Sunday, June 4, 2017, was Pentecost Sunday! In our church we all wore something red, which is the liturgical color of that Sunday. And, of course, I preached from Acts 2:1-21, Luke’s account of the Day of Pentecost. Here’s the audio of that message:
Sunday, June 4, 2017, was Pentecost Sunday! In our church we all wore something red, which is the liturgical color of that Sunday. And, of course, I preached from Acts 2:1-21, Luke’s account of the Day of Pentecost. Here’s the audio of that message:
For this Palm Sunday, we took a different approach. We combined elements of the Liturgy of the Palms about the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, with elements of the Liturgy of the Passion. This enabled us to move from the joyous crowds which greeted Jesus on his entry into Jerusalem, to the vengeful crowd that cried, “Crucify him!”
We took this approach because many in our congregation will not attend a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service. If they attended a joyful Palm Sunday service, and then a celebratory Easter service, they might miss the events of Good Friday and the drama surrounding the crucifixion. To solve this problem, here’s what we did:
1. For our first reading early in the service, we read the Gospel story of the triumphal entry into Jersusalem, from Matthew 21:1-11.
2. We sang appropriate Palm Sunday hymns of celebration including All Glory, Laud and Honor, and Hosanna.
3. During our children’s time, the children heard the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Then, they distributed palm fronds to each person in our congregation. When everyone had a palm frond, the entire congregation waved their palm branches and said in unison, “Praise God for the Son of David! Bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Praise God to highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:9 – NLT). It was a little chaotic, but then the first Palm Sunday probably was a little chaotic, too.
4. Our organist provided a musical transition from the Palm Sunday celebration to the events after Jesus’ Passover meal with the disciples.
5. During the time alloted for the sermon, I read the following scripture lessons from the Liturgy of the Passion. Because the entire narrative moves from scene to scene, I separated each scene with a corporate prayer of confession. After I read each passage, I then invited the congregation to pray with me the prayer of confession. Here’s the sequence:
Palm Sunday Liturgy of the Passion
Reading: Matthew 26:14-30 — The Last Supper
All: Lord, we confess that just like Judas we have come to your table with thoughts of betraying you in our hearts. Like Judas, we have taken the bread from you hand and the cup from your table while harboring doubts about you and your teaching. Forgive us, O Lord, for this spirit of betrayal that presumes we know more about your Kingdom than you. Amen.
Reading: Matthew 26:31-56 — The Garden of Gethsamene
All: Lord, we confess that when you struggled in agony, we slept in apathy. When they came to arrest you, we betrayed your teaching by fighting back, and then abandoned you in your hour of need. When they accused us of being your disciples we denied ever knowing you. And when the cock crowed, we wept over our own failure to be faithful. Forgive us, O Lord, for our apathy, our fear, and our faithlessness. Amen.
Reading: Matthew 27:1-26 — Jesus Before Pilate
All: Lord, we confess that like the crowd gathered before Pilate, we have chosen Barabbas instead of you. Like the crowd that day, when Pilate asked, “What shall I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” — we have answered, “Crucify him!” Forgive us for our failure to choose you and the freedom you offer. Amen.
Reading: Matthew 27:27-66 — The Crucifixion and Burial of Jesus
All: Lord, we confess that we see ourselves in the faces of the Roman soldiers who nailed you to the cross; we hear ourselves taunting you as you hang silently before us; and, we feel the bitterness of one thief and the contrition of the other. May we be counted among those who, in great sorrow, lovingly laid you to rest in the garden tomb, hopefully waiting for God’s salvation. Amen.
I wrote the prayers of confession, so feel free to edit them for your use.
6. After the readings and prayers, our choir sang the anthem, The Hour Has Come, which was a solemn and powerful account of the last days in Jesus’ life.
7. When the anthem ended, the congregation left the sanctuary in silence, with a solemn organ postlude played during their exit. We included this note in the bulletin:
“In the tradition of the Liturgy of the Passion, there will be no benediction after the choral anthem. Please leave the sanctuary in silence as we contemplate the death and burial of Christ, and wait in hope for God’s salvation.”
Many people commented on how powerful and meaningful the service was for them. While it was hard for me to resist preaching on Palm Sunday, the narrative of the events of the last week in the life of Christ needs no explanation.
However you choose to celebrate and commemorate the events of Palm Sunday through Good Friday, give careful attention to including them all, including the betrayals, the trials, the mocking, and the crucifixion. The glory of the resurrection shines brightest when celebrated against the backdrop of evil, suffering, and death.
In John 21:15-19, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Most Bible scholars agree that Jesus is giving Peter the opportunity to atone for his betrayal of Jesus during Jesus’ arrest. But what does this mean for us today? How do we know if we love Jesus? In this passage we find the simple evidence of our love for Jesus.
During these Sundays between Easter and Pentecost, I am departing from the revised common lectionary to explore several of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Here’s the link to the podcast, If You Love Jesus.
As a young child, my mother would tell me to “Put on your thinking cap” when I had to solve a problem. Jesus says something of the same thing to Peter, but much more directly. How do we develop Kingdom thinking? This brief look at the an encounter between Peter and Jesus might give us some clues.
Developing A Kingdom Mindset
Matthew 16:21-28 NIV’84
21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life[h] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 27For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. 28 I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” — Matthew 16:21-28 NIV’84
From Demonstration to Decision
During these summer months we have been looking at various passages from the Gospel of Matthew, thinking together about the Kingdom of God; or, as Matthew calls it, the Kingdom of Heaven. We have looked primarily at the words and actions of Jesus that demonstrated the kingdom of God.
We have seen Jesus teach about the kingdom. Matthew in chapters 5-7, records the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon is the compendium, the substance, of the Jesus’ Kingdom teachings. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins to lay out the ethical and spiritual distinctives of the Kingdom. These are characteristics that distinguish the Kingdom of God, which he has come to both announce and inaugurate, from the current practice of first century Judaism.
But Jesus does more in Matthew’s Gospel than just teach about the Kingdom.
We have seen him demonstrate what life will be like in the Kingdom of God by healing the paralyzed man by first forgiving his sins.
We have seen Jesus call disciples to follow him, to learn from him, and to embrace life in this Kingdom, which will stand in contrast to the world in which he and they now live.
We have seen Jesus describe the Kingdom of God using parables like the sower and the soils, the wheat and the weeds, and the treasure in the field.
We have seen Jesus demonstrate the abundance of the Kingdom of Heaven by feeding 5,000, and then on another occasion by feeding 4,000 people.
We have seen the King of the Kingdom, Jesus, exercise his dominion over the created elements by walking on water.
And last week we saw Jesus prod the disciples to verbalize who he really was. And it was Peter who got it out first with his confession – “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
So we have seen Jesus gently, yet persistently teach, demonstrate, and clarify the ideas and actions of the Kingdom of God before his disciples.
But today we come to the hinge point of Jesus’ ministry – the point at which he moves from demonstrating the Kingdom of God for his disciples, and begins to push them toward their own decision regarding their place in the Kingdom.
As I just mentioned, Peter’s confession of Christ was the first public acknowledgement by the disciples that Jesus was the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ. But an acknowledgment is one thing for even Satan recognized who Jesus was.
No, Jesus needed for the disciples to do much more than acknowledge him as the Christ. His teaching and demonstration of the Kingdom was to lead them to a point of decision, a point of commitment that heretofore they had not made.
I am sure the disciples were intrigued with Jesus. I am sure they found his teaching amazing in its clarity and stunning in its restatement of the Law.
But, they needed to do more. They needed to decide for themselves not only that Jesus was unique, but that they would link their lives with his, that they would follow him not only on the dusty roads of Galilee, but in the way they lived their lives, too.
What does that have to do with us today? Just this – it isn’t enough to believe that Jesus is extraordinary, or even to believe that he is the divine Son of God.
In 2008, the Pew Forum on Religious Life reported that their surveys indicated that 92% of Americans believe in a higher power, a being that most would call God. But, is that enough? Is it enough to believe that God exists, or does that knowledge, that belief lead logically to the next step – a decision to live in accordance with God’s will?
That’s why this passage today is so important. It is the point at which Jesus pushes the disciples past the stage of acknowledgement, past demonstrations of the Kingdom, to a point at which they must make a decision regarding their place in the Kingdom themselves.
Exposing Peter’s Mistaken Mindset
But before Jesus can push them to a decision about the Kingdom, he first has to expose the earthly mindset of the disciples. Peter, as we might suspect, gives Jesus that opportunity.
Matthew says that after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the conversation changes:
“21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
Now Jesus begins to explain what is going to happen to him. He is headed to Jerusalem and there he will have a showdown, a power encounter with the religious rulers of first century Judaism.
I think it’s interesting that Jesus says that he will “suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed…”
In truth, it is the Roman Empire that imposes the death penalty on Jesus, and carries it out. But Jesus recognizes that the Roman Empire, with the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate as its representative, will only be carrying out the desires of the leading religious leaders of his day.
Jesus will be dealt with as they have already dealt with others who challenged their authority and power – they will marginalize him, and failing that, they will eliminate him.
So, we see repeated attempts to discredit Jesus. They come at him with trick questions; with implications that he and his disciples are not following the Law, the Torah; and, finally, with charges of blasphemy and speaking against the Temple.
The disciples have witnessed this tension between Jesus, whose popularity is the only thing that has kept him from the hands of the Pharisees, Saduccees and other religious authorities.
So, when Jesus begins to lay out for the disciples, now that they have acknowledged who he is, that these very same religious leaders are going to cause him great harm, even to the point of taking his life, Peter can’t take it.
Matthew says that Peter takes Jesus aside. That’s interesting because Peter ususally just blurts out whatever he has to say, just as he did with his great confession.
But, Peter takes Jesus aside to privately chastise his own teacher. We miss the point of that because we don’t understand the reverence with which teachers, rabbis, of the first century were accorded.
It was kind of like when I was in the fifth grade at Johnson Elementary School in Columbus, Georgia. In the fourth grade, I had a wonderful teacher who everyday after lunch read to us from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s prairie book series. She was a kind and gentle teacher, who mothered her fourth graders with great care and concern.
But fifth grade was an entirely different story. My fifth grade teacher was Mrs. Cooksey, and Mrs. Cooksey believed it was her duty to take innocent fourth graders and prepare them for the rough-and-tumble work of junior high school. Never mind that we didn’t get to junior high until seventh grade; Mrs. Cooksey was determined to make us grow up, fast and in proper form. Needless to say, she did not read Little House on the Prairie to us, or anything else for that matter.
To her credit, Mrs. Cooksey was a good teacher. I learned a great deal in her class because I had to. I was too afraid to find out what would happen if I didn’t! But she was stern, no-nonsense, and definitely not our mother.
I would no more have contradicted Mrs. Cooksey than I would have the principal of the school himself.
So, when Peter takes it upon himself to set Jesus straight, he at least has the consideration to take Jesus aside and rebuke him privately.
After he had Jesus alone, I am sure Peter repeated what he thought Jesus had said. Something like this, I imagine –
Peter: “Lord, let me get this straight. Did I hear you right? Do you think that when we get to Jerusalem that the religious leaders are going to give you a hard time? Why that’s nothing new, they’ve been doing that to us for almost three years now.
But, this business that they’re going to kill you, I can’t believe you said that. I’m not sure what all that business about rising on the third day was, but you’re not going to have to rise from anywhere on any day! Wouldn’t that be better?
No, this will never happen to you! I promise you that as long as I’m around nobody will do you any harm.”
At this point, I am sure that Peter is feeling pretty good about himself. After all, he’s the only one, again, with the boldness and courage to knock this silly notion that Jesus is going to be killed by a bunch of effete, soft-handed religious leaders. What match would they be for a fisherman, or a bunch of fishermen for that matter?
But unfortunately for Peter, Jesus response comes as a complete surprise.
Jesus: “Peter, I’ve just called you the Rock, but now I call you Satan. Get out of my sight, quit blocking my way on the road to Jerusalem. You’re thinking the wrong way, you’re thinking like they think, like the religious leaders I’m challenging. All they know is power and force and violence and threats and intimidation. No, you’re thinking like they are. You need to think like you belong to the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Of course, that is the Warnock Revised Version, but I think you get the point. Peter has failed to grasp that what Jesus is about is not bringing in the Kingdom of God like the religious leaders of his day, by collaborating with the most powerful military juggernaut on earth, the Roman Empire.
Jesus is again telling the disciples how different life is in the Kingdom of God, and how Kingdom living requires Kingdom thinking.
Developing A Kingdom Mindset
Listen again to what Jesus tells the disciples. I imagine that Peter hasn’t taken Jesus so far to the side that Jesus can’t turn and address them all. I also imagine that Jesus has emphatically made his point with Peter, so much so that the firm and commanding tone of his voice has already gotten their attention.
Jesus must have turned and addressed them all:
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life[h] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 27For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.
That is definitely not the way the world thinks. First, Jesus might have pointed to a man hanging on a cross to issue his challenge to them. When the Romans put down a minor rebellion in Jerusalem during Herod’s reign, they crucified 2,000 men, lining the roads into Jerusalem with their crosses on which they left their bodies to become food for the vultures.
So, the image might have been graphically before them. “Here’s what happens when you follow me,” Jesus might have said. “You take up a cross and follow me, because that’s my way.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous book, The Cost of Discipleship, contains Bonhoeffer’s comment that “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Bonhoeffer would give his life in a German concentration camp only shortly before the Allies would crush the Third Reich and liberate that Nazi death camp.
But to help them understand the significance of what he was telling them, Jesus added,
For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?
In other words, the more we try to hold on to our lives, the more we seek to save ourselves, the more we operate as this sad world operates, the less chance we have of actually finding life, of being the people that God created us to be.
Kingdom thinking does not start with “I.” Rick Warren began his mega-million seller, The Purpose-Driven Life with these words, “It’s not about you.”
Kingdom thinking, a Kingdom mindset, starts with Jesus. If Jesus is not worthy of our lives, then we are not thinking Kingdom thoughts.
If we gain the whole world, and here I think Jesus meant all that the present life in this existence has to offer – fame, money, material possessions, friends, family, and so on – but have failed to understand that all of that is temporary, fleeting (a vapor as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it) then we have failed to understand the purpose for which God has placed us on this earth.
Kingdom thinking is not conventional wisdom. The reason Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek,” was because they had always heard “an eye for an eye.” The reason Jesus said, “Go the second mile,” is because they had practiced the art of obedient hostility toward the Roman soldiers who could compel an able-bodied Jewish man to carry his pack for one mile.
The reason Jesus said to “love your enemies” was because they had heard they were supposed to “love their neighbors and hate their enemies.”
But the response to this is and has always been, “But that will never work in the real world.” And yet, the individuals in history who have captured our imagination have been those who have showed kindness in the midst of hostility, love in the midst of hate, and who have given their lives for causes most of us think are impossible and pointless.
Mother Teresa who started a home for the dying, so those dying in the streets of India could die surrounded by those who loved them. She captures our imagination because we would not do what she did. We might start a hospital to help cure them, or give funds to those who build houses, but those who are dying are dying anyway, why waste time and attention on them? And, that is the difference in our conventional thinking and Kingdom thinking.
So, how do we develop a Kingdom mindset?
First, by realizing that the life and teaching of Jesus is the basis for the way we live our lives. Jesus said to the disciples that “…the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.”
I don’t think that means that Jesus is going to reward folks for doing a few good deeds. What I think Jesus means is that your reward will be based on what decision you have made, what you have done, in order to live your life by Kingdom values. And, the first thing you must do in order to think Kingdom thoughts is to let your life be transformed by the King of that Kingdom.
Secondly, we must realize that there are times, quite a few of them actually, when the words of Jesus and the thinking of this world system in which we find ourselves will not agree. Our decision then has to be to stay with Jesus. Against the opinions of our friends, our family, our political party, and our neighbors. Why? Because conventional thinking, like Peter’s, is not Kingdom thinking.
Finally, we must remember that the Kingdom of God has already begun. We are not waiting for death to usher us into the Kingdom. The Spirit of God has already done that when by the mystery of God we were, as Paul said, transferred from the Kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of light.
We must admit things have gone terribly wrong in this world. I don’t think I have ever seen a time in my life when there is so much violence, so much discord, so much conflict, so much poverty, so much hatred, so much discontent around the entire globe, as there is today.
Without faith in Christ, without a commitment to a different way to live, one would have to despair for the future. But, there is another way to think. Not the way that Peter was thinking. But a new way to think.
That’s what Jesus meant when he would say, “You have heard it has been said…but I say unto you….” You’ve heard the old way to think and act, but there’s a new way, a Kingdom way, a way that is hard, involves sacrifice, and may lead to your losing everything. But that is the only way you’ll gain anything.
If you want to enter the Kingdom, learn to think like the King.
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”
Entertaining Angels: The Messengers and Armies of God
5So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.
6The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. 7Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.
8Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. 9Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.
11Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were anticipating.”
12When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. 13Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. 14When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!”
15“You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.”
16But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished.17Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell James and the brothers about this,” he said, and then he left for another place.
The Ministry of Angels
4Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.5All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. 6God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you 7and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.
The Book of Revelation is filled with the most descriptive imagery of angels as God’s warriors, but I want to leave that book for the week when we deal with angels and the end of time.
The book of Jude contains one very interesting, but mysterious event. Jude is writing about the brazenness of those who do not believe in God, or who live their lives in open defiance of God’s word. He contrasts that kind of arrogant attitude by saying —
9But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring a slanderous accusation against him, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!”
Jude’s point is to speak of the humility and restraint of even an archangel, but of course, we are very curious about what this brief verse means. You remember that Moses died in the presence of God, and God buried him. In Deutoronomy 34, the death of Moses is presented. The Bible only says that Moses died and was buried, and that no one knows where his tomb is. But, there must have been some dispute, some struggle between Satan and Michael over the body of Moses before its burial, and undoubtedly Michael wins.
Paul reminds us that even that we are in a spiritual battle. In Ephesians 6, Paul writes —
10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.”
Paul suggests that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” That is a battle that started long before man was created, and continues to this day.
It is a battle for which we are ill-equipped, unless the scale is tipped in our behalf by the Holy Spirit, our own obedience, and God’s holy angels.
Down through the years, fantastic stories of angels fighting real battles have been told. The most famous of these in modern history is the story of the Angels of Mons. The story goes that during World War I, the British army was struggling, in retreat actually. But somehow they blundered forward into the small mining town of Mons, France. Two German army corps divisions attacked the British on August 23, 1914. And here’s where the story gets interesting. During the fight, either celestial bowmen led by St. George, or angels themselves, routed the Germans, allowing the British to safely retreat later.
The story had so much support that British historian, A. J. P. Taylor, included the account in his book titled, The First World War, published in 1963. Although the story has been largely discounted, it remains a popular legend concerning angels.
But, Jesus reminds us that his kingdom is not of this world. I am sure that implies that whatever battles he sends his angels to fight for us are battles that concern eternity, not politics.
Peter’s experience, and the experience of the early church, was that the power of God was evident in their preaching, their ministry, and their protection. God will send his angels.
I am presenting this message tonight at a meeting of pastors and lay leaders who are concerned about the economy. I’d be interested in your comments.
Toward A Theology of Economics
1Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.
3Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.”
5When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
7About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
9Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”
10At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
Thinking About The Economy
We don’t have time today to review the almost countless articles, books, interviews, YouTube videos, podcasts, newscasts, newspaper reports, and other media all saying pretty much the same thing — the economy is in big trouble.
Unemployment is approaching 10%, and the government has promised us that, “Yep, before this is over it will hit 10%,” or more. And that’s just the latest bad news.
I’ve been following the economy with more interest than understanding for months. I bought several books, read Paul Krugman’s column in The New York Times, subscribed to Nouriel Roubini’s economics website, and engaged in long conversations about the economy with a member of my church who is a former international banker, responsible for financing international business deals in South and Central America.
My conclusion from all of this reading, listening, and talking is this — the economy is in big trouble.
So let’s see what sense we can make of subprime mortgages, credit default swaps, securitized assets, and the like. Actually, we’re not going to make any sense of any of those things, because I haven’t the foggiest idea what those terms, and the other 1,000 terms like them, really mean. I’ll leave that to our other guests this evening.
But what I do want us to do is this — I want us to think about the economy. But not in the ways that all of us, pundits and non-pundits alike, have been trying to think about it. I want us to think about the economy differently tonight. I want us to think about it theologically.
Of course, we can’t think about every facet, nuance, and detail of the economy, even theologically-speaking, so I have titled our time together, “Toward a Theology of Economics.” The idea being that the word “Toward” means we’re heading in the right direction, but we probably are not going to get there, at least not in the 20-minutes or so we have to think together.
Moving Toward a Theology of Economics Means Thinking Differently
One of my favorite books of the last 5 years is the book, Freakonomics, subtitled, A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden Side of Everything. Apparently, Steven Levitt was a rogue before Sarah Palin took the title. Anyway, Levitt teaches economics at the University of Chicago, and is a wunderkind of sorts among economists. Levitt’s particular gift is looking at things in society differently.
His co-author of Freakonomics, Stephen Dubner, writes,
So, Levitt asks interesting questions, such as, “Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?” Now that’s a pretty interesting question, and as you can imagine the story that provides the answer is both fascinating and too long for me to tell completely, so get the book.
But, the short version is that Sudhir Venkatesh, a PhD student at the University of Chicago, began interviewing members of the Black Disciples gang for a research project. In the course of those interviews, one of the gang members, their bookkeeper actually, gave Sudhir several spiral-bound notebooks containing the gang chapter’s accounts — income, expenses, salaries, overhead, cost of weapons, and so on — things all respectable gang businesses had to keep records of.
Sudhir talked to Levitt, and together they analyzed the contents of the gang’s books. What they found was that first, the gang was organized pretty much like a McDonald’s franchise — owners, bosses, workers, and wanna-be workers. Income came from the sale of drugs, club dues, and protection money paid to the gang by businesses. The head of that unit, or that particular gang franchise, made about $100,000 per year. But the guys next on the gang organizational chart made about $7/hour, and the street dealers made even less — about $3.30/hour. Thus answering the question, “Why do drug dealers live with their moms?”
So, the first lesson of our theology of economics is — Things aren’t always what they seem. That is especially true when you’re developing a theology of economics.
What Do We Mean By ‘Economy?’
Okay, let’s back up just a minute and ask ourselves, “What do we mean by economics?” Because if we’re moving toward a theology of economics, we might mean something different than what a Steven Levitt or a Paul Krugman or a Nouriel Roubini might mean when they use that word.
I am sure you all know this, but for the record, our English word “economy” comes from the Greek word “oikonomia,” which meant “the management of the household.” But, it also had the implication that the manager was managing the household for another, meaning the master of the household.
You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? Economics is more than money. Economics encompasses everything about managing the household, including, but not limited to money. And a theology of economics has to be more than “how can we get our members to give more?”
Okay, in the interest of time, let’s go ahead and define what we mean by “household.” Since we’re headed toward a theology of economics, let’s assume that the household, the enterprise being managed is God’s created order. Everything God made, over which God gave humankind dominion.
So, this is God’s household, this creation of God’s. And, we are the managers. We’re God’s economists.
So, the second lesson is — economics is the management of God’s household, and we’re God’s economists.
What Are We Supposed To Do?
So far, we’re making good progress. We’ve determined that things are not always what they seem, and that economics is really the management of God’s household.
But, it’s right here that we have to ask, “What are we supposed to do?” How do we manage God’s household exactly, and where do we find some guidance for doing it?
Well, we could get some help from financiers and global economists who tell us that economic growth is the goal of all economies. This year the US economy is expected to grow by about 2%, but China’s by about 9%. And so on down the roll-call of nations and growth rates. But, aren’t these the same guys who got us into this mess? The-growth-is-the-goal crowd, who like Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street, taught us that “greed is good.” And so, they gave us the greatest economic crisis since World War II, and a near-miss at another world-wide depression. Maybe we need to look elsewhere for guidance.
We could also look at the global business managers who continue to move production from developed countries to developing countries, looking for the lowest labor costs in places like China, Viet Nam, and other developing nations. I used to be one of those — I ran a small manufacturing company that produced goods in China. I told myself that low wages were better than the subsistence farm life Chinese workers endured.
I told myself that until I toured some of the factories and saw the horrific working conditions that existed. OSHA would close those plants in a nano-second because workers’ lives and health are endangered every day. And some of those workers are involuntary or underage workers.
Do you know what the big deal about Chinese New Year is? Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year as they call it in China, is a period of two-to-four weeks just before spring when all the factories close and production stops. But, do you know why this is so important? Because hundreds of thousands of workers from the rural areas of China will travel from their factory dormitories in Guangdong or Wuxi or Nantong, back home to visit their families.
This is the only time of the entire year that most have to see their loved ones, who include wives, parents, and even their children. The dorms in which they live crowd dozens of workers together in barracks-like settings that are usually under-equipped with restrooms, showers, drinking water, and the simple comforts of home. I am no longer a globalist, as you can imagine. So, maybe we need to look elsewhere for our model to manage God’s household.
An Example From Nature
Of course, both Scripture and nature give us ample examples. Actually, Jesus used nature as the example of God’s economy. Jesus said,
28“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
So, this is God’s household, but God also provides everything we need, including food, drink, and clothing. And, to worry about this stuff is to act like a pagan — one who doesn’t believe in the One True God.
A Characteristic of Economics: Extravagant Abundance
Debbie and I have had a vegetable garden for the last two years. And the words of Jesus we have just read were illustrated in our garden. We planted about 25 or so tomato seeds, and set out about that many tomato plants this year. But, on each plant, dozens of tomatoes grew. And when we cut those tomatoes open, thousands of seeds came gushing out. As a matter of fact, we had about a dozen volunteer tomato plants from last year because tomatoes fell on the ground, and rotted, but the seeds fell onto good soil and sprouted. (That’s another parable, by the way.)
God’s household, the natural part of it anyway, exhibits an extravagant abundance.
And that’s the first characteristic of our theology of economics — extravagant abundance. God did not plan for shortages. We have more than enough oxygen to breathe, more than enough water to drink, more than enough sunshine to fall of the earth.
We do not have a shortage in God’s household, we have a problem with distribution. Some of us have more that the rest of us. Now I realize that capitalism is based on just that idea — some people get rich, and some don’t. But remember, we’re moving toward a theology of economics, not a politics of economics.
God’s economy is not a giant, finite pie with only so many pieces to go around. There is an extravagant abundance, if we manage it correctly.
Unfortunately, there are too many examples of how we are not managing it correctly. Climate change, global warming, poverty, disease, and so on. But, let me give you an example a little closer to home, from the Lowe’s store in Danville.
Every spring we make the trek to Lowe’s to buy plants — flowers, mostly, because we grow our vegetables from seed.
Lowe’s has a great variety of both annuals and perennials, and it’s convenient for us to shop there. But this spring, I picked up a pot containing a plant which read — “Unlawful to propogate this plant. Copyrighted by….” whatever the name of the company was.
Some bio-geneticists have figured out how to produce a strain that has some unique characteristics. And, they’ve decided that they want to keep all the profits from that discovery for themselves. They want to sell you a new plant every year. You can’t share a clipping with a friend or fellow-gardener, or even root another for yourself.
That isn’t extravagant abundance, that’s greed.
Another Characteristic: Exceptional Generosity
Okay, we’re making progress. The second characteristic of our theology of economics is exceptional generosity.
Not only does God provide the food, the drink, and the clothes we need, in other words, our necessities, God provides it to everyone.
Jesus said, “God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” So, if you’re a bad, wicked person, it will probably still rain on your garden. The sun will still shine on your tomato plants.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew tells us that Jesus healed all their sick. (Matt 12:15) Not just some, or even many, but all. Everyone who was sick got healed that day. Exceptional generosity.
Of course, the cross stands at the center of our theology of economics. The cross is God’s best example of extravagant abundance, and exceptional generosity.
Little children learn a verse that captures both the idea of extravagant abundance, and exceptional generosity — John 3:16.
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.”
God gave all God had — his only Son — that is exceptional generosity. God gave God’s only Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Extravagant abundance is all the salvation we could ever need, made available to anyone, everyone, all who believe — without limit, without qualification, without hesitation. There is enough for all, and it is available to all.
The cross is God’s comment about economics. The cross is God’s object lesson to the world about giving. The cross is God’s acceptance of all who will stand in its shadow.
The same Jesus who died on the cross, God raised from the dead and has made him both Christ and Lord. Now, we have no problem believing that Jesus is Lord of the first century, or that Jesus is the Lord of heaven. But, we need to realize that Jesus is also Lord of the economy, the real world in which we live.
Which brings us to our final theological characteristic.
A Third Characteristic: Eternal Consequences
A third theological characteristic of managing God’s household is this — our management of God’s household, God’s economy, has eternal consequences. Listen to Jesus in Matthew 25 —
34“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
41“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
The interesting thing in this passage is that both groups, the righteous and the unrighteous were totally surprised that their managing of God’s household had eternal consequences.
I wrote about this passage last week in my blog under the title, “Foolproof Evangelism Needs No Training or Budget.” My point was, this is something every person knows how to do, and can do immediately. I got some amazing responses. One respondent said,
You call this EVANGELISM!? No wonder America sinks in its depravation and sin! How about: …faith comes from H-E-A-R-I-N-G THE MESSAGE, and the message is heard through THE WORD of God.
My reply was, “These aren’t my words, take this up with Jesus.”
But, my point is this — how we manage the economy, God’s household, has eternal consequences.
Back To Ananias and Sapphira
Which brings us back to Ananias and Sapphira. I really like this story.
In the brand new church of the book of Acts, believers were practicing this theology of economics that we have been discussing. They realized that while some had more than others, that all would have enough if they pooled their resources. They recognized the extravagant abundance of God’s blessings. They just had to solve the distribution problem.
So, they sold what they had, and pooled the money. Those who sold property brought all the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. Everybody had plenty, an abundance, because they were generous with those who needed it most. From abundance to generosity the early church experienced God’s favor and blessing.
But, Ananias and Sapphira decided they wanted the same recognition others had enjoyed. So they sold their property, but they decided not to give all the money to the church. They would keep back some. Rather than see abundance, they saw limit. “This is our only piece of property,” they must have said. “We deserve some of the money for ourselves.”
So, when Ananias brought the money to the apostles’ he said the same thing everyone else had said — “We sold our property, and we are giving the proceeds to the church.”
Peter knew Ananias was lying. So, Peter said,
“Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.
At that, Ananias fell down dead. They carried him out.
Three hours later, his wife, Sapphira arrived at church. She probably expected to be greeted with cheers and hugs for their generosity, but instead Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
Peter rebuked her just as he had rebuked Ananias, and she falls down dead.
An amazing story, that’s also a little scary, but what does it have to do with a theology of economics?
Just this — Ananias and Sapphira believed in one economy, but lived their lives in another economy. They wanted the benefits and blessings of believing the right thing, without really having to do it.
And that’s where we find ourselves today. Living one economy, but wanting the benefits of God’s economy. Especially when the economy we live in is in big trouble. Peter said they were lying to the Holy Spirit. Their theology of economics had eternal consequences for Ananias and Sapphira. What about ours?
It is not enough for us to figure out what to do in this economic crisis. It’s not enough that we find something that works. Our understanding of economics begins with God.
For if we understand that God provides all we need, we can live our lives out of God’s extravagant abundance.
And, when we realize that there is plenty to go around if we share with one another, then we are practicing exceptional generosity.
Our actions will not only have immediate effect, but more importantly, our actions will have eternal consequences.
But, the protest is always, “But in the real world, things don’t work like that.” “No one else will act like this.” But isn’t that the point, that we, the followers of Christ are different? That our confidence is God, the God who made heaven and earth. So, even if no one else manages God’s household like we do, we can still do it. After all, we’re reading about first century Christians in the book of Acts, not because they failed to change the world, but precisely because they did change the world. But remember, in economics things aren’t always what they seem.