:1-10

There’s something about a musical that draws me in. I’m not gifted in any way when it comes to the fine arts, so don’t expect to see me headlining any show requiring singing, dancing, or painting. But I enjoy watching talented people do these things.

One of the musicals that I enjoy watching is “West Side Story.” This musical is really a 1950’s version of Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet.” So if you know one story line, you pretty well know the other as well.

West Side Story is a tale of forbidden love that crosses the boundary between two rival street gangs in New York. There is the Jets, a group of young men from blue-collar backgrounds, and then there are the Sharks, made up of men of Puerto Rican descent. These two groups battle for power, they battle for respect. I believe that this was the first movie ever made where it became acceptable for fights to be settled by entering into a dance competition. And yes, one of the reasons that I enjoy West Side Story is because you often see tough guys pirouetting across the screen and clicking their heels and shouts of “Mambo!” can be understood as a challenge.

So there are two clear groups: the Sharks and the Jets. It is us and them. The white people and the Puerto Ricans. But then one day, Tony, a former Jet and best friend to Riff, the leader of the Jets, falls in love with Maria. Now let’s be honest, how many of us sing “I feel pretty” each morning while brushing our hair to give ourselves a confidence boost? Maria is pretty–pretty much off limits because she is Puerto Rican, and she is the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks.

As the love between Tony and Maria grows, so too does the division between the Sharks and the Jets. They plan a rumble, a fight in the street, which worries both Tony and Maria because these people are their friends, these people are their families. Just as the rumble begins, Tony runs into the middle of it all to try to stop it. Bernardo and Riff pull out switchblade knives and Tony tries to prevent either of them from getting hurt, but Bernardo kills Riff, Tony’s best friend. In a fit of furry, Tony grabs a knife and kills Bernardo. Tony kills Maria’s brother.

As Tony and Maria plan their escape, the Sharks plan their retaliation. A lie gets back to Tony that Maria has been killed by Chino, the new leader of the Sharks. Tony then faces Chino and is shot as Maria watches.

If this story sounds familiar, even if you have never seen West Side Story, that’s probably because it is a very common story. Turn on the television set on a Saturday morning, and every superhero cartoon is based on this concept. The bad guys do something bad, the good guys come in and do something back to them. The bad guys try to retaliate, but the good guys stop them and all the world is safe again.

This is the story that plays out in politics, war, sporting events, and every bad relationship out there. I’m not just talking about killing, but getting people back in general. There is them and there is us. They do something to us, we do something to them to make it right again. This is what Bible Scholar Walter Wink calls “The Myth of Redemptive Violence.”

A myth is a story that may or may not be true that gives shape to a community and its beliefs. Redemption is a word that should not be unfamiliar to us as Christians. There are usually two definitions given to the word redemption. 1. the action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil. And 2. the action of regaining or gaining possession of something in exchange for payment, or clearing a debt. The first, more common understanding of redemption comes out of the traditional second definition.

The second definition fits our actions when we have a gift card from a restaurant. The restaurant pays us back with food in exchange for the gift card and we are even. The restaurant’s debt has been redeemed. Things are made right. So when we as Christians talk about being redeemed, we are saying that God has essentially bought us back and cleared our debt. God has made things right.

The myth of redemptive retaliation says that if someone hurts you, offends you, or even embarrasses you, there is only one way to make things right: you must get them back. It is even biblical: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth!

The myth of redemptive retaliation just isn’t true. You can’t make things right by hurting someone in an equal way. If someone steals from you, you don’t make things right by stealing back from them. Even if you are even financially, you’ve still lost something. You’ve lost trust. You’ve lost honor. If someone says something bad about you, you don’t make things right by saying something bad about them. If your spouse cheats on you, you don’t make things right by cheating on them. As Tony found out in West Side Story, if someone kills your best friend, you don’t make things right by killing them.

One of Jesus’ friends tried that. When the Roman soldiers showed up with their swords drawn, ready to arrest Jesus, Peter pulls out his sword and cuts off the ear of a soldier. Jesus turns to Peter and tells him, “Put away your sword. For all who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

This could be perceived as a sign of weakness, but that’s not what’s going on. Jesus said he could call down 12 legions of angels to defend him. And that’s what you would expect if you were operating within a system that believed in redemptive violence. But rather than return violence for violence, what does Jesus do?

He heals the soldier. He heals the man who was trying to arrest him.

Real redemption doesn’t come from getting someone back. Real redemption doesn’t come from doing unto others exactly what they did unto you. Real redemption comes through forgiveness.

Recall that some of Jesus’ last words on the cross were words of forgiveness. Here he is, experiencing the worse violence possible, death on a cross. He is publically humiliated, stripped down and bared for all the word to see. And in his last breath, he calls out, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

As people acted violently against Jesus, he forgave them. Not because he was weak and couldn’t do anything about it. No, Jesus was breaking the myth of redemptive violence, ending the cycle of violence.

Yet on that Good Friday, it seemed as if violence, hatred, anger, and sin had one the day. And the day after that. In fact, early on the third day, it seemed as if all hope was lost. In their condition of despair, two women go to Jesus’ tomb, not sure if it is all really over or not. And when they arrive they hear a large rumble and the find an angel sitting upon a stone that has been rolled away from the opening of the tomb. They also find two very scared guards, but they aren’t really a part of the story.

The angel speaks to them in Matthew 28:5-6, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.”

Just as he said, duh! I believe Jesus actually says three times in Matthew’s Gospel that he had to die and rise again. But this is understandable, we are a slow sort, we humans. We are slow to pick up on the teachings of Jesus, and we are slow to follow his actions. We still think that redemption comes from getting even with someone.

But from the cross to the resurrection, those with eyes to see and ears to hear realize something else altogether. We can only redeem our relationships, we can only be made right with others, if we forgive. And we can only be made right if we are forgiven. The cross is the means by which we are redeemed by God and set right with him. He has bought us, saved us, and made things right. The empty tomb is a sign that true redemption is more powerful than retaliation.

Surely, if anyone had reason to retaliate, it would be God. We have sinned, we have gone our own way. And on the cross God said the only way to make things right is to forgive you, because redemption is more powerful than retaliation.

So on that first Easter Sunday, I’m not surprised that Jesus repeats the words “Don’t be afraid” several times. First of all, who wouldn’t be afraid to see a person walking around after you had seen him killed and buried? And who wouldn’t be afraid after they had disserted their leader and allowed him to be tortured? By all means, Jesus should be justified in taking out his aggression on these “former” disciples of his.

No, he says, “Don’t be afraid.” Redemption is more powerful than retaliation. And redemption comes through forgiveness.

For all the sins we’ve committed, all the shortcomings in our lives, surely God could make us pay. But my friends, the tomb is empty, just like Jesus said it would be. Jesus doesn’t get even by doing back to us what we did to him. He gets even by forgiving us. Redemptive violence, redemptive stealing, redemptive cheating, redemptive whatever, they are all just myths. Real redemption comes through a cross. Real redemption comes from forgiveness.

 

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From King to the Cross

Isaiah 50:4-9

Matthew 26:14-25

Spring is finally upon us. Okay, we had a few cooler days this week, but we also enjoyed some temperatures in the mid 70’s, so I’m a happy camper. I even had the opportunity to mow my yard this week. And yes, I enjoy mowing in April, but I’ll admit that story will likely change by July.

The warmer temperatures have also meant that I have had the opportunity to engage in one of my favorite outdoor activities. No, I’m not talking about sports, biking, or hiking. I’m talking about grilling. Think about it, grilling combines fire and meat. Who doesn’t like that combination? I may not be all that handy in the kitchen, but send me outside with some raw meat and vegetables and all at once I become Julia Child.

Two summers ago our family made a big switch in the world of outdoor cooking. I grew up with and have never known anything other than grilling with propane. Turn a few valves, push a button, and instant heat. Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy. But there is just something about cooking over charcoal. Charcoal gives food a smoky, earthy taste that compliments most food.

So I fire up the charcoal grill this spring, lighting the coals in a charcoal chimney, and allowing them to burn down until they get that nice ashy look. I spread out charcoals and allow them to heat up the grill as I prepare to create some culinary masterpiece. I put the cast iron grate back on the grill directly over the charcoals. Then, knowing that the grate would probably be a bit sticky, I reach for my nonstick cooking spray. I keep this spray right next to my grill in a little Rubbermaid storage building where I also house my lawnmower and other automotive accessories. I grab the cooking spray, shake it a few times, take off the cap, place my finger on the spray nozzle, and prepare to discharge the contents onto the grilling surface. It was then that I looked closely at the can and realized that I had not grabbed the cooking spray, but had instead grabbed something that looked a lot like the cooking spray. I grabbed a can of starting fluid; ether.

That simple and understandable mistake could have changed everything. Rather than enjoying a smoked pork shoulder, I might have suffered from a smoked pastor shoulder…and the rest of my arm! A simple case of mistaken identity, or more accurately, mistaken purpose, could have led to a major issue and disappointment.

What I want to do today is walk through the story of Palm Sunday and Holy Week again, a story that you have probably all heard many times. And I hope to remind us all how quickly things heated up in Jerusalem, and how a misunderstanding led to betrayal, denial, and disappointment.

The story of Palm Sunday is recorded in all four of the Gospels, so we cannot ignore this text. There is something important here! And it becomes quite clear that Jesus is trying to make a statement. Jesus is walking toward Jerusalem and he sends two of his disciples ahead to get a donkey who is tied along with her offspring so that Jesus could ride into town. And of course, we know that he then rode into town on a donkey, or maybe a colt, or maybe a foal of a donkey. The translation is a little choppy, and Matthew’s account almost makes it sound like Jesus rode in on two different animals, kind of like Aquaman rode two dolphins.

There is a good reason for why this isn’t as clear as we would like it to be. Remember that the Gospels are interpreting a passage from the Old Testament, where the prophet Zechariah uses Hebrew parallelism to make a point, and it doesn’t quite translate smoothly from Hebrew into Greek and then into English. Here is the quote from Matthew 11:5: “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

The presence of the foal, the baby donkey, isn’t to suggest that Jesus rode on both. But as some have said, it makes the contrast all the more significant between what is expected and what is reality. A king is expected to ride into town on a great steed, a magnificent horse, powerful and intimidating. But Jesus rides in on a donkey. A female donkey with a nursing foal.

Now let me ask you, do you think that this was intentional? Was Jesus trying to make a statement by riding in on a donkey? I think so! Where else do we read that Jesus rode an animal? I don’t that all at once he just got too tired to walk. I can’t go another step, you guys. Go get me a donkey to ride. No, Jesus knew that prophesy from Zechariah, and he was making a statement about who he is. Jesus is the king about whom Zechariah foretold. Not your typical king, but a king nonetheless.

Jesus clearly knew what he was doing and who he was claiming to be. But how did the people interpret this donkey ride into Jerusalem? Did all this go over their heads? Well, Jesus had entered Jerusalem a number of times before, probably several times a year for the religious festivities. I don’t think he ever was welcomed in this way! They see him riding in on a donkey as a statement, and the respond appropriately.

We read that the people laid their cloaks down as Jesus rode by. This is an act of respect for the one who was passing by. The waved palm branches, which were used as a sign of victory and triumph. Before the Romans had overtaken Jerusalem, the Hebrew people issued their own coins with pictures of palm branches on them. Palm branches were also used as a part of the annual Festival of Booths. The people would wave palm branches as they recited Psalm 118:25-26, “Lord, save us! Lord, grant us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

And what do the people say as Jesus enters Jerusalem? In Matthew 21:9 we read, “The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!’”

Hosanna means “Save us!”

Jesus knows what he is doing. The people know what they are doing. They are welcoming their king. Remember, this happens during the Passover Feast, when the Jewish people remembered God delivering them out of Egypt. Now, it would seem, God was about to lead them out of captivity once again. This time, God would deliver them from the Romans.

Today we would say that the Jewish people had the wrong understanding of Jesus’s role as king. But regardless of how they understood his role then, or how we understand it today, it was clear that those who waved palm branches, laid down their cloaks, and shouted “Hosanna in the highest” understood Jesus to be a king, a descendant of King David.

This brings me to the challenge of Holy Week. We come to church on Sunday and we hear these Hosannas, we wave our Palm Branches, and then we come back one week later to find an empty tomb and shouts of “He is risen.” Indeed, the empty tomb is reason to celebrate! But we miss so much when we go directly from Palm Sunday to Easter.

Close to 1/3 of Mark is dedicated to Holy Week. John spends eight chapters talking about this seven-day period. But what always amazes me is not only how much happens during Holy Week, but how much the people change. And they change, in large part, because of the actions of Jesus.

The first thing this king does when he gets to town is cleanses the temple. Later he talks about tearing it down and raising it again in three days. The people heard this as blasphemy, and many start to turn against him! He was seen as a threat to the religious system and he was seen as a threat to the Romans. So in less than one week, we go from a group yelling “Hosanna” to a group yelling “Crucify him!”

We don’t know if the same people who welcomed Jesus into town on Palm Sunday were the same who gathered and called for his crucifixion. But what we find in today’s lesson is how quickly people can turn away from Jesus.

It was Judas, one of Jesus’s 12 disciples, who went to the chief priests and offered to turn over Jesus. He approached them and offered to turn over Jesus. Peter, James, and John, three of Jesus’s closest disciples, his inner circle of disciples, couldn’t be counted on to pray with him without falling asleep. I can connect with this one. But Peter would even deny knowing Jesus three times later that night just to save his own skin. All of the disciples, except maybe John, run, scatter, and hide when Jesus is arrested.

So why do some many of Jesus’s followers turn their backs on him, perhaps even going as far as to deny knowing him, perhaps even going so far as to betray him? How do you go from “Hosanna” to “Crucify him” in less than one week?

I think it all comes down to expectations.

If you begin with expectations of what a king should look like or what a king should do, you will very likely be disappointed with Jesus. But instead, what if we let Jesus show us what a king should look like?

In Jesus we find a king that will leave 99 behind to go find one who is lost. In Jesus we find a king who spends time with the tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. In Jesus we find a king who loves his enemies and prays for those who persecute him. In Jesus we find a king who washes the feet of his followers, even the one who would betray him. In Jesus we find a king who restores the one who denies even knowing him and gives him the keys to heaven. In Jesus we find a king who did not consider equality with God something to be exploited, but instead humbled himself, becoming a servant, obedient even to the point of death. Death on a cross.

If you have been disappointed by the kind of king Jesus is, perhaps that is because we take our cues on how a king should be from others rather than listening to Jesus when he tells us the kind of king he is.

Like Judas, Peter, and so many others, our wrong expectations can lead to disappointment. Misunderstanding Jesus can be like grabbing the wrong can and spraying the contents onto hot coals: it can blow up in your face, leaving you hurt, leaving you disappointed.

As we move from Palm Sunday to Easter, let us not move to quickly from “Hosanna” to “He is risen!” Let us slow down this week to focus on the King revealed in the scriptures, for if we move too quickly, we may find ourselves tempted to cry out “Crucify him” ourselves.

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