The Jesus Fish

Hell coming

Luke 24:36-48 NRSV

Our scripture lesson this morning has always intrigued me, especially the picture of the resurrected Christ asking for and eating piece of broiled fish.

When I was growing up, my Baptist church had a week of revival every August. We had services Sunday Night through Friday night, and concluded the revival with a fish fry on Saturday.

Six long nights: 30 minutes of singing; one hour of preaching; and then thirty more minutes of altar call. It was hot. It was humid. It was more scary.

The guest preachers would always preach that heaven or hell is coming, and it’s coming sooner than later, so we better get ready! Although I’d never really feared going to hell; as a nine, ten, eleven-year old, going to heaven was not a place I wanted to go to anytime soon.

The only thing that got me through the week, and I suspect a few others, was that big, delicious fish fry that awaited us on Saturday.

Every year, without exception, preachers would frighten us with their heaven-or-hell-is-right-around-the-corner sermons. However, I remember that one preacher preached a particular sermon that made me feel a lot better about going to heaven.

It was Friday night, and bless his heart, I suppose he was trying to connect the revival service with the fish fry that everyone was looking forward to the next day.

He said that one of the most appropriate things we can do at the end of these services is to have a fish fry. He said: “After all, most of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen. And Jesus called the disciples ‘fishers of men.’”

He also pointed out that the early Christians used the Greek word translated “fish” as an acronym for the first letters Greek words translated “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior,” and how the sign of the fish was used to identify Christian communities, especially during the time when the church was persecuted.

But he did not get my full attention until he said: “But the reason that our fish fry tomorrow is especially appropriate is because when we all get to heaven with our new resurrected bodies, we are going to eat fish with Jesus, because after Jesus was resurrected, Jesus ate fish!”

For the very first time all week, I wanted to jump out of my pew and shout: “Amen! Brother, preach it!” Because that preacher answered one of those deep theological questions that no one could answer for me, a question that was more important than: “If God created the world, who created God?” or “Who was Cain’s wife? or “Did Adam and Eve have bellybuttons?”

He answered the all important: “Are we going to be able to eat in heaven?” The answer is a resounding yes! We are going to be able to eat fish! And for someone who loved to eat, and especially loved eating seafood, it took the fear of dying right away.

I really like this interpretation; however, I am pretty sure Luke, through the telling of this story, is trying to teach us something more.

Last Sunday, one of you asked me: “Isn’t Tilapia what they call ‘the Jesus fish?’” That really got me thinking about our scripture lesson this morning. What kind of fish did Jesus eat? And, what was the risen Christ trying to teach the disciples, and teach us, by asking for and eating a piece of broiled fish? Do you suppose Jesus, in his new resurrected body, was hungry? After all, from all we know, he hasn’t had anything to eat since that Thursday evening in the upper room.

To answer these questions, like all biblical questions, it is always important to put the story in its context.

The disciples had disappointed Jesus, and they knew it. The disciples had failed Jesus, and it was obvious. The disciples had forsaken Jesus, and they were cowering. For thirty pieces of silver, one of them betrayed Jesus with a kiss and then took his own life. One of them denied three times even knowing who Jesus was. To save their own necks, to avoid carrying a cross themselves, all of them in some way had abandoned Jesus in his hour of need.

And now they have received news that Jesus had come back from the grave. Which meant that he was probably coming straight for them. And considering their great failure at discipleship, they just knew that if he was coming, he was bringing hell with him!

“While they were talking about this…”

Can you imagine their conversation? “What are we going to do? Where are we going to go? How do we hide?”

John tells us the doors of the house where the disciples had gathered were locked for fear of the Jews. Perhaps the name of one of those Jews was Jesus.

It is then,

Jesus himself stood among them… They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.

Notice that they were not only “startled,” they were “startled and terrified.”

I bet they were!  Like a ten-year old at a Baptist revival! For I am sure that in that moment they just knew that heaven or hell was right around the corner!

But then, notice what happens next. Jesus does not point out their failures. He doesn’t mention their denials, their betrayal, their abandonment. He does not shame them, guilt them or say anything to elicit any feelings remorse whatsoever for their bad behavior.

There are no words of judgment or condemnation. Jesus doesn’t give them a sermon on how they should have been better or even how they could do better.

Jesus surprises them and surprises us by saying, “Peace be with you.” To those who have very good reasons to be afraid, Jesus says, “Peace.”

He empathetically asks: ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”

It is then where Jesus begins doing all that he can to relieve their doubts and fears. He shows them his hands and feet to prove that he was not some vengeful ghost come back to haunt them for their misdeeds.

And seeing a little joy in their eyes, but still sensing some lingering apprehension, Jesus takes it a step further and asks for something to eat. They hand him a piece of broiled fish that he eats in their presence.

He eats “in their presence.” It has been said that in sharing a meal with someone that we become most aware of who we are and with whom we are.  In the previous scripture passage, on the road to Emmaus, when was Jesus made known to them? In the breaking of the bread.

Throughout the world, sharing a meal with someone has always been understood a great act of solidarity. Thus, in eating that fish, Jesus was not only making the statement that he was not some vindictive ghost, Jesus was making the statement that he was their merciful friend. He was their gracious brother. In spite of all of their denials and betrayals, in spite of being abandoned, tortured, humiliated and crucified, Jesus still loves them and is still willing to join them at the table.

If the disciples had any doubts that their sins were forgiven, those doubts quickly vanished when Jesus took the first bite of that broiled fish.

And it quickly became apparent to the disciples that the fish Jesus asked to eat was not for him. It was for them. It was not the risen Christ who was hungry. It was the disciples who were hungry.

So, what kind of fish did Jesus eat?

It was a fish of unconditional love. It was a fish of unlimited mercy. It was a fish of radical inclusion. It was a fish of amazing grace. It was a fish that revealed nothing on earth or in heaven can ever separate us from the love of God.

It was a fish that revealed God is always willing go a step further to proclaim the good news of Easter: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

“My love for you has no end. My love for you never fails. My love does not keep an account of wrongdoing. My love is without reservations, without conditions. My love offers a grace that is greater than all sin and a peace that surpasses all understanding.”

Peace be with you, for you are my sons. You are my daughters. I have always loved you. I still love you. And I will love you forever. I will forgive you always. Peace, for I am making all things new. Fear not, for I am working all things together for the good. Do not doubt, for I am the resurrection and the life, and because I live you will also live. Peace be with you.”

The risen Christ ate fish—filling, satisfying, delicious fish—not because he was hungry, but because we are hungry.

It is very important for us to pay close attention to what happens next in our lesson: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations.”

What kind of fish did Jesus eat? He ate a fish that has the power to open minds!

Perhaps more than anything else, what the church needs are more minds that are open to understand the scriptures teach us that graceis what we are to proclaim to all nations.

Grace. Not judgment. Not condemnation. Not fear. Not shame. Not fire and brimstone. For those things never bring peace. Those things never bring healing.

It is unconditional love and peace that is to be proclaimed to all nations, beginning right here, from this very place where we became witnesses to these things:

  • Where we witnessed the words of the resurrected Christ: “Peace, be with you”: words spoken to remove all fear.
  • Where we witnessed the wounds in his hands and feet: wounds that have the power to heal the world.
  • Where we witnessed the Risen Lord eating a piece of broiled fish: where we experienced a grace that will satisfy the hunger of all humanity this day and forevermore. Peace be with you. Amen.

 

Invitation to Communion

This is the Lord’s table. He is the host. We are his guests.

He welcomes everyone to come and eat and be nourished, fed and forgiven.

Come and eat and live!

The only people excluded from our communion table are those that Jesus himself would exclude and that is nobody.

All are welcome.

 

Commissioning and Benediction

Go in courage and peace, proclaiming the Risen Lord to all!

Having witnessed unconditional love and unfettered grace,

Be a people who bring hope and justice to a hungry and hurting world!

The peace of the Lord is with you now and forever. AMEN.

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Sunday School of Math

math equation

Matthew 18:21-35 NRSV

Early estimates of the combined damage from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma could reach $300 billion—that’s a quarter of the total costs of all natural disasters in the United States since 1980.

I don’t own a calculator that can compute that. My phone doesn’t do billions.

I was never very good in math. One day, I remember someone asking me, “Jarrett, what made you decide to go into the ministry?”  I responded, “No math in seminary.”

It is interesting that math is not the forte of most ministers I know. Someone told me that they once played golf with a pastor who always insisted that he keep score. He said: “At first, the other golfers and I didn’t mind the preacher keeping score, because surely a man of the cloth would never cheat. However, one day after looking over the scorecard, I had to speak up: “Preacher, I don’t question your theology, and I don’t question your honesty, but I do question your mathematics.”

Now, I’m not a total idiot when it comes to math. I can do simple math, good ol’ common sense math. One plus one equals two. Two plus two equals four. Three strikes and you’re out. But, if it starts to get more complicated than that, I tend to have some trouble.

Like our gospel lesson this morning:

‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.”

Sounds like a fourth grade math word problem that used to stress me out!

Unfortunately for me, there is, even in the gospel, a sort of mathematics.[1]  It appears that when Jesus entered the world, he brought us a new way of making calculations, and this math of Jesus is oftentimes very difficult for us to figure.

I am thinking about that woman who took nearly a quart of fine perfume, costing over a year’s salary, and poured it all over Jesus’ feet.  On his feet! The woman wastefully pours all that perfume, 40, 50 thousand dollars worth all over Jesus, and then, Jesus has the audacity to praise her.  What kind of mathematics is that?

I am thinking about that time Jesus praises a shepherd who left behind 99 sheep, “in the wilderness,” in order to look for one lost sheep. What kind of math is that?

If you leave 99 sheep alone, vulnerable, in the wilderness, what do you think is going to happen when you are gone? When you get back from finding the one lost sheep, if you find it, common sense says you’re certain to return to far fewer sheep!

Jesus watched the rich making a big show dropping their bags of money into the temple treasury. Think about that: “A bag of money.” When’s the last time you’ve seen “a bag of money?” That’s a lot of money! But when Jesus saw a poor widow come and drop one penny into the temple offering, he said that she had given more than all the others put together.

Get out your calculators and try figure that one out.

And then there was a farmer who hired people to go to work in his vineyard. Some arrived at work just as day was dawning, others came mid-morning, others at mid-day, some in the afternoon, and then some slackers showed up just one hour before quitting time.

At the end of the day, this eccentric farmer called everybody together and paid everybody the exact same wage. Now, how on earth do you figure that one hour of work is worth the same amount that 12 hours of work?

Do you see the common theme which runs through all of these parables? It’s an entirely different kind of math. In our mathematics one plus one equals two—one plus one always equals two, only two. But here in this new math, the value of 1 may be equal to the value 99, depending on who’s doing the counting.

And one little coin is said to be worth more than several big bags of money, depending on who’s keeping the books.

When Jesus tells us the story about the farmer who hires servants to work in his vineyard, I suppose most of us hard-working, tax-paying, responsible citizens of the vineyard immediately identify with the servants who worked in the vineyard all day. To be told that somebody shows up in the vineyard just one hour before the end and gets the same as those who labored all day, well, that just doesn’t add up. And it doesn’t sit too well with us.

However, if we could hear this parable from the standpoint of those workers who showed up late—the person who because of a disability, because of a family crisis, because of lack of training, lack of language proficiency, lack of education, or for whatever reason only got hired at the end of the day but received the same wage as those who had been there the whole day—if we could hear it from their vantage point, I guarantee you, we’d be ok with it.

Yes, there’s a common theme running through these parables.  And maybe it is not so much math as it is grace.

And if we are honest, this thing we call “grace” is sometimes difficult for us to figure.

We think to ourselves, “As far as God is concerned, if I do this, then I will get that.”  But the truth is that our relationship with God is not a matter of what we do, or the way we figure it, but a matter of what God does and the way God figures it.

Peter came to Jesus wondering how often he should forgive someone who had wronged him. “Seven times?” That number seems perfect, more than reasonable. It’s hard enough to forgive someone one time, much less seven times.

But Jesus said, “You must forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven.” That’s a huge number, whatever it is.

It does seem that, built right into the heart of the gospel is an extravagant graciousness which refuses to be calculated.[2]  And with our pencils and our formulas, we have a difficult time figuring it out.

Perhaps that is why many of us love the passage of scripture that comes right before our gospel lesson this morning.

Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone…if you are not listened to [STRIKE ONE], take one or two others along with you…If the member refuses to listen to them [STRIKE TWO], tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector [STRIKE THREE, YOU’RE OUT OF THERE!].”

Finally, something that makes some good common sense!  Some simple math—One plus one equals two. Be good and be rewarded. Three strikes and you’re out. Be bad and be punished.

But here’s the problem. When we place this mathematical calculation in the context of Jesus’ mathematics of grace we get another result.

As Eugene Boring has commented, Jesus’ “context is not of self-righteous vindictiveness, but of radical caring for the marginal and straying, and of grace and forgiveness beyond all imagining.”[3]

We like to think, “Yes! Treat them like tax collectors. Three strikes, they’re out.” But have you thought about how Jesus treated tax collectors?

Last time I checked, Jesus called them to be his disciples. And when they deserted him and denied him, he said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Then, he died on the cross for them.

The truth is, in our self-absorbed, self-centered, oftentimes vindictive little world, God’s math just doesn’t not add up.

On one of the news channels, someone was making the comparison between the damage in Florida and the damage to Barbuda. They actually said that the damage was worse in Florida, because the poor who lost everything in Barbuda, really did not have that much to lose. They said that the wealthy living on the coasts of Florida had much more to lose. And if you think about it, the numbers add up.

But, that’s our math. It’s not God’s math.

United Methodist Pastor William Willimon would say that what they failed to calculate is that “small, insignificant numbers like one sheep, or one insignificant person,” one little coin, one hour of labor, “become very large in God’s mathematics.”

Willimon continues: “On the other hand, the impressive accomplishments and wealth of the rich and powerful are seen as nothing.  As the prophet says, God’s ways are not our ways. God’s measurements are not our measurements.”  What we think adds up, doesn’t add up.

And, here’s the really good news. Because of God’s amazing grace, what we think doesn’t add up— adds up.

We look at something and say, “That just doesn’t make any sense. I don’t care how many times you count and recount, check and double check, that just doesn’t add up.”

And God responds: “O, yes it does! In the mathematics of my grace, it adds up!”

Pushing a child with special needs in a 5k 3.1 miles is greater than running a marathon by myself 26.2—adds up.

Giving a $100 to a flood survivor; expecting not one cent in return; yet feeling like someone gave you a million dollars —adds up.

Volunteering an hour to help someone in need when you do not have five minutes to spare only to discover that you had plenty of time—adds up.

Going to a nursing home to give a blessing to someone, but leaving the nursing home having received a greater blessing—adds up.

Coming to church with this incredible peace in their heart and a smile that lights up the entire room, just a couple of days after the death of her beloved husband of 69 years—adds up.

Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, yet he still has reasons to worship and to praise God in the sanctuary—adds up.

Facing one’s own imminent death, yet feeling more alive than a newborn and more hopeful than a newlywed—adds up.

With the meager full-time ministerial staff of one, a congregation that is much smaller than it used to be loves the people in their city so unconditionally, offers grace to others so unreservedly, and extends mercy so extravagantly, that it transforms not only their church, but their entire city, the region, even other parts of the world in ways beyond their calculations—adds up.

Go figure.

Lord, continue to take us to school. Lead us each week to this Sunday School of Math. Keep teaching us, keep training us, keep instructing us to count as you count, measure how you measure.  Amen.

 

Invitation to the Table

The Lord prepared a table for Christ in the presence of disciples who didn’t deserve it.

Yet, when Christ lifted the cup, it overflowed;

When Christ broke the bread, it multiplied.

So let us hold fast to our hope, that by grace all of us have been counted and are welcomed to this table. Let us prepare our hearts to receive this grace, as we remain seated and sing together.

 

Commissioning and Benediction

God has done accounting, gone over the figures, kept the books.

And by grace, each one of us here today has been counted.

Let us go and share the good news that in God’s mathematics, all people count, and all means all, in the name of the Christ our Teacher and Savior.

Amen.

 

[1]Idea for “Mathematics of Jesus” in the Matthean Parables was derived from William H. Willimon, The New Math (PR (33/3; Inter Grove Heights, Minnesota: Logos Productions, Inc., 2005), 49.

[2]Bruce Metzger, ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 27 NT.

[3]Leander Keck, ed., New Testament Articles, Matthew, Mark, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. 8 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 379.

Repeat the Sounding Joy

communionThe following was written by Alison Lord Stuart on January 12, 2015 for The Daily Reflector.

A good question to ask ourselves in the cold of January is just what will we take from Christmas into the New Year.  Maybe argyle socks, penny loafers, a cherished memory or an unspeakable loss.  Whatever it is that we fold in for the long journey, we will be different because of it.

Throughout December, I was mesmerized by certain words found in Joy To The World; “repeat the sounding joy.”  I have thought of the beauty wrapped into “sounding joy” and often wondered what it could be.  Then I heard it one morning at First Christian Church in Farmville and almost like an epiphany, I knew.  After the serving of Holy Communion, it was the sound of Communion cups being placed in pew holders. Similar, indeed, to the sound of pew benches being turned back after the serving of the same Sacrament. Both sounds indicating that our singular and corporate seeking of God’s forgiveness is fully present and fully heard.

For Believers, it is a majestic, full bodied, orchestration of sound.  The perfect balance; the fulcrum of falling short and being the beneficiary of unconditional love.  In a long week, month or year, it is a sound to be coveted. It is the sound of hope.

God’s will is that the discordance of our sin doesn’t have to be the end of our song or life story.  Forgiveness, strength and renewal are at God’s Table, there for the asking, freely given and freely received.

The sounding joy given to us by a Risen Savior is grace. It is in the wiping clean of our tarnished slates, in forgiving ourselves and others, and experiencing the dignity of a new beginning.  It is best heard when we rest our weary souls in the hollow of God’s hand, listen and repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

Grace in Galilee

easter angel

Mark 16:1-8 NRSV

The messenger tells the women at the tomb, “Go, tell his disciples—and Peter—that he is going ahead of you to Galilee’ there you will see him, just as he told you.”

What a peculiar thing to say. What does he mean “the disciples and Peter?”  Is Peter no longer a disciple? That’s like someone saying, “Go tell the choir—and Harold.”  When was Harold ever not a part of the choir?

Go tell the disciples—and Peter.  It would be, of course, fair to assume, that on this first Easter Sunday morning, Peter just might be outside Jesus’ circle of trust.

When Jesus is arrested in the garden of Gethsemene, John tells us that it was Peter who protested by drawing his sword and cutting the ear off the slave of the High Priest. Jesus chastises Peter and heals the man’s ear.  In this action, Peter proves that he has missed the whole point of Jesus’ ministry and purpose.  All throughout his ministry, Jesus spoke of turning the other cheek, laying down one’s life, losing one’s self, dying to self, and loving one’s enemies, and here is Peter, at the end of Jesus’ ministry, demonstrating that he doesn’t have a clue who Jesus is or what his Kingdom is all about.

Then after Jesus is arrested and taken to the high priest, Marks says that Peter followed behind at safe distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest where Jesus would be tried. He sat outside with the guards, warming himself at a fire when this servant girl of the high priest stares at him.  She then approaches Peter: “I know you. You were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.”  Peter denies it saying, “Girl, I don’t know and I don’t even understand what you’re talking about.”

Then Peter, trying to save his own skin, tries to make an exit.  This one who has been taught that those who try to save their life will lose it, slips out into the forecourt. A cock crows.

The same servant girl followed him and started talking about him to all the bystanders saying, “This man is definitely, one of them.”  But again, Peter denied it.  Then, it is one of the bystanders who goes up to Peter and says, “I know you’re with that Jesus, because you’re not from the city, you are from the country, you’re a Galilean.”

Then Peter, this disciple of Jesus, this one who has been taught by Jesus to do unto others as he would have them do unto him, this one who has been taught that the greatest commandment is to love one another, curses at the innocent bystander.  And then, this one who was taught by Jesus to never swear with an oath, let your yes be yes an your no be no, always be honest and truthful, lies again, this time emphatically, by swearing an oath, “I told you that I don’t know this man that you are talking about.”

And that moment, Mark says, the cock crowed for the second time.  Then Peter remembered Jesus’ words to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.”  And he broke down and wept.

So of course it is very fair to assume that Peter is now way outside the circle. Simon Peter simply never got it. He never got the point of understanding who Jesus was or what his Kingdom was all about.  Peter was as dumb at Easter as he was at Christmas.  One could say that he was a complete failure at being a disciple.

And what maybe worse, he was a failure and he knew that he was a failure.  That’s why we find him at the end of Mark’s story crying like a baby.

“Go tell the disciples and Peter—this has-been, washed-up and flunked-out disciple who is far, far outside my circle.”

Now, it would be easy to believe this interpretation if it wasn’t for one important fact.  All of the disciples were flunkies.  In the Gospel of Mark, none of them get it.  After Jesus was arrested, while Peter was following the soldiers and Jesus into the courtyard of the High Priest, where are all of the others?  Read verse 50 of chapter 14.  “All of them deserted him and fled.”

They’re all losers. They all cared more about their own lives then they did Jesus.  And not only that, even the women in Mark’s gospel, the women who always appear in the gospels to be just a little more astute than the men, even the women do not seem to get it.  “Go tell the disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him just as he told you.”  And what did they do? “Go, tell,” said the angel.  Read verse 8:  “and they said nothing to anyone.”

No, in saying, go tell the disciples and Peter, the messenger of God was not inferring that Peter was outside the circle. God was saying that Peter, despite everything that he had done, despite everything that he hadn’t done, despite his stupidity, his failings, his denials, Peter was still very much in the circle.

The angel was saying: “Go tell all the disciples that Jesus has be raised for them, and please, especially tell Peter. Tell him to dry up his tears in spite of all of his sin, his failure to follow Jesus, and his denials.”

Jesus is alive for all, maybe more so for Peter.

“Please let this one who feels like an outcast, who feels so much outside the circle of God’s love, that if Death could not separate him from Jesus love, his sin and his denials were certainly not going to do it. Jesus is alive for all of the disciples, and even, especially Peter, especially this one who realizes his failure. Jesus is alive for even Peter, and the good news is, even for you and for even me.

Go tell the disciples and Peter. It is not a peculiar thing to say. It is good news. It is not odd. It is amazing. It is good, amazing grace.  It is the good, amazing news of Easter. God offered us the very best that God had to offer, the gift of God’s self through Jesus Christ. We reciprocated that gift with the worse that we had to offer—the cross.  And yet, God still raises Jesus from the dead and sends him back to the very ones who nailed him to a tree.

Now, let me tell you what’ really odd about this text. “Go tell the disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee.”  To Galilee?  Now that’s peculiar. On the first day of his eternal life, Jesus decides not to go to the capital city, not to the places of power and prestige, not to where he could really get some attention, be some breaking news before millions, but he chooses to go to Galilee.[i]

Compared to Jerusalem, Galilee is backwoods, insignificant. Galilee is way out in the country, way out of the way.

One might have thought, that upon being raised from the dead, Jesus would stride triumphantly back into Jerusalem. Imagine what a stirring sight that would have been. Jesus could have strolled right into the palace and said, “Pontius Pilate, I am afraid you’ve made a big mistake.”  Or he might have stood on the steps of the temple, chiding the crowds for their fickleness and betrayal, showing himself to the multitudes that were present when he was crucified.

Jesus, however did none of that.  Rather, he went on ahead of his own disciples to meet them back in Galilee.

That is, Jesus will meet his disciples in a rather ordinary place, a place where their discipleship began. Jesus had come out to where they lived, out to Galilee. They had attempted to be his disciples mostly in Galilee. It was in Galilee where they left good paying jobs, their families all forms of security to follow Jesus.

In Jerusalem, they had betrayed and deserted him.  Back home, in Galilee they accepted and followed him.

And Jesus goes back home—to Galilee. The failure of the disciples, the denial of Peter, the disobedience of the women, none of this is the end of the story. A fresh start can be made, and where will this new beginning be? Where is the risen Christ? Back where it all began, back home in Galilee.

The good news of Easter is that in spite of our sins, our failures to follow him, our denials and betrayals, Jesus is alive—Jesus is on the loose—Jesus is moving.  Where?  Out in Galilee.  He’s out where the disciples live. He’s out where you live and I live. At home, out in Galilee.

The risen Christ always appears to the disciples in the most ordinary of places: at breakfast, on the beach, while they are at work.  Something about the risen Christ loves to meet people in the most ordinary places.  That’s good if you want to meet Jesus, because most of us live and most of us work in ordinary places, like Galilee.

Go tell the disciples and especially Peter that Jesus is going ahead of them to Galilee. And, there in Galilee, there in a most ordinary place, you will find grace.

Go tell these sinful, selfish, human beings, these very ordinary fishermen, even this one named Peter who thinks I have forsaken him, that I am going ahead of them, back to the place where it all started.  Forgiveness of sins, a fresh new beginning, a brand new start is available where?  In the most ordinary of places—at home, where you live, where you work.

The good news is that no matter what we have done, no matter who we are, even if we are just as dumb at Easter as we were at Christmas, Jesus lives for us. And we don’t have to go anywhere special or do anything special to meet him. He’s gone on, ahead of you, ahead of me.  He’s gone to where we live.

The good news of this day of days is that we, even sinners like us, can go home today. We can go back to our homes here in Farmville, in Fountain, in Wilson, Tarboro, Greenville, Winterville, New Bern, we can even go down back into Greene County, and there, wherever we go, in our most ordinary place, we will find that Jesus is already there, enveloping us with grace, filling our hearts with love with love, giving us a fresh new beginning, a brand new start.

So, go!  Go home. And begin living the first day of your eternal life.

 

[i] Inspired from William Willimon, He Came Back to Us .(http://www.northalabamaumc.org/blogs/detail/177), 2008

 

Lent: A Time to Tell the Truth

lenten_cross

A few years ago an Episcopal church in a coastal South Carolina town created a ruckus as when it placed three crosses on the lawn adjacent to their church. They draped them in purple for Lent. After a week or so, the church received a call from the local Chamber of Commerce.

They called complaining, “We hate to cause any trouble, but Spring Break is right the corner, and the tourist season is starting to crank up. And we think those crosses that you’ve erected are just sending the wrong message to visitors on the beach. People don’t want to come down here for a vacation and be confronted with unpleasantness.  On vacation, people want to be escape from all of the unpleasantries of life and relax, be comfortable.”

Well, after much debate, the church stood its ground, and the three crosses stayed.  “It’s Lent,” said the church. “People are supposed to be uncomfortable.”  William Willimon calls Lent “the season of unpleasant uncomfortability.”

Willimon says that one of the reasons this season we call Lent is so unpleasant is that it forces us “to confront so many of those truths about ourselves that we spend much of the rest of our lives avoiding.” Here, during this Lenten season, “we try to tell the truth about ourselves, and sometimes the truth hurts.”

Lent is a time to honestly say, “I am a rotten scoundrel. I do things that I ought not do. I know they are wrong, yet I do them anyway.  I don’t do things that I know I should do. I think way too better of myself than I ought. Even my best deeds are tainted with pride and selfishness.  Sin is so much a part of my life that I cannot escape it.”

Yes, this is the season of telling the truth, even if it pains us a bit.  But here’s the good news.  The truth will set us free! No matter how hideous, disgusting, and abominable our sins are, the God’s honest truth will always set us free, because in Jesus Christ, we have been loved, forgiven and accepted.

On Ash Wednesday, we will gather together to worship. During this special service we tell the truth, and then, we will hear the truth.  We could not do right by God, so God, in Christ, did right by us.

A Transfigured Church

transfig

Matthew 17:1-9 NRSV

Jesus took just a few of his disciples, Peter, James and John, with him up a high mountain by themselves.

I believe that is exactly where Jesus wants to take us this morning.

He wants to take all of us here this morning, who represent just a few of his disciples in this world, high up a mountain.

Up high to a sacred, transcendent place where we can see the world around us more fully; and thus, see ourselves more honestly and see Jesus more abundantly. Up high to a holy place where our eyes are magnified, and our senses are heightened to a brand new illuminated reality.

And there, by ourselves, Jesus wants to spend some very intimate moments with us. He wants to personally speak to us, speak to our very hearts in a way that will transfigure us, transform us, change us forever.

So this morning, right now, I want to invite you to take Jesus by the hand and leave behind your world, all of your troubles and burdens, all of the plans that you have already made for this day, even for this hour, and allow Jesus to take you up high to this place that we all need to go.

Go ahead, let’s take his hand and walk with him. Although we do not know exactly where we’re going, and although we do not even always fully understand who this Jesus is who is leading us, let’s just follow—let us faithfully follow as he leads us upward.

As soon as we get to the top, he does not waste any time revealing to us, that although it is beyond our mortal comprehension, he is the fulfillment of the Hebrew Bible. He is the culmination of the Law and Moses and the messages of Elijah and the prophets. For a moment, however fleeting, our eyes see it. And our ears hear an affirmation. It is inexplicable, yet undeniable: A divine affirmation that he is none other than the beloved Son of God sent not to condemn, but to save the world (John 3:17).

It is a magnificent scene. We are standing in the very presence of the Holy One—the creator of all that is. We are so enamored that we want nothing more than make this place our home.

As we are begging to stay, we are interrupted by what first sounds like thunder. In our fearful silence we hear three words from heaven that we’ve have heard before. In fact, we heard it the very first time we met this Jesus, the first time we heard Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell his story, the first time we heard him speak, but this time we hear it even more convincingly and credibly and divinely: “Listen to him.”

The words are so real and so true, that even if it is just for a moment, all doubt vanishes, as we recognize that these three words, this holy command is the key to not only our salvation and the salvation of all humanity, but they are the key for the redemption of all creation.

We cannot help but to fall to the ground. Awe and fear and wonder paralyze us. Unable to move, barely able to breathe, our heart feeling like it is about to beat out of our chest, his hand reaches out and touches us. A peace beyond all understanding overshadows us (Phil 4:4). And we look up and the only one we see, the only thing we see is Jesus…like we’ve never seen him before.

Listen to him…listen to him as he looks us in the eyes, calls us by name and says…

I am your God. I have created you and formed you with my own hands. Before you knew me, I knew you and before you loved me, I loved you (Jer 1:5). I love you with a love that is without reservations, without conditions and without limits (Rom 5:8). Please understand what this means. I do not love you like the Pharisees who say that they love you but hate your sin. For my love does not keep a record of wrong doing (1 Cor 13:5). You must please know that in my eyes, your sins have been removed as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12) and my love for you will never end.

Listen to me, you have to know that there is absolutely nothing in all of creation that can ever separate you from my love (Rom 8:39).

Please do not doubt that I will never leave nor forsake you (Deut 31:6). I am the God of love, mercy and compassion. I am the God of empathy and grace. I love you with a love that cannot be earned and can never be forfeited simply because you are my beloved daughters, you are my beloved sons (2 Cor 6:18).

You were created by me, you came from me; therefore, you are a part of me. And when your journey of life on this earth ends, you will return to me. Listen to me, for I want you to continue this journey consciously with me, alongside me. Because I want you to forever be with me, so close to me that you always know that my grace envelops you, my love enfolds you (Luke 13:34).

I know all of your thoughts. I hear all of your words. I see all of your actions. I am aware of all of your inactions. I know the best you. I know the potential you. And I know the worst you. And I even know the potential evil within you. And I love you. I love you because you are beautiful, made in my own image, an expression of my most intimate love (Psalm 139 and Gen 1:27).

Do not judge yourself. Let my love touch the deepest, most hidden corners of your soul and reveal your own beauty, a beauty that you have lost sight of, but which will be revealed to you again in the light of my grace (Psalm 139:7).

Listen to me. For I want this to be the very heart of your faith in me. Your faith is not about right beliefs or even right actions. Your faith is not about being against this or that, nor is it about being for this or that. The core of your faith is about your identity, your very being, as my beloved child, as a part of me (Gal 2:20).

This is called living in the Spirit. This is what you taste even now on this mountain. My face shines. Even my garments are aglow. For my heart, my core, my very being is infused with the love of God. Listen to me and your face will shine also (Gal 5:16-26).

Listen to me, take and eat, for this is my body broken for you. Eat, chew, swallow my love for you. You don’t have to fully comprehend it, just accept it, eat it, let it go into your body and always remember that you are what you eat (Matt 26:26). You are my body. Remember, when Saul was persecuting the Church, I asked him, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” You are the embodiment of my love in this world.

Take this cup and drink. Drink my grace. Consume my forgiveness. And then be what you drink. This is your identity. This is who you are. This is how you live. Live in the Spirit of my love that is inside of you, apart of you, and you will bear the fruits of that Spirit (Col 1).

I know that this world is fragile and fragmented. Death, divorce, disease, hatred, discrimination, bigotry and violence are everywhere. But listen to me. So am I. I am everywhere suffering with you. When you weep, I weep (John 11:35).

But I am also there resurrecting, redeeming, restoring, re-creating. I am everywhere working all things together for the good. I am everywhere emptying myself, pouring my self out, giving all that I have and all that I am. I am everywhere wringing whatever good can be wrung out of every tragedy. I am everywhere in this world transforming despair into hope; transfiguring brokenness into wholeness, and changing death into life because I love this world. That is why I am here (Rom 8:28).

It is also why you are here (John 20:21).

So, come closer to me, let me wipe away your tears (Rev. 21:4), let my mouth come close to your ear and say to you again and again, I love you. I love you. I love you. Let me say it until you not only believe it but become it, be it, live it. Let my love flow through you (John 15:5).

We say, “Jesus, it is good that we stay here forever!”

But Jesus responds by telling us what we already knew. It is now time to come down from the mountain. But unlike the time the first disciples who went with him to this sacred higher ground, Jesus tells us to share this experience with all people (Matt 28:19).

As we walk down the mountain with Jesus, we ask: “Why did you want Peter, James, and John to wait to share their experience until after your death and resurrection?”

And Jesus responds:

My love for you and for this world is so deep, my grace is so wide, my mercy is so high that no one would believe it unless God did something absolutely earth shaking (Eph 3:18).

To reveal the height the breadth and the depth of God’s love for this world, God came into the world offering the world the very best gift that God had to offer. God came into the world knowing that people, especially the people who claimed to be the people of God, would not receive that gift and would nail that gift to a tree. And God would resurrect that gift giving that gift right back to the very ones who crucified him (John 1:11).

Thus, revealing to all of creation, that if God can turn around the killing of God, then there is nothing that God cannot turn around. If God can resurrect, redeem, restore the killing of God, then there is hope for us all (Rom 8:11).

And with all of creation, we are changed. We are transformed. We are forever transfigured (2 Cor 5:17).

Happy Birthday, Carson! Ah, 19

Carson
Carson with his sister, Sara

My son Carson, who many say favors me, turns 19 today. Ah, 19.

I do see myself in him in a few ways: in his smile, in some of his mannerisms, in his creativity, and in his public speaking.

Then he possesses many traits that I can only pray to God to one day obtain: an unwavering confidence, uncompromised ethics and a maturity that does not match his age. Maybe those traits came from his mother!

And then there are those attributes that I can only envy. After all, he is 19. His entire life is before him. There is so much hope and promise. A clean slate of adulthood awaits him. He has yet to burn a bridge, amass debts, disappoint loved ones and make costly mistakes.

Ah, 19. If I only knew then what I know now. If I could only go back. Do some things over. Make some different choices.

When Jesus suggested to Nicodemus that he could be born anew, Nicodemus asked if he could physically go back. Although he was being sarcastic, perhaps he was thinking about being 19 again.

Jesus responded by saying something like: “If you are born of the Spirit, the Spirit will make you anew in ways that you’ve never imagined!”  John 3:1-10 NRSV

Nicodemus could not physically go back, but he could spiritually go forward, anew, enveloped in grace.

With faith in this Spirit, maybe I favor my 19-year-old son more than I thought. With faith, perhaps we all do.