Archive for the ‘New Testament’ Category

My family once had a potbelly pig for a pet.  Yes, we literally bought a pig for a pet.  It was the runt of the litter, rather small.  We named it “Wilbur.”  It wasn’t long before Wilbur needed a bath.  FYI, pigs tend to become dirty and smelly in a short amount of time.  If Wilbur was to stay in the house, he needed to be cleaned.  So, bath day came.  We prepared the bathtub and set Wilbur down in the water to begin scrubbing.  Wilbur had a different idea.  He didn’t care for the bathtub.  Maybe it was the water.  Maybe it was the slippery porcelain floor of the tub.  Whatever it was, Wilbur wasn’t having anything to do with the bath.  He began to freak out, squealing and squirming.  Suddenly, Wilbur began to fly in the air as he used the slick porcelain bathtub like a snowboarder using a half-pipe – flying up one side, back down the side, and then shooting up higher on the other side.  It was a disaster.  Water was everywhere.  Wilbur was a piglet of chaos and no closer to being clean.  Wilbur eventually worked himself out of a home with us because he refused to be cleaned.

Advent comes from the Latin adventus, which means “coming.”  It is a time for preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ in the Incarnation, that is, Jesus’ birth, and also Jesus’ coming again to complete the union of heaven and earth.  The season of Advent lodges us between these two events.  As the early Church used to say, “Christ has come; Christ will come again.”  As Christ came as the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes, now we wait in joyful anticipation of Christ’s return to reconcile and redeem the world to God.  The time is coming, says Jesus.  Prepare.  The time is drawing near, says Jesus.  Be ready.  The day is on the doorstep.  Be prepared – “wash your robes.”

If we are totally honest with ourselves, we could all write up a lengthy laundry list of grievous sins, poor decisions, lapsed judgment, and painful brokenness.  Imagine yourself robed where everything that you are and everything that you have done was written in permanent marker for everyone to see.  What would it say?  If we came to the gates of the City of God wearing those robes, would we expect entrance into the wedding party?  No, we’d expect to be outside with the dogs.  But, we’re not always sure we want to go through the tedious work of preparation – of washing.  We’d rather toss it in the laundry heap and forget about it.  Advent reminds us that the time for Jesus’ return is drawing near and we need some clean clothes for the party.

Like Wilbur, we desperately need to be washed, made clean.  Our robes are dirty, tattered, and torn.  Our lives are soiled rags, frayed threads, and filthy garments.  Some stains are so deep that Clorox can’t touch ‘em.  We look worse for the wear.  The mud of lust cakes the sleeves.  The dirt of gossip smudges the collar.  Broken relationships fray the cuffs’ hems.  Anger tears apart the seams.  The buttons of love are chipped or dangling by a thread.  Wrinkles of dejection and anxiety mangle the fabric.  Distrust leaves the bottom edges thin with strings dragging in the dust.  Our robes are rags, hardly suitable to wear at the coronation of Creation’s King.  “See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me… Blessed are those who wash their robes.”[1]

Do you know the key for clean clothing?  Two things: Clean water and agitation.  Stale, stagnant water only increases the filth and stench in our clothes.  Using the water of this world, with its empty promises for new life and purpose, leaves us wreaking of death.  We have soaked too long in the stagnant pools of our world and culture so that our robes have taken on their flavor.  We have washed ours clothes with the disease-ridden waters of arrogance, deception, racism, sexism, idol worship, addictions, greed, and any other number of things.  Our robes, our lives, are covered in sludge, slime, and slander.

Jesus, the Living Water, calls us out of the filth-filled floodwaters of our world into the stream of life flowing from the very throne of God.  These waters of purest crystal, fragranced with milk and honey are God’s free gift to all.  Jesus offers us Living Water to drink for our parched and thirsty souls.  Jesus invites us to bathe, to soak, to dive deep into this life-giving current, which is the very Life and Way of God.  In these waters we find healing for every disease, every malady, every infirmity, and every seeping wound.  This Water can bring even life to the Dead Sea… surely it can bring life to my dusty rags.  To drink of this Living Water is to also be swept up in its current, its Way, and its movements.

Water isn’t the only necessary ingredient for clean clothes.  Soil, soot, stains, and sweat are dislodged from clothing when water is combined with agitation.  People used to wash their clothes in rivers and then beat them on rocks.  Or, they used washboards to agitate the stains out of the material.  Today, we use machines that turn barrels with paddles that toss the clothes to-and-fro and then sift out the dirty water through high-velocity spinning.  Removal of stubborn stains requires adequate agitation.  Our sin-stained robes… our broken lives could use some agitation.  If you’re in need of some good old-fashioned agitation, like I am, Advent is a wonderful place to start.

Advent places us firmly in what theologians call “the now-and-not-yet” Kingdom.  Christ has initiated the Kingdom of God here on earth, but it hasn’t come yet in its fullness.  We’re still waiting for the final unveiling.  Christ’s first coming unveiled the brokenness of the world and marked out a different pattern of living.  Jesus demonstrated what it means to be both fully human and a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.  His birth, life, death, and resurrection both initiated God’s Kingdom on earth and pointed toward its future consummation and completion.

And that’s agitating… because Jesus wakens us to a new, truer reality that calls all of our previous ways of life into question.  Everything is thrown into question: politics, economics, family relationships, marriage, divorce, education, personal rights, private property and land, nations, power, parenting, community and neighborliness, poverty, violence, hope, success.  EVERYTHING!  The shabby robes with which we have clothed ourselves and our world is put under the black-light of Jesus… and the robes we wore and which we imagined to be clean and whole are shown to be disgusting, disheveled rags clinging to our bodies.

Jesus’ way calls for peace and unmasks our love of violence.  Jesus’ way calls for mercy, but we are bent on retribution.  Jesus’ way calls for love, but anger has its claws in our flesh.  Jesus’ way calls for justice, but we enjoy the benefits of injustice too much.  Jesus’ way calls for hope, but we are entrenched in fear.  Jesus’ way calls for truth, but we are committed to our collective lies.  Jesus’ way calls for sharing resources, but we’re just not sure there’s enough to go around.  Advent agitates us, stirs us, and disturbs us because we are confronted with the reality that our lives, both communally and personally, don’t yet fully reflect Jesus or his Kingdom.

Waiting and preparing for Jesus often tumbles us, throwing our world upside-down.  Yet, when we encounter God’s grace in Jesus the Living Water who washes us and the Spirit of God that agitates us from places of complacency, something life-giving stirs in us that we would have never anticipated.  We begin to change – little by little.  The stain of discontent begins to fade.  Neighborliness sews together the seams frayed by enemy-making and violence.  The stench of anger and bitterness are replaced with the fragrant aroma of Christ’s mercy and grace.  Greed is washed out with self-giving love.  Humility and service bleach out vanity and pride.  The more we are washed by God’s presence and stirred up by Christ’s life, the more we realize that our robes are being repaired and made clean and that we’d rather not wear those old, dirty rags of our former lives.  So…

The Spirit and the bride (that is, the Church) say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.[2]

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne[3]

 

 
[1] Revelation 22:12a, 14a.

[2] Revelation 22:17, 20-21

[3] Charles Wesley, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

This was a short sermon (5 minutes) that I wrote for the ACTS D.Min. program in Chicago.  It utilized “incarnational translation” as part of the methodology for the sermon.  

 

The Pharisees sat in the pews keeping a suspicious eye on Jesus, waiting to see if he would heal on the Sabbath.  Work was strictly prohibited on Sabbath.  The Jewish religious leaders had created numerous laws designed to restrict working on Sabbath.  Don’t do this.  Don’t do that.  Don’t take too many steps on this day.  You can’t prepare meals on this day.  You aren’t allowed to do any manual labor.  It was a long, extensive, exhaustive, comprehensive, encyclopedic list of prohibitions they were required to follow.  The Pharisees prowled around the sanctuary just waiting for Jesus to step one toe out of line and break the Sabbath.

Jesus tells the man with the withered hand to stand where everyone in worship can see him.  As the congregation has gathered in their holy huddle, Jesus asks them an unsettling question: “What’s the whole purpose behind Sabbath?  Is it for doing good or evil, for sustaining life or promoting death?”  The Pharisees believe the Sabbath is about not working.  But Jesus says the Sabbath is about re-defining our work – not simply stopping it.  It’s not only about avoiding evil, but actively doing that which is good – preserving, sustaining, and blessing life for all.

You may have heard the old saying, “We don’t drink, smoke or chew, and we don’t go with girls that do.”  There have been times, we, as Nazarenes, were known for what we didn’t do.  We didn’t play cards.  We didn’t go to movies.  We weren’t allowed to dance.  We didn’t drink alcohol.  I’m not even sure we were allowed to smile.  Somewhere along the way, we rooted our identity in what we were against, but we weren’t sure what we were for.  We can list what we shouldn’t be doing, but we struggle to name what we should be doing.

While we may have avoided doing some harmful things, while we may have insulated ourselves from “a dangerous world out there,” we have also divorced ourselves from God’s Sabbath call.  Jesus tells the man to stretch out his hand and upon doing so the man’s hand is healed.  Jesus demonstrates in this healing that the “work” of Sabbath is the work of justice.  It is the work of restoration.  It is the work of renewal.  It is the work of reconciliation.  Sabbath is not only rest – Sabbath is restitution.

We stand at a crossroads in the life of our state and community.  It is a crossroad which recognizes that worship which fails to engage the real issues of this world isn’t really worship.  Our state has experienced a massive shortage in money for budgets.  It was a gross mishandling of money entrusted to them by its citizens.  The result was significant cuts to education, mental health care, and loss of tax breaks for our poorest neighbors.  Simultaneously, huge tax breaks were given to large oil companies.  The disturbing misuse of power and privilege which tramples over the most vulnerable people in our state and in our community is unacceptable and we cannot remain silent.  We cannot remain on the sidelines.

Jesus stands in our midst today, asking us: “Why have we gathered here in worship?  Is it just to avoid being tainted by the world outside?  Is it to build a huge wall of security around ourselves so that we might not concern ourselves with the world’s brokenness?  Or, is it so that we might be empowered to do that which is good, that which is right, that which preserves life?”  Perhaps we have been gathered here in worship to be reminded that God wants to heal our withered hands so that we might be sent back out into the world to work for the good of others.

I love looking at family trees.  It provides a portrait of where we come from and can provide insight into where we are going.  It is interesting seeing how lives have been woven together and how some nuts don’t fall far from the family tree.  Looking at our heritage is a good practice, not only as individuals, but for our corporate lives together as well.  It says who we have been and can help paint a picture for where we are going.

The Church of the Nazarene began its life in California on Skid Row.  “Nazarene” was sometimes used as a derogatory name for this group of misfits.  But, those early Nazarenes wore the name as a badge of honor because it pointed to the kind of people we wanted to be and the type of people we felt called to serve.  They were ministering right in the thick of their community’s deepest hurts and darkest sins.

These Nazarenes ministered to those struggling with alcohol addiction, broken families, and poverty.  They jumped right into the mess and proclaimed the hope of Jesus by word and deed.  They built hospitals, homes for unwed mothers, orphanages, schools, churches, and so many other places to meet the great needs of their communities.  Their message and way of life captivated people with the freedom offered by the Gospel of Jesus.  Not only did these Nazarenes seek to make a difference for people in the next life; they extended hope and help, here and now.  They cast nets for people in the most troubled waters of our world.  That is our heritage.

Our story begins with Jesus proclaiming a word from God, a word unfolding the Kingdom before his hearers.  Like those aching for bread, the crowd presses in on Jesus.  They want to hear his words, they draw closer still until Jesus is right near the water’s edge.  The teacher sees two boats sitting on the shore, the crew washing and mending the nets after a futile night of catching seaweed but no fish.  Jesus steps into Peter’s boat and asks him to push off into the shallows.  Peter is obviously tired from a long night of catching nothing.  But, he nods in response and pushes out into the water, keeping the boat from floating away with the current.

Jesus sits down in the boat, the position of a teacher, the position of one in authority.  The word continues to be proclaimed.  Words of hope and a future.  Words that speak life into the dead places.  They are fascinating words.  Words that bring to life an imagination long dead and dull from the pain and suffering of life.  The crowd stands at the shore and Jesus is calling to them from the shallows.  But, that’s where the crowd stops – at the water’s edge.  Maybe some of them allow the water to wash across their feet.  But, they move no further, no closer – a safe distance.

Jesus concludes his teaching to those gathered at the shore’s edge.  Jesus turns to Peter, whose arms are probably aching from the long night and lack of sleep, and tells him to put out into deep waters and to let down his nets.  Move from those shallow waters to the deeper, troubled waters.  They are going fishing in those deeper waters.  Some are content to remain at the shore’s edge, but if you’re in the same boat with Jesus you might just find yourself sailing into deeper waters.

Deeper waters have stronger currents.  They pull and push the boat relentlessly.  The swirling waters are dark and often mysterious.  We do not always know what lies beneath the surface.  Deep waters can be frightening.  But, that’s where Jesus sometimes calls us – deeper waters.  The danger of capsizing, of being overturned is ever present.  Even skilled sailors can quickly find themselves in treacherous places in those waters.  There’s risk, make no mistake, in heading out into deeper waters.  But, that’s where God will sometimes call us.  Will we row out into those deeper waters?

We live in a time of troubled waters.  It’s all around us, threatening to swell and overwhelm our little boat.  The troubled waters of deep anxiety, riddled with violence crash against the side of the boat.  Poverty; refugees forced from their homes; abused children and spouses; homelessness, which is only growing; substance abuse; deadly diseases killing large populations; natural disasters leaving many dead or without shelter.  The current threatens to sweep our boat away from the safety of the shore, to submerge our boat, to drag us down with it.  The problems of those deep waters seem much too big for our little boat to handle.

But, that’s where Jesus calls us to drop anchor and drop our nets – in those deeply troubled waters.  That is where Jesus desires to go and the very place where the Church should be found.  Like the boat that carries Jesus and the disciples “into the deep” places, the Church is the vessel which continues to be out on those troubled waters carrying Jesus and the disciples.  The boat was never meant to remain on the shore or in the shallows.  The Church was never meant to remain on the sidelines and watch the world from the safety of its four walls.  Ever and always has Jesus climbed into the boat and said, “Let’s go to deeper waters.”  And, disciples are the ones that follow Jesus out into those troubled places.

“Cast your nets.”  Can you imagine Peter’s puzzled look?  He is a fisherman by trade and knows the “sweet spots” on the lake.  If he can’t find fish, nobody can find the fish.  It’s broad daylight and fishing with nets is meant for the night.  The fish will see the net.  This appears to be an exercise in futility.  There is no way on God’s green earth that they will catch anything but perhaps a stray fish.

How often that is our very attitude as well.  “Jesus, just look at the state of these people.  They are the most broken, the most vile, the most destitute, the least worthy, the least noble, the least likely candidates.  Casting our nets in this place is pointless.”  We may very well feel like Peter looking at the problem and saying, “There’s really no point in trying. It’s a foregone conclusion.  We will fail.”  Yet, even while Peter was skeptical of success, he cast out his nets in obedience.

We may have been fishing all night without catching anything.  We may wonder if we are simply beating our heads against the wall.  We may have tried with all our strength to reach people only to see no return.  That may discourage us to the point that we have stopped casting our nets.  Instead, we drag them to the shore and busy ourselves washing and mending them – but not fishing.

We content ourselves with staying on the shore, avoiding the deeper waters.  But, going deeper with Jesus does not lead us away from the problems of the world.  Rather, drawing nearer to Jesus, getting in the same boat with Jesus, usually leads us right into the mess of our world as those casting their nets to catch people and pulling them into the boat, the Church as a foretaste of the Kingdom.

It surprised Peter when the nets began to tug and pull.  The weight of the fish as these fishermen began pulling them up made the men strain against the load and they couldn’t do it alone.  Peter waved to his fishing partners in the other boat.  Even with both boats, it was hard, tedious work.  They lifted, strained, and struggled.  They were sweating and aching and tired.  Yet, they labored on.  The load of fish caused both boats to begin sinking.  It was simultaneously exciting and frightening.  What a great catch!  But, they’re in deep waters with two boats sinking!  Peter drops to his knees and bows before Jesus, exclaiming, “Lord, I am a sinful man.  Go away from me!”  He and the disciples are astonished and afraid.

I think we avoid the deep waters and casting our nets for a couple of reasons.  The deep waters frighten us.  We want to avoid the messes of the world, while we complain about them behind closed doors from the comfort of our recliners and at the safe distance which our television screens afford.  We want to keep our distance.

The second reason is because casting our nets and pulling them up is difficult work.  Evangelism and discipleship are hard tasks, difficult tasks.  They require energy, patience, and compassion.  And, we’re not even sure we want to expend the necessary energy, patience, and compassion.  Maybe that’s why we place blame on so many people for being in those dire situations in the first place.  They deserve to be in the positions they find themselves.  And, as such, we can excuse ourselves from doing the very work to which Jesus calls us.

“I’m comfortable on the shore, Jesus, thank you very much.  I’ve done my part.  I needn’t do any more.”  Or, we think, things like worship and faith are just about my personal experience alone.  I have no responsibility for others’ lives.  So, we watch from the shore, content to watch Jesus from a distance, but not willing to be inconvenienced by his call to cast our nets in deeper waters.

But, notice that Peter isn’t the only one straining at the nets.  Other hands join his to hoist the nets and the catch into the boats.  The many hands of the Church work together to lighten the load.  Each and every person has something to contribute to the work of the Church.  Every person that is a part of the Body of Christ does not stand idly by, but lends their hands in service to the task before us.  Everyone has gifts which God has given them for such moments.  Keep in mind that some of the crew are steering, some are rowing, and some are tending the sail.  But, each is contributing to the mission of the Church in response to the call of Jesus.

Oh, but it is hard work, make no mistake.  Joyful, but hard.  Things don’t always go as planned.  Casting our nets for people in the midst of those troubled waters can be painful and exhausting.  It is often inconvenient and will sometimes feel like things are coming loose at the seams.  The disciples’ nets begin to break.  The boats begin to take on water.  All the chaos of those waters threaten to come over the edge of the boat, dragging us down into the murky depths.  It can be frightening to feel like the boats won’t float any longer.  And, many have become frightened whenever the Church has been threatened by those deep waters.

When we were younger, my sister and I attended a swimming party at a neighbor’s house.  A lot of our friends were there to celebrate the birthday of one of the girls.  It was noisy, busy, and festive.  Children were splashing and screaming and stuffing their faces with cake.  It was a bit chaotic.  Although there were several adults in attendance, it was nearly impossible to keep an eye on everything happening.

At one point, my younger sister began to have difficulties swimming.  She was treading water but could hardly keep her head above the waves.  The side of the pool was too far for her to grab and she was in a deeper section of the pool where footing was impossible.  I didn’t think, but immediately jumped in to help her.  However, my sister’s problem quickly became my problem.

As I reached her, she immediately grabbed me and shoved me under the water, using me as a prop to get air.  She has a death-grip on my head while holding me totally submerged.  I can’t come up and didn’t have much air when I went down.  Free training tip: Always approach drowning people from behind so they don’t drown you also.  Back to our program.  Luckily, I was able to escape her grasp and help her get to the side.  Trying to help her had almost ended badly for me and it was terribly frightening.  But, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.  When we try to help people drowning under the weight of the world’s brokenness, we might find ourselves being submerged.  It may feel like we’re drowning in the process.

When broken people, like you and I, come through those doors, we often bring those troubled waters with us into the boat.  We bring the mess of our lives right through those doors.  We carry our guilt, our shame, our brokenness, our anger, our bitterness, our lust, our greed, our poor attitudes, our fear right into this place like rushing waters.  And, the torrent can feel downright overwhelming at times.  Perhaps that’s why we try to keep our messes hidden from each other.

We dare not let others know our brokenness and sin for fear of chaos breaking out, of being cast out of the boat.  And, for those with more visible problems, we may say a kind word but we dare not make them feel welcome enough to stay.  Those problems belong “out there,” but not in this boat.  The nets are already strained to the breaking point and the boat is threatening to tip.  We might wonder if some fish aren’t just better tossed back in the pond than having to deal with their messy situation.

But Peter’s confession has always been the Church’s confession: “Lord, we are sinful people.  Surely, there’s better qualified people than us to do your work.”  While Jesus may call us to be “fishers of people,” we better remember that we were the fish pulled out of those troubled waters to begin with.  “Lord, we are sinful people.”  We are people that are deeply submerged in those mirky, troubled, deep waters.  We are the broken.  We are the destitute.  We are the impoverished.  We are those living in darkness, those living in sin, those loving our shame.  “Lord, we are sinful people.”

Jesus responds to Peter’s confession, even as he calls out to us now, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people alive.”  Peter recognizes that he is in deep waters, sinful.  Jesus has cast his net and brought him into the boat, calling him to do the same for others.  Peter and the disciples will do for others what Jesus has done for them – caught them out of death for life!  The only appropriate response is to leave everything behind and follow Jesus.

Would there be a better response for us today?  Wouldn’t it be great to be a church that is known for following Jesus into the deep and troubled waters, casting our nets out to catch people out of the ways of death of the world and pulling them into the Church to be part of the new Kingdom of life here and now?  There are no disciples sitting on the shore, only an entertained crowd.  The disciples are where Jesus is, right in the messy waters of our world catching people for new life.  That is and has always been the Church’s mission.

As Emil Brunner once remarked, “Mission work does not arise from any arrogance in the Christian Church; mission is its cause and its life. The Church exists by mission, just as a fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission, there is no Church; and where there is neither Church nor mission, there is no faith.”  We can’t be part of the Church without also being part of its mission.  Jesus calls us out into deeper waters, to cast our nets, to catch people up into this newness of life we have found together in Jesus.

 

Lent is a season of reflecting in a further intentional way on the life of Christ which leads to the Cross.  The cross is symbolic, although not simply that, of the kind of ministry which Jesus embodied while proclaiming the Kingdom of God has begun here and now in him.  The cross is the way of the Kingdom, for it is the way of its King.  As Kingdom citizens, we are called to embody this same cruciform way of living here and now.  We are called to pick up our cross and follow Jesus.  Our baptisms are where we are buried with Christ so that we might also participate in his new-creation-life, which also anticipates Christ’s coming again to fulfill that which he began – “on earth as it is in heaven.”

As such, we are visible, tangible reminders that God’s Kingdom has come.  We are stewards that build for the Kingdom, announcing its inauguration in Jesus, and the Christian hope that it will someday be consummated in his return.  This is why we say: “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again!”

Yet, while we wait for Christ’s return, we recognize that there is still work to be done in the Creation and in us.  Although the Kingdom has begun, it is not yet completed work.  So, we long for and anticipate the coming redemption of all things, when Christ will be all in all.  Paul says that the Creation waits for the redemption of humanity.  And, as we wait for our redemption, sometimes we groan in prayer when words fail us.  The Spirit of God takes up our prayer and presents them to God.  We hunger and thirst for God to make right that which is broken and twisted by sin.  We all, including the Creation, groan to be set free from the bonds of sin and death.  Paul’s words picture this anguish perfectly: “Who can rescue me from this body of death” (Rom. 7:24)!?

Lent weighs heavily upon us.  We see the cross in the distance and recognize that the twisted beams of wood which pierce the ground and the rusty nails which pierce Jesus are both driven deep in the flesh and the earth by our own hands.  It is our violence and our demand for justice which finally nail Jesus to that branchless tree.

It is a tree of death upon which we have placed the Author of Life.  It is the tree which is rooted in our anger, bitterness, anxiety, and malice.  Through that tree we pour out all of our contempt upon the Light of the World.  The cross which stands in the distance comes nearer and nearer as we approach Good Friday.  It holds up the mirror before us, asking: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  We can only exclaim, “Yes, it was me.  Yes, it was us.”  We try to avoid the disciplines of Lent because we finally want to avoid seeing our face in the crowd which cried out, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  We cannot bear the shame.

Astonishingly, what we intended for evil, God reorients for our good.  This is what Paul is exclaiming when he finishes his thought in Romans 7.  “Who can rescue me from this body of death!?  Thanks be to God – through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 7:24-25).  God takes an instrument of death and transforms it into a tool for cultivating new life in the Creation and in us.  This is the grand sweep of Romans 8.  Jesus has brought about new creation!  Yes, it is not completed work yet.  But, it’s not just a future event that we are waiting for either.  In fact, Paul calls the Christian community to begin to live into the reality of new creation now – to put our minds on the things of the Spirit and thus to put to death the misdeeds of the body.

We are to “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1).  God’s work through the Spirit will impact what we do with our bodies.  Paul writes, “… if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption” Rom. 8:13b-15a).  We are called to no longer live in the deathly ways of this world (12:2a), “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  I do not think such transformation is possible without intentional practices that engage both body and spirit in the life of a follower of Jesus.  More specifically, as Paul highlights in the following section (vv. 3-8), it cannot happen outside of the community of faith.  This is not a journey which we can do by ourselves.  God has gifted us the Church for mutual encouragement and accountability.  Christian community and the peculiar practices (i.e., prayer, sacraments, fasting, confession, reading scripture, etc.) of that community have an odd way of “humbling us” and training us to think with “sober judgment.”

Paul reminds this covenant community (the Church) that the very purpose of this community is to serve as a training ground for the Kingdom-already-here-yet-still-to-come.  It is a training ground of love.  Love of God, yes!  Most certainly.  But, equally, love of our fellow people.  In fact, the competition of the world which tries to dominate others is traded in for a new kind of competition.  It is a competition of mutual affection where everyone seeks the benefit of others over their own desires.  It is a “holy zeal and an ardent spirit, serving the Lord” by serving each other (v. 11).  It is this energetic affection for God and for each other which makes things like “Rejoicing in hope, being patient in suffering, and persevering in prayer” possible (v. 12).  We bear the burdens together and we share in each other’s joy.  And, it is a joy that spills over to others.  The needs of the saints are met by one another (v. 13a).  Not only that, but this joy spills outside of the Church as well, by extending hospitality to the stranger (13b).  In other words, the new creation is expanding to receive those parts of the old creation that have yet experienced the new life found in Christ through the Spirit to the glory of the Father.

Of course, Paul isn’t wearing rose-colored glasses.  He recognizes that there are people that are still living by the flesh.  As such, they may very well reject, even in violent ways, the hope offered by the Church.  The Church may experience persecution.  Jesus never denied this possibility.  He said, “The world hated me; it will hate you.”  Don’t be surprised.  The Kingdom of Jesus isn’t always received as good news and is sometimes treated with hostility because it challenges the world’s way of life.  It says that there is a radically different way of doing things like politics, economics, how we treat our environment, how we treat our bodies, how we treat our enemies, how we treat the most vulnerable in society.  Love is the new priority.  And, if our way of life does not reflect the way of the cross, perhaps our minds have yet to be transformed by the Spirit.

Paul outlines how we are called to respond to the abuses which the world may heap upon us.  Before our renewal by the Spirit, we fought fire with fire.  We matched violence with violence.  We responded to hatred and evil with hatred and evil.  But, now, we are to be those who “bless and do not curse” (v. 14).  We are to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (vv. 15-19).  The way of Jesus; the way of the cross; the way of love.

Just in case we were confused, Paul goes further still.  We must not simply avoid evil.  We must pursue the good of others – even our enemies.  Paul writes, “No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (vv. 20-21).  Deep inside of us, we might cheer, “Good!  Serves them right!  My enemies deserve some burning coals on their head!”  But, that interpretation only highlights how much our lives still need to be formed by the Spirit.

The idea Paul is conveying by “heap burning coals on their heads” is rooted in a cultural practice during his day.  They didn’t have instant gas fires or lighters.  Starting a fire was hard work.  Once one was started, it was easier to keep it going than to let it die out and restart it.  If your fire died, it could be a serious problem, especially on cold nights.  If your fire did go out, you might visit a neighbor to get some live coals with which to start your fire back up.  Live coals are hot and heat rises.  So, carrying those coals in a bucket on your head would keep you from getting scorched.  Thus, “heaping burning coals on their heads” was a way of saying that we are called to get their “fires” going by returning evil with good.  Just as Jesus transformed our evil (the cross) into something for our good, we are called to do the same – even for our worst enemies.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  He understood the pain and suffering of being hated.  Yet, the Gospel of Jesus led him to respond with compassion and love for his enemies.  That is Christian hope in action.

May Lent call us to repentance where we have failed to put on the mind of Christ.  May Lent draw us to daily pick up our cross and follow Jesus in the way of love!  Let us move from the ash heap of the old creation people that we have been to those anointed with the oil of the Spirit as new creation people.

Extravagance.  Without caution, the sower throws the seed wherever it may fall.  Extravagance is the only word that I can think of to describe the scene of the sower.  Slinging the seed without caution, without calculation.  There is an extravagance in that act.  Regardless of the soil, the seed is sown.  The seed doesn’t always take root.  Yet, the sower casts the seed in anticipation of the harvest.  Extravagance is a good word.

Grace is a good word as well.  Unmerited gift.  Like that sower of the seed, God’s “seed” is cast wherever it might fall, regardless of the soil it might find.  Not every soil, not every life, will allow the seed to grow.  Some will immediately close their ears to the message of God’s coming Kingdom that is even now taking root among us.  The seed is never tilled into the soil and thus never takes root.  Others will receive it with joy, yet will quickly fade away with pressure (tribulation/ trial) or “the chase” (persecution).  Like the sun withering a shallow-rooted plant, the pressure of the world conforms such people back into its mold.  Still others will begin to grow but become choked by the cares of the world, by riches and their desire for things other than the Kingdom.  Regardless of the soil, the seed is cast out as a gift.  It is a gift that can be rejected, to be sure, but a gift nonetheless.

Such extravagance, such grace, seems to fail so often to produce the harvest.  It fails to take root.  It flounders under anxiety and fear.  If only the sower had been more cautious to sow in soil more hospitable, more selective in the task of sowing good seed in good soil.  Yet, that has never been the way of the sower.  Such is the nature of grace, such is the nature of the Gardener.  Though the seed seems to be an overwhelming failure, yet the Sower is not deterred.  Almost imperceptibly, the seed finds good soil and takes root.  It springs forth in abundance: 30, 60, even 100 times.  The extravagant nature of the sower is imaged in the extravagant nature of the harvest.  It is abundant, full, and overflowing.  The seeming failure of the seed and the sower is proved to be wisdom rather than folly, hope rather than despair.  Such is the nature of grace, such is the nature of God.

Such is the nature of Jesus – that Good Seed of the Kingdom of God.  The cross was folly, it was extravagant.  It appears to be failure of the greatest magnitude: the death of a criminal.  Yet, the Seed was thrown into the soil of Creation.  Although it appeared to be wasted extravagance, yet the resurrection unleashed the power of the abundant harvest, which has produced fruit beyond the imagination.  Jesus’ words to his disciples scatter them like seed back into the world: “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”  Freely we have received, freely we must give that same grace that was lavished upon us.  Sling the seed upon whatever soil you might find and watch what God might do as the seed finds good soil.  Yet, even if our sowing seems in vain, fling God’s grace, which cannot be exhausted, as faithful sowers anticipating the harvest – even if we don’t get to see its fruit now.

The disciples sit huddled together in the dark room, barely daring to breath.  The doors are locked, secured, and barred.  The barricade provides a measure of security, but still they huddle in fear of what lay on the opposite side of the door.  Death.

Jesus, their Lord and Master, had suffered intense, agonizing pain at the hand of the religious leaders.  Yes, Rome had done the damage, but it was the Pharisees, scribes, Sadducees, and the ruling council that had brought up the charges and made sure Jesus received the death penalty.

It is safer to remain here together, safely tucked away, than to venture out there.  To leave these walls is to risk being seen, being identified, and being killed for their connection with Jesus.  Death waits on the other side of the door.  They sit, not speaking, not moving… staring at the floor.

The air is hot and thick with the stench of fear.  The room trembles from their shivering bodies.  Normally, the evening would be filled with celebration, laughter, and fellowship.  Yet, the silent tension can be cut with a knife.  It weighs on them heavier than if an elephant were to sit on their chest.

The days following Jesus’ execution are dizzying and disorienting.  Their heads reel from the sudden turn that life has taken.  Once, life had seemed so full, so promising.  Now, the world is crashing down upon their heads.  The small room seems to shrink in around them, like darkness smothering the very life from them.

With their heads drooped and eyes pointing to the floor, nobody notices the man standing in their midst.  There is no sound to announce his presence.  No knock on the door.  No scraping of sandals on the floor.  Nothing.  “Peace be with you,” he says softly.  Heads shoot up, eyes wide with terror at hearing a voice.  Fear grips their hearts as they look to the door to see it still latched.  Had the authorities finally come to put them to death, too?  And, how had they entered without notice?

Silence follows.  The men and women lean away from the stranger, sure they are to meet their demise if he reaches for them.  The stranger turns in a circle looking at each gathered there.  His eyes are kind, not malicious.  He smiles at them.  They are still cautious, not sure what trick he might pull.

Then, the stranger extends his hands out, palms up.  Holes can be seen all the way through his wrists, about the size of a spike.  The disciples notice his feet also have these same gaping holes.  Again, the man turns to face each one of them and then exposes his side where a gash from something like a spear must have pierced him.  As light flooding a dark room, the disciples suddenly recognize this man is no stranger but Jesus himself!     The disciples’ fear melts like ice sitting on sun-scorched pavement.  It’s Jesus!  They begin shouting and yelling for joy!  It’s Jesus!  The hands, the feet, the side… it is unbelievable!  And, yet, here he stands!

Jesus again addresses them, “Peace be with you.”  Jesus still shows them where the nails pierced him.  He continues speaking, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  The disciples’ eyes stare more intently, unable to move from those horrendous scars.  Jesus’ words echo in their minds, reverberate off the walls.

More than a couple of heads twist to observe the locked door holding the world at bay.  Jesus wants them to go back out there?  To endure what he endured?  To suffer as he suffered?

They stand there silently.  Then, without warning Jesus breathes on them.  He says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  The significance of that act isn’t lost on them.  As the Spirit breathed the Creation into existence, now Jesus is breathing his life into them – God’s very Spirit.  Jesus breathing on them is an act of creation.  But, Jesus doesn’t stop there.  He continues, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Now, Thomas was not with the disciples during this encounter.  Excited about having seen Jesus, the disciples run to find Thomas to tell him the great news.  They tell him, “We have seen the Lord.”  Thomas’ eyes narrow.  He’s no fool.  Dead men do not rise.  Those are the cold, hard facts!  Thomas knows that Death is final.  He responds to the others, saying, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Our story opens with the disciples crowded into a small home, huddled together.  They are hoping to survive the storm that the world has thrown at them.  The world is locked out; they are locked in.  Even as Jesus’ lifeless body was laid in a tomb, they now reside in a tomb of their own making.  The house with the locked door was meant to provide security, however, it only ensured death.  The room meant to provide protection is a space that acts more like a tomb.  Fear has buried them, Death has gripped their hearts.

The world has been turned upside down.  Life is out of control.  The sky is falling.  The earth is shaking.  All of their hopes have been flushed down the drain.  If there is a future, it doesn’t look good.

We can readily identify with the disciples’ mindset to “circle the wagons.”  This past week I was at a funeral in Texas.  While riding to the graveyard, the driver, who I had only just met, began to talk about the woes of the world.  He surveyed the landscape of our culture, the challenges for the Church and Christianity, and rendered a bleak verdict: “It’s all gotta end sometime soon, don’t ch’ya think?”  Indeed, his depiction of politics, economics, and declining morality would be enough to make anyone wonder at the futility of hope in such a world.

This view of the world often gives way into a “storm cellar” approach to life.  The storm is coming, lay low, take cover, and pray that somehow we’ll survive.  We inhabit a world bent on death and destruction; it is little surprise we feel the need to lock the doors, hide out, and make sure we are safe.

Our story informs us that the disciples have locked themselves away “for fear of the Jews.”  This desperate attempt to huddle for safety is rooted in fear.  It is fear of the unknown.  It is fear of the future.  It is fear, ultimately, of Death.  Fear has so gripped the disciples that they dare not risk the possibility of death.  It is this fear of Death that paralyzes them, rendering them incapable of living.

Our own striving for security is surely rooted in the same fear the disciples display.  It is fear that isolates.  It is fear that closes off from others.  It is fear that robs us of hope.  It is fear that immobilizes us.  Fear becomes so all-consuming that we are unable to see beyond the walls we have enclosed ourselves within.

Because fear drives so much of our lives, we, as the Church, have become a huddled mass trembling before the storm.  Whatever the storm may be in your mind, illegal immigrants, ISIS, global crisis, job loss, family death, democrats or republicans in office, other nations, divorce, past mistakes and sins, our fears render us incapable of being the Church in response to those situations.

Fear creates enemies.  Fear dominates our hearts and sharpens them for violence against our enemies.  Fear only has room for “me.”  It cannot open itself up to another.  To do so would only make “me” vulnerable.  Fear always creates in us paranoia of those different than me, especially those who I identify as my enemy.  In such a state, we are unable to see anything other than threats to our life, security, and viability.  By means of fear, Death becomes the overarching theme and power in our lives.  And, Death says that we must operate out of self-preservation in order to save ourselves, protect ourselves, and maintain our lives, no matter the consequence to others.

Jesus steps through the walls meant to keep the world at bay.  The walls cannot hold out Jesus.  He greets his Church, these fearful disciples, saying, “Shalom!”  Literally, “God’s peace.”  If there is anything counter to Fear, it is God’s peace.  Even as Jesus calmed the stormy sea, Jesus calls for the disciples’ fears to cease.  “Peace be with you.”

If anyone would understand the extent of the storm swirling about in the world, it would be Jesus.  If anyone can comprehend the power of Death and Fear, it is Jesus.  He bears the scars, the marks, the wounds from his encounter with Death and Fear.  They tore his body.  They broke his body.  They ravaged his body… until he lay dead, buried in a tomb.  If anyone would understand the deep darkness of the world, it is Jesus!

Yet, here Jesus stands before the disciples.  He is the resurrected Lord whom Death could not hold.  He is the risen Christ whose life overwhelmed the Grave.  He is the life-giving King whose reign knows no bounds.  Death and Fear are conquered by Life and Peace.

The Resurrection affirms that there is no power in Death or Fear out of which God cannot ultimately bring Life.  Resurrection says that Death’s reign is over.  Resurrection undermines Fear’s power.  Resurrection is God’s life-giving power at work in the Creation, which will not be defeated.  And, Resurrection offers a new way of living in the world, not one dictated by Death and Fear.

Resurrection beckons us to live as those that have received God’s peace, living as those with hope, because we have encountered the Risen Christ!  If the power of Resurrection is at work in us, then Fear and Death have no longer hold dominion.  As such, we no longer need live under their tyranny having been freed from their grip on our hearts.

Instead, we are free to risk much, even giving up our very lives, for the sake of the Gospel and God’s Kingdom.  Even if we should be killed, maimed, harmed, beaten, bruised, imprisoned, or enslaved, yet we would rest in the blessed assurance that God’s redemptive purposes are still at work and will not be undone.  Yes, even our very lives might be raised to new life.  If God can do that, then why fear what the future holds?

Jesus gives the disciples their mission: “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.”  He has shown them his nail-pierced hands, feet, and side.  They see the marks of crucifixion, the wounds of suffering and pain.  As Jesus was sent to suffer and die, now Jesus is sending his disciples to do the same.  Jesus doesn’t call for the disciples to defend their rights, run for public office, ensure that the Church survives, or to gain power by any means necessary.  Just the opposite.  Jesus calls his disciples to suffer and die for the sake of the world.

Henry Nouwen explains the Way of the Cross empowered by Jesus’ resurrection, writing: “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”

Compassion, meaning “to suffer with,” is the means by which God reigns in and over the Creation.  God, through Christ Jesus, enters into our world, takes on our suffering as his own, and nails it to the cross.  The new life of Jesus brought forth through resurrection also means that the brokenness of this world is being made and will entirely be made whole again.

The Resurrection says that Sin and Death do not have the last word – God does.  Even as Jesus’ broken body is made whole, so might the dead and broken Creation be restored and glorified.  Brian Zahnd puts it this way: “The resurrection of Jesus is not about confirming life after death. It’s about inaugurating New Creation and the Kingdom of God here and now.”  Now, Jesus commissions his disciples to no longer live in fear, behind closed doors, circling the wagons.  Jesus commissions his disciples to live fearlessly, to live out the hope of Resurrection, and to offer life to the world being offered through their lives in acts of compassion.

It’s hard to deny that our society is often resistant, sometimes decidedly antagonistic toward the Church and Christianity.  There is great vehemence, anger, and hatred directed toward God’s people.  At other times the Church faces relatively unaggressive opposition, like a simple disagreement.  Sometimes the opposition facing the Church is dangerous, such as we have seen with ISIS.  We shouldn’t be surprised to see a world contesting the Gospel.  After all, Jesus did tell us that the world hated him and it would hate us.

But, there is also another kind of opposition that has cropped up.  It is a position that denies the validity of the Church and Christianity because our lives don’t always match our message.  The Church, in many corners of our country, reflect the values of Death and Fear.  They reflect the values of our culture and nation.  And, as such, they deny any such claim to be rooted in love or the sufferings of Christ.  And, if we cannot claim any connection to the suffering of Christ or Christ’s death, neither can we claim any hope in Christ’s Life and Resurrection.

Thomas hears the news of Jesus’ resurrection.  The disciples tell Thomas, a fellow disciple, that Jesus rose from the dead and met with them in the flesh.  But, Thomas is a realist.  He is only willing to accept what he can verify by observation.  Unless he can touch Jesus, see the scars and wounds, then Thomas will deny that Jesus rose from the dead and now lives.

In a similar way, if the world is unable to see the resemblance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in his disciples, then like Thomas they won’t believe.  Jesus calls his disciples to be his Body, his pierced but resurrected Body.  Yet, if the disciples don’t resemble the Master, if the Body doesn’t live out of Jesus’ compassion for the world, then should it surprise us that the world denies that Christ lives or that the Church has any place in this world?  Should it so surprise us that the world would suggest that Christianity is merely a fairy tale told to children?  Many are still waiting to see Jesus’ Body, identified by the wounds of crucifixion.  Do we bear the wounds of Jesus in our own bodies?

“As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”  Drink deeply from this well.  “Whoever would follow me must pick up their cross and daily follow me.”  Ponder the call which Jesus gives us: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Jesus understands the risk involved in living out Resurrection and the New Creation in a world still operating under the power of Death and Fear.  And far from telling his disciples to create a holy huddle and lock the door, Jesus tells his disciples to get to living by offering their lives for the sake of the world.

Jesus breathes on the disciples after he has told them what it means to follow him.  Ben Witherington states, “… as an echo of the story of creation where God breathed life into Adam, the first human being… we are to see this scene as a sort of starting over, the beginning of the creation of a new humanity.  The theme of life in this Gospel comes to a climax as we see Jesus now able to truly bestow eternal life and power once he returns to the Father who sent him.  When Jesus breathes out, he is not only emulating the original role of the Creator, he is also… communicating and committing himself to his disciples, in the person of the Spirit.  It is his own resurrection life that he will bestow on them” (John’s Wisdom, 342).

If this is the gift of Jesus through the Spirit to those who are truly followers, reflect on the freedom this grants us in giving away our lives in service to others, not dictated by Fear, not hindered by Death!  Enemies can then be perceived through the eyes of hope and God’s peace, rather than through eyes of Fear and Death.

Think about it.  Illegal immigrants are no longer viewed as threats to national security, our jobs, or our economic security.  Rather, we can see this influx of people into our communities as opportunities for sharing the Gospel with the people God is bringing to our doorsteps!

Members of ISIS and other Islamic groups aren’t persecuting us; they are persecuting Jesus.  Saul killed early Christians but was eventually changed because of an encounter with Christ, becoming the greatest evangelist the Church has ever known.  If Jesus can change Saul, can’t he also, through us, change the hearts and minds of our Islamic brothers and sisters?  The Resurrection gives us hope that their hatred for us can be transformed into love for Christ.

Dinka was sold into slavery at the age of seven.  His master, Ibrahim treated him cruelly, often beating and torturing him.  Ibrahim typically called Dinka “Abid”, meaning “black slave.”  Dinka’s family had been killed in the raid that took him from his home and for ten years he served Ibrahim.

Dinka’s living conditions were unsuitable for any human, surviving off of garbage and scraps.  He was lower than an animal in Ibrahim’s eyes and constantly reminded so.  Dinka was raised a Christian.  This was noted by his master and mocked, stating that “Abid” shouldn’t be allowed to worship because he was worthless trash.

Dinka was charged with caring for the camels and watering them.  He dutifully performed his tasks, despite the awful treatment from his master.  One Sunday, Dinka heard singing coming from a church nearby.  He went to the source and came upon a church service, which he remembered from his time at home.  He joined in the worship.

Unfortunately, when Dinka returned home, he discovered that several of the camels had wandered away.  Before he could find them, his master discovered the loss and flew into a fit of rage.  Ibrahim beat Dinka over the head and on his body.  Then, he took a plank and nailed Dinka to it, driving nine-inch nails through hands, knees, and feet.  Then, the master poured acid on Dinka’s legs to cause more agony.

Dinka lay nailed to that plank for seven days, sustained only by the master’s young soon giving him food and drink.  Finally, after days of agony and pain, the master’s son removed the nails and helped carry Dinka to a nearby hospital.  After Dinka’s return from the hospital, Ibrahim saw no more value in damage property.  Dinka was bought back by “Christian slave redeemers” who arranged his return home.

Upon his return home, Dinka’s name was changed by the village elders to Joseph because he had been sold into slavery and delivered like Joseph from Genesis.  Amazingly, Joseph was not permanently damaged from his crucifixion, but healed.  But, even more amazing, Joseph today says that God has helped him forgive Ibrahim!  The power to forgive is the fruit of Christ’s Resurrection coming to fruit in this young man’s life.

“Jesus is calling his disciples to take up a costly task, one that may even require that they give their lives, but Jesus was standing in their midst showing them that even if that is so, there would be victory beyond the grave” (Ben Witherington, John’s Wisdom, 342).

Church, let’s stop living under the power of Fear and Death.  Instead, Jesus commissions us to live out the power of Resurrection here and now, proclaiming to the world through lives of compassion that God is restoring the Creation and empowering us to live as New Creation by the Spirit.

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,

To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus:

Paul identifies himself as the author of this letter to the Ephesian Church (in Asia Minor).  He also identifies himself as an apostle, which means “sent one.”  In other words, Paul is saying that he is an ambassador on behalf of Christ Jesus, called and empowered to do so by the “will of God.

          He addresses his audience in Ephesus, calling them “saints” and “faithful in Christ Jesus.”  The title of saints indicates the calling of this community of faith – to be holy.  The word for “saint” is rooted in the same word for “holy.”  Holiness is connected to the idea of being “faithful in Jesus Christ.”  This goes beyond simple obedience but aims at the heart of our obedience.  One may adhere to the Law perfectly and yet fail to fulfill the Law (think Pharisees, for example).  Sanctification (saint), the process of becoming holy (becoming like God, restored to the image of God), is right actions lived out of the overflow for love of God (holy love). 

This is also why Wesley will say that holiness is not the absence of sin.  This obedience is not about sinless perfection.  Rather, holiness is about perfection in the sense that we are fulfilling our purpose, even if our performance is not perfect. 

A mother planted flowers one Spring.  She had cultivated the ground and worked hard on getting the flowers in the soil.  Her young son came home from school, walked in the backyard, came back inside with a hand full of those same planted flowers with the dirt still clinging to the roots.  He handed them to his mom, saying, “I love you, momma, and I picked these for you.”  She graciously received the flowers and put them in a vase with water.  The mom understood that it was an act done in love, even if it did uproot her hard work. 

In a similar fashion, our sanctification does not mean that we won’t mess up, but that everything we do, even our mistakes, are derived out of a deep sense of love.  Thus, even while we might be holy, we are never done confessing our sins to God or to each other.  Why is it so difficult for us to confess our sins?

 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul finishes his greeting by giving a blessing to the community.  What would it look like to extend God’s blessing to each other?  What would that mean for our relationships with one another?

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,

Paul begins the body of his letter with praise for God and what has been given to us through Jesus Christ, that is, “every spiritual blessing.”  Before challenging and encouraging the community, before addressing the issues facing the Church, Paul draws the community’s attention to God’s character and nature.  God is one who gives abundantly and generously – EVERY spiritual blessing.  God is not stingy.  God does not withhold any part of God from the Church.  If the Church’s character is to reflect God’s character, it will look like an abundant blessing to others.  Are we really a blessing to others or do we expect others to bless us? 

just as he chose us in Christ[b] before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

I’m sure the issue of election and predestination will come up here.  Here’s some quick thoughts.  God created everything to be a reflection of God, especially humanity.  Obviously, what God desired is only temporarily realized until sin enters the world.  God’s will is, at the very least, resisted.  So, just because God wills something does not then mean that Creation cannot choose differently.  There is potentially an element of free will at work in God’s election.

          God’s deep desire for all Creation is to be “holy and blameless in love.”  It is a gift which God gives all the opportunity to receive “to become children of God.”  God desires to adopt us as God’s children.  But, because God is Love, and love always has an element of freedom, God does not force the Creation or us to receive this gift.  We can, and have, rejected this invitation.  Now, that was the plan from the beginning, but this verse also hints at something new.  It has been offered (again?) through the Beloved, which is Christ Jesus.  God has made his appeal through Jesus to us to become children of God.  This is a Love that pursues us doggedly, as C. S. Lewis calls God: “The Hound of Heaven.” 

 

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.

It is through the “Beloved” that God is doing this holy work of reconciliation.  To “redeem” is to literally “ransom.”  We have to be careful with this metaphor, because if we push the metaphor too far we will do damage.  But, essentially, this idea of redeeming underlines the impossible situation that we needed to be delivered from.  Sin was a prison from which we had no key.  Christ unlocked our prison to set us free.

          This redemption is made possible “through his blood.”  That’s another way of saying “through Jesus’ very life.”  Forgiveness of our trespasses is possible through the “riches of his grace.”  Mercy is God’s gift.  Jesus exhales his “spirit” or “breath” on the cross, exhaling his very life back into the Creation.  His blood seeps into the soil of Creation.  His body is buried in the ground like a seed.  The entirety of Jesus’ life and death is the means of our life and reconciliation.

With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Jesus is the Word (Logos of John 1) through whom the world is created.  Logos (Word) is the Greek word from which we derive “logic.”  Jesus is the key to understanding the purpose (telos = goal, also telos = perfection, we are talking holiness here) of God’s good Creation.  What was a mystery is unfolded, unveiled in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  The plan “for the fullness of time” (Kairos = God’s timing, not Chronos = chronological timing).  This plan is to “gather up all things in him (Jesus), things in heaven and things on earth.” 

          This is a powerful reminder that God is not simply destroying the Creation at the end of time.  That which is in Christ Jesus is a “new creation.”  In other words, it is through Jesus that all of Creation is redeemed, restored, and renewed!  Not only that.  Jesus also gathers up things in heaven as well.  In other words, as Revelation will announce toward the end of the vision. 

Revelation 21:1-3 reads:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them”

          In this way, God will be all in all.  In a miraculous way, Love and Life win.  There will be no place in all the Creation in which God will not say, “This is mine.  It is good.”  Jesus is the first seed of the New Creation.  Furthermore, Jesus is also the first fruits of the New Creation.  In other words, Jesus is the means by which New Creation is created and Jesus is the substance of that New Creation.

 

11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.

As mentioned, Christ is the seed of New Creation.  As we participate in his life, so we also participate in the New Creation.  We are made part of the New Creation.  We are made new creations.  None of this is accomplished through our own power but through the power of Jesus.  It is through Jesus that we receive this inheritance, which was God’s purpose all along.

          The purpose of this does not stop with our receiving the blessing.  But, as it was with Abraham’s blessing, we are blessed to be a blessing.  This inheritance is given to us as we “set our hope on Christ” with outcome resulting in “living for the praise of his glory.”  Holiness does not draw attention to us; it draws others’ focus and gaze toward God.  And what is the glory of God?  According to St. Irenaeus: “The glory of God is [humanity] fully alive.”  So, in many ways, holiness is reciprocal.  We glorify God by reflecting God character and nature of holy love.  As we reflect God’s character we are fully alive and fully human, which means we are glorifying God.

13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

This seed of New Creation is planted in us through the life of the Spirit in us.  In other words, God resides in us (the Creation), thus connecting God’s Life with our life.  The Spirit in Genesis 1 is the primary agent of God’s creating work.  The Spirit (Hebrew = ruach, pronounced ru-awk) is also the Breath of God by which life is imbued in the Creation.  This same Spirit is given as a “deposit” or “pledge” of that inheritance in the New Creation. 

The Spirit continues to work in us the power of the Resurrection and the Life of New Creation.  But, this redemption is not simply personal salvation and redemption.  It is redemption of God’s holy people together – again, “to the praise of his glory.”  Redemption is both personal and social holiness.  As John Wesley would say, “You cannot have personal holiness without social holiness.”

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.

The only way Paul would have heard of their “faith” is if it was being lived out in tangible ways – faith in action – demonstrated as “love toward all the saints.”  It likely reaches out to those outside the Church as well.  People may know where we are located on a map, but do they know us because of our “faith in action?”

17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

Now, holiness is essentially rooted in relationship to God.  Paul prays that the community will be given wisdom and revelation.  Wisdom is understanding how to live well in any given situation.  Revelation is God’s Self-revelation to the world.  God makes God’s Self known to us.  Paul prays that we will both see God and God at work in the world and that we might faithfully respond and live wisely.  This is an ongoing process “as you come to know him.”  In other words, there is never a point in time where we cease to learn, grow, and deepen our relationship with God.  If we think we have God figured out, that is a time to be cautious and prayerful.  God tends to break out of those boxes we construct.  Rather, this is a continuous seeking after God and developing that relationship with God.  “Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.”

          This is the means by which “the eyes of our hearts will be enlightened.”  John 1 comes to mind.  Jesus is the Wisdom (Logos) of God and the Light of God in the world.  To see the world and ourselves and God correctly with our hearts requires that we are connected with Jesus.  Jesus gives Light and Wisdom by which everything in our lives and world is ordered and given context.  This Wisdom and Light is the foundation of our hope to which we have been called.  It is not “hope” as in wishful thinking.  Rather, it is the “hope” that inspires (inspires – as the Spirit breathes into us) us to move forward as parts of God’s New Creation.  It is also the “glorious riches of our inheritance among the saints.”  In this merciful movement toward Creation’s redemption we begin to see and understand “the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”  God’s power does not violate God’s holy love.  It is the fulfillment of God’s holy love.

20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.

The power of God is demonstrated in the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus.  Death’s dominion is undermined.  Death is put to death.  All “rule and authority and power and dominion” that act as agents of Death are put in final notice that their reign is abolished.  Resurrection and Ascension is the enthronement of God as King over all.  The enthronement of Jesus over heaven and earth is the fulfillment of the Lord’s Prayer: “May Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”  We tend to think of heaven as a place apart from earth.  But, where Jesus is, there heaven and earth are wed.  Heaven is the place where God’s reign is enacted in totality.  With Jesus being seated at the right hand of God (the place of power/authority), God’s reign is established in full, both in heaven and on earth.

          Dr. Tim Crutcher states it this way: “Easter Sunday is not just about the resurrection of Christ as the anchor of our hope for new life. It is God’s decisive declaration that God will deal with all death-bringing realities in only life-bringing ways. God does not fight death with more death, hate with more hate, dark with more darkness. Death does its worst, and God brings life. Hate has full rein, and God offers love in return. Darkness rules and God says, “Let there be light.” As resurrection people, let us be daily living reminders of this reality.”

22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church,23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Resurrection power is also something that is given to the Church, through Jesus.  As Eugene Peterson tells us, we are called to “practice resurrection.”  In other words, even the world around us still lives as if Death reigns, we are called to live as those who have received God’s resurrection power.  Which is to say, that we are called to live and act differently than a world bent on Death.  We are to live as ambassadors of God’s mercy, bringing life to others, to the Creation.  We are called to spread the seeds of New Creation in the soil of our world. 

The Church is the “fullness of him who fills all in all.”  That is an incredibly awesome responsibility and gift.  It is also incredible power to live out, to practice resurrection.  God equips and empowers us to live as new creatures now, not just in the future.  As Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  Resurrection is not about preserving our lives but in giving our lives away, even as Jesus demonstrated on the Cross.  Death is a defeated foe.  Life is swallowing up Death.  What are some practical ways we can practice resurrection in our community?