When Purity Goes Wrong

Luke 15:1-10

I grew up in a fairly strict religious home.  I never heard either parent cuss.  Thanks to an incident with flaming popcorn in a microwave oven, my children can’t say the same thing about me.  One grandfather would get upset if someone said “golly” or “gosh” because those were just cleaned-up versions of taking God’s name in vain.  My other grandfather refused to carry a pocketknife on Sunday; he felt carrying weapons of any kind violated the Sabbath.  We didn’t smoke.  We didn’t drink.  A couple of the men in our family did chew, but we never ran with girls who do.  You get the picture.

Please understand: I’m not making fun of these rules.  They formed a behavioral base that kept our lives fairly uncomplicated. Some scholars call these kinds of rules “purity codes.”  They describe who is “pure” and who is “impure.”  However, this passage from Luke shows us that Jesus wasn’t overly into purity codes.  In fact, he regularly disagreed with Pharisees, some of whom were champions of purity codes. 

No matter how a religion begins, over time it nearly always starts to develop ideas about who is “pure” and who is “impure,” who is sacred and who is profane.  The Pharisees in our passage cared a great deal about their code, and they were scandalized when Jesus refused to honor it by hobnobbing with people who didn’t measure up to the Code. 

Purity codes might make us better behaved.  They might simplify our lives by keeping us out of trouble.  The problem comes when a purity code becomes an ego game that we can play to pretend that we can earn our way into the Kingdom, or that other people aren’t as good as we are.

The old laws and rules in the Old Testament originally helped to bind Israel together in the middle of dozens of other tribes that had radically different ideas about gods and morality.  Israel’s laws were helpful.  But some of the Pharisees had turned the old laws into an ego-driven purity code.  They took the original commandments in scripture and created a “hedge” of extra rules around the original rules, to keep people from even getting close to violating them.  The new rules became part of the Code, too.  For some of them, the Code was more important than people.  Their righteousness was a self-righteousness, not the biblical righteousness of justice for everyone.

I don’t think Jesus had a problem with the Law as such.  He just didn’t think the Law was more important than actual people.  He said that the Sabbath was made for man; not man for the Sabbath.  You could probably have heard some of the Pharisees gasp out loud at the very idea.  Jesus’ parable about the one lost sheep tells us something about how much he valued every individual person, rather than the rules everyone was supposed to follow. 

To a strict purist, the rules are the most important thing.  Any person who breaks the rules is wrong, or bad, or an outsider.  Jesus, however, always started at the other end.  He started with love for the individual person, the ‘one sheep’ in the parable.  When Jesus and his disciples were hungry and needed to eat, that overrode the prohibition against any kind of grain-harvesting on the Sabbath.  When a man with a withered arm needed healing, or a stooped-over woman needed to be straightened, Jesus responded to the needs of the individual, even though it took place on the Sabbath and the Purity Code said that nobody was supposed to perform any kind of work, no matter how small or humane. 

Jesus didn’t measure people by their adherence to a code.  In his eyes, people who failed to measure up to the Code were not lesser people.  The very fact that they realized their imperfections made them better able to hear what Jesus had to say. 

Richard Rohr points out that “The point of the Christian life is not to distinguish oneself from the ungodly, but to stand in radical solidarity with everyone and everything else.” The point of the cross was God’s solidarity with us and love for us.  The point of the cross was not God’s judgment on us for failure to live up to the Code.   The cross reminds us that God loves each and every individual person on the earth, no matter how well-behaved we are.  People who pride themselves on the Code don’t see what the cross has to do with them. 

Followers of Jesus do not have the right to stand in judgment over other people for not being “pure” enough.  Jesus never did that.  Jesus actually became angry at some of the Pharisees who had the gall to judge others.  They were more concerned with the needs of their egos than with the needs of the people around them. 

For Jesus, the presence of God was not to be found in adherence to rules or purity codes.  God is to be found in every individual person – it’s the one sheep over whom heaven rejoices, not the ninety-nine who are sure that they’re already righteous!  None of us can achieve enough purity to merit our worthiness.  But if any one of us goes deep enough within ourselves, we will find the presence of God there, because each of us was created in the image of God.  In the fifteenth century, St. Catherine of Genoa used to run through the streets shouting, “My deepest me is God! My deepest me is God!”  I’m sure she got some strange looks, but she had a point.  At the core of each of us is God’s image. 

Going deep within ourselves requires us to be honest with ourselves.  Unhealthy religion encourages us to pretend to be something that we’re not, or to pile up brownie points for good behavior. 

Healthy religion leads us to be honest about the parts of ourselves that we like to pretend aren’t there.  Those parts are sometimes called our shadows or our “shadow selves.”  It doesn’t help to think of our shadows as our “bad sides” or our “evil sides.”  They are what they are.  And if we ignore them or pretend that they don’t exist, they’re going to come out anyway, often in destructive ways. 

For example, I grew up thinking of myself as a nice guy, but anger was my shadow.  I didn’t like to admit that I got angry.  The face I presented to the world, and to myself, was always calm, always “nice.”  But the anger was there.  I thought I hid it from everyone else.  I thought other people got angry, but not me.  For the longest time, I wasn’t in touch with my anger, or to use theological terms, I didn’t confess my anger honestly to myself and to God.  The anger didn’t go away; it just simmered beneath the surface, affecting me and the people around me in ways I didn’t recognize. 

And then I had something of a midlife crisis.  So much anger had built up over the years that it finally had to come out.  I found myself sitting in church being angry for no good reason.  It was a shock to realize and admit what my wife had of course known all along: I have a temper.  Healthy spirituality for me couldn’t develop until I began to come to grips with my shadow of anger.  Ironically, the calmest people in the world are the people who have faced their anger and learned to recognize it and deal with it, rather than refusing to acknowledge that it exists.  When my young grandsons are fighting loudly with each other, I realize that I’m not entirely calm yet.  

Anger isn’t the only spiritual trap or shadow.  People who study the Enneagram can tell you about at least eight others.  For example, some people really like to help.  Perhaps you’ve known people who are terminally helpful, who get offended if you don’t let them help you.  Their shadow side may be that helping you is a way of controlling you or getting you to love them.  Helping is the way they feed their egos and feel superior.  Their shadow is actually pride. 

When such a person realizes for the first time that their “helping” is really a manipulative ploy for their own ego’s benefit, it’s a humiliating experience.  It’s humiliating when we realize that we’re not entirely the person we thought ourselves to be.  But we can only begin to mature and grow by working through that humiliating realization, by coming to grips with our shadows.  Ironically, the path to spiritual health for terminal helpers may be to stop helping people!  Or at least to be able to help people without expecting anything in return.  That will take a while; it takes years to uncover and make peace with our shadows. 

Someone with gardening experience has said that we’re not made up entirely of weeds.  But we’re not made up entirely of wheat, either.  We have to learn to accept and forgive this mixture in ourselves.  Jesus once told a parable in which an enemy sowed weeds (KJV: tares) in a wheat field.  The owner told the workers to let the wheat and weeds grow together, lest in rooting out the weeds, the good wheat was torn up also.  That is the life we live – not a straight line, but a back-and-forth journey.  If we beat ourselves up for our weeds, or obsess too much on rooting out the weeds or negative things in our lives, we may well neglect to develop the positive things that bring us to spiritual maturity. 

The Pharisees in our passage today had a lot of shadow work to do.  Their purity code had become merely an excuse for their egos to feel superior to other people. 

Jesus challenged the codes by loving the people at the bottom of the social and moral ladder.  That’s what shocked and angered the Pharisees so much: Jesus didn’t honor the codes that let them feel superior!  When Jesus helped sinners and tax collectors, when he treated them with respect, the Pharisees took it as a slight on their superior standing.  Their egos just couldn’t take that kind of abuse.  

Jesus focused on the people whom the purity codes abandoned.  As much as we resist it, Jesus does us a favor when he undermines our egos.  The light of Christ helps us see ourselves as we are.  Only then can we begin to be honest and let go of our judgments. 

Like every other religion, Christianity has focused too often on laws and purity codes.  They keep us from accepting ourselves and other people.  It doesn’t matter to Jesus what your shadow side is.  Each of us is that one sheep the shepherd is eager to carry home. 

1 Timothy 1:15 tells us:

1:15 The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the foremost.

Christ is the light that allows us to see ourselves in our fullness – the parts we’re proud of, as well as the parts we want to hide.  Jesus doesn’t call us to feel ashamed.  He calls us to be honest, to have eyes that see ourselves for what we actually are, to open ourselves to God’s grace, and to be transformed into mature, loving citizens of the kingdom of God. 

Let’s pray.  Lord, each of us stands in need of your healing grace.  Help us to be courageous enough to be honest with ourselves about our shadows.  Forgive us for the times when we can see others’ faults so clearly and remain so blind to our own.  Help us to open our souls to your Spirit, that we might grow and be transformed into citizens of your kingdom.  In Christ’s name we pray, amen. 

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Fire on the Earth

Luke 12:49-56

This is one of those passages that sounds contrary to what we expect Jesus to say.  He came to bring fire to the earth?  Division in family households?  We admire his parables that emphasize the power of God’s love, like the Parable of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan. 

But Jesus talks here about fire and division, even separating people from their loved ones.  And what’s more, Jesus is just itching for the fire to arrive!  How do we reconcile that with his parables and Beatitudes?  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”  Jesus makes it sound as though his followers can expect to be rejected and vilified, just as he was, because of their faith. 

That doesn’t mean that we should play the victim card to get sympathy every time somebody disagrees with us or criticizes us.  Far too many people do that, and that is not what Jesus is talking about. 

I think the first point to understand in this passage is the fact that the way of God’s kingdom is not the way of the world.  I’ve heard that truism all my life, but to be honest, I’m not sure I believed it for a long time.  Frankly, I expected that if I was a strong person of faith, I would do well in the world.  For the most part, people in the church where I grew up were successful in business and in the world.  They were patriotic; every Fourth of July, a huge American flag was stretched across the baptistry, and we sang patriotic songs that mentioned God and country. 

I assumed that my church life was part of being a good American and saw a continuity between the two.  If I was a good church member, then I too would be equipped to take my place in the world.  The world would notice my goodness and reward me accordingly!  People would like me and respect me.  Maybe being a good Christian meant that I’d get elected to high office with all the honors and privileges appertaining thereto.  I just had to keep my nose clean, and everything in my life would fall into place. 

And I have to say, maybe there’s a little bit of truth to that.  The times when our lives have become more complicated are mostly the times when we acted out of self-interest or fear rather than faith.  As we slowly learn to pay attention to the gospel and shape our lives accordingly, life can become much less stressful and much more meaningful. 

But that doesn’t mean that there’s no stress when we try to reconcile our world and our faith.  Jesus said in our passage today, (Luke 12:50): “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”  Jesus felt stress.  He felt stress in the Garden of Gethsemane when his sweat was like great drops of blood.  He felt stress to the point on the cross that he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus didn’t sugar-coat things to sound more pious to the people around him. 

Jesus tells us not to worry about the everyday things of life (Luke 12:22).  But he didn’t claim that the Christian life is a stress-free life.  Any serious Christian will in time experience “the dark night of the soul,” as the 16th-century Spanish saint, John of the Cross, tells us in his little classic, Dark Night of the Soul

Luke’s passage is one of those that require us to take a step back and study its context.  Jesus is talking about the demand inherent in the gospel.  The kingdom he preached requires a decision to follow, not simply nod and carry on as usual.  Just a few verses before our passage today (12:35-48), Jesus tells his followers to look to his future return and to be ready for it.  Those who have been faithful stewards of what they’ve been given will be rewarded.  Those who have been unfaithful servants will be in for an unpleasant surprise.  No one can serve two masters; we have to make a choice between the way of God’s kingdom and the way the rest of the world works. 

Jesus says that he is bringing “fire to the earth,” and he wishes it were already kindled.  That sounds like a declaration of war, but how could the Prince of Peace say such a thing?  What is this fire that Jesus is talking about? 

The first clue is that the fire wasn’t already kindled when he said this, because he wishes that it was.  There was plenty of fire and war and destruction in Jesus’ day, so Jesus clearly isn’t talking about those things. 

In the context of Luke and Acts, which are volumes one and two by the same author, the thing that can’t come until Jesus has passed through his baptism is the Holy Spirit.  On the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit descended unexpectedly on the disciples like “tongues of fire.”  On that day, the followers of Christ were transformed.  Peter, who had denied Jesus three times, suddenly became a powerful preacher of the kingdom.  Phillip had to leave Jerusalem to escape Saul’s persecution, but he turned his exile into a series of mission trips, ignoring the usual cultural barriers to tell the good news to an Ethiopian eunuch and others. 

When the Holy Spirit came, the early church caught fire.  They went out into the world to preach a gospel about dying to self and being raised to new life by the transformative power of God.  It was the exact opposite of the world’s understanding.  In the world, people usually got ahead by promoting themselves, by being louder and more aggressive than the other guy. If you can slow the other guy down, you can pull ahead, and then as now, the world says that’s just good business. 

In the kingdom of God, people love each other.  In fact, they love their enemies.  They do good to the people who treat them badly.  They don’t work to get ahead of everybody else at all costs; they give others a hand up, whatever it costs them. 

The point of the kingdom is to become aware of God’s presence, to know union with him, to live in such a way that the experience of that union is deepened, not broken.  That sense of union is the fire that Jesus taught about.  It’s the point of authentic spirituality – the experience of the presence of God and our place within that presence.  It leads us to love, not fear.

It sounds strange that the fire which envelops us in God’s loving presence would cause division in the world.  But it causes us to act in ways that the world doesn’t expect and often doesn’t like.  Instead of fighting people in the other tribe, the other country, the other family, we look for the image of God in them.  Our attitudes and actions undermine the world’s conventional narrative that other people are unworthy and dangerous and evil. 

The world that follows a self-promoting ethic feels threatened by the fire Jesus talked about.  Jeremiah wrote (23:29), Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” None of us likes it when our perspective on the world is shattered and we are pulled out of our comfort zones.  But it’s when our conventional wisdom of the world doesn’t work anymore that we can feel the fire of a different way to live. 

And that’s when we have to make a choice.  Luke 16:13 tells us that “No one can serve two masters…”  We can’t simultaneously live by the rules of the world and the wisdom of the gospel.  They’re going in opposite directions.  We either protect our egos and try to build ourselves up, or we set aside our egos and empty our hearts so that God can fill them and transform us. 

We live in a time when the contrast between the world and the gospel is becoming clearer every day.  The division in our country is becoming ever more painful.  It’s at times like ours that Jesus’s words take on particular significance:

12:54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens.
12:55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens.
12:56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

When the wind came into Israel from the west, it brought moisture from the Mediterranean Sea, and that meant rain.  To the south lay the Negev Desert, and wind from there was hot and dry.  If you lived in Israel for very long, you learned how to read the signs of the weather. 

Jesus expected his followers to learn to interpret the spiritual implications of what goes on around them.  It’s important to avoid getting caught up in the emotion and fear of tribalism and nationalism, of the “us against them” mentality that seems to drive so many people today.  The biblical story of creation tells us that all people were created by God and carry his image within. 

When we say that we love our country, do we mean that we love the ideals our country supposedly stands for, and that we’ll work to ensure that our country lives up to those ideals?  That’s the definition of patriotism.  Or do we mean that we love only our own kind, and that we’ll look down on, and fear every other kind?  That’s not patriotism; it’s tribalism and nationalism, and it has nothing to do with the gospel of Christ. 

As people of faith, we open ourselves to the fire of the Holy Spirit.  We need to be transformed by that fire into more loving people.  And then we need to interpret the present time from the perspective of our faith instead of the world’s fear.  That is not an easy task.  Even Jesus found it hard.  But that is the mission to which we are called – to love and not hate; to love others and not fear them. 

1 John 4:18 tells us that:

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

We are called to the practice of the presence of God.  We are called to love, not to fear.  We are called to interpret the signs of the world around us, and to be emissaries for God’s kingdom in that world.  It won’t be easy because the two kingdoms are worlds apart.  The conflict will cause us stress.  Nevertheless, we are called, and we need to respond in faith. 

Let’s pray.

Lord, you call us to follow in faith, in the middle of a world that operates by its own rules.  You call us to lay our old selves aside as we follow; yet the world beckons for us to pick them up again and inflate them to become ever larger.  The voices of the world are loud in our ears.  We long to be loved and accepted and important.  Help us to remember that the siren songs of the world promise much and deliver little.  Help us to know the love that comes from your presence, the only true acceptance that we can know.  Fill us with your Spirit as we empty ourselves and invite you in.  Give us strength and wisdom in this world, Lord, we pray.  Amen.

The Two Kingdoms

Acts 16:16-23

I once took part in a week-long seminar with a Northwestern University professor named John McKnight.  He told the story of a Chicago hospital that had fallen on hard times.  The neighborhood and the building were both old and run down.  Morale was low.  Employees kept to themselves; when anything went wrong, they were quick to shift blame to people in some other department.  Turnover was high. 

One day the Human Resources department hired a young man to deliver the mail around the building.  The young man had Down’s Syndrome and was limited in what he could do.  But he could smile like nobody’s business.  HR developed a system for him with color symbols; every department had a different symbol on its door, and when the mail was sorted by department, each batch was marked with the appropriate symbol.  All the young man had to do was push a cart around the hospital, matching the symbols to deliver the mail to the right place.  He could do that pretty well, most of the time.

His effect on the hospital was extraordinary.  He smiled at everyone, no matter what.  And before long, people started smiling back.  That young man changed the entire atmosphere of that large inner-city hospital.  Before, when mail got delivered to the wrong department, people got angry and just threw it in their outbox for someone else to worry about. 

But now, when the young man misdelivered the mail on occasion, people didn’t get angry.  People saw it as an opportunity to run the mail over to the right department in person and find out how Mary’s grandchild was doing or how Sam’s chemo was coming along.  People started talking to each other.  Morale improved dramatically.  And it all traced back to the that guy delivering the mail with a great smile. 

The moral of the story is that everyone has gifts.  Everyone has worth.  And it takes a neighbor to appreciate that fact.  When we build on each other’s gifts rather than their deficiencies, we build a far stronger community.  Formal systems tend to sort people according to their weaknesses.  They use titles like Doctor So And So, or Ms. Smith.  But neighbors look at abilities more than deficits.  Neighbors most often use each other’s first names rather than their titles.  Systems and neighborhoods are both necessary, but they operate according to different rules. 

Our passage from Acts today is a good example of this contrast between two different ways of approaching life.  We might call them two different kingdoms.  We see one kingdom in the owners of the slave girl.  We see the other kingdom in the behavior of Paul and Silas.  They weren’t official government systems, but rather two different ways of looking out at the world and inward at ourselves. 

Roman law allowed some people to own other people and put them to work for their owners’ benefit.  Today we would call this system either by its old name of ‘slavery’ or the more modern term of ‘human trafficking.’  Neither is legal in most of the world, but unfortunately, both are still very much around.

Luke, the author of Acts, tells us that the slave girl made money for her owners through telling fortunes.  But on this occasion, the slave girl had followed Paul and Silas around the streets of Philippi, crying out that they were “slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”  She apparently did this in a mocking way, because people thought of the Greek God Zeus when they heard the phrase “Most High God.”  Paul let her go on at first, but finally the girl seems to have gotten on his last nerve.  He turned around and commanded the “spirit of divination” to come out of her. 

The girl stopped her annoying behavior.  She was either no longer able to tell fortunes, or she was no longer willing to.  In any case, her owners weren’t making a profit from her any more. 

That’s when we see the kingdom that Paul was up against.  It wasn’t official Rome; Paul was a Roman citizen himself and proud of it.  The kingdom Paul fought against was universal.  It can be found in all kinds of political and economic systems.  It goes by many names, but Jesus called it Mammon, as in “You cannot serve both God and mammon” (Matt 6:24, Luke 16:13).    

The word “mammon” doesn’t get used often.  Unless you grew up with the KJV, you probably won’t recognize it.  It’s actually an ancient Aramaic word, the language that Jesus spoke.  When the gospels were written, the writers wrote them in Greek since that was the common language of the day, and they translated most Aramaic words into Greek so that more people could read them.  However, they left the Aramaic “mammon” as it was. The translators of the KJV did the same, slightly changing the old Aramaic word into the English word, “mammon.”  In more modern versions it’s usually translated as “money” or “wealth.” 

I would argue that simply translating “mammon” into “money” or “wealth” would not convey all that Jesus meant.  Matthew and Luke could easily have translated the Aramaic “mammon” into the Greek word for “money.”  But for some reason they chose to hang onto the old word that Jesus had used. 

I suspect it was because Jesus had something much larger in mind than just money.  True, Jesus warned that money was a dangerous source of temptation, but he didn’t condemn the use of money per se.  Some of the early church leaders after Jesus picked up on this.  They were convinced that “mammon” referred to the fixation on money that can dominate not only an individual but an entire culture.  Mammon is what one recent writer called “a demonic power” (Andy Crouch in Christianity Today, May/June issue of 2022, pp. 68-74: “As for Me and My Household, We’ll Resist Mammon”). 

In other words, Jesus warned people against the kingdom of Mammon.  Today we might call it the Consumer Kingdom.  The consumer kingdom is all about money and things.  People are assets to be consumed or used to enhance the bottom line of the company financial report.  This slave girl’s owners in Acts 16 cared only about how much money she could make for them.  There’s no hint that they cared about her as a person or had any use for her once that use came to an end.  They were so angry at their loss of income that they incited a riot against Paul and his friends. 

Of course, the owners couldn’t go to the public and complain that they weren’t making any more money.  The consumer kingdom is driven by the desire for more, so citizens of the consumer kingdom have no sympathy for people who have no money.  The owners trumped up inflammatory accusations and incited a riot. 

Paul and Silas were beaten with rods and thrown into prison without a trial.  The main concern of the authorities was to calm down the crowd, to maintain order, and it worked: the crowd calmed down when they saw that the officials gave them what they wanted.  Justice gets forgotten when mob mentality takes over. 

Up to this point, we’ve seen the consumer kingdom at work.  There’s never a time when people who live by the consumer kingdom say, “I have enough.”

The consumer kingdom operates differently in some ways today, but is still very much around.  People who can’t make it in that system are a problem that leaders may or may not care about.  That’s the consumer kingdom talking. 

But there’s another kingdom besides the kingdom of the consumer.  I like to call it the neighborly kingdom, though Jesus called it the kingdom of heaven.  We see it at work between Paul and the jailer.  Paul and Silas are thrown into prison, chained and with their feet in stocks.  Are they plotting escape or revenge?  That was what the jailer expected, but no.  They’re singing hymns and praising God in the middle of the night.  When a miraculous earthquake comes and the chains fall off and the jail is opened, Paul’s first concern isn’t escape; it’s concern for the jailer’s safety.  He calls out for the jailer not to harm himself, knowing that Rome was not kind to jailers who lose their prisoners, and the jailer is undoubtedly terrified. 

Paul and Silas don’t take the opportunity to escape.  They show compassion for the jailer, though they’ve never met him before that day.  The jailer can see that Paul and Silas operate according to some other system than the one he knows, and he wants to learn more about it.  He and his entire household decide to live according to God’s neighborly kingdom.  They’ve experienced firsthand that it’s a better way to live than the kingdom they know. 

The neighborly kingdom is driven by covenant and characterized by trust.  Trust can’t be enforced; it has to be earned.  When Paul and Silas took the first step of caring about the jailer’s wellbeing, the jailer responded with gratitude and trust.  He dressed their wounds and even brought them into his home for dinner with his family.  That’s trust.  The entire city had been about to lynch Paul and Silas just a few hours before, but this jailer risked the anger of the mob and his superiors because he sensed that Paul and Silas lived according to a better way that he hadn’t known was possible. 

Covenants are different from legal contracts.  A covenant is a simple vow between people to care for each other.  It’s not predictable because people’s lives are not predictable.  A good neighbor is someone who honors an unspoken covenant to care for other neighbors.   Neighbors respond to each other as life develops, because that’s what good neighbors do.

It’s common to assume that the most important battle for the church today is between religious people and non-religious people.  Some people assume that any preacher on TV is at least preaching religion, and any religion is better than no religion at all. 

I want to challenge that assumption in the strongest possible terms, because not all religion is healthy.  Jesus didn’t have his biggest debates with non-religious people, though there were plenty in his day.  Jesus had his most heated debates with religious people who cared more about their systems and their self-interest than about their neighbors’ wellbeing.  Jesus’ only violence took place when moneychangers had invaded the temple and changed its atmosphere from worship to rates of exchange.  Too often today, churches aren’t actually preaching the neighborly kingdom because the consumer kingdom has invaded the church like a virus and taken it over.  Church trappings just provide camouflage so that the rest of us won’t notice. 

When the church attacks or criticizes the poor, that’s the consumer kingdom talking in church clothing.  When preachers tell you that God wants you to be rich and successful, that’s the siren song of the market.  It sounds good, but it doesn’t lead to abundant life.  Only the genuine gospel of the neighborly kingdom can do that. 

There’s a real need in our world for people who live out the neighborly kingdom.  Yes, there’s a place for the consumer kingdom; large systems have to run on contracts and rules and be predictable.  When I fly on an airplane, I want the pilots and mechanics to be highly trained and qualified by an official system.  I wouldn’t want to fly at the hands of a bunch of guys from down the street who thought they’d like to play around with jet engines today. 

But if we’re not very careful, the consumer kingdom can edge out the neighborly kingdom and leave us wondering who we are.  Community and human relationships depend on neighbors who care about and trust each other.  There’s give and take between neighbors; relationships are two-way and reciprocal.

Jesus once characterized his message in a parable about the neighborly kingdom.  He told the story of a Samaritan who unexpectedly helped a crime victim, though the victim came from a different culture at odds with his own.  He told his listeners to do the same, to get out there and be neighbors.  He didn’t let them off the hook because the neighbors might be different or difficult.  He just said, “Go.  Be a neighbor.” 

Jesus preached the neighborly kingdom, and he calls us to live it out in a world obsessed with consumerism.  The great paradox is that although the consumer kingdom is obsessed with building wealth, it leaves us poor in things that matter.  The neighborly kingdom calls us to leave our egos behind, but that’s the road that leads to a truly rich life. 

Let’s pray.

Lord, we live between two kingdoms.  You called us into this world, but you call us to embody your kingdom in its midst.  Forgive us for the times when we linger too long in the world of systems and contracts and forget to be human as you created us to be.  Help us to be open to our neighbors, wherever they might live.  Help us to respond so that they sense the love and acceptance that you have shown to us.  In Christ’s name we pray, amen. 

An Unhindered Gospel

Acts 11:1-18

(May 15, 2022) Last night in Buffalo, New York, a young man walked into a grocery store and shot 13 people, ten of whom died.  Most of the victims were Black; the gunman was white.  He broadcast his attack live and reportedly left a trail of racist hate propaganda.  This isn’t the first such shooting this year. 

I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but from time to time, it’s important to remind ourselves and others that the gospel of Christ does not support hate, or racism, or any sort of group superiority over others.  Our passage from Acts this morning is a good and timely example. 

In this book that we call The Acts of the Apostles, or usually just “Acts,” Peter and John form a strong team to carry the gospel to the world right after Pentecost.  To be honest, the book known as the Acts of the Apostles doesn’t actually live up to its name.  It doesn’t tell us much at all about the original apostles except for Peter and mentions John sort of in passing. 

Acts details some of the very first challenges and barriers the early church faced, such as serious persecution.  When Peter and John preached in the Temple, the authorities put them in prison and had them flogged.  James, the brother of John, was later put to the sword.  Stephen was stoned to death, with Saul looking on.  Later on, after Saul’s conversion, he and others are imprisoned and beaten by mobs. 

Those challenges were external to the church.  However, possibly the biggest challenge in Acts was internal: the church had to struggle with the question of who is “us” and who is “them.”  That may be the eternal question of the gospel.  It certainly is the biggest question in the book of Acts.  As a lawyer once asked Jesus, just who exactly is my neighbor?  He assumed that most of the folks out there are not my neighbor, so I surely don’t have to concern myself with them

I can’t think of a timelier question than “Who is my neighbor?”  There has never been a time when everybody could just get along, even in church.  The story of human history is the story of different groups fighting each other.  When you read books like 1 and 2 Samuel or 1 and 2 Kings, you realize that the Israelites were always fighting somebody: the Amalekites, the Hittites, the Philistines, and often each other.  These groups all lived together within an area roughly two-thirds the size of Maryland, and their story is one of constant warfare. 

You might think that the early church wouldn’t have had serious conflict.  Jesus’s first followers shared the same religious and social background: they were Jews of modest income who lived in the rural areas of Galilee.  They spoke Aramaic, which was related to Hebrew and other Semitic languages. 

Then Pentecost happened.  Jews from the Diaspora, meaning Greek-speaking Jews scattered all around the known world, had arrived in Jerusalem for Passover, speaking many languages. Acts tells us that three thousand people joined the church that Pentecost day.  Instantly, the early church became much more diverse. 

It became apparent very quickly that the ‘hometown’ Jews treated the out-of-town, Greek-speaking Jews like second-class citizens.  Acts 6 tells us that the church was distributing food every day, which was good news.  The bad news was that the Hellenistic or Greek-speaking widows and children were often being left out. 

Think about that for a moment.  Many of us Protestants pride ourselves on trying to recreate the early church.  The Disciples of Christ were formed out of an early nineteenth-century movement known as Restorationism.  They wanted to restore the early church because it seemed to them that the New Testament church was ideal. 

That’s all well and good, and we probably ought to restore and reform the church from time to time.  But let’s not romanticize the early church beyond their due.  They were as human as we are.  Jesus had only been gone for a short time, possibly two or three months, and already we can see the unconscious cultural prejudice of those first believers.  All of the group at this point were Jews; all were believers; but those who didn’t speak Aramaic were considered outsiders! 

The apostles dealt with the problem by calling for the church to elect seven men “of good standing.”  The seven who were elected all had Greek names; this may mean that they all came from the Greek-speaking culture.  The social prejudices of some in the church hindered the gospel from its full impact.  This was the first barrier that the gospel crossed, though it may seem small to us: the barrier between Jewish Christians who came from different lands and had different cultural backgrounds and languages. 

Acts is the story of how cultural barriers fall before the gospel, one after the other.  Philip, one of the seven who had been elected to make sure that the Hellenistic widows and orphans got enough to eat, left Jerusalem to escape Saul’s persecution.  He traveled a bit north to the city of Samaria.  He may have reasoned that Saul the Pharisee wouldn’t follow him there, where people didn’t keep the law properly to the Pharisee’s way of thinking.  Samaritans were considered at most half-Jewish; their ancestors had intermarried with non-Jews and in many cases had blended their worship with that of pagan gods.  Philip, however, took it upon himself to preach to crowds there, and many believed.  When word of this got back to Jerusalem, Peter and John rushed to investigate this unexpected and shocking turn of events, then amazingly agreed to baptize the Samaritans when the story proved true. 

That was the second barrier crossed: from Jewish Christians to half-Jewish Christians. 

Philip then headed south toward Gaza along the coast, and encountered an Ethiopian eunuch on the road, reading scripture.  The Ethiopian was an African court official, a man of importance and authority.  We know he was already attracted to Judaism because he had just worshiped in the Jerusalem temple and was reading from Isaiah as he rode along toward home.  Philip had no special authority from the church outside of serving tables, but he freely shared the good news of Christ and even took it upon himself to baptize the man. 

I can imagine that some folks in the Jerusalem church would have considered Philip to be a loose cannon, running around preaching to and baptizing Gentiles!  The Ethiopian continued on home instead of becoming part of the Jerusalem church.  But he represented the first Gentile to be converted – the third social barrier that the gospel had crossed!  In literature, that’s known as a foreshadowing of the conflict to come.

Acts next tells us about a Roman centurion named Cornelius.  We’re told that he worshiped the God of the Israelites in his own way and was a good man, but he had not formally converted to Judaism.  He had a vision in which an angel told him to send messengers to Joppa further down the coast for someone named Simon, also called Peter, to come to him.  Like a good soldier, Cornelius promptly did just that. 

The next day down in Joppa, while Cornelius’ messengers were on their way, Peter had the vision described in our passage today.  A sheet was let down with different kinds of animals, some that were ritually clean mixed together with ritually unclean.  Peter was invited to “rise, kill and eat” without distinguishing between them.  Unlike the Roman Cornelius, who only had to be told once, Peter had to be shown the same vision three times before the message began to sink in!  Peter’s exclusivist religion kept him from hearing what God was trying to tell him, that no human beings are to be grouped or separated out as clean or unclean. 

Peter finally gave in, heard the messengers, and Cornelius and his whole household were baptized and received the Holy Spirit, as evidenced by their speaking in tongues.  The believers with Peter were shocked and amazed!  God apparently wanted Gentiles in his church, too!  They hadn’t even become Jews first! 

When word got back to Jerusalem of what Peter had done, it caused a huge uproar.  Peter had committed a grievous sin in the minds of the traditionalists: he has sat down and eaten a meal with Gentiles.  And not just any Gentiles: Roman centurions!  Part of the occupying army!  Not only their piety, but their nationalism was offended.

It’s hard for us to imagine just how offensive this was to the traditionalists.  For one thing, Peter had violated the religious purity code and probably an even stronger social code.  That just wasn’t done!  Peter acted as though those unclean people, those Gentiles, were just as acceptable as we are!  But we’re God’s special people, they thought.  The chosen people.  Mixing with Gentiles violates God’s law!  Doesn’t it?

If that sounds strange to you, I can remember very similar talk from my childhood in the 1950s.  When African-Americans asked for equal service at lunch counters and bought houses in white neighborhoods, I heard lots of white adults say almost exactly the same things and even misuse scripture to back up their opinions. 

I suspect that the emotions involved in Acts and those from my childhood were very similar.  The point is that the early church was no more immune to those attitudes and feelings than we are.  It’s just that the ethnicities were different. 

The book of Acts ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome but “teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and unhindered.”  The gospel has gone out to the Gentiles, having crossed all social barriers on the way. 

That’s the whole point of Acts.  Some form of the Greek word for unhindered occurs seven times in Acts.  It’s also the very last word in the book. The point is that the gospel is to be taken to all people.  We are to love all people.  But we believers throughout history have kept throwing up barriers, trying to circumscribe the gospel and restrict it only to those who belong to our own group, but again and again, the gospel breaks through the barriers and purity codes. 

The gospel is about bringing people together, but too often the church has distorted the gospel, just as those early Christians tried to distort it to include only their own kind. 

A more modern distortion is that we’ve come to see the gospel as only a matter for the individual.  The entire thrust of many churches is to get the individual soul into heaven.  Churches become collections of individuals coming together for an hour or two and then leaving to lead separate lives during the week.  A genuine community is stronger than that. 

Yet we were not created to be solitary individuals.  In the second chapter of Genesis, God sees that it was not good for the first man to be alone, so he creates woman and tells the couple to be fruitful and fill the earth.  Cornelius didn’t become a believer all by himself; he and his entire household became believers together.  It’s still not good to be alone, but we seem to be bent on severing connections with the people around us, just as technology has given us the chance to be more connected than ever before possible. 

Relationships are not easy.  People are going to disagree, sometimes over important issues.  But we were made for connection.  Our spirituality begins with an openness to connection with God, which leads immediately to a connection with the universe and with other people. 

Jesus said that the most important two commandments were to love God and to love our neighbor.  You can’t love someone without connecting with them.  Love means identifying with our neighbor.  It means acting in real time to help our neighbor and being helped in turn.

We are blessed to have people in this congregation who understand that and are active in their love for God and for others.  But sometimes we all need to be reminded and encouraged along the way.  We choose to be a place of radical love, where all are invited to connect, with God and with each other.  Such is the message of the book of Acts. 

Let’s pray. 

Lord, we have so many choices.  We can choose to avoid people who don’t seem like us.  We can choose to surround ourselves with only people who think the same way.  We like to be comfortable, Lord.  But you have called us out into the world to share the message of your kingdom.  Forgive us for the times when we avoid others because they’re different.  Forgive our failure of discipleship.  We pray for the courage and the energy to step beyond our comfort zones and show your love to all.  Give us eyes that see your image, Lord, in every neighbor.  We pray in Christ’s name, amen. 

The Courage of Spirituality

Acts 5:27-32

In 2019, less than a year before the COVID pandemic hit, Viola and I took the big trip we had talked about for years: we took ten days off and traveled to Great Britain, just the two of us.  The only reservations we made ahead of time were in Scotland, on a small island known as Iona.  It’s the site of an ancient Christian abbey that has been rebuilt as a center of something known as Celtic spirituality.  The abbey existed at least as far back as the sixth century after Christ.  The monks who lived there were courageous because Vikings came through from time to time, killing the monks and looting the abbey.  But the monks persisted for centuries.  That took courage. 

When I read our passage from Acts this morning, I’m impressed by the courage of Peter and John in standing up to the high priest so soon after Peter had denied Jesus three times.  The day of Pentecost, which we’ll celebrate before too much longer, marked the coming of the Holy Spirit in a novel and powerful way.  Peter and John had learned to follow the Spirit rather than fear religious and civil authority.  That takes courage. 

It’s easy to let authority tell us what truth is supposed to be, rather than struggle with it ourselves.  That’s even true in science, though theoretically, experimentation, not authority, is supposed to determine truth in the scientific method.  Scientists are as human as the rest of us, though; if the scientific establishment believes something to be true, a challenger has to amass an awful lot of clear evidence to begin to persuade them to take a second look.  And that’s as it should be. 

Challenging religious authority is probably much harder.  When Copernicus showed that the earth revolves around the sun instead of the other way around, religious authorities opposed him – not only the Catholic Church but Protestant stalwarts like Martin Luther and John Calvin.  Luther said that he didn’t believe Copernicus because in the Bible, “Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth.”  Therefore, Luther reasoned that it’s the sun that moves, and not the earth.  His reasoning would not be regarded today as sound theological methodology. 

It strikes me that a lot of people have been standing up to religious authorities during my lifetime.  Or maybe a better metaphor would be that people have simply been walking away.  It wasn’t that it took a lot of courage to leave the Church.  A lot of people just haven’t seen the point anymore.  Too often, churches haven’t been able to give them any compelling reason to stay. 

What that says to me is that the Church has often fallen into spiritual irrelevance.  Whatever else churches are for, they must help us deal with real life!  But in our efforts to attract more people, we’ve often made religion so simple that it’s unattached to the struggles of real life.  The very idea of salvation is often presented as something easy and convenient, unconnected to biblical issues like justice and peace for all, or even simple compassion for others.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing during WWII, called it “cheap grace.” 

I went to seminary to look for a sense of spirituality that mattered.  It began to sink in, but then my former denomination’s politics spun out of control.  I left the seminary and church employment in 1990, angry and frustrated.  I still wanted to find meaningful spirituality, but though I continued to work in volunteer roles, I just didn’t see what I was looking for.  I eventually had something of a midlife crisis, sitting in church and getting angrier by the week for no reason I could think of.  If you had asked me to preach a sermon then, I’d have shaken my head and said, “You’ve got the wrong guy.” 

At that point, a good Cajun friend introduced me to a little book called Everything Belongs by a Franciscan priest named Richard Rohr.  He invited me to take part in a men’s group that discussed books like that one and went on prayer retreats together.  That book and that group changed my life.  They led me to a spirituality that became part of my real and very imperfect life. 

Eventually the group studied a book by John Phillip Newell called Christ of the Celts.  It was pretty good, so I started exploring Celtic Christianity.  The word “Celtic” is frankly kind of problematic in an ethnological sense; a lot of different groups can get subsumed under that title.  In common use today, though, it refers generally to the people of Ireland and Scotland. 

The Roman Empire conquered what we now call England, but it never managed to conquer Ireland or Scotland.  The Romans finally just gave up and built an incredibly long defensive wall along the entire border separating England (Britannia) from Scotland (Caledonia).  Ireland and Scotland were Christianized by lone missionaries in the early centuries of the Church, but the Roman Church couldn’t control its far-flung Celtic outposts any more than the Roman Empire could. 

Celtic Christianity thus developed somewhat independently of the Church in western Europe.  It was relatively free to build on its earlier pre-Christian roots.  That gave it a different emphasis on things, and even after the Roman Catholic church eventually established firmer control of its Celtic churches, those emphases continued. 

I thought today that I’d give a very brief synopsis of what I find so helpful about Celtic spirituality and what drew me to Iona in the first place.  It’s a beautiful island about three miles long, and people do go there just for that reason, quite apart from any religious appeal.  You don’t go there by accident; it took a day’s travel from Edinburgh by train, bus, and two ferries.  But it was the highlight of our trip, and I thought I’d share some of the reasons why. 

Perhaps the base of Celtic spirituality is its appreciation for God’s creation.  Human beings are part of that creation, made in God’s own image, and all creation is seen as very good, just like it says in Genesis.  Christianity in continental Europe – and later in the Protestant Reformation – often tended to see the natural world in a negative light; they often saw the body as nothing but a source of sensual temptation. 

St. Augustine and John Calvin went so far as to call human beings “totally depraved,” containing nothing good at all.  But Celtic Christians maintained their appreciation for humans as integral parts of Creation.  Nature and nature’s beauty were sources of wonder, pathways to communing with God.  The Apostle Paul wrote in Colossians 1:16-17 that “All things have been created through him and for him… in him all things hold together.”  John’s gospel tells us that “In the beginning was the Word… All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”  Unlike much of the rest of European Christianity, Celtic spirituality never lost sight of God’s presence in his Creation. 

Celtic spirituality is in many ways much like Hebrew spirituality of the Old Testament, which continued to affirm a Creator God in the face of other religions that saw the physical world as either bad or irrelevant. 

A Christian scholar named John Scotus Eriugena was born in Ireland in the ninth century.  He wrote that “Every visible and invisible creature can be called a theophany,” or a manifestation of God to us.  One of the things I appreciate most about Celtic spirituality is their simple prayers.  Here’s a seventh century Irish prayer known as the “Breastplate of Saint Patrick:”

For my shield this day I call:

Heaven’s might,

Sun’s brightness,

Moon’s whiteness,

Fire’s glory,

Lightning’s swiftness,

Wind’s wildness,

Ocean’s depth,

Earth’s solidity,

Rock’s immobility. 

Every line of this prayer reflects the perception of nature as the gift and creation of God.  Celtic prayer was bound up with everyday life.  It dealt with small things.  There was a prayer for lighting a fire in the hearth every morning.  Here’s the English version of one prayer for going to bed:

I lie down with God; may he lie down with me.

I sleep with God; may he be present in my dreams.

I trust in God; may he protect me from all danger.

I rise up with God; may God rise up with me.

I walk with God; may he be always at my side. 

I rely on God; may he strengthen me in my labor.

I eat with God; may God be in my bread.

I drink with God; may God be in my wine.

I live with God; may God live within me.

This next prayer spoke to me especially during my midlife crisis:

I am full of doubt, yet I trust in God. I cannot believe all I am taught.

The doctrines of the Church are complex; some I cannot understand. 

Some seem to make no sense. Some make sense, but are implausible.

The priest may tell me I’m a sinner; he may inform me that good people believe,

   that doubt is a sign of sin.

Yet I trust in God. His love makes sense. His love is confirmed by his blessings.

Like Peter and John, it took courage to affirm honest faith in the face of religious authorities who discouraged honest questions.  I have never milked a cow, and I never hope to milk one, but I liked this prayer for milking cows:

Bless, O God, my little cow; bless, O God, my desire;

Bless Thou my partnership and the milking of my hands, O God.

Bless, O God, each teat; Bless, O God, each finger;

Bless Thou each drop that goes into my pitcher, O God.

That’s pretty down to earth.  I guess that I’m attracted to Celtic spirituality in part because of the courage it shows.  Much like Peter and John in front of the high priest, it’s not afraid to follow where the Spirit leads, rather than do whatever the religious authorities say.  For that reason, curiously enough, it tends to honor the apostle John rather than Peter. 

In the first couple of centuries after Jesus, bishops in several Mediterranean cities were on a more or less equal footing: the city of Alexandria in Egypt; Antioch in Syria; Constantinople in what is now Turkey; Jerusalem in Israel; and of course, Rome.  After the Roman emperor adopted Christianity as the Roman Empire’s official religion in the fourth century, he naturally paid more attention to the claims of his own bishop in Rome, who was then able to take on more and more authority and power.  Rome claimed that Peter had been the first pope, and so Peter stood in people’s minds for the authority of Rome. 

The Bible speaks of John, on the other hand, as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”  John 13:23 tells us that John was reclining closely next to Jesus at the Last Supper; the KJV translates it as “leaning on Jesus’ bosom.”  The image of John leaning on Jesus’ bosom is an apt metaphor for the intimacy of Celtic prayer: prayer is listening for the heartbeat of God.  It’s about the experience of union with God in real life; it’s not a matter of authority or doctrine. 

Celtic writers often favored the writings of John because John writes so much about the love of God, rather than the authority of the Church.  There’s the gospel of John, with the verse they drilled into us as kids (3:16): “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish but have everlasting life.” 

The letters of John talk consistently about love.  1 John 4:7-8 says, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God…”  That’s a radical statement when you think about it.  If you love, you already know something about God. 

I believe that healthy spirituality is a vital part of a full life.  I believe that a strong community is a vital part of a full life.  It seems to me that there’s a real need for congregations who are connected spiritually to God as the ground of our being, and to each other in everyday life.  There’s a place for congregations who together form a vital sense of community that reaches out and builds each other up. 

I believe that’s what we aspire to, and I believe that we’ve begun to build something very special.  I’d like to close with this prayer of a Celtic baker.  Let’s pray:

As I knead the flour, I think of all the many grains that have been ground to make it.

Christ’s church is like flour, made up of many people of many races,

   ground up to make a single dough. 

As I watch the dough rise, I think of the yeast’s power,

   raising up the weight of flour and water.

Prayer in Christ is like rising dough, drawing together every hope and fear

   and lifting them up to God. Amen. 

The Meaning of Easter

Luke 24:1-12

As everyone knows, Easter is the time when we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus.  The resurrection stands at the core of the Christian faith.  The Apostle’s Creed states that Jesus “was crucified, dead, and buried… on the third day he rose again.”  The apostle Paul wrote in Colossians 2:12 that we are “buried with him in baptism” and “raised with him through faith in the power of God.” 

The Disciples of Christ congregation I served in Louisiana for ten years as pastor enshrined a brief version of those words above its baptistry.  I’m glad, because more and more, I find that these words are very close to the core of the gospel.  We are buried with Christ, and God raises us up to new life.  That’s the message of baptism, being buried under the water and raised again.  It’s also the main message of Easter.

There’s more than a little bit of experiential truth of the heart there, as opposed to head truth.  Easter is a good time to revisit that truth of the heart – what we mean by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  

Jesus did not leave behind a theological primer.  He didn’t write anything himself, as far as we know, though Luke 4 tells us that he was literate – he read scripture in the synagogue.  Jesus preferred to teach out loud to those who would listen.  He didn’t set forth doctrines.  He spent three years teaching, but he taught using beatitudes and parables to convey images: Blessed are the peacemakers.  Blessed are the poor.  The kingdom of heaven is like this…

Jesus’ teaching focused on hearts and souls.  That’s often a problem for us modern people, in this age where public dialogue often centers around how much information we have, and mostly ignores our hearts and souls.  Today the worst insult that people on different political sides can throw at each other is some version of the word “stupid.”  Character, we’re told, doesn’t matter today.  If you call someone greedy or self-centered, they may very well thank you for the compliment. 

Our culture often dismisses hearts and souls as irrelevant.  But any discussion about following Jesus has to start there.  Our ability to love doesn’t depend on our IQs.  It depends on what’s in our hearts.

We often assume that the early church had all the answers.  Our denomination developed from a movement called “Restorationism” because it intended to restore the New Testament church.  We have often assumed that the early church had somehow embodied the ideal, and there’s a great passage in Acts that says that all lived in harmony and shared all they had with each other.  It sounds like the perfect picture of what a church should be.

Alas, it didn’t last very long.  Both the book of Acts and later church history show that the early church struggled for centuries to understand Jesus.  That was probably inevitable as the gospel spread around the Mediterranean world to many different cultures with different assumptions about the way the world worked.  They wrestled with questions such as whether Jesus was human or divine.  Some said he was one, while some said the other.  It took a few centuries for the church to conclude that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. 

They wrestled with questions such as why Jesus was crucified, executed in such a shameful manner that was reserved for the lowest criminals, and what all that meant for his followers.  

When I walked the aisle and professed my faith at age nine, I did so because I didn’t want to go to hell, so to the best of my nine-year-old ability, I confessed my sin and gave my life to Christ.  This was the beginning of my spiritual journey, not the end, and I suspect something similar was the beginning for many of the rest of us here today. 

However, if we see the resurrection simply as our way to heaven, then we may see the three years of Jesus’ teaching as something of an afterthought.  We may see Jesus’ parables and beatitudes as nice stories if anyone could ever manage to live up to them. 

But I believe that Jesus’ teachings are important to understand if we want to understand why he chose to undergo crucifixion and resurrection.  He spoke of a God who loves us more than we can comprehend.  He quoted Old Testament passages to his listeners.  In Matthew 9:13, he told people, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  For I have come to call, not the righteous, but sinners.” 

That’s just one example, but it doesn’t sound like an angry and distant God bent on sacrificing somebody just to appease his anger.  Jesus emphasized a God of love and mercy.  He reached out to sinners; he didn’t waste much time on people who were so perfect and self-sufficient that they didn’t need him. 

I’ve come to see the death and resurrection of Jesus as a model, a paradigm for the way the spiritual life works.  As the Franciscan writer Richard Rohr has said, We have to go down before we can go up.  We have to die to our old selves before we can be raised up to a new life.  The Bible is full of examples of this pattern.  Jesus once said that the only “sign” he would give people was the story of Jonah, who was swallowed by a great fish.  We would normally have thought that was the end of Jonah, but after three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, as the story goes, Jonah found himself back in the sunshine on the beach, where he proceeded to do what God had sent him for. 

The Hebrew scriptures have other examples.  Joseph is thrown into a deep pit by his jealous brothers, then sold into slavery in a foreign land.  That’s about as low as you can go!  He might have given up, but instead Joseph rose to great power and responsibility.  He was able to save Egypt as well as his family from a seven-year famine. 

However else we may interpret the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, I keep coming back to the fact that Jesus told his disciples, “Follow me.”  He didn’t say, “Praise me.”  He didn’t even say, “Worship me.”  He told us to accept our own crosses and to follow the path he set out. 

That path that involves dying and being raised again.  This pattern of down and then up, loss and then renewal, lies at the heart of Easter.  We haven’t always gotten it right.  Too often in history, Christians have only wanted to go up, to see themselves only as victors and champions.  The crusades were one example.  The infighting among Christian denominations is another.

But Jesus taught that none of us comes to new life or victory without first dying to ourselves.  To live the Christian life is to follow the pattern that Jesus set.  In his death and resurrection, Jesus was telling us, “This is the way to transform evil into good!”  

In dying, Jesus exposed what the evil of the world really is.  Many of us were taught that evil consisted of things like saying bad words or going fishing on Sunday instead of going to church.  That model of the spiritual life trivializes evil.  It is deeply flawed because it depends on my willpower, and as Paul said, my own power is not enough.  We can’t create a new way of living using our old way of thinking.  Even if I obey all the rules, I’m still the same person I was.  There’s no transformation there. 

In doing and teaching the things that led Jesus to be crucified, Jesus showed the world that the nature of real evil is violence against others.  Jesus refused to commit violence or to encourage it, even when it was practiced against him.  He made this very clear in his teaching.  In Luke 6:27ff, Jesus tells us,

“I say to you that listen, ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer him the other cheek also.  If anyone takes away your coat, offer your shirt too.  Give to everyone who begs from you, and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.’” 

Those are hard words for our old selves.  The question for us is whether we are going to be among those who listen, whether we are among those who are willing to let our old selves die so that God can raise us up again to a new life.  Jesus died to show us the pattern that leads to new life, the way of living that seeks to put God and others first rather than ourselves.  As Richard Rohr says, in allowing himself to be crucified, “Jesus is not changing his Father’s mind about us; he is changing our mind about God – about what is real and what is not.” 

Paul tells us in Colossians 1:15 that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God… and (v. 20) through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” 

Jesus made peace through the cross.  That’s the template for our lives.  Peace is central to Jesus’ message.  It’s the opposite of the violence that was visited upon him.  If he had responded in kind, he would just have perpetuated the violence that characterizes the whole world.  By responding to violence with peace and love, Jesus showed us how to break the cycle.  God’s power resurrected Jesus, and God’s power will be with us once we have followed Jesus down the path of dying to ourselves and being raised by God’s power to new lives of love. 

This is how we change the world, not by conquering it or destroying our enemies.  Those things just keep the violence going.  Jesus died to show us the way of love.  Early Christians were called “people of the Way” because their way of life was so different from everyone else’s.  They acted out of love.  They were humble, not proud.  They didn’t have all the answers, and they didn’t need them.  They died to their old selves so that God could transform them into loving hearts.  Being correct was not the point; loving was. 

Some people approach Easter as though all that matters in the Christian message is this one day.  But Easter Day was a logical extension of the previous three years of Jesus’ teaching and wandering from town to town, demonstrating again and again that God is love.  The cross teaches us how to stand against hate without becoming hateful.  We are called to be emissaries for God’s kingdom of love, and the way of the cross is the path we take. 

Cynthia Bourgeault put it this way:

Jesus’s real purpose in his sacrifice was to wager his own life against his core conviction that love is stronger than death, and that the laying down of self, which is the essence of this love, leads not to death, but to life… Thus, the real domain of the Paschal Mystery is not dying but dying-to-self…  [it reminds] us that it is not only possible but imperative to fall through fear into love, because that is the only way we will ever truly know what it means to be alive.

Let’s pray. 

Lord, we confess our conceit and our pride.  We have been quick to take offense, quick to lash out at those who offend us.  We have committed violence of thought, word, and deed out of fear that we might lose what we think we have.  Help us to let go of our pride that you might create hope.  Help us to face our fear of loss by giving what we have to you. Help us to follow the path of your kingdom – of dying to ourselves so that you might raise us up to your kingdom of love.  Help us to follow, not merely to repeat empty words.  In your name we pray, Amen.

The Donkey’s Message

Luke 19:28-40

I first heard the story of Jesus riding a donkey as a child in Sunday School, back when I thought that the point of a Bible story was just that – to learn a story from the Bible and be able to recite it back.  At five years of age, I felt little need to dig deeply for theological insight.  The teacher would tell us the story for the week, maybe using that advanced technology of the day known as the flannelgraph, and then she (always a she) would ask us questions to see whether we followed the story. 

“What animal did Jesus ride into town, boys and girls?  Was it a giraffe?”  And we would all laugh and shout, “No!”  And the teacher would ask, “Was it a bear?”  “Noooo!” we would shout.  “It was a DONKEYYY!”  And I thought that was the point.  I knew the story. 

But later on, it seemed strange to me that Jesus would voluntarily draw attention to himself as he does in this story.  Most of the time, Jesus heals people and then sternly commands them not to tell anybody.  There’s even a term for this: scholars call it “the Messianic secret” – Jesus often seems to go out of his way to stay under the radar, as we would say today. 

And yet here, Jesus takes the opposite tack.  He sends a couple of the disciples ahead with cryptic instructions: “Go ahead into the town.  You’ll find a young donkey, a colt, tied up.  Untie it and bring it to me.  And if anyone challenges you, just tell them that the Lord needs it.” 

The disciples do as they’re told, but they have to wonder.  How does Jesus know about the colt?  And why does he need it?  He’s been walking all over the countryside his whole life.  He all of a sudden needs a ride? 

Nevertheless, the disciples follow instructions and lead the colt back to Jesus.  Jesus then rides the colt across the valley and up into Jerusalem.  Crowds gather and celebrate, waving palm branches in the air and laying their cloaks along the road, which was something they did for popular leaders and visiting heroes, sort of like putting out the red carpet for movie stars today.  They shout:

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

The crowd that forms around Jesus really annoys some of the Pharisees.  They’ve been arguing with Jesus for three years, trying their best to discredit him in the public’s mind.  But now the crowd is giving Jesus a spontaneous parade!  These leaders can’t stand it.  To be fair, they’ve also got to be worried about antagonizing the Romans, who were always on the watch for Jewish uprisings.  Mobs of people shouting about welcoming a new king?  That’s the sort of thing that makes Roman governors and soldiers sit up and pay attention. 

The Pharisees demand that Jesus tell the crowds to be quiet.  But Jesus tells them that if the people are quiet, the stones on the ground will shout out!  And the mob marches merrily along, praising Jesus to the skies. 

What’s going on here?  Why all of a sudden is Jesus making himself the center of attention?  I think the clue lies in the gospel writers’ tendency to show how they saw Jesus as fulfilling scripture.  For example, Luke quotes from the prophet Isaiah to explain the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. 

In this case, take a look at Zechariah 9: 

9:9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
9:10 He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations…

I think Jesus was going out of his way to use this prophecy to get his message across.  That’s why he rode into Jerusalem on a humble young donkey rather than an impressive war horse.  He wasn’t trying to position himself as a conquering king.  He was emphasizing in very visual form the peaceful nature of his kingdom. 

Humble, on the colt of a donkey, commanding peace to all nations.  If Jesus is a king, then what does his reign do?  Zechariah says that it destroys the instruments of war: chariots, war horses, bows and arrows, all the technology of Jesus’ day – it all had to go. 

And this is the kind of kingdom that will take over the world.  Not the violent kind.  We do not ever create authentic peace by destroying our enemies.  Violence against an enemy only creates a resentful new set of enemies.  If you doubt that, imagine how the people of Ukraine feel these days about their neighbor to the north. 

We can only begin to create peace by allowing God to create peaceful places in our hearts.  Here’s an assertion of faith for us: Those peaceful places are powerful places.  That is an assertion of faith: peace equals power.  Do we really believe Jesus?  Do we really believe that a peaceful kingdom can take over the world?  A lot of people might say that’s naïve. 

I think this is where our faith is called on in an important way.  Do we really believe in God’s peace?  Do we really believe in the power of that peace?  Or do we believe that peace can only be attained by overcoming and destroying our enemies, and then we can have peace? 

When Jesus chose to ride into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey, fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy, he was sending a strong visual message that his kingdom is a kingdom of serious peace.  It’s easy to take sides against other people.  It’s what everyone else does.  It’s what our egos want to do.  It’s easy to feel that our righteous fury is justified when we’ve been hurt. 

But God’s kingdom is more challenging than that.  God’s kingdom is not a kingdom that takes sides against others.  There’s a place for every one of God’s children, even the ones who have hurt us. 

No matter how justified our anger feels, violence is never the place from which we can create peace.  That includes violence of words as well as violence of action.  If we’re serious when we say that we follow the Prince of Peace, we have to be equally serious about the work of our spiritual lives.  We have to ask God for the gift of humility, the gift that allows us to still the angry voices of our old selves and respond peacefully.  We have to be transformed into champions of peace in our everyday lives and our everyday relationships. 

That means, when people insult us, we don’t have to answer back out of our anger.  We might well feel angry and hurt, but we don’t have to give as good as we get. 

Living a life of peace means we’re not out to show people who’s boss.  In the first half of life, most of us feel we have to prove and defend ourselves.  We think we can’t afford to let anyone put us down, because we’re preoccupied with building ourselves up. 

Some people never mature out of that first half of life, even if they live past a hundred.  But with spiritual maturity, we can begin finding our way to the second half of life.  We can begin learning to let go of the need to dominate others, to be always right or to win at all costs. 

One of Jesus’ lessons in riding that donkey was that being humble does not make us weak.  On the contrary: it takes great strength to react in peace rather than anger, even when we have to take a stand and say ‘no.’  

Mohandas Gandhi was a case in point.  Though he never stopped being a Hindu, Gandhi was a great admirer of Jesus.  Though he had very few possessions, he kept a painting of Jesus in his home as an inspiration.  Gandhi was able to change the course of India’s history using two things: a nonviolent approach, and the power of the word “no.” 

Gandhi wrote that “It is as necessary to reject untruth as it is to accept truth.”  He said that the word “no” is a very powerful word.  I believe that, while we are called to say “yes” to God’s children, we as Christians also have to use the word “no” quite often today:

  • No, we will not bow down to any system, political or religious, that favors some people and neglects others. 
  • No, we will not water down the gospel of Jesus Christ with the inadequate standards of our consumerist culture. 
  • No, we will not define people’s worth by their capacity to buy stuff. 

We will define everyone’s worth, including our own, by the worthiness of God and the image of our Creator, present in each of us when we’re born.  Our sinful actions may mask that image, but God’s image within each of us can never be destroyed. 

Our spiritual journeys are about learning to live out of God’s image within us instead of living out of our own egos.  Paul taught that our egos, our “old selves,” are to be “buried with Christ” so that we can be raised to new life by God. 

This is the kingdom that Jesus rode on a donkey to proclaim.  He rode into a city full of people he knew would kill him, and he loved them anyway.  It’s a kingdom of peace where all that’s destroyed is our own passion for destruction.  That in itself is a powerful goal, one worthy of our time and focus, so let’s pray for that now. 

We are your temple, Lord, not made with hands.  We are your body. If every wall should crumble and every sanctuary decay, we are your habitation.  We bless you for this place, but take us outside the camp, Lord, outside the places where everyone professes holiness, out to where soldiers gamble with your clothes and thieves curse at your message of love, and nations clash at the cross-roads of the world.  Make us instruments of thy peace.

In the name of the One who rode a donkey to teach us, we pray.  Amen. 

The Hard Kingdom

Sermon: The Hard Kingdom

Mark 10:17-31

This passage in Mark 10 is often referred to as the “story of the rich young ruler.”  It has close parallels in Matthew and Luke.  All three gospels make it plain that he’s not just any man: he is a very wealthy man.  Luke describes him as “a ruler” or an official of some sort.  Matthew mentions that he’s a young man.  Put them all together and you get the “rich young ruler.” 

The man obviously respects Jesus greatly.  He kneels down.  He calls Jesus “Good Teacher.”  He asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus throws the question back at him: “You know the commandments…”  The young man knows the commandments by heart, and he tells Jesus that he has kept them all since he was old enough to understand them.  But there’s still something missing.  Something deep down is not complete.  No one else has been able to guide him, to help him figure out what is missing.

I suspect this man was feeling what a lot of us in the church experience.  Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, put his finger on it when he wrote about the first and second halves of life.  In the first half, we build our sense of ourselves.  It’s the time when we learn the rules and how to obey them.  It’s the child learning not to touch the hot stove.  It’s the teen or young adult learning how to get along with others and making decisions about the future.  It’s building skills and identity in a career. 

The first half of life is important.  It’s when we build the structure of who and what we are.  It gives us a sense of place in the universe and a sense of what to expect.  It’s learning where the boundaries are.  There’s a reason that eight of the ten commandments are “Thou shalt nots.”  They provide important “first half of life” boundaries for our behavior.  I wouldn’t want to live in a society where people routinely stole, lied, and murdered. 

Those things still happen, of course, but where those things do happen, it’s often because the perpetrators didn’t get grounded well in the first half of life. 

In Louisiana I knew three brothers who were born to a mother who failed spectacularly to provide a stable home life for her sons.  Each brother had a different father.  They would come by my office looking for help, and I got to know them over several years’ time.  I did what I could to help, but unfortunately, they were utterly lost.  They rotated in and out of jail; they fathered children with multiple women.  They spent a lot of time being homeless.  I found a job with a construction company for one of them, and he was fired on the first day for trying to sell drugs.  He and another brother died of drug overdoses last year. 

These young men were textbook examples of what happens when we get the first half of life wrong.  That’s why a parent’s job is so important.  As much as children push back against the boundaries and discipline parents impose, those boundaries and the discipline give us a sense of stability as we grow.  Without boundaries, children never find their limits.  A good Sunday School and worship experience are so important in a child’s life – they help form a spiritual foundation for a successful life. 

This rich young ruler had a strong first half of life.  He had stayed inside the lines, obeyed the commandments, and became a model citizen.  He would have been a great church member! 

But he had reached the point where staying inside the lines wasn’t enough.  He had built a model container with his life, but that container was empty.  He knew instinctively that there had to be something more, something worth living for, beyond the rules.  I think that’s why Mark tells us that Jesus looked at him and loved him.  This man was a genuine Seeker after truth, and he could tell that what Jesus taught and lived was worth learning.  He was ready to move into the second half of life, but he didn’t know how. 

Not everyone reaches that point.  Some people are content to live with rules and never go beyond them.  You know, I think the Pharisees get a bad rap in the New Testament.  During and after the Babylonian exile, the rabbis were heroic.  They formed synagogues and a system for everyday life.  They provided a means for Jews as the people of God to stay together so that some of them could return together to their homeland.  Even those who stayed behind in Babylon built a strong community, in part because of the rabbinic movement that later developed into the party of the Pharisees. 

Some Pharisees, however, like some of us in the church, got so focused on the rules and regulations for the good of the nation that they forgot about compassion for individuals.  Compassion, the ability to care about others and the world outside of yourself, is a second half of life quality.  The wisdom that Jesus taught was another quality of the second half of life.  Jesus didn’t teach rules; in fact, he sometimes violated them.  He could weigh two opposing truths – such as keeping the Sabbath on the one hand and showing compassion on the other – and come out with a Third Way that incorporated both. 

When Jesus encountered a man with a deformed arm one Sabbath, some of the more legalistic Pharisees objected, because healing was work, and you weren’t supposed to work on the Sabbath.  But Jesus responded, “Which is more lawful, to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?”  He healed the man’s arm. 

Jesus focused, not on the container, but on the life that fills the container.  The kingdom of God that he taught was characterized by second half of life qualities: humility, meekness, and the ability to mourn, because only those who love are able to mourn. 

Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God was upon us here and now.  He invited people to respond to the Kingdom where they were, in the present.  Put differently, he invited them into the second half of life.

The rich young ruler sensed an answer in Jesus’ teaching.  He felt keenly the lack of something important in his life, and he came to Jesus looking for something to fill the void. 

To help this man move beyond the place where he was stuck, Jesus told him, “There is one thing you still lack.  Go and sell all that you own and give the money to the poor; then you will have treasure in heaven, and you can come follow me.” 

There may not be another verse in all of scripture that makes us so uncomfortable.  Does Jesus expect all of his followers to sell their possessions and wander the roads with him?  If not, why does he ask that of this man? 

I think the answer lies in the man’s identity.  He has done everything he knows to do according to his religion, kept all the commandments, but it’s not enough.  He’s standing in the doorway between his old life and the next stage, but he can’t see what lies ahead.  He needs guidance. 

Jesus diagnoses his problem: the young man is too wrapped up in his wealth.  There’s an old saying that we need enough stuff to get by, but after a certain point, your stuff owns you.  Our stuff can dominate our lives.  If we’re not careful, we can even define ourselves by our stuff. 

Jesus saw that this man’s stuff weighed him down.  He was so close to the freedom of the kingdom that Jesus loved him and said, “There’s just one thing more.  Get rid of your stuff!  It’s not bad stuff.  Sell it to others and give the money to people who need it.  Then you’ll be free enough to come and follow me.” 

The young man stared at Jesus in shock.  He couldn’t do it.  He couldn’t even imagine it.  The problem wasn’t his stuff; it was how he saw himself.  He defined himself by his stuff. 

When Jesus calls for us to enter the kingdom of heaven, he’s calling for us to be transformed.  Not to transform ourselves, but to be transformed by God’s power.  Transformation is hard precisely because in order to be transformed, we have to let go of the image in our heads of who we are.  Put another way, we have to let go of those egos we’ve spent so much time building up!  And for some people, their stuff, their wealth, forms a crucial part of their egos.  The very idea of letting them go seems absurd. 

The more successful we are, the more difficult it is to let go.  The masks we hide behind are working for us.  Why would we let them go?  That’s why Jesus said that it’s “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  That’s hyperbole, of course; Jesus went on to say that “With God, all things are possible.” 

The churches where I grew up talked a lot about “getting saved,” by which they meant going to heaven when we die.  But Jesus focused on entering the kingdom of God here and now.  If we do that, the afterlife takes care of itself.  Jesus defined salvation as transformation in this life, and he described the result in his parables and the Sermon on the Mount. 

Jesus calls on us to move beyond the first half of life, beyond the preoccupation with ourselves.  He calls on us to follow him, to die to ourselves, to our egos, and to be transformed by God’s Spirit.  He didn’t tell us to worship him; he told us to follow him, to take up our crosses.  That’s a hard first step, but it leads us to a life that we couldn’t have imagined before.   

It doesn’t matter whether we’ve broken every rule in the book.  It doesn’t matter if we’ve kept every rule in the book.  Like in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, God not only stands ready to receive us, he comes running to embrace us in the road.  The only question is whether we are ready to accept that embrace, to lay down our egos and open ourselves to a life of love. 

I like to think that after he walked away, the rich young ruler kept thinking about what Jesus told him.  I like to think that later in life he might have come to grips with his wealth obsession, let go, and followed Jesus.  The door was always open; he only had to walk through. 

Just like us. 

Let’s pray. 

“The Flesh” Ain’t What You Think

I always preach from Scripture, but in my experience, some Scriptures are a bit more puzzling than others.  That’s not surprising, since we’re two thousand years and many cultural permutations away from the first-century church.  Our scripture this morning bothered me for years, and it may have bothered some of you.  It’s found in Paul’s letter to the Romans:

Romans 8:6-11  (Scriptural Focus)
8:6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
8:7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law– indeed it cannot,
8:8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
8:9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
8:10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.
8:11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Paul’s diatribe against “the flesh” sounds in our English translations as though he saw the human body as a problem, a source of temptation and evil.  That word “flesh” today can even have a salacious, X-rated feel to it. 

Fortunately, that’s not what Paul is talking about at all.  Paul was not a 17th-century Puritan.  Paul was a first-century Jew, and Jews knew from scripture – specifically the book of Genesis – that God was Creator of the physical world, including the human body, and He called all of his creation good.  There would be others in Christianity after Paul who, due to various cultural influences, saw the human body as inherently sinful or evil, but not a good Jew like Paul. 

Our English translations have two words here: flesh and body.  We often think of these words as meaning pretty much the same thing.  It helps to know that Paul also uses two different words.  One is sarx, which gets translated here as “flesh” in verses 6-9, and the other is soma, which is translated correctly as “body” in verses 10 and 11. 

However, Paul means two different things in using ‘flesh’ and ‘body’, sarx and soma.  That can be confusing for us.  Think about Exodus 16:3, for example, where we read about that famous King James phrase, the “fleshpots of Egypt.”  I grew up thinking that ‘fleshpots’ meant brothels, dens of iniquity and sin.  Indeed, I once googled the phrase, and the first site that popped up informed its readers that “The “fleshpots of Egypt” were so called because of their loose sexuality and equally loose morals.”  Sounds like a tourism brochure for Las Vegas!  What happens in Egypt, stays in Egypt.  This is a great example of why we shouldn’t trust everything we see on the internet. 

But that understanding of the King James word “fleshpots” is completely wrong.  As usual, we can get to the real meaning by reading the whole verse instead of mentioning one phrase in it.  The whole verse in the KJV goes like this:

And the children of Israel said unto them, Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.

The Israelites weren’t talking about loose morals; they were complaining that they didn’t have anything to eat!  Stuck without food in the desert, they falsely remembered that in Egypt they had plenty to eat!  The New International Version actually translates “fleshpots” accurately as “pots of meat.”  When the Israelites mentioned “flesh pots,” they were hankering after beef stew! 

Like a good rabbi, Paul is using a metaphor when he talks about flesh.  He’s using something tangible to refer to something intangible.  If he had meant “body,” he could have used the word soma all the way through this passage, rather than sarx

But he didn’t.  What Paul meant by sarx or “flesh” is very close to what we mean today by our word ego, a word that has now passed from Greek into common English usage.  Sigmund Freud gave Greek words like “ego” a different twist.  Today we use it to mean our self-image; we say someone has a big ego if he thinks too much of himself. 

So when we read Paul now, and he talks repeatedly about “the flesh,” we need to understand that Paul is not talking very judgmentally about what we do with our bodies. 

Paul is trying to convey a very deep spiritual truth – that following Jesus means living “in Christ.”  He uses that phrase quite a lot in his letters.  Living any other way is living in “the flesh.”  When we focus on ourselves – our egos – we inevitably crash and burn.  When we live “in Christ,” as Paul liked to say, when we focus our lives on the Spirit of God that is above us, below us, that surrounds us and fills the cosmos, we have a much healthier perspective – and actually a much more realistic one. 

If we substitute the word “ego” as we understand it today for the word “flesh”, I think we come much closer to Paul’s meaning:

8:6 To set the mind on the ego is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
8:7 For this reason the mind that is set on the ego is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law– indeed it cannot,
8:8 and those who are trapped in their egos cannot please God.
8:9 But you are not trapped in your ego; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you…

When people began to realize last year that we were facing a highly contagious pandemic, we saw some very different reactions.  I read about two brothers who, upon learning about the impending pandemic, immediately split up and visited every discount store they could find, buying up all the available hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and other such supplies.  They cut deals with store managers to buy up all their stock of these items in bulk.  They then turned around and began selling their stuff online for several times more than they paid. 

Unfortunately for them, their online platforms quickly shut them down for price gouging.  They were stuck with thousands of items they could no longer sell.  After they were publicly shamed by an article in the New York Times, they tried to redeem themselves by giving away all the stock they couldn’t sell. 

Other people had very different reactions to the pandemic.  A friend of mine was the first person to call our United Way office and volunteer to deliver food and supplies to people who couldn’t afford them.  She bought a lot of those things out of her own pocket, without waiting for a grant to come through. 

To me, these two examples typify what Paul was talking about.  The two brothers were thinking only of themselves and how they could make more money.  From a strict capitalist point of view, what they did was entirely logical: they sensed a shift in the market and moved quickly to capitalize on it.  It was just business; it wasn’t evil.  But neither was it “in the Spirit.”  From a Christian perspective, we’d have to say they were focused only on themselves.  It apparently never occurred to them to be concerned for others.

My friend is a great example of what it means to live in the Spirit.  She not only saw how the pandemic would affect other people – her first thought was compassion for those people who’d lost their jobs and had no financial cushion, or for elderly folks who couldn’t go to the store and risk getting infected, or for people too poor or too disabled to have their own transportation.  She not only felt compassion; she acted on that compassion. 

This truth lies at the heart of the Christian gospel: it’s only by dying to our egos – or in Paul’s terms, our flesh – that we are given the power to be truly alive, the ability to see the world without our ego’s distorted filters.  It’s only when we let go of our ego’s need to acquire more – more money, more respect, more power – that we can begin to realize that we already have enough. 

Through the centuries, the gospel of Christ has become distorted in many ways.  Our culture inevitably colors our understandings of Jesus’ teachings.  One common misunderstanding is the assumption that bigger is better, that people who have more are superior to those who have less.  Some churches even teach that God wants us all to be rich, conveniently forgetting that Jesus pointed out specifically that it’s the poor who are blessed, “for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).  He didn’t teach that wealth was evil, only that wealth is a huge temptation for our egos, an enormous distraction from what matters in the kingdom of God. 

The point of church is for us to help each other live out the kingdom of God.  It’s to help us become aware of the presence of the God who is already among us, and to be transformed by that loving presence.  A faithful Church also requires us to become more aware of ourselves and our deepest motivations for what we do.  John Calvin expressed as much in the opening of his classic work, Institutes of the Christian Religion.  He wrote that:

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.

For me, this is the core of the spiritual life: to know God and to know ourselves.  As Calvin said, the two go hand in hand.  We have to let go of our egos in order to know God, and the same process helps us come to know our true selves, rather than the false selves we create to protect and build our egos.  We don’t come to know God by building ourselves up; we come to know God when we let go of the pretensions and illusions that we’ve built up for ourselves and to impress others. 

Prayer helps us to do that, to become more aware of our masks and to let God’s spirit transform us into letting them go.  That’s why we need to pray.  Such prayer doesn’t require words; it just requires a conscious decision to be quiet and listen to the Presence that already surrounds us. 

Jesus called people to take up their own crosses and follow. This is the scandal of the gospel – that we are called to put our egos to death in order to be raised to new life as the people of the kingdom that God created us to be.  That’s what Paul’s talking about – living in the Spirit.  Living in the flesh – focused on ourselves and our egos – won’t get us there. 

Let’s pray together.  Father, we shrink from our crosses.  We want to be first, when you call us to follow Jesus and be last.  We want to be important, but you call us to serve.  Forgive our unbelief, Lord.  Help us follow your Son and in following, become transformed into new lives of love and compassion.  We pray in the name of your Son, Jesus, Amen. 

What’s the Church For?

Genesis 1:1-5
1:1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,
1:2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
1:3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
1:4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.
1:5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Sermon

A lot of people approach passages such as Genesis 1 with a certain amount of dread because in our post-Darwin age, other people like to argue about them.  When I first began as pastor of a small church across the river, an elder told me he was a bit concerned about my Southern Baptist background.  He was concerned that I might be what he called a “Bible-thumper.” I’m pleased to report that I’ve not thumped a single Bible. 

Most of the denominations in America were formed around a certain set of theological beliefs, or opinions.  My denomination of the last ten years, the Disciples of Christ, formed in the early 1800s around the idea that there should be no denominations; everyone should just emulate the early church.  Of course, no one could agree on what that meant, so the movement to end all denominations gave birth to three new denominations.  Faith and church history both require the ability to chuckle at ourselves! 

Good theology is helpful.  Bad theology can cause harm.  But because we all approach life with our own filters and experiences, we’ll probably never completely align our opinions.  My own theology has changed over time, and it will probably continue to grow as I grow. 

But the first chapter of Genesis is trying to tell us something that goes beyond mere opinions.  For instance, this world we live in was created by a loving God, and God declared creation to be good.  This God is the source of light and enlightenment. God gives form and substance to our world.  Whether you take that literally or metaphorically, it’s a very fertile idea.  In the very last verse of Genesis 1, right after creating people, God calls it a day, sits back and pronounces all of creation to be “very good.”  That’s a hopeful thought. 

In the year of my birth, 1955, church attendance in the United States hit its all-time high.  In that year, the highest percentage of people in American history claimed to attend church at least once a month, and nearly everyone identified with some specific religious tradition even if they didn’t actually attend. 

Immediately thereafter, however, religious attendance began to go steadily downhill.  Many people today, especially young adults, no longer feel the need to identify with any religion at all.  To be honest, they don’t see the point.  The very word “religion” has taken on a negative connotation in the last twenty years or so.

Those of us who are left in the Church are faced with a crucial question: what is the Church good for?  Why would people want to attend?  Are we here to get our opinions in order? 

If Genesis is correct that a loving God created us and placed us in a good world, church should lead us to be at peace with our place in the world, not passively content, but at peace.  When the Church is at its best, it leads us to deal with reality: who and what we really are.  Bad religion can blind us to all that.  I’ve come to think of it in terms of authentic faith and inauthentic faith, or if you prefer, healthy and unhealthy spirituality. 

Unhealthy spirituality simply reinforces our illusions about ourselves – that we’re the center of the universe, for example.  It defends our egos.  Inauthentic faith allows us to hide behind the masks that we build up, rather than confess and admit even to ourselves what we really are.  The Apostle Paul called those masks our “old selves.” The Trappist monk Thomas Merton called them our false selves.  Inauthentic faith is dangerous precisely because it uses the trappings of religion to shield us from reality.  Unhealthy spirituality is persuasive because it’s easy.  It buffers us from the real world instead of dragging us into it. 

Healthy spirituality leads us to come to grips with reality by letting go of our false selves – letting go of our illusions about who and what we are.  It allows us to live free of the compulsion to defend ourselves.  In the language of scripture, healthy spirituality leads us to die to our old selves and be raised to new life. 

Authentic faith isn’t about building ourselves up.  It’s about letting go, letting go of our need to be the center of the universe, or our need to be right, or our need to be powerful, or even our need to be safe.  As we do the spiritual work of emptying ourselves of all that, authentic faith leads us to an experience of God’s presence that was here all along. 

Somewhere through the centuries, we in the Church got sidetracked.  We acted as though our theological opinions were the main point. Christianity became something that happened in our heads rather than transforming us deep down in our souls.  But Genesis portrays a God too transcendent to comprehend with our intellects and opinions. 

What we can do – what the Church can lead us to do – is simply experience God’s presence.  We can know the love that flows from that presence.  And if we do the spiritual work to let go of our false selves, our egos, we can participate in that love – or to use Paul’s favorite phrase, we can live in Christ – to the point that God’s love flows through us and from us out into the others around us. 

There are different ways to wake up to God’s presence.  For me, what has been most helpful is contemplative prayer, or centering prayer as some call it.  It’s prayer that doesn’t need to use words, though words are OK too.  The point of this prayer is to change me by helping me become more real, more aware, rather than helping me cajole God into doing what I want.  I began to learn about this kind of prayer through the writings of Thomas Merton, who had lived about an hour from where I attended seminary and was friends with one of my professors.  Later a little book by Richard Rohr called Everything Belongs turned my spiritual life from anger to hope.  

My preferred style of worship is quiet and contemplative.  I’ve been in Quaker worship where no one said a single word or sang a single note for a solid hour, and I was just fine with that.  For many of my friends, the opposite is true – they prefer loud music, dancing, shouting, and chanting (not the Gregorian kind).  Good for them. 

The style is not the point, however much we may prefer one over another.  Whatever the style, whatever the theology, the point of church is to lead us into an awareness of the presence of the God who created us, the God in whom we live, and move, and have our being.  It’s to teach us how to live freely, growing in that awareness over time, rather than living as slaves to our own egos.  Good liturgy can lead us to that awareness.  Good music can do that.  Even good preaching and good theology can do that. 

And active ministry can do that.  Healthy spirituality requires action as well as prayer.  We grow spiritually when we learn to see God’s image in other people and connect to that image in love, especially when it’s hard for us to see that image in people who are different from us.  We grow when we give of ourselves, when we see each other as neighbors rather than threats.  That quality of connection between the spirits of two people echoes the sense of union that we seek with God.

This is what the Church is good for – leading us to let go of our false selves, emptying ourselves so that we can be filled with divine love.  That’s exactly what this world needs.  I don’t think there has ever been a time when the world needed what the Church can offer more than it needs us now.  We are people who follow a creative God who loves us and thinks we are good.

The job of the Church is to carry that torch of caring awareness into the world.  For whatever reason, that’s not the impression most people have of us.  But if we do the spiritual work to live out the message of a loving God who created all of us in his image, the message of a Christ who called us to take up our own crosses and follow, perhaps in time that impression will change.  I think it’s a worthy goal. 

Psalm 29:11 May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace! Amen.