The Works of Grace

Luke 16:19-31

One bright afternoon in heaven, three people showed up at the Pearly Gates at the same time. St. Peter called the first person over and said, “What did you do on earth?” “I was a doctor,” she replied.  “I treated people when they were sick and if they could not pay I would treat them for free.”  “That’s wonderful, Doctor,” said St. Peter. “Welcome to heaven, and be sure to visit the science museum!”  Then he called the second person over.  “What did you do on earth?” he asked.  “I was a school teacher,” he replied.  “I taught educationally challenged children.”  “Oh, well done!” said St. Peter.  “Go right in!  And be sure to check out the buffet!”  Then St. Peter called over the third person.  “And what did you do on earth?” he asked.  “I ran a large health insurance company,” said the man.  “Well, you  may go in,” said St. Peter.  “But you can only stay for three days.”

Some people think that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is about heaven and hell.  And in a way, maybe it is, but not in the obvious way.  Like all good parables, this story where the poor man is comforted after death and the rich man is left languishing alone in Hades is another one of those Jesus stories that should make us stop and rethink what we believe and what role that belief plays in our lives.

We Lutherans and many other Protestants are big on Grace.  This was Martin Luther’s big breakthrough after all—the understanding that we don’t earn our salvation, but that God’s love, God’s grace is what saves us. 

When I was in confirmation class many, many years ago, our whole class was required to memorize Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—  not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”  The Lutheran curriculum we were following wanted to make it crystal clear that being saved was entirely dependent on God’s grace.  For most of us at that age, being saved simply meant that you get to go to heaven when you die, and no one suggested that there might be richer or more nuanced ways to understand it.

So Grace, we were taught, is your ticket to heaven and the only way in.  The formula was pretty simple.  You might do all the nice and good things it’s possible to do in the world, but that won’t get you into heaven because no matter how good and nice and helpful you are, you’re still going to sin.  You can’t help it.  It’s part of human nature.  And sinful people can’t go to heaven, because no sin is allowed there.  But, if you believe in Jesus, then God will forgive all your sins!   You get a free pass.  You get Grace with a capital G.

The problem with our Protestant theology of Grace is that too many people stopped with that overly simple middle-school understanding.  Too many people came to believe that all they have to do is accept Jesus into their hearts as their personal Lord and Savior, and that’s it.  Done.  

This truncated understanding can lead to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” a belief that what you do or don’t do doesn’t matter because God will forgive you for Christ’s sake simply because you say you believe.  This is like setting off on a thousand mile hike and stopping after the first 20 yards.  At best, “cheap grace” leads to a very shallow personal theology and a me-centered spirituality.  At worst it lays a foundation for an “anything goes” way of life with no sense of accountability. People who believe in this kind of “cheap grace” can sometimes do atrocious things, or leave very necessary things undone, and still think of themselves as “saved.”  

Many of us cling to the gift of grace promised in Ephesians 2:8-9, and rightfully so, but too many of us stopped reading too soon;  we failed to read on through verse 10 where it says,  “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (NRSV) 

I particularly like the way the New Living Translation renders verse 10:  “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.”

We are saved—rescued, healed, made whole, restored—by grace through faith.  But “through faith” doesn’t just mean that we intellectually accept the idea of grace.  Real faith opens our eyes to God’s grace at work in our lives and the world around us.  Real faith moves us to embody and to enact God’s grace.  Real faith moves us to do the good things God planned for us long ago.  If we don’t do those good things, then faith becomes nothing more than a security blanket of wishful thinking to wrap around ourselves on dark nights of doubt and fear.  As the Book of James says, “we are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by faith alone… For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” (James 2:24-26)

One of the themes in Luke and Acts is the presence and work of the Holy Spirit, and yet Luke doesn’t let us “spiritualize” things that put us on the spot.  The examples of the “work of the Spirit” in Luke and Acts, especially as that work plays out in the ministry of Jesus, are practical, concrete, and challenging.  As much as we might want to spiritualize the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, it’s tough to explain away its central message, especially in light of what Jesus has to say about wealth and poverty throughout the entire Gospel.  

The Gospel of Luke emphasizes that the status of the rich and poor is reversed in the kingdom of God.  In the opening chapter of Luke, Mary sings, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;  he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (1:46-55)

 In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled,” and then “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” (6:20-25)

Luke makes it clear that “the poor” receive special attention in the ministry of Jesus and in the kingdom he is announcing. When he stands up to preach in the synagogue in Nazareth, he reads from the scroll of Isaiah,  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” (4:18)

When John the Baptist is in prison and sends one of his disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the one they’ve been waiting for, Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (7:22)

When he is a dinner guest at the home of a Pharisee, Jesus tells his host and others, “Don’t invite all your friends to your banquets, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.” (14:12) – because that’s who is invited to God’s banquet (14:21).

When the rich young ruler asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life he is told to go sell all he has and give it to the poor. (18:18-30)

In Luke’s gospel Jesus makes it clear that having “treasures in heaven” is not just about piety; it is also about selling possessions and distributing wealth to the poor. (12:33; 18:22) 

In Luke’s gospel, conversion doesn’t just mean accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior or asking Jesus into your heart. When Zacchaeus the tax collector is befriended by Jesus, he gives half of his possessions to the poor and repays anyone he has defrauded four times over.  

Concern for the poor is a central part of the ministry of Jesus, but it wasn’t invented by Jesus.  Jesus himself stresses that it is the commandment of Torah.  In Deuteronomy, Moses states: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.  You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.  Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt.  Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.  Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” (Deut. 15:7-11)

This parable of the rich man and Lazarus raises important questions.  We’re not told that Lazarus did anything particularly noble or good.  He was just poor.  So why is he carried away by angels to be nestled and comforted in the bosom of Abraham after he dies?   We’re not told that the rich man did anything particularly horrible, he’s just self-centered.  So why is he in anguish in the flames of Hades after he dies?

Lazarus benefits from the default of grace.  He is a descendent of Abraham, so he is included in God’s covenant with Abraham.  He hasn’t done anything to remove himself from the covenant so he will spend eternity “in the bosom of Abraham,” enjoying companionship with others who have kept the covenant.

The rich man, on the other hand, removed himself from the covenant when he failed to “open his hand” to the poor and needy neighbor on his doorstep.  He failed to even see Lazarus, much less see their kinship in the covenant of Abraham and the covenant of humanity.  Instead of using his resources to help Lazarus, he used them exclusively to feed his own appetites. He is condemned to live forever in the burning loneliness that he, himself, created.  By focusing only on himself during his life, he created a great uncrossable chasm which now separates him forever from the companionship of eternity. 

“Some people, we learn, will never change,” says Amy-Jill Levine.  “They condemn themselves to damnation even as their actions condemn others to poverty.  If they think that they can survive on family connections—to Abraham, to their brothers—they are wrong.  If they think their power will last past their death, they are wrong again.”[1]

There is a sad “too-little-too-late” moment at the end of this short story by Jesus.  The rich man, realizing that there is no reprieve for him, asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers so they don’t end up “in this place of torment.”  Abraham reminds him that Moses and the prophets have already warned them, and the rich man replies, “No, Father Abraham!  But if someone is sent to them from the dead, then they will repent!”  Abraham says simply, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.”

“We are those five siblings of the rich man,” wrote Barbara Rossing.  “We who are still alive have been warned about our urgent situation… We have Moses and the prophets; we have the scriptures; we have the manna lessons of God’s economy, about God’s care for the poor and hungry.  We even have someone who has risen from the dead.  The question is: Will we—the five sisters and brothers—see?  Will we heed the warning before it’s too late?”[2]


[1] Short Stories by Jesus, p. 271, Amy-Jill Levine

[2] Working Preacher.org; Barbara Rossing, Commentary on Luke 16:19-31, September 25, 2016

Context

Note: This is a transcript of an extemporaneous sermon

Jeremiah 23:23-29; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

I confess I hardly know where to begin today.  The three readings that we have this morning are the kind of texts that are very easy to take out of context and twist them to whatever end someone wants.

In the first reading, Jeremiah is calling out the false prophets.  He was speaking at a time when the false prophets were telling the people of Israel and the political powers that be that they didn’t have anything to worry about from the approaching Babylonians because God was going to save them.  And Jeremiah was saying, No, that’s not how it’s going to happen.  You haven’t listened to God’s warnings, you’re completely unprepared, and that’s just not how it’s going to happen.  He reminds them that the Word of God is like a fire or a hammer that can smash through the rock of our denial.

And then we come to the lesson from the letter to the Hebrews.  It starts off with this wonderful remembrance of all these heroes of faith, people who stayed faithful.  The passage starts off talking about how they were rewarded for their faith.  Some of them were given kingdoms. Some of them made great accomplishments.  But then it quickly turns and talks about martyrdom.  

It’s so easy, sometimes, to think of ourselves as martyrs when things are not going our way.  Or when we find ourselves facing forces or circumstances in the culture or in life that put undue pressure on us, especially if it happens because of our faith.  We forget that that letter was written at a time when people really were being tortured for their faith.  Hebrews was written probably around 63 or 64 CE, when Nero was the emperor—Nero, who would light his garden parties by putting the bodies of Christians on poles and lighting them on fire as human torches—Nero, who executed Paul by beheading and Peter by crucifying him upside down—Nero, who sent Christians to the arena to fight wild animals without any weapons.

And then come the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel:  “You think I came to bring peace?  No, I came to set the world on fire and I wish it was already kindled. I have a baptism to be baptized with and I am under such anxiety until it is complete.”  He was on his way to the cross.

At the beginning of that chapter, chapter 12, Luke tells us that thousands of people were now following him.  Thousands.  And you know Jesus walked among that crowd and listened to every single way that people were misunderstanding him.  And every single misplaced expectation.  So he talks about division.  And I don’t think he’s saying this with any kind of forcefulness or bravado.  I think he is lamenting.  I think he understands that the world is going to be pretty hostile to those who truly follow what he’s been saying about proclaiming the reign of God and working to see it established nonviolently.  

And I think it breaks his heart to say those words.  Father will be pitted against son and son against father.  I remember the first time I talked to my dad about going to seminary when I was about 15 years old.  I remember he said, “It’s a good thing to have religion, but don’t go overboard with it.”  

These texts that we have this morning, as I said, can so easily be pulled out of context and used the wrong way.  When I first read these texts this week, I couldn’t help but think about how a White Christian Nationalist preacher might use these texts.  

You could use this text where Jesus talks about division, for instance, to make it sound like he’s endorsing that, like we’re supposed to be splitting ourselves apart from each other.  You could use what Jeremiah is saying about the false prophets because it’s oh so easy to think that the people who are saying what we don’t like are the false prophets, instead of the ones who are speaking the Word of God.  And as I said, with martyrdom, it’s so easy to think of yourself as the martyr. We have romanticized martyrdom in our world today.  This is why terrorist groups talk about martyrdom and the possibility of martyrdom when they’re recruiting.  It just sounds so glorious. 

On Wednesday, Diana Butler Bass published a piece in her online group called The Cottage, where she shared that she’s extremely worried because there’s been an increasing amount of rhetoric from a certain quarter of our society about civil war, especially after Mar a Lago was searched by the FBI early this week.  There were thousands of posts saying it’s time for civil war, thousands of posts with a headline that said lock and load.  And the scary thing is that the people who are saying this don’t stop to think about what that really means.

It means violence.  And bloodshed.  It means misery and suffering.  It means crashed economies.  It means poverty and hunger.  It means destruction.  It’s not going to be like the last time.  There won’t be some dividing line between North and South.  No, it will be between you and your next door neighbor.  It’ll be right outside your door…or maybe inside your house…if it’s a thing we allow to happen.

One of the things that we are called to as faithful people is to be faithful to Jesus and to be faithful to what the scriptures are actually saying, to keep them in context and use them in context.  But also to speak to a society that is taking them out of context, to remind them of what they’re really saying when they say things like, “It’s time for a civil war.”  To remind them that what they’re saying is that it’s time for bloodshed…and destruction and violence and pain and suffering beyond their imagination.  If they talk about the words of Jesus saying, “But look, he’s calling for this division!” it’s our job to say, “No, he’s lamenting the ways we divide ourselves from each other because of the way we interpret our faith.”  

Jesus was just so prescient when he talked about our division.  So prophetic.  There are 40 church bodies in North America, in the US and Canada that call themselves Lutheran.  There are 45,000 church bodies in the world that call themselves Christian.  And all of them have separated themselves from some other church body at some point in history.  

The message of Jesus is that we are supposed to build bigger tables, not higher walls.  We’re supposed to open our doors wider, not close them against people who disagree with us on minor things.   The message of Jesus is that we’re supposed to embrace each other with love, not take adamantine stands against each other because of the way interpret a few words here and there.

As I said, I don’t know where to begin this morning, because if these three scriptures that we have this morning tell us anything, they tell us that we have enormous work ahead of us in a dangerous time.  They tell us that this is a time to really and truly be faithful to the gospel of love, to the gospel of Jesus Christ that embraces everyone.  They tell us that this is a time to speak truth for the sake of the reign of God through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen       

Restless Faith

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-4, 8-16;  Luke 12:32-40

Just as he was about to begin his sermon one Sunday, a pastor was handed a note.  He unfolded the paper then said to the congregation, “This says there will be no B.S. tomorrow.”  He paused for a long moment then said, “I’m pretty sure that means Bible Study, but I have to confess that for just a moment there I thought, ‘Oh, that would be nice.’”

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a day scheduled for no B.S.—no Bogus Stuff?  

In the alternate first reading for this morning from chapter one of Isaiah, Isaiah takes the people to task for their Bogus Stuff.  He tells the people quite plainly, “God doesn’t want your bull.”  Well, what he actually says is:  

10 Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom!

Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!

11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD;

I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts;

I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. 

12   When you come to appear before me,  who asked this from your hand?

Trample my courts no more;

13 bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.

New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— 

I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.

14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;

they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.

15 When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;

even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;

your hands are full of blood.

Somewhere along the way, the people had substituted the practice of their religion for the ethics of their faith.  They had fallen into the habit of thinking that as long as they performed the right rituals and offered the right sacrifices, as long as they celebrated certain festivals and observed certain holy days in the calendar, then everything would be okay between them and God.  

But Isaiah tells them in plain language, “No.  God thinks all of that is B.S.  Bogus Stuff.  God doesn’t want your bull…or your ram or your goat.”  So what does God want? Once again, Isaiah is blunt:

16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings

from before my eyes;

cease to do evil,

17 learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed,

defend the orphan,

plead for the widow.

The texts assigned for today are all about faith.  They tell us what faith is and what it is not.  

Isaiah makes it clear that faith is not simply worship.  It is not liturgical worship or praise worship or any other form of worship.  Faith may move you to worship God.  Worship is one way to express your faith.  But it is not a substitute for faith.  And worship without faith is meaningless.

Faith is not mere belief.  Faith does not mean you accept or give your intellectual assent to certain propositions or truths about God, about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit.  Faith is not creeds or doctrine or dogma.  Those are tools that can help guide our faith in the same way a map can help you get somewhere you want to go.  But the map is not the journey.  It’s a depiction of the path others have traveled before you.   

So what is faith?

“Faith,” said Martin Luther, “is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God… It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith… Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it.”[1]

Faith is trusting God.  And that’s not always as easy as it sounds because God’s ways are not our ways and God’s timetable is not our timetable.

Abram trusted God, but that didn’t stop him from complaining.  He had left his home in Ur to find a new homeland that God had promised.   Everywhere he went in the new land he prospered.  He acquired vast parcels of property.  His flocks increased.  Local kings respected and feared him so much that they tried to recruit him as an ally in their territorial wars.  He could have built his own city, but Abram continued to live in a tent because God had told him to keep moving.  But when  long years had passed and he and Sarah had not been blessed with children, Abram complained.

So God took Abram outside to look up into the night sky.  “Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can,” said God.  “If I can make that, do you really think giving you descendants will be a problem?”

Genesis tells us that Abram trusted God, and God regarded Abram as righteous because of his faith.

Faith is trust in God. 

When Jesus was on the road with his disciples announcing that the reign of God, the kin-dom of God is in reach, his followers started to worry about all the things one worries about in daily life.  Jesus turned to them and said, “A person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.  That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food to eat or enough clothes to wear. For life is more than food, and your body more than clothing.  Look at the ravens. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for God feeds them. And you are far more valuable to him than any birds!  Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?  And if worry can’t accomplish a little thing like that, what’s the use of worrying over bigger things?

    “Look at the lilies and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are.  And if God cares so wonderfully for flowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?

   “So don’t be afraid, little flock.  For it gives your Father great happiness to give you the Kingdom.”[2]

Faith is trusting God as we follow the Spirit-driven yearning of our hearts toward the better world that Jesus described for us.  It is trust that carries through this in-between life—living between what life and the world are now and what we hope and dream they will be as we work to transform them.  Faith is a holy restlessness.  A longing.  A hunger.  A desire.  Faith is not a destination, it is the journey.

“Faith,” wrote Debi Thomas, “is the audacity to undertake a perilous journey simply because God asks us to — not because we know ahead of time where we’re going.  Faith is the itch and the ache that turns our faces towards the distant stars even on the cloudiest of nights.  Faith is the willingness to stretch out our imaginations and see new birth, new life, new joy — even when we feel withered and dead inside.  Faith is the urgency of the homeless for a true and lasting home — a home whose architect and builder is God.”[3]

Faith is a holy dissatisfaction.  Faith wants to tear down walls and build bigger tables.  Faith wants to open the doors wider so more can come to the feast.  Faith trusts that there will always be enough for everyone.  Faith trusts that Love is not diminished but multiplied when it’s shared.  Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see.

This week, our denomination, the ELCA is having its churchwide assembly, the national gathering that takes place every three years to discuss and vote on theological, structural and administrative matters.  This year there are a number of proposed changes in our national constitution.  In addition to the constitutional changes that are already part of the agenda, a number of synods have submitted memoranda calling for a complete restructuring of our denomination in order to root out any systemic racism, but also to make our denomination structurally and administratively less top-heavy, lighter and more nimble.  They want to ensure that we are able to follow Jesus more closely and more quickly.  They want to make it easier for us to respond to the needs of the world and our communities, more by faith and less by organizational systems.

Changes are coming to our church, in fact change has been happening for some time.  We don’t yet know what all the changes will be or what they will mean for us.  Faith is a journey, not a destination, and it might be time to move.  But whatever changes we face, we can trust that God is in the change.  God will be with us.  

So, Jesus tells us, travel light.  Sell your excess stuff and give to those in need.  Where your treasure is, that’s where your heart will be, so let your heart go out to those in need.  Be dressed for service and keep your lamps burning.  And be ready.  The kin-dom of God is close…and we don’t want to let Bogus Stuff keep us from getting there.

Have no fear, little flock.  It is your Father’s great pleasure to give you the Kingdom.


[1] An excerpt from “An Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” Luther’s German Bible of 1522 by Martin Luther, 1483-1546

Translated by Rev. Robert E. Smith from DR. MARTIN LUTHER’S VERMISCHTE DEUTSCHE SCHRIFTEN. Johann K. Irmischer, ed. Vol. 63 Erlangen: Heyder and Zimmer, 1854), pp.124-125. [EA 63:124-125]

[2] Luke 12:22-32 (NLT)

[3] Debi Thomas, Called to Restlessness, Journey With JesusAugust 7, 2022

Love Story

I came across the best love story on Facebook this week, and I just had to pass it along to you.  A reporter was interviewing a man who had managed to get himself and his family out of Mariupol during the Russian bombing.  Here’s what he said:

“I left the bomb shelter and saw a car with keys in the ignition near the store.  I watched it for two hours, waited for the owner.  When the owner didn’t show up, I didn’t wait.  I took my family, got in the car and drove to Vinnitsa to stay with relatives.  I found a phone number in the glove compartment and called the owner:

“‘Sorry,’ I said, “I stole your car.  Saved my family.’

‘Thank God!’ he said. ‘Don’t worry, I have four cars.  I took my family out in my Jeep.  The rest of the cars I filled with fuel and left in different places with the keys in the ignition and the number in the glove compartment.  I received calls back now from all the cars.  There will be peace.  See you.  Take care of yourself.’”

As I said, it’s a love story.  Leaving those cars behind, gassed up and ready to go  with the keys in the ignition so that other people, strangers, could escape the hellish bombing of their city—that was an act of love.  That was God made manifest.  

“I give you a new commandment,” said Jesus, “that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

It isn’t doctrine that marks us as disciples of Jesus.  It isn’t our intellectual assent or understanding of the faith.  It isn’t embracing particular ideas about atonement or grace or the nature of Christ.  It isn’t our righteousness or our moral stance on hot-button issues.  It isn’t even “accepting Jesus into our hearts,” whatever that might mean.  “By this everyone will know you are my disciples,” said Jesus, “—if you have love for one another.” 

When Jesus was asked which of the commandments was the most important, he went straight to love.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.  And love your neighbor as yourself.  There are no greater commandments.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Do this and you will live.”[1]

When some of the people in Corinth got all wrapped up in their charismatic gifts and started to take a kind of overweening pride in their spirituality, St. Paul wrote to them with a word of caution:

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge—if I have so much faith that I can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions—even if I give up my body as a martyr—but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

A few years later, Paul said in his letter to the Christians in Rome:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word.  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Paul’s descriptions of love in 1 Corinthians and Romans are excellent and instructive.  But they’re also rather passive.  When Jesus talked about love, he seems to have had something more active in mind.  Often when he talked about love, he would combine it with action.  “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”[2]  “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.”[3] When a lawyer tried to find a loophole in the commandment to love your neighbor by asking, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded with a story about a Samaritan who rescues a traveler who had been left for dead after being beaten up by bandits.  Clearly, loving your neighbor involves action.  Love also involves generosity.  The Gospel of John tells us that God so loved the world that God gave God’s unique son to us.  Giving is an act of love.

All people are called to love, not just Christians, but followers of Jesus have been commanded to love so that we can be known as his disciples.   Love is supposed to be the thing that identifies us. Love is what we’re supposed to be all about…but how do you that?  Especially, how do you do that part about loving your enemies—or even just people you don’t particularly like?

You may already know that the ancient Greek language in which the New Testament was written had four different words for love: agape, eros, philia, and storge.  Storge was a word used to describe duty to family and country—think of it as patriotism.   Philia is friendship.  It meant a lot to call someone your friend in the ancient world.  True friendship, then and now, is a kind of love.  Eroswas the most commonly used word for love in the ancient world.  Our word erotic comes from eros, but properly understood there’s a lot more to it than that.  

Agape is the word for love that’s used most often in the New Testament.  Agape is a love that is unconditional.  It has no motive other than to seek the well-being of the beloved.  It can be spontaneous, but usually it is decisional—you simply decide that you are going to love that other person or those other people.  Period.  Agape is indifferent to any kind of reward and it doesn’t seek reciprocity— agape doesn’t ask to be loved in return.  Agape is the simple yet profound recognition that giving of yourself is a worthy and good thing to do.  It is an unconditional willing of good.  Agape loves the beloved for their own sake, whether they are worthy and deserving or not.

Eros, on the other hand, speaks of desire and longing.  Eros seeks to possess what we find valuable but not to covet or desire a person at the expense of overall well-being.  Edward Vacek defined erosas “loving the beloved for our own sake.”[4]  Plato thought that eros was the pathway to God.  His reasoning went like this:  I see a beautiful person or thing and I desire them or it, but if I look beyond the person or thing I find that what I am really desiring is beauty.  But beauty is truth, so if I look beyond beauty, I find that what I really desire is truth.  But truth comes from God, so what I am really desiring is God.  

Ilia Delio reaffirms that the heart of eros is passion or desire.  “Eros,” she writes,  “is that ineffable longing that stretches beyond oneself for the sake of oneself.”  She goes on to suggest that eros and agape aren’t so much in contrast with each other as related to each other and that philia—friendship—is the thread between them.  In philia a person gives themselves over to the relationship.  Philia is expressed in camaraderie and companionship, in life together in community.  Edward Vacek says that philia “may be the most cosmic form of love because it is based on mutuality, reciprocity, and cooperation—with the purpose of promoting overall well-being.”  That’s how the Quakers understood it, which is why they officially called themselves The Society of Friends.

Agape is the word for love that’s used most frequently in the New Testament, but there are moments when philia comes into the text to give love a meaning that is broader and deeper.  Jesus brings agape and philia together in John 15:13 when he says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  No one has greater agape than to lay down one’s life for one’s philon—those who are loved with the deep bond of philia.  He goes on to say, “You are my friends (philia/philon) if you do what I command you.”  And what did Jesus command?—that we should love one another with agape love as he has loved us.  

So how do you love—how do you obey the command to love?  Well to start with, it helps to realize that the kind of love Jesus commands doesn’t have to involve any warm, fuzzy emotions.  You can decide that you will unconditionally will and work for goodness for others without expecting anything to come back to you.  You can decide to love with agape.  That’s the starting point.

But agape can be a poor kind of love if it doesn’t bloom into something more than just a decision.  If it remains simply a decisional kind of love, it can become rote, individualistic, non-mutual, and even task-oriented.  Yes, agape is patient and kind, it’s not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, it does not insist on its own way, it rejoices in truth, it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, and doesn’t quit—agape has all those qualities that St. Paul pointed out to the Corinthians.  But agape can be all that and a bag of chips and still not be warm enough to bloom into a real relationship.  Love, complete and healthy love at work in a community of faith, starts with a good base of agape, but mixes in a good dose of philia, friendship, and even a dash of eros, to keep us longing for God, for each other, and for the beauty of our relationships.

From the beginning of creation, God has been pouring love into the universe and calling us into relationship.  Love is the force that brings quantum waves together to form hydrogen atoms and hydrogen atoms together to form stars.  Love is the force that drives evolution, overcoming entropy to continually transform biological life into higher, more complex, more aware forms of life—forms capable of loving.  We are commanded to love because it is intentional love that identifies us as followers of Jesus, but even more importantly, because love is what God has been using throughout all time to transform the all of creation.  When we reflect that love back to God and to each other, we participate in God’s formative and transformative work.  

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “The day will come when, after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love.  And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, humanity  will have discovered fire.”

Love is patient and kind.  Love does bear all things and believe all things and hope all things, and endure all things.  But love goes beyond that.  Love puts gas in the car and leaves the keys in the ignition so that beloved strangers can escape to new life.  Love promises there will be peace.  

May the Spirit ignite in all of us the bright flame of God’s transforming love.


[1] Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 22:36-40; Luke 10:25-28

[2] Matthew 5:43

[3] Luke 6:27

[4] Edward Collins Vacek, Love, Human and Divine: The Heat of Christian Ethics, 1994, pp. 157-158; as quoted by Ilia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being, Orbis Books, 2013, p.42

Plague

Thoughts Along the Way…

In the year 165, Roman soldiers returning from their victory over the Parthians brought an unwelcome guest home with them.  As they battled the Parthians and camped in the borderlands, many of them contracted a highly contagious and lethal virus.  It began to decimate their ranks as they marched homeward.  The disease was probably smallpox and it spread through the empire like wildfire. It claimed the life of the emperor, Lucius Verus, in 169.  His co-regent, Marcus Aurelius also contracted the disease but survived.

That first Roman pandemic came to be known as the Antonine Plague and it lasted the better part of 20 years, sweeping across the empire in surges and waves.  Medical historians think there were at least two variants of the virus.  At its height, it is estimated that the plague was causing 5,000 deaths a day.  When it broke out again in 189, Cassius Dio documented a death toll of 2,000 a day.   Over a 23 year period, the Antonine plague claimed somewhere between 7 and 10 percent of the entire population.  In the army and in the densely packed cities, the rate was between 13 and 15 percent.  Cassius Dio wrote that caravans of carts loaded with bodies could be seen leaving the city every day, taking the dead to the countryside for burial or burning.

Needless to say, a plague with such a devastating mortality rate had a tremendous impact on every aspect of life in the Roman world.  Civic building projects, one of the primary engines of the Roman economy, came to a complete halt between 166 and 180.  On the other hand, Marcus Aurelius, in an effort to curry favor with the gods, sank enormous amounts of money into rebuilding and refurbishing the temples and monuments of the pagan deities of Rome.  On the whole, though, the empire’s economy tanked.  People avoided crowds.  Marketplaces languished.  Supply systems became disrupted and often there would be shortages of food and other goods.  There was a chronic shortage of workers, even slaves.  The mortality rate was so high in the army that Marcus Aurelius ordered the drafting of slaves and gladiators to fill the ranks.  Since the plague didn’t spare Patricians, their numbers thinned so much that the emperor decreed that the sons of freed slaves could fill administrative positions that had previously been reserved for the higher born. 

Christian communities changed, too.  For one thing, they began to grow in size at a steady pace.  People living in fear and confronted by mortality were much more ready to consider options in their understanding of things divine.  People also noticed that the Christians cared for each other when illness struck.  That was an attractive feature in an empire with no official provision for health care.  As they grew, the Christian communities became better organized and more cohesive.  Communication between communities increased as elders and bishops wrote to other elders and bishops about church practice and understanding of scriptures.  Infant and child baptism, which had been rare, became more common and widespread as anxious parents sought to ensure the eternal well-being of their children.  

The Antonine Plague changed everything in the Roman world.  As it dragged on, year after year, wave after wave, surge after surge people wondered if things would ever go back to the way they had been before.  And while things did eventually return to something more like normal, too many things had changed for their world to ever again be what it had been before the plague. 

Structures and functions of government had changed.  The military had changed.  The status of many people had changed.  Commerce had changed.  Christianity was more present, stronger, and more well-represented in the social mix of the empire.  None of these changes could have been imagined when the virus first marched in Rome with the homecoming soldiers. 

In this third year of our pandemic with Covid 19, I think it’s important to take stock of how this virus has changed us.  I think it’s important for us to make note of how living in a pandemic has changed our economy, changed our politics, changed out basic institutions, and challenged our infrastructure and supply chains.  Those things all affect us, and not just in practical ways.  Those changes can have a profound effect on how we understand our lives and how we live them.  

It’s also important to assess the impact that Covid has had on us psychologically and spiritually.  Especially spiritually.  How has it changed us?  How has it changed the way we respond to news and truth we don’t want to hear?  This virus has taken the lives of more than 860,000 of us in the U.S. alone.  How has it changed the way we value—or don’t value—life, especially the lives of others, the lives of people we don’t know or are not close to?  

In describing the meaning of the commandment You Shall Not Kill, Martin Luther wrote this: “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.”  How are we doing with that?  In a time of pandemic when some rebel against the simple measures of wearing a mask properly, getting vaccinated, and avoiding in-person gatherings in enclosed spaces,  I think we need to take Luther’s understanding more to heart.  Are we doing everything we can so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors?   On some future day when the Covid pandemic is over, what will we think of the way we handled ourselves and our relationships in our own time of plague?

A Deeper Kind of Seeing

John 6:35, 40-51

There are lots of things we can’t see, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.   Ultra-violet rays, viruses, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.  We can’t see them, but if we don’t protect ourselves from them, we’re in trouble.  Oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen—we can’t see these things, but we trust that they’re really there because we see the way they act on us and the world around us.   They’re invisible, but we know that we benefit from them.  We say we see the wind, but what we’re really seeing is the effect of the wind as it blows things around.

If you were to stand face-to-face with another person right now and really look at them—I mean really look at that person as fully and carefully and completely as you can—there is a whole lot of that person that you would not be able to see.  And I don’t just mean because they’re wearing clothes.   

For instance, you wouldn’t be able to see their microbiome.  The average person has about 30 trillion human cells in their body and somewhere around 39 trillion bacteria, according to Ron Milo and Ron Sender, researchers at the Weizman Institute of Science.  Even though you can’t see them, those 39 trillion bacteria play an important role in shaping that other person you’re looking at.  A change in the balance of the bacteria in that person’s biome can alter the condition of their skin and hair.  It can alter mood and personality.  A change in their biome can even lead to genetic changes.  Their  invisible biome has a profound effect on the person you’re seeing, even though you can’t see it.

You can’t see their thoughts, either.  You may see hints of their thoughts in their facial expression or body language,  but the thoughts themselves remain invisible. 

Have you ever gone to the refrigerator or the cabinet to get something and, no matter how hard you look, you just can’t find it, but then someone else takes a look and it’s right there in plain sight, right where you were looking?  For some reason, you really could not see it.  You had a mental blind spot.  Those mental blind spots, by the way, have a name.  They’re called schotomas.  

Sometimes we have a schotoma, a mental blind spot, a failure to see what’s right in front of us because we just don’t expect to see it or because it’s not where we think we should see it.  We can be blind to things that don’t fit our preconceived idea of how things are supposed to be.

In John 6:40 in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus says a really interesting thing—a thing I didn’t really see for the longest time.  Jesus says, “This is the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”  I think we all catch the part about believing, but it’s easy to overlook the part about seeing Jesus.   

The word that’s used here for see in the original Greek is theôron.  It means “to observe something with enhanced attention; to perceive.”  In other words, to really see as completely and fully as possible.  Jesus wants us to see him.  That makes all the sense in the world, because to really and truly believe,  to trust him, we first have to see him for who he is and what he is.

That’s the problem the religious leaders who confronted Jesus are having in today’s gospel lesson.  They have a schotoma, a mental blind spot.  In spite of all his miracles and the wisdom of his teaching, they are simply unable to see Jesus for who he is and what he is.  Their preconceptions about God and religion and the way the world works just don’t have any room for Jesus as the Son of God, as Immanuel, as God With Us.  Their theology gets in the way of what God is doing right in front of them.

“Isn’t this Jesus, the son of Joseph?,” they say.  “We know his parents!  How can he say he came down from heaven?”   Their skepticism is understandable.   It’s more than a little bit of a leap from “Jesus, the teacher and healer” to “Jesus, the divine presence in our midst who has come to us from heaven.”  It’s such a leap, in fact, that a lot of people try to put Jesus in a category with less outrageous claims.  They think of him as a great moral teacher or an important social pioneer.

But here’s the thing…C.S. Lewis said we either need to take Jesus at his word, or put him aside altogether.  In Mere Christianity, Lewis wrote: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg — or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”  

To really believe in Jesus as the Son of God, first you have to see him that way.  But a lot of people—maybe most—just aren’t prepared to see him that way, and the most brilliant theological arguments in the world won’t change their minds.  Jesus understood that.  “No one can come to me unless the Father draws them,” he said.  And the word “draws” here, by the way, is the same word that’s used for hauling in a fishing net.  People come to faith because God draws them to faith.  Martin Luther wrote, “I believe that I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him by my own reason or strength, but instead, the Holy Spirit has called me.”

God can reel you in, but God won’t force you to believe.  It’s like they say about a horse and water: God can make us come to Jesus, but God can’t or won’t make us believe or trust.  God will lead us to the bread of life, but God won’t force it on us. 

Jesus is inviting us to a faith that’s anchored in love and trust.  Jesus wants us to believe in him because we see him for who and what he really is.  And Jesus wants us to learn to see each other as children of God, too—as persons who are created  in the image and likeness of God—even when it’s a stretch, and the person you’re looking at seems far removed from God or anything like God’s grace, generosity, compassion and love.  

Jesus wants us to really see him.  And he wants us to learn to really see each other.  That requires a deeper kind of seeing.  That requires us to put aside a lot of preconceptions that tend to create a schotoma—a mental blind spot—around Jesus, and frankly, around each other, because so often we seem to be truly blind to each other as children of God, shining in the image and likeness of God.  

Sometimes, in order to really see Jesus, we even need to put aside our creeds and theology.  The problem with them is that they make us think we understand what it means to believe.  They give us a formula to recite, boxes we can check off, things we can assent to in theory.  But that’s not what Jesus has called us to.

Creeds, professions of faith, theology, doctrine and dogma—these all have their place, and once we come to faith they can help us see more deeply the life we’re experiencing.  But it’s important to remember that God did not write a creed for us in words that can be debated or that change their meaning.  Instead, God gave us a living example.  God gave us a life that we can see—a mirror to show us how we are to be in the world and with each other.  Theology can be argued about.  Faith, as a life, can only be lived.  

Jesus is the bread of life who not only sustains us in a living faith, once we learn to see him, but who opens our eyes so that we can see him and each other more deeply—so that we can see God With Us, in him and in each other.

This Moment

Thoughts Along the Way…

I came across a meme today on Facebook that really made me stop and think.  The heading was Ancestral Mathematics.  Here’s what it said:

“In order to be born, you needed:

2 parents

4 grandparents

8 great-grandparents

16 second great grandparents

32 third great-grandparents

64 fourth great-grandparents

128 fifth great-grandparents

256 sixth great-grandparents

512 seventh great-grandparents

1,024 eighth great-grandparents

2,048 ninth great-grandparents

For you to be born today from 12 previous generations, you needed a total of 4,094 ancestors over the last 400 years.  Think for a moment—How many struggles?  How many battles?  How many difficulties?  How much sadness?  How much happiness?  How many love stories?  How many expressions of hope for the future?—did your ancestors have to undergo for you to exist in this present moment…”

Some of my cousins connected me to a website called Family Search.  I’m not nearly as involved in exploring our family tree as some of them, but I do find it interesting to trace things back a few generations.  I’ve become curious about the lives of these people to whom I am directly related.  I’ve heard bits and snatches of some of their stories, but I know nothing at all about most of them.  I’ve been surprised by all the surnames that I didn’t know even though their DNA is part of me and their story is part of my story.  Beckham, I know, of course.  But there is  also Curtis, Casey, Owen, Whitely, Moody, Maynard, Wayne, Stapleton, Lawrence, Malmgren, Davidson, Larm, Carlson, Andersdotter, Flykt…  The names take me on a journey not only back in time but to other parts of the continent and other parts of the world.   I have inherited something, however small, from each of them.  

As I thought about all of this, I realized two things.  First, the universe, and Christ who is in, with, and under everything the universe does, has worked long and hard to bring us here.  All the generations before us with all their struggles and all their joys have brought us, you and me, to this place and this time.  That’s got to mean something.  And if it doesn’t mean anything existentially in and of itself, then we can bring meaning to it.  We can bring love to it.  We can see the moment and we can love the moment.  And we can love each other in the moment.  We can love God in the moment.  That’s part of what being the Beloved Community is all about: honoring the moment and honoring everything it took to bring us here.

And that brings me to the second thing I realized.  We have inherited our faith, too.  Whether you grew up in a home where faith in Christ was part of the atmosphere or whether you came to faith in Christ in some other circumstances in some other context, by some unexpected path, faith was handed down to you by others.  It was a gift of grace.  It has been passed down to us in a steady succession of believers all the way back to the apostles.  “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received,” wrote St. Paul to the saints in Corinth (1 Cor 15:3),  and they in turn handed it on to their children and their friends.  And so on through the ages.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)   But first, let’s take a moment to appreciate all those who have given us this moment.

We Would See Jesus

John 12:20-33

“Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”  Some Greeks had come to the week-long festival of the Passover in Jerusalem and were hovering at the back of the crowd thronging around Jesus. This was just days after Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead and only one day after he had entered Jerusalem in the chaotic procession of Palm Sunday.  In John’s text, this was right after the Pharisees said to one another, “Look, the whole world has gone after him.”  That’s when, right on cue, these Greeks come to Philip and say, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”

It makes sense that they would come to Philip.  Philip is a Greek name.  They probably overheard him speaking to someone in Greek, which would come naturally to him since he was from Bethsaida, a Hellenized town on the northeastern side of the Sea of Galilee.  Philip consulted with Andrew, another Greek name, incidentally, also from Bethsaida, and the two of them went to tell Jesus.

Andrew and Philip are among the earliest disciples named in John’s gospel and they are the first two disciples who bring others to Jesus.  Andrew, having just met Jesus, himself, ran to find his brother, Simon Peter and blurted out, “We have found the Messiah!”  Jesus invited Philip to follow him, and Philip immediately went to find his friend Nathanael and bring him to meet Jesus, too.  And now, very nearly at the end of the gospel, Philip and Andrew are once again bringing people to see Jesus, but this time it’s because they have asked to meet him. 

So.  Philip and Andrew are good models for us.  They bring people to meet Jesus.  There’s a clue in there about effective evangelism, I think.  They didn’t invite people to join their discipleship group.  They brought them to meet Jesus.  

“Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” We don’t know anything about the Greeks who make this request. Are they Greek-speaking diaspora Jews who have come to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage to complete the obligations of Torah?  Are they Gentile proselytes preparing to convert to Judaism?  Are they Gentile tourists in town to see the temple, one of the wonders of the world during the time of one of its great festivals?  Have they heard about his miracles and are maybe hoping to see one for themselves?  Have they come to offer themselves as disciples?  We don’t really know anything about them or their motives.  But we surely can understand their request. 

We would like to see Jesus.  I would like to see Jesus. Wouldn’t you?  Oh, I know I see him all the time in a Matthew 25 way.  I see him in people in need.  I see him in people enduring injustice.  I see him in people pushed to the margins.  I see him.  I do.  And I see him in a 1 Corinthians 12, Body-of-Christ way.  I see him in the kindness of friends and strangers.  I see him in the ways we support each other and lift each other up and work together to dial up the love and grace and dial down the anger and fear and hate.  I see Jesus in you.  I see Jesus in you and that keeps me going.

But sometimes I would like to see Jesus the way Philip and Andrew got to see him, face to face. Debi Thomas put it this way:

 I know what it’s like to want Jesus in earnest — to want his presence, his guidance, his example, and his companionship.  I know what it’s like to want — not him, but things from him: safety, health, immunity, ease.  I know what it’s like to want a confrontation — a no-holds-barred opportunity to express my disappointment, my sorrow, my anger, and my bewilderment at who Jesus is compared to who I want him to be.[1]  

It stings to read that, but it’s so honest.  “I know what it’s like to want—not him, but things fromhim.”  It reminds me of that African American spiritual we sing sometimes, I Want Jesus to Walk With Me.  “I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”  “In my trials, Lord, walk with me; when my heart is almost breaking, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”  “When I’m in trouble, Lord, walk with me; when my head is bowed in sorrow, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

I want to see Jesus.  That, right there, is a pivot point of spiritual growth.  Why do I want to see Jesus?  How do I want to see Jesus?  Do I want to see Jesus because I want something from him?  Do I want to see Jesus because my faith is wavering?  Do I want to see Jesus because I want to surrender to him?  Do I want to see Jesus just to sit in his presence?

Those are the kinds of questions we need to ask ourselves when we feel that powerful yearning to see Jesus.  And let’s be clear.  There are no wrong answers here except dishonest answers.  

We don’t know why those Greeks at the Festival wanted to see Jesus.  What we do know is that as soon as Philip and Andrew came to Jesus with their request, Jesus began to talk about the cost of discipleship and about his own coming death.  We might be singing “I want Jesus to walk with me,” but Jesus responds with, “Fine.  This is where I’m going.  You might not like it.”

Peter and Andrew told Jesus that the Greek visitors wanted to meet him.  “Jesus answered, ‘Time’s up. The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’”[2]  That’s how Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message Bible.  Time’s up. 

The time for sightseeing is over.  The time for spectator discipleship is over.  Now the Human One will be glorified.  Glorified.  As in martyred.  

“Listen carefully,” he says. “Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over.  In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.”[3]   

Jesus is once again telling his disciples, then and now, a message that disciples are always reluctant to hear.  If you hold on to life just as it is, you will destroy it.  If you let go of it in reckless love, you’ll have it forever.  Reckless love of God, yourself, and others is eternal. 

“If any of you wants to serve me, then follow me,” said Jesus. “Then you’ll be where I am, ready to serve at a moment’s notice. The Father will honor and reward anyone who serves me.”[4]

I want to see Jesus.  Yes.  But there’s that question again:  Do I want him—or do I want something  from him?  And have I given any thought to an even more important question: what does he want from me?

Do I want to see him so I can serve him?  Do I want to see him so I can learn to be a better follower?  Am I willing to be that seed that is buried?  

The language that Jesus uses here as he talks to the Greek visitors and his disciples and the crowd is all imagery and metaphor.  The time has come to be glorified. When a seed is planted.  When I am lifted up.  But all that poetic language is euphemism for a horrifying reality.

Beginning next Sunday we will observe again the events of Holy Week, a week that ends in the brutal torture and crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday.  Attendance at worship on Good Friday is always low.  We want to see Jesus…but we don’t want to see Jesus on the cross.  We don’t want to see Jesus die, especially not in such an ugly, helpless, brutal way.

We don’t want to see Jesus willingly take the hatred, the contempt, the violence, even the sheer indifference of this world into his own body.  We want to see Jesus, but we don’t want to see Jesus there.  Like that.  We want to see Jesus in a hundred other ways—muscular super-hero Jesus, miracle-worker Jesus, wisdom Jesus, justice radical Jesus, social worker Jesus.  But Jesus on the cross?

That’s where reckless love takes Jesus.  That’s what he is saying in all the poetic language.  The seed will be buried and dead to the world.

If I want to see Jesus, really see Jesus, I need to look to the cross… where, in reckless love, he opens his heart and his arms to you.  And me.  And the whole world.


[1] Debi Thomas, Journey With Jesus, 14 March 2021

[2] The Message, John 12:23

[3] The Message, John 12:24-25

[4] The Message, John 12:26

Faith and Politics

Matthew 22:15-22

The Pharisees went out and plotted how they could trap Jesus in what he said. 16 And they sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God in truth, and show deference to no one, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17 So tell us, what do you think? Is it proper to pay a tax to Caesar or not?” 18 But Jesus, perceiving their evil intent, said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” So they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” 21 They answered him, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Then give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this they were astonished, so they left him and went away.

Loaded questions.  Gotcha questions.  They’ve been a part of politics forever.  Remember when, as a candidate, Barack Obama was asked why he wasn’t wearing an American Flag pin in his lapel?  His response was that his patriotism ran deeper than a lapel pin.  That should have been the end of it, but, of course it wasn’t.   

Loaded questions are designed for entrapment and today’s gospel gives us one of the all-time great examples.  It’s a political question, designed to put Jesus on the spot.  The really fascinating thing about it is that two political factions that usually wanted nothing to do with each other came together to ask this question.  That’s how much they wanted Jesus out of the way.  That’s how much they wanted to discredit him.

“Is it proper to pay a tax to Caesar or not?” they ask.  The particular tax they’re asking about is the poll tax, a tax of one denarius per year levied on every adult man and woman in the empire.  This tax was relatively new when they asked Jesus this question.  It had been instituted by Tiberius not long before Jesus was born as part of his overall reform of Rome’s taxation system.  

The Herodians, who were big supporters of Rome and all it stood for, were all in favor of the tax as a way to help pay for what they saw as the many benefits of being part of the empire—decent roads, improved trade, aqueducts, general law and order, and so on.  The Pharisees, on the other hand, were not supporters of their Roman overlords and not at all happy about the tax that paid for these conquerors to dominate them and every aspect of their lives in their own homeland.  One of the things that they found particularly objectionable, though, was Roman money.  

Roman currency was not just a reminder that Rome had complete control of the economy, it was also propaganda.  The Roman denarius had on the obverse, the “heads” side, a portrait of the emperor, Tiberius, so every coin was a reminder of who was in charge.  On the reverse, the “tails” side, was a seated woman in the role of Pax, the goddess of peace, a reminder that Rome kept the peace.  

To devout Jews like the Pharisees, the portrait stamped on these coins was a kind of idolatry.  But worse than the portrait was the inscription on the coins: Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Pontifex Maximus.  The coin proclaimed not only that the emperor was the son of a god, but also the high priest of the empire’s religions.  All of the empire’s religions.  Including theirs.

When the Pharisees and the Herodians team up to ask Jesus their loaded question, they think they have him trapped.  If he says, “No, it’s not right to pay this tax,” he’ll make the Pharisees and a lot of others in the crowd happy, but he’ll be guilty of sedition in Rome’s eyes and the Herodians won’t waste a minute bringing it to Pilate’s attention.  If he says, “Yes, it’s perfectly proper,” then he’ll give the Pharisees ammunition and disappoint the crowd; they’ll no longer regard him as a prophet and he’ll lose these last precious opportunities to teach them about the kin-dom of God.

What he does instead of falling into their binary yes or no trap is brilliant.  He asks to see the coin that’s used to pay the tax, and when they produce one for him he asks, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”  “Caesar’s,” they reply.  I imagine this was a tense moment.  I can imagine him holding that coin in his hand, evaluating the metal portrait in his palm for a long moment before he hands it back to them and says, “Then give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

When they heard this, the text says, they were astonished, so  they left him and went away.

On the face of it, it sounds simple.  On the face of it, it sounds like we can divide life into two compartments: on one side of the line are the things that belong to God, spiritual things, and on the other side of the line are secular things.

But wait a minute.  What really belongs to Caesar?  Does his own likeness?   Don’t we read in Genesis that we were created in the likeness of God?  So in that sense, isn’t Caesar’s own likeness something that, in the end, belongs to God?  Does the silver the coin that bears his picture belong to Caesar?  He may be in possession of it or exercise some control over its distribution, but isn’t God the one who brought both the silver and the man depicted into being?  Long after Caesar has been gathered to his ancestors, the silver will pass to other hands and only God will know where it is.  When all is said and done, doesn’t everything belong to God?

When I was a kid, we always sang a brief refrain as the offering was brought forward: “We give thee but thine own, whate’er the gift may be; all that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee.”  It was a reminder that we don’t really own anything, that everything we have in our hands belongs to God and we are entrusted with it for a time.  

Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesars.  What is that, exactly?  What are those things, if everything really belongs to God?

Well, there are some things we owe to Caesar.   One thing we owe to Caesar is taxes, not just because it’s the civil law, but because as people of faith and followers of Christ it’s ethical to pay our fair share to support the civil contract we live under and from which we benefit.  We’re bound by an agreement to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, and promote the general welfare.  That’s our civil contract with each other and God calls us to keep it in good faith.

Voting is another thing we owe Caesar.  It is one of our most important obligations in our  government of, by, and for the people.  Voting is supposed to be how we select those who will be stewards of our collective resources on our behalf.  It’s how we select people to make decisions on our behalf.  Our vote is the tool we wield to ensure that the burden of taxes is distributed more fairly.  Our vote is our shield to ensure that justice is maintained, that our laws are applied evenly and fairly, that no group is unfairly targeted by them or excluded from their protection. 

As people of faith and followers of Jesus, though, voting is also something we owe to God.  

As a follower of Jesus, when I prepare to cast my ballot, I have to ask myself bigger questions, deeper questions, than mere partisan questions.  I have to think beyond expediency.  I have to remind myself that political issues and economic issues are also theological issues.  My responses to political and economic issues reflect what I truly believe and impact the world more than my words.  

As a follower of Jesus I am beholden to a deeper loyalty than partisan loyalty.  As a follower of Jesus I am beholden to a deeper loyalty than patriotism.

So as a follower of Jesus, how do I render my vote unto Caesar without compromising what I owe to God?

In 2 Corinthians 5:20, St. Paul calls us Ambassadors for Christ’s reconciliation.  Doesn’t that include reconciliation of our racial divisions?  Doesn’t that mean we should be agents of establishing equity and bringing healing?  Is there a way for me to vote for that?  I there a candidate who is working for reconciliation?

In Genesis we read that we were created male and female in God’s image, equal before God in our creation.  Throughout the Bible we see repeated instances of women in leadership, but in our society we still see women denigrated all too often.  In Galatians St. Paul said There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  Isn’t misogyny a gospel issue for followers of Jesus?  Is there a way to vote that improves the status and protection of women?  Is there a candidate who has a better record in that area?

In both testaments of our scriptures we read that we are supposed to welcome strangers (Matt. 25) and that aliens in our land are supposed to be treated as citizens (Lev.19:33).  Is there a way to vote that moves more us in that direction?

The Pharisees and Herodians asked Jesus a politically loaded question.  Instead of giving an answer that would satisfy either party, he gave them an answer that required them to go back and think not only about his response, but also about what had motivated them to ask their question in the first place.  Their question was political and so was his answer, but not in a way they were expecting.  He made them take responsibility for their own stance and their own answers to their own question.

That’s what Jesus asks from us as his followers: to think about what our stance means, to think about what our faith means, to think about how it affects our vote, and to think about how our vote affects the rest of the world.  Jesus asks us to take responsibility.

Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner asked an interesting question in Sojourners magazine: How Would Jesus Vote?  In answer to her question she came up with

“Four Guidelines for Voting While Christian.

  1. PURPOSE: Jesus would begin by understanding his purpose.  Jesus began his ministry announcing his purpose saying, “He has sent me to change your life, God’s kingdom is here.”  Being God’s agent means placing priority on God’s higher spiritual kingdom or commandments than on natural earthly laws or human desires.
  2. POWER: Jesus would use his power to act on behalf of the vulnerable.
  3. PEACEMAKER: Jesus would be a bridge-builder and peacemaker between opposing sides on issues.  Jesus blessed peacemakers, and called his followers to be salt in a decaying earth, and light in a dark and divided world. He defined disciples and followers, saying, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” He taught that the greatest commandment is to love God and others as oneself.
  4. PRAYER: Jesus would pray before he voted.

Jesus prayed about everything. Before every challenge, like feeding the five thousand (Matthew 14:13); bringing the dead back to life (John 11:41, 42); before crucifixion (Matthew 26:42); and even on the cross experiencing a brutal execution, (Luke 23:34), Jesus prayed. The moral and spiritual transformation of America and the election of high-character leaders in every sphere of influence will be produced by prayer. Christ-followers should pray for the wisdom of God in choosing leaders and policies that reflect God’s values. Most of all they should pray for leaders on opposing sides, that they will follow God’s word in all decisions.”

This is a time for all of us to be in deep thought and deep prayer about what comes next.  With God’s help and with people following sensible guidelines, this pandemic will end, and then it will be time to rebuild.  We’ll need to rebuild our economy.  We’ll need to rebuild a good deal of infrastructure.  We’ll need to rebuild social structures and connections.  We’ll need to rebuild much of Christ’s church.  And all these things may emerge in a shape don’t yet know or understand.  We’ll need wise, thoughtful, and responsible people in positions of leadership.  We’ll need wise, thoughtful, and responsible laws and policies.  We’ll need the leading of the Spirit and the Grace of Christ.

Now is the time for us to trust that God has a vision for that rebuilding.  Now is the time to ask God to guide us in the first step of that rebuilding.  Now is the time to pray.  Now is the time to vote.

In Jesus’ name.

Turn the World Upside Down

In Acts 17:6, Paul and Silas are brought before the city authorities of Thessalonica with this accusation: “These are the men who are turning the world upside down… They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.”

Turning the world upside down.  Getting into “good trouble.” Acting contrary to custom and law.  Claiming that they answer to a higher authority named Jesus.

For a very long time this was a portrait of the Church:  faithful people turning the world upside down, banding together in beloved community to worship and to take care of each other as a sign that God’s love was at work in them in the name of Jesus.  When the empire was cruel, they protested with prayer and patience and, often, by being its victims so that the empire’s cruelty would be on display.  When the empire showed no compassion, they provided the missing safety nets, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, binding up wounds, caring for the sick even in times of plague.  

In a world that lionized strength, they were led by the Spirit who had said through the Apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”(1 Cor. 12:9)  In a era driven by wealth, they bowed to the one who had said, “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)  In a world where their faith and fellowship was declared illegal and their ideas branded as subversive, they quietly grew in numbers and strength.

And then something happened.  After three centuries of being illegal, three centuries of subverting the dominant paradigm, three hundred years of quiet protest as the alternative realm within the empire’s domain, three hundred years of living and practicing their faith sometimes quite literally underground, they did, indeed, turn the world upside down. 

The emperor became one of them.  Constantine Augustus became a Christian.

And suddenly priorities changed.  Suddenly it became vitally important to clarify what they believed to make sure that all these churches in all these cities in this vast empire were seeing things the same way, were talking about God the same way, were teaching the same things.  Because now it was the empire’s church.  

The emperor called for a great council to meet.  Bishops came from all corners of the empire.  After intense debate the first Doctrine was established.  A Creed was written.

In a blink of history’s eye, the focus of the Church shifted.  Now the emphasis was more on what people believed and less on what they were doing.  Now the weight was more on what the faithful thought about Jesus and not as much on how they followed him.  

Almost overnight the world had turned the Church upside down.  And while the empire adopted some of the values of the Church, much more did the Church fall in line with the empire.

And so it has been, more or less, for seventeen centuries.  

Now we live in a time of crisis.  As I write this 200,000 persons in our country and more than 980,000 world-wide have died from the Corona virus.  Economic tensions are high. Political tensions are higher, and sociological tensions are higher still.  Empire is unstable within and without.  And the Church…

If you were to judge by what you see in the media, it would look like the Church has faded into invisibility and irrelevance except for a few noisy, high-profile individuals who get all the wrong kinds of attention.  It’s true that membership numbers are shrinking.  It’s true that there are fewer congregations of all denominations.  It might look like the world has turned the Church upside down to such an extent that it’s all spilled out and become empty.

But it would be a mistake to believe that.  I think, if you look closely and in the right places, you’ll see something else happening.  I think what you’ll see is that the Church is being quietly reformed, reshaped and repositioned so it can get back to the business of following Jesus more than just intellectually believing in Jesus.  I think, if you can learn to see it, you’ll see that the Church is being reshaped to proclaim the kin-dom of heaven by showing examples of that kin-dom at work on earth as it is in heaven.

I think, if you look closely, you’ll find followers of Jesus standing firm in the protests against racism.  You’ll find followers of Jesus working to protect voting rights.  You’ll find followers of Jesus feeding the hungry and trying to stop evictions during a time of quarantine.  You’ll find followers of Jesus in the courts trying to overturn wrongful convictions. 

If you look, you’ll find followers of Jesus like Mitch Teemley making movies like Healing River that show us how to heal relationships without getting preachy.  If you listen you’ll find music from followers of Jesus like Carrie Newcomer and poetry and prose from people like Parker Palmer and Ann Lamott who show us how to reach deep into our souls and touch the hearts of others without off-putting piety.  If you look, you’ll find followers of Jesus in every walk of life bringing light into the shadows and healing into the brokenness of the world.

If you look, I think you’ll find that the followers of Jesus are being repositioned so we can get back to doing what we did in the beginning…turning the world upside down.

Pro Gloria Dei,

Pastor Steve