Tag Archives: Sermon

Peter wanted a private club – Jesus gave us the Church

Matthew 16:13-20

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…(Read the whole passage)

Last week, I had a brush with fame. If you happened to be listening to the local Christian music station on Thursday after around 5pm, you would have heard me do a brief two part interview. Yes, I know, I know… for anyone that is wondering I will sign autographs in addition to shaking hands on the way of out church… and no, this hasn’t gone to my head.

In all seriousness, the reason that I was interviewed was for an article that I had written and that was published by Christian Week magazine…a locally founded but national/ecumenical publication in Canada.

The article was about something that I mentioned in my sermon last week, Why White Supremacy is a Sin. After the events of Charlottesville two weeks ago, the article was my attempt at articulating why the ideology White Supremacy is sinful.

At its foundation, Christian White Supremacy takes the idea that faith and church confer a special status and power to us to extreme ends. That being a follower of Jesus or a Christian makes a special group, a special in-crowd, that the church is only about who is on the inside, rather than reaching those outside. For White Supremacists, only white skinned people are those special ones.

Now, what does that have to do with the Jesus and Peter today?… well in a way, Jesus is naming that same attitude among the disciples – the idea that being a follower of Jesus confers special status and special power.

Jesus and the disciples are out in gentile lands again. Last week they were in the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon, where Jesus encountered and eventually healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter… but only after she convinced him that she, a gentile and a woman, was worthy of his compassion.

Today, Jesus has travelled inland to the region of Caesarea Philippi where he takes the opportunity to ask the disciples a question: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” This gets a few different answers, mostly comparisons to the prophets of old. But Jesus isn’t satisfied and takes it a step further. “But who do you say that I am?”

When none of the other disciples have an answer, Simon offers a guess. “You are the Messiah, Son of the Living God.” Not a dead prophet but son of the living God.

And for that Jesus gives Simon a new name – Peter. Peter which means rock, the rock on which Jesus will build his church, giving the church the power loose and bind sins.

That is a quite the journey from “Who do you say that I am?”

This story of this encounter between Jesus and his disciples that we hear today, is a passage we tend to place a lot of meaning on.

The Roman Catholic church reads this story as Jesus’ choosing Peter to be the first among the disciples… the first Bishop of the church, the Bishop’s office whose has become the office of Popes through the centuries. The Pope, they say, is the successor to Peter. The Papal symbol is two keys.

Others find in this passage an important question, one that is more relevant today than ever. Who do we say that Jesus is? Many church leaders today would contend that this question is at the core of what it means to follow Jesus and how we answer this question in a world of suffering, violence, hatred, division, conflict, war and death determines the character of our faith.

And perhaps for us here at Good Shepherd, our answer to the question of who Jesus is would impact significantly how we minister to the community around us.

But perhaps neither of these concerns are truly what this passage is about.

As usual, there seems to be something else going on.

And getting at that involves asking the question why.

Why does Jesus ask his disciples, far from home and in gentile territory who people say that he is. And why does Jesus give Simon a new name with new responsibilities.

On regular occasion, the disciples get caught up in the perks of being disciples, rather than the reality. They want to sit at Jesus’ right and left hands. They want power to heal and power over demons. They get jealous of others who do works of power in Jesus’ name. They get impatient with people who come to Jesus for healing, much like the Canaanite woman last week.

And so when Jesus asks the disciples, who they think he is… it isn’t because Jesus is wondering what people think of him. It is because he wants the disciples to connect with reality.

They are followers of Jesus. Jesus who is the Messiah. Jesus who is then son of the Living God. The Messiah who has come to save the whole world, sent by the Living God, the God of all creation. The forgiveness that they proclaim is not a power they hold over others, but a responsibility they now carry. The New Life that they preach is not privilege bestowed to a few, but a gift given to all.

Like the disciples, the church, including us, has fallen into the same trap again and again. And while it isn’t usually as extreme or destructive as White Supremacy… it is something we struggle with.

For many churches and communities of faith in North America these days it has been the norm to see ourselves firstly as centres of community. Faith families who love and care for each other. Groups who exist for the benefit of our members. Clubs with special privileges.

And yes, in some ways those definitions do apply to us. But they do not define us. They are not the why. They are not our first and primary purpose for existing. The Church is not a community of the privileged, but a community of the burdened. A community given responsibility. A body tasked to preach and proclaim the story of the one whose name we bear – to tell the world about Christ.

When Jesus gives Simon a new name today… it is first a reminder of who Jesus is. In the Old Testament the only person who ever changed someone’s name was God.

When Jesus tells Peter that he is the rock on whom he will build his church, it is a reminder that this community of faith is the Messiah’s. It is a community rooted in the forgiveness of sins for sinners, mercy for the suffering, and resurrection of the dead.

When Jesus tells Peter that he will be given the keys to kingdom and that what he binds on earth is bound in heaven, and what he looses on earth is loosed in heaven… it is a re-orientation of the privileged and self centred attitudes of the disciples.

The power to forgive, the power to grant mercy, the power of resurrection and new life… these are powers NOT to be used as Peter, the disciples and the church desires. But rather responsibilities and tasks to be undertaken. Forgiveness is not to withheld, but given. Mercy is not to be given with discretion but with wild abandon. And new life… well God’s answer to all death is resurrection and new life.

When Jesus re-names Simon, and makes him the rock of the church, and gives him the keys to the Kingdom… it is not a moment of granting privilege or benefits… It is a moment of reminding Peter, the disciples and us of the responsibility we bear.

That we are firstly a community of faith. Faith is not a by-product of our community, but rather community and our love and care for one another is a by-product of our faith. Forgiveness is not a power the church wields over people, but rather something we are not to withhold. We are to forgive sinners. Period. And new life… well resurrection and new life is the story that we tell… or rather that Jesus tells through us, week after week, year after year.

Through Peter, through the disciples, through us, Christ proclaims again and again that death does not have the final word. Christ proclaims through us New Life given for all and for us.

Today, Jesus asks a pretty simple question to the disciples and to us. But the result is a reminder, again, of just how Christ is re-naming and transforming Peter and us, into the his body. Into the Body of Christ giving forgiveness, mercy and new life to the world.

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There is life in the Wheat and Weeds

Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” (read the whole passage)

Most of us know the annoyance that weeds cause in gardens and lawns and even fields. Weeds steal energy, water and resources from the plants that we placed purposefully in our gardens. Weeding is probably one of the more joyless parts of maintaining our plants and gardens. Pulling those prickly, finicky nuisances that seem to do anything they can to stay in the ground is not fun.

And so when we hear Jesus tell the parable of the Wheat and Tares or wheat and the weeds, we can identify with the experience of the servant who wants to get the weeding done.

Yet, as anyone who regularly walks down neighbourhood streets knows keeping and maintaining gardens, in particular the weeds, is an individual approach as anything. On the street that we live on, the gardens, flower beds and lawns of our neighbours vary wildly. There are some lawns and flower beds kept impeccably. Hardly a blade of grass out of place, not a weed to be seen. And then there are others where the weeds and grass seem to be growing in harmony… and growing tall. The contrast is noticeable when there are next door neighbours with these two extremes of garden and lawn styles. A golf green lawn next to a patch of wild grass and weeds.

This tension sits at the heart of the parable of the wheat and weeds. The crops have been planted, the wheat is growing… but so are the weeds. And the servant and the master have very different approaches to deal with this tension. The slaves of the household wants to get down to weeding. They want to purify the fields, get ride of bad and unwanted weeds right away, resolve the tension that they are experiencing… but the master wants to wait. Let the wheat and weeds grow together, for in pulling up one you will destroy the other.

Now of course, when we slow to think about it, this parable is not about wheat and weeds. Jesus isn’t discussing gardening philosophies.

But nor is this parable about the explanation that Matthew puts in Jesus’ mouth either. This isn’t about the weeds being like the evil ones of the world who will be thrown into the fire, or about the good wheat being gathered into heavenly grain bins.

In fact, the explanation to the parable about what the wheat and weeds are seems to have missed the point.

The point just might be the tension.

We are not good at living with tension.

The master says to leave the weeds be, but we are most often more like the slaves who want to get down to weeding. We don’t do well with tension because we would rather get to resolution. Its why most TV shows tell a complete story each episode, and why cliffhangers frustrate us so much. It is why most music is careful to end with resolving notes, a song that ends without sounding finished feels wrong. It is why we want to get the weeding done, instead of letting the weeds grow with the garden… the tension bothers us.

But the tension extends far beyond gardens and into our lives and work, into our relationships and even into our faith. We don’t like it when things we perceive as good and bad, right and wrong, exist at the same time in the same place. We don’t like weedy things infecting our wheat.

As Matthew attempts to unpack this parable by telling us what it means, he puts it in terms of faith, or more specifically faith communities. As faith communities, we know that we need to welcome new people, to try new ways of doing things, to open ourselves up to new life and the places it could grow among us… yet, new people can feel weedy to us, new ideas and new ways of being can feel like they are taking our limited energy and resources… new life can feel like it is choking our life out.

How often do we turn down new ideas because they are too weedy… they seem like they will just take energy and life from us like weeds?

How often are we concerned only about whether we will get a fruitful return, a wheat crop as reward for our efforts? How often do we weed out potential new members to our community because we expect them to be wheat instead of weeds?

How often does new life in our midst need to be a bit weedy… need us to sacrifice some of our own resources, our soil, our water, our energy in order to let the new life take root among us?

We really do struggle with with letting the wheat and the weeds co-exist, especially as people of faith. We struggle with the tension, of living in the grey areas, and not being able to define our world in the terms of good and bad, right and wrong.

And yet the tension, the place in between good and bad, right and wrong, even life and death, is where so much of our faith rests. It is the grey ares where God seems to show up, in the places where wheat and weeds are growing together.

God comes to us a king of creation, yet born as a nobody peasant in the backwater town of Bethlehem.

God comes preaching good news, but to the lost, least and forgotten of the world.

God comes to save us, by dying on a cross.

And so we are sinners yet forgiven and righteous.

And so we find our lives by losing them.

And so we are made alive by dying in Christ.

And so God chooses to love us, even though we should be unloveable.

The master tells his servants to leave the weeds be, leave weeds because pulling them out will uproot the wheat.

The master tells the servants to live in the tension, because that is where life can grow. The weeds will steal from the wheat… but both will grow. The tension is the place where life grows.

It is the same message that God gives to us, that God proclaims in and through God’s church.

Come you who are sinners, to this community of people made righteous. Here your sins are forgiven.

Come you who are suffering, to this community of healing. Here you will be made whole.

Come you who are hungry, to this community of bread and wine. Here you will be fed.

Come you are dirty and unclean, to this community of the washed. Here you will be cleansed.

Come you are who are dead, to this community of life. Here you will be raised.

The tension is the place where life grows.

Here is the thing… just as wheat fields without wheat doesn’t exist in reality, there is no community of people without sinners, without suffering, without hunger, without being unclean, without death.

The Master knows that the weeds are always part of the growing, all part of the fruit producing. The Master knows that the weeds are a part of life.

And God knows that it is in the grey areas that life is found.

God knows sinner meets righteousness in the grey area of forgiveness.

God knows that suffering meetings healing the grey area of mercy.

God knows that death meets life in the grey area of resurrection.

And so the Master says to us, let the weeds be. Let the bad grow with the good because it is in the grey areas that life is found.

Two Sparrows for a Penny

Matthew 10:24-39
Jesus said to the twelve disciples…,

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

“For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household… (Read the whole passage) 
As we begin this long season of green in the church, we start with some bold words from Jesus as told to us by the Gospel of Matthew. You would think that we could start this season of Jesus’ parables, preaching, and ministry with something a little more tame. But that is not Matthew’s style.

The 4 gospels, and their four authors, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the same story, but in very different ways. Just like 4 pastors might preach very different sermons on the same topic. If we were to imagine what kind of people the gospel writers were, John might remind us of an academic, a professor type passionately using lots of words to describe his topic of study. Luke would be the compassionate care-giver, always thinking of the less fortunate. Mark should remind us of a mystic, a wise spiritual advisor who never says more than he has to.

And then comes Matthew. Matthew is like the TV evangelist, the mega church preacher preaching to a stadium of people. Matthew is the type who has all the answers. Matthew can spitfire verse after verse of scripture without hardly taking a breath. Matthew knows what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad.

And so, as we hear Matthew collect some of the sayings of Jesus, he gives them to us in spitfire fashion, one after another. 

Together, they almost sound like a warning. Warnings about being in the right allegiance, about following Jesus in the right way, about being a disciple and the dangers of what will happen if we choose the wrong side:
“If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!”
“rather, fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
“whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”
“I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
“For I have come to set a man against his father,”
“whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me”

Wow… harsh stuff.

The Gospel of Matthew has been the most popular gospel of Christian history. For nearly 1000 years, it was the only Gospel that christians used. And when we hear what Matthew offers us today, as harsh as Jesus sounds, Matthew’s popularity makes sense. Matthew offers us what we want to hear. Easy answers. Right and wrong answers. Matthew offers us a legalistic path to the truth. Do this, this and this, and you will be okay. Do that, that and that, and you will go to hell.

Matthew’s approach to Jesus’s words appeals to our fears. Matthew frightens us into feeling secure. Matthew warns us of the danger in the world, and then tells how we can avoid it. Just like a good salesmen or TV evangelist.

And we lap it up.

We love the binary, right/wrong, us/them answers. We love the categories of us and them. We like knowing what to be afraid of in the world, and how we can protect ourselves. We like it all because it is easy, it feels safe, we feel like we are in control.
And that need for control comes from a place deep within us. It is from Original Sin, the Old Adam, the Old Sinner that wants to be like God that drives to easy answers that Matthew and so many others try to give us. And it this original sin that what we are washed of in Baptism. 

In Baptism, God begins the hard work of stripping away our need for control, our desire to be like God. And it is hard for us too. It is hard to deal with questions. Answers are easy. It is hard work to live with the ambiguities, the grey in life. Binary, right/wrong is easy. But it is hard to be uncertain, to be vulnerable. It is easy to know who and what to be afraid of so we can stay safe.

We don’t want to deal with questions or uncertainty or ambiguity. We like it when someone gives us the answers we want to hear.

But that is not Jesus’s way.
Even while Matthew is trying to give us the harsh Jesus, the one who warns, one with easy answers and ways to protect oneself from all the dangers, Matthew cannot help but let Jesus break through with the Gospel. In the midst of swords, devils, fighting families, choosing sids, taking up our cross, denying Jesus… It almost passes us by.
Two sparrows for a penny. Jesus says, do not two sparrows cost a penny. Two things so invaluable and worthless that you can’t even sell one for a penny, you have to offer two. Even these do not live or die apart from God. God is interested in everything or everyone. God is not choosing sides, God is not about right/wrong binaries, God is not out there offering easy answers. Jesus is showing us a God who is found even with the worthless sparrows. Nothing is too small, too inconsequential for God. In a world that wants Jesus to tell us what we want to hear… this is not it.
And even St. Matthew, the author of the most famous and often used of the Gospels, cannot keep Jesus breaking through to us, breaking through our desire for easy  answers. Matthew cannot help but show us God. 
So often the answers we long to hear are not the ones that God gives to us. Even as Matthew strives to give us a Jesus who is out separating good from bad, right from wrong, and while we lap it up. No matter how much we want the easy, safe, secure, certain answers, Jesus is giving us something else.

Jesus is giving us questions, Jesus is giving us ambiguity, Jesus is telling us that God’s concern for the world is so much bigger than we can imagine. Two sparrows for a penny. Something that isn’t even worth the smallest coin imaginable… even this sparrow does not live or die apart from God. God is working in ways and in places that we would never think to look. It is not flashy or showy or easy. It isn’t a list of requirements or steps to follow. It is hard, yet life giving work.

And what God is up to begins in baptism, begins in the waters of new life. God uses baptismal waters to introduce new questions into our world, questions of mercy, forgiveness, and life. God shows us that God’s world is so much deeper and wider than we could ever imagine.

Matthew’s harsh words like sword, Beelzebub, denial, against, unworthy – they are designed to scare us, scare us into binary right-wrong thinking and easy answers. But today, Jesus is all about the sparrow. The thing that seems worthless, even this is important to God. God breaks through our desire for an easy to categorize world. God breaks through with questions and ambiguity, but God also breaks through in the baptismal waters with grace, mercy and new life.

Doubting the Trinity 

Matthew 28:16-20

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Read the whole passage)

Holy Trinity Sunday is a unique festival in the church year. All the others ones tell specific stories, like we celebrated last week at Pentecost. The coming of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire to the disciples, who then preached the Gospel was a story of drama and intrigue. Holy Trinity Sunday is quite a contrast. It is about a doctrine of the church. The trinity describes who God is, yet it is a complicated and often difficult to understand concept that we struggle to explain. We have all heard the children’s message examples. God is like water, solid, liquid, gas. God is like apple pie: crust, filling, ice cream. God is like someone who puts on different hats, sometimes a parent, sometimes a child, sometimes a friend. Each example that we try give ends up failing when stretched too far. The relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit is just too much, too broad, too complex to explain.

It is no wonder that some of the disciples doubted Jesus, even as they witnessed him ascending into heaven from the top of a mountain. They had stuck with him through the whole story. They has seen the improbably acts of his ministry of teaching and miracles. They had seen him fall into the execution plot of the temple authorities. And they had now heard the rumours and seen Jesus alive, even though he should be dead.

This is the final moment in the story of Jesus, and the final moment of the Gospel of Matthew. It hardly seems like the time for the disciples to still be doubting, yet the doubters are sticking out like a sore thumb there on the mountain top, not quite ready to get on the bandwagon. Their doubt is pulling them apart, pulling and tugging them away from the moment.

As the disciples stand on the mountain top and witness the risen Jesus with their own eyes, the doubt that some felt was probably not disbelief.  But perhaps they had a hard time making sense of what exactly all of this meant, all the events they had just lived through and all the the things that Jesus had told them. Their doubt is not skepticism, but rather a sense of being overwhelmed and pulled in different directions. Our doubt comes from the same place.

Doubt pulls us apart, it threatens to unravel us and undo our sense of understanding and meaning. Faith and doubt are nearly the same, as they are the way we put together all this stuff about God, about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Neither faith, nor doubt are about knowing with certainty or about complete skepticism. Rather, faith and doubt are lived experiences, part of day to day living with all this stuff about God and Church. Faith and doubt are a relationship and they are a part of being in relationship with God and each other. Faith is planted in grown through worship and prayer, in families and at church. It is a part of everyday life. And in the same way, doubt creeps into all parts of life. Self doubt, doubt when it comes to others, doubt when it comes to the community. Doubt comes in the moments when we are stretched to limit and when making sense of everything is too much to do on our own.

Did you notice the contrast that Matthew makes when it comes to doubt. He does not say some believe, and some doubted. Or some had faith and some doubted. Or some were certain and some doubted but Matthew reminds us where are our doubts are met. Simply believing harder or being more certain are not the solution to doubt. Matthew says that the disciples worshipped but some doubted. All the disciples worshipped, and in the mist of their worship some doubted.

And despite their doubt, Jesus gives them all the same task. To preach the Gospel and to Baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus words are not just for those who feel like they have a strong faith or feel fairly certain of the message. The mission of the Gospel is for all members of the community. The doubtful and the faithful, the same group. And so is Jesus’ promise for all, not just for those feel like it is true in a given moment, but Jesus reminds and helps his followers to remember exactly what that promise is, “Remember, I am with you until the end of the age”.

Our doubt comes most alive in worship. And Jesus meets us in our doubts in worship. When we gather, there will always be some of us that doubt. We will all have times when we are feeling pulled apart and unsure…  when it will be hard to speak the words of worship. Words like, “Peace be with you” or “Lord to whom shall we go?” or “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”.

But it is in these words that the community of God, the community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity comes to us. The Trinity comes to us remembering us. Re-membering us together. Re-joining us, in faith, to the community of faith. Being re-membered, or made a member again, is part of the work of the Trinity. It is a part of the dance of the Trinity to give and receive, to move back and forth, to go forwards and backwards. The Trinity has room for our doubts, room for us to not understand and yet still be a part of the community.

There the disciples are, and there we are, in the mist of worship, some with doubts. And the promise that Jesus makes, the promise that God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit makes to us, is that we are remembered. We are not given certainty and Jesus does offer to help this crazy story of God in the world make sense. But the Trinity offers a place to be a part of the community. The Trinity is the promise that we are re-membered and re-joined.  God remembers and rejoins to the dance of the one in three, the back and forth, and the to and fro. God remembers and rejoins us in worship, with our faith and with our doubt.

Amen. 

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. 

Amen. 

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.

Amen.