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.
Epiphany 7, Luke 6:27-38
Today’s reading from Genesis features some of the culminating moments of one of my favorite stories in the Hebrew Bible, the very compelling tale of Joseph and his brothers.
Long story short, Joseph’s brothers were quite jealous of him – as we know, a very common tendency in human families – and in reaction the brothers betrayed Joseph by throwing him into a pit to be left for dead. Then they thought better of that and ended up selling Joseph into slavery. Joseph was taken to Egypt where he ended up becoming a leader among the Egyptians because of his power accurately to interpret dreams. Famine struck the land and Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt seeking aid only to discover their brother, Joseph, in a position to help them.
Today’s first reading is the moment of reuniting between Joseph and his brothers who were dismayed at recognizing that they were in the presence of the one whom they threw into the pit and sold into slavery.
In a lovely moment in the narrative, Joseph beckoned to his siblings, “Come closer.” And in the intimacy of that closer presence said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life…. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (cf. Genesis 45:4-8)
This exchange ended in this further intimate moment: “And Joseph kissed all his brothers and wept upon them…” (Genesis 45:15a) I love that image which is evocative to me of our sharing of the Peace in worship, back when we could actually physically embrace each other in reconciling ways.
It’s a wonderful moment of grace. Especially poignant if you think the Old Testament is only about a God of wrath. No, the Jewish tradition and the Hebrew scriptures also reveal a God of mercy, of grace, of forgiveness, of reconciliation, of grace-filled endings to stories.
It’s a story that conveys what I like to call the radical sovereignty of God’s love. Humans intend evil. God intervenes, intending good. God prevails. It all becomes fulfillment of Paul’s conclusion in Romans 8 – “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
Which is to say, the God of the Hebrew people is the God of Jesus, and the God whom we as Christians worship as well. Thus, Christian people, perhaps especially Lutherans, who confess that all of the scriptures ultimately serve to point us to Jesus Christ, can understand Joseph as a type of Christ, a Christ-like figure, who was betrayed by those closest to him, and thrown into a pit and left for dead.
Jesus, too, knew such betrayal by his most intimate followers, and was in fact, killed, and was thrown into the pit of a tomb, only to be raised up by God to new life, even as Joseph, too, was taken from the pit of slavery for a new life of leadership in the land of Egypt.
In short, God uses human brokenness and sinfulness ultimately in redemptive, life-giving ways. And loving life has the last word. That’s the radical sovereignty of God’s love which is possible because of Christ’s resurrection from the dead.
Paul reflects on this divine dynamic in today’s second reading from 1 Corinthians. “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies…. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.” (1 Corinthians 15:36, 42-43)
Paul, here, is talking about the resurrection and its capacity to bring life from death, and likewise, glory from dishonor, power from weakness (of the cross), salvation from sin – and quite significantly for us Lutherans, the gospel from the burdens of the law.
What Joseph’s brothers did was sown in dishonor and weakness. But God used such dishonorable sowing for glory and power. So, too, with Christ. Human beings and institutions sowed their deeds in dishonor and weakness, but God raised Jesus in glory and power.
And, according to Paul, we all have a share in this glory and power. “Just as we have borne the image of the one of dust, we will also bear the image of the one of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:49), namely, Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord.
We come to bear that heavenly image when we are baptized in the name of the Trinitarian God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, when after the water bath, the deal is sealed with oil on our foreheads with the image of the cross, a restoration of our having been created in the image of God. Thus it is that we bear the image of the one of heaven. It’s on our foreheads.
Only then can we even attempt to undertake the work that God has called us to do, for we can only engage that work in the power and cruciform glory of God.
Which brings us to today’s Gospel reading, Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, a series of seemingly impossible teachings of Jesus.
Listen again to what Jesus expects of us: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” And more: turn the other cheek, giving it up to be smitten, too. “Give to everyone who begs from you.”
This is all summed up in Luke’s telling of the Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Moreover, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Pause to think for a moment about just how counter-cultural this teaching of Jesus was and is. The hearers in Jesus’ day would have been taught the ethic of retribution, of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. What Jesus teaches is an ethic that is a radical departure from retribution and revenge.
Jesus’ teaching is no less difficult for us in our day when popular culture and many leaders across the spectrum of viewpoints seem to practice a bastardized version of the Golden Rule: “Do to others as they do to you.”
Jesus’ revolutionary ethic to love enemies runs counter to human nature. Our stressed-out days, soon entering a third year of a global pandemic accompanied by all kinds of social upheaval, are bringing out the worst in the human spirit, as there is so much spite and anger and seeking vengeful justice these days.
Folks, captive as we are to the sinful, old Adam in us, we cannot do on our own steam what Jesus beckons us to do. We can try in fits and starts, but there’s generally no consistency. We simply can’t do this kind of stuff on our own! We need help. And we have help.
Here’s what Luke reports that Jesus said, drawing on an image of the marketplace: “A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into [our] lap.” All the good stuff is put into a container and it’s pressed down and shaken so the container is completely full, and it’s running over, all the blessings, the gifts.
So it is with God’s love, with God’s grace in Christ Jesus. So it is in the means of grace. In our assemblies, when we gather in this place, we are given gifts – the word, the sacraments, forgiveness, the communal experience of the fullness of Christ’s presence. All of this adds up to the “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over” – and yes, it is put into our laps, our bosoms, the folds of our garments where we carry the good gifts back into the world.
Thus fed and fortified, we can attempt to do what Luke tells us Jesus commands.
Thus, operating in the power and cruciform glory of Christ with the Holy Spirit working in the means of grace, we can seek to engage with our neighbors the loving work extolled in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain – a huge countercultural gift in our current social climate which seeks retribution and revenge.
God in Christ help us for the healing of the nations. Amen.
Epiphany 6, Luke 6:17-26
Once again in Luke’s gospel we find Jesus amidst the throng of the crowds. Recall what I observed on Baptism of Our Lord, if you happened to be here that Sunday: Luke reports that Jesus was one of many standing in line to be baptized by John. Jesus was one among a crowd, not seeking to separate himself from others in the throng.
In today’s reading, Jesus is amidst the people again. Luke says: “Jesus came down with the twelve and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people” from all over the place. He came down. And stood with – not over or aside from, but with. And it was a level place. A level playing field, if you will. Jesus among the multitudes.
This is the context for Luke’s version of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Plain. Luke’s version stands in contrast to the beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel, where it’s the Sermon on the Mount which featured Jesus leaving the crowd to go up the mountain to address the disciples only as his audience. In Matthew, Jesus sits – a kind of speaking ex cathedra? – and the disciples come to him. In Luke, Jesus stands with the many, having come down to them on their level.
Moreover, here’s why the crowds gathered – to hear Jesus and to be healed of their diseases, that those troubled with unclean spirits would be cured. Luke reports that those in the crowd tried to touch Jesus, knowing that healing power came out of him.
Again, as I observed in the sermon on Baptism of Our Lord, it’s all so visceral, physical, embodied – very much in keeping with the concerns of Luke, who was a physician according to tradition.
This earthy context is crucial to understanding the nature of Luke’s version of the beatitudes. In Luke’s telling, it’s “blessed are you who are poor” – not poor in spirit as Matthew tells it. And in Luke, it’s blessed are you who are hungry now. Just plain hungry, literally empty stomachs, not those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, which is a metaphorical understanding of hunger in Matthew. And in Luke, blessing is for those weeping, a more visceral and immediate expression than Matthew’s mourning, which may occur without much demonstrativeness.
Luke also adds a series of “woes” to the beatitudes, something Matthew does not include. “But woe to you who are rich… Woe to you who are full now… Woe to you who are laughing now….” All of this pronounces judgment now on those whom the world would identify as the blessed ones. For the perceived blessed, they get woe. They get divine judgment, the burden of the law’s claims on them, and a prophet’s condemnation. We in our privileged circumstances may also feel the sting of such judgment.
But for those who suffer in all kinds of visceral ways, those whom the world would identify as cursed and full of woe, in Luke’s telling, they are blessed. Moreover, there’s the exhortation for the poor and hungry and weeping and the hated, reviled, and defamed to “rejoice” and “leap for joy.”
The gospel, the good news is precisely where we would least expect to see it. Blessed, or graced, are the ones who seem cursed. Cursed are the ones who seem blessed. This is quite the reversal of the wisdom of the world.
How can there be such rejoicing and joy for those named in the Lukan beatitudes who know such current suffering? And how can it be that the rejoicing is for now and not some future date? How does this logic of reversal work?
The answer to these queries is all about the one standing in the midst of the suffering multitudes, namely, Jesus, the Christ, from whose body comes power for healing. Now. Mediated through human contact, through touch.
Luke, of course, writes with the 20/20 hindsight of knowledge of Jesus having been raised from the dead. So, Luke’s account here in the Sermon on the Plain is a kind of foretelling of the resurrection and the powerful, healing effects of Jesus’ embodied new life on the plight of the suffering crowds. As a Passion prediction, the Jesus whose power goes out from him to heal in this part of Luke’s story-telling, is ultimately the resurrected Christ.
And this Jesus assures those whom he addresses, “for surely your reward is great in heaven.” This statement gives us occasion to ask, where is heaven? And when does heaven occur? The common answers are that heaven is somewhere up there and the when is after we die. But are those the only plausible answers? I’d suggest that heaven is wherever the resurrected Christ happens to be and whenever Christ is made known. Now and in the age to come.
Which is to say that the heavenly reward Jesus describes is something available in him at the present time. Hence the occasion to rejoice and leap for joy even now.
For Christ’s resurrection changes everything and turns the logic of the world upside down. Without Christ’s resurrection, it’s all for naught. At least that’s Paul’s conclusion in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians:
“If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished.” (1 Corinthians 15:17-18a) But Paul concludes with confidence: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” (1 Corinthians 15:20)
This is the rock-solid confession on which we bet and build our lives. This is the reality to which the multitudes were drawn, a reality seen in the person of Jesus Christ whom they tried to touch for healing.
It’s ultimately the same reality that the prophet Jeremiah extols when he says, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.” (Jeremiah 17:7) This in contrast to those who are cursed, “who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.” (Jeremiah 17:5b)
The blessedness that Jeremiah talks about and the blessedness that Jesus refers to in the beatitudes in Luke have to do with the quality of trusting in God. That is to say, it’s about faith, which in essence, is trust. Sola fide. Faith alone. Trust in the living God of the Hebrews. Trust in the living Christ whom God raised from the dead.
In Christ, this faith releases the power of God. In Christ, this faith makes for life. In Christ, this faith heals.
I love the image Jeremiah offers, again in today’s first reading. The blessed ones who trust in the Lord are “like a tree planted by water sending out its roots by the stream.” (Jeremiah 17:8a) Here, seen from the perspective of Christ’s death and resurrection, I cannot help but imagine that the tree is the cross, our tree of life. A tree that is fed by waters and feeds waters, with roots which course with life flowing to and from the source of all life, the word of God made flesh who was at the beginning, at creation.
Our source of life is both the tree of the cross and the primordial living waters, the waters of baptism. And with the image of such a tree planted near or even in the waters, I can’t help but think of our baptismal life in terms of hydroponics!
Think of it. Hydroponics. That is, a form of cultivation in which vegetation is planted in nutrient rich water such that plants can bear high yields of fruit quickly and year-round. Water as soil. Think of our life in Christ, our baptismal life, as a kind of hydroponic cultivation, we who are continually nourished by baptismal waters feeding us the nutrients of Christ’s resurrected life now and always. Given the promise of this reality, of course we rejoice and leap for joy.
And then, too, we are also fed with the nutrients of Christ’s body and blood in a simple meal of bread and wine, at which we rejoice, we give thanks – for the words for rejoice and Eucharist share the same root in Greek, and it’s the word for joy.
Moreover, it’s in the meal where we reach out to be touched by the living Christ mediated through gifts of bread placed in our hands and wine put to our lips. And power goes out from this embodied, sacramental meal to heal us. Of course, we’ll rejoice and leap for joy at this.
And then we go on our way rejoicing back into the world, back into the crowds and multitudes, standing with them on level ground, a level playing field, bringing with us the power of the living Christ in healing ways through our loving service with and for our neighbors.
In our ministry as a congregation, may such life-giving energy flow from Christ through us, we who are his body, the church, for the benefit of the multitudes who clamor for healing. May they be touched by Christ through us. Amen.
Epiphany 5, Luke 5:1-11
I always marvel at the stories of the call of Jesus’ disciples, and the reported immediacy and totality of their response. Listen again to what we just heard in Luke’s report: “When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed Jesus.” Mark’s version of the story adds the word “immediately” – “immediately they left their nets and followed [Jesus].” (Mark 1:18)
If indeed the telling is as it actually occurred without editorial hyperbole, it is a remarkable thing so quickly, so completely to leave everything to follow Jesus.
That leads me to ask, what would it take for me, for you, for us to make such a life-course-altering transition in our lives?
We can leave this as a rhetorical question for now so that we can turn our attention to the biblical passages appointed for today and what they have to say about the question. Each of today’s readings is a story of call, of God calling servants to do God’s work. In the first reading from Isaiah, it’s the call of the prophet Isaiah. In the second reading from 1 Corinthians, Paul references indirectly his story of call on the road to Damascus while addressing the church at Corinth. And, of course, today’s gospel from Luke recounts Jesus’ call of his first disciples.
Each call story ends with a total redirection in the lives of those called, Isaiah, Paul, Simon Peter and the other disciples.
A common theme in each story that provoked the abrupt change is a dramatic encounter with the divine. For Isaiah, it was the vision of the Lord sitting on the throne, high and lofty, with seraphs (the highest order of angelic beings) attending to the Lord, calling to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of the glory of the Lord.” Those words should sound familiar because we sing them every Sunday at this table. This holy drama ultimately resulted in Isaiah’s response to God’s call – “Here am I; send me!”
Likewise, Paul, on the road to Damascus was struck blind temporarily and heard Jesus’ voice. This sacred encounter finally led Saul, persecutor of the church, to become, Paul, another apostle sent to proclaim the gospel he had tried before to eradicate.
Then for Simon Peter and the others, it was the dramatic and surprising catch of fish, a sacred sign, a miracle, that ended in their leaving everything to follow Jesus.
But here’s the thing. The dramatic encounters with God are merely the beginning of the story, not the end, and not even the point. The point of the dramatic sacred encounter is simply to get the attention of the ones called – Isaiah, Paul, Simon Peter and the others.
If we leave it at the drama, without recognizing the other aspects of the call stories, then we’re left with something resembling a prosperity gospel or simply religious entertainment. If we stop with “the pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke,” then we’re going to try to replicate those experiences again and again – hence, perhaps, the churches that in their worship seek to put on a good show for the audience Sunday after Sunday.
Or let’s take the great catch of fish. If we’re stuck on the drama of this sign, then we’ll want to follow Jesus as a means to gain, maintain, and perpetuate our prosperity. Jesus can make us wealthy. Just look at all those fish. Jesus, follow us, and together we’ll make tons of money. That is to say, we’re left with some form of prosperity gospel.
But again, the sacred drama is not the point, only the attention getter. What comes next in each story is the recognition of the sinful limitations of the ones called in distinction from the utter holiness of God that the dramatic encounter reveals.
Here’s what Isaiah said in response to his holy encounter: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” – this is an acknowledgment of individual and social or communal sin and shortcoming.
Then there’s Paul who said, “Last of all, as to one untimely born, Christ appeared to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
Finally, Simon Peter. When he saw the boats begin to sink because of the incredible catch of fish, Simon Peter “fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’”
In short, holy encounters, however they come to us, serve to get our attention, and they reveal our mortality, our finitude, our fallenness in comparison to God’s glory.
But that, too, is not the end of the story. Next comes the communication of God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, God’s embrace.
In the case of Isaiah, this happened through the mediation of one of the seraphs. “Then one of the seraphs flew to [Isaiah], holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched [Isaiah’s] mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’” This is a striking moment of forgiveness, of absolution.
For Paul, formerly Saul, it was the visit of Ananias whom God sent to Paul after he was struck blind that conveyed God’s grace. According to the report in Acts, “[Ananias] laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.” (Acts 9:17b-19a) Paul in today’s second reading summarizes all of this theologically in this way: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and God’s grace toward me has not been in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:10a)
In the case of Simon Peter, Jesus himself offered the grace with these simple, reassuring words: “Do not be afraid.”
So, thus far, we have holy encounters that are attention-getting that reveal our sinfulness which we acknowledge and then grace and mercy are offered. Then, and only then, is the commission, the sending, and finally the acceptance of the call with the resultant leaving everything to follow where God calls.
To Isaiah, the voice of the Lord said, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then Isaiah’s response once again, “Here am I; send me!” And Jesus’ invitation to Paul actually came to Ananias: “Go, for [Saul] is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before the Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.” (Acts 9:15) This is a commission which Saul who becomes Paul passionately accepts. And then, finally, there’s Jesus’ commissioning of Simon Peter and the others: “from now on you will be catching human beings.” So it is that they left everything to follow Jesus.
So, in sum, what does it take to leave everything to follow Jesus? A holy encounter that opens us to acknowledge our sin, to receive God’s mercy and grace, and then God commissions and sends us on a mission. Then finally is our response of leaving everything behind to engage our calling, our ministry in and for the world.
The pattern revealed for Isaiah, Paul, Simon Peter and the other disciples is the same for us even now in these latter days.
It is likely the case that few of us have had the kind of dramatic God encounters described in today’s readings. It is also likely that the stories we have received in the Bible have a lot of added editorial hyperbole. The historical reality may be that Isaiah and Paul and Simon Peter had more mundane experiences, not unlike ours.
That said, I believe that we can recognize in our lives the patterns we have discerned in today’s call story readings. We do occasionally have those attention getting experiences that draw us to consider the transcendent bigger picture, major life events that we cannot ignore. And these experiences may result in our compunction and humility, honest appraisals of our frail humanity that are followed by profound experiences of divine grace. And this results in a recognition of God’s call, which issues forth in our response in re-directing our lives for the sake of the world.
In twenty-five or so years of working with candidates preparing for ordained ministry, I’ve seen this kind of pattern again and again in their reported stories of call. Maybe you recognize similar patterns in your own life.
But it’s also true that our Sunday worship follows this pattern. It is here in this place, this time of assembly, that we are encountered by God, and confess that we are a people of unclean lips, but then receive grace – “your sin is blotted out” – and we sing “Holy, holy, holy” along with the seraphs, and the hot coals are touched to our lips in the form of bread and wine. And here we also discover that our ship of the church is filled abundantly with gifts, not unlike the huge catch of fish for the disciples. And then we hear the call and respond, “Here am I; send me!” Here we are; send us! And our lives are redirected to be sent from this place to serve the world in need with our abundance. The fact that you are here Sunday after Sunday, month after month, year after year, is a sign that holy encounter has redirected your life in fundamental ways to keep you coming back for more.
May our eyes and ears of faith be opened such that we can more fully apprehend the truth that what happened to Isaiah and to Paul and to Simon Peter and the others also happens to us, here in this place, and in our lives.
And all of this in service of our share in Jesus’ passion to be fully present with people in need in life-giving ways in our desperately suffering world. Amen.
Epiphany 4, Luke 4:21-30
The gospel writer, Luke, once again provides particularly vivid snapshots of the human condition in his narration of the events of Jesus’ ministry. Today we see the fickleness of the people of his hometown, Nazareth, in response to his public reading of scripture and his subsequent commentary.
Oh, how quickly they turned! At first, as Luke reported, it was that “All spoke well of [Jesus] and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”
Then Jesus opened his mouth again with further commentary, perhaps in response to their query, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
What Jesus said next provoked the ire of the hometown crowd. Luke says that “when they heard [Jesus’ further statements], all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove Jesus out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”
Wow. But there you have it: the fullness of what human beings are capable of, perhaps especially in relation to those closest to us, with whom we are most familiar. Hence the saying, “familiarity breeds contempt.”
What exactly caused their rage? Maybe they got mad when Jesus said, perhaps sarcastically, “Doctor, cure yourself!” Or when he acknowledged that “No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” Or maybe it was when Jesus recounted the stories of how aliens received divine truth more willingly than the chosen ones. Or maybe hometown crowds want their own to be chaplains to the status quo and not rock any boats. And on and on.
But the long and the short of it is that Jesus begins his public ministry in the thick of the human condition of brokenness and sin. It is precisely this reality that he has come to address and ultimately to redeem.
Jesus told the truth to the people in his hometown, revealing their willful incapacities to receive that truth, the truth about himself.
Ultimately what Jesus is about is the gospel, the good news. But you cannot get to the good news without first hearing the bad news. That’s the gospel way.
We get a sense of this reality in today’s first reading recounting the call of the prophet Jeremiah when the Lord reassuringly said to a young, doubting Jeremiah, “See, today I appoint you over nations and over realms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow…” but also graciously “to build and to plant.” The plucking up and pulling down, the destroying and overthrowing happen before the building and planting. These are words of law and gospel, of judgment and grace, of death and of life.
So it was that Jesus had to confront the hometown crowds with the truth of the law’s claims and not just offer words of gracious gospel consolation, which is what the people wanted – they wanted a cheap grace and not a costly grace, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would put it centuries later.
But the crowds raged at the truth. This rage in defensive reaction to truth telling is a common feature of the human predicament.
We see this today in defensive, denying reactions to truths about all sorts of things, about the coronavirus and climate change and racism and wealth inequality and more. There is angry denial of truth on all points of the political spectrum, from left to right and points in between. It’s the human condition!
Oh, and there is so very much rage, as there was in Jesus’ hometown. And the powder kegs seem poised to blow at any moment now on the right of us and on the left of us. We feel the weight of these burdens big time, and people sensitive to these dynamics are no doubt kept up at night.
Yet, and again, it is precisely the rage of the crowds that Jesus enters into.
But in today’s gospel reading, we are also told that “Jesus passed through the midst of [the raging crowds] and went on his way” – precisely to continue his ministry in earnest leading up to the last days of that ministry in Jerusalem.
Which is to say, the incident at the hometown Nazareth synagogue, when the crowd wanted to kill Jesus at the very beginning of his ministry, is a foreshadowing of the end of Jesus’ earthly life when the crowds would finally prevail in sending Jesus to his death via the authority of the Roman empire to execute people. In Nazareth, it was the brow of the hill on which the town was built where they sought to send Jesus to his death. At the conclusion of Jesus’ ministry on earth it was a different hill, namely, Mount Calvary. Golgotha.
But even there, Jesus ultimately passed through the raging of the crowds, if not to say, passed over them from death to life in resurrection, from the cross to the empty tomb.
Thus, through his own death and resurrection, Jesus becomes our Passover as well, our means of passing through the raging of humanity’s sinful brokenness, from death to life, from raging divisiveness to ways of engagement that are more life-giving and reconciling.
Our baptism into Christ in the name of our Trinitarian God, our eating and drinking of Christ’s presence at the table, our communal immersion in the sacred word in proclamation, study, and devotion, the absolution when we confess, our accountability-seeking but grace-filled conversations with each – all of this makes for the means through which we in Christ pass through our broken, human raging passions, to find ourselves in a transformed communal landscape.
Our second reading for today reveals the qualities of this new place, this new way in Christ. It is the so-called love chapter in First Corinthians, commonly read at weddings. But the love that the apostle Paul refers to is not reduced to the love between partners in a marriage. No, it’s more about life together in the church, in Christian community and assembly.
It is the love that we know in Christian community that prevails, love that wins the day in response to our raging. And not just any old love, but agape, the unconditional love of God that transcends human capacities. This is the divine love that is the passageway through our raging passions to a still more excellent way.
Listen again to the highlights in 1 Corinthians: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a, 13) Oh, what a gift this love is to our raging world.
God’s unconditional, agape love finds fulfillment in Christ Jesus, on his cross and from his empty tomb. His death, his resurrection, prevail and have the last word, as full expressions and embodiments of God’s great love for us. And when it’s all said and done, we can try love instead of rage only because God first loved us.
Such gracious words come on the heels of truth-telling and the difficult, damning words which we must also hear. Thus, it is a tough love. A costly grace.
God’s trustworthy promise is this: when it’s all said and done, our violent defensive reactions to the hard word of the law will not ultimately prevail against or prevent the fulfillment of the word of gospel grace.
Our faith, our trust in this promise renewed, may we not waver and lose hope, and let us love one another as God in Christ first loved us, and all of this for the sake of calming the rage in our troubled world.
Amen. Let it be so. Amen.
Epiphany 3, Luke 4:14-21
There are some astonishing moments in the scriptures which reveal the continuity between the present and ancient past, especially in what we do here when we are gathered on the Lord’s Day for worship.
Today’s first reading from Nehemiah is one of those astonishing moments. Here are salient summary points from that reading: The priest Ezra brings the book of the law before the assembly so that all, both men and women, could hear with understanding. They were assembled early in the morning until midday. All ears were attentive to the reading from the book of the law. When the book was opened, everyone stood up. Ezra blessed the Lord. The people responded with their amens and uplifted hands and then their bowed heads in worship. The law was read and interpretation was given, so that the people understood the reading (cf. Nehemiah 8:2-3).
Does this sound familiar? It should, for it’s essentially what we do here on Sunday mornings in great continuity with our cousins in the faith, the people of Israel, dating from ancient times.
Then there’s this other telling and poignant moment in today’s first reading: “For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.” (Nehemiah 8:9b)
The law does that to us humans; it reveals our shortcomings, our times of breaking the law, and our failure to keep the law. The law reveals what God expects of us. When we take a moment for self-examination, we begin to name the particular ways in which we have fallen short. That’s the nature of confession. Thus, the faithful wept when they felt compunction for their sins.
So it is that we hear the law in our own Sunday readings from the scriptures. The law’s demands, for example, are suggested in today’s second reading, that from First Corinthians where Paul reveals the essential unity we have in Christ and our interdependence with each other. This is wonderful teaching full of good news. But, reading between the lines, the reality is that Paul would not have needed to write about our unity in the church if there was not also disunity. Indeed, the thrust of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians indicates that there were in fact dissentions in the church at Corinth. Hence, Paul’s reminder of the call to unity and to honoring all the different people who comprise Christian community. For the people were divided and didn’t honor each other. And so it continues to this day. We hear this as a message to us as well.
Then we turn to today’s gospel reading from Luke where we also are confronted with the realities of human failure in relation to God’s lawful expectations. Jesus, very much in keeping with the practice revealed in today’s passage from Nehemiah, goes to his hometown synagogue to read publicly from the book of the prophet Isaiah and then to give brief commentary on the passage he read.
What Jesus read from Isaiah reveals the brokenness of human community, that there are the poor who languish without good news, that there are those held captive who cry out for release, that the oppressed cry out for freedom, that we all long for and need the forgiving jubilee of the year of the Lord’s favor. In short, what Jesus read from Isaiah reveals our brokenness and that we are in need of a savior, namely, him.
When we are forthrightly confronted with these realities of both breaking the law and failing to keep it, and we are honest with ourselves, of course we weep, and cry out to God for help, for mercy, for release from our captivity to sin.
But then there’s this other remarkable moment in today’s first reading from Nehemiah. The priest Ezra says to the people assembled – listen to this: “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep…. Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:9b-10)
Lest we think that the Old Testament contains only harsh words of God’s judgment and we need the New Testament to hear words of grace, comfort, and consolation, please think again. What are these words of the priest Ezra but words of merciful grace? Of forgiveness? Of justification for unrighteous sinners?
So it is that Jesus, in keeping with the grace-filled traditions of his forebears, offered words of grace and mercy in the words of the prophet Isaiah as he was reading and interpreting in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth.
Reading from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. The Lord has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
When he finished reading, there was this compelling, dramatic moment in Luke’s telling. Jesus rolled up the scroll and gave it to the attendant. Jesus sat down in apparent silence with the eyes of all in the synagogue fixed on him.
Then Jesus gave a very brief sermon of merely nine words, interpreting the scripture he just read aloud: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Indeed, we see the fulfillment in Luke’s wider telling of the story. Yes, the Spirit of the Lord came to Jesus when he was praying after his baptism by John in the River Jordan.
Yes, through that baptism, Jesus was anointed to do God’s work. And yes, the Lord sent Jesus to do that work. More fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise in Jesus.
And his work was indeed to bring good news, to proclaim release and recovery of sight, to free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
At this point in Luke’s narrative, Jesus is just beginning his public ministry. He announces his vision for that ministry inspired by the words of Isaiah. And from this point on, again in Luke’s orderly recounting, Jesus will fulfill the promise of God’s word in Isaiah by living into the vision in proclamation and in deed, in actions which result in freedom and sight and the Lord’s favor. This was good news back then. It’s good news for us now.
Let’s go back to where we began with our consideration of the continuity with and parallels between now and the ancient Jewish practices of holy assembly recorded in Nehemiah.
Ezra the priest invites the people to eat the fat and drink sweet wine. And on their way also to provide for those for whom nothing has been prepared.
Again, this should sound familiar to us. Because we also turn from hearing both the demands of the law and also the good news of freedom and release to find our way to the banquet table, the Lord’s table, where we, too, eat the fat and drink the wine of the eucharist. And when we leave this table, it is our custom to bring this same communion to those who are homebound, for whom nothing has been prepared.
In all of this, we, too, enjoy and know the realities which Jesus proclaimed in his very brief sermon, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Yes, this fulfillment happens in our hearing, but it also goes beyond this place and this hour when we are sent back into the world to proclaim, in continuity with Jesus’ own ministry, good news and release and recovery of sight and freedom and the time of the Lord’s favor.
Today, after this liturgy, we will have our congregation’s annual meeting when we’ll hear reports of what we’ve done in the past year, but also explore what we intend to do in the coming year, namely as we seek to live into our vision for mission and ministry, encapsulated by the words of another prophet, namely Micah: “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.” (cf. Micah 6:8).
The words of the prophet Isaiah charted the course for Jesus’ ministry, the words creating a roadmap for the way forward for him. Likewise, for us. Micah 6:8 becomes our missionary roadmap. For in Christ, by the power of his death and his resurrection, we are graciously freed, awakened in faith, led by the Spirit, and in thanksgiving to God, we leave this place to seek to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God for the sake of the world.
May these sacred words be fulfilled in our hearing and in our doing. Amen.
Epiphany 2, John 2:1-11
I’m sure that you’ve attended your fair share of weddings and wedding receptions. And I have no doubt that some of those wedding festivities are more memorable than others for a host of reasons.
As a pastor, I could tell you some tales of unusual experiences at wedding banquets. The pulpit is obviously not the place to do that!
But today we have the story of the wedding feast at Cana of Galilee, its own compelling and usual tale. According to the gospel writer John, this is the first event Jesus attended just days after he began his public ministry. Jesus was there with his new disciples along with his mom.
In John’s telling we have this fascinating exchange between Jesus and his mother at the banquet. I can picture Jesus and Mary off to the side observing the proceedings and making comments to each other in the familiarity of a mother-son relationship:
Mary: “They have no wine.”
Jesus: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”
Then Mary to the servants [sensing perhaps what might happen next having pondered in her heart the mysteries about her son for his entire life]: “Do whatever he tells you.”
This could easily be played as a humorous moment in the gospels, a comedy duet, but the exchange also sets the stage for the first of Jesus’ public signs which revealed his glory, namely, when he changed water into wine after the bridegroom’s wine gave out.
We’ve all known those disappointing parties where there’s not enough food and drink. Or the eats and drinks are of poor quality and not very satisfying. Or there’s enough of the good stuff to make a good first impression and then an abundance of cheap food and drink to get people drunk so they don’t notice or care much about the poor quality. And on and on.
Bear with me. This is not a sermon about social etiquette and good party planning, but about Jesus Christ and how he addresses the human condition with good news.
Here’s the thing. The way of the world is the way of the banquet which runs out of wine. That’s the human condition. In our finitude and mortality, it’s the way of scarcity and limited resources. And in our sin, we seek to hide the realities of our limitations.
Sometimes we engage in anxious deception of the kind that the late 19th Century economist and sociologist, Thorstein Veblen (an alum my alma mater Carleton College) termed conspicuous consumption, that is, acquisitively flaunting luxury goods and services as a way of showing status in overstated and impractical ways – theologically speaking, a sin of pride.
Surely our overstated, relentless pursuit of consumer commodities masks our fears of our limitations, our ultimate poverty when it’s all said and done. The fear weighs on us and is a source of what ails so much in society, as we consume ourselves to oblivion, perhaps extinction as a species. Eventually we’ll run out of wine…. Our pandemic supply chain struggles reveal the reality of our limits in un-nerving ways.
But this is precisely the reality Jesus addresses when he changed water into wine, something common into something extraordinary. Despite his hour having not come, as John reports Jesus having said, Jesus enters the scene of the wedding banquet by providing abundance, the best of created goodness, more wine to replenish the supplies.
The miracle of Jesus turning water into wine is described by John as a sign. The Greek word shares the root for the word and thing and practice, semaphore, a system of sending messages by code. A sign is a distinguishing mark, or token, or portent that points beyond itself to different reality, in this case, transcendent realities.
The sign that Jesus offered was quite something. I don’t know how much wine the bridegroom started with, but what Jesus did was produce anywhere between 120 and 180 gallons of wine (six stone water jars each holding twenty or thirty gallons). That’s as much as perhaps 900 standard bottles of wine! That’s a lot of wine for quite the party. That’s abundance, not scarcity. It’s an amount that is not likely to give out.
And the wine that resulted from Jesus’ intervention was of an excellent quality and vintage, the best of God’s good creation. The steward said to the bridegroom, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”
This was the sign that revealed Jesus’ glory. Again, we’re not talking about Jesus and his mom going into business as wedding planners and consultants. Not at all. This wasn’t about the wine in and of itself. Nor was the sign about the miracle. Rather the sign pointed to Jesus himself and to a different time in his life, namely, when his hour would come, the hour when he would be glorified at the end of his life.
Here we have at the very beginning of his public ministry according to John a foreshadowing of the end of that earthly ministry. For Jesus’ glory in John ultimately is his being lifted up on the tree of the cross at that right hour, namely, the final hours of Jesus’ earthly life.
The sign offered at the wedding in Cana of Galilee occurred on the third day since the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry after he had called his first disciples. When we hear that phrase, with the 20/20 vision of post-resurrection hindsight, we cannot help but also hear “on the third day he shall rise again.” That’s when the real party begins, the feast which knows no end, the best wine saved for last that doesn’t give out.
It's noteworthy that John’s gospel does not explicitly recount the story of Jesus’ baptism. But here we have featured in this story six stone water jars intended to be used for the Jewish rites of purification. Is this not for us believers an allusion to the waters of baptism which purify us?
Further, John’s gospel also does not include an account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper at the Last Supper. John emphasizes Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in the Last Supper segment of the story.
But that doesn’t mean that John’s gospel isn’t eucharistically sacramental. In the story of the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee we go from water to wine, metaphorically in some poetic, non-linear sense, from baptism to Eucharist, for the Eucharist with its good wine is likened to a wedding feast. At the wedding feast at Cana Jesus himself is the good wine that does not give out, the very wine we imbibe at this our sacramental table conveying Jesus’ real presence, his real self.
This is good news that signals the reality of the eternal abundance of God’s good creation, the fruit of field and orchard. And it was and is glorious to behold. The revelation of Jesus’ glory inspires faith – “and his disciples believed him.”
Yes, it’s glorious also for us to behold. We see Jesus’ glory in baptism. We see Jesus’ glory in the Eucharist where the best wine, Christ himself, quenches our thirst and that of all believers throughout the world and for all time, endlessly. Amen!!
In this sacramental light, I invite you to hear portions of today’s first reading from Isaiah as a kind of invitation to the communion table: Come to the table, for “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her… for the LORD delights in you…. So shall your builder marry you, and as one rejoices in marrying one’s beloved, so shall your God rejoice over you” (cf. Isaiah 62:3-5). This kind of blessing is what this table of feasting is about!
And when we leave this foretaste of the heavenly wedding banquet to return to our homes and venues of engagement with the world, in God’s generous abundance, we offer varieties of gifts, varieties of services, varieties of activities all inspired by the one Holy Spirit, which is the Spirit of Jesus himself.
And to a hungry, thirsty, needy world, a world scared to death of scarcity and limitation, we give gifts of abundant wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles (that is to say, more signs to Christ), prophecy, discernment of spirits, various kinds of tongues and the interpretation of the same – all for the common good.
Come to the feast, enjoy the best wine who is Christ. Leave in joy to quench the thirst of a dry and parched worldly landscape. Amen.
Baptism of Our Lord/Epiphany 1, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
A striking thing to me in today’s gospel reading, appointed for Baptism of Our Lord, is how Luke matter-of-factly narrates Jesus’ baptism: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…”
It’s almost as if Jesus’ baptism was an afterthought for Luke. Given Luke’s rendering of this event, mentioning it almost in passing, I picture Jesus simply as one among many in the crowds of people being baptized. Other gospel writers zero in on the singularity of Jesus’ baptism. Not so with Luke.
Thus, in Luke’s telling, I see in my mind’s eye the waters of the Jordan River teeming with people of all kinds, sinners, tax collectors, the poor, the rich, soldiers, and others. And there was Jesus in the midst of the hoi polloi.
That’s a great image to convey concretely the theological affirmation of Jesus as Emmanuel, God with us – in this case as a person in the crowd, standing in line with many others of all stripes to be baptized by John.
Again, in my mind’s eye, there they all were in the water together, bodies touching bodies no doubt, Jesus immersed in dirty waters without the benefit of chlorine.
It’s all so viscerally physical, embodied. Thus, it’s also striking that Luke makes a point to say that the Spirit descended on Jesus in bodily form like a dove.
This happened after the baptism when Jesus was praying. Prayer is often understood as a spiritual, dis-embodied kind of activity. Indeed, prayer can be one of those points of contact between the immaterial and material when the heavens are opened to us.
But Luke insists that the ethereal Spirit came in bodily form amidst Jesus’ prayer.
How seemingly ordinary, if not profane, that the Spirit would take bodily form like a dove, one of the common, everyday animals that was among the teeming menagerie on Noah’s Ark during the flood and which Noah deployed in the service of determining whether or not the flood waters had receded.
But all of this is the point – Jesus with us among the crowds being baptized in the earthy, dirty water. And even the ethereal Spirt coming to rest on Jesus in bodily form. It’s all in keeping with John’s affirmation that the Word became flesh to dwell among us, to pitch a tent with us, full of grace and truth, even amidst unclean waters that somehow, by God’s grace, end up cleansing us.
And the striking features of Luke’s telling of Jesus’ baptism is also in keeping with the earthiness of Luke’s narrating the whole story of Jesus. Luke, among the gospel writers, has a heart for the earthy, the sacred finding expression in the ordinary, the physical, the visceral, the lowly, even the unclean. Tradition has it, after all, that Luke was a physician, one focused on bodily realities.
The good news is that Jesus’ baptism among the crowds sacralizes our bodily earthiness, claiming in sacred ways even our dirtiness. Our baptism into him, into his earthy, physical, death and resurrection restores our earthen sacredness, the ultimate goodness of bodily creation, one of the main points of one of the creation accounts in the Book of Genesis.
Think also of this: We just celebrated Epiphany and the Magi who brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the holy family. The gift of myrrh points to Jesus’ death, for myrrh was ointment for the anointing of dead bodies. There is nothing more visceral, and unpleasantly so, than a corpse. But Jesus’ death, which the gift of myrrh foreshadows, along with Jesus’ bodily resurrection, redeems, makes holy even our own death, even our own lifeless bodies.
Thanks be to God for those of us – all of us – who are weighed down, feeling the burdens of our broken, ailing bodies. This is all good news for us, we who also struggle to see the holiness of teeming crowds of ordinary people who these days can erupt too easily into violent, raging mobs.
Jesus was baptized to inaugurate a ministry with the crowds of sinners, which as Luke reports, John the Baptizer described in this way: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. With a winnowing fork is in hand, he will clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.” That’s the essence of Jesus’ ministry, according to John, separating wheat from chaff which is to be burned.
Thus, our being baptized into Christ means being baptized with fire not just with water. Baptism into Christ, our Messiah, means that we are blown with the winds of the Spirit that separate our wheat from our chaff. And it’s our chaff, our unusable husks, that are burned with unquenchable fire.
This fiery word sounds like a threat, and it is a judgment, our being held accountable for that which in our lives does not bear good fruit.
But the fiery ordeal of our baptism into Christ is also a promise, and good news, as suggested by the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” (Isaiah 43:1b-2)
The Spirit’s winnowing of us, that is, the holy winds as at creation blowing onto us to separate the chaff from our wheat, that which is unusable, unhelpful, sinful from that which bears fruit, this winnowing is ultimately gospel grace that generates and continues to renew our faith, our trust in a messianic judge who also is the compassionate, merciful God of love.
Which is to say, when it’s all said and done, as the prophet Isaiah assures us, the fire does not consume us, the fire does not damage us, but rather purifies us, justifies us by grace. Yes, this may hurt, but it’s for our healing and being made whole once again toward becoming and bearing the fruit of wholesome grain to feed a starving world.
And when it’s all said and done our fruit is ultimately sourced in the fruit that was born on the cross, our tree of life, a tree watered by the dirty torrents of the River Jordan when Jesus was baptized among the crowds, among us, when the Spirit descended in bodily form, for our salvation.
And with all of this, God is well pleased. Amen.