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“The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.  2 He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground.  3 He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.  4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.  5 Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on — since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.”  6 And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.”  7 Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it.  8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

9 “They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.”  10 Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him.  11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.  12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”  13 The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’  14 Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.”  15 But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”” – Genesis 18:1-15

“The LORD dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he had promised.  2 Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him.  3 Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him.  4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him.  5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.  6 Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”  7 And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”” – Genesis 21:1-7

Happy Father’s Day to all the men here today – and I do want to include all the men, because whether or not you have kids, your presence here in the community of faith helps to make this church a healthy and nurturing place for children.

Father’s Day (like Mother’s Day) can sometimes be awkward, because not everyone has happy childhood memories, and not everyone was raised with two parents, and not everyone who wanted to become a parent is one.  But at the same time we do want to celebrate those men who have invested their time and their skills in helping to raise the next generation.

Before we get to today’s scripture reading I wanted to share a story about my own dad.  I don’t usually talk about people from the pulpit – I think it’s kind of like an invasion of privacy – but Dad has heard this story before, it’s been told before, so we’re good.

This story takes place when I was about four years old.  At that age I used to go to church with my parents and I’d stand on the pew between them and read the hymnal over their shoulders. And I also became fascinated with communion. I could sense there was something really special about it. There was something that drew me to it – or more accurately, someone who drew me to it.

So I told my parents, “I want to take communion.”  In the church I grew up in, they only had communion about four times a year, and it was only for adults, not kids.  So my parents told me “you have to be older.” I think twelve was around the minimum age. Now for a four-year-old, twelve sounds like forever. So I kept bugging my parents every time there was communion: “Can I take communion?” And I kept on getting the same answer.

One Sunday in spite of my shyness – and I was very shy as a child – I decided I had heard the word ‘no’ one too many times. I forget what exactly happened but the end result was Dad picked me up and carried me bodily out of the worship service, in front of the entire congregation! I was mortified.

So Dad found an old office and sat me down and said “OK young lady, just what is all this about??”  And I said, “I want to take communion.”  And he said, “You’re not old enough.”  And I said what any four-year-old would say: “Why?”

And Dad said, “Because you need to be old enough to understand what it means.”

And I said, “OK… tell me what it means.”

And Dad explained that Jesus died on the cross so our sins could be forgiven and so we could be with God in heaven forever, and when we take communion we remember what Jesus did for us on the cross and we say ‘thank you’ to Jesus. (Not bad for an engineering major…!)

So I thought about that for a moment, and what Dad said made sense to me. So said, “OK, I get it. I understand. Can I take communion now?”

And Dad laughed and shook his head and said, “you have a one-track mind.”  And I said, “but I understand it now.” And I repeated back to Dad, word for word, what he had said.

And Dad thought about it, and he said “OK, I told you Jesus died for our sins. So what’s a sin?” And I said, “I dunno.” He said, “See, you don’t really understand it.”  And I said, “So tell me!!”

And Dad said, “a sin is either when you do something you’re not supposed to do, or when you don’t do something you’re supposed to do.”

And I thought about that for a loooong minute.  And my four-year-old reasoning went something like this: As a shy and quiet kid, I didn’t get into much trouble. I *might* be able to squeak by on the bit about staying away from things you’re not supposed to do.  But where it came to getting out of things you’re supposed to do but don’t feel like doing?  Even at the age of four I was already an expert at that!  And I could see I needed God’s forgiveness. I needed what Jesus had to offer.

So I said to Dad, “I get it.”  And this time I gave it back to him in my own words. And he looked at me and said, “you really do get it!” And I said, “Yes. Can I take communion now?”

And Dad said, “I tell you what. It’s too late today, they’re already finished with communion, it’s all put away. And your mom would never agree to this (she and Dad had some differences in their church backgrounds), so just between us… whenever Mom has to be in the nursery with your little brother and it’s just you and me in church, you can take communion. Will that do?”  And I said yes.

And Dad was true to his word, and I bless him for that.  Because God really does touch the hearts of children, and Dad was smart enough to see that.  And truly the best gift a parent can give a child is to share Jesus with them.

My dad is now 86 years old by the way – slowing down a bit these days – I appreciate your prayers for him when you get the chance.

So when you get to the bottom line it’s all about faith. Finding faith, living in faith, growing in faith.

And as we turn to look at the story from Genesis today, looking at Abraham’s story, we see faith at the center of his fatherhood as well. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation, a multitude of people. But then decades passed, and nothing happened.  Abraham and Sarah weren’t able to have children.

When Abraham was over 90 years old, God came to him again and repeated the promise. And Abraham answered bitterly, “but I have no son and a distant relative is my heir.”  And God said to Abraham, “look up at the stars. How many are there? That’s how many your descendants will be.”

And the Bible says, “Abraham believed God, and the God reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Abraham’s faith made him a righteous man in God’s eyes.  And the same is true today: God doesn’t ask us for perfection, God asks us to trust Him.

But still the promised child didn’t come.  And then, in our reading from this morning, as Abraham is approaching the age of 100, he receives three mysterious visitors.  Genesis says “God” visited Abraham… and we can think of these three visitors as sort of representing the Trinity.  Abraham offers them hospitality – which is something that God approves of. The book of Hebrews says, “We should not be forgetful to entertain strangers, for [in doing so] some have entertained angels unawares.”

And the three men predict that, when they come this way again in the not-so-distant future, Sarah will have had a son. And Sarah laughs – quietly, to herself – knowing full well she’s already gone through the change of life.  But the men reply, “Why do you laugh? What is too wonderful [that is, too difficult] for the Lord?”

And in Chapter 21, after all those years, after all the decades, the promised son is finally born. And they name him Isaac, which translated means “he laughs”.  And Sarah says, “God has made me laugh, and all who hear of it will laugh with me.”

Like so many spiritual truths, the truths that we see in this passage are not limited in their application to just fathers.  These words are meant for all of us.  But we see them here in Abraham’s story… as Abraham becomes a father for the first time… and I pray the message will be a blessing for the men of our congregation today.

So we see in this passage that:

  1. Abraham “believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” The same is true for all fathers. Faith is the key to making actions count.  And if and when you’re not sure about which direction to take, following God’s lead, you can’t go wrong.
  2. Just like Abraham, fathers have a special opportunity to witness to their children… to tell them about things that happened before they were born… to tell them about how their birth came to be… and how God has led the family from the very beginning up until today. Fathers have a special opportunity to speak God’s truth into their children’s lives. Moms do too, but I think kids do best when they learn about faith from both parents. Speaking as a daughter, hearing about God from my Dad made a huge difference in my life.
  3. Abraham looked for opportunities to be of service; he practiced hospitality… in our story today, hospitality to strangers. Generosity towards others shows that a man has been blessed by God and has God-given gifts that are worth sharing.
  4. Finally, a man who believes God’s promises is working with God to bring about God’s will in the world. In Abraham’s story, for example, God’s will was to create a holy nation that would bear witness to the world about God’s truth and God’s love. Abraham’s faith made the creation of that nation possible. As for our stories today… our stories are still being written. But faith is still the key to hearing God’s promises and working with God to bring God’s will about in our world.

To all men here today: thank you for the spiritual leadership you provide for your families and for this church. And be encouraged by Abraham’s story to keep on being men of God. AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 6/18/17

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“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,  2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.  4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.  5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

6 And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”  7 So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so.  8 God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

9 And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so.  10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.  11 Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so.  12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.  13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years,  15 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so.  16 God made the two great lights– the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night– and the stars.  17 God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth,  18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good.  19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

20 And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.”  21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good.  22 God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.”  23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so.  25 God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”  27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”  29 God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.  30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.  31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.  NRS

 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.  2 And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.  3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.  4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.” – Genesis 1:1-2:4

credit: http://jennbowers.deviantart.com/art/In-the-Beginning-173825924

As you can see in today’s bulletin insert, today the Partnership’s pastoral team is launching a summer series on the Old Testament.

As Christians we are a New Testament people.  Jesus lived in New Testament times, the Christian church begins in the New Testament, and we tend to focus on the New Testament most of the time.  But when Jesus preached, he taught the Old Testament. Jesus was raised Jewish, raised in the synagogue, and Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. So the Old Testament is the foundation on which the New Testament church is built.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (Matt 5:18) And when Jesus talks about the Law, he means the Old Testament, particularly the first five books – which will be the foundation of our summer series.

So today, here we are at the very beginning!  Genesis chapter 1 verse 1.

As we approach this passage I think it’s helpful to remember the old journalist’s saying that if you want to get to the bottom of something there are five questions to answer: Who, What, When, Where, and Why?  Genesis chapter 1 answers those questions about life on the planet Earth from God’s point of view.

Before we dig into this passage, a little bit of background for reading and understanding Genesis. Genesis is not meant to be read like a newspaper: journalism as we understand it did not exist back then.  Genesis is not meant to be read like a science textbook: schools hadn’t been invented back then.  And Genesis is not meant to be read like the transcript of a court case: lawyers had not been invented yet.

The first human beings, who are created in this chapter, didn’t even know how to read and write.  So the words of Genesis were compiled generations later. But the lack of science and newspapers and lawyers in the first few dozen generations of the human race did not mean ancient people were beneath us intellectually. There is knowledge and wisdom to be found here – just not quite the way it’s usually expressed in the 21st century.

Genesis tells us the story of creation from God’s point of view, metaphorically, in a way that our human understanding can grasp some meaning and apply it.

Of course I can’t talk about the first chapter of Genesis without also mentioning the debate over creationism vs evolution. People argue that either Genesis is the literal truth, or else they say it’s a total myth. Let me suggest that both of those points of view are flawed.

To those who say Genesis should be rejected – who say God had nothing to do with the earth being here – I would say this: look around you. Look at the flowers and the trees and the mountains. Better yet, look at a baby; and tell me these things happen by accident.

As a musician I can tell you a song can’t exist without a songwriter. Likewise a creation can’t exist without a creator.

To those who say Genesis must be taken literally: the choice of words God uses in Genesis chapter one tells us this is not literal.  For example, God describes the process of creation in terms of days – day one, God did this; day two God did that – but the sun wasn’t created until Day Four, and it’s impossible to measure out a day (as we understand it) without the sun.

Scripture itself says that for God, 1000 years is like a day and a day is like 1000 years. And if you want my opinion, where it comes to evolution, there’s no reason why evolution couldn’t be one of many tools in God’s toolbox.

But that’s just my opinion. Today we’re here to listen to the word of God. So let’s dig into it.

Genesis chapter 1, verse 1: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…”   That’s WHEN God created, not IF.

In the original Hebrew there’s something unusual about this first verse.  The noun for ‘God’ is plural… but the verb for ‘created’ is singular.  Mixing a plural subject with a singular verb doesn’t happen in the Hebrew language. In fact it doesn’t happen in English either. In English we would say ‘he makes’ or ‘they make’. We wouldn’t say ‘they makes’. But that’s exactly what the Hebrew says here: God (plural) created (singular).

So in the first chapter of the Bible we meet the foundation of the reality that becomes our understanding of the Trinity. And we meet the Holy Spirit in verse two. ‘The wind’ hovering over the waters can be translated ‘spirit’ – it’s the same word. And then in verse 26 we overhear a conversation among God saying: “let us make humankind in our image”.  God does not say “I’m going to make people in my image.”  And God does not say “our images”.  God says “let us make humankind in our image”. This is not a mistake in the translation.  The Trinity is in the very first chapter of the very first book.  (And it just so happens today is Trinity Sunday which makes it really appropriate that we’re looking at Genesis Chapter 1.)

So moving on to verse two: “when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless and void” – in other words, there was nothing here. Nothing at all. It was empty and dark. And God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light.

My favorite translation of verse three is the very first English translation ever made. The translator was John Wycliffe and the year was 1382. (Aside: Back then copying the Bible into any language but Latin was a crime punishable by death. So Wycliffe risked his life to give us this Bible in English because he believed so strongly that people need to hear God’s word in their own language.)

Wycliffe’s translation of Genesis 1:3 reads:

“and God said ‘light be made’ and light was made.”

Isn’t that fantastic?  When God speaks, things happen. Can you imagine coming home at the end of the day and walking into the kitchen and saying ‘dinner be made!’? God says “light be made” and light is made!

God’s will is done.

“And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.”

Getting back to evolution for a minute, and the theory of the Big Bang: according to recently retired Harvard astrophysicist Professor Owen Gingerich and his colleagues, the Big Bang had to have been made out of something. In other words a bang can’t happen out of nothing. You need to have something there to go ‘bang’. Many scientists now agree that the substance, the material, the Big Bang was made out of, was light. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

But the important thing here is what God does: God separates light from darkness. God calls light ‘good’.  And from this time forward, God will be in the business of separating light from darkness, and good from evil.

Moving on a bit more quickly now… on Day Two, God separates earth from the rest of the solar system by placing an atmosphere around the planet.  On Day Three, God brings the planet’s waters together to make seas and to make dry land. On Day Three God also creates all kinds of plant life including fruit trees… and all these plants have seeds in them that will produce more plants! Life has begun. God created the earth with life in mind.

On Day Four, God creates the Sun and the Moon to give the earth light (which is something the plants are going to need) and also to mark off time: the movements of the sun and moon determine the days, and seasons, and years. The stars are also noticed for the first time but the author doesn’t say anything more about them. Was creation happening on any of the other planets out there? We don’t know, and the Bible doesn’t say, but someday that question will be answered.

On Day Five, God creates life in the ocean: things that swim. It’s interesting that the theory of evolution agrees that animal life on earth has to have begun in the ocean. God also creates birds on the fifth day, and God says to them, “be fruitful and multiply” – and they do.

On Day Six, God creates animal life: cattle, wild animals, snakes, tigers, horses, and cats of course. And then last but certainly not least, God makes human beings “in our image, according to our likeness, male and female.”  The man and the woman were equally created in God’s image; and God blesses them both and gives them both instructions for life. And these instructions still apply today. God says:

  1. “Be fruitful and multiply.” For many people this will mean having children, but not for everybody. For some it may mean teaching or mentoring – passing on knowledge from one generation to another. For some it may mean sustaining life through health care or through growing food or providing shelter or making clothing. For all of us it means taking the gifts and talents God has given us and investing them for the good of other people.
  2. “Fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over it.” This verse has been used many times in human history to excuse damage to the environment.  And the Hebrew word here for ‘have dominion’ does imply force. But the interpretation is not correct.  What’s being said here basically is: nature is wild. Tame it. Prune it.  Rule over it with care. Make the earth produce what you need… but where it’s defenseless, protect it. Be responsible for its well-being.
  3. “I have given you every plant yielding seed… and every tree with seed in its fruit… you shall have them for food.” And God says the same thing to the animals.  The eating of animals… by either people or other animals… doesn’t happen until after the Fall, until after Adam and Eve rebel against God.
    Paul writes in Romans 8: “creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility… We know that the whole creation has been groaning [as] in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves…” (Romans 8:20-23 edited)  Violence between living creatures was never part of God’s original plan, and it’s one of the things that will be healed in God’s coming kingdom.  (By the way, I don’t interpret this to mean we should all stop eating meat… but I do think God’s intention merits our attention.)

And then, at the end of Day Six, when God has said and done all these things, God sits back and says, “this is good!”

And on the seventh day, God rested. The word for ‘rest’ in Hebrew is Shabbat, or Sabbath as we call it today.  It means to cease and desist.  And God blessed the seventh day, and set it apart as holy.

The Sabbath and its meaning, and God’s intention for it, needs a sermon in itself.  And I’m looking forward to writing that sermon someday! But I’m running out of time today so here’s just a sneak preview.

Keeping the Sabbath is not about following a set of rules. Many of us here can remember the days of the ‘blue laws’ when everything was closed on Sundays. And sometimes this caused problems. What happened, for example, if you needed to go to the hospital on a Sunday but your car was out of gas?

There are times when the rules need to bend.  And that’s what Jesus and the Pharisees were always arguing over where it came to the Sabbath.  Jesus said the Sabbath is made for human beings, not vice versa.

The purpose of the Sabbath is to give God’s people the right to have one day out of every seven where we cannot be required to work. One day when we cannot be required to run ourselves ragged going to every sale at the mall, or trimming every hedge in the yard, or getting all the kids to all their practices on Sundays.  The Sabbath gives us the right to say “NO”.  It’s liberating! The Sabbath is freedom. The Sabbath is a foretaste of God’s kingdom to come. And while I don’t believe in blue laws, I do believe our society’s abandonment of the Sabbath is one of the causes of many of the evils of our time: especially when people become unhinged by the pressures of life.  Human beings were not meant to work 24/7/365. We can’t do it and stay healthy. And God knows that, so God gave us the Sabbath.

More on that some other day.  For now, to sum up Genesis 1:

  1. What we read here is that you and I and all of creation are created by a good and loving and creative and powerful, Triune God.
  2. Second, we see that God’s word is active. What God says, happens. And we can take that to the bank.
  3. Third, we see that God cares very deeply for life. And related to that…
  4. Fourth, we see that nature is given to sustain life. Not us only, but all living things. Part of our job here on earth is to care for, and give back to, the earth that sustains us.
  5. Fifth, God looks around at creation and says it’s all good!
  6. And sixth, resting every seventh day is the rhythm of creation – and of eternity.

So this week, think on these things… turn them over in your minds… and apply them as God leads. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 6/11/17

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On this day churches around the world are remembering Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Ascension Day is not a major holiday for most folks – there are no Hallmark cards for it, and not every church in the world will be talking about it today.  But Pastor Matt and I both felt it was too important to miss.

A few years ago when my pastor led a tour of Israel, he took us to the top of the Mount of Olives, which is where the Ascension took place.

Here’s a photo of the chapel that was built on what’s believed to be the spot where the Ascension happened.  They’re not absolutely certain, but we know it’s within a few hundred yards.

You can see from the number of languages on the sign, the importance that’s given to this place.

And as you’re looking at the chapel, if you turn around you see this – looking out over Jerusalem.

As our tour group was standing here I’ll never forget what my pastor said:

“If not for the Ascension, you and I would not be standing here as Christians today. And I wish more churches taught that.”

Now I thought this was kind of an odd statement.  I could see saying something like “we wouldn’t be here without” Christmas or Good Friday or Easter. But the Ascension?  Two of the four Gospels don’t even mention it. So how could it be that important?

In our creed it says we believe in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again, and then “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty”.  If Jesus didn’t ascend – if the creed is wrong, then Jesus still has a human body – and is either impossibly old, or would have died again, and we’d be believing in nothing.

But that’s not what happened.  After Jesus’ resurrection things weren’t the same as they were before. Jesus’ body wasn’t the same as before. His resurrected body could do some really unusual things, like getting into a locked room without opening the door.

The Creator of the Universe, when he took human form, gave up a lot. Jesus entered into creation and became one of us, and lived and died like one of us, in order to open the door for us into God’s kingdom.

In Luke chapter 12 Jesus, speaking about his death and resurrection says: “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!”  In other words, there were things he couldn’t do when he was one of us.  For the creator of time and space to be limited within time and space is almost beyond imagination.

But that time of limitation, for Jesus, is almost over. And our readings for today tell us about how Jesus chose to spend his last 40 days here on earth, before returning home, where he could be fully himself again.

So let’s look at these readings.  Both of our readings for today were written by the apostle Luke.  They tell the same story but in slightly different ways.  The reading from Luke comes from the end of Luke’s gospel – which is about the life of Jesus.  The reading from Acts is the story of the beginning of the church.  We’ll look mostly at the reading from Acts (for those who want to follow in pew Bibles).

In the first verses of Acts, Luke dedicates his book to “Theophilus” – which is the same dedication as in the book of Luke. Nobody knows for sure if this is a man’s name or if it’s a title, but in Greek ‘Theophilus’ means ‘lover of God’ – and I think it’s safe to say Luke’s books were written for any of us who love God.

Luke starts out by saying

“after his suffering [Jesus] presented himself alive to [the disciples] by many convincing proofs.”

Luke is using legal language here – if I were going to translate this into American English I would say Jesus ‘proved his case beyond the shadow of a doubt’ – not once, but many times over.  The disciples had absolutely no doubts that Jesus had been dead, and was now alive.

For people in the 21st century who may doubt Jesus’ resurrection – I think one of the strongest replies we can offer is that so many men and women in the book of Acts were willing to die rather than deny what they saw.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, and we’ll be remembering those who gave their lives so that we could be free. Today let’s also remember those who gave their lives so that we could know the truth, so that our freedom would be something worth having. These men and women in the book of Acts were eyewitnesses to the living Jesus, who was crucified but didn’t stay dead, and they refused to say otherwise even if it cost their lives.

So having proven to the disciples that he was alive, Jesus gave them these instructions: stay in Jerusalem, and don’t leave until the promise of the Father comes.

Jesus had mentioned this before. He said: just as John baptized with water, soon you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Wait for it. He said, “Stay here… until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

And the disciples asked him, “Lord… is this when you’re going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

At this point a lot of theologians and commentators roll their eyes at how dense the disciples can be.  They still don’t get it that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world?  But I wouldn’t be so fast to roll eyes at the disciples – because their question about restoring the kingdom is still around today, just in different forms.

What I’m about to say here is not meant to be political – I don’t support any particular party – but looking at Acts 1:6 in the Greek, the phrase “restore the kingdom to Israel” sounds familiar. What the disciples are asking about is a return to a previous state of being: a restoration of greatness.

Their mistake is not in wanting to be ‘great again’.  Their mistake is in looking to the past rather than the future.

The thing is, the past is easier to imagine than the future, because we know the past – it’s familiar.  I was in the bank the other day, and they had on the wall an artists’ rendering of downtown Pittsburgh back in the late 60s or early 70s: streetcars, Kaufmann’s windows decorated for Christmas, the Kaufmann’s clock at the corner of 5th and Smithfield… the way things used to be… my banker and I had a ‘moment’ right there in the bank.

The past has such a strong pull on our hearts! And the future… sounds like an awful lot of work.

Of course we only ever live in the present – not the past or the future. And that’s true for the church as well as the nation.

But the kingdom Jesus is talking about is not about the past: it’s about the kingdom of God, which, to Jesus, is the present but to us feels like the future. So Jesus answers the disciples’ question by saying: the times and periods of nations are in the hands of God the Father.  YOUR job is to be my witnesses: in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  And when the Holy Spirit comes, he will give you power to do that. And the Holy Spirit is coming very soon.

Acts 1:3 tells us Jesus spent his last 40 days on earth teaching the disciples “about the kingdom of God” – giving them a vision of the kingdom.  And Luke’s gospel says  Jesus reviewed with the disciples “everything written about [him] in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms…” and “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”

This word ‘opened’ is an interesting word in the Greek. It’s word often used to describe the opening made when a woman is giving birth to her first child. It means to open completely, as far as their minds can stretch, so that they see clearly, and can bring all the parts of Jesus’ story together in a way that makes sense.

And then, having taught the disciples from the Old Testament how all these pieces come together, and having promised them that the Holy Spirit would come, Jesus blessed them and was carried up into heaven.

Luke says Jesus disappeared into a cloud, and suddenly there were two men in white standing near the disciples saying “why are you staring up into heaven? Jesus has been taken up into heaven and will come back again the same way.” And so the disciples went back to Jerusalem with great joy, and waited until the Holy Spirit came. And we’ll talk about that next week on Pentecost!

So I’d like to focus on two things from today’s readings: (1) what the ascension means to Jesus; and (2) what the ascension means to us.

What Ascension Day means to Jesus is going home.  It means Jesus’ work here on earth is done. It’s a time when heaven rejoices at the return of her King.  (You think the Steelers got a victory parade?)

It also means Jesus’ work in heaven is just beginning.  Jesus is now at God’s right hand, praying for us, forgiving us, preparing a place for us. He is our high priest in the temple of God, as Hebrews says, “entering into heaven with his own blood” for our forgiveness.

It means Jesus’ time of being limited to one time and one place is over.  Now he can send the Holy Spirit to be with every believer, everywhere, at all times.

Ascension Day for us is little different.  For us, it’s a reminder that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world.  God’s kingdom is something we are saved into, redeemed into, by our Lord Jesus, not something we have to work for.

But Ascension also means the disciples will have new work to do, just like Jesus has new work to do.  Our job is to bear witness. And this work will be directed by Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Ascension means that the Holy Spirit is now available to every believer. So the disciples are told to wait until the Spirit comes, because God’s work can only be accomplished through God’s power.

Even today, we as believers need to wait and pray for the Holy Spirit, and wait for the Spirit’s direction and gifts – like the disciples waited – in order to accomplish God’s will.  This not ‘religious talk’.  There was a time when I thought it was.  I grew up in a church where the Holy Spirit was hardly ever mentioned, and in my 20s when I first saw someone ministering in the power of the Spirit my question was “What kind of power is this?” (which is pretty much how people reacted to Jesus in the Bible.)

Just in case your experience has been anything like mine: I want to assure you the Holy Spirit is real.  If Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us, then the Holy Spirit is God-in-us.  And sometimes it takes awhile to grow into this.  John Wesley himself was an ordained minister for 10 years before his heart was ‘strangely warmed’ at that meeting at Aldersgate (an event whose anniversary is also remembered this week). That’s when he met the Holy Spirit. And the coming of the Spirit gave Wesley such power as a preacher – preaching not in human power but in the power of the Spirit – that God used Wesley to change the course of history.

(Not all of us are going to be called to change the course of history – but that’s an example of what the Holy Spirit can do.)

The Holy Spirit is a gift given by God, to God’s people, for the purpose of ministry.  So for us, Ascension Day gets us ready for Pentecost. It points to the coming of the Holy Spirit and to our calling to bear witness to what we know about Jesus.

Jesus tells his disciples:

“You will be my witnesses, to Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

No one believer could possibly cover all this ground! But as a group – as the Body of Christ – they did.  By the time Peter and Paul were martyred, the good news of Jesus had spread throughout the Roman Empire and into northern Africa and parts of Asia.

One of the helpful things one of our seminary professors taught us is: we can think of witnessing as being in three concentric circles: local, national, and international.

For the disciples, Jerusalem was local, it’s where they started; then they went on to preach throughout the region and nation (Judea & Samaria), and then to the rest of the known world.

So how might we define our concentric circles?  The local one would probably be Brentwood or Carrick.  The middle circle could be Allegheny County, or Pennsylvania, or the United States.  That’s a little flexible. And the outer circle is still “the whole world”.

For those of us who are involved in the ministries and missions of this church, either as groups or as individuals, I’d like to suggest reviewing our outreach programs, and praying over them, in terms of these circles.  What does God want us to do in our neighborhood? In the region or the nation? And in the world?

I’m not suggesting we run out and start throwing money in all directions. Just the opposite: I’m suggesting building – and continuing to build – personal relationships on each of these levels.  Let the Spirit guide us into those relationships. And then – as needs arise – respond to the needs. Because in the Kingdom of God, it’s Jesus who makes the difference, and it’s love that makes the difference, not money and not social programs.

Pray about it, and see where God may lead with this.

In the meantime, let’s celebrate with joy the anniversary of our Lord’s homecoming – and his promise to return for us and bring us to where he is, in the kingdom of God.  Amen.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 5/28/17

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Scripture Readings

“In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning  2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.  3 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.  4 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;  5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

6 “So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  8 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.”  9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  11 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

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“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.”  45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,  46 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,  47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  48 You are witnesses of these things.  49 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.”

50 “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.  51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.  52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy;  53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” – Luke 24:44-53

 

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

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

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

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

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

Feel free to add new drug suggestions of your own!

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

OrdSHP1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. […] Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. […] I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The word appears in verse 18, which reads:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easter… continues.

Amen.

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Scripture reading:

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

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

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

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