May 04, 2020
Author: Scott Hoezee
“Let not your hearts be troubled . . .” If ever there were a word for our COVID-19 moment, this would be it. And in more ways than the merely obvious one. As we will explore, most of the time when someone—even when it’s Jesus—tells you to NOT let your heart be troubled it is because as a matter of fact anyone with the ability to look around can see PLENTY of actual trouble! We need to be told not to be troubled not on sunny summer days while floating on an air mattress on a crystal clear lake with a cool drink in our hand but instead when troubles are in fact abounding. Like now.
In the flow of John’s Gospel, what we see in John 14 takes place before the crucifixion. Yet in the Year A Lectionary we read this a month after Good Friday and in the Eastertide season. So what do we see here in John 14 that is startlingly instructive? As we will note, the disciples were no doubt startled by what Jesus said that very night and that sense of disorientation and startlement would only deepen in the next 24 hours. So how do Jesus’ words here “sound” in both the context in which they were originally spoken and now to also our ears given what we know was coming next for Jesus?
First, a note on the “acoustics” of this chapter. So often we read the “Let not your hearts be troubled . . .” lines here with confidence and some gospel bravado. But do you think that is how Jesus spoke those words? I doubt it. It was a dark and gloomy night for Jesus. He knew and sensed what was up. Further, back up into what we call John 13 and we will see Judas’ sad departure and the foretelling of Peter’s tragic denials. Things were falling apart fast around Jesus and so I think it is at least as likely—if not from a human point of view far more likely—that Jesus spoke the words of John 14 with a quivering chin and with tears forming in the corners of his eyes.
After all, Jesus is telling them not to let their hearts be troubled but the main reason he needed to say that is because in reality, trouble was all around. And as Gethsemane will soon prove, Jesus’ own heart is in turmoil enough as it is.
But even before that grim evening on what we now call “Maundy Thursday,” the disciples had seen Jesus’ distress before. Just recently he’d wept over Lazarus. He’d welled up with tears on other occasions, too. The disciples had also seen Jesus laugh, of course, and they’d seen him be surprised and delighted over life. They’d watched him eat, seen him nod off when sleepy, watched him clean his teeth and turn aside to void his bladder. They’d seen his love and compassion for the little people they encountered and sensed his grace and forgiveness for almost everybody.
But lately they’d also seen him take steps that were getting him ever closer to something they all feared: Jesus’ own death. Maybe they repressed that fear most of the time but soon and very soon Jesus’ demise would be on display for all to see and it would cause every last one of them to flee Jesus liked frightened school children.
So when Jesus says “I am the way” in response to Thomas’ question about what the “way” was, what Jesus was telling them was that the way to life abundant was down the path he was walking that very moment, and it was not a fast track to the top! Very soon the disciples will see Jesus crossed out by the Romans, writhing on a cross of despair, pain, dereliction, and finally death. Surely Thomas was not alone in wondering across the next couple of days, “If Jesus is the way, then how can his ‘way’ lead to anything good?” Golgotha surely won’t look like the path to the heavenly “dwelling places” to which Jesus refers in John 14. The cross was the end of any “way” any sane person would want to travel. The cross was in fact not “the way” but “the dead end.”
But then Jesus quickly goes on to say that his “way” will lead to also the one he calls “Father.” Now it’s Philip’s turn to chime in. “Show us the Father.” And in reply Jesus tells him “You’ve been seeing him all along.”
Really? God the Father? God the Father with a piece of chive stuck between his incisors after dinner? God the Father conked out in sleepy exhaustion in the back of a boat? God the Father weeping and crying? God the Father cozying up to a Samaritan woman with a past, to prostitutes, to tax collectors? God the Father being so gracious with sinful folks and so harsh with religious folks? Oh, and the next day, God the Father pinned to spits of wood with spikes through wrists and ankles?
No, no, no: the Father must be different than all that. Where’s the glory? Where’s the dazzling light show? Where’s the hellfire and brimstone of judgment?
Jesus’ claim that all along the disciples had been seeing the Father whenever they had seen Jesus is far, far more scandalous and shocking than any other such story of hidden identity we’ve ever known. This is not just Clark Kent really being Superman or the pauper who is really the king in disguise. This is not Aragorn the King of Gondor hidden inside the odd ranger called Strider and it certainly is not even the lowly frog who is a prince waiting to be kissed.
This is the Holy One of the cosmos revealing his truest nature in Jesus of Nazareth. Whether we look at this pre-crucifixion as the disciples originally did in that room that night in John 14 or from our Eastertide perspective just on the other side of our annual celebration of Good Friday and Easter, the effect is the same: utter startlement and even bewilderment that this can be true.
The Way to life is through a cross. The humble man from Nazareth who was so full of “grace and truth” was the Father in our midst all along.
This Lectionary reading is a scant 14 verses long. But it’s hard to imagine any other stretch of the Gospels that contains so much of everything that makes the Gospel wonderful and mysterious than this one! At a perilous time of pandemic when everyone is seeking to be less troubled, to know that God can be with us in this scary and disorienting time, Jesus’ call to not be troubled helps us but only because the same One who issued the call soon found himself in—quite literally—a hell of a lot of trouble. But if he’s been to hell and back for us and for our salvation, then we know in this COVID-19 moment, he is here. With us. So let not your hearts be troubled.
It’s curious to note that in this key chapter, the more prominent disciples like Peter and John fade to the background in favor of lesser-known figures like Thomas and Philip. Indeed, neither Philip nor Thomas speaks more than two or three times in the gospels (virtually not at all in the Synoptic Gospels) and yet here they are the key discussion partners with Jesus. Perhaps this says something about the atmosphere of the upper room as John sketches it for us. Judas has already stolen away. Peter was probably stunned into silence to hear Jesus predict his upcoming three-fold denial. On that night in which Jesus was betrayed, things were topsy-turvy and upside-down for the disciples. Perhaps the nature of this famous exchange—and who was doing the talking—was part of all that went into that evening of darkness and shadows.
In one of the many fascinating portraits sketched by neurologist Oliver Sacks we see what could be described as a metaphor for the Christian life. Tourette’s Syndrome is a bizarre mental disorder that causes victims to have any number of physical and verbal tics. Some Tourettic people have constant facial twitches, others find themselves uncontrollably uttering verbal whoops, beeps, and sometimes also raunchy swear words. One man with Tourette’s whom Dr. Sacks knew was given to deep, lunging bows toward the ground, a few verbal shouts, and also an obsessive-compulsive type adjusting and readjusting of his glasses. The kicker is that the man is a skilled surgeon! Somehow and for some unknown reason, when he dons mask and gown and enters the operating room, all of his tics disappear for the duration of the surgery. He loses himself in that role and he does so totally. When the surgery is finished, he returns to his odd quirks of glasses adjustment, shouts, and bows.
Sacks did not make any spiritual comments on this, of course, yet I find this doctor a very intriguing example of what it can mean to “lose yourself” in a role. There really can be a great transformation of your life when you are focused on just one thing–focused to the point that bad traits disappear even as the performing of normal tasks becomes all the more meaningful and remarkable.
Something like that is our Christian goal as we travel the way that just is Jesus. We lose ourselves in the Savior and are transformed. We do follow his Way, even though it leads to and through a cross. And we do see that Jesus and the Father are one and that we can become one with both through baptism and then living out that identity every day. We will be changed. Our old selves will wither away. Thanks be to God!
Author: Stan Mast
On this fifth Sunday of the Easter season, we continue our journey through the Acts of the Apostles or, as some call it, the Acts of the Holy Spirit. That title fits Luke’s constant emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in the growth of the early church. That is surely the case in our reading for today, where there are no apostles, but plenty of the Spirit.
Last week we focused on the Easter community that grew out of the outpouring of the Spirit and the first preaching about the Risen Christ. That community was pretty close to perfect, a model for the church of all ages. But the perfection didn’t last for long. Persecution began almost immediately, as we read in Acts 3 and 4, and so did internal trouble. Greed and dishonesty sullied the generosity of that community (Acts 5), and ethnic tension divided the once unified body (Acts 6).
It was out of that ethnic squabble that the office of deacon arose, and that’s where we first meet Stephen. He was one of the first seven deacons, or table waiters. He was not an apostle, just a servant in the house of the Lord. But he was a great man: “full of faith and the Holy Spirit;” “full of God’s grace and power (6:8);” he did “great wonders and miraculous signs among the people (6:8).” And when his opponents began to argue with his preaching of Christ, they “could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke (6:9-10).” Finally, when he was hauled before the Sanhedrin to defend himself against false charges, his “face shown like the face of an angel (6:15).”
His apologia and subsequent martyrdom mark one of the great turning points in the early church, as the Holy Spirit continued to empower the church in its Christ-given mission of taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth. That is the central import of this text, though you could use it to encourage people to courageous, Spirit empowered witness in the face of hostile opposition. That would be a legitimate application of the text, but it is really about “first’s:” the first appearance of the Risen Christ after his ascension; the first message preached by a non-apostle; the first martyrdom; the first time the church was forced out of Jerusalem. Other firsts followed, like the first time the gospel was preached to non-Jews and the first time a violent opponent of the gospel was transformed to its most fiery preacher.
Stephen was accused of speaking against the temple and the law, specifically of claiming that Jesus would destroy the Temple and change the customs handed down from Moses. “Are these charges true?” asked the high priest. Stephen’s answer is a masterfully sharp rehearsal of redemption history with a focus on Abraham and Moses and the temple. I say masterfully sharp, because he doesn’t just tell the story. He tells it in a way that will finally lead to a sharp condemnation of the way the Jewish leaders had almost idolized the temple, even as they had not obeyed the Law of Moses. Clearly, Stephen had not spoken against the Temple or Moses. But he surely did speak against what these leaders had done with the Temple and had not done with Moses.
As we read along in verses 2-47, it is clear that Stephen is a faithful Jew. If he had stopped at verse 47, he would have been set free. But then he moves on to those devastating words about the Temple and those leaders, who always resist the Holy Spirit and kill the prophets and now have betrayed and murdered the prophesied Righteous One. With that, the Sanhedrin was instantly transformed from a captive audience to a raging mob.
If Stephen had just stopped there, he might have been merely beaten and excommunicated. But he didn’t stop there; he moved on to our text. The result was that the church lost a great man that day, which is exactly what the Holy Spirit intended.
At least that’s how it sounds at the beginning of our text. “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven….” The rest is history, sacred history, the history of the spread of the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The Holy Spirit who had inspired Stephen’s sermon now moved him to look up to heaven. That same Spirit opened Stephen’s mouth to bear witness to what he saw in heaven. He could have kept it to himself and lived to preach another day.
But Jesus had given the Spirit in order to unleash the witnessing power of his disciples, both in life and in death. So, of course, Stephen had to tell what he had seen. Like Abraham and Isaiah and (almost) Moses, he saw God’s glory, but more astonishingly he saw “Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” Note that—not sitting (as in other New Testament texts), but standing, as if at the ready to act, perhaps even to return. This is the first appearance of the Risen, Ascended, and Returning Christ. No wonder Stephen had to speak.
“Look! I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” With that blatant blasphemy (claiming that Jesus was equal in position and authority to God), the Sanhedrin moved from teeth gnashing teachers to screaming murderers. Rushing at Stephen and dragging him out of the city (always the rule keepers), they began to stone him. While they did, a previously unmentioned young man is introduced into the story of the Acts of the Apostles—Saul the passive guardian of their clothes who will soon become the active persecutor of the church, and then….
Moved by the Spirit, Stephen died not only testifying about the Risen Christ, but even imitating the Crucified Christ. Here a preacher can legitimately call on her listeners to be like Christ in life and death, committing our spirits to Jesus in our dying moments and with our last breath forgiving even those who bludgeon our lives away. Clearly, Stephen is imitating Christ here, borrowing two of his last words from the cross. So, having lived for Christ to the end, “he fell asleep.” Is that Luke’s subtle way of saying, that’s exactly how serious death is if you are in Christ to the end—even a violent murder is no more serious that falling asleep.
What a shame! What a tragedy! A great man lost to the church! Well, yes, if you stop reading right there at verse 60. But if you keep reading, this tragedy is turned into triumph. A great man’s death becomes part of the story of a man who will be even greater by the grace of God and the power of the Spirit—the Saul who “was there, giving approval to his death,” the Saul who would pursue the church all the way to Damascus, the Paul who would carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
That distant mission began as the immediate result of Stephen’s death. “On that day, a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” Yes, it was all very sad; so “godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him.” But those who were scattered (not the apostles) “preached the word wherever they went,” including another deacon named Philip who led the Ethiopian eunuch to Jesus. Thus began the mission to the Gentiles outside of Jerusalem. As Tertullian said long ago, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
Stephen’s death brought new life to the church, even as Jesus death and resurrection brought life to the world. If Stephen had only lived and then died a normal death, who knows what he might have done, given who he was. But if he hadn’t died this way, so much might not have happened. In his grand plan for the church and the world, God turned this tragedy into triumph. Great loss became great gain to the glory of God, because of the Risen Christ by the power of the Spirit.
That’s what this text is finally about—the first non-apostolic preacher, the first martyr, the first time the church left the confines of Jerusalem, the first witness to the Gentiles, and the first step in the conversion of Saul, the missionary to the Gentiles. All of it driven by the Holy Spirit who turned ordinary people into world changing witnesses to the Risen, Reigning and Returning Christ.
I’m glad that Stephen was deeply mourned, even though God used his death in a remarkable way. That speaks to the way we wrestle with the death of loved ones. The eminent Christian philosopher, Nicholas Wolterstorff, lost a son to a mountain climbing accident. That death devastated Wolterstorff, as he relates in his wonderful book, Lament for a Son.
In his memoir, Wolterstorff considers all the ways we try to square such a loss with our faith in a loving God. “God did it, some say: it’s part of God’s plan.” “Some say that tragedy is part of God’s strategy for soul making.” “Others echo Job’s friends, arguing that tragedy is God’s way of punishing us for our wrongdoing.” “Then there are those who argue that God is as pained by the loss as you and I are, but that there is nothing God can do about it.” “Finally, there are those who hold that the untimely death of a child is a price to be paid for some greater good that God is bringing about for human beings in general.”
Wolterstorff finds none of those classic attempts at theodicy helpful, preferring instead to leave God’s ways with us a mystery that should simply be lamented. God moves in a mysterious way, says the old song, and we can’t expect to understand. All we can do is join the Psalmists in lamenting. And then, just trust God.
I like that, but as our story shows us, we can both lament and trust that God used even tragedy (especially the tragedy of Stephen’s death) to accomplish something so grand that no one could have imagined it at the time.
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
Author: Scott Hoezee
A scant month ago as one of the Psalm readings for Palm Sunday, the RCL assigned portions of Psalm 31. And now here it is again. They have chopped it up a bit differently but it’s the same psalm and the whole poem hangs together and needs to be read together (no matter how much the RCL folks take their Lectionary scissors to snip through this like a little girl making paper dolls).
Of course, Psalm 31 still remains relevant in this time where most of us are still in COVID-19 quarantine and isolation and when most churches are still not able to gather. The idea of trusting in God and of placing the times of our lives into God’s hands speaks to us now but so does the stuff the Lectionary sometimes would have you turn your eyes away from; viz., talk of enemies and being surrounded by things that seem designed to hurt you. Our enemy now may be a virus—and here and there perhaps insensitive neighbors who place the value of their freedom to do whatever they want over your right not to get infected by them—but the talk in The Psalms about enemies may resonate with us a bit more now than even 3 months ago.
In any event, since I am not quite clever enough to have a whole slew of new insights on Psalm 31 compared to 4 weeks ago, I will refer you to the link of my recent full sermon starter on this poem. Probably not too many preachers turned to this Psalm on a high holy day like Palm Sunday but maybe this moment in Eastertide is a good moment to embrace the hope of the resurrection that lurks near the heart of even this ancient song.
1 Peter 2:2-10
Author: Doug Bratt
We can almost see them – an ordinary group of early Christians, somewhere in the early Mediterranean world. They’re likely worshipping in someone’s house. Their teacher reads to them this morning’s text, taken from what we call Peter’s first letter.
These newly baptized believers’ teacher begins by telling them that they resemble what verse 2 calls “newborn babies.” After all, God’s Holy Spirit has recently been given them new birth. So the members of Peter’s first audience have just begun to live as Christians.
Verse 4 also implies that many of these new Christians have shared Christ’s fate. They’ve suffered “rejection” by their families and friends, a rejection all too familiar for God’s people.
Hussein was a Kuwaiti who had been a Christian for less than two years. He lived under the threat of legal execution after an Islamic court convicted him of apostasy. The court also directed that Ali’s marriage be dissolved and all his possessions be distributed to his children. His estranged wife also refused to let him visit those children because he became a Christian.
“Newborns” like Hussein sometimes endure rejection by people whom they love. Their teacher insists, however, that they are, in the words of verse 4, “chosen by God and precious to him.” What our world has rejected, God has chosen, not because we deserve God’s favor, but simply because God mercifully loves us.
God views people whom most of their world views as worthless as “precious,” as like valuable gemstones. God’s adopted sons and daughter are, in fact, so precious to God that God sent God’s only Son to die for ordinary but chosen folks like those who proclaim and hear 1 Peter 2.
God has chosen these Christians, Peter reports in verse 5, to be a “royal priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” At one time only special people were priests. Now, however, Peter insists that every baptized person is a priest who can offer gifts to God on behalf of the world.
At one time God largely applied verse 9’s terms like “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” to Israel. God gave Israelites such a close relationship with himself that their access to God was priestly. Our holy God lived among them, making them holy.
The people of Israel, however, broke God’s covenant with them. They stained themselves with immorality and idolatry, in other words, most unholy things. The Israelites, as a result, made themselves “not a people” (10).
God, however, promised a marvelous restoration. God vowed to gather a remnant of Israel to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth. Yet God also promised to make a remnant of Gentiles part of God’s chosen, holy nation. So now Peter can call Jewish and Gentile baptized people a “royal priesthood.” After all, now all Christians are chosen, royal, holy, God’s own in Christ.
Yet since that may sound strange to people who hardly think of ourselves as royalty, think of how it sounded even stranger to those early Christians. Those that included Peter’s first audience were a tiny minority that seemed unimportant.
So why did God choose this tiny group of ordinary-seeming Christians? While citizens of the 21st century generally link chosenness to privilege and comfortable lives, here Peter links it to responsibility. After all, in verse 9 the apostle insists God chose God’s people so that we “may declare the praises of him who called” us “out of darkness into his wonderful light.” When God’s precious people are baptized, God calls us to proclaim God’s “praises” and “mighty deeds.”
“Once we were not a people,” the teacher adds in verse 10. At one time Jesus’ followers were nobodies who had nothing in common with each other. Now, however, we can look around the global church and see family. God has chosen all who are baptized into Christ Jesus to be royalty, members of God’s royal family, not only God’s adopted children, but also Christian brothers and sisters.
Now God expects members of God’s royal family to make “declaring” God’s “praises” a priority. Worship services resemble family reunions where we gather with our family to praise God, not to gain his favor, but to respond to his grace.
We actively seek the blessing that God certainly promises to God’s dearly beloved people when we worship the Lord. However, giving, not receiving, is at the heart of our worship. So God’s people gather weekly to, among other things, declare God’s praises.
However, since God also calls God’s adopted children to declare God’s praises to the people who surround us, we may be like the Jewish Christian who had an urgent question he wanted to ask God. When he got to heaven, God told him “I’ve been waiting for you. What’s your question?”
So the man asked him, “Lord, is it true that we’re the chosen people.” God answered, “Yes, I chose you to be my holy people. But is there more?” “Yes,” replied the Jewish Christian, “what I really want to know is . . .” He paused for a moment before adding, “Would you mind choosing someone else for a change?”
Those who proclaim and hear this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson may be the only preachers God has put in our little corners of God’s world. We may be the only person our neighbors have to “declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
I think of the couple that tried very hard to hold their marriage together. They endured repeated attempts at counseling and therapy. Yet after years of effort, the husband and wife regretfully decided to end their marriage. They decided, however, to do their best to do it well.
After their divorce hearing, their judge told the court and them: “I want to say that in all my years on the bench, I have never presided over a divorce like this. This is the way it ought to be done, if it must be done. You two have done this with such class, with such care for your children, and even for one another. How, why did you do it?”
The woman looked at the judge and said, “Why? We’re . . . Christians. We have a duty to do this with love, and with care for one another.” Are we saying too much if we call these flawed yet godly people “priests” who act like “royalty?”
All of her classmates left the new refugee from another part of the world to sit by herself at lunch. She never talked in class. When she did talk, few could understand her because she had a different way of talking.
So when one girl got up and moved to sit with the new girl at lunchtime, her friends looked up and noticed. One of them asked, “Why are you acting so nice to that weird new kid?” The girl answered, “It just seemed like the right thing for me to do.” “But why?” persisted the other girl. “I’m … I’m trying to be a Christian.”
We live in a world of conformists where no one likes to stick out and be noticed. Even Jesus’ followers generally like to just blend in with the crowd. So we’re always amazed when someone stands up and stands alone.
This, however, is one of God’s gifts to us and our gifts to God. When God’s adopted sons and daughters were baptized, God called us to be God priests, to serve Christ and to proclaim his praises. God has, in other words, made us royalty who declare God’s praises.
Of course, we don’t declare God’s praises simply by singing Christian songs or even witnessing to people. God’s priests also declare his praises by acting in Christlike ways toward the people who surround us. Our challenge is to determine just how and when to combine those spoken and acted testimonies.
Some of us are priests partially because some ordinary Christian lived out his or her faith before us in a convincing way. We saw Christ in and through him or her in such a way that we said “yes.” Someone at work, in school or next door declared the “praises of him who called you” in such a way that you felt called.
Yet perhaps that Jewish Christian’s plea to God makes sense. Maybe Jesus’ followers too feel like saying, “Would you mind choosing someone else for a while?” God has, after all, given us a great responsibility. God has shown you and me great mercy so that we can, in turn, show great mercy to others.
So God’s priests pray, “Lord, bless those people who have COVID-19 or are adversely affected by this pandemic. Help those who are caring for and about its various victims. Be merciful to people who must make complex decisions about how to deal with us. Lord, be with people whom physical distancing had made extra sad or lonely.”
How do you think God would answer priests like us? Our text suggests that he’d tell his royal children, “What more do you want me to do? I’ve given you my Son – go share his good news with the lost. I’ve given you my Holy Spirit – trust him to guide you as you address the injustices of your society.”
God’s dearly beloved people may sometimes feel like responding to God, “Would you mind choosing someone else for a change?” Those who proclaim 1 Peter 2 might, however, invite our hearers to imagine if each of us were to totally submit to God and live like God’s chosen priests.
What if every one of Jesus’ followers would try to touch just one person with God’s love every day, even if its via the phone or an email? How many people would we touch? Now multiply that by the number of Christians in our own communities. How many needy people could we impact on a daily basis?
The need in this time of pandemic is perhaps especially great. Our gifts, however, are even greater. For God hasn’t just given God’s adopted sons and daughters a royal calling. The Holy Spirit has also empowered Christians with gifts and the Spirit’s daily presence in our lives.
The racism, poverty and injustice of our world are so pervasive that they may threaten to overwhelm us. Even God’s priests may assume that we can do little to make a difference. That makes me think, however, of a story Dr. Laura Schlesinger tells.
A woman walks down the beach and sees thousands of starfish, bleached and baked by the sun, dying for a lack of water. So she begins to pick them up and throw them back into the water.
A man who meets her walking down the beach asks what she’s doing. The woman replies, “I’m trying to save these dying starfish.” “How can you possibly expect to help all these starfish?” the man asks.
“I don’t expect to help all of them,” the woman answers. “I’m just trying to make a difference, one by one.” With that she turns away, picks up yet another starfish, throws it back into the ocean and says, “That’s one life I saved.”