“They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love, they will know we are Christians by our love.”
So goes a hymn by Peter Scholtes which has been covered by various Christian artists, and sung by many in a pew or around a campfire. It conveys the sentiment expressed in our gospel, in Jesus’ words: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
We heard this pericope included in a longer reading from John on Maundy Thursday. We enter the gospel of John at the last supper, right after Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. Judas left the party, to go meet the religious authorities and police and bring them to arrest Jesus. Then Jesus sat back, and began some final teaching.
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”
Love one another. Love is such a tricky word, overused and misunderstood. My family studies professor always reminded us that love is a verb. So often in our culture we make it a noun- something to be possessed, a feeling to fall in and out of. Love is a verb, a deliberate action.
Sometimes, when we apply this commandment to ourselves, a congregation of disciples, we can fall into the danger of envisioning this love as a general warm feeling. We reduce this commandment into getting along, or maybe ducking out of the room when we see someone who annoys us coming near!
Jesus doesn’t want us to just feel comfortable when we’re around one another, Jesus wants us to act! We do love when we act with the other’s well-being in mind. We do love when we seek to help the other live in joy and dignity.
In the words of the text lay one of the greatest dangers: love one another. Reciprocal loving relationships are what we expect both in and out of the church. We love those who love us. We love those who do good things for us, we love those who help us feel good about ourselves, we love those who are most like us, we love those who live like we think they should. We love those who earn and deserve our love. We love those in our close circle of relationships.
Jesus breaks open that circle of reciprocity. He clarifies,
“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Jesus has loved recklessly and abundantly. He has stepped down from his position of esteem to stoop at the feet of the disciples and wash them as a servant would. His love is leading him to die on the cross.
Jesus loves, knowing that his love will not be returned. Those he loves will hurt him, betray him, and abandon him. This teaching on love is preceded by Jesus’ act of love, washing feet, for all the disciples, even Judas, who is about to betray him to death. In the paragraph following our reading, Jesus turns to the disciple Peter, describing how Peter will deny ever knowing Jesus. Still, Jesus loves.
As a community, we are called to love recklessly and abundantly. We are called to enter loving relationships even with people who will never live as we might want, who won’t be able to turn their lives around, or who will not love us back. We are called to love the people others might whisper about, or push away.
I was in a church once, where they were struggling with being a loving community, specifically about who it was they were called to love, who was to be included in their community. They were struggling in a way that reminds me of the worst perversion of the Jewish life we see portrayed in Acts. In Acts, Peter’s refusing to eat is based in Jewish law: law from God. God set up laws and customs that would remind the Jewish people that they were different from their neighbors, that they were the chosen people of the covenant. Standards of purity and being separated from the wider culture were part of what reminded them to stay faithful to God.
My church was concerned with purity. One woman worried that she would be sinning by association, if the “wrong” people were welcomed into our church. When I think about it, many church communities I’ve been a part of have had their own “wrong” people, people who are labeled unwelcome, unloveable, a danger and bad influence in the community.
God’s revelation to Peter continues to show what it means to love as Jesus loves. Jesus’ love is not only for a select group of people, but is for the whole world. It is not only for those who have kept themselves separated, or who have been born into the right group. It is for the outcast, the sinner, the foreigner, the one who promises to be better tomorrow. It is for the broken, the different, the labeled. Jesus’ love is for you, each of you, with whatever baggage you carry. And it is for the one you’ve always avoided. Jesus love you each, and wants you to love each other.
Jesus enacts love, shows love to us, so that we might know how to love others. Jesus takes the role of the servant, and gives up his life in love, to do good for people who may never recognize his love, much less respond in kind.
As a community, we are called to live this love fully. We are challenged to love even past the point of sacrificing something of ourselves for the well-being of another. We might have to give up something to love another. Yet that does not mean we encourage each other to stay in harmful relationships, or enter into suffering for the sake of suffering. Rather, it means we strive for justice. We seek to enter into relationships that build each other up: not just emotionally, but in dignity and wholistic well-being. We love authentically, knowing each other’s brokenness and struggles, embracing differences, and remaining faithful even when it’s difficult to get along.
Love one another. This is hard work! Because it doesn’t come easily, we need a practice community. Throughout the centuries, Christians have gathered together around word and sacrament, with prayer for all the world and giving up some of our money for the good of others, taking time for confession and reconciliation in sharing Jesus’ peace. Here, in this congregation, we practice loving each other, so that we can leave this place and love each person we meet. After meeting Jesus, practicing love through prayer, giving, confession, and reconciliatory greetings, we are propelled outward.
The world will know we are Christians by our love. They will notice our love when it has the same radical nature as Jesus’ love: when it reaches outside of our safe bounded community, when it changes the lives of those it embraces, when it is real and authentic, and sometimes dangerous in loving those who don’t respond and those the world would rather we don’t love.
Jesus enacts love without regard for its return. You are loved with this reckless, selfless, embracing love. Jesus welcomes you into his community, at his table, to wonder and rejoice in the God who created you and gives you life. Knowing all of who you are, this God will always love you.
Superheros are pretty cool. Pretending to be them can be fun. I have some cute memories of my little brother, running around the house in his superman pajamas. The pajamas had the classic S and even a little cape that streamed out behind him as he pretended to fly.
There’s an allure to pretending you’re faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive. There’s something in many of us that wishes we were more than we are. Imagine the confidence you’d gain, even if you have to hide that something more behind a disguise.
Superheroes are cartooned ideals. They provide a hopeful vision of the best of what we could be. They have strong morals and are good citizens. They surpass their ordinary selves, sometimes transforming into the extraordinary with a change of costume. They represent what we might want to be, but don’t have the power or ability to be. We know they cannot exist, yet we are inspired by them. We are engaged by what they represent. Our devotion is formed by their infallibility. They never, or rarely, let us down.
We crave superheroes. After we grow out of childish pretending, we find it still satisfying to allow others to be heroes. We want heroes, we want to put people up on a pedestal, and believe they are the ideal incarnate- that they will exceed our expectations and never let us down. When they do, we are crushed. We are angry. Sometimes our worldview or belief structure can collapse as our vision of our hero is shattered.
I think of Brett Farve, who dropped the hearts of many Wisconsinites into the turmoil of abandonment, disbelief at his infidelity, and anger over broken expectations. I don’t know if anything was learned from the experience, or if fans simply set up another hero in Aaron Rodgers to take his place.
In the church, we’re no less protected from the danger of setting up superheroes in our midst. When those heroes fail, there can be devastating consequences for our faith. This week, many people were deeply saddened to learn that one of our local bishops was in an accident that resulted in the death of a runner. I pray for comfort and strength for her family, even as I also am confused by disparate images of a deeply respected bishop and the consequences of his own brokenness.
Many of us expect church people, of all people, to be good people. Leaders are held to even higher ideals. In my own congregations, in our neighboring congregations, and in the news, we hear of respected leaders, both pastors and laity, doing things that are complete opposed to our image of them. Sin has led many leaders and heroes in faith to do terrible things that have hurt people and the church. Our heroes are brought down by addiction, abuse, theft, and disease. When this happens, there is grief, and there needs to be action to stop destructive behaviors. We are not called to be foolish in restoring them to roles that offer easy opportunity to stumble again.
There is a tangential effect that deeply saddens me. That is the loss of faith the image of these crushed heroes causes in those who have held them in esteem. I’ve watched churches fall apart, and people walk away from faith, because the ones they always thought had it all together, the people they expected to be doing this Godly life thing right, didn’t prove to be the heroes they thought them to be. And if these greats can’t get it right, how can any of the rest of us? Shattered images of heroes disappoint us.
But, consider the scripture. Many of the “heroes” of the Bible hardly deserve the title! Think of the two we meet in today’s readings: Peter and Paul. Peter is the one who denied Jesus, who said he’d never met him, and who rejected his role as a disciple, all at the very same time Jesus was being tried and sentenced to death. Paul is the one who has been killing and imprisoning anyone who believes in Jesus. Fully aware of what they have done to hurt him, Jesus goes to these two men. He restores Peter and he calls Paul. Jesus will use these two failures, these two villains, to be the major heroes of the faith, gathering the church and spreading the gospel throughout the nations.
God works in unexpected ways, entrusting unimpressive people with great tasks in the kingdom of God. Our brokenness, our sin, can become a part of our story, a part of our witness to the ways God continue to come to us with forgiveness and love, even when we are very far away. When we stop pretending that any of us can achieve the ideal, we can open ourselves to the miracles that God can work in and through us and our messy lives. God is bringing life and hope to the world through you, and through all the communities who gather in God’s name, even though none of us, none of them, are perfect.
It’s not easy to let go of our longing for a hero- for someone who will save us- for someone who has all the answers. There will be no one person in our church who can do that. But God will use all of us, together, in the midst of our struggles, to point to the one savior of the world: Jesus Christ.
Jesus himself does not fit the image of the divine superhero. This morning’s reading from Revelation offers a portrait of Jesus as the slaughtered little lamb. He is not portrayed as the triumphant, powerful lion messiah. In many ways, Jesus is the anti-hero, diminished in the ways we expect a hero to be large. Jesus left pure divinity to become enfleshed, to become human, the very limited nature we expect our heroes to be able to escape. Jesus met with the outcasts, touched the lepers, and welcomed the children, instead of surrounding himself with armies, living in comfort, and being honored by the powerful. Jesus died, conquered by the powers of the world. Jesus is the one who has been raised from the dead. In all this, we see the hero God has sent us. Jesus is the one who welcomed all, who abandons none, and who has destroyed the power of death forever. God alone is the one who will not disappoint you, whose promises will not fail.
We, who often look for heroes in our churches, need to prepare ourselves to be like Ananias. When Jesus called him to go to Paul and heal him, welcoming him into the Christian community and even into leadership, Ananias couldn’t believe it. He protested. Yet, in the end, he listened to Jesus, and trusted his plan for Paul. There are times when we need the same willingness to welcome into the community someone who is trying to establish a new way of life, and needs support and the trust of a community in their discipleship.
It’s more than just the possibility for failure that is the danger when you set up heroes in faith. It’s the temptation to step back yourself- to tell yourself you’re not good enough, you couldn’t possibly, it’s not your job to… The truth is, God wants to use you- you’re the disciple God intends to use to share the gospel, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and basically, as our mission statement says, – joyfully join in God’s work!
You are not heroes. I am not a hero. But we are all saints. Jesus Christ has made us holy, knowing we are still sinners. One of the blessings of our church is that we live in the weekly rhythm of confession. We allow ourselves space to admit our brokenness, and declare our sin, not only in silence before God, but aloud before each other. We have no illusions to superhero status. But we have faith in the promise of God: who declares each of you forgiven.
You don’t need to be something greater than you are to be important in the kingdom of God. Jesus has made you important. Jesus has made you a necessary and vital member in the community of saints. Through the Holy Spirit, you who are mere mortals have been given the gifts of God, so that you can join in God’s life-giving work in the world. God doesn’t need someone else: God needs you- so that in your own way, through your broken and beautiful life, the love God has for you can be reflected into love for another.
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: easter, fear, Jesus, locked room, resurrection, thomas, tomb
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
We enter the Gospel of John on the first Easter evening. In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene is the first to reach the tomb and find it empty. She runs and tells Peter and another disciple that Jesus’ body is missing. Then Peter and the beloved disciple also go to the tomb and find no body. All they see are the linen wrappings that had covered Jesus in his death. At this sight, they remember the scripture and Jesus’ teaching that he would rise from the dead. Then, believing, they return to their homes. Mary stays outside the tomb. There, in the garden, Jesus meets her. Jesus sends her back to the other disciples, to share the good news of his resurrection and impending ascension.
All that brings us up to speed for our reading for this morning. Are you ready to continue to explore this exciting story? Well, it takes a bit of a twist. The scene we meet is hardly the scene I’d expect following the revelations of that first Easter morning.
I’d expect something like the joy I experienced here on Easter morning. Or the feast I had on Sunday evening. Or the wonder of discovery I see in children on Easter egg hunts.
Instead, this twist in the story plunges us to an abrupt stop. The excitement of Jesus’ resurrection hasn’t burst forth into the world, it’s been shuttered up. We find the disciples gathered together behind locked doors, with fear in their hearts. Despite hearing the good news, the disciples are still trapped by fear. We can understand why they’d be afraid. Their friend and leader was just killed. The religious leaders and the government may be ready to kill all of them. Those leaders want peace, not an insurrection fueled by Jesus’ martyrdom. Certainly these disciples are on the watch-list. They are likely in danger!
But I have to say I feel sad for the disciples because they are trapped in fear. I feel sad mostly because I know how easy it is for us today to be trapped in fear, just like them. We can be trapped personally, as well as congregationally. Setting aside the issue of mental illnesses which can bind and trap people, for whom professional treatment can work to free and heal, basic fear can hold us back from living fully in the joy of Jesus’ resurrection.
We’re trapped in fear when we forget that Jesus has already won! When avoiding death is our greatest goal. When we feel a need to create a legacy so that we are not forgotten. When we seek to protect ourselves above all else. When we try to accumulate as much stuff and money as we can. When we try to make ourselves important according to the values of this world. When we lose sight of how very much Jesus loves and values us. When we exclude instead of welcome. We’re trapped in fear when we forget that we’ve already been brought into the kingdom of God, so that we can live this life and eternal life in the joy Jesus has won for us.
As a congregation, we can become trapped in fear when we see scarcity rather than abundance. When we try to protect the in-group rather than going outside of our boundaries. When we stop our joyful joining in God’s work because we don’t see a change in the world.
We’re trapped when we don’t allow the resurrection to change our lives. People often wonder with me how those who don’t believe in God can get through hard times, or have hope in the midst of grief. What I want to wonder with you is how your living is different from your atheist neighbor. How do you not just get through life, but live life, live resurrection, each day? How does your trust in a life-giving God change your priorities, your values, and your goals?
I talked last week about how Jesus’ resurrection is life breaking into the death of our world. Easter is the sign of God’s kingdom here and now, even as we know it’s not fully here yet. I asked you to look for signs of resurrection and kingdom in your neighborhoods and your lives. I hope you take some time during coffee hour to share those sightings.
As we consider how to live resurrection-changed lives, I think it’s worth recognizing that most of the stories of resurrection-sightings I found deal with God’s work among the poor and powerless. They included coffee-drinkers who paid for extra drinks so those without money could enjoy something warm on a cold day. ELCA Missionaries June and Phil Nelson witnessed to the healing of a burned boy, who was driven to the protestant hospital by the bishop, and received necessary treatment free of charge. Kingdom transformation is found where is it most desperately needed. Those are the places we are called to join in God’s work.
Even as we recognize the not-yet-ness of resurrection healing in our world, we are called to live as if we are fully in the kingdom now. That means we take courageous and bold steps to join in God’s work to bring life and healing to all the world, sharing the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. It means we share the abundant forgiveness we have received. Our vision of the world is changed, so that even when we look death and despair in the face, we see God’s work to bring life and hope.
The disciples did not stay locked in the room, because Jesus came to them. Into that space, heavy with fear, Jesus came and stood, declaring, “Peace be with you.” He calms their hearts and reassures them that the empty tomb was truly a sign of God’s work. But he does not let the disciples stay locked in their room. Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The disciples are to go out, continue the work of the kingdom, declaring God’s love and forgiveness, and enacting God’s healing. As Jesus was sent into danger to do this work, so the disciples will be. Some will be killed for their work. But Jesus’ resurrection is the promise that sustains them through danger. And, they are given God’s very presence to be with them. Jesus breathes on them, and says,“Receive the Holy Spirit.” They do not go out into the world alone.
The reading from John closes with a delightful editorial remark. The central point is that the author has written what he hopes will work trust and belief, so that we will cling to Jesus. Thomas needed to touch Jesus’ wounds before he could make his declaration of faith. What is it that you need? What does Jesus need to do in your life so that you can live a freed life of resurrection joy?
God is working to build faith in you. This pattern of being welcomed, meeting resurrected Jesus, being sent into the world, equipped with the Holy Spirit, is the pattern we experience at worship every Sunday. We come into this space, perhaps filled with fear, or conformed to the values of the world, having forgotten the joy of resurrection. Jesus comes into our midst with water, word, wine, and bread.
Jesus gathers us into one community, so that we would share our own stories, and thereby help each other “come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.” Having been filled with the Holy Spirit, God sends us out into our week, to live our daily lives as people who know they are already in the kingdom of God.
We are sent out of this church to be “little Christs” for the world. Jesus calls us to continue in the work he began: to bring good news to the poor, heal the sick, lift up the oppressed, welcome the outsider, and point to the ways the kingdom of God is here. The joy of Easter is meant to propel us forward in our lives of discipleship. Jesus has unlocked the tomb of fear, so that you can live in joy and hope.
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: easter, empty tomb, Jesus, kingdom, Luke 24:1-12, resurrection
Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Jesus Christ, who died on the cross and descended to the dead, rose from death. In his resurrection to new life, Jesus opens the kingdom of God to us today! Jesus shows the power of God to bring life. This resurrection life is for you.
You responded with great enthusiasm this morning: Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!
But if in your heart you aren’t sure about the resurrection, or what it means that Christ is risen, you’re not alone. Even the disciples, who heard Jesus tell them that he would rise from the dead, weren’t expected it.
The Gospel of Luke describes women coming to the tomb at early dawn. They are bringing spices to anoint the dead body of their teacher and friend, according to their custom. They’re hoping to cover some of the smell of decay. They do not expect to find anything other than Jesus’ body laying in the sealed tomb.
They are terrified when two men in dazzling clothes appear next to them outside an opened and empty tomb. But as these men remind them of Jesus’ teachings, their hearts are filled with joy. Their proclamation is: Alleluia! Christ is risen! They go to the other disciples, sharing this good news.
But the disciples do not share our response: Christ is risen indeed, alleluia. Instead, they laugh, shrug their shoulders, or shake their heads. Maybe they even have bitter words and call the women liars. Most do not believe their story, but one wonders if it might be true. From the cloud of doubt and disappointment, Peter gets up and runs to see the tomb for himself. Not content to trust the word of others, he is amazed to find their witness is true. The tomb is empty, what can this mean?
The empty tomb means Jesus is alive. Jesus’ resurrection means that God is able to bring life out of death, joy out of sorrow, and creation out of nothing.
Even as people who trust in God’s power to work life, desire to heal creation, and love for us, it can be hard to understand resurrection. It can be hard to see resurrection. Difficult to see God’s life-giving power in our world and our lives. Where is resurrection, where is this new kingdom, as we mourn our loved ones? As war escalates? As children are abandoned? As people go hungry? As hope for the future is lost?
There is an image that helps me think about this tension between the kingdom of God being here and also not yet, resurrection being won and yet to come. Imagine an asphalt road. Then picture it cracking and a seedling emerging and blooming.
If you’ve planted a tree too near your sidewalk or driveway, you know the power of plants to move and break up cement. Tree roots can choose a path and crumble anything in their way.
In this manner, the kingdom of God is breaking into our world. Jesus’ death and resurrection has shattered the powers of evil and the kingdom of this world which draw us away from God. Jesus continues to work to finally dismantle these powers. The new creation in God’s kingdom is coming to be, but is not yet fully here.
Unseen by us, there is work under the pavement. Jesus, in death, was under the pavement. He was sealed in the tomb and descended to the place of the dead. As a strong shoot pushes against cement, splitting it apart, Jesus was not contained by death. Jesus broke the bonds of death. God’s power for life has proven to be stronger than death.
Jesus’ resurrection has forever changed death. Jesus is crumbling the cement of death. God’s life-giving kingdom is dismantling the death-dealing kingdom of this world. Rejoice- this new creation in the kingdom of God is coming. Jesus’ resurrection is a sign of all that is to come.
Even as we celebrate Jesus’ victory over death, we know the pain of grief. We long for resurrection out of love for those who have died. They will be given new life. God is at work, holding our loved ones in the promise of resurrection. A day will come when death will finally be no more.
Paul calls Jesus the first fruits, as we read this morning, “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. (I Cor 15:20). Jesus is just the beginning. Jesus’ resurrection is like the early daffodil shoots, poking through the semi-frozen earth bordering our home. Arriving here in winter, we couldn’t see how the yard was landscaped. The snow melted first around the house. Then we could see the tips of daffodils. Now the tulips are beginning to emerge as well. Soon all the flowers will be in bloom, the trees will have leaves, and the grass will be green. The rich life of summer will come. In the midst of summer’s joy, I’ll remember that its arrival was heralded by those first daffodils.
We live in the early spring of the resurrection. Jesus has been raised from the dead, the first. His resurrection is a sign of what is to come. God is bringing the fullness of summer, the life of resurrection, to all the world. All who have died will be raised, all that is decayed in creation will be renewed.
Even in the midst of signs of death and decay, we can find God working resurrection, God’s kingdom breaking in to our broken world. On Good Friday, I joined the people of Reformation Lutheran Church in Milwaukee. Together, we walked in the neighborhood of the church, looking for signs of God’s work even as we acknowledged signs of brokenness. We stopped to pray in front of a soon to be completed Habitat for Humanity house. Many of the neighboring houses were boarded up, upper window panes broken, signs stating “property of the city of Milwaukee.” Yet in the middle of this destruction was a freshly recreated home, a place of hope for a new family, a symbol to the community of the transformation that is in process.
I invite you to take a similar walk this week. Physically walk through your neighborhood or mentally walk through your day. Where have there been signs of resurrection? Where has God been active, bringing life, healing, forgiveness, or hope? Where has community been restored? Where have the hungry been fed? Where have words of grace been spoken?
I’ll be posting some stories of God-sightings, or resurrection-sightings throughout the week on my Facebook page and invite you to join in on that conversation, both online and as you gather in person.
As a congregation, as followers of Jesus, you are called to join in God’s work to bring resurrection to this world. Be like the women, who told of the amazing sight of the empty tomb. Be like Peter, whose joyful wonder grew into bold welcome. Be like our partners at Reformation, who have committed themselves to work for the good of their neighbors and persist in celebrating the new life Jesus is bringing.
Jesus came to earth, became human, died, and rose from the dead, not for himself, but for you. It is for your sake that resurrection was won. Jesus has opened the way to bring life for you. New life, kingdom life, is yours today because- Alleluia! Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia.
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: atonement, Cross, crucifixion, Good Friday, Jesus, John 18:1-19:42
Tonight, we hear John’s account of Jesus’ victorious death on the cross. Victorious death? Yes, the cross is where the path of faithfulness leads. Jesus is victorious in his faithfulness to the end. Especially in the Gospel of John, we are told that Jesus knew the betrayal, abandonment, suffering, and death that was to come in his last days. Jesus knows the danger that is to come, and he continues directly for it. To die on the cross will be to triumph. It is the central reason Jesus has come to earth. Jesus’ death is key in Jesus’ victory.
John writes his passion from a different light than the synoptic Gospels. Jesus has foreknowledge of what is to come and is confident in continuing his mission, knowing that mission leads to his death.
Let’s consider a few examples of Jesus’ faithful confidence from the Gospel of John. After Jesus enters Jerusalem with palm branches waving, he declares, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” and speaks of his death as the falling of a grain of wheat which dies and bears much fruit. He continues to speak of the hour of his death as the reason he has come. As he preaches this, the crowds hear affirmation in the thunder of God’s voice. In tonight’s gospel, when the soldiers and police come to arrest Jesus in the garden, Jesus does not fight back or run away, rather he declares, “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” Jesus carries his cross to the site of the crucifixion, whereas other Gospels tell that Simon of Cyrene carried it. Even John’s description of Jesus’ death emphasizes Jesus’ powerful choice to follow through with his mission: “When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:30). Jesus “gave up his spirit” in the active voice: Jesus is not a passive victim in this gospel. John paints a portrait of one who knows what is to come and desires to follow through with it. Jesus chooses to suffer and die.
As John tells Jesus’ passion, he lifts up meanings for his community and for us. Kingdom and power emerge as major themes.
The major exploration of kingdom and power begins as Jesus is brought before Pilate, the governor of Judea. Pilate has heard Jesus has been called the “king of the Jews” and questions him about his kingship. Jesus replies that his kingdom “is not from this world.” Jesus’ kingdom is greater than this world, it existed before the world was brought into being. Jesus declares that Pilate’s power is dependent on a greater power. Pilate is both fearful and scornful.
When the crowd outside Pilate’s headquarters gets involved, the debate about kingship expands to a reflection of whose leadership we follow. The faithful response is to acknowledge God alone as the one to whom we owe allegiance. But, instead of declaring “God is our king,” the chief priests and police declare “we have no king but the emperor.” They reject the promised king that God has sent. Many Christians have done violence to modern Jews because of John’s portrayal of their rejection. But that was not his point. Rather, John was reflecting on the rejection his Christian community felt from the Jewish communities in which they worshipped and with whom they identified. For us today, the religious authorities’ rejection invites us to consider our rejection. When God acts other than we expected, when we don’t get what we think God should give us, when other people or things look more likely to give us life and security, do we also reject God? Do we also claim another as our king?
Pilate twists and mocks the idea of Jesus as king. He has Jesus dressed in a royal purple robe and crowned with thorns. Jesus is shackled and beated, condemned to death. As he hangs on the cross, Pilate’s royal declaration hangs above: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Pilate sees crucified Jesus as the furthest thing from an image of a king.
The cross is the throne Jesus ascends. Humility is the path he chooses. But his kingship is sure. Jesus is one with the creator whose power is greater than all. Jesus sets aside power in his incarnation and death. Jesus’ resurrection on Easter morning testifies to the kingship and power that rightly belong to him. Pilate intends to mock the powerless king, but Jesus proves his victory in setting aside power. Jesus is ruler of a different kind of kingdom, in which the powerful one gives up himself for the sake of the weakest.
The cross is the moment of Jesus’ victory. What is it Jesus is victorious over?
Jesus is victorious over sin, death, and the devil. Jesus breaks the powers of this world that hold us captive and separated from God. Jesus opens his kingdom to all people.
The powers of evil, the rights of death, were broken when they tried to claim Jesus. From the beginning of the gospel, John wants us to know that Jesus is the word of God, Jesus is from God, Jesus is God. Jesus Christ is present at creation, bringing life into being, light out of darkness, creation out of nothing. So when this Jesus Christ enters into the darkness of death, and death tries to turn him into nothingness, death fails in his task. The one who creates life, light, and creation enters cannot be conquered by death. Jesus makes light in the midst of the darkness of death and turns the nothingness of death into full life. Jesus emerges from suffering death fully restored in newly created life.
What does all this mean for you and for me?
The cross is the place of victory for Jesus, and also for us. Jesus draws all people to himself as he is raised up on the cross. We who have been united with Jesus through baptism are united with Jesus in his death. Jesus’ death breaks apart the kingdom of this world that is opposed to God and firmly establishes the kingdom of God. We are brought into the kingdom of God now.
This means that you have been freed from all those things which take life away. Death, fear, greed, the need to live up to other’s expectations or ways of valuing life- none of these things have a hold on you anymore. Jesus has won you away from these powers.
Tonight, we welcome the cross into our midst. We honor the cross as symbol and place of Jesus’ victory, in doing so, we glorify the one who died there. As Jesus transforms the world with his kingdom, Jesus has transformed the cross from a place of shame to a place of victory.
Easter Sunday, the empty tomb, and the risen Jesus Christ are the final affirmations to Jesus’ victory on the cross. We know that the cross was a battle won because Jesus emerges from death. We celebrate Jesus’ faithfulness to the cross and God’s faithfulness in providing life. We rejoice in Jesus’ death, because we know that it is not the end of the story. On Easter morning, we will celebrate the bloom of the seed of victory planted this evening.
*http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=3/29/2013 Susan Hylen’s commentary regarding the power and kingdom aspects of this gospel were especially helpful in my thinking regarding this text, as was Gustaf Aulen’s Christus Victor and Raymond Brown’s A Crucified Christ in Holy Week: Essays on the Four Gospel Passion Narratives
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: 31b-35, discipleship, John 13:1-17, maundy thursday
Knowing he was heading towards his death, Jesus shared one final meal with his disciples. Around this table, Jesus did and said strange things: last things: things to be remembered. Taking the place of a slave, Jesus knelt and washed his disciples’ feet, giving them a new commandment- to love one another as Jesus loves. Acting as host, Jesus took bread and wine, blessed and shared them, declaring that he has taken the place of these simple foods, that now they are his body and his blood, given for them.
In John’s gospel, the central event of the supper is Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet. In Jesus’ day, households had slaves or servants who did the dirty work. And it was dirty! One of the ways that people were welcomed into their friend’s homes was to have their feet washed by one of these slaves. Now, these aren’t people who have been driving clean cars and walking on soft carpeting or swept sidewalks all day. The disciples have been walking through a busy city with marketplaces, animals roaming the streets, and the dry dust coating their feet.
The only time I’ve experienced something similar is while studying in India. I had one pair of Chaco sandals that I walked everywhere in. Dust and dung, spit and trash, puddles harboring who knows what- I walked through it all. In the evening, when I returned to my room and removed my shoes, my feet, browned with grime, had white stripes of contrast, where my sandal straps had been.
Think of your feet like that, and then picture someone washing them. It would certainly be a refreshing and welcoming act. But I wouldn’t want my professor to have to do it, much less my Lord and Savior!
I can understand Peter’s objection when Jesus kneels before his feet. How could he let Jesus, respected teacher, promised messiah, son of God and worker of miracles, do something so dirty and degrading? How embarrassing, to let Jesus see and touch the residue of all the grossness his feet had walked through?
Yet, once Jesus tells Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me,” Peter is eager to receive this gift.
Are you? Are you ready to acknowledge the many places your feet have taken you? Are you ready to confess your sin? Are you ready to be deeply known by Jesus? Even to be known in your smelly, dirtiness?
Jesus has come from God to know you. This foot washing is a sign of how Jesus is intimately close to you. He knows well all you have touched and been through. Holding the dirt of those places in his hands isn’t enough. Jesus travels towards fuller experience of the human condition. He will move from washing dirty feet to betrayal, abandonment, suffering, and death.
Jesus comes to you to sustain you and give you life. Jesus washes you, welcomes you, and feeds you. Jesus does this for the whole world.
In Mark, Matthew, and Luke’s gospels, as well as in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the central event of the supper is Jesus’ institution of what we now call Holy Communion. Here Jesus gives bread, saying, this is my body, and wine, saying, this is my blood. His body is soon to be broken and his blood soon to be poured out. Jesus will soon die. His death will nourish all disciples, sustaining them into a new life-giving relationship with God.
When we celebrate in remembrance of this last supper, we participate in God’s promise. Tonight, Brandon, Morgan, Olivia, Becca, Alexa, Natalie, and Alexis join us at the table to be fed by Jesus. Jesus serves us with his very body, blood, and life. These are Jesus’ gifts of love.
Jesus comes towards us, to love us and serve us, in our grimy condition.
As a church, we can easily forget the state that we are in when Jesus comes to us. As followers of Jesus, we are called to go out and meet people, serving them where they are. We go to people- and not just people who think like us or act like us or look like us. Not just people who are clean, or even those who want to become clean.
It’s popular in our culture, to think we need to bring people into church and teach them how to behave. Parents bring children to church to learn morals. We see the battles of well-meaning Christians who try to elevate the status of the Ten Commandments and display them in the public world. They hope that everyone will recognize and follow God’s laws. But being Jesus’ disciples is about more than making everyone outside the church look like our vision of what the inside of our church should be like.
Tonight, we hear Jesus giving the final word on being his disciple. Jesus focuses us on a new command. Preparing for his death, he wants to make sure we get one thing right. Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” If we remember only one thing about Jesus and how to live as a disciple it is this: LOVE.
Love, as Jesus loves. Jesus makes very clear how we love like him. We love by stepping away from our rights, our control, our way of doing things. We give up power, preservation, and pride. We risk being betrayed, backstabbed, and burned. We even become willing to die. All to love each and every person. To know her fully, to be in deep relationship, to touch the grime of her life, and really, truly welcome her. To kneel in front of one others might judge our inferior. To serve him, give him dignity, and grant him life.
Love one another, love the other. Jesus first loves you. Jesus loves you through the washing of the disciples’ feet. Jesus loves you through the bread and the wine. Jesus loves you through his betrayal, arrest and death. Jesus has come, so that you would be loved, so that you would love.
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: Baptism, community, Luke 15, party, prodigal son, sermon, welcome
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
Today we hear one of Jesus’ more famous parables, the Prodigal Son. On the surface, it comes to us as a portrait of a family with broken relationships. Whether or not they are in our family, most of us know what it is to have relationships strained and severed. Jesus uses our ability to relate with that portrait to answer the questioning religious leaders and reveal to them, and to us the great depth of God’s love.
The beginning of the chapter sets the scene: wherever Jesus is teaching, society’s undesirables are following. It’s not only the good religious people, but the people who have done everything wrong whom Jesus welcomes. This has made the good religious people uncomfortable. So, Jesus launches his teaching with a number of parables that show God’s longing and desire to search for and welcome back those who have never known God, or have turned away.
Whether you’ve heard this parable once, or many times before, you may not have noticed some details, so we’re going to look a little deeper at the text. These details have to do with the timing and order of thoughts and events. The first has to do with the prodigal son. He’s feeding the pigs in a foreign country and starving, not being allowed to even eat the pigs’ food. In this miserable state, the text says “But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!’” The part our minds tend to focus on is his second thought, “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
We tend to hear that the horrible situation the son found himself in was enough to make him repent, realize his primary sin of selfishly breaking relationship, and desire to work towards the restoration of that relationship. If we read too quickly we can miss the sense that he’s not primarily worried about his relationship with his father, he’s focused on himself. His question is, how can I get myself to a better place, where I’m not starving, and what do I have to say in order to get it? He’s still stuck on himself. What we might consider his repentance speech: “Father, I have sinned” may not be quite as sincere as I’ve always considered it, after all, he isn’t first saying to himself “I have sinned,” but only saying it in the context of his plan to get what he wants from his father once again. Because he isn’t aware of his primary sin, he isn’t looking for healing there, he isn’t even considering that his Father may be more faithful to the relationship than expected. The son isn’t seeking to become a member of the family again. He may not even see restoration into his role as son as an option. Hungry, he heads for home, rehearsing this speech.
The second detail to note is the timing of the father’s decision to embrace his child. The text reads, “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (20b).
We might imagine that the father has not seen nor heard from this son from the day he left. On that day, the son irrevocably declared that his father was dead to him by demanding his inheritance and severing their relationship. Now he comes back filthy and starving, stinking of the ways he has wasted his father’s money. The son hasn’t had a chance to give his speech, there are no apologies. The father simply sees an opening, an opportunity to take his son back, and he runs for it.
It makes me wonder what this father has been doing in the intervening years. I think of families whose children have run away, or have become so estranged that news is no longer shared. I think of the improbability that this landowning father would have recognized his son from far away when one would expect his concentration is focused on tending the estate. Since he did see the son from afar, I can imagine the tension of hope that has been this father’s constant companion. How often he must have been looking up the road for the years since his son left- haunted by a vision of his son’s back and longing for one of his return? Has he planned how he will welcome him back, how he will protect him from the anger of the rest of the family and neighbors who also know the depth of the insult his demand for the inheritance had been?
The joyful celebration following the welcome of the first son can leave us forgetting the second son. He remained with his family, working hard to run the farm and continue to support the family. But he was in the field, doing what he was supposed to be doing, when the other son returned and the party began. When he learns what has happened, “he became angry and refused to go in.” He is not left in his anger, “His father came out and began to plead with him.” The father invites this son to let go of wanting exclusive rewards for his good work, and to join the party to welcome the restoration of the one who was lost.
Jesus tells parables so that those listening would hear themselves into an encounter with God. In our Bible, Jesus tells this story to Pharisees and scribes, good religious people, who are angry that religious Jesus would welcome and eat with sinners. Jesus has come from God to bring the kingdom of God, and so his parables, and his life, show what this kingdom is like. The prodigal son is the sinners, who, even though they remain in sin, and continue to do things that turn them away from God, are so loved by God that God runs to them, even before they change their ways. The righteous, resentful brother is the religious, who have become so wrapped up in their work to be holy that they have put boundaries around God. They expect God to restrict God’s love and blessing to those who do what God wants, and when Jesus shatters their expectation by bringing sinners into the celebration, they are resentful of God and their hard work or perhaps simply confused by this new, unexpected welcome for all.
Jesus tells parables so that we would hear ourselves into an encounter with God today. It’s a blessing to be beginning a new ministry here with you all, but it’s always difficult to preach to a new group of people and a new congregation. I don’t know where each of you find yourselves in this story, or how our congregation might fit in. Are you feeling overwhelmed in a difficult situation that you’re all too aware you’ve created for yourself? Are you discouraged over broken relationships you’re not sure will ever heal? Are you frustrated that you work hard to do good and yet so many others seem to be rewarded for working only for themselves? Or maybe you find yourselves like me, some days sitting with the pigs, realizing that you’re not getting where you hoped by acting alone. And other days, pouting outside the party, because you weren’t recognized for your work.
If the father was to stand for any of us, maybe he would not have known what his reaction would be until he saw the son coming. Maybe he would have intended to chase him away if he ever had the audacity to show his face again. Maybe, only on a good day, that moment of recognition would have changed his heart to mercy.
But the father in the story stands for Jesus, and God’s work to build the kingdom through Jesus. Even if you can’t quite relate to one or the other of the sons, the important thing is to hear and wonder at God’s awesome grace. All three of these parables in chapter 15 are meant to proclaim that God expends infinite energy to find and welcome even one person. Jesus lives out this parable, running to all the children of the world as he runs to the cross. There he embraces all suffering, so that he might draw all people through death into life and joy with him.
This good news is for you, daughters and sons of God. You don’t have to worry and wonder what God’s reaction will be when he recognizes you, broken and distant. Jesus runs to you, embracing you, allowing the dirt accumulated from the places you have been to touch him and stick to him. If you don’t relate to the first son, perhaps you hear in the second son your own righteousness. Jesus says to you that you are also most dearly beloved and God is drawing you into the celebration as well. You can live your lives in the painful state of both these sons, never acknowledging the gifts of the Father, and yet God continues to come to you, to welcome you, to forgive and love you. The party begins here today, as all of us sinners and saints are brought together into one community of joy. This party continues into eternity, when we will be hesitant in our celebration no longer, but will fully experience the welcome of God.