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To An Unknown God

Today we’re going to talk about a love story… and a rather unusual love story at that.

Lots of our favorite movies and books are about love stories: two people meet, fall in love, overcome challenges, grow stronger together, and live happily ever after. Or not, as the case may be.

But the love story we’re looking at today is a very rare kind of love story. It’s a love story where the one who’s loved doesn’t know it. It’s a love unknown.

An old hymn-writer back in the 1600s in England captured this kind of love when he wrote:

“My song is love unknown
My Saviour’s love for me;
Love to the loveless shown
That they might lovely be…”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  We’re going to be looking today at Acts 17:22-31, but first I want to touch briefly on our reading from John 14:15-21.

John is relating a conversation that takes place between Jesus and the disciples during the last week of Jesus’ life. Jesus is teaching the disciples what they’ll need to know when he’s no longer with them on a daily basis.  And the disciples are not catching on very well.  Jesus is saying the Messiah (himself) is going to die – which goes against everything the disciples have ever believed about the Messiah – and then after three days he will rise again, and then ascend into heaven, and then he will send the Holy Spirit.  And – Jesus says – when all this happens, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. Whoever loves me will keep my commandments and will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

This passage tells us there is a love yet to be revealed by Jesus. A love unknown.  Bookmark that thought – we’ll come back to it.

Turning to our reading from Acts, the reading for today starts in the middle of the chapter, which means we are coming in on the middle of the story, so we need to back up and start at the beginning.

Paul and Silas were traveling through the part of the Roman Empire that was occupied Greece.  And as they traveled, they would stop at the local synagogues and share the gospel – because for people who attended synagogue, the gospel was not entirely unknown. It might be unexpected, but the Old Testament was taught in the synagogues, and the Old Testament included prophecies about the Messiah, so their listeners at least had the background to understand the gospel message.

First Paul and Silas arrived in Thessalonica. They went into the synagogue and taught and preached for a few weeks, giving evidence from the Old Testament that the Messiah had to suffer and then rise from the dead, and proving that Jesus met the criteria.  And some of the Jews believed, along with a large number of Gentile Greeks.

The synagogue rulers were jealous to see so many Gentiles responding to Paul’s message.  So they went out and stirred up a mob who went and grabbed these new believers and had them arrested.  Of course having no charges the people were released, but Paul and Silas (for their own safety) were sent on to the next city.

So they travelled to a town called Berea, about 45 miles away.  When they got there, again they went to the local synagogue and started preaching. And this time the good news about Jesus was well-received.  Verse 11 says: “they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so.”  And many of them became believers, both Jews and Greeks.

Now the synagogue rulers in Thessalonica heard about this, and they were so ticked off they walked 45 miles to Berea stir up trouble for Paul and Silas. (45 miles is roughly the distance from Pittsburgh to Uniontown!  Have you ever been so ticked off at somebody that you would walk to Uniontown just to bother them?)

Anyway for safety’s sake the Bereans suggested Paul and Silas move on, and they accompanied them as far as Athens (about 150 miles from Berea – at which point the Thessalonians gave up).

So Paul and Silas arrived in Athens.  During Paul’s lifetime, and for about 400 years before he was born, Athens was one of the greatest educational centers of the world.  Aristotle had taught there, and Socrates, and Plato; Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine (you’ve heard of the Hippocratic oath).  Athens was the birthplace of democracy – the first place democracy was thought of, and the first place it was ever tried.  Life in the United States in the 21st century would not exist as we know it, if not for Athens back then.

Even the Romans appreciated Athens.  Though they conquered all of Greece, they considered Athens a ‘free city’ so that it’s teaching and its arts and culture would continue uninterrupted.

Paul and Silas, when they got to Athens, had a lot to see, and a lot to take in as they walked around the city.  But what Paul noticed more than anything was that it was “a city full of idols”.  Verse 16 says he was deeply troubled at this; because the message Paul had to share was a love story – a story about a love unknown.  As Paul and Silas walked around the city, they saw people who did not know they were loved by God, people who were being led astray to worship idols and to serve what was not God.  And this moved Paul’s heart very deeply.

Paul started out, as usual, in the local synagogue. And he had a little success there.  But then he went to the marketplace – the Agora as it was called (you remember that name from high school social studies?). The Agora was a place where people would buy and sell, but it was also the central public space in the city – a place for events, a place where political speeches would be made, and where religious and philosophical debates happened.

So Paul joined in the debates in the Agora. Verse 18 says he got into conversations with the Epicureans and the Stoics. The Epicureans belonged to a school of philosophy that taught materialism and the pursuit of happiness, and ridiculed the idea of God interfering in human affairs. The Stoics on the other hand belonged to a school of philosophy that believed the path to happiness is found in accepting what we’re given in life; and not being controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, but using our minds to understand.

Do I really need to say how much these philosophies still influence people’s thinking?  We may not call it by those names any more, but we still live in a materialistic culture, that pokes fun at religion, that pursues happiness, and that values logic over too much drama in our relationships. Things haven’t changed much in 2000 years!

Paul made enough of an impact on the Greek philosophers to be invited to speak at the Areopagus where many of the great debates were held.  So he came, and they asked him, “what are you teaching?”  And that’s where our reading for today picks up.

What Paul said to the philosophers is a wonderful example of how we can share our faith in the world around us.

  • Step One, Paul begins where his listeners are. He says “I observe that you are very religious in all respects.” Paul doesn’t attack their idols; he doesn’t stand up and call the people ‘idolaters and sinners’.  He takes his observation of their idols and casts it in a good light.  He praises the fact that they’re religious. In today’s culture we might say something like, “I see that you are very spiritual.  You care about living things, you care about the planet, you believe in doing what is compassionate, and you are mindful of how you treat others.”
  • Step Two, Paul builds on where his listeners are and finds a connection to the gospel. He says, “as I went through the city and looked at the objects of your worship, I found an altar with the inscription ‘to an unknown god’.”  Paul knows about this love unknown, knows that it is a universal truth, and he connects it to their ‘unknown god’.In our own day there are still many people who call themselves agnostic – who say they don’t know who God is, or they’re not sure. Even churchgoers sometimes can be sort of functionally agnostic –knowing there’s a God and his son’s name is Jesus but not really sure what that means. The word agnostic – a Greek word – literally means to not know.
  • In Step Three, Paul zeros in on the unknown and makes it known. He says: “What you believe is unknown, this is what I proclaim to you.’ And he goes on to talk about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  He says God created the world and everything in it; God does not live in temples or buildings made by hands; God is not served by people, as if God needed anything; in fact God gives us what we God sets the times and boundaries for nations and encourages people to seek God “groping around as we do, though God is not far from us” – Paul says – “for in Him we live and move and have our being”. And Paul adds, “as some of your own Greek poets have said, “we are God’s children.””

Can you imagine how people today would appreciate hearing that God does not live in buildings and is not served by people?  And that we live and move in God – and as God’s children, we are loved?

Paul does criticize the making of idols: he reminds his listeners that God isn’t made of silver or gold.  These days people don’t usually have household gods, but idolatry is still one of the most commonly practiced sins.  Today’s idols might include wealth, power, youthfulness, fame, food, sex, shopping… anything that becomes more important to us than God.

King Solomon once said: “the worship of idols… is the beginning and cause and end of every evil.” (Wisdom 14:27 edited)  In Paul’s words, idols are “a representation by the art and imagination of humanity”.  I could preach a whole sermon on just that – but for now the important concept is that idols are made up. They represent a lie.  And when people put their trust in lies, tragedy is the result.  If Paul were here today he would most likely remind us that God doesn’t need fame, or political power, or front page headlines, or a pile of money in order for God’s will to be done.

Bottom line, Paul says in verse 30: in the past God has overlooked such ignorance – overlooked our not knowing – but now God requires all people everywhere to have a change of heart, because there is a day coming in which all people will be measured by the man who walked out of the grave alive.

As soon as Paul mentions the resurrection of the dead, the philosophers in the Areopagus begin to laugh and poke fun. But some believe and want to hear more.

As for Paul himself, he’s not interested in debating for the sake of debating (which sets a very good example for those of us who hang out on Facebook).  For Paul, once he’s delivered the message, his job is done, and he’s ready to move on.  Next stop: Corinth!

But back to our love story.  We’ve been talking about an ‘unknown’ God: a God who knew us and loved us before we knew God.  Can you imagine what that’s like for God – to love us, and for us to not even know it?

You don’t see that kind of love story in movies very often. But I did see a story like it once in an old TV show.  It was a story about two soldiers – a man and a woman, Marcus and Susan. They cared about each other as comrades: they teased each other, they had each others’ backs, but their duties kept them apart most of the time, so they were friends and nothing more.  But Marcus loved Susan… and for her sake and the sake of her career he never let on.

One day in the heat of battle there was an explosion and Susan was mortally wounded. She didn’t die right away, so Marcus found her and carried her back to the medics, but there was nothing could be done.

Except this particular story takes place in the future, and in the future there’s a machine used for healing by which a healthy person can transfer health into the body of an injured person in order to heal them.  So for example, if a child scrapes their knee a parent can hook up the machine to themselves and to their child and pour healing from their own body into the child’s body.  Or if the child breaks a bone, which is a greater injury, it would require more energy from the parent, but it could still be healed.  But if the wound was fatal… using the machine would be fatal.

And for that reason the machine was made illegal. But Marcus finds one, and hooks it up, and pours his life into Susan. And just as she’s coming around, with his last breath, Marcus whispers ‘I love you’.

That’s the kind of love God has for us: a love that gives all it can give, before we even knew it was there.

The good news is that Jesus lives.

Which brings us back to the Gospel of John, where Jesus says: “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; and because I live, you also will live.”  Jesus also says “If you love me, keep my commandments” – and the first and greatest commandment is love: love of God, and love of neighbor.

So the first thing we can do with all of this is to know God’s love.  Don’t let God’s love go unknown. Read about God’s love, meditate on it, immerse ourselves in it, until our souls are convinced, by the power of the Holy Spirit, of how very much we are loved.

And second, tell others about the unknown God (who is now known) and about the unknown love that’s waiting for them.

The old hymn I quoted earlier ends with these words:

“Here might I stay and sing
of him my soul adores:
never was love, dear King,
never was grief like yours.
This is my friend in whose sweet praise,
I gladly would spend all my days.”  AMEN.

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) Pittsburgh, 5/21/17

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[collection of video clips summarizing the story from which the illustration was taken:]

Acts 17:22-31  22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.  23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.  24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,  25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.  26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live,  27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us.  28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’

29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.  30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,  31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

John 14:15-21  15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.  19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.  20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.  21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Drug Naming Rules

While we think about the concerns raised in my previous post, here’s a satiric public-service announcement concerning the naming of new drugs (in case you’re planning on bringing a few to market).  Here in the second decade of the 21st century, drug names MUST:

  • contain three syllables, no more, no less
  • the first syllable may be made up of any randomly-chosen letters. If those letters sound vaguely like something that has something to do with the disease being treated, so much the better, but this is not necessary.
  • the second syllable must contain a hard consonant sound such as “K”, “X”, “CK”, “P”, “T”, or “Q” in order to make the medicine sound strong and effective.
  • the third syllable must end on a soft vowel or vowel-like sound in order to make it sound like it’s gentle on your system.

And the required list of possible side-effects — which may actually be worse than the disease — must be read at the end of the commercial by a summa cum laude graduate of the local auctioneering school.

Herewith are some examples of drug names and their uses, which (not having been copyrighted) are available to any pharmaceutical entrepreneurs:

  • Smelecksa – Temporarily turns off your nose while you carry the trash out
  • Furexie – Prevents cat hair from sticking to your work clothes
  • Notaulska – Prevents strangers from babbling your ear off on the bus or train
  • Denozno – Take before visiting homes with dogs, to keep Fido’s nose a respectable distance away
  • Dorstepo – Prevents salesmen and Jehovah’s Witnesses coming up on your porch
  • Peptoka – I can’t stand the taste of Pepto-Bismol but I need SOMETHING right now!
  • Bunoyza – Stops the car making that weird noise
  • Drugova – Blocks all those annoying drug ads

Feel free to add new drug suggestions of your own!

 

 

 

In the past year or so I’ve noticed a sharp spike in new drugs being advertised, unlike anything I’ve seen since I was growing up in the early-to-mid 1960s.

Back then a spate of legal mood-altering drugs hit the market, originally designed to help people suffering from psychoses, neuroses, depression, and other legitimate conditions, but which were soon being prescribed for just about anything from nervousness to a hangnail.

Methamphetamines and barbiturates were legal back then, but the problem was very few people really knew what these drugs did, and many were highly addictive.  Stories of overdoses of “uppers” and “downers” began to hit the news on a regular basis.

And many of the drugs were particularly popular among suburban housewives – so much so they inspired a Top 40 hit for the Rolling Stones in 1966 – Mother’s Little Helper:

“Kids are different today, I hear every mother say
Mother needs something today to calm her down
And though she’s not really ill, there’s a little yellow pill
She goes running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper
And it helps her on her way, gets her through her busy day…”

I can’t help but wonder if having so many drug commercials on TV is seen as ‘permission’ by recreational drug users to continue to experiment with their bodies – and often lose their lives doing it.

And I can’t help but wonder if many of the drugs hitting the market today will, 50 years from now, be known as amazingly dangerous in the eyes of our great-grandchildren as the uppers and downers of past years seem to us.

 

(Jesus said:) “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”  Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.  Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.  I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” – John 14:1-13

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A week ago today I was standing in the front of Carnegie United Methodist Church taking my vows as an Anglican priest. I’m glad many of you were able to join me for the occasion. I want to say a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who helped make the day possible, including those who volunteered to be presenters, to sing in the choir, and/or to help out with food.  We had so many compliments on the music – and on the food, especially the pierogis (I hope the pierogi team will be getting lots of repeat business!)

OrdSHP1

During the ordination ceremony, one of the questions the Bishop asked me was: “Do you believe that the Holy Scriptures contain all [that is] necessary for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ?”

The passage we’re looking at today from the Gospel of John is one of the reasons I answered ‘yes’.  It’s one of those key passages in Scripture from which we can know that faith in Jesus is the path to salvation.

In this passage John has recorded a conversation between Jesus and the disciples. This conversation takes place sometime during the last week of Jesus’ life: sometime between Palm Sunday and the Last Supper.

Jesus has just given the disciples a new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.”  And he is building up to the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit, who will be an advocate for the disciples and will lead them into the truth.  As Jesus puts it, the Holy Spirit will make it possible for them to be branches in the one true vine, which is himself.

So Jesus is getting the disciples ready for his departure.  He’s preparing them for a time when they won’t be able to just turn to him and say “hey Jesus – I’ve got a question for you…” because he won’t physically be there any more.  They will need to rely on the word of God in scripture, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus starts out by saying “do not let your hearts be troubled.” These words alone would be message enough for this morning. With all the conflict and pain in the world – with questionable politics, questionable news, conflict in the workplace, conflict within families, conflict within the church, with illnesses and injuries and all the things we deal with day to day – we hear, and need to hear, the voice of Jesus above it all saying “do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.”

Jesus then goes on to explain why he’s going away.  He’s not leaving us and moving on to something more important. Far from it: Jesus has us in his mind and heart every moment of every day. In fact he says he is going to prepare a place for us.

This might not make a whole lot of sense to contemporary American ears, but in ancient Israel, the disciples would have immediately understood that Jesus is talking like a bridegroom.  In that culture when two people were betrothed, the groom would go and prepare a place for his bride – build a house for them and for their future family. And when the house was ready he would come back and marry his bride and take her home. And so we hear Jesus saying to the disciples – and to us – “I will come again, and will take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also.”

Jesus’ emphasis here is on making ready for his bride.  And it’s also clear from his words that this isn’t going to be just any old house he’s preparing.  Jesus is preparing a place for us that ‘contains many mansions’.  As the bride of Christ we are going to be marrying a king! Buckingham Palace is nothing compared to what Jesus is getting ready.

In ancient Israel though, the bride never knew exactly when the groom would arrive.  That’s why we have in Matthew the parable of the wise bridesmaids (who had lots of oil for their lamps) vs the foolish bridesmaids (who didn’t buy enough). The bride and her party had to be ready for the groom and his party whenever they got there.  And like them we are told to be ready for Jesus’ return, whenever that may happen.

But then Jesus puts a little unexpected twist on the end of the story. He says, “and you know the way to the place where I am going.”  Normally the bridegroom would come back to the bride’s house to get her… but here the metaphor shifts a little, and the disciples are confused.  So Thomas asks: “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?”

In answering the question, Jesus says three things about himself that his followers need to know – both then and now.  He says “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

The first thing that strikes me about these words is that Jesus is restoring what was lost in the Garden of Eden – specifically, life, truth, and a sense of purpose or direction.  Remember in the story of Adam and Eve, God said, ‘you may eat the fruit of any tree in the garden except that one tree, and if you eat from it you will die’.  When they ate the fruit from that tree, Adam and Eve didn’t die immediately but death entered into the world.  And they lost the truth (and began pointing fingers of blame at each other). And to some extent they lost their sense of purpose to tend the earth and keep it. To this day the human race has a lousy track record at taking care of the planet, which is the job we were given to do.  But Jesus comes to restore what they lost: he is the way, he is the truth, and he is the life – and he brings the promise of a new creation.

The second thing that strikes me is – these words leave no doubt about Jesus being the Messiah. Jesus later says to Philip, “How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” Jesus’ claim to be in the Father, and to be the way, truth and life, brings to mind C.S. Lewis’ famous saying:

“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 the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. […] Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. […] I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”

So what is Jesus saying when he says he is ‘the way the truth and the life’?  I want to take a look at each statement for a moment.

  1. I am the Way. Not “a way”, not “one possible way”, not “one of many options”. He is THE way.  In the Greek, the way is both the path and the vehicle. In other words, both the road and the car we’re riding in.  We as Christians are in Jesus just as Jesus is in the Father – which is what Jesus prayed would happen in his priestly prayer in John chapter 17.Being in Jesus, we are guided by him, by his Spirit. This is not like being in touch with some impersonal ‘Force’ like in Star Wars. We do not turn the course of events by becoming spiritual Jedi knights.  But we are in union with a personal God, in a relationship that looks more like a marriage.  It’s like as we get to know each other we begin to finish each other’s sentences. We know what pleases the other and what doesn’t. We are in him and he is in us.

    So whenever we find ourselves wondering where we’re going, or where life is taking us, or why we seem to be stuck where we are, Jesus not only knows the way but IS the way.  If we’re walking with Him we’re on the right path, no matter what we see around us. And for those of us who feel like we’re wandering right now, take comfort in the words of Psalm 91 (edited):

“You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
2 will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence…;
and under his wings you will find refuge…
5 You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day…
7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you. …
9 Because you have made the LORD your refuge…”

  1. I am the Truth. At Jesus’ trial before Pilate, at one point Jesus says to Pilate, “everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” And Pilate answers, “what is truth?” And people today are still asking the same question. How do we define ‘truth’ in a world where what’s considered true today will be different tomorrow?

God’s truth is not “a truth”, or “my personal truth” or “one of many possible truths”.  Jesus IS truth. When we look at Jesus we are seeing Truth personified.

But when we look at Jesus we are also seeing Love.  We mere mortals tend to shy away from 100% pure truth because truth seems to us like a sharp blade, like a two-edged sword, something that cuts rather than heals.  Compassion is more highly valued in our society.  But in Jesus there is no conflict between truth and compassion. In Jesus the two come together and are one.  Love is the ultimate truth – not romantic love, not the kind of love that gets stirred up by hormones, but love which completely and unselfishly seeks the good of another no matter the cost: the love that moved Jesus to volunteer for death on the cross in order to save our lives.  This is truth – the truth that is love.

  1. I am the Life. Not “a lifestyle”, not “a living”, not “giving birth to life” or even “preserving life” – Jesus IS Life.  This includes physical life, spiritual life, freedom from death, and freedom from that which kills.  In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul writes: “”Death has been swallowed up in victory.”  “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Cor 15:54-57)Jesus is the source and the destination of all that lives. And until we know Jesus we are at best only half-alive.

So why does the world need a way, truth, and life? Because people are confused, uncertain, wondering where to turn, wondering what to do; baffled by conflicting opinions and rumors.  And too many die before they figure out how to live.

In one of my favorite TV shows that nobody’s ever heard of, called Babylon 5, there’s a scene where the hero’s life hangs in the balance.  He has been brave, he has done all he could do for the sake of what’s right, and now he’s badly injured. It would be easy for him to just close his eyes and enter into the peace of death. In that moment his mentor speaks to him and says, “It’s easy to find something worth dying for. Do you have anything worth living for?”

And of course our hero finds the answer is ‘yes’, he does have something worth living for, and he survives. Interestingly enough what he chooses to live for boils down to faith and love. (Not bad writing for TV!)

The point of Jesus’ words is the same: to believe and to love.  The Christian faith is not fluff. It is not a blind ‘leap’. Our faith is faith in a person.

Even the best and brightest among us, like Philip, can sometimes have difficulty understanding Jesus’ point. But Jesus knows that and is able to get us back on track.

So our take-home for today I think is two things: (1) “Let not your hearts be troubled.”  We believe in God, and we trust Jesus as well.  And (2) give thanks to Jesus for being our way, our truth and our life – and give thanks to God for such saviour. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 5/14/17

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The Road to Emmaus

Scripture reading: the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia for the grocery shoppers in the congregation.  (Those of you who like yogurt may already know this.)

A few years back, not too long ago, the Dannon company came out with a new brand of yogurt.  They used a Greek method for making the yogurt, and they wanted to emphasize the Greek tradition, so they gave it a Greek name. They called it Oikos.

This yogurt came out while I was in seminary studying Greek.  And it puzzled me why anyone would name their yogurt ‘house’ — which is what oikos means.  When you buy yogurt you’re not buying a house. I’ve heard of ‘house wines’ but I’ve never heard of a ‘house yogurt’.  Is that a thing?

The word ‘oikos’ does have a secondary meaning of household, so maybe what they’re suggesting is this yogurt is ‘right for your household’.  But I don’t know. And Google didn’t have any answers.

So what does all this have to do with our scripture reading for today?

I always like to glance over our weekly scriptures in the original Greek just to see if anything odd jumps out. And this week something did. I found the word oikos in the story of the road to Emmaus – which is definitely odd considering there is no house in the story. In fact the disciples, as they’re traveling, are about as far away from a house as they can get.  So this caught my attention.

The word appears in verse 18, which reads:

“Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered Jesus, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?””

The word oikos in this sentence is combined with the prefix ‘para’ – the word we get parallel from – so the word is para-oikos. It literally means ‘to dwell alongside’ – but the implication is that the home isn’t permanent. The word describes a person who doesn’t belong in the neighborhood.  In the 21st century we might call this person a migrant.  But in verse 18 the word is translated ‘stranger’.

Para-oikos is what the disciples call Jesus. And there’s a deep irony in calling a friend, who also happens to be the savior of the world, a ‘stranger’.

But there’s also some truth in it, because as Jesus says, his kingdom is not of this world.  The apostle John says in his gospel, “[The Messiah] was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” (John 1:10)

Even as mere human beings we sometimes find ourselves feeling like strangers in a strange land.  And when we do, I think it shows we were meant for something else, something greater than just this world. We were made for the kingdom of God.

This feeling of being a stranger in a strange land is part of what the disciples are wrestling with as they walk to Emmaus. Exactly a week before this story takes place, Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem with the crowds shouting “Hosanna!” and waving palm branches.  They thought the Messiah had finally come. Then that same week the religious leaders arrested Jesus and crucified him. And the disciples were shattered.

Cleopas and his traveling companion decided to get away from Jerusalem for a while and walk to Emmaus. And just before they left some of the women visited Jesus’ tomb and came back to the disciples saying “he’s alive!” – but that couldn’t be, could it? I mean, dead is dead, right?

These two men have had their entire sense of reality shaken. No wonder they feel like strangers in a strange land. No wonder they’re talking things out, over and over, calling to mind everything they can remember of the past few weeks, trying to make some sense of it, trying to rebuild some foundation to their worlds.

And while they’re talking, Jesus walks up and joins them, but they don’t recognize him.  Luke’s choice of words here implies something supernatural. It’s not that the disciples are so upset they can’t see straight. The words imply they were temporarily prevented from knowing Jesus.  Luke says their eyes didn’t recognize him.  But something in their hearts did.  Later on the disciples say to each other, “did not our hearts burn within us as he was speaking?” So there was something familiar about this stranger.

So Jesus asks them what they’re talking about, and they repeat the story of the crucifixion, and they describe Jesus (to Jesus) as “a prophet mighty in deed and word” who they “had hoped would be the one to redeem Israel”.  His disciples expected the Messiah would save the nation – that he would take charge politically or socially.

It’s interesting that even today people make the mistake of either seeing Jesus as ‘a great prophet’ or as someone who will ‘save the nation’.  These thoughts are, at best, half-truths.  Then, as now, people tend to miss one of two things: either (1) that the Messiah must pass through suffering before he comes to glory, or (2) people grasp Jesus’ suffering, his ability to relate to our pain and walk with us through our trials, but they miss the Messiah’s glory: his awesome power and his kingdom.

It’s not easy to hold in our minds and hearts both the Messiah as Suffering Servant and the Messiah as Glorious King.  But if it makes us feel any better, even the disciples – who knew Jesus personally – didn’t know it perfectly either. Knowledge is a good thing, and studying the scriptures is a very good thing; but our salvation doesn’t depend on us knowing all the answers, thank God. What matters is being teachable when Jesus gives us fresh insights – as he did for these disciples on the road to Emmaus.

So as they were walking along, Jesus gave the disciples a crash course on what the Old Testament teaches about the Messiah. Luke says “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them all the things about himself in the scriptures.” (And for the past 2000 years Bible scholars have wished we had a recording of that conversation!)

But we can make an educated guess as to some of the things Jesus might have said.  He might have pointed to the promise made to Eve that one of her offspring would crush the serpent’s head.  He might have pointed out that Noah suffered a flood before he was brought to new life.  He would have mentioned the first Passover, when the people of Israel put the blood of a spotless lamb over their doors to protect them from death… and he would have connected that to the crucifixion of the Lamb of God which also happened on Passover.

He probably quoted Isaiah 53, which says: “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity.” And, “by a perversion of justice he was taken away. […] he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:8-9 edited)

Jesus would have mentioned King David, who delivered Israel from the Philistines. He would have quoted David’s words from Psalm 22:  “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads [and saying] “He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”” (Psalm 22:7-8) – which were the exact words thrown at Jesus by the scribes and the priests as he was hanging on the cross. David wrote those words 1000 years before it happened.

For the disciples, who were expecting a Messiah who would become king without having suffered, these words would have opened a whole new understanding of reality and of God’s purposes.

And for disciples who may understand the Suffering Servant, but who need to be reminded of the Glorious King, the Old Testament speaks to this as well. Psalm 89 says in part: “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my servant David: ‘I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.’

And Isaiah says: “Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, “Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” (Is 49:7)

The Old Testament also predicts glory will to come to God’s people when the Holy Spirit comes.  In the prophet Joel, for example, God says: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” (Joel 2:28)

This theme of the Messiah bringing glory to God’s people is carried forward into the New Testament. The apostle John (for example) writes in his first letter, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. […] what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (I John 3:1-2, edited)

One of our readings for last Sunday – I Peter chapter 1 – is a passage we hardly ever get to hear because there are so many other great scripture lessons that come around Easter-time, but the passage is very relevant to what we’re talking about.  Peter is writing to a church that is suffering persecution, he says:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.” (I Peter 1:3-4)

Peter goes on to say, “even if now for a little while you have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold… tested by fire… may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (I Peter 1:6-7 edited) And the glory Peter is talking about in this passage is glory for us. Faith in Jesus, in the suffering and glorified Messiah, by God’s great mercy, results in praise and glory and honor for us in God’s kingdom.

It’s like Peter is saying that we who are strangers in this world – we who are para-oikos – are being welcomed into God’s house, into God’s oikos. Jesus said “in my Father’s oikos are many mansions, and I go to prepare a place for you.”

So for those of us, and for all people, who sometimes feel like para-oikos, strangers in a strange land: the message of Easter, and the joy of Easter, is that we have an oikos with Jesus… a home where the streets are paved with gold, and the gates are made of gemstones, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

All of this is ours by the power of Jesus’ resurrection.

Easter… continues.

Amen.

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Scripture reading:

“Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem,  14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.  15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,  16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.  17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.  18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”  19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,  20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.  21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.  22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning,  23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.  24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”  25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.  29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them.  30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.  32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”  33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.  34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”  35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”  (Luke 24:13-35)

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Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 4/30/17

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For Those Who Believe

Happy Easter!  We’re now in our second week of Easter, which on the church calendar lasts for a few more weeks yet – and rightfully so, because we as Christians are Easter people.  We believe in resurrection. We believe in hope, and in life.  We believe that death is not the final reality.

We are an Easter people, but we live in a Good Friday world.

We know that Jesus rose from the dead, but most of the world isn’t so sure about that.  People may think Jesus was a great teacher, who set a good example for us to follow, but who sadly died a horrible death and that was it. Their story stops at Good Friday at the Cross. But we are an Easter people.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians: “if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:14)  If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, our faith is worthless and we’re wasting our time sitting here in church today.

But for those who believe, we know there were hundreds of eye-witnesses to the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead. And for those who believe, Jesus says we are blessed.

The apostle Thomas was one of those believers.  In our reading from the gospel of John today we see Thomas wrestling with a crisis of faith.  Thomas loved Jesus –  Thomas even offered to die with Jesus.  But when Jesus died on the cross, Thomas wasn’t ready for that. In his shock and in his sorrow he got stuck in a Good Friday mode and couldn’t move past it.  Even when the rest of the disciples saw Jesus and became Easter people, Thomas was still in too much pain to get past Good Friday.

Until he had his ‘Easter moment’.  That ‘Easter moment’ – when we see Jesus for who he is, and believe in him and put our faith in him –  comes at different times and in different ways for all of us, and Jesus understands that.

And just as a side note: Thomas says at one point ‘if I see I will believe’ – nowhere in scripture does God or Jesus say ‘if you see you will believe’.  In fact scripture often points says it’s unbelievers who look for things that they can see.  Scripture says “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”  When Thomas finally does see Jesus, Jesus speaks to him and invites him to touch his wounds.  Hearing, and touching… with every sense involved… finally Thomas is able to say with Easter joy, “My Lord and My God!”

And Jesus answers, “Do you believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.” I used to think Jesus was speaking to us sort of over Thomas’ shoulder – saying to us ‘you are blessed because you haven’t seen but yet you believe’.  And in a way that’s true.  But I think Jesus also said it as a way to say to Thomas ‘when you go out and start sharing the good news with others, your hearers will believe, even without having seen me. And they will be blessed.’

And you and I can expect the same thing when we share what we know and what we have experienced about Jesus. Others will believe without having seen; others will be blessed, and others will become Easter people too.

But all of this is just the beginning.  As Easter people, we have a hope and a future – which Jesus says is ‘for those who believe’.  For those who believe, there are promises God gives – in both of our readings today.  Promises that bring joy, and as it says in scripture, ‘the joy of the Lord is our strength’.

The first promise, found in our passage from John, is peace, which God gives.  Three times in this passage Jesus says “Peace be with you”.  Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection we can have peace with God and a living relationship with Jesus.

And there are lots more promises found in our reading from I Peter.

I Peter is a book written for Easter people who are living in a Good Friday world.  When Peter wrote this letter he was writing to a church that was facing persecution.  In fact he was writing, rather than visiting as he wanted to, because the believers had moved – they’d been forced out of their homes, and moved hundreds of miles away to get away from people who wanted to kill them.

Sounds like what we hear in the news almost every day doesn’t it?  In a world where Palm Sunday celebrations are turned into bloodshed for our Egyptian brothers and sisters… where a Haitian church in Canada was set on fire on Good Friday… Peter’s words speak to us, where we are: as Easter people in a Good Friday world.

Peter’s words in this letter ring with Easter joy, even in the middle of dark days. He begins his letter to the persecuted church with these words: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!”

How can he say this in such a dark time? He goes on to explain why: “According to [God’s] great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”

In one sentence Peter takes us from Good Friday to Easter. But there’s so much in this sentence we need to unpack it a bit.

Peter says God “has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus.”  We talked about the phrase ‘born again’ a few weeks ago when we talked about Nicodemus. Being ‘born again’ is not joining a socio-political movement. Being ‘born again’ or ‘born from above’ is what defines a Christian. We literally are Easter people, given a brand new beginning by God’s mercy and power.

Jesus’ resurrection opens the door. Paul says in I Corinthians 15, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”

This living hope that Jesus brings means our sins are forgiven. It means we can live our daily lives in relationship with the Living God. It means the Holy Spirit marks us as God’s own. It means that our lives have eternal meaning and purpose. It means we have been born into the family of God, so that all other Christians are our brothers and sisters, literally. These are just a few of the riches that become ours through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

This is why Jesus calls us ‘blessed’.

And more than that: the same God who brought Jesus from death to life holds our lives in His hands. This is the foundation of our hope. Peter also says we are born into “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”

We can’t inherit something unless someone dies, but Jesus has died – and risen again – and now he shares His inheritance with us. Jesus said: “In my Father’s house are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am, you may be also.” This is our inheritance.

And it is being kept, Peter says, guarded by God. A little later on Peter says “you who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for salvation” – so both the inheritance and the inheritors are being guarded by God. The word Peter uses for guarded in the Greek has military meaning. It’s like God has a group of soldiers guarding us (only God’s soldiers are angels!) – God has set up a perimeter around us that nothing can break through. Our inheritance and our salvation are absolutely secure and nothing can snatch us from God’s hands. In Romans 8 Paul says:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

This is what it means to be Easter people.

Christian salvation is not about saying “I hope I make it.” And it’s not – like some people say – “I’ve been a good person, I’ve never killed anybody”. This kind of thinking is a Good Friday mindset – it’s a mindset that says we have to depend on ourselves to be good enough because Jesus is dead and he can’t help us.

Easter people say, “Salvation doesn’t depend on me – it depends on God.” It depends on what Jesus did on the cross, and on Jesus’ resurrection, and the fact that he’s alive now, today. Jesus is keeping the inheritance for us – guarded by His hands and by His angels. We are safe. No matter what happens, and no matter what we see around us, and no matter what the Good Friday people think. This is our hope, which we hold onto by faith, kept by the one who loves us.

Peter goes on to answer his readers’ questions about what to think about the difficulties and trials that come our way in this world. He says:

“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while… you have been grieved by various trials… so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may… result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

The trials we go through as Christians, because of our faith in Jesus, will only last a little while, Peter says. He doesn’t make light of them. He doesn’t say they don’t hurt. In fact, Peter uses the word “grieved” – and life’s hardships do bring us grief.

But Peter says our faith is being refined like gold in the refiner’s fire. It’s being purified.

And it’s also being documented, he says. When we respond with faith to the trials that come – God writes that down in His book. And when Jesus returns, the books will be opened, and our faith will result in praise and glory and honor, for us.

I’m reminded of the family whose father was killed this past week in Ohio, and his death was put on Facebook.  This man’s family are Christians, and one of his daughters said to the press:

“Each one of us forgives the killer.” She said: “The thing that I would take away the most from my father is he taught us about God. How to fear God. How to love God. And how to forgive.”

She went on to offer words of kindness to the killer’s family.

Peter says God is writing these words down in his book. And can you imagine the honor and glory that will be given to this family in the Kingdom of Heaven?

For each of us – our faithfulness, and our hope, in all of life’s trials, will be our glory and our honor when Jesus returns.

Peter says: “Though you have not seen [Jesus], you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.”

Living in God’s power, and not in our own, makes us Easter people. In a Good Friday world, God’s Easter light shines through us, showing the world there is another way, something beyond the darkness, and despair, and death of Good Friday.

We are an Easter people: a beacon of hope in a Good Friday world. Let that light shine. [AMEN.]

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 4/23/17

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Readings:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith– being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire– may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” – I Peter 1:3-9

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’  After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

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

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

 

Thanks to Facebook friend Ron Lusk for sharing this article from Wired.com:  “The Crisis of Attention Theft: Ads That Steal Your Time for Nothing In Return”

Pull-quote: “…in overstimulated lives, moments do matter, and indeed sometimes few things matter more than a few chosen minutes of silence. The important question is the aggregate effect of all of these various intrusions on both our health and that precious thing known as autonomy.”

I’m old enough to remember a time when ads were not everywhere, all the time. It’s amazing how quiet my childhood memories are: not silent, but filled with the sounds of nature and/or family and neighbors.  TV and radio commercials were limited to a one-or-two-sentence “sponsored by” acknowledgement (the kind of acknowledgement Public TV used to use — they’ve got full-fledged commercials now).

And the generation before mine grew up with nothing more obnoxious than roadside Burma-Shave ads.

Is it a coincidence that, in a time when we are being force-fed ads, and denied so much as an “off” button, we’re also being told what we must believe about politicians, religion, foreign countries, etc? Is it a coincidence that voices of dissent and change — like those found in the Green Party, the American Solidarity Party, or the Jesuits for that matter — are consistently marginalized or ignored?

If you doubt the power and pervasiveness of ads today, try this experiment: see if you can get through an entire day without seeing the words “Xfinity” or “Verizon”.  I tried every day for a month before I admitted failure.

Did you ever agree to give these corporations this much real estate in your mind? I know I didn’t.

The constant 24/7/365 over-stimulation of every person in the Western world can’t be healthy mentally, psychologically, or spiritually.

Awareness is a start.  Next steps?