Tag Archives: faith

Awakening to Faith – Sermon on John 20:19-31 for Easter 2A

April 23, 2017
Watch the video here.

It’s still Easter. Put yourself in the upper room for a moment. Imagine what it was like to have waited there together over the Sabbath, hiding behind locked doors. All your hopes and dreams have been crushed. The One you thought would free you from oppression has been brutally executed. You are afraid.

Then something happens that you can’t quite explain, and you aren’t sure you can believe. Some of the women have gone to the tomb early in the morning, and they come back breathlessly exclaiming that the tomb is empty. He isn’t there. They babble on about seeing angels. Something about “he is risen!” Could it be true?

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. – John 20:19-31

If you compare these two appearances of the risen Christ, they are nearly the same. The door is locked. Jesus suddenly stands in the middle of the room and says, “Peace be with you.” Then he shows his hands and side to prove he is the same Jesus they saw die on the cross, but who now is very much alive. After the disciples respond to this good news, Jesus says a few more words. The stories are almost identical.

But not quite.

For one thing, at the first appearance, Jesus commissions his disciples to go out and share the good news, and he breathes on them as he says, “receive the Holy Spirit.” In Matthew’s gospel, the Great Commission happens moments before Jesus ascends into heaven, and in Luke’s version of the story, the disciples don’t receive the Holy Spirit until Pentecost.

But John never was much for chronology. His story is less concerned with making the dates match up, and more concerned with getting the word out: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.
Believe the Good News!

And keep in mind that for John, believing is always a verb, never the noun “belief.” And believing – or “faithing,” if there were such a word in English – is such an important concept that this verb appears six times in this passage, and 90 more times throughout the rest of John’s gospel.

Believing is more than intellectual agreement. It’s more than understanding or accepting an idea as true. Believing means trusting, or having faith in something. Believing is what John is very eager for us to do. And once we believe that Jesus is the Christ, it is a short leap to receive the Holy Spirit and be sent out to help others see, so they, too, may believe.

If those Jesus sends fail to share their faith effectively, others will remain stuck in their unbelief; their sins will be retained. They won’t experience forgiveness. (20:23) The stakes of this mission are high. And because the stakes are high, Jesus has to make sure each disciple is convinced of the truth. All the disciples must see for themselves that Jesus has been raised from death to new life.

Seeing is believing for John. “Come and see” weaves its way throughout the gospel story. We find it in the first chapter, when Jesus meets the first disciples who have been following John the Baptist, and they ask where he is staying. “Come and see,” he says (John 1:39).

A few verses later, when Philip invites Nathaniel to meet Jesus, Nate asks, “Can any thing good come out of Nazareth?” and Philip says, “Come and see” (1:46). Then the Samaritan woman at the well runs to tell her neighbors, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (4:29) and when Jesus arrives four days too late in Bethany, he asks Mary and Martha where they’ve buried Lazarus. “Come and see,” they tell him (11:34).

In fact, we find some form of the word “see” more than twenty times throughout John’s gospel, and ‘seeing’ means everything from physical sight to full understanding[1].

But Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to his friends. Thomas did not see Jesus. The disciples tell him later, just as Mary told them last week, “We have seen the Lord.” Thomas is skeptical, just as they had been, only moments before Jesus showed up.

So, a week later, Jesus goes through the whole appearing routine again, only this time, it’s for Thomas’ benefit. While the other disciples simply rejoiced when they recognized the risen Savior, Thomas offers a confession that is profound and personal: “MY Lord and MY God,” he cries out. Not just “the” Lord. Not just “Son of the Living God,” but MY Lord and MY God. In an instant, he moves from skepticism to trust. Thomas “sees.” All the disciples see.

Because Jesus keeps showing up. He repeatedly appears to those who need some visual proof he has risen. He doesn’t judge or criticize, he just keeps showing up unexpectedly until they get it. He offers shalom three times, twice in the first visit and then again, just for Tom.

“Peace be with you,” Jesus says. Shalom. The disciples were afraid, but this time, when Jesus appears, he doesn’t give the “Stop being afraid, fear not” greeting that we have come to expect when a messenger from God shows up. Instead, he offers peace. Over and over again.

But notice that this risen Christ also offers some astounding evidence to prove he is who they can barely believe he is. Instead of showing them himself in flawless resurrected glory, he holds out his hands, and shows them his side. He offers his wounds, symbols of his own vulnerable humanity, as proof of his identity.

This is the same Christ who breathes Holy Spirit on a room full of people mere hours after walking out of a tomb. And here he is, not once but twice, offering peace from wounded hands that have felt the ultimate pain and suffering a human can experience. But pain, grief, and wounds are not signs of weakness. Rachael Keefe [2] writes,

We have fooled ourselves into thinking that perfection is to be prized and that we should keep other things quiet. This mindset is causing us harm. If the risen Christ identified himself by his wounds, then why do we go to such extremes to hide our own?

We are enamored with perfection in western culture. We must look perfect, act perfect, be perfect. We shy away from any displays of imperfection. … How many people are afraid to be honest about their own struggles for fear of judgment? For fear of being seen as weak or in need?

Funny how we have done this to one another when we worship a God who conquered death, but saw no reason to remove the marks of human frailty. The … marks of sin and death were clearly still visible, reminding us of our true nature. We are fragile and finite. We can bruise, bend, and break in countless ways for reasons sometimes beyond our understanding. Many things can wound us deeply. Why deny that? Why hide it?”

Keefe goes on to consider what it might look like in our worship if we offered each other our wounds, our pain, our vulnerability as frail human beings when we “pass the peace.” This might give “Peace be with you,” a new and profound meaning. It could help us recognize that we, as the church, embody a Christ who is both wounded and whole, just as we are. “Peace be with you” then becomes a reminder of healing and hope, not just a casual “Glad to see you” greeting.

“If the Son of God, the risen Christ, can use his wounds as proof of his life, experience, and identity, shouldn’t we be doing the same thing? Here I am. Here are my wounds. Touch them if you need to. I am God’s beloved. Peace be with you.” (Rachael Keefe)

This brings us to the purpose statement for John’s entire Gospel:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

The disciples who had lived and walked with Jesus, the ones who had watched him die and be buried, they all needed some visible sign that he was really alive again. Jesus gave it to them, as often as they needed to see it, so that they might believe. But we should not feel left out, just because we weren’t in that room on Easter night.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus says to Thomas. That’s us. We are the ones for whom John wrote his book, so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing, we may have life in his name.

Thomas gets a bum rap, I think, when we call him “Doubting Thomas.” After all, his confession of Jesus as Lord and God is the strongest statement of faith we can find in the gospels. Thomas is the one who told the others, “if he’s determined to go to Bethany, where his life has already been threatened, we might as well go die with him, too.”

This kind of faith, this kind of believing, includes a healthy dose of doubt. Frederick Buechner, put it this way: “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”[3]

Doubt is one of God’s most effective tools for building faith. It is only when we ask the hard questions that God can provide us with answers to deepen our relationship with him. This is how God gives us tools to share our faith with others when life throws hard questions at them.

And maybe this is the reason John gives us the story of Thomas a week after the resurrection. To remind us that it is healthy to doubt, so that our believing, our “faithing” keeps awake and moving. And it is also healthy to recognize our risen Lord – not because of his white raiment or the halo artists paint around his head – but because of his deep wounds, still evident and fresh a week after he has conquered death once and for all.

Like Thomas, may you see those wounds and know that Christ sees yours.
Like Thomas, may you own your doubts, so that your faith may grow.
Like Thomas, may you bow before Jesus and say with assurance, “My Lord, and my God.” And through the very act of believing, amid your doubts, revealing your wounds, may you have life in his name.

[1] Richard Dietrich, Feasting on the Word,Year A Vol. 2, 397.
[2] Rachael Keefe: https://rachaelkeefe.wordpress.com/2017/04/20/blood-sweat-and-tears/
[3] http://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2016/10/26/doubt

A Holy Calling – Sermon on 2 Timothy 1:1-14

September 25, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here.

I don’t think I ever really knew what fear was until I became a mother. Suddenly becoming responsible for another human being’s life made me extremely aware of all the ways a tiny life could be put in danger. Parents want to protect our children – these amazing, beautiful, vulnerable little beings who are completely dependent on us – from anything that might hurt them. The responsibility for their safety and wellbeing can be overwhelming, especially when we see threats all around us in the world. Parenting can be a scary thing.

The Apostle Paul knew this feeling all too well, even though we have no evidence that he fathered any children of his own. Paul’s concern was for the spiritual safety and wellbeing of those who had come to faith in Jesus Christ through his own ministry, and for the young churches they formed. He was worried about the possibility they might be led astray by false teaching, or become discouraged when their faith was tested. He fretted over their ability to withstand persecution. And so, to encourage these fledgling churches and their leaders, Paul wrote letters to them.

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God according to the promise of the life that is in Christ Jesus,
To Timothy, my beloved child:
Grace, mercy, and peace
from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. 

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher,  which is why I suffer as I do.

But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. – 2 Timothy 1:1-14

It was customary in the first century for letters to begin with a standard greeting and prayer of gratitude and blessing: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. This letter’s prayer of gratitude describes the faith history of Timothy’s own family: I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, it dwells in you.

Do you remember a grandparent sharing faith with you when you were young? These days, because extended families are scattered and children may only see grandparents a few times each year, the church often helps fill the role of grandparent, sharing stories and examples of faith from generation to generation. This is why we make a point, during the baptism of every child, to ask the congregation

“Will you, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ, and representatives of that Church wherever they encounter it in the world, do your part, by word and deed with love and prayer, to guide and nurture these children, encouraging them to know and follow Christ and caring for them as Christ’s own?”

And the congregation answers with gusto every time, “With God’s help, we will.”

But the church, like a grandparent, only plays a supporting role in training up children in the way they should go (Proverbs 22:6) Parents are the first and best examples of faithful living, the first and best teachers of faith in children’s lives.

It’s in the home that children first learn how to say prayers at bedtime or before meals. It’s in those daily surprise conversations – you know, the ones that start with a deep theological question like, “Mommy, where does God sleep?” or “Why does God make mosquitoes?” – that children learn what their parents believe about God, the world God created, and their place in it. This is how we pass on faith from generation to generation.

The letter to Timothy goes on to explain why this is so important, as it lays out the key truth of this passage.

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

In other words, because of the important role that Timothy’s mother and grandmother played in his growing faith, Timothy is to fan into flame the gift of faith that fuels his present ministry. “Paul’s reminder to Timothy to boldly cultivate and embrace his own current calling and ministry is because of, on account of, and rooted in the reality of Timothy’s initial exposure to the faith within the context of his family.”[1]

This is important for us, as well. Somewhere along the line, people got the idea that it would be better to expect the “religious professionals” to take on the full responsibility of raising up children in the way they should go. Parents lost confidence in their own ability to share faith with their children. Better to let the seminary-trained pastor do that job, they thought.

And this has been a great loss, not only to the children, but to their parents. It doesn’t take a seminary degree to teach children that God loves them, or to show God’s love by the way we interact with our own families. You cannot measure the joy of watching your own child come to faith through daily prayers and conversations about Jesus, and reading scripture together as a family. The home is where the priesthood of all believers begins its ministry.

So, rekindle the gift of God that is in you, and take heart! Parents, you do not need to be afraid, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (v 7)

“To ‘rekindle the gift’ means to stir up the grace and faith and love that we have received, and we stir them up by putting them in to practice. … Our call is … to forgive as we have been forgiven, and to love as we have been loved.” (J. Peter Holmes, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, 137-138)

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God,  who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher,  which is why I suffer as I do.

We live in a world where some are ashamed of the gospel. It isn’t cool or hip to stand up for Jesus. This is where the faith that surrounds our children in the community of the church is so important. This is a place where it is safe, where standing up for Jesus is affirmed. This is the place where children learn how to tell the story of Jesus and learn to live into their own calling as followers of Christ. This is where we learn how to keep the promises made on our behalf at our baptism – to renounce sin, to believe in Jesus, to live our faith each day in ways that others see the light of Christ through us.

The letter continues, “for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me.  Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.

Because we know whom we have believed and to whom we have committed everything, and we trust him to be faithful, we can continue to live by the power of the Holy Spirit, who lives in us. Following sound teaching and staying connected to the family of God, we guard the good deposit of faith that has been entrusted to us, and we teach our children how to do that, too.

We have each been called to a holy purpose, just as Paul and Timothy were. We have each been given a family of faith to help us remember key truths and avoid being drawn away into false doctrines. It is this family of faith that helps us guard the good deposit of faith we have been given.

And faith is a gift – we cannot manufacture it on our own, we cannot create faith by ourselves. We can only exercise the faith we’ve been given, to strengthen it and deepen it as it grows within us.

We each have been called with a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus. We each have been given the faith to answer that call. It is good to remember that, to reaffirm our call from time to time.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, developed a prayer for use in services for the Renewal of the believer’s Covenant with God. Wesley didn’t claim to have written the prayer. He adapted it from other sources, and no one knows who actually wrote the first version of it.

Even though the words of the original covenant prayer are lost, they are thought to be reflected in the Directions for Renewing our Covenant with God which Wesley issued as a pamphlet in 1780. These directions were intended for services to be held regularly in the church, usually around the time of the New Year.

But what better time to renew our covenant with God than on a day when we have witnessed two families enter into that covenant on behalf of their children? So hear the words John Wesley used to introduce this Covenant Prayer back in 1755.

“…Christ has many services to be done. Some are easy, others are difficult. Some bring honor, others bring reproach. Some are suitable to our natural inclinations and temporal interests, others are contrary to both… Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.” And so I invite you to join me, as we renew our covenant with God together.

WESLEYAN COVENANT PRAYER

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3036

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wesley_Covenant_Prayer

Be Amazing: Hospitality with Authority – sermon on Luke 7:1-10

 

May 29, 2016

Luke mentions authority more than any of the other gospel writers. Usually, Luke is referring to Jesus and the way he teaches with authority, or heals with authority, amazing the people who gather around him. Sometimes it’s the Jewish leaders who question Jesus about his authority to do these things.

But in today’s story, Luke tells us about someone else who holds authority, and this person is an outsider, a Roman centurion. He’s a mid-level military leader who knows his own place in the chain of command. A Roman centurion is about the last person you might expect to come to Jesus, asking for help, and yet, that’s exactly what happens. Continue reading

By Faith – Sermon on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-12

Last week we discovered that God’s vision in creation is to be with us. Adam and Eve chose a different vision. By their choice, sin and the sinful nature entered the human race. Yet, God passionately pursues us at great cost. God will do whatever it takes to get us back.

The deal with Noah hadn’t worked.
Sin was still the problem, even in the most righteous person God could find.
So instead of working with the most likely candidate for the job, God goes with the least likely possibility, an old man from Ur.

Ur was very near where Eden may have been, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Nearby, many people who all had one language had tried to build the Tower of Babel. God confounded their language and the nations scattered.
God chose to create a new nation in this area of the world.

God chose Abram and Sarai when they were very old, well past the age to have children. Their parents and grandparents had worshiped pagan gods. They were probably the least qualified people on earth to give birth to a great nation that would bless the whole world. God chose an old and unlikely couple so that all people would look to God, knowing that all that happens is God at work. God wants people to see him and understand his plan. And it’s pretty simple, really.

In Genesis 12, God lays out the deal for Abram. In this agreement, God states clearly what he expects from Abram when he says, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (12:1)

Then God goes on to offer his share of the deal. He makes four promises: Continue reading

To whom can we go? Sermon on John 6:56-69 Pentecost 13B

August 23, 2015 
[Jesus said,] “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.
Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.
This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”  

He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”  

But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you?
Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?
It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
But among you there are some who do not believe
.”
For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him.
And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.  So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” – John 6:56-69

Lord, to whom can we go?

Just a few hours after our friend Brad took his last breath on Thursday, another friend’s son also breathed his last following a courageous battle with cancer. Atticus was diagnosed with Stage IV neuroblastoma when he was 13 months old. He didn’t make it to his second birthday. As I think about Brad and Atticus, the question Peter asks takes on a different meaning than it had for me a week ago.

 “Lord, to whom can we go?
You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to know and believe that you are the Holy One of God.” 

What does this mean for us? How do we come to know and believe that Jesus is the Holy One of God? What is this eternal life that Jesus has been talking about for the past five weeks, as we worked our way through the sixth chapter of John’s gospel? Where else could we find such life?

The passage we just read had to borrow a few verses from last week’s reading, or we would not even know that Jesus is still talking about bread. Specifically, he is talking about himself as the Bread of Life. His own body and blood are food for the world, just as the loaves and fishes were food for the people who are listening to him in today’s reading.

Once again, we hear the offensive language from last week about gnawing on the flesh and blood of Jesus being what gets us to abide in him, and him in us, giving us life through his life source. And this life is not like the life of those who ate manna from heaven as they wandered in the wilderness with Moses. This is life in Christ, a life that starts immediately and never ends. It is life in the eternal now.

Somehow, the scene has shifted as Jesus has been saying these offensive words. The conversation that began back in verse 25, when those who had chased him around the lake finally meet up with him on the beach, has moved into the synagogue of Capernaum. Now Jesus is in a position of authority as he speaks to his followers, and what he has to say is not something they want to hear.

The disciples grumble about the difficulty of this teaching – but it isn’t clear what they find difficult. The word for grumbling, or murmuring or complaining, happens only four times in John, and three of them have been in chapter six. Back in verse 41, the Judeans grumbled among themselves about Jesus’ claim that he came from heaven, and in verse 43 Jesus tells them to stop it. Later on, in chapter 7, the Pharisees will hear that the people are murmuring among themselves that maybe Jesus is the Christ after all, and they will send temple guards to arrest him. But here in verse 61, it’s the disciples who are doing the grumbling. These are the ones who have been following Jesus faithfully up to this point. These are the ones who claim to believe he is from God. But do they really?

Jesus asks if his followers are “scandalized” or offended by his talk about flesh and blood, and then he offers something even more scandalous: the claim that he not only comes from heaven, but that he will also return there. This gets us to the heart of the matter: Jesus offers spirit and life, life that is eternally grounded in a heavenly home. Near the end of John’s gospel, he will tell his closest friends, “In my father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I tell you that I go to prepare a place for you? .., And if I go and prepare a place for you I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (Jn 14:2-3)

Throughout this chapter, we have had little reminders of the Exodus story of Israel. Jesus feeds people in the wilderness with bread and fish, and Moses led Israel through the wilderness as they lived off the manna and quail God sent them. In both stories, the same people who get fed are the ones who complain and grumble.

The issue isn’t really the grumbling, though. It’s the lack of trust in God that the grumbling represents. Jesus says, “among you there are some who do not believe” (v.64). The Greek word pisteuo occurs more than 80 times in John. That’s more than in all of Paul’s letters together (Douglas R. A. Hare, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, 385.). Pisteuo usually gets translated as “believe,” and we might think this means intellectual belief. But its more common meaning is to trust or rely upon someone. The problem is not a cognitive one, but an issue of trust. Pisteuo never occurs in the form of a noun. It is always a verb in John. Faith is not something you have but something you do. Believing is an action, not a thing. Not believing is nothing short of betrayal.

Karoline Lewis writes that betrayal, in John’s gospel, is disbelieving. “The real betrayal is anything and everything that makes you think you aren’t someone Jesus could love.” We betray Jesus when we think that real, abundant life in the eternal now could never be ours. Maybe it’s easy to imagine that God loves the world, but when it comes down to you, personally, you think you aren’t really worthy of God’s love. You can’t imagine how God could love someone like you, and you aren’t sure you want to trust in a relationship that might just be a figment of your own imagination.

“Because at the end of the day, life, real life, life lived, abundant life, is hard to fathom, hard to accept, hard to imagine that it could be yours.” You’re unable to accept that abundant life could be true, you’re reluctant to imagine, to dream, to picture that when God says God loves the world that he actually means you. Maybe that kind of life is for someone else, but not for you. Yet, Jesus says, “That’s not the way it is.” At least, that’s not the way it has to be.

You see, there comes a moment when you must decide. You have to choose between trusting Jesus and betraying him. You have to decide to go all in, or get out. Many of the disciples who had been following Jesus up to this point in the story “turned back and no longer went about with him.” They decided they couldn’t handle being a true disciple of Jesus. They couldn’t trust him to be who he said he was, to give what he promised.

So, many of them left. When the picture of discipleship Jesus painted got too graphic for their tastes, they turned away. When his words upset the comfortable and familiar way they thought things ought to be, they gave up. It was too hard. Not too hard to understand, but too hard for them to accept. They weren’t ready to become “scandalized” by the gospel Jesus was offering them. They couldn’t commit to the cost of discipleship if it meant identifying with scandal in the eyes of the world.

So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”

This is the first time in John’s gospel that he names the closest followers of Jesus as “the Twelve.” These are the ones who have been called out, the ones he invited personally into his ministry. They are the ones who started following him before they knew what they were getting into. As the others leave, Jesus turns to his best friends and gives them an out. If they think the road is going to be too rough, now is the time to bail. Now is the moment when they must choose. Jesus looks around the group as he waits for their decision. He already knows that one of them, Judas, will eventually betray him. He makes eye contact with each of these men, but none of them speak. Except for Peter. And he speaks for all twelve.

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” 

Why do some turn away from Jesus and others trust him? Some can’t accept the scandal of the gospel, but those who accept it know there is no other way. For some, eating bread that can go stale is the only thing they’ve ever known, and they can’t imagine eating real bread, living bread. Some simply cannot trust God to love them. Some won’t commit to a life that is all consuming, even though it is continually fed by the Holy Spirit. And some just want to avoid being identified with the scandal of the gospel, a scandal that could embarrass or humiliate them in the eyes of the world.

But why settle for bread that is not bread? Bread that will grow stale, and will not satisfy? Why settle for life that is not rich and full of meaning? Why fear humiliation, when Christ himself suffered the ultimate humiliation of death on a cross for our sakes?

Peter knew that he had found the source of all meaning in life. He knew that Jesus was the Holy One of God. He knew that no where else would he ever find the words of eternal life. He had come to believe and know that there was no where else to go, no one else who could take the place of Jesus in his life. He realized that he had no hope, except in giving himself completely to Jesus.

Is this teaching too difficult for you to accept? Does it offend you to hear that Jesus demands all of your trust, all of your obedience, all of your life? Do you also wish to go away? Or will you follow, as part of the community of faithful people in this time and place who stand with Peter and say, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Hoping Against Hope – Sermon on Romans 4:13-25 Lent 2B

March 1, 2015

Out of the blue, we land in the middle of one of the Apostle Paul’s thickest chunks of writing this morning. If you were around during the summer, you might remember that we spent several weeks in the book of Romans, but please don’t feel guilty if that doesn’t ring a bell for you. Summer seems a long time ago, doesn’t it? For me, last Sunday seems like a lifetime ago! So here’s a little refresher course in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome.

This was not a church that Paul had started, and he did not personally know the people who would receive the letter. At the time he wrote to the Romans, Paul had not yet been to Rome. His letter was a kind of introduction to prepare the Roman Christians for a visit Paul was eagerly planning to make.

He had heard rumors about the church in Rome, however. He knew that the Gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians there were not in agreement, and he wanted to help them be reconciled to one another. Mostly, he wanted the Jewish Christians to recognize that faith in Jesus Christ did not require conversion to Judaism first.

In the passage we are about to read, Paul explains that becoming a member of God’s covenant group depends on one thing and one thing only: faith. And to prove his point, Paul holds up as an example the greatest patriarch of them all, good old Father Abraham.

 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)–in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification. (Romans 4:13-25, NRSV)

In the passage we heard earlier from Genesis, the Lord appeared to Abram, and changed his name from Abram, which means “Exalted Father,” to Abraham, or “Father of a Multitude.” The promise that he will be the “father of a multitude of nations” is only part of God’s covenant with Abraham, but it is the part Paul wants us to notice in this fourth chapter.

Paul wants his readers to recognize that God’s promise was to make Abraham the father of many nations, not just one great nation. And to drive home his point, Paul reminds us that even Abraham wasn’t a Jew. He was a Gentile, a pagan Gentile at that. Continue reading

Well Done! Sermon on Matthew 25:14-30

11/16/2014

We have some leftover business from last week. Have you been bothered about those five bridesmaids who got locked out of the party, just because they didn’t bring along an extra flask of oil? They came with their lamps, and their lamps had oil, but they didn’t bring along any extra. They thought they were prepared, but they weren’t. “Good enough” wasn’t good enough, after all. And instead of continuing to wait, even if it meant waiting in the dark, they went off looking for what they needed somewhere else. When they finally arrived, the door had been shut, and they were out of luck.

The nagging question left over from last week comes up again this week. Why isn’t “good enough” good enough? In today’s passage, Jesus tells another parable that forces us to consider this question from a different angle.

For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them;  to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.   The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents.   In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents.   But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.  After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.   Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’   His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’   And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’  His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’  Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’  But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?  Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.  For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’  – Matthew 25:14-30

Why isn’t “good enough” good enough, as we wait for Christ to come again? What is it about following Jesus that requires more from us than we are often prepared to expect? Does the abundant life Jesus promises to us only come at extravagant cost?

From today’s parable, it would seem that’s the case. In Luke’s version of this story, each servant is given a pound, but here in Matthew, the unit of measure is a talent. One talent was worth 6000 denarii, and we already know from previous stories that a denarius was the usual daily wage for a common laborer. So, one talent was worth about 20 years of labor. Here we have an obviously wealthy master entrusting huge sums of money to his servants, and even the least of these would have had to work for twenty years to earn as much as his master hands over to him.

This is extravagance on a grand scale. We usually think of a talent as some special ability or giftedness, and linguistic experts will tell you that the root of our word “talent” probably comes from the original Greek word we find in this parable. But they will also tell you that the meaning we give to “talent” today did not come into common usage until sometime in the 1500s. At the time Jesus told the story, everyone understood that a talent was a fortune, and five talents was an enormous amount of money, a hundred years’ worth of wages.

Why is this important to know? The traditional interpretation of the parable of the talents has focused on using our abilities while we wait for Christ’s return. Use your talents well, or you might lose them. God gave you special gifts, and you don’t want to be caught on judgment day having to explain why you failed to make the most of your talents. Because the master in our story gave to each “according to his ability,” people have made “ability” the central theme of this parable.

But if we realize that Jesus wasn’t necessarily talking about our abilities as much as the greatest treasure we can imagine, it puts a little different spin on the story. Now, instead of using our abilities as best we can, the question becomes, “how much are we willing to risk to get the greatest return on our investment in the kingdom of God?” And before we can even ask that question, we need to know what great treasure has our master entrusted to us?

If we use the parable of the ten bridesmaids as our pattern, we could consider that the great treasure entrusted to us is the faith God gives each of us. Some have more faith than others, some invest in their own spiritual development, and they see their faith grow. Others may try to hide their faith, and their faith shrivels away. But then we run into the problem of the one-talent servant who is cast into outer darkness, and we are left wondering if perhaps his faith was not real faith, or if it was not deep enough. And that idea doesn’t match up with the promise that “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)

But what if the talents don’t represent faith, any more than they represent our God-given abilities? What if this great, immense treasure is something else entirely? Think, for just a moment, about what we as Christians can claim as our most precious treasure, worth more than we can possibly imagine. Is it not the knowledge that we have been made children of God through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ? The Good News of Christ’s death and resurrection is the most powerful and amazing story we know! Instead of teaching us to multiply our faith, or develop our abilities – good and worthy as those things are! – perhaps this parable is here to remind us that our greatest treasure, as Christians, is the gospel itself.[1]

Investing in the gospel means spreading the good news, so that others can come to know and love Jesus. Living into our faith, showing the world what a difference following Jesus makes in the way we live our lives, telling people about the ways God has transformed us – That is how the gospel multiplies and grows. Not by being buried in the ground, but by being shared. And sharing the gospel is a risky business.

Those first two servants understood the need to risk everything. They invested radically in order to double their investment. The third hid his in the ground, in order to return it risk-free to his master. And before we tell ourselves, “I would never do something like that,” we should keep in mind that the third servant was simply doing what was considered prudent at the time.

“Rabbinic law stipulated that burying was the best safeguard against theft and that when one buries entrusted money one is free from liability for it” (Boucher, 139, quoted by Alyce McKenzie.).

Two servant invest radically, and double their money. The third followed a perfectly acceptable course of action, with minimal risk. He did what would have been considered “good enough.” But it wasn’t.

Because if we are talking about the gospel, about following Jesus and being obedient to his teaching, we have to act on that teaching for it to do any good. And the reason we have to act on the gospel isn’t just because Jesus says so.

“Living out the gospel truth of mercy, peace, and forgiveness is wise because the future belongs to God and those are the values of the future. The master will return, the promised kingdom is coming, and its advent will render all the false values of this age obsolete. … What will stand at the end is the gospel and nothing else, and it is true wisdom to live out today the truth of God’s future.”[2]

There’s something else in this parable that we need to see clearly for it to make sense. The relationship between the master and his servants determined how they responded to the trust he placed in them. The two servants who doubled their investment clearly trusted their master enough to risk losing his money. He rewards them with greater responsibility, and invites them into his joy. The mutual trust between the master and these servants made it possible for them to invest fearlessly what had been entrusted to them. But the third servant does not see his master in such a positive light. In fact, the third servant’s conservative handling of his master’s wealth is clearly based in fear of what would happen should he lose it all.

If we think about our relationship with God in these terms, we must ask ourselves, what is our image of God, and how does that image dictate the way we act? Some time ago, I was invited to close my eyes and picture God in my mind, going back to my earliest childhood memory of what I thought God looked like. Try it for a moment. Think back to your earliest impression of God. What did he look like to you when you were much younger? What did his hair, and his face look like? His clothing? His posture? Was he smiling, or looking stern? Did he have a beard? I told the Bible study group on Wednesday night that the first time I ever did this exercise, I was surprised to discover that my earliest image of God, seated on a high marble throne, with his hands resting on large, squared off armrests, strongly resembled the Lincoln Memorial!

Those images we hold in our minds dictate the way we behave. If we see God as a stern ruler who punishes those who disobey him, we will act in fear, just as the third servant did. But if we see God as a loving caregiver who wants only the best for us, we will act in confidence that he will forgive us when we do wrong. Our image of God determines how we invest in his kingdom. Either we will share lavishly, or we will hide the good news where it does no one any good. It all depends on how we view God, and how much we trust the One who entrusts us with his greatest treasure.

And that trust is the key to understanding what this parable is really about. It isn’t about using the abilities we’ve been given, even though that is a worthy thing to do. It isn’t about believing that Jesus is the Son of God who came to save us from our sins, even though that belief is necessary for our salvation. But faith is more than simply believing something to be true. James 2:19 says even the demons believe in God, and they shudder. Faith is more than that.

Faith is trusting what you believe, which means becoming vulnerable, putting yourself at risk. Are we willing to invest extravagantly in the work of God’s kingdom? We have been given not only the great commandment, to love God and our neighbor, but also the great commission, to make disciples. Not just converts, but disciples who are fully devoted to a life of following Jesus Christ.

But in order to make disciples, we have to be disciples. It’s by what we do that people see the need to have Jesus in their lives. It’s the risks we take that show the depth of our faith. Not just belief, but trust. The master trusted his servants. Two of them trusted him back. The third one, not so much. Faith is more than just believing something to be true; faith means trusting in that truth to the point of greatest risk. That’s what Jesus did. That’s what he asks of us. Are you willing to trust him, to risk everything in order to hear him say to you, at the end of time, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master?’

[1] Thomas Long, Matthew, 281-282.

[2] Long, 282.