The Future Present

Luke 9.28-36

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. 

He was a fisherman, and not even a very good one, when the Lord showed up and made him into a fisher of people.

And Pete, he’s seen some things, witnessed moments he can’t explain. First it was the teacher calling him to follow. That’s all it took. He and his coworkers, his fellow fishermen, left it all behind on the shore, including nets full of recently caught fish.

Then it was the episode with his mother-in-law. She was busy trying to meet the needs of the Teacher and his new disciples when he touched her and made her well.

And there was the time when the crowds grew so large, and stuck around so long, that they need to eat something and the Teacher turned scarcity into abundance, and everyone left with their bellies full.

And the stories! Mustard seeds and prodigal sons and wayward vineyard workers. That’s what Pete liked best, the stories.

It’s no wonder then, having seen all he’s seen and heard all he heard, that when the Teacher asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Pete was the first to shout, “The Messiah!”

But it’s also why, having confessed the truth of the incarnation, when the Teacher told him and the others that he was going to die, Pete was the first to rebuke him for saying what he said.

“JC, I don’t think you get it. The Messiah can’t die! You’re here to restore all the promises to Israel, which is something you can’t do from the grave.”

And do you know what the Teacher said to Pete? “Get behind me Satan, for your head is stuck on human things, and I’m here for heavenly things.”

And now, 8 days later, they’re walking up a mountain to pray. They arrive at the top, bending in humble adoration, lifting up their prayers to the Holy One, when the Teacher’s appearance changes drastically. His face isn’t the same and his clothes are whiter than the brightest light anyone of them can handle. 

Suddenly, two other figures appear, its Moses and Elijah and they’re talking with the Teacher. They are glorious and they talk about his coming departure in Jerusalem, his exodus for the rest of us. 

Moses and Elijah are making movements as if they’re going to leave and Pete shouts out, “Lord, it is good and right for us to be here! Let’s make dwelling places here on the mountain so that we might never leave.”

As the words leave his mouth, a cloud overshadows them completely, and the disciples are full of terror. But from the cloud comes a voice, a voice unlike any other, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

Suddenly they are alone again, and the Teacher says, “Say nothing to anyone about what you have seen and heard.”

The Transfiguration.

Today is a major turning point in the church year. The transfigured Jesus turns his blazing and radiant face toward a violent fate in Jerusalem at the hands of roaring crowds. This week, the church turns away from the light of Epiphany and toward the shadows of Lent.

Not all churches mark this occasion, but to ignore the Transfiguration is to miss out on the future made manifest in the present. It is a moment of transcendence that lifts the veil of all the good, true, and beautiful in the world.

The Transfiguration is part of what makes the strange new world of the Bible so new and so strange.

And it is indeed a strange story, so strange that as I referenced it with and among individuals from our church this week, more than a few confessed that they were unfamiliar with this moment in the Gospel. 

Which makes sense! This story, even among the strangeness of the Bible, is quite bizarre. Jesus has just rebuked his chief disciple for missing the mark, yet again, they go up on top of a mountain during which Jesus is flanked by two of the most important figures from Israel’s history, only to have it all stop just as soon as it started.

And, notably, this is the only instance in any of the Gospels when Jesus doesn’t respond at all to something that someone has said to him. 

He completely ignores Pete’s request for a motel franchise on top of the mountain.

There are so many things at stake in this triumph of transfiguration, but most of all it is a preview of the Gospel. It is the future present.

And we can’t really wrap our heads around it! Because, we confess, we don’t know what to make of moments that we can’t explain.

Our default mechanism for living in the world today is living in and by the natural and explainable rather than, and at the expense of, the supernatural.

The challenge of our being is that we are stuck living in an unthought way – we are addicted to certainty in a world that is inherently unstable and uncertain.

Our comprehension of events is such that we are convinced we no longer need a religious or mystical explanation for things that happen, or don’t happen. And yet, we are equally obsessed with self-justification, which is inherently a mystical adventure.

Put simply: We’re all on a journey for meaning in the world and more often than not we derive our sense of meaning out of what we can accomplish. Which, if we’re honest with ourselves, never amounts to much. But we keep trying and trying and trying anyway. We add new habits or we drop bad ones. We set out to create some permanence in a world that works only through impermanence. We try and try and try and find ourselves disappointed whether we work harder or not.

We, in some way, shape, or form, are looking for transcendence, but we can’t find it.

Which is odd when you consider how often, in church of all places, we try to take the strangeness of the gospel and turn it into something practical. We take the impossible possibility of God’s grace and we transform it into a list of three things to do to become a better version of yourself. We take the mount of Transfiguration and turn it into some form of moralism about what we should, or shouldn’t, be doing in the world today.

But the Transfiguration isn’t about what we are supposed to do – it’s about being in the presence of God.

Christian art is an endlessly fascinating phenomenon. And the Transfiguration has, for centuries, commanded the imagination of artists. 

Here is the Transfiguration as portrayed by the Renaissance painter Raphael. It was the last painting he created before his death, and it was conceived as an altar piece for a cathedral in France. 

The top of the painting depicts the scene we encounter in scripture and notably, the bottom half conveys the next part of the story when Jesus and the disciples descend from the mountain to heal a young boy. 

Notice how the light of Christ’s Transfiguration is juxtaposed with the darkness of the lower scene.

And here is a modern and abstract depiction of the Transfiguration by an artist named Jaison Cianelli. Like Raphael’s, the painting conveys a hyper focused change that is wrought with lasting consequences.

And finally, this is a modern icon created by a Ukrainian artist named Ivanka Demchuk. The cowering disciples in the bottom portion stand in for all of us, who when encountered by the One who encounter us, can’t help but tremble in fear. 

The Transfiguration is one of those moments in the Bible that we can never fully wrap our heads around. It’s one that we need art and music and other aspects of expression to help us come to grips with this bewildering proclamation. 

It is beyond our ability to explain and certainly beyond our ability to comprehend because it transcends all modes of our being.

Without the supernatural, without transcendence, without mystery, the church becomes nothing more than a country club, or the next best self-improvement clinic, or a sub par social services agency. 

And to be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with seeking out fellowship, or trying to better one’s self, or providing needs to the last, least, lost, little, and dead. But if that’s all we have, if that’s all the church is, then we have no business calling ourselves the church.

There will always be plenty of other institutions that can bring us better friends, or help us get from where we are to where we want to be, or make substantive changes in the world. But they don’t have the one thing that we do: Jesus Christ and him crucified.

The wonderful and weird witness of the Transfiguration is that the only thing we’re told to do is listen to Jesus. From this point forward, Jesus is going to do what Jesus is going to do. He will still stir up the crowds with stories of treasure in a field, and proclamations about the signs of the times, but when push comes to shove Jesus will mount the hard wood of the cross regardless of all our goodness or lack thereof.

We can point to all these bewildering details on top of the mountain, but it’s important that we don’t miss out on the timelessness of the scene. The Transfiguration, a moment indelibly in the past, shows us a glimpse of the future.

Tell no one what you have seen or heard until the Son of Man is raised from the dead. 

This moment is made indelible only by the ending that the disciples can scarcely imagine, even though Jesus just hit them up over the head with it.

They are sworn to silence because they are not yet ready for the transcending truth. They have not made it from their reality to God’s reality. They witness something remarkable and inexplicable, but it is not yet the resurrection, the great transfiguration of all things.

Today we, like the disciples, are called to live according to the wondrous nature of the Transfiguration – we can stumble around like fools grasping out in fear for comfort – and then we will hear the words, the only words we need to hear: “This is my Son, the chosen; listen to him.”

But, and it’s a big but, if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t want to listen to Jesus. We’d rather listen to ourselves. 

We’d rather listen to ourselves because we are downright addicted to control. Or, at least to thinking we’re in control.

Do you know how God responds to those who think they’re in control?

Laughter.

It is humbling to be laughed at by anyone, but when God’s laughs at us it’s another thing entirely. But perhaps we need to hear that laughter, particularly when we wake and sleep believing that it’s up to us to make the world turn out right.

The world has already turned out right. We know the future in the present. The tomb is empty!

We don’t have to be the hope of the world because Jesus already is. The only thing we have to do is live accordingly.

And that’s why Lent beckons us. It’s why Christians, for centuries have marked and observe the season that starts on Ash Wednesday because it reminds us of our inconvenient truth – we can’t make it out of this life alive. But, like the Lord in the tomb, God refuses to leave us that way.

We are a people desperate to be in control of our lives and we’re living in a world in which we are not in control. Moreover, we can scarcely imagine what it would look like to live in the light of Jesus’ transfiguration. It leaves us quaking and bewildered like those three disciples.

But if we do not reflect the glory of the One transfigured, then the world has no light to see that all is not darkness. Amen. 

Of First Importance

1 Corinthians 15.1-11

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you — unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them — though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe. 

I passed on to you as of first importance what I, in turn, had received.

Jesus died for our sins.

He was buried in the tomb.

He was raised on the third day.

He appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than 500 brothers and sisters at once.

Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me – the least of all the apostles.

And he called me (me!), the one totally and completely unfit for the church because I persecuted the church. 

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and God’s grace for me has not been in vain. And all that I have done, it’s not me, but the grace of God that is with me.

To Paul, this was of first importance.

Not a list of required behavioral attributes of the people called church.

Not a top ten list of the most important beliefs to affirm if you want to join the club.

Not a dress code of what you can, or can’t, wear to church.

Not a political party’s ideologies you must identify with.

Not even a vision of how to make the world a better place.

For Paul, a story was of first importance – the story.

Jesus lived, died, and lived again and then he appeared to the disciples.

Chances are that you’re here because you have heard this story. More often that not we discover our faith not because someone gave us a list of things to believe in, but because in receiving the story we discover ourselves within it. 

And let me tell you, it is one crazy story.

I mean, what was Jesus thinking?

Jesus does the most remarkable thing to ever happen in the history of the cosmos, resurrection from the dead, and what does he do first? He goes off to find Peter, you know, the one who denied him no less than three times prior to the crucifixion!

Jesus surely would’ve been better off doing something a little more effective. If Jesus really wanted to spread the Good News, he should’ve gone straight to the movers and shakers – the ones who get things done.

If Jesus came to turn the world upside down, then why in the world did he start with the people at the bottom?

Our Lord, the one we love and adore, the solid rock upon which we stand, didn’t knock on the doors of the emperor’s palace with holes in his hands, he didn’t fly up to the top of the temple and wait for the crowds to bow in humble reverence.

The resurrected Jesus appeared first and foremost to the very people to abandoned him.

Let us rest in that bewildering proclamation for a moment – Jesus breaks forth from the chains of death and shows up for the ragtag group of would-be followers who failed him, forsook him, and fled from him into the darkness.

Jesus chose, in this most profound and powerful of moments, to return to his betrayers.

Jesus returns to us.

This is why the Good News is something that has captivated the hearts and minds of many for centuries. Jesus sees us more in us than we see in ourselves… Jesus does his work, his very best work, through people like us!

People who don’t deserve it one bit.

Think about Peter and Paul – Peter was a perjurer and Paul was a murderer – a denier of the faith and a killer of the faith.

And even before all that, Peter was nothing but a dirty rotten fisherman, and he wasn’t even very good at it. Out all night and not a single fish to show for his efforts. And Paul? Paul was a tentmaker! How could that possibly help in spreading the Gospel?

It would’ve been news enough that this first century rabbi rose from the dead, but it’s Good News because he rose for them.

The church can be a lot of things. Depending on which one you enter, it can be a safe space for spiritual reflection with high vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows and incense. It can be a transformative assault on the senses with a Technicolor light show and a bumping praise band. And yet, regardless of the trimmings and the trappings, the outward appearance and the theological architecture, the church usually falls into one of two categories:

A group of good people who weekly pat themselves on the back for being gooder than everyone else.

Or a group of people who come together to cope with their failure to be good.

The first group sounds nice, and it can even be nice, but only for a short time. Because, eventually, all the shiny proclamations about all of our goodness fades away when we come to grips with the condition of our condition. One day all of the things that used to bring us comfort no longer ring true because we know ourselves and we know the world.

Basically, we discover that our goodness isn’t good enough.

We need something (read: someone) to do for us what we can’t do on our own.

The second group however, it doesn’t sell. 

What do you think would happen if we put this on our church sign: “Raleigh Court UMC, we’re bad and we know it.”?

That doesn’t compel people to wake up early on a Sunday morning, and it certainly doesn’t drive people to knock on the neighbor’s doors with invitations to worship. 

And yet the story of Jesus Christ, the one Paul proclaimed to the Corinthians, is that God comes to us not because we are good, but because we aren’t. And when we start to see that, not just in the strange new world of the Bible, but in our very lives, it is the difference that makes all the difference.

For a long time in the church there was an aspect of testimony, of witness. After all, that’s what Paul is doing in the letter. He shared with them how God had worked in his life. Therefore Christians, for centuries, have carved out time and space to proclaim the wonderful works of the Lord by pointing to the ways in which they had experienced the remarkable love and work of the God who refuses to abandon us.

And that’s exactly what we’re going to do right now.

I know this might be a tad uncomfortable – We’re Methodists. We like to talk about the Spirit moving, but it’s another things entirely to give ourselves over to see what the Spirit can stir up from within us. 

Nevertheless, of first importance is the story that is our story. So, if you feel comfortable sharing how you have experienced the story of Christ in your life, how Christ has been the difference that has made all the difference, if you have something to share, I encourage you to come up to the microphone and proclaim that Good News…

Hooked

Luke 5.8

But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

Jesus shows up by the lake of Gennesaret and crowds begin to gather to hear whatever it is he has to say. He starts teaching, if that’s what we want to call it – he tells stories, some of them make the folk scratch their heads, some of them make the people mad.

Talk of the first being last and the last being first always sounds like good news to those on the bottom rungs of life, but it sounds like unmitigated bad news to those with everything to lose.

Anyway, Jesus amasses such a crowd that, while standing by the seashore, the Lord decides to amplify his proclamations.

Down the way he stops a few boats and men who had been out all night fishing. They are busy cleaning their nets and Jesus decides to hop into one of their boats and says, “Hey, let’s get out on the water.”

And without giving it much thought, a nobody named Simon Peter pushes the boats out, and starts oaring the Lord back toward the crowds.

“Thanks Pete,” Jesus says, “This’ll do fine. Keep it steady will ya?”

And then Jesus teaches some more. Perhaps talk of fig trees and mustard seeds, maybe some more of that “all things being made new,” perhaps he ended with a particularly probing parable.

And then Jesus looks back to his conscripted fisherman and says, “Pete, since we’re out here already, what do you think about going deeper and let’s see if we can’t find ourselves some breakfast?”

“No offense, Lord,” Peter replies, “But I’ve been out all night fishing. You see, fishing is what I do. And there ain’t no fish to be caught. However, you seem to be on a roll today, so why not?”

15 minutes minutes pass and they catch more fish than they can safely bring aboard their aquatic vessel and they call out to the other fishermen to come help.

Pretty soon they have so many fish that the boats start sinking into the lake from which their plunder came.

Peter, with his arms burning from pulling in net after net, falls to the bottom of the boat and he says, “Get away from me Lord! I am not worthy of this!”

Jesus calmly replies, “No one is. But that’s the whole point. And you needn’t be afraid my friend, from now on you’ll be catching people.”

And Peter, along with his brother and their fishing partners, leave everything at the shore and they follow Jesus. 

I love this story.

Every time I enter the strange new world of the Bible to this little tale by the sea I am bombarded by Peter’s reaction to Jesus. He falls before the Lord with a feeling of complete unworthiness. He, somehow, understands that God is near in the person of Jesus in a way that is more tangible and palpable than he can comprehend. And it is in the presence of God that Peter feels his sin.

Does Jesus call Peter a sinner? Does Jesus list all of Peter’s faults and failures? No.

Instead, the experience of God’s wonderful presence leads Peter to a recognition of his unworthiness. And then, lo and behold, Jesus wants to have a sinner such a Peter in his service!

“C’mon Pete! It’s time to start catching people!”

It’s hard to know exactly when it happens, but somewhere along the line Jesus catches us. That’s what Jesus does, in the end. It’s not just the telling of tales, and the proclamations of parables, and the making of miracles. Jesus delights in gathering us, all of us, into the great net that, in the church, we call salvation.

And Jesus is very good at what he does.

Life, as we often perceive it, is little more than going through the motions and doing one thing after another. But Jesus doesn’t come to bring us more of the same. That’s the great witness and proclamation of the church – Jesus comes that we might have life and life abundant. Jesus shakes up the monotony of our daily existence, sets us free from the chains of sin and death, and invites us to the Supper of the Lamb that has no end.

Jesus’ divine fishing charter, his conscription of Peter, is not merely about gathering in whoever he can whenever he can – it’s about bringing us to a place we could never arrive on our own.

Hear the Good News, the very best news: The tall and the small, the good and the bad… Jesus’ net is wide enough for all of us.

Faithful Failure

Psalm 118.20-24

This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Mark 8.27-33

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

They were walking along the road when suddenly the Lord stopped.

The disciples look around as if a message is about to descend from the heavens or, at the very least, maybe some manna will come floating down. 

But instead, Jesus just stands there with a slightly furrowed brow.

Hey,” he begins, “let me ask ya’ll a question: Who do people say that I am?

“Well, I heard someone in the crowd yesterday whisper about you being the best thing to come out of Nazareth since on-call carpentry.”

“Yeah, and when we left your home synagogue, they kept calling you Mary and Joseph’s boy.”

“I’ve got one J, and you’re gonna love this because he’s your cousin, but some people are calling you John the Baptist.”

“I can top that – I was talking with one of the Pharisees last week and he kept referring to you as the prophet Elijah!”

Fine,” Jesus replies, “That’s all fine. But who do you say that I am?

Silence.

Until Peter, ever eager Peter, nonchalantly replies, “You’re the Messiah.

And that’s why you’re the rock!” Jesus high-fives the first called disciple, and they continue on their merry way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi.

However, right before walking into a large gathered crowd, Jesus pulls his followers in close in a huddle. “Hey, remember that stuff about me being the Messiah? Don’t tell anyone okay? They all have their own notions about what the Messiah is supposed to say and do, and if you go around telling them the truth, they’re going to try and fit me into their boxes which simply won’t do in the Kingdom. Understand? Good.” 

Then Jesus walks smack dab into the middle of the people and he begins teaching them the Gospel: “The Son of Man, that’s me, must undergo great suffering, I will be rejected by the people in power, the elders, chief priests, and even the scribes won’t go along with what I’ve got to offer. And then they’re gonna kill me, hang me up on a cross for everyone to see. But guess what? Three days later, I’m going to rise again!

And Peter, who shortly before was the only disciple to get the right answer, grabs his Lord by the arm and yanks him away from the crowds. “What do you think you’re doing? You can’t die! You’re the Messiah! You are the Christ! You’re the one whose going to set everything right, put us back in charge, make Jerusalem great again and all that! You can’t be the Messiah and be rejected. That doesn’t make any sense.

But Jesus pulls his arm back from Peter, looks back out over the crowd and screams: “Get behind me Satan! You’ve got you mind stuck on earthly matters, but I’ve come to overcome the world!

Peter gets it right and Peter gets it wrong.

Along the road he provides a straight answer about Jesus’ identity (a welcome reprieve from all the hop-stepping we usually do when asked a question). But then later, when the Christ, the Messiah whom he just confessed, starts making ominous references to suffering and shame and even crucifixion, Peter gets it wrong.

Dead wrong.

And in the blink of an eye he goes from Peter the rock to Peter the block head, from the first called disciple to being called Satan.

I don’t know about you, but I love Peter. I love his eagerness and his faithfulness and I really love how much of a failure he is. Peter, in our passage from the strange new world of the Bible today, joins a long line of biblical failures:

Noah, the only good soul the Lord could find, delivers the survivors of the flood to dry land only to plant some grape vines and proceeds to get good and drunk.

Judah, son of Jacob, accidentally sleeps with his own daughter-in-law who pulled one over on his by dressing up as a harlot. And when Judah finds out that she got knocked up while a lady of the night, he orders her to be burned at the stake and he only relents when he discovers that he, himself, fathered the child in her.

And David? David rapes a woman and then has her husband murdered in order to cover up his transgression.

When you take in the great swath of characters from scripture, both the Old Testament and the New Testaments, they’re mostly a bunch of losers who keep messing up over and over again.

What wonderfully Good News!

Their failures of faith are in fact Good News because they help rid us of the suffocating notion that we have to be perfectly and squeakily clean in order to follow Jesus.

They remind us over and over again that only when we let go of the facade of our never-ending niceness and our righteous certainty and our perennial self-improvement projects, that the splendor of grace can hit us squarely in the chest.

Or, to put it another way, it’s hard to receive Christ’s mercy if we don’t think we need it.

The life of faith is one in which we come to grips with the condition of our condition only then to be bombarded with the Good News that God in Christ has transformed all things for a bunch of people undeserving!

Do you see? Peter here, in his failure, helps us see that our failure (whether big or small, intentional or unintentional) none of that excludes us from God.

Consider: Peter is called Satan, by Jesus! 

Can you imagine anything worse?

Called by the Lord while fishing, witness to miracles and healings and feedings and teachings, the confessor of the truth of Jesus’s identity, the rock upon which Jesus says he will building his church!

And then he gets it wrong.

But that’s not the end of his wrongness. 

On their final evening together Jesus tells Peter that before the morning Peter will deny knowing him. To which, of course, Peter scoffs. And yet, it’s true. Made all the worse by the fact that this first disciple joins the rest in abandoning the Lord to die on the cross. Alone.

Jesus quite literally does what he says he will do, the very things Peter can’t get on board with, and then three days later he rises to find his first disciple by the sea, shares some bread and broiled fish, and gives him a job to do.

In the church, we call this grace.

It is the unmerited, undeserved, gift of God in Christ Jesus.

It’s wild stuff.

Made all the more wild considering how often we squander the gift.

We, like Peter, build up these ideas for ourselves about who Jesus is and what Jesus stands for and those ideas, more often than not, crumble under our feet. We convince ourselves that Jesus is on our side (which, of course means Jesus is against the people we’re against) when in fact Jesus has not come to bring us more of the same, whatever it may be. 

Jesus has overcome the world and all of its machinations.

Let’s say we believe, as Peter did, that Jesus comes to overthrow the current reigning political proclivities. Sure, fine, but what happens when the people in power stay in power? Does that mean Jesus failed?

Jesus is not an instrument of either side of partisan politics. Jesus is God! And God has come to dwell among us, to rectify our wrongs, to save us from ourselves, and to turn the cosmos upside down. 

Put simply, our notions of Jesus are, more often than not, too limited.

We’re like Peter. Perhaps we’ve caught a glimpse behind the curtain of the cosmos, we’ve experienced something we can’t explain, we’ve had a taste of the holy food, and yet we still want Jesus to fit into whatever box we’ve construed in our minds. 

But Peter came to know the truth of Jesus in a way that we do well to remember whenever we can: Jesus was rejected.

And not just by the chief priests and the scribes and the elders.

Jesus was rejected by his own disciples!

Jesus was rejected by Peter!

The Elect Son of Man and Son of God, born for us and among us, is ultimately rejected by us.

Jesus is regaled by the crowds with their cries of “Hosanna” when he enters Jerusalem and, by the end of Holy Week, those same crowds lift up clenched fists with shouts of “Crucify!”

The Lord comes to deliver the last, least, lost, little, and dead only to, in the end, hang on the cross and becomes the very thing he came to deliver.

But this is the Good News: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 

He has taken the cleanup of the cosmos entirely into his own hands, hands with holes in them. He does not hang from the cross until we confess our sins, he doesn’t wait in the grave until we get our lives together. He does what he does without us having to do anything – which makes the Gospel the most radical thing in history.

He does what he does for Peter knowing precisely that he would fail.

He does what he does for us knowing precisely that we will fail.

At the end of all things, the only thing we can really do is rest and trust in the knowledge that Jesus has come to do something for us that we couldn’t and wouldn’t do on our own.

Couldn’t, because none of us can atone for our sins, let alone for the sins of the world.

And wouldn’t, because Jesus insists on letting in all the riff riff that we would otherwise ignore.

The casket was set up by the altar and the family was in the narthex waiting for the funeral to begin. I, meanwhile, was pacing back and forth in the parking lot, feeling sorry for the family because no one else showed up for the funeral.

There’s something terribly sad about a sparsely attended service for the dead.

But, frankly, I couldn’t blame people for not showing up. The man now dead, the one whose body was shut up in the coffin, was one of the meanest and most awful people I’d ever known. He belittled people, he was terribly racist, and he spoke his mind without caring at all about how much it could hurt. He would shout at people during church meetings, he would stick his finger into people’s faces during fellowship, and would loudly complain about everything even when people weren’t around to listen.

Two minutes before the funeral was scheduled to begin, while I was making my way across the parking lot to the narthex, cars started streaming in. 

One by one I watched people from the church community step out of the cars and across the parking lot, and with each passing one I replayed moments in my mind of how horrible the dead man had been to each of the people walking in. 

The last person to step across the threshold of the sanctuary was an older woman with whom the dead man had been particularly horrible. I motioned for her to come close and I whispered in her ear, “What are you doing here? I thought you hated him!”

To which she replied, “Well preacher, didn’t you say last Sunday that even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died?” 

The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it! Amen.

How Odd Of God

Matthew 14.28-31

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Jesus went up on the mountain to pray by himself. While praying, the disciples set off in a boat for the other side of the sea. Early in the morning, Jesus walked out onto the sea and when the disciples saw him they were terrified.

But immediately Jesus said, “Hey chill out! It’s just me.”

Peter responded, “Well, if it really is you, then tell me to come out there on the water and I’ll do it.”

“Whatever you say Pete,” the Lord replied.

So Peter got out of the boat and started walking on the water. But when he realized what he was doing he began to sink and he called out for Jesus.

Jesus immediately reached out and caught Peter while saying, “Buddy, I got you.”

The End.

Or, at least, that’s how I like to tell the story. 

It’s a well known one in Christian circles – we preach on it from pulpits, we act it out in Vacation Bible School classes, we even daydream about it. 

And, more often than not, we make Peter the subject of the story.

The whole thing gets whittled down to some version of, “God’s calling you out of your boats of comfort into a new thing. Do you have the courage to respond to the call? Don’t be like Peter with his fear. Blah blah blah.”

And that’s fine, if you want a group of people to feel guilty about whatever it is they’re not doing.

But the Gospel is a much better story.

Because, according to the Gospel, Jesus is the subject of the story, not us (Peter).

Jesus brings us a new world in himself. A world defined differently than the one we currently inhabit. It’s not just that the wind and the seas obey him, a whole new cosmos is knit inside of, and through, him.

Peter (not the main character) is vacillating between these worlds – the world of the world and the world of the kingdom. 

And, upon realizing the condition of his condition, the fear of not knowing where he really belongs, he begins to sink.

Who saves Peter from his peril? 

Jesus.

And only Jesus.

Notice: How often are we encouraged (or downright commanded) to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps? How many times have we suffered under the weight of feeling like we just can’t become the people we’re meant to be on our own? Why do so many sermons end with calls for more and more instead of telling us about the more that Jesus has already done for us?

In the end, this story forces us to confront the oddness of God.

God, the author of creation and salvation, humbly (read: humiliatingly) comes to us in the person of Christ to dwell among us, to pull us up while we’re stuck treading water.

This is the God we worship. 

The God who, even though we left him behind on the shore, comes and walks on water to be with us.

The God who, even when the waves are battering the ship and it feels like life if falling apart, waits with an open hand to lift us back up.

The Good News is that Jesus can, and does, for us that which we couldn’t on our own.

It’s odd, but it’s also the best news of all.

Too Good To Be True

Acts 2.14a, 36-41

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcome his message we baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

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He got onto the plane, carrying around all his extra girth, hoping for an emergency exit row in which he could stretch out his already too long legs. A pastor and professor of theology during the day, he was tired having just finished giving yet another presentation on the other side of the country and was looking forward to just going home.

He loaded his bag above his head, sighed at the normal sized seat in front of him, and reluctantly sat down. And, of course, on this small plane with only two seats on each side, a man equally as large sat down next to him, and might as well have been right on top of him.

Like in most plane riding adventures, conversation was bound to start between them, even more so because they couldn’t figure out where one seat belt began and the other one ended.

At first it was just general chit chat about the airport and the size of airline seats. But eventually the second passenger asked the pastor what he did for a living. 

He said, “I’m a preacher.” And just as soon as the words were out of his mouth his seat partner declared, “I’m not a believer.”

The preacher didn’t push, but once they got to a cruising altitude the man started asking all sorts of questions about what it was like to be a pastor. And every so often, during the conversation, the man referred back to his prior declaration, “I’m not a believer.”

So the preacher finally said, “That’s fine. Frankly, it doesn’t change anything. Jesus has already gone and done it all for you whether you like it or not.”

The man next to him went quiet for awhile, staring absent-mindedly down the aisle, but then he started talking again, only this time he began talking about something different – The Vietnam War.

He’d been an infantryman, fought in all the awful battles, and now often pretended like it it never happened.

The man went on and on, talked the entire flight from coast to coast, describing all the terrible things he did for his country and how, when he came back, his country didn’t want him to talk about it. Eventually he said, “I’ve had a terrible time living with it, living with myself.”

And the preacher leaned over, just as they were preparing to make their descent, and said, “Have you confessed all the sins that have been troubling you?”

“What do you mean confessed? I’ve never confessed!”

“You’ve been confessing to me the whole flight. And I’ve been commanded by Jesus, that whenever I hear a confession like yours, to hand over the goods and speak a particular word to you. So, if you have any more burdening you, now’s the time to hand them over.”

The man said, “I’m done, that’s the lot of them.”

But then he grabbed the preacher, grabbed him hard like he was about to fall out of the plan and said, “But, I told you – I’m not a believer. I don’t have any faith in me.”

The preacher unbuckled his seat belt and stood up over the man in the seat and said, “Well, that’s no matter. Jesus says that it’s what inside of you that’s wrong with the world. Nobody really has faith inside of them – faith alone saves us because it comes from outside of us, from one creature to another creature. So I’m going to speak faith into you.”

The fasten seat belt sign promptly turned on and the closest steward noticed this bizarre scene taking place and order the preacher to sit down. But he ignored the command, placed his hands on the man next to him and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins.”

“But, you can’t do that,” the man whispered.

“Oh I did, and I must, and I’ll keep on doing it over and over again.”

So he did what he said he would do, this time louder, loud enough for the whole plane to hear, and the man became a puddle of tears, weeping all over himself like a little child. 

The steward and everyone else on the plane were silent and they knew something more important was happening in front of them. Whether they could articulate it or not, they were catching a glimpse of grace, something that truly turns everything upside down.

After the plane landed, the man leaned over to the preacher and asked to be absolved one more time, as if he just couldn’t get enough of the news, so the preacher did it one more time and eventually the man started wiping away his tears and then he laughed. Finally, he said, “Gosh, if what you said is true, then its the best news I’ve ever heard. I just can’t believe it. It’s too good to be true. It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.”

And the preacher laughed and said, “Yep, it takes a miracle for all of us. It takes a miracle for every last one of us.”

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That’s a true story of a preacher named Jim from many years ago.

And, I love that story.

I love that story because Jim did what so many of us neglect to do when we encounter the sins of another.

Notice, Jim didn’t sit back and just merely listen. He didn’t fill the void of silence with trite drivel like, “I feel your pain,” or “I know what you’re going through.” He didn’t minimize the badness with talk of duty and responsibility. He didn’t deflect away or even change the subject.

Instead he offered absolution.

He gave him the Good News.

The crowds listened to Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost – they were hit with the bad news of their sinfulness and, as Acts puts it, “they were cut to the heart.” And they respond with a question, “What should we do?”

Repent and be baptized.

Turn and join us. 

Your sins are forgiven.

Peter proclaims the Good News and we encounter this a rather staggering metric at the end of the passage- that day three thousand persons were added.

It must’ve been one hell of a sermon.

Last week I said that we are the stores we tell. I say that a lot in sermons. Another way of saying that is saying this – what we say determines the kind of world we live in.

Peter speaks to the crowds and tells them the story of Jesus. He does so in a way that they are cut to the heart.

But why? What about the story hits them so hard? What cuts any of us to the heart?

Perhaps it’s the truth: We’re all sinners.

That’s not a very popular thing to say at any time, let alone on a Sunday morning while dressed like this hoping that people are actually tuning in.

Telling people they’re sinners is what the Westboro Baptist crowd is supposed to do, not well-meaning mainline protestants!

But, sin isn’t just something we do when others aren’t looking. And sin isn’t just the horrible things done to us by others. Sin is very much who we are – we all do things we know we shouldn’t, and we all avoid doing things we know we should.

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And for some reason, sin is something we’ve largely stopped talking about in the church completely. 

Can you blame the church? We want the church to be all things for all people! We want to be inclusive! You know… open hearts, minds, and doors! We want to affirm the sacred worth of all people.

Curiously enough though, in spite of all our attempts to avoid offense and all our constant talk of God loving us just the way we are, nothing seems to change. 

We speak affirmation, but we experience less and less of it. 

We speak support, but others appear too busy to pay us any attention. 

We speak of self-steen building with genteel aphorisms, but more and more of us seem to think that all the problems in the world can be blamed on other people.

In short, we no longer call sin, sin.

And the more we do this, the more we keep pretending like we’re all fine and there’s nothing wrong within us, the church becomes yet another support group rather than the body of Christ where the cross is proclaimed and heard.

Or, to put it another way, we’re not a bunch of good people getting better. We’re actually just a bunch of bad people who are coping with our failure to be good.

But today, that doesn’t sell well. It doesn’t drive people to their devices on Sunday morning to tune into live worship. That’s not something we want to push the “Share” button for.

And yet, it’s true.

We’re all sinners.

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There was, of course, a time when the only thing the church talked about was sin. And, in particular, making people like you feel guilty about your sins, so much so that it would hopefully frighten people like you to shape up and start behaving yourselves. 

Preacher types like me would stand up in a place like this and say, “You all write this down, this is important. This week, I want you to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, enthnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, YOU DRINK TOO MUCH, do a good deed daily, love your neighbor as yourself, give more, complain less, make the world a better place, YOU DRINK TOO MUCH.”

You notice anything missing in all of that?

Maybe God?

Come back next Sunday and you know what you can look forward to? Another list of things to do to fix yourselves and the world around you. 

Peter could’ve looked out at the crowds at the end of his Pentecost sermon and he could’ve told them to stopping sinning so much, to cure themselves of their incurable disease, to start behaving themselves.

But he doesn’t. He tells them, instead, to repent. Which, to be clear, means nothing but turn. It doesn’t mean right every wrong you’ve committed, it doesn’t mean go and reconcile with every person, it doesn’t mean make the world a better place. 

Perhaps Peter was wise enough (or maybe it was just the power of the Spirit) to know that telling someone to stop sinning doesn’t work. In fact, if it does anything, it usually makes matters worse. 

When we’re confronted with the condition of our condition, it usually leads us to doing more of what got our conditions there in the first place.

Instead of all that, Peter says, “Turn and join us.” Get baptized and become part of our community. We’re a bunch of sinners failing in our sins. That’s it. We’re a crew of people who get together week after week to confess the truth of who we are and to receive some good news. God is the one who saves us. We are more than our mistakes.

We’re forgiven. 

If the only thing the church ever offers us is the command to fix ourselves it will never happen. Grace, on the other hand, says, “Trust this,” and everything is already done.

Everyone in the crowd that day with Peter, everyone listening and watching this sermon, and even the preacher himself is part of the, as scripture puts it, corrupt generation. Much as we’d like to believe the contrary, we haven’t progressed much over the centuries. We still treat certain people like garbage, we’re drunk on petroleum watching the planet burn, and when we come to events like the current pandemic we look out for ourselves without even taking a moment to think about how its affecting everyone else.

We are just as corrupt as the crowds were that day with Peter. And, in God’s confounding and infinite wisdom, the Spirit was received by them and us anyway through the proclaimed Word. 

While many of you may be rightly dubious of whatever it is you receive from preacher types on Sunday mornings, there is something rather majestic here in Acts that points to a great and wonderful truth. St Paul puts it this way, “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.”

Jim, the preacher from the airplane, walked through the airport with his seat partner after their experience. Right before they made an awkward goodbye, Jim handed the man his card and said, “You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow or the next day or even next week. When you stop having faith in it, call me, and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep doing it until you do, you really do, trust it.”

The next day the man called the Jim, and he called the Jim everyday thereafter just to hear him declare the Gospel. In fact, he called the Jim once a day until the day he died. When asked later why he kept answering the phone Jim said, “I wanted the last words he heard in this life to be the first words he would hear from Jesus in the next.”

Hear the Good News, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven. Amen. 

A Sermon On A Sermon

Acts 2.14a, 22-32

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know – this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ “Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”

One of the reasons many of us actually enjoy reading the Bible, and in particular the Gospels, is that we enjoy good stories. There is just something so captivating about the way Jesus enters Jerusalem, or how he was able to reel in the crowds with his parables, or the way he fed the 5,000 while they gathered by the sea. 

Now, that’s not to say that every book and passage in the Bible is quite so captivating. There are gaggles of genealogies with their relentless “begats”, and lots of laws that read as fun as watching paint dry, and poems that pontificate on and on and on.

But the stories? They’re pretty good.

Stories, whether they’re in the Bible or not, are remarkably powerful things. 

In fact, the very first words I ever said in a sermon the first Sunday here at Cokesbury were these: We are the stories we tell.

Stories are how we understand what’s happening in the world around us, stories are how we teach the young lessons about who they are and how they are to behave, stories are everywhere and they are who we are.

Here’s an example, and I stole this one from Jesus.

There’s a Dad with two sons. He’s done well for himself and his boys, but one day the younger son says, “Dad, drop dead. I want my inheritance now.” And the father gives it to him. The kid leaves town, and blows all the money at the local casino and finds himself face down in a dumpster after drowning his debt-filled sorrows at the bottom of a bottle. He comes to his senses, there in his inebriated state, and decides to go home where, at the very least, he could work for his dad and be in better shape than in the trash. Just before he gets to the front door, his father tackles him to the ground, smothering him with kisses, and making declarations about the party they’re going to have. The boy doesn’t even get a chance to apologize before the keg is tapped and the music is bumping. Cut to the older brother, outside the house mowing the lawn. He hears the music inside and can’t believe his eyes when he peaks in a window. His good for nothing little brother is back and he will have no part of the celebration. But then the father comes outside, grabs his older son by the shirt collar and says, “Would you get over yourself and come inside for the party. Your baby brother was dead, but now is alive! We must celebrate.”

The end.

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That’s a good story. It tells us about who God is, and we can immediately identify with a character in the story. There are moments in our lives when we feel like the Father waiting for a wayward child to get back on the right path, or we feel like the younger son knowing we’ve made mistakes and are trying to figure out what to do next, or we feel like the older brother frustrated that someone is getting something for nothing. And, in the end, the story tells us that God is preparing a party for us, and is willing to drop dead to make it happen.

Stories have the power to unlock our imaginations in ways previously unimaginable, they can completely upend and deconstruct our notions of the world.

Stories can build us up and they can destroy us.

Stories can make us laugh, think, cry, and everything in between.

Stories are powerful things.

But speeches, and in particular sermons, are another thing entirely.

I mean, I am grateful that anyone, ever, listens to the proclamations that come out of my mouth on a weekly basis. And now, while we are in the throws of social distancing and stay-at-homes orders, my gratitude for those who listen is even greater. Moreover, I am forced to hear my own voice week after week as I post the services online so I appreciate it all the more that people actually listen.

And yet, I know and recognize that the conventional sitting back and listening to someone wax lyrical for fifteen minutes is no one’s definition of a good time. 

Think about it like this: the average television sitcom is roughly 22 minutes long, in total, with commercial breaks interspersed. Even in the midst of something designed to keep and maintain our attention, we’re tempted to tune out or check our phones at least 3 times in the midst of an episode. 

When we’re all together in person for worship on a Sunday morning, remember when we used to do that (!), most people are kind enough not to check their phones in the middle of the service, unless they’re tweeting about how incredible my preaching is or they’re really good at hiding what they’re doing.

But now, now all of you can listen to me for two minutes and then open up a new tab to check on the weather for the rest of the afternoon, or browse around on Amazon, or, weirdly enough, you can pull up another video of another pastor doing roughly the same thing I’m doing right now!

And here, in the wake of Jesus’ remarkable resurrection, his defeat of death, we’re launched in the Acts of the Apostles. Sounds pretty good right? We’d love to hear about all the Apostles did in the days right after the Good News turned the world upside down. We’d love to catch a glimpse of the beginnings of this thing we call the church. We’d rejoice in knowing what it was like in those earliest gatherings that would eventually set our hearts on fire.

In short, we’d love to hear a good story.

But Acts, even named as it is, contains roughly 28 speeches/sermons which account for nearly 1/3 of the whole book.

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Surely Luke was smart enough to know that what we really need is a narrative, a beginning, middle, and end – some drama and some stakes and some story.

Do we really need pontificating and preaching?

Alas, we are stuck with the Bible.

The strange new world of the Bible.

We didn’t get to hear it in the reading today, but before Peter speaks, before he ascends to the great pulpit of public proclamation, the crowds have accused him and his cronies of being drunk very early in the morning.

That tells us something about the condition of their condition. It is the day of Pentecost after all, the Spirit has descended upon them with a great rush of wind and flames of fire and they can now speak in a multitude of languages. The probably sound like they’re slurring their words.

But I like to imagine the scene with a little more flair. 

Picture in your mind the best wedding you’ve ever been to. The happy couple out there in the middle of the dance floor, a band that just keeps playing the right songs to keep people grooving, that crazy uncle is over in the corner struggling to stay vertical on his third-too-many scotches, and a gaggle of young cousins are sneaking extra pieces of cake when the rest of the adults are too busy dancing and drinking to notice.

Can you feel the joy of that moment? That feeling as if nothing in the world matters outside that celebration?

That’s how I imagine the disciples. I see them stumbling out of the upper room drunk on the Good News that is setting them off on an adventure they can scarcely imagine. 

But when the crowds see it, they see a bunch of good-for-nothing drunks stumbling around in the early morning streets.

They are accused as such, and that serves as the perfect cue for Peter to start preaching.

His sermon, if we would like to call it that, tells a story. And not just a story but the story. Jesus lived, was killed, and was raised. Peter takes the story and interprets the gospel in the midst of it.

That, in a sense, is what every sermon is supposed to do. Sermons take scriptures, weaves them together with the power of the Holy Spirit, and then speaks them toward, and on behalf of, a people in need of Good News. 

And, though we don’t often think about them this way, sermons really can upend us more than even the best stories. They can cut to our hearts in ways that stories can’t because sermons, at their best, are God’s proclamation to us.

Good sermons, rare that they are, are more than what is said, and to whom it is said. The way it is said can make all the difference.

Peter jumps right to the point.

“Hey! You all listen up cause I’ve got something to say. Jesus, the Lord, the guy who did a bunch of incredible things like feeding the hungry and healing the sick and breaking the sabbath, you all handed him over to death. You crucified him on the cross. But God raised him up, let him loose on the world again, because the tomb could not contain him. Look, we all know that David was great, truly a king and prophet. But when he died, they buried his bones in the ground and they’re still there. But Jesus was raised! And of this we are all witnesses!”

That’s a sermon. 

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The way we, the church, read and hear this proclamation is that it is a fulfillment of a promise. That the God of Creation has been with us through thick and thin and will remain with us even to the end. And the end now has no end in Christ Jesus.

How do the crowds hear it? Disruptive inebriation and scandalous preaching.

This sermon from Peter draws a web that can only be seen on this side of the resurrection; it connects dots that have been there all along. The empty tomb becomes the lens by which Peter, and every subsequent disciple, begins to see the story we call the Gospel. The linking of time and space with scripture it, in a sense, all that a sermon is ever supposed to do.

But what, exactly, makes what Peter has to say so scandalous? Why are the crowds perplexed by the scene unfolding before them? What makes preaching, then and now, so powerful and profound?

In just about every part of our lives, from our jobs to our spouses to our children to even the ways we try to portray our perfect versions of ourselves on social media, it’s all transactional. If I do this, what can I get out of it? If I give you something, what will you give me in return? If I post this picture, what will people think about me?

And here, in a sermon on the other side of Easter, Peter presents the Gospel without cost. 

This gift, the gift of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, is free.

It’s not expensive, and it’s not even cheap. It’s free.

And that is wildly irreligious and scandalous.

When everything in life comes with a cost, the fact that Christ brings new life for free is a staggering thing. Peter preaches, strangely enough to so many of our Christian ears, without exhortation. There’s no to-do list at the end of the sermon, no ten ways to apply the scripture to your life this week, no how to be the best version of yourself.

It’s just grace.

It’s a story about what Jesus has done.

For us, and in spite of us.

Anything other than that way of preaching is unqualified bad news. 

When the church actually proclaims the Good News of Jesus, of him crucified and resurrected, we will cease to be some bureaucracy selling spiritual snake oil and instead we will be a party, perhaps a wedding party, tumbling out of the venue trying to wake up everyone we can find to the fact that they’re at the party already. 

When Peter preaches to the crowds that day, it’s like he’s telling them it doesn’t matter whether they’re the younger son who threw his life away, or the older son whose disappointed with the life he settled for. It doesn’t matter because Easter started a party that will never stop. Death has been defeated. Jesus is alive. 

Come in, and have some fun. Amen. 

Less Is More

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joanna Marcy Paysour about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Easter [A] (Acts 2.14a, 22-32, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1.3-9, John 20.19-31). Joanna is an elder in the United Methodist Church and serves at Cave Spring UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Eastertide, Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs, the H-word, shorter sermons, tour bus preaching, other gods, bad church marquees, icky verses, the harrowing of Hell, DBH, and death breath. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Less Is More

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Death and Taxes

Matthew 17.24-27

When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” He said, “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”

The church is weird.

It is weird for a lot of reasons, least of all being that people like you and me are part of it.

The church is weird, at least according to the world, because we worship a crucified God and boldly proclaim that death has been defeated in the person of Jesus Christ.

Add to that the fact that we dump water on babies telling them they’ve been baptized into Jesus’ death and every month we proudly eat Jesus’ body and drink his blood… I don’t know if things could get much stranger.

Last Sunday was Easter which, or course, is one of the more bizarre Sundays in the church year. We looked around the sanctuary and saw people we’ve never seen before, we remembered the shadow of the cross from Good Friday, and we triumphantly sang “Christ Is Alive!”

And yet here we are, a week later, on the other side of the resurrection story. We, like the disciples before us, are experiencing the whiplash of discovering a strange new world that has been changed, for good, by Jesus Christ. The resurrection is the event that shatters all of our previous expectations and assumptions and it is the lens by which we read the entirety of the Bible.

As I said last week, if the Easter story were not included in the holy scriptures then we would’ve thrown out our Bibles a long time ago.

But now we jump back into the story, back into the ministry of Jesus. We have pressed the rewind button to re-enter the realm of the bizarre.

Parables-of-Jesus

This act of worship through which we proclaim the Word of the Lord is often nothing more than entering the strange new world of the Bible and hoping that we can find our way through together.

Or, to put it another way, if you thought Jesus rising from the dead was crazy, just check this out…

A bunch of tax collectors went up to Peter as soon as the disciples reached Capernaum and asked, “Hey, does your guy pay the temple tax or not?” Peter said, “Yeah, of course he does.”

But then when he got to the house where Jesus was staying, Jesus brought it up before Peter got a chance to open his mouth. “What do you think Pete… Who do the wealthy and powerful tax? Do they take money from their own children or from others?” 

Peter replied, “From other people.”

So Jesus said to him, “Then the kids are free to do as they please. But, we don’t want to scandalize the collectors of the temple tax, so why don’t you head on down to the sea and go fishing. When you hook your first fish, look inside it’s mouth, you will find enough money to pay for you and me.”

What?!

This feels incomprehensible. And, upon reading the story, it’s no wonder that the disciples were such a group of bumbling fools. How can we blame them when Jesus tells the chief disciple that he can find his tax payment inside of a fish’s mouth? 

Over and over again in the gospel narratives, the disciples struggle to make sense of what they see and hear from Jesus. Sure they witness miracles, and experience profound truths, but they are also bombarded with a strange new reality straight from the lips and actions of their Lord.

He was weird.

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The weirdness is as its fullest when Jesus comes to the realization, or perhaps he has it the whole time, that the kingdom of God is inextricably tied up with his own exodus, his death and resurrection. 

The parables, therefore, are seen in their fullest light on this side of the resurrection. I have made the case before that for as much as we want the parables to be about us, they are about Jesus. That’s one of the reasons that Jesus sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone what they saw or heard until he had been raised from the dead.

Of course, upon first glance, the money in the mouth of the fish might not sound like a parable. For whenever we hear the word parable we are quick to jump to the good samaritan or the prodigal son – we conjure up in our minds the stories Jesus told.

But this is a parable that Jesus lives out.

What makes it parabolic is that it points to something greater than its parts and it leaves us with more questions than answers.

The tax collectors were out to find the temple tax, the didrachma. It was a two-drachma tax expected of all Jews and it amounted to about two day’s pay. But they weren’t simply looking to collect – they are asking a question to discern what kind of person this Jesus really was. 

“Does he pay the temple tax?” is but another version of “Does he follow the Law?”

Peter, ever eager to jump in without thinking much about what he was saying, assures the collectors that Jesus in fact pays his taxes and then he returns to the house.

And Jesus, who was not privy to the conversation, questions Peter upon his arrival, “Who do the powerful take their taxes from? Their own families, or from others?”

And Peter responds accordingly, “From others.” 

And that was good enough for Jesus who says, “Then the children are free.”

Before we even get to the miraculous and monetized fish, Jesus is establishing something remarkably new through the spoken truth of this parabolic encounter. Jesus and his followers in whatever the new kingdom will be are under no obligations to the old order represented by those in power. 

The former things are passing away and Jesus is doing a new thing.

The children are free from taxes; they don’t have to do anything. Which, to our Americans ears starts to sound a little disconcerting. Some of us will immediately perk up in our pews when we hear the news that Jesus is apparently against paying taxes, while others of us begin to squirm when we think about what would happen if we all stopped paying our taxes.

But that’s not what’s going on here.

Parable Definition

Jesus and his disciples do not have to do anything because they are God’s children, and only God has the right to tax God’s creatures. This wasn’t money for public school education, or for infrastructure repairs, or national defense. This was for the Temple, the religious establishment, the same Temple that Jesus eventually says he has come to destroy!

But then he moves on from words alone to the action of the parable, the part that, if we’re honest, leaves us even more troubled than with questions about our taxes. 

Jesus says, “But you know what Pete, we shouldn’t scandalize the tax collectors so go catch a fish, and inside you will find a coin that will be enough.”

Interestingly, the coin in greek is a STATER which was worth exactly four drachmas, which would perfectly cover Peter and Jesus’ contribution.

And how to the temple tax collectors respond to the aquatic audit? 

The Bible doesn’t tell us.

What about Peter’s response to actually catching a fish with a coin in its mouth?

The Bible doesn’t tell us.

All we’re given is the parable.

Jesus knows that his own death will be at the heart of the new order, the kingdom of God. And in this strange and quixotic moment, he shows how free he and his disciples are from the old political and religious and messianic expectations and decides to make a joke about the whole thing.

And for the living Lord this is nothing new. He was known for breaking the rules, and eating with sinners, and questioning the authorities. But now, in this story, Jesus lives and speaks into the truth of his location being outside all the programs created by those with power to maintain their power.

He is free among the dead.

He is bound to the last, least, and lost.

The coin in the fish’s mouth is the great practical joke of God’s own creation against the powers and principalities. 

It’s but another version of saying, “You think all of this religious stuff is going to save you? You think your morality and your ethics and your economics are enough? Even the fish in the sea have a better chance than all of you!”

The children are free.

Free from what? The children are free from the religious forms of oppression and expectation. Whatever religion was trying to do during the time of Jesus, and sadly during our time as well, cannot be accomplished by our own religious acts but can be and are accomplished in the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The children are free.

The parable of the coin in the fish’s mouth is far greater than an episode by the sea or even a treatment on the levying of taxes. It is a profound declaration of freedom.

But herein lies one of the greatest challenges for us.

Because when we hear the word freedom we bring all sorts of our own definitions to that word. We hear “freedom” and we see red, white, and blue. We talk about freedom in terms of getting to do, and say, and believe whatever we want without repercussions.

But Jesus brings a radically different version of freedom – freedom from religion; freedom from the Law.

Religion, in the many ways it manifests itself, often only has one thing to say: people like you and me need to do something in order to get God to do something. We need only be good enough, or faithful enough, or merciful enough, until we tip the scales back in our favor. But this kind of religious observance, which is most religious observance, traps us in a game that we will always and forever lose.

It’s bad news.

But Jesus comes to bring Good News. 

I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law.

Again and again in the gospels Jesus stands against what the established religious order was doing and trying to do.

The Devil offers him power over the Temple during the temptations and Jesus refuses.

Jesus rebukes the hard and fast rules of not eating with sinners, and of not helping others on the sabbath.

After he enters Jerusalem, with the cross ever present on the horizon, he marches straight into the temple and flips over all the tables of the money-changers.

And even in his death, as he hangs on the cross, the veil of the Temple is torn into two pieces.

The old has fallen away and something new has arrived in its place. 

Jesus says he doesn’t want to scandalize those trapped in the Law and by religious observance but his cross and resurrection are fundamentally scandalous. We are no longer responsible for our salvation. We do not have to be the arbiters of our own deliverance.

We are free!

Truly and deeply free!

Jesus has erased the record that stood against us and chose to nail it to his cross!

Jesus has taken the “Gone Fishin’” sign and hung it over the doorpost of the ridiculous religious requirements that we have used against one another and ourselves.

Jesus has come to bring Good News.

The children are free. Amen. 

What’s Good About The Good News?

Devotional:

Luke 5.11

When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. 

Weekly Devotional Image

Are you willing to leave it all behind for Jesus?

It’s a question that Christian types will ask under the auspices of something like “evangelism.” And for as much as it pains me to hear things like that, it’s not actually wrong.

I mean, its THE implicit question that Jesus hangs in the air when he meets Peter while fishing. The fisherman have finished their late night trolling (no one was dumb enough to fish during the day) and then this strange and bewildering rabbi shows up and says, “Hey, let’s go out and see what we can catch.” 

Peter, inexplicably, agrees and before long they’re hauling in so many fish the nets begin to break and the boat starts to take on water.

Peter can’t handle the holiness of the moment and begs Jesus to depart from him because he is a sinful man. But Jesus calmly replies, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

Notice: Jesus doesn’t ask a question! There is just something about the profound wonder of the moment that compels Peter and the other fishermen to leave everything and follow Jesus. 

Oftentimes when this passage comes up, we make it out into a moment of self-righteousness; it becomes a competition about who has given up more for Jesus. And, invariably, the everything isn’t everything but mostly just a list of material possessions.

And no doubt, Peter and the others gave up something material – they left the livelihoods of fishermen. But there is more to what is left behind for Jesus than just our jobs or our material comforts.

Sometimes we are compelled to leave something even more difficult behind.

Our sins.

Goodnews word on vintage broken car license plates, concept sign

The faithful life is not easy. When we confront the frustrations in another person, Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek. When we witness horrible behavior, Jesus whispers in our ears “judge not, lest ye be judged.” When we are so convinced of our own righteousness, Jesus shows up to remind us of how broken we really are.

But the kicker is that even though we are compelled to leave it all behind, we don’t. 

We might have good days where we make the right decisions and speak the loving words that Jesus would have us say. But we invariably fall back into patterns and rhythms in which we are not the people God has called us to be.

And we’re not alone – the same thing happened to Peter! Peter, called from the boat, abandoned Jesus in his greatest hour of need and denied even knowing him.

But to whom does Jesus appear after the resurrection by the side of the sea? 

Peter.

One of the great mysteries of faith is that we are compelled to leave it all behind and Jesus knows that we won’t. 

That’s the kind of love we encounter in the risen Jesus, a forgiveness in spite of, and because of, us.

No wonder we call it Good News.