Tag Archives: Church

The Complications of Belonging to a Church

GOSPEL: John 13:31-35

31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Read the Acts text)

We are now into the latter half of the season of Easter. The Alleluias from Easter Sunday, or as it is formally called The feast of the Resurrection of our Lord, are not ringing as loudly as they were a month ago. Yes, it is still Easter but with 4 weeks of resurrection stories behind us we are coming into the questions that the early church community faced. Questions about what it means to be a community, what does it mean to belong, who exactly are we and where do we go from here? Sound familiar?

Even as we consider this new Easter world, John jumps us back to Maundy Thursday… to hours before betrayal, arrested, trial, and execution. Jesus is eating the Last Supper with his disciples, and he gives them a New Commandment – to love one another. On the night before Good Friday, these are the last instructions of a teacher to his followers. Yet, here a month into Easter, they speak of a different reality to a fledgling Easter community being birthed before our eyes.

In some ways we should have read story of Peter from the book of Acts after the gospel reading, because Peter’s dilemma is precisely how to live into the New Commandment that his teacher and master had given him.

In the days, months and years after the resurrection, the community of Jesus’ followers that continued on to become the church, had to begin dealing with a lot of questions. Questions about who belonged and what it took to become a member of the community. As Peter became the leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem, the question of who could be a part of the community quickly arose. Particularly, as small Christian communities began to sprout up beyond Jerusalem and into the Greek world, the early church had to contend with what new converts needed to do in order to join.

When Peter meets the community in Jerusalem, they are a Jewish group… all are circumcised. And they have been keeping to the tradition of Judaism not necessarily seeing following Jesus as a departure from the faith of their ancestors. Yet, Peter has been meeting with uncircumcised followers – gentiles. But not just meeting with them, eating with them. Of course, observant Judeans kept Kosher, so eating with gentiles would certainly mean breaking Hebrew purity laws. The circumcised believers question Peter’s actions… so Peter tells them a story. Peter was given a vision, a voice from heaven telling him to eat non-kosher meat. Yet when he dismissed the dream, it kept coming back.

Even then, Peter is not swayed… so the spirit sends him to the home of a gentile, Cornelius. And there Peter’s mind is changed.

Now some twenty centuries later, we don’t generally feel the same way about circumcision and eating non-kosher meat that the early christian community in Jerusalem did… yet there is still something extremely familiar about this debate.

Of course, we know on a technical level that the first step of becoming a Christian is to be baptized. In fact, the Greek word Cristos means anointed one, Messiah is the equivalent in Hebrew. And after being washed in the waters of baptism, we are a marked with cross in oil… we are anointed, we are named as Christians.

And yet, knowing what it means to become a Christian through baptism and anointing compared to belonging to a particular community… well those could very well mean different things.

In the first congregation that I served, an open country church on the corner of a quarter section of farmland, what it meant to belong had a complicated meaning. Belonging happened in a variety of ways: If your family had been farming the land for a few generations, you belonged whether you wanted to or not, whether you were in church every Sunday or once a year. And yet, if you were new to the community, meaning being the first generation to the land, you were always new. Some who had been faithfully attending for decades, were still considered “new members.”

In my second congregation, a very large congregation in a small city, belonging was very much tied to involvement and connections. You could quickly belong within months by joining one of the many groups active in the congregation, like knitters, musical groups, prayer groups, people interested in global mission and so on. Yet, you could remain a new person for years if you kept to yourself and just showed up for worship.

And at my last congregation, belonging was tied to one’s place in the community surrounding the church. Where you worked in town, what street you lived on and who your neighbours were, and how connected you were in town determined your status of belonging.

Of course, here at Sherwood Park, we have unspoken rules about what it means to belong too… they are apart of every church from Peter’s day to ours.

Circumcision and eating non-kosher meats, or having generations to stand on the shoulders of, or sharing a common interest like quilting or music or missionary work, or meeting by chance at the grocery store and again at the PTA meeting and again while shovelling snow… all of these things and so many more make up the complicated definition of belonging to a community, belonging to a church, of a church belonging to a denomination, of a denomination belonging to a religion and so on.

Yet, all of these complications of belonging are about more than checking off boxes and fulfilling requirements. They are ways that we deal with the same fear living within each of us. The circumcised ask Peter about his fraternizing with the uncircumcised because they are worried if they themselves are worthy, if they are acceptable, if they actually belong. All of our ways to defining who is in and out, who checks the right boxes and who doesn’t… they all have to do with our own fear of being good enough, of being worthy and acceptable.

Last week, we heard from Revelation giving good news to Christian communities living on margins of society and how the great multitude worshipping before the throne was God’s way of breaking down walls that divide and separate.

Today, is about God breaking down the same walls within our communities, within ourselves.

Even after being given the same vision three times Peter is not convinced… that is until he comes to the home of Cornelius.

It is when Peter must look Cornelius in the eye, in the flesh, and decide whether the good news of God’s forgiveness and love is also for this Gentile… The Holy Spirit breaks the walls Peter’s heart. The Spirit makes Peter realize something new…

All the complications of belonging… that is our baggage, that is our stuff.

But for God, there are no complications… there is simply belonging.

In Christ, we all belong. We all belong to Christ.

We all belong because of the one who crossed the chasm, who bridged the divide of Creator and creation, who joined what was separated in sin and death together in forgiveness and resurrection. In Christ, the one who is both our flesh and the divine, we are joined to the Trinue God of all.

And this same Christ, likes to keep reminding us of that. Not in the complications, but by meeting us in the flesh. Christ meets in human voices and bodies that read and proclaim God’s word, in prayer and song, in peace shared and praises given.

Christ reminds us that we all belong in the water that washes us and the oil that anoints us, and we are washed and forgiven by God, we are anointed and clothed by God, and we given the same family name – Christian.

And Christ reminds us that we are all one in the same body. As Jesus gathers at the table, as we share in Body and Blood of Christ, God makes us what we eat and drink – Christ’s body given for the sake of the world.

And all those complications, all those other things, all those reasons we find to say someone whether belongs or doesn’t… those things are pushed aside.

And instead Christ proclaims us that belonging isn’t up to us, not based on our worth or the worthiness of the generations that came before, not based on our ability to participate or contribute, not determined by our integration into the fabric of community, the number of connections to others we carry….

But belonging is determined by the One to whom we belong.

Today, Christ declares to Peter, to the early church, and to us… that we no matter who we are, we belong to God.

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Peter, Do you love me? Yes Lord, I am your friend.

John 21:1-19

Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way…

He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep…” (Read the whole passage)

It is still the Great Day of the Resurrection. Two weeks into the season of Easter, and we meet the disciples again in the hours and day following Jesus’ resurrection. Last week, Jesus came to them in a locked room, breathing life and peace back into his lost disciples. And now we get to the denouement, the part of the story that comes after the drama and tension, the part that wraps it all up in a nice happy ending. Or at least that is how it is supposed to go.

For the first time in the Gospels the disciples know the end of the story, they finally have caught up to us, they now know what we have known since Christmas morning – that there would be crucifixion and resurrection. The disciples now know that the story of the Jesus ends with life despite death, empty tombs despite crosses. The disciples know this miracle, this Good News, but they are back fishing. Back to their old lives, back to what they knew before this Jesus guy ever came into the picture – Peter leading the way.

And still Jesus finds them, and tells them how to catch fish and they do. As if they needed more proof of who the Messiah is, Jesus gives them yet another sign. And then calls them over for breakfast.

In the early morning hours. The first pinks and purples of the sun are showing in the sky. There is a fire glowing on the beach, the smell of fish and toast. The sound of waves lapping up onto the sand. Its maybe the first peaceful moment in days. There are no words spoken, simply the smell of the fresh seawater, and the dancing shadows of firelight. And as Jesus and Peter lay on the beach, having eaten breakfast, still under the dark of night, Peter cannot help but be reminded of another fire in the dark that he visited.

Lost in thought and memory, Peter stares into the flames. Jesus is the first to break the silence.

“Simon son of John, do love me more than these?”

Its a question that snaps Peter back to the present, a question that cuts right through to the heart. We know this question, and we have asked this question.

Maybe it’s the question of a child to parent. “Do you love me mommy?” “Do you love me daddy?” Maybe it’s the question spoken into a cell phone well into the night, “Do you love me enough to come home from work?” Maybe it’s a question asked after a fight between a married couple on the edge, “Do you still love me?”

We know this question and we have asked this question, because it’s rooted in our insecurities. It’s rooted in the insecurities we see in others. Do I really love them? How can they love someone like me?

Without hesitation, Peter answers back “Yes Lord, you know that I am your best friend!”. Peter does not respond with the same love that Jesus asked the question with, instead Peter uses a lesser and different love.

Jesus simply says, “Feed my lambs”.

Peter keeps staring at the fire, he can’t bring himself to look at Jesus. He doesn’t know where this question is coming from, but in the glow of the fire he can imagine the look on Jesus’ face. A sad, disappointed look. A look that cannot forgive Peter. A look of betrayal and abandonment.

A second time Jesus breaks the silence, “Simon Son of John do you love me enough to lay down your life for me?”

The question cuts deeper this time. Peter knows why Jesus is asking. This is not the first time Peter has been huddled around a fire in the darkness. This is not the 2nd time that Peter has been asked this question, but the 5th. And the first three answers he gave to the sound of a rooster crowing, “I do not know this man.”

Jesus asks do you love me enough to give your life – agape in Greek, and Peter couldn’t even acknowledge that he knew him the first three times, and now he can only respond in friendship – Philias in Greek, not the deep love of self sacrifice, not agape.

“Do you love me?” It’s a question we don’t want to hear, and that is painful to ask. The answer can be frightening. It demands self examination and exploration of feelings we may not want to deal with, emotions we don’t want to experience. It also reminds us of our betrayals and the times we abandoned those around us. When we have failed to live up to promises, when we have failed to be anything more than self-centered.

And again, without hesitation Peter answers, “Yes Lord, you know that you are my best friend!”.

Jesus simply says, “Tend my Sheep”.

The wound is now as fresh in Peter’s heart as it was when the rooster crowed the first time. When that 3rd denial came out of Peter’s mouth, he knew what he had done, and now he is reliving it… reliving it in front of his teacher and best friend, in front of Messiah, the one that Peter could not bring himself to believe in when Jesus said, “I will be raised up on the 3rd day”.

Again, Jesus breaks the silence. Peter knows what is coming and it hurts to bone. “Simon Son of John, do you even consider me a friend?”.

It’s the last nail, the final blow. A last strike that we know and that we have felt. The final words of a friendship, the death of a relationship, the last words between two people who will not speak again. Without looking, Peter can see the face that asks this question. A face stoically set on concluding affairs. A face that is seared in our minds each time we have hurt a loved one beyond repair, beyond forgiveness.

This time Peter takes a breath, and staring into the flames, struggling to say something, struggling to find words for his teacher, “Jesus you know all things, you know how I feel about you, you know you are my best friend!”

Peter can’t help it anymore, he needs to see Jesus’ face, even if it’s set on ending their friendship. He knows he has abandoned his friend, he knows that he can’t forgive himself for it, but he still needs to look his friend in the eye one more time.

But when Peter looks up from the fire, its not the face of rejection, or disappointment, or stoic resolve. Its a face of compassion, a face of forgiveness, a face of tender care for a grieving friend.

“Feed my sheep”.

Jesus’ words are gentle and kind.

Despite the betrayal around that fire on Maundy Thursday, Jesus still loves his friend. Despite Peter’s lack of faith and return to his life before Christ, Jesus is there offering his friend the bread of life. Despite the hard questions and Peter’s luke warm answers, Jesus is giving Simon Son of John forgiveness… grace for an undeserving sinner.

The risen Christ has met his disciples on the Sea shore to remind them once again of who he is. Jesus welcomes Peter back into the community of God… welcomes him back home with words of Peace spoken in a locked room. And Jesus is there to forgive Peter what he cannot forgive himself — a betrayal around a fire in the cover of darkness. For as they eat and talk, the sun is rising and banishing the dark world of betrayal. And Jesus is there bringing fish and bread, just as he did for the 5000, to remind his disciples and friends, to remind his best friend Peter, where the bread of life comes from. Jesus is feeding his lambs, tending his sheep and feeding his sheep.

And the Risen Christ meets us too on the sea shore. Meets us to break into our questions, our insecurities, our suffering and pain, our self-centeredness and our inability to forgive ourselves. We know the questions that are asked today, we have heard them, we have asked them. But what we learn anew is that Jesus knows us.

That Jesus knows where we are and calls to us again and again.

Jesus knows us sinners.

Jesus knows our betrayals and abandonment, our losses and grief.

Jesus knows how we inflict these things on each other and still he says, “Follow me”.

Follow me, when we do not deserve to follow him out of the tomb.

Follow me, when we cannot forgive ourselves as Jesus forgave from the cross.

Follow me, when we return to life before Christ — having lost our faith.

It is still the Great Day of the Resurrection today, and even though it feels like this is the end of the story… it is in fact just the beginning.

The beginning of Jesus’ call to follow him into eternal life, into the love of God, into grace that forgives all sins. Jesus knows where we are and knows that this our beginning… and Jesus keeps meeting us wherever we are with the fish, bread and wine of New Life to give us strength for the journey.

Yes, it is still Easter

John 20:19-31

Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

It is still the first day of the week, it is still the day of the resurrection but it can feel like the excitement has already worn off. The drama of an empty tomb, the joy of the story: Christ is Risen! It all seems like a lifetime away.

Although it feels like we might be moving on, the season of Easter is seven weeks or 50 days long. The early church considered the 50 days to be one great day of the resurrection. And in fact each Sunday is understood to be the day of the resurrection, a mini-Easter so to speak. And despite all this, it is often our habit as modern Christians to move on and get back to normal.

This is something we do a lot in our post-modern world… we engage in the big moments for a time, and then we get back to business as usual, we go back to the routines we have always followed because they provide us comfort and certainty.

Our 21st century response to moments of significance is not that unlike the response of first century people. On that first Easter, it didn’t take long for the disciples to begin hiding away in a locked room. They hear that Jesus is alive and still they lock themselves away in fear. They have been told the good news by Mary Magdalene… but as far as they are concerned Jesus is dead.

And what else is there to do? Whether the story is true or not, Jesus isn’t there to keep things going. Dangers are as real as ever, life is now changed, but also must go on. And so quickly all the disciples fall into fear and hiding. The resurrection hasn’t changed anything for them, there is no New Life for this terrified group. Instead, they are packed away in a tomb of their own making, they are closed off to the world.

Like the disciples, we often go about our lives as if Jesus is still dead. We may not hide ourselves away in real locked rooms, but we are surrounded and entombed by apathy, by a world that simply doesn’t care about how the resurrection might change things. In times gone by non-Christians may have tried to make the claim that Jesus wasn’t real, or that he did not rise from the dead. But today, a non-believer might say “Jesus was raised from the dead? So what? Who cares? How does that make a difference in my life?” Jesus is worse than dead, he is ignored and made meaningless… at least that is what it can feel like to those of us who have gathered ourselves together on this second Sunday of Easter.

With the news full of floods and even more acts of terrorism and hockey playoffs and political maneuvers, this second Sunday can feel forgotten. Jesus’s resurrection is left behind by a world getting on with more exciting things. The world lives as though he is still dead and does not matter. And we too begin to move on, we just keep going with life, everything becoming the same after Easter as it was before.

As the disciples hide away and try to figure out what they should do now, something or someone appears in their midst. The words come first. Words that feel like wind.

“Peace be with you”.

Jesus doesn’t just make an appearance at the empty tomb. Jesus shows up right in the middle of his disciples. Right between them. Close enough for them to feel his breath.

“Peace be with you. As the father has sent me, so I send you.”

He breathes on them the spirit.

Until this moment Jesus seemed dead to the disciples. And until this moment, the disciples were acting as though they too were dead in a tomb, hidden away from the world. And yet Jesus walks right into their tomb and finds them. Jesus shows them that he is alive. But this is more than Jesus being alive, this is Jesus breathing life back into them. This is more than Jesus the man who has died and risen. This is God who has conquered death for all.

Jesus speaks like God in creation. Just as God spoke, “Let there be…” in the beginning. Now, Jesus speaks his followers into life. “Peace be with you. God’s Shalom be with you. The wholeness and completeness of God be with you”.

Just as God breathed Life into the Adam, Jesus breathes life into his death-like disciples. Jesus gives them the spirit, the sign that God lives in them and they in God.

Jesus breathes hope into them when the world seems too dangerous. And Jesus keeps coming, even when the disciples are still in the locked room. Jesus will not leave them. Jesus won’t let them keep falling into fear and hiding, into a life where there are dead men walking.

Jesus comes even though our world doesn’t want to believe that Jesus matters anymore. Jesus speaks words like “Peace be with you” even when we cannot see how they change us. Jesus breathes the spirit into us, even when we cannot feel it. Jesus comes when we cannot see why and cannot understand what this all means. And Jesus keeps coming.

Jesus comes gathering us each day, each week, each Easter, and Jesus comes in between. The faith that Jesus gives is not solid belief or concrete certainty that we can hold on to. The faith that Jesus gives is hope for a future that we cannot see. It is trust in things we cannot understand. Jesus brings us into the relationship of faith, a relationship that goes on, that exists in the in between times, between each day, between Sundays and between Easters. Jesus brings us into a relationship of faith that exists between us, between neighbours, friends and family. Jesus brings us into a relationship of faith that joins us together into One Body — the Body of Christ.

And so, even when we often continue to live our lives like Jesus is still dead. Even when we have heard the Good News, and are still hiding and afraid. Jesus comes into our midst. And Jesus keeps coming. Today, tomorrow, next week and in between.

Hosanna – Save Now

Luke 19:28-40

As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,

“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord! 

Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”

We have been in the Wilderness with Jesus since Ash Wednesday. We have been preparing as followers of Christ for what is to come this week. We experienced temptation in the wilderness. We watched at Jesus lamented over the center of human chaos, and we have brought our big questions and doubts to Jesus. We heard how the prodigal Father seeks out his two lost sons. And we have been uncomfortable with Mary’s extravagant act of love to prepare Jesus with perfume and the smell of death

And today, our lenten journey, our lenten wilderness and wanderings have brought us to the gates of Jerusalem shouting Hosanna. We have been calling upon God for deliverance from our oppressors. That word Hosanna, that word which sounds a lot of Halelujah, like praise the Lord does not mean the same thing.

Hosanna means save now.

Save us now God.

Save us from enemies.

Save us from our sufferings.

Save us from all that threatens us.

We know what it is like to need to be saved, to yearn for deliverance.

We pray Hosanna for those who are sick, for those who are broken.

We whisper Hosanna for those at death’s door.

And each week, we sing Hosanna, Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

We sing Save us Now, and call upon God to come down a meet us.

To meet us in Bread and Wine, to become Body and Blood.

To become our Body and Blood.

To be the Body of Christ that we share in the Lord’s supper.

To become the Body of Christ that we are as the Church.

We sing Hosanna, save us now, because this week more than ever we need to be saved.

Because this week we will meet Jesus in the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday.

And we will be the ones who give Jesus over to be arrested for 30 pieces of silver.

We will be the ones who take up the sword to return violence with violence.

We will be the ones who deny Jesus just before the rooster crows.

And we will be ones who stand helpless at the cross.

We sing Hosanna week after week.

We sing Hosanna today, because we need God to save us from ourselves.

To save us from sin, to save us from death.

We need God to be Hosanna for us. We need to be saved.

And this week God will.

God will enter the city to our rejoicing.

God will share the last meal of criminal sentenced to death with us.

God will hang on the cross for us.

We sing Hosanna today, and each Sunday. Because we need to be saved.

But also because, when we let those words cross our lips:

Hosanna in the Highest, blessed is he who comes in the name of Lord. Hosanna in the Highest.

We are reminded.

God has come.

God has saved.

God has come for us.

God has saved us.

Amen.

The Prodigal Who?

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. (Read the whole passage)

We are four Sundays into the season of Lent, and the journey to so far has been a challenging one. We came down the mountain of Transfiguration to find our selves in the valley of ash. We then followed Jesus into the wilderness of temptation, and then to Jerusalem to lament over God’s people. Last week the crowds asked big questions about suffering and who is to blame and Jesus answered with the curious parable of the fig tree where the gardener advocated for the tree, “give it another year.”

Today Jesus continues to talk to the crowds of Jerusalem, the Pharisees and tax collectors. And the parable that he tells is one of the most iconic of scripture – The Prodigal Son.

The story of the son who spend his inheritance on dissolute living only to return home, hat in hand, is one that still carries some cultural memory. You can still hear the occasional tv show or movie throw out the label ‘prodigal son’ in reference to someone who returns home from an ill-spent time away, usually involving drugs, alcohol, crime and/or jail time.

The image of the prodigal son holds a certain place in our minds and in our larger culture that pushes us to understand this parable in ways that might not be the ones intended by Jesus as he told it.

In a facebook group of mostly Lutheran pastors that I am a part of, someone admitted that they had grown up being taught that “prodigal” meant “naughty.” And many more pastors admitted to the same thing. And while I won’t ask you to raise your hands, I am sure many of us grew up with a similar understanding of the term prodigal.

Of course, prodigal doesn’t mean naughty. It means lavish or abundant or extravagant or wasteful even. But even still the fact that we label the son as prodigal speaks to a common understanding that has been attached to this parable over generations.

The usual understanding of this parable goes that the son who asks his father for his inheritance and goes off to spend it on a good time in a far away place has committed some terrible, near unforgivable sin. After realizing the error of his ways, he returns to his home to be surprisingly welcomed by his father.

Yet, it is actually not totally clear what his great sin is. Is it asking for his inheritance prematurely? Is it leaving his family duties behind for another life? Is it the dissolute living that he engages in in a far away land? Or is the most Protestant and capitalist of sins, not putting a substantial sum of money to a profitable use?

The term prodigal might best apply to the last one, yet Jesus was not the one who named the parable. Rather English speakers did about 1500 years after the Gospel of Luke was put to paper.

In fact, only when the title is put aside, we are finally able to shed some new light on this story.

The parable begins not with the son, but with a man who has two sons. The younger of which asks for his inheritance… yet, this is was no simple a matter for the people of Israel. Inheritance wasn’t just a convenient equal split as it often is for us. In the ancient world, the eldest son received a double portion of inheritance. In this case, the elder son would received two thirds of his father’s wealth. The younger would received one third. But this did not include the land, as the land was understood to belong not just to one man but to the whole family or tribe of the landowner. The land was meant to provide for all those who lived on it, not just for the landowner. The elder son would not just inherit the wealth of his father, but also his obligation to manage and care for the land, the family, and the servants who worked the land.

The younger son would become the right hand to his older brother, the first of his brother’s servants.

And so when the younger son asks his father for his inheritance it is more than just asking for some party funds. And his inheritance is much less than we imagine to be. What this younger son is really asking for is a different life. He is wanting to do something else than be the first servant of his grumpy older brother.

Often when we tell this story, we imagine some great change in the younger son, someone who learns the error of his ways. Yet, as a new life in a foreign land doesn’t materialize, the younger son finds a job as a hired hand. Quickly, realizing that if this is to be his lot in life, he might as well do it with family than with strangers. And so he goes home, not as a changed man, but back to the destiny that was always his to begin with. To be a servant in his father’s household.

And despite his father running to meet him on the road, it is this understanding of himself that the the younger son says his las words in the story,

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

And then there is the often forgotten older son… the son who is grumpy about life in general. Who despite inheriting a double portion of his father’s wealth, is mostly inheriting duty, obligation and responsibility. The responsibility to managing wealth and land not for his benefit, but in order to provide and care for an entire community.

Perhaps he too feels trapped in a destiny that he may not want. And just like the younger son who begins and ends the parable in the same place, the older son begins bitter about his lot in life and finishes bitter, angry at his father’s generosity towards his younger brother.

In fact, understanding these brothers in this way begs us to ask, who, in fact, is the prodigal one? Who is the one who wastes something?

And again, there is a problem with the familiar title of the parable.

Despite the Prodigal Son’s relatively recent English name, our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters have called it by a different name for much longer…

‘The Parable of the Loving Father’

Our first clue as to who this parable might be about came in the very first words:

There was a man.

It is usually the case that the first person mentioned in a parable is who the parable is about.

There was a man who had two sons.

And it is the Father whose story just might be the most significant.

As the younger son comes looking for a new life, the Father gives his son the opportunity to make a new life.

And when the younger son returns home, the Father runs out to meet his son, to welcome him home with open arms.

Then when he Father throws a party for his lost son, the Father also goes out to find his elder son, and to welcome him to the party.

And as the older son complains that his Father never provided anything for his enjoyment, the Father reminds his older son that all that the Father has is also his son’s.

While the two sons are stuck inside themselves, stuck only seeing the burdens they may carry and the things they might miss out on… the Father continually seeks them out in order to love them, in order to remind them that they are more than they imagine, that they are the beloved children of their father, they belong to their Father’s family and community, and they forever bound to one another as siblings.

It may be true that the younger son is prodigal, lavish or wasteful with money. And it maybe true that the elder son is abounding in bitterness and resentment.

But perhaps it is the Loving Father who is truly the prodigal one. The Father who is lavish and extravagant in his love and welcome, who is willing to risk wasting everything that he has so that his children will know his love, who is willing to seek out and find his lost sons regardless of of the cost.

Of course, this parable is about the Loving and Prodigal Father who seeks his lost children.

And of course this parable is a reminder of just how God is with us.

Each and every time we come home to God’s house, God runs to meet us in the waters of baptism, and lavishly reminds us of God’s mercy and grace given in the Word, and God welcomes us again and again to the table, again and again to the feast of heaven. The feast of heaven where our bitterness and shame, our burdens and loss are left behind so that we can reminded again of who we are.

That we are God’s beloved children that God will spare no cost to find.

An important reminder as we journey towards the end of Lent, and towards the heart of human messiness on Good Friday… That there is no place and no thing that can keep God from loving us, not even the cross.

And The Loving and Prodigal Father is the one running to meet us on morning of the third day.

It is Not Jesus’ Temptation but ours

GOSPEL: Luke 4:1-13

1Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’ ” (Read the whole passage)

Even though it doesn’t feel like it, today we enter into the wilderness. The hot, dry, windy, sun soaked wilderness of Lent.

Last week we were on top of the mountain with Peter, James and John. We watched as Jesus was transfigured and was greeted by Moses and Elijah. We were awed as God spoke, declaring who Jesus is, the Chosen one. And then we confused as Jesus headed down the mountain.

Yet by Wednesday, we were down into the valley. The valley of the shadow of death. The valley of ashes, the valley of nothingness. Our brows were marked with ashes and we were reminded that we are dust and to dust we will return.

And today we have been cast into the wilderness with Jesus. Cast into the place of testing and temptation, far away from the comforts daily life.

Each year on the first Sunday in Lent we journey into the wilderness with Jesus. We hear how Jesus is tempted by the Devil. Matthew, Mark and Luke each tell the story a little differently, but the purpose is the same. This is the place where our Lenten journeys begins. In the wilderness, on the road to Jerusalem and Good Friday. We are being made ready for a transformed life in Christ. But this is only the beginning.

We stand by while Jesus and the devil interact. We watch as Jesus is offered things that the devil hopes will divert Jesus from his mission. We hear Jesus respond with steadfast faith as he quotes scripture in order to hold back the Devil and his attempts to siphon off a little bit of Jesus’ will power.

This familiar story of Jesus life is often upheld as a formula for Christian living. Jesus is an example to us of how to resist those worldly and devilish temptations to satisfy ourselves, to obtain power, to take the easy way out. This story seems like a guide for us. If tempted with food, quote passage A. If tempted with land and power, quote passage B.

But this is no manual on avoiding temptation, and Jesus is not some moral paragon demonstrating the right techniques.

In fact, as we hear this familiar story today there is a strange tension about these temptations. They are things that have caused all the prophets who have come before to fall:

Moses who committed murder,

Elijah who stuck his neck out and then last all hope,

And Abaraham, Isaac, and Jacob,

And King David and Solomon…

even God’s chosen prophets, especially God’s chosen prophets and kings fell for one reason or another.

And yet, Jesus is different. It isn’t that Jesus has some kind of super human will power, it is that these temptations for Jesus, the son of God, the prophet of the most high God, are not really temptations at all.

The Devil has forgotten or doesn’t really understand just who he is speaking with.

God has just declared Jesus to God’s chosen, God’s son. The Devil thinks he is just dealing with another prophet perhaps, he does not understand that this Prophet is not just who speaks with God’s voice, but is the very Word of God made flesh.

The devil is trying to sell power that the devil does not have to give and Jesus knows it. The devil is really doing something that we do on a regular basis. The devil is trying to act as God, trying to be God in God’s place. To control and handle God. To make his will, God’s will.

The devil asks God to bend to creaturely demands, to the whims and desires of the finite and created. The devil’s temptations are not offers of power, but demands that God act according to his desire. And just like the devil, the sinful self, the original sinner part of us wants that too.

In fact, if we are honest… those temptations that the devil offers aren’t really temptations to us either. If we could command the angels, we would! It would be a virtue, we would feel like superheroes. And power… we well know that the pursuit of power in this world is constant, it is the game of the rich and the powerful, but also ours too. And stones into bread, the most seductive temptation of them all, the temptation to survive at all costs, to put ourself first above all others… this is often touted as one of the most important virtues of all.

And so there is tension in the temptations, between how we would hear them and how Jesus does.

There in the hot, dry, sandy landscape of the wilderness. There standing beside a tired, hungry, thirsty, chapped lip, windblown, dusty Jesus stumbling through the sand, the Devil offers bread. The devil offers rocks as bread to the creator of the universe. To the same God who spoke all of creation into being from nothing by saying, “Let there be”… and it was so.

The Devil says, if you are God, turn this rock into bread and Jesus says, “One does not live by bread alone”. God in Christ reminds the devil that nothing has come into existence apart from the Word of God, the Word that is standing there in the flesh.

And then from the hot, dry desert, to the top of world, the devil offers Jesus power over all the nations if would only bow down to chaos and confusion personified. The devil offers earthly power to the God of all creation, the same God who has just been born in a manger as powerless baby, who has come to live in the created world, to play in the mud and sleep over at the neighbour’s house, to stub his toes and hug his parents, to go to weddings and learn the torah in the temple as a teenager.

The Devil says worship me, and Jesus says “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him”. God in Christ reminds the devil that being God is not about power, but rather about giving power up in order to love and to love deeply. That being worshiped is not about being on top, but worship is about serving one another.

And then from the top of the world to the temple of Jerusalem. The devil ask Jesus to prove who is. The devil asks Yahweh Elohim, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Jacob, and Joseph. The God of Moses and Elijah. The devil asks this God to prove who he is on top of his own house, on top of the place that God’s chosen people come to worship the one true God.

The Devil says throw yourself from this temple, and Jesus says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”. God in Christ reminds the devil that there is no need to prove who he is, that this is not about people choosing to believe in God, but about God choosing to love us, about God giving Godself to the creation that has come into being in the Word.

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This story is not about how good Jesus is at resisting temptation. Rather its about Jesus telling the devil and telling us who God is. And telling us who God thinks we are.

This is not Jesus’ own private wilderness. It is is our wilderness, our temptation, our darkness. Jesus has not come to prove that he can make it without giving into temptation, Jesus has come to show us that the God of the Universe, the God of creation. To show us that God has come into the world to be with us, to go with us into our wilderness.

We live in the wilderness of Lent, the wilderness of temptation grasping for material things, for power and for worship. We live in the wilderness trying our best to be like Jesus, but failing at every turn. And yet, we also live as an Easter people, people who are loved and forgiven by God. We live in a world where death has been over come by resurrection and new life. We live each day in both Lent and Easter, both wilderness and mercy. God reminds us each day that we are Baptized sinners, clean sinners, loved sinners.

And it is into this world, this wilderness, that the creator of Universe, that the God of all meets us. The God we fail to recognize, the God who shares in our joys and sorrows, who goes with us, even when would rather do other things. This God sets out with us, on our Lenten journey today, knowing that we will forget who Jesus really is, but never forgetting who we are.

Carrying our burdens up the mountain of Transfiguration

GOSPEL: Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]

28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray….35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. (Read the whole passage)

Today, we come to the end of an unusually long season after Epiphany… Nearly two months ago, a lifetime ago, we gathered with the wisemen around the Christ-child to worship this new king sent to save the people. And in the weeks that followed, the divine Christ was revealed to us in different ways, each time pushing us, making us ready for today. For this journey up the mountain of Transfiguration… because on the mountaintop our Epiphany lingering, our time of sitting with Jesus as he is revealed to us in new ways, will come to an end. On this mountain, Jesus charts a course that puts him on a collision course with our efforts to be like God, to be in control of our own fate.

Transfiguration Sunday is a hinge Sunday, a Sunday that swings us from one part of the story into the next. From the dark of Christmas night, into the bright noonday desert sun of Lent. Transfiguration is that moment where the bright lights are too much to take in and our eyes need some time to adjust.

Things begin innocuously enough down in the valley, where Jesus decides to bring a select few with him to climb a mountain. Peter, James and John… oh, and the rest of us… are chosen to follow Jesus up the mountain. If you have ever had the chance to climb a mountain, you will know that it is not as glamorous as it sounds. It is mostly staring at the ground and the feet of the person in front of you as you tiredly trudge uphill. Once in a while there is a stop or pause to admire a view, but then more trudging.

So after Jesus, Peter, James and John have trudged up their mountain, the disciples are understandably tired, sleepy even. And in their tired and sleepy state all of a sudden, Moses and Elijah appear. The two greatest prophets of Israel. And they standing next to Jesus… but not normal Jesus. Jesus in dazzling white, looking suitably prophet-esque himself.

Now before unpacking what happens next, it is important to know about all the clues we missed up until this point. The religious practice of Israel of the day was centred around the Jerusalem temple and laws of Leviticus. Making sacrifices in the temple and keeping the laws to maintain one’s purity and righteousness was how you stayed in God’s good books. The burden of righteousness of salvation rested on the shoulders of people. And the Jerusalem temple and its priests were the chief judges and gatekeepers of righteousness, making sure that only those who could keep the law and make sacrifices were given righteous status.

But before the levitical laws and Jerusalem temple, there were the prophets of Israel. Messengers appointed by and speaking on behalf of God who brought God’s righteousness and mercy and compassion to God’s people. These prophets were the patriarchs of Israel, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But chiefly Moses and Elijah. And these prophets represented God away from the temple, and apart from the following the law. They often came preaching from the wilderness, they met God on holy mountains, they brought the very voice of God to God’s people.

So as Jesus and his disciples trudge up this mountain, the clues are there. Jesus is not aligning himself with the centre of religious authority, with the temple and its laws. But rather with the prophets of old, those appointed directly by God to represent God to the people.

And there on the mountain of transfiguration, Jesus receives his prophetic appointment, just as Moses and Elijah did. Confirmation that God was sending Jesus, the Messiah, to bring God’s righteousness, God’s love and mercy to God’s people.

And even in this moment Peter cannot escape the burden of keeping the law, the sense that he must do that work of saving himself.

“It is good for us to be here, let us make three dwellings.”

Peter wants to preserve this holy moment and make it a holy place, a place where the faithful can go to earn their righteousness. Peter just cannot imagine a faithfulness that doesn’t include his responsibility to earn his salvation.

And we get it.

We totally get the feeling of this burden.

Even as good Lutherans who know that we cannot earn our own salvation, but rather it is given as gift by grace through faith… We too still act as if the burden of faithfulness is ours.

Our world, and often the church too, conditions us to think that it is our good actions, our gifts of generosity, our ability to be moral and of good character, our prayers and worship, our biblical literacy and theological understanding are the things make us faithful. We fret over our families and communities when they start to show a waning interest in church, will they still be saved? We fear God’s punishment when the pews seem a little emptier than they used to and the budget a littler tighter than we like. We wonder how we have failed God when it is clear that world simply doesn’t care about what Christianity has to say anymore. And we often lap up the advice of experts and gurus of church mission and growth who promise to give us the secrets of successful faithfulness for just a small speakers fee.

So yeah, we totally get Peter’s feeling of being burdened. We would almost certainly want to do the same thing if we were standing on that mountain, we would try to capture the moment for a deposit in our faithfulness bank account.

Yet, before Peter gets too far into his plans for righteousness earning,

God interrupts.

Just as God spoke in Jesus’ Baptism, just as God spoke over the waters of creation, God speaks again.

“This is My Son, My Chosen, listen to him!”

And what is that Jesus has said?

Well, he has NOT told his disciples and the crowds that earning their righteousness comes through keeping the law and making sacrifice at the temple.

In fact, the last time that Jesus said anything before going up this mountain was to predict his death. That he will suffer, be rejected and be killed. And on the third day be raised again.

Jesus has just told his confused disciples that he is coming to meet God’s people, to meet them in the midst of their suffering and rejection. And to die just as they die. Jesus has just told his disciples that he has come to bridge the distance between God and creation, and has come to carry their burdens.

Jesus has come to carry their burden of righteousness earning to the cross.

Jesus has come to carry our burden of faithfulness to the grave.

Jesus has come to carry the burdens of God’s people so that we don’t have to.

This Messiah born in the manger, baptized in the Jordan, who turned water into wine in Cana, who filled the fishing nets on the lake, who preached on the plain… this Jesus, transfigured Prophet of the most high God does not stay on the mountain for an important reason.

God’s prophets are not sent to go up mountains

They are sent to go down.

To bring God down to God’s people.

Jesus the Messiah is coming down the mountain with Peter, James and John… and the rest of us… so that we can know that it is not our burden to earn our righteousness, it is not our burden to be faithful… but that God has come to be our righteousness and our faithfulness for us.

God has always been coming down to meet us and to carry our burdens… even if we are trying to be faithful all on our own.

God comes down to meet us every time we gather as community, no matter how many of us there are.

God comes down to us whether we are in church every week, or have forgotten that church entirely.

God comes to down to us despite our morals or character, regardless of our prayers or biblical literacy.

God comes to meet us in this place and in many more places of worship whether they are full or nearly empty, whether the budget is easy to meet or underwater, whether we follow the mission expert’s steps to success or have no idea where to begin.

God comes to meet us because we are God’s people, weighed down with burdens that only God can carry.

And so God comes to carry them and to carry us.

In God’s Word spoken here, in the waters of God’s cleansing grace, in the bread and wine of mercy, Christ’ body and blood – in all these things, God comes down the mountain to us.

And so on this Transfiguration Sunday, as we also go down the mountain with Jesus, we are reminded God is always on the way down to us.