Christianity as Discipleship

Ephesians 2:8-10

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

James 2:14-19; 24

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

24You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

It is good to be back with you all after spending last weekend in North Carolina celebrating my sister-in-law’s wedding. Everything went well, we improved our tans, and by the end of the weekend, our family had been united in a special way with a family who had previously been strangers to us.

Strangers have become family. That’s a good metaphor for the church. This is similar to what the Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2, those who have been far off now have been brought near. One of the interesting things about this congregation is that many people still consider their selves to be a part of a different tradition. We have people who say that they are Methodists who worship in a Mennonite congregation, Catholics who attend a Mennonite church. We have Nazarenes, Episcopalians, Unitarians, Muslims and members of the Church of Christ, just to name a few. And do you do know how I feel about that?

I think it is pretty cool. Finally, we got you out of those churches so you could get some good Christian teaching.

Just kidding, I think there is something beautiful about all of the traditions represented here. That doesn’t mean that I agree with everything from those traditions, but I do believe that we as a church are stronger because of your active role in our community. I know I have been challenged by your thoughts, and I hope that I have challenged you in good ways as well.

Every so often I like to do a sermon series on Anabaptism, the tradition from which Mennonites come. In years past I have looked at historical Anabaptism, as we looked at the first Anabaptist confession of faith, known as the Schleitheim Confession. I’ve also looked at foundational works, like HS Bender’s Anabaptist Vision, and more recent works like Stewart Murray’s The Naked Anabaptist, and Parker Palmer’s Anabaptist Essentials. I strongly recommend these books, especially for those who are interested in Anabaptism and don’t have much experience with the tradition.

But with some of these more recent books on Anabaptism, the question has arisen, “Who gets to decide what is essential to Anabaptism?” This is a significant question for us in the 21st century for at least two reasons: the world doesn’t look like it used to, and neither does the church. Particularly as the center of the church, including the Mennonite church, begins to move to south of the equator, and our local churches are experiencing more Latino/a and African-American influence, the question becomes even more important. Who gets to decide what is essential for modern Anabaptism and the Mennonite church?

My response is that the modern Mennonite church gets to decide what is essential for the modern Mennonite church. But, I also think that it is important for us to decide what is essential while in conversation with those who have come before us. Our current reality must be informed by our shared, collective, lived experiences. There are things from our past that I want to embrace, things like nonviolence, a focus on service, and stewardship. But there are also things that I’m glad to see go, particularly things like how we separate ourselves from the rest of the world. I believe the timeless nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ has less to do with bonnets and buggies and more with grace, love, and caring for one another.

What I want to do over the next few weeks is look at what I believe to be the essentials of 21st-century Anabaptism. This will not be an exhaustive list, as I’m sure we could come up with many more things to add to the list. I also don’t plan to look at things that all Christian traditions share. For instance, I’m not going to talk about prayer or baptism because these are a part of most Christian traditions. I will be talking about these things:

  1. Christianity as Discipleship, 2. Church/World/State Distinctions, 3. Service, 4. Stewardship/Thrift/Mutual Aid, 5. Nonviolence.

That should take us up though the middle of October, and by that point I will probably have thought of a few more things that I want to cover. But I promise, I’ll get through this by Advent!

I want to spend the remainder of our time this morning talking about Christianity as Discipleship. In the last chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus gives a final word to his followers. We call this the “Great Commission.” Verses 19-20 read as follows: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to simply go out and make sure that people believed in him. He sent them out to make disciples. As I have said before, my favorite way to talk about the church’s mission is to say that we are disciples who make disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples.

A disciple is someone who learns from a teacher. The best example I have of this is a little dated, the example of an apprentice learning from a master tradesperson. How does a blacksmith learn their trade? Well, in days past a young person would have spent their formative years working alongside the master blacksmith. They would watch the master, ask questions of the master, and at the right time, they would be given the opportunity to try their hand at forging their own items out of steel under the watchful eye of the master. And after years of learning, they would probably start their own business, crafting their own hammers, nails, and horseshoes. And after they had shown their selves to be a pretty good blacksmith, that person would likely take on their own apprentice.

Our modern-day world is slightly different. I would bet that many in this congregation interned somewhere, or did student teaching, before becoming fully accredited at your job. Yes, we can learn a lot in the classroom, but some of the most important learning takes place in the actual workplace. We learn from those who are more experienced than we are, and then we pass it on to others. My wife was once an intern, and she frequently has interns who work with her. I bet many of our teachers have student teachers from time to time.

This is discipleship, and historically Anabaptists have seen Christianity as discipleship, to be a Christian means learning to live like Jesus. We are all disciples of Jesus, learning from the master. We learn how to live as he lived, to love as he loved. We try to form our lives around not only what Jesus said, but what Jesus did. Like the apprentice blacksmith, we watch the master to see his technique and to observe how he responds in certain situations. And since we don’t have access to Jesus here among us in the flesh and blood, we look to those with more experience than we have. Knowing that these people are just human, we seek to learn from their victories and their failures. We may not always like it, but to be a disciple of Jesus is simply something that we cannot do alone. We need each other.

Now this is where things get a little tricky. When we focus on Christianity as discipleship, we can easily get accused of focusing too much on works. We talk a lot around here about the Relief Sale, and post-hurricane Florence we will be talking about rebuilding houses. We Mennonites like to work! We work like our salvation depends upon it! Yet almost 501 years ago, Martin Luther wrote that salvation is by faith alone, sola fide, in the Latin. That is clear in passages like Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Oh, I guess that relief work and disaster work isn’t really important for a Christian. Don’t feel like you need to go help at the Mission this week.

But then you come to our passage from James 2, which tells us things like, Faith without works is dead, and “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.”

And of course, there is that phrase we learned from Luther, Sola Fide, faith alone. I’m told that there are only two places in the Bible where those two words are found side-by-side, and both occurrences are found in the book of James. And both times, the “faith alone” is preceded by two other words, ouk ek, “not by.” Verse 24, “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”

So what is a 21st-century Mennonite supposed to do with that? Is salvation by faith alone, or by faith plus works? Well, when we look at Christianity as discipleship, that question doesn’t even make sense. If you ask a disciple of Christ if they are saved by grace through faith or does it also include works, they will simply say, “Yes.”

The disciple will say yes because they know that there are different ways of understanding salvation. Even our Bibles are not clear on how this word is used.

It is impossible to determine just what the writers of the Bible mean when they speak of salvation. If you read the writings of Paul, he seems to use the word salvation to describe the forgiveness of sins and bringing people into the community of those who will be raised with Christ at the end of times. But if you read the book of Exodus, salvation is often used as a reference to God delivering the people from captivity. So I find it helpful to differentiate between different aspects of salvation.

The first aspect I will simply call “grace.” Grace, in this manner, is simply forgiveness. This is God pardoning us for our mistakes, removing them from us as far as the east is from the west. I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my life, and I am thankful that God does not hold those against me.

It is grace that Paul is speaking of in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Sola Fide.

I read a quote two weeks ago from Dietrich Bonhoeffer who called what he saw in most churches “cheap grace.” I have a love/hate relationship with that quote. I love what Bonhoeffer calls us to: a life of discipleship, serving one another, and loving God with all our heart, soul, and strength. But I also push back because grace isn’t cheap, it is free. God freely offers his grace to anyone who will receive it.

So if salvation is just about forgiveness, then I feel confident is saying that works don’t matter. But I believe that salvation is more than being forgiven, more than just grace. Salvation is about turning to a new life, a life of discipleship, a life of learning from Jesus and seeking to live as he lived.

I’m going to tell a personal story, and because of the sensitive nature of this story I will not publish it online. For those reading this, it involves someone who made a confession of faith early in life and would call himself a Christian, but continued to live an abusive lifestyle that hurt himself and others. It wasn’t until later in life that he experienced a more thorough salvation, changing his life.

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

So here’s what I want to ask you, was my friend saved when he made his first profession of faith or when he turned his life around? Was he saved by his faith, or was he saved by his works? My answer is yes.

When we think of Christianity as discipleship, we concentrate not only on right belief, but right action and right living. And no, we won’t all need to make the changes that my friend made in the example I used above. But I know I’ve had to make changes and I continue to make changes. I’m trying to align my life with the life and teachings of Jesus.

Jesus taught to love not only our friends, but also those who have hurt us, our enemies. I’m still trying! Some of Jesus’s last words on the cross were words of forgiveness for those who where killing him. I’m trying to forgive conforming my life to the life of Jesus. It isn’t easy, it is journey. It is the journey of discipleship. It is the journey of a student learning from the master.

When I think of salvation as it is laid out in the Bible, I like to think of as something that has happened, something that is happening, and something that will happen. I have been saved, past tense. I’ve been forgiven. I am being saved, giving up the things that are harmful to me, harmful to others, and harmful to the world around us. And I will be saved, raised to eternal life with Jesus.

21st-century Anabaptism calls us to look at Christianity as discipleship. It isn’t just about making a one-time decision to accept the gift of grace available to us in Jesus Christ, though it does include that. Christianity as discipleship is a call to conform to the image of the one who perfectly embodied God’s will for our lives.

I hope you will join me on this journey.

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What Defiles?

Mark 7:1-23 New International Version (NIV)

7 The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus 2 and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.

5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

6 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

“‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 7 They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’

8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

9 And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ 11 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— 12 then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” [16]*

17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

*If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.” Verse 16

 

One of the challenges that we face in our family is getting our children to practice good hygiene. Brush your teeth, comb your hair, change your socks, and of course, wash your hands. Especially during cold and flu season, we encourage our children to wash their hands frequently. Like most restaurants, we require our children to wash their hands when they go to the bathroom. And of course, we want them to wash their hands before they eat.

Then along comes Jesus, and he says washing your hands isn’t required before a meal. Thanks a lot, Jesus. Now when we try to tell our children to wash their hands before they eat, they like to quote Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men.”

When we look at the New Testament, it is often helpful to consider who the text is being written to or for. Knowing who is the intended audience is helps us to understand the point of a passage. I’ve often heard that Mark was written to a Gentile audience, though I’ve never heard why we are to believe that. But I read this week that today’s passage is one of the keys to that hypothesis. Mark does not assume that his readers understand the rituals of the Jewish community. Throughout this text we find numerous parenthetical statements. In verses 1-2 Mark states that the Pharisees notice that not all of Jesus’s disciples washed their hands before eating. But that is more than just bad hygiene. Mark goes into a little detail about how all Jews perform a ceremonial washing of their hands before eating, as well as washing other items before using them. This isn’t about making sure that they are clean, though that isn’t a bad thing. The point is ritual cleanliness and purity. This is symbolic.

This practice obviously comes from Exodus 30:17-21: “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a bronze basin, with its bronze stand, for washing. Place it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it. Aaron and his sons are to wash their hands and feet with water from it. Whenever they enter the tent of meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die. Also, when they approach the altar to minister by presenting a food offering to the Lord, they shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die. This is to be a lasting ordinance for Aaron and his descendants for the generations to come.”

Wait, who is supposed to wash? Aaron and his sons, the priests. And they are supposed to wash when they enter the tabernacle to perform religious rituals. Furthermore, they were supposed to wash not only their hands but also their feet.

So where in the Hebrew Bible does it say that the lay person, or every Jew, is to perform a ceremonial washing of their hands before eating? It doesn’t. It isn’t biblical at all. Sure, there are a number of times when a Hebrew man or woman is to perform ceremonial washings, but before every meal isn’t one of them. Mark calls this “a tradition of the elders.”

When we read this text, don’t read this as Jesus encouraging people to break the Law of Moses or the Torah. He is pointing out that this is a tradition. And at some point, either verbally or through his actions, h must have let his disciples know that they were not required to perform this tradition any longer. And ultimately, Jesus is questioning the authority of this tradition and perhaps the authority of the Pharisees.

Jesus then gives an example of how the Pharisees and teachers of the law break a teaching from the Torah. And this is one we have probably all come across in something called the Ten Commandments: Honor thy father and thy mother. Rather than caring for their aging parents, these leaders are somehow investing funds or precious items in something else. In verses 11-12 Jesus says, “You say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)—then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother.”

I don’t think that it is wrong to make donations to the church or other ministries. What I assume is happening is that these Pharisees are funding their own ministry rather than helping out their own parents. This is the 1st-century equivalent of a pastor buying their self a private jet while their own parents go hungry.

What I hear Jesus saying here is the same thing he often tells the religious leaders of the time: You are missing the point.

Jesus then addresses a different audience, turning his attention to the crowds of people. This is a teaching opportunity that he isn’t going to miss. He says in verse 15, “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”

I know that you have all heard this verse before and you have wondered if Jesus really just said what it sounds like he said. Please allow me to confirm for you that yes, our Lord and Savior just…made a potty joke.

I never said that the Bible was appropriate for all ages, but this actually seems about at my children’s level.

Immediately after Jesus makes this poop joke, he gives what is perhaps my favorite verse in the Bible, my life verse, and a good memory verse for us all. Verse 16 says, “”

But we will address that at another time.

Jesus then turns to the third group that he addresses in this passage, speaking privately to his twelve disciples. They just don’t seem to get what Jesus is saying, so they ask what he means. This is by design, Jesus wants people to dig deeper, ask questions, and think about why they do what they do and why they don’t do what they don’t do. He seems to lose some patience with his disciples because he thought that they would get this one. But they don’t so he explains it to them.

In verses 18b-19, Jesus says, “‘Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.’ (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)”

First of all, recall that Mark is writing to the Gentiles, and he seems to add his own interpretation of this passage when he says that in doing this Jesus declared all foods to be clean. He may be inspired by the Holy Spirit to say this, but it is clear that disciples like Peter didn’t understand this to be what Jesus was saying at this time. It wasn’t until Peter had a vision that he got that message.

The most important thing that I want to lift out of these verses is that we need to be careful to not apply this logic to anything that Jesus wasn’t referring to here. He is talking about food and specifically eating without first doing a ceremonial washing of your hands before eating. What you eat goes into your stomach, not into your heart.

I heard someone jokingly say that obviously Jesus had never experienced food poisoning, because what goes into your stomach can affect your entire body. But again, that’s not what Jesus is referring to.

The danger I find is when people try to apply this teaching beyond food and say that nothing outside a person can defile them. I believe things can defile us from the outside because they can get to our hearts.

There are people I know who are very negative in nature. Everything is terrible and the world is out to get them. The weather is bad, leadership is weak, there’s nothing good on television, and they just don’t make blue jeans like they used to. When I spend time with negative people, I tend to have a less-cheery view of the world.

If is spend time with gossipers, I gossip. If I spend time with angry people, I find myself getting angry easily.

We know that Jesus wasn’t saying that nothing on the outside can affect our actions because elsewhere he says things like “If you right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out,” and “If right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.”

Jesus is worried about the human heart, and he knows that outside forces can affect our hearts. Verses 20b-22, “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.”

Jesus isn’t against traditions or practices. I’m also pretty sure he isn’t against washing your hands. But he most definitely is for clean hearts, because he is most definitely concerned about how we live.

But here is that challenge. Not everyone responds to these outside stimuli in the same way. It is always easier to make blanket statements and eliminate all sorts of things than to actually figure out what affects us. For instance, I’ve said that I can’t be around negative people all the time, because I turn into a negative person. But I have friends who are professional counselors, and it is their job to listen to people talk about the bad things in their lives. So they do this for 40+ hours a week. What affects me may not have the same effect on other.

I know people who struggle with lust and they can’t go to the beach because seeing people scantily clothed affects them in ways that they would rather not be affected. I don’t like the beach, but that’s because it is hot.

I can watch a violent movie without going out and killing someone. But I’m not going to let my children watch certain movies and play certain video games because I don’t want to find out the hard way that they can’t watch a violent movie and not act violently toward another. I think that it is important to remember when Jesus talks about plucking your eye out or cutting off your hand, he starts by saying, “If it causes you to sin.”

My friends, Jesus isn’t saying that external things don’t matter. What he is saying is that our actions do matter. And inasmuch as the external things affect our actions, the external things do matter. And notice that Jesus mentions some very serious offenses here: murder, adultery, and theft. But he also mentions things we might not think much of, like slander (talking back about someone), envy, and greed. He also names arrogance and folly, which hits home for me.

Out of our hearts come all sorts of words and actions. It is up to us, with the help of God and each other, to make sure what makes it into our hearts does not defile.

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What Are You Looking For?

John 6:56-69 New International Version (NIV)

56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

60 On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

61 Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! 63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. 64 Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. 65 He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”

66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

67 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

A man walked into a restaurant and noticed cuts of meat hanging high from the ceiling. Chicken legs, ribeyes, pork chops, and so on. When the waiter came to his table, the man asked about their strange decor. The waiter replied, “It’s a bit of a game we play with our customers here. If you can jump up, grab the meat, and pull it down, you can have it for free. But if you can’t get the meat, your meal will cost twice the price printed in the menu. Are you interested in trying?”

“No thanks,” the man said. “The steaks are too high.”

The steaks, or stakes, are pretty high, and we have a lot to lose. But we also have a lot to gain, more than a free meal. We can gain freedom of mind, body, and soul. We can gain freedom from the things that bind us here on earth. We can gain eternal life. And who doesn’t want that?

Today I want to ask two questions of this text and of us. What are we looking for? Where do we look?

What are you looking for? Bono still hasn’t found what he is looking for, but the disciples from our text this morning believed that they had. Recall that we have been working through John 6 for the last five weeks or so. This is one continuous narrative that begins with Jesus feeding the 5,000, moves to him walking on water, then takes this strange turn toward eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus. John speaks of many disciples seeking Jesus, following him around. Don’t be confused by the word “disciple,” it simply means a student.

If you recall way back to the Sunday in July when we began looking at this chapter, I said that John was trying to show that Jesus exceeds even the greatest of the prophets; he is even greater than Moses. This is significant because the people have been waiting on a great leader like Moses ever since…well, ever since Moses himself was walking around. In Deuteronomy 18:15, 18-19, Moses tells the Israelites, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me [Moses] from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him…I [the Lord] will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name.”

For around 1,450 years the Israelites have been waiting on this prophet like Moses. Moses, of course, led the people out of captivity, led them out from under the oppressive thumb of Pharaoh. Now a different regime was oppressing the Israelites. Now it was Rome; not Pharaoh, but Caesar. And along comes this man who can do some of the things Moses did, but do them even better. Moses turned water into blood, Jesus turned water into wine. Moses fed the people mana, which spoiled quickly and could not be saved for a later snack. Jesus fed the people bread and fish, and there was an abundance left, which they collected and I assume ate the next day. Moses separated the water. Jesus walked on it. And just as the people grumbled about Moses in the wilderness, verse 61 from our scripture this morning tells us that the people were once again grumbling.

It is easy for us to miss these connections today, but John includes them for a reason, and it would have been obvious to a first century Jew. Jesus fulfilled the prophecy that God would send a prophet like Moses to the people. But I also think that the people made some assumptions about what that prophet would do and how he would do it.

We often assume that the people expected Jesus to overthrow the Romans. As the men walking on the road to Emmaus say after Jesus’s death, “We had hoped he would be the one to restore Israel.” But the man these Israelites were meeting in John’s gospel was more interested in feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and in other places, he even talks about loving your enemy. Turning the other cheek. Voluntarily carrying the luggage of a Roman soldier.

Then Jesus crosses the line. The straw that broke the camel’s back. The stakes are too high. Regardless of which metaphor you choose, Jesus clearly goes too far for many of the disciples when he invites people to eat his flesh and drink his blood. In verse 60 we read, “On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’”

And then in verse 66, John narrates this for us: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”

It is debatable whether or not the disciples who turned back because they though Jesus was literally talking about cannibalism or not. But what is very clear is that they were expecting something else, and when they found out what Jesus was offering, they were not interested.

What are you looking for? We frequently note how the church and her influence in the broader society has been decreasing over the last half century. The fastest-rising religious affiliation in the US right now has become known as the “nones.” No, not the nuns, as in the religious order of women within the Catholic Church, but those who do not consider themselves to be a part of any religion. They aren’t necessarily antagonistic toward religion and many wouldn’t deny that there is a God who created the world. But when you ask them what religion they are a part of, they will say, “none.” They are none and done.

There are many reasons for the rise of the nones. In the last few weeks our news cycle has been filled with stories of child sex abuse by clergy members. Additionally, the news that these cases of abuse have been covered up by the church for decades is absolutely disgusting and heartbreaking. Our own small denomination has not been without its own scandals over the last few years. Two of my friends, fellow seminary students, and former colleagues as pastors in Virginia Mennonite Conference were a part of separate scandals and now want nothing to do with the church. Surely these things contribute to many people, both young and old, identifying as nones.

Yet I wonder how many people find themselves in the position of the disciples who turned back at the end of John chapter 6. I wonder how many people came to Jesus with the wrong expectations and then found something altogether different to be true. Even worse, I wonder how often the church has mislead people into wrong expectations in order to get people into the church, to get them to say a simple prayer, or to send them a check in the mail?

We call that “The old bait and switch.” This phrase is often used in retail sales where a product is offered at a really good price. This is advertised to get you in the door and get you interested, only to have that product switched out for something more expensive or of a lower quality.

The church pulls the old bait and switch when we tell people that if they become a Christian all of their physical pain will go away, their finances will improve exponentially, and their relationships will be perfect. The church pulls the old bait and switch when we offer what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” He writes, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Jesus didn’t try to pull a bait and switch. At one point he compares following him to bearing your own cross. He invited disciples to consider the cost, like a man building a tower. You don’t want to build it halfway and have to stop.

Scripture reminds us that Christ wants all people to come to him. But that doesn’t mean that he is going to sugar coat anything to fool you into following him. When the masses turn back and leave him, Jesus turns to his twelve disciples and asks them in verse 67, “You do not want to leave too, do you?”

I see him saying this with tears in his eyes, hurt that so many people would desert him. But he isn’t looking to change his message to make it more palatable. He was upfront with who he was and what he expected of his followers.

Jesus taught grace for all who would accept it. He taught love for all, regardless of if you wanted to receive it. And that is a message that many in his day and our own are not interested in hearing.

So what are you looking for? I can’t speak for you and what you are searching for. But I know what Jesus has to offer, and from what I has seen, he doesn’t plan to change that offer any time soon.

But where do we look? You know this one. Like the Sunday School teacher who was trying to get her class to guess a creature she was trying to describe. She described an animal that was gray with a furry tail and collects nuts to store away for the winter. A boy raised his hand and said, “What you are describing sure sounds like a squirrel, but I know that here in Sunday School the answer is always Jesus, so I’m going with that.”

Where do we look? We look to Jesus. When Jesus asked his twelve disciples if they were going to leave too, Peter responds by saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (verses 68-69).

We are looking for God, we are looking for wholeness, for meaning, and purpose. We are looking for peace. We are looking for love. Where else are you going to look than to Jesus?

But here’s the problem: I don’t seem him here today. It isn’t like he is keeping office hours and we can just stop in and have a conversation. So where do we look for God? Where do we look for Jesus?

I believe that we can find God in nature. I look at the mountains and the oceans and I marvel at their beauty, wondering how anyone can not believe in a creator who loves us. And I believe that God can be found not only in the beauty of nature, but all around us. We use the fancy term “omnipresent” to describe how God, through the Holy Spirit, is always with us. And I believe that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are most clearly revealed to us through the Holy Scriptures. Jesus may not be with us physically today, but he was with people who recorded their encounters with him and passed those encounters along from one generation to the next.

God can be found in nature, God can be found in the Scriptures, and God can be found in simple items like bread and wine because God is always with us. But we need help finding him, even when he is right below our noses. Even in the Scriptures we find the need for help understanding the Scriptures. As the Ethiopian Eunuch says to Philip when asked if he understood what he was reading, “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” (Acts 8:31.)

I’m pretty bad when it comes to find something. I lose my phone frequently, and I know to put my car keys in the same place every time because otherwise I will lose them. With my corrective lenses, I have good vision. But I just don’t see things. We can be cooking and Sonya will ask me to get the garlic out of the fridge. I’ll go and look for a while and come back to tell her that we must be out, only for her to walk over to the fridge, open the door, and grab the garlic in less than a second.

This is usually when I say, “I guess I’m just not a very good looker.”

She never disagrees with me.

We need help finding things, even when they are right under our noses. Some of us need help more than others.

Even the most simple of directions need to be explained or modeled for us somehow. I heard an example this week attributed to the philosopher Charles Taylor, who also invented some sweet shoes (jk, different Chuck Taylor). Taylor notes that rules and signs are not something that we just naturally obey or follow. Even something as simple as an arrow pointing toward refreshments needs to be interpreted. Do you follow the arrow’s point or the feathered end? Why do we assume that an arrow pointing up means forward and not that the refreshments are literally up in the air? We know it because someone taught us how to read the sign.

We in the Mennonite Church emphasize a life of following Jesus, a life of discipleship. To be a part of the church means that we try to live as Jesus lived, love and Jesus loved, and obey the teachings that Jesus taught. And there are things that we can do on our own, like study the scriptures and pray while sitting on the top of a mountain. But scripture is not Jesus, and a mountain is not God. These things are signs, signs that point to Jesus. Signs that we need to learn how to read. And we learn best from others.

If we truly wish to follow Jesus, we must do it in community because Jesus lived in community. And as Jesus reminded his disciples, “Anywhere two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them.” (Matthew 18:20). This isn’t to say that otherwise Jesus isn’t with you, as if your prayers alone aren’t heard. But when Jesus says this, he is speaking of communal discernment. When we come together to discuss, learn, and discern, Jesus is with us in a special way, joining the conversation.

What are you looking for? I can’t answer that for you, but what I can tell you is what Jesus has to offer. And I can tell you where he can be found. Together, as a community of believers, we are called to seek the God who is already among us.

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Flesh and Blood

John 6:51-58 New International Version (NIV)

51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

52 Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

53 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”

Happy palindrome Sunday! If you do not know what a palindrome is…that makes you cooler than me. A palindrome is a sequence of symbols, letters, or numbers that are the same forward and backward. The word “racecar” is a palindrome, and so is today’s date: 81918. In fact, the last 10 days have been palindromes, beginning with 81018 through today.

It seems appropriate that today is palindrome Sunday, because we know the subject of today’s scripture forward and backward (How do you like that transition?). This is about communion, the Lord’s Supper. Here at Staunton Mennonite, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper about four times a year. And every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, I give a bit of background on why we eat a little bread and drink a little grape juice. You get this, you understand what’s going on. When you hear Jesus talking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, you know that this is about communion. Like I said, you know this forward and backward. It is almost like a palindrome.

Here’s my challenge for you this week: I want you to hear this as if you didn’t already know this stuff forward and back. I want you to hear this as if you are hearing it for the first time, and for those that want an extra challenge, imagine hearing as if you are hearing this for the first time as a 1st-century Jew.

Our text begins with Jesus stating that he is the living bread that has come down from heaven. His flesh is bread, and if you eat his flesh, you will have eternal life. Then in verse 53 he says, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

Do you ever get the feeling that Jesus intentionally tries to be confusing? In John 2, Jesus talks about destroying the temple and raising it up again in three days. In chapter 3 he tells Nicodemus that he must be born again, and Nicodemus—who is surely a smart guy—is like, “You mean I have to go back into my mother’s womb?” In chapter four he is talking about living water; in chapter five he is calling God his father. Now he is saying that he is made of bread and if people want eternal life, they should eat his flesh and drink his blood.

Maybe Jesus isn’t trying to be confusing, but I am pretty sure that he is trying to be a bit of a provocateur. Think of it this way. We have a name for eating another person’s flesh and drinking another person’s blood. We call that gross. We call that cannibalism. With very few exceptions across time and around the world, cannibalism has been frowned upon, to say the least. Cannibalism was not an accepted practice in Jesus’s day, and even more specifically, it was against the teaching of the Torah.

As early as Genesis 9:4, in the covenant with Noah, God forbids the drinking of blood. In Leviticus 3, God lays out the process for making an animal sacrifice. The blood and the fat of an animal is to be burned on the altar and offered to God. Verse 17 says, “This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live: You must not eat any fat or any blood.”

This isn’t some temporary rule, but a lasting ordinance. Don’t drink blood. Don’t eat the fat. It doesn’t specifically say not to eat any human flesh, but that seems to at least be assumed.

And it didn’t even dawn on me until Friday that the New Testament again affirms this teaching against drinking blood. In Acts 15 we find what we often call “The Jerusalem Council,” where the disciples meet together to decide what is necessary for a person to become a Christian. The main concern here is circumcision, but they decide that circumcision will not be a marker of Christianity. Here’s their official ruling, found in verses 28-29: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.”

So why the emphasis on the prohibition of drinking blood? Leviticus 17:14 gives us some insight. “The life of every creature is its blood. That is why I have said to the Israelites, ‘You must not eat the blood of any creature, because the life of every creature is its blood; anyone who eats it must be cut off.’”

The word translated here as “life” is nephesh. Nephesh means more than just being alive, and is most commonly translated as “soul.” We translate it here as life because we don’t often think of animals as having an eternal soul that needs saved. Nephesh is more of an animating force, the essence of who one is. It is almost like the way we use the words “genetics” or “DNA.”

We still have this concept of nephesh and blood in our idioms today. If you love camping, fishing, the great outdoors, and your father loved these things as well, we might say that it is in your blood. It is a part of who you are. It is in your DNA. It is your nephesh.

So the Hebrew teaching against drinking blood comes down to the belief that the very essence of who a person or animal is can be found in the blood. That essence should either be returned to the earth or offered up to God.

So here you are, a 1st-century Jew, well versed in the teachings of the Torah, and you’ve come to hear Jesus speak. He has been healing people, feeding thousands of people from a couple of loaves and fish. You think this guy might be the Messiah. He may lead the people to freedom! But then he starts with all this bread and flesh and blood talk and most people turn away. No thanks. You can keep your nephesh to yourself.

What’s going on here? We know the answer to that, because we know this palindrome forward and back. This is about communion.

In the synoptic gospels, Jesus offers the bread and the cup and he says: This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood, shed for you. Do this in remembrance of me. We focus on the death of Jesus when we read those accounts.    This is an account of the Lord’s Supper, Communion, the Eucharist, whatever you want to call it.

Let’s take just a brief detour and I’ll come back to what I think is going on here. I want to explore a little bit of what some traditions teach about the Lord’s Supper, its meaning and practice, and why I think we can do better. I’ll start with a story.

My friend Martin is an ordained Mennonite mission worker. He is intelligent and articulate and did his seminary training at Duke Divinity. I was having a conversation with Martin one day, and like things often do, the nature of our conversation turned to theology. I have no idea how we came to the topic of the Lord’s Supper, but Martin proudly proclaimed, “I’m a transubstantiationist.”

Transubstantiation is the teaching that when the bread and the cup are blessed by the clergy, they literally become the body and blood of Christ. The word “transubstantiation” itself means to change substances.

I’ll admit, I can be a little cocky sometimes, and it is good for me to be brought down a few pegs. In my cockiness, I asked Martin, “Really? Where do you get that from?”

Martin replied, “From every reference to communion in the Bible.”

Martin is correct…kind of. Jesus says, “This is my body, broken for you… This is my blood, shed for you.” He never said that it is symbolic of his body and blood. And in today’s text, it seems as if many people interpreted Jesus literally because immediately following this teaching, many people stopped following Jesus, figuring the guy was a little off.

Okay, but Jesus often used metaphors to describe himself. He didn’t say, “I am like a shepherd,” or “I am like a door.” He said, “I am the Good Shepherd.” I thought he was a carpenter? But honestly, if you believe that the bread and wine/grape juice literally become the body and blood of Jesus, that’s fine. I’m just not there myself.

Transubstantiation is official teaching of the Catholic Church, and this is why if you attend a mass, you may notice that only the priest can handle the elements. The lay person never touches the cup, in part out of fear of spilling the blood of Christ. The priest often places a wafer directly in the mouth of the person receiving the offering.

Martin Luther argued against transubstantiation, and offered something that is often called “consubstantiation,” though many Lutherans today reject that term. Pretty much every denomination that believes in consubstantiation will nuance it slightly different. But essentially, consubstantiation is the belief that the bread and wine don’t actually change substances but that Christ is present in the bread and wine of communion. The substance of Christ is present, even though the substance of the bread and wine do not change.

In the Mennonite tradition, we emphasize the symbolism of the bread and the cup and the memorial aspect of communion. Again, Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And as the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:26, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

I believe that the Lord’s Supper is absolutely a way to remember and proclaim the death of Jesus. And I also believe that Jesus is present in the bread and cup, at least symbolically. But when I read today’s text I feel as if the idea of communion simply as a memorial is lacking. I think that there is something more to be gained.

If you read all of John’s gospel, you will find that John does not include communion as a part of his account of the Last Supper. In chapter 13 they open with foot washing, they have a shared meal, Jesus offers some teaching, and then Jesus is betrayed. Our passage this morning is really John’s only explanation of communion. And by emphasizing this teaching earlier in Jesus’s ministry, the idea of feeding on Jesus’s flesh and drinking his blood becomes more about life than about death.

Again, I absolutely believe that one aspect of communion is that it is to help us remember all that Jesus has done. But John offers another perspective. Verse 57 says, “Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.”

In John’s gospel, there is also a very this-worldly aspect to communion. We are not simply called to remember what Jesus did. No, we consume and live on the very nephesh of Jesus, the animating force of his being.

We eat the bread and drink the cup as a reminder that Christ died, but also as a reminder that Christ. Christ lives in us. The prohibition against drinking blood in the New Testament remains because we are to get our lives from Christ, he is to be our animating force. Today as we take communion, we echo the words of Paul: It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

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Food, Faith, and Following Jesus

John 6:25-35

25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”

26 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

28 Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

30 So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

32 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

34 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

A man went to the local Chinese restaurant for the first time. Not knowing what to order, he asked the waiter to surprise him. A few minutes later, the waiter returned to the man’s table with a covered pot. He set the pot down on the table and walked away.

As soon as the waiter left, the lid on the pot lifted ever so slightly, and the man could see a pair of eyeballs looking back at him. He heard a quick, “quack,” and the lid shut again.

A few moments passed, and this whole scenario happened again. The lid lifted, two eyes looked out, and a “quack” was heard. The man called over the waiter and said, “I’m sorry, I really am not familiar with Chinese food. Can you tell me if it is supposed to be looking and quacking at me?”

The waiter replied, “Oh, that’s totally normal. I gave you the Peking Duck.”

I do love Chinese food, the egg rolls, the noodles, and the various combinations of meat and vegetables. But Chinese food has a bit of a reputation. With all the rice, noodles, and simple carbs, Chinese food will not leave you feeling full very long. Even if you go to a buffet, you will find yourself hungry again soon. Go ahead and load up on the Moo goo gai pan, General Tso’s chicken, and pizza (yeah, they always have pizza on the buffet at our local Chinese restaurant), you may not be able to eat that fortune cookie, but in an hour, you’ll be hungry again.

There is no arguing that some foods fill you up and stick with you longer than others. My mother used to say that oatmeal “sticks to your ribs.” I Googled that phrase, and apparently she didn’t make it up. Though I’m not exactly sure that sounds like a good thing.

Today we are talking about food, faith, and following Jesus, three of my favorite things J, as we continue our sermon series on John chapter 6. As I mentioned last Sunday, we are in year B of the three-year lectionary cycle (guess what next year will be); year B focuses on the Gospel of Mark. But the lectionary takes a break from Mark’s gospel and spends five weeks on one chapter of John. Evidently, those who put the lectionary together saw something worth focusing on in these verses.

But I admit, I’ve found these passages difficult to preach on. So today we are going to focus on what the text does not say, because I feel that it has been abused a bit by some Christians over the years.

Last week we looked at the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 and walking on water. I tried to show how John isn’t simply interested in telling these stories. He tells them in a certain way to make a point: he is trying to communicate that Jesus exceeds even the greatest of the prophets because Jesus is the pre-existent Word of God.

Today’s text picks up immediately following those events. Jesus fed the 5,000, walked across the lake, and the people came looking for him. They probably saw the disciples get in the boat and head over, and they assumed that Jesus was there with them. So these people walk the perimeter of the lake and find Jesus and his disciples on the other side.

We find this in verse 25, “When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, ‘Rabbi, when did you get here?’”

That’s a meaningful verse for a few reasons. First, notice that the people addressed Jesus as Rabbi, which is the Hebrew word for teacher. They may have some mixed reasons for following Jesus to the other side of the lake, but at least they recognize him as a great teacher from whom they hope to learn.

But this verse is also meaningful because what is translated in most versions as “when did you get here” is literally “when did you come into being.” It isn’t just a question of when he arrived on that side of the lake, but also a question of just exactly who he is.

I don’t think that the people were asking Jesus an ontological question, but perhaps John is hinting at it. Regardless, Jesus seems to see through the question to the real, underlying concern among the people. Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill” (verse 26).

Yeah, we’ve all been there. You go to an open house because there will be free food there. Or, as many college students have been known to do, you decide what church to go to on a Sunday based on who is having a pot-luck meal. And we don’t grow out of it, either. I’ve heard that there is consistently a large number of frugal Mennonites who go to Costco after church on Sunday and eat the free samples as their Sunday dinner. Some of you are appalled at such an idea; others of you are saying, “Tell me more.” So let the one without sin cast the first stone.

We should not assume that Jesus is criticizing the people for looking for another couple of loaves and a few more fish. We cannot hear his inflection or tone, so don’t assume that he was angry. I’m pretty sure that he knew when he fed them that they were going to get hungry again and come looking for him. I gave my children lunch the other day, and when 5:00 came around, they were hungry again. Didn’t I feed you like five hours ago? Come on! What Jesus seems to be doing is using this experience as a teaching opportunity. Jesus is about to expand their understanding by using this universal experience of hunger.

In verse 27, Jesus continues: “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

Food that does not spoil. Obviously, Jesus is talking about Twinkies. Twinkies, according to the urban legend, do not spoil. Actually, there is a Twinkie that has been on display at a High School in Maine since 1976. The story goes that a student asked their chemistry teacher how long a Twinkie would take to decompose since it was made up of artificial ingredients and preservatives. So the teacher placed a Twinkie on top of a chalkboard, and it remained there for almost 30 years until the teacher retired in 2004. The teacher then passed on the experiment to a former student who also now taught at the same school. The Twinkie is still at the school, and now is in a glass case. It looks pretty good, though the color has faded and the exterior has crumbled a bit.

Okay, maybe that wasn’t what Jesus was referring to, either. I want to be a little cautious here, though, of those who would say that what Jesus is doing here is elevating the spiritual over the physical. People choose to give out tracks rather than food, offering them the food that does not spoil or leave you hungry, but neglecting the physical needs of others. These same Christians may spend millions of dollars on their church buildings, laser light shows, and music productions, while ignoring the poor in their community. For these Christians relief efforts like Mennonite Disaster Service or putting a new roof on for an elderly neighbor are secondary. They say not to chase after food that spoils, but to invest in food that lasts for eternity.

This same line of though also often appeals to the story from Matthew 26 when a woman anoints Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume. When the disciples raise a fuss, Jesus says, “The poor you will have with you always, but you will not always have me” (verse 11, KGV).

I don’t think that Jesus is saying that the spiritual part of Christianity is all that matters. In fact, I believe what he is saying is that as his followers, we will always be working among the poor. Furthermore, we find Jesus teaching his followers to feed the hungry and clothe the naked too frequently to simply assume that he is saying all that we must do is feed the soul while ignoring the body. Recall that in the story of the sheep and the goats, it is those who care for the least of these who enter into heaven while those who ignore the basic needs of others who are separated from God for all eternity.

No, Jesus isn’t saying that we can simply focus on the soul and ignore the body. Nor does he ever say we can feed people and ignore their spiritual side. In the feeding of the 5,000, and in the very elements of the Eucharistic meal, Jesus is illustrating the connection of body and spirit.

I’ve given you food for your body, now it is time to feed your soul.

What does Jesus say is the food that will not spoil? He uses a self-referential moniker, saying “the Son of Man” is the giver of food that will not spoil. He goes on in verse 35, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Jesus not only is the giver of un-spoiling, stick-to-your-ribs food, but he himself is the food that can truly satisfy.

This closely parallels what Jesus says just two chapters earlier, when he offers the Samaritan woman at the well “living water,” which I’m pretty sure is how people get dysentery. The idea that Jesus is trying to convey is that he can feed you or offer you drink, but you’ll get hungry and thirsty again. But there is something more that he has to offer.

When Jesus offers his self as the bread of life, or living water, he is inviting the people to a life of discipleship, a life of following his teachings and his actions. Jesus clearly had a desire to care for the physical aspect of the people around him. He healed the sick and fed the hungry. Jesus also clearly had a spiritual dimension to his life and teaching. He frequently went off by himself or with others to pray. He fasted, he went to the synagogue…you know, as if someone was going to teach him what it meant to be a good Jew. Jesus never talked about separating the spiritual from the physical. It was always assumed that they would go hand-in-hand.

Think about it like this. When was the last time you forgot your soul as you were heading out the door? I’ve forgotten my phone many times. I even tend to forget my wallet when people invite me out for lunch. How convenient! But never have I left my soul or my spirit behind. As if I could just get out of my car and start patting down my pockets and remember that I left my spirit behind.

No, it seems like the only time our bodies will be separated from our soul is that brief period between our physical death and the resurrection of the dead. As Bible scholar NT Wright puts it, there is life after death, and then there is life after life after death. During our time here on earth and during our time in eternity, we are body, soul, and spirit.

Jesus, the bread of life, is calling us to a life of discipleship. A life of ministering to one another, caring for one another mind, body, soul, spirit. If we separate any aspect of our existence out, we may feel filled for a brief period of time, just like eating at a Chinese restaurant. But we will find ourselves wanting, needing more. It is when we give ourselves to love our God and our neighbor that we will truly be filled.

Menno Simons, after whom we have named our denomination, is often quoted in a truncated version from his writings, but I think it is helpful to read a little more than we are used to seeing:

True evangelical faith is of such a nature it cannot lie dormant, but spreads itself out in all kinds of righteousness and fruits of love; it dies to flesh and blood; it destroys all lusts and forbidden desires; it seeks, serves and fears God in its inmost soul; it clothes the naked; it feeds the hungry; it comforts the sorrowful; it shelters the destitute; it aids and consoles the sad; it does good to those who do it harm; it serves those that harm it; it prays for those who persecute it; it teaches, admonishes and judges us with the Word of the Lord; it seeks those who are lost; it binds up what is wounded; it heals the sick; it saves what is strong (sound); it becomes all things to all people. The persecution, suffering and anguish that come to it for the sake of the Lord’s truth have become a glorious joy and comfort to it.

Jesus ministered to the entire being, and as his followers we are called to do the same. I love the fact that Dwight has used his summer to travel and teach Bible School in Jamaica and do hurricane relief work in Puerto Rico. I love that we work closely with the Valley Mission, providing food and a faithful witness. We minister to the entire person, mind, body, and soul. Trying to separate any one aspect will leave us hungry and needing more.

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Greater than Moses

John 6:1-21 New International Version (NIV)

6 Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. 3 Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish Passover Festival was near.

5 When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

7 Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”

8 Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 9 “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”

10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). 11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.

12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.

14 After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.

16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17 where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. 18 A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” 21 Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.

It is good to be with you all today after having been gone last Sunday. Sonya, the kids, and I spent the weekend after a conference camping at the beach. That’s right, we combined two of my favorite activities: camping, and sitting in the sand. But it was cheap, and I like cheap.

Actually, my biggest complaint is that it rained every day. We were able sneak in some beach time in between the rains. You know, just enough time for my lily-white skin to burn to about the color and consistency of a kidney bean. Thankfully, the next day was so windy that the sunburned skin was sandblasted right off my body.

Today we begin an unintentional sermon series from the Gospel of John. The lectionary spends five weeks looking at just one chapter in John. That’s five sermons on John chapter 6. And let me just say now that I hope that none of you are gluten intolerant, trying to eat Paleo, or low carb, because this chapter is filled with references to bread. And it seems appropriate that we should end this series by celebrating communion together. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here! First we need to address today’s passage, verses 1-21.

It is interesting that we are given these two stories together on one Sunday as either could be preached alone effectively. What I think is going on here is more than just naming a couple of cool things that Jesus did. What I see when these passages are placed side-by-side is that John is making a statement. John is claiming that Jesus exceeds Moses. I considered naming this sermon “Moses, Shmoses,” but that doesn’t really get to the point. The point isn’t to diminish the role of Moses. Just the opposite. Moses is a beloved leader of the Israelites and should be held in high esteem. Moses is the guy who led the Israelites out of Egypt, gave them the Law, and led them right up to the Promised Land. What John seems to be doing in this passage is to show that even as great as Moses was, Jesus is still greater. Let’s work through this passage to see the ways John lifts up Jesus as being greater than Moses, and greater than all prophets. But rather than focusing on what John says, let’s spend some time looking at how John tells the story.

I want to remind you of a few different terms that I have used over the years that are helpful to our understanding of what is going on here. First is a practice known as “Redaction Criticism.” Redaction Criticism is the practice of reading the text and asking why the author chose to put a certain story here and not there. Why did they edit their text in such a way. For instance, we know that each of the Gospels tells the story of Jesus in a slightly different way. Each Gospel has a different intended audience and therefore they each have different emphases. So why does John tell the story one way and Luke tell it in another way? If you look at Luke and Matthew, they both start with birth narratives. This is how Jesus came into the world. Mark jumps right into Jesus’s ministry.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke seem to emphasize the earthly, human aspect of Jesus. It makes the story relatable. Jesus, as a human, got hungry. He felt lonely. He was hurt by the people he cared about. And he was tempted in every way that we are tempted. John goes a different route: he emphasizes the divine aspect of Jesus. John chapter 1, verse 1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

This brings me to the other word I wanted to reintroduce you to: John emphasizes a “High Christology.”

In that same opening chapter, John the Baptist offers lavish praise to Jesus, saying that he is not worthy of untying Jesus’s sandal. Yet in multiple places Jesus says that among those born of a woman, there is not prophet greater than John.

So packed into the very first chapter of John’s gospel, we find that Jesus was not just some average man. He is the preexistent Logs, the very essence of God. Jesus surpasses John, who was the greatest of prophets. Greater than Moses, Elisha, Isaiah, and so on.

We jump ahead to our text in chapter 6 and we need to see that John writes assuming that his audience is familiar with the Hebrew Bible. After stating their location, John says this in verses 3-4: “Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near.”

I would say that those details add very little if anything to the story. This story itself doesn’t hinge upon Jesus climbing a mountain, and the timing of the Passover doesn’t seem to be important here. Ah! A chance for Redaction Criticism! Why did John include these phrases?

John audience would have remembered that Moses climbed Mt. Sinai to have a conversation with God. There is really no reason for John to mention Jesus climbing the mountain here other than to draw a parallel at the beginning of this story to Moses. What else did Moses do? Well, he led the Israelites through the whole first Passover.

Alright, John’s audience. You’ve got the mountain image in your mind. You have the Passover reference right there as well. Then John tells the story, which is probably familiar to you all. In fact, it is one of the few stories found in all four of the Gospels, even though they all tell the story slightly differently.

People are coming to Jesus, mostly because he is performing signs and healing the sick. It starts to get late, and Jesus decides to test Philip. Jesus asks, “Where are we going to buy bread for all these people?” Look around, we are in the middle of nowhere.

Philip responds by saying that even if there was enough bread to buy, it would take ½ a year’s salary to pay for enough to feed all these people. He is practical, and I appreciate that about Philip. Another practical disciple, Andrew speaks up: “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”

Jesus then had everyone sit, he gave thanks for the bread, and had the disciples start handing it out to the people. They were given all the bread and fish they wanted, and when they were done, there were twelve baskets worth left.

I heard an interesting take on this story last week. I said interesting, I didn’t say that I agreed with it. In fact, I would say that this interpretation is exactly the opposite of what John is trying to say.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, we saw a common practice in some theological circles of “demythologizing” the Bible. This was the age of the Enlightenment, and the Scientific Method required proof and reason. These practices were applied to the Bible as well, and many theologians were asking what really happened in the text, especially after you stripped away all of the miracles and unnatural events.

The demythologized version of the feeding of the 5,000 says that Jesus was teaching, as he often did, about love, generosity, and forgiveness. But the message wasn’t really getting through. The time to eat came and many people began clamoring, looking for something to eat. The disciples went around, asking if anyone had any extra food to share. And person after person said no. Then there was a young boy who had a few barely loves and fish, who had heard the message from Jesus and decided to share what he had, even though it meant he would have less for himself. The demythologized version of this story says that when the people saw that generosity of the boy, they began pulling out loaves and fish from their own, personal stashes. They just needed to see someone else being generous in order to be generous their selves. And when they did this, they found out that there was more than enough for everyone. In fact, there were 12 baskets worth more than they needed, perhaps symbolic of the 12 Tribes of Israel.

The point in this telling of the story is that there is enough for everyone, perhaps for all 12 Tribes of Israel, perhaps for the entire world, if only we will share it. We need to be generous, and our generosity will be contagious.

Indeed, generosity is contagious. If I asked you, “Hey, can I borrow $20?” You might laugh in my face or tell me that you cannot spare it. But if you see your neighbor give to someone in need and then I ask for a loan, you would be more likely to give as well. This is why nonprofits sometimes list their donors. It is contagious!

While I think that conclusion is correct, I don’t think that is what happened here. This isn’t just a story about the contagious nature of generosity. Nor is it a story about Jesus providing for our needs. I think Jesus took that bread and he fed 5,000 people and John tells this story to reveal who Jesus is. Again, think Moses. Moses fed the multitudes in the wilderness…kind of. God fed them, but Moses was involved. Moses gave the instructions. But do you remember what happened to the extra manna? If the Israelites tried to keep some for the following day, it became infested with maggots. But Jesus instructed them to collect the extra, and again, there were 12 baskets worth. Jesus exceeded Moses.

But it isn’t just Moses that Jesus surpasses. It is all the prophets, including Elisha. I had never put this together until recently. In 2 Kings 4:42-44 we read this story:

 42 A man came from Baal Shalishah, bringing the man of God twenty loaves of barley bread baked from the first ripe grain, along with some heads of new grain. “Give it to the people to eat,” Elisha said.

43 “How can I set this before a hundred men?” his servant asked.

But Elisha answered, “Give it to the people to eat. For this is what the Lord says: ‘They will eat and have some left over.’” 44 Then he set it before them, and they ate and had some left over, according to the word of the Lord.

Elisha started with 20 barely loaves and fed 100. Jesus started with five barely loaves and fed 5,000.

Jesus didn’t just inspire a young man to be generous, who then inspired the crowd to be generous. No, what John is trying to demonstrate is that Jesus is greater than all the prophets who came before him, including Elisha, including the greatest of them all, Moses.

Jump ahead to the second story, which I assume you all know as well. That same evening, Jesus sends his disciples on ahead in a boat and tells them that he will catch up. They were crossing the sea, and it would have been possible for Jesus to take his time and walk around or catch a ride with someone else.

But Jesus takes a different way. As it is getting dark, a storm pops up and things are getting a bit rough. Then they get scary. They see Jesus walking to them on the water, and this scares them, not the storm.

Notice John does not include the part about Peter walking on water and then sinking as other Gospels do. John isn’t trying to tell a story about faith, John is trying to elevate the divinity of Jesus through various stories.

What stories come to mind from the Old Testament? I think of Elisha floating an ax head on the water. Moses separated the water to lead the Israelites across. But Jesus walks on the water. And when he gets to the boat, he calms the storm, and transports the boat to the shore. Again, we see Jesus surpassing the prophets.

But there is one more thing that I want to lift out of this passage that can easily be missed. When Jesus is approaching the boat, he calls out to the disciples, “It is I; don’t be afraid.”

At least, that’s how the NIV translates what Jesus said.

Another option is to translate Jesus’s words in a way that doesn’t really reflect what we would call good grammar. The words could just as easily be translated, “I am; don’t be afraid.”

It is often said that Jesus makes seven “I am” statements in the book of John. I would argue that this is an eight. And the reason this is significant is because when Moses speaks to God through the burning bush, Moses asks God what his name is, and God replies, “I am.”

Jesus is a prophet greater than Moses, greater than Elisha, and greater than John the Baptist. He is the great “I am,” the incarnation of God.

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Choose for Yourself

Ephesians 1:3-14 New International Version (NIV)

3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, 9 he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

I recall preaching on this very text twelve years ago when I was just beginning at Staunton Mennonite Church. It was my second week on the job. I remember it so vividly because someone said to me, “Really, you’re going to try to tackle predestination in your second sermon at this church?”

I said, “Yes, I am.” I then proceeded to give what I assume was a really bad argument for the concept of freewill.

My conclusion has not changed over the years, but I hope that my argument has improved.

Allow me to share with you something that I have found helpful as I have struggled through this and other challenging teachings in the church. It is really easy to tear down someone else’s perspective when you misrepresent it. But when you actually have a discussion with someone who holds a perspective, it becomes a lot more difficult to dismiss their point of view.

One of the biggest eye-opening experiences of my life was studying at a Presbyterian seminary. There is so much that we Mennonites have in common with the Presbyterians that I had no problem talking about social and political issues. But Presbyterians are Calvinists, so we disagree on the freewill vs. predestination debate. However, in my discussions with my Presbyterian brothers and sisters, I found that there are many ways to approach the debate that didn’t fit into my simple categories.

I say all of that to recognize that when we compare theological beliefs and traditions, we often put our best expressions of faith up against another group’s worst. So I want to give this idea of predestination, or divine election, as it is often called, a fair consideration. And I will try to note throughout my message when I am deviating from a critique of mainstream thought on predestination and considering an extreme version.

The first thing I want to do is to define the term that we are using. Predestination is defined by dictionary.com as: “the divine foreordaining of all that will happen, especially with regard to the salvation of some and not others. It has been particularly associated with the teachings of St. Augustine of Hippo and of Calvin.”

In that definition I find two different concepts. The first is what I often think about when I hear the word “predestination.” That has to do with salvation. God has decided, perhaps even before the beginning of time, who will be saved from their sins and spend eternity with him, and who will not. This sometimes called “monergism,” from mono, which means one, and erg, which means work. It is God alone who is involved in selecting who is and is not saved. Contrast this to synergism, which means to work together. Synergism requires something from the person.

So predestination can refer to God’s predetermining who is and is not saved. The other aspect of predestination that is present in that definition is that God foreordains all that has happened, is happening, and will happening. God has predestined the unfolding of history in a specific way, like an author who writes a book.

Like most controversial topics, there are multiple understandings of how God relates to historical and future events. Most Christians would say something along the lines of God created the world, God regularly intervenes, and that God has an end plan. But God doesn’t micromanage every detail. I like to think that God has a big plan that we can choose to participate in, but I don’t think God cares one bit if I choose to eat eggs instead of cereal for breakfast. I think God allows us to make decisions on our own, including whether or not we will serve him.

Yet there are those who believe that nothing happens without God actively willing it to happen. They argue this from a point of sovereignty. Sovereignty is a reference to a person or being’s amount of power. In an absolute monarchy, a king is sovereign. I think most Christians would agree that God has absolute sovereignty, he is the highest power. But just how that works itself out, that’s another question.

One megachurch and its popular founding pastor adhere to the concept that sovereignty means that nothing happens without God willing it to happen. (I don’t name names when critiquing.) Writing on Isaiah 46, he says, “Therefore, what God means in Isaiah 46:10 is that nothing has ever happened, or will ever happen, that God did not purpose to happen. Or to put it positively: Everything that happened or will happen is purposed by God to happen.”

What does Isaiah 46 say? “I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’”

Yeah, I believe that God knows the end and has since the beginning. I believe that God has a purpose, which will one day be fully realized, but does that mean that everything that has or will happened was God’s purpose? So God caused Adam and Eve to break the one commandment that they were given and be expelled from the Garden? God caused Israel to turn their backs on him and enter into exile? God caused humans to sin, then entered our world as Jesus, and suffered and died…for the sins that God caused? I honestly don’t know how anyone can believe that God causes all things that happen to happen. And haven’t even mentioned things like the Holocaust, famine, or war.

Some people argue for this understanding of sovereignty because it makes God seem even more powerful to think of him as controlling everything. But that’s not true. It makes God out to be petty, violent, and disgraceful. I have no interest in worshipping that God.

I took a class in Seminary, a book study on Isaiah, led by my advisor, Jim Engle. Jim is a great guy, smart, compassionate, and kind of erratic. I remember sitting in this class over a decade ago, and Jim saying, “The problem with predestination is that it is biblical.”

In our study of Isaiah, what Jim was referring to was God choosing Israel. God had chosen a certain group, predetermined, that he would work through this group for the good of the rest of the world. And this isn’t the only time we find God choosing one person or group over another. God chose Saul to be the first king of Israel, while rejecting his brothers. God then chose David, passing on his brothers. And in our scripture for today, God seems to choose some, while rejecting others.

In Ephesians 1:4-5, “Paul” writes, “For [God] chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.”

It isn’t difficult to see how John Calvin arrived at his understanding of predestination. Since before creation God predestined some for sonship and daughtership. And if you predestine some, you necessarily exclude the others. This is sometimes called “double predestination,” or “double election.” If God predestines some for heaven, he necessarily predestines some for hell. This isn’t foreknowledge of who will and will not accept the gift of grace in Jesus Christ. Calvin believed that God chose before we were even born just where we would be spending eternity.

So God created some just to condemn them forever?

I know a couple who after having their first child decided that they would stop there. It wasn’t because they didn’t like being parents or didn’t enjoy their daughter. They decided that they shouldn’t have more children because their daughter was born with cystic fibrosis. Cystic fibrosis is a disease that causes a thick mucus to develop in the lungs, making it difficult to breathe. Those affected require frequent treatment, including some painful attempts to help the person clear their lungs well enough to breathe. With advancements in treatment, the average life span of a person with cystic fibrosis is just over 37 years.

Cystic fibrosis in an inherited disease, and it is a recessive gene. This means that in order for a person to have cystic fibrosis, both parents must carry the gene and pass that gene on. So the odds that their offspring would have cystic fibrosis is 1 in 4.

My friends who have the daughter with cystic fibrosis said that was too much of a risk for them. They had seen their daughter suffer, and they weren’t going to risk any more children having the same struggles.

So if my friends would choose not to have additional children because there would be a ¼ chance that they might have cystic fibrosis, does it really make sense that God would create people knowing that they were destined for eternal damnation? My friends are not more ethical or righteous than God!

Additionally, when I hear people talking about nothing happening unless God causes it to happen, I wonder how that will affect their daily actions and how they view others. At its worst, our history books reveal that slave owners have used this argument to justify slavery. They would claim that God created people with black skin to be slaves. God predestined some to be rulers and some to be servants, and if this is how God ordered the world, who are we to question God?

That is why I reject predestination. I use reason and logic.

So what do we do with all of these references to God choosing or even predestining some events? My first response is to say that even though the scriptures say that God chose someone to do something, it doesn’t say that God forced them. I think we frequently choose not to follow God’s calling. And there are plenty of times when someone starts off well, only to choose another path along the way.

Consider again the case of King Saul. God chose Saul as the first king of Israel, and Saul accepted that calling. But then Saul turned his back on God and disobeyed God. That was a choice. The passage that Sonya and I chose to include on our wedding bulletin (15 years ago this Thursday!) was from Joshua 24:15, “…then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve… But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

For every time you find a passage about God choosing someone, you can find another passage where the person is faced with a choice as well.

And passages like our text for this morning from Ephesians can be cleared up by simply asking, “Who is ‘the we’ Paul is referring to?”

In verses 3-12, Paul consistently talks about we. We were chosen, we were redeemed, we were predestined. Then in verses 13-14, he switches to the plural version of “you,” or “you all.” Verse 13: “And you [all] also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of you [all’s] salvation. When you [all] believed, you [all] were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.”

The “we” is the church. God predestined the church for salvation. God chose before the beginning of time to work through the church, the gathered believers, the community of the faithful. Now “you all,” the Gentiles, have believed and have been added.

My favorite metaphor for predestination is that of a train. A train has a destination, and that destination is predetermined. You don’t just jump on a train and decide where you are going after 30 minutes of chugging along. No, the train is going to Charlottesville. That has already been determined.

But you have the choice. Will you get on or not?

Let me conclude with one more story from the Bible, and I’ll share with you why it is significant. In the book of Genesis, Abraham is visited by three travelers. We are told that these men represent the Lord and in the Christian tradition we often think of them as the members of the Trinity. God reveals to Abraham that he is going to destroy the city of Sodom, and Abraham begins to bargain with him. Abraham asks, “What if 50 righteous people are found in Sodom? Will you destroy the city if there are 50 righteous in that place?”

God says okay. For 50, I’ll not destroy the city.

Abraham responds, “What about 45?” Then, “What about 40? 30?” They go back and forth until Abraham gets God down to 10 righteous people. If there are 10 righteous people living in Sodom, God promises not to destroy the city.

Some have said that God already knew that there weren’t 10 righteous people in the city, so this was really not an example of God changing his mind. But I don’t think God would be so misleading; it doesn’t seem within his character. Instead, it seems as if Abraham was truly able to affect God’s plan.

There are all sorts of weird things going on here, but I want to emphasize the point that in talking with God, we can change things. Otherwise, why would we pray? It would be a total waste of time to ask for healing, ask for guidance, or ask help if everything was predetermined by God and nothing could change it.

If everything was predetermined, there would be no reason to evangelize. Your eternal destiny is already decided. If everything was predetermined by God, there would be no reason to work for justice. If a group is being abused, it is God’s will for them to be abused. If everything was predetermined by God, there would be no reason to feed the poor, clothed the naked, or care for the sick. That’s just their god-determined lot in life. If everything was predetermined by God, there would be no need to pray. Prayer would change nothing. I’ll go so far as to say that if everything was predetermined by God, then the teachings of Jesus would be worthless.

But I believe we have a choice. And I believe that much of what we see in this world that isn’t as we think it should be is the result of our choices and the choices of others. And that is good news! Because if God had preordained all the crap in the world, there would be nothing that we could do about it. But because the crap of this world is a result of our choices, we can also choose to make it better, to make it right. We can choose, in the words of Jesus, for God’s kingdom to come, God’s will to be done, one earth as it is in heaven.

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