Archive for the ‘Sermons’ 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.

Thomas rubbed the deepening circles under his eyes.  Sleep had eluded him again.  He sat in the half dark room alone, staring up at the ceiling.  His stomach growled from hunger, but he didn’t feel like eating.  Every time he thought of that man’s face, beaten… that crown of thorns shoved forcefully down on that brow, his stomach churned in knots.  He shivered as he remembered that man, his teacher and friend, hanging on those rough beams of wood.

Thomas’ breath became labored as he recalled watching Jesus’ ragged breathing on the cross.  A small stream of water from Thomas’ eyes mirrored the water running from Jesus’ side as the Centurian pierced his side with a spear.  Dead.  The lifeless, limp body no longer moved.  Jesus had cried, “It is finished!”  Those words hung in the arid air before Thomas.  It was finished.  All of it!  The hope, the promises, the future… dashed against the cold, heartless rock of Rome and the Jewish authorities.  Another failed messiah… another failed leader… another promise broken.  Thomas curled into a ball as sobs racked his body again.  His tears had all but dried up.  His sobs were ghostly moans of disappointment.

How many had there been?  How many prophets?  How many politicians?  How many spiritual leaders?  How many self-proclaimed messiahs?  All had promised to make Jerusalem great again… yet, here they were again – empty promises littering the floor.  Anger flashed.  Rage swelled.  But, despair followed quickly as Thomas was reminded of the futility of it all.  Herod.  Pilate.  Caiaphas.  They held all the power.  The world kept moving much as it had before Jesus was killed.  Those in power remained in power; nothing ever changed.  Jesus had been silenced forever.

Thomas couldn’t bear the silence of the room any longer.  He wasn’t sure where to go, but he had to get out.  He slipped quietly from his room, avoiding eye contact, darting in the shadows, covering his face to keep from being recognized.  He bumped into a few people as he hurried along, his feet carrying him along a familiar path.  He wasn’t sure how he had arrived on the steps, but he knocked on the door anyway.

Familiar faces were gathered together.  All of the disciples were here.  He hadn’t expected to see all of them together, but he supposed they didn’t have anywhere else to go.  He looked into their eyes, searching for something – he wasn’t sure what.  Perhaps the same sense of loss and desperation, the pain, the disappointment.  Thomas expected reddened eyes and dejected faces staring back.  But, they smiled at him!  What was wrong with these people?  How could they possibly smile after all that they had seen and heard?  How could they so easily forget that awful day of finality?

The disciples hugged Thomas.  Gripped his shoulder.  Patted him on the back.  He didn’t really return their embrace.  Nor did he return their smiles.  What was going on?  His bewildered look prompted one of the disciples to speak.  “Thomas, the most wonderful news!  Jesus came here last week.  He’s alive.  We saw his hands and feet.  It was him!”

Thomas squinted in disbelief.  Anger began to rise to the surface.  What kind of cruel joke was this!?  Dead people don’t rise.  He had seen the lifeless body brought down from the cross.  He saw them carry Jesus to the tomb.  If the Romans were good at one thing, it certainly was the ability to kill people.  They were proficient killers.  What madness had gripped his friends?  Dead people don’t show up anywhere!  Perhaps they had seen a vision or maybe they had a vivid memory in their grief.  Hadn’t he hoped Jesus would walk through the door and prove it all a bad dream?  But, that had not happened.  Jesus was dead.  Thomas cleared his throat of the knot that was there, “I will not believe it unless I put my finger in the wounds.”

Thomas had been fooled enough.  He had dared to hope.  He wouldn’t be taken in again.  He wasn’t gullible, like the rest of this group.  Thomas was tired of hoping.  He wanted proof.  He wanted nothing less than tangible evidence.  Nothing else short of that was acceptable.  Trust was exhausted.  He refused to trust what he could not see.  Thomas fumed.  He refused to smile and he would not meet anyone else’s eyes.  He sat shaking his head in disbelief that his friends could be so gullible, so naïve.

Thomas is often given a bad rap.  “Doubting Thomas” we call him.  We shake our heads and wonder at Thomas’ audacity to ask for proof.  We marvel at his lack of belief, his inability to understand what has happened.  Doubting Thomas.  He embodies for many of us something opposed to faith.  Doubt, some say, is the great enemy of faith.

But, doubt is a function of faith.  We doubt based on what we believe.  We doubt we can jump off of a 10 story building and fly because we so deeply believe in the power of gravity.  We doubt that we can put out a grease fire with water because experience has shown us that water actually makes grease fires worse.  We doubt that camels can fit through the eye of a needle, unless that needle is gigantic, because we believe in the physics of reality making such an event impossible.  Thomas doubted Jesus’ resurrection because he knew that dead people stayed dead.

Thomas wasn’t a doubter.  He was a realist.  Dead people stay dead.  Thomas wasn’t faithless.  He had followed Jesus.  But, the cross pointed to Jesus as a failure.  Where was the Kingdom of God when Caesar, Pilate, and Herod still ruled?  Where was the fulfillment of promises when the messiah laid in a tomb?  Where was any hope when Death held the victory?  The powers-that-be had won decisively.  Their victory was the shape of a cross that proclaimed Jesus to be a false king and a political rabble rouser, but nothing more.  Thomas may have doubts, but they are born out of his experience that has shown itself over and over and over again.  Promises are ultimately broken.  Hope is short-lived.  The world never changes.  Death always wins.

Thomas would fit right in to our postmodern age.  We watch election campaigns where candidates promise to make everything “great again.”  We hear their promises and know there is false hope being offered.  Too many promises have been made.  Too many promises have fallen short.

We watch markets fluctuate while interest and the cost of living rises.  There is more month than paycheck and we wonder how we can make those dollars stretch.  Many are foundering under mounds of credit card and consumer debt.  Houses are foreclosed.  Loans are overdue.  Creditors hassle us.  That mountain of debt appears too large to overcome.

Illness, and addictions, and abusive relationships, and hunger, and a myriad of other problems invade our vision with such regularity that it becomes difficult to see any possible future where our lives are not dominated by these realities.  The rich get richer.  The poor get poorer.  The powerful become more powerful.  The weak become more vulnerable.  The way of the world seems to hold sway.  The shadow blots out the light, until we are unable to see the horizon beyond.  We are tired, and torn, and tattered.  We are distraught, and dismayed, and disillusioned.  We are beaten, and bleeding, and bruised.

Even when it comes to the Church, we often wonder if such a place matters.  What’s the point?  The people are hypocrites.  The Church is mixed up in scandals and abuse.  The Church is broken and ineffective.  The Church is failing and declining.  I remember talking with the dad of a teen one day, who told me, “The Church, I believe, is just going to die.”  He had seen churches close and flounder in its mission.  And, as a youth pastor, it was difficult for me to see any other reality either.  Perhaps like me, you have wondered if the Church has a future.  It is easy to look at the Church and at the rest of the world and become increasingly cynical that anything but death can come from it.  Our experience of death is so strong and overwhelming, that like Thomas, we won’t believe life and hope are possible unless we can see it with our own eyes and touch it with our own hands.

… Just as Thomas’ eyes pivoted to the floor, he heard a voice among the voices of the disciples.  It didn’t belong to the disciples, but he recognized it.  He rubbed his temples, obviously hearing things that were impossible to hear.  If dead men stay dead, dead men don’t talk either.  Thomas kept his eyes to the floor.  A pair of feet stood directly in Thomas’ line of sight.  They appeared to be normal feet with sandals… except for one difference.  These feet had a hole straight through them, as if they had been pierced by a metal spike.

Thomas’ eyes followed the feet up the robe, up the torso of the robed figure, until he met the eyes of the man that had been his teacher.  His voice caught, his breath left him, he was hallucinating, surely!  He blinked his eyes to clear them.  Opening them found the same scene – Jesus standing before him.  Jesus spoke: “Peace be with you.”  Thomas’ jaw must have been on the floor, because he did not respond… couldn’t respond.  Jesus exposed his side, the side that had been pierced by the spear.  “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas’ body began to shake, to tremble.  It was Jesus!  Alive!  His hands and feet and side all bore the wounds of crucifixion and yet something was different because nobody had opened the door to this room – it was still locked!  Yet, here Jesus stood, in the flesh, bearing the wounds of crucifixion and yet living and breathing and alive!

Thomas didn’t remember slipping down to the floor on his knees, but he couldn’t help himself.  “My lord and my God!”  It was the only appropriate response because nobody else could defeat death, especially in such spectacular fashion.  Jesus looked at Thomas, saying, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

As Pastor Becca reminded us last week, “The resurrection changes everything.”  It changes everything!  Thomas encounters the risen Jesus and his response is, “My lord and my God.”  Thomas began with the realistic expectation that dead men don’t rise.  He could not fathom a world where Jesus was messiah and king when it was obvious that Death had stopped him.  Now, because of this encounter with Jesus, Thomas doubts that there is any place that Jesus is not lord and king of all because resurrection has fully undermined the power of Death.

Herod, Pilate, and Caesar may still appear to be in power.  Their weapon of choice, death, has been their method for silencing their opponents.  Death has been the ultimate weapon that the world has used to silence the prophets and the people who sought to follow God and called into question the ways of this world, the ways of power politics.  The world would kill anyone that challenged how things have always been.  If you don’t want to be killed, you better play along – especially if you benefit from those power arrangements in society.  Let the poor be poor, we would say, because they deserve it.  Let the weak remain powerless, because we deserve power to look out for ourselves.  But, don’t question the way things are, don’t look too closely, turn a blind eye to the injustice, ignore the violence – better yet, be those who benefit from those things.  And, the best way to maintain peace, for any empire, from Egypt to Rome to us, has been to use death as the means for control, for domination, for maintaining life the way it is.  Death is our weapon of choice.

And, death does some awful work.  It is vicious and cruel.  It tore Jesus’ body.  He was stretched like tanned leather across those planks of wood.  His hands were pierced, his feet were nailed, his side was jabbed, his back was slashed, and his face was beaten.  Jesus stood before Thomas with visible reminders of the world’s ways of using power.  And, as he had stood before the disciples a week before, showing them his hands and feet, he said, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”  He stands before Thomas now with that same reminder that we, as disciples, have been sent back into the world as an invasion force.  But, we no longer use the weapons of death to conquer, for the world’s ultimate weapon of death has already been demolished.  “My lord and my God.”

The weapon of death, which all worldly powers depend on to maintain their way of life has been defeated, made defunct, demolished.  The resurrection changes everything.  Now, those worldly powers have no real power.  Their weapon has been trashed, trumped, and torn down.  Jesus has gone through death and come out the other side having defeated Death.  This death of Death marks the beginning of new creation.  Jesus shows up to his disciples on the first day of the week, the day of first creation.  What Jesus has initiated and inaugurated, Thomas grasps.  Only God can do something new.  Only God can give new life so dramatically.  “My lord and my God.”  Thomas doubts the power of death because he has seen and touched the new creation, he has seen and touched Jesus.  Thomas realizes, because of the resurrection, that all of God’s promises are “yes” in Christ Jesus.  And, for that very reason, hope is possible.  “My lord and my God.”  Nothing else deserves his allegiance.  Nothing else is worthy of his life.  For Thomas, and for us, the resurrection changes everything.

But, still, it remains to be seen.  It remains to be seen in our families, our communities, our homes, our offices, our churches, our schools.  Does the resurrection change everything for us?  When people watch us and watch our little church, do they see resurrection power at work in us?  Do they see the risen Christ?  Can they touch the wounds when they enter these doors?  Does our confession, “My lord and my God,” go beyond words to actions?  Are we willing to be sent like Jesus to proclaim hope, even if it cost us everything?  The Church’s job is to proclaim the new creation that has broken loose in Jesus’ resurrection.  We are called to dispel the darkness by living as light.  We are invited to give up everything for the sake of others – knowing that it is better to give than to receive and that it is in giving that we receive.

Perhaps poverty continues to be an issue in our community because we have not been the generous hands and feet of the risen Christ.  Perhaps addictions abound in our community because we are unwilling to be vulnerable by sharing our own wounds with each other, to confess that we struggle.  Perhaps people lack resources because we hoard resources for ourselves.  Perhaps the Church is floundering because we have failed to live out resurrection here and now.

But, where the resurrection has taken root.  Where we live out of the hope and peace we have received through Jesus’ resurrection, we are empowered to be world changers, initiators of the new creation here and now.  The resurrection changes everything!  Where the resurrection catches our imagination, lifts our hearts, gives us hope… that becomes a radical movement and revolution in our world.  We do not move in fear.  We are willing to give freely of ourselves.  We are energized to live out God’s mission for us.  We are empowered to proclaim the Good News.  We are equipped for every good work which we have been given in Christ Jesus.  When every day is a celebration of resurrection, we will see lives changed – both inside and outside of the church.

Those very things are happening here and more is yet to come.  I marvel at the way that our small group has decided to be missional and serve members of our community while we grow in our walk with God together.  I celebrate that Gloria and Charles have given of their time to run the van to pick up people on Sunday mornings.  I am deeply grateful for those that are engaged in the backpack program that provides food each weekend for underprivileged children.  I am ecstatic about the GED program that is meeting in our building on Monday and Thursday evenings.  I am excited to see our annual VBS program be a success this year as we reach our community together.  I am thrilled to see some of our people reaching out to others and inviting them to be part of our church.

Resurrection things are happening here.  And, as we are captivated more and more by the power of resurrection, we will fear the wounds of crucifixion less and less.  As we trust more fully in Jesus as lord and God, we will place less and less hope in the empires of this world.  And, as we live out resurrection in our world, we will see small bursts of new creation break out.  The resurrection changes everything!

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.

 

In the movie Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne is wrongfully accused of murdering his wife.  He winds up in prison with a lengthy life sentence of hard time.  While in this prison, he acquires a friend named “Red.”  Red and Andy are sitting in the yard one day when Andy begins to dream about being on the outside of the penitentiary.  Red doesn’t think it’s a good idea to dream when Mexico is “…all the way down there and you’re in here.  That’s the way it is.”  Andy thinks for a moment, his hopes of escape being slowly crushed.  He gazes at Red and says, “Yeah, right.  That’s the way it is.  I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really.  Get busy living or get busy dying.”

Andy’s words ring true in our modern ears.  “Get busy living or get busy dying.”  In his mind, it’s a simple choice and one that we all must make.  If you are trapped and imprisoned by life’s circumstances, you have the power to move yourself out of that situation.  Put in the work and the effort or give up and give in.  If you’re not willing to change your life, then you’re as good as dead already.  You are the captain of your own destiny, over your own life, even over your own death.  “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

Of course, this message is not a new message.  It is one that we constantly hear in our culture.  The mantra of self-help books and television shows constantly revolve around the idea of the power of positive thinking.  If we are imprisoned by our situation, then we need only change our thinking or actions.  Whatever it might be, we are the commanders of our destiny.  This is the gospel according to the world whose prophets are Oprah, Dr. Phil, and Joel Osteen.  It is a world where “I” am ultimately god.

The problem with this message of self-help and positive thinking is that we are broken, sinful creatures.  We are creatures that have become blind to that which is Good, deaf to that which is holy, and lame in our efforts to put these things into practice.  Even with our best intentions, we often create more havoc, chaos, brokenness, and destruction – for ourselves and for others.

Have you ever asked a small child to clean up their mess?  Ask a two-year-old child to clean chocolate pudding off of their face, hands, and eating space.  You will typically find that children are unusually adept at creating a bigger mess than when they first began.  Their efforts at cleaning appear more akin to the Tasmanian Devil’s skills at creating a disaster zone.

In our own efforts to wash ourselves of sin and to mend our brokenness, we find ourselves like children making a bigger mess than when we began.  “Get busy living or get busy dying” seems to leave us with only one possible option.  If the wages of sin is death, then that seems to be the only path left open to us.  It is the path that leads to destruction.

So, now, here we stand… or, perhaps, here we are huddled under the burden of sin, haunted by Death.  Here we sit in the mucky mess we have created, unable to clean ourselves, unable to wash ourselves pure.  Sin, like heavy shackles, imprisons us – a confinement from which we cannot escape.  Even Christians are found saying, “I’m not perfect; I’m only human.”  In other words, sin has mastery over my life and there’s nothing I can do about it – “That’s just the way it is.”

If “that’s just the way it is,” then the Apostle Paul has a lot of explaining to do.  He posits a question to the community of believers in Rome: “What then are we to say?  Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:1).  Paul assumes that there is indeed an alternative to sin’s dominion, an alternative route to the death-path we were steadily plodding but unable to exit.  Isn’t sin, death, brokenness, and destruction the inevitable outcome of our lives?  Paul’s response is simple, yet profound: “By no means!  How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (Rom. 6:2).  Now, we have a problem.  Sin seems to have mastery over us, yet Paul expects that we are no longer enslaved to that master.

Let’s reflect on the larger story of God, especially focusing in on the work of the Spirit upon water.  The watery chaos before Creation is not habitable, not amenable to life.  The Spirit of God hovers over the waters and begins to separate the waters, creating space in the midst of those water, where life can be brought forth, sustained, and blessed.  The Spirit brought life forth from the waters.

Israel ached under the bondage of Egypt’s cruel slavery.  Yet, God delivered them from Pharaoh and his lands.  However, no sooner had Pharaoh let them go, he regretted it and pursued them to the sea.  The Spirit, the wind of God, opened the waters so that dry ground appeared and Israel walked across.  Pharaoh’s army was drowned under the collapsing waters.  The passage through the waters were a passage from death to newness of life, from Egyptian tyranny to Exodus freedom.  The Spirit made a new people, set apart for God, through the waters of the sea.

The Spirit alighted upon the waters of Mary’s womb, barren because she had known no man, yet filled with life by the Spirit.  From these barren waters, God brought forth Jesus the God-Man.

The Spirit also descended upon Jesus as he arose from the waters of John’s baptism of repentance.  The Spirit rested upon Jesus as a sign and seal of the Father’s great love for the Son and then drove the Son into the wilderness where he was tested.

God, by the work of the Spirit, works through the ordinary materials of life, like water, to bring about God’s covenant purposes for all of Creation.  Water is ordered from chaos; water marks the transition and transformation from enslavement to freedom; water carries and nourishes the life of God in the womb, and the waters of baptism set apart Christ, “the Anointed One,” as the New Israel and the New Adam through whom sin and death would be defeated – all by the gift of the Spirit.

Eugene Rogers, Jr. describes the importance of this reality: “…the Spirit hovers over the waters of the Jordan as she hovered over the waters of creation and the water of the womb; and Jesus receives the love and witness in a way that other human beings can participate in – he comes to the Jordan ‘to perfect baptism,’ i.e., to accomplish its potential for initiating human beings into the triune life.  The baptism of Jesus does not make sense without the presence of the Spirit.  For what the Spirit adds to the expression and reception of love is this: that she witnesses to the love between the Father and the son among the disciples and among other human beings.  At the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit, with her presence, indicates, marks, points out – bears witness to – the love between the Father and the Son in such a way… that it can be shared… What baptism accomplishes is a participation in the life of the God of Israel; what baptism washes away is a lack of participation in the life of the God of Israel” (After the Spirit, 137).

In baptism, we see the Spirit come to rest, not simply in Jesus but on Jesus.  The Spirit rests upon the physical, material body of humanity in and through Jesus.  Because Jesus is both God and Humanity, Humanity is brought into the life of God by the sign and seal of the Spirit – through the waters of baptism.

Rogers writes: “The Spirit rests on the Son in the waters of the Jordan and therefore on the disciples at the waters of the Galilee and on other human beings in the waters of the [baptismal] Font.  The first makes manifest that the Holy Spirit rests on the elect of the Father, and for that reason witnesses and celebrates this election not only in God but also in the baptism of Jesus and finally in others, electing further witnesses to the good pleasure of the Father in the Son.  At the Baptism the Spirit continues to befriend the body, allowing the Son to receive as human what he has as God, so that he might count equality with God not a thing to be grasped, and reverse the grasping of the Fall” (After the Spirit, 135).

In other words, baptism is entirely the work of the Father, Son, and Spirit.  The power and efficacy of baptism is not rooted in our decision to be baptized.  It is rooted in the life of God which has “perfected baptism” so that we might be brought into and participate with the life of God.  If baptism is not God’s work, then it is simply a bath where someone else is potentially attempting to drown you – not a particularly comforting thought.

And the call of the Spirit, embodied in the life of Jesus, and signified in the waters of baptism does not call us to “Get busy living,” rather it’s the call of the cross – “Get busy dying.”  It is dying, as Rogers suggests, to the idea and desire to grasp power and be like God.  It is to die to self-interest, self-sufficiency, and self-help.  It is to put to death the person in us that lives according to the flesh and not the Spirit.  Baptism is the washing away of the “old man” so that we might be robed by the righteousness of Christ and empowered by the gifts of the Spirit to the glory of the Father.

This is not simply, however, a washing from something but a washing for something.  Baptism is not merely a cleansing from sin.  It is not simply a washing that purifies us from sin’s power and dominion.  Rather, it is a washing that prepares us for the Table.  “Baptism is the great washing before the meal” (After the Spirit, 138).  Or, to put it another way, baptism sets us apart to be inhabited by the Spirit and brought into the life of God by which we might glorify God in this world, not simply by our spirit, through our bodies.  Baptism of water and the Spirit cleanses both the inside and the outside of the person so that no part is left untouched.  In this, we are prepared for holy service in the name of the Lord for the sake of the world – blown out by the Spirit to proclaim the Kingdom’s coming.

Now, I want to be very careful and diligent at this point because some might begin to think that it is the act of baptism that saves us.  Or, at the very least, they might hear me saying something like that.  But, that is simply to confuse the nature of baptism.  Baptism is not the end nor the point or the purpose.  Instead, baptism is a “means of grace.”

John Wesley is helpful to describe what is meant by this term: “By ‘means of grace’ I understand outward signs, words, or actions ordained of God, and appointed for this end – to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to [people] preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace” (John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology: The Means of Grace, 160).  A simple way of saying this is that God has given us baptism to be a way by which God works in our lives for our good when we could not.

“…for Wesley baptism does not grant a permanent status, a ticket to heaven, but provides the grace that starts us on a continuing journey… God’s faithfulness and the work of the Holy Spirit call from us a response of faith and growth in the Christian life.  Wesley says this growth is necessary for sanctification that can transform every corner of our existence.” (Global Wesleyan Dictionary of Theology, 477-78).

The waters of baptism are effective for this reason: It is the work of God in the life of God that then overflows into our lives as we receive it in thankfulness, praise, and obedience.  It is possible to deny the power of baptism and the work of the Spirit.  It is possible for it to be merely water that wets us down on the outside but lacks power to set us free from the bondage of sin inside and out.  It is possible to take the Lord’s name in vain by calling ourselves Christ’s disciples yet refusing to let him be our master, living in sin and disobedience.  It is possible to go under the waters but hold fast to the old way of life, justifying our actions because we live in a still fallen world.  It is within our power to participate in acts of worship, such as baptism, while denying their power.  In doing so, we reject God’s invitation into a covenantal relationship.

But, Paul reminds those of us that have been plunged in the waters of baptism, that God has covenanted with us and we with God.  We have been buried in the death of Christ.  We have been washed with the newness of the Spirit.  We have been given the favor of the Father.  And, because God has conquered sin, death, and the grave, we, too, are invited to participate, to live into that resurrection life – here and now.  Sin and death have lost their dominion – Christ is Lord of all.  Baptism plunged us into a new way of life, life through the gift of the Spirit.  “Early [Christian] thinkers used to say that as God used dust at the first creation; he uses water at the second” (Leadership Handbook of Preaching and Worship, 376).  We are called to live into that new creation.

This is not something that is merely interior and inside us, but it catches up our bodies as well.  Paul writes, “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.  We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.  For whoever died is freed from sin… The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.  So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.  No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.  For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:4-7, 10-14).

In other words, Paul is calling the community of faith to remember their baptism.  Remembering is not something that is only recalling information to the brain.  Remembering is something that is faithfully embodied and lived out in community.  Remember the work of God made available to us and live faithfully into the death and resurrection of Jesus by “walking in newness of life.”

Today, I want to recall together our baptismal vows.  Like a marriage, we are only baptized once.  In marriage, you are as married in your fiftieth year as you were on your first day.  Baptism is the same.  But, like marriage, it is good to remember your marriage vows, to recall and recommit yourself to those promises made before God and the Church.  As Paul exhorted the church in Rome, we too are called to remember that we have been buried with Christ and risen to newness of life through his resurrection.  As such, we are also called to live into that newness of life by not misusing our bodies as instruments of wickedness but submitting them to the Spirit to be used as instruments of righteousness.  Baptism is the initiation of followers of Jesus into this new way of living as adopted children of God – no longer under the dominion of sin.

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.