Living Hope

April 20, 2014 1 comment

Delivered at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, Easter Sunday, NL Year 4.
Text: Jn 20.1-18

If any of you were here last Sunday, you know that the message I had was not happy. In fact, it was kind of depressing. I know that there have been many conversations around town in the salons and diners about it, and I know that many of them have not been good. Let me tell you that it was no more pleasant or joyful from this end, either. A few of you were even brave enough to come talk to me about that message, and I’m thankful for that.

I do not enjoy delivering hard messages like that. They break my heart. However, I am called to preach the word of God, and sometimes God’s word stings. If you don’t believe me, read the prophets sometime. When I was ordained, I took a vow. I promised God and God’s Church that I would never give occasion for false hope. What I hope my words destroyed last week was false hope.

It is human nature to tend to trust in ourselves and our own abilities. We are hardy and self-reliant, we endure. If you were not here last week, my message is that we don’t endure. Like our bodies, all human things come to an end. That is the message of Palm Sunday.

Thankfully, the message of Easter is that though all human things must end, the things of God never do. Last week, we heard an account of Jesus entering Jerusalem, praised as a king. We also heard that instead of being crowned and enthroned, he was tortured and crucified. For anybody else, that would have been the end of the story, and we would not be here today.

But we are here today. We are here today because even though Jesus died, the power of God brought him back; and because of God’s power over death, death has no power over us. This means that we have hope for our own resurrection after death, for new life after we die just as Jesus had, but it also means so much more than that.

If we hope in ourselves—our works, our strength, our abilities—then our story ends at the grave. The same goes for our congregation: if we hope in our building, our institution, our denomination, our ability to draw people in, then we will perish. This hope is false hope, and I cannot stand here and say that everything is lollipops and roses when you know as well as I do that is not the case. I can stand here and tell you that our hope is not in this congregation, but in the one who died on a cross for it and for us; the one who three days later rose from the dead.

Palm Sunday is a reminder of all those terrible things we have encountered. As a congregation, we have survived conflict and change, we have weathered schism and decline. Palm Sunday is a reminder to us that those things will continue to happen. The challenges and dangers I named hurt us because they are real. As a preacher, it is my responsibility to name those things, not to avoid them or make light of them. They can and will kill us. Again and again we will find ourselves facing the cross.

Thankfully, the message of Palm Sunday is followed by the message of Easter Sunday; a message to reminds us that no matter how often we face the cross, we do not need to fear it; in fact, we can even embrace it, because in Christ, it cannot destroy us. Because we belong to Christ, even death—in all its forms—can only make us stronger. If we die trusting in ourselves and the power or glory of our own congregation, then that death is defeat; but if we die trusting in the love and the power of Christ, like him, we will walk out of the tomb.

Christ is risen! [Christ is risen indeed!] And we are the body of Christ. Even if our town, our congregation, our denomination falls apart and dies, we never will. This community of faith will endure forever, because in baptism we have already died with Christ and been raised with him, and in Holy Communion we are fed with the very flesh and blood of the one who walked out of the tomb. Through these sacraments, through this community of friends, family and neighbors, Christ’s life becomes our life.

Our hope comes from the fact that even if this congregation were to die, the Church will live on. These relationships will live on. This community has made its indelible mark on each of us, and we have been changed by it. Our hope is not actually in this building or this community, but in Jesus Christ, and the fact that he lives in spite of having died is what allows us to have hope for this building and this community.

Our goal and our passion is for this community to grow, but why? Is it so that we can fill our pews and our plates, or maintain our building, or get volunteers to run our programs, or sing in our choir, or admire our windows? Even though that’s how it often comes across, I don’t think that’s all we’re interested in.

What we really want is to reach people with the amazing good news that life is more than the daily grind, the sum of our joys and our fears; that this abundant life Jesus told us about is found in service to and love for our neighbors; and that this place and this community have made such a profound impact on our lives that we want to share it with the world. What we really want is to shout to the world that Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed!] and to explain to them how that good news has made our lives so much more meaningful and rich.

We gather today to remember that Jesus lived and died for us, he rose from the dead for us. His life is what gives us hope, and it is also what gives us this living, loving community of friends, family and neighbors. Whatever we do with and for this community is not for us—not for Our Redeemers—but for the people whom God loves, the people for whom Christ lived, died and rose from the dead.

I’m sorry that my words last week hurt so much, but I wanted us to stop focusing on all the faults and fights of this place because they are not important. What is important is what you all have been sharing with one another this week: all the reasons why this place is not dying, and the joy and expectation for Easter. I cannot stand here and give false hope in our ability to survive as a congregation, but I can proclaim our true hope in Christ, and that, in spite of our weaknesses as a congregation, new life in Christ is spouting up everywhere.

We have a vibrant community, poised and ready to step outside of this building and love the heck out of this town. We have motivated and talented people here with all kinds of gifts to offer this community: gifts of time, wealth, passion, ingenuity, and dedication. We have new excitement and new growth in our worship, in our Sunday school, in our church council and on our boards. Wonderful things are happening in this place because of the love of God that has not and cannot be destroyed by conflict, division and death.

This is the real hope of Easter, born out here and now among us. Yes, it is a hope in life after death with God, but more than that, it is a hope in abundant life in this community as we daily face the crosses that life brings and daily are resurrected anew by the Word of God made flesh, the source of all life and light.

Christ is risen! [Christ is risen indeed!] He is risen here and now, among us. We see him in the faces beside us, we meet him at the table set before us, and we feel his resurrected, abundant life coursing through our veins in this community. Because he lives, we live also, and nothing—neither life nor death, angels nor demons, princes nor rulers, conflict nor division, nor gossip nor hopelessness—will ever separate us from the eternal life of God given to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. Christ is risen! [Christ is risen indeed!] Amen, Hallelujah!

Behold, Your Mother

April 17, 2014 1 comment

Delivered at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, Maundy Thursday, NL Year 4.
Text: Jn 19.23-30

Normally on this night, we read from the 13th chapter of John, not the 19th. We typically share the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and giving them the commandment, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This commandment, or mandate, is what gives this day its name: “Maundy.”

The story we hear tonight, though very different, paints for us the same picture. On the night that he washed their feet, Jesus told his disciples that the greatest love one person can have for another is to die for them, and that is where we find Jesus now: dying for his friends. And yet, even as he hangs dying, still his mind is on them.

He sees before his cross his mother. She is crying, weeping for the loss of her son, dying inside just as surely as he is. Next to her, his beloved disciple, a man with whom he has shared his life and his ministry. He opens his parched lips and says to them, “Behold, your son. Behold, your mother.” One of Jesus’ final acts in his life is to create community here for the people who he loves.

This is not just Jesus showing compassion for his mother and his friend. This is what he has come to do. His whole life, his whole ministry have been about forging community among people, bringing us together with one another and with God. He is the Word of God made flesh, the Lamb of God come to take away the sin of the world. For John, sin is separation from God and one another, isolation and loneliness. This is what Jesus has come to save us from. The gift he gives to his mother and his disciple from the cross is the gift of love in community that is stronger even than death.

The gift he gave them with his dying breath is the same gift we celebrate tonight. The love that Jesus commands us to have for one another, the love even unto death, is what has created this community gathered here. We, too, come to gather with Jesus, to receive his love in the form of his own flesh and blood, and in this sacrament of Holy Communion, we are transformed into this community.

This community is no ordinary group of people, it is a gift from God. In the midst of the mess and chaos of the crucifixion, John points us to a small, seemingly insignificant event at the foot of the cross. The four soldiers had taken Jesus clothes and divided them, but the fifth item of clothing was a seamless tunic, woven, we are told, “from the top.” Rather than divide this four ways as well, they throw dice to see who will get it, and it remains whole.

In Greek, the word for “from the top” can also be translated “from above,” and is used only in two other places in John’s gospel. The first is in chapter 3, when Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born “from above,” and the second is earlier in this chapter, when Jesus tells Pilate that any power he has over Jesus has been given him “from above.” This tunic, woven “from above” and seamless, which is spared from being torn and divided, is a symbol for the community of Jesus, a community called the Church. Even at his death, the Church is not divided, but its unity is preserved.

Community is essential to human life. Without community, we wither and die as surely as if we were denied food or water. This is why Jesus brought his mother and his disciple together at the cross: so that they could love and care for one another when he was gone. It is why he brings us together now. I know this better than most.

Many of you know that when I was 10, my mother died from cancer. When she died, I was lost. I felt alone and afraid. But I wasn’t alone. In addition to my family, my whole congregation felt the pain of her loss. It was in that confusion and sorrow during her sickness and death that Jesus said to us, “Behold, your son. Behold, your mother.” And like our story today, from that day forward the Church as been my mother, and I am her son. The people in that congregation cared for me and nurtured me, they raised me and prepared me and sent me out to serve the Church. They are forever my family.

That’s the reason I am here tonight; because in the Church I have been given the gift of community. In the Church, I have felt most fully and clearly the love of God. When I decided to devote my life to God, I gave myself to loving and serving the Church, because it was through the Church that God first loved me. The Church is my community, my family, my mother. You are my family.

This is the gift Christ gives us. He takes us when we are separate and isolated and weaves us together into one. He creates unity from seclusion. And through that community, he gives us the gift of love, of support, of compassion, of consolation, of life. He takes a collection of broken, flawed, sometimes even nasty people and creates from us a loving, caring, nurturing community in the Church.

He does this by feeding us with himself. Jesus Christ has given his life for us; in his love, he has given us his very self to eat. His flesh strengthens us, his blood gives us new life. On the cross, Jesus was lifted up to draw all people to himself; in the same way, at this table, he meets us and brings us together into one. He says to us, “Behold, your father. Behold, your sister. Behold, your daughter. Behold, your brother…”

lastsupper

We all know our community here is not perfect. There are quarrels and divisions. There are lines drawn in the sand. There are people that we try to avoid if we can. In spite of all that, through the love of Christ and the grace of God given to us in this holy supper, we become the Church, the Body of Christ. That’s not all: we are but one expression of that body, one limb of the body, one hair on the head.

In this meal, we are united with all God’s people, across time and space. Death and distance to not separate us: the tunic remains whole. We gather at one table, and with us gather all the saints in all the places and all the times that ever were or will be. In this meal, I kneel beside my mother. And my grandmother. And my great grandmother. In this meal, we all kneel beside Peter and Paul and all the saints of Christ’s Church.

Christ gives us himself in this meal, and in this meal, he becomes a part of us. Just as the bread and the wine is incorporated into our bodies, Jesus himself becomes a part of us: he abides in us, and we in him. In the meal, he continues to draw us all to himself, until we are one, woven from the top, never to be divided.

I hope that all of us, but most especially those of you receiving first communion tonight, know this about the Church: wherever you go, whatever you do, the Church will always be home for you. You may move to a different city or state or country or continent; you may become more faithful or less; you may come to this table every week or once a year; but regardless of who you become over the course of your life, the Church is now and forever will be your home. There is always, always a place set for you at this table, and all of us—your family, your friends, your neighbors, even your ancestors and your descendants—will always be gathering there with you, no matter how far apart we may be.

The Church is your home; Christ has died to make it so. With his final breath, he cried out “It is finished!” The word he used can also be translated “it is accomplished,” like a goal that has been met. In his ultimate act of love, he accomplished the work that makes us one. From the cross, he gives us this gift so that no matter where we are, we will always be able to know the immense love that he has for us through the love of the Church.

 

Triduum

April 17, 2014 Leave a comment

The time between Palm Sunday (sometimes also called Passion Sunday) and Easter Sunday is called Holy Week. During this period, Christians commemorate the last week of Jesus’ life: his joyous entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, his last supper with his disciples and his subsequent arrest on Maundy Thursday, his crucifixion and death on Good Friday, and the vigil at the tomb on Holy Saturday.

These last three days—Thursday, Friday and Saturday—are home to a special worship service, called the Triduum [TRID-you-um]. The Triduum is a single worship service that spans the Three Days. It begins on Maundy Thursday, but there is no dismissal; instead the service continues as people leave the church and go about their lives on Friday, when we gather again. In the same way, the worship continues from Friday night into Saturday night.

The old tradition of Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday began with a bonfire at sundown. Throughout the entire night, Christians would huddle together in the light and warmth of the fire, telling stories of the saving acts of God recorded in sacred scripture—Creation, the Fall, the Flood, the Covenant with Abraham, etc.—and pray together, waiting for the Easter dawn. At Sunrise, they would celebrate communion together and proclaim Christ’s resurrection. Many congregations celebrate either Easter Vigil worship or Easter Sunrise worship; both services are born out of this vigil tradition.

This year, as we have in the past, Our Redeemer’s and Shepherd of the Hills each have their own Maundy Thursday services. On Friday, Benson has a community Tenebrae service. Tenebrae is a simple, solemn service during which the Passion narrative is read in twelve segments. Each segment is accompanied by prayer and song, and candles are gradually extinguished until the worship space is left in darkness. This is where the service gets its name: tenebrae is Latin for “darkness.” Finally, Shepherd of the Hills will host an Easter Vigil service for anyone who would like to attend.

If you are in the Benson area and would like to join us, Good Friday Tenebrae is at Pilgrim UCC at 8pm. Easter Vigil is at Shepherd of the Hills at 7pm. We’d love to have you.

Good Friday and Easter Vigil will not have sermons, so I will not be posting any. I may try to find something appropriate to put up in their place to accompany you through the Triduum, but it depends on how much other stuff I need to do this weekend.

In any case, blessings to you this Holy Week, and may the joy of Easter be yours.

Categories: nota bene Tags: , , ,

God’s Kind of King

April 13, 2014 2 comments

Delivered at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, Palm/Passion Sunday, NL Year 4.
Text: Jn 12.12-28; Jn 19.14-22

Today is ironic. It’s meant to be ironic. Today began with the shouts of jubilant crowds, welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem as they waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna”—which means, “Lord, save us!” They rejoiced because when they saw Jesus, they saw Jesus the miracle worker who fed the 5000 on the lakeshore, who raised Lazarus from the dead. They saw Jesus the revolutionary, come to confront the religious leaders who were trying to kill him. They saw Jesus the king, the one who would finally liberate them from the Romans and inaugurate God’s reign on earth. It’s ironic because even as we join in their celebration, we know that when Jesus entered that city, he was not the messiah they expected. He came to Jerusalem not to work miracles or thwart Pharisees or defeat armies, but to die.

When it became clear that he was going to do none of these things, the crowds deserted him, even turned on him. The shouts of “Hosanna” on Sunday became shouts of “Crucify” on Friday. Jesus let all those people down, because he wasn’t there to fulfill their expectations of him, but God’s; and that expectation led him to the cross. And when he was at his lowest and looked least like a king, who was it that dressed him in a robe and crowned him and hailed him as “King of the Jews?” Not his own people, but the Romans.

Even knowing all this, we still proclaim Jesus our king. We welcome him today with the same palm branches, those same shouts of “Lord, save us!” But do we really know what that means? Are we really ready to declare Jesus our king? If we do, then we must follow where he leads.

This is perhaps the most important reason why we celebrate this day. Like those crowds outside Jerusalem, we too have expectations of Jesus. I know from talking to all of you that what we want and hope for this place is a return to the glory we once knew. We expect to see a sanctuary filled with people, a Sunday School as bright and bustling as it used to be. We expect people to come here and to give their time and money because it’s what they ought to do. We want our children to come and be acolytes and line up in white gowns for confirmation because that’s the way it should be done. We hope to see a day again when we can have two pastors of our very own who will both be up here every week leading worship. And so, we too shout, “Lord, save us!” Save us from irrelevance, save us from being forgotten, save us from a slow death.

But if this is what we are waiting for, we are going to be disappointed just like those crowds. We too will be disgusted with a Jesus who doesn’t seem to care about us at all, or who seems powerless to do anything at all to help us. We too will turn on him, we too may even call out “Crucify!”

Jesus doesn’t come to fit our idea of what a messiah should be. He doesn’t come to save us from death, but rather to lead us to it, because that is the kind of king God knows we need. Jesus came willingly to Jerusalem and allowed himself to be betrayed, arrested, tried and put to death because that was what he knew had to be done. “I lay down my life in order to take it up again,” he tells us. “No one takes it from me,” not Judas, not the chief priests or Pharisees, not the Romans, “but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” (John 10.17-18) This is where our king is leading us; do you still want to follow?

Even now, the Church is dying. Congregations are shrinking as more and more people leave out of distrust for organized religion. This congregation is dying, too. There will come a day when we will no longer exist as Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church. We will merge with Trinity, or with Pilgrim, or with First E-Free. This building will be sold off or torn down or simply abandoned, along with all the churches in town. Our congregations, even our denominations may cease to exist. On that day, all the things over which we fight so hard and on which expend so much energy will seem very distant indeed.

This is the path down which Christ leads us. It is into this death that we have been baptized. When we follow him, we are always walking towards the cross.  However, even as we walk down this path, we remember that it was for us that Jesus laid down his life. It was for us that he faced the humiliation and pain of the cross, and it is for us that he leads us down the same path.

I absolutely believe that there will come a day when the Church as we know it will cease to exist. I also believe that on that day, the remnant of the faithful will remember what it is to be baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, what it means to be claimed as God’s children apart from all the magnificent buildings and congregational programs and sacred music.

As Jesus entered the city that day, he knew that he had to die. All the expectations, all the hopes, all the dreams that those people placed on him were keeping them from seeing what God was really up to. It would not be until they gave up hope for miracles, for food, for revolution or for freedom that they would be able to understand that God had something even better in mind. And so, he went to the cross so that all those expectations and hopes and dreams could be crucified with him. He died for us to show us how it’s done.

Like our king, we also need to die to ourselves. We hear that a lot, but if we are going follow this Christ, we need to take it seriously and understand what it means. If we are ever to figure out where God is calling us, if we are ever to become the kind of congregation in the kind of Church that God is calling us to be, we have allow all those dreams of our own glory, our own power, our own safety, even our own survival to die with Jesus. He brings us to the cross so that we can die with him. He brings us to the cross to save us.

If there is no death, there can be no resurrection. In order for the Church to rise up and become the Church God intends us to be, we must first die. We must give up all hope that we will ever be the biggest and best congregation in all of Benson; we must let go of the idea that we deserve our own building; we must put to death those memories of our past greatness.

Jesus our king leads us to the cross for our own good. Unless we first die to ourselves, unless all those hangups and expectations and rose-colored memories die with us, we will fade away into irrelevance; like a single grain of wheat, we will remain alone. But when we die, when all those distractions are laid to rest, then, like a grain of wheat falling into the earth and dying, we will bear fruit. Then we will become a servant church, a church that doesn’t exist to serve its own needs and desires, but instead serves the community around us and makes God’s world a better place by our presence.

The Church as we know it be gone, but there will remain is faith in God’s goodness; there will remain the ongoing story of Jesus’ love. Those things, and those things alone—not our traditions, nor our expectations, nor anything of ours—will raise up for God a new Church, a resurrected Church, a servant Church that will love and proclaim Christ through to the end of time.

Today on Palm Sunday, we hail our king as he enters into Jerusalem, knowing that his death is imminent.  We sing “Hosanna”— “Lord, save us!”— and Jesus does indeed come to save us, but not how we would expect. Jesus our king saves us by leading us to the cross to die.

 

Radioactive

April 6, 2014 Leave a comment

Delivered at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, Lent 5, NL Year 4.
Text: Jn 19.1-16a

Today the confirmation class led our worship service. This sermon was written and delivered by a confirmation student, based on the scripture reading and the song Radioactive by Imagine Dragons. I worked with him on pulling out some connecting themes and then put our thoughts together into this sermon. This is, by and large, his work; I merely put it together.

Today’s story is pretty dark. It tells about how badly Jesus’ own people wanted to kill him. Even Pilate, the Roman governor, wanted to set Jesus free, but chief priests wouldn’t let him. It seems Pilate didn’t have as much power as he thought he did.

This story made us think of the song “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons. We’ll play it now. Listen to the words of the song and pay attention to the images it creates in your minds.

 

 

I’m waking up to ash and dust
I wipe my brow and I sweat my rust
I’m breathing in the chemicals

I’m breaking in, shaping up,
then checking out on the prison bus

This is it, the apocalypse
Whoa

I’m waking up, I feel it in my bones
Enough to make my system blow
Welcome to the new age, to the new age
Welcome to the new age, to the new age
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, I’m radioactive, radioactive
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, I’m radioactive, radioactive

I raise my flags, don my clothes
It’s a revolution, I suppose
We’re painted red to fit right in
Whoa

I’m breaking in, shaping up,
then checking out on the prison bus

This is it, the apocalypse
Whoa

I’m waking up, I feel it in my bones
Enough to make my system blow
Welcome to the new age, to the new age
Welcome to the new age, to the new age
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, I’m radioactive, radioactive
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, I’m radioactive, radioactive

All systems go, the sun hasn’t died
Deep in my bones, straight from inside

I’m waking up, I feel it in my bones
Enough to make my system blow
Welcome to the new age, to the new age
Welcome to the new age, to the new age
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, I’m radioactive, radioactive
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, I’m radioactive, radioactive

The words and the music of this song are dark, like our story today. The singer seems to be telling about how he is a prisoner to a bad choice he made, or something he did wrong. The first verse talks about ash and dust, chemicals and rust. It sounds like a very hard and painful life. He’s checking out on the prison bus, because this is it, the apocalypse.

But then, something else happens. He gets a new start, a new life. A new age is coming, he can feel it in his bones. This is what Jesus does for us: he cures us of the things that make us sick and guides us through tough times. Because of Jesus, hope is still alive, even when the world around us seems lost and hopeless.

The chief priests in the story made a bad choice. They chose to have Jesus crucified. They wanted to kill God’s son. When Jesus was put to death, it was like the end of the world—the apocalypse. Everything was over, God was dead.

In the song, the singer says that the apocalypse brings a new age. Jesus’ death was no different. Because of God’s love, we are not captive to the bad choices we make when we reject Jesus. Thanks to him, even when everything seems wrecked and ruined, “the sun isn’t dead.” Each new day brings a new chance.

Because Jesus lives, like the singer we can raise our flags and don our clothes and get ready for the revolution. God is changing things, and those changes start with us. We are radioactive for Jesus!

I’m waking up, I feel it in my bones
Enough to make my system blow
Welcome to the new age!

Exonerating Pilate

March 30, 2014 Leave a comment

Delivered at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church. Lent 4, NL Year 4.
Text: Jn 18.28-40

Now that the high priest has finished questioning Jesus, he is sent to Pilate. Pilate is an interesting character in the bible, but not because of what he does. He’s interesting because of what he doesn’t do. Pilate was pretty infamous for being cruel. “His administration was characterized by corruption, violence, robberies, ill treatment of the people, and continuous executions without even the form of a trial.” (from the Jewish Encyclopedia) Pilate cared little for the sanctity of Jewish religious practices. He displayed Roman idols and used money from the temple treasury for public works, things which nearly caused revolt. He also massacred a group of Samaritans who had assembled on Mt. Gerizim to dig for holy relics.

Jesus was presented to Pilate as a revolutionary, somebody attempting to start a revolt against the Roman occupation. Pilate was quick and merciless to put down any hit of insurrection; so why did such a cold and cruel Roman prefect try so hard to acquit Jesus? Maybe he didn’t. Maybe when the priests and Pharisees brought Jesus to Pilate, he ordered Jesus’ execution without batting an eye; we don’t know. What we do know is that all four of the gospel writers work very hard to convince us that Pilate is not the one who wanted Jesus dead. Jesus’ real enemy was not the foreign occupying army, but his own people.

John quotes Pilate as saying, “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me.” It is the Pharisees, the priests, the good, religious folks among Jesus’ own countrymen who worked so hard to get Jesus killed. Regardless of how willing or reluctant Pilate may have been to kill Jesus, the truth is that his death can’t be blamed on overzealous Romans or even on a particularly bloodthirsty governor. The blame for Jesus’ death lays squarely on his own people.

John calls these people “the Jews.” Of all the gospels, John comes across as the most hostile to the Jewish people. Throughout the gospel, Jesus’ main opponents are called “the Jews.” However, as we read John’s gospel, we must remember that Jesus and his disciples were also Jews. His followers were all Jews. John tells us that as Jesus preaches, many of “the Jews” came to believe in him. When John says that “the Jews” killed Jesus, we can’t simply place the blame on Jewish people, either then or now.

This is an important thing to remember. For centuries, during Holy Week, as Christians in their churches read the Passion narrative of Jesus’ death from the gospels, angry mobs would form that would burn Jewish homes and shops, beat Jews in the streets, and even kill them. Christian anger has persisted towards Jews throughout history as “the killers of Christ.”

I would like to think that this is a thing of the past, that we have since come to our senses and put away this tired hatred, but just last week, somebody said to me, “You know, every year about this time I can’t help but get a little angry at the Jews for killing Jesus.” Not only is this kind of thinking harmful and pointless, it is also wrong.

“Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me,” Pilate says. The people to whom Jesus was sent—God’s people—rejected him. As readers of the bible and people who profess faith in God, we must admit that we are God’s people; we are the ones who betray Christ. We tell this story over and over again not because it happened once, but because it happens every day.

Theologian Karl Rahner said, “The number one cause of atheism is Christians. Those who proclaim Him with their mouths and deny Him with their actions is what an unbelieving world finds unbelievable.” We hear it all the time in the media. Christians are portrayed as ignorant, bigoted, closed-minded and hypocritical, because lots of us are. Of course, we are! We’re human! How could we be anything but? But what the world finds so hard to believe is that we adhere to the teachings of a man who calls us to rise above all that, and yet we do the same as everybody else. We talk about love and then hate homosexuals. We talk about justice, then oppress the poor. We talk about acceptance, and then discriminate against immigrants, whether they have the proper papers or not. Every day through our small-mindedness we crucify Christ.

That’s what this story is about today. Here you have the good, religious folks, the “Jews,” who are so anal about observing their rules that they won’t even enter Pilate’s house so they won’t be rendered “unclean.” What is ironic is that the whole reason they have come there to begin with is to seek a death sentence for Jesus—their hatred has already made them unclean, not whether or not they step into Pilate’s house.

The only people these Jews hate more than Jesus is the Romans; yet they are all too quick to go ask for the Roman’s help in getting Jesus sentenced to death. They preach against the heresies and abominations of the Romans constantly, but when they want something from them, they cozy right up to Pilate.

That’s exactly what the Christians did in the Middle Ages. They preached about loving ones’ neighbor as oneself and turning the other cheek, but then they would gather in murderous hordes to attack innocent Jews. Even today, we talk a good game about love and acceptance and mercy and gentleness, but when we get angry or feel threatened, we’re just as apt to use violence, dishonesty, gossip or shame to get what we want. We condemn the world for its injustice, but when the shoe’s on the other foot, we can play just as dirty.

Pilate and the Romans represent everything that’s wrong with the world: injustice, elitism, ruling through violence and fear, oppression… all the things we denounce. But think about how you react when somebody attacks you verbally or insults your character, when somebody makes you angry enough to want to get even, when somebody reneges on a promise or stabs you in the back. We may criticize the Roman’s, but we’re happy to play their game when it suits us.

After all, we’re only human. It’s in our nature. That’s how we’ve been treated, and its the way we’ve learned to treat one another. It’s the only model we have, save one. There is one other way of being that we have learned, one other response to the world’s evil. Many have practiced it—King, Ghandi, Parks, Chavez—but there is one source.

Jesus came to show us another way. He came to teach us that we need not fear attacks on our body or on our character, that whatever the world does to us is nothing when compared against the life and love that is ours through relationship with him. This is the real reason he died; not because he angered some religious authorities or was accused before some callous Roman governor. John makes it clear that Jesus died because he chose to, in order to prove to us that death is nothing to fear. What did he say to us on Ash Wednesday? “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” (John 10:17-18)

“No one takes it from me,” not Pilate, not “the Jews,” not injustice or a misunderstanding or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s a hard example to follow, but what Jesus asks of us is to flock to him, listen to his voice. When we want to respond with anger or violence, when we want to hurt the one who hurt us, Jesus invites us to lay down our life, to respond instead with patience, love, kindness and peace. Whatever others may take from us—whether honor or happiness, wealth or property, or even our very life—there is so much more available in Christ.

Even if Pilate signed the warrant, he is not to blame for Jesus’ death. Neither are “the Jews.” It is our very own desire for control, power and vengeance that sentenced him to die; our prejudice, our fear, our mistrust that crucify him again day after day. Ultimately it was Jesus himself who chose to die, so that he could free us from those same desires.

We are always looking for somebody to blame, somebody to must pay for the wrong that’s been done. For Jesus’ death, we blame Pilate, or the “Jews,” or whoever, but Jesus came to free us from that. Thanks to him, we can quit looking for who is to blame, and start looking for who we can love.

When the Cock Crows

March 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Delivered at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church. Lent 3, NL Year 4.
Text: Jn 18.12-27

This week as I sat down to study this story with several of my colleagues, one of the other pastors shared this story from his childhood in Japan where his father was a Lutheran missionary. Dan was in high school at the time, and he was riding the bus to school with a friend of his. On this particular day, Dan’s friend introduced him to another girl she knew. They both knew that Dan was the son of a missionary, and so this new girl, curious to know more about his faith, asked Dan, “Can you tell me about Jesus?”

How would you react in that situation? Would you be confident? Uncomfortable? Excited? Scared? Dan recalled that he became extremely uncomfortable. He had a strong faith, a deep relationship with God, but he told us how he became embarrassed and tense; he began to blush, and finally mumbled that he was not a good person to ask, that perhaps she should talk to his father.

Now, Dan knew as much as anybody about Jesus and the Christian faith. He had been raised in a religious household, and brought up in an environment that was intentionally centered around the idea of telling people who knew nothing of Jesus or the Christian Church about God’s saving grace; and yet he had no response when somebody asked him about this very thing. Would you have reacted differently in his shoes? Have you ever been asked by someone about your faith, why it is important to you, why you believe what you believe?

Peter was the disciple’s disciple. In all the gospels, he is the example of faithfulness. It was he who first confessed Jesus as the Messiah and God’s son. It was Peter who, as some would say, was chosen by Jesus to be the first Pope. If Peter had a fault, it was that he was a little too zealous for Jesus. He is the one who, at the transfiguration, suggests that they should build a three houses for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah on the mountaintop so they can stay there and he can bask in the glory of their presence. In the garden, John tells us, it is Peter who takes the sword and attacks the slave of the high priest in Jesus’ defense, cutting off his ear.

The story we read today is told in all four gospels, one of the few events all the gospel writers record. It is the story of how this same Peter—arrogant, self-confident, zealous Peter—denies his relationship with Jesus.

I began with Dan’s story today because when we consider Peter and his denials of Jesus, we often imagine what we would do in his place. Specifically, I think we often imagine what we would do if we were being threatened for our lives. There is a story that has become a kind of myth or legend in our society about a student at Columbine High School in Colorado. When the infamous massacre happened there in the late ‘90s, she was held at gunpoint by one of the shooters and asked if she was a Christian; and when she replied in the affirmative, the young man took her life. This is the sort of scenario we consider: if our lives were at stake, would we have the confidence to confess our faith?

In reality, Peter was probably not in any danger. John tells us that he was there with another disciple, a man known to the high priest. This other disciple got Peter into the courtyard. He was not arrested or interrogated, even though he was known to be a disciple of the man who was then being questioned by the authorities. Peter was not being interrogated by soldiers or priests, simply asked by some slaves, “Hey you’re not one of that guys disciples, too, are you?”

Earlier this week, I was with a group of people and we were using the FaithTalk cards from Vibrant Faith Ministries. These cards have questions on them to spur conversation. One of the group drew this question: “With whom do you have the most difficulty talking about your faith? Why?” He replied that it was most difficult for him to talk about his faith with a pastor, because he was afraid of sounding stupid and unsophisticated. Many of us, with a gun to our heads, might be able to confidently proclaim, “Yes, I am a disciple of Christ,” but what about when we are asked by a schoolgirl, “Can you tell me about Jesus?”

One thing that’s different between John’s account of this event and Matthew’s, Mark’s and Luke’s is that in the other gospels, Peter is asked if he is “with” Jesus, if he is a Galilean like him. In other words, he is asked if he associates with Jesus, if he hangs out with him. But in John, Peter is asked if he is Jesus’ disciple, if his identity is defined by his relationship to Jesus.

Remember that this is the same Peter who confessed Jesus as the Messiah, who mustered the courage to speak on the mountaintop of the transfiguration, who refused to let Jesus humiliate himself by washing his feet, who pulled out his sword in the garden, ready to defend Jesus or die trying. Yet, when he was asked, “Are you this man’s disciple,” he responded, “I am not.”

I don’t necessarily think Peter was lying to save his skin. I don’t think he was trying hide who he was. I think that even though he followed Jesus all over Galilee and Judea, all the way from the garden to the courtyard, when he was faced with the question of who he truly was, maybe he had to finally admit that he was not person he thought he was. He realized he was not the kind of disciple that Jesus deserved.

It’s good for us to read this story during Lent for two reasons. The first is that Lent is a time for us to examine ourselves, to recognize that we are not as faithful, not as devoted, not as bright, not as committed as we would like to be—we are not the kind of disciples that Jesus deserves. Lent is a time for us to understand this about ourselves and admit it to God and to one another. Even though we remain faithful while the Church around us shrinks, even though we take pride in our church membership and attendance, we are sometimes ashamed to share our faith because we don’t believe we have enough of it.

And if even if we are not ashamed, even if we are comfortable sharing our faith and talking to others about what God has done in our lives, we are painfully aware that we do not always practice what we preach. We are just as likely to be selfish, short-sighted, mean and hypocritical as anybody else out there. Being Jesus’ disciple does not always mean that we have become better people through him, and so we still fall short of deserving the love that Jesus gives us.

The second reason it is good for us to read this story during Lent is that Lent is a time for us to remember and reflect upon our limits. A few weeks ago, we put ashes on our foreheads and remembered that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. We will someday be gone; this congregation may someday be gone. We will do things that may hasten or slow those events, but in the end, we all pass away. God, on the other hand, does not.

Remember last week when we read John’s introduction to Jesus’ act of love? John writes, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” I hinted last week at the double-meaning of that word “end;” it could mean to the end of Jesus’ life or the end of his time with them, but it could also be understood as the “utmost,” as in he loved them to the end of his ability, to the utmost of his strength and power—“he loved them for all he was worth.”

As is the case with all of John’s gospel, this story of Peter’s denials is not about Peter; it is about Jesus. While Peter is in the courtyard denying Jesus, Jesus is in the house denying nothing. While Peter is responding in pain and fear, Jesus responds with boldness and love. In the courtyard, Peter responds, “I am not,” but in the garden, Jesus responds with “I AM.”

This story reminds us that for all of our faithlessness, for all of our shame and fear and doubt and pettiness, Jesus loves us “to the end,” for all he’s worth. What’s important is not our faithlessness, but Jesus’ faithfulness. It is his love, his devotion, his steadfastness—not ours—that accomplish God’s will. Peter fails, but that’s unimportant because Jesus does not.

There is one more word of hope. After washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus tells them what is about to happen: that he will be betrayed and must go where they cannot. Peter will have none of this and boldly states that he will follow Jesus wherever he goes, and even lay down his life. You may remember that at this point, Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him; today we learn that everything came about just as he said. However, Jesus also told Peter, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.”

Jesus saw Peter’s denial coming and called it. If he got that right, we trust that he is also right that Peter will follow later. It’s Jesus’ reliability—his faithfulness—that is the good news here. Though he may not be able to count on Peter (or us), we can always count on him. Peter fails, and we fail, but that’s unimportant, because Jesus does not. Even if we can’t muster the courage to tell about his faithfulness to us, that faithfulness will remain.

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