Blinded By The Light

Luke 17.20-37

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” Then he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his say. But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation. Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulfur from heaven and destroyed all of them – it will be like that on they that the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, anyone of the housetop who has belongings in the house must not come down to take them away; and likewise anyone in the field must not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. Those who try to make their life secure will lost it, but those who lose their life will keep it. I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.” Then they asked him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”

Jesus was doing his Jesus thing when yet another group of Pharisees showed up and started badgering him with questions. They were mystified by all the mysteries, non-plussed with all the parables, and they just couldn’t take it anymore.

“Enough is enough Jesus. When is all of this actually going to happen? And, for once, could you just give us a straight answer?”

“You and your friends all want one thing: a sign. You want some big demonstration that what I’ve been talking about is getting set into motion. You flock to Twitter and assume that with every new major scandal or devastation that it’s a sign of something greater happening. Yeah, I see what you all do on the Internet, I know you inner monologues of conspiracy theories – I’ve even eavesdropped on some of those mid-afternoon gossip sessions you’ve been having.

Parables-of-Jesus

But if you’ve been listening to anything I’ve been saying, the more you go looking for the kingdom somewhere else, the more you will miss it. Because the kingdom, my kingdom, as I’ve been trying to knock it into your brains, is already here. Seriously. It is among you, hell it’s even within you. Perhaps it’s best if I put it like this: It’s lost in you and only when you admit that you are lost as well will you actually start to see it.”

“C’mon Jesus, what in the world are you talking about? We don’t want some sort of mystical kingdom. We want you to overthrow the powerful and the wealthy. We thought you were going to take the throne and let us reign over the earth. How can your kingdom be among us when the world still feel like garbage – better yet, how can the kingdom be in me when I feel like garbage?

“I know I know. You all can’t stand the stuff I’m bringing, but I’m bringing it anyway. I know all of you well enough to know that even my talking about it as clearly as I am right now won’t leave you feeling like its all settled.”

“You think you’re being clear right now? For God’s sake Jesus just tell us something true!”

“All of you will point to things as if I have some master trick up my sleeve, as if I’m working behind the curtains and pulling all of the strings. You will pick and choose the signs that match most with your own sensibilities, you’ll probably even lord them over other people and tell them that this was my work or that I have something to do with the craziness that’s going on in the world. And all of that squabbling and pontificating and gesturing will be for nothing because it will be a denial of everything I’ve already done for you.

“I believe you Lord, I know you’re telling the truth.”

“Peter, such a good boy. Maybe you’re good with everything I’m saying, though when push comes to shove you’ll deny it, but I’m getting ahead of myself. No matter how all of you feel about this stuff, there will be others who point at the craziness. They’ll say that mass shootings are my way of getting you back to prayer. They’ll say that locking up immigrants is a sign of holy justice. They’ll point and point and point and say my name. For God’s sake, literally, don’t go running after all that nonsense and don’t you dare follow their examples. Those people haven’t a clue in the world.

this-is-not-the-end

“When I come in glory it won’t be in a particular place or through a particular people. When I show up in glory it’s going to be like lightning – all over the place and all at once showing the truth to everyone and everything.

“But before being blinded by my light, the Son of man will have to endure suffering and be rejected by those in power.”

“Of course you will Jesus, no one is going to buy anything you’re selling.”

But don’t you see? I’m not selling anything – I’m giving it all away. It will be just like during the days of Noah. Remember him? He was in on the whole mystery of death and resurrection before just about anyone else, but even he didn’t really know it at the time. He was a sign that the whole world was going to hell in a hand-basket and that God had plans to use death to save the world. But everyone during the time of Noah ignored it, they wouldn’t think about anything except their precious little lives. They had dinner parties to go to, vacations to plan, tennis matches to watch. And they went right on doing all those things until the very end when Noah packed up his Ark while the rest of the world drowned.

Are you starting to get it now? The message I’m giving you to share with the world is that even in death you will be fine because death is my cup of tea. The problem isn’t death – its with all the people who are so committed to their version of whatever they think living is that they can’t let go. When I come in glory its the people obsessed with holding onto their lives that aren’t going to be very happy.

“Imagine your neighbor being up on his roof replacing a wonky gutter and he sees me risen from the dead. What good would it do him to go into the house to grab his wallet and check his hair before joining me in glory? 

“Picture someone mowing the lawn. Do you think they should go inside to finish filing their tax return before joining me in the blinding light?

“Do you remember the story of Lots’ wife? When everything was finally out in the open, God had done a strange and new thing, and it was time for her to go with God’s flow, she decided to have a nostalgia binge and look back to her old life in Sodom. And you know what happened to her? She turned into a pillar of salt!

Plenty of you are going to try to save your lives like that, and you’re going to lose it all. You’re so obsessed with what you’ve done, and what you’ve earned, and what you’ve accomplished that you can’t see the truth even when its standing right in front of you. And, I can’t blame you, we’ve all been conditioned to hold onto our lives with every fiber of our being so losing that control will literally feel like losing our lives.

“I know this kingdom stuff isn’t easy to digest because everything and everyone else will try to sell you a different story. That’s called idolatry. Whenever you feel compelled to worship something else whether it’s a person or an institution or heaven forbid a political party, those things can’t give you life. In fact, they suck away the marrow of your life. They portend to tell you what to do, and what is important, and what is good and true and beautiful. And those things aren’t necessarily bad, they might even be significant, they make differences in the ways we live and move, but they aren’t the difference that makes the difference – that’s me.

“And believe you me, things are going to get worse before they get better. You will pit yourselves against each other over the dumbest things, you will reject one another because of a wayward comment or a foolish story, and at some point you’re going to look back at your life and wonder where everyone went. 

“But when it comes to my kingdom, remember the one that’s already around you, it’s going to be even more confusing. Some people are going to accept it and others won’t. You’ll see two friends out in a boat fishing and one of them will say yes to my death and resurrection and the other will say no. You’ll see friends on a trip to the market and one will go for the deal and the other will say they need to think about it, forever.”

“Enough Jesus! Where is this going to happen? Just cut the small talk about about the mystery and give us something real.”

Where the corpse is, that’s where the vultures will gather… Oh, you don’t like that? Are you feeling uncomfortable? It’s all about death! Haven’t you been listening to any of the stories I’ve been telling you? I know that death is the one thing you all choose to avoid more than anything else, not just your literal deaths but even talk about death, and yet death is the one thing you don’t need to worry about. Because you can put the dead anywhere and the vultures will find the bodies – that’s what they’re good at.

“Don’t you see it now? I’m in the death and resurrection business, that’s what I’m good at. I will come and find you wherever you may be. So forget all of your anxiety about the question of ‘where?’ And, while you’re at it, get rid of you ‘hows’ and ‘whens’ as well. The only thing that matters is you trust me to do what I say I’m going to do, and then get out there and tell other people to trust me too – because in the end that’s all you can really do – I’m going to take care of everything else.

“Stop worrying about where you are or who you’re with – I’m with you.” Amen

Advertisements

The End Is Our Beginning

Luke 21.25-36

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heaven will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourself and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my word will not pass away. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

I was in Richmond for most of the week completing the final retreat in my year long leadership program. Every other month a group of clergy retreated from our churches to reflect on how we have led while praying for God to show us the right way to lead. 

On Wednesday evening, upon completing the lectures and break out sessions for the day, we gathered to worship in a small chapel on the property of the retreat center. We prayed together, we lifted up our voices together, and we listened together. I could still feel the Spirit’s presence washing over me at the end of the service when one my colleagues asked if any of us wanted to join him for a drive to go look at some Christmas lights.

If you know anything about me, after being cooped up listening to speakers and participating in self-reflection, driving around to look at blinking lights sounded light the best possible way to end the evening. So a group of us scrunched up in one car and we began our journey. 

There were plenty of homes in that part of Richmond with the requisite strand of lights hanging from a gutter, or the solitary electric candles standing starkly in every window. But there was one home that glowed in such a way that would make Clark Griswold proud, and it was our final destination. 

Across the lawn there was not a foot of space that wasn’t adorned with an inflatable character, a string of lights, or a mechanical animal. You could even tune your radio to a particular station playing Christmas music to which the lights were coordinated. The house had a hotshot driveway so that you could drive onto their property at the expected 2 miles/hour and soak it all in.

I wish I could appropriately convey in words the sheer depth and breadth of what we experienced. And remember: we were a group of trained theologians, properly educated and reserved in our beliefs, and yet all of our faces were pressed tightly against the windows.

Xmas_lights_DC

There was the giant blinking “LET IT SNOW” on the roof top, there was a projector displaying Santa Claus packing up is sleigh before the midnight departure, and there was a set of inflatable elves playing instruments in rhythm with “Rocking Around The Christmas Tree.”

There were at least 4 full sets of reindeer attached to their own respective sleighs, there was a strange assortment of Santa Clauses in every shape, size, and color, and there was a palm tree decorated as if it were a Christmas tree.

There was a section with holiday adorned characters including Mickey Mouse, Lightning McQueen, a gaggle of Minions, and a small Darth Vader, R2D2, and Yoda.

We did the loop three times.

And it was only during the final pass through, while we were all laughing and giggling with the joyful experience that I realized something strange – there in the midst of all the lights and color, all of the sounds and movement, was only one tiny manger scene tucked away in the corner, as if it was an after-thought.

It looked like they were excited about Christmas, but almost forgot about Christ.

It is strange to gather in this place and at this time with all of the expectations of the world – The Christmas carols started playing on the radio before Thanksgiving, the department stores had up the decorations even before Halloween, and some of us did our holiday shopping months ago.

And now we come to church, to finally catch up with the season we’ve been preparing for and what do we hear about from God’s word? There’s no mention of Santa, we don’t learn about a young virgin named Mary, we don’t even catch a glimpse of a cute baby all wrapped up in swaddling clothes.

No. Today we get the end instead of the beginning.

Spruce Tree branch on Wood Background

This is not the sweet Jesus away in the manger. It is the stern adult Jesus picturing the whole of the universe being shaken and turned upside down.

But what about the city sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style? What happened to all the falalalalalalalalas? Where are the chestnuts roasting on an open fire?

Advent, for better or worse (mostly worse) has moved very far from what it once was. Now, we imagine it as this awful time of participating in the virtue of patience up until Christmas morning during which we get to cut loose and open up all the gifts. But thats not really what Advent is all about.

Advent it the recognition that we are people stuck in the middle – We are living in the in between.

We already know what happens on Christmas morning, we are aware of the Messiah child named Jesus and what he will do for the world, and yet we are waiting for his return. 

And we do this, as Christians, all in the midst of a horribly unpredictable world. We are certainly a people of patience, but it is a confused patience. We wait for his arrival, we wait for his return, and yet we know where he is.

It’s enough to give you a headache.

But that’s Advent! Head-scratching, incarnating, frustrating, waiting. 

The End, whatever that may mean, is so often shrouded in fear and foreboding. The wayward person carrying around the sign “The End Is Near” is not often regarded with joy or gratitude. The End raises the hair on the back of our necks and we feel the beginnings of existential dread. 

And Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat it with the disciples – things are going to be bad. The whole of the cosmos will experience the dynamic shifting of things from the sun to the moon to the stars and to the earth itself. There will be distress among the nations and the peoples of the planet who won’t be able to make sense of the senseless changes. 

People are going to faint from fear when they begin to experience what it coming upon reality for everything will lose its sure foundation.

And then they will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory.

Jesus speaks to us, his disciples, throughout the gospel texts with a repeating message: “The world will fall apart around you but you need not be afraid – I have overcome the world! Be patient in your waiting, just before the dawn, because in the midst of the darkness there are strange and even redeeming events afoot.”

That’s Advent in a nutshell roasting on an open fire – Look up, pay attention, and be ready. Advent compels us to prepare ourselves for the two arrivals of God coming into our world and Jesus returning to the world at a time we do not know.

This is how we begin the Christian year – not with a moralistic lecture on making good resolutions and sticking to them and not a recap of our failures from the past and the descriptions of the new steps we need to take into the future. Instead, on this first Sunday of the year, we spend our time thinking about the end of the story. 

As Christians we are forever beginning at the end.

Jesus names and claims the truth about the end, all things will pass away, but he doesn’t leave the disciples with their tails tucked between their legs: Consider the fig trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourself and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these crazy and frightening things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

This prophetic and apocalyptic vision of the future is all about expectation and anticipation. Though not necessarily the types we are used to. 

You and I are living in a time where hope is limited to that which we can often imagine; we go through the motions waiting for something, but without really knowing what that something is. And so we get used to the stores having the decorations up months in advance, and we shrug our shoulders when we see the almost forgotten manger scene tucked away in the corner.

But the kind of real anticipation that Advent contains is the anticipation for the end of time, my time and your time and everything in between, AND the fulfillment of all the God has made and redeemed. 

If we imagine the end at all we often do so with such stark and negative terms, but consider this: Jesus draws the disciples’ attention to new life! Look at the fig free, look at the new budding branches, new life is the sign of the end.

How wonderfully strange!

end_beginning-670x676

Jesus is describing the anticipated and expected reign of God’s kingdom on earth, and though he speaks of the fabric of life falling apart he also does so with descriptions of summer and new beginnings, not winter and barrenness. For some strange reason we miss that beautiful and hope-filled little detail and instead we focus only on what will be destroyed and decimated.

But friends, there are plenty of things in our world that need to be destroyed. There are many things that have to be abandoned. There are plenty of things that need to be crucified.

The fear of a man who stayed inside of a UMC in North Carolina for 11 months hoping to achieve legal status before being abruptly arrested and deported last week.

The anger of parents who sit in worship on Sunday morning even though they know their church believes their child is incompatible with Christian teaching.

The hopelessness of a child who goes to sleep hungry every night wondering if anything will ever change. 

Some things need to be destroyed because the message of the Good News is that we cannot have resurrection without crucifixion, we cannot discover who we are without abandoning our false identities, and we cannot have new life without destruction.

Advent is the season we celebrate new life – Jesus’, our own, and the new reality made possible by our God. We live in a time and among those who wish to see the world fizzle out in a tiny smoldering fire, but the Lord promises to return to us in a glorious way and is already bringing us signs of new life and peace.

And so Jesus beckons us to look for the new sprouts and signs of new life. Because it is in the opening of our eyes that we how the end is in fact our beginning. Amen. 

The Beginning Of The End

Mark 13.1-8

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ And they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise up against nation, kingdom against kingdom, there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” 

This might be our least favorite Jesus. We prefer the Jesus who fed the 5,000 gathered to hear him speak. We like rejoicing in Jesus’ greatest parables like the Prodigal Son and the 

Good Samaritan. We enjoy reflecting on Jesus’ final evening with his friends while passing bread and wine around the table.

But the apocalyptic Jesus? No thank you!

Jesus and his disciples are walking through Jerusalem and the temple is casting a shadow over everything (literally and figuratively). It captivates the hearts and imaginations of all who walk in its shade, and it is the pivotal focus of their faith. It stands as a beacon to all with eyes to see regarding the power and the glory of God.

And the disciples can’t help but marvel in the giant stones and the large buildings. Like kids seeing a skyscraper for the first time they probably kept fumbling over their feet while their eyes were stuck in the sky.

Jesus had led them all through Galilee ministering to the last, least, and lost, but now they are in Jerusalem, rubbing shoulders with the very people who fear Jesus the most.

It was probably Peter who keeps his finger pointed up high with every passing arrangement of architecture and Jesus says, “Psst. You want to know a secret?”

The disciples frantically move to get close enough to hear the Good News.

“All of this stuff is going to be destroyed.”

“Now wait just a minute Jesus! This temple has stood for centuries. You mean to tell us the pinnacle of all that we hope for and that we believe in will crumble?”

“Yep.”

Later, they’re sitting on the Mount of Olives, opposite the temple, and they bring it up again: “Seriously Jesus, when is this going to happen? What will be the signs of the times so we know what to expect?”

“My friends, beware that no one leads you astray with empty promises about the end. There will be plenty of people who come in my name declaring profound change, and messianic power. They will lead many down the wrong path. But when you hear about wars and destruction, do not be alarmed; all of this must take place. There will be earthquakes. There will be famines. There will be wars. But all of this is just the birth pangs, the beginning of the end.”

this-is-not-the-end

Big and towering buildings are not supposed to crumble to the ground. Oceans are not supposed to leap out and cover the dry land. The earth is not supposed to shake and tremble.

We are not supposed to lose the people we love. 

But then it happens. 

Those who witness such unfortunate and frightening sights not only lose things that are dear and precious to them – like the countless families whose homes and properties have burned to the ground in California. But in a very real sense they have also lost their innocence. 

They now know that something they once believed to be a sure thing is no longer trustworthy. 

These images, both in scripture and in our lives, are what we might call apocalyptic. They signal to those with eyes to see the destructive forces of the world such that reality seems to be pulling at the seams. But thats not what apocalypse means.

An apocalypse is a revelation from God – it is a vision of a timeless reality. It is the past. It is the present. It is the future.

Jesus’ friends saw the temple as the end-all-be-all of faithful living, and he quickly brushed it aside to say that even the brick and mortar will fall away. 

Don’t put your faith in the buildings and in the structure. Keep your faith in the Lord who reigns forever.

But we don’t like this Jesus; he’s frightening!

These words are tough to swallow in our comfortable and contemporary condition. What if the things we cling to most are just illusions? What happens when those things we so elevate come crashing to the ground? How have we so forgotten these words from Jesus?

Take a look around for just a moment at our sanctuary… None of this will last. Everything has its time. But we deny it again and again. Look at the pews, there’s a reason they’re bolted to the floor! They are made to feel far more permanent than they really are.

All of this will disappear. All of our great monuments are temporary – not just in the church but in the world at large. 

And we don’t have to be seasoned with life to know that this is true. Each of us here, in some way, shape, or form, know about the finitude of things. We all kind of know, whether we like to admit it or not, that all life is loss.

Time is now fleeting, the moments are passing…

We try to deny the truth, we erect giant edifices, we worship our architecture as if it was here from the beginning, and we believe that are favorite institutions are too big to fail. 

But they do, and they will.

Perhaps most frightening of all isn’t the foolish belief that these things will last forever, but that we will last forever. We won’t. The bell will toll for us all.

We cannot stop the inevitable. 

All life comes to an end. 

Only a living God can make our end a beginning.

There is a strange and bizarre comfort in these words from Jesus to the disciples in Jerusalem. I know it doesn’t sound comforting. For us, when Jesus says, “God’s gonna destroy all of this,” it sounds like bad news. But for others, those for whom these institutions and statues are like hell on earth, the destruction of them is good news.

None of those things give true life. No building, no institution, no company. 

Only God gives life.

The truth of the gospel is that God is gonna get what God wants. No matter how much God’s gotta mess up what we’ve got, God’s gonna get what God wants.

forgotten_church_by_gaudibuendia-d6pu2zm

Jesus rightly warns his disciples that many will come proclaiming some version of a truth, they will come with empty promises about the saving end of all things. They will, in some way, call upon you and I to join up to protect the things that we think rule the world.

But Jesus is abundantly clear – the temple cannot and will not stand. 

The restoration of the temple, getting Jesus back in schools, whatever the thing is that we are willing to die for is not the end of all things. Those things are not God’s goals for the world.

The goal of all life is resurrection!

This is why we are cautioned about those who draw all of our attention and focus and energy of bold claims about what’s really at stake. And yet we cannot help ourselves! The all-you-can-eat-buffet of suffering and destruction in this world is a fix that never stops bizarrely comforting us.

And we, today, become so focused on discerning the signs of the time, that we neglect to open our eyes to the truth of the gospel today. 

Our focus is not on the signs of the times themselves, but rather on the one who is to come – the one who enables us to stare into the void of such devastation and claim the certainty of a new day dawning in the light of the resurrection. 

Today, faithful living, whatever that means, has become something of fanatical observance, or an apathetic endeavor. 

Just turn on the news and you will quickly learn about the destructive powers of Christians in their communities all across the theological spectrum. Or you can learn about the failure of so-called Christian politicians. Or you can learn about the greed in churches that wedge themselves between families, between friends, and between brothers and sisters in Christ. 

The world quickly identifies the people who claim to speak on behalf of Jesus who then rapidly lead disciples down paths of idolatrous worship. They care more about which politicians won certain seats than about the people who sit in the seats of their churches. They preach intolerance rather than love, they emphasize death over resurrection, and they support judgment above new life.

And then, on the other side, there are countless churches that contain only the blandest sense of discipleship. Week after week the pews fill with less and less people as the sermons are filled with more and more trite aphorisms about living your best life. They might have a bible displayed at the front of the sanctuary but it is covered in dust, the people who show up on Sunday don’t even know why they do so, and they only pray because they don’t know what else to do.

And so, it is against the fanatical religious leaders of today, Jesus warns us to beware that no one leads us astray. He speaks to us through the apocalyptic vision of the past, present, and future about holding fast to the love that has been revealed to us in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And he beckons us to remember who we are and whose we are. 

And it is against the apathetic churches of today, the ones who are just going through the motions, that Jesus announces an electrifying and revelatory message: this is not the end!

This kind of scripture might terrify us to the core; we might see the world falling apart under our feet and immediately identify what we witness with what Jesus warned his disciples about. Depending on who we are, and where we are, these verses can appear more horrifying than hopeful.

But for anyone with a truly terrifying reality – this is a profound word and vision of hope. 

For the woman who fears the Thanksgiving table, and the conversations and memories it brings, “this is not the end” promises something redemptive and transformative.

For the man who knows he cannot afford to buy Christmas presents this year, “this is not the end” is a hope that burns like a faithful flame in the midst of darkness.

For the family grieving as they take their first steps after burying someone in the ground, “this is not the end” takes on a whole new meaning when they experience the glory of God who promises our resurrection. 

No matter who you are, and no matter what you going through in your life right now, hear these frighteningly and faithfully apocalyptic words and know that they are meant for you: “This is not the end.” Amen. 

Devotional – Revelation 1.8

Devotional:

Revelation 1.8

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

Weekly Devotional Image

Services of Death and Resurrection are sacred moments in the life of the church. For a brief time we gather together in our grief, we praise God for the life of a friend or family member, and then we proclaim the hope of the resurrection. Dozens of people will fill the pews, some of who have not entered a church in years, and sing those beautiful hymns like “In the Garden” and “Blessed Assurance.”

As a pastor, it is a humbling thing to be tasked with leading the services and preaching a faithful word about God’s love and the life of the dead. I try to find the right stories and scriptures that shed light on the individual and pray for God to speak through my words so that they resonate with God’s Word. I try to lead the service in such a way that we can experience tears and laughter. And I try to ensure that the experience is one of profound holiness.

Yesterday, after concluding a Service of Death and Resurrection for a long-time member of St. John’s UMC, I gathered in the social hall with friends and family for a reception. Like a high school reunion, I saw groups of people gathered together to share stories and offer condolences. I spent some time wandering about the room in order to check on the members of the immediate family when someone stuck out his hand and asked to speak with me. I had never met the man before but he explained his connection to the man that had died and he thanked me for my words. He described his fear of funerals because they always remind him that death will come for him one day as well. But then he said, “However, my favorite thing about funerals is the fact that I learn so much more about a person I thought I knew so well.”

revelation1-8-web

Funerals do teach us so much more about the people we love. We hear from friends and family members willing to offer witness to the particular life and often we hear a pastor who is able to share a new vision of the life of someone close to us. It is in our willingness to listen that we discover something new.

Whenever I perform a funeral I am re-struck by the scripture: “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” I have said it before groups of people more times than I can count, but each time it reinforces the fact that I still have so much more to learn about God. Every day is a new opportunity to open up scripture, pray deeply to the divine, and discover the Lord’s work in other people. Similarly, it brings me great comfort to know that God is the beginning and the end, that our lives are gifts from God and that death is not the end.

This week, let us take time to learn more about the people in our lives and to learn more about the God of life. Maybe it means picking up the phone and calling a dear friend, or opening up our bibles to read a familiar passage. Maybe it means praying for the people in our local and global community, or listening for God’s still soft voice in the words of a hymn. Whatever we do, let us do so with the hope of learning more about one another and our Lord who is the beginning and the end.

This Is Not The End

Mark 13.1-8

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

511238384_640

 

The temple in Jerusalem was something to behold. It captivated the hearts and imaginations of countless Israelites throughout the centuries and was the pivotal focus of their faith. During times of strife and warfare the Hebrews would pray for the foundation of the temple. When uncertainties remained in the air, the temple was the place to offer sacrifices. It stood as a beacon to all with eyes to see regarding the power and the glory of the Lord.

It is no wonder therefore why the disciples couldn’t help but marvel at the giant stones when they were walking with Jesus. After spending a considerable amount of time ministering to the last, least, and lost in Galilee, Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey and brought his friends to the temple.

“Look Lord! Look at the large stones and large buildings!” Like the dwarfing power of a modern skyscraper the temple kept the disciples’ eyes in the sky. But then Jesus said, “See these buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.

I can almost imagine the disciples rubbing their hands together in anticipation; “Finally Jesus is getting ready for the revolution! He keeps talking about the first being last and the last being first, now is the time to strike!”

Later, when Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, the inner circle of disciples gathered close and asked Jesus privately, “Tell us, when is it going to happen? What will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”

Then Jesus began to teach them, “Beware that no one leads you astray with empty promises about the end. Many will come in my name declaring change and messianic power, and they will lead people astray. When you hear about wars and destruction, do not be alarmed; this must take place, the end is still to come. There will be earthquakes. There will be famines. This is just the first part of the birth pangs, the beginning of the end.

this-is-not-the-end

We call this an apocalypse. Commonly understood to mean the destruction of the world, it conveys much more than that. An apocalypse is a revelation from God; it is a vision of a timeless reality. It is the past, the present, and the future. Jesus’ friends saw the temple as the end-all-be-all of faithful living, and he quickly brushed it aside to say that even bricks and mortar will fall away. Don’t put your faith in the buildings and in the structure but in the Lord who reigns forever.

But then Jesus takes the time to warn his friends about the coming days, things that we are still experiencing even now. Watch out for the deceivers who claim to know when the end of the world is coming, beware of the preacher who proclaims words in Jesus name that don’t match what Jesus said, keep guard when you encounter the Christian as sales-rep and instead look for the Christian as servant.

Jesus’ words are tough to swallow in our comfortable contemporary condition. We would rather hear about the miracles or the ethical teachings of Jesus. But today we hear about the devastation, the destruction, and the death that will come before the end. When you look out at the world and it looks like the very fabric of life is unraveling, the end is still to come. When you feel lost and alone deep in your soul, unsure of your future and welfare, the end is still to come. When you lose a loved one to death, and you feel like you can’t go on, the end is still to come.

Only a Messiah like ours would dare to proclaim the end as the beginning, the fear as the new birth.

Francine Christophe is an 83-year-old French writer and poet who survived the Holocaust. She was recently interviewed for a documentary about what it means to be human and this is what she said:

“My name is Francine Christophe. I was born on August 18th, 1933. 1933 was the year when Hitler took power… When I was 11 years old in the Bergen-Belsen camp, an amazing thing happened. Let me remind you, as the children of prisoners of war, we were privileged. We were permitted to bring something from France. A little bag, with two or three small items. One woman brought chocolate, another some sugar, a third, a handful of rice. My mom had packed two little pieces of chocolate. She said to me, “We’ll keep this for a day when I see you’ve collapsed completely, and really need help. I’ll give you this chocolate, and you’ll feel better.

“One of the women imprisoned with us was pregnant. You couldn’t tell, she was so skinny… But the day came, and she went into labor. She went to the camp hospital with my mom, the barracks chief. Before they left, my mom said, “Remember that chocolate I was saving for you?” “Yes, Mama.” “How do you feel?” “Fine, Mama. I’ll be okay.” “Well, then, if it’s alright with you, I’d like to bring your chocolate to this lady, our friend Helene. Giving birth here will be hard. She may die. If I give her the chocolate, it may help her.” “Yes, Mama. Go ahead.”

“Helene gave birth to the baby. A tiny, little, feeble thing. She ate the chocolate. She did not die. She came back to the barracks. The baby never cried. Never! She didn’t even wail. 6 months later, the camp was liberated. They unwrapped the baby’s rags, and the baby screamed. That was when she was born. We took her back to France. A puny little thing, for 6 months.

“A few years ago, my daughter asked me, “Mama, if you deportees had had psychologists or psychiatrists when you returned, maybe if would have been easier for you.” I replied, “Undoubtedly, but we didn’t have them. No one thought of mental illness. But you gave me a good idea. We’ll have a lecture on that topic.” I organized a lecture on the theme: “If the survivors of concentration camps had had counseling in 1945, what would have happened?”

“The lecture drew a crowd. Elderly survivors, historians, and many psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists… Very interesting. Many ideas emerged. It was excellent. Then, a woman took the podium and said, “I live in Marseille, where I am a psychiatrist. Before I deliver my talk, I have something for Francine Christophe.” In other words, me. She reached into her pocket, and pulled out a piece of chocolate. She gave it to me and she said, “I am the baby.”

I can’t imagine the fear of being pregnant while in one of the concentration camps. New birth and new life is supposed to be filled with such hope and promise, but to be pregnant in one of the camps was basically a death sentence.

Francine Christophe’s story is a powerful reminder of the power of new life in the midst of chaos and calamity. We see the truth and depth of Jesus’ words, “the end is not yet.

Today, faithfulness and religious observance is either a fanatical or apathetic endeavor. Turn on the news and you will quickly hear about the destructive powers of ISIS, the greed of the Church, or the failure of Christian politicians. The world quickly identifies the people who claim to speak on behalf of Jesus who then rapidly lead disciples away from the truth. They care more about the color of Starbucks coffee cups than they do about children going hungry. They preach intolerance instead of love, they emphasize death over resurrection, and they support destruction above new life.

On the other side, countless churches contain only the blandness of discipleship. Week after week the pews are filled with less and less people as the sermons are filled with more and more trite clichés about living a better life. Cultural Christians might take the time to attend worship and offer up a few dollars and change when the plate comes around but their once deeply rooted faithfulness has been replaced with apathy for all things religious. They have a bible displayed at their homes but it is covered in dust, they go to church simply because that’s what you’re supposed to do, and they only pray when they don’t know what else to do.

Against the fanatical religious leaders of today, Jesus warns us to “beware that no one leads us astray.” Hold fast to the love that has been revealed to you in scripture and in the church, remember who you are and whose you are.

            And against the apathetic churches of today, Jesus announces an electrifying message: the end is not yet!

This kind of scripture might terrify us to the core; we might see the world falling apart and immediately identify what we witness with what Jesus warned his disciples about. From our comfortable vantage point, these verses are more horrifying than hopeful. But for those for whom the present is a terrifying reality, it is a truly hopeful word.

For a pregnant woman in the middle of a concentration camp, “this is not the end” rings true in a young woman with a gift of chocolate.

For a grieving family preparing to gather for a funeral, “this is not the end” takes on a whole new meaning when they hear about the glory of the promised resurrection.

For a city in France that is still mourning the loss of so many innocent lives, “this is not the end” becomes powerful through the global community responding in love and prayer.

For a church that sees fewer and fewer people in the pews each week, “this is not the end” resonates in the commitment to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.

No matter what you are going through in your life right now, hear Jesus’ hopeful words and know that they are meant for you, “this is not the end.” Amen.

 

151114-paris-peace-sign.jpg.CROP.promovar-mediumlarge

The End Has No End – Easter Sermon on Mark 16.1-8

Mark 16.1-8

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place where they laid him. But 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.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

resurrection-bonnie-bruno

In the cool of the morning, when everything seems perfect and still, the three women made their way to the tomb. They were carrying spices to anoint his body and as they walked the sun began to rise and the dew held gently to the plants and flowers along the path. I imagine the women, still in shock from the crucifixion, walking silently in a single file line, all caught up in their own thoughts; “Why did he have to die?” “Where have all the other disciples gone?” “I’ve seen him save so many others, but why not himself?

At some point, however, a conversation began between them, “Who will roll away the stone for us at the entrance to the tomb?” Yet, when they arrived, the large stone had already been rolled back. Perhaps with fear already beginning to brew within their hearts, they entered the tomb to discover a young man, dressed in white, sitting off to the side; and they were afraid. The stood shaking before the young man when he said, “Do not be afraid; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look there is the place where they laid him. But 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.” Immediately the women went out and fled from the tomb, running for their lives, because fear and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

women-arriving-at-the-tomb_he_qi_1999

Easter is, without a doubt, my favorite day of the year. Growing up I used to look forward to the Easter Egg hunts, the gathering for a meal at my grandmother’s house, and singing those great hymns in church. At home, Easter was a big deal. The church was always immaculately decorated with lilies and flowers of all colors, the women wore their favorite spring dresses, and the men even dared to wear ties with splashes of color. During the week leading up to Easter a large tomb would be placed on the church’s front lawn so that from Good Friday to Easter Sunday two men dressed as Roman Centurions would guard the tomb as people drove by. I remember with great joy the year I was finally tall enough to wear one of the costumes and stand out front.

169_1010929804499_155_n

One year, the pastor called me before Easter and asked for my help with the Sunrise service. “Taylor, we are going to have our sunrise service on the lawn. I want you to get here before anyone else, dressed as the angel in the tomb. There will be a fog machine in there and when I say the words “He is Risen” I want you to turn it on, so that when the time comes you will exit the tomb and tell all of the people gathered that Christ has risen and gone on to Galilee before them and so on.”

I was so excited. I arrived at the tomb while it was still dark outside, clothed in white with angel’s wings attached to my back. I knelt down in the tomb and waited. I could hear people gathering outside, exchanging pleasant Easter greetings as the sun began to rise. When the sermon started I patiently waited by the Fog machine, and when I heard the words, “He is Risen” I turned it on.

The only problem was, I turned it on too early. The tomb, being small and closed, filled with smoke rather rapidly. I tried as hard as I could but I began to cough and feel claustrophobic. I can only imagine what it looked like to the people outside: a make-shift tomb that coughed and had smoke billow out from the sides.

Without the help of light I could no longer see anything as I was covered with the thick smoke, when finally the pastor knocked on the tomb and I came out. Instead of a glorious angel glowing in white robes proclaiming the resurrection of the Lord, I tumbled out of the tomb, slipped in the mud, coughed a number of times, forgot my lines, made up something about the glories of God our king, and then quickly jogged off the lawn toward the church building. I was so nervous that in ruining the sunrise service, everyone would have laughed at me and the spectacle I had made, but the truth is, they all just stared at me with bewilderment and fear.

The story of Easter is one that we tell year after year. For centuries this story among all the others is the one that has so captivated the hearts, minds, and souls of Christians. Whether proclaimed from an elegant pulpit, or with the fumbling of an angel covered in smoke, this is a message that can both excite and terrify. The beauty of the story is in the details that open our eyes to the magnificence of God’s resurrected Son, and what it means for us.

We begin with the women who show how love does not end with death. Whereas the other disciples had abandoned the great mission to serve their Lord, these three women loved Jesus beyond the end. They marched to the location of the tomb with heavy hearts, but hearts that still loved the one that had died.

They question how they can enter the tomb with the stone still blocking the entrance. Their question is not answered by earthly means, no one gathers at the entrance to roll the stone away for them. But God had an answer; God always has an answer to the impossible. When they arrive, the stone has been rolled away.

7028203zoomed

Inside they are frightened to discover a young man dressed in white who uttered three of the most powerful words to have ever been spoken: “He is risen!” Everything that followed after this proclamation, the church of Acts, the growth of Christianity throughout the centuries, even all of you gathered here this morning bear witness to the power and transformation of the resurrection itself.

Without the resurrection, all of this is meaningless. If Jesus did not break forth from the grave, if he did not return in the flesh to share bread with his friends, if he does not appear with us through the Holy Spirit than he would have died like any other human. The resurrection changed, and changes, everything.

Christ broke out of the tomb, he destroyed the chains of death, and turned the world upside down. We cannot limit what God can do, not even in death. The women’s fear is therefore perhaps the most appropriate response to this immeasurably Good News.

The tomb was empty and the body gone. This is completely contrary to what the women expected, and anticipated. The resurrection is something totally and utterly new, something all-together without precedent, something that stuns and shocks and stupefies with its inexplicable power.

The angel tells the women, “look, there is the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Jesus has gone before his friends and disciples to the familiar Galilee of ordinary life. For centuries people have met God in the routine of life, our God is one on the move continually searching and waiting for us. God cannot be confined to the tomb of our limited expectations, but breaks forth in an exciting and dynamic way, out there on the move, reaching the hearts and minds of countless people. Our lives have been illumined by the triune God who lived and died and lived again.

So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. What a very strange way to end the Gospel. The news of God’s great resurrection caused the women to run away as fast as they could from the scene in fear. Many people have debated about whether or not this is the true ending, because it doesn’t feel like one. Maybe the last page of Mark’s gospel was accidentally ripped out, or he died before he could finish it. Maybe this is just an unfinished story.

However, I believe there is something profoundly wonderful about this conclusion of the story, precisely because it has no end. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is always unfinished. There is an unwritten page left for each of us to write, to record the many glorious and joyful things that Jesus has done for and through us. 

2b8baa26a479d6fd19ef0caaa3e988a1

I love this ending because the end has no end! Like the women at the tomb, the young man in white has called us to look on the places where we have buried those whom we love and recognize that the end has no end. We await our joyful reunion with all who have gone on to glory because Christ’s resurrection has become our promised resurrection. God’s story is not over because we have now become characters in the narrative. We take up where Mark’s gospel stops.

Can you imagine anything more wonderful than this? Can you imagine anything more perfect or beautiful than the resurrection of the dead? Can you imagine what joy springs forth from this immeasurably gracious gift? Actually we can scarcely begin to imagine it, for it does not come from our imaginations, but from God almighty.

My friends, today we are gripped with joy and fear. God has exceeded all of our expectations by raising his Son from the dead. God has opened up a new realm of understanding, God has defeated death, God has made himself available to you and me, God has not left us to wander through life alone but is with us in everything that we do.

At this table we get a heavenly foretaste of whats to come. Here at the table we meet God and one another through the bread and the wine. This fellowship is but the beginning of our eternal relationship and participation with God. This table is where heaven and earth meet. This table is where we discover the depth of the resurrection, here we see Christ’s sacrifice and recognize that it has been done for us.

Easter isn’t perfect. For some, it creates more questions than it provides answers. For the women at the tomb it was scary and astonishing. For the church folk gathered together when I bumbled out of the fake tomb it was strange and bizarre. Easter can both excite and terrify. After all, we’re talking about the incarnate God being resurrected from the dead. Easter is all about shattering our expectations of how the world works. Easter is the incredible moment where everything changed forever. Easter is the event the opened up an entirely new realm of possibilities for God’s creation. Easter is about God making all things new.

Where are you in your life right now? Are you looking for a little more clarity about what your world is supposed to look like? Has life lost the wonderful spark that used to bring a smile to your face everyday? Are you afraid of what tomorrow might bring?

Then let the resurrection shine brilliantly in your life today. Open your eyes to the incredible wonders of God’s actions in the world. Hear the story of Christ’s resurrection and believe that this has been made possible for you, no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, and no matter what you will do.

Jesus came alive so that we could come alive. Don’t let Easter just be a day that you look forward to, let it be something you experience right now.

What we read today is the end of Mark’s gospel, but the resurrection means that the end has no end. That is the Good News.

He is risen! Hallelujah!

 

Questions: In the End… – Sermon on John 14.5-6, 1 Timothy 2.1-4, and John 13.34

(Instead of a typical ~15 minute sermon from the pulpit, I broke the following sermon up into 3 homilies. I preached the first from the pulpit, the second from the lectern, and the third from the middle)

John 14.5-6

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

1 Timothy 2.1-4

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth.

John 13.34

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.

 

Today we conclude our sermon series on “Questions.” After requesting responses from all of you regarding your questions about God, faith, and the church, we have, again, come to the time when I attempt to faithfully respond to those questions. Over the last two weeks we have looked at what it means to be “saved” and how the Old and New Testaments relate to one another. Today we are talking about other faiths and how they relate to Christianity. So, here we go…

xlba-00052

John 14.5-6: Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

For nearly an entire semester I sat in the front row for my class on “Hindu Traditions” at JMU. My professor was a practicing Hindu and regularly lectured from the front, pacing back and forth as we covered history, beliefs, and habits. Dr. Mittal was remarkably passionate about the subject and as we came to the conclusion of the class, I was thankful for his ability to open my eyes to the wonders of a great religion.

It was during our last class session that Dr. Mittal asked if there were anything remaining questions before the Final Exam. A few hands raised, mostly questions about the actual exam; Would it be multiple choice? Would it contain essays? But, one young woman, prominently displaying her “Campus Crusade for Christ” sweater, asked a question that I’ll never forget: “If you know you’re going to hell for being a Hindu, why wouldn’t you become a Christian to save yourself?”

The room was silent. 

Dr. Mittal, having been calm and collected all semester, began to clench his fists together and flare his nostrils. “How dare you speak to me that way! I am so tired of you young foolish Christians trying to tell me what to believe in. Get out of my class!”

The disciple Thomas, ever concerned about what Jesus is really saying, questioned his Lord about the truth of where they were going. And Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus does not know the way, truth, and life; rather, he is all of these. And he is not merely a way, but THE way. Jesus is the unique and visible manifestation of God on earth. 

il_fullxfull-288241452

From the beginning of the church, this statement has been axiomatic for Christianity. If you desire to know God, to find salvation, and to experience grace in your life, you can only find it through Jesus Christ; hence the strong push for evangelism over the last 2 millennia. Not only did Jesus command the disciples to go to all the nations baptizing everyone in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, but we have been steeped in our tradition that affirms salvation can only come through Jesus Christ.

In the first few centuries the church agreed that outside of the church, there is no salvation. In order to experience the forgiving pardon of God you had to be taught the ways of the church, engage in acts of kindness and mercy, and be baptized in order to find your identity within the body of Christ. Even with the rise of other religions, and the interaction between them and Christianity, we affirm that the only way to God is through his Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ.

I remember feeling so uncomfortable that day in class because of what my fellow student had said to Dr. Mittal. In the moment I thought she just wanted to frustrate him, or illicit some sort of reaction from him. However, perhaps she was being remarkably genuine, concerned about his salvation, and wanted to know why he would continue on a path that would separate him from God.

After all, no one can come to the Father except through Jesus Christ.

Amen.

 

1 Timothy 2.1-4: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved.”

Karl Barth, the dialectic theologian of the 20th century (who I have mentioned a number of times from the pulpit) was often vague regarding his understanding of the totality of salvation. In his lectures and publications there are examples where he almost affirms a universalist understanding of God’s redemptive work. He dances around the claim that all have been, and will be, saved through Christ’s death and resurrection.

Karl Barth

Karl Barth

Once, after a series of lectures, a young theologian bravely raised his hand to ask a question. “Professor Barth, I would like to know once and for all: are you a universalist? Do you believe that everyone will go to heaven?” Barth probably crossed his arms and thought deeply about his response. After contemplating the implications of what he was about to say, Barth answered the young theologian: “That is a great question. Let me put it this way: I will not be disappointed if heaven is crowded.”

The question of universalism is remarkably relevant considering the great range of thought regarding faith and discipleship. Our world is becoming more and more diverse, with differing understandings of Christianity springing up all over the world. Was Christ’s sacrifice on the cross only for those who believe in him, or was it for all of creation?

We might think of the often quoted John 3.16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” or the number of instances in scripture where individuals outside the realm of Israel (such as Rahab from Jericho, Nebuchadnezzar from Babylon, and the unnamed centurion who declared, “Truly this man was God’s Son” at the moment Christ died on the cross) who played remarkable roles in the story of God’s interaction with God’s people.

We might think of the fact that humankind was created in the image of God. Every individual has been molded from God’s image and given life through the Spirit regardless of their religious affiliation.

We might think of examples from Christ’s ministry where he did not come for the religious elite, but for the last, the least, and the lost. Jesus shared meals with the sinners, the vagrants, and the outcasts. Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but only those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

If we believe that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, not things present, nor things to comes, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, then God’s mercy truly knows no bounds. God’s love is so magnificent and unconditional that it extends not only to all of us gathered here, but to all creation. God’s love has been poured out through Christ’s death and resurrection onto the church, and to everyone outside of the church. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Atheists, Agnostics, and everyone in between have been caught up in God’s great cosmic victory over death.

In Barth’s response to the young theologian, he deliberately avoided answering the specific question, yet he embodied the kind of hope that all Christians should have; that God’s love is so powerful that he came to die for us, while we were yet sinners; that God’s mercy is so strong that nothing will ever separate us from God; and that God’s grace is so abundant that heaven will be crowded.

After all, “This is right and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved.” Amen.

 

John 13.34: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.”

During my final year of seminary I served as an on-call chaplain at Duke University hospital. We were required to stay on the hospital property for 24 hours attending the numerous pages, calls, and deaths that occurred throughout our shift. One night, after sitting with numerous families who had just learned that someone had died, after talking with patients just diagnosed with inoperable cancer, after pacing up and down the sterile halls for hours, I found myself in the chapel. A tiny room, no bigger than our narthex, it contained numerous religious materials, a piano, an altar, and a notebook for prayers. Whenever I had a moment I would stop in and pray the prayers out loud, and most of the time it was empty. It became a place of solace for me, a space where I could remove myself from the chaos of the hospital.

Burning Bush in Duke Hospital's Chapel

Burning Bush in Duke Hospital’s Chapel

Every once and awhile I would encounter a Muslim praying on his knees in the corner. We would always politely nod toward one another and continue on with our religious responsibilities. But that night, the night that felt like it would never end, everything changed.

I was standing at the altar, while my companion prayed in the corner, we both spoke in a whisper so as to not disturb the other, when all of the sudden he stopped, stood up, and walked to my side. “Let us pray together” he said. And without discussing the details, without organizing our thoughts, without debating the theological differences and implications, we both began to pray, shoulder to shoulder, for the people we were serving. When our prayers naturally came to their conclusion, we met eye to eye, nodded, and went on our separate ways.

In compiling all of the questions for this sermon series, “What happens to people of other faiths?” appeared more than any other. Without a doubt, the existence of and interactions with other religions is, perhaps, the most significant challenge to, and opportunity for, the Christian church today. Moreover, the rise of atheism further complicates the picture into a varied mosaic whereby the church is challenged to address both those who do not believe and those who do believe, but who believe differently from us.

So, what happens to people of other faiths? I don’t know. We can take Jesus words from John, or other affirmations from scripture and receive very different answers. One of the struggles with being a Christian is that we have to paradoxically affirm both responses, that salvation can only come through the church, and that through Christ all have been saved. “What happens to people of other faiths?” is an interesting question, but in the end, God is the only one who holds the answer. However, a question that strikes at our hearts today is: “How do we relate to people of other faiths?”

Jesus commands all of us to love one another, this is the new commandment. If there is any command from Jesus to obey in our lives regarding other faiths it is this: love one another. In my own life God has used a number of people from outside the church to help teach me about what it means to be a discipleship of Jesus Christ: questions from my secular friends about why I believe, the love expressed by indigenous Mayan women in the highlands of Guatemala, one of the Muslim doctors at Duke Hospital who met me in the depth of suffering for prayer.

What has been revealed for us through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is that God desire us to be in relationship with others. This means that we have to be willing to be vulnerable with people different from us, people whose beliefs contradict our own, and people with no beliefs at all. We are called to love one another just as God has loved us. We are not here just to minister to other Christians, but to the whole world. We are called to seek justice and mercy in the world for ALL who are oppressed regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, gender, economic status, and religious affiliation.

And so, in the great adapted words of John Wesley: Though we may not think alike, though our differences of opinion and religious understanding may vary considerably, though we may not agree on the scope of salvation, though we may not have the same opinion about the role that Jesus plays in the cosmic victory over death, may we not love alike?

Without all doubt, we may. Amen.