Archive for the ‘Church History’ Category

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.Matthew 16:13-20


Today I want to talk about GLORY: the glory of Jesus, the glory of God.

The dictionary says glory has to do with “high renown or honor won by great achievements” and/or has to do with “magnificence or great beauty”.

In today’s scripture we see both. That’s why I chose Non Nobis Domine as our prelude today: “not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name be the glory.” In this passage from Matthew we see the glory of Jesus and the glory of God the Father as they draw the disciples closer and further into the Kingdom.

Matthew begins the story by telling us Jesus and the disciples are in the region of Caesarea Philippi. There were lots of towns named Caesarea back in those days – it was a way of honoring Caesar, to name a town after him – so a town needed a second name so you knew which Caesarea you were talking about. Caesarea Philippi was in northern Israel near the border of Lebanon and Syria in what is today called the Golan Heights. And the town had a shrine to the Greek god Pan.

Let’s just say Jesus and the disciples were far from home, both physically and spiritually.

Jesus probably brought the disciples here to spend time with them away from the crowds, and to begin to teach them that he would need to go to Jerusalem soon and be crucified.

So in the opening verse, Jesus puts a question to the disciples. He asks: “Who do the people say I, the Son of Man, am?” Jesus frequently talks about the “Son of Man” in the Gospels – by which he means himself – but this is the only time where Jesus specifically identifies himself as the Son of Man. The title Son of Man comes from the book of Daniel where the prophet writes:

“The Ancient of Days (that is, God) gave to the one like a Son of Man ‘dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom… shall not be destroyed.’” (Daniel 7:13-14)

That’s glory for you!

In answering Jesus’ question, the disciples offered a number of possibilities. They said: some say John the Baptist come back to life. Some say Elijah. Others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets.

These answers weren’t really so far off. The people believed in resurrection; and John the Baptist was fresh on their minds, having been killed only a few weeks before; in fact King Herod himself thought Jesus was John the Baptist reincarnated. So the crowds were right in sensing something in common between Jesus and these men of great faith. They sensed a glory in this son of a carpenter.

But then Jesus asked the disciples; “who do you say I am?” (and he’s asking all of them; the ‘you’ is plural).

This is an important question for us too. Every person on the planet will someday need to answer question: who do you say Jesus is?

All of a sudden the disciples fall silent. And then Peter speaks up and says: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Notice Peter says the Christ. Christ is a title, not a name. Kind of like when you say ‘Queen Elizabeth’: ‘Queen’ is the title, ‘Elizabeth’ is the name. With Jesus, ‘Christ’ is the title and ‘Jesus’ is the name.

We also get the word ‘christen’ from ‘Christ’. ‘Christen’ means to anoint; but back in those days they didn’t christen babies, they christened future kings, and they did this by pouring oil over their heads. And when God christened someone, when God anointed someone, God not only gave them a title but also gave them the ability to do that job, to fulfill that role.

Side note: Peter also calls Jesus the ‘son of the living God,’ in contrast to all the dead idols in this town devoted to Pan where they were. There are lifeless idols in our own time as well: things people worship that are not gods and have no power or life in them. They are lifeless idols; Jesus is the son of the living God.

Jesus the Christ has been christened the future king. This is why Jesus and the disciples, whenever they traveled, preached the message: “the kingdom of God is near! Change course and believe the good news!” This wasn’t theology they were preaching – the future King was really there!

“And we beheld his glory,” the apostle John says, “the glory of the one and only Son who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

So to sum up, Peter is saying that Jesus is the Crown Prince of Heaven, the Son of the Living God.

And Jesus answers: “you are blessed!” – meaning that only God could have given Peter that answer. And this is true of anyone who believes. If you know that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed King, the Son of God – then God alone has revealed this to you. How this happens is different for each one of us. Some people come to this knowledge by reading the Bible; some come through friends; some through nature; I’ve even heard of one person who came to this knowledge by trying to disprove it. But whatever happens – the moment of realization when the truth breaks over your awareness and you realize that Jesus is everything he claims to be and more – this comes from God. It comes when God’s spirit touches your own, and life is never the same from that point on. (By the way, if you’ve never experienced this certainty, pray about it – it’s a conversation God loves to take part in!)

Jesus said to Peter: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” The word ‘revealed’ in Greek is apekalupsen (sp?) – it’s the word we get ‘apocalypse’ from, and it means ‘revelation’ (which is why the last book in the Bible is called Revelation – it’s when Jesus is finally crowned as king and revealed in all his glory.)

Jesus also says to Peter: “I say to you: you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Peter and rock is a play on words in Greek: Petros, the name Peter, and petra, the rock. “You are Petros and on this petra I will build my church.”

We also need to look at the word church because the church as we know it didn’t exist yet, so what was Jesus talking about when he talked about church? In Greek the word is ekklesian – which is the word we get ecclesiastical from, which in our day basically means ‘having to do with the church’.  But in the Greek the word means assembly or congregation or group (of Christ-followers). In other words, in Greek the word church has to do with people not real estate.

Many of us have discovered this, or re-discovered it, especially during this strange pandemic time: the church truly is not the building; the church is the people. You are the ekklesian, by the grace of God, by the revelation of God, by the blessing of God.  Whenever you say “Jesus is the Christ” you build up and strengthen and become part of the foundation of the church. This is the rock on which the fellowship is built, and the forces of evil cannot overcome it.

Jesus then says to Peter:

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

There’s been a lot of confusion and disagreement about the meaning of this verse. Let me start by saying this: when Jesus says “I will give you the keys of the kingdom…” the word ‘you’ is singular. Jesus is talking to Peter and only Peter. He’s not talking to the other disciples and he’s not talking to us in the 21st century. Just Peter.

Basically what Jesus is doing is handing off the leadership of this new Jesus movement to Peter. Just as Moses handed off leadership of the Israelites to Joshua before they crossed into the Promised Land, Jesus is handing off leadership to Peter. It’s just a few weeks before his crucifixion. Jesus knows his followers will need someone to look to, someone to help this ekklesian hang together. After Jesus’ ascension Peter gathers the believers in Jerusalem; Peter preaches on the first Pentecost; Peter becomes the lead spokesperson; and Paul defers to Peter’s leadership even though Paul has a better education and a higher social status.

After his resurrection, Jesus will tell Peter three times, “Feed my sheep. Feed my lambs.”  Jesus knows the early church will need leadership. And Jesus knows we need leadership in our time too. Pray for this. Pray, in our difficult time, that Jesus will raise up leaders for our time who will be as faithful and as blessed by God as Peter was.

And then after all this, Jesus ordered the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ!

Why would Jesus keep this a secret? This question has kept theologians busy for 2000 years… and I have nothing to add to what they’ve written. Maybe the time wasn’t right to tell the crowds. Maybe telling too many people might in some way have detoured the road to the crucifixion. Maybe, like the disciples in next week’s lesson, they weren’t ready to understand that the Messiah had to die. Peter himself suffered three days of doubt and darkness on that crucifixion weekend – and if his faith could be shaken, what would it do to other peoples’ faith? It could be any of these things, but we really don’t know.

For today the important question is: who do we say Jesus is? The answer to this question is life-changing. And when we answer, do we answer in words only, or in actions as well?

In the meantime, today we celebrate Jesus’ glory: the glory of the only Son of the Father; the glory of the coming King; the glory of the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Non nobis, domine; not to us O Lord, but to you be the glory.




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The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Then he left them and went away. 

When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread.  Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”  They said to one another, “It is because we have brought no bread.” And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.Matthew 16:1-12

There’s an old saying about predicting the weather: “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning.” In our reading today Jesus says something along these lines to the Pharisees and Sadducees. He says:

“When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’  And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”

How true is this still in our own time?

Today’s reading from Matthew centers around two competing parties: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Life in Jesus’ time was different from ours in a lot of ways, but one thing we have in common with the people back then: religious and political differences could get nasty. And the Pharisees and the Sadducees were the two parties to choose from back then. (Actually there was a third party, the Essenes, but they got about as much press in the Bible as our third parties do in the news today.)

Since we find ourselves today being torn apart by party politics, this passage is very relevant to us – and we can learn much from how Jesus handled the situation.

The first thing we notice is that both the Pharisees and the Sadducees missed the point of Jesus’ ministry completely. In fact, opposing Jesus was just about the only thing the two groups agreed on! So they got together and confronted Jesus by demanding that he show them a sign from heaven.

Now Jesus had just spent three days healing people, and feeding over 4000 men (plus women and children) with seven loaves of bread and two fish. What more sign did they want?  Truth is, they really didn’t want to see a sign; they were testing Jesus to see how he would react under pressure.

So what was it that made the Pharisees and Sadducees oppose each other?

It’s complicated.

But like most arguments of this kind, there were a few issues that kept bubbling up to the surface.

For starters, the Sadducees were stuck on the letter of the law. Whatever the issue at hand was, if it wasn’t written down in the books of Moses (that is, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, or Numbers) – if it wasn’t in one of those five books they didn’t believe it. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed in an “oral tradition.” In other words, when God gave Moses the law, not everything was written down. God also spoke to Moses, and these words were passed down to the priests and the prophets by word of mouth.

Included in these oral teachings was the concept of the afterlife. The Sadducees did not see anything about life after death in the books of Moses, so they didn’t believe in resurrection. They believed when you died that was it. The Pharisees disagreed.

Jesus, by the way, took the Pharisees’ side on this issue. In a debate with the Sadducees, Jesus quoted the book of Exodus saying:

“Concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what God said to you: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” (Matt 22:31-32)

The other really big difference between the Pharisees and Sadducees was cultural in nature – and these issues are still with us today.  The Sadducees were the “One Percent” of their day. They were the richest, best educated, most powerful people in the country. In a world where there was no ‘separation of church and state’ the Sadducees held both religious and political power. (However unlike the “one percent” of our day, the Sadducees were not business tycoons. There were no Bill Gates-es or Mark Zuckerberg’s back then. Their power was strictly in politics and religion.)

The Pharisees on the other hand, while they tended to be well-educated, tended to also have sort of blue-collar backgrounds. They were smart, and they worked hard, and they studied hard, and they achieved success through real effort. And for these reasons they were popular among the people. But because the Pharisees had an oral tradition of interpreting scripture, and there was more than one oral tradition, their theological debates could get really deep, and could easily veer off-course.

Jesus spoke some of his hardest words against the Pharisees, even though he agreed with them more often than He did the Pharisees. Maybe that’s because the Pharisees’ mistakes were more dangerous. Think of it this way: If something is half-true and half-lie, most people will say, “that just doesn’t sound right.”

But if something is 95% true and 5% lie, people will often swallow the lie along with the truth. (This is the real danger of “fake news”.) The Pharisees got it mostly right most of the time. This is why Jesus said “do what they say but not what they do.” With the Pharisees things could get just a little bit twisted sometimes and end up in a place that God never intended.

One other important difference between the Pharisees and Sadducees: the Sadducees, in spite of the fact that they were closely tied to the temple – you could almost think of them as being like the College of Cardinals in the Vatican (not that they were Catholics – these men were very Jewish!) – but the Sadducees served in the temple in the same way that Cardinals serve in the Vatican. They were officials whose job it was to lead or assist in worship.

In spite of these temple duties, in spite of their close proximity to the things of God, the Sadducees were head over heels in love with Greek philosophy. In Jesus’ day, the teachings of the Epicureans and the Stoics were the ‘in thing’; Socrates and Plato were a few hundred years before, and still had some influence but not as much. Anyway, the Sadducees were far more influenced by Greek philosophers than they were by the scriptures. The Sadducees thought Greek philosophy was the height of sophistication and intellectual achievement. It was classy… brilliant… exclusive… the crème de la crème, befitting the minds and lives of the “one percent”. It didn’t matter to them that Greek philosophy was in no way related to what Moses wrote or what God commanded – and in some ways was opposed to both.

The Pharisees saw the Sadducees’ love of Greek philosophy basically as turning their backs on God’s word. And Jesus and the early disciples – particularly the apostle Paul – tended take the Pharisees’ side on this one.

So in Jesus’ day the Jewish people were being encouraged to divide and attack each other along these party lines – much as we are being encouraged to attack each other today.

Because of this, Jesus’ words to his disciples are as important to us today as they were to the disciples back then. When Jesus has a moment alone with them, he said to the disciples: “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Notice Jesus does not take sides. And he doesn’t waste time sifting through their various arguments. He warns the disciples to stay away from both.

Jesus doesn’t explain the yeast remark, but I suspect it has to do with the possibility that mastering these complex teachings puts a person at risk of puffing up with knowledge the way yeast puffs up bread. At any rate the bottom line is: Beware of it. Steer clear of it.

So a few thoughts on how to do that in our time:

When you’re dealing with modern-day Sadducees – the “one percent”:

  • Be aware that the world’s philosophies may be attractive and may contain some truth, but their source is not God and at some point you’ll probably have to part company with them in order to be true to Jesus.
  • Be aware that anyone who loves church because it’s in a beautiful building – or who loves worship because it is a dramatic presentation that catches the emotions – is completely missing the point. The church is God’s people and worship is how we express our love for God.
  • Be aware that the Sadducees were wrong in thinking this life is all there is. The God of the Old and the New Testaments promises eternal life to all God’s children.

When you’re dealing with modern-day Pharisees:

  • Be aware that centuries-old traditions handed down from generation to generation may be meaningful, but they’re not on the same level as God’s word. And think of all the traditions that have been handed down for hundreds of years that we’re having to fix in our generation: hundreds of years of tradition in which black people and women were not allowed to pray or speak out loud in church. Hundreds of years tradition in which people thought forgiveness only comes through a priest and not directly from Jesus. Hundreds of years of tradition in which people thought that if you’re rich it’s a sign that God likes you, and if you’re poor it’s because you’ve offended God. Hundreds of years of tradition in which people thought all you have to do is believe and you’ll be saved – and it doesn’t matter how you live after that. Beware of traditions that cause harm to God’s people.
  • Watch out for hypocrisy. Do religious teachers practice what they preach? Do they preach peace and then go out and attack people who disagree with them? Do they preach giving but never give themselves? Do they preach sexual purity and then go off and have an affair? Do they preach God as the Creator of the world and then don’t care about the environment? I could go on…

All these things to watch out for cut across party lines: they did in Jesus’ day and they do today. Jesus never fits into anybody’s box, praise God. He’s not supposed to.

Our job, as people who love Jesus, is to listen to him and follow him as best we can.  And wherever the various parties of our day turn away from God’s goodness and the truth of our Lord Jesus, our job, if we can, as we can, is to help steer things back on course.

Our job is to be God’s people, first and always. No apologies and no compromises.


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All My Hope on God Is Founded
Words: Joachim Neander (1650-1680)
Music: Herbert Howells (1892-1983)

All my hope on God is founded;
He doth all my trust renew,
Me through change and chance He guideth,
Only good and only true.
God unknown, He alone
Calls my heart to be His own.

Pride of man and earthly glory,
Sword and crown betray his trust;
What with care and toil be buildeth
Tower and temple fall to dust.
But God’s power, hour by hour,
Is my temple and my tower.

God’s great goodness aye endureth,
Deep His wisdom, passing thought:
Splendor, light, and life attend Him,
Beauty springeth out of naught.
Love doth stand at His hand;
Joy doth wait on His command.

Still from man to God eternal
Sacrifice of praise be done,
High above all praises praising
For the gift of Christ His Son.
Christ doth call one and all:
Ye who follow shall not fall.

We sang this little-known-in-America hymn in church yesterday and it reminded me how much I love it – both the music and the text.  There is a grandeur in the sound and a passion in the words that are hard to match.  I wondered aloud to the senior pastor and one of our choir members: “what inspired this song?” None of us had heard of Joachim Neander or knew why his life was so tragically short: he died at only 30 years of age.

Neander, originally from the city of Bremen, is probably best known for the hymn Praise To The Lord, The Almighty, The King Of Creation.  Like many upper-middle-class men of his time, Neander studied theology at university but wasn’t exactly on fire about his faith at first.  Hymnary.org writes: “German student life in the 17th century was anything but refined, and Neander seems to have been as riotous and as fond of questionable pleasures as most of his fellows…

“In July 1670, Theodore Under-Eyck came to Bremen as pastor of St. Martin’s Church… a Pietist and holder of conventicles. Not long after Neander, with two like-minded comrades, went to service there one Sunday, in order to criticize and find matter of amusement. But the earnest words of Under-Eyck touched his heart; and this, [and] subsequent conversations with Under-Eyck, proved the turning-point of his spiritual life.”

As for the inspiration behind this particular hymn text, history leaves us no specifics. But Hymnary.org writes: “Many [of his hymns] are of a decidedly subjective cast, but for this the circumstances of their origin, and the fact that the author did not expect them to be used in public worship, will sufficiently account. […] But the glow and sweetness of his better hymns, their firm faith, originality, Scripturalness, variety and mastery of rhythmical forms, and genuine lyric character fully entitle them to the high place they hold.”

There’s an interesting footnote to Neander’s family history: the family name was originally Neumann (“New man” in English) but Joachim’s grandfather changed it to the Greek Neander.  Before he was given his own church to lead, Joachim, who was a nature-lover, would hold gatherings and services and preach in the valley of the Dussel River.  The word in German for “valley” being “thal”, this area became known as Neander-thal or “Neander’s Valley”.  It was in this valley, in the 1800’s, that the remains of a man were found that became known as “Neanderthal Man”.




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Well yesterday was the 12th Day of Christmas, so Christmas is now officially over, although personally I think as long as we still have Christmas cookies and lights on the tree, the holiday continues!

But today is first day of Epiphany: the season in which the Messiah is revealed to the world. And today we hear the story of the Wise Men. It’s a very familiar story, and one that is, and always has been, a part of the Christmas story.

And yet… we’re not in Christmas any more. And neither is Jesus’ family.  We don’t know exactly when the Wise Men showed up but it wasn’t on the same night as the shepherds; in fact Jesus may have been a few months old or even a year old or more when he met the Wise Men.

As we turn to look at this scripture passage I’d like to draw attention to three things: Fulfillment, Fear, and Fealty.  More specifically: fulfillment of prophecy; fear, motivating King Herod; and fealty, or worship, on the part of the Wise Men.  These three things will give us a scaffolding on which the story can take shape.

We can gather from what Matthew has written that Mary and Joseph didn’t go back to Nazareth when the census was over.  After all the head-counting and tax-paying was done, and all the descendants of David had gone back to their homes, Jesus’ family stayed in Bethlehem for a while. Scripture doesn’t say why or how long. But they moved into a house, which Matthew mentions in verse 11, and this is where the Wise Men found them.  So by the time the Wise Men arrive, the manger was a thing of the past… and I imagine it was quickly becoming a thing of family legend: “hey, do you remember the night when Mary went into labor and there was no place for us to stay? Man what a night that was!”

So who were these wise guys anyway and why did they come?  The Greek word for Wise Men is Magi – it’s the word we get magic from, but they weren’t necessarily magicians.  They may have been. They may also have been Zoroastrian priests; they were certainly expert astrologers and possibly astronomers; many were interpreters of dreams; and they were men who had received the best of educations and who had mastered both secular and religious teachings. The Wise Men were probably from Persia or somewhere near there: close to what would be modern-day Iraq. And in ancient times Persia was one of the great cultures, as great as Greece or Rome, and somewhat predating them. We in the west tend to forget this: we have so much influence from the Greek and Latin cultures; but the Persian empire was responsible for many of the discoveries in fields like math and science that we still use today.

So these Wise Men from the east: educated, ruling class, wealthy, the peak of their society, looked at a star (or possibly a configuration of heavenly bodies – I’m not going to get into the various scientific theories of what the star might actually have been) – but they looked at the star and saw something stunningly unusual. And they watched, night after night, as this star made its way across the heavens, and then appeared to stop over Israel. And they interpreted this as indicating the birth of a king in the land beneath which the star rested.

How the wise men arrived at a king’s birth from watching a star, we don’t know. It’s possible that these men, being Persians, had access to the records of the prophet Daniel, who had served in the Persian courts hundreds of years before.  It’s possible they may have been known about the Jewish prophecies of a Messiah King, and were watching for a sign. It’s possible Daniel might have brought with him the books of Moses, or at the very least Moses’ teachings, which would have included prophecies like the words of Balaam:

“I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; A Star shall come out of Jacob; A Scepter shall rise out of Israel…” (Numbers 24:17)

The Wise Men might not have understood who the Messiah was meant to be – but even the Jewish people had some misconceptions about what the Messiah would do when he came. But the Wise Men were certain enough of their calculations and their interpretations of prophecy to travel nearly 700 miles to see this king.

What’s odd about all this – apart from the fact this is a group of Gentiles following a Jewish prophecy (which in itself is a fulfillment of prophecy) – what’s odd is, Herod’s son and the heir to the throne had already been born years before.  His name was Archelaus and he would inherit the throne while Jesus is still a small boy.

No wonder Herod was not thrilled when the Wise Men showed up asking about a baby king!  In fact ‘not thrilled’ would be an understatement. Matthew 22 verse 3 says: “When King Herod heard this he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him…”

All Jerusalem was frightened because they knew what Herod was like when he got upset.  Herod was duplicitous, vicious, and famous for not only killing his enemies but killing his friends, and even his family members. So when Herod was frightened, everybody was walking on eggshells.

As we look at Herod we should keep in mind that Herod the Great was not himself a believer in the Jewish faith. He was born Jewish, and he tried to come off as Jewish in front of the people, but he was essentially a puppet king of the Roman empire, and Rome was far more important to him than being Jewish. Herod’s job was to keep the peace and to make the Romans happy, and he did this by being really underhanded in his dealings and yet doing some really major public works projects that provided jobs for the people of Israel and glory for Rome.

BTW I got to see some of Herod’s projects when I was in Israel – some of them are still standing. The one that fascinated me most was the chariot-race-track, that looked like an ancient NASCAR track. It was by the sea, like Daytona, and would have given Daytona a run for its money.  The race track, and the city that surrounded it, next to a gorgeous harbor, is named Caesarea Maritima (that is, ‘Caesarea by the sea’) – the whole city and harbor being named Caesarea to curry favor with Herod’s master in Rome.

So Herod made some wise political maneuvers, but in moral terms he left a lot to be desired.  And he had no use for Israel’s Messiah, or for any prophecies about the Messiah, or for a Son of David who was planning to be a shepherd king who would rescue his people. Herod liked his job, and he intended to keep it and to pass it on to his son, not anybody else’s son, not even God’s son. And to be sure this baby didn’t get in the way, Herod ordered that all children two years old and younger in and around Bethlehem be put to death.

Strangely, even though Herod didn’t take the Jewish faith seriously, it seems he took the Wise Men seriously. Why was this? Was it because they were rich and relatively famous? Was it because Herod was superstitious (which isn’t unusual among fearful people)?  Did Herod take astrology more seriously than his own spiritual roots?  For Herod as a Jew, dabbling in the mystical arts was forbidden, because God wanted God’s people to seek God’s power and God’s advice – not things that might lead them astray into other religions, or into fearing what should not be feared.

And then we look at the Wise Men: and it’s remarkable to consider that God moved (literally) the heavens and the earth to communicate with these Gentile astrologers, in their own language, in their own way of understanding, and to bring them – by their own arts and sciences – into a knowledge of God’s kingdom and God’s truth. How great and deep and wide is God’s mercy and understanding!  If we ever wonder if God wants us to be part of his kingdom, we can call to mind the lengths God went to, to reach the Wise Men where they were.

So Herod heard the Wise Men’s message; and some Bible translations say he was “afraid” or “disturbed”.  The Greek word translates both “shaken” and “stirred”.  It describes something that shook Herod to the core of his being. And when the king is not happy, look out: and that’s as true today as it was back then.  When the leaders of nations are in fear, conflicts happen, and it’s always the little people who pay the price. There’s an old African proverb that says: “when elephants fight, the grass gets hurt.”  We could also say when elephants fear, the grass gets hurt.

So God warns the Wise Men to go home another way, and God warns Joseph to take his family and leave quietly for Egypt by night. And while Bethlehem pays the price for Herod’s fear, our Lord and his family experience what it is to be refugees. They will return to Israel a few years later, but finding Herod’s son Archelaus on the throne, at God’s leading they will head north to the town of Nazareth. And so the prophecy will come true that the Messiah would be from Nazareth.

So, so far, we’ve seen in our story the fulfillment of prophecy, and the results of a king’s fear.  The third thing to look for is fealty or worship.

As I was re-reading this story this week, one verse jumped out at me: Matthew 2:2 where the wise men say, “we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

The word homage in Greek is proskuneo, and it’s usually translated ‘worship’. But proskuneo is made up of two words in Greek: pros, to fall down before – it’s the word from which we get the word prostrate – and kuneo, to kiss.  So a literal translation would be to bow down and kiss someone’s feet.  The non-literal translation is simply to worship someone by falling face-down before them.

What caught my attention was this: these Wise Men, the most learned, intelligent, well-respected seers and teachers of their time, walked 700 miles for one reason: to fall face-down in front of a baby king. They said: “We have seen his star and have come to fall down at his feet.”

And the question came to my mind, for all of us (myself included): for whom, or for what, would we walk 700 miles?

700 miles is approximately the distance from Pittsburgh to the Jersey Shore and back again. Now I have driven 700 miles for something as silly as cheering on my favorite rock band.  But walk? I don’t think so.

What makes these wise men truly wise is they understand – with every fiber of their being – the need for heart-felt, personal, all-in worship. When they saw something they were convinced was true (and BTW the evidence they had for Jesus’ kingship was far less than we have today) they put their whole selves where their mouths were. And they knew the correct reaction to the events they witnessed was to fall at Jesus’ feet.

They are a sign to us, and to the whole world, that this Jewish Messiah is not just for Israel any more; that God was reaching out to – and welcoming – the foreigner and the stranger.  That the ones who once worshipped other gods were coming to Israel to worship the one true God.

At Jesus’ birth, God invited the shepherds: the poorest of the poor; and the wise men: the greatest of the great. And in between those two extremes, the rest of us are also invited: rich or poor, educated or not-so-educated, famous or obscure. All of us are invited to come and worship.

So what does it mean to worship?

Like the Wise Men, we are called to worship God with our whole being, with everything we’ve got, with all that we are and all that we have.  We should be willing, if not able, to walk 700 miles for the privilege of falling at Jesus’ feet. But since most of us aren’t called to do that, here are some things we might be called to do:

  1. Worship is closely tied to prayer, and one way to pray is to open our hearts and minds to God, for no other purpose than to enjoy God’s presence.
  2. Worship includes praising God, because when we catch a vision of God, even a glimpse, God’s awesomeness makes praise a necessity. We can’t help praising because God is so great.
  3. Giving thanks – for all we’ve been given: our lives, our talents, our families, our communities, our brothers and sisters in the faith.
  4. Turning away from doing wrong things, and making restitution where we need to.
  5. Giving of what we own to those who need it.
  6. Living what we believe in our daily lives, using the talents God has given us for the benefit of God’s people.
  7. And of course worship includes participation in the sacraments, especially communion, where we meet with God face to face.

So the story of the Wise Men blesses us with the fulfillment of many prophecies. The story of the wise men teaches us that fearfulness and leadership are a tragic combination. And finally the Wise Men show us the kind of fealty or worship our Lord Jesus is worthy of. By God’s grace may we learn to worship with full hearts and minds, with the Wise Men as our examples. [AMEN.]

Closing prayer used at Incarnation: And with this goal in mind, if we have a mind to, let’s make this prayer our own:

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

(attrib. to John Wesley)


Matthew 2:1-12  In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,  2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”  3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;  4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.  5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:  6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.  8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.  11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, 1/6/19



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We have three Scripture readings for today, one from II Samuel, one from the Gospel of John, and one from Revelation.

II Samuel 23:1-7: Now these are the last words of David: The oracle of David, son of Jesse, the oracle of the man whom God exalted, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the Strong One of Israel: “The spirit of the LORD speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue.  The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me: ‘One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.’  Is not my house like this with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure. Will he not cause to prosper all my help and my desire? But the godless are all like thorns that are thrown away; for they cannot be picked up with the hand; to touch them one uses an iron bar or the shaft of a spear. And they are entirely consumed in fire on the spot.”

John 18:33-38  Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”  Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”  Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him.”

Revelation 1:4-8  John, to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, every one who pierced him; and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.


Today is the last Sunday of “Ordinary Time” – that is, the last Sunday before all the holidays begin. Next Sunday we begin Advent, followed very quickly by Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost – and by that time Spring will be here and we’ll be back out in our gardens again!

This Sunday is also Christ the King Sunday – or “The Feast of Christ the King,” which means it’s a day to celebrate.  ‘Christ the King’ is one of the newest holidays on our church calendar. Most other holidays, like Christmas or Pentecost, have been around almost as long as the church has been around. But the Feast of Christ the King is not even 100 years old.

So I was curious as to why this holiday was created.  Turns out it was created in the Catholic church and then quickly spread through all the major Protestant denominations. And whenever all the churches agree on something, that gets my attention!

This is the back story: the Feast of Christ the King was created in 1925 by Pope Pius XI.  In 1925, Europe was still picking up the pieces after World War I: it was a difficult time.  And in reaction to those difficulties, there was a steep rise in two things: secularism and nationalism.  And the combination of these two trends led to an increasing number of dictatorships, including Stalin in Russia (who came to power in 1922), Mussolini in Italy (also 1922), Hitler in Germany (who came to power in 1933 but was a rising star in the 20s), Franco in Spain (1936, also rising through the 20s).

Pope Pius “hoped to combat the growing influence of absolute dictators…” so he created the Feast of Christ the King as “as a reminder…”  that “Jesus is king and there is no other.” (source: http://blogs.jwpepper.com/index.php/the-celebration-of-christ-the-king-sunday/  )

Christ the King

I think these are important words for our own time as well, and indeed every time – because throughout human history there have been people who have claimed the kind of power and loyalty that only God has a right to.  Not that secular powers are a bad thing; Scripture says they are given to us by God for our benefit.  But when secular powers forget that they answer to God, it is the duty of Christians to remind them.

Pope Pius is not the only theologian who has stressed the importance of recognizing Jesus as King. In more recent years, British theologian N.T. Wright has written extensively about the subject of Jesus as King.  In fact Wright has gone so far as to say the church’s message of salvation has had the wrong emphasis for many years.  To fill in the back-story: some churches have taught a person is saved by being baptized and joining the church; some churches have taught that a person is saved by doing good things, by living a good life; some churches have taught that a person is saved only by God’s choice, by predestination; some churches that have taught a person is saved by having a conversion experience, by being ‘born again’.

N.T. Wright says that putting the emphasis on ‘getting saved’ is missing the point of what Jesus taught in the gospels.  This may sound shocking at first, but Wright is not saying that heaven is unimportant.  What Wright is saying, is that the focus of Jesus’ teaching in the gospels is and was about the kingdom of God.  Over and over Jesus says to people “the kingdom of God is near – change course and believe the good news.”  In other words: God’s reign is within arm’s reach, so turn your hearts and your minds, and turn your actions, in God’s direction.

So is Wright right?  As it says in the Bible, whenever we hear a new teaching we should measure it against what we read in Scriptures.  And in this case, one of the ways we can do that is to count how many times Jesus talks about various subjects.  It’s fairly safe to assume the more often Jesus talks about something, the greater importance or greater emphasis it has.

So with that in mind, I went and counted the number of times Jesus spoke certain words in the gospels. (Results will vary a little depending on which version you use. And computers help with this kind of thing.)  The word I found most frequently used in connection with Jesus is the word “answered” – as in, someone asked him a question and Jesus “answered saying” (whatever he said). And I find this encouraging, because it means we can ask questions too, in confidence that Jesus will answer.

The second most common word – and the first most common Jesus spoke about – is ‘kingdom’.  Jesus uses the word ‘kingdom’ more often than he uses the words love, faith, and peace, combined. Jesus certainly taught about love, faith and peace! But Jesus talks about the ‘kingdom’ more often. In fact Jesus uses the word ‘kingdom’ more than five times more often than he uses the word ‘saved’ and more than ten times more often than he uses the word ‘repent’.

So I think N.T. Wright is onto something. We may need to shift our emphasis from getting people ‘saved’ to welcoming people into the Kingdom.

Now I should mention – in order to balance this a little bit – that the rest of the New Testament (apart from the gospels), that is, the teaching of the apostles, is weighted somewhat differently. In these books the most common words are Love, Faith, Hope, Peace, and Righteousness, in that order.  These words describe what God’s kingdom is like.  In other words, the apostles were teaching us about life in God’s kingdom, and what it means to grow into that reality.  So Jesus announces the Kingdom, and we who follow him are called to teach the kingdom and to model what it’s like to live in the kingdom.

So with this kingdom emphasis in mind, let’s take a look at what our scripture readings for today tell us about the Kingdom.

In our reading from II Samuel, the Holy Spirit gives David an oracle. And the words David speaks apply both to himself and to Jesus.  David begins by saying “The Spirit of the Lord speaks through me.”  These same words are echoed in the book of Isaiah, chapter 61, which Jesus quotes in the synagogue in Nazareth.  Isaiah is describing what the king of God’s choosing will do, and he writes:

“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor…” (Isaiah 61:1-2)

And in Luke’s gospel, Jesus reads these words and adds, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)

David’s oracle continues saying: “the king rules over the people in justice” and “his coming is like the light of morning”.  In the book of Revelation Jesus says: “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” (Rev 22:16) So again we see a parallel between David and Jesus.

David says God’s covenant with him is everlasting; and God says to Jesus in Hebrews 5:6 “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” So the two of them share God’s promise of eternity.

Throughout scripture, Jesus is called the “Son of David” – and so all these things that David says, while they’re true of himself, are also true of Jesus.  Jesus is king, both by being descended from David, and by God’s anointing.

Moving on to our reading from John: here we see Jesus, the King of the universe, standing before Pilate, accused of being a king!

Of course back in Roman days, a person who claimed to be a king would have been guilty of treason, because there was only one king and he lived in Rome. So when the high priests and the religious authorities arrested Jesus and dragged him off to see Pilate, they knew exactly what to accuse him of to get a death sentence.

For whatever reason, Pilate chooses to question Jesus privately rather than in open court. Pilate comes straight to the point of the accusation by asking: “Are you the King of the Jews?”

We might think that the direct and honest answer would be ‘yes’, but Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly. Instead he asks, “Is this your own question, or were you told this by someone else?”

Jesus is not dodging the question here; he already knows what the outcome of this trial is going to be. But Jesus is doing a couple of things (probably more than a couple, but I’ll look at two for now). First, he is putting a stop to the triangulation.  In psychology, triangulation is (quoting Wikipedia) “a manipulation tactic where one person will not communicate directly with another person, but instead uses a third person to relay communication to the second, thus forming a triangle.”  Triangulation is an unhealthy way to communicate.  So if Pilate is talking to Jesus about what the priests said, and Jesus is talking to Pilate about what other people said about him, they’ve got a triangle going.  And Jesus puts a stop to this right away by asking Pilate whether these words are his or someone else’s.

The second thing Jesus is doing is opening the door to direct and honest communication – so that Pilate can know who Jesus is, and has the opportunity to trust Jesus if he chooses to.

Pilate agrees to get rid of the triangle. He answers: “I’m not a Jew am I? Your own nation and chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”

Pilate’s answer is honest but it’s not very polite. First off it smacks of anti-Semitism.  Pilate looks down his nose at the chief priests and he also looks down his nose at Jesus. As far as he’s concerned they’re all alike.  On the other hand, Pilate doesn’t like being manipulated.  And as he looks at Jesus, he knows he’s not looking at a rebel. He knows the chief priests are setting Jesus up, and he wants to know why.  “What have you done?”

And this question opens the door for Jesus to present Pilate with the truth, and to give Pilate the opportunity that Jesus gives every person: to accept the truth or to reject it. So Jesus says: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were,” Jesus basically says, ‘as a king I would have an army and servants and they would be fighting for me. But as things stand, my kingdom does not come from this world and therefore I am no threat to you.’

Pilate answers, “So you ARE a king?”  Pilate is still only interested in whether or not Jesus is guilty of treason; he has no interest in the finer points of what Jesus is saying. So Jesus answers, “You say that I’m a king.” (pointing out the word ‘king’ is now Pilate’s, not his accusers’) And Jesus continues: “For this I was born… and came into this world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  Jesus is now very gently questioning Pilate and saying, “I’m speaking the truth – will you hear it?”

And Pilate looks Truth in the face and says “What is truth?”

And he walks away.

Pilate wasn’t missing Jesus’ point, he just doesn’t care. He rejects the truth, and he rejects Jesus as king.

Where it came to kings, Pilate chooses Caesar over Christ. As it turned out, just two or three years later, Pilate was recalled to Rome to answer charges of harsh treatment of the Jews.  Shortly after that he committed suicide, and rumor has it he was ordered to do so by the Emperor Caligula. (What a choice between kings – Jesus or Caligula! Pilate chose poorly.)

Pilate did speak one truth: when Jesus was crucified, as was the tradition in Rome, he wrote the charge – that is, the reason he was being crucified – on a piece of wood, attached to the cross above his head.  Pilate wrote “The King of the Jews”.  Pilate meant this to be insulting, and the high priests were definitely insulted.  They asked him to change it to “this man said I am the king of the Jews”.  But Pilate answered, “what I have written, I have written” – and in his cruelty, he spoke the truth.

The king we worship today, and the king we proclaim to the world, is a king who, for our sakes, was tortured and killed on a cross.

And this brings us to our reading from Revelation, which picks up the theme and transforms it into a song of praise. The apostle John writes: “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever.”

I could write a whole other sermon on what it means for us to be Jesus’ kingdom, and for us to be God’s priests.  This is our future! Priests, serving under our great high priest.

But for today I just want to close with John’s vision of our king. John writes: “behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him…  ‘I Am the Alpha and the Omega’ says the Lord God, the one who is, and the one who was, and the one who is coming, the Almighty.”

John tells us two things: (1) Jesus will return. This is a message given to a church that was under pressure from all sides. These words are as good an encouragement for us today as they were for believers back then; and (2) John is saying: God is God, and God is in charge.

So this is our King. And our king says “I come quickly.”  And so we celebrate today, Jesus, our King, to him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. AMEN.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 11/25/18


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[Scripture reading is at end of post] This Sunday we continue our sermon series in I & II Samuel.  So far in the series we’ve seen the birth and childhood of the prophet Samuel; we’ve seen the people of Israel rebel against God by asking for a king; we’ve seen the disastrous first kingship of King Saul; and last time I was here saw David begin to take the throne as the Ark of the Covenant returned to Israel.

Today’s reading takes place a number of years later. At this point, the long and steady decline of the house of Saul is over. Things are getting better for Israel; David has put down any challenges to the throne and has established the nation in peace. In fact the writer of II Samuel doesn’t even call David by name in the first few verses: he says “the king did this” and “the king did that” – emphasizing the strength of David’s throne.

By this time David had also married many wives and fathered a number of children, and he had built a magnificent palace in Jerusalem: a palace made of stone and lined with cedar, with magnificent views of the countryside around him. The place was big enough to hold the wives and their kids plus servants and advisors and officers – it was almost like a small city.

King David

So as King David – handsome, mighty man of arms, loved by all his people – looked out over all that he owned, and all his kingdom, he was deeply and profoundly thankful to God for all that God had given him. Unlike many before him and after him who have risen to power or wealth or fame, David takes credit for none of this, and he takes none of it for granted. He doesn’t say to himself “look at all I’ve done” – he says “look how great God is that he’s done all this for me!”

So as David looks around, he notices that his house is more magnificent than God’s house. In fact God doesn’t have a house at all; his sanctuary is in a tent. And that doesn’t sit right with David – that David might appear to be greater in the eyes of people than God.

So he says to his friend, Nathan the prophet, “Look, I’m living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God is in a tent.” And Nathan answers, “Do all that you have in mind; God is with you.”

But that night the word of God came to Nathan and said otherwise.  And God gave Nathan this message: “Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?”

The obvious answer to this question is ‘no’.  But I think it’s important to ask ‘why?’ What God is thinking and feeling at this point? Is God saying David doesn’t need to prove God is bigger? Is God disappointed or angry at the suggestion?

I don’t think so. The book of Chronicles tells us that God said ‘no’ to David in part because David was a man of war, and God wanted a man of rest and of peace to build his temple. (I Chron 22:8-10)  God is also looking into the future for a king who will be a prince of peace and will bring God’s people into a Sabbath rest.

But God is pleased at the request. And then God explains to David (through Nathan) how God sees things from His point of view. God says:

“I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt… I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.  Wherever I have moved… did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel… saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”” (II Samuel 7:6-7)

Again the obvious answer is ‘no’ God has never asked for a house.  God has chosen, deliberately, to live in something that is in the midst of the people and that moves with the people. And God is still this way today.  God may gather us into buildings for worship but God does not live in buildings. The entire universe is not big enough to contain God! Instead, God chooses to put God’s Spirit in God’s people.  God moves in us and with us, all the time, because that’s how God chooses to be with us.

So getting back to God’s message to David – at this point, the tables begin to turn. Rather than receiving a gift from David, God is going to give gifts to David – beginning with reassuring David that God sees David as his son – a man after God’s own heart.  Then God mentions three things he has done for David in the past, and three things God will do for David in the future.

The three things in David’s past are: (1) God took David from keeping sheep, and made him king over Israel; (2) God has been with David wherever David went (and David traveled quite a bit before he became king), and (3) God has kept David safe and has cut off his enemies on every side.

The three things God is about to do for David are: (1) God is going to give David a great name. Think about how true that is: How many people who lived 3000 years ago do we still talk about today? David was famous not only in his own time but in our time as well.  If you travel to Jerusalem today, you will see statues of David and places where David used to visit still preserved after 3000 years. The memory of David is still very much alive… and his name is far greater than any of his contemporaries, or most of the people who lived within 1000 years on either side of him.

(2) The second thing God promises to do for David is to appoint a place for his people Israel where they will be safe and no longer be harassed by evil-doers. And David, having been a shepherd, who is now in charge of shepherding the people, would have understood this as a great blessing. It’s what every shepherd wants for the ones he cares for.

And (3) third, God says to David, “the Lord will build you a house”.  This third promise has a double-meaning. The first meaning is that David’s son, Solomon, will follow him on the throne, and then his son and then his son: that God will establish David’s dynasty.  Solomon will also be the one to build God’s temple. He will be a man of peace and great wisdom, and David and Solomon together will draw up the plans and gather the materials, so that when David passes, Solomon will be able to build the temple.  God says to David, “I will be a father to him, and he will be a son to me.”

But the second meaning comes in where God says, “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.”  This promise does not come true in David’s dynasty.  There will come a time when the kingdom of Israel will be divided, and first the north and then the south will fall; and the line of kings descended from David will end. But David’s descendants will not die out. They will continue, quietly, unnoticed… until the Messiah appears.  Jesus will be known as the “Son of David” because he will be born into the family of David. And his kingdom will never end.

When Jesus was questioned by the Pharisees and Sadducees, he questioned them back by asking:

“What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?”
They said to him, “The son of David.”

He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls [the Messiah] Lord, saying,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet”’?

If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” And no one was able to answer [Jesus] a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.  (Matthew 22:42-46)

This is one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith: that Jesus, David’s son, is also David’s Lord.

And David knew it.  David was the one who wrote the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22) And David was the one who wrote the words “into your hands I commit my spirit” (Psalm 31:13)

In the power of the Holy Spirit, David saw the Messiah coming – not quite clearly, always somewhat out of reach, but David understood that God was speaking of more than just a flesh-and-blood kingdom; that God was speaking of an eternal kingdom.  The establishing of David’s kingdom, forever, could mean no one but Jesus.

God also warns David that if and when his sons, his descendants, rebel against God, God will discipline them; but God will never forsake the house of David the way God abandoned the house of Saul. And God promises he will never take his love away from David’s descendants, ever.

This whole reading today, this whole scene, is a beautiful illustration of how God’s grace works. Grace is unmerited favor – gifts from God, and a future from God, that we don’t deserve and could never earn. David doesn’t earn God’s favor by doing things for him: that’s how the pagan gods worked: “Do me a favor and I’ll do you a favor.”

In God’s kingdom no favors are necessary. They’re not asked for or even wanted.  Instead, when God makes us his own, God not only adopts us as heirs of David (because we are heirs of Jesus) but also promises to give us still more!  Through Jesus, God is building a spiritual house, the body of all believers.

David’s response to God’s message, and to God’s generosity, is, “Who am I, O Lord, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?” And he ends his prayer by saying, “Your word has given me all these things and your word is true. May it please you to bless the house of your servant, so that it may continue forever, for you O Lord God have spoken…”

Or to put in another way, in the words of Jesus’ mother Mary: “I am the Lord’s servant; may it be to me according to your word.”

So this whole passage speaks to us of the coming of the Messiah: the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, the King whose kingdom will never end.  In Jesus, as with David, God will cut off all enemies and give us peace. In Jesus, as with David, God’s people will have a home, free of trouble and harassment.

So for us here in the 21st century, just as God called David to be both his servant and his son, God calls each of us to be both his servants and his children.  And just as David didn’t earn any of this on his own, we also have received God’s grace, and we can say with David, “look how great God is, that God has done so much for us!” And just as God moved with the people of Israel in the tabernacle, God moves with us, in what the apostle Paul called “our earthly tents” through the Holy Spirit working in our hearts.

God has promised us to be with us in this life, and has promised us a dwelling place (a house!) – a heavenly mansion in the kingdom to come.  So let us join with David in giving thanks and praise to God, and in saying “Lord, I am your servant; may it be to me according to your word.”  AMEN.


~~~~~~~~~ Reading for the Day~~~~~~~~~~~~

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.”  Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you.”  But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan: “Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”


“Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth.  And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” – II Samuel 7:1-16


[David’s reply – not in this week’s lectionary but necessary to complete the passage]: Then King David went in and sat before the LORD, and said, “Who am I, O Lord GOD, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And yet this was a small thing in your eyes, O Lord GOD; you have spoken also of your servant’s house for a great while to come. May this be instruction for the people, O Lord GOD! And what more can David say to you? For you know your servant, O Lord GOD! Because of your promise, and according to your own heart, you have wrought all this greatness, so that your servant may know it. Therefore you are great, O LORD God; for there is no one like you, and there is no God besides you, according to all that we have heard with our ears. Who is like your people, like Israel? Is there another nation on earth whose God went to redeem it as a people, and to make a name for himself, doing great and awesome things for them, by driving out before his people nations and their gods? And you established your people Israel for yourself to be your people forever; and you, O LORD, became their God. And now, O LORD God, as for the word that you have spoken concerning your servant and concerning his house, confirm it forever; do as you have promised. Thus your name will be magnified forever in the saying, ‘The LORD of hosts is God over Israel’; and the house of your servant David will be established before you. For you, O LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, have made this revelation to your servant, saying, ‘I will build you a house’; therefore your servant has found courage to pray this prayer to you. And now, O Lord GOD, you are God, and your words are true, and you have promised this good thing to your servant; now therefore may it please you to bless the house of your servant, so that it may continue forever before you; for you, O Lord GOD, have spoken, and with your blessing shall the house of your servant be blessed forever.” – II Samuel 7:18-29



Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 7/22/18


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“Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh. For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The LORD said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.”  So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the LORD, and they anointed David king over Israel. David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years. David occupied the stronghold, and named it the city of David. David built the city all around from the Millo inward. And David became greater and greater, for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him.”  2 Samuel 5:1-6, 9-10

David’s Palace – an artist’s rendering


Today we continue our summer series in I & II Samuel. So far this summer we met the prophet Samuel as a boy, serving God in the midst of a corrupt temple leadership; we’ve seen Samuel as a mature man, whose own sons didn’t believe in or serve God the way their father did; and we’ve heard the people of Israel asking God for a king “like all the other nations” and God’s displeasure as God said to Samuel, “It’s not you they’ve rejected, it’s me.”  We saw Samuel – at God’s direction – anoint Saul as king, and then (when Saul turned out to be a disappointment), Samuel annointed David. We saw young David confront the giant Goliath and lead Israel to victory over the Philistines.  And last week we heard David’s lament at the death of Saul and his son Jonathan.

Which brings us to this week, and “The Glory Years.”

What do these words bring to mind when someone says, ‘the glory years’?  For some of us it might take us back to the 1980s, when hair was big and big hair bands were bigger. For some of us it might be the 1960s, when the Beatles were the cat’s meow and just about every family could make ends meet on one person’s income. Or maybe the 1950s, back when everybody worshiped God on the weekend: our Jewish and Catholic friends on Saturday nights and everybody else on Sunday mornings, and the churches and the synagogues were packed because that’s just what you did.  Or maybe for some of us it was the 1940s, when World War II was finally over and our soldiers came home and there were parades and celebrations and reunions.

I was thinking this past week as we celebrated the 4th of July – talk about glory days!  242 years ago we Americans declared ourselves independent of Great Britain and made ourselves a new country. So would we say that 1776 was our ‘glory year’?

The reason I ask is because our scripture reading for today talks about the beginning of what Israel in Bible times would have called their ‘glory years’: those years when King David and his son King Solomon reigned over the Promised Land.

The people of Israel had been waiting so long for this! From the time God set them free from slavery in Egypt to the time they set foot in the Promised Land, forty years had passed – just to get there. And once they were there, they had to deal with attacks from neighbors on the outside, and rebellions against God on the inside, and leaders like Joshua and Samson and Deborah and Gideon were led by God to deal with all these things. But it took almost 350 years from the time the Israelites arrived in the Promised Land until the time King David sat in peace on the throne of Israel and the people of God were safe in the Promised Land.  And this was only after their first king, King Saul, failed to live up to expectations and very nearly ruined the nation by fighting unnecessary wars.

But finally, finally, David was king.  Finally, 400 years after Egypt, Israel was at rest in the Promised Land, secure in David’s leadership. And David, this man who Samuel described as “a man after God’s own heart,” became the pattern by which we would recognize the Messiah, ‘the Son of David’.

It’s the beginning of Israel’s glory years.

Those glory years, sadly, would last only 80 years. After Solomon’s death, the kingdom would be divided, never to be completely united again in the course of human history.  Even if you count modern-day Israel – which was founded in 1948 – less than half the Jewish people in the world live there. So the children of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and David have not yet been reunited completely, even 3000 years later.

The fact that any nation could survive for so long as a people without a country and a land to call their own tells us something about how secure God’s promises are in spite of what we see around us. And it teaches us something too about the nature of the Body of Christ, the church – because we too are a people without a land to call our own in this world, because our home is the promised land, the Kingdom of God.

So what we’re reading about today was the beginning of Israel’s glory years. Under King David the nation was united. They were united in worship of the one true and living God. They were free of idols, free of false gods. And there was peace (for the most part) and prosperity for all.  David built a palace, and made plans for the great temple of Jerusalem which his son Solomon would build. And it was glorious! And all of these things give us a foretaste of our own Promised Land.

But the funny thing about glory years is – from a human standpoint – people usually don’t know it when they’re in them.  Think about it. Take 1776 as an example. Yes, the surprise attack on the British at Washington’s Crossing went well.  But a year after that, in 1777, George Washington lost Philadelphia – the capital of our new country – to the British. And he stationed for the winter at Valley Forge – where the fledgling Continental Congress was unable to raise enough money for food or clothing for the army. The soldiers who practiced maneuvers there, hungry and leaving bloody footprints in the snow, never thought for a minute that they were living in any kind of glory years.

Or what if we look back to the 1950s and 1960s as our glory years – back when the economy was booming and the churches were full and dads worked and moms stayed home and raised the kids, and everything made sense and life was good. But if you were alive back then you would have been aware of the Vietnam War dragging on, with no end in sight… and all the mothers losing their sons while the protests on college campuses grew more violent. Racial prejudice was considered normal by many people back then, and when people tried to challenge it they got shot. In four short years we lost President Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King… and those were the people whose names we knew. Many others died whose names we didn’t know. And don’t get me started on gender inequality back then!

Our scripture reading for today gives us hints that the people who lived during Israel’s glory years didn’t know it either. First off scripture says the tribes of Israel “came to David at Hebron”.  Why not Jerusalem? Because King Saul had his throne at Jerusalem. Saul had only been killed in battle just days before, and what was left of Saul’s family was trying to re-establish the throne in Jerusalem. So the leaders of Israel came to David at Hebron because that’s where David was: David was in exile, chased there by Saul.

But years before that, David had been a hero. He killed Goliath with just a slingshot and a few stones. And he led the armies of Israel to victory over the Philistines, so that the people sang “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” David served Saul so well, that Saul became jealous and tried to murder him. But the people never forgot what David did. And so now, with Saul and his son Jonathan dead, the people came to David and said, “look, for some time now, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led Israel…” So lead us now, be our king now.

And David knows the prophet Samuel told him years before that this was his destiny. But he’s torn. David loved Saul in spite of everything. Saul was David’s king, and Saul’s son Jonathan was David’s best friend, and David wants to show mercy to what’s left of Saul’s family. So David says ‘yes’, and the people of Israel anoint David king, but David stays at Hebron for another seven and a half years until he can take care of the things that are on his heart. He takes time to grieve the loss of Saul and Jonathan, and he writes the song:

“Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen!” (II Sam 1:19)

‘Your glory O Israel’ – This lament stands at the very beginning of Israel’s glory years.  The glory years begin with a king with tears in his eyes.

And our glory years, also begin with a king – King Jesus – with tears in his eyes. Luke writes that in the middle of the Palm Sunday celebrations – while the crowds were shouting ‘hosanna!’ – Jesus was weeping. And he was saying, “If you… had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes…” (Luke 19:42)

Palm Sunday is the beginning of our glory days as Christians: a day when the cross was only days away, and the resurrection only a couple days after that. But no matter how you slice it, it seems ‘glory days’ never feel all that glorious when you’re in them.

So today if we look at the world around us, and our neighborhoods around us, and all the people who are hurting around us, and all the angry voices, it may not look like it or feel like it, but (like David) we are in the beginning – just the beginning – of the glory years. God has promised to redeem these years. And as Peter says in his first letter to the churches, “our faith… [which is] tested by fire—[will] result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (I Peter 1:7)

Our Promised Land still lies ahead.  Till then… praise God for the glory years.




Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 7/8/18




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

John Wesley

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“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.  3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,  4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.  5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.  6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law– indeed it cannot,  8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.  9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” – Romans 8:1-9



500 years ago this week was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. To be exact, 500 years ago on Oct 31, 1517.  On that day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg Germany, hoping to inspire reform in the Catholic Church, but instead his words inspired thousands of people to join in the protest, and these people became known as ‘protest-ents’ or ‘Protestants’.

This 500th anniversary, then, is not so much something to celebrate as it is to remember. We don’t celebrate division in the church, because we believe in one God and one Lord Jesus Christ and one eternal destiny for all who love God. There is no division in Jesus.

So Reformation Day for us is kind of like Memorial Day.  On Memorial Day we don’t celebrate war because war is not a thing to celebrate; but we honor those who served, and especially we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could live in freedom.

In the same way, when we remember the Reformation, we honor those men and women who stood up for God, who stood up for truth and justice, who stood up for God’s word, and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could know God.

So it is fitting to remember the events that happened 500 years ago.

By the time Luther was born, the church in Rome had held practically unquestioned power over the churches in Western Europe for nearly 1000 years.  (Eastern Europe and Asia were led by the Orthodox Church, and Africa by the Coptic Church, but neither of these had much influence in western Europe.) And, as often happens, power corrupts.

Luther was a Catholic monk and priest who wanted to reform the Roman Catholic church from the inside.  At the same time there were many other monks, nuns, and religious scholars who loved God and studied the scriptures, and as they studied – and as they did their best to bring their lives into line with God’s will as they understood it – the more they ran into difficulty with Rome.

The issue that finally sparked the Reformation, at least in the public eye, was the issue of selling indulgences.  (Like most issues, even today, there’s what’s happening in the public eye and then there’s what’s really happening behind the scenes. The issue in the public eye was selling indulgences.)  Indulgences were – and to some extent still are in the Catholic Church – ways “to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins” after one dies. This has nothing to do with salvation. In the teaching of the Catholic Church, even a person who is saved still needs to be cleansed (or “purged”) of their sins before entering heaven.  So a person passes through purge-atory or purgatory. And indulgences were meant to reduce the amount of time spent in purgatory. In our day indulgences can be earned by (for example) making a pilgrimage to a holy place, or by performing good works; but in Luther’s day indulgences were for sale and the money was used for things like repairing the Sistine Chapel or furnishing the Pope’s living quarters.

Martin Luther first became aware of this when he traveled to Rome in 1510 on behalf of his monastery.  At that time Luther was a young and idealistic monk, and he couldn’t wait to see the Holy City with his own eyes.  When he arrived, he fell to his knees and exclaimed, “Hail to thee, holy Rome! Thrice holy for the blood of the martyrs shed here!” – referring to Peter and Paul, who had been martyred in Rome.

But what Luther discovered in the church in Rome shocked and disillusioned him. He witnessed gluttony, and gambling, and any number of vices, and very little concern for the poor.  Later on Luther described his visit this way – he wrote: “The Church of Rome … has become the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death and hell…”

And indeed history tells us the Catholic church was in deep trouble at this point in time. There were many people inside the church at that time trying to work for reform; Luther was by far not the only one.

But Luther returned home to Germany in a spiritual dilemma. The question he was asking himself was not ‘how can I be a part of this corrupt organization?’ – in those days a person didn’t simply walk away from the Roman Catholic church – there was nowhere else to go. But Luther’s dilemma was this: how can any person be good enough for God?  When Luther saw sin in others, he was humble enough to see it in himself as well.  And he knew God’s standards were impossible for any human being to meet.

Luther wrote:

My situation was that, although [I was] an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would [satisfy] (assuage) [God]. Therefore I did not love a just, angry God, but rather hated and murmured against Him.

 In other words, Luther was angry at God for demanding the impossible.

But when Luther read Romans 1:17 it stuck in his mind. In that verse Paul writes: “In [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘the righteous shall live by faith.’”

Luther wrote:

I greatly longed to understand Paul’s epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression “the righteousness of God,” because I took it to mean… that righteousness whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. […]

Let me step aside here for a second, because Luther’s interpretation, Luther’s understanding – that the “righteousness of God” had to do with God justly punishing the unrighteous sinner – was the common understanding of God’s righteousness in those days.  This was the definition taught by Thomas Aquinas and other leading theologians for 400 years before Luther was born. Righteousness by grace through faith had been almost completely lost, and it had been replaced by church traditions like making pilgrimages or buying indulgences.  It calls to mind the words of Jesus when he said to the Pharisees, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God.” (Matt 15:6)

As a result Luther took no comfort in the very words that Paul had written to comfort imperfect people.

Luther continues in his writing:

Yet I clung to Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.  Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the righteousness of God and the statement that “the just shall live by faith.” Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before “the righteousness of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven…”

It is my prayer for all of us, myself included, that we will hold onto God with the tenacity that Martin Luther did, and never let go.  Because all of us, at one time or another, will have issues with God, or with the scriptures, or questions we can’t find answers to.  I pray we will keep on holding onto God and keep on digging for answers, and not give up, until (as it did for Luther) doubt becomes certainty and faith becomes sight.

Martin Luther later wrote that this moment of revelation was the true beginning of the Reformation; the ‘real story behind the scenes’. This was the moment when Luther took God at God’s word, and it’s what made all the difference.

With his new understanding of grace and faith, the selling of indulgences – which before had looked like a simple injustice – now is understood as actually blocking people’s access to God’s forgiveness.  Luther could no longer remain silent.

So he brought the issue to the church’s attention on October 31, 1517.  And the church would not tolerate what it saw as heresy and mutiny. Luther was excommunicated and probably would have been martyred if he had not been kidnapped by his friends and carted off to an old castle.  While in hiding, Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German (which was also not permitted by the church, because Latin was the only language permitted in the church). But Luther believed the people should be able to read the scriptures in their own language, and so he made the translation.

Luther survived all the death threats and legal actions that were taken against him, but not everyone who supported him did.  In 1523, two years after Luther’s “kidnapping”, the first Lutheran martyrs were burned at the stake. Two years after that, Luther was visited by the English scholar Tyndale, who (at Luther’s encouragement) published the first English translation of the New Testament. Tyndale paid for it with his life: he was hung and then burned at the stake.

I think it’s important to remember, whenever we pick up our Bibles, that people have given their lives so we could have this.  Just like we give thanks for those who have died for our freedoms, even more so we give thanks for those who died so God’s word and God’s promise of eternal life could be ours.

So in the coming week as we think about the Reformation:

  • When you have a moment look over the Reformation Timeline. There was a lot happening in the world during Martin Luther’s lifetime, and this helps make sense of the events that were happening during the Reformation.
  • The Reformation reminds us God takes sin seriously – as true today as back in Luther’s day. Luther was on the mark with the questions he was asking. He understood what the scriptures were saying.  God does require righteousness, and the requirement is  But rather than leading us to despair, scripture leads us to…
  • … God’s gift of righteousness by grace through faith. Two hundred years later, give or take a few decades, John Wesley was as firm and clear about this as Luther was. Wesley wrote:“All the blessings God has bestowed upon men and women are of his grace, his free, undeserved favor. We have no claim to the least of His mercies.

    “It was… grace that “formed [people] out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into [them] living souls,” and stamped on [those souls] the image of God. The same free grace continues to us… And whatever righteousness may be found in us… is also the gift of God.

    Wesley continues: “With what then can we atone for even the least of our sins? With our works? Even if our works are many and holy, they are not our own, but God’s. Therefore, having nothing — neither righteousness nor works… our mouths are (utterly) stopped before God. If, then, we find favor with God, it is “grace upon grace!” “Christian faith is a full reliance on the blood of Christ; it is a trust in the merits of His life, death, and resurrection.” “By grace you have been saved through faith.”

Wesley understood where Luther was coming from.  And in the 500 years since Luther, the message hasn’t changed, and the faith hasn’t changed, and God’s grace and mercy haven’t changed.  Our job is to be true to the faith we have received, from the saints who have gone before us, and pass it on to the people we know and to the next generation.

With thanks to God for His great grace and mercy, AMEN.



Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 10/29/17


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This week marks the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  500 years ago on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the local church in Wittenburg, in hopes of inspiring reform in the Catholic Church. Instead he inspired the Protestant movement.

As with all events in history, context is critical in understanding the events that were unfolding, and the century Luther lived in was stunning in its creativity and genius. With this in mind I put together a very basic timeline of events in and around the Protestant Reformation, to give some background to Luther’s story. Enjoy.


Reformation Timeline

1452 – Leonardo daVinci born

1455 – Gutenberg invents the movable-type printing press. Gutenberg Bible printed.

1473 – Copernicus born

1473 – Michelangelo born

1481 – Spanish Inquisition begins

1483 – Martin Luther born

1492 – Columbus sails to the New World, discovers corn

1494 – earliest record of Scots making whiskey

1495 – daVinci begins The Last Supper

1496 – Michelangelo begins the Pieta

1502 – Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, founds the University of Wittenburg

1505 – Luther becomes an Augustinian monk

1507 – Luther ordained priest, celebrates first mass

1508 – Luther appointed to teach at the University of Wittenburg

1509 – John Calvin, founder of Presbyterianism, is born

1509 – Henry VIII becomes King of England

1510 – Luther walks to Rome (approx 1000 miles) on a pilgrimage for his order (the Augustinians). He arrives with high hopes, but is “shocked by the lack of morality and piety of the local clergy and by the luxurious lifestyle of the Pope Leo X”

1513 – Luther’s “Tower Experience”: the meaning of Romans 1 (salvation by grace through faith) dawns on Luther’s heart and mind. For Luther this is the moment when the Protestant Reformation begins.

1517 – Pope Leo grants indulgences for rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica

October 31, 1517 – Luther nails 95 Theses to Castle Church door in Wittenburg protesting indulgences

1518 – Luther is charged with heresy in Rome, defends himself in Augsburg using Scripture rather than church doctrine. He is protected by Frederick the Wise.

1521 – Luther is excommunicated. He appears before the Diet of Worms. On his way home, Luther is “kidnapped” by friends and taken to Wartburg Castle and placed in hiding. He spends the next 10 weeks translating the New Testament from Greek into German.

1522 – Luther’s translation of the New Testament is published

1522 – Zwingli begins reformation in Switzerland

1523 – First Lutheran martyrs, Heinrich Voes and John Esch, burned at stake in Antwerp

1525 – Frederick the Wise dies; Luther marries the former nun Katherina von Bora

1525 – Tyndale visits Luther from England; under Luther’s influence the English translation of the New Testament is published and smuggled into England. Owning a Tyndale Bible in England carries a death sentence. Tyndale is declared a heretic, strangled to death and burned at the stake.

1527 – The Plague strikes Wittenburg. Luther’s home becomes a hospital. Luther writes the hymn A Mighty Fortress

1530 – Augsburg Confession presented to Charles V at Diet of Augsburg

1533 – Henry VIII of England is excommunicated

1534 – Luther’s complete German Bible is published.

1536 – Henry VIII allows English Bible to be published in England

1539 – Catholic Counter-Reformation begins

1546 – Luther passes, age 63

1555 – the “Peace of Augsburg” gives the reigning prince of a country the right to determine the religion of his subjects (authors of this Peace hope to put an end to religion-based violence. Some days it works better than others.)  Reformation continues for the next hundred years or so.


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“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.  2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.  3 Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.  4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.  6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.  9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.  10 I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it.  11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.  13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.  14 In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.  15 You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone.  16 For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once.  17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account.  18 I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.  19 And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 4:1-19


Over the past month we’ve been working our way through Philippians, and today is our final installment.  Paul’s letter to the Philippians has been, and is, a letter filled with joy.  It’s probably one of the few letters Paul wrote (that’s published in the Bible) where he’s not addressing some kind of crisis. (He addresses a few issues, but no major crises).

Before I dig into chapter four, I wanted to share something I read by theologian N.T. Wright this past week, which has a bearing on Paul’s message.  Wright was talking about Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, and he commented, “I know churches where there’s a great… window with a picture of the Ascension… and all you can see [of Jesus] is a cloud with two feet sticking down.”  Wright goes on to say first-century Jews wouldn’t have seen the Ascension that way.  They would not have conceived of heaven as being somewhere in our universe.  Wright says in the New Testament, when people talked about Jesus coming back again, often the word used is “appears” rather than “descends” – “as though [Jesus is] behind an invisible curtain and one day the curtain will be removed and we will discover he’s been there all along.”

That ‘other reality behind the curtain’, as Wright puts it, is the reality of the Kingdom of God – and we are going to catch a couple of glimpses behind that curtain in the fourth chapter of Philippians.

So turning to the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter.  Like any letter from a loving father, Paul’s letter is full of advice.  And in this chapter, Paul’s advice falls into one of two general categories: (1) advice on generosity and giving; and (2) how to live the faith in daily life.  In this chapter living the faith comes first and giving comes second… but since it won’t be too long before we’re in stewardship time, let’s look at Paul’s comments on giving first.

As Paul is writing his letter, he has just received a generous gift from the Philippians to help support him while he’s in jail.  And Paul’s initial response is somewhat surprising. He says: “I rejoice in the Lord greatly for your concern for me” but then he immediately follows with “not that I’m in need, for I’ve learned to be content with whatever I have.” Paul says he knows how to live with little or plenty, how to be well-fed or how to be hungry. He says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me; in any case it was kind of you to share my distress.”

Kind of an odd thank-you note isn’t it? It almost sounds like Paul is saying “thanks for the gift but I really didn’t need it.”

But then Paul calls to mind the other times when the Philippians have been generous with him.  When Paul left Macedonia, they were the only ones who supported him; and when he was ministering in Thessalonica, they helped out more than once; and I’m sure there were more times that Paul doesn’t list in his letter.

Paul then adds:

“Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. I have been paid in full and have more than enough… the gifts you sent are a fragrant offering and a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”

I think we could do with a bit more of this mind-set in the church.  Too often I’ve heard messages that say (or hint at) “without your money this ministry is in danger of shutting down”.  This is an attitude of fear rather than faith. We may be rich, we may be poor, but if God’s will is being done the church will continue.  For those who give, I pray for God’s blessing, as Paul prays for God’s blessing, for ‘the profit that accumulates to your account’.

Because for Paul the focus of verse 17 is “the profit that accumulates” (or in the Greek, “super-abounds”) to the accounts of those who give.

This is not a give-so- you-can-get kind of thing – that’s another mistake I often hear from a lot of pulpits. We don’t give so we can test God’s generosity.  We don’t give $100 hoping to get $1000 back. But in God’s economy, the oiko-nomos, the rule of the house, is one of continual giving and receiving, back and forth like in the dance of a relationship; except that as the giving is happening, it multiplies as it goes around. This is how it is in God’s economy – this is God’s doing – and it’s a glimpse behind the curtain of the Kingdom breaking into our reality.

Just about the entire letter of Philippians describes this Godly economy in one way or another: In chapter two, Paul talks about how “Christ, though he was in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…” and then when all was said and done, “God exalted him and gave him the name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…”  First Jesus gives, and then God gives… and both are blessed.

In chapter three, Paul talks about how he himself, whatever he gained from being raised a Jew and a Pharisee, he “counts it all as rubbish… for the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”  Paul gave up his past, his heritage, and God gave him a future.  And both are blessed. In short, in the words of missionary Jim Elliot, we as Christians give up what we cannot keep in order to gain what we cannot lose.

Paul’s second subject in this chapter – advice on how to live the faith – is also scattered throughout the letter, but the one theme that keeps coming back is the command, “be of the same mind”.  And again as we listen to Paul’s words we catch a glimpse of that Kingdom behind the curtain:

  • Phil 1:27 – stand firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the gospel
  • Phil 2:2 – be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind
  • Phil 2:5 – Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…
  • Phil 2:14 – Do all things without murmuring and arguing
  • Phil 3:15 – Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind
  • Philippians 4:2 – I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.

Euodia and Syntyche were not, as has sometimes been suggested, a couple of troublesome neighborhood gossips who had gotten on each other’s last nerves.  Paul describes the two women as “co-workers in the gospel”, two people who have struggled alongside Paul in his ministry, “together with Clement and the rest of Paul’s co-workers”.  These two were no spiritual lightweights!  It is possible for two deeply spiritual lovers-of-God to disagree on something.

Paul’s solution to the problem does not include sitting them down and teaching them proper church doctrine, or holding a conclave to allow the majority to decide which of the two of them is right.  Rather, Paul says in Greek, “Euodia, parakaleo; Syntyche, parakaleo”para as in parallel, and kaleo as in call – “I call you together”. And then he says to the disciples, “help these women, whose names are in the book of life.”

Christian unity is not the same thing as agreeing on everything.  Paul’s letter to the Philippians gives us a picture – a blueprint – for how to be one in Christ: how that unity is built, what it looks like.

And it all comes back to where we begin: with God’s love. Human love is imperfect; God’s love is perfect.  And here we catch a glimpse behind that curtain again.  Paul says, “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:14)  What we’ve known here on earth is “rubbish” compared to knowing Jesus.

So how do we start? Paul says:

“finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable (or venerable), whatever is just, whatever is pure (or holy, or innocent), whatever is pleasing (or lovely), whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence (or virtue) and if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.”  Why? Because of such are the Kingdom of Heaven.

Interestingly, the phrase “think on these things” in the Greek is taken from the language of accounting. A better translation might be, “Keep track of these things”. Stick them on your refrigerator. Track them on am Excel spreadsheet and give a monthly report.

Can you imagine if we actually did that? Keeping a list of all the good and lovely things around us on a spreadsheet? We’d start looking for spreadsheet-worthy things in everything around us: even in people whose points of view differ from ours… even in our enemies.

It may sound a little Pollyanna-ish; and there are certainly times when we need to talk about difficult issues.  But in the book of Matthew, Jesus says to the Pharisees:

“out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure…” (Matt 12:34-36)

If we fill our minds and hearts with good things, then good things will come out of our mouths. And then words become actions, and actions become unity.  Not that we’re ever going to see perfection in this life – but it will lead us in the direction of the Kingdom.

It’s kind of like the old Christian comedian said: “If you do all the things scripture says to do, you won’t have time to do the don’ts.”  In the same way, if we strive to think about and speak about “good stuff” – we won’t have time to be complaining. And life will change. And so I lay down the challenge, for all of us, myself included.

“…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”  Share these things. And the God of peace will be with you – right there on the other side of that curtain, closer than the air we breathe.

And so to wrap up his letter, Paul says to the Philippians: you have done well and are doing well. Stand firm and don’t allow yourselves to be divided or distracted or misled by false teachers.  Keep on loving God, keep on loving each other, and God will abundantly supply all your needs according to his riches in Christ Jesus.

May this blessing be upon us all. AMEN.

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The Leadership of Women in the Bible: One Protestant’s View of the Ordination of Women

By Grant LeMarquand, Anglican Bishop for the Horn of Africa, Assistant Bishop of the Diocese of Egypt with North Africa and the Horn of Africa, Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies, Trinity School for Ministry Ambridge, PA USA

Reprinted with permission (and thanks!)

This paper will argue that godly women should not be barred from ordination as deacons, priests and bishops simply by virtue of their gender. This may sound, in this context, like a bold statement, so allow me to make a few preliminary remarks before we turn to the biblical material.

First, let me assure you that I actually do know where I am – I am aware that this is a paper for the Pan Africa Association of Catholic Exegetes. I am aware that I am a bit of an anomaly here. I am not a Roman Catholic but an Anglican, and a rather Protestant Anglican in many ways. I know that what I am about to propose is, shall we say, in some ‘tension’ with the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church concerning ordination. However, I also believe that you tolerate me here in your gathering (much more than ‘tolerate’ actually – you have always welcomed me warmly!) partly because you know that I will bring a somewhat different perspective. I have found an openness to ecumenical insights in this gathering and so it is my hope that this paper will, if it does nothing else, give you an idea of how some other groups of Christians approach the question of the ordination of women. At the very least my musing may lead you to a better understanding of your ‘separated brethren’ as the Second Vatican Council called the non-Roman churches.

I must also mention a caveat. The subtitle of this paper begins with the words “One Protestant’s View.” Protestants, as you probably know, have a difficult time agreeing on anything. This is, I am sure, one of the curses (or blessings) of not having a magisterium. Protestants, at least until more recent years, have generally argued that Scripture takes priority over Tradition and that only what could be proved by Scripture should be believed by Christian people. For example, the 39 Articles of Religion of the Anglican Reformation states, “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation” (Article VI. Of the Sufficiency of the holy Scriptures for salvation). Although the priority of Scripture has been normative for most Protestants since the Reformation, it cannot be denied that a new source of authority (one perhaps implied by the very idea that Scripture can be interpreted by any Christian) has emerged in modern and postmodern discussion, that new authority being so-called “Experience.” Indeed for many “Experience” is now seen as the trump card and many feel no guilt or unease about throwing aside the clear teaching of Scripture if it contradicts their own personal Experience. Of course this new reality has brought not only a crisis in authority, but also much more difference of opinion: Protestants (and some Catholics I must say) no longer differ only in the interpretation of Scripture, but in what constitutes the foundation for interpretation itself. At least since Schleiermacher much Protestant interpretation has been sadly individualistic and anthropocentric. These hermeneutical issues are well beyond the scope of this small paper. It is enough to say at this point that by no means will all Protestants or all Anglicans agree with the opinions in this essay. The Anglican Communion, consists of thirty-eight autonomous Provinces, all in Communion with but not under the authority of, the Archbishop of Canterbury. We are not agreed on women in Holy Orders. Some Provinces (or dioceses within Provinces) do not ordain women to any order. Some ordain only to the diaconate. Many now ordain women to the priesthood, but not the episcopate. Several (Canada, the USA, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England) now have women bishops. So my paper is the opinion of one Anglican Protestant. Other Protestants or Anglicans should not be judged according to my views!

Finally, I must say a word about the Holy Spirit. Some in the Western world have attempted to short cut the hard work of exegetical and theological thinking by asserting that the Spirit has led the church in such and such a way. I am not saying that we should neglect the work of the Spirit in our midst. In fact I think we need more, not less dependence on the Spirit in our corporate life as Christians. Certainly, I consider myself a “charismatic!” And if anyone has a claim to be a charismatic – I have more: a charismatic of charismatics, converted to Christ at a charismatic revival meeting, filled with the Spirit as a teenager in a Pentecostal church, a witness of healing (and other!) miracles, a speaker in tongues (“I speak as a mad man” – let the reader understand). My concern is that the claim to being led by the Spirit has been made by many who seem to have been led in opposite directions. The Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church of The United States, for example, claimed (in her 2010 Pentecost letter) that The Episcopal Church was led by the Spirit to its liberal position on homosexual practice. It seems to me, however, that if one claims to be led by the Spirit, one is saddled with the burden of proof to demonstrate how the alleged movement of the Spirit coheres with the Word of God. Any claim to the Spirit’s inspiration or guidance must be consistent with what God has already revealed in Christ and in the scriptures.

I propose, therefore, that on this issue of women’s ordination, as with any issue in the church, we examine the biblical text in order to discover what God would have us think and do. In this quest I believe that Tradition can also be helpful in clarifying the biblical message, but I must confess at the outset that I am one of those Protestants who believe that the canon of Scripture trumps Tradition and that if we must chose, it is Scripture which must prevail. I believe that the church must always be reforming (semper reformanda) because God continually puts new situations and issues before us which require careful, patient discernment, but also courageous action.

And so, to Scripture.

Scriptural Foundations


Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

   So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Gen 1:26-27)

These verses from the first Genesis creation story make it clear that God not only made human beings in his image, but that a major part of the concept of being in God’s image is that humans are male and female. Orthodox theology has always affirmed that God is not male but beyond gender. Only a humanity which is both male and female can adequately image God in his world.

Closely related to the statement that humanity, both male and female, is created in God’s image is the mandate given to humanity – the mandate to have authority over God’s creation, to rule as stewards of God’s world. We should note that the text of Genesis is clear that authority to rule is not given to the man alone but to both the man and the woman: “let them have dominion.”

Some will argue (on the basis of the second creation story) that since the women was created second, and (according to Genesis 2:18-23) since she is called his “helper,” (the KJV says “helpmate”) that some kind of leadership is given to the man, implying that an unequal relationship between the genders is built into creation itself. It is true that the Hebrew word (ezer) can imply a hierarchical relationship. Of the 128 uses of the word in the Old Testament, approximately 70% describe the “helper” as an inferior helping a superior. This is certainly not always the case, however. At times the “helper” and the one helped are clearly perceived as equals, and in other texts, the “helper” is the superior partner.[1] In some texts it is even God himself who is described as our “helper.”[2] The context of a given passage must provide the interpretative clues for making a decision in a case like this, not the word itself. And in this case, it seems clear that the man and the women, after they are put together by God, are not put into a hierarchical relationship, but are described by God as equals – they are made in his image and together they are given the authority to rule the earth.


The third chapter of Genesis describes the Fall, the entry of sin into the world through the human rebellion. Among the many implications of the entry of sin and death into the world is the reality that relations between the genders are now damaged. Although the curses pronounced by God to the man and the woman differ, they are balanced – both are cursed with ‘labour’: the man with labour in his work in the field, the woman with labour in childbirth.

But along with the balanced curses comes an unbalanced hierarchy. The woman is told: “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” We should take note: the hierarchy of genders which is so ingrained in most cultures of the world in various ways is not a part of the created order, but a part of the fallen state. Patriarchy, the authority of males over females, enters into the world as a consequence of sin. This pronouncement of the ‘rule’ of women over men by God is clearly embedded within in the context of the curses given to the serpent, the man and the woman. Just as the curse on Adam has the effect of bringing a curse on the ground (Gen 3:17), so the curse on Eve has the effect of bringing a curse on the relationship of husband and wife: “he shall rule over you”, Gen 3:16. The curses are as balanced.[3]


The story of Israel takes place in the midst of the world’s fallen reality. Unequal gender relations characterize the life of Israel as well as its neighbours. In the midst of this situation, laws were given which protect women, especially widows, from the power of men. The laws of Israel are not only commands to be obeyed, they are a revelation of God’s compassionate and merciful character. The Torah reveals a God who cares for the weakest in society – the stranger, the slave, the indebted, the poor, the orphan, the widow. Among other effects, God’s Torah provides a context in which, in spite of living in a fallen and a patriarchal world, women would be given a community in which the women are respected and protected.

But even in the context of patriarchal Israelite society not all leaders in Israel are men. A multiplicity of leadership roles is given to women by God throughout the Old Testament narratives. Miriam is one Israel’s first prophets and a leader of worship; Deborah is called to be a judge; Hannah is shown to be a faithful pray-er in the house of the Lord even though the male priesthood has become corrupt; in the Song of Songs we hear the voice of a female author, a theologian-teacher; the “woman of worth” in Proverbs 31 has a clear gift of administration; the courageous actions of Naomi and Ruth are used by God as part of his plan to give his nation a just king.

There are of course no women priests in the Old Testament. We must keep in mind, however, that in the Old Testament period there were also no priests who were gentiles, no priests who were eunuchs or had any physical disability or deformity of any kind, and no priests from any tribe except Levi. As the book of Hebrews makes clear, even Jesus would not have been qualified to be a priest of Israel. We cannot simply argue that on the basis of the Old Testament priesthood being male, that ordination to ministry in the Church ought to be restricted to males.

In fact, I would argue that the Old Testament priesthood is a very different form of leadership from any new covenant ministry. The Old Testament priesthood was responsible for that set of things which characterized Israel as a nation under the old covenant: sacrifice, food laws, and so forth. Now that Israel has been redefined around the crucified and risen Christ, there is no need for a sacrificial system presided over by “priests” in that Old Testament sense, that is, priests who function as mediators between God and human beings. In fact one could argue that this is one of the main arguments of the letter to the Hebrews. I will say a bit more about the possible meaning of ‘priesthood’ later.

Ministry of Jesus

Mary the mother of Jesus was not simply a vessel for the incarnate Son of God. Mary was not merely a passive recipient, but an active and willing servant of the Lord, following the pattern of the suffering servant in Isaiah, exemplified, of course, by her Son. Mary’s willing participation in the incarnation provides a model for discipleship: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to thy word.” (Lk 1:38)

Mary the willing servant is also a theologian. An examination of the Magnificat reveals a brilliant, carefully constructed re-working of the Song of the Sea in Ex 15 and Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel which ties together the hopes of the people of Israel with God’s new work of salvation for whole world. Because of Mary’s unique, pivotal role in the history of salvation, we have, perhaps, been distracted from her ministry as a teacher, a theologian who has provided us with one of the most beautiful pieces of poetic theology in the history of the church.

Another woman mentioned in the infancy narratives is the prophet Anna (Lk 2:36) who is paired with the prophet Simeon in what is one of at least thirty instances in the third gospel in which Luke pairs a story of a man with a story of a woman. It is a commonplace in New Testament scholarship to note Luke’s pairing as a characteristic of his composition which functions to draw attention to the central roles played by women in the ministry of Jesus. According to Luke 2, Anna fasts and prays and gives thanks to God in the temple (vv. 37-38), but she also prefigures the work of the early Jerusalem church in the book of Acts who use the temple as the primary locus of proclamation. In Luke 2:38 “she spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” That is, in the gospel of Luke a woman is the first person to publicly proclaim the gospel of Jesus, in function paralleling the preaching of Peter on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2.

“The twelve and the women.” Another characteristic feature of Lukan style is his inclusion of summary statements which form points of transition in the action of his narrative. One of these transition/summary statements is found in Luke 6:12-16, which functions in the text to bring the story up to that point to a conclusion and introducing a section of teaching (Lk 6:17-49) and healing stories (Lk 7). Luke 6:12-16 portrays Jesus praying (another prominent theme of Luke’s gospel), and then choosing “from” his disciples. The implication here is that the disciples were a rather large group from which “the twelve” are chosen and named. The consistent impression we have from the third gospel is that most of Jesus’ peripatetic ministry is carried on in the presence of a large group of disciples who travel with Jesus from place to place, the twelve being a special group called out from among the disciples for a special symbolic purpose (as representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel now being renewed in Jesus’ ministry), as well as for some unspecified leadership role or roles among the larger group of disciples. That Jesus chose only males to be a part of the group of twelve does not necessarily imply that the church after Pentecost is bound to ordain only men. We noted in the case of the Old Testament priesthood that Gentiles and even Israelite non-Levites were excluded, as well as many other categories of men. Similarly, although Jesus disciples were all male, this does not mean that ordination must be restricted to only Jewish believers in Jesus.

The very next Lukan summary statement specifies another group of disciples, some of whom are also named:

Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, 2and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.  (Lk 8:1-3)

It seems clear that some of the women among Jesus’ disciples were benefactors – they “provided” for this large group of disciples “out of their means.” Joanna, wife of Chuza, may have been a key figure in this group. The translation used above says that Chuza (the name is Nabatean) was Herod’s “household manager.” A more accurate translation would be “minister of finance,” probably sent to Tiberius (Herod’s Galilean headquarters) as part of a political treaty arrangement, where he met and married the daughter of a Jewish aristocrat. He may have converted to Judaism or he may have been a god-fearer. Perhaps he was the “royal official” mentioned in John 4:43 whose son (and, on this theory, also Joanna’s son) was healed by Jesus and whose entire household came to believe in Jesus. Such an historical reconstruction would explain how Joanna had become a disciple and how she was able to provide for Jesus and his followers (perhaps with funds from her husband, perhaps from her own personal finances).[4]

The women who followed Jesus, including but not limited to the ones named in Luke 6 were more than just the servants and benefactors. These women were most probably members of the 70 (or 72, there is a textual variant at that point in the manuscript tradition) whose mission of preaching the kingdom and healing is described in Luke 10:1-24. Note that this group seems to grow. In Luke 10 it is 70 (or so). At the triumphal entry it is a “multitude of disciples” (Lk 19:37); on the day that Judas is replaced at least 120 gather to deliberate, pray and cast lots (Acts 1:15-26), a group which seems to include the eleven, and also “the women and Mary the mother of Jesus and his brothers” (Acts 1:14); it is presumably this same group who “are all together in one place” (Acts 2:1) on the Pentecost, and therefore preach in tongues and aid in the baptism of the thousands who believe that day.

The women, according to Luke, accompany Jesus during the time of his ministry, follow him into Jerusalem at the beginning of passion week, and become witnesses of,

  • his death: “And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance and saw these things,” (Lk 23:49),
  • his burial: “The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and saw the tomb, and how his body was laid; then returned, and prepared spices and ointments,” (Lk 23:55-56),
  • and his resurrection: “But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. 2And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. 5And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? 6He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” 8And they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, 11but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” (Lk 24:1-11)

The significance of these female disciples of Jesus is often missed or glossed over. They were with Jesus throughout his three years of ministry, they heard his teaching, witnessed his mighty acts and were full participants in the mission work which Jesus sent his disciples to do. (Note the words of the angels at the tombs: “remember how he told you when he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered…” [24:7; italics added] – the women, in other words, were present for Jesus’ passion predictions.) At least some of them made a significant contribution to the support of the band of disciples – especially Joanna, wife of Chuza. They were the primary witnesses of the saving events of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. All four of the gospel writers are careful to mention the presence of the women at these events, even when most of the twelve, except for the beloved disciple (according to John’s gospel) have fled the scene. Mark’s gospel, indeed, underlines the courage of the women as opposed to the flight of the twelve.

But what is the significance of women “disciples”?

The story of Jesus in the home of Mary and Martha of Bethany helps to clarify the women’s role. The story is well-known; Martha is working in the kitchen while Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet.” (v. 39) Although many have attempted to portray this story as exemplifying two kinds of good and helpful dispositions towards the Lord (service and contemplation), there is much more significance to Mary of Bethany’s behaviour than simply to exhibit an example of a godly woman at prayer. Two things are to be noted. First, Mary is transgressing into male space. In the first century world, the kitchen is the place for the women when there are male visitors in the house; the gathering room is male space. Second, the phrase “sitting at the feet” is code language for the behaviour of a disciple who is learning from a Rabbi. Note that the same phrase is used in the book of Acts to describe Paul whose credentials include that he had “sat at the feet of Gamaliel.” (Acts 22:5) Far from being the archetype of the submissive woman, Mary of Bethany is acting with great presumption – she is in male space, and taking upon herself a male role, that of training as a disciple of a Rabbi in order to become a Rabbi herself. (To be a disciple is to take on an apprenticeship to be a Rabbi; one does not become a disciple merely for one’s own personal spiritual benefit!) Martha is scandalized about Mary not just because she needs an extra pair of hands in the kitchen, but because Mary is transgressing gender roles – and Jesus is encouraging it. Women disciples of Jesus, in other words, were in training to be missionary preachers and healers, Rabbis of the good news of the Rabbi Jesus.

And, in fact, the female witnesses of the resurrection, especially Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18), become the first preachers of the message of the resurrection. The disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus (a married couple, perhaps?) say: “Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive” (Lk 24-22-23). They become the apostles to the apostles.[5] Mary Magdalene herself, according to John, used the phrase “I have seen the Lord.” (Jn 20:18) Bauckham’s comment is pertinent:

This is exactly what the other disciples later say to Thomas: “We have seen the Lord” (20:25). In Paul this is the defining content and terminology of the apostolic witness: “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen the Lord?” (1 Cor 9:1).

The work of witness and proclamation by Mary and the other witnesses of Jesus ministry, death, burial and resurrection is apostolic work, apostolic work which continues past the first post-resurrection days into the post-Pentecost period.

Early Church

We must turn now to the practice of the earliest church, and especially to the letters of Paul where we find texts often used and misused by advocates of both sides of this discussion of women’s orders. There are some obvious texts that we must examine, but let me begin (having spoken of the women at the tomb as ‘apostles to the apostles’) with a text that may seem perhaps a bit more obscure – the list of greetings in Romans 16.

Several women are named in the greetings of Romans 16. This is significant in itself, since Paul’s usual practice is to greet the leaders of the congregation to whom he is writing. The first person named in the list is Phoebe, who is described as a deacon (v. 1) of the church of Cenchreae. It is difficult to assess exactly what the function of deacons was at this stage in the church’s history. The book of Acts, of course, has them set aside as administrators who perform a particular ministry for which they need to be filled with the Spirit – but at least two of them, Stephen and Philip, have significant preaching ministries. As well as being called a “deacon” Phoebe is also described as a ‘”benefactor” (v. 2: prostatis). The RSV has the very weak translation of “helper” at this point. A benefactor, rather, is one who provides the material needs for a person or organization. Phoebe is the ‘patron,’ (or, rather, ‘matron’) it seems, of her church in the suburbs of Corinth. As such it would have been expected for her to preside at the community meal, which for Christians was the Eucharist. Certainly, other benefactors in the Greco-Roman world, who hosted organizations in their homes, would have been expected to host the meal.[6]

The next people named are Prisca (or Priscilla) and Aquila, also known to us from the book of Acts. Significantly Prisca is named first, as she is three out of the four times the couple is mentioned in Acts. This may be because she has had the more significant ministry. The two are known to us as the teachers of the already eloquent Apollos (Acts 18:26). Apollos has sometimes been suggested as the author of the epistle to the Hebrews – a suggestion which led Adolf von Harnack to argue that since Priscilla was the teacher of Apollos, perhaps she was the actual author of Hebrews. Harnack’s suggestion has not always been followed of course (since it lacks any real evidence!) but it might explain why Hebrews is an anonymous work – who would have believed the work of a woman? What we do know, whether Priscilla authored Hebrews or not, is that she is known as a woman with a significant teaching and leadership ministry.

There are several other women mentioned in Romans 16, including Mary (v. 6). Sadly we don’t know which Mary this is. The gospel writers are always careful to distinguish between women named Mary since at least a third of all the women in Palestine in the time of Jesus had that name. Sadly, for us, Paul does not help with this question.

Of great importance to us for our discussion is v.7. The RSV is now widely regarded as the worst of translations on this verse. It reads:

Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners; they are men of note among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. (RSV)

Several things should be noted about the RSV translation. In the RSV the second member of the pair is given a masculine name (Junias) even though the masculine form of this name is completely unattested in the ancient world and is found in no ancient texts. Most scholars have abandoned any attempt to argue that Paul was referring to a man.[7] Most likely Andronicus and Junia were a married couple. The RSV makes it worse, of course, by calling them ‘kinsmen’ and ‘men of note,’ terms which (wrongly) emphasize the masculine gender.

Correctly, however, the RSV says that these two are “of note among the apostles.” The ESV corrects one problem of the RSV translation, only to introduce another:

Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. (ESV)

The ESV leaves out the second masculine note, but keeps one. ‘Junia’ (a feminine name rightly included in the ESV) is still (surprisingly) called a “kinsman.” Of course what Paul means is that these two are both Jewish – an interesting piece of data since neither name is Jewish – but then neither is the name “Paul.” Most Jews living in the diaspora were given or adopted Greek or Latin names which were similar to their Jewish name (thus: Saul / Paul; Cleopas / Clopas; Simeon / Simon; Joseph / Justus, etc, etc).[8]

The ESV describes Andronicus and Junia as “well know to the apostles” thereby implying that they may not be apostles themselves. The exegetical question is whether the Greek preposition “en” should be considered inclusive (“among”) or exclusive (“to”). Aside from the observation that Paul would probably have used a different preposition if he had wanted to make it clear that his meaning was exclusive, perhaps the strongest argument in favour of the inclusive meaning is found in one of the early Greek fathers (who, after all, spoke the language fluently and would have understood the nuance intended). The father I have in mind is Chrysostom, who, in a sermon on Romans 16 stated the following,

“Greet Andronicus and Junia…who are outstanding among the apostles”: To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles – just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was deemed worthy of the title of apostle.[9]

Paul had a wider view of what apostolic ministry was than is portrayed in Acts 1. In Acts 1 the term apostle is limited to the twelve. The criteria for replacing Judas, however, (including it seems that the replacement should be male) include that the person has been a member of the wider group of disciples from the time of Jesus’ baptism until his Ascension, and was a witness of the resurrection. Paul’s use of term seems to be similar in that an apostle (like Paul himself) should have “seen the Lord.” Junia (whether or not she is the same person known in Luke as Joanna) must at least have been one of the “more than five hundred” (1 Cor 15) to whom Jesus appeared after the resurrection. More likely, she and her husband were probably followers of Jesus before the passion and have now become missionaries to the church in Rome.

For Paul to call a woman an apostle has important implications. First, it is clear that for Paul apostles are in a special category. They are the first “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” as Luke puts it. (Lk 1:2) If the New Testament says that a woman was an apostle it is difficult to see how we can refuse ordination to any order of ministry to a woman. This might especially be true for more Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Anglicans who see continuity between the apostles and their successors in the episcopate. A more evangelically minded person might not see apostolic succession in those terms at all, seeing the true apostolic succession to be a succession of teaching rather than persons in episcopal office. In either case the presence of a woman apostle in the pages of the New Testament appears to remove all objections to the ordination of women. I think it is already clear that the New Testament calls Phoebe a “deacon” and that she probably presided at the Eucharistic table in her Corinthian house church. That women are, in the New Testament, leaders, presiders at the communal table, preachers, eyewitnesses of the saving events would, to my mind, remove any objections to the ordination of women as presbyters.

But what of the texts in Paul that are often used to argue against the ordination of women?

1 Corinthians 14:34-35

The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

On any account this is a difficult passage. Does this mean that women must not preach? Many argue that, especially those who believe that ordination is the setting aside of a person to preach and govern, which is common among Reformed Christians.[10] However, a surface reading of this text actually seems to say much more than ‘women shouldn’t preach.’ It seems to imply that women should not be lectors, or give announcements, or lead the prayers of the people.

The text has other problems. Numerous scholars (not just liberal ones who want to avoid the ordination of women question) argue on good grounds that this text is not an original part of Paul’s letter. These verses do not appear in all of the ancient manuscripts (see Fee’s commentary for a vigorous argument excluding this text from the New Testament). I tend to agree with that evidence.

However, even if it was not written by Paul, some will still say that it is canonical on other grounds, as part of the textus receptus. So it needs to be discussed (just as the story of the woman caught in adultery needs to be discussed).

But it is highly doubtful that the text means that women must be silent all the time. In 1 Corinthians 11 (another difficult passage – on the subject of head covering), Paul is clearly talking about the correct way for women to ‘pray’ and to ‘prophesy’ in church. If Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 says that women may pray and prophesy (and the term prophesy itself probably includes preaching as well as other more spontaneous Spirit-inspired speech[11]), how can he turn around three chapters later and say they must always be silent. The answer appears to lie (as it always does) in the context, in this case, the cultural context. Ken Bailey suggests (based on years of experience in the Middle East) that some of the women in Corinth and other places, would have been less educated and therefore have had a more difficult time following the teaching in church. If the sermon was long (Paul’s sometimes were – remember Eutyches, falling dead from the window!) the women may have become impatient and begun to ask their husbands questions or to talk among themselves. Paul’s answer (if this is a Pauline text) is that they should ask at home. Here is the important point: Paul wants them to be taught so that they will be able to pray and prophesy and participate more intelligently in the future.[12]

1 Timothy 2:8-15

I suggest that a similar situation is behind Paul’s (yes, I think Paul wrote the Pastorals!) words in 1 Timothy: “I permit no women to teach or to have authority (or “be authoritarian”) over men; she is to keep silent.” (v. 12) There are some who take heart from Paul’s words here because it sounds as if he is reinforcing and giving (literally) sanction to their prejudices against women. There are some, therefore, who argue that Paul’s words reinforce the view that men are strong, macho leader types, and women are air-headed, shallow, indecisive and must be led. Women should stay at home and take care of the children and the house work. I have heard these views expressed in my classroom by students from time to time (and certainly on the internet!), and 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is sometimes used as the proof text.

The key to understanding the text, once more, is to understand the context. Verse 11 says the issue is that women “should learn.” Learning, Paul says, precedes any teaching. Verses 13-14 seems at first to make things work against those in favour of women in the pulpit, because Paul’s admonition ‘to learn in silence and not to teach’ is given biblical (Old Testament) sanction as Paul’s provides the theological reason – Eve sinned first. For many, this means that Paul is appealing to the order of creation (Adam came first, then Eve) and the order of the Fall (Eve sinned first, then Adam) to bolster an argument to have only men in teaching authority in church. Paul’s argument would then be: ‘Eve sinned first, therefore, if we allow women to be in charge, we will be back in the same trouble we got ourselves into in the garden.’ This would imply that, according to Paul, women are weaker not just physically, but morally and spiritually, and that they are, therefore a danger to men.

But we must pay careful attention to the purpose of Paul’s admonition. The issue which Paul is addressing has to do with those who have the qualifications to teach in church. Those who do not know must learn before they can teach. The problem that Paul is addressing is that most women (not all – see Joanna, Junia, Priscilla, the Corinthian women prophets, and Philip’s daughters) in his day lacked the appropriate education to teach. So they must learn first (v. 11). The problem that Eve had was that she was ‘deceived.’ (v. 13) What women need, therefore, is the opportunity to study and learn – and therefore not be deceived as Eve was.[13]

I would argue, therefore that Tom Wright’s translation of this passage is the most accurate and helpful:

 So this is what I want: that men should pray in every place, lifting up holy hands, with no anger or disputing. In the same way the women, too, should clothe themselves in an appropriate manner, modestly and sensibly. They should not go in for elaborate hairstyles, or gold, or pearls, or expensive clothes. Instead, as is appropriate for women who profess to be godly, they should adorn themselves with good works. They must be allowed to study undisturbed, in full submission to God. I’m not saying that women should be allowed to teach men, or try to dictate to them, rather they should be left undisturbed. Adam was created first, you see, and then Eve and Adam was not deceived    but the woman was deceived, and fell into trespass. She will, however, be kept safe     through childbirth, if she continues in faith, love and holiness with prudence.[14]

We may conclude, therefore that, like the Gospels and the book of Acts, Paul has no objection to women serving in any leadership positions in the church, so long as they are appropriately called, gifted and trained.

Theological concerns

Christ and culture

We can agree, I believe, that many churches in the West have become conformed to a certain spirit of the age. The Zeitgeist which has made idols of self-expression, unregulated so-called freedom, have led us to the point that some churches support freedom of choice to abort babies over the need to protect the most vulnerable, and support complete freedom of sexual expression. I am deeply aware that many who would call themselves theologically conservative believe that the ordination of women fits into this same basic category. There are bad arguments for the ordination of women – arguments based on particular ideas of freedom or notions of human rights or ‘equality’ (I myself have never believed in the equality of men and women – I have always considered women to be superior beings in almost every way!).

Africa is not immune from these philosophical and theological currents. The trends of modernism and postmodernism are not confined to Western culture. The mass media is now a global phenomenon, the internet comes from everywhere and goes to everywhere. There is no place isolated of insulated. It is crucial, therefore that the Africa churches examine proposed cultural changes carefully and thoughtfully. Africa has traditionally had quite defined roles for men and women. One might argue that some of thee roles have not benefitted women. In 2013 I led a retreat for male and female Anglican theological students in Juba, South Sudan. At one point we were examining Genesis 3 and the ‘curses’ placed on Adam and Eve. I pointed out that both the man and the woman received a penalty for their sin described by the same word – pain, labour. The man is told that by ‘labour’ he would work the earth; the woman is told that by ‘labour’ she would bring forth children. A woman’s hand went up: “If this true,” she said, “why is it that in Africa the women get both?”

At the same time, women in Africa have never been completely shut out of religious leadership roles. Women have been prophets, evangelists, worship leaders, teachers, both within traditional religions and within the church. I believe that it is time to look again at the roles that women play in the church and ask whether they have been too restricted, not because of what Scripture says, but because parts of our culture have kept women confined to certain roles and tasks.


By far the strongest argument against my position is that I have not demonstrated how the tradition of the post-New Testament church came to exclude women from ordained ministry. The answer to this question is beyond my area of expertise, but let me make a few suggestions. First, as I have said before, for me the Bible is a trump card. If the Bible teaches that women were ministers of the gospel in the New Testament period, then the church must restore that ministry.

Second, there do seem to be some indications that women were ordained in the post-apostolic period. Let me just mention three.

The first is the early church father Chrysostom. We have already seen his expository comment of Junia, the woman apostle of Rom 16:7. The quote from the silver-tongued bishop is worth repeating here:

“Greet Andronicus and Junia…who are outstanding among the apostles”: To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles – just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was deemed worthy of the title of apostle.[15]

It seems clear that at least this early church father believed that there could be a woman apostle. If Junia could be an apostle should not other women be called to apostolic orders?

Second, a late second century Orthodox document, The Acts of Paul and Thecla, probably from Asia Minor, but which circulated widely in the early church (texts are found in Greek, Coptic, Ethiopic and Armenian) and was even found in some of the early biblical canons of the Armenian and Syrian Churches, portrays Thecla as baptizing and as being sent by Paul to teach and evangelize. A fresco (from near Ephesus, dated around the 4th c) of Thecla (or Theoclia) was defaced when, at a later date, it became clear that women were not going to be ordained, or continue to be ordained. It should be noticed that the fresco which portrays Paul and Thecla together, defaces only Thecla (her eyes are gauged out and her right hand is marred). As John Dominic Crossan notes, “Both the right hands of Paul and of Theoclia are raised in identical authoritative teaching gestures.”[16] If the partial destruction of the fresco was the work of an iconoclast Paul would also have been de-faced. It must have been done by someone who believed that Thecla, as a woman, should not have been so honoured.

Similarly, the alpha at the end of the word “Episcopa” in the icon of “Episcopa Theodora” in an early 9th century mosaic in Rome has been defaced, probably because the iconoclast understood the word to mean “a (female) bishop.” Some have argued that the word meant that she was “the wife of a bishop,” but the fact that it was defaced would surely imply that the term was understood to mean “bishop” and that this was found offensive. This is evidence is certainly far from sure, of course.

There is, of course, much more evidence that women’s ministry has been accepted in Protestant, especially holiness traditions. John Wesley commissioned women preachers, General Boothe of the Salvation Army said that his best men were women, the Pentecostal movement has long ordained women pastors, the 19th century missionary movement sent at least as many women to the field as men. This too, I would argue, is a part of the ‘Tradition’ which we must consider.

Although it is clear that women could not be ordained during most of the post-apostolic and medieval periods, I have not yet seen any convincing arguments from those periods as to why women are excluded.

What is ordination?

I think it is clear that I have barely touched the issue which is the important one for many of you here, which is that limiting the priesthood to males is seen as right and proper because the priest stands in the place of Christ as a sort of mediator figure between God and his people. I have not addressed this, except perhaps by implication in a few places in my paper, because I do not see ordination referred to in those terms in the pages of the New Testament. This is, of course, a major issue for Roman Catholic doctrine and so let me add just one alternative possible view. Most Protestants, myself included, have some difficulty accepting a mediatorial role for the Christian priesthood. The English word priest is closely related to the Greek word ‘presbuteros’ (elder) rather than the term ‘hieros’ (sacrificing priest). For Protestants, “there is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.” (1 Timothy 2:5) Even if it should be accepted that a Christian priest has some mediatorial role, should we speak of the priest standing in the place of Christ? There is an alternative view. Until recently the Eastern churches rejected the idea of the priest standing in the place of Christ, preferring instead to see the priest standing in the place of the Church. Surprisingly, although the Church is the bride of Christ, the Eastern view did not lead the Eastern churches to insist that all priests be female in order to fulfill that role. Why, then, should we insist that only a male priesthood could stand in the place of Christ. For me, of course, these are moot points since I see ordination primarily as the setting aside of a person for ministries of equipping, leading and teaching. But if we must speak of a mediatorial role for the priest in Christ’s church, would the female priesthood not remind us all of the church as Christ’s bride; would the female priesthood not also remind us that God made us all in his image – male and female he made us (Genesis 1:27); and especially would the female priest not remind us all that actually Christ is the only mediator between God and humanity?

[1] See W. J. WEBB, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IVP, 2001) 128.

[2] See for example Psalm 46:1. Cf. P. TRIBLE, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia, Fortress, 1978) and M.J. OBIORAH, << Insight into the Community’s Faith in Psalm 46: Its Relevance for Africa >>, Bible et sujets pastoraux en Afrique – Bible and Pastoral Issues in Africa. Proceedings of the Sixteenth Congress of the Panafrican Association of Catholic Exegetes (ed. M.A. ADEKAMBI) (Abidjan, APECA / PACE 2015) 110-45 [especially pp. 129-30].

[3] What is more, the next chapters of Genesis detail the many other ways in which the sin of Adam and Eve has repercussions in every area of life: the whole world is now broken. The natural world is effected (“cursed is the ground because of you”, Gen 3:17), patriarch enters (Gen 3:16), the family of the first ancestors experiences jealousy leading to murder (Gen 4:1-16), the life span of the ancestors decreases (compare Gen 5:1-31 with Gen 11:10-32), the boundaries between the material and spiritual worlds are disrupted (Gen 6:1-4), and after the flood we see the emergence of Empire (Gen 11:1-10). Patriarchy is merely one of the many ways in which sin infects the fallen world.

[4] For much more corroborating evidence, see R. BAUCKHAM, Gospel Women. Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2002) chapter 5.

[5] For the history of the use of this phrase, especially as regards Mary Magdalene, see R. BROWN, The Community of the Beloved Disciple (New York, Paulist, 1979) 190.

[6] For more on patronage and the role of Phoebe as a patron see, B.W. WINTER, Roman Wives, Roman Widows. The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2003) 193-99.

[7] Exceptions are M.H. BURER and D.B. WALLACE, “Was Junia Really an Apostle? A Re-examination of Rom 16,7”, NTS 47 (2001) 76-91; for a clear refutation see, R. BAUCKHAM, Gospel Women. Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2002) 166-86 and E.J. EPP, Junia. The First Woman Apostle (Minneapolis, Fortress, 2005).

[8] As an aside, it may be the case (and it has been argued cogently by Richard Bauckham) that this Junia’s Hebrew name may have been the sound-alike name Joanna, that woman from Galilee who was a prominent member of “the women” among Jesus’ disciples and a witness to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. See R. BAUCKHAM, Gospel Women. Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2002) chapter 5.

[9] In Ep. Ad Romanos 31.2; PG 60.669-670.

[10] This is why, by the way, the Anglican Diocese of Sydney opposes women’s ordination, but is in favour of lay presidency, even by women, at the Lord’s Supper. They don’t consider ordination to be ordination to the table, but to the pulpit, or to governance.

[11] For this discussion see the commentaries by: G. FEE, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1987) and A. THISELTON, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians. A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2000).

[12] See K.E. BAILEY, “The Women Prophets of Corinth: A study of aspects of 1 Cor 11:2-16”, Theology Matters (Jan-Feb 2000) 11-14; “Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View”, Theology Matters 6/1 (2000) 1-11. A similar argument can be found in D. WILLIAMS, The Apostle Paul and Women in the Church (Los Angeles, BIM, 1977), and in C. S. KEENER, Paul, Women & Wives. Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, Hendrickson, 1992) chapter 2.

[13] I am grateful to Tom Wright, former Bishop of Durham, for this basic line of reasoning. See N.T. WRIGHT, “Women’s Service in the Church: The Biblical Basis”, a conference paper for the Symposium, ‘Men, Women and the Church’, St John’s College, Durham, September 4, 2004, which can be accessed online on the “N.T. Wright Page”: http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Women_Service_Church.htm&gt;. Accessed September 1, 2015.

[14] T. WRIGHT, Paul for Everyone. The Pastoral Letters 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus (London:SPCK, 2003) 21-22.

[15] In Ep. Ad Romanos 31.2; PG 60.669-670.

[16] J.D. Crossan, “The Search for the Historical Paul: What Paul Thought About Women”, The Huffington Post (November 8, 2011), online at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-dominic-crossan/historical-paul-gender_b_921319.html. Accessed September 16, 2015. The article includes a clear photograph of the fresco.


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“[Jesus] also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” – Mark 4:26-34

The New Testament lesson for the day – II Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17 – is also referred to briefly.

Today’s sermon is for all you gardeners out there.

I’m just an amateur gardener myself. What I lack in knowledge I make up for in persistence. But I love gardening, partly because working in the garden brings to mind thoughts about God. The Bible itself begins in a garden, the Garden of Eden; and the turning point of all of human history happened in a garden, the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed ‘not my will but yours be done’.

Have you ever heard the old saying about being ‘nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth’? That thought comes to mind a lot when I’m working in the garden, and the other day I decided to find out where that came from. It’s from a poem by Dorothy Frances Gurney called God’s Garden, and the poem goes like this (in part):

THE Lord God planted a garden
In the first… days of the world,
And He set there an angel warden
In a garment of light enfurled.

So near to the peace of Heaven,
That the hawk might nest with the wren,
For there in the cool of the even
God walked with the first of men.

The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,–
One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.

At the moment, in the middle of June, we’re kind of in between planting and harvest (with the exception of the strawberries, which are just finishing). Planting season in Western PA begins in mid-May, and harvesting begins around July, so most of the garden work this time of year is weeding. As I’ve been working in the gardens the past few weeks I’ve been putting together a theology of weeds.

In the Bible weeds represent sin (sometimes ‘sinners’ but usually ‘sin’) and weeding has to do with getting rid of sin and doing things God’s way. Here are some things I’ve noticed about weeds:

  • Weeds are persistent. Pull up three and five more grow in their place. It gets discouraging sometimes and sometimes it makes me want to give up… but I know if I stop weeding even for a week the weeds take over completely!
  • Weeds are tougher than the plants I’m trying to grow. They have thicker stems, they have deeper roots, they have more prolific seed-pods. I mean, look at the dandelion – those seeds come equipped with their own little parachutes! Good luck getting rid of them all.
  • Weeds are sneaky. They hide under bushes. They wrap themselves around good plants like vines and try to choke them. They grow real close to delicate little flowers, so that I can’t pull up one without pulling up the other. I look at those weeds and I say ‘you are taking advantage!’

In Matthew 13 Jesus tells a parable about a farmer who sows wheat and gets up the next day and finds an enemy has sown weeds in his wheat, so that when the wheat grows up so do the weeds. The farmer’s servants come and say, “Sir, didn’t you plant wheat? What’s up with all the weeds? Do you want us to tear them out?” And the farmer says, “no… you’ll tear up the wheat with it. Let them grow together until the harvest and then we’ll separate them out.” With those precious little flowers of mine that’s what I have to do: I have to at least let them grow bigger and stronger before I can weed around them.

So that’s been my meditation in the garden for the past few weeks, about weeds and sin and how much alike they are.

Jesus talked a lot about gardens in his parables. He talked about vineyards, and he talked about fig trees that don’t bear fruit, and about seeds that fall on the path, or on rocks, or among thorns, or in good soil. He said, when talking about the Pharisees, ‘every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.’

Today we have two parables where Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a garden.

In the first parable Jesus says the kingdom of God can be compared to a farmer who scatters seed and then goes about his business: he gets up, goes to sleep, does whatever he needs to do. The seed sprouts and grows on its own and the farmer has no idea how that happens. The wheat grows up out of the earth, first a stalk and then a head and then the full grain (remember that Thanksgiving hymn – “first the stalk and then the ear/then the full corn shall appear”), and when the grain is ripe the farmer immediately puts in the sickle because the harvest has come. That’s what the kingdom of God is like, Jesus says.

Verse 34 of Mark chapter 4 tells us Jesus “explained everything in private to his disciples” but this is one of those parables where the disciples didn’t write down what Jesus said. So we’re not sure exactly how Jesus might have explained it, and we could come up with a number of interpretations.

For example, the gardener could be God, scattering God’s word into peoples’ hearts. In a way this makes sense because God can be seen as the Gardener and in Jesus’ parables the seed always represents the Gospel. But in a way it doesn’t make sense because God is not like the farmer in the parable who goes about his business ignoring the seed and letting it do its own thing. God does know how the seed sprouts and how growth happens. So that interpretation only fits partly.

Another possible interpretation is that gardener represents those of us who share the Gospel with others. That’s not just clergy, that’s anybody who shares the faith. When we talk to people about God, we are tossing the seeds of the Gospel out there. Like the farmer, we have no idea what’s going to take root, or when it will start to grow, or how fast it will grow, or how long it will take to mature. We scatter the seed in faith and we go about our business.

I think this interpretation fits pretty well. The only thing that doesn’t fall into place with this interpretation is the harvester… and I’ll come back to that in a moment.

But I wanted to share a third interpretation from an old English preacher named Charles Simeon. Simeon was an acquaintance of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Simeon was young enough to be Wesley’s grandson, and the two theologians were… well they had their differences. Simeon was Calvinist and Wesley was Arminian; Simeon was a Cambridge man while Wesley was at Oxford; and the rivalry between those two schools was worse than the rivalry between the Steelers and the Ravens. Wesley and Simeon are a powerful example of how two religious leaders can disagree without dividing a church. The two men only met twice in their lives, but they actively searched for common ground, and they found it, and they stood on it. And if the leaders of the Anglican Church at the time had listened to Simeon (who was just a young pup in those days), the Methodist movement might still be Anglican. It’s one of those interesting moments in history.

Anyway, Simeon interprets Jesus’ parable is an illustration of the inner workings of grace in a person’s soul. He says God’s grace, like the sprouting of a seed, is spontaneous, gradual, and inexplicable. Spontaneous, because there is something in the nature of a seed that causes it to sprout – not by itself, but with help from (as he puts it) “the Sun of Righteousness and showers of the Spirit”. The growth is gradual, because the blade, the ear, and the full corn don’t happen all at once… and likewise Christians grow from being newly converted, to a more solid and hopeful walk with God, to having real experience in dealing with good and evil. And growth is inexplicable, because we can’t explain how a seed grows or how grace works. It just does. They just do.

And then when the grain is mature the harvester immediately puts in the sickle and brings the grain into the barn.

In all of Jesus’ parables about gardening there is no other way to interpret the ‘harvester’ except as God, bringing God’s faithful home. When the fruit is mature, the harvest comes. God has eternal purposes in mind, and everything we live through in this life is aimed toward that goal.

The psalmist prays, “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” (Psalm 90:12) Paul writes to the Corinthians saying “we walk by faith, not by sight; we have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord; but whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.” (II Cor 5:7-9) If we are living by faith our journey home to God is a continuation of what we’ve already begun; a continuation of the grace God is already working in us.

Jesus immediately follows up this parable with the parable of the mustard seed. If the grace working within us sometimes seems to us small and easily overwhelmed by weeds, we can rest assured growth will happen. If the church herself sometimes seems to us to be too small to take on the evils of the world around us, this parable is for us too. Do we wonder what difference our little church can make in the world? Do we fret over small numbers, remembering the days when the churches were packed every Sunday? Jesus says, ‘look how small the mustard seed is, and how big the mustard tree is’.

So what can we take away from these parables today? Two things. First, God is a wise and experienced gardener and we can trust God’s ability to work with us plants. From planting to harvest, God is in control. So fear not! As I’ve mentioned before, so much in our world is designed to make us afraid, so that our actions are motivated by fear. I believe with all my heart one of the greatest ways we can bear witness to God in today’s world is to live fearlessly.

And second, keep on being faithful in scattering the seed, even when we don’t know what becomes of it. God will take care of both the growth and the weeds. And with a tip of the hat to Simeon, ‘let us wait for the former and the latter rains… and expect a variety of seasons…’. Amen.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Anglican Church in the Strip, 6/14/15


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“When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.

“And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus…” – Acts 3:12-20

“While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.”

“Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you– that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” – Luke 24:36-48


He said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures…” (Luke 24:44-45)

The scriptures Jesus opened the disciples’ minds to were the ancient Jewish scriptures, what we now call the ‘Old Testament’, or the ‘book of the law’. These names are actually sort of misleading, because God’s promises to God’s people have always rested on faith and grace, not on law, even in ancient Israel. The law was given to lead God’s people to grace. But Luke’s point is: Jesus dug into the nation’s history.

There are times when understanding history is the only way to understand what is going on in the present.

And I’m not saying that just because I’m a history buff. I am… but I like history because it is the story of real people doing real things, and there’s always something to learn from that. For example, today is Native American Ministries Sunday in the United Methodist Church. Today we remember a part of our nation’s history that we’re not particularly proud of. I can’t help but wonder how different America would be if our ancestors had been wise enough to learn from Native Americans rather than pushing them away. If, for example, they had understood and appreciated the Native American belief in treating land and animals with dignity and respect, how much cleaner would our water and air be today? How many animals would not be threatened with extinction today? Native Americans understood – and still understand – what it means to be good stewards of God’s creation – which is something, quite honestly, Christians have not been very good at throughout history. But knowing what has happened in the past can, if we’re paying attention, improve the present and the future.

In our scripture for today Jesus likewise finds himself in a moment where knowing history is absolutely essential. Of all the lessons Jesus taught his disciples, this one is probably the biggest and most important.

To set the scene: it’s late afternoon on the day after Jesus’ resurrection. In the morning some of the women had gone to Jesus’ tomb and found it empty and guarded by an angel who told them to tell the disciples Jesus was alive and to meet him in Galilee.

The disciples didn’t believe them.

Later in the day a couple of Jesus’ followers walked to the town of Emmaus, about seven miles away, and bumped into Jesus on the road. They didn’t recognize him right away but they talked with him for a long time, and when Jesus broke bread with them they remembered the last supper and realized who he was… and they ran back to Jerusalem and told the other disciples Jesus was alive.

The disciples didn’t believe them.

But while they’re talking about all this, Jesus appears among them. He shows them his hands and feet. The disciples are terrified and can’t believe what they’re seeing. They think they’re seeing a ghost. Jesus says, “why are you afraid? Does a ghost have flesh and bones?” And then he asks if they have anything to eat… something a ghost would never ask!

After the disciples settle down and realize this is really happening, Jesus begins to explain from the scriptures – from the Old Testament – what has happened in the past three days. Luke tells us Jesus talked about “everything written about himself in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms”.

There are many, many references to the Messiah in the Old Testament, so this would have taken some time. I like to imagine all the disciples sitting down to a fish dinner while Jesus is teaching. Luke doesn’t tell us which passages Jesus pointed to, but we can take an educated guess as to what some of them would have been.

Jesus probably started with Genesis chapter three. After Adam and Eve ate the apple and were confronted by God for disobeying his command, God says to the serpent who deceived them:

“Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals… I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:14-15 edited)

Hidden within God’s judgement on the serpent is a promise: one of Eve’s offspring will crush the serpent’s head. Take a look at how one artist has rendered the spiritual reality behind this prophecy. (Credit: Sr. Grace Remington, OCSO)

"Eve and Mary"

“Eve and Mary”

On the left we see Eve, holding the apple in her hand, weeping. The snake is wrapped around her ankles, tripping her up as she tries to walk. On the right we see Mary, pregnant with Jesus, holding Eve’s hand to her belly so she can feel the baby inside her, while Mary’s foot is standing on the snake’s head.

Mary’s baby, Jesus, is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Adam and Eve that one of their children would defeat the serpent. Jesus is the one whose death on the cross pays the price for the human race’s addiction to sin.

Jesus probably also talked to the disciples about Abraham. The great Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity – all look to Abraham as their founder, the man who believed in one true and living God. Abraham predates Moses and therefore predates the law. God says to Abraham,

“I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 26:4)

God’s promise to Abraham is for all the nations. That includes the disciples, and that includes us. The apostle Paul points out in his letter to the Galatians that God said to Abraham “by your seed all the nations will be blessed” not “by your seeds (plural)” (Galatians 3:16) – indicating that the seed is one person, one savior who is to come from the line of Abraham.

Paul goes on to point out Abraham’s salvation was by faith in God’s promise, not through the law (because the law hadn’t been given yet); and likewise we are promised salvation through faith in Jesus, not through the law. Paul writes: “if the inheritance comes from the law, it no longer comes from (the) promise; but God granted it to Abraham through (the) promise.” (Galatians 3:18) So salvation comes through God’s promise, not through the law… in both the Old Testament and the New.

Having reminded the disciples of this, Jesus no doubt would then have gone on to talk about Israel’s experience with Moses. He would have talked about the Passover, how God told Pharaoh through Moses that the firstborn of everyone in Egypt would die if God’s people were not allowed to leave Egypt. Pharaoh threw Moses out. Then God told Moses to tell the people: every household is to take a lamb and cook it and eat it and put the blood over the doors of their homes, and when the angel of death comes that night and sees the blood he will ‘pass over’ that house. So the people paint the lamb’s blood over their doors using a plant called hyssop as a brush. That night the first-born of every living thing in Egypt dies, except in those houses where the blood is over the door. The people of Israel are set free and begin their journey toward the promised land.

The Passover points to Jesus – the ‘lamb of God’ – whose sacrifice and whose blood protects us from death and brings us into God’s promised land of eternal life.

Hyssop is also mentioned in the Psalms, in David’s prayer of confession, Psalm 51. David writes:

“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean…” (Psalm 51:7)

David understands that it is the blood of the Lamb over a person’s heart that saves life, like the blood of the lamb over the door did in Egypt. In writing this, David is pointing to the Messiah.

David was not just King of Israel, he was also a prophet, and many of his psalms look forward to the Messiah. Jesus would certainly have reminded the disciples of Psalm 22, which includes a description of the crucifixion 1000 years before it happened. David writes:

“All who see me mock me; they hurl insults… I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.” (Psalm 22:7,14-18)

David has not only predicted the Messiah’s death, but he describes crucifixion, a form of capital punishment that won’t be invented for another 500 years. And Jesus directs our attention to this Psalm from the cross when he says, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – which is the first line of the psalm.

Having reviewed the Psalms, Jesus then turned to the prophets. He might have pointed to Isaiah, who said this about the Messiah:

“Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning… fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.” (Isaiah 9:5-7)

Isaiah also predicts that the Messiah will suffer. He says in Isaiah 53:

“He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. […] He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death… After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied… For he bore the sin of many…” (Isaiah 53:5-6, 9, 11, 12b)

Isaiah predicted not only Jesus’ crucifixion, but also his burial in a rich man’s tomb, and that the suffering servant would ‘see the light of life’ after having borne the sins of his people.

Jesus probably also reminded the disciples of the parallel between the prophet Jonah – who was three days in the belly of a whale – and the Messiah, who was three days in the grave. He reminded them of the time the Pharisees confronted Jesus and demanded a sign, and Jesus told them:

“A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” (Matthew 12:39-40)

These, and many other passages, Jesus shared with his disciples that night.

And so it was that a few weeks later, Luke tells us Peter and John are in the Temple and they heal a lame man in Jesus’ name and then explain to the crowd what’s going on, quoting the history Jesus has taught them:

“The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate… you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know… God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord…” (Acts 3:13-20 edited)

Peter and John now understood the history behind the events of Holy Week, and they were able to speak from that history with authority. They could point to what was written down – God’s covenants, God’s promises – as the foundation of their personal testimonies.

Like Peter and John we are also called to make the good news of Jesus known. And like them, we do not rely on spoken word alone, but draw from the written history. God’s covenant has been written – in all ages, for all ages, starting from Abraham and Moses and moving forward.

Luke says Jesus called on ‘the law, the psalms and the prophets’, and so can we. May God add understanding to our minds and hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit as we learn our spiritual history from God’s word and share it with others. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 4/19/15


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[Jesus said] “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” – John 3:14-21

This is the fourth week in Lent and we are continuing down A Disciple’s Path focusing on spiritual disciplines that can help us grow as children of God. So far we’ve looked at the Path of Grace, the Path of Prayer, and the Path of Community. This week’s focus is on the Path of Generosity.

After giving it some thought, I am not going to talk about money today. A Disciple’s Path has good information in it about John Wesley’s approach to handling money from a Christian perspective, and gives examples of Old Testament and New Testament teaching on wealth. I recommend it to your reading and discussion groups.

But we’ve already had at least two sermons on giving since I came on board last July: the annual stewardship campaign, and one of the weeks in the Advent focused on giving. And I know the doors of this church are still open only because people give sacrificially, and I appreciate that.

I also appreciate the fact that there are a lot of ‘old-school’ Pittsburghers in this congregation – which I mean as a compliment, because old-school Pittsburghers are generous people. Speaking as a native of Philadelphia, in the city where I grew up, you don’t even say ‘hi’ to people on the street, or make eye contact. It’s dangerous and you just don’t do it. When I moved to Pittsburgh I was floored to discover that if I got lost downtown and asked someone on the street for directions, more often than not the response would be “Sure I know where it is. Come with me, I’ll take you there.” That’s generosity.

Old-school Pittsburghers were often raised by parents who worked six ten-hour days a week and depended on each other’s neighbors to look after the kids and keep an eye on the laundry hanging out back. The attitude was, “We’re all in this together.” Even if you couldn’t stand someone you’d still look after their kids in a pinch, or help organize a fund-raising dinner for them if there was a big medical bill to be paid. Pittsburghers have a natural generosity that comes from having survived challenging times.

So instead of yet another sermon about money I thought I’d share a couple of stories about the generosity of God’s people in history and what they have meant to history, and then I’ll wrap up with some brief thoughts on today’s scripture reading.

The first story I wanted to share today has to do with the field of modern medicine. Did you know that hospitals as we know them today would never have come about if not for the generosity of Christians? There were hospitals in the world before Jesus was born, but not as we know them today, and they weren’t for everybody.

I thought I remembered hearing about this some time a long time ago like in high school but I had to double-check my facts on the internet to be sure. Here’s what Wikipedia had to say: The ancient Romans had begun a rudimentary system of health care but it was…

“…the declaration of Christianity as an accepted religion in the Roman Empire [which] drove an expansion of the provision of care. Following the First Council of Nicaea [which, as you recall, was where the Nicene Creed was written] in 325 A.D. construction of a hospital in every cathedral town was begun. […] Some hospitals maintained libraries and training programs, and doctors compiled their medical and pharmacological studies in manuscripts. Thus in-patient medical care in the sense of what we today consider a hospital, was an invention driven by Christian mercy and Byzantine innovation.[14]

“…the first physicians under Muslim rule were Christians or Jews in conquered areas in the 7th century.[20] The first prominent Islamic hospital was founded in Damascus, Syria in around 707AD with assistance from Christians.[21] […] The public hospital in Baghdad was opened… in the 8th century.[22] […] It was headed by (a) Christian physician…

“Medieval hospitals in Europe followed a similar pattern to the Byzantine. They were religious communities, with care provided by monks and nuns. […] Some were attached to monasteries; others were independent… The first Spanish hospital… was supplied with physicians and nurses, whose mission included the care of the sick wherever they were found, “slave or free, Christian or Jew.” [28]

In this bit of history we see the generosity of God’s people making it possible over the centuries for the injured to be healed and the sick to be cured. We’re not talking about a lot of money being donated (there wasn’t a whole lot of money going around in those days). It was a generosity of lifestyle, in the monks and the nuns and the people who worked alongside them. These people taught that everyone should be cared for, and that every life mattered, regardless of background. And their legacy of care and generosity is still with us today.

The second story I’d like to share is from the book of I Samuel and is taken from the life of David. This story tells about both generosity and the lack of it. This story takes place when the prophet Samuel had already anointed David as the next king of Israel but David had not yet been crowned. The current king, Saul, was trying to kill him, so David and a few hundred of his best friends were living in the wilderness far away from Jerusalem.

1 Samuel 25:1-39 Now Samuel died; and all Israel assembled and mourned for him. […] Then David [and his men] got up and went down to the wilderness of Paran. 2 There was a man in Maon, whose property was in Carmel. The man was very rich; he had three thousand sheep and a thousand goats. He was shearing his sheep in Carmel. 3 Now the name of the man was Nabal, and the name of his wife Abigail. The woman was clever and beautiful, but the man was surly and mean… 4 David heard in the wilderness that Nabal was shearing his sheep. 5 So David sent ten young men and… said to the young men, “Go up to Carmel, and go to Nabal, and greet him in my name. 6 [say to him] ‘Peace be to you, and peace be to your house, and peace be to all that you have. 7 I hear that you have shearers; …your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and they missed nothing, all the time they were in Carmel. 8 Ask your young men, and they will tell you. Therefore let my young men find favor in your sight; for we have come on a feast day. Please give whatever you have at hand to your servants and to your son David.’”

9 When David’s young men came, they said all this to Nabal in the name of David… 10 But Nabal answered David’s servants, “Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants today who are breaking away from their masters. 11 Shall I take my bread and my water and the meat that I have butchered for my shearers, and give it to men who come from I do not know where?” 12 So David’s young men turned away, and came back and told him all this. 13 David said to his men, “Every man strap on his sword!” And… about four hundred men went up after David, while two hundred remained with the baggage.

14 But one of the young men told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, “David sent messengers out of the wilderness to salute our master; and he shouted insults at them. 15 Yet the men were very good to us, and we suffered no harm, and we never missed anything when we were in the fields, as long as we were with them; 16 they were a wall to us both by night and by day, all the while we were with them keeping the sheep. 17 Now therefore know this and consider what you should do; for evil has been decided against our master and against all his house; he is so ill-natured that no one can speak to him.”

18 Then Abigail hurried and took two hundred loaves, two skins of wine, five sheep ready dressed, five measures of parched grain, one hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs. She loaded them on donkeys 19 and said to her young men, “Go on ahead of me; I am coming after you.” But she did not tell her husband Nabal. 20 As she rode on the donkey and came down under cover of the mountain, David and his men came down toward her; and she met them. 21 Now David had said, “Surely it was in vain that I protected all that this fellow has in the wilderness… but he has returned me evil for good. 22 God do so to David and more also, if by morning I leave so much as one [man] of all who belong to him.”

23 When Abigail saw David, she hurried and alighted from the donkey, fell before David on her face, bowing to the ground. 24 She… said, “Upon me alone, my lord, be the guilt; please let your servant speak in your ears, and hear the words of your servant. 25 My lord, do not take seriously this ill-natured fellow, Nabal; for as his name is, so is he; Nabal is his name, and folly is with him; but I, your servant, did not see the young men of my lord, whom you sent. 26 Now then, my lord, as the LORD [God] lives, and as you yourself live, since the LORD [God] has restrained you from bloodguilt and from taking vengeance with your own hand, now let your enemies and those who seek to do evil to my lord be like Nabal. 27 And now let this present that your servant has brought to my lord be given to the young men who follow my lord. 28 Please forgive the trespass of your servant; for the LORD [God] will certainly make my lord a sure house, because my lord is fighting the battles of the LORD [God]; and evil shall not be found in you so long as you live. 29 If anyone should rise up to pursue you and to seek your life, the life of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of the living under the care of the LORD your God; but the lives of your enemies he shall sling out as from the hollow of a sling. 30 When the LORD [God] has done to my lord according to all the good that he has spoken concerning you, and has appointed you prince over Israel, 31 my lord shall have no cause of grief, or pangs of conscience, for having shed blood without cause or for having saved himself. And when the LORD [God] has dealt well with my lord, then remember your servant.”

32 David said to Abigail, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who sent you to meet me today! 33 Blessed be your good sense, and blessed be you, who have kept me today from bloodguilt and from avenging myself by my own hand! 34 For as surely as the LORD the God of Israel lives, who has restrained me from hurting you, unless you had hurried and come to meet me, truly by morning there would not have been left to Nabal so much as one [man].” 35 Then David received from her hand what she had brought him; he said to her, “Go up to your house in peace; see, I have heeded your voice, and I have granted your petition.”

36 Abigail came to Nabal; he was holding a feast in his house, like the feast of a king. Nabal’s heart was merry within him, for he was very drunk; so she told him nothing at all until the morning light. 37 In the morning, when the wine had gone out of Nabal, his wife told him these things, and his heart died within him; he became like a stone. 38 About ten days later the LORD struck Nabal, and he died.

39 When David heard that Nabal was dead, he said, “Blessed be the LORD who has judged the case of Nabal’s insult to me, and has kept back his servant from evil; the LORD has returned the evildoing of Nabal upon his own head.” Then David sent and wooed Abigail, to make her his wife.”

Of all the stories I’ve ever heard about how people have met their spouses, this one takes the cake!

Other than that, this story seems a bit strange to modern ears. After all, these events took place over 3000 years ago. By our standards, it makes sense that all the sheep and all the harvest and everything belonged to Nabal, the property owner – to our ears it sounds like he had the right to do what he chose to do with what belonged to him.

But that’s not how people thought in the ancient Middle East. Back in those days, living in a semi-desert area, where people had no electricity or running water or heat (other than fire), resources were precious. It was considered a person’s duty – not a religious duty, just a human duty – to feed any travelers that passed through, because it could mean the difference between life and death. And in the case of David, there was one other thing to consider: a tradition, an old and strong tradition in that culture. A large estate like Nabal’s would have attracted robbers and sheep-stealers and all kinds of unsavory characters. It was not unusual for young, unattached men like David and his friends to act as protectors on an estate like this, like rangers guarding the perimeter. That’s why David tells his messengers to say to Nabal, “your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and nothing went missing….” They did Nabal a service. And cultural norms dictated that Nabal share his good fortune with the ones who had helped to protect it. His refusal to do so was an insult worthy of battle.

Nabal was foolish. That’s what is name means, translated from the Hebrew, it means “fool”. That’s why his wife says, “his name is ‘Nabal’ and he is a fool”. Abigail, on the other hand, demonstrates the generosity of the desert people: she presents David with 200 loaves of bread, five sheep, wine, and piles of figs and raisins and grain. That’s the way things were supposed to be.

This story is more than just history though; it’s also an allegory. It’s a picture of life. Nabal represents the world’s way of doing things: profiteering, greedy, selfish, short-sighted, living only for today. The Bible calls this foolishness, because Nabal doesn’t realize that death is right around the corner. Jesus tells a similar story of another rich man in Luke 12 – a man who says to himself, “eat, drink, and be merry,” but God says to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you…”

Abigail by contrast represents God’s faithful people, acting wisely. Abigail’s name in Hebrew means “my father is joy” – and for God’s people our Father IS joy. There is always enough and to spare in our Father’s house. There is always enough here to make a stranger welcome. As Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God… and all these things will be added to you.” Just as Abigail seeks first David’s kingdom and his joy – and she ends up a queen (!), in the same way the people of God seek first God’s kingdom and God’s joy, and we end up the bride of Christ.

And so in the story David represents Jesus. Jesus, like David, comes to the world looking for what is rightfully his own, only to be insulted and turned away and thrown out; but God’s people hear his voice and are wise enough to do what is right. And when the time is right, David – and Jesus – both become King.

Finally I’d like to take a quick look at our scripture reading for today.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)

The apostle John describes our world as being like Nabal: foolish. The world loves darkness because evil can hide in the darkness. The world hates light because light exposes evil for what it is. The world is not condemned by Jesus because the world in its foolishness condemns itself. But Jesus gives his life for this world so that anyone, regardless of their background or their past, anyone who wants to leave the darkness behind and live in the light of God’s truth can do so by believing in Jesus and trusting Him. This is the ultimate in generosity: we receive life with God forever by faith and through grace.

Christian generosity is not something we do because we’re required to. It’s not something we do to get into heaven. Eternal life is a gift of God, and there’s nothing we can do to earn it. We practice generosity because we are God’s children, and as God’s children, we want to grow up to be like our heavenly Parent. We are like kids trying on their parents’ shoes when we imitate God’s generosity. And as we clomp around in shoes too big for us, God smiles like a parent and says knowingly, “They sure grow up fast.”

It all comes down to a choice, really. Nabal or Abigail? Foolishness or wisdom? Darkness or light? Hard-heartedness or generosity? Death or eternal life?

Seems to me the choice is obvious. Amen.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church 3/15/15








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