Sunday, February 28, 2021

Divine and Human Things: Mark 8:31-38 - Second Sunday in Lent

31[Jesus] 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.32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But 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.”

34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (NRSV)

The $64,000 Question was one of many gameshows filling the airwaves in the 1950’s, when families were buying their first televisions. As the questions became more difficult, you doubled your money with every question you answered correctly. And, like most gameshows of this era, the $64,000 Question was rigged. Contestants that the sponsors wanted to “win” were given the answers in advance; whereas contestants the sponsors didn’t like were given extremely difficult questions—though a few managed to outsmart the sponsors and walk away with the big prize—worth nearly $640,000 in today’s money.

You could say Jesus had just asked his disciples the $64,000 question, “who do you say that I am?” Peter said, “you are the Messiah,” and got it right.

Yet Peter’s answer carried rather lofty expectations: that soon, Jesus would drive out the Roman occupiers, take back the Temple, and make Israel a kingdom to rule the world. As disciples, they would be V.I.P.s in that kingdom.  It would seem, the best was yet to come.

But Jesus pulls the rug out from under them: he declares that he must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the religious leaders and be killed, and after three days rise again.

For the disciples, and Peter especially, this is outrageous. 

  • Why would the Messiah suffer, when he can eliminate suffering?
  • How can the religious leaders reject Jesus when he’s the one they’ve all been waiting for? Won’t Jesus eventually convince them that he’s the real deal?
  • How can the Messiah be killed?
  • And why would he need to rise again?

If, indeed, all these things come to pass, it would mean that the disciples had given up their entire lives—their homes, their livelihoods, their families—to follow a liar or a fool—which would make them even bigger fools. They thought they were following Jesus into glory—but now, Jesus says they must follow him into death. 

No wonder Peter rebukes Jesus. 

But Jesus immediately rebukes Peter with the harshest words: “get behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

But why are divine things and human things so diametrically opposed? 

If human beings were content to let God be God, knowing full well that God is love, there’d be no difference. But it didn’t work out that way at Eden, any more than it worked out when the Israelites entered the promised land, or when Jesus ministered God’s love to God’s own people. Why is that? Because we want to be God; to determine what is right and good for ourselves—and what is right and good for everyone else. We want people to love us because we are so loving, righteous, strong, intelligent, brave, talented, et cetera. We want a God who will show us how we can rise above pain and suffering; make all our dreams come true; and never have to face death. Who needs a “messiah” who suffers, who’s rejected, and who dies?

The focus of human things is me, me, me. The focus of divine things is you, me, them, us. The cross Jesus bore was his love for you and all the world. The reason why Jesus carries his cross is because there is no greater love than to sacrifice his life to the very people who crucified him, then forgive them, be raised from the dead and proclaim, “I still love you, and nothing you do will ever change that.”

The things you acquire, the things you achieve, the things you desire—they don’t raise you up. They weigh you down. Taking up your cross means that there is no treasure or burden you can take up that will give you what Jesus gives you. It’s not an exercise in righteousness as much as it is a testament to what is more valuable to you than life itself.

It means laying aside your need to control everything; to prove yourself right to those who say you’re wrong; to have the best, do the best, be the best. 

It means believing that your life is better when you do Jesus’s work to make other lives better.

Taking up your cross means trusting that Jesus abides with you in your pain and suffering. You need not rely upon you’re your own reason or strength when life is too much for you to handle, and you don’t know the way. 

And yes, the cross is a heavy burden to bear because you are dying to yourself. But you must remember: it’s not God’s failure to act that keeps resurrection life from flourishing in you. It’s the things you desire, the things you hold onto, the burdens you won’t let go. It’s the crosses you refuse to bear. Even still, the cross Jesus bears changes everything. 

The focus of all divine things is the love that is born in mercy and sacrifice; that abides in pain and overcomes suffering; that conquers death and evil with forgiveness and resurrection. May your focus be the cross; the love of Jesus that abides, that conquers, that overcomes. 

Sunday, February 21, 2021

The Blessed Wilderness: Mark 1:9-15 - First Sunday in Lent

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
  12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
 14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 
The Judean wilderness. by Andrew Seaman on flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Where do you go to get away from it all?

Is it a cabin in the woods up north, or a sunny beach down south? Is it your back porch or a quiet room in your home? Is it opening up a good book, or making something with your hands? Is it spending time with loved ones or soaking in some quiet solitude?

Is getting away something that exists only in your dreams, either because of financial constraints or because loved ones depend on you to care for them and keep the bills paid?

Regardless of whatever answer came to mind, I’m sure it cannot compare to where Jesus will spend the next 40 days “away from it all…” 

Immediately after his baptism, the Holy Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness, where for forty days he faced of hunger, bandits, wild animals, the elements—and Satan’s temptations.

Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark doesn’t describe how Satan tempted Jesus. But I think one of Jesus’s greatest temptations would’ve been to go home. Why stay in such a dangerous and desolate place? Wouldn’t have made more sense for Jesus to leave the wilderness and get started on his ministry? Why does he stay?

Throughout Scripture, the wilderness is a place of discipline, growth, and transformation—despite also being a place of trials and danger. It is there, in the absence of life-sustaining resources, amid life-threatening dangers human beings learn to trust God—because God takes care of them.

Throughout Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness, angels waited on him. God’s grace protected and sustained him. As a result, his relationship with God grew stronger. His sense of purpose grew stronger. The wilderness was not a curse for Jesus. It was a place of blessing. His time there was a gift. 

That may come as a surprise, because every Christian will face a wilderness experience of some kind—brought on by tragic circumstances, unexpected loss, or uncertainties about the future. Grief, job loss, physical or mental illness, or the ending of a relationship are just a few of limitless possibilities. The pandemic has been a wilderness experience for all of us (and one that has far exceeded 40 days).

You may be in the wilderness because of your sins and mistakes.

It is no coincidence that Jesus will devote his entire ministry to people who are in the types of wilderness I just described. Whether they are in the throes of sin, suffering, or despair Jesus will join with them and reveal his mercy and grace. Jesus will join you just the same. You will encounter his mercy and grace in ways you never have before. When all other supports give way, Jesus will be your rock and your defender.

I know that’s a pretty lofty promise to speak to someone who’s whole world has fallen apart. You can never say for certain how God is going to act; or when. Faith is all about moving forward in the hopeful expectation of God’s grace.

This is why it is important for you to seek out the same quiet solitude that Jesus experiences with God in the wilderness. Now I’m not saying that you should immediately take a 40-day “vacation” in the Mojave Desert! But, the way things are in this world, you can become so deeply immersed in the desires and demands of life that God becomes an afterthought. It’s hard to see God when you’re buried in other things. When things don’t go your way, you wonder, where is God? But God does not fail. We fail to pay attention. When your focus is exclusive to the most pressing matters at hand, your perspective on reality is going to be awfully small. God is going to be awfully small. 

To repent and believe the good news, as Jesus calls you to do, demands a full stop. Whether you’re in the world or the wilderness, you can’t make it without Jesus. Death and the devil are too powerful. The flesh is useless. But he is faithful. 

Lent is a gift for this reason—it is a time in which we, as one Body, commit ourselves to seeking the presence of God beyond our desires and ambitions. You cannot endure in faith if you do not regularly leave behind the noise of daily life to be in the presence of God. You need, every single day, for Jesus to free you from all the stuff you consume, and the stuff that consumes you, which inhibit the growth of your spirit. You need to regularly receive God’s faithful care every bit as much as you need food, water, and oxygen. Deny yourself the life-giving presence of Jesus and you’re a robot. To embrace self-denial as a gift, you soon realize that Jesus denies you nothing of himself. His faithfulness then frees you to visit others in their wilderness, and makes you the angels who attend to them!

So I return to my original question, but with a twist: where do you go to get away from it all so you can be with Jesus? I pray that during this Lenten season, you will discover that sacred space and time to be in his presence. May your heart and mind be opened to all the ways he is being gracious to you, so that you can face life’s troubles and trials with confidence in God’s amazing grace. If this is something you lack, ask for it—this is a prayer God is guaranteed to answer. 

May your heart be opened to all the ways you can be an angel to someone in their wilderness journey, that together we move forward towards the promised land; the kingdom of God that has come near. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Sackcloth and Promises: Isaiah 58:5-8 - Ash Wednesday

Orange sackcloth by Forbes Johnson on Flickr. CC by 2.0

5Is such the fast that I choose,
  a day to humble oneself?
 Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
  and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
 Will you call this a fast,
  a day acceptable to the Lord?
6Is not this the fast that I choose:
  to loose the bonds of injustice,
  to undo the thongs of the yoke,
 to let the oppressed go free,
  and to break every yoke?
7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
  and bring the homeless poor into your house;
 when you see the naked, to cover them,
  and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
  and your healing shall spring up quickly;
 your vindicator shall go before you,
  the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. (NRSV)

Our use of sackcloth instead of ashes for tonight’s liturgy got me thinking: where did this practice come from? 

Throughout the Old Testament, people put on sackcloth and ashes to signify that they were in mourning. This was a public confession of one’s sins to the community. 

We tend to shun such dramatic displays of one’s spirituality, and Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel would seem to support that. Faith, for us 21st century Americans, faith is a private matter. But back then, you would draw more negative attention to yourself by never donning sackcloth and ashes, as people would perceive you as being proud and self-righteous. We are all sinners, after all, so why should we go around pretending we’re not?

As someone with allergies to dust, I can’t imagine covering myself with ashes—while dressed in a garment made of burlap—the most unsuitable material for clothing. This makes wearing a facemask seem like putting on chapstick. It wasn’t intended to be convenient or comfortable. It was to compel an even greater discomfort towards the things that draw you away from God.

Sackcloth and ashes were a form of spiritual discipline—not so much self-punishment as an intentional and deliberate grieving for sin and turning yourself to God’s open arms—what we call repentance. Always remember: you don’t repent so that God will turn back to you; you repent so that you will turn back to God who has never stopped loving you. The beginning of repentance is to own the simple truth that without God, all you are and all you’ll ever be is ashes and dust. To reject God’s promises and God’s commandments is to deny reject life itself. 

And how might you know just how greatly you need God’s gift of repentance? Consider your stress level and how many nights you lay awake at night worrying. Think of how easy it is to lay your faith aside for “more important things.” How does the amount of time you spend glued to a TV or smartphone screen compare to the time you spend in the light of the Gospel? Is being right more important to you than being like Jesus? Are you more eager to fight the devil others than fight for God in yourself? 

And what about the hidden thoughts and secret desires; the things about you that you’d prefer God not mess with?

The most disturbing signs of our need of repentance exist all around us. Why are so many of God’s children in need, suffering poverty, hunger, neglect, and isolation, with all the riches and resources available in this world?

Our attitude toward our sin and the sin within the kingdoms of this world must not be one of casual indifference. There must be a time to grieve for what we have done as well as what we have left undone. There must be a time to grieve that our failure to love the neighbor as ourselves has contributed to their suffering. There must be a time to grieve for our rejection of God’s life-giving commandments, all the while thinking we knew better than God what is best…

Sinners naturally resist such an attitude. When Christ calls out, “repent,” it’s the sinner in me that says, “nothing in my life needs to change. If God won’t help me, then God should leave me alone. And don’t bother me with the neighbor’s problems. They should take care of themselves. I’ll love people who deserve to be loved. I’m going to keep doing things my way.”

And yet, even when you persist in such an attitude, God doesn’t give up on you. God’s arms remain open wide. God in Jesus Christ loved you so much that “he descended into hell,” because that’s what it took to free you from the devil’s deadly grip. Why run away from that love any longer?

Repentance is commanded of you—so that God can be everything God longs to be for you: gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God longs to give you the life that overcomes the pains of this life and the chaos of this world. Jesus calls you his disciple so that you can witness his love transforming this chaotic world and the tragic circumstances people face as he uses your hands, feet, and voice to do it. Nothing the gods of this world have to offer can compare to what God longs to give you, if you would but trust and obey.

Instead of looking at the Lenten journey as a burden, see it for what it is—a journey inside God’s heart of love for you, revealed at the cross. It’s a time to return to the wide-open arms of God, who never stopped loving you, even when you delighted to reject God’s ways.  It’s a time to be mindful of your utter dependence upon God’s grace in life and in death. It is a time of discipline to be broken away from the wants and desires that draw you away from God. And it is a time to be joined with God in remaking this world according to God’s plans, so that none of God’s children is left behind to suffer hunger, homelessness, and hopelessness. 

There is nothing to fear, nothing to lose, and everything to gain in turning back to God, for he is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. This is our Lenten journey.

If God can make you out of dust by breathing into you the breath of life, just imagine what God can do for you when you answer the call and surrender yourself to his love. 

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Life Light: 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 - Sunday of the Transfiguration

 3Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (NRSV)

daylight by kutsi on flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0

On my way home from church last Sunday, Elizabeth sent me a text. “We need a lightbulb,” she wrote.

Our daughter is raising two crested geckos—like the cute little creature on the Geico Commercials; only ours are red and orange, and even more charming.

They live inside of terrariums that are topped with lights that use a special bulb. On the packaging, it says “artificial daylight,” because that’s what’s what it’s for: to provide extra daylight that they otherwise wouldn’t get through our windows. They need daylight as much as we do.

Life cannot persist in darkness—and yet darkness is what so many of God’s children are living in right now. Surely you know someone, if it’s not you yourself—who is either in a darkness of tragic circumstance; or perhaps even a darkness of your own making, brought on your sins and mistakes. We call the worst spiritual struggles “dark nights of the soul.” The effect upon you is little different than what happens when a live plant is deprived of sunlight.

As living beings, we crave light. This is what makes the bright lights of this world so appealing. Is your life dull and meaningless? You can brighten it up with a luxury home or a dream vacation. Drive this luxury car; dress in these designer labels and you’ll shine like a movie star. Work hard and do whatever it takes to succeed, and people will envy you and wish they could be you.

Trouble is, the bright lights of this world are like lightbulbs. They are artificial light. What will you do when those lights burn out? What happens to you then?

Artificial light is no substitute for the real thing. The real and true light that gives life to the world is “the gospel of the glory of Christ” that the Apostle Paul describes in our short second reading for today.

Jesus is light because he went straight into the darkness of the grave, but the grave could not contain him. Death and darkness could not prevail against Jesus. Jesus is light because his love is unconditional. Human sin cannot block it out. The devil cannot blow it out.

As awe-inspiring as it was for Jesus’s disciples to be present for the revealing of his glory on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus goes right back down into the world to reveal the light of his glory to those in darkness. He doesn’t do this merely by talking at people with pithy slogans or cliches. Jesus shines his light by loving people. The cross is ironclad assurance that Jesus does not avoid the suffering of humanity, but that he takes it upon his own self. Jesus goes straight into the darkness of the grave, yet the grave cannot contain the light of his eternal love.

This is good news—because you don’t need to look long or hard for darkness. It’s all around us. Perhaps it’s all around you. It is so pervasive and so daunting as to make our gospel appear as hopeless fantasy. And yet, the light of Jesus has shined upon you since the moment of your baptism. Jesus lives in your heart by faith. To live in light is to trust that you matter to God. To be in the light is to hear his word, trust in his promise, and follow in his footsteps. You are the light of the world. You are the city on a hill. We are church together.

Suddenly, our mission becomes as clear as the noonday sun—for we who live in the light of Jesus’s mighty love are also stewards of the light of his glory. We are people of the light who gives life to the world. Christian love is like the stars that illuminate the night sky: together, we light up the world with our love and good deeds. Together, we show the way to the true light that is Jesus Christ. Together, despite our own brokenness and limitations, God’s glory shines in our hearts to transfigure this dark and fallen world to a world where God’s goodness, peace, and justice prevail. We cannot keep this all to ourselves, especially now.

And I know the darkness of the world is daunting. What do you say to someone who’s entire world has fallen apart? You say to that child of God, “you will not go through this alone. We will go through this darkness together, until the very end.” What can you do in a world where chaos and evil run amok? Whatever you can. You may not be able to cure diseases, lift someone out of poverty or raise the dead. But you can love people. You can forgive. You can share a minute of mercy.

Can the light coming from your television, or from your devices, give you the light of life? What about the bright lights shining upon the high-priced goods we’re told that make life good; or the spotlights we long to have shine upon ourselves?

Jesus shines brighter than all of these—and his light shines in you and in us to banish darkness away.

To live in light is to trust that you matter to God. To be in the light is to hear his word, trust in his promise, and follow in his footsteps. The bright lights of this world cannot give what Jesus is eager to give.


Sunday, February 7, 2021

Jesus for You and Me: Mark 1:29-39 - Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

29As soon as [Jesus and the disciples] left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. (NRSV)

Kite Festival 2011 Crowds by Mr.TinDC on flickr. CC BY-ND 2.0

After a year in this pandemic, it is a tremendous relief that the long-awaited Covid-19 vaccinations are finally making it into peoples’ arms. 

But the process of vaccinating the public has been slow and frustrating. In some parts of the country, people have waited in their cars for entire days for vaccinations they never received. There is no clear-cut answer to the question, “where do I sign up?” They say, “go online,” but many of our neighbors, don’t have computer access. Some have been fortunate enough to get vaccination appointments, only for those appointments to be canceled because they ran out of shots. All told, the vaccination process has not been what we’d call “fair,” and many are being left behind.

We witness a similar situation in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus is in Capernaum, where he heals the mother-in-law of his disciple, Simon Peter. By evening, the people brought to him “all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door.” However, the Scripture says that Jesus “cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” Many…but not all

Eventually, Jesus withdraws from the crowds and goes to sleep. The following morning, he awakens before dawn, goes out to a deserted place, and prays. Simon Peter and his companions were “hunting for him,” because there were many more sick people for Jesus to cure, and many more demons to cast out. But Jesus departs Capernaum, taking the twelve with him. 

It’s not hard for us to imagine how they must have felt, that Jesus left them behind. But I want to look at the situation from Jesus’s perspective, because the situation he faces in Capernaum is one he’ll face throughout his ministry. 

Once word gets out that Jesus can heal the sick and cast out demons, people soon turn out by the thousands. They press in on him from all sides. Meanwhile, the demons are heckling him. Don’t think for a second that Jesus was unaffected by all of this. His compassionate sorrow for these children of God would’ve been excruciating. 

Right now, we live in the painful tension between unmet human needs, and the limitations of what we can accomplish. Can we ever take back what Covid-19 has taken from our children, in terms of their education and their irreplaceable childhood milestones? What can we do about our fellow Christians who haven’t set foot in their church sanctuaries for a year, who cannot access online worship? Will there be rest and refreshment for frontline workers who haven’t stopped working since the pandemic began? What about people who want and need to work, but can’t because they’ve lost their jobs and businesses? What about residents of long-term care facilities who’ve been locked in their rooms like prisoners? What would Jesus do in all this?

At no point does Jesus deny his body’s need for rest—or his soul’s need for time with his heavenly Father. He always needs God’s guidance and strength to fulfill what he came to do—from Capernaum, all the way to the cross. 

I can’t imagine it was easy for Jesus to leave all those desperate people in Capernaum behind. But why does he go? Because people in the neighboring towns needed to hear the message, too. So they would not be left out or left behind. 

Every Christian, at some point in their lives, will feel as though Jesus has left them behind. I will never understand why Jesus gives some people miracles, while others are seemingly left to suffer and die. But there is an affirmation here; a promise that cannot be ignored: Jesus loves all the people of the world—and it’s not what he does for them in Capernaum or Galilee that ultimately counts. It’s what he does at the cross that counts. The one who has God-given authority over disease, death, and demons will die on the cross. There, he will destroy them once and for all. There, he sets God’s children free. Somehow, in the mysterious ways of God’s grace, Jesus will make this victory of love a reality for all people. 

We don’t know what happened in Capernaum after Jesus departed, but what if the people Jesus cured and healed did as Simon’s mother-in-law did? What if, out of gratitude to God, they took care of their neighbors in need? Jesus was one person; but what if even a dozen persons loved the people as Jesus loved them? This is where you and I come in. 

We who have been blessed in any way by the graciousness of Jesus have a responsibility to share it with others. Faith active in love is what keeps the joy of the Lord alive, even in times like these. 

Remember: Jesus isn’t just a personal Savior. Jesus is the world’s savior. Keep him to yourself, and his love will grow dim. Love the neighbor Jesus loves, and Jesus shines brighter. Even though you can’t single-handedly cure cancer, lift someone out of poverty, or wipe out Covid-19, anything you do for someone out of love banishes the evil away. Faith active in love is no match for all the suffering and evil we see in the world. 

When you’re anxious about tomorrow; when you’re feeling bitter about the world and its ways; when you see a world of suffering and your heart breaks; when your spirit is exhausted, you must do as Jesus does. If Jesus couldn’t go a day without prayer, you most certainly cannot. Life is found in Christ alone. Outside of him, there’s only death. Look to Jesus, and his grace will be your strength. 

Prayer is God’s way of awakening you to both give and receive God’s love as you go about your day. No matter how daunting the day may be, you can be certain that God’s love is waiting for you. We who have been blessed in any way by the graciousness of Jesus have a responsibility to share it with others. Healing is what happens when Jesus’s love is shared in relationship. Faith active in love is what keeps the joy of the Lord alive, even in times like these.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Growing Pains: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 - Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

 1Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 3but anyone who loves God is known by him.

4Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—6yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
7It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8“Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? 11So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall. (NRSV)

Heart by najarich on Flickr. CC BY-ND 2.0

As the dust tries to settle following the contentious 2020 presidential election, the word unity continues to be on the lips of politicians and pundits. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that we are the United States of America.  But how do we achieve unity? How can it go from being a buzzword spoken by people who want to make themselves look good, to being a reality in our common life?

With that in mind, we turn to our second reading from the book of First Controversies, or what is more traditionally known as First Corinthians. Anyone who thinks that a growing church is a church without problems needs to read these letters from the Apostle Paul. While it was, indeed, a growing church, the addition of new members to the body brought complications; what we’d call growing pains

Corinth was a bustling and prosperous metropolis, located in modern-day Greece. It was also home to at least twelve pagan temples, whose gods were worshiped through disgusting acts of immorality. Therefore, when you converted to Christianity, you were certainly going to stand out from the crowd in terms of how you lived. The challenges of living faithfully amid so much greed and idolatry never ceased. 

Soon, a major controversy arose within the church: the eating of food sacrificed to idols. In Corinth, much of the meat sold in the marketplaces came from animals offered in pagan ritual sacrifices. Many Christians believed, that by eating this meat, they were defiling themselves, dishonoring God, and conforming too much to the ways of nonbelievers. 

On the other hand, many Christians were totally fine eating the meat—including Paul. Since pagan idols aren’t real, and the rituals meaningless, wat harm could a Christian bring upon themselves? But not all Christians saw it that way. Next thing you know, those who ate with a clear conscience began pointing fingers at those who did not, calling them “weak,” and “prudish.” Those who didn’t eat watched in horror at those who did ate their fill. This quickly became a major problem.

Here’s the thing to remember—disagreement isn’t evil. It is inevitable in all human relationships. The people of God have disagreed with one another for as long as there have been people of God. Some things are not up for debate: “there is one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ.” You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. The Apostles’ Creed is not up for debate. But truth is not a weapon to be used against other people. 

Paul saw no sin in eating sacrificial meat. But all Christian conduct is governed by the law of love. Therefore, if your eating causes a fellow Christian to stumble in their relationship with God and the church, then you are obligated to abstain—both from eating the meat and from behaving condescendingly to those who do not. 

As I said, disagreement isn’t evil. Conflict isn’t evil. Unfortunately, living faithfully in a sinful and chaotic world will never be as easy and clear-cut as we’d like it to be. But we make conflict toxic when we value being right more than we value the other. No matter how righteous your cause may be, you will always be in the wrong when being right and getting your way is more important than being like Jesus. 

Novelist Aldous Huxley said it this way: “Those who crusade not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better… To be more against the devil than for God is exceedingly dangerous.”

One of the biggest challenges facing the modern church is that we are known more for who and what we are against than who and what we are for. There is no quicker and more effective way to drive people away from Jesus than through judgment, shaming, labeling, attacking, and gossip. 

Conflict and disagreement need not be toxic for the people of God. In Christ, they are redemptive—because they turn us towards Christ. They open the door to the sharing of the fruits of the Spirit: patience, gentleness, humility, and self-control. It’s not the lack of disagreement that makes us strong; it’s how we engage each another within disagreement that makes us strong. As we live in a world that’s bitterly divided; as we know from our social media feeds that we are not of one mind in how we vote or where we get our news; be certain that the issues that divide us are no match for the love of Jesus! 

That’s good news, because we have a lot of difficult decisions ahead of us as we look to life after Covif-19. The pathway to making our congregations financially sustainable and missionally viable will demand great courage and sacrifices. Through these growing pains, the Holy Spirit prepares us for God’s future plans.  

But if two or more people can come together and agree on nothing else but that God is love and that God loves the stranger just as much as God loves them, God’s love in those persons will change the world. 

Jesus never promised that everyone will love you and agree with you because you are his disciple. And he didn’t send his disciples out into the world to prove to everyone else that they were right. But when Christian love binds us to each other, nothing can tear us apart . Love becomes our peace and security. Love is the gift we share that heals the world. And no challenge or hardship can get the best of us when we face it together in Christ. 

Sunday, January 24, 2021

At the Crossroads of Time and Eternity: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 - Third Sunday after the Epiphany

 29Brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (NRSV)

Early this week, one of our members sent me a message describing something amazing she saw: she was on her way to work as the sun came up. Bright, red light in horizontal stripes broke the darkness. Eventually, the sunlight breaking out against the night sky created what she described as a cross—what she described as one of the most beautiful sights she’d ever seen. 

And yet, it would’ve been quite easy to ignore it. Or, you can take enough notice to appreciate it—only to quickly forget about it amid the busyness of the day. But make no mistake: this was a revelation of God’s glory, illuminating her day.

She experienced one of the most basic truths of our Christian faith—God’s kingdom breaks into your reality every single day

This is what happens in today’s Gospel. When Simon, Andrew, James, and John woke up that morning, they surely weren’t expecting to abandon their fishing nets (or their father) because the God’s Son called them to become his disciples. And yet, in what started out like any other day, in the time it took for Jesus to say, “follow me,” God’s kingdom suddenly opened up before them. From that moment on, they will be proclaiming to all the world that Jesus is the Son of God, and journeying with him into God’s eternal future. 

Jesus is no less determined to break into your life and do the very same. It’s not a question of if; only a question of when, where, how, and with whom

This is why, in our second reading for today, the Apostle Paul speaks with such urgency: “the appointed time has grown short;” “the present form of this world is passing away.” Time, as we know it, is running out. And yet, God is acting in time. God’s eternal kingdom doesn’t begin at the end of time. Rather, it is born within time; the present time. 

Therefore, this present moment is critical: will you welcome Jesus in this moment, or will you use your time and lose it, seeking gratification from the gods of this world?

Consider for a moment: to what extent is a lack of time getting in the way of your relationship with Jesus? How often you speak the words, “I don’t have the time;” or, “now isn’t a good time,” when it comes to matters of faith?

The way the Paul talks, you should immediately “drop everything” and flee from all your present commitments as if they were burning buildings. But that’s not what he means. In this life, you will have vocations, through which glorify God by serving others. Marriage, parenthood, grandparenthood, work, daily chores, volunteer service, even recreation and leisurely pursuits—these are sacred for the disciple of Jesus. And yet, the time you devote to these commitments can easily lose its sacredness.

You’re hard at work building up your own kingdom! There isn’t a second to lose in the drive to maximize your accomplishment; to maximize your wealth; to maximize your enjoyment of this world and its delights.

For a many Christians, a lack of time is detrimental to your faith—due to circumstances beyond your control. You must work long hours in multiple jobs; parenting is demanding; schooling is demanding; loved ones are counting on you to care for them. At the end of the day, there’s not a moment to devote to Jesus because you’re so exhausted. 

Yet regardless of whether your life is characterized by struggle or success, the one god we all sacrifice our time to is the god of control. How much time you spend worrying about things beyond your control? Have your devices become like vital bodily organs? Do you consume social media and cable news as if your life depends on it? How much do you care about what other people think of you?

All of these things consume precious time that you cannot afford to waste. Once it’s gone, you can’t get it back. Time is not on your side. But Jesus is. Jesus comes to you, in time, so that you will not pass away with time. Jesus comes to redeem your time, so that you will not spend another second in the grip of sin and death; laboring for kingdoms that are passing away; tangled up in affairs that are meaningless from the perspective of eternity. Jesus is giving you time to receive forgiveness; time for your troubled heart to be comforted; time for you to experience amazing grace. Jesus comes to transform your time, so that you behold his glory—in the people you serve, and in the labors which lay the foundation for his coming kingdom. 

In this moment, and in every moment, you stand at the crossroads of time and eternity. Do not lose the gift of this moment worrying about that which you can’t control, laboring in kingdoms that will not last. Now is the time to bless and be blessed in God’s eternal kingdom. And if the lack of time is getting in the way of your relationship with Jesus, or if your times are devoid of any purpose, meaning, or joy, pray for Jesus to open your life up and give you time to behold his glory. This is a prayer he’s sure to answer. 

Your eternal God has time for you. Now is the time for eternal life and eternal love to begin.