Fifth Sunday of Easter, John 13:31-35

Let’s do a little thought experiment, a little free association. If I say the word “glory” or the word “glorious,” what images immediately pop into your heads? Take a moment to review what comes to mind.

Maybe some of these images appeared on your mental horizons: Spectacular sunsets. Mountain vistas. Maybe opulent houses, mansions, palaces. Skyscrapers. Other great architecture. Great movies or theatrical productions and concerts. Huge crowds. People with big personalities. Celebrities. And more.

Or let’s try this: what words come to mind that are synonymous with “glory” and “glorious?” Again, take a moment to let those words emerge.

Maybe these words appeared in your mind: Renown, fame, prestige, honor, distinction, kudos, magnificence, splendor, resplendence, grandeur, spectacular. More.

Here’s the thing when it comes to our sinful, human condition: It may well be that some of the images of and words related to glory, and the things and people we associate with these qualities, can turn out to be inglorious, burdensome, death-dealing, the fruit of sin, of pride, greed, of hubris, arrogance, unbridled power and domination…

I can’t help but think of supertall buildings being built in many places in the world today – in New York City, Dubai, Shanghai – symbols and incarnations of extreme wealth inequality and sometimes corruption, of human achievement, but also arrogance and pride and raw power. And then I can’t help but think of the Tower of Babel in the Bible. Towers have a tendency to exacerbate confusion, and they are prone to come tumbling down….

Then there’s Jesus’ way of glory and being glorious. Today’s reading from John’s Gospel is part of Jesus’ so-called farewell discourse with his disciples in which he teaches and prays in their presence in the last hours of his earthly life before his death and resurrection. This discourse recorded by John tries to make sense of Jesus’ ways of being and doing that confound worldly logic.

For the sake of beginning to understand Jesus’ way of glory, listen again to this day’s reading from John: “When Judas had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in God’s own self and will glorify him at once.”
John connects Judas’ departure with Jesus being glorified. What did Judas go out to do? Judas went out to betray his teacher, his Lord, his friend, the action of which would put into motion all of the horrible things that would lead to a horrible death, but also to a mysterious resurrection to new life beyond death. At first glance, how can any of this in any way be connected with common views of glory?

What Judas intends for death, God intends for and uses to give new life. The bad news becomes good news. And it is, in fact, glorious in the logic of God’s intent.

Jesus on the cross: this is what it is for Jesus to be glorified according to John’s gospel. It’s all very inglorious by human standards when you recall some of the words and images that came to mind in the first moments of this sermon.

But I see this kind of cruciform glory that confounds human logic and sensibilities in each of the readings for today. Let’s take another look for the sake of deepening our understandings of our glorious crucified and risen Lord and Savior.

In the reading from Revelation, we hear about a new heaven and new earth, and a holy city, a new Jerusalem. Quite glorious sounding on the face of it.

But this new holy city comes down to us, to our human level, where God will make a home among us mortals that we may dwell with God, and mere mortals will be God’s people. Tears will be wiped from our eyes. Death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more. And there will be water aplenty to quench our thirst.

In popular imagination, glory tends to be up there in the clouds, not down in the lowly and humble places where we have known death and mourning and crying and pain. That God makes a home with us down here is glorious, but in its own cruciform ways.

Then there’s the vision of reconciling inclusion in the reading from Acts in the reported emerging reproachment between Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ. The vision had Peter eating that which was traditionally, religiously unclean. But the voice from heaven proclaimed: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

This led to the Spirit’s intervention with this instruction which Peter reports: “The Spirit told me… [to] not make a distinction between [the Gentile believers] and the [Jewish believers]. So it was that Gentiles came to be included in what was emerging as the Christian fold. The new way in Christ finds glory in that which had been considered profane, unclean, outcast. Thus, another example of cruciform glory.

Then there’s also Jesus’ new commandment given to his disciples before Jesus’ departure recorded in today’s gospel: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Remember the context for giving this new commandment to love. It was when Jesus stripped himself of his outer garments, and got down on his knees to wash his disciples’ feet – not at all an image of glory from a human point of view. But glorious nonetheless, again, in cruciform ways.

Each example from today’s readings reveals aspects of Jesus’ cross-shaped glory that turns our logic on its head. When we look up for glory, Christ bids us to look down to the lowly places to find that which is truly glorious from God’s point of view.

And the lowly becomes glorious because in Christ God turned the whole world upside by transforming death into resurrected life, by converting bad news into good news, when the law leads to gospel, and by working with sin to make for forgiveness and salvation.

In Christ, by his death and resurrection, the deal is sealed. It’s done. It is finished. Complete. Perfect. Then the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, gives “water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.” This water washes over us in baptism at this very font, a humble point of origin for our participation in the glory of God.

Then also, in Christ coming down from heaven, we are invited to the marriage feast as “a bride adorned for her husband.” This glorious reality we know at the eucharistic table, in a humble meal of bread and wine, where metaphorically we recline in lowliness to eat with Christ, he who also ate with those inglorious by worldly standards, namely, outcasts and sinners, widows and orphans.

Through our sacramental participation in Christ, through baptism and eucharist, and the power of the en-Spirited word, we, too, become glorious in cruciform ways.

And leaving this place, having basked in God’s humble, cruciform glory in Christ, we show forth this same glory in our works of loving mercy for and with those deemed most inglorious by worldly standards, loving these our neighbors with the love that Christ loved us, and we offer the gift of inclusion, of welcome, making no distinction between us and them as is so common in the pretenses of our inglorious world.

In this, we share in God’s work of making old things new. And it’s all glorious indeed in the way of the cross.

Our sorry world needs a sense of God’s humble, cross-shaped glory apart from the false and seductive ways of worldly glory that in the end are idolatrous and ruinous of the lives of people and indeed all of creation.

May the way of Christ’s glory shine forth in all that we say and do, for Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed, alleluia. Amen.

Fourth Sunday of Easter, John 10:22-30

I don’t need to remind you that we are in the midst of and enduring an age of extreme divisiveness in our nation and in our world. As has been the case for so much of human history, these divisions occur in relation to all manner of issues and they have many causes and sources. In the past several days, abortion has again risen to the forefront of our divisions, a painful coincidence on Mother’s Day. But notable and related is also the division among people because of religion.

Take the case of religiously motivated hatred of Judaism and Jewish people. Reported cases of antisemitism have increased dramatically in recent months according to reporting in the New York Times.

So it is that John’s reporting of what Jesus said in the gospel of John about the Jewish people, some of which we heard in today’s reading, lands with an unnerving thud in our midst today. In today’s gospel reading, John reports the Jewish religious leaders enquired of Jesus about whether or not he was the expected Messiah. Jesus answered, according to John, “I have told you, and you do not believe.”

Then John reports that Jesus elaborated in this way – and these are the words that sting: “You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”

You don’t belong are some of the worst words a human being can hear. Despite our individualistic bents, particularly in Western societies, human beings are social animals and we long to belong.

To be told that you don’t belong is horrible. Moreover, excluding others has historically been the excuse to vilify, dehumanize, enslave and kill others. Exclusion is a source of genocide.

In the first century, there was significant religious controversy when John’s gospel was compiled, a controversy between leaders of Judaism and what was emerging as Christianity. Alas, John’s gospel is filled with polemical references to this controversy. Today’s gospel passage gives expression to that controversy.

And given the divisiveness of our age and the re-emergence of both anti-Judaism and racial antisemitism in our day, I simply cannot pass over the difficulties with today’s texts. Nor do I wish to get hung up on them.

We, in our day, are called to fight against texts like those from John from being misused and abused in the service of antisemitism. Indeed, our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has worked hard at limiting such negative effects in the Christian scriptures even as we have repudiated Martin Luther’s own anti-Jewish writings.

So, in service of seeking greater harmony among religions and among peoples, but also in the service of actually preaching the gospel, let me explore with you what it might mean to belong to Jesus’ sheep, especially on this Fourth Sunday after Easter which is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday.

What Jesus promises to those who belong is lovely and compelling. Listen again to how John gives voice to Jesus’ words: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand….” How beautiful.

And we as tolerant, loving people want this blessing for everyone, don’t we? Perhaps especially those of Jesus’ own religious heritage. We don’t want the Jewish people excluded from the benefits and blessings which come with belonging to Christ.

But a sense of belonging to Christ that focuses only on privileged blessing to the exclusion of those who don’t belong is driven by what I believe are some problematic theological preoccupations common among popular appropriations of the Christian tradition.

It’s common, for example, to view passages such as today’s through the lenses of the saved vs. the damned, those going to heaven and those going to hell. While there is biblical material to promote this kind of dichotomizing thinking, preoccupations with heaven and hell, those saved and those damned, are arguably more the ruminations of medieval theology and Dante’s Inferno than they are of rigorous and faithful biblical and theological scholarship.

While we cannot get too deeply into all of this today in a sermon, we can take a look at the other readings appointed for today for what they might suggest about what it means to belong to Jesus’ sheep.

In short, what is revealed, I believe, is that belonging to Jesus’ sheep is less about privilege and more about responsibility. It’s less about being part of a select, elite in-group and more about a group forgiven and redeemed and called to engage the wider world in the spirit of Jesus’ sacrificial, servanthood ministry.

Look at today’s reading from Revelation, which focuses on a vision of a “multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” These throngs were crying out and singing praises to God. In the vision, the author wonders who these people are. The answer is this: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal.”

And while they will no longer hunger and thirst and while their tears will be wiped from their faces, presumably in the great ordeal they knew such hunger and thirst along with scorching heat and many, many tears.

In short, having been washed in the blood of the Lamb, they took up their crosses and followed the Lamb who was also paradoxically their shepherd, and they followed the Shepherd Lamb in the way of suffering for the sake of the world.

Such suffering is not the stuff of belonging to a privileged, elite club which excludes everyone else and relishes their privileged status at the expense of the damned.

Then consider today’s reading from Acts, where Peter raises Tabitha who had fallen ill and then died. Tabitha was known for her devotion to good works and acts of charity in Jesus’ name.

The widows were there weeping – widows being the very ones who were on the receiving end of Tabitha’s goodness and kindness in giving them needed clothing which she had made.

Peter was called upon to kneel and pray and then to raise Tabitha up again. To what end? To be returned to the very widows that Tabitha had cared for and thus to continue her good works and acts of charity in Jesus’ name. In short, Tabitha was raised to continue her loving service of those in need.

Here again, the story is not about the privileges of salvation and restored life, about who belongs and who doesn’t, about who is damned and who is saved. No, not at all.

Belonging to Jesus’ sheep means enduring various versions of slaughter in loving service of our risen Lord. It means going through great ordeals for the sake of such loving service. Being saved for service involves shedding many, many tears. It means being raised by Christ again and again to return to the mission fields to care for the widows and those most vulnerable to being excluded by religious elites.

Given that such ordeals are in store for those who follow Jesus, we may not wish such privileged belonging on just anybody! We ourselves might think twice about belonging to such a sheepfold!

Yes, to be sure, there is great privilege in belonging to Christ, who is our Good Shepherd, who leads us beside still waters, baptizing us into himself through these same waters, and raising us up like Tabitha to share in the victory over death. Christ the shepherd, who is at the same time the sacrificial lamb, restores us, his rod and staff comforting us in the deathly places of the longest fearsome shadows. Christ bids us dine at a sumptuous feast at this sacramental table, where our cups overflow with his grace and mercy even in the presence of any our enemies.

Moreover, Christ is not only our shepherd, but our temple – he who walked in the temple in the portico of Solomon has himself become the temple, the holy of holies in whom we abide like branches to the vine, we who also become temples of the Holy Spirit. More still, Christ’s red blood washes us into brilliant, dazzling cleanliness. And in Christ, who is one with Father, we share in the dance of the Holy Trinity. All of these gifts and blessings generate and regenerate our faith and give us eternal life such that no one can snatch us from the loving, wounded hands of our Good Shepherd.

But all of this blessing is in the service of our offering sacrifices of thanksgiving in love for our neighbors, including perhaps especially those, like the Jewish people, who are persecuted for their own religious convictions, for example, in not claiming Jesus as their promised Messiah. We are called to protect them and their convictions of faith and certainly not to relegate them to the damned.

All of this brings us back to Lutheran ethical sensibilities, and Luther and his great paradox, expressed yet again in his treatise, “Freedom of a Christian.” Yes, by God’s grace in Christ, we are perfectly free, privileged, chosen, belonging sovereigns of all, subject to none – and at the same time in thanksgiving for graced privileges given, we are perfectly dutiful servants of all, subject to all. That’s what it means to belong to Jesus’ sheep. It’s being blessed to be a blessing, and shedding many tears in suffering for the sake of others not so privileged and blessed.

Belonging to Christ is not us vs. them, the saved vs. the damned, but a belonging that calls us to serve our neighbors with the same love and mercy that made us to belong to Christ in the first place.

Such belonging to the Good Shepherd is that which leads to our loving service in Jesus’ name, a loving service that will go a long, long way toward healing the sad and dangerous divisions of our day. God in Christ help us. Amen.

Second Sunday of Easter, John 20:19-31

On Good Friday, when our choir was singing the Passion according to John by the late Lutheran composer, Richard Hillert, I was struck by how the drama of the music, at least in my experience, brought out and gave expression to the wrenching conflict that was integral to Jesus’ last hours – when he was betrayed, arrested, and brought before both religious and secular authorities and ultimately was executed at the hands of officials of the Roman empire.

The tension of the conflict was palpable to me, and evoked in me a range of emotions – anger and fear and sadness, all evident in a sense of physical agitation.

On this Second Sunday of Easter, on this side of the resurrection, we’re beyond all of that tension and conflict, right? Wrong. Alas. Today’s reading from Acts describes a time very much after Jesus’ resurrection, “when the temple police… brought the apostles…. [to] stand before the council… to be questioned by the high priest” because of their teaching about Christ’s resurrection (cf. Acts 5:27-30).

The temple police? Really? Was that necessary? Why should a holy place require a police force to maintain peace and security?

Such a reality is far from our common experience here and now, at least in this congregation. The closest thing we have to temple police here at Resurrection is our team of ushers who do tell people where to go – but as a gesture of hospitality!

On the other hand, tragically, temple police are not far from contemporary experience. When I visited the temple mount in Jerusalem years ago, with its mosque and Western Wall, a place sacred to both Jews and Muslims, the tension was palpable. Armed Israeli soldiers were everywhere to be seen.

After 9/11 in New York City, it was discovered that the CitiGroup tower under which sat Saint Peter Lutheran Church, where I was a member, was among terrorists’ identified targets. And the church was to have been the soft spot for an attack to bring down the skyscraper. As a result, in those many weeks following 9/11, officers with machine guns were a regular presence in my church on Sunday mornings.

And so it continues to go in our sad, sorry, bitterly divided, and dangerous world.

Think of and pray for the Orthodox Churches in Ukraine, celebrating their Easter today, where hundreds of those churches under the authority of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, who has been outspoken in his support of Russia’s invasion of and war on Ukraine – a holy war, he suggests, which is a cosmic battle against the perceived forces of evil in the West. Needless to say, this violent conflict is tearing apart the communion among Orthodox Christians and churches. Many churches are now severing ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. This has been and continues to be our sin-filled, captive human reality.

Today’s gospel reading from John finds Jesus’ followers behind locked doors for fear of the Judeans. Older translations say it more starkly and stridently – for fear of the Jews. Such references to the Jews throughout John’s gospel have contributed to centuries of Christian anti-Judaism and in recent centuries, racial antisemitism. John’s gospel has been used through the Christian era to justify attacks on Jewish people – as part of Good Friday observances, and in pogroms, and most tragically, in the Holocaust of the mid-20th Century.

In short, the resurrection of Christ has not miraculously cured the fever in our human hearts and minds. In fact, proclamation of the resurrection of Christ, as we saw in today’s first reading from Acts, has created further divisions among religious people.

This divisiveness weighs heavily on us, especially in the current climate in our nation and world. Don’t you feel torn by it all? I know I do, and on a daily basis.

And yet, it is into these very realities – when we are fearfully behind our versions of locked doors, and in our virtual bubbles and cocoons of the like-minded – where the risen Christ appears again and again, even as Christ appeared to the disciples in that locked room two millennia ago.

And the risen Christ appears again and again with this simple, but profound message: “Peace be with you.” Peace be with you. Peace. Just what we want and need to hear amidst all the fear and conflict and violence and warfare, cold and hot. Peace be with you.

This is a peace offered amidst fear, and resentment and conflict, a peace in fact born of violence and death. That is to say, it’s a peace that is conveyed via Jesus’ wounded hands and side and feet.

Indeed, Jesus revealing his wounds to the disciples is precisely that which authenticated Jesus’ embodied presence as that of the resurrected Christ. Jesus’ wounds made for genuine presence. In the wounds, they recognized their Lord.

So-called doubting Thomas only wanted the same thing that his compatriot disciples got – namely, a presence made genuine by the mark of the nails in his hands and his pierced, wounded side. That’s how Jesus showed himself to the eleven. Thomas simply wanted the same benefit – to see for himself the wounds, but also and at the same time, the embodied, living Christ.

The peace which Jesus offers is intimately connected with these wounds. This peace flows from his wounds. It’s real presence.

Thus, in the connection of Christ’s peace with Christ’s wounds, it’s no naïve, Pollyanna version of peace that Jesus gives. It’s not a peace that glosses over the terrible conflicts and warring violence of our world. Rather, it’s a message of peace that is offered right in the thick of the worst of our fearsome conflicts and divisions and warfare.

And again, to reiterate, this is not a peace that was given only once some two thousand years ago. No, the risen Christ appears again and again behind our varied formats of locked doors – each and every Sunday, here in this place, and other places of Christian assembly throughout the world. In Ukraine. And Sudan. And Syria. And every wounded, warring place that Christians gather on the Lord’s Day.

In fact, we re-enact the scenes with the eleven disciples and Thomas every Sunday. We, too, gather on the first day of the week. We are often locked in our fears, captive, paralyzed, speechless. But Jesus appears in the word, he who is the word of God made flesh, with the same eternal message: “Peace be with you.” These words were written down as signs recorded, according to John, so that we might believe in our messianic risen Christ and enjoy life in his name.

Moreover, when we share the Peace on Sunday mornings – even if now it’s only a bow, or wave, or eye contact, not a handshake or a hug – it is still the very Peace of Christ being made known among us, reverberating through the centuries when we convey the sacramental, sacred peace to each other in simple but profound gestures.

And then we come to the table to eat and drink of Jesus’ wounds, touching them in our very selves, our own bodies, taking them into ourselves that our own wounds may be embraced by Christ’s life-giving wounds. Jesus in the flesh via bread and wine being incorporated into our very flesh for life and healing and reconciliation – that is to say, for peace.

Then, like Thomas, our faith awakened and renewed, we exclaim, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus then breathes on us through his word and sacraments imparting to us his Holy Spirit and giving us the same charge that he gave to the original disciples:
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you…. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23)

And then we are sent on our way, full of faith, full of the Holy Spirit, to enter again into a world at war in oh so many ways with Jesus’ eternal message of Peace. We also go as church with Christ’s authority to forgive sins and make for reconciliation, for God’s shalom – not just the absence of war, but holistic, comprehensive well-being for all of creation.

In such sending, Christ, who loves us and frees us from our sins by his blood, and makes us to be a dominion, and makes us priests also to serve God (cf. Revelation 1:5b-6a) by proclaiming – albeit imperfectly – in word and deed that Christ is raised from the dead. We give expression to our priesthood in Christ by proclaiming in word and deed, to friend and foe alike, those near and those far away, those on both sides of our many divides, “The Peace of Christ be with you,” for Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia. Amen.

Resurrection of Our Lord/Easter Day, Luke 24:1-12

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia! This exclamation rolls off our tongues naturally and enthusiastically on this festival day. But the question of the resurrection from the dead is a stumbling block to many when it comes to believing the Christian faith. What exactly happened that made the tomb empty?

In order to begin to respond to such a question, we do well to look carefully at the resurrection stories recorded in the scriptures. Here’s a summary of the salient features and facts of the account included in the passage from Luke’s gospel appointed this year for Easter Day, the Resurrection of Our Lord:

  • The stone to the tomb had been rolled away from the entrance.
  • The body of Jesus was not in the tomb contrary to the expectations of the women who visited there to anoint Jesus’ body with spices.
  • Two mysterious men in dazzling clothes were there who reported that Jesus had been raised from the dead – but this was second-hand information, a report about the resurrection, but not a direct encounter with the risen Lord.
  • The women remembered Jesus’ words about his being resurrected after being put to death, but again that’s just the stuff of recollection of some of Jesus’ words.
  • These circumstances resulted in understandable reactions: perplexity, terror, bowing faces to the ground.
  • The women left the tomb, returned to the other disciples and dutifully reported their experience at the tomb which was dismissed as an idle tale and they did not believe the women’s testimony.
  • To his credit, Peter visited the tomb to see about these things and saw the linen cloths by themselves. He left amazed, but Luke does not indicate that Peter believed.

That’s it. That’s what we’re left with in the story for this our day of celebration.

What’s missing is the direct encounter with the risen Christ. What’s missing also is belief, the faith that leads to the confident confession that Christ is risen indeed, alleluia.

If this is all we had, only indirect, second-hand accounts about the resurrection, we wouldn’t be here to today. If this is all we had to go on, then Paul’s concern expressed in today’s second reading about debates concerning resurrection would ring true about us:

“If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:19) This life as we know it holds for us only mortality, finitude, sin – in short, human business as usual.

But Paul remains confident in his proclamation: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” (1 Corinthians 15:20)

What gave Paul the confidence of this confession, his belief and faith that Jesus had been raised from the dead? In short, Paul had an encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus.

Moreover, what gave Peter the confidence to proclaim as he did in today’s first reading from Acts: “We are witnesses to all that [Jesus] did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to al the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” (Acts 10:39-41) As an eye witness, Peter had direct encounters with Christ that resulted in faith, the faith to proclaim with confidence that Christ is risen.

But let’s get back to Luke’s account. What was read today leaves us short. But the reports of direct, eye witness encounters with Christ are provided in Luke. In fact, what comes next in Luke is the story of the Road to Emmaus. Let me recount for you the basics of the story: two of Jesus’ disciples are walking along the road on their way to Emmaus, talking with each other, despondent over the events that led to Jesus’ death. Jesus appears on the road with them, but they did not recognize that it was their risen Lord until Jesus broke bread with them. Luke writes: “When he was at the table with them, [Jesus] took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized [Jesus]; and he vanished from their sight.” (Luke 24:30-31)

It was this eye-witness, direct encounter with Jesus at the table where Jesus broke the bread that made for recognition of and faith in the risen Lord. Recognizing the living Christ in the breaking of the bread is first true, direct, first-hand resurrection appearance that Luke records.

So, where does this leave us today with only a partial, second-hand reporting in Luke about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead? The story of the Road to Emmaus is not even featured this year among the lectionary readings for the Sundays in Easter.

The good news is that we don’t need to hear the story of the Road to Emmaus because we re-enact that story each and every Sunday when we break bread at this table. Every Sunday is our Road to Emmaus when we have a direct, first-hand, eye witness encounter with the risen Christ in the same manner as those first two disciples on the same day as the resurrection.

Let that sink in for a moment. Our resurrection encounters in recognizing Christ in the breaking of the bread are the same mode of appearance that convinced those first disciples that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. Wow.

The pattern of encounter that Luke records about the Road to Emmaus is the pattern of what we do here on each and every Lord’s day: we journey together, often despondent about the bad news that’s happening throughout our sorry world; Christ appears in our midst in the reading and proclamation of the word, as Christ “interprets to us the things about himself in all the scripture” (cf. Luke 24:27) as he did with those first two disciples; then we go to the table together where our eyes are likewise opened and we recognize the risen Christ in, with, and under the broken bread and the wine poured among us in churchly community.

The story of the Road to Emmaus ends with the disciples rushing back to the others to let them know how Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of bread. So, too, we leave this place to share similar stories of good news and new life with those who are not here with us.

In other words, Luke’s resurrection account continues in what we do whenever we are assembled by the Spirit on the Lord’s Day. This leaves us with much, much more than this life only as Paul lamented if there is no resurrection. Indeed, because we also know the risen Christ in the breaking of bread, we, like Paul, can offer confident proclamation of Christ’s resurrection.

Amidst the ongoing social isolation of pandemic and political divisiveness, of war, poverty, injustice, and oppression, people hunger for the kind of life-giving encounter in community in person which we enjoy here every week where the ordinary becomes extraordinary in the power of the resurrected Christ, where intellectual stumbling blocks to faith are overcome in living encounters with Christ among us.

So, let’s run with haste to tell others despondent of this life only, inviting them to this place of encounter with the risen Christ. For Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia! Amen.


Passion and Palm Sunday, Luke 23:1-49

Preaching week after week on passages from Luke, I’ve been struck by how Jesus consistently is found amidst the crowds in Luke’s telling. I’ve called attention to this repeatedly in my sermons in the past months. Beginning from Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River, where Jesus was one among many in the crowd to be baptized, Jesus always seems to end up amidst the teeming throngs of people.

In short, Jesus in Luke loves to be amidst the crowds, and he does his best work right in the thick of things. This proclivity continues to be true in the Passion according to Luke, much of which you just heard read.

Here’s a summary of how the crowds appear in connection with Jesus in Luke’s Passion:

  • At the time of Jesus’ grand entry into Jerusalem, crowds of people spread their cloaks on the road, and the multitude of the disciples praised God with a loud voice, saying “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (Luke 19:36-40) Thus, the crowds begin with great enthusiasm, echoing the song of the angels announcing Jesus’ birth.
  • Later at night, the mood turns darker as a crowd suddenly showed up at the Mount of Olives when Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. (Luke 22:47ff.)
  • Then the assembly of the elders of the people were akin to a crowd when Jesus was on trial before the religious council. (Luke 22:66ff.) The religious authorities took a lead in turning public opinion against Jesus.
  • Those crowds clamored saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor.” (Luke 23:2)
  • Then the crowd insisted, “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.” (Luke 23:5) The crowds begin to take on the manner of a mob.
  • After Pilate called together the crowd of chief priests, the leaders and the people (Luke 23:13) shouted all together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” (Luke 23:18ff.)
  • And the crowds kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” (Luke 23:21)
  • Despite Pilate’s pleas, they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that Jesus should be crucified; and their voices prevailed” (Luke 23:23) That is to say, the mob ruled.
  • As Jesus was crucified, the crowds of people stood by, watching (Luke 23:35), a passive stance with no one taking any lead in trying to prevent this travesty. Evil triumphs when otherwise good people do nothing….
  • Finally, after Jesus died and the show was over, Luke reports that “when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts” (Luke 23:48). They were there for the spectacle, a perverse form of entertainment, not unlike the crowds of onlookers who were present for lynchings in the history of our own country. All the throngs had to show for their participation was stirred emotions – anger, fear, grievance, a spirit of violence – all indicated by their going home beating their breasts.

In short, the Passion according to Luke reveals the fickleness of the crowds, how they blew hot and cold, starting with great enthusiasm, but then quickly turning on Jesus and ending up with a mob mentality, all riled up with no place for that emotional energy to go except to cause grave damage, ultimately Jesus’ death at the hands of Roman authorities who caved to the mob’s wishes.

Crowds of human beings are like that. We are given to a mob mentality all too easily, as we have been seeing in our own nation and world of late.

But Jesus, true to form in Luke, remains in the crowd, remains for the crowd. The prophet Isaiah, in his suffering servant song in today’s first reading, points us to how Jesus, in public ministry long after Isaiah prophesied, responded to the throngs. Isaiah’s words could be those of Jesus: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” (Isaiah 50:6)

Indeed, here’s the gospel truth: even if the crowds turn on Jesus, Jesus does not turn on the crowds, but stays right in the midst of the throngs, even the mobs.

The bad news is that crowds are fickle and embody communally some of the most extreme features of human sin, the crowds giving people the permission to act their worst.

The good news is that Jesus is steadfast in his love for the throngs even when they violently betray him in a way which ended up with him being put to death. Jesus simply would not turn on or abandon the crowds to which he was drawn since the first moments of his public ministry at his baptism amidst the throngs of people.

Indeed, for the sake of the crowds, Jesus emptied himself. As the Apostle Paul puts it in the great Christ hymn that is the focus of today’s reading from Philippians, Christ Jesus “relinquished it all, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, Christ humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:7-8)

And there from the cross, Jesus forgave the crowds: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

Still, the crowds forsook Jesus, leaving the spectacle and returning home, again, beating their breasts.

But that’s not the end of the story. In the absence of the crowds, so much more was accomplished in these last hours of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and in the three days beyond. In short, life and death contended, again suggested by the suffering servant song in Isaiah: “Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.” (Isaiah 50:8) Jesus’ most real, cosmic adversaries with whom he contended were ultimately the mob-like forces of sin and death expressed in the violent energies of the throngs, who were captivated by the powers and principalities of this world about which Paul writes elsewhere.

And when that battle stupendous was over, when God raised Jesus victorious from the grave, then other crowds and throngs would return, drawn by the Spirit of the living Christ, suggested in the Philippians Christ hymn: “Therefore God also highly exalted [Jesus] and gave him the name that is above very name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11) Every knee bending, every tongue confessing is indication of the assembling of another crowd, in this case, of believers.

We are such a crowd gathered here today. We are among the billions over the centuries and now in our current day whose tongues confess that Jesus Christ is Lord as we bend our knees in worshipful adoration to the glory of God.

And in our usual routine, we are sent from this place and this weekly time together, having been fed in word and sacrament, and with our faith thus renewed and strengthened, we go back into the crowds, the teeming throngs, and even mobs of people, with the confession on our lips that Jesus Christ is Lord, expressed not just in our words, but in our deeds of loving, thankful service in Jesus’ name right in the thick of things, where Jesus continues to do his best work. Thanks be to God for the wonder of it all. Amen.

Fifth Sunday in Lent, John 12:1-8

It’s a lovely occasion described in today’s passage from John’s Gospel: Martha and Mary are throwing a dinner party at their place in Bethany to honor Jesus who had raised their brother, Lazarus, from the dead.

Martha, described in Luke as the scrupulous, duteous sister, served. Mary, the one who sat at Jesus’ feet and listened in Luke’s account, takes a full pound – an entire pound! – of costly perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair.

You know that with perfume a little bit goes a long way; less is more when it comes to fragrance. So it was that the entire house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume – this very much in contrast to the stench that John mentioned emanating from the tomb where Lazarus had been for four days before Jesus got there to raise him.

Again, the dinner is a lovely domestic setting, a moment of intimacy among dear, dear friends. Good food, no doubt. Engaging conversation. Expressions of gratitude for Jesus who raised his beloved Lazarus from the dead. Mary’s extravagant outpouring of loving affection with the anointing and with the fragrance of essential oils pleasantly filling the house. Picture in your mind’s eye this appealing occasion….

Then there’s Judas, who also happened to be present, Judas who was already conspiring to betray Jesus to the religious authorities. There he was at the party, a thief who stole money from the common purse kept by Jesus and the disciples. Judas, a conniving cynic who wants to cast a pall over the joyous proceedings: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor?”

Thus, wickedness is also there at the banquet, that lovely occasion. That’s what’s happening inside the house. Outside the house is also wickedness. What precedes this story in John is a plot to kill Jesus because of the miracle of raising Lazarus. The religious leaders called an official meeting of the council to seek ways to put Jesus to death. Jesus, becoming aware of this plot, “no longer walked about openly among the [religious leaders].” (John 11:54). Moreover, “the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.” (John 11:57)

That’s what immediately precedes John’s story of Jesus at the dinner party at Mary and Martha’s house. What follows today’s story is a plot by the religious leaders to kill Lazarus, not just Jesus.
Inside the house, amidst the lovely smell of perfume, was the stench of wickedness and betrayal. And the house was surrounded by the same, indeed, the whole countryside was thus polluted with conspiracy.

Isn’t this part and parcel of the human condition in our experience, as well? It is painfully too common for lovely occasions among our own family members, friends, colleagues and acquaintances to be tainted by people and behaviors which revel in forms of divisiveness, betrayal and deceit. Isn’t that true? You all can probably name dinner parties you’ve been to where someone says something or does something to ruin the occasion, or at least dampen spirits. Memories of such occasions might be returning to you even as I speak.

It's on such occasions, when ugliness enters the lovely scene, that Jesus claims a teaching moment, in the case of the story today to address Judas at Mary and Martha’s place. Jesus said to Judas, who had accused Mary of wasteful extravagance, “Leave her alone. She bought [the costly perfume] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:7-8)

Here Jesus, as interpreted and elaborated on by John, casts the whole event of the dinner and sees Mary’s actions as a pointing to Jesus’ death soon to take place. It’s even a foretaste of the Last Supper, where in that case, Jesus washes the disciples feet in parallel fashion to how Mary anointed Jesus’ feet at the dinner with Lazarus. And, of course, the raising of Lazarus is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own resurrection after having been dead three days in like manner to Lazarus who also was in the tomb a few days.

In these ways, John’s account points to the life-giving conditions that will address head on and ultimately heal and bring an end to the betrayal, the wickedness, the cynicism, the exploitation, the deceit, and more. Those conditions of victory over sin and death are indeed Christ’s death and resurrection.

Jesus’ death and resurrection are the new things that God is up to that the prophet Isaiah describes in what is today’s first reading. Hearkening back to the events of delivering God’s people out of slavery in Egypt in the parting of the sea as a means of escape, Isaiah points to new, future things when he prophesies in the voice of the Lord who “will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, [says the Lord] the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.” (Isaiah 43:19b-21)
Our desert wilderness, where the betraying, thieving Judases lurk, and where even religious leaders conspire in the ways of sin and death, are likewise watered – with the waters of baptism rushing over us once and for all, but also coursing throughout our Christian journey and lifetime.

According to Isaiah even the jackals – wild, predatory dogs that hunt in packs and feed on the flesh of other animals – even the jackals end up honoring God. Likewise, the ostriches – which when faced with danger flop down, stretching their long necks to the ground to hide from other predators – yes, even the timid, danger fleeing ostriches end up honoring God with praise. These animals become metaphors for the broken ones among us in need of life-giving waters flowing from God in our deserts to restore us, refresh us, cleanse us, and quench our thirst.

And speaking of having our thirst quenched, we can also see the dinner at Mary and Martha’s place as a type of Last Supper, pointing to our own Eucharist where at first we seem to host Jesus, but who in fact is our host, as we give thanks for our having been raised in baptism like Lazarus, and as we also share in Christ’s victory over sin and death in a banquet of bread and wine, Christ’s very body and blood.

But like the dinner described in John for today, our own gatherings which remember Christ and celebrate his death and resurrection can be marred by betrayal. Remember that Judas was also present at the Last Supper. Even that most holy occasion was tainted by the presence of sin. Likewise present at our Eucharistic feasts are all the sins and shortcomings of two thousand years of Christian history throughout which the church has failed to honor God’s gracious will, betraying our Lord anew.

We, as the body of Christ, simultaneously saint and sinner, inevitably bring our conflicts and divisions with us to this table. This happens locally; it happens nationally; it happens globally. In terms of racial divisions, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr. observed that Sunday morning is the most segregated day and time of the week when we gather separately in our own ethnic enclaves. So it goes in a church that is both redeemed and broken still.

Yet, we know how the story ends with Christ’s resurrection victory, so that the words of Paul who writes in Philippians give expression to our aspirations: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own….”

Paul continues: “…Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:10-14)

We press on, too, living as we do in these in-between-times, the epoch between Christ’s death and resurrection and Christ’s promised return one day to usher in the fullness of God’s reign, God’s dominion of peace, of commonwealth, of well-being, when the Judas’ and jackals and ostriches of the world are finally tamed.

And what do we do in this meantime? Very simply, we bear witness to Christ by attending to the poor and their needs. So, let’s return to Jesus’ teaching moment with Judas one more time. Again, in John, Jesus said, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Indeed, we don’t have Jesus with us in the manner in which he walked this earth two millennia ago because after the resurrection, Jesus quickly returned to the One whom he called Father. But who are we left with? The poor are with us, in whose faces we see Jesus in the least of these who are members of Jesus’ family (cf. Matthew 25:40).

“You always have the poor with you.” This phrase has been used as a cynical justification to let the poor remain poor, condoning their status as a natural state, their fault perhaps.

I don’t read it that way at all. “You always have the poor with you.” I see this as a missionary exhortation from Jesus to continually seek out the poor, to be with them, to accompany them, to feed them with the abundance of our common purse with the same extravagance that Mary used with the costly perfume to anoint Jesus in anticipation of his burial, even as we may also get down on our knees lovingly to wash the feet of the poor as Jesus mandated on the night of betrayal.

So, like Paul, we press on with the guiding winds of the Holy Spirit, giving thanks to God for the sweet fragrance of God’s lavish, extravagant grace by serving and accompanying the poor, for whom God’s heart pours out and in whom we yet again encounter the living Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Fourth Sunday in Lent, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of best-known stories in our Bible. It’s so familiar that we probably think we have it all figured out.

But the parables of Jesus don’t make for neat and tidy, single-minded interpretations. Rather, Jesus’ parables lend themselves to multiple layers of meanings that are evocative and expansive and not limiting. Thus, I am drawn to exploring with you today the parable of the Prodigal Son in ways that perhaps you’ve not thought of before.

My particular take is actually inspired by Paul’s words in today’s reading from 2 Corinthians: “For our sake God made Christ to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Christ we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

What might it mean that God made Christ to be sin? One traditional interpretation is that Christ took our sins unto himself on the cross bearing our burdens and punishment for us, instead of us. A vicarious satisfaction. That’s one take on it.

But it’s also true that as Emmanuel, God with us, Christ shares the fullness of our humanity, and even if he did not himself commit sin, Jesus of Nazareth nonetheless could not help but experience the full range of human suffering caused by human sin. Sin and the ways of death via the power of the Roman empire put him on the cross where he suffered immensely in his humanity apart from any burden he was carrying on our behalf. That’s another way in which Christ was made to be sin.

To explore all of this further, let’s consider where Christ may be seen in today’s parable of the Prodigal Son. Parables generally serve to point us to Christ. But parables being what they are in conveying unexpected meaning, perhaps we can see Christ where we would not look for him. Maybe Christ appears in the last place we would look for him. One such unexpected turn is perhaps to see Christ in the younger, Prodigal Son himself, one who made himself to be sin.

Listen again to this: After the Father gave the younger son, the Prodigal, his allotted inheritance, that “younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country… [where] he spent everything.”

Reading that with Christ-colored glasses, I see Christ coming from heaven to this earth, a distant country, brimming with the fullness of inheritance from and of God, the one whom Jesus calls, abba, father.
And Jesus in his public ministry and especially at its conclusion, ended up spending everything and in ways that some might at first glance deem as a squandering of the divine inheritance in getting himself into situations and circumstances that ended up with him being killed.

Some might even consider Jesus’ actions in his ministry as dissolute. Dissolute living often focuses on sexual and other kinds of immortality. Well, Jesus did eat and converse with sinners, tax collectors and sometimes, perhaps, prostitutes. This was viewed by the religious leaders as scandalous, dissolute living, if you will.

Dissolute can also mean unrestrained in behavior that causes disapproval. Well, there were plenty of religious leaders who quite disapproved of Jesus’ unrestrained, bold actions in eating with sinners and tax collectors!

Then, too, and yet again, we have in Luke’s account perhaps a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection in the response of the Father to the return of the younger son: “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again” and in response to the older brother: “this brother of yours was dead and has come to life.” This is biblical code language that points us in the direction of Christ’s death and resurrection.

In these ways, Luke’s account gives us hints to see Christ even in the Prodigal Son.
But what about Paul’s view that God made Christ to be sin who knew no sin? There may be a fuller identification between Christ and the Prodigal Son, and for this I turn to Martin Luther to help us understand this possibility of seeing Christ even in the Prodigal sinner.

I often turn to Luther’s treatise, “Freedom of a Christian,” because that particular writing of Luther’s offers so much to us for understanding Christian basics. This is what Luther says there about how faith unites Christ with the believer in a way similar to how people are joined in marriage. Luther writes: An “incomparable grace of faith is this, that it unites the soul to Christ, as the wife to the husband; by which mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul are made one flesh. Now if they are one flesh, and if a true marriage – nay, by far the most perfect of all marriages – is accomplished between them… then it follows that all they have become is theirs in common, good things as well as evil things; so that whatsoever Christ possesses, the believing soul may take that to itself and boast of as its own, and whatever belongs to the soul, that Christ claims as his…” even sin and evil.

This is understood as a happy exchange between Christ and persons of faith. In faith, we receive all that Christ has and is, and in turn, Christ receives, becomes all that we are, even in our sin. God, thus, made Christ to be sin who knew no sin. This union between Christ and believers helps us perhaps see Christ even in connection with the wanton, sinful behavior of the Prodigal Son.

In the fullness of Jesus’ divine humanity, Christ fully identifies with sinners, so much so that Christ becomes that sinner, and this in order to awaken sinners from brokenness and death, turning them to repentance, to amendment of life, to life from sin and death.

This is perhaps what happens to the Prodigal Son when he comes to himself, comes to his senses, the truth about himself, to return to his father in repentance.

This is what happens when Christ enters into the fullness of our humanity, being “made to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Christ we might become the righteousness of God.” This is the happy exchange Luther writes about. So it is that the Prodigal Son could “come to himself” and return to his father.

Thus, we can variously see Christ perhaps even in the Prodigal. But of course, we also see Christ elsewhere in this story. Certainly, we can recognize the divine love of Christ in the response of the father who “while [the son] was still far off, saw him and “was filled with compassion” and “ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” Another happy exchange.

When it’s all said and done, it seems to me that the parable of the Prodigal Son can be summed up this way: prodigal waste is met with prodigal grace in Christ and in Christ’s full identification with humanity, even becoming sin to make for God’s righteousness in us.

And what’s the meaning of prodigal? Prodigality is to spend resources freely, recklessly with wasteful extravagance. Or prodigality is having or giving something on a lavish scale. Is this not what God in Christ does for us and for the world?

Who is the real prodigal here? Jesus Christ is the Prodigal Son, it seems to me, the son also of a prodigal father who loves and forgives lavishly, recklessly even.

But then what about us? Where do we fit into this story? I see the pattern of our Christian life together in features of the story.

In our sin, we also squander in many ways our inheritance from God. But when the proclamation of God’s word in Christ takes root in us, we, too, come to ourselves and get up to make our confession: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.” We did that here this morning when we started at the font at the very beginning of worship with the order for confession and forgiveness.

And even before we get the words out of our mouths, God in Christ runs to meet us, filled with compassion and arms are flung about us and we are kissed – the kiss of the Peace of Christ. That’s what Christian absolution is like.

Then, still at the font, coming up out of the waters of baptism, a robe – the best one, that is, the baptismal garment – is put on us.

And a feast is called and we come to the table to eat and celebrate, for the one dead is alive again. Christ yes, but we, too, who are raised in Christ by water, word, and Spirit, and who share in the resurrected life of Christ when we eat bread and drink wine at the banquet table where there is music and dancing, and where, like God’s people at Gilgal in the reading from Joshua, we eat “the produce of the land, unleavened cakes… and the crops of the land of Canaan.” (Joshua 5:11b-12)

What a happy exchange here each and every Sunday, our sacramental wedding feast celebrating life from death as we remember with thanksgiving that Christ was made to be sin so that we might become the righteousness of God.

But then there’s the problem of the reaction of the older brother in the parable who resented the prodigal generosity of the father in killing the fatted calf in celebration of the return of the one who was lost and now was found, who was dead, but now alive.

The older brother and his reaction in anger and envy is our mission field. Remember how today’s passage began: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes [that is, the self-righteous religious leaders of Jesus’ day and our day] were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:1-2)

There are movements on the left and the right extremes of the theological and political spectrums that relish grumbling and which seek to exclude people, to cancel them, to excommunicate those perceived to be impure, unrighteous. That’s what the older brother wanted to do to his younger brother. That passion to excommunicate is what made for the religious leaders’ grumbling.

But not so with the father in the story, and not so with us, we who also have enjoyed the happy exchange with Christ. We are about a different mission.

Listen again to how Paul describes our mission, our ministry: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us through Christ to God, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to God’s own self, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ….” (2 Corinthians 5:17-20a)

As ambassadors of Christ, we are sent to the older brothers and sisters and siblings of this grumpy, grumbling world, those resentful, overcome with grievances, and wanting to exclude. And we are called to coax them into the banquet hall, softening their hearts in the power of the Spirit, that they may sing and dance with us, celebrating new life from death, celebrating our becoming God’s righteousness by God’s grace.

In short, we are sent to reconcile, not to cancel or excommunicate or exclude. What a magnificent mission that God has entrusted to us! Let’s leave this place to encourage everyone to come into the banquet hall where there is feasting in thanksgiving for God’s gracious, lavish, reckless, wanton, forgiving, reconciling, abundant mercy!
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Second Sunday in Lent, Luke 13:31-35

For many of us and for most of our lifetimes, the world’s problems have seemed far away in distant lands. But it seems that ever since September 11, 2001, the world’s problems have arrived on our doorsteps, painfully close to home. At least that’s my subjective experience, since I was just a few miles away from the terrorist attack in New York on that fateful day. The same is true for people in Arlington on that September day twenty years ago.

More recently, it’s been the global pandemic, the coronavirus and its variants that have been as close to us as the very air we breathe. Racial injustice and unrest and resulting protests affected our life together as a congregation when the Black Lives Matter banners were up. The riot at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 took place some 7 or 8 miles from here as the crow flies.

All of this is literally very close to our homes, our church. There seems to be no escaping the current crises. We are right smack dab in the middle of so much of our sorry world’s current troubles. Even war in Ukraine feels painfully close because of the nature of social media these days where so much of the violence is livestreamed.

When it comes to proximity to trouble, we’re in good company, for that’s so often where we find Jesus in the gospel according to Luke. Even at Jesus’ birth, his parents had to escape the clutches of the ruler Herod, who was threatened by the newborn king, and who ordered that all young male children in the region be killed.

The adult Jesus, in his public ministry, again as Luke reports, consistently inserted himself amidst the noisy crowds of people in need, right smack dab in the middle of their troubles. That’s been a striking feature of the stories from Luke we’ve been hearing Sunday after Sunday. Jesus is consistently among the suffering crowds.

And here again today, Herod reappears in threatening ways. As we heard, “some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

Jesus is not troubled or threatened by the impending trouble. Concerning Herod’s threat, Luke reports that Jesus said, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.”

Herod the fox may threaten to come and lay waste to the henhouse, but Jesus in Luke likens himself to a fiercely protective mother hen in response to foxes like Herod: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…!”

Christ, our mother hen. That’s a lovely, compelling image, a female image of our savior amidst so many biblical images that are male. Picture it: the crowds, all of us, gathered under her protective wings.

Indeed, the Christian witness is that Jesus accompanies us in our troubled places, finds us where we are in the thick of things, amidst all our troubles, without apparent escape, and is present to us to give us comfort, and a hiding place, a place of protection.

And this motherly, protective presence is made possible and is available to us even now because of the arc of Jesus’ public ministry when he himself was in the thick of trouble in his earthly journey. It’s an arc marked by three days. Hear this again: “Listen,” Jesus says in Luke, “I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.”

This, of course, is a reference to the final days of his life, when as a prophet he will indeed be killed in Jerusalem like all the other prophets, and the sacred work is finished when on the third day he rises again. “Today, tomorrow, and the next day [the third day] [Jesus] must be on [his] way.”

The entire trajectory of Jesus’ three years of public ministry, during which he cast out demons and performed cures, parallels the same arc of the last three days of his life. His entire ministry as reported in Luke had this cruciform shape of the three days, from the crowds, to the cross, to the tomb.

This arc of three days marks our lives in Christ as well. Precisely when we find ourselves burdened by the threat of our troubled world and even when we, like the people of old, may be unwilling to receive and maybe even reject the ministrations of our mother hen, Jesus nevertheless finds us amidst our own three-day trajectories of sin and death and toward new life in Christ.

Our lives take on the pattern and rhythms of the three days, where and when our mothering Christ emanating from the Trinity, God in three persons, where Christ makes home with the Father and the Spirit, gives us birth as new children from the womb of the font, a sacramental place of protection where our baptismal garments enfold us like mothering wings over us.
Moreover, the pattern of the three days is manifest when the time comes for us to sing in the Benedictus of the Holy, Holy, Holy at this very table: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” We sing this song every Sunday. And every Sunday becomes a fulfillment of Jesus’ words of promise in Luke: “And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” Well, we say and sing these words, and then when we eat the bread and drink of the cup, we indeed see our crucified and risen Lord, and we receive mother’s milk in the form of bread and wine, the dead but living Christ, his very living, life-giving presence to protect us.

From the vantage point available to us at the font and at the table, we perhaps see the cruciform arc of the three days in today’s reading from Genesis, where Abram is given a vision, and exhorted to not be afraid for the Lord is Abram’s shield who invites him to gaze at the countless stars in the heavens as a sign of the promised blessing of descendants even when Abram and Sarah were well beyond traditional child bearing age.

We perhaps see in that same story from Genesis Christ on the cross in the sacrificed animals cut in two. The blessing to Abram only occurred with a descent into terrifying darkness as on Good Friday amidst the three days: “As the sun was going down,” it reads in Genesis, “a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire and a flaming torch passed between these pieces [of sacrificed animals]. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.’” (Genesis 15:12, 17-18)

From the vantage point of the arc of Christ’s last three days perhaps we see in the smoking fire pot in the Genesis story the new fire at the Vigil of Easter, and the flaming torch as the lit Paschal candle passing between us in the assembly in procession into a darkened church. And yet from the terrifying darkness comes the abundance of blessing, namely, the resurrected Christ, and the gifts of grace, mercy, forgiveness and more that flow from that new life.

Thus it is, sacramentally constituted in the very arc of three days, we discover the truth of Paul’s teaching in today’s reading from Philippians: “The Lord will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” (Philippians 3:21) That is the arc of the Christian life for us, we who are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection and receive that new life also in the Eucharist – our humiliation is subsumed into the body of Christ’s glory and by grace we share in that glory.

Thus it is that we can stand firm in the Lord, we who are beloved. (cf. Philippians 4:1)
And in Christ it is all reckoned to us as righteousness. (cf. Genesis 15:6)

Thus it is that leaving this time and place with faith renewed, and in the power of Christ’s presence who continues to enfold us under her mothering wings, we return to the crowds, to all of the world’s troubles, to offer to the most vulnerable the very wings of motherly protection that Christ has given to us, a gift that keeps on giving.

May it be so among us for the sake of all those suffering in our ravaged world. God in Christ help us. Amen.

First Sunday in Lent, Luke 4:1-13

Luke reports that “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan” where he had been baptized by John and where the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove while he was praying.

What does it mean to be full of the Holy Spirit? You may know that my Ph.D. is in the field of Christian Spirituality. Thus, I’ve expended a great deal of time and energy considering what it might mean to be full of the Spirit.

When I taught at the seminary, and in other ministry settings, I often heard students and others say things like, “I really felt the Holy Spirit today.” And I would ask them what specifically did they mean by that? Most could not respond with specifics about the actual qualities or attributes of being full of the Holy Spirit.

For many, to be full of the Spirit is to have strong feelings and passions. Or to be in the Spirit is to depart from an established agenda, as in the freedom of the Spirit.

Spirit, of course, has to do with spirituality. And when it’s all said and done, spirituality these days may mean everything and nothing. Viewpoints are all over the religious maps. Thus, for Christians interested in the question of what it means to be full of the Holy Spirit, we are beckoned back to our original sources, namely the scriptures, the word of God.

There we learn a great deal if we look closely enough, for example, in today’s gospel reading from Luke, the story of the temptation of Jesus by the devil during Jesus’ forty day in the wilderness.

To cut to the chase, according to Luke’s reporting, it seems that being full of the Holy Spirit basically involves being full of the scriptural word of God. For every time the devil presented Jesus with a particular temptation or test, Jesus replied by offering a scriptural passage.

When, in response to the extreme hunger from fasting, the devil said to Jesus, “If you are he Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread,” Jesus answered by citing a portion of Deuteronomy 8:3, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

When the devil tempted Jesus with giving him authority over all the dominions of the world if only Jesus would worship the devil, Jesus replied by quoting Deuteronomy 6:13, “Worship the Lord your God; the Lord alone shall you serve.”

When the devil tempts Jesus to jump off the pinnacle of the temple to prove that he’s God’s Son, the devil himself quotes scripture at Jesus, namely, portions of Psalm 91. Jesus counters the devil’s scripture drawing from another passage from Deuteronomy, again in chapter 6, verse 16, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Again, this exploration suggests that a principal quality of being full of the Holy Spirit, at least according to Luke, is to be full of the scriptural word of God, that is to say, to have the capacity to draw on God’s word and its strength and its objective claims when times get tough, that is, in times of trial, testing, and temptation.

And this is not about using the Bible as a weapon to proof text our own agendas with bits and pieces of scriptural language. Even the devil engaged in such biblical combat with Jesus by quoting Psalm 91 at him. No, to be full of the word of God is the fruit of long seasons of dwelling with that scriptural word, hearing it in worship, studying it at home, even memorizing crucial passages so that the word is incorporated into us. Then we become, as it were, living concordances such that we can draw from the deep wells of scriptural wisdom even when we are weakest and most liable to fall prey to temptations. In short, it’s not about using scripture as a weapon, but more about employing God’s word as a shield of protection, where the dynamic power of God expresses itself through the scriptures.

The apostle Paul captures the essence of what it means to be thoroughly immersed in the divine word in today’s reading from Romans. Paul writes: “‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim).” This word leads to confession of belief, that is, to faith, to trust, and faith connects up with justification and salvation such that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (cf. Romans 10:8b-13) All of this results from our abiding in close proximity with the word, on our lips and in our hearts. The intersections between word and the speech of our lips and the deep places of heart and mind are precisely where the Spirit is living and active and present in fullness via the word.

By citing the scriptural word of God from Deuteronomy, Jesus revealed his trust in the divine word, he who himself is the word of God in the flesh. Thus, in essence Jesus called on the name of the Lord which made for Jesus’ capacity to withstand the trials and tests of the devil.

Like Jesus in his wilderness sojourn, we are surely burdened by our own times of testing, trial and temptation in wilderness journeys. Lent, a season of 40 days that parallels Jesus’ own 40 days in the wilderness, is an occasion to gain heightened awareness of our captivity to our own brokenness in the wilderness of our lives when we are most prone to succumbing to temptation.

And it’s clear that our wilderness journeys are not limited to these 40 days of Lent. For the past two years, and now entering into a third year, we have endured crisis upon crisis upon crisis in our troubled world: the pandemic and its upheavals and upending of routines and taking of unthinkably huge numbers of lives; racial injustice that filled the streets with protests; the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression; a riot at the Capitol on January 6 a year ago that almost prevented the peaceful transfer of power after an election; continued divisiveness in our society and world; and now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which may usher in a new Cold War or worse.

We are worn down and tired and prone to succumbing to temptations of one sort or another, a big one being the temptation to lose hope for any kind of meaningful future.

But we are not without help in these times of trial. We, too, are full of the Holy Spirit. We, too, are full of God’s word. That is to say, we are full of grace, and the liberating gospel that frees us from captivity to sin, Christ leading the way in our own wilderness journeys, accompanying us as the very word of God made flesh, the power of his Spirit unleashed through that word as a fruit of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Think of our time together on Sunday mornings when we are full of the Spirit by being full of the word. Our whole time together is bathed in the word of God from beginning to end – four readings from scripture; liturgical texts and songs and hymns that are either based on scripture or are often elaborations on scriptural themes. Then there’s the acting out of scriptural stories in our sacramental life together – baptism and baptismal remembrance, absolution, the Eucharist. Our whole time together is modeled on scriptural tradition.

Take for example, the story in today’s reading from Deuteronomy. This passage is basically a set of instructions for worship, for how to give an offering of thanksgiving to the priests of old. These rubrics instruct God’s people to tell again the story of forty years of wandering in the wilderness on the way to the promised land and how God was leading all the way.

Once the story is told again, then the offering of first fruits of the ground can be made to the priest and the people worship God by bowing down. Then all the people together – with the priests and even the aliens residing among the people – celebrate the bounty of God’s blessings.

That’s the basic pattern of what we do here each and every Sunday. We assemble before God; we tell the story of salvation; gifts are offered at this table; and we all share God’s bounty in the richness of a simple meal of bread and wine which makes known to us the real and abundant presence of the resurrected Christ.

And then with our leave-taking back into the world, this abundance is shared also with others, aliens, as it were, not of our fold but who benefit from our generosity in the various community organizations which we financially support.

Do you see the parallels? What we do here reveals, in the spirit of Luke’s gospel, what it means to be full of the Holy Spirit. It is to be so abundantly full of God’s sacred word in Christ that we are strengthened to meet the trials and tests of our wilderness journeys and then to have enough abundance left over to share with everyone, even those beyond our fold.

Thus, full of the Spirit, full of the word, let us continue our wilderness journey in God’s abundance, sharing with all in a needy, desert world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Transfiguration of Our Lord, Luke 9:28-43a

Today is Transfiguration of Our Lord, the Last Sunday after Epiphany, when Jesus appears on the mountaintop in dazzling brightness while conversing with Moses and Elijah, two extraordinarily prominent figures in the Hebrew tradition.

Epiphany has been a season of Sundays, each of which has offered its own epiphanies, its own revelations concerning who Jesus is and what his mission is all about.

None of the epiphanies of these Sundays, however, adds up to the fullness of revelation and complete understanding. Even today with Luke’s recounting of the Transfiguration there is an interplay between revelation and mystery, of seeing clearly and at the same time having sight obscured.

Brightness itself, while clarifying and revealing, can be so bright as to cause of kind of blindness, of not seeing.

Consider Luke’s reporting of the cloud on the Mount of Transfiguration: “a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.” This is an occasion of obscurity; clouds obscure things. But then immediately there’s another clarifying word from on high, echoing the voice at Jesus’ baptism which occurred near the beginning of this season of Sundays, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

Then we go right back to the obscurity of silence. “And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” Silence is a perfect way to keep things hidden. Thus, we have in Luke’s account the interplay between revelation and ongoing mystery, between clarity and obscurity.

We see this dynamic at play, too, in today’s first reading from Exodus, where Moses returns from his encounter with God, the skin of his face shining with brightness. But then Moses would veil his face before the people to cover the glow.

Still, Sunday after Sunday in the season after Epiphany we have gotten a fuller picture of what God is up to in human history, of God’s interventions with the people of Israel, of God’s work in Jesus of Nazareth.

And that’s true today as well on this Last Sunday after Epiphany. Let’s take a closer look at today’s stories, especially in comparing and contrasting Moses and Jesus after their mountaintop encounters with God.

What Moses reveals, having come down from the mountain after his encounter with God, are the two tablets of the covenant, the Ten Commandments. That’s quite the gift of revelation he brought with him, for the commands serve as the centerpiece of God’s covenant with the people of Israel.

But consider what happens when Jesus comes down from the Mount of Transfiguration. Jesus returns to the great crowds, once again taking his place among them as we’ve seen before in Luke’s account. These are the same crowds with whom he was baptized by John, and the same crowds whom he addressed and healed during the Sermon on the Plain. In Luke, Jesus is all about being with the crowds in person, in his flesh, the Word of God made flesh, according to John’s gospel.

Moses returned from the mountaintop to give the law, abstract principles for covenant life. Jesus returns from the mountaintop to offer the gift of his embodied presence that heals the people. Which is to say that Jesus is in himself the embodiment and fulfillment of the law, not just an abstract principle, but word made flesh whose physical touch heals.

This is what happens in Luke’s telling immediately upon the return from the Mount of Transfiguration: Jesus heals the boy violently possessed by spirits, a healing which astounded the crowds, a healing which revealed the greatness of God seen in Jesus Christ.

In this, we glimpse a greater fullness of Christ and what God is up to in Christ.

Now think about this: What were Jesus and Moses and Elijah talking about when they appeared together on the mountaintop? That’s also revelatory. Luke says that “they were speaking of [Jesus’] departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.”

Here we have in essence yet another pointing to Jesus’ Passion, his death and resurrection, the culminating and complete revelation of what Christ is all about. Jesus’ departure is coded language for his death and resurrection. We’ve seen such glimpses several times during these Sundays after Epiphany. Now as we soon embark on our Lenten journey to the last days of Jesus’ earthly ministry in Jerusalem – the Three Days of Holy Week – we will have the fullest picture available to us of what God has accomplished in Christ Jesus.

Which is to say, it’s Jesus’ death and resurrection that ultimately make the embodied healings possible that Luke and other gospel writers report. Again, this is no abstract principle of the law – which is not to denigrate the centrality of the law in the Ten Commandments – but it is a fulfillment of that law in the embodied, healing, resurrected presence of Christ.

With that particular vision before us, we don’t have to worry much about obscurity and mystery any longer. Christ dead and Christ raised, that’s the fullness of the revelation. The veil is lifted from our eyes. And in that unveiling in the power of Christ’s death and resurrection, we emerge from the captivity to and the burdens of obscurity in our sin into the full light and brightness and freedom of vision of the gospel.

The apostle Paul says as much in today’s reading from 2 Corinthians. There Paul reports that in Christ the veil that Moses used with the people is set aside. And we who are entrusted to the grace of God in Christ in faith also have the veil lifted from our eyes.

As Paul writes, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

Which is to say, not only do we see the fullness of the glory of God in Christ, we participate in that glory. In faith, we become what we see, that is, the image of Christ which is the image of God in the glorious power of the Holy Spirit. In faith, we share in the reality of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

How does this come about? Our transformation comes about through the proclamation of the gospel in word and deed when our faith is generated and renewed. It happens through our baptism into Christ in the name of the Trinity. Our transformation progresses through our sacramental sharing in the body and blood, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. God’s transformative work happens through our becoming and being that body in Christian assembly on this day, the Lord’s Day, week after week, month after month, year after year, from one degree of glory to another.

And then, like Moses coming down from the mountaintop, we leave this place with our faces shining bright with the glow of the presence of God in Christ. Like Jesus we leave this place to return to our version of the crowds, likewise aglow in loving service to those most in need in those crowds.

Through our works of loving mercy of Christ in the Spirit, the world itself, in fits and starts, here and there, begins to be transformed into the image of Christ.

Our sorry world is clouded by fear, and threat and anger and warfare as we are seeing in Ukraine, the frightening implications of which are reverberating throughout the world. How many more crises can our species and all of creation endure?

And yet, our fledgling, loving efforts do, in fact, bring the light of Christ into the terrifying shadows of our world. And as we know a little bit of light, especially that of Christ’s brightness, can go a long way to illuminate the darkest corners.

As Paul writes, “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart,” even when things seem disheartening and hopeless.

One by one, may people entombed in the shadows of our weary world see the brightness of the light of Christ in our faces. God help us. Amen.

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