Category: John

Podcast: Living in Light of Easter

Now that Easter Sunday is behind us, what do we do next? How do we as followers of Jesus live in light of Easter’s message of hope and joy? In John 20:19-31 we read the story of Jesus’ first encounter with his disciples after his resurrection. This account is unique to John’s gospel and gives us insight into what Jesus intended for his disciples to do in light of his resurrection. The words of Jesus to his followers have implications for those of us who live in light of Easter, too. Here’s the link:  http://traffic.libsyn.com/chuckwarnock/02_Living_in_Light_of_Easter.mp3

Podcast: When God Finds You

Taken from John 1:43-51, this story of Jesus calling Philip and Nathanael gives us a glimpse in how and why God calls us to follow Jesus.  When God Finds You explores the role of scripture, experience, and community that are present in the call of God in the lives of followers of Jesus.  Here’s the link to the podcast — http://traffic.libsyn.com/chuckwarnock/When_God_Finds_You.mp3

Sermon: To Save The World

To Save The World

“13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”  – John 3:13-17 NIV’84

Public Prayer In The Name of Jesus

These are interesting times in our community.  Unless you have been away on a long vacation, you are no doubt aware that the American Civil Liberties Union has sent a letter to our county Board of Supervisors threatening them with legal action because they have in the past opened their monthly meeting with prayer, a prayer that has been offered to God in the name of Jesus Christ.

According to the ACLU, that makes it a Christian prayer, and therefore it is a sectarian prayer that violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution which reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

 The part we are interested in here in Pittsylvania County right now is, of course, the first 16 words –

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

I discovered while doing research for this sermon that although the First Amendment was thought only to apply to the federal government initially, a series of rulings particularly in the 20th century, applied the First Amendment prohibition against state-sponsored religion to all governmental entities, which would include the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors.

So, what should we make of all this?  Do we agree with many that our personal freedoms, including freedom of religion and speech, are being violated by the threats of the ACLU?   Do we believe that the ACLU is in one letter writer’s opinion “The Anti-Christian Litigation Union?”  While that might have been a clever appropriation of the ACLU initials, it doesn’t seem to do much to clear up the issue.

Baptists And Religious Liberty

You also might be surprised to learn that Baptists historically have fought like, well…Baptists…over the issue of state-sponsored religion.  We experienced that right here in Virginia, when Baptists were outlawed and Baptist preachers like John Leland (1754-1841) were persecuted for their faith.

John Leland is a Baptist hero for his work in persuading Thomas Jefferson and others of the need for a Bill of Rights that would guarantee the freedoms on which the young republic had been founded. One rather amusing story about John Leland is that he was given the responsibility for delivering a mammoth round of cheese to President Thomas Jefferson. Apparently the people of Cheshire, Massachusetts drew milk from every cow in town to craft the 1600 pound cheese that was their gift to Thomas Jefferson.

Why did they send President Jefferson this huge chunk of cheese?  Because they were afraid that recently-elected Jefferson, being part of what they called the “French Revolutionary School,” would destroy all their churches, and forbid religious practice.

Reverend John Leland disagreed with this fearful line of thinking, and so after some deliberation, John Leland was given charge of the mammoth cheese, which he delivered to President Jefferson as a kind of goodwill gesture.  Upon Leland’s arrival, and I assume the safe transfer of the cheese, Leland was invited to preach to the President and to Congress. Leland said of the three week trip to Washington, DC, that he preached there and back.  Typical preacher not to miss any opportunity to preach.

Oh, and just so Jefferson got the message of the cheese, the town’s people had engraved on the top of the round of cheese, “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.”

Leland would be among the Baptists who would influence the addition of the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment which guaranteed freedom of religion.

But, even in the colonial period of the history of the United States of America, there were those who argued that America should be constituted as a Christian nation.  Listen to what John Leland said in reply –

“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever…Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.” – John Leland, A Chronicle of His Time in Virginia. (courtesy of Wikipedia).

This issue of religious liberty is as old as our own constitution, and older than our nation’s history.  We as Baptists sprang from the Radical Reformation in the mid-1500s.  Objecting that the reforms of men like Martin Luther and John Calvin did not go far enough, our Baptists forebears believed that Christian baptism was reserved for those who had made their own confession of faith.  Therefore, infants should not be baptized because they had not yet reached an age where they could of their own free will make the decision to follow Christ.

Baptists also insisted that anyone could read and interpret Scripture, and that the Holy Spirit would guide each follower of Jesus Christ.  These and other views espoused by this radical group were unacceptable to Luther, Calvin, and the other leaders of the Reformation.

“If it’s baptism they want, then they shall have it” said their persecutors.  And so these early proto-Baptists were often sentenced to death by drowning for their unorthodox views.  For you see, in the days following the Reformation, lines of loyalty developed into political fiefdoms.  If the prince of your area was a Lutheran, then all within his jurisdiction were Lutherans.  Conversely, if your prince or king remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church, all of his subjects remained Roman Catholics.

Of course, this does not mean that all were practicing Christians.  And, even within each province or country, there were those who dissented, who sought to follow their own conscience.  But for the most part, citizens went along to get along, because death was frequently the punishment for not complying with your state’s religious stance.

These Anabaptists (re-baptizers) eventually fled from England to the Netherlands in search of religious liberty, and finally found a home they hoped would be free from persecution in the United States of America.

But, even in the fledgling United States, old patterns of religious practice had begun to prevail.  Baptists in Virginia were forbidden from preaching, their marriages were not recognized, and many were accused of child abuse because they refused to have their new babies baptized.  As Baptists in Virginia grew in number, the established civil and religious order tried to stamp out this rag-tag religious band.  Bruce Gorley reports that Baptist preachers endured the following, just because they were Baptists.  They were…

“pelted with apples and stone”
“ducked and nearly drowned by 20 men”
” jailed for permitting a man to pray”
“meeting broken up by a mob”
“arrested as a vagabond and schismatic”
“pulled down and hauled about by hair”
“tried to suffocate him with smoke”
“tried to blow him up with gun powder”
“drunken rowdies put in same cell with him”
“horses ridden over his hearers at jail”
“dragged off stage, kicked, and cuffed about”
“shot with a shot-gun”
” ruffians armed with bludgeons beat him”
“severely beaten with a whip”
“whipped severely by the Sheriff”
“hands slashed while preaching” (This happened to Samuel Harris right here in Pittsylvania County).

— Lewis Peyton Little, Imprisoned Preachers and Religious Liberty in Virginia:

But preachers like Samuel Harris also used humor to answer their opponents.  Once when Harris was preaching to a crowd outdoors, part of the group suddenly pulled back and started making a commotion.  Obviously, this distraction had been planned, just like some of the others I read to you earlier.  Samuel Harris was not deterred, however.  He paused for a moment, looked at the group of rowdies, and then addressed the crowd in his booming voice.  “Never mind those disorderly people,” he said, “there are enough going to heaven without them.”  Observers later reported that the disorder stopped immediately!

Here in Virgina, the Episcopal Church was the official state church until it was disestablished in 1776, but it wasn’t until 1786 that Thomas Jefferson’s idea of religious liberty was adopted by the commonwealth of Virginia.  And, it wasn’t until 1791 that the Bill of Rights was ratified, based largely upon the work that John Leland, other Baptists and Presbyterians, and Thomas Jefferson had done.  (courtesy of The Baptist Index)

Of course, that is too brief a description to do the whole thing justice, but you get the idea – Baptists have always been proponents of religious liberty because they wanted freedom of conscience for themselves and others.

Down through the years, Baptists have fought not only for their own rights, but for the rights of others to follow the dictates of their own conscience when it comes to matters of faith and practice.  And, Baptists have always been suspicious of any government involvement in prescribing religious activity, including prayer.

The Board of Supervisors last week made it clear that prayer prior to their meetings was not part of their official government function.  The county attorney, in conference with the Board of Supervisors, crafted a resolution on prayer that removed the opening prayer from the official agenda.  Of course, the ACLU this week said that was not sufficient, so we will see how this all turns out in the days ahead.

Lifting Up The Snake in the Desert

So, how do we as Christians navigate the difficult terrain of conflicting civic opinions, and yet remain true to our faith.  We do it by lifting up Jesus, which is why we are looking at this passage of Scripture today.

I do not think there is a more relevant passage for us to think about, commit to our hearts and minds, and meditate on during these days here in our own community.

In this passage, Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council, according to John.  Nicodemus recognizes that “Jesus is a teacher who has come from God.”  No one could do the things you do, Nicodemus says, unless that were true.

But Nicodemus is just like we are – he is locked into his own system of belief, and he cannot understand who Jesus is, or exactly what Jesus is doing.  Still, he is strangely drawn to Jesus, even though he came in the dark of night to see Jesus, probably so others would not see him.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be born again, or born from above, to see the Kingdom of God.  Nicodemus is puzzled by that, and asks how he as a grown man can enter his mother’s womb and be born.  Jesus explains that this “new birth” is a spiritual birth, a birth of the Spirit of God.

Nicodemus is still confused, and so Jesus refers to a story from the book of Numbers, a story that Nicodemus will know.  It is the story we read early this morning, the story of disobedience, death, and deliverance.

In Numbers 21, the people on their way to the Promised Land, grew impatient.  They spoke against God and against Moses.  The NIV translates it this way –

“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert?  There is no bread!  There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

God’s rebuke was swift, and deadly.  Numbers says that God sent poisonous snakes among the people.  Apparently, there were lots of snakes, who bit lots of people, and tragically some of the people died.

Quickly, the nation realizes what it has done.  They come to Moses and say, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you.  Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.”  The Bible says Moses prayed.

In answer to Moses’s prayer, God gave them a remedy for their snake bites.

“Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.”  So Moses made the snake of bronze, and lifted it up.  When anyone was bitten by a snake, if he looked at the bronze snake, he would live.

Lifting Up Jesus

That’s the story Jesus told Nicodemus, and then he said, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

Of course, we understand Jesus to mean that he will be lifted up on the cross.  Whether Nicodemus understands this or not, we aren’t told.  But then Jesus explains why this must happen, why he must be lifted up just like the bronze snake was.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

“For God so loved the world…”  When Jesus says “world” here, he is not referring to the world order that is opposed to God, which is how the New Testament sometimes uses the word “world.”  Here Jesus means creation, that which God set in motion in the opening verses of the book of Genesis, and after everyday’s creative act stops and says, “That’s good.”

God loves his creation, including the apex of his creation, humankind.  Men and women, boys and girls, people of all races, people from all time – God loves what God has made.

And because God loves this world, and everything He made in it, He sent Jesus God’s only son.  Whoever, Jesus says, commits himself or herself to Jesus, God’s son, trusts and believes in him, shall not perish like the world is perishing, but will have life eternal.

Then Jesus says something that we often do not quote, after we have quoted John 3:16.  “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

In other words, God’s purpose isn’t to pronounce judgment, and kill everybody, and destroy His handiwork in the process.  God’s purpose is to save the world.  To draw it back from its own self-destructive behavior, to pull it from the brink of self-annihilation, to save that which He has created.

Jesus is God’s antidote to the poison of our sin.  Jesus is God’s answer to our questions, the relief for our sadness, the purpose of our lives.

I often wondered why God didn’t tell Moses to make a bronze angel, or bronze bird, or anything but a bronze snake.  And then one day it hit me, in what I hope was a moment of spiritual insight.

God instructed Moses to make a bronze snake and lift it up, because the thing that kills you is the thing that saves you.

Let me explain:  I am sure no one in the camp wanted to be reminded of snakes.  But the snakes were God’s punishment for their sin.  When they looked at the snake that Moses had lifted up, they were reminded that God could take the instrument of their punishment, and turn it into the remedy for their disease.  God could take judgment and infuse it with life.  God could take that which had killed them, and make it the only way to redemption.

When Jesus was lifted up on the cross, God showed us a man, a man who in all of his humanity was tempted, was accused, was attacked, was beaten, was ridiculed, was tortured, and finally was crucified.

Looking at Jesus we see our own handiwork.  We see our own disobedience that inflicted the pain of the scourge in Jesus’ back.  We see our own selfishness and hatred and fear that lived in the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, and lives in us today.  We see all of our own sins, our own barbarism displayed in the bruised and scarred body of Jesus.

And when we look at Jesus on the cross, we are reminded that someone must save us from ourselves.  We are reminded that if we would kill the Son of God, there is no crime that we would not commit, no deed too dark for the human soul, no act too horrific for us to participate in.

When Jesus is lifted up, we must first see our own failure, our own sin, our own helplessness, just as the nation of Israel did in the desperation of the desert.  For unless we do, it will not help us to lift up Jesus in public or private prayer.  Unless we look at the result of our own sin, the marred visage of Christ, just as the Israelites had to look at the bronze snake, we will miss what God is trying to tell us.

But we also see in the lifted up Jesus the possibility for which God has created us.  We see the capacity for self-giving love that Jesus demonstrated.  We see the sacrifice he made so that others might also live.  We see the best that Jesus calls us to in living out the values and commitments to the Kingdom of God.

Jesus does not need anyone to defend him, for he did not even defend himself.  What Jesus seeks is the same thing he offered to Nicodemus. Jesus seeks those who will look at him on the cross, and will see themselves reflected in him.

And it is those who look and live who will go out to lift up Christ so that others may see themselves reflected in him, too; so that others may measure their lives by his and realize that there is no life without Jesus Christ.

Jesus said, “And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men to me.”  Let’s lift up Jesus as the hope of all humanity.  Let’s lift up Jesus as the answer to all of the world’s terrible predicaments.  Let’s lift up Jesus as the model for a selfless life, lived to serve others, lived to save the world.

Sermon: Sent By Jesus

Here’s a look at today’s lectionary reading from John 20:19-31.  I am focusing on verses 19-21, and looking at Jesus sending the disciples as the Father has sent him.  This is not a full manuscript, but I hope you’ll benefit from the notes that follow each of these verses, particularly verse 21 where Jesus gives the disciples the ministry of forgiving sin.  This passage is still the ministry of the church today, and I hope you find this both helpful and encouraging.

Sent By Jesus
John 20:19-31 NIV/84

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

24 Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

30 Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may[a] believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Notes:

20:19:  “Peace be with you!”  
The disciples are anything but at peace.  With “doors locked for fear of the Jews” the disciple band huddles in secret on the evening of the resurrection.  They are confused, afraid, disoriented, and grief-stricken.

“Peace” is the greeting that Jesus taught the disciples in Luke 10 to bring to every home they entered.  And, so the mission of Jesus continues as though nothing has happened.

“Peace” is the shalom of God which encompasses well-being and confidence in God.  God’s shalom means things are as they should be.  This is not what the disciples believed at this moment.  Things were not as they should be:  Jesus was gone, dead, and now even his body was missing.  Into this chaos, Jesus reassures the disciples that things indeed are exactly as they should be.

20:20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Two things are going on here:  first, Jesus shows them his pierced hands and side.  These wounds are the visible evidence that Jesus appears to them just as they had seen him on the cross — wounded for our transgressions.  This is no memory of Jesus before, but the continuing presence of Jesus after the crucifixion.  The resurrection of Jesus did not change the sacrifice of Jesus.  Even a week later when Jesus appears again with Thomas present, his wounds validate his real presence.

The disciples were overjoyed because before them stood Jesus, but alive.

20:21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
Now things begin to change.  The disciples are about to enter the next phase of their work.  This phase of being sent has been tried out in Luke 10 when Jesus sent the 70 into the surrounding region.  They were to do what he had just done — bring God’s shalom, heal, restore, share table fellowship, live among people, demonstrate God to and for them.

Again, the shalom of God as greeting means, Things are as they should be.  My sending you is as it should be, this is the next step.  The disciples sending follows the model of God’s sending Jesus.  They are sent with authority, they are sent out from themselves, they are sent to serve, they are sent to live out the new kingdom of God among men, they are sent to demonstrate the salvation (health, wholeness, forgiveness and reconciliation) of God toward creation.  Sent in the same manner, with the same mission, by the same Master.

20:22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.
But they are also sent with the same Spirit that overshadowed Mary, descended upon Jesus at his baptism, drove him into the desert, empowered him for service, and would be his presence with them from this point forward.

On the day of Pentecost, this same Spirit manifests itself to announce a new beginning to the world that has witnessed the evil of the Roman empire.

20:23 If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
This passage, regardless of what we think it means, surely cannot mean that we possess the ability to forgive or not, the sins of others.  I looked at several old commentaries on this passage, and most said just that — Only God can forgive sins, and therefore this means that when the gospel is preached and people respond, God forgives them.

Unfortunately, that is not what this passage says.  In this appearance of Jesus, we have some of the most direct and clear language of any we see in John.  These are simple sentences, as though the disciples cannot take in complex, symbolic concepts.
I believe that Jesus meant exactly what he said.  Now, those who wrote years ago that this does not mean that the disciples or we have the ability to forgive sins, probably were writing (and one stated this explicitly) in response to the priestly practice of the Roman Catholic church.  One confesses to the priest, who after imposing penitential tasks, absolves the confessor of their sin.  But that is not what Jesus is referring to here.

One of the big things that got Jesus into trouble was forgiving the sins of the common people.  And, we talked about the reason for that several weeks ago.  The Temple was the only place in first century Judaism that sins could be forgiven.  The entire Temple enterprise, and it was very much that, was predicated on the idea that the Temple was the residence of God, and that a forgiving encounter with God could only happen there.

Feast days, festivals, and the high holy day of Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement — were the elaborate occasions for communal confession and repentance.  But, commoners like Mary and Joseph also went to the Temple to offer the smallest offering — a pair of turtledoves — for her purification.

So, when Jesus spoke of forgiving sins, he was at odds with the entire world of Judaism, including the chief priest, the Pharisees, the Sadduccees, the Council of the Sanhedrin, and most of all, the economic bounty that flowed to the Temple.

So, by telling the disciples that they now have the ministry of forgiveness, Jesus places them in the same position he was in — an adversary to the entrenched religious practice and practitioners of his day.

The most striking example of this is Jesus forgiving the sins of, and healing, the lame man.  Here’s Mark’s version, but the account appears in all three synoptic gospels —

A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. 2 So many gathered that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. 3 Some men came, bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. 4 Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on. 5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
6 Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 7 “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
8 Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them,“Why are you thinking these things? 9 Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…”He said to the paralytic, 11 “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” 12 He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”  – Mark 2:1-12 NIV84

So, the objection to Jesus’ healing was the same as the objection to this verse by some commentators — only God can forgive sins.  But Jesus obviously countered that by forgiving the lame man’s sins, and by healing him.

Actually, there was an old rabbinic saying, “No one can be healed unless first their sins are forgiven.”  So, healing, wholeness (salvation both physical and spiritual) involve forgiveness.

Jesus is conveying his ministry to the disciples.  First, he assures them of the shalom of God. Next he announces he is sending them as God as sent him.  Then, he equips them for their new mission by breathing into them the breath of life, the Spirit of God.  And, finally he tells them what their ministry is — forgiveness.

To understand what that means, we need to look at forgiveness for a moment.  First, this ability or ministry of forgiving (or not forgiving) sin is given to the community.  Jesus is not saying, and never intended, that the ministry of forgiveness become the solely the function of an elite group of priests.  He was actually removing the function of pronouncing forgiveness from the priests of his day, and giving it into the hands of his followers.

Rather, forgiveness is given to the community of disciples.  And, remember, at this point all the disciples, and Jesus’ entire ministry has been within Judaism.  So, the disciples become the new community of practice that now holds the keys to the kingdom:

18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  (Matthew 16:18-19 NIV84)

Which also means that when God’s will is done on earth, it is reflecting what has and is being done in heaven.  Remember the Lord’s Prayer — “thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven”?  That’s exactly what we have here — God’s forgiveness being expressed through his followers on earth even as it is and has been expressed in heaven.
All of which means that the ministry Jesus has given to the disciples is also our ministry. But, you might object, we can’t go around forgiving people’s sins.

Well, forgiveness does two things.  First, it recognizes and makes a judgment that something has gone wrong in a relationship.  Secondly, it deals with the wrong appropriately, and restores the relationship within the community.

Forgiveness is the ministry of reconciliation — of bringing people back to God and back to each other in the community that follows God.

Paul said, 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.  – 2 Corinthians 5:17-19 NIV84

On this the second Sunday of Eastertide, we are not only celebrating the risen Christ, we are also receiving our mission from Jesus.  That mission is to be a community of forgiveness, practicing reconciliation, before a world which knows nothing of God’s peace — things as they should be.

Early in his ministry, Henri Nouwen was the chaplain on an transoceanic ship.  One night, surrounded by fog so dense that the ship was operating by radar, the captain was pacing with great agitation on the deck.  As he turned, he ran into Nouwen, who was standing near the wheel house in case he was needed.

As the two collided, the captain cursed, and said, “Get out of my way.  I don’t need you here.”  Nouwen began his humiliating retreat, when the captain gruffly called back to him.

“On second thought, stay.  This might be the only time you’ll be of use to me.” (A Peculiar People, Rodney Clapp)

The world may not need Jesus or his disciples, or his church, for a lot of things.  But they do need us to demonstrate and practice forgiveness and reconciliation.  This might be the only way we are of use, and it is the ministry Jesus has given to us.

Easter Sermon: Taking Time At The Empty Tomb

It’s Easter!  Aren’t we finished with the tomb of Jesus by the time we get to Easter Sunday?  Can’t we leave behind the gory events in Jesus’s last days, and focus on the resurrection now?  This Easter, I am suggesting that we follow the example of Mary Magdalene who stayed at the empty tomb that day.  Because she took time at the tomb, Mary Magdalene experienced the power of God in ways the other disciples missed.  Let’s take some time today to linger at the empty tomb so that we, too, can discover what Mary Magdalene discovered. 

Continue reading “Easter Sermon: Taking Time At The Empty Tomb”

Sermon: Answering the Wrong Question

The lame man answered the wrong question when Jesus asked him, “Do you want to be well?” Sometimes we do the same thing.

Answering the Wrong Question
John 5:1-9

1Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. 2Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. 3Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.

5One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

7″Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”

8Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” 9At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.
The day on which this took place was a Sabbath….

The Setting of Today’s Story

Jesus had traveled to Jerusalem for a feast day, possibly the Passover, but we’re not sure.  In any event, it was an occasion on which Jews gathered in Jerusalem, and so Jesus goes there, too.

John then shifts his focus, like a movie director giving us a preview of what is about to happen.  John tells us that in Jerusalem, and actually very close to the Temple, is a place called the Sheep Gate.  The Sheep Gate is probably where sheep for Temple sacrifice were brought in — kind of a one-way trip for most of them, I’m certain.

Continue reading “Sermon: Answering the Wrong Question”

Sermon: Feeding the Sheep and Following the Shepherd

Feeding the Sheep and Following the Shepherd

Feeding Jesus’ sheep means following Jesus as his disciples.  We cannot do one without the other.

1Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Tiberias. It happened this way: 2Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. 3″I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

4Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
5He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”
“No,” they answered.
6He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

7Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. 8The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. 9When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.”

11Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Continue reading “Sermon: Feeding the Sheep and Following the Shepherd”

Sermon: Beyond The World of Fires

After the resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples, gives them the “peace of God” and sends them on the mission of God.

Beyond The World of Fires
John 20:19-31

19On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
24Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Continue reading “Sermon: Beyond The World of Fires”

Sermon: The Right Thing at the Right Time

Jesus calls us to do the right thing at the right time as we seek to honor him with our lives.

The Right Thing At The Right Time
John 12:1-8 NIV

1Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

4But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5″Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” 6He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

7″Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. ” It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

It’s All A Matter of Timing

Several years ago, friends of ours told this story about the pastor they served with.  This pastor was known for being rather abrupt, and was not the most subtle in conversation.  During a wedding at their church, the pastor was officiating, of course.  When the time came for the vows, the groom was rather nervous, as many grooms are.

The pastor began to read the vows —

“Do you, John, take Mary for your wife…”

At which point, the anxious groom interrupted by saying “I do.”  The pastor, obviously not finished with the entire reading of the vows, looked at him and said, “Not yet!”

The pastor started again, “And do you promise before God and these witnesses to to love her….”

Again, the groom jumped the gun, “I do.”

And again the pastor replied, “Not yet!”

Well this went on a couple more times until finally the pastor got to the last question —

“…and forsaking all others to keep thee only unto her so long as you both shall live?”

He paused and looked at the groom, who by now was so gun shy that he didn’t dare say a word.

After what seemed like an eternity, the pastor finally turned to him and said, “Now!”

Continue reading “Sermon: The Right Thing at the Right Time”

Who Sinned? The Problem of Human Suffering

Who Sinned? The Problem of Human Suffering

John 9:1-5

1As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. 4As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. 5While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

Making Sense of Disaster

On November 1, 1755, a devastating earthquake hit the city of Lisboa, then called Lisbon, Portugal.  Tremendous waves crashed ashore, and gigantic fires broke out throughout the city.  Nine thousand buildings were destroyed, along with priceless works of art, books, and historic records of Portugal’s explorations in the New World.  Out of a population of 275,000 people, almost 15,000 were killed.  According to Dr. Paul Schilling, many died in churches where they had gathered for All Saints’ Day services.

Immediately following that disaster, clergymen throughout the world, including John Wesley, indicated that the Lisbon earthquake was God’s judgment on the city for its sins.  Those sins were enumerated as —

1.  Lisbon’s fabulous wealth of palaces, churches, and its treasuries filled with gold bullion, jewels, and other precious merchandise;

2.  the ruthlessness of the Portugese Inquisition which forced all the Jews from Portugal, and compelled others to convert involuntarily to Christianity;

3.  superstition and the worship of images (of course this criticism came from non-Catholics);

4.  a lax moral code in Portugese society.

Several voices rose in protest to this kind of thinking.  One, the Bishop of Exeter, said that these pronouncements were the “raving of designing monks, Methodists, and ignorant enthusiasts.”  But, he went on to say that because Londoners had not suffered the same fate as Lisboners, that the English would take this warning and try to become better and more genuinely Christian people.  (Paul Schilling, God and Human Anguish, p. 131-133.)


So this week, when Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, inferred that the earthquake which struck Haiti on Wednesday was somehow connected to a legendary pact the Haitians had made with the devil, he was following in the verbal tradition of others who have sought explanations, and tried to fix blame, for natural disasters which have claimed untold numbers of lives.

When Al Qaeda terrorists flew airplanes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and crashed into a field in Pennsylvania on 9/11, Jerry Falwell, speaking to Pat Robertson, also offered an explanation by saying —

“I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say “You helped this happen.”  — Jerry Falwell speaking to Pat Robertson, Sep 14, 2001.

Falwell would later apologize for this remark by saying that he blamed no one but the individual terrorists involved in the 9/11 attacks.


In the passage we read the morning, John’s Gospel reminds us that seeking to explain tragedy by blaming someone else is as old as humankind itself. As Jesus and his disciples make their way on their itinerant ministry, they encounter a man who is blind.  John tells us he was born blind, and that fact must have been known to the disciples at that time because they ask Jesus the question —

Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?

There was no question in their minds that his blindness was the judgment of God, the curse of God, for some sin committed by either the man or his parents.  Of course, if the sin is imputed to the blindman himself, then he would have had to sin before he was born, because his blindness is from birth.  Or, perhaps they believed that God knew the man was going to sin after his birth, and so God struck him with blindness in anticipation of his sin.

Or, his parents might have sinned.  They could have been immoral, he might have been conceived in sin, and so God’s judgment strikes their first-born child as God had struck the first-born of the Egyptians 1,500 years before.

We seek an explanation for suffering because if we can make sense of it, if we can find a cause for suffering, then we can rest more easily at night.

One of the reasons John Wesley  offered in his pamphlet titled, Thoughts Occasioned by the Late Earthquake at Lisbon, was that it was better to attribute the earthquake to God than to think that we were at the mercy of random natural events.

We are always trying to make sense of suffering.  But in our attempt to make sense of it, there are some things we need to understand.
Our Thoughts Are Not God’s Thoughts

In Isaiah 55:8, the prophet Isaiah records the words of God as God invites Israel to faithfulness —

8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the LORD.

The first truth we need to understand as we seek to understand the problem of human suffering is that God’s thoughts are not ours and God’s ways are not our ways.

In other words, while we seek to fix the blame for sin, God seeks to fix the sinner.  The entire chapter of Isaiah 55 is God’s gracious offer of God’s presence and loving forgiveness to Israel.  Listen to God’s thoughts —

1 “Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
2 Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.

3 Give ear and come to me;
hear me, that your soul may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
my faithful love promised to David.

4 See, I have made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander of the peoples.

5 Surely you will summon nations you know not,
and nations that do not know you will hasten to you,
because of the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel,
for he has endowed you with splendor.”

6 Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.

7 Let the wicked forsake his way
and the evil man his thoughts.
Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the LORD.

These are God’s thoughts.  Thoughts of redemption, of promise, of love, of faithfulness, of invitation, of hope, of generosity, of forrgiveness.

We think God’s thoughts are of punishment and vengeance and retribution.  But those are our thoughts, not God’s.  God’s highest and greatest thought is always of love.  If it is not, then we have no explanation for God’s sending Jesus.

God continually reaches out to mankind with the offer of God’s forgiveness, fellowship, and love.

We should be very suspicious of those who claim to speak the thoughts of God, especially if those words are words of destruction.

Human Suffering Has Many Causes

The second thing we must understand is that human suffering has many causes.  Human suffering and death can be caused by evil, natural events, accident, and human choice.  Let’s explore each one of these.

1. Evil. Everything bad that happens is not caused by an evil force.  For an event to be attributed to evil, there must be a moral intention.  In other words, it is the intent that defines the action.  By that definition, the Holocaust was evil.  The Nazi regime and Adolf Hitler sought the “final solution” — death — for the problem of the Jews.  According to Hitler, the Jews were to blame for everything that was wrong with Germany and the world, and so the final solution was that all the Jews had to die.  In the Holocaust, Hitler was able to exterminate 35% of the world’s Jewish population — over 6,000,000 Jews died as a direct result of Hitler’s intention to kill them.  That is evil.


When someone points a gun at another and pulls the trigger in an effort to take their life, that is evil.  When an adult uses his power and authority to abuse an innocent child, that is evil.  When a man beats a woman, a soldier tortures a prisoner of war, or the strong take advantage of the weak, that is evil. Evil has an intention to do harm, to take, to hurt, to demean, to rob, to kill.  Evil is selfish, loveless, self-centered, ruthless, merciless, and unforgiving.  Evil is sin incarnate, rebellion against God’s love, and the attempt to mar the image of God in humanity beyond recognition.


By that definition, an earthquake cannot be evil.  An earthquake, a tornado, a tsunami, a hurricane — all can cause immense suffering, but in themselves they are not evil events because there is no intention.


To attribute to God the use of nature as a means to inflict harm is to attribute to God evil intent.  Just as God’s thoughts are not ours, neither are God’s ways.  Jesus used the example of the wheat and the tares, the sheep and the goats, to remind us that both the obedient and disobedient will grow up together until the final judgment of God.


2. Natural law and events. God has created an orderly and natural world.  We have the law of gravity for instance.  We all understand that law — what goes up, must come down.  So, if I decide that the law of gravity no longer applies to me, and I walk off the edge of the Grand Canyon, I am going to be in for a really big surprise.  Gravity does apply to all of us, equally and unrelentingly.  Gravity is a law of the natural world.


The same can be said for natural events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis.  Scientists understand and can explain the phenomena behind each of these events.  When conditions are right, either meteorologically or seismically, we can expect a nature event.  We know when hurricane season begins and ends, and we can track tropical depressions each night on the nightly news until they become full-fledged hurricanes when they reach the coast of the United States.  Natural laws are at work.


An earthquake is a natural event.  CNN reported this week, among others, that the island of Hispaniola, which is occupied by the Dominican Republic on the one end, and Haiti on the other, sits over two parallel earth plates which rubbed against each other this week.  This was a natural, if not totally predictable, event.  Seismologists knew this day would come, they just didn’t know when.


I think I told you about my experience in the mild earthquake that hit Kaoshiung, Taiwan when I was there in the late 1990s.  The hotel room shook, the door in the bathroom kept banging against the wall, and I jumped out of bed scared out of my wits.  I proved that my going to the large plate glass window in my room to look out.  Fortunately, the earthquake was relatively mild, although it did make the news in the US, and Debbie tried to call the hotel to check on me.  Natural events happen without any intent, but governed by the laws of the natural world that God established at creation.


3. Accidents. There are also accidents, those things that happen due to human error, machine malfunction, or some other circumstances that cause suffering.  The American Heritage Dictionary defines “accident” as “an unexpected and undesirable event, especially one resulting in damage or harm.” It is from the Latin words “ad cadere” which means “to fall.”


When birds struck the engines of US Airways flight 1549 a year ago this week, the plane lost power. Fortunately, Captain Sully Sullenberger made a safe water landing and all 155 passengers survived the crash.  This was an accident — birds and jet engines are not compatible and when some birds accidentally flew into the jet turbines, the result could have been much worse than it was.


4. Human choice. Human choice can involve evil intent, as in Hitler’s case.  But human choice can also involve unintended consequences, as in the all-too-familiar cases of drunk drivers who crash their cars into innocent people, and kill or injure them.  Drunk drivers do not intend to do evil.  They do not intend to kill or injure.  But the choice they make to drink to the point of impairment, and then to drive a motor vehicle, results in injury to others.  Our society has decided that even if someone does not intend to kill or injure, their choice to drink and drive is a choice for which they are held liable.  And so we have laws that punish drunk driving, whether there is death or injury.  Our choices matter, and our choices can be the cause of immense human suffering.


When parents choose to neglect their children, or to endanger their lives, our society has said that behavior is unacceptable because the potential for harm exists.  Our choices can cause human suffering, and newspaper and TV reports each day reflect the choice of a jealous husband to kill his wife; or the choice of a disgruntled employee to wreak havoc in his workplace.  Human actions are most often by choice, and that choice is the responsibility of the one who engages in that behavior.

The Presence of God in the Midst of Suffering


When events that inflict tremendous human suffering occur — such as the Haitian earthquake, the southeast Asian tsunami, or the shootings at Virginia Tech — the question invariably is asked, “Where is God?”  The answers that come too quickly are ones like Pat Robertson’s.  God is said, by some,  to be using these events either as punishment or warning, or both.  Punishment is usually assigned to those who are suffering in the tragedy, and warning is for those like us who are witnesses to it.


In other words, God is the agent behind the earthquake.  I would take strong exception to that idea.


The other argument expressed usually goes something like this —


If God is all good, and all powerful, why did this happen.  God either is not all good, and therefore let this happen; or, God is not all-powerful and therefore was powerless to stop it from happening.


Both of those ideas of God are based on the notion that God is removed from mankind, and, like a puppeteer in the sky, is pulling certain strings to make things happen, or not happen.


But that is not the picture of God we get from either the Old or New Testaments.  The portrait of God that is most accurate, and most Biblical is the portrait of God with His people.


In the Exodus experience, the Biblical writer records the words of God in Exodus 3:7-8 — “7 The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey…”


God hears the cries of His people and He comes down, not literally, but relationally.  Down into the suffering, down into the reality of human life.  Down to our level of fear and frustration, or sorrow and loss. God comes down to where man knows God is present.


Paul expressed this about Christ in Philippians 2:5-8 —


5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature
[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!


Jesus came down — down from being the God of heaven, down from heaven’s glory, down from that position of authority that was rightfully his, down from the blazing glory of Light, down into a human body, down into the limitation of humanity, down to the obedience of sacrifice, down to the most heinous death of all, down to the cross.  And we call that the incarnation — God with us, Immanuel.


So, God comes to His people, and God’s people encompass all of creation.  We are all God’s people, for we are all created in God’s image.  We are all God’s children, we are all God’s beloved.  Some of us know it, and some do not.  Some of us live it, and some do not.  But our unfaithfulness does not change God’s faithfulness.  God is with us, present in our suffering whether it is in Haiti or New Orleans or Blacksburg, Virginia.


The Response to Suffering


When asked what the response to the Holocaust should be, Elie Wiesel said,


“I answer that not only do I not know it, but that I don’t even know if a tragedy of this magnitude has a response.  What I do know is that there is “response” in responsibility.  When we speak of this era of evil and darkness, so close and yet so distant, “responsibility” is the key word.” –Elie Wiesel, Night, preface xv.


In Exodus 3, after God says He has heard the cries of His people and seen their suffering, and that He is coming down to them, God then speaks to Moses, and God says —

10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

When God comes down, when God is present in the suffering of His people, God always invites those who are not suffering to join Him in the work of relieving that suffering.

It is not enough for us to watch the news accounts on TV, or to shake our heads in disbelief and sorrow.  God joins the Haitians in their suffering, and He invites us to join Him, too.

Our response will determine whether we are more like the disciples, who believed that someone’s sin caused the earthquake, or more like Jesus, who saw suffering as an opportunity for the work of God to be displayed in their lives.  But Jesus also said, “We must work while it is day…”

So, in this disaster, we must work.  We must pray for those who are being rescued, for those who are injured, for those who have lost everything.  We must give out of our own surplus, our own comfort, in order that others might have something.  We must respond to this suffering by being responsible for our Haitian brothers and sisters.  Believers were killed — the Roman Catholic bishop, a prominent Baptist pastor, the head of the United Methodist relief organization.  Kate Snow of ABC News is in Haiti.  Her message on Twitter was that she had been to a small church where people were killed.

This disaster is not the result of some diabolic legend.  This is a natural event.  But this natural event becomes the occasion for a supernatural outpouring of God’s love through us, and others, to those suffering in Haiti.

The problem of suffering is not solved by finding someone to blame.  The problem of suffering can only be alleviated by finding someone to love.