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




The Easter Story Continues

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






Easter Sunday 2018

“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


The following post was written by author and health care administrator F. Nicholas (Nick) Jacobs of Windber PA, who has spent his career working to make health care more humane, especially for those of us who don’t have much clue about it. He is also related to my mother-in-law which is testimonial enough right there. 🙂  His take on the healing power of kindness echoes many of the themes found in the healing miracles of Jesus. If you’d like to learn more about Mr. Jacobs’ work, check out his blog Healing Hospitals.


Having had responsibility for administering the first rural hospice in the United States, a palliative care unit that was established in 1977, I quickly learned about the critical nature of kindness. Although many serious diseases may be life-ending, these same serious diseases are always life-changing, and kindness helps everyone involved.  In fact, Stanford University did a study that demonstrated that kind medical care can lead to faster wound healing, reduced pain and anxiety, and lower blood pressure plus shorter hospital stays.

This coincides with my own finding where, with a fully integrative hospital, we had an infection rate that never went above 1 percent (national average was 9 percent), and we had the lowest readmission rates, lowest restraint rates, and even though we had a hospice where people came to die, we had the lowest death rates of our 13 peer hospitals. When we brought in the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State, and Georgia Tech to try to quantify these outcomes, there was only the ethereal connector, kindness.  Kindness seemed to be one of the root causes.

What are the keys to kindness?  They are profound, sincere listening, empathy and compassion, generous acts, timely care, gentle honesty, and support for family caregivers.

For empathetic listening, listen with minimal interruption and convey respect for the person’s self-knowledge.  As my brain surgeons used to say, “This is not rocket science.” And my rocket scientist friends used to say, “This is not brain surgery.”  It’s uncommon common sense. Nurses from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston begin their shifts by asking their patients, “What’s the most important thing we can do for you today?” And then listening to and responding to those patients.

A key element needed to provide actual empathy is the avoidance of judgment. Hate the disease, but don’t judge the person.  Don’t give your unwanted opinions or interrupt with your personal solutions. Simply listen with empathy.  Another is the ability to recognize the emotion that is present and then genuinely respond to it in a caring way.

Generous acts do not have to be limited to healthcare activities.   I’ve had patients who have proclaimed that hugs from nurses or physicians literally saved their lives, and that is not an exaggeration.


My career path took a very circuitous route to where I am today.  I started as a professional trumpet player and school band director, became an arts organization executive, and later founder of two genomic research institutes.  But in my thirties, before I entered health care administration, when I was serving as the president of the Laurel Highlands Convention and Visitors Bureau, I learned about customer service.

In that scenario, timeliness is always a problem. When I got into healthcare, I’d ask why it was I could stay in a nice hotel and in 15 minutes have two or three employees bumping into each other to take care of me for less than $200 a night, but for $2500 a night, after ringing my call bell for 45 minutes, I couldn’t get a bedpan in a hospital? That all changed very rapidly.

The next challenge is carefully administered gentle honesty. A physician friend told me the story of his first year of practice when he told a congestive heart failure patient to get his things in order because what he had was not reversible. This patient had at least 18 months or more to live, but the physician didn’t mention that.  The patient’s wife called the next morning and told my friend that her husband had died that night. Words are powerful.  Use them very carefully.

Finally, it’s imperative that we treat not only the patient but also their family members by considering their daily needs and providing emotional support.  I can honestly tell you that more healing took place in my hospice than in any other department in the hospital: family healing.

That’s the magic of kind care.

Nick Jacobs of Windber PA is a Partner with SunStone Management Resources and author of the blog healinghospitals.com.




Palm Sunday 2018

“When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, [Jesus] sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” – Mark 11:1-11


The path down the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem

It was a day that began just like any other day. Jesus and the disciples had breakfast with friends near Bethany – perhaps with Lazarus and Mary and Martha.

After breakfast, Jesus led the disciples out in the direction of Jerusalem. They probably figured he’d be teaching in the temple again today.  It was getting more and more dangerous for Jesus to do this – the Pharisees and the chief priests were getting vocal in their criticisms, and there were rumors they wanted Jesus dead. There were rumors they wanted Lazarus dead too, because Jesus had raised him from the dead and they didn’t want living proof of Jesus’ miracles walking around.

But today, as they drew near to Bethphage, Jesus sent two of the disciples ahead to find a young donkey colt and bring it to him, one that had never been ridden before.  Jesus told them, ‘if anyone asks what you’re up to, tell them the Lord needs it and will send it back right away.’ And that’s exactly how things happened.

I imagine the people who saw the disciples taking the donkey, and who heard them say “the Lord needs it” got the feeling something was about to happen.  I imagine some of them followed the disciples back to where Jesus was, to see what was going on. At any rate the disciples put their cloaks on the colt for Jesus, and people cut leafy branches, and all of a sudden there was a procession going on!  A crowd is gathering, and there are people in front of them and behind them shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

And with the crowd shouting these words, Jesus rode down the mountain path, from Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, down the mountainside, through the Garden of Gethsemane, across the Kidron Valley, and up the Temple Mount into Jerusalem and into the temple. The distance was about two miles all told, and the crowd kept growing as they went.

The apostle Mark, in his gospel, doesn’t add much detail to these events, but Matthew and Luke tell us a little more. They tell us the Pharisees and the chief priests and scribes were not at all happy with this turn of events.  They understood Jesus’ action as a challenge to their power, and they started making plans to do something about it.


For us as Jesus’ followers, Palm Sunday is, and always has been, a day of both celebration and gathering darkness. We begin with God’s people rejoicing in the coming of the king, predicted by the prophets of long ago. We end with the religious authorities in the temple plotting the murder of our Lord.

I’m going to come back to all this in a moment.  But this Sunday is also the last Sunday in our sermon series on baptismal vows. The sermon title listed in the bulletin – “Surround and Pray for One Another” – is not taken word-for-word from the vows, but I think it can be inferred from the words at the end of the baptismal ceremony, where the pastor says to the congregation, “Members of the household of God, I commend these persons [who have just been baptized] to your love and care. Do all in your power to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love.”

The events of Palm Sunday, and Holy Week, and Easter, make it possible for us to do this. Because the events of this week reveal Jesus as the king of kings. This is the week when Jesus’ power is revealed; and he chooses to share that power, that resurrection power, with us. In his power, we care and pray for each other to increase our faith, confirm our hope, and encourage love.

But again I’m getting a little ahead of myself.  It’s not Easter quite yet!  So back to Palm Sunday.

The events of Palm Sunday – the details of the things that were said and done – point clearly to the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, particularly prophecies about the kingdom of God. The ‘kingdom of God’ is not a euphemism; it’s not a metaphor; it’s a reality, and something scripture says a lot about.

For the past few hundred years, in the Western part of the world at least, we have lived mostly in democracies, and as such we’ve kind of lost touch with the concept of kingdom.  In fact we tend to resist it, because we know all too well the dangers of placing too much power in the hands of one person. And so the focus of theologians and evangelists alike has been either on ‘having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ’ or on ‘putting our faith into action’ (or a combination of the two). And these two things are important parts of Christian life, but they’re not the whole story.

We are followers of, disciples of, children of, the King; and that has all kinds of implications. If Jesus is the King, then the days of the rulers of this world are numbered. That’s what the people were celebrating all those years ago on the first Palm Sunday.

It also means we who love Jesus are invited to approach the throne of the King in prayer and to ask for what we need. I find it helpful sometimes when praying to imagine all our brothers and sisters in Christ gathered in a throne room, with Jesus on the throne, and speaking to Jesus as one of the subjects of his realm.  What might this look like?

We got a possible picture this past week when Prince William of England knighted former Beatle Ringo Starr. Did you catch any of the video?  Prince William did the honors in his grandmother’s place. Everyone present was dressed in black tie attire. And Ringo entered the throne room, and bowed to his future king, and then knelt (in front of a prince who is young enough to be his grandson!) And then taking the sword, Prince William spoke the words of honor, and a man who knelt as a commoner rose as a man with a title: Sir Richard Starkey.

(Photo by PA Images/Sipa USA)

What was remarkable about that moment was Prince William broke formality and started a conversation right in the middle of the ceremony. The two men chatted for a moment, and they were laughing and enjoying each other’s company. And then Ringo, following the protocol which says ‘never turn your back on your sovereign’, backed up, bowed, and then turned and left. Afterwards when the press asked what they talked about, Ringo said, “the Prince told me he’s always loved the Beatles, and I asked about his upcoming new baby, and he said ‘any moment now’ and I said ‘I know the feeling, I’ve got three of my own’.”  In the middle of all that ceremony, it was a very human moment.

That’s how it is with us and King Jesus. As we approach the throne to pray for one another, we acknowledge his authority and his power and his goodness. We don’t have to dress up in black tie and tails to talk to Jesus (thank goodness!) but I think it’s helpful sometimes to kneel, at least in our hearts, and remember the protocol of the throne room. We are there by God’s grace, invited to come, and as the Apostle Paul says, “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Phil 4:6)  We come before our King; and like Prince William with Ringo, Jesus breaks the formality and calls us ‘friends’ and invites us to speak what’s on our hearts.

In John’s gospel Jesus says these words:

“You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.  You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.” (John 15:14-16)


Jesus began his public ministry preaching, “the kingdom of God is near; change course and believe the good news.”  And the people who heard Jesus speak were thrilled to hear these words, because the prophets had spoken of a time when God would establish a kingdom characterized by peace and justice and righteousness. So when they heard Jesus talking about a kingdom, they thought he meant the kingdom of Israel, and thought he was going to get rid of the Roman Empire.  And on that first Palm Sunday, it seemed like this might actually happen.  The words of the prophet Zechariah began to be fulfilled:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.  He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” (Zechariah 9:9-10)

So Jesus borrowed the colt of a donkey to let the people know he was the king Zechariah had spoken of. But his kingdom was going to be much larger than just Israel.  Zechariah said ‘from the river to the ends of the earth’ – and that wasn’t going to happen just yet.  So even today we live in the now-and-the-not-yet, with a prophecy that has partly come true, but the rest is yet to come.

People on that first Palm Sunday didn’t fully understand what Jesus was doing. Luke tells us in his gospel:

“As [Jesus] came near and saw [Jerusalem], he wept over it, saying, “If you… had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:41-42)

…because the people were looking for an earthly king.

The chief priests and scribes were making the same mistake, except they saw Jesus as a threat rather than a promise.  That’s why they were always asking Jesus, “by what authority do you do these things?” Their concern was with their job security. They felt threatened by Jesus’ popularity and by the miracles he performed.  And John reports they said to one another:

“If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” (John 11:48)

When the time comes to arrest Jesus, on the night of Maundy Thursday, these religious leaders will turn Jesus over to the Roman authorities on the grounds that Jesus claimed to be a king. Without that accusation they would have had no grounds on which to ask for capital punishment. They had to prove treason. So that’s what they accused him of, in front of Pilate.

And Pilate, meeting Jesus, asked him, “are you a king?” And Jesus answered, “you say so.” But in John’s gospel we get a more detailed conversation. John writes:

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

Later on, when Jesus had been nailed to the cross, Pilate added the piece of wood above his head, which told what he was accused of: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”

“Then the chief priests… said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’”  Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”” (John 19:21-22)

This is our King. Palm Sunday begins the course of events that will show Jesus’ power to the world: power to love, power to give, power to conquer evil with good. And the power of God’s life over death.

As we enter into the most solemn week of the year, and approach the day when our king gave his life for us, in his name, and by his command, and following his kingly example, we care for one another, and share our faith and our hope and our love with one another.  AMEN.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, Palm Sunday 2018


“We Would See Jesus”

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.  They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”  Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.  Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.  And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. – John 12:20-33


The story has been told of a young pastor who stepped into the pulpit in an English church one Sunday morning and found a brass plaque on the inside of the lectern. It read, quoting today’s scripture, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” This story must have gotten around because today quite a few churches have pulpits with that saying on the inside.

And isn’t that really what we come to church for?  To be lifted out of the mundane world and for a moment touch eternity and spend some time with God and with Jesus, who loves us so much?

As I was reflecting on this, this past week, I thought back to a time a long time ago when I was maybe 13 or 14 years old, and I came to church wanting more than anything to catch a glimpse of Jesus.  This was back in the early 1970s, and those of us who were around back then remember the things that were going on in the world.  Our country’s nuclear arms talks with Russia had stalled out because of a disagreement over the shape of table where the delegates would sit; the Vietnam War was dragging on, and anti-war protests were building; and people who were keeping an eye on the news were beginning to hear rumors that something might have happened in an office complex called Watergate.  At the same time many churches, including the Presbyterian church I grew up in, were studying a recent book by English bishop John Robinson called Honest to God in which he introduced concepts of ‘secular theology’ and ‘situational ethics’, and called into question what many people understood about God and faith.

Our church was full of talk and deep concern over these things, and understandably so. The world back then was complex and troubling – much like it is today. But as I came to church looking for Jesus with all of the idealism and naivete of a young teenager, and I was disappointed… because with everything that was going on, the one thing I couldn’t find was Jesus.

I can remember going home, discouraged, and putting on the new George Harrison record (yes, vinyl) Living in the Material World. After the breakup of the Beatles, Harrison had gone very public about his commitment to Hinduism, and he was being ridiculed in the press for it. What captured my attention on the album was the last song, called That Is All, and the lyrics went like this:

“Times I find it hard to say with useless words getting in my way
Silence often says much more than trying to say what’s been said before
And that is all I want to do – to give my love to you
That is all I’m living for – to try to love you more
And that is all”

This wasn’t a love song to a lady; it was a love song to his god. Harrison was putting all the fame of a Beatle and all the fortune of a Beatle on the line for his faith.  And I prayed that God would lead me to people who could teach me to love Jesus the way Harrison loved Krishna.

God never fails to answer prayers like that!  And isn’t it really what we’re all here for today? To see Jesus, and to know him more and to love him more, and to be loved and be known by him?

As I’ve been studying baptismal vows this Lent I think that’s really what these vows are all about. For example, this week’s question [from the Methodist Book of Order] “According to the grace given you, will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?”

This question is not about signing one’s name to a church register and then signing up for volunteer time. (It might include that!) But mostly it’s about helping people to see Jesus – according to the grace he’s given us. And grace isn’t something we can get for ourselves, or stir up inside ourselves. Grace is by definition a gift from God, who loves us.

Having been loved and forgiven by God through the cross of Christ, and being guided by the Holy Spirit, we are able to be faithful members of the family of God: the living community of God’s faithful people around the world, representing every nation and language and people group, and stretching across the millennia.

Serving as Christ’s representatives in the world is a HUGE order, a huge responsibility. For people outside the church, how we live our daily lives, and how we treat one another, may be all they ever see of how the Christian faith is lived.  We live in a fishbowl!  Or, as Jesus puts it, who would light a lamp and put it under a basket?  “You are the light of the world,” he said.

What we do in even the smallest and most private of moments matters.  What we say when we think no one is listening matters.  We are called at all times and in all places to reflect the love of Jesus and the truth of Jesus’ words in the way we live. And more than that, we are called to be ambassadors for the Kingdom of God – ambassadors to a world that is in rebellion against God, a world that is passing away, and from which God wants to rescue as many as are willing.

Our reading from the gospel of John today speaks to all of this, so I’d like to spend some time with it.

As the scene opens, Jesus and the disciples are in Jerusalem, along with a large number of people, both Jews and Gentiles, because the Passover is about to begin. Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which we celebrate next week on Palm Sunday, happened a couple days ago in this passage. And a few days before that, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead – which is partly what inspired the events of Palm Sunday – after which the Pharisees conspired to kill Lazarus (completely missing the irony of attempting to kill someone who has just been raised from the dead and could be brought back again). And the Pharisees are saying to each other, “Look, the whole world has gone after him!”

And the arrival of a group of Greeks proves their point.  These unnamed Gentiles came to the temple during the week of Passover and said “we want to see Jesus”.

The Greeks talk to Philip because they understand Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and back then there was sort of an invisible line between Jews and Gentiles; but they are encouraged by Jesus’ actions a few days before, when he tossed the merchants and money-changers out of the temple. All those tables had been set up in the part of the temple reserved for the Gentiles, so they understood Jesus’ actions as being sympathetic to Gentiles – which, in part, they were. But Philip’s not quite sure what to do so he goes and tells Andrew and together they give Jesus the message: “there are some Greeks who would like to see you.”

And the arrival of the Gentiles fulfills the ancient prophecies that the Messiah would be “a light to the Gentiles” as well as “the glory of his people Israel”.  And so Jesus, answering Philip and Andrew, says, “the hour has come. Now will the Son of Man be glorified.”

And he explains: just like a grain of wheat has to fall into the ground and die in order to sprout and bear fruit, likewise he must die in order to enter glory.

And what’s more, Jesus’ disciples need to be willing to put their lives on the line too: those who try to hold onto their lives will lose out, but those who lose their lives will find them. The servants must follow the master; and Jesus says “whoever serves me the Father will honor.”

Imagine for a moment what it will be like to be honored by God.  We talk a lot in church about beliefs and duties, but I think it’s good sometimes to stop and think about God’s promises.  The King of the universe, the creator who spoke galaxies into existence, knows your name, and has a crown with your name on it, waiting for you.

“He who honors me, I will honor.” These words were first spoken by God in the book of I Samuel (2:30).  They were also quoted in the movie Chariots of Fire. Some of you may remember the scene. Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner from Scotland back in 1924, had risked everything (including defying the king of England) by refusing to run in a heat on Sunday, the Lord’s day. His refusal meant rescheduling all the runners on the English Olympic team, and also meant Liddell would not run in the race he was most qualified for. This caused a stir in the papers… but on the day of the race, as the race was about to begin, Liddell was handed a note quoting the verse “he who honors me I will honor”. He ended up winning the race and setting a world record.

After the Olympics, Eric Liddell served in the mission field in China, and died at the age of 43 in a Chinese internment camp. His last words, talking about living life for God, were, “it’s complete surrender.”

That’s what Jesus is talking about here. He’s talking about his own complete surrender to the Father’s will.  We hear in this passage a preview of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. His soul is troubled – shaken to the core – at the horror of the cross, and Jesus wrestles with the reality of his calling. He has no desire to suffer; he has no martyr complex. Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane tells us he desperately wanted any other option. But he knows there is none, if the fallen human race is to be saved. And so he says, “it is for this reason I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

And God answers, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.”

Jesus explains to the crowd: “now comes the judgement of this world. Now the ruler of this world will be ejected” – and Jesus, being nailed to the cross, will draw all people to himself.  To reject Jesus is to reject God; but at the same time “the judgement passed on this world is endured by the One whom this world murders.” And as a result Satan is dethroned and Jesus is enthroned.

This Jesus is the one we are called to represent to the world. It’s an impossible task, in our own power. That’s why we have to rely on God’s grace. As the body of believers we are called to share in Jesus’ suffering and to share in his glory.

So where does this put us today? Are we like the Greeks, saying “sir, we would see Jesus”?  If so, he’s right here: staring death in the face and saying ‘I love you this much – trust me, follow me’. There is no longer any barrier to anyone’s admission to God’s presence and God’s glory.

Are we followers of Jesus? Then as we follow him, our path will lead us into working together, and suffering together, and into glory together.  On this path we will likely run up against two roadblocks: (1) our own natural inclination to duck out of suffering, and (2) as the old pastor of Cambridge, England – Charles Simeon – put it: “the contempt and hatred of an ungodly world”. He adds: “we are not at liberty to shun the cross by relaxation of our principles or by any deviation from the path of duty.” These are hard words to hear, and hard words to speak; but Jesus does not sugar-coat. The path ahead is not easy; but our calling is to follow the Lord of Love; and in doing so bring glory to God.

So having said all of this, I’d like to end where we began: in the words of the Greek visitors, “we would see Jesus”.  I invite you to relax, close your eyes if you want to, and turn on your imaginations, and picture Jesus and the disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The sun is shining, the boats are out, and the fish are biting. Jesus is teaching the crowds, and welcoming children, and blessing the children and laughing with them.  And then as he walks through the seaside town of Capernaum, people bring their loved ones who are sick, and he touches them: and they’re well again.

After a long day Jesus and the disciples climb a mountain – green and dotted with flowers – and they have dinner together and pray together. The next morning the crowd finds them again so Jesus sits down and teaches them: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted… blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy… blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God…”

Day after day, town after town, Jesus demonstrates God’s power in his miracles and God’s love in his teaching. People love him and are amazed by him and can’t get enough of him.  Jesus knows the religious establishment is envious of this and they aren’t going to put up with him for much longer. But he also knows, as C.S. Lewis said in The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, that there is an “old magic” in the world (as the character Aslan puts it):

“when a willing victim who had committed no treachery is killed in a traitors stead, the Table will crack and Death itself will start working backwards…”

Which is an allegory for the cross, on which Jesus, the willing victim who committed no treachery, was killed in the place of a rebellious human race. At which point death was not able to hold him OR have any further power over us. Our champion walked out of the grave and lives today – and in him we live, and will always live.

This is Jesus. All glory be to him and to our God forever. AMEN.


Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) 3/18/18


Baptismal Question “Will you nurture (these persons) in Christ’s holy church, that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly, and to lead a Christian life?”


Scripture reading: Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Jesus answered him, “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? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”

Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?  No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.  But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” – John 3:1-21

So here it is the fourth Sunday of Lent, and we continue in our sermon series on baptismal vows. This week we are looking at the question, “Will you nurture (this child or these people) in Christ’s holy church, that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly, and to lead a Christian life?”

This question is quite a mouthful!  It is also the first baptismal question that is asked, not of the person being baptized, but of those who are witnessing the baptism: the parents, the sponsors, and the congregation.

And how appropriate is this question for today, when we are rejoicing in the birth of Lila Joy Price!  Someday soon this young lady will be baptized. And for those of us who witness that joyous occasion, this question is the vow we will take to support her, and to be her family in Christ.

The Bible describes the church as a ‘body’ made up of living members, or like a large extended family, all of us related to each other by Jesus’ blood and by the Holy Spirit. All of us are Lila’s aunts and uncles and grandmothers and grandfathers and brothers and sisters in the faith. And as her older siblings, we are in a position to help her learn and grow, and get to know Jesus, and see us live out what it means to be the family of God. It’s a huge honor and a huge responsibility.

It’s also good to remember that when we were baptized, other people took this vow for us. And more than likely that’s why we’re here today: because somebody who made this promise taught our Sunday School class and told us about Jesus – or maybe they invited us to sing in the choir, or helped out with our vacation Bible school – or maybe they gave money so these things could happen. God’s family of believers was here for us when we were growing up.

Now that we’re older, though, we tend to think more in terms of babies being baptized, and so it’s babies we take this vow for.  But that wasn’t always the case, historically, in the church. And I’d like to submit for our consideration today the proposition that this vow still holds – for all of us!  Because who among us does not need nurturing from time to time, or guidance, or encouragement in living our Christian life?  We are still, and always will be, the family of God – always here for each other.  And just like any family we may have our spats from time to time, but when the chips are down (or even when they’re not down) we pull together and we are one.

In our Gospel reading for today Jesus gives us a beautiful example of this: of how an adult believer – in this case, Jesus – might support and encourage another adult – in this case, Nicodemus – in their life of faith. Let’s take a look.

This conversation takes place somewhere near Jerusalem, in the springtime, shortly after the Passover. We’re not sure exactly where this happened, but Jesus and the disciples often spent evenings on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem, so it may have been there. As I imagine the scene, it’s night-time, and there’s a campfire going, and Jesus and the disciples are sitting on rocks, warming themselves by the fire and talking. Suddenly a Pharisee appears: Nicodemus. He’s not one of the chief priests but he’s high up enough among the Pharisees that they recognize him.

Nicodemus has something on his mind, on his heart, and he’s not sure he can trust the other Pharisees with the questions that are churning inside him. So he turns to Jesus. (Smart man!)  And because he does, he will end up living into his name. ‘Nicodemus’ in Greek is made up of two words: Nike – which means ‘victory’, and Demos – which is the root of the word ‘democracy’. So his name means ‘victory of the people’. And in coming to Jesus this night, Nicodemus will show us, the people, how to have victory in Jesus.

The question Nicodemus leads off with is:

“Rabbi, we [meaning the Pharisees] know that you are a teacher from God, because no one could do the signs you do if God were not with him.”

But that’s really only half the question. The unspoken half of Nicodemus’ question is: “help me understand. Because my brother Pharisees – if anybody says they’re your follower, they toss them out of the synagogue. But I know they know you’re God’s messenger, Jesus – because nobody can do what you do apart from God. So what’s up with this? And what can I do?”

Now Jesus could have said, “here’s what you do. Gather together all the other Pharisees who believe what you believe, who believe in me, and take over leadership of the Pharisees. You have enough leadership experience, Nicodemus, to run the organization. And once you’re in charge you can require your people to listen to my message and share it with the chief priests. And our movement will grow and spread and eventually we’ll break the chains of the Roman Empire…”

Isn’t that usually how worldly power goes? But Jesus doesn’t operate on a worldly level. Jesus is God’s man, and he does things God’s way. And in God’s kingdom, Nicodemus’ heart and soul are more important than leading a movement.

So Jesus gives Nicodemus the answer he needs… though maybe not the answer he’s expecting.  Jesus explains why Nicodemus can see the truth where his fellow Pharisees can’t.  Jesus says: “With the greatest certainty I say to you, unless one is begotten from above, one is not able to perceive the kingdom of God.”

I need to stop here for a moment because this verse is so familiar. It’s usually translated something like: “Very truly I tell you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” But the phrase ‘born again’ has been so over-used in the 20th and 21st centuries, we have completely lost the meaning of it.  So I went back to the Greek and translated it fresh, and here’s what I found.

Jesus starts with the words “Amen, amen” – meaning “this is absolutely true and I affirm it”. And then he says, “Unless one is begotten from above…” – because ‘born again’ sounds like something we do.  Like, I was born in January – I am the do-er of this action. But if someone is begotten – we can’t beget ourselves. We are begotten by someone else, by our parents – or by God.  And Jesus emphasizes this by saying ‘begotten from above’. This is what John Wesley meant by prevenient grace. Before all time, and before we were aware, we were begotten by God and loved by God – and we had nothing to do with it!

Jesus says ‘unless one is begotten from above, one is not able to perceive the Kingdom of God.’  In other words, the ability to grasp that there is a reality beyond this worldly existence is a gift of God. One must have understanding given by the Holy Spirit in order to perceive the things of God. That’s why Nicodemus can see so clearly that Jesus is from God, while the other Pharisees keep denying it.  They have closed their minds and hearts to God’s Spirit, and they’re not able to see God’s truth.

Nicodemus doesn’t quite grasp what Jesus is saying right away, so he asks how it’s possible for an old man to be begotten: is he going to climb back into his mother’s belly a second time? The tone of Nicodemus’ question is slightly sarcastic but not overwhelmingly so; he doesn’t doubt Jesus’ sincerity, just the content of his answer.

Jesus answers, “with the greatest certainty I tell you, if one is not born of water and the Spirit one cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” Being born of water: that’s human birth, and all of us here on this planet have done that. Being born of the Spirit: that’s godly birth. And that’s why we refer to the Holy Spirit as being God. In the Trinity, God the Father creates… God the Son saves… and God the Spirit begets spiritual children. Jesus explains this, saying, “what is begotten of the flesh is flesh; and what is begotten of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I say to you, ‘you must be begotten from above’.

Nicodemus is beginning to catch the vision Jesus is casting. He’s got a toe-hold but now he needs a handle, so he asks, “how can these things be?” And Jesus answers, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? With the greatest certainty I tell you, we speak of what we know and bear witness to what we’ve seen, but you [plural] don’t grasp our testimony.” Here Jesus is referring to the Pharisees as a group and confronting their general lack of understanding.  Jesus continues, “If I have spoken to you [plural] about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I speak to you of heavenly things?”  In other words, Jesus hasn’t even started talking about the Kingdom of God yet – he’s still talking about the things of this world. There’s so much more to come, and so much more to know!  And in saying so, Jesus broadens Nicodemus’ vision to take in so much more than he imagined when he began this conversation.

And then Jesus shares with Nicodemus God’s plan for the salvation of the world.  He says: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…”  Jesus is referring here to ancient history, when Israel was traveling from Egypt to the Promised Land.  When the people of Israel sinned against God by not trusting God for their provision, God sent snakes into the camp and people started to die from snake-bites. So God told Moses to put a bronze snake on a pole and anyone who looked at the snake would live. The people had to have faith enough to take God at his word and look at the snake on the pole. In the same way people must have faith enough to take God at his word and look to Jesus on the cross.

Jesus explains further: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” And Jesus adds, “those who haven’t believed are condemned already… they have loved darkness more than the light because their deeds are evil.” And he wraps up by saying, “he who practices truth comes to the light, in order that it may be seen that his deeds have been wrought by God.”

…which brings us back to where Nicodemus started when he said, “Jesus, you must be from God, because no one could do the signs you do apart from God.”

Jesus has explained patiently to Nicodemus what he needed to know. He has answered the questions, both asked and unasked.

Whether or not Nicodemus fully believed Jesus that night, the apostle John doesn’t tell us. But we can be certain he heard what Jesus was saying.  A few chapters later, in John 7, Nicodemus will stand up to the other Pharisees, defending Jesus’ right to a fair hearing – and he will be ridiculed for it. And then in John 19, after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus will bring 100 pounds of myrrh and aloe to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Nicodemus was one of the men who personally wrapped Jesus’ body and laid it in the tomb.

Jesus’ kindness and patience touched Nicodemus’ heart and mind, and Nicodemus was never the same. He’s one of the few Pharisees who ‘got it’ and believed.

Our baptismal vows call us to do the same for each other. To nurture each other; to guide each other; to share what we know with each other; to encourage each other; to help each other grow in God’s grace. This is the example Jesus sets for us. And it’s the promise we make, as members of the Body of Christ, whenever someone is baptized. Looking forward to taking this vow again soon. 😊


Preached at Fairhaven  United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 3/11/18