Remembering to Re-Member

1 Corinthians 11:17-29New International Version (NIV)

17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.

We are in the third week of an indefinite-in-length sermon series that I am calling “Rituals, Rites, and Holy Days” where we explore the reoccurring practices and holidays of the church that we tend to celebrate but not always take time to understand. We have already considered Passover and baptism; today we look at Communion…or maybe we will look at the Lord’s Supper. No, no I mean that today we will be looking at the Eucharist. That’s it, the Eucharist.

In the Mennonite Church we often call this ritual Communion, and there is a reason for that, which I’ll get to shortly. Today I want to consider why we call it what we call it, how we practice it, and what this ritual means (spoiler alert: not everyone agrees!).

Our scripture for this morning is one of the first places that we find the phrase “Lord’s Supper” used to refer to the celebratory meal that Jesus initiated the night before his crucifixion. And if you haven’t picked up on this yet, Paul isn’t really excited about how the Corinthians are practicing this meal. In Verse 20 he writes, “So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat.” It might be a supper, or dinner, or whatever you like to call your evening meal. But what the Corinthians are doing isn’t the Lord’s Supper. We will get into why in a few minutes, but notice that Paul is either the one who coined the phrase “Lord’s Supper” or he is borrowing it from some other source without giving appropriate credit. And this is why we sometimes call it the Lord’s Supper today.

That was an easy one, but what’s with the name “Eucharist?” This word comes from the Greek eucharista, which simply means “thanksgiving.” Nowhere in the Bible is the Lord’s Supper called the Eucharist, but there are plenty of times when the word eucharista is used to describe the Lord’s Supper. In our scripture for this morning we find this in verses 23b-24, “The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’”

The word translated as “thanks” is a form of eucharista. You may also notice that in the middle of eucharista is the Greek word “charis,” which is the word we translate as grace. When you give thanks, you are showing appreciation for grace, for a gift from God. And this is why we sometimes call a prayer a mealtime “Saying grace.” The first known written usage of the word Eucharist to describe the Lord’s Supper was in the late 1st century document known as the Didache, so like the phrase Lord’s Supper, this one goes way back.

Now what about Communion? Where do we get this name from? In the chapter just before our scripture for this morning, we find this: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16)

This one can throw us a bit. The word that is translated as thanksgiving here is eulogia, which means words of praise, and it is the word we get eulogy—like at a funeral—from. The word I want to look at is the one that is translated as “participation” in the NIV. That word has the base “koinonia,” which means community. Communion is the act of sharing something, thoughts, feelings, or possessions. Communion and community are different forms of the same word and same concept. When we participate in Communion, we are a community founded in the blood and body of Christ.

There are several other names given to this practice as well, but out of these three big ones, which is right? Should we call it the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, or Communion? I think all are appropriate! Call it what you want, just don’t call me late for supper…the Lord’s Supper, that is.

Where we often run into disagreements is when we ask questions about how to observe Communion and what this event means. This is important stuff, and you are very welcome to disagree with me here. But trust that I’ve come to my opinion on the matter through study, prayer, and personal experiences, and I’ll trust you have as well.

There are obviously a lot of difference in how we observe the Lord’s Supper. How often? Who’s invited? What do we serve? How do we do it? All of these things are debatable, and though I have my own opinions, I’m very flexible on some of these concerns.

How often? It used to be that Mennonite churches held Communion services once a year. Today it is more common that we do it quarterly. Some want to see it done more, others less. There is always the argument that if we do it too much, it will lose meaning, that we are just going through the motions. Others see Communion as the highlight of the service and something that we should do more. I personally think that the sermon is the highlight, but that’s just me J. The Bible never says how often to observe Communion, just that we are to observe Communion.

Who is invited? Some churches practice what is called “Close Communion,” which means that only members of the church can participate. It is “close” because the community is to be close. Sometimes this is called “Closed Communion” by people who don’t practice Close Communion. Closed Communion has more of a negative connotation to it.

I grew up in a church that practiced Close Communion. The service was held once each year at a special worship gathering. I never joined that church, so I never even saw a Communion service until I was in my early 20’s.

Some churches make an announcement that all baptized believers are welcome to participate. I usually invite those who consider themselves to be followers of Jesus to the table. In my mind, this is a part of the self-examination process, which we will address shortly. We are never told to examine one another!  Then there are always questions about whether a visitor can take communion. This is awkward, I know. I’ve been on both sides of the Communion table! So I always try to be clear: Christians are welcome.

What do we serve? I usually go with an artisanal bread because it looks nice on the table and grape juice. Some people demand that the bread be unleavened bread, bread made without yeast, because that’s what Jesus would have used. I find it odd that those people also don’t find it necessary to use real fermented wine. And if you need to be as accurate as possible to the original, Jesus probably used a common cup and passed it around for everyone to have a sip. There are also stories of churches serving Pepsi and potato chips for Communion because that would be a modern equivalent to what Jesus served.

I personally think that Jesus is mostly interested in the fact that we do observe Communion, and less interest in what we serve. My concern is that we try to be aware of the needs of the congregation. If there are people who are opposed to using real wine, or if there are people who are recovering alcoholics, use grape juice. If there are gluten-intolerant people in your church, serve gluten-free bread.

And how do we do it? Do we share a common cup, passing the chalice around to the entire group? That’s a good way to spread germs, which I’m told is actually less of an issue if you use real wine because the alcohol kills bacteria. Some people like the little cups and a personal wafer. I usually serve Communion by allowing you to tear off a piece of bread and dunk in in the cup, a method that is called “intinction.”

I personally would chose against the common cup, even if it is the most accurate. The little cups are convenient, unless you are the one trying to fill and then clean each little cup. And how many should you prepare? I use intinction because it is the easiest to prepare and clean up.

Finally, what does Communion mean? Like everything else in this sermon series, Communion is symbolic, but symbolic of what? I tend to take the “more the merrier” approach, so I have a list of about 5-6 things that Communion means, and you could probably convince me to add a few more as well.

Communion is an act of remembrance. In our passage for today, Jesus repeats a certain line after each element of Communion is introduced: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus was about to give up his life on the cross, which would understandably change the way that he would relate to his disciples in the future. So he gave them a ritual to repeat. Every time you eat this bread and drink from this cup, do this in remembrance of me. Remember my teachings, remember my sacrifice, remember my promises for the future.

If you recall, the first Sunday of this series we talked about Passover and we specifically looked at the Pesach Seder. The Seder is a meal that the Israelites were to eat every year as a reminder of how God brought them out of slavery in Egypt. This is the meal that Jesus and his disciples were celebrating in the Upper Room the night he was to be betrayed. Jesus takes this meal of remembrance and tags onto it a new meaning. Yes, eat the lamb and the bitter herbs in remembrance of the Passover. But do this in remembrance of me, your Passover lamb. Much as the Israelites were saved by the blood of a lamb, the Church is saved by the blood of the Lamb.

This is also an act of proclamation. Paul writes in verse 26, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” I’m not sure to whom you are proclaiming the Lord’s death, but at the very least we are proclaiming it to one another. Every time we participate in Communion, we retell the story, and we reenact the story. “On the night when Christ was to be betrayed and handed over to the authorities…” It is an act for us to remember the death of Jesus.

And in some ways Communion is a way to proclaim the Lord’s death to people outside the church. In the early years of Christianity, the Christians were accused of being cannibals because they talked about eating the body and drinking the blood of their leader. Bunch of weirdos! If that doesn’t scare people away, it would surely make a great conversation starter.

I think that this is a good critique of Close Communion done in a members’ only meeting. As I said, I didn’t even see a Communion service growing up, so how was I to even know that I should be asking questions? Communion is an act of proclamation.

The Lord’s Supper is a time for Fellowship and Unity. If we look at today’s passage, the entire pericope is set up as a critique of how the church is breaking into groups based on social status when they observe the Lord’s Supper. The rich eat first, and they eat the most. Sometimes those who are poor go home hungry while the rich get their fill. This is what prompts Paul to say in verse 20, “So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat.”

Call it what you want, but that ain’t the Lord’s Supper. When there is disunity, it isn’t the Lord’s Supper. When one group is elevated above another, that isn’t the Lord’s Supper. That isn’t a healthy fellowship, that isn’t full communion, there is not unity, and it isn’t the Lord’s Supper.

We’ve talked about this being a time of Thanksgiving, so let’s move on to Expectation. And let’s look again at verse 26, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

I think we can interpret this as saying that we are to observe Communion, and not just do it once. Do it again, and do it again. Keep doing it until, well, until Jesus comes back. We don’t serve Communion one Sunday and say, “Well, that’s good. We’ve done our job.” It isn’t like baptism, where we baptize believers one time and call that good. We keep serving Communion, and we will keep serving Communion until we can’t serve Communion any longer.

And finally, Communion is a time of self-examination. Verses 28-29 say, “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.”

Examine yourself. You check yourself for ticks after camping in the woods. You check yourself for spots after bathing in the sun for a lifetime. In the words of the great lyrical poet, Ice Cube, “You better check yourself before you wreck yourself.”

Paul seems to be building upon Jesus’s teaching from Matthew 5, where Jesus says that if you are making a sacrifice and remember there that a brother or sister has something against you, first go and be reconciled. Paul says to both discern yourself, but also discern the body, that is, the church.

I mentioned several weeks ago that years ago when the bishop would come to your church to serve Communion, it was common to meet the night before and the bishop would ask each individual, “Are you at peace with God and your fellow man?”

Self-examination isn’t just asking if you and God are cool. This is about the entire community of believers. Are you living as Christ would have you live among one another?

I heard a former megachurch pastor talk about what he would do if he were to start a church again, and without hesitation, he said that he would focus on the Eucharist. But to him, this wasn’t just about tearing off a bit of bread and dipping it in a bit of juice. The Eucharist is about community. So he said that before they break the bread and pass the cup, he would ask, Okay, has everyone paid their rent this month? Does anyone have any outstanding medical bills that need paid?

            The point isn’t that you don’t get to take Communion if you haven’t paid your bills this month. The point is that none of us get to take Communion if someone in our community has bills that they cannot pay.

My friends, I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface. We haven’t spoken about what to do with the extra bread and juice after it has been blessed. We haven’t talked about transubstantiation, whether the bread and juice really become the body and blood of Christ!  Perhaps the mystery of Communion will have to remain…at least for another week.

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Remembering Our Baptism

Romans 6:1-10

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

On July 19, 2003—fourteen years ago this past summer—Sonya and I stood before God, our family, and friends, and declared our love for one another. We promised to love, honor, and obey…wait, not that last one, one another for as long as we both shall live. We then signed a piece of paper and sent it to the county courthouse, who in exchange sent us another piece of paper. The transaction was indeed beautiful.

But let me ask you this, do you think that Sonya and I loved one another more on July 18th or 20th? I’m going to guess that it really didn’t change that much. We didn’t get married and file the paperwork so that we could or would love one another. No, we did those things because we love one another. The paperwork made it legal, and the marriage ceremony wasn’t even necessary. We could have gone to the courthouse and just filed the necessary paperwork. So why go through the effort of putting on a wedding? Why search for the right dress, the right cake, the right photographer, and the right church if none of it is really necessary?

A wedding ceremony is about making a public declaration of our love for all to hear. Having our friends and family there and having a religious ceremony is our way of saying that we are glad that you are a part of our life, and we recognize that we will need you and we will need the grace of God to make this thing work.

And of course we got together for a party with lots of food and cake. It was a time to celebrate, after all!

I think of baptism in much the same way. In a few hours we will be dunking five candidates into the chilly waters of Todd Lake. I don’t think that the baptism candidates are going to love Jesus more after the act simply because they were baptized, and I sure wouldn’t want to say that they weren’t going to heaven before the baptism. But baptism is like a wedding, a marriage to our Lord and his church. And in our baptism we are making a public statement that we plan to love, honor, and yes, obey God for as long as we both shall live…and then some!

Today we will be continuing our sermon series on Rituals, Rites, and Holy Days by looking at the ritual of baptism. This series will hopefully cause us to slow down and ask why we do the things that we do and celebrate the things that we celebrate, because we really shouldn’t just be going through the motions here. We tend to hold baptism services every other year or so around here, which means it isn’t the most commonly practiced ritual in our church, but it is a ritual nonetheless. So why do we dunk people in lakes every so often?

As I alluded in my opening, I think of baptism as a symbol or a sign. It is a symbol to everyone else that you have made a commitment to follow Jesus and to participate in the life of the church. But not everyone would agree with me. For instance, if baptism is a symbol that you have decided to follow Jesus, then an infant can’t make that decision. So we can see that the stage of life when a church practices baptism says something about what they believe baptism means. For instance, the United Methodist say “baptism, as a means of grace, signifies God’s initiative in the process of salvation.” In Methodism, the decision to baptize a child is a way of inviting God to work in the life of the child. It is a blessing, and a symbol of the parents’ decision, not the child’s. It is a way of claiming this child, marking it for Christ. There’s beauty in that, and even though I see baptism differently, I still recognize the value in that ceremony.

Now the Catholic Church sees baptism differently from even other churches that practice infant baptism. Catholics also see baptism as a way to enter membership in the church, but would also state that baptism is necessary to remove the blemish of original sin from an infant. From the very helpful website Catholicism for Dummies, “To the Catholic Church, original sin isn’t a personal sin of the unborn, but a sin transmitted from generation to generation by birth. All men and women are born with original sin, and only Baptism can wash it away. Baptism can be regarded as a vaccine against sin.”

Original Sin is the concept that Adam’s sin is hereditary and has been passed down from one generation to the next for all of human existence.

This is why when a Catholic family has a baby and the child is not going to live, there is often a rush to have it baptized. The Catholic Church does not have an official policy on what happens when an unborn baby dies, but they want to be safe and wash away that original sin.

Is baptism a symbol of a personal decision to follow Jesus? Is it a way to claim a child for God? Or is it the necessary method of removing the stain of Original Sin and other sin? My point isn’t to argue for the public symbol interpretation, though that is what I believe in, but to point out that what we believe happens at baptism is the main driving force in when a church practices baptism.

What I want to affirm about churches that participate in infant baptism is the practice of confirmation. See, I don’t believe that water saves people. That’s Jesus’s job. But confirmation in these traditions is a chance for the young man or woman to stand up and make a public profession of their faith. In churches that practice infant baptism, confirmation is the symbol to the watching world that a person has decided to follow Jesus. And as Paul reminds us in Romans 10:9, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Since we in the Mennonite Church tend to see baptism as a symbol, we really don’t get too hung up on how baptism is performed. We tend to emphasize three different methods of baptism: sprinkling, pouring, and immersion. The first two can be done anywhere with very little as far as special equipment. Sprinkling is just taking a little water and spritzing the baptismal candidate. Pouring takes a little more water, usually a few teaspoons full. We often have someone pour water into another person’s hands and they wash it over the head of the person receiving baptism. You can do this anywhere, anytime. As long as you have a little water, you can have a baptism.

Immersion is a little more complicated, because you need enough water to cover the person’s entire body.

I’ve seen some interesting baptisteries in my day. Old bathtubs, livestock watering troughs, and large, walk-in tubs can be used inside churches. Often we see immersion done outdoors in swimming pools, rivers, lakes, and at the beach.

Since everything is symbolic, it shouldn’t surprise you that these different methods can each symbolize a different aspect of the faith. Sprinkling is a reminder of the Jewish sacrificial system where the blood of an animal was sprinkled on the altar. Leviticus 7:2 says, “at the spot where the burnt offering is slaughtered, they shall slaughter the guilt offering, and its blood shall be dashed against all sides of the altar.” The New Testament authors picked up on this idea and attributed it to Jesus. Hebrews 10:22 says, “let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.”

The act of pouring draws us back to the anointing of priests and leaders in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, God poured out his Spirit on the church (Acts 2). (See Michele Hershberger’s God’s Story, Our Story).

But since we are going to be immersing our baptismal candidates today, I want to spend the most time on this practice, its origins and meaning.

The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 6:3-4, “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

Paul connects baptism to the death and resurrection of Jesus. When we immerse people in baptismal waters, they are experiencing a death, a death to the ways of this world. Our old selves were crucified with Christ and our new selves emerge out of that water. We are, if you will, born again.

And as you might imagine, there is debate about just how this should be done, because we Christians need to debate everything. Many denominations baptize by immersion by dunking a person backwards, just like you are laying a body in a grave. Then you bring them up, sitting them up as you might imagine the resurrected Jesus rising on that first Easter Sunday. But our friends in the Church of the Brethren dunk the candidates forward three times. Three times makes sense, once in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Some denominations dunk three times backwards.

So why do our brethren from the Brethren Church dunk forward? I had to do some digging to understand this, or at least to find a convincing explanation. The Brethren baptize forward because this imitates the way Jesus died on the cross. When Jesus breathed his last he would have fallen forward. Granted, he still would have risen forward, so maybe they should dunk people forward, turn them over in the water, and then raise them out of the water face first???

I have much love for the Brethren and they see this as a symbol, so they aren’t going to deny a person membership if they are baptized backwards.

When I immerse someone, I choose to baptize them backwards one time as I repeat the phrase, “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…” Jesus commands this Trinitarian liturgy in the Great Commission of Matthew 28. I only do it once as I repeat the three names of God because God is three in one. And I do it backwards because it is just easier (and I like to get water up people’s noses).

One thing that hope to do as we explore the Rites, Rituals, and Holy Days of the Church is to get back to the origins of these practices. Nothing could be more “New Testament” than baptism. Some have even gone so far as to say that baptism is to the Church what circumcision is to Judaism. The first time we read about baptism in the Bible is when Jesus’s cousin, John, is baptizing people. Let’s jump around a bit in Matthew chapter 3, “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (v.1-2). “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (5-6).

So John, a man who dresses in camel hair and eats large insects, comes on the scene, inviting people to be baptized, and they just did it. They came from Jerusalem and all Judea to do this thing that nobody had done before. I imagine it working out like this:

“Hey Bill. Wanna go with me to the river and have a baptism today?”

“Sure, Bob. But what’s a baptism?”

“I don’t know, but I think it’s like a cannoli. I hear it’s wild.”

No, people didn’t come from miles away for something that they were totally unfamiliar with. Without doubt, John’s baptism is slightly different than the Hebrew practice, but not altogether different. John seems to reappropriate a traditional Hebrew practice, giving it a slightly different meaning and purpose.

Remember that the Law, the Torah, was filled with commands and protocols for ceremonial washing. There are two main types of ceremonial washings in the Hebrew Bible: a hand washing, which was done with a simple cup, and a full immersion in a bath called a mikveh.

Some of the situations that require hand washing we might say is just practicing good hygiene. After going to the bathroom, before eating, or after touching something that is unclean, an Orthodox Jew is to wash their hands or else they are considered ceremonially unclean. Remember that Jesus’s disciples were criticized for not washing their hands before they ate. A priest is also required to wash their hands before reciting certain prayers in the Jewish synagogues. This is symbolic, a way of cleansing and purifying one’s self before a religious act.

Other acts require a full-body immersion in the mikveh. Mikveh is a Hebrew word that refers to any gathering of water, and usually a Hebrew mikveh is filled with “living water,” which is to say that it must be filled by a spring or a river. After menstruation women are required to be fully immersed in the mikveh, as are both men and women after they have certain relations. If you touch a dead body, you must wash in the mikveh before you are considered clean. And it isn’t just people who are considered unclean. The Torah is also very specific about clean and unclean food; we call these kosher and non-kosher. Kosher simply means “fit” or “appropriate.” Modern Jews are required to wash new cooking utensils, pots, and pans, in a mikveh before using them in their kosher kitchens.

While handwashing is generally appropriate for most acts in the Jewish Temple and Synagogues, on high holy days, like Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the priests were required to immerse themselves in a mikveh (Lev. 16). This isn’t because they are dirty, or even ceremonially unclean, but because they are unholy. This washing is symbolic of grace and forgiveness, it is a purification ritual before entering into God’s presence.

There is one additional practice requiring full immersion that came into the Jewish tradition before Jesus’s time that I want to address. When a Gentile wished to convert to Judaism they were required to participate in a full-body wash in a mikveh, in a naturally-occurring gathering of water. You won’t find this in the Old Testament, but it is in the Talmud, which is a collection of teachings from Rabbis, kind of like a commentary. The Talmud tells us, “When a gentile is willing to enter the covenant…He must be circumcised and be baptized and bring a sacrifice…The gentile that is made a proselyte and the slave that is made free, behold he is like a child new born.”

The Talmud actually bases this practice on God’s commandment for the Hebrew people to wash their selves before they received the Torah in the wilderness after leaving Egypt.

So it doesn’t take much of a jump to come to the conclusion that John took this practice of ritual washing of all converts in the mikveh and repurposed it as a way for people to mark their entrance into the kingdom of God.

As we close this morning, I just want us to stop and think again about our own baptisms. And if you haven’t been baptized before and you want to be, I know a guy who does that sort of thingJ. This ritual is repeated often in the church, and I think it gives us a chance to reflect on our own baptismal vows and what it means to be baptized.

Every year, on July 19, Sonya and I take time to reflect and remember the vows we made to one another. I encourage you to take time to reflect and remember the vows we have made to God and his church in our baptism.

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Remembering the Passover

Exodus 12:1-17

1The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, 2 “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. 3 Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. 4 If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. 5 The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. 6 Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. 7 Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. 8 That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. 9 Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs. 10 Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. 11 This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover.

12 “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. 13 The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.

14 “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance. 15 For seven days you are to eat bread made without yeast. On the first day remove the yeast from your houses, for whoever eats anything with yeast in it from the first day through the seventh must be cut off from Israel. 16 On the first day hold a sacred assembly, and another one on the seventh day. Do no work at all on these days, except to prepare food for everyone to eat; that is all you may do.

17 “Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt. Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for the generations to come.

Last Monday many of us enjoyed a three-day weekend as we celebrated Labor Day. I’ve always thought that it was a little awkward that we celebrate the Labor Day holiday…by taking an extra day off. I’d think that we would labor on Labor Day, but that’s just me.

I’m still not entirely sure what the purpose of Labor Day is, even after doing my “extensive” research on Wikipedia. It would seem that Labor Day is a celebration of various Labor laws that prescribe what is a work day and a livable wage, perhaps stemming from the abuses witnessed in any number of factories around the world. Others claim that Labor Day is a day to celebrate that we have jobs and decent incomes that allow us to enjoy a little time off every now and then.

I can’t say for sure, but what I can say is that I found some really good deals on meat at the local grocery store the day after Labor Day.

Holidays are great, but it seems like we often forget the reason for these celebrations. Just check out your calendar and see if you can remember what all of those holidays are meant to celebrate. And some holidays have been revised and given alternative meanings. Today Halloween is seen as a day to dress up and beg for candy, where it had been a night of preparation for All Saints’ Day.

So this got me thinking that maybe it would be fun to do a sermon series on the rituals and holy days of the church. No, I’m not going to designate a Sunday to explaining to you what Christmas and Easter are about, but I do want to look at some of the practices that are so familiar that we often don’t question them, and some that we really don’t celebrate any more. For instance, today we will be looking at the Passover celebration. Next week, on Baptism Sunday, we will take time to talk about the ritual of foot washing. No, we will talk about baptism! And we will keep going with this series until I run out of material or until we get tired of it all.

Now before we look at today’s ritual of remembrance, I want to give you a special challenge. I want you to remember what we talk about today because it is going to come back up in two weeks when we talk about communion. There is a strong connection between the Passover celebration and the ritual that Jesus instituted at the Last Supper. And as you will see, there is a lot of foreshadowing of what is to come in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to be found in the Passover event and celebration.

Let’s start with some background information. The book of Exodus tells the story of how the enslaved Israelites were able to escape captivity in Egypt. The Israelites had moved to the fertile land along the Nile when Joseph (of coat of many colors fame) was an advisor to the king or Pharaoh. The years went by, the Israelites grew in number and strength, and a king comes to power who did not know all that Joseph had done for the Egyptian people. So the Israelites were enslaved and put to work, building things like pyramids and sphinxes or something like that.

Then along comes a man named Moses. Moses was an Israelite, but he was raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. So he really had one foot in each world, Egyptian and Israelite, which I’m sure gave him insight to both communities. God chose Moses, and his brother Aaron, to deliver a message to Pharaoh: “Let me people go.”

Of course, Pharaoh wasn’t interested in sending away his free labor, so he said no. This sets off a series of events that are meant to show the power that the God of Israel has over any false god of Egypt. We call these events “The Plagues.” This includes things like frogs, boils, and locusts. In all there were ten plagues, which culminated in the death of the firstborn child in every Egyptian home, but not in the homes of the Israelites.

Before we go further I want to address something for which I really don’t have a good answer. I have answers, but not good answers. The two verses that precede our text for this morning, Exodus 11:9-10, tell us of Moses coming to Pharaoh and demanding that the Israelites be released. “The Lord had said to Moses, ‘Pharaoh will refuse to listen to you—so that my wonders may be multiplied in Egypt.’ Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh, but the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go out of his country.”

Not only does God seem to kill innocent children to make Pharaoh release the Israelites, he seems to make Pharaoh more obstinate so that Pharaoh won’t release the Israelites. We are told nine times that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

As I said, there are a number of responses to this, but they aren’t really satisfying to me. One, people question the translation and what it means that God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Some say that the word is better translated as “strengthened,” and that God strengthened Pharaoh’s heart to do what he was already planning to do. Others have noted chapter 12, verse 23b says that God is not the one who does the killing. “[God] will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.”

Some have said that there is some other spiritual force at play here that is bent on killing and destroying. What keeps that destroyer from killing is God’s protection. So at the Passover, God simply removed his protective hand and allowed the destroyer to do what the destroyer does.

That logic may help some, but if I could stop someone from hurting someone else, I would. If someone is impaired and should not be driving, I’m going to take their keys because they might hurt their self, and they might hurt innocent people.

So all of this is to say that I don’t know. But what I do know is that God shows grace and favor to the Israelites, and often showing grace to one group or one person means others don’t receive grace.

Before many sporting events, both teams can be seen praying in the locker room. If God does grace one team with a win (and I’m not saying that God is in that business), it necessarily means the other team loses. If you pray to get a competitive job and you get that job, that means someone else doesn’t get that job. Sometimes showing grace to one group means that the other group doesn’t get the grace. Sometimes they receive judgement.

So let’s look at what the Israelites are celebrating when they celebrate the Passover. And how they are to celebrate every year from here out.

Verse 2 says, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.” Obviously this is going to be a big deal; they are resetting their calendar around the Passover! Each family is to get either a lamb or a goat. And there is something beautiful here that we can easily miss if we go too quickly. What is the smaller family to do if they aren’t able to eat an entire lamb in one evening? They are to share it. There is a communal aspect to this celebration, sharing with your neighbors.

Notice that the work is a shared experience too. In verse six it says, “all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight.” So they are all to go to a bad vampire movie and then kill their lamb. No, when the sun goes down, they begin the process. They are to take the blood of the lamb and paint it on the lintel and door posts of their homes as a sign for God and the destroyer to pass over that house, which is where the name “Passover” comes from. And just a little teaser for our sermon in two weeks, you might say that the blood of the lamb was what saved the Israelite children.

Let’s go to verse 8, “That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast.”

Everything is symbolic, though the symbolism isn’t always explained. Thankfully we have a couple thousand years of history to explain some of these things. Why must the meat be roasted and not boiled? Boiling takes a long time, especially over an open fire. And really, who has a pot big enough to fit an entire lamb in. Roasting is quicker. And if you go on, you will see that they were to eat all of the lamb that night and not save any for the morning. This is about hurrying. You don’t have time to boil that meat, and you won’t have time to grab a snack in the morning. Some have also argued that roasting over a fire is a purifying event, like the refiner’s fire of Malachi 3:2. I get that, but boiling something in water does a pretty good job of sterilizing it as well.

So what else is on the menu? Bitter herbs. I have an uncle named Herb, when he loses a card game he can get a bit bitter. No, bitter herbs, not bitter Herbs. I often hear about endives or horseradish being served at the Passover meal. The bitter herbs are often given two meanings or purposes: eating them is an act of self-denial, much like Christians give up something for Lent. More often I hear that the bitter herbs are a reminder of the bitterness of slavery in Egypt.

Finally, the Israelites were instructed to eat bread made without yeast, or unleavened bread. As we know, yeast takes a while to spread and grow. So when you put yeast in dough, it needs to rise. So one explanation of the unleavened bread was that this was again about hurrying, and this is affirmed in Deuteronomy 16:3, where the instructions for observing the Passover are restated. But here unleavened bread is also called “bread of affliction.” Was this the bread they were given when they were punished in Egypt? As one Jewish scholar said, this was their slave bread.

But yeast can also be a contaminate. I got a gallon of freshly-squeezed apple cider a few weeks ago and we didn’t drink it fast enough. The wild yeast in our environment contaminates sugary drinks like cider and ferment it.

If we jump to Exodus 12:15, we find that the Israelites were instructed to remove all yeast from their homes when they celebrated Passover, and were to keep it out of their homes for a week. This is more than just a symbol of being in a hurry. It is a symbol of contamination. The Israelites were often worried about purification rituals like washing their hands and changing their clothes.

It is true that in the New Testament, the Kingdom of God is compared to yeast. So is yeast good or is it bad? I think it is like a plant. If you find corn growing in your cornfield, that is good. If you get corn growing in your soybeans, that’s called a weed.

Let’s look at verse 11 to find a few more acts of symbolism: “This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover.”

Some versions translate “cloak tucked into your belt” as “loins girded.” This is a way of turning the traditional robe that was worn by both men and women into something resembling pants. You can run faster in pants.

Keep your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. When the time comes, you need to be ready to move.

Every act, every item, is meant to be a reminder of what God has done for the Israelites at the Passover. Every year, they are to repeat these actions to remember.

So how do Jewish people today observe and remember the Passover? They celebrate what is called the Pesach (Passover) Seder. On the 15th day of the first month on the Jewish calendar, the people gather together at sunset to celebrate the Seder. While the festival of Passover runs for seven days, which means no yeast in your home for an entire week, the Seder meal is generally only celebrated on the first night (and the second night for those outside of Israel). Throughout the evening the people will sing, read scriptures, participate in ceremonial washings, and of course, eat. There is the unleavened bread, the bitter herbs, the lamb, and several other symbolic foods. According to, “Each item has its place in a 15-step choreographed combination of tastes, sounds, sensations and smells that have been with the Jewish people for millennia.”

Throughout the service, the children are encouraged to ask questions, like Why do we dip the food? Why do we eat the bitter herbs? This is addressed in Exodus 12:26-27a, “And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’”

The practice of asking questions serves two purposes, and this, I believe, will apply to all of the rituals that we will address during this sermon series: it provides a good teaching opportunity to pass on the faith and tradition to the next generation, and it helps to remind the older generation what and who has brought them to this point.

The Passover Seder has been growing in popularity among Christians over the last few years as there has been a renewed interest in understanding Christianity’s Jewish roots. Recall that in Luke 22:15 Jesus says, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” That meal was the Passover Seder, and it was there that Jesus altered the practice, giving us the Lord’s Supper. As the disciples gathered to remember the Passover, Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

More and more Christians are offering a Passover Seder on Maundy Thursday and ending with Communion. Perhaps we should, too, as we join with the faith communities gathered around the world. (Christians holding Passover Seder’s is not without controversy. See

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For Shame!

Isaiah 53 New International Version (NIV)

I was recently talking with my friend, Ben, whose daughter and son-in-law are working as long-term missionaries in Uganda. His daughter works as a dietician and her job involves educating the indigenous people about proper nutrition and basic healthcare and her husband manages the mission compound. They both lead small groups that focus on holistic ministry, caring for the minds, bodies, and souls of the people in their community. It sounds like a great mission to me.

One thing that Ben told me about this mission is that his daughter and son-in-law have had to rethink how they present the gospel because of their cultural context. This is nothing new, as every missionary needs to adapt how they present the message based on the life, experiences, and needs of the people. One of the challenges that Ben sees in this community in Uganda is that they are a shame-based culture, where we in North America are used to a guilt-based culture. In Uganda, and other shame-based cultures, shame is one of the primary motivators for maintaining ethical behavior. If you mess up, you bring shame on yourself and on your family. There are expectation, including your own self-expectations, in a shame-based culture and when you do not meet those expectations, you experience disgrace, disapproval, and exclusion. When you are shamed, there is a devaluation of your worth and your self-esteem. In a guilt-based community, there are legal and/or codified expectations. There might be laws enacted by the governing authorities, or “laws” put in place by churches or even social expectations. In a guilt-based society, failure to adhere to the laws or expectations result in punishment. And it is the fear of punishment that is used to control behavior.

Think how this affects the presentation of the gospel. In a guilt-based culture, we often present the gospel by saying that there are moral expectations of us, moral laws that God has put in place. When we break these laws, we deserve punishment. Thankfully we have grace through Jesus. So for Ben’s family serving in Uganda, the question was how to present the good news in a world that sees the negative results of moral failures differently than we do.

In this conversation with Ben I had two realizations: 1. I’ve read a really good book that talks about exactly this issue. It’s called Recovering the Scandal of the Cross by Joel Green and Mark Baker, and I’ll be drawing from that book quite a bit. The second thing that I realized, and this is just my opinion based on my own observations, I believe that we in North America are becoming more of a shame-based culture. Especially in the last 10 years with the meteoric rise of social media, we seem to be moving more toward shame as a tool to control other people’s behaviors and other people’s feeling of value and worth. Allow me to give an example.

One of the reasons that I was drawn to the subject of shame today comes from recent events in our country. As I’m sure you are aware, the people on the Gulf Coast of Texas have experienced record levels of rainfall over the last week, which has led to flooding and the displacement of many people. Surely you have seen the images of people on the rooves of their houses and the heart-breaking pictures of nursing home residents sitting in wheelchairs, up to their waists in floodwaters within their nursing facilities.

Thankfully, in times like this, people come together and help other people. I’ve seen pictures of men and women in private fishing boats going from house to house, rescuing people and pets. I’ve heard stories of restaurants offering free food to first responders and victims of the hurricane. And time and time again we see large facilities, like convention centers, transformed into temporary shelters. Facilities that aren’t meant to house people are being used to house people.

But one church in the Houston area received a lot of attention because they weren’t opening their doors for their displaced neighbors. This is one of the largest churches in the United States, meeting in an old sporting arena with a capacity of 17,000. I’m not going to name the church or the pastor for reasons that you will soon understand (but I’m sure you can Google it and find out).

The pastor of this church was highly criticized for not providing a temporary shelter. Stories and memes were shared online, questioning his commitment to Christ and his theology. How can you call yourself a Christian and not open your doors to your now-homeless neighbors?

Of course the church responded: their flood gates were about to be breeched. They didn’t have showers or adequate kitchen facilities. There was a larger temporary shelter just down the road. And they hadn’t been asked to house people.

Finally, this church did open their doors on Tuesday and invited workers and victims to come in. And I read online that some were celebrating the fact, and this is a direct quote, that they were able to “shame [the pastor] into helping the homeless.”

I’ll just be honest, this didn’t sit well with me, and I feel a little bit torn over this. On one hand, the church did finally open their doors and invite workers and victims inside where it was safe and dry. On the other hand, is shaming really the best way to do it? Public ridicule led to public outcry. Public outcry led to mass public shaming. And mass public shaming led to a change in behavior.

I can’t 100% endorse this approach, but it was effective and people were cared for.

But I go back to one of the original excuses that the pastor had offered when he first started receiving criticism for not turning his church into temporary housing. He said nobody had asked him to. Perhaps nobody should have to ask him to since, you know, Jesus made it pretty clear that we should be caring for those in need around us. But what if rather than publicly shaming the pastor he had been privately asked? And if he still didn’t respond, maybe two or three witnesses could go to ask him again. And if he still didn’t respond, maybe then the whole church could ask.

I don’t think that shame is a good tool for the church to use to make people do what we want them to do. We all know what it feels like to be shamed, to feel devalued and like less of a person. In fact, I think we are to be in the opposite business. Un-shaming!

You see, there is good news! As Baker and Green note in their book, Jesus takes away our shame. And if we are indeed moving more toward a shame-based society, I think it would be wise to learn how to frame Christianity as a response to shame. Furthermore, as Baker and Green point out, the community we often see depicted in the Bible was shame-based, so to present the message of Christianity as a response to shame might be more biblical and even more accurate. Let’s see why.

Our text for this morning contains one the four passages in the book of Isaiah that we commonly refer to as the Suffering Servant passages. Isaiah 42, 49, 50, and today’s passage—which actually begins in chapter 52—all speak of the servant of the Lord. The servant of the Lord is said to do justice, he is a light to the gentiles, he is physically beaten, and he bears the iniquities of others.

It should not surprise us that Christians have for centuries believed that the Suffering Servant was a prophetic image of the Messiah. Matthew’s Gospel even quotes from the Suffering Servant passages, noting that Jesus fulfills these passages. Furthermore, it should not surprise you that Jewish people do not see this as a reference to Jesus. The traditional interpretation in the Hebrew tradition is that this is a reference to the entire people group known as Israel. Recall that Isaiah was written during and just after the Babylonian Exile. Recall the words made famous by Handel’s Messiah, found in Isaiah 40:1-2, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

Who is right? If I had the definitive answer to that, I’d be a rich man. But I’m not sure that it can’t be both. Did Israel suffer, were they physically tormented, and in their pain did they not bear one another’s iniquities? Sure they did. And didn’t Jesus do the same thing? Yep.

Regardless, I see this as pointing toward Jesus.

These Servant Songs depict the Servant of the Lord experiencing pain and suffering, and often we are told that it is for other people. And this pain and suffering was too much to bear, as it cost him his life. Look at verse 9, “He was assigned a grave with the wicked… though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.”

To be buried among the wicked would have been an insult. It would have been shameful, especially for someone who had done no violence and did not have any deceit in his mouth. In this scenario, the Suffering Servant can identify with the shame of the people. He gets it, he understands it, he has been there. And look what God does in verse 12, “Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

The one who was shamed has been exalted.

Whether this is Jesus or Israel, I can’t say. What I can say is that Jesus does the same thing. Let’s just look at Jesus’s life a bit and see how he was able to identify with the shamed people of his day.

The Suffering Servant was buried among the wrong people, but Jesus lived among the wrong people. He ate with the wrong people, the shamed people. When we think about the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and lepers, we need to remember that these people served as the typical example of the social outcast.

But Jesus goes even further. Not only is he willing to participate in our shame, he helped explain to us that this is the way that God is.

Perhaps no parable has been preached on more than the Prodigal Son. We know the story, so I’ll go through it quickly. A father has two sons, and the younger one demands his share of his inheritance before his father has passed away. That is a shameful thing, as the son is saying that he values money, possessions, and experiences more than he values his own relationship with his father. The younger son squanders this money on ethically questionable things and finds himself feeding pigs, an unclean animal by Jewish standards.

But how does the father respond when he sees his son returning home? He girds his loins, lifting up his robe, running through the hills until he can embrace his son. Mature men don’t run. Grown men don’t take well to being disrespected. But this man took on some of the shame from the younger son. And though the identities of the sons in this parable are sometimes debated, I’ve never heard anyone associate the father with anyone other than, well, the Father!

And we must not forget that at the crucifixion, the son of God, God in the flesh, was beaten publically, stripped naked, and put on display for all to see. The cross is the ultimate form of shame, so much so that it was illegal to crucify the average Roman citizen. This was a form of punishment reserved for foreigners, slaves, and insurrectionists. We often see pictures of Jesus on the cross where he is covered up with a nice diaper-like undergarment. No, this was meant to be a shameful event for all to see. A public display of what happens when you cross Rome.

The shame was so much that most of his followers deserted him. He was even deserted by God.

I believe that Jesus removes our shame through two processes: he forgives our failures and participates in our shame. When Jesus tells us that we are forgiven, we have no reason to feel shame. And when Jesus participates in our shame, as he did when he ate with the shamed people of his time, he lifts us up out of shame.

Recall that shame is meant to devalue your worth and your self-esteem. It is a social punishment for your shortcomings. But the life and death of Jesus reveal to us that God’s love is for the disgraced and shamed as well.

I believe that we need to continue to dig into what it means to say that Jesus took our shame because I see more and more people being shamed these days. Open your social media account and you will find people being shamed in many different ways. People are being body shamed, publically ridiculed because they don’t physically look like someone says they should. They could be “too skinny;” they could be “too fat.” I remember the pictures from a few years ago of a person who became known as “dancing man.” He was dancing at a concert, and someone snapped a picture and put it on Instagram with the caption, “Spotted this specimen trying to dance the other week. He stopped when he saw us laughing.”

Do you remember the response from the community? A bunch of models threw him a dance party. How’s that affect someone’s self-esteem and sense of worth!?

I especially like Hebrews 12:2, “[We fix] our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Jesus scorned the shame of the cross. But I don’t know what that means. Other versions say that he despised the shame of the cross. The Greek work that the author of Hebrews uses here is kataphroneo. Kataphroneo is a compound word: kata meaning down, phroneo meaning to think. Jesus thought down the shame of the cross, or we might say that he looked down the shame of the cross. He stared it down and said, “No more.”

Jesus devalued devaluing others. And we are called to do likewise.


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First Be Reconciled

2 Corinthians 5:11-21New International Version (NIV)

11 Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. 12 We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. 13 If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

We talk about the Gospel a lot in our church. We know that the Gospel is the Good News! But go deeper, what does that mean? Usually, someone will mention grace. Someone will mention peace with God, gettin’ right with the Lord. Someone will describe breaking the chains of addiction or overcoming suffering. Someone will mention spending eternity with God in heaven.

So who is right? I think that all of those are good answers. If I opened it up to the group you would probably say some things that I hadn’t thought of. Some answers will be better than others, and some might be downright wrong. But in general, I like to think that the Gospel is bigger than we often make it out to be.

So when I define the Gospel, I like to use big, inclusive words. My response to the question, What is the Gospel? is “Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we can be reconciled to God and humanity.”

To reconcile simply means to make things right between two parties. Now this suggests that there was something wrong between two parties. How many here have ever done something that might cause a separation between you and God? I would expect that everyone here has because we are all sinners in need of grace. Now how many of you have ever done something that might cause a separation between you and another person? If you aren’t raising your hand, you must be living in some secluded tent out in the middle of nowhere all by yourself. We need to have grace for one another as well.

When I say that we can be reconciled to God and humanity through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, what I mean is that, as we know, the death and resurrection of Jesus can bring us back into a right relationship with God. But a lot of what Jesus says during his life has to do with how we can live together and be reconciled to one another. Remember that we call the entirety of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the Gospels. Not just the last few chapters of these books that deal with the resurrection. There is good news throughout, and that’s the Gospel Truth!

Let’s go way back to the book of Genesis, where we are told that God created the heavens and the earth and it was good. God created human beings and it was, not just good, but very good. Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden and had a relationship with God where they seemed to just talk to God like I’m talking to you right now. However, they chose to listen to the serpent and not to God, and in that moment they disturbed the relationship between them and God. Now they felt things like shame. They hid from God. They had broken the trust between them and God.

We jump ahead to 2 Corinthians 5, and we find this in verses 17-19: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

Let’s break that down. “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come.” That’s how the NIV translates that phrase. The NRSV says, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” The NLT says, “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person.” The KJV is my least favorite here, where Paul’s words are translated, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature.”

What Paul literally writes is “If anyone is in Christ, new creation.” You can see why there are so many different translations of this phrase: the literal translation is wooden and makes no sense. But notice that the emphasis on is new creation. Then he goes on to say “The old has gone, the new is here!” The word Paul uses that we translate as old doesn’t mean the previous model or outdate version. Uh, I have the old iPhone. It’s from 2016! The word carries the connotation of existing from the beginning. It is the original.

The phrases “new creation” and “the old/originial has passed away” should draw us back to Genesis where God created and said “it is good, very good.” Through Christ, God has reconciled us to himself and it is good again. It is therefore our job to make sure people know that it is good again. We are given us the ministry of reconciliation, the ministry of making things right again, the ministry of letting people know that it is very good.

We broke the relationship between us and God, and the Good News is that God has restored it. That is what we sometimes call the vertical dimension of reconciliation, which can be represented by a vertical line pointing up and down.

But we as Mennonites have historically understood that our role as ambassadors or messengers of reconciliation is more than just about our relationship with God. Yes it is that, but it is more.

Matthew 5:23-24 says, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

Wow, those word are powerful and they are written in red in my Bible. This reconciliation between members of the church is vital for our understanding of Christianity! Mennonites have taken this commandment so seriously that it has often been a part of our time of self-examination before taking communion. Historically, the Bishop would ask you, “Are you at peace with God and your fellow man?” If not, you need to go make things right!

One thing I want to warn us all about here is not to misinterpret what Jesus is saying as if he was saying that making thing right between two people is more important than making things right between God and us. When Jesus talks about offering our gift on the altar, in the Jewish Temple System, this would not have been an offering for atonement. The atonement offering was made once each year by the High Priest on Yom Kippur. The High Priest made that offering. What Jesus was saying referring to here was an offering of praise, incense, herbs, or the like. This was a sacrifice that a Jew would make to praise God.

So when Jesus says to leave you offering on the altar and make things right with your brother or sister, he isn’t saying that God wants us to give priority to making things right between us and others over making things right between us and God. But Jesus is saying that we are to make things right between us and others before we offer our praise to God. First go and be reconciled, then come make your offering of praise.

Hold that in the back of your mind a second and we will come right back to it. This reminds me of when Jesus is being tested by the Sadducees and Pharisees in Matthew 22, asking him, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replies in verses 37-40, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

They didn’t ask Jesus for two great commandments, they only asked for one. But Jesus simply could not separate the two. Love God, love your neighbor. Likewise, we can’t separate being reconciled from God with being reconciled to one another. This is the horizontal aspect of reconciliation. And when you combine the vertical and horizontal aspects of reconciliation, it forms a familiar shape: a cross.

We simply cannot separate love for God and love for neighbor. 1 John 4:19-21 is just another reminder of that:

We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.


I think that it is important at this stage to differentiate between forgiveness and reconciliation. To be reconciled means to make things right, and it requires that both parties admit their part in the breaking of the relationship. But sometimes reconciliation isn’t possible for various reasons. For instance, there are times when people refuse to admit that they did anything wrong or they can’t ask for forgiveness.

This week we got a box of vegetables from our friend Susan as a part of their CSA. One evening I was cutting up a pepper for a salad and I decided to take a bite out of that pepper. It was one of the hottest peppers I had ever tasted!

I’ve since forgiven SusanJ. But have we been reconciled? If I never say anything to her, she might not know of my “pain” (keeping it light here for a reason, my friends). We are reconciled in that situation. Or maybe I do say something, and she laughs rather than apologizing. She doesn’t think she did anything wrong, why should she apologize? I should learn my pepper! In such a situation, I can forgive, even if she does not admit her wrongdoing. But that’s not reconciliation. Or, as is most likely the case, when I tell her about the experience I had she might start rubbing her hands together manically, laughing like a villain in a comic book because her plan had come together perfectly. I can still forgive, but that’s not reconciliation.

In reality, I did tell Susan about the pepper, and she did apologize. I think we are cool now.

Reconciliation is always the goal. But even when reconciliation isn’t possible, we still must forgive. Don’t forget Matthew 6:14-15, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

With all of this talk about forgiveness and reconciliation, it is almost inevitable that someone will ask a very important and very serious question: What about justice? We are repeatedly told that God is a God of justice. Isaiah 61:8 begins, “For I, the Lord, love justice.” And every progressive church in the world is quick to quote Micah 6:8, “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Well what is justice? Some say it is fairness, equality, or something along those lines. Plato, in his book The Republic, says that justice is giving to each what is owed. If you mowed my yard, I owe you adequate compensation. If I stole from you, I owe a debt to you and to society.

As we consider justice, the first thing that I would like to say is that even when we have been reconciled with someone or have forgiven someone, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t other consequences for our action. I think that one of the most dangerous places the teaching on forgiveness and reconciliation has been used is in cases of domestic violence and abuse. We’ve heard the story too many times, a husband hits his wife and children in a fit of drunken rage, but then apologizes in the morning. The wife forgives him, and all is good until the next time. Forgiveness is an important part of healing, but to forgive someone doesn’t mean that you don’t take steps to keep it from happening again.

Likewise, we can forgive someone when they have hurt us or stolen from us, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a debt to society. In such a situation the court system makes the decision on what is “just.”

Before moving to Virginia, Sonya’s parents were members of a Voluntary Service (VS) Unit in Alamosa, Colorado. They weren’t your typical VS members, with grown kids and they themselves in their late 50’s while most other volunteers were in their early 20’s. One of those volunteers, Chloe, was full of life, love, and energy.

One day while out riding bicycles with another VS member, Chloe was struck by a pickup truck. The driver did not stop, but fled the scene, only to be identified later. Chloe died at the scene, just 20-years old. Her killer was 16.

If you have been around the Mennonite world for any length of time, you can probably guess how the Weaver family reacted to this event. They mourned the loss of their daughter, but they forgave the young man who had hit her and drove off. Herm Weaver, Chloe’s father, told the boy who killed his daughter at his trial, “She would wish for you a full life. She has no desire to end two lives.”

The Weavers asked the District Attorney to forgo the usual punishment as jail would not grow him as a person. Rather, Herm said to the young man, “I want you to carry on, in some small way, the work Chloe came…to do, to make it a better world.”

Ultimately, the young man was sentenced in a traditional fashion as the judge said that an example needed to be set because the young man, the boy, was involved in a hit-and-run accident that cost another person her life. We can forgive, and indeed we must, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences for our mistakes. And I would say that in this situation, there can be no justice. You can’t make that right. There was no justice, just punishment.

But Chloe’s legacy didn’t end there, in large part because the decisions of her family to forgive also had consequences. A reporter covering the trial for a local paper would write that the Weaver family showed “unusual commodities [of] love, compassion, forgiveness and hope… Their religion is not just a Sunday habit. It is as much a part of their daily lives as breathing.”

You see, we in the church don’t always measure justice the same way the world around us does in large part because justice is a rather subjective thing. Who decides the appropriate punishment for a 16-year-old found guilty of unintentional vehicular manslaughter? Who decides what is due to one who has been hurt by something I’ve said or something I’ve forgotten to do?

In the Old Testament, we have the Lex Talionis, the law of equal retribution. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But aren’t we glad that even though God is just and God loves justice that he does not demand eye for eye and tooth for tooth? When people ask about justice, we need to ask “Whose justice? Who gets to define what is just?”

In the New Testament, justice is not defined by getting what is owed. Instead, through the cross of Jesus, we see that Jesus absorbs what is owed to us. To make things right, God comes into this world and takes what is owed to us, our punishment, our pain. And though there are often still consequences to our actions, we have been forgiven. Even more so, we have been reconciled to God.

As ministers of reconciliation, we are called to share that in Christ there is a new creation; the old has passed away. We can be made right we God, and we must seek to be reconciled with others. We simply cannot separate the two, and that is the Gospel!

It is my prayer that, like the family of Chloe Weaver, forgiveness and reconciliation becomes a part of the air we breathe.

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Stronger Together

Hebrews 10:19-25

19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

There is no shortage of short, pithy statements concerning community. Some are biblical, others just make sense. Ecclesiastes 4:12 reminds us that “a cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” There is an old saying that “a joy shared is doubled…a sorrow shared is cut in half.” “There’s no ‘I’ in team.” And Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

We know these phrases by heart, and I know them to be true. We are stronger together. Yet our society seems to be moving more and more toward individualism. We are just as familiar with phrases like, “I am a self-made man.” “Nobody helped me get where I am but me.” And “I don’t need anyone else. Dependency shows weakness.”

Those of us who live in the United States know that our society values the individual, sometimes at the expense of the community. This is one of the many areas that I think we can learn from our brothers and sisters living in other parts of the world, as well as from our brothers and sisters who have come before us.

Imagine you are a Christian living in the early years after Jesus’s death and resurrection. You are a minority and at times you are greatly persecuted for your faith, especially if you lived between 64 and 313 AD when there was official government persecution of Christians. You hear stories of other Christians being fed to the lions in the gladiator areas as a public spectacle. You know, because that’s entertaining. You hear stories of how Emperor Nero had Christians like you covered in tar, impaled on a long pole, and then used them as human torches to light up his gardens as he and guests enjoyed their social gatherings. Or maybe you are an Anabaptist living in the 16th century, and your fellow Anabaptists are being imprisoned, tortured, and killed for their faith. There are two natural responses: you recant your faith, claiming to no longer adhere to the set of beliefs that might lead you toward that kind of persecution, or you huddle together with other people who share your faith and convictions, knowing that you are stronger together than you could be on your own.

When we consider the level of persecution faced by the early church and the early Anabaptists, it is not hard to imagine why community was so important to these groups. And today, in our privatized and individualistic western world where Christianity seems to be declining in both number and power, many people are turning toward these expressions of Christianity to ask what we may be missing out on. It is my assertion that one of the most life-giving and counter-cultural things that we can do today is to live in community.

I really like the way the author of Hebrews speaks about community in chapter 10, verses 23-25a: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.”

We hold on to the hope that we profess in Jesus for he is faithful. And it isn’t always easy to hold on to hope. So we spur one another on, like a cowboy spurs a horse. Spurring one another toward love and good deeds. The King James translates this as provoking one another. The literal Greeks says to irritate one another to love and do good. And we do this by meeting together. We get together and irritate one another! Are you loving people? Huh, are you? Are you loving people? Are you? Are you?

Last week I was in Jamaica where I spent two days with the pastors and leaders of the Jamaica Mennonite Conference in an Anabaptist Leadership Retreat. That’s right, I can officially add “International Lecturer” to my résumé. It was a great experience learning together with about 30 other people what it means to be a Mennonite church in the Caribbean. I went along with two others from Virginia, and we each presented on various topics as well as hearing from a Jamaican pastor who chairs their missions program. We also spent time traveling across the island, visiting three of the thirteen Mennonite Churches of Jamaica and the Maranatha School for the Deaf, which is a ministry of Jamaica Mennonite Conference and receives a significant amount of support from Virginia Mennonite Missions.

I felt a spirit of community among the people of the Jamaican Mennonite Church. The conference leaders stayed up late into the night playing dominos, talking about track and field as the World Championships were taking place in London while I was in Jamaica. And the whole island grieved together when Usain Bolt crashed to the ground from cramps during what he said would be his final professional race.

Last Sunday I worshiped at Good Tidings Mennonite Church in Kingston and the Jamaican church operates differently than what we might be used to. They start…when they feel like most people are there. It might be the pastor who comes in late, and that’s okay. I was invited to come up to the podium and bring greetings to the congregation, which I learned I would be doing when I heard my name over the loudspeakers. It was a different experience in a different culture, and I am better for it.

Most places we went, the only other white people that I saw were the gentlemen that came with me from Virginia. Nowhere was this more apparent than church on Sunday, as each of us went to different churches to represent Virginia Mennonite Conference. I was the only white person in the building. Black people make up 92% of the population in Jamaica and 100% of that church. And of course they had a name for me in that church, a name for the only white person in attendance that day. Do you know what they called me?

They called me brother.

Community is a beautiful thing. It is inviting, it is supportive, it spurs each other along, irritating us to do right and practice love.

Now I’m not naïve; I know that there would be places on the island where I would not be welcome and people who would look down on me because of the color of my skin. I also know that my role as a pastor granted me a special status among the church people. But for that hour of worship—or to be more accurate, one hour and forty-five minutes—I was Brother Kevin. And I was Brother Kevin during our conference. And I was Brother Kevin when Dougie dropped me off at the airport at 5:30 in the morning and I was invited to come back again next year.

Then I get back into the US, and there is one thing dominating every news outlet: radio, television, newspaper, and internet. That topic is Charlottesville.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what happened in Charlottesville. White Supremacists organized a protest and others organized a counter protest. Things got out of hand, though after seeing pictures of armed citizens exercising their right to carry firearms, I’m thankful things didn’t get further out of hand. Pushing, shoving, yelling, name calling. And one car driven by a white supremacist intentionally directed into a group of counter protesters, injuring 19, killing one.

Let me just go on record now and say this in case you have ever wondered: I denounce white supremacy. I denounce any supremacy. I denounce any thought or ideology that claims one person or race is better than another.

I’m reminded of what Paul writes to the church in Galatia. In a church made up of ethnic Jews who could trace their lineage back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, there were also new believers who could only trace their religious heritage back to a few weeks ago. And Paul writes to this group in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” They were all one. One body, one church, one Lord over all.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t cultural preferences among the people. They surely had different tastes in food and clothing, music and entertainment. Some of the things that the Gentiles liked might be seen as weird to the Jews, and vice versa. They weren’t told that they had to like all the same things or to be exactly alike in every way. No, our differences are a part of what makes humanity beautiful. But they were told that they were all equal. And that message is just as true today.

We could have discussions about Confederate flags and statues commemorating Civil War leaders, and there is a place for that. But those topics are so politically loaded right now that I wouldn’t want to talk about them here and now. But please hear me when I say that there are people who hold onto these images that are not racists, they do see them as heritage and not hate. Yet those gathered in Charlottesville last weekend are of a different variety. This was hate.

But since I’m being totally honest, I wasn’t proud of some of the counter protests that I saw either. Some, and I emphasize some, of the counter protesters simply returned hate for hate, scream for scream…eye for eye, tooth for tooth. No, there were no deaths among the white supremacists, but there were injuries. I’ve heard reports of sticks and stones thrown both ways, pushes, punches, pepper spray and smoke bombs.

No, racism is not the way of Christ. But neither is hatred. If Christ died for all, he died for the racists and he died for the counter protesters. And when Jesus said to love our enemies, surely this applies to neo-Nazis and the alt right as well. As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 12:17-18; 21, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Or as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Here’s the challenge, I don’t know what that looks like when the alt right is holding a rally. I also don’t think that we should do nothing. I can be a bit critical of how some counter protesters handled themselves in Charlottesville, but there were some that I think provided a Christian witness in the midst of the ugliness. Unfortunately, these folks don’t often get the same media coverage as the violent and hate-filled protestors.

Did you know that Friday evening before the protests that around 1,000 Christians filled St. Paul’s Memorial Church just off the UVa campus, gathering together for prayer and singing? As the doors opened to welcome people from all denominations and backgrounds, songs of praise, love, grace, and mercy spilled out of the church.

The next day, clergy members walked through the city, arm in arm, wearing their stoles and robes and clerical collars, praying for the people in Charlottesville. At one time, members of the neo-Nazis with their shields, helmets, and rifles broke through the linked arms of the clergy members, knocking them to the ground, pushing them to the side.

Like Jesus encouraging his followers to turn the other cheek, clergy members being pushed around by armed militia exposes the evil in that moment. Again, I don’t know if that was the best thing to do, but it was better than returning hate for hate, and it was better than doing nothing.

But that’s on the other side of the mountain, and as many have pointed out, the white supremacists and a lot of the counter protesters came in from outside of the area. What about our community? On Wednesday I spent some time talking to the mother of one of Paxton’s friends. As these things often go, we soon started talking about world events, we soon started talking about Charlottesville. She wanted to make sure that I knew that the problem wasn’t just in Charlottesville, but also right here as well. Just a few days earlier, she had been with her children at the local Lowes purchasing some household items. She has dark eyes and hair and is from Boone, NC. Her husband is from Hawaii, so he has a darker complexion than those of us of European descent. As you can imagine, their children’s skin is light brown in color with big brown eyes.

This friend said that as she was in the parking lot, a man approached her and said, “Go home.” She thought, “I live in Staunton. Does he mean North Carolina?” No, she said, evidently they looked Mexican to this man. It didn’t matter to this man that she was from North Carolina or that her husband was from Hawaii, which last time I checked was still in the United States. It didn’t matter that her husband had served in the US Army and currently serves as the Supply Sergeant for the local armory. What mattered to him was the color of their skin.

When my friend realized what the man intended with his remark in the parking lot, she dropped her head. It was then that she noticed that on rear bumper of the man’s car’s there was a Jesus fish.

Our district minister dropped some wisdom on us the other day. He said that all of this hatred and racism is symptom of something else. He said the real issue here is fear. I think he is right.

One of the slogans chanted by the white supremacists last weekend was, “You will not replace us.” In interviews I hear white supremacists speaking of being dispossessed of their land and their status. There is a fear among some white people of becoming a minority in this country. Because we know how minorities are treated.

My friends, I don’t have all of the answers, but I do know that we were not given a spirit of timidity. As John’s first epistle tells us, there is no fear in love because perfect love casts out all fear. And to my fellow white Americans who are afraid of becoming a minority, let me quote Jesus one more time: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Treat a minority the way you would want to be treated if the tables were turned. And if you won’t do it because Jesus said so, do it because some day you may find yourself in the position of the minority.

It is my prayer that like Joseph being sold into slavery by his own brothers that God will take this thing that was meant for evil and do something good with it. May we continue to have the difficult discussions, spurring one another, irritating one another toward love and good works for that is what community is supposed to do.

We are stronger together. We need one another. We are the church.

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Come and Follow Me

Matthew 16:21-28 New International Version (NIV)

21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.

28 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

I was in high school when I noticed a lot of young men and women wearing a particular piece of jewelry. I’ve never been one to wear any kind of jewelry, I don’t wear a watch and often don’t even wear my wedding ring. But I thought that this piece of jewelry was kind of interesting: it was a bracelet with the letters “WWJD” printed in bold letters. WWJD of course stands for “What Would Jesus Do?”

The idea is simple and yet brilliant at the same time. When you find yourself in a difficult situation, perhaps an ethical dilemma, you look to your wrist and ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?” If you’re taking your math exam and you don’t know the answer and you are tempted to look at your neighbor’s paper. What would Jesus do? If you are in a convenience store and see some Twinkies, and you love Twinkies, but don’t have any money, look to your wrist and ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?”

In a number of ways, that little bracelet is a lot like that wedding ring that I rarely wear. It serves two practical purposes: It reminds me of the commitment that I have made to my wife, and it tells others that I am dedicated to loving, honoring, and serving someone.

Of course the challenge is that we can’t always agree on what Jesus would do, and often what we decide Jesus would do surprisingly looks a lot like what we really wanted to do all along. At least it did in High School, I’ll let you decide if that’s the case today or not. Or even worse, when a young man found himself in a position where he knew right and wrong, but the wrong choice was a lot easier, he answer the question, “What would Jesus do?” by saying, “Jesus would forgive me, that’s what Jesus would do.” And he went ahead and did it anyway.

We may not always know what Jesus might do in any given situation that we find ourselves in, but we can ask a few more questions that can help. When confronted with the question, “What would Jesus do?” we must ask three questions: What did Jesus do? What did Jesus say? And What was Jesus like? (Murray, 61).

The desire to follow Jesus is something that we often call discipleship. As you know, Jesus had 12 disciples who followed him from town to town, ate with him, and lived under the same roof as him. The Greek word we translate as disciple is “mathetes.” Mathetes literally means a learner or a student. When Jesus calls his first disciples, notice what he says. He says, “Come and follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

The goal of Christian discipleship isn’t just to learn for the sake of learning. The goal is to learn how to be like Jesus. The goal is to know Jesus so well that when the question “What would Jesus do?” comes up, you know.

And guess what. You never stop learning.

Jesus’s last words to his disciples is recorded in Matthew 28:18-20, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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.”

The task given to this group of learners who are seeking to become more and more like Jesus is to make more learners. When asked about the mission of the church today, I like to say that we are disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples. Our job is to make more people who look like Jesus.

That’s exactly what the early church did. Just a quick read through Acts reveals that the church grew by leaps and bounds. I would attribute this growth to two things: One is the gifting of the Holy Spirit, which is best seen on the day of Pentecost. The second is that Jesus’s disciples did what he taught them to do. They went out and made more disciples, who made more disciples, who made more disciples. And these disciples put the teachings of Jesus into action. The fed the poor, healed the sick, they shared meals, they shared their homes. And we find these encouraging snippets, like Acts 4:34, “there was no need among them,” and Acts 2:47b, “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

So here are these disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit, following Jesus every day and in every way that they could. And we know that it isn’t easy to follow Jesus. It isn’t easy to love your enemy, forgive people who have hurt you, to wash the feet of someone you know is going to betray you. We know it isn’t easy, and Jesus knew it wouldn’t be easy. In Matthew 16:24 Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

He just compared being his follower with one of the most gruesome and painful methods of public execution known to humanity. But with the power of the Holy Spirit, and the support of community of believers, it can be done. Sure, we will fail, and praise God for grace in those moments. But Jesus didn’t give these difficult teachings knowing that they are impossible to achieve. No, he really wants us to try. We are called to look like Jesus in the way we live, breathe, and have our being.

Discipleship was a central part of Christianity for the first three hundred years of the existence of the church. But then something happened that forever changed the church and how we see Jesus. In the year 312, Constantine, Emperor of Rome, claimed to see a vision during a battle. Some claim that the vision was of a cross, others the Greek letters XP, the first two letters of the word Christ. Constantine then claims to have received a message: “In this sign, conquer.” The Romans painted the symbol on their shields and armor and defeated their enemy. Constantine made Christianity one of the recognized religions of the Roman Empire, and paved the way for Christianity to become the official religion of Rome.

Was this process, which we often call “The Constantinian Shift” a good thing or a bad thing? I would say a little bit of both. But think about what was lost. Before Constantine, only those who were dedicated to following Jesus, even if it cost them their lives, were Christians. After Constantine, everyone within the world’s largest empire was a Christian. We went from a voluntary group to required membership. This would be like going out and just declaring everyone in your city a Christian. Many people didn’t change anything about their lives.

This is about the time when groups like the monks started popping up. There became a second class of people who were dedicated to following Jesus and being his disciples because you can’t expect everyone to actually follow Jesus, even if everyone is considered a Christian.

Over the years Jesus went from being God with us, Emmanuel, who lived among us, taught us how to live, died and rose again, to some distant deity to whom we can pray. This distant deity even offers grace and forgiveness to those who believe in him. But that deity requires very little from his subjects.

We come to the 16th century and the Protestant Reformation. There is this group of believers in Switzerland that believes that leaders like Zwingli and Luther have started a good thing, but not gone far enough. This group didn’t see anything in the Bible that spoke of automatic church membership for someone just because of where they were born or the family they were born into. No, the New Testament Church was filled with people who had chosen to follow Jesus, at times at great cost. Some left behind family and friends, jobs and homes. Why should things change?

So this group decided that they were going to start a movement that got back to the root of the church. They began what is sometimes called the “Radical Reformation,” radical meaning the root of something. Voluntary church membership was central, as was its accompanying public gesture, which we know to be baptism. And since an infant couldn’t choose to be a member of a church, baptism became an act reserved for those who were old enough to choose to be baptized. And along with the symbol of adult baptism, these leaders, later known as the Anabaptists, focused on following Jesus. As HS Bender would write, “The Reformation emphasis on faith was good but inadequate, for without newness of life, they held, faith is hypocritical” (16).

Or as Hans Denck, an early Anabaptist, once said, “No one truly knows Christ unless they follow Him daily in life.” That’s on our church’s website!

Obviously, this can begin to look like legalism or works righteousness. I would argue that it isn’t works righteousness, it is works faithfulness. Or even more precisely, that’s what it means to be a good disciple of Jesus.

I think Palmer Becker says it best when he proclaims, “Jesus is the center of our faith.” Everything revolves around Jesus, what he said, what he did, and what he commanded. Becker, in his book Anabaptist Essentials, talks about different expressions of the Christian faith that he sees in the United States today. He asks the question, “Is Christianity a set of beliefs?” In a number of what we call “liturgical churches” we can find an emphasis on right belief or Orthodoxy. The worship services in these churches often include the recitation of creeds, or other documents of shared belief. “I believe in God the Father, almighty maker of heaven, maker of earth. And Jesus Christ, his only begotten…”

But Christianity is more than just having right beliefs. This isn’t about just having the right theology and reciting the right words. Don’t get me wrong, orthodoxy is important, but we can’t stop there. So yes, Christianity is a set of beliefs, but it is more.

Becker then asks the question, “Is Christianity a spiritual experience?” I spoke about the gifts of the Spirit in our last session, and emphasized that the Spirit does more than we often give him credit for. But there are traditions that emphasize supernatural experiences like healing, exorcisms, and speaking in tongues to the point that it would seem that this is the essence of Christianity. The working of the Spirit is important, but there is more.

“Is Christianity an experience of forgiveness?” There are traditions where everything seems to be geared toward getting people to pray the sinner’s prayer. You’ve got to seal the deal! I remember hearing a pastor talking about attending a church where forgiveness and grace was all that they talked about in their church services. So they would sing, “Just as I am,” and then they would leave just as they were.

Without a doubt, repentance and forgiveness are essential to the Christian faith. And I would say that is the minimum requirement for someone to get into heaven. But since when are we about getting by with the bare minimum?

Becker then ends this section with what he has been building toward: Is Christianity discipleship? He writes, “Anabaptist Christians affirm that Christianity includes beliefs, spiritual experience, and forgiveness. But particular emphasis is placed on following Jesus in daily life” (33).

Becker also acknowledges that we Anabaptist/Mennonites are in danger of overemphasizing right practices in the same way other traditions can fall into similar traps. As I mentioned earlier, Mennonites can fall into legalism and works righteousness way too easily. No, we need a balance of right beliefs, spiritual encounters, forgiveness, and following the teachings of Jesus.

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