Archive for the ‘God’ Category

[The apostle John writes:] “This is He who came by water and blood — Jesus Christ; not only by water, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is truth. For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one.

 “If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater; for this is the witness of God which He has testified of His Son. He who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself; he who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed the testimony that God has given of His Son. And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.

 “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God.” – I John 5:6-13


[The apostle Luke writes:] “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning, until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’

 “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’  He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’” – Acts 1:1-11


The Ascension of Jesus Into Heaven

This morning we have three things to celebrate on the church calendar:

  • We’re still in the season of Easter, so we’re still celebrating Jesus’ resurrection;
  • It’s Ascension Sunday – the day we celebrate Jesus’ return to heaven after his resurrection;
  • And it’s Mother’s Day.

At first glance it might seem these holidays have nothing to do with each other. But there is a common thread: the three holidays are connected by, in the words of the apostle John, “water and blood”. John writes, “This is He who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ, not only by water, but by water and blood.”

I’m going to come back to this verse in a moment – but I’d like to start with Mother’s Day.  Every mother here today, and everyone who’s ever witnessed the birth of a child (even if it’s only on TV) knows that giving birth is a messy event!  Water and blood are present in abundance. Every one of us arrived in this world covered in the stuff. One of the first things the medical staff does is clean all that off, and then hand the baby to Mom.  But water and blood kept the baby alive for nine months leading up to the birth.

And then comes the moment the newborn child is placed in its mother’s arms.  Looking into the eyes of a newborn baby is an experience like no other. I don’t know any other words to describe it than to say ‘there’s a reflection of eternity in the child’s eyes’.  Even the most hardened of unbelievers has to admit that the birth of a baby is a miracle. And to look into the eyes of a newborn is to catch a glimpse of eternity. That look of eternity fades all too soon, as the child gets used to being in the world (instead of being with the Lord all the time). But there was a time when every one of us was a newborn and we had that look of eternity in our eyes. And I believe we will again someday.

All too soon children learn the ways of this world and they learn to misbehave, and they learn to talk back, and… bottom line, it’s not an easy job raising children. But it is worth it.  I remember many years ago comedienne Wanda Sykes did a whole comedy routine about this, back before Wanda had kids of her own.  The routine went something like this:

“People keep telling me ‘you gotta have kids…’
And they all say the same thing: ‘they’re a lotta work, but they’re worth it…’
“But I noticed something: they never look you in the eye when they say that.
It’s always: ‘kids, they’re a lotta work, but they’re worth it.’ (glancing down)”

And she went on with that line for some time: “kids: they’re a lot of work but they’re worth it. (glancing down)”

When God looks at you and me God says, “they’re worth it” and God doesn’t look down. Even though we’ve broken God’s law and rebelled, God still looks at us and says we’re worth it.  Isaiah says of the Messiah: “he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied.”  And that’s you and me – our lives are the fruit of the travail of his soul, and he is satisfied.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Turning back now to our reading from I John: John says Jesus came, born of water and blood, just like all the rest of us. And John says this to make clear that Jesus was fully human.

There are people throughout history who have doubted this. The ancient Greek philosophers (for example) believed that a god could not, or at least would not, lower himself to become human. The heavens are high above the earth, and likewise God is high above mere mortals. And that kind of thinking has lasted, even to today.

And there is a grain of truth in it: God is greater than we are. God is higher, in the sense that God knows more than we can possibly know and understands more than we could possibly understand, and loves more purely and more deeply than we can begin to grasp. But God is not higher in the sense of being embarrassed by our physical reality.  God created the physical world; God created our bodies; God created beauty, and music and color and shape and form.

And God was not embarrassed to come into this physical world, and be born like one of us, out of a human mother, covered in water and blood. John says “the Spirit bears witness, and the Spirit is truth.” The Holy Spirit was also with Jesus, at his birth, and at his baptism. At his baptism the dove descended from heaven and lighted on Jesus, and God said, “this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus was sent into the world to save a world that could not save itself – to save a people who could not save themselves.  He hung on the cross, to pay the price for our sin. And on that cross, he poured out water and blood – the same kind of water and blood through which he had been born and in which we all have been born. Jesus did this so we could be, like him, born of water and blood and of the Spirit – and have eternal life.

This is what John is talking about when he says “this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and that life is in his Son.”  John says “He who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself” – that is, the Spirit of God is in us, bearing witness to the truth, bearing witness that we are redeemed by God and have become children of God.

John says “anyone who doesn’t believe God has made God out to be a liar.” and “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” In the book of Deuteronomy, God says to his people: “I set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life…” This is God’s call to all people everywhere.  For those of us who know that God speaks the truth, John comforts us with assurance that we do have eternal life and encourages us to continue to have faith in Jesus.

So we have water and blood at the birth of every human being. We have water and blood at the birth of Jesus – and at Jesus’ death on the cross. But in Jesus’ case, there’s a third element present: the Holy Spirit. And Jesus wants us to have the Holy Spirit as well.  And so we come to Ascension Day.

The Ascension took place forty days after Jesus’ resurrection, on top of a hill above the Mount of Olives and looking out over Jerusalem. In the beginning of the book of Acts the apostle Luke tells us what happened there.

Chapel of the Ascension, Israel

First Luke says, “Jesus presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs.” I imagine it must have been difficult for the disciples to believe Jesus was really alive. At the crucifixion they had witnessed a horrible thing, something that would have broken their hearts and wounded their spirits.  So over those forty days Jesus healed their wounds and talked to them about how things will be in God’s kingdom.

So the disciples ask when Jesus is going to restore the kingdom. And Jesus says:

“that’s not for you to know — BUT!!” – he says – “stay in Jerusalem” because “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” – and then “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Notice Jesus doesn’t say, “I want you to do this, this and this.” He says wait. Wait until the Spirit comes, and then go in the power of the Spirit. They will be witnesses, not in their own power, but in God’s power.

And having given them their mission, Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took them out of their sight.” And suddenly a couple of men in white robes were standing with the disciples – seemingly out of nowhere – asking them, “why are you staring up into heaven? Jesus… will come back in the same way as you saw him go….”

Some time before, Jesus had explained why it was necessary for him to return to God. The disciples might not have remembered it just at that moment, but it came back to them eventually, and John wrote down what Jesus said:

“It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. […] When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (John 16:6-13, edited)

Apparently there was something about Jesus being here on earth that limited the movement of the Holy Spirit.  Something about Jesus’ death and resurrection broke open the heavens and made it possible for all believers to receive the Holy Spirit… but not until Jesus returned to God. Jesus’ presence at God’s right hand makes it possible for us to be born not only of water and blood but of the Spirit as well. We can have that third element, just like Jesus.

And this is what it means to be ‘born again’.  Remember what Jesus said to Nicodemus:

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? […]”  Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (John 3:3-5 edited)

And John would add “…and the blood” – the blood of Christ on the cross.

One other note about the Ascension: remember the saying that Jesus would come again on the clouds, just as the disciples had seen him go?  This prophecy can also be found in the Old Testament in the book of Daniel.  Daniel had a vision of the end times. And in the middle of the destruction and darkness of those times, he writes:

“As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One [that is, God] and was presented before him.  14 To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14)

…and this was written almost a thousand years before Jesus was born! Daniel’s vision is mystical and mysterious – and so are John’s writings – perhaps better understood by the Spirit than by the mind. So I recommend them to your meditation. In the meantime let’s get back on topic…

I love watching TV shows like This Old House, where people buy up an old house and fix it up and restore it to its former glory. I don’t like the ones where they modernize the house, so much as the ones where they look at the builder’s original design and restore it to what it was meant to be.

I think you and I are like those old houses. The builder (that is, God) – had glorious plans for us. But over the years, because of evil in the world and temptation in our own hearts, the houses of our lives have become run down, broken in places, leaking in others, a bit dangerous on some of those back stairways – not quite what God had in mind. And not quite what we once were, when we were first born and someone looked into our eyes and saw a reflection of eternity.

But like a master restorer, Jesus bought us with a price… and with a plan. Jesus pours over us the water of baptism and the blood of his cross – and we are reborn, through water and blood, and filled with the Spirit. And the work of restoration begins. It won’t be quite finished in this lifetime, but when we look back, if we’ve kept on walking with Jesus, and kept on trusting him, we will see progress.  And Jesus knows the Creator’s original blueprint, and he will be true to it.

John says, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know you have eternal life.” When Jesus returns, the Master Restorer’s work will be complete, and “we will be like him, for we will see him as he is”: having been born of water and blood and the Spirit.

Let’s pray.

O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.



Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 5/13/18



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A Psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the LORD Forever. – Psalm 23
[Jesus said] “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away– and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.  The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.  For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” – John 10:11-18


Our reading from the gospel of John today starts right in the middle of one of Jesus’ parables, which actually begins at the first verse of the tenth chapter; and the parable is told in response to events that happen in chapter nine. So we need to back up a little bit in order to understand what Jesus is replying to.

In chapter nine, Jesus heals a man who was born blind; and the Pharisees and the synagogue leaders want to know how this happened. More specifically, they want to know how someone they believe to be a sinner – someone who has broken the law of Moses by doing work on the Sabbath – could possibly work a miracle.  So the formerly blind man is questioned in great detail by the religious leaders, who are debating among themselves whether Jesus is a prophet or a sinner.

In getting caught up in their legalistic attitudes, the Pharisees miss the whole point: that someone who was blind can now see. In fact a number of them are having a hard time believing it’s true this man was born blind in the first place. They think this healing is ‘fake news’ – at least until they call in witnesses who testify to the fact that the man was indeed born blind.

I don’t know about you, but if I knew somebody born blind who suddenly one day could just see, I would be thrilled for that person and I’d be dying to hear the story of how it happened.  The Pharisees, though, show no joy in the miracle, zero interest in the human story. The only thing that mattered to them was this miracle didn’t fit into their theology.

So after a long and heated debate, the man who had been healed finally says to the religious council, “Look. Never since the world began has anybody born blind ever been made to see. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:32-33, paraphrased)  And they answer him, “‘You were born in sin, and you are trying to teach us?” And they threw him out of the synagogue. (John 9:34, paraphrased)

As chapter nine closes, Jesus finds the man and asks him, “do you believe in the Son of Man?” and after a short conversation the healed man says “yes, I believe”.  And Jesus says, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” (John 9:39)

So in Chapter Ten, Jesus takes the Pharisees and synagogue leaders to task for their hard-heartedness and their failure to do the job God gave them to do. And he does this by telling a parable about shepherds and sheep. Jesus draws a contrast between himself as the Good Shepherd and the religious leaders who are just hired hands.

Before I get into the parable, just a few brief words about sheep.  I’ve never worked with sheep, I’ve never been around sheep much, but from what I’ve read, (1) sheep are intelligent; (2) shepherds say they are cute as a button when they’re young but that doesn’t last long; (3) sheep run from what frightens them; (4) sheep follow each other, mostly; if one starts moving in a direction the others move in that direction too; (5) sheep band together in flocks naturally, for protection. Sheep are social animals; however, like people, they maintain a ‘safe zone’ between themselves and others – kind of like our ‘personal space’.  And in times of stress and danger the distance between sheep – that ‘safe zone’ – increases. (Does that sound at all like our society today?)  (6) Lastly, sheep really do respond only to the shepherd’s voice, and won’t follow anyone else.

The job of the shepherd is to take care of the sheep, to feed them, to keep predators away, and to protect their health and well-being.

So in John chapter ten, Jesus contrasts the good shepherd with the hired hands, and I see five specific contrasts Jesus makes in this passage:

First, the Good Shepherd sees the sheep as his own. Not that he owns them, although God as creator could make that claim on us because He made us. But this is more like words of love: “you are my own, my beloved” – or – “I am yours and you are mine”.  The hired hands, the synagogue rulers, on the other hand, don’t see the sheep as ‘their own’ in any sense of the word – either by rights or by love.

I have to say at this point, as a pastor, Jesus’ words are troubling. Because when it comes down to it, I’m one of the hired hands, and so is every other ordained minister. I don’t think Jesus is saying here that all religious leaders, all pastors, or all prophets, are like the Pharisees.  Jesus is making a point about a specific group.  But I do think all of us hired hands need to be careful not to become like the Pharisees.  And I must acknowledge that even the very best of human pastors doesn’t love the sheep the way Jesus does.

My old pastor used to say to us, “don’t follow me, follow Jesus.”  He wasn’t trying to get out of his responsibilities – far from it – but he was letting us know (as Jesus says in this passage) that sheep only get into the sheep pen through the gate, and Jesus is the gate.  There is no other gate, no other way in.  The way to tell the difference between a hired hand who cares about the sheep and a hired hand who doesn’t, is whether they lead you in Jesus’ direction, and keep on leading you in Jesus’ direction.

Back to the parable.  The second thing Jesus says is when the sheep are attacked – when the wolf comes – the Good Shepherd defends and protects his sheep, even to the point of sacrificing his own life to save the sheep. The hired hand, by contrast, runs away when the wolf comes, leaving the sheep unprotected.

I think it’s worth taking a moment to see how Jesus describes the wolf, that is, our enemy, and what the enemy does.  Jesus says two things: he says the wolf (1) snatches the sheep; that is, he’s involved in sheep-stealing. An enemy tries to remove God’s people from the flock. An enemy knows once a sheep is isolated and by itself, it’s easy prey.  (2) The wolf scatters the sheep. An enemy divides. An enemy encourages sheep to fear and panic, and to attack one another in their fear. An enemy destroys the unity of the flock. The Good Shepherd keeps the flock together and at peace: as Jesus says, “one flock, one shepherd”.

Third, [as we saw in the video above] Jesus says the Good Shepherd knows his sheep and his sheep know him.  The Good Shepherd also knows God the Father and is known by God.  The sheep don’t recognize the voice of a stranger and will not follow him. In fact sheep will run away from a stranger.

Fourth, the Good Shepherd voluntarily lays down his life on behalf of the sheep, and then will take it up again.  Here Jesus is predicting his death on the cross, and also predicting his resurrection. No hired hand would do this, and no hired hand could make this claim.

And fifth and last, the Good Shepherd does God’s will and receives his authority from God. The hired hand’s interests – if the hired hand is a Pharisee – are in getting paid for his job and in maintaining his position.  The Good Shepherd loves God the Father, and the Father loves him, and both of them love the sheep; and the sheep who belong to Jesus love Jesus and love the Father. So love is the mark of God’s kingdom, or of Jesus’ sheepfold.

So Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep, and then takes it up again.  Jesus is the one whose voice calls us to follow. Jesus is the gate by which the sheep enter into God’s kingdom.  And love is the mark of God’s kingdom.

As I close today I’d like to return to our readings from John 10 and Psalm 23. John 10 can be understood as the song of the Good Shepherd, and Psalm 23 can be understood as the song of the sheep.  Together they make a love song.  So I’d like to read these as a duet the Good Shepherd and us, his sheep. If (Rachel, Jen, Cilia) would come up and join me… (we’re not going to sing it, we’re just going to read the lyrics)


[Jesus begins] Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him; the sheep hear his voice. The shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want

Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and bandits, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.

He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters.

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.  I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake.

The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me;

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.  5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.  You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over.

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the LORD Forever.



Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican), Pittsburgh, 4/22/18


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1 John 3:1-7  See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.  You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.  No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.


Luke 24:36-53  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. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
[Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.  While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.   And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.]


I understand we’re in the middle of a mini-series on the book of I John this month, because it’s one of those rare occasions when the lectionary has us reading an entire book of the Bible in a month of Sundays. And I want to honor that game plan, so we will get to I John before I finish, but we also have a wonderful passage from the Gospel of Luke today that’s too good to miss. And the one reading sort of leads in to the other anyway. So let’s turn first to Luke.

To set the scene: as the action opens, the disciples are in an upper room of a house in Jerusalem.  The day, like most spring days in Jerusalem, was probably warm and sunny: a lot like the past couple days we’ve had here.  Sunshine and temperatures in the high 70s to low 80s.

Think about what this means to us after a long winter! Yesterday I saw long lines at the local ice cream shop. Meanwhile one of my friends put out her hammock and relaxed outside with an iced coffee and a good book. And myself and a few of our neighbors headed out into our gardens: digging, mulching, planting a few plants (a little too early maybe but one can hope!)

On a beautiful spring day you don’t stay indoors, do you?  And it was a day like this in Jerusalem when Jesus walked out of the tomb alive.

But the disciples were indoors. They were missing out on spring and missing out on new life because they were hiding.  The upper room where they were was probably built of stone, with a high-ceiling and a flat roof above, and with a heavy wooden door that was shut and locked.  There were probably windows in the room but probably not very big ones. So inside the room was probably cool and somewhat dark… not much direct sunlight. Spring wasn’t being felt in this room.

The disciples were hiding out of fear, because the Jewish leaders who had put Jesus on cross could easily do the same thing to them. So they were in that upper room, scared, and still grieving Jesus’ loss. They were also puzzling over what some of the women had said that morning about Jesus’ tomb being empty, and angels saying he was alive.

While they were gathered in that upper room, at the same time a couple of other disciples were walking with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, although they don’t know it was Jesus who was with them. They think they’re talking to someone they just met. And Jesus asks them why they look so down and depressed, and they say “haven’t you heard what happened? Jesus of Nazareth, a mighty prophet – we thought was the Messiah – is dead. Our chief priests and religious leaders crucified him. And then this morning some of our women went to the tomb and came back saying he was alive.”

So Jesus, still not recognized by the disciples, explains all the Old Testament scriptures and prophecies that talked about the Messiah. When they finally got to Emmaus they invite Jesus to join them for dinner.  And as Jesus broke the bread, they suddenly recognized him: and then Luke says, “he vanished from their sight”.

The apostle John says in our reading from I John:

“we are God’s children now; but what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when [Jesus] is revealed, we will be like him…”

Going by what Luke describes in this story about Emmaus, apparently resurrected bodies can get around in ways that we can’t in our current bodies.  And as John says, we don’t know yet what we will be, only that we will be like Jesus.  I don’t know about you but I’m looking forward to this!  Being able to just disappear from one place and appear in another… pretty cool.

Anyway so the disciples who had walked with Jesus to Emmaus immediately turned around and headed back to Jerusalem and told the other disciples they’d seen Jesus. And the disciples in Jerusalem said, “yeah, Peter has seen him too!” And while they were still talking about this, Luke says, “Jesus stood in the middle of them [btw having passed through a locked door] and says, “Peace be with you.””

To say the disciples were startled by this sudden appearance would be an understatement.  Luke says the disciples thought they were seeing a ghost. He says they were terrified, consumed with fear, and doubting their grip on reality.  I think all of us would probably react the same way to seeing a person we knew was dead appearing out of nowhere and jumping into a conversation.

“Peace be with you” is a great place to start.  It’s not just ‘don’t be afraid’ – it’s the word ‘peace’ spoken by the one who said to the wind and the waves ‘peace, be still’.  At a word from Jesus the storm is calmed. I pray that in the storms of our lives, Jesus will say to us also, “peace, be still”.

Then he says, “why are you frightened?” – which is a gentle way of continuing to speak peace. In that culture particularly, if Jesus had said “don’t be scared” it would have been somewhat insulting; but to ask a “why?” question – ‘why are you frightened?’ gives his friends room to examine their reactions without being embarrassed.

And then he invites the disciples to look at his hands and his feet, to touch him, to see that he has real skin and real bones: which, as Jesus says, a ghost would not have.

And so they do: they look at him and touch him, and as they do, the full realization that Jesus is really alive begins to sink in. What was ‘disbelief because of fear’ turns into ‘disbelief because of joy’.

And while they’re still looking at Jesus with their jaws on the floor Jesus says, “you got anything to eat around here?”

How perfect is that? And how very human!  What better proof of the resurrection than to see Jesus eat?  Jesus has proven himself to be God by rising from the dead; and now he proves himself to be human by sharing a meal.

In the years and centuries following these events, skeptics will come along, questioning whether Jesus was really a human being. They will say he was some other kind of higher spirit, who only looked human, whose projected body only appeared to die and come back to life.  This skepticism will be rooted in a branch of Greek philosophy that says spiritual realities are higher than physical realities, that there are two different planes of existence.  Jesus makes clear in this simple act that God’s reality is not separate from ours.  Jesus is right here with us.

I saw something on Facebook the other day that I shared to my page because it speaks to this so beautifully. It’s a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who lost his life in the Nazi concentration camps.  Bonhoeffer wrote:

“God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and the broken.”

It is not beneath God to live in a human body, to be one of us, with all that entails. Jesus teaches us to pray, “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” – and in this upper room we catch a glimpse of that prayer beginning to be answered. Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of God’s kingdom on earth.

All of this, packed into the simple question, “you got anything to eat?”  As it happened, the disciples had a piece of broiled fish on hand and they gave it to Jesus, and he ate.

Luke’s story focuses our attention on the human aspect of the first Easter day: what the disciples were feeling, what they thought, their reactions first of terror and then of joy; the sight of Jesus’ body, with nail-scars in his hands and feet. What Luke describes is not religion, it’s reality. It’s touchable and see-able.

But there is a spiritual element to all this.  After Jesus is finished eating, he reminds the disciples of what he told them before he died: that everything that happened to him is in fulfillment of Moses and the prophets and the Psalms.  And Luke says “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures”.  He tells them, “It was written of the Christ [that is, the Messiah] that he must suffer and rise from the dead on the third day,” and that after this, repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in Jesus’ name, to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem, and that the disciples are witnesses of all of this. And Jesus says, “stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”  (And that will be the story for a few weeks from now when Pentecost comes around.)

But at this point let’s turn our attention to our reading from I John, where the apostle John takes all this physical reality Luke’s been talking about and, in his usual and unique way, brings out and highlights the spiritual meanings to be found in the historical events.

John starts out talking about God the Father. He says: “what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God! And that’s exactly what we are!”

We. Are. Children. Of God. Let that sink in for a moment. I heard Tony Campolo say once, it’s like God has your picture in His wallet, and he shows it off to all the angels: “that’s my kid!”  No matter where we come from, no matter what we’ve done, no matter whether we’re rich or poor or young or old, we are God’s children. And that’s right now, not sometime when we get to heaven.  As my old pastor used to say, “eternity doesn’t start when you die. It starts now and carries forward into forever.”

The apostle John says what we will be hasn’t yet been revealed; we just know when Jesus is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. This is our Christian hope. And John says this hope makes us pure. Knowing it’s true that Jesus is alive, is the faith that wipes away sin and brings us into life.

This alone would be enough.  But God has also asked us to do something. John says we’ve been given a message: that people need to repent, that is, to change course. John says ‘sin’ and ‘lawlessness’ are one and the same thing.

It’s an interesting way to look at things, because the Christian faith is not legalistic: we’re not saved by keeping laws.  But for those who don’t have Jesus, the ancient law of Moses comes into play.  The law of Moses describes God’s standards. Human beings can only made holy in one of two ways: we either believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, who takes away our sins, or we need to keep the law of Moses perfectly. And nobody’s been able to do that (except for Jesus). So because sin and lawlessness are the same thing, we need faith.

Once we’ve come to know Jesus we may still sin from time to time but, as John says, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” who cleanses us from sin.

So as John pulls it all together, he tells us two things:

  1. We have a sure hope. Jesus is alive. Death can’t hold him, and the sin that leads to death can’t touch him. We look to Jesus and trust in him, and not in our own power.
  2. In the power of the Holy Spirit, we are called to bear witness to what we know and to what we have seen and heard. I sometimes think of it as calling people out of addiction to sin and into spiritual sobriety. You and I and all of us together are witnesses of these things.

On that first Easter day, as the day ended, Jesus blessed the disciples, and he also blesses us, and promises one day, everything we’ve done and everything we’ve lived through will all be worth it, because we will see Jesus as he is, and we will be like him.

May God write this joy on our hearts. AMEN.



Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 4/15/18



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The apostle John writes: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
“A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” – John 10:19-31


The apostle John also writes: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life –this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.  We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” – I John 1:1-2:2


This week we consider two passages written by the apostle John, in which he continues the story of the very first Easter. The first passage, from John’s gospel, features the famous story of “Doubting Thomas.” Gotta love this guy, right? He’s like ‘This is Us’.

Thomas missed it.  Everybody else saw Jesus alive, except him. Have you felt like that? Like the Steelers won the Super Bowl and somehow you missed it?

This was, like, THE biggest thing you could ever possibly miss. The one and only Messiah… who was dead… is back. And everybody saw it except you.

That would be my luck!  And I’d probably react the same way Thomas did; not because I didn’t believe my friends, but because… well… any self-respecting person would say, “I’m not going to believe it until I see it.” Count me in, or count me out.

Jesus counts Thomas in. And Jesus counts each one of us in, too, when he says “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

But when Jesus counts people in, he means all the way in.  And all the way in might be more than we expect. Let’s take a closer look at the story.

As the scene opens, Jesus’ first words to the disciples are “peace be with you”.  He says this not once, but twice (and then a third time when Thomas is with them) – because he knows they need to hear it.

It’s the evening of the first Easter morning, and fresh in the minds of the disciples is the memory of running away when Jesus was arrested… hiding in the shadows and watching from a distance when Jesus was put on trial. Of course they’re thrilled to see Jesus alive! But they’re ashamed too.  They didn’t have the courage to stand with Jesus and die with him like they said they would.

So Jesus speaks peace; and then he shows them the nail-scars in his hands, and the wound in his side where the Roman guard stuck the spear to be sure he was dead. Jesus knows the disciples need to see what happened. They need to be confronted with the truth, and deal with the reality that this Messiah they loved so much had suffered so much.

The disciples need to understand the truth of Isaiah’s words, when he said: “He was stricken for our transgressions; he was wounded for our iniquities…” They need to say “I’m so sorry Lord” and they need to see the look of love in Jesus’ eyes. They need to know Jesus doesn’t blame them for running away, or for being scared.

Jesus speaks peace out of a forgiving heart, because peace with God requires forgiveness of sins. God and sin can’t exist in the same place, just like light and darkness can’t exist in the same place. The disciples need to be forgiven in order to stand in God’s presence.

And when Jesus talks about forgiveness, it’s not the kind of forgiveness like what kids do on the playground. “Tell Billy you’re sorry.” “I’m — sorreeee” “Tell Jamie you forgive him.” “O—K—”

As adults we know the kids will be friends again ten minutes from now anyway! But this transitory forgiveness is not like God’s forgiveness. God’s forgiveness cleans, it removes sin, so that God’s presence won’t cancel us out the way light cancels out darkness. The Greek word for this process, which is found in the reading from I John, is katharidze, which is the word we get catharsis from: psychologically speaking, it’s a release; medically speaking, it’s a cure; like something that removes bacteria from a wound.  Jesus forgives us in a way that heals us and makes it possible for us to be with God.

And then Jesus lays out the game plan for the days and months ahead.  He says: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And he breathes on them and says, “receive the Holy Spirit.”  This isn’t Pentecost yet – that’s still a few weeks off – but it’s like a mini-Pentecost for the disciples.

In Luke’s gospel at one point Jesus says to the disciples:

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” (Luke 12:49-50)

The baptism Jesus spoke about – his death and resurrection – is accomplished; and now he breathes the fire of the Holy Spirit into his followers.

After breathing on them, Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

What an awesome responsibility!  Does Jesus really mean what he says – if we don’t forgive, people aren’t forgiven?  Well, yes and no.  No, in the sense that it’s not our place to judge people, thank goodness. But yes, in a different sense.

Do you remember, in our readings from Holy Week, the day after Palm Sunday, an odd passage where Jesus has words with a fig tree? The apostle Mark tells the story:

“On the following day [that is, the day after Palm Sunday], when they came from Bethany, [Jesus] was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. (Mark 11:12-14)

“In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.  Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”  Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.” (Mark 11:20-23)

This is a difficult passage. Our immediate reaction is to say, “Why would Jesus curse a fig tree for having no fruit when it wasn’t in season?” Is this fair? No. Has Jesus lost touch with reality? No; I think it’s more like a living parable.

Where it comes to dealing with people, we have expectations. And sometimes people, like that fig tree, just aren’t ‘in season’ yet. If we don’t forgive them, like the fig tree, they’ll never have the chance to grow into maturity and bear fruit.  We have an awesome responsibility.

Those of us who went to the Naloxone training the other night heard an excellent example of this. The presenter explained to us sometimes people question the wisdom of continuing to give dose after dose of Naloxone to a person who is constantly overdosing. And sometimes people question the wisdom of giving out clean needles to addicts so they don’t share needles and share diseases. “Why not just force them to get off the drugs?” they ask.  As the presenter said, “You can’t force someone to break an addiction; they have to want to. The goal of what we are doing, giving free needles and Naloxone, is to keep them alive until they’re able to make the right decision.”

That’s what forgiveness is all about. That’s why Jesus said we need to forgive “seventy times seven.”  Every person on the planet is addicted to sin, and none of us can quit under our own power. But for those of us who turn to Jesus, Jesus breaks the power of sin and makes us clean. As Paul says, “we are dead to sin and alive to Christ” and “thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

And now, Jesus commissions us to go out and tell people who are addicted to sin that Jesus can set them free and make them whole. And those of us who know Jesus, and have received the Holy Spirit, have been given the authority to forgive or retain sin. So we need to be aware of what season of life people are in; and keep praying for them; and work to keep them alive until they’re able to make the right decision.

John ends his gospel with encouragement to believe: “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name”: seeing Jesus for who he is, trusting him, receiving the Holy Spirit, and following in Jesus’ footsteps.

So how does this eternal life happen? That’s what John talks about in our reading from I John.  John says, Jesus cleanses us from sin if we agree with God about our fallen condition. The exact quote is:

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:8-9)

The word ‘confess’ here does not mean making a list of every sin we’ve ever committed (although that may be spiritually helpful from time to time).  The Greek word is homologomen, homo meaning ‘same’ and logo meaning ‘word’ – in other words, if we say the same thing God says, if we agree with God about our sin problem, he will forgive and purify us of anything in us that is unrighteous.

And if we do sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous.  The word for advocate here – paraclete – is a word usually used for Holy Spirit; for one who comes alongside and helps us; like a lawyer who’s on your side in a trial, or like someone who speaks up for us when we can’t speak for ourselves. Jesus is our advocate, and also the sin-offering for our sins… and not for ours only but for the whole world.

Therefore the apostle John says to us:

“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we’ve heard, what we’ve seen with our eyes, what we’ve looked at and touched with our hands…”

This isn’t religion. This is reality. Touchable. Seeable.

Those who walk with Jesus, walk in the light, because he is in the light. And we have fellowship with each other, in the light, and Jesus’ blood purifies us from all sin.

John writes all of this so that we will believe and share his joy: “that our joy may be complete,” he says.

This is the joy of Easter – then and now. It continues, and it grows. AMEN.


Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 4/8/18






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“When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” – Mark 16:1-8


“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” – Colossians 3:1-4


It’s been said that Palm Sunday begins in joy and ends in darkness, and Easter begins in darkness and ends in joy.  And I think there’s a lot of truth to that. But as we read the stories of the first Easter – in any of the four gospels, although we’re reading Mark today – what we see at first among the disciples is more confusion and fear than anything else.

Holy Week began with some Greeks coming to the disciples and saying “we would like to see Jesus.” And now on the first day of the week following Good Friday, the disciples themselves see Jesus and don’t know who they’re seeing.  Grief can do strange things to our perceptions sometimes.

But I’m getting ahead of the story just a little.

When we left off the story on Good Friday, Jesus was crucified and dead and was being buried in the grave of a rich man named Joseph of Arimathea, buried in spices provided by Nicodemus the Pharisee, and tended to by some of the women disciples.

One of Jesus’ last words from the cross had been tetelestai – “it is finished” – which was not a cry of defeat but a cry of victory. The price for our lives was paid in full; and the powers of this world had done their worst and been shown up for what they were; and Jesus knew his kingdom was secured and he’d be back in three days. And hearing these words, the centurion at the foot of the cross said, “this indeed was God’s son.”

Back in the book of Genesis, when God finished making all of creation, he looked around and said “It’s finished. Done.” (Gen 2:2) And on the seventh day God rested.  When Jesus was just about to die, he said “it’s finished”. Creation had been redeemed. And on the seventh day he rested.

The disciples, however, probably didn’t rest much that weekend.  They were observing the Sabbath so they weren’t working; but most were in hiding, deep in grief and fear, and shattered by what they’d seen.

In all the gospel accounts, only three people do something on Saturday: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome (that’s Salome the wife of Zebedee, not Salome the dancer). These are the ladies who had accompanied Jesus’ body to the tomb on Friday; but Jesus’ burial on Friday had been rushed because the Sabbath was starting, so the women were anxious to get back to the tomb on Sunday morning to complete the burial of Jesus’ body.

So, as Mark says, “as soon as the Sabbath was over” the three women went out and bought spices. I never really thought about this until this past week – but since “as soon as the Sabbath was over” would have been night-time, they must have gone out Saturday night to get spices – which would not have been an easy thing to do. First off, most spice-sellers weren’t going to open up shop after dark on their Sabbath-day-off; secondly, for women to be out and about after dark unaccompanied by men was somewhat questionable behavior back then.  So these ladies were resourceful and determined, and passionate in their love for Jesus. In spite of their broken hearts, they moved mountains to take care of his body.

And they did all this in spite of incredible emotional distress. Unlike most of the disciples – the notable exception being John – only the women had watched Jesus die.  They witnessed the torture and the cruelty of Pilate and the religious leaders; and they were shattered that the one they loved and believed to be the Messiah could die.

But they did what they could do: they got the spices and headed out to the tomb, outside Jerusalem’s city wall, not far from where Jesus had died. The tomb was in a garden; a beautiful and peaceful place. After 2000 years of history nobody is 100% sure of the actual location; but the photos included in this post were taken close to where it would have been.

The large stone that sealed the entrance that first Easter is no longer there. The tomb itself was carved out of rock and was made for a rich man’s family. A tomb like this would have taken a lot of man-hours to create and would have been costly to build, and would have been intended for use by more than one person. This particular tomb has space for two bodies and could have been expanded to hold more.

On that first Easter morning, the women were worried about who was going to move the stone – something it would have taken two men to move. On top of that the authorities had sealed the tomb shut and placed a guard so no-one could steal Jesus’ body.

But when the women got to the garden they found the guards gone, and the stone already rolled away! And so, in fear and trembling, they bowed down and entered into the tomb, and off to the right they saw a man they didn’t know, seated on a half-height wall.  And after everything they’d been through, their broken hearts couldn’t take any more.

Mark says they were “alarmed” – but that’s a mild translation.  Better words might be distressed, terrified, greatly disturbed. So the man says to them ‘don’t be afraid’. He says: “you’re looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He’s not here. He’s risen, just like he told you. Look, here’s where they laid him.” – and the women would have been able to see the burial cloths, and the blood stains – but Jesus was gone.

The man said, “Go tell his disciples and Peter that Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee, and you’ll see him there just like he told you.”  He’s referring to what Jesus had said to the disciples on Thursday night, after the last supper:

“…it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’  But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” (Mark 14:27-28)

So this mysterious man in the tomb reminds the women of what Jesus told them.  But it’s too much for the women to take in, and they flee in terror.

And Mark’s gospel ends here.  But John adds more detail.  In his account, Mary Magdalene stays behind at the tomb, weeping. And twice she is asked “why are you weeping?” And twice she gives the same answer: “they have taken away my Lord and I don’t know where they have laid him.” But the second time, unknown to herself, it’s Jesus who’s asking. And then Jesus calls her name – “Mary!” – and that familiar voice cuts through the fog of grief. And she cries out “Rabbouni!” – ‘my teacher’, ‘my lord’.  At which point Jesus tells her not to cling to him, because there’s something he needs her to do.  He says “go tell my brothers you’ve seen me.” So she does. Mary Magdalene is the first person on earth to bear the gospel message.

Luke and Mark both tell us the disciples didn’t believe Mary at first – which, given what had happened that past week, is understandable. Later the same day Jesus will meet some of them on the road to Emmaus, and they won’t recognize him – at least not right away. But little by little, the grief and the confusion give way, first to amazement, and then to unspeakable joy.

A few days later all the brothers and sisters will be together again with Jesus in Galilee. Peter will be forgiven and reinstated; questions will be answered; meals will be eaten. And the disciples will spend 40 more days with Jesus before he returns to heaven. I imagine it probably took most of that time for them to come to terms with the shock of Good Friday, and to get used to the resurrected Jesus whose new body could do some unusual things like walking through locked doors – but that’s another sermon for another day.

For now, the first Easter Sunday began in darkness, and then passed through terror and then confusion and then amazement, and finally ended in the greatest joy the world has ever known.

So where do we fit into this story?  I think the answer to that question is found in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Colossians.  Paul writes:

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth…”

We’ve heard the old saying about the person who is ‘so heavenly minded they’re no earthly good’ but that’s not what Paul is suggesting here.  First off, Paul is addressing the entire church. All the nouns and verbs in the passage are plural – so Paul is not talking about a ‘private’ faith or a personal quest for holiness.  Rather Paul is telling us as a body of believers to keep our focus on the risen Christ of Easter, and don’t get distracted.

All around us today we see churches dying out, merging, closing their doors. Sometimes this is just a matter of demographics: people move away, populations change. But I think for many, distraction from the primary message of the risen Jesus and his victory over death is where the decline begins.

And churches may be distracted by good things: family activities, service projects, justice issues; trying to be attractive to the culture outside the church; sometimes we get distracted by arguments over what kind of music to have in worship. And in some churches there have been preachers and teachers who over the years have gotten skeptical about Jesus’ physical resurrection, and aren’t sure if they believe it any more, but rather than change careers they’ve downplayed the miracle of Easter… and the message the church has been trusted with.

I find it comforting to know that ours is not the only time in history when this has happened.  Wherever and whenever in history we see the good news of Jesus’ resurrection becoming a secondary item on the church’s agenda, the church has gone into decline. But history shows God is faithful – even when we are not – and these dry times for the church have always, throughout history, been followed by widespread renewal of faith. We can pray for that time to come.

And second, for me, the teachings of N.T. Wright on the kingdom of God help to regain focus.  He writes:

“The link between kingdom and cross forms the inner logic of the whole [faith] narrative… [the] scene between Jesus and Pilate is all about the “kingdom”… [and] the truth to which Jesus has come to bear witness… for which Pilate’s worldview has no possible space.”

He continues:

“The only word to do justice to this kingdom-and-cross combination is agape, love. The death of Jesus is the expression of God’s love, as… John 3:16 makes clear. […] The kingdom put into effect is the victory of God’s love… But not just a spiritual victory that leaves present human rulers unaffected. The work of redemption is complete; Jesus has been glorified… and now the Spirit can be given and Jesus’ followers can begin their own work.”

The apostle Paul writes:

“we have died, and our life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ who is our life is revealed, we also will be revealed with him in glory.”

Before he was crucified, Jesus said that anyone who would follow him must also take up their own crosses; that there would be suffering in this world for those who would follow Jesus, because the model Jesus has set for us is redeeming love achieved through self-sacrifice.

And yes, these words to apply to individuals; but Jesus’ words and Paul’s words in these passages are plural. Together we die to this world; together our life is hidden with Christ. When he returns, we will be revealed together with him in glory.

You and I and all of us together, are not going where this world is going.  We’ve got a better place to be: a far better world than we could ask or imagine. And that is the great joy of Easter. By his death Jesus has won our forgiveness; and by his resurrection Jesus is leading us with him into his kingdom, where we will share in his glory, and where our joy will be complete and forever.

And so we say, with all the saints throughout history:

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
The Lord is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!


Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican, Pittsburgh), 4/1/18


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Baptismal Question: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

 Mark 8:31-38  Then [Jesus] began to teach [the disciples] that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?  37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?  38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”


Welcome to Week Two of our sermon series on our baptismal vows.  The baptismal question we’re looking at this week is: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

Pastor Matt’s pastoral letter for this month speaks to this very question, and I recommend it to your reading. In it he expresses a strong Christian desire to oppose evil and injustice in the world, because we find ourselves today in a world where it seems like evil and injustice and oppression are getting the upper hand on a regular basis. And it breaks our hearts.

But did you ever notice, the minute you take a stand for anything, all the critics seem to come out of the woodwork? One person will be telling you you’re dead wrong, while another person is telling you your protests are not loud enough.

When we step back from the issues though, and silence the rhetoric for a moment, one question rises to the top, and that is the problem of evil. How does one define ‘evil’? What is evil? If we’re taking a stand against evil, what exactly is it we’re taking a stand against?

At first glance the answer to this question seems obvious: killing is evil, for example. Violence is evil. Things that cause poverty are evil. Injustice is evil.  On these things most people would agree. Beyond that, though, how one defines ‘evil’ in the world very much depends on one’s point of view, on what one’s life experiences have been.  What one person calls ‘evil’ another person calls ‘good’ and vice versa.

And the world has been that way for a long time.  The prophet Isaiah wrote, over 2500 years ago:

“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness… Who justify the wicked for a bribe, and take away justice from the righteous person!” (Isaiah 5:20, 23)

For those of us who love Jesus, we need to know what God has to say about evil.  And as I look at scripture I see the word ‘evil’ appears in the Bible over 500 times – and over 100 of those times God is saying to God’s people, “depart from evil and do good”.

The other 400 verses tell us what evil is and does. Among other things, evil is the absence of good, the absence of peace, and the absence of truth. Evil includes things like violence, lying, perversity, vanity (in the sense of feeling like everything in life is vain or pointless – which echoes strongly in our society today, where suicide is one of the top three leading causes of death in people under 25. The feeling that life is in vain is where evil leads people). Evil results in pain, suffering, and death.

In the Old Testament, in ancient Israel, evil was something to be “purged” from society, according to scripture.  Disobeying God was a capital crime – not because God doesn’t forgive, but because it is the nature of evil to spread, like a cancer – so God said ‘nip it in the bud’.

Evil is also defined in scripture as wanting a king or a ruler other than God, other than Jesus. Chasing after false gods, for example, or worshipping idols; any time something becomes more important to us than God, we’ve got an idol on our hands. And if we’re not worshipping the one true and living God then we’re worshipping a lie – which leads to destruction and death.

So now that we have a working definition of evil, how might we go about using our God-given freedom and power to resist evil?

Let’s take a look at Jesus’ example in our scripture reading for this morning.  Jesus is always a perfect example of how to live for good, how to live life as citizens of God’s kingdom.

Mark starts off by saying:

“Then [Jesus] began to teach [the disciples] that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  He said all this quite openly.” (Mark 8:31-32)

So breaking it down: First, Jesus began to teach them – this phrase, I think, hints that the teaching took place over time, not all at once. Any good teacher knows that you don’t throw all the facts at students all at once – you break it down into manageable pieces, leading people into knowledge. And Jesus is and was the very best of teachers.

Second, Jesus is teaching a hard truth – He gives them the bad news first. He says that he, the Son of Man, the Messiah, the promised one of God, would be rejected by the religious leaders and be killed.

If the Old Testament makes anything clear, it is that rejecting God is the root of all evil (see the First Commandment – “you shall have no other gods but me”. The Old Testament also teaches that killing is evil (that’s Commandment #7). So Jesus is teaching them that (1) the nation’s religious leaders have been overcome by evil, and (2) they are going to kill him.

Third, Jesus is teaching good news – “after three days I will rise again”.  Jesus will overcome evil with good. He will overcome death with life. The good news is, evil and good are not equal opposites. Evil is always the lesser. Evil is always a twisting of something good. Evil can’t exist without something good to destroy. But when evil tries to destroy perfection – in the person of Jesus – evil undoes itself. And Jesus walks away alive.

Jesus says all of this openly, Mark tells us. He doesn’t hide what he’s doing and saying (unlike the scribes and Pharisees). That’s another difference between evil and good: evil tries to hide. Good doesn’t need to.

But Peter took Jesus aside and started to rebuke him. The Greek says Peter “took hold of Jesus” and “led him aside”.  As we picture the action we can see Jesus’ friend Peter trying to take charge of him and guide him, as though Jesus has gone a little too far this time, and he’s talking crazy talk.

But Jesus rebukes Peter back – and the phrase he uses is translated “get behind me Satan!” This has always felt not-quite-right to me, so I took a look at the Greek.  I think Jesus’ words should be taken to mean that Peter was playing into Satan’s hands. I don’t think Jesus meant to say Peter was possessed or anything like that.  The Greek translates more like a combination of ‘go away’, and ‘get it under control’.  Or for any Beatles fans, “get back to where you once belonged”.  In other words, Jesus is saying to Peter, get a grip, Peter, you’re out of line. Remember who’s in charge here, and don’t take the part of my enemy. That’s basically what Jesus is getting at.

And then summoning the crowd, along with the disciples, Jesus said to them, “If anyone desires to follow after me, let him deny himself” – that is, deny any claim to his own life – “and take up his cross and follow me.”

So not only is Peter not in charge of Jesus, but anyone who wants to follow Jesus doesn’t even have the right to be in charge of ourselves!  “Not my will but yours be done” is Jesus’ prayer, and it needs to become our prayer as well.

This doesn’t mean we go and seek out suffering. As one theologian put it, “No healthy Christian ever chooses suffering; he chooses God’s will, as Jesus did, whether it means suffering or not.” (Oswald Chambers)

But we need to set aside all worldly things: put away our idols, put away anything that may come between us and God, and say ‘yes’ to God. This is God’s definition of ‘good’.

God’s definition of ‘good’ is not how the world defines ‘good’.  In fact the world will try to tell us we’re crazy, we’re passé, that God doesn’t exist and we’re out of our minds. But who would it benefit if we bought into that lie? Certainly not us.

The world will never agree that God’s will is good.  As Jesus put it, this is an ‘adulterous and sinful generation’. That’s the definition of the human condition. And that is what Jesus came to die for, to set right and to redeem.

Jesus asks: what can we give in exchange for our lives? Whoever is ashamed of Him, whoever is embarrassed by Him, whoever doesn’t have the courage to stand up for Him – Jesus will be ashamed of that person when he comes in glory with the Father and the holy angels.

Those are hard words to hear, and they’re hard words to say. Many times I know I haven’t said or done things I should have said or done. When that happens I remember Peter, and how the Lord forgave him, and I remember the amazing, awesome mercy of our Lord.

Jesus will one day be crowned king of all creation. What are we willing to give to be there by His side on that day?

So coming back to our baptismal question:

  • The ‘freedom’ the question talks about is the freedom to give up our lives for Jesus and for the good news.
  • The ‘power’ the question talks about is the power to lay down our lives for Jesus, knowing that one day He will raise us up, and we will live in His presence, and we will be like Him.
  • The ‘evil’ we fight against is, at its roots, a denial of God – rebelling against God, hating God, and wanting any ruler other than God. All violence, injustice, and oppression are the direct result of refusing God’s will and God’s word – disobeying or ignoring what we’ve been taught in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.

Where it comes to evil in the world, we can work on symptoms till the cows come home, but the ultimate cure is in the hands of God, either directly or working through lives that have been placed in His hands.

And I thank God for the examples we’ve been given to follow, and particularly this month the examples of Martin Luther King Jr and of Billy Graham – two men who gave all they had for Jesus, and set a course for us to follow.

So this Lent, let’s put away anything that comes between us and God. Let’s renew our baptismal promise to put our lives and our times in Jesus’ hands – by the power of prayer, bringing all things to Him – and then confront evil in the world in Jesus’ resurrection power, as he leads us. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 2/25/18





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[Scripture reading: 2 Kings 23:1-6, 21-25 reprinted at the end]

In the beginning… there were matinee idols. Errol Flynn. Clark Gable. Greta Garbo. Then there were pop idols: Elvis Presley. The Beatles. And then there was American Idol – pop stars taken from anonymity to fame for our young people to look up to.

This week in our Lenten series on “Giving Up…” things for Lent, we’ll be looking at Giving Up Idols.

Parents of teenagers have never been entirely comfortable with the younger generation’s idols, but most parents figure it’s just a phase. The kids will grow out of it, right?

Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But I think this is only a tiny, tiny part of what the Bible is talking about when it talks about idols.

And the Bible does talk about idols a lot! In fact the words idols or false gods – between those two phrases – appear over 400 times in the Bible.

For most of us, when we hear the word ‘idol’, we either think of pop idols or we think of those statues people in ancient times used to worship: false gods with names like Dagon or Molech or Ba’al, idols carved out of stone or wood, and worshiped by primitive people who didn’t know any better.

But ancient people weren’t stupid. They knew these statues were just representations of things in the spirit world.  The statues represented concepts like health or fertility or wealth. And the worshipers were worshiping the spirit world, not the statues.

But the priests of the false gods demanded sacrifices: sometimes even human sacrifices. And so these ancient religions brought death to their worshipers, not life, partly because following the so-called ‘gods’ made people to do unholy things; and partly because they were worshiping a lie. And as the apostle Paul says, these gods don’t exist anyway.

No wonder the one true and living God, who loves all he has created, objects to people worshiping what isn’t real and following lies that will destroy them.

But what about us today?  We don’t talk much about ‘idolatry’ much any more – the word has gone out of fashion kind of like the word ‘repent’.  But idols are still very much with us, and their lies are still very much with us. “Fake news,” for example, puts lies in the mouths of celebrities who never said any such thing; or may put forward propaganda in a way that people are tempted to believe it.  Perpetrators of fake news are counting on the fact people have idols and can be led astray by them.

Idols can also be things we spend too much time or money on. Buying stuff. Having the best. Tucking money away. Spending too much time with the TV (or Facebook). We even make idols out of God’s blessings sometimes: good gifts like careers or friends or family or food or exercise.

Anything that becomes more important to us than God, or that gets in the way of God being the Lord of our lives, is an idol. And God knows that idols eventually lead us into death.  And what’s more, idols steer our love and loyalty away from the people around us who need what God has given us to share.

I saw a quote the other day that speaks to this. Given that idols are objects of our praise, the quote said: “Biblical praise – is always both praise of the true Lord, and praise against all false lords – human and nonhuman – who seek to set themselves up in God’s place… prais[ing God] not only evokes a world, it also undoes, it deconstructs, all other worlds.”

Once we become convinced that only God is worthy of our worship, and we decide to get rid of our idols (whatever they may be) we may find it difficult to get rid of them. They’re not easy to shake.

The temptation is to try to tear our idols down. We’ve had them up on a pedestal and it’s so easy when we’ve put something on a pedestal to throw it down and break it. Think of how many famous people – even in the news recently – have been on pedestals for years and then their reputations all of a sudden are smashed on the ground. The problem is, throwing things off pedestals is just the flip side of building them up.  We are still relating to the idol. Our attention is still on it.

But throughout scripture, when God confronts idolatry, God’s words are always “put it away”.  Not ‘tear it down’.  ‘Put it away’ – like a parent telling a child to put a toy back in its box. Leave it where it is, God says, and let’s you and me do something else.

All through scripture God says to His people ‘put it away’.

  • In Genesis (35:2) God says to Jacob’s family, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you…”
  • When the Israelites were entering the Promised Land, God says, (Joshua 24:14) “put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt.”
  • When the prophet Ezekiel was comforting a nation in exile God said, (Ezekiel 43:9) “let them put away their idolatry… and I will reside among them forever.”
  • And even at the end of the book of Revelation, as God’s judgement is being poured out on the earth at the end of time, people still have not given up their idols. The apostle John writes: (Revelation 9:20) “…they did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshiping demons and idols …”

From Genesis to Revelation God has been saying to his people “put them away”.

So this Lent, let’s put away anything that comes between us and God: anything that is more important to us than God.  And for those people and things in our lives who we love and that are important to us – place them in God’s hands, for God’s blessing. By doing this, we will love them even better, because we’ve set them free to be who they are in the Lord.

So let’s free ourselves of serving anything that can’t save or satisfy. Let’s put away all idols and live our lives as God intended – free to serve the Lord of Love. AMEN.


2 Kings 23:1-6, 21-25  Then the king [Josiah] directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him.  2 The king went up to the house of the LORD, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the LORD.  3 The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the LORD, to follow the LORD, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant.

 4 The king commanded the high priest Hilkiah, the priests of the second order, and the guardians of the threshold, to bring out of the temple of the LORD all the vessels made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven; he burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron, and carried their ashes to Bethel.  5 He deposed the idolatrous priests whom the kings of Judah had ordained to make offerings in the high places at the cities of Judah and around Jerusalem; those also who made offerings to Baal, to the sun, the moon, the constellations, and all the host of the heavens.  6 He brought out the image of Asherah from the house of the LORD, outside Jerusalem, to the Wadi Kidron, burned it at the Wadi Kidron, beat it to dust and threw the dust of it upon the graves of the common people.

The king commanded all the people, “Keep the Passover to the LORD your God as prescribed in this book of the covenant.”  22 No such Passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah;  23 but in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this Passover was kept to the LORD in Jerusalem.

 24 Moreover Josiah put away the mediums, wizards, teraphim, idols, and all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, so that he established the words of the law that were written in the book that the priest Hilkiah had found in the house of the LORD.  25 Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him.

Preached at Wednesday Lenten Lunch Series, Carnegie Ministerium, St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church, 2/21/18


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