You are witnesses of these things

Luke 24:44-53
… Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

The great day is coming to an end. For 7 Sundays we been celebrating the resurrection, celebrating Easter. We have witnessed the empty tomb, seen the wounds of Jesus with Thomas, walked to Emmaus with the two disciples. We have heard about the Good Shepherd who calls his sheep by name, and of the Father’s house with many rooms. And last week Paul preached to us about a God who knows us each, and wants to be involved in each our lives, and in the life of our community.

All of this and everything from the angels who announced Christ’s birth, to his ministry and teaching, to his trial, crucifixion and resurrection… all of this has been preparation for the disciples. Preparation for Jesus to leave them behind.

As Jesus speaks to his followers today, they are not quite sure what they are seeing. For them it is still the first day of the resurrection, Easter Sunday. They have heard two of their members tell the story of how Jesus walked with them on the road to Emmaus, but now when Jesus himself shows up they are uncertain if he is a ghost. Jesus offers to let them touch him to see that he is real and he eats some fish to show that he is alive.

Yet, up until now the disciples had been packing themselves up and getting ready to leave. They had followed Jesus around for years, dutifully supporting him as he went about this ministry. Yet, in the last few days everything had come crashing apart. Jesus was arrested, put on trial, and then executed like a common criminal. After that disaster there was nothing left for them. Their hopes for a messiah had been crushed. The excitement of following a popular preacher and healer had been replaced by disappointment, shock and grief. For the disciples, the story was over, there was nothing else to stay for.


Packing it all up and heading home is natural for us. When things do not go the way we expect, we are good at moving on. A relationship doesn’t work out, move on to the next. An employment prospect doesn’t work out, we find another. A loved one becomes ill and dies, we push away the grief and try to pretend that everything is fine. Everything inside us tell us to avoid the pain, avoid the conflict, avoid the shame. And so we do.

Packing ourselves away is simply self protection. Withdrawing from life is simply a defense mechanism meant to keep us safe from harm. As we share in this community each week, as we are fed through the word and through the Body of Christ it probably seems like a simple matter to live boldly as a Christian. And yet, Monday morning arrives, and that community that felt so empowering seems so far away.

The disciples must have felt the same way. Jesus is dead and gone. The reason for staying has been taken away. The hope that they had in this little community has been ripped away from them.

And then Jesus shows up again. Jesus shows them that he is alive again. Jesus reminds them of who they are and what they have become.

You are witnesses of these things.

Jesus’ words spark something in the disciples. He isn’t there to hold their hands, or to lead them around galilee and judea. Jesus is not the witness. Jesus is the story. The Old Testament, Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms, those were all about Jesus… God has been preparing the people of Israel for the Messiah for a long time.

The disciple’s own experiences of the previous week. The trial, crucifixion, death and now the appearance of the resurrected Christ. This is how Jesus has been preparing his followers.

While they have packed themselves up, Jesus has done the opposite. He has unpacked, opened up, changed them. Jesus takes all that they have learned and all that they have experienced and places it in front of them once more. Jesus says to them: You are witnesses of these things – You are witnesses of God’s work in the world, Witnesses of the Messiah come to save, Witnesses of death being turned into life. The disciples have learned the story, and now it is their turn to tell it.


And Jesus names us Witnesses today too. Jesus gives us a story to tell also. Like the disciples, we have heard the scriptures and been prepared for the coming of Messiah. We have experienced the life, death and resurrection of Christ. And in those things, Jesus has opened us up and unpacked us. Jesus has washed and fed us. Jesus has prepared us to stay.

Jesus gives us a story to tell by making us part of the story. As we are washed in the waters of baptism again each Easter, we also dies and rises with Christ anew. In baptism is where we all begin as witnesses. Witness to the God who knows and loves us all.

And in Baptism, Christ makes his story our story. We are not only witnesses to Christ, but we become part of Christ’s body, Christ’s community. Where there only seems to be death, where all we want to do is to pack up and move on, Christ appears showing us new life. Christ turns us from packed up to unpacked, from dead to alive.

As we move to the end of this great day of Easter, to then end of this long celebration of the resurrection, God is preparing us. Not preparing us to be alone, but to be tellers of the story. God names us as witnesses, unpacking within us the good news given and shared for all.


The Unknown God and the God who knows

Acts 17:22-31
It would serve us well to listen carefully to Paul today. Paul is telling us about a radical God that we don’t get to hear about very often. His words might have originated in Athens, from the place where Greek philosophers would gather to argue and debate ideas. But make no mistake, Paul is speaking directly to us. And there is a sadness in his sermon and there is a certain joy. The joy is the proclaiming the living God in whom we live – we move- and have our being. The sadness is in realizing that God is essentially unknown to most North Americans. 

The place and people to whom Paul was speaking was not much different than our world today. The Athenians were careful folks who liked to hedge their bets when it came to religion. Scattered throughout the city would have been statues and temples to numerous Gods. To Greek Gods, Romans Gods, Persian Gods, and many more. Newborns would often be dedicated at each temple, just to make sure that all the bases were covered. Zeus, Athena, Mithras, Poseidon were all honoured just to be sure.  

And just in case any gods had been overlooked, there was the statue to the unknown God. A coverall, so as not to offend any other gods out there that didn’t have specific statues or temples. 

When Paul was in Athens, his purpose wasn’t to preach or evangelize. He was just visiting, waiting for his friends to re-join him while they preached in a neighbouring city. Paul, was more like a tourist than a traveling preacher. Yet, when he saw this statue to the unknown God, he must have seen an opportunity. An opportunity to address a culture that was quite concerned with covering their religious bases by doing the right rituals and keeping the right rules. The Athenian philosophy of religion was, make the gods happy and they won’t bother you,  

The pluralistic religious system of the Athenians is not all that far off from our modern version of religion that is practiced today. In fact, sociologists have come up with a term for the most widely “practiced” religion in North America, and it is probably not the familiar name of a denomination. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This term was born out of study North American Teens and their views on religion. There was a surprisingly high level of agreement on what teens thought about God and the faith. There was no difference in views between those who were regular church attenders their whole lives to those with no church background at all.
These are the core statements of their faith:

1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.

2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.

Good people go to heaven when they die

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is basically the belief that God sets out some ground rules for behaviour which is the moralistic part. The Therapeutic part is that God is a being who exists to make us feel good and solve our problems. Deism is belief in a God who just created the world and left it to its own devices, God does not have much bearing on the rest of our lives and doesn’t really engage us personally.   

The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the God of Oprah, Hollywood and financial gain. It is the God of inspirational greeting cards, reality tv, music videos and consumerism. Making money, being self-centered and ignoring the big issues of life are also encouraged, because God wants to send us to heaven as long we are good people, which most of us are. 

This distanced, self centered approach to religion is precisely what Paul’s words address today. And this kind of religion is exactly what our sinful selves wish religion to be. The pluralism of the ancient greeks and modern day Moralistic Therapeutic Deism appeal to us at our basic levels. They are religions were we get to be in control, and God gets to be a divine therapist and butler. They don’t demand anything of us, and they don’t intrude on our daily lives in any kind of real way. They are the perfect religion for a curved in on itself humanity. 

As Paul walked around the Aeropagus, looking at the variety of statues he must have been asking himself, 

What about sin?

What about evil?

What about death?
What about hope?

What about grace?

What about love?

For Paul, all of the greek Gods would have been unknown. His are the questions that none of the unknown Gods could begin to answer. These are the questions that sit below the surface when life is going well, but that rise up and force us to consider them when things go wrong, when life begins to hurt, to be painful. The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism seems pretty empty in the face of addiction, disease, divorce and separation, in the face of death. It seems pretty empty in the face love, beauty, sacrifice and wonder too. 
In fact, the unknown gods of the ancient greeks and of our modern world are not really gods at all when compared to the God who washes, names, dies with us and raises us to new life all in the one baptism. These gods not compare to the One who feeds, forgives, joins and loves in communion. The god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism does not compare to the God who was born, who lived with us, who died on the cross and rose on the third day in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. 

Paul sees the opportunity with the statue of the unknown God, to show his audience that God is known. And even more so, that God knows us. As Paul preaches to the Athenians: 

What you therefore worship as unknown, I proclaim to you. God is known. 

What a radical difference from what the Athenians knew. Paul does not just re-interpret the unknown God, but re-interprets the whole religious system. The God that Paul knows is the one who created all things. The God that Paul knows is the one who gives us life and movement and being — and does not require petty sacrifices in order to show mercy. The God that Paul knows, know us — knows what it is like to be born, to live, and die as one of us. 

The who God knows us sees us — all of us. Sees our faults and failures, our imperfections and loses. Our confusion and blindness. Our intolerance and bigotedness. Our despair and frailty. Our successes and hopes. Our dreams and desires. Our joys and our loves. All of these God sees. 

The God who knows us hears us — our pleas for help. Our anger and frustration. Our sadness and sorrow. Our celebrations and thanksgivings. Our happiness and our wonder. Our normal and everyday words. All of these God hears. 

This God who knows us loves us — all of us. God loves all of us as a whole. All of us as individuals. All of us personally, intimately, completely. This God loves us despite our sinfulness and despite our faithfulness. This God who knows us simply loves us without condition. 

The unknown Gods of ancient and modern times promise heaven for good behaviour. 

But the God who knows us promises New Life to those that are dead. New Life for all creation. New Life for each one of us.

In a world that is often looking to cover its bases and for people whose best vision of what God could be is a divine therapist and butler, God offers so much more.

As Paul preaches to the Athenians and to us, the unknown distant gods that we try to make happy are not gods at all. The God of all creation, of all life, of all that moves of all that is. This God is known. This God is known because this God first knew us. As Paul preaches:

What you therefore worship as unknown, I proclaim to you. This God knows us. 


Making Demands of Jesus

John 14:1-14

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. (Read the whole passage)

We are on the back half of Easter, heading towards the Ascension and Pentecost. To be sure, we are still celebrating the resurrection on this great 7 week long day of the resurrection, but as the day gets longer we are starting to look forward to what comes next in this world of the resurrected Christ.

Today, we begin hearing a series of conversations between Jesus the disciples, where Jesus prepares his disciples for the beginning of the church, Christ’s body on earth. These familiar words of Jesus begin, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”

These words are the familiar words spoken at many funerals, words of comfort and assurance, at least the first 7 verses. But today, we get the bigger picture, the next 8 verses. These familiar words put in context become one side of a larger conversation.

Jesus begins by telling his disciples of what has been prepared for them by the father. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he says, “For in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Jesus says that God has room for many, an idea foreign to the world disciples, where most believed that God only had time and space for the very righteous.

So naturally, the disciples aren’t entirely sure of this idea. Two of them speak up with doubts. Thomas is the first. Thomas asks a vulnerable and honest question. “How can we know the way.” It is a a good question. Thomas is expressing the doubt side of faith, the uncertainty of faith, the part of faith that questions our own worthiness. It is a question echoed through the centuries, asked by St. Augustine and which led to the doctrine of original sin. Asked by Martin Luther, which led to the Reformation and Lutheran doctrine of unconditional grace. Still asked today by many who wonder what the future of Christianity will be.

Thomas’s questions is a genuine one, one that desires to draw closer to, and understand God. It is a question that we all ask too, when our doubt it real, but also when we are open and honest about ourselves. When our doubt is about us and our role in faith.

Jesus gives an answer to Thomas, but Philip isn’t satisfied. Philip’s question is not so much a question, but a demand, an order. “Show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” If we are not careful, we skip past this statement, and focus only on Jesus’ words about how he and the father are one. Yet, if we pause to consider what Philip has said, we see just how problematic it is.

“Show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” It is a command rooted in insecurity. It is comes from a place of discomfort, from a place that prefers not to sit with the uncertainty of Thomas’s first question. It is an order that wants to jump to answer, instead of exploring the question. Philip’s order to Jesus is one we know well too. We have moments when we make demands of God, when we want faith to be easy, simple and certain. Sometimes, like Philip, we just want to be satisfied instead of dealing with the real questions of faith.

We all have Thomas moments and Philip moments. Moments when we can honestly and openly ask genuine questions of faith like Thomas “How can we know the way?” And moments when we just want to jump to the answers, moments when we don’t want to deal with the struggles and uncertainty of believing in Jesus, like Philip, “Show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”

These two contrasting statements by these disciples demonstrate just how fickle we can be when it comes to God, yet Jesus’s response to these two very different ways of asking the same thing shows us how God is with us.

Jesus doesn’t give either Thomas or Philip what they want. Jesus instead gives them what they need. To Thomas, Jesus responds with assurance. He doesn’t tell Thomas what the way is, but instead who the way is. Jesus tells Thomas that it isn’t about our ability to know the way to God, but about who will take us there. Jesus assures Thomas that Jesus is one taking us to the Father, that Jesus is the one who will guide us to the house of many dwelling places. Jesus will show us the Father.

And even though Jesus sounds almost hurt, if not annoyed with Philip, “How can you say show us the Father?” Jesus still responds. Jesus stays with Philip’s discomfort with uncertainty. So Jesus reminds Philip what he has seen and heard, he reminds Philip who he is speaking with, the Messiah, the one who comes in the name of Father, who reveals the Father, who does the Father’s works. This is not evidence or proof  that Philip can be certain of, that can satisfy. Instead, this is the promise of a relationship. A messy, uncertain, faith demanding promise made through relationship instead of through the evidence. Jesus reminds Philip having faith in the Father is not easy, nor something to be controlled and Philip is uncomfortable because he wants certainty.

Whether we are Thomas, open and ready for Jesus, or whether we are Philip, uncomfortable and impatient, Jesus meets us where we are. Jesus meets us in all of our doubts, no matter what they look like. And Jesus promises our troubled hearts that he is the way. They Way to God’s house, the the Truth revealed in flesh, the One who will bring us to New Life.


The Good Shepherd or Good Sheep?

John 10:1-10Jesus said, “… He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” (Read the whole passage

Even, far away from the fields and pastures of first century palestine, far away from the shepherds and sheep that Jesus spoke of, the image resonates with us still. The promise of a shepherd who is with in the valley of the shadow of death, the shepherd who searches for the lost one in the 99, the shepherd who guards the gate. Somehow we know what it is to be gathered and care for, protected and loved. Or at least we like the idea…

Shepherding hasn’t changed much in 2000 years. Then, and in many parts of the world now, tending to flocks is done in the same way. When Shepherds come to town for supplies, they put their sheep in pens, guarded by a gatekeeper. After they purchase supplies, they return to the pen and call their sheep. The sheep know their shepherd and follow him or her out to pasture again. 

Out in the wild, Shepherds will gather bushes and rocks to build temporary pens at night. In the opening, the shepherds will sleep, using their own body as gate. This way the predators must pass over them to get to the sheep.

For the disciples, shepherds should have been common place, and the image of God as Shepherd was familiar. The psalms would have been well known by most people in Jesus day. 

And somehow, despite the fact that they know the psalms and shepherds, they do not know what on earth Jesus is talking about. 

The part that the disciples don’t understand isn’t the shepherds, or the sheep gate or the sheep pen. The problem is the sheep. The problem is that Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples how to be good sheep. 

For nearly 2000 years, Christians have called God the Shepherd, have called the church the sheepfold and have called ourselves the sheep.Yet, we don’t have to look much past ourselves to know why the disciples couldn’t understand Jesus. We like the idea of a Shepherd that lovingly chases after us and cares for us. But we want to go into the pen on our terms. We want to be free to be sheep in our way. 

Like the disciples, we have resisted, or even been unable to see Jesus calling out to us. The Blind Man whom Jesus heals in the pool of Siloam does not recognize Jesus once he meets him later on. The disciples cannot imagine how 5 loves and 2 fish will feed a great crowd. Mary Magdalene cannot recognize Jesus near the empty tomb on Easter morning until Jesus calls her by name. Thomas will not believe, unless it is on his terms. 

All of these actions, washing the blind man, feeding the 5000, naming Mary, giving Thomas faith. These are the same actions that God does in the Church. This is how the Shepherd cares for the sheep in the pen. And this is what we resist. We do not want to arrive here empty, we do not want to be washed, and fed and loved. We come here, to the church, to the pen, hoping to earn our love. We want God to reward us. We want to be here on our terms. The Shepherd can stay here in the pen, and when we are ready, we will show up with our best face on… but most of the time we are out there in world and not really wanting a shepherd. We don’t want God to be a hassle in our lives. 

That is what the disciples don’t understand. That is what we don’t understand. Jesus gives us this image of the Shepherd and what the shepherd does, but there is no mention of how to be good sheep.  
And in the end, that isn’t the point. Good Shepherd Sunday is not about how to be good sheep. Today, is a reminder of who God is. Jesus is our Shepherd who calls us, who cares for us and washes us, who feeds us, and names us. 

Washes us in Baptism, and brings us to new life. 

Feeds us in the Lord’s supper, at the Lord’s table, with his own body and blood. 

Names us as his sheep who belongs to the Shepherd. 

Gathers in faith, gathers into this community, this family, this flock. 

These are the actions of God in Christ.

Here in this place, it is the shepherd who is good, not the sheep. It is the shepherd whose actions matter, not those of the sheep. Here in the church, here in this congregation, Jesus calls us home. Yes, we are sent out each week into the world. We go out to pasture to a world fraught with the danger, a world that tells us it is all about the sheep, and what sheep do. 

But in God’s church, in God’s sheepfold, Jesus reminds us again and again, that in washing, feeding, naming and calling that Jesus brings us to himself. 

Jesus’s sheep pen, Christ’s church, is not a place were we need to earn our way. It is not a place where we give of ourselves or where we offer something to God, to the Shepherd. It is a place where God gives to us. It is a place where we receive. It is place where we come to know the Shepherd by his voice. “I baptize you. I give my body for you. I forgive you. You are mine”. 

Wherever we have been scattered, or lost, whatever we cannot understand or are confused about, the voice of the Shepherd gathers us to him, brings us back into the flock. 

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Unrealized Hopes – The Road to Emmaus

While I am late in posting, thanks to a guest preacher Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker, and her sermon from the 3rd Sunday in Easter. You can find her on twitter: @ReedmanParker

Gospel: Luke 24:13-35

13Now on that same day [when Jesus had appeared to Mary Magdalene,] two [disciples] were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. …34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Three weeks into the season of Easter and we continue to hear the stories of that first day. We continue to be placed back with the disciples. In their grief. In their sadness. In their un-belief of what has transpired.

Three weeks into the season of Easter and we continue to hear the story of resurrection. New life. Changed life – because the way it was is not the way it is. And everyone knows it.

Except for those who don’t. For those who stand in fear at the empty tomb, for those who wait to see Jesus for themselves, for those who are on the road between the death of Good Friday and new life discovered on Easter Sunday.

Three weeks into the season of Easter and we continue to hear stories of the disciples encountering the risen Christ.

This first day, Easter day, is important. Three weeks in and we are still hearing about its impact. Today we encounter two disciples on the road to Emmaus when Jesus shows up along side them.

Only Cleopas and the other disciple don’t know that it’s Jesus – they don’t recognize him.

This detail is significant. But they aren’t special. Last week the disciples do not believe that Jesus is amongst them until they hear him speak words of peace and see and touch his wounds. The women, too, do not immediately recognize Jesus for who he is – instead thinking he is a gardener.

In their minds, Jesus has died. It’s done.

And this reality is heartbreaking.

This first day when the disciples are between Jesus’ death and knowing and believing that the resurrection has taken place reveals how difficult is for the human condition to move from the way it was to the way it is.

And it is when Cleopas is talking to Jesus – not knowing it is Jesus – that this becomes so clear. Jesus asks the two men what they are talking about, and Cleopas, surprised “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place?”

Somewhat ironically he’s asking him, have you been living behind a rock these last few days? …. Well, yes, yes I have.

“What things?” Jesus asks very simply.

So the disciples tell Jesus about who he was to them, and how he had been handed over to death. We hear about who they had hoped Jesus would be – that he had come to redeem Israel – but instead he was put to death.

The way they thought the future would unfold did not turn out as they had hoped.

The person they thought Jesus was, the one they expected him to be, did not turn out as they had hoped.

The stories they are now hearing about Jesus being raised from the dead is not how they expected life would unfold next. It’s not how they anticipated God would act.

The disciples find themselves on a long road between what they had hoped for and exclaiming “he is risen indeed”. It is an uncomfortable place to be.

Perhaps we know a little something about what happens when the things we hope for don’t unfold the way we anticipate.

  • When our relationships are complicated or breakdown or break up
  • When our health or our bodies fail us
  • When our work takes a sudden turn
  • When our ministry doesn’t grow or take root in the way we thought
  • When God doesn’t act, look, or respond the way we had hoped for

Perhaps we know something about the discomfort of the in-between-ness between what has been and what will be. Even if things “will be ok” eventually, death of any kind stings. Death is still death. Our emotions are the same. Our grief is still the same.

It is hard to see Jesus when we are expecting one thing and another happens.

The disciples arrive where they think they are going, only to have their eyes opened in the retelling of the sacred stories – Jesus’ story… God’s story – and in the breaking of the bread. It’s then that “their eyes were opened and they recognized him”.

Like the disciples, it is hard to see Jesus walking alongside us when our expectations – our hopes of who Jesus will be, of how God will act or intervene or call us into relationship – blinds us to the real Jesus, who was there the whole time.

It is hard to see Jesus when we are preoccupied with life’s struggles. Hard even when Jesus is walking with us, telling us what’s what.

The good news is that God in Jesus walks the road with us. In doing so, God helps us let go and reframe our issues, and once they have been reframed, the fact that Jesus was there the whole time becomes apparent.

And, like the disciples, Jesus will walk with us down the wrong road, even while calling us in a different direction.

Three weeks into the season of Easter and we too are experiencing an in-betweeness as a congregation. We know that life will not be as it was, but we aren’t yet sure of the way it is or will be.

What we do know is that God promises to be with us.

God in Jesus walks with us down all the roads of life.

God in Jesus walks with us in the in-between places.

God in Jesus walks with us when we are in the midst of dead ends.

God in Jesus leads us down new paths.

Three weeks into the season of Easter and we are still hearing stories of that first day, still with the unbelieving disciples, and when all we think we see is death, Jesus is still walking out of tombs in order to show us new life. AMEN.