With Us All Along

It’s hard to believe that we’ve already come to the season of Pentecost.  In one way, of course, we live in Pentecost, inspired and sustained by the Holy Spirit.  But if you’re like me, maybe you don’t think about the Spirit in particular as often as, say, you think about Jesus.  

We’ve all seen countless depictions of Jesus, and even though all of those pictures are merely artist’s conceptions (since we don’t really know what he looked like), it’s easier to picture him in our minds when we talk to him in prayer because our brains already have some images to work with.  The Spirit, on the other hand, is…spirit.  We have symbols for the Spirit, but they are just that: symbolic.  We know the Spirit is not a dove (or a wild goose if you’re Celtic).  Those symbols can call the Holy Spirit to mind, but they’re not always helpful to hold in our imaginations as we pray.  The Spirit is like the wind or breath, but that’s kind of hard to picture and personalize when it’s prayer time.  And that’s a bit unfortunate because she’s the one who is nudging us to pray in the first place.

Some people don’t like it when they hear or see the Holy Spirit referred to as “she.”  There are good reasons, though, to use the feminine pronoun when referring to the Spirit.  Genesis 1:27 tells us that God created humanity in God’s own image, male and female.  So there is a strong suggestion there of a feminine presence in the Trinity.  The Hebrew word for spirit, ruach, is a feminine word, so in Genesis when the wind or Spirit hovers of the waters it’s that feminine voice bringing order out of Chaos.  The Spirit also appears in the Tanakh (Old Testament) as Sophia, Wisdom, a feminine name with feminine pronouns.  And we must not forget Shekinah, the powerful, shining presence of God which settles on the prophets and sometime upon the people.  Shekinah appears numerous places in the Tanakh.  The word Shekinah is feminine, and the presence has always been understood as presenting a feminine aspect of God.  So if it helps you to mentally visualize who you’re praying to when you pray to the Holy Spirit, maybe you could imagine her as a feminine personage composed of wind and light and the flames of Pentecost.

Or you could learn to experience her presence in other ways, because she comes to us in limitless ways and forms.  That’s the advantage of being Spirit.

The other day I was struggling to write my sermon for Pentecost.  My thoughts were all over the place and I had a serious case of Writer’s Block.  I had pages of notes but no central idea was pulling them all together.  I sat at my computer here in the guest bedroom that has become my home office and stared blankly out the window, not really seeing anything.  In frustration, I offered up a little prayer.  “Okay, Holy Spirit, how about a little help here?”  

At that moment the light shifted outside the window and movement caught my eye.  The layer of overcast had parted and bright sunlight was flooding down on the trumpet vines on the fence outside the window.  The bright, almost garish vermillion flowers with their yellow throats were suddenly dancing in the breeze, raising their trumpet faces to the sun against the backdrop of deep green leaves, and I could almost hear them singing a song of praise: “Life! Life! Life in all its fullness!” 

I felt immersed in the presence of God, Shekinah, as I watched the wind, ruach, playing with the flowers and vines, shaking them to get my attention.  And the Sophia of God, Wisdom, spoke to my heart and head, telling me to rest and come back to the writing later.

Pentecost comes to us when we learn to see that the Holy Spirit has been with us all along.

Conspiring with God

When you think of all the things the disciples of Jesus saw and experienced in their three or so years with him—exorcisms, healings, calming of storms, raising people from the dead, and then his own crucifixion and resurrection—it’s a wonder they didn’t become unhinged.  Maybe they did a little.  I think it’s safe to say that conspiring with Jesus had fundamentally changed their understanding of reality.  They had seen things.

The Book of Acts tells us that Jesus stayed with his disciples for another 40 days after his resurrection, teaching them about the kingdom of God. He told them to stay in Jerusalem and wait for “the promise of the Father.”  “John baptized with water,” he said, “but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”  And was while he was saying all this “he was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight.”  I wonder if they had any clue what was going to happen next.  Things were about to get even stranger.

On the sixth day of Sivan, seven weeks and one day after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the day of Shavuot, which the Hellenized Jews call Pentekosta, the streets of Jerusalem were filled with people from every tribe and nation, from the far reaches of the empire and beyond, some even from Cush, Iberia and Ethiopia, from Scythia and the Parthian Empire.  Jews and proselytes, curious gentiles and ambitious traders had come from everywhere to be in the Holy City for the festival of the first fruits of spring and to remember when God gave the Torah to Moses.  

The followers of Jesus were there, too.  They had stayed all together in one place, in one room, waiting as Jesus had instructed—waiting for a signal, praying for something to happen.  Suddenly the house was filled with a sound like a hurricane.  It filled the house and drove them to their feet while something that looked like tongues of fire danced between them until a flame seemed to alight on the head of each one of them.  They felt a presence swell up inside them and knew it was the Holy Spirit. 

They poured out into the street where they began to speak to the crowd in languages they had never learned, the Spirit speaking through them, proclaiming the love and grace of God as it had been made known to them in Jesus the Christ.  They spoke of God’s works of power through Jesus, his feeding of multitudes, his healings, his teaching.  They spoke of how he welcomed strangers and touched lepers.  They spoke of how he challenged the self-righteous and embraced the neglected.

On the day of Shavuot, the Festival of Harvest which was also called Pentekosta, the day on which Moses had been give the Law, the Holy Spirit began to spread the good news of the Reign of God through Jesus, the Christ, across the empire of Caesar and beyond.  That day, that Pentecost, was the birthday of the church.  We sometimes think of it as the day that the Holy Spirit entered the story, but the Spirit had been part of the story from before the beginning.

When Jesus was baptized, the Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove.  That’s why the Spirit is usually depicted as a dove.  In Celtic Christianity, though, the Spirit is often portrayed as a wild goose.  

When you think about a dove, you think of something graceful and gentle and sweet.  It’s easy to ignore a dove.  Their cooing is soft and quiet.  It can lull you to sleep.  A wild goose, on the other hand, is a different bird altogether.  Geese are loud and intrusive.  They can be downright aggressive.  A goose will wake you right up.  There is no complacency with a wild goose.  If a goose wants you to move, it will find a way to move you.  A wild goose isn’t safe or tame, and neither is the Holy Spirit.  If the Spirit wants you to move, she will find a way to move you.  

The Holy Spirit is sometimes depicted as fire.  The Apostles experienced tongues of fire filling the room then resting on them.  The prophet Jeremiah said that when he tried to be silent the unspoken word of God, inspired by the Spirit, “is like a fire shut up in my bones.”  John the Baptist had told people, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is coming will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  In 2 Timothy 1:6-7 we read, “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you … for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”  

The Spirit is sometimes understood as wind or breath.  The Hebrew word for Spirit, ruach, also means breath or wind.  It’s the same with the Greek word for Spirit, pneuma; it also means wind or breath.  In the Genesis story of creation, it is the ruach of God—the breath of God or wind of God—the Spirit that hovers over the waters, bringing order out of chaos.  When the prophet Ezekiel had a vision of a valley full of dead and dry bones, it was the ruach breath of God that filled those bones with life.  In the Gospel of John, the resurrected Jesus surprised the disciples in the locked room where they are hiding then breathed on them—pneuma­­­­—and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  

The Spirit inspires us to envision God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven, and energizes us to work to make that transformation a reality.  The Spirit inspires our imaginations,  she gives us visions and dreams of the better world that God is calling us to build.  Our word “inspire” comes from the Latin word spirare, to breathe.  We breathe in the Holy Spirit, acknowledging that the life and power of God are in the very air we breathe.  We breathe in and call it inspiration.  When we die, we expire—ex (out of) spirare (breath)—we give up our breath, our spirit.  And in all of this, in all our life of faith, we are called to conspire with God. Conspire, con-spirare—to breathe with.  The Holy Spirit invites us to breathe as one with God, to change our understanding of reality, to learn to see the world through God’s eyes and love the world with God’s heart, to bless the world with God’s presence flowing through us.

It is by the Holy Spirit that we can say that Christ is in us and that we are in Christ.   It is the Holy Spirit who opens our hearts and opens our eyes to the presence of Christ in, with, and under everything.  It is the Holy Spirit who guides us to the future that God has envisioned for all of us.

When we conspire with God, the Spirit takes root in our lives to produce the fruit that builds and sustains community.  Love inspires us to invite and welcome others, to create a place of safety and comfort for them.  Goodness makes us trustworthy and moves us to treat others well.  Peace creates openness so that we can know each other more deeply.  Faithfulness ensures that we are deeply loyal to God and the Spirit’s calling.  Gentleness shows that we care for God’s creation, that we will treat each other, and animals, and creation, itself, with care and respect.  Joy keeps us from sinking into cynicism or bitterness.  It keeps our hope alive and flourishing.  Joy is a testimony to the presence of God within us and to our participation in the life of God.  Kindness, shows that we understand that we are all of the same kind—created in the likeness and image of God and that sometimes we all need a little help, some understanding, grace, and love.  Patience is the inspired virtue that shows that we understand that we are each learning and growing at a different pace and that life is teaching us different lessons.  Self-Control means that, with the Spirit’s help, I keep a rein on both my appetites and my temper.  It means I keep track of how well I’m doing at bringing love, goodness, peace, faithfulness, gentleness, joy, kindness, and patience—the fruit of the Spirit[1]—into the world around me.

We say sometimes—I’ve said it myself—that the church needs a new Pentecost, another outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  I think what we really need, though, is to revisit the ways that the Spirit is still alive and moving in our midst, and to open ourselves more fully to the wind and the fire.  We’ve been happy with the quiet cooing of the dove.  It has sustained us and calmed our anxieties.  I think, though, that it’s time to wake up the wild goose.  It’s time to rekindle the fire.

Symeon the New Theologian, writing in the late 10th or early 11th century said, “When you light a flame from a flame, it is the same flame that you receive.”  We’ve received that flame of the Spirit down through the centuries as it passed from one to another of us in our baptism.  That flame goes all the way back to the Apostles.  It’s the same flame that danced on their heads on that day of Shavuot so long ago.  It has been waiting to dance on our heads and in our hearts.  She[2] has been waiting to change our understanding of reality.  She has been waiting for us to conspire with God.


[1] Galatians 5:22

[2] I know that some object to using the feminine pronoun to identify the Holy Spirit, however, there is a long tradition of this which is rooted in both the original languages of the Bible and in theology.  In Genesis 1:27 we read that humanity was created in the image and likeness of God, “male and female he created them.”  The Hebrew word for Spirit, ruach, is a feminine word.  Another name for the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament is Wisdom—Sophia—another feminine name and word.  Then there is the Shekinah of God, another term for the Presence or Spirit of God which falls upon or rests upon the prophets and others.  Shekinah is not only a feminine word, but has always been understood to be a feminine aspect of God.  Pneuma the Greek word for Spirit, is gender neutral. 

image credit: ©2013, Hilary Ann Golden

When You Haven’t Got a Prayer (you really do)

John 17:6-19

“Prayer for many is like a foreign land,” said Robert McAfee Brown.  “When we go there, we go as tourists.  Like most tourists, we feel uncomfortable and out of place.  Like most tourists, we therefore move on before too long and go somewhere else.”

If you’ve ever felt even a little bit uncomfortable or awkward about praying, if you’ve ever felt like a “tourist in a foreign land” when you pray,  here in the 17th chapter of the Gospel of John, is an example of Jesus praying for his disciples that should make us all a lot more comfortable about our own prayer life.  Jesus is clearly praying from the heart here.  He knows the end is near.  There is a lot to say and not much time left to say it.  He prays for protection for these friends who have been his travel companions and students for three years and are heading into more difficulty than they can begin to imagine.  He prays for their unity.  That has to be comforting for them.  There is comfort here for us, too, especially as his request for protection and unity for his followers travels down through the ages to include us here and now.  But there is something else in this prayer that should make us more at ease in our own prayers.

Jesus rambles.  I mean no disrespect or sacrilege when I say that.  In this prayer, Jesus rambles.  We could, of course, ascribe that rambling to the writer of the Gospel.  But we can’t deny it.  In this wonderful, passionate, heartfelt prayer for the unity and protection of his disciples, Jesus rambles.  A bit.

I, for one, find that very comforting.  Because I ramble in my prayers.  Often.   I talk to God a lot, and it’s a rare blue day when I come into the conversation with all my thoughts completely organized.  I know people who do, but that’s just not my personality type.  

Over the years of my ministry I’ve been asked a number of times to teach a class or workshop on prayer.   I confess it always catches me by surprise.  Part of me wants to say, “How do you not know how to pray?”  But I realized years ago that a lot of people think there is a proper method for praying and they suspect they’re not doing it right.  Or they think that if they learn some secret formula for prayer they have a better chance of their prayers being answered the way they want them answered.  

Here’s the thing.  Prayer is not that complicated.   There really aren’t any secrets.

“Prayer is simply a two-way conversation with God.”  Billy Graham said that.  And since God doesn’t talk all that much, that means that you can simply share your thoughts with God.  That’s prayer.  You don’t have to kneel or fold your hands—although if it helps you pray to do that, then by all means do so.  

If you’re the kind of person who likes more structure than that, you can try the ACTS model for prayer.  A-C-T-S.  A for Adoration, C for Confession, T for Thanksgiving, S-for supplication.  Start by telling God all the wonderful things you’re seeing and experiencing and how much you love God for filling the world with such wonders.  When’s the last time you said, “I love you” to God?  You might be surprise at how much that simple act can change you.  So, Adoration.  Then do some introspection and Confess your mistakes and shortcomings.  You don’t have to beat yourself up.  Just acknowledge them.  Follow that by Thanking God for all the ways you’ve been blessed, all the ways you’ve been protected and cared for, for the food on your table, for, well, everything that makes your life livable.  “If the only prayer you ever say in your life is thank you, that will be enough,” said Meister Eckhart.  After you’ve said “thank you,” then you can ask for things.  That’s the time for Supplication. Unless it’s an emergency, of course.  If something is bleeding or broken—and that includes your heart—you can lead with supplication.

Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication.  ACTS.  The nice thing about this model is that it keeps you from leaping right into your conversation with God with your requests.  It keeps us from treating God like Santa Claus or a celestial vending machine.

The point of prayer, after all, is not to get things from God or keep giving God your wish list. Remember, Jesus told us, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask.” (Matthew 6:8)  The real point of prayer is to develop and deepen your relationship with God.  “Prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God,”  said St. Theresa of Avila.  Henri Nouwen said, “Prayer is the most concrete way to make our home in God.” “What if,” asked Richard Rohr, “what if instead of prayer, we used the word communing?  When you’re communing with someone, it isn’t long before you’re loving them.”

As for doing it right…there are as many ways to pray as there are people praying.  “Those who sing pray twice,” said Martin Luther.  So singing is an option.  So is dancing.  You can pray while walking.  You can pray while exercising.  Saint Ignatius said, “Bodily exercise, when it is well ordered, is also prayer and pleasing to our Lord.”  So there you go!  Pray while you’re at the gym!  

Back before I lost most of my hearing I used to lose myself  in improvising on my guitar and I would offer that time to God as a kind of prayer.  Kelsey Grammer said, “Prayer is when you talk to God.  Meditation is when you’re listening.  Playing the piano allows you to do both at the same time.”  I think most musicians have had that kind of experience.  There are times in music when you experience a  holy presence that goes beyond words.  You can experience that even when you’re just listening if you really immerse yourself in the music.

“The Glory of God is the human being fully alive;” said Saint Irenaeus, “the life of a human being is the vision of God.”  So if you’re singing or you’re dancing or riffing on your bagpipes, let that flow to the perichoresis of the ever-dancing Holy Trinity as a communion of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication.  Let that activity speak for your heart and don’t worry about impressing God with churchy-sounding words and phrases.  “In prayer it is better to have a heart without words,” said Gandhi, “than words without heart.”  “The fewer the words, the better the prayer,” said  Martin Luther.

And don’t worry about whether you should address God as Father, or Jesus, or Spirit, or Lord.  It’s all one to the Three-in-One.  When you speak to one of them you speak to all three. 

Prayer is a powerful way to center yourself in difficult times.  Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the artist and sculptor who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 for organizing and leading the opposition to Argentina’s military dictatorship said, “For me it is essential to have the inner peace and serenity of prayer in order to listen to the silence of God, which speaks to us, in our personal life and the history of our times, of the power of love.”  Such an extraordinary thing—to find through prayer the strength and resolve to love in the face of brutal opposition.  “Prayer,” said Myles Monroe, “is our invitation to God to intervene in the affairs of the world.”   “Prayer is not an old woman’s idle amusement,” said Gandhi.  “Properly understood and properly applied, it is the most potent instrument of action.”  “To clasp the hands in prayer,” said Karl Barth, “is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

Prayer is a powerful tool for difficult times, and we tend to turn to it automatically in times of crisis. But we shouldn’t wait for a crisis to turn to God.  As I said at the beginning, the main purpose of prayer is to deepen and strengthen our relationship with God.  “The moment you wake up each morning, all your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals,” wrote C.S. Lewis.  “And the first job each morning consists in shoving it all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other, larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.”  

That, in the end, is what prayer is all about:  letting that other, larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.  And letting our lives flow more deeply into the life of God in whom we live, and move, and have our being.

Living in Love

John 15:9-17

In 1938, during the Great Depression, a group of doctors at Harvard Medical School began a long-term study to determine what factors contributed most to long-term health and well-being in men.  The Study of Adult Development has been going on for more than 80 years now.  Once selected, participants are followed for the rest of their lives.  They fill out a questionnaire every other year covering their physical and mental health, financial status, relationship status, and general level of happiness.  Every five years some of the men are selected at random for more in-depth study.  

Some of the findings in the study haven’t been all that surprising.  For instance, they’ve verified that alcoholism is destructive.  It has been the main cause of divorce among study participants and it strongly correlates with neurosis and depression.  So, no big surprise there.  But here’s one that is surprising:  financial success depends more on warm relationships than on intelligence. In fact “warm relationships” play a huge role in lifetime satisfaction, wealth, and well-being.

The warmth of the childhood relationship with the mother matters long into adulthood:

  • Men who had “warm” childhood relationships with their mothers earned considerably more per year than men whose mothers were uncaring.
  • Men who had poor childhood relationships with their mothers were much more likely to develop dementia when old.
  • Late in their professional lives, the men’s boyhood relationships with their mothers—but not with their fathers—were associated with effectiveness at work.

The warmth of childhood relationships with fathers correlated with:

  • Lower rates of adult anxiety.
  • Greater enjoyment of vacations.
  • Increased life satisfaction at age 75.

When George Vaillant, the current director of the study, was interviewed by The Atlantic, his main conclusion was that “warm relationships” throughout life had a greater positive influence on “life satisfaction” than anything else—greater than money, greater than achievement, greater than acquisition and accumulation of things.  Warm relationships were the greatest predictor of happiness.  By far.  “Put differently,” Vaillant says,  “The study shows happiness is love. Full stop.”[1]  When a Canadian broadcaster suggested that his statement was overly broad and sentimental, Vaillant looked down at his data then looked up and replied,  “The answer is L-O-V-E.”[2]

So Jackie DeShannon was right back in 1965 when she sang What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love[3].  And the Beatles were right two years later when they sang All You Need is Love.  But Jesus said it first.  A long time before they did.

  “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you,” said Jesus.  “Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”

The word “love” here is agape which is a particular kind of love.  This isn’t a sentimental or emotional love, although it can develop into warm feelings.  But agape doesn’t start that way.  Agape is a decision.  It starts in the head before it moves to the heart.  Madeleine L’Engle described it this way:  “Agape love is…profound concern for the well-being of another, without any desire to control that other, to be thanked by that other, or to enjoy the process.”   Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess.  It begins by loving others for their own sakes… Therefore, agape makes no distinction between friend and enemy; it is directed toward both. It is redemptive goodwill for all people.  It is a love that asks nothing in return.  It is an overflowing love…And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love people not because they are likeable, but because God loves them.”   When Saint Paul writes that Love is patient and kind, that love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude,  that it doesn’t insist on its own way, that love it is not irritable or resentful, that it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth…when he writes that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,  when he writes that love never quits, he is describing agape.  

When Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you,” that’s the kind of love he is talking about.  Talk about a “warm relationship!”  Agape may start in the head as a decision, but how could you not have warm feelings for someone who loves you like that?  And how could you not develop a certain tenderness in your heart when you’ve decided to love someone that way?  You can’t help it.  Because when you love, you make yourself vulnerable.  That’s part of the decision.

“Abide in my love,” says Jesus.  Most of us don’t use the word “Abide” too often unless we’re huge fans of The Big Lebowski.  The Greek word that’s at work here is meno, which means to stay, to remain, to continue, to continue to exist.  It’s in the imperative form, so Jesus says it as a command.  “Continue to exist in my love.”  That puts a bit of a different spin on it, doesn’t it?

There are two ways to think about that.  One is that Jesus surrounds us with divine love and commands us to stay inside the parameters of that love as we act and interact with each other and the world.  This is something of the understanding Saint Paul has when he talks about being “in Christ.”  The other way to understand it is to see that our lives have been infused with the love of Jesus and we are now commanded to continue to regenerate that love for those around us.  Both understandings work and keep the love of God flowing.  And Jesus assures us that if we keep the commandment to love, we will continue to abide, to exist, within the love of God.

“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” This statement always catches me by surprise.  I’ll be honest, I don’t usually think of Jesus as joyful.  You certainly don’t see him depicted that way very often in the gospels.  We see him arguing with scribes and Pharisees or impatient with his disciples when they’re being dense. Healing people, yes.  Casting out demons, there’s certainly something energetic about that. But joyful?  But when you think about it, these episodes of cranky Jesus that we see depicted are brief and they’re probably very much the exception rather than the rule.  We do see him dining with tax collectors and sinners.  Those were probably fun times.  He does tell the occasional joke—you know, a camel through the eye of a needle?  And joy would explain why huge crowds came to see him.  Joy is attractive.  It’s charismatic.

So Jesus commands us to continue to exist in his agape love so that his joy may be in us and so that our joy may be complete.  And then to make it crystal clear that he’s serious about this—joyfully serious—he makes love a commandment.  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

As I have loved you.    

“No one has greater love than this,” continues Jesus, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  He’s referring to the cross here, of course, hinting at just how far he will go to demonstrate his agape love for all of us.  He will lay down his physical life.

But he might be referring to even more if we dive down below the surface.  The word that’s translated as “life” here is psyche.  It means living soul, inner self, mind.  It can also mean what we refer to as “ego.”  Richard Rohr has said that in order to learn how to fully and truly love we have to learn how to get our egos out of the way.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s ego for one’s friends.

“Authentic Christianity,” says Rohr, “is not so much a belief system as a life-and-death system that shows you how to give away your life, how to give away your love, and eventually how to give away your death.  Basically, how to give away—and in doing so, to connect with the world, with all other creatures, and with God…Here the primary language is unlearning, letting go, surrendering, serving others, and not the language of self-development—which often lurks behind our popular notions of salvation.[4]

Paul Tillich once wrote about meeting a Swedish woman who had spent time in a prison camp for giving aid and comfort to prisoners and orphans during World War I.  He found in her a personification of that “greater love.”  “It is a rare gift to meet a human being in whom love – this means God – is so overwhelmingly manifest,” he wrote. “It undercuts theological arrogance as well as pious isolation. It is more than justice and greater than faith or hope. It is the very presence of God in the form of a human being. For God is love. In every moment of genuine love we are dwelling in God and God in us.”

When you love with divine love, when you let divine love flow through you, you begin to love, as John Duns Scotus says, things in themselves, for themselves, and not for what they do for you.  That’s when you begin to love your spouse.  That’s when you begin to love your neighbors–when you start seeing them detached from you, what they do for you, or how they make you look, or what they can get for you.  It takes work to learn to love them in themselves, and for themselves, as living images of God.

When you love things and people in themselves, you are looking out at the world with the eyes of God.  When you look out from those eyes, you see that it’s not about you.  And you will see things that will give you joy.  Simple things will make you happy.

Reality will start giving you joy, inherently.  And you will start overcoming the gap between you and everything else.

Abide in Christ’s love.  Be a friend of Jesus.  Build those warm relationships in the world.  So that Christ’s joy may be in you.  And your joy may be complete.

Amen.

Prayers of Intercession – Easter 6B 

Growing in faith, lifted by hope, guided by love, and alive in the risen Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we bring our prayers before God who promises to hear us and answer in steadfast love.

A brief silence

Loving God, you call us to be your fruit-bearing church.  Strengthen the bonds among all Christian churches.  Toda we pray for the Moravian Church, giving thanks for the life and witness of Nicolaus von Zinzendorf, renewer of the church and hymnwriter.  Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great. 

Creating God, the earth praises you.  The seas roar and the hills sing for joy.  Fill the earth with your love so that by their song , all creatures of land and sea and sky, burrowing and soaring, may call us to join with them in praise.  Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great.  

Faithful Savior, you conquer the world not with weapons but with undying love.  Plant your word in the hearts of the nations’ leaders and give them your Spirit, so that the peoples of the world may live in peace.  Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great. 

Gracious God, as a loving mother comforts her child, you comfort us.  Bless mothers and mothering people in our lives.  Comfort those who miss their mothers, mothers who grieve, those who grieve because they cannot be mothers, and those who have never known a loving mother.  Your mercy is great.  

Caring Healer, you forget no one and accompany the lonely.  Be present with those who are sick or suffering.  Provide for those needing homes or medical care and point us towards life-changing responses to these needs in our own communities.  Be present with those who are sick or suffering.  We pray especially for  Lance Hailstone, for Donna’s grandson, Matthew Erickson, for Edie’s grandson, Harry Plummer as he recovers from a broken back, a punctured lung and a broken leg, we pray for Baby Arthur, the child of Candy’s friend, for Peggy Bockman, for Charley Hartwell, for Mike Engle,  for Janet Simms, for Vickie Gammar, for Jim Schoup, for Dianne Keil, Judi Mellow, Dee Perretta, Ranae Wright, for Sandy Nelson and for Bruce Chinn, for Lyn Hicks, and for all those on the Prayer Wall.  Reveal your power to heal and save.  Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great. 

Gentle Redeemer, all who die in you abide in your presence forever.  We remember with thanksgiving those who shared your love throughout their lives.  Keep us united with them in lasting love.  In the hope of new life in Christ, we raise our prayers to you, trusting in your never-ending goodness and mercy, through Jesus Christ our Lord who taught us to pray…


[1] Stossel, Scott (May 2013). “What Makes Us Happy, Revisited: A new look at the famous Harvard study of what makes people thrive”The AtlanticArchived from the original on 7 June 2017. Retrieved 25 June 2017.

[2] CBC News Staff (31 July 2009). “Study proves Beatles right: All you need is love”Canadian Broadcasting CorporationArchived from the original on 26 April 2017. Retrieved 25 June 2017

[3] Written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach

[4] The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr (213-214; 219)

The Stranger on the Way

Acts 8:26-40

There is an idea in Franciscan thinking called Mirroring.  Like so many Franciscan ideas it’s built on a chain of other ideas, so stay with me as I try to explain this.  

One of the things we are called to do as followers of Jesus, as people of Christ, is to reteach everything its loveliness.  We are called to reteach each other our loveliness.  

The world finds a lot of ways to tell us that we’re less than lovely and loveable, that we’re flawed and unacceptable in one way or another.  Even a lot of our theology does that, unfortunately.  So much of Christianity has adopted Augustine’s idea of Original Sin.  You hear it in a lot of our church language.  “We are born children of a fallen humanity.”  We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.”  To quote Richard Rohr, if you start with a negative anthropology, you’re going to end up with a negative theology. 

The Franciscans don’t ignore sin.  They just don’t think it’s the defining factor of human nature, at least not in God’s eyes.  They don’t start with Original Sin.  They start with Original Blessing.  God saw everything that God had made, and behold it was good.  Christ has come to remind us that we were created good, and to help us recapture that goodness.  

We are, in fact, children of God.  That is such an enormous idea with such far-reaching implications that I can’t generate a complete understanding of it in my own mind.  The idea that I, Steve Beckham, born in Missouri, of limited intelligence, and sinful like everyone else, am a beloved child of God is so momentous that the he mental circuitry just can’t handle it properly.  I’ll either under value it or over inflate my ego with it.   No one can properly process that idea.  I can’t.  You can’t. 

So we need people who, little by little, mirror it to us.  We need people who reflect back to us the image of God that is in us.  We need people who show us we’re beloved—they mirror God’s love and image to us.  They reflect the image of God that’s in us back to us.  One hopes it starts with parents when we’re babies and that it continues as we grow.  And one hopes that you are mirroring it to others.  So when you read in the scriptures that you are a beloved child of God, you’ve already got a template in place to help you believe it and process it. 

We mirror the image of God to each other to show each other our nobility, to remind each other of our worth and loveliness.  

I came upon a great example of mirroring in a letter written by Erin Poulson to Chadwick Boseman: 

In May 2018, I was newly Queen of Newcastle at the Georgia Renaissance Festival.  Black Panther had come out just three months before and it was on everyone’s mind.

I was still learning how to Queen, as the shoes before me were large, and pavilion time was always a time when I felt particularly inadequate.  It was one of my insecure days when I had a young black girl and her dad come and visit the Royal Court.  I introduced myself as Queen of England and the girl said, “I’m a princess!!”  And then she got shy.

I wanted her to keep talking so I said, “Oh, are you a Princess of England?”  She shook her head.  “Are you a Princess of France?”  Another head shake.  I don’t know why, I’d never done it before, but I thought I’d take a chance.  “Are you a Princess of Wakanda?”

Her eyes grew so big.  Her father jumped with excitement.  And she nodded regally.

I crossed my arms over my chest.  “Wakanda Forever, my Princess.  We are so honored to have you in our Kingdom!”  Now she stood a hundred feet tall, and her dad nearly trembled behind her.

I touched Joshua Miller’s shoulder, who had been carrying on a very different conversation as King Henry, and said, “My dear Henry, we have a visiting guest from Wakanda!”

Without missing a beat, his arms crossed over his chest.  “Wakanda forever, dear Princess!!  And welcome to England!!”

That shy girl walked out of the pavilion with her head held high like an empress.  And I remember her dad just dancing next to her, whispering, “Wakanda, baby!! They know you’re from Wakanda!!  You’re royalty too!!”  

Mr. Boseman, I’ve worked Renaissance festivals for almost twenty years now.  Since that point, I have seen dozens of black boys and girls accept themselves as royalty in a way that I’m not sure they would have before.  The doors you opened echo throughout time like Arthur pulling the sword from the stone.

Thank you,

Wakanda Forever

Mirroring,  reflecting someone’s essential goodness back to them can be transformative and can send ripples farther out into the world than you would dare to imagine.

In chapter 8 of the Book of Acts we read the story of the Apostle Philip who is suddenly told by the Holy Spirit to “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza.”  Philip obeys this prompting of the Spirit which must feel like some kind of mad impulse and promptly heads off for that road in the wilderness.  And there he encounters one of the most unexpected characters in all the Bible.  

“Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.”

This is such a unique person, this eunuch.  He personifies all the margins of his world.  He has rank and privilege as a member of the queen’s court, but what power does he have here on the wilderness road?  And as a eunuch, where does he fit in to the social structure of the world he is exploring?  He may be Jewish or a Jewish proselyte—there were Jews in Ethiopia—or he may simply have been drawn to know more about the God of the Jews.  Either way, Deuteronomy 23 states that neither a eunuch nor a foreigner is allowed in the assembly, so after all his long journey from Ethiopia to Jerusalem he wasn’t allowed inside the temple.  At best he would have had to worship from the Court of the Gentiles.  His heart was drawing him closer to God but the rules of admission were keeping him at arm’s length.

As he travels he is reading the scroll of Isaiah, reading about the sheep who is led to slaughter, about the one who is denied justice, whose life was taken away from the earth.  He is lingering over that passage when Philip approaches him and asks if he understands what he is reading.  “How can I, unless someone guides me?” replies the eunuch.  So Philip tells him who that passage is about.  Philip tells him  about Jesus. 

He tells him about travelling with Jesus throughout Galilee and Judea and everywhere else they went.  He tells the eunuch about Jesus’s confrontations with the scribes and the Pharisees because Jesus expanded his circle of friends to include sinners and tax collectors.  He tells the eunuch about all the trips back and forth across the Sea of Galilee so Jesus could heal and feed and preach to gentiles and include them in the community he was forming.  Philip tells the eunuch about the Kingdom of God as Jesus was building it.  The Kin-dom of God, and that in Jesus’ vision there are no outsiders.   He tells the eunuch that Jesus was building a community for all the people in the margins, all those who didn’t quite fit in so nicely and neatly.  He tells the eunuch about their last week in Jerusalem, about the arrest and crucifixion when Jesus was the lamb led to the slaughter, silent before the shearer, when he was denied justice and his life was taken away from the earth.  That’s who Isaiah was talking about, he tells the eunuch.  And then he tells him about the resurrection.  He tells the eunuch how Jesus has given him a new life, has reflected the image of God back to him so he could see it in himself,  how Jesus has shown him that he, too, is a child of God, that he has value.  That he is loved.

As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

“What is to prevent me?”

Do you hear the eagerness in that question?  Do you hear the anxiety–the hope mixed with a realistic anticipation of disappointment?  This is a question being asked by a person who had travelled a very long way to encounter God at a place that, when he finally arrived, wouldn’t let him come all the way inside.  So now he stands at the edge of an altogether new kind of intimacy with God, the doorway to a new kind of holiness.  And he asks the gatekeeper, “What is to prevent me from being immersed in this new way of being?  What is to prevent me from diving under all the barriers that have kept me separated from God all my life?  What is to prevent me from being part of the community of Jesus?  What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 

Philip doesn’t say a word.  The Holy Spirit answers the eunuch’s question with a silence that echoes across the water and leaps across the wilderness.  Nothing!  Nothing!  Nothing, nothing, nothing is to prevent you from entering the community of Jesus!

“He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.”

Philip mirrored the imago dei to the eunuch as he told him the story of Jesus.  He reflected back to him the image of God within him.  He reminded him of something he had always known even though the world had tried to tell him otherwise, especially at the doors of the temple.  This man who spent his working life in a court of nobility was reminded that he, too, was noble, and he immersed himself in that new identity as a child of God, a prince of the kingdom.

How many times in the history of Christ’s church have we put up barriers at the font?  How many times have we made criteria for who is acceptable and welcome at the table and who is not?  How many times have we set boundaries around who is and who is not acceptable for the anointing and ordination to proclaim the word of God and the grace of Christ—boundaries that have taken generations to break down?   

How many times have we been trying to close a door that the Spirit is trying to open?   

How many times have we been focused on someone’s sin when Jesus has called us to help them find their original goodness, truth, and beauty?

The question is not about the wideness of God’s embrace.  God’s arms are always open wider than ours.  The Spirit is always running ahead of us and calling us to catch up somewhere on the wilderness road.  The question is whether we can polish our own understanding of what it means to be a child of God so it shines clearly enough to mirror the image of God back to others. The question is whether we are bold enough to trust our own nobility as baptized children of God so we more fully participate in Christ’s resurrection work of re-teaching the world its goodness, truth, and beauty.

Look, here is water.  What is to prevent us from diving in?

Heart Signature

John 10:11-18

There is a lot about you that is unique.  Your fingerprints are unique, of course, but did you know that so are your toeprints?  Your voiceprint is also unique and can be used to identify you.  The patterns in the irises of your eyes are yours and yours alone.  And the same thing goes for the patterns of the blood vessels in your retinas.  Your gait when you walk is identifiable and can be used to pick you out from a crowd.  You can be singled you out from a multitude of other people online by patterns in the way you type on your keyboard or move your mouse, a little trick that’s been used, apparently, in espionage.  But here’s a new one—at least it was new to me.  Did you know you have a distinctive cardiac signature?   That’s right.  Your heart beats in a way that is unique to you and can’t be disguised.  The Pentagon has recently developed a laser-based tool called Jetson that can read your cardiac signature through your clothes from 200 meters away.  So now if somebody says they know your heart you might want to ask exactly what they mean by that.

“I know my own and my own know me,” said Jesus, “just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”   Jesus knows your heart, although clearly not in the same way that the Pentagon’s invasive new toy does.  More importantly, though, we know the heart of Jesus.  We know he loves us and he cares for us enough to lay down his life for us.

Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd.  I wonder how many of us really understand what he means by that.  I think what comes to mind for most of us when we hear “Good Shepherd” is a kind of greeting card image or something like the beautiful stained glass doors at the entryway of our church.  We picture Jesus looking pristine in his robe with a gentle, pure white lamb draped across his shoulders.  Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.  I think, though, that the image it brings to mind for us is a far cry from what it called to mind for the people listening to him on that long-ago day in Jerusalem.

When he was talking to people two thousand years ago in Galilee and Judea, Jesus used metaphors that were part of their everyday life.  That’s what made him such an effective teacher.  Even people who had never been outside of Jerusalem’s walls knew about shepherds.  They were a common sight.  They had all seen shepherds bringing sheep into the city for the markets and for sacrifices in the temple.  

Shepherds were also part of their faith heritage.  Joseph had been a shepherd.  Jacob worked as a shepherd for Laban so he could marry Rachel and Leah who had also tended sheep.  Zipporah and her sisters tended flocks.  Moses tended sheep before God called him to lead people.  King David started out as a shepherd.  The prophets spoke of the kings and religious leaders as shepherds—sometimes good, sometimes not so much.  Yahweh was regarded as the ultimate shepherd and, through the prophets, spoke of the people of Israel as “my flock.”   

When Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd, it brought a particular image to mind for those listening to him, but it wasn’t stained glass and greeting cards.  There was nothing particularly pristine in their picture of a shepherd.  They knew that shepherding was a dirty, smelly job.  But they also knew that good shepherds were strong and  brave and tough when they had to be to protect the sheep.  David, the shepherd boy, told King Saul he was tough enough to take on Goliath because he had already killed a bear and a lion.  

At night, when a shepherd would bring the sheep in from the pasture into the safety of the fold, he would recline across the opening of the sheepfold, making his own body the gate of the sheep pen, a barrier between the sheep and any predators, so that anything or anyone that tried to get at the sheep would have to do it across his body.

Often several shepherds would bring multiple flocks into a large sheepfold for the night.  When it was time to lead them out again to pasture in the morning, each shepherd would simply start calling out the sheep call that was familiar to his own flock.  Each flock knew their own shepherd’s distinct voice and would follow him and only him out to pasture.  So again, when Jesus says, “My sheep know my voice,” he is using a metaphor that’s familiar to everyone listening.  

So why is Jesus using this powerful image in that time and place?  He’s in the precincts of the temple.  He is already in hot water for healing on the sabbath, bringing sight to a man born blind.  This is all happening during the Feast of the Dedication, Hannukah, the feast that commemorates the rededication of the temple after the victory of the uprising led by Judas Maccabeus over Antiochus Epiphanes in 164 BCE.  Judas Maccabeus was a national hero, someone whom the Jews thought of, historically, as a good shepherd.  The temple was the place that more than any other symbolized the people’s covenant relationship with God.  So in the midst of all of this, the Pharisees and temple authorities are listening to Jesus very carefully.  And what Jesus says is, to their ears, very provocative.

“I am the Good Shepherd,” says Jesus.  Just what is he saying?  To their minds, God is the Good Shepherd.  Judas Maccabeus was a good shepherd of another sort. Was Jesus equating himself with God?  Or to the hero who had freed them from their Greek overlords?  They had to be wondering.  

And then he said this: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”  Who was he talking about?  Could he be talking about gentiles?  Is he talking about bringing them into the covenant?  Into the temple?  This was both unsettling and provocative to the Pharisees and temple authorities.

And who would those other sheep be for us today?  Who are those who are “not of this sheepfold”—or not of this church, maybe?—who Jesus intends to bring into the flock?

One flock.  One shepherd.  None of the artificial distinctions we’re so fond of making.  No us.  No them.  The Good Shepherd has gone outside the sheepfold to call in all the sheep who know his voice.  All of them.  All of us.  Are we ready to be one big happy flock with sheep we don’t know? Even if some of them have different kinds of wool?  One flock.  One shepherd.

“I know my own and my own know me.”   I wonder about that statement.  Is it always that straightforward?  Especially the second part—“my own know me”?  I know I’ve sometimes been misled into following other voices.  It’s easy to follow the voice of politics or partisanship or moralism or prestige or money or national  or racial or cultural or generational identity out into a wasteland full of predators.  It’s easy sometimes to think you’re following the Good Shepherd but it’s someone else mimicking his voice or borrowing his name for their own purposes.  We all saw those “Jesus” signs at the Capitol Insurrection.  I’m pretty sure that wasn’t really the Good Shepherd inspiring that activity. 

“My own know me.”  I think that’s our never-ending homework—to keep listening, to keep learning to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, to discern the voice of Christ above all the pretenders and the noise and other voices that try to distract us.  

“My own know me.”  Maybe Jesus states this so positively, so affirmatively, so that we have to take it as a goal and not make a liar out of him.  “My own know me.”  Okay, Jesus.  I will do everything I can to make that true.

But that first part—“I know my own,” –-That’s where the good news is for us.  Even when we have wandered off following the wrong voice or our own stubborn inclinations, Jesus still knows us. Jesus still says to us, You belong.  You are mine.  I know you.  I know your going out and your coming in.  I know your fingerprints and your toeprints and the pattern of your irises.  I know your heart.  I have your cardiac signature.  You are mine.

There will be one flock.  One shepherd…who knows the heart of each and every one of us.  And has laid down his life for us.  That’s the voice we can trust. 

The Resurrection of the Body

Luke 24:36b-48

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word,  I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.[1]

 This is the beginning of the Gospel of Luke.  It is, in his own words, an orderly account.  He is reporting what has been told to him by those “who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.”  Luke wants you to know that he investigated everything carefully. So if Luke tells you that shepherds watching their flocks at night heard angels singing and that an angel told them to go to Bethlehem to see a baby in a manger, Luke wants you to know that he is reporting the story exactly as it was told to him by at least one reliable person.

Luke likes details.  Luke locates the story of Jesus in history.  It began when Tiberius was emperor.  When Quirinius was governor of Syria.  When that first census was taken—you know the one everyone hated so much, the one that stuck us with that annual tax of one denarius per person.  

Luke keeps things physical and human.  This gospel doesn’t spiritualize practical or justice issues.  It’s “Blessed are the poor,” not “blessed are the poor in spirit” for Luke.  Yes, Luke does emphasize the presence and work of the Holy Spirit–Jesus is conceived by the Spirit (1:35), and anointed with the Spirit (3:22; 4:1, 14, 18),  

people are filled with the Spirit (1:15, 41, 67) and inspired by the Spirit (2:25–27), 

God gives the Holy Spirit to all who ask(11:13), and Jesus promises the disciples that they will be “clothed with power from on high”(24:49)—but for all that, the Spirit seems more practical than ethereal in Luke.

And then there’s the eating. 

Luke’s gospel seems to have an unusual interest in food.

In the Magnificat, Mary sings that the poor will be fed and in Luke’s telling of the Beatitudes, Jesus says those who hunger will be fed.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus talks about table etiquette three times. There are five banquet parables.  Jesus is present at nineteen meals.  Five times he is criticized for eating too much and with the wrong people.   But it is after the resurrection that food plays its most important role in this very pragmatic gospel.

On the afternoon of the resurrection, the risen Jesus joins a couple of heartbroken travelers who are returning to their home in Emmaus from Jerusalem.  These two, let’s call them Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas, are two people who know Jesus well.  In fact, if Cleopas is the same person as Clopas mentioned in John 19, then these two Emmaus travelers might be Jesus’ aunt and uncle.  So they know him,  but they aren’t aware of who he is as he walks with them and talks with them.  It’s not until he sits down with them and breaks bread that they recognize him.   Breaking bread, food, becomes the sign of recognition.

Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas rushed back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples huddled in the upper room about their encounter with Jesus.  But just as they started to tell their story, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  

And here is where Luke, the realist, the reporter, is at his best.  He tells us, “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.”  Well you would be, wouldn’t you.  Startled. And terrified.  If you had seen someone killed in a brutal and horrific way, and then seen them buried, but suddenly that person was was standing right in front of you, you would think you were seeing a ghost.  Or maybe you would question your own sanity.  

Before their minds could be blown too much or wander too far into the fog of speculation, Jesus brought them sharply to the reality of the moment.  “He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?  Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.”  

Once again Luke puts emphasis on the physical.  Touch me and see.  A ghost does not have flesh and bones.  Luke is making a point. 

Naturally the friends of Jesus when suddenly confronted with his unexpected, risen presence feel a jumble of emotions.  And once again, Luke is the realistic reporter.  He tells us they were joyful and disbelieving and wondering all at the same time.  So Jesus asks for something to eat and they give him a piece of broiled fish.  This is the physical proof that seals the deal and silences all doubts.  Ghosts don’t eat.

The realism is important here.  This is not merely a “spiritual” resurrection.  This is not some metaphor for springtime.  This is flesh and bones Jesus returned to life. Luke wants us to make it absolutely clear that Jesus is physically, bodily raised from the dead. 

Why does Luke make such a point of this and why does it matter for us?

In the original ending of Mark’s gospel, there are no resurrection encounters.  There is an empty tomb and the cryptic message that he has gone ahead of you.  It has been suggested that the empty tomb in Mark symbolizes that ultimate love in our lives, the love of God, cannot be crucified or killed.  

Well okay.  That’s not a bad message as far as it goes.  It’s an easy idea to carry in your head.  It sounds somewhat sophisticated and enlightened.  But does it move your heart?  Can that symbolic interpretation carry the full weight of your hopes and fears when you’re faced with a real crisis?

We are called to share the Good News of Christ risen, Christ alive, Christ with us, Christ at work in the world.   We are called to bring hope.  We are called to bring a real hope that speaks to the real needs of the real people who live in real crisis in our real world.  Does “the empty tomb is the triumph of love in the midst of suffering” do that?

And again, that’s not a bad message.  It is part of our message.  But is it enough?

Seven years ago when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer I found myself rethinking my mortality, especially since both my mom and my dad died of cancer.  My surgeon assured me that my chances of coming through the journey okay were probably good.  Don’t you love the language doctors use once the “C” word has been spoken?  You hear the word “probably” a lot.  The point is, once the word “Cancer” has been spoken, it sharpens your focus.  Things that had been theoretical either become the life raft you cling to or they get discarded.  I realized during that time that, while I’m willing to entertain and discuss all kinds of ideas and theories about resurrection, for me personally a psychological or philosophical understanding isn’t enough to carry the weight of my hopes and fears.  I need something with some bones in it, some skin on it.  And I’m not alone in that.

I have seen a lot of death in my decades as a pastor.  I have accompanied people up to death’s door and held their hand as they crossed the threshold.  I will tell you right now that the ones who have gone most easily, most readily, and most willingly have been those who believed in the actual physical resurrection of Jesus.

I will also tell you that those I’ve known who can proclaim their faith most convincingly have also usually been those who have believed in the physical resurrection of Jesus.  Though I’ve read his words many times, Frederick Buechner’s words of faith still move me:

I can tell you this: that what I believe happened and what in faith and with great joy I proclaim to you here is that he somehow got up, with life in him again, and the glory upon him. And I speak very plainly here, very un-fancifully, even though I do not understand well my own language. I was not there to see it any more than I was awake to see the sun rise this morning, but I affirm it as surely as I do that by God’s grace the sun did rise this morning because that is why the world is flooded with light.

The testimony of faithful people is a good and powerful reason to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  That’s why Luke, at the beginning of his gospel, makes it clear that he is reporting events  just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.  

But there is also another good reason to trust the accounts of the physical resurrection of Jesus, a reason that’s both practical and theological.

Jesus was a real physical person who was tortured to death in a first-century lynching.  The state and the religious authority colluded to crucify him, to physically destroy him and in so doing to destroy his opposition to their power.  His crucifixion was a political statement.  What they failed to see and understand, though, was that in Jesus “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” as it says in Colossians.  There was a power and authority in him that dwarfed any power and authority they imagined they had over him.

For that reason,  nothing less than a bodily resurrection would do to nullify their violence and call their power into question.  It was his physical body they killed.  It would have to be his physical body that would proclaim their work undone.  

The resurrection of Jesus was God’s way of saying that violence will not have the last word.  Pain will not have the last word.  Fear will not have the last word.  Anger will not have the last word. Disease will not have the last word.  Suffering will not have the last word.  Death will not have the last word.

The resurrection of Jesus was God’s way of saying that love, grace, forgiveness, hope and faith—these things will have the last word.  The resurrection was God affirming that Life will have the last word.  

Through Jesus Christ, our Lord.


[1] Luke 1:1-4 NRSV

Take a Breath

John 20:19-31

It was just over a year ago that we all went inside and closed our doors.  We locked ourselves in for safety because of the worst pandemic the world has seen since the Spanish Flu.  Businesses closed.  Jobs were lost.  The economy took a nosedive.  Streets were empty and cities became ghost towns as we hid away from a virus that could kill us, our friends, our family—a virus that can be spread with a sneeze, a cough, or a breath.  We all withdrew from the places of our togetherness—from stores, from workplaces, from restaurants, from schools, from church.  

We did our best to stay connected and active with our computers and our phones and our tablets. But as the months dragged on and the statistics kept telling us that the world outside our doors was still dangerous, lethargy set in.  Psychologists are calling it Covid burnout and estimating that 75% of us are affected by it–  a feeling of low-grade stress.  Malaise.  Low energy. Lack of enthusiasm and purpose.  Fatigue.  Lack of focus.  Faulty memory.  

Productivity and creativity are down.  Weight is up.  The AMA says that the average pandemic weight gain is 29 pounds.  The prolonged worry, stress and anxiety of the pandemic has left millions of us living in a mental fog.  When we locked down our buildings, we locked down our psyches, too. 

We are grieving.  But we haven’t called it that.  

What we’ve been feeling must be similar to what the disciples were feeling after the crucifixion.  They were grieving.  Their hopes for change, for a better world and a brighter life had died with Jesus on the cross.  They felt betrayed by one of their companions, someone they had trusted.  They were ashamed of their own cowardice in deserting Jesus.  And they were afraid.  They didn’t want to be seen.  They didn’t want to expose themselves.  

They didn’t know what to do.  They didn’t know where to go.  They didn’t know what would happen next.  So they stayed locked inside the only place where they felt at all safe.  Emotionally, they were burned out.

And then Jesus came and stood among them.  Behind their locked door.  Jesus came to them where they were huddled in their fear and spoke peace to them.  He spoke to their anxiety.  He spoke to their fear.  He spoke to their loss of focus.  He spoke shalom.  Composure.  Stillness.  Peace. 

And then he showed them his hands and his feet.  He showed them his wounds not only so they would know it was really him, but to acknowledge the reality of what they had all been through.  It was his ways of silently saying, “Yes, there was real trauma.  There is a reason you feel this way. Here it is.  I carry it in my body.  You do, too, just in a different way.  Here I am.  Let my visible wounds speak for your invisible ones.”

When they realized it was really him, they were ecstatic, so he spoke peace to them again, this time maybe to calm them down, before he gave them a mission:  “The Father sent me, now I am sending you.” Imagine their surprise when he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive anyone’s sins they stay forgiven.  If you hold on to anyone’s sins, they remain unforgiven.”

And then suddenly it was all over.  Just as suddenly as he appeared, he was gone.

We don’t know why Thomas wasn’t there for this brief reunion with the risen Jesus, but it shouldn’t surprise us that he didn’t believe the other disciples when they told him about it.  I imagine some of them were having trouble believing it themselves, even though they had experienced it.  We’ve all had that experience, haven’t we, where you see something extraordinary and ask yourself, “Did I really just see that?  Did that just happen?”  Of course Thomas doubted.  There is no shame or sin in that. 

What is a little surprising, though, is that a week later they’re all still locked in that room.  Think about it.  Jesus has appeared to them and told them he is sending them out.  He has given them the Holy Spirit with his own breath which should equip them for the mission.  He has given them the authority to forgive sins or retain them.  And one week later they’re still hiding behind that locked door.

Why?

Well, maybe they weren’t sure what to do next.  Maybe they, themselves, didn’t entirely trust their experience with Jesus.  Maybe they were still afraid.

So Jesus shows up again.  He speaks peace again.  He invites Thomas to touch his wounds.  And Thomas falls at his feet and proclaims, “My Lord and my God.”

Even that second appearance didn’t really kickstart their mission.  Jesus had to appear to them again before they really got started.  In chapter 21, the epilogue of John’s gospel, we read that they had gone back to fishing in Galilee.  Jesus met them on the shore and cooked them breakfast, and basically told them it was time to get moving.

It took the disciples a long time to get over crucifixion shock.  Crucifixion fatigue.  The Post-Traumatic Shock of all they had seen and been through.  They were real people who had witnessed a real horror, and even seeing Christ risen didn’t erase that overnight.  It would take a refreshing and renewing breath of the Holy Spirit—Pentecost—to reenergize them completely and set their mission in motion.

They began to share their story, the story of Jesus crucified and risen, anywhere they could with anyone who would listen.  When they could, they would share it in the synagogues.  When they couldn’t share it there, they shared it in caves or in private homes or in open fields.  Little by little their numbers grew.  Then came Paul, the adversary who became their greatest evangelist after he encountered the risen Christ, and their ecclesia, their church began to take root in places they had never imagined.

All this took time.  And imagination.  And creativity.  And love.  And caution.

Jesus is still sending us out to proclaim the kin-dom of God.  Like those first disciples, we are stumped about what comes next.  And we’ve lost some momentum while we’ve been locked behind closed doors.

As we contemplate opening those doors, we’re not sure what to do next or how to do it.  We know it’s not enough just to get all of us back together behind another set of doors, even if they’re our doors in our building.  Jesus is calling us, as always, to go out there with the good news of God’s love and grace and kindness.  And it’s daunting.  Not only has Covid stymied the normal way we do things, but how do we overcome the energy-sapping pain of declining numbers and increasing cultural indifference to religion in general and ours in particular?

We are like those first disciples.  We don’t know how to proceed with safety and enthusiasm.  We’re not sure where to go next.  We don’t know what to do next and how to do it.  

What we do know is this:  The risen Christ has stood among us and spoken peace to us.  He has breathed on us with the Holy Spirit.  He has given us the authority to forgive.  And he has told us to go.

And we know that Pentecost is coming.  

We don’t have to figure it all out before we step out.  The disciples didn’t.  They went out in faith and followed the guidance of the Spirit as they went.  We can do that, too.  The Spirit will guide us and strengthen us and propel us into the future Christ is leading us to.  

If we are faithful, there will be changes.  God is always doing a new thing.

It’s not our job to know in advance what will change, just that Christ is the architect of the changes that are coming.  Our job right now is to pray for the Holy Spirit to fall on us and light us up in a big way so that we are brave enough and healed enough to unlock the door and go out.

So take a breath.  Breathe in the Spirit that Christ is breathing out on us.  And then go…to make disciples of all people.  For the sake of the kin-dom of God.

In Jesus’ name.

Betrayed- A Maundy Thursday Meditation

Thoughts Along the Way

“It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.” ― William Blake

Betrayed. It’s such a gut-wrenching word, isn’t it? Betrayed. Just to say it, just to read it can open up that aching hollow in the pit of your stomach, can make the room tilt, can dim the light and warmth of the brightest day. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t felt it at one time or another.

Betrayed. The word can conjure up faces you haven’t thought of in years, or bring to mind places and events you thought were long ago laid to rest. It can test your claims of forgiveness. Betrayal cannot happen unless first there is trust. It is, by definition, a breach of trust.

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf…

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He Is Going Ahead Of Us

Martin Luther once spent three days in a deeply gloomy mood because of something that had gone wrong.  On the third day his wife, Katie, came downstairs dressed in mourning clothes.  “Who died?” asked Martin.  “God,” replied Katie.  Luther rebuked her, saying, “What do you mean, God is dead? God cannot die.” “Well,” she replied, “the way you’ve been acting I was sure he had!”

The thing is, God did die once, and Martin Luther would be the first to tell you that.  God, in Jesus the Christ, was crucified, died and was buried.  And on the third day rose again.  That’s what we’re celebrating this morning:  the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

The four gospels each tell the story of the resurrection a little differently.  Those differences really shouldn’t bother us too much.  Each writer was writing to a different audience and relying on different sources.  On the main points, though, they are remarkably consistent.  Jesus was crucified.  He was thoroughly and decidedly dead.  His body was not properly prepared for burial when he was laid in the tomb because the Sabbath did not allow enough time for that.  The tomb was sealed with a large stone.  On the third day the women of his company came to prepare his body and found the stone removed and the tomb empty.  They were addressed by an ethereal messenger (or two?) who informed them that Jesus had risen as he told them he would.  On these things all the gospels agree.

The Gospel of Matthew’s resurrection account is the most theatrical.  There’s an earthquake and an angel comes down to roll the stone away from the tomb which is already empty.  The angel then sits on the stone.  Matthew says that the soldiers guarding the tomb “shook and became like dead men.” The astonished women who had come to prepare the body of Jesus witness all this and later encounter the risen Jesus as they rush to tell the disciples what they have seen.  

Luke’s description of the resurrection is more subdued, but the story continues beyond the empty tomb to describe encounters with the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus and in the upper room where the disciples have been laying low.  

John’s account is probably the best known and best loved with its touching description of the encounter between Mary and Jesus when she mistakes him for the gardener then realizes who he is when he speaks her name.  

It’s not surprising that in years when the Gospel of Mark comes up in the lectionary cycle, most preachers opt to go with the Gospel of John instead. The resurrection account in Mark is so haunting.  So uncomfortable.  The angel—or young man dressed in a white robe—is there in the empty tomb.  He makes the announcement we expect to hear: “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.”  And then he adds, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 

So far so good.  But it’s the ending that leaves us off balance. 

“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s the original ending of the resurrection account in the Gospel of Mark, in fact, it’s the original end of the whole gospel.  

That ending is so disconcerting that by the late 3rd or early 4th century someone decided to add on a section.  These unknown editors wanted the ending of Mark, the oldest and earliest of the gospels, to be more consistent with the other three gospels and, frankly, happier.

But Mark had his reasons for ending the resurrection account and the gospel the way he did.  

Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, has come to proclaim that the kingdom of God is beginning, that it is time for it to become a reality and not just a dream of the prophets.  In his teaching, in his sermons, in his healings and his exorcisms, he teaches his followers to confront the social structures, political structures, the religious structure that oppress and exclude people.  More than that he invites his disciples to begin to build an alternative way of life built on inclusiveness, generosity and equality.

When Jesus is crucified, it looks like all this has come to an end.  But now an empty tomb leaves questions hanging in the air.

It’s as if Mark is saying, “Christ is risen!  What are you going to do about it?  What are you going to do with that news?”

He has gone ahead of you to Galilee.  Back to where all this began.  Are you willing to go meet him where he is?  Are you willing to go back to the beginning?  Are you willing to start over?  Are you committed to building the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven?

N.T. Wright wrote, “Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.  The resurrection completes the inauguration of God’s kingdom. . . . It is the decisive event demonstrating that God’s kingdom really has been launched on earth as it is in heaven. The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it.”  

One of the important themes in the Gospel of Mark is “let those who have eyes, see.”  Jesus, in Mark, is forever trying to get his disciples to understand what they are seeing him do and hearing him say.  Now he wants them and us to understand what it means that he has been resurrected.

If death cannot hold Christ, then it cannot hold you, either.  Not forever.  God is, by nature, eternal.  We were created in the image of God, so we share in that divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).  God is love (1 John 4:16), and the Holy Spirit has planted the love of God in our hearts (Romans 5:5, 8:9).  Christ is in, with, and under every fiber of our lives.  Life is eternal, love is immortal.  Because Christ rose, we, too shall rise.  “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his (Romans 6:5).”  That is  what his resurrection means for us.

We have all been through a year like nothing we’ve ever experienced before.  Because of the pandemic, we’ve faced trials and challenges no one anticipated.  Our way of life was radically changed.  We have laid dear friends and family into the hope that springs eternal, trusting in this promise of resurrection.

Now, with the vaccines and the virus numbers going in the right direction, people are talking about getting “back to normal.”  But wouldn’t it be better for us to be talking about resurrection?  Wouldn’t it be better for us to talk—not about resuming our old life—but about new life, and what that will look like and be like, and how we will do it, and how it will be different?

Jesus rose to new life.  We are being invited to rise to new life, too. He is going ahead of us, back to the starting point and inviting us to follow, and to join him in the continuing work of building the kingdom of God.  

Christ is risen!  We have a chance to start over!  What are you going to do about it?

In Jesus’ name.