Sunday, April 26, 2015

Lives Laid Down: 1 John 3:16-24 - Fourth Sunday of Easter

16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.  17How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
             18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.  19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him  20whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.  21Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God;  22and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
             23And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.  24All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

This Monday, a surprise came to our home.  Elizabeth went out onto the patio to check on her flowers, and a little gray cat ran through the open door.  We quickly realized that our new-found feline friend was hungry—so we shredded some leftover turkey slices and watched as the cat eat with the appetite of a horse. 

His insatiable appetite for food was matched only by his appetite for attention and affection.  As he kept returning, we soon realized he had nowhere else to go.  He was starving, sick, and lonely. 

The next question was: what to do?  All the shelters we called were full.  We saw no “lost cat” posters in the neighborhood, and by the looks of the animal, it hadn’t eaten much in a very long time. 

The cat stole our heart—and didn’t even flinch about driving him all the way to the Animal Rescue League in Pittsburgh.  We just couldn’t help ourselves.

But I soon found myself wondering, would I go to all this trouble for a human?

With people, you have to worry about whether that person is truly in need—or if they’re preying on your good intentions.  Love is always the right thing to do—but it’s never easy; never without risk; and never without great cost. 

We see Jesus’ love illuminated beautifully in our stained glass window.  Jesus is our good shepherd.  Picture yourself as one of those little sheep, being held in his arms of love.  But the window only begins to tell the whole story.

The life of a shepherd was anything but easy.  Shepherds weren’t slaves (in the strictest sense of the word), but you were, in essence, a slave to the sheep and the man who owned them.  You basically lived as a sheep: you ate like sheep; you drank like sheep; you slept [outdoors] like sheep—and you probably even looked and smelled like sheep.  Life was all about sheep—and nothing else. 

This is what makes Jesus the good shepherd: he knows his sheep because he lived in human flesh.  He lays down his life to save his sheep from evil and death.  He seeks out the lost sheep that belong to him nonetheless.

This is Jesus’ love for us and for the world.  It’s not just feelings; it’s not just affection; it’s not even just friendship.  In love, Jesus lays down his life for us.

The writer of 1 John teaches us that we know love like this: through Jesus and his self-giving love, and by laying down our lives for one another just the same.  We’re literally putting ourselves down and picking up someone else, like Jesus does with the sheep.  As beautiful as that love is, it is one of the hardest things we will ever do.

Most of the time, love is not convenient or comfortable.  Love often means becoming burdened by someone else’s problems.  Secondly, can you always know what’s best for someone else when they’re in need?  Thirdly, it’s entirely possible to do the right things for the wrong reasons: because we’d feel guilty for doing nothing.  We want to look good and feel good.  We want to be loved.  Finally, love is risky.  The love you give may not be deserved.  Scoundrels love to prey on people’s good intentions.  Love does not always lead to the desired outcome.

So why do we bother with love at all, especially in these times we’re living in, when we’re already so burdened with problems and responsibilities of our own?  Wouldn’t the world a better place if we all tried to be nice, do no harm, and mind our own business?

That’s the easy way—but that’s not God’s way.  If that’s how Jesus lived, none of us would be saved.

Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Before we loved Christ, he loved us and laid himself down to take us up, with him, into eternal life. 

This love is being poured out, right here today.  It’s rushing over each of us like a flood.  The very power of God that destroys sin and death is making us a new creation, so that Christ may come alive within us.  We are commanded to love not in order to be loved, but to know firsthand the love that brings life to the world. 

When you lay down your life in love and pour yourself out, the life of Jesus Christ comes rushing in.  Everything changes in that moment.  God’s faithfulness frees you to serve others.  That means: everything that’s truly important, from eternity’s perspective, God’s taking care of it all.  Scarcity of time and resources melts away into an abundance of gifts to be shared.  Passions and priorities lose their luster as relationships become treasures, as God’s love is given and received.  The hungry are fed; the rejected are accepted; the suffering see God.  As people like you and I lay down our lives, God turns the tide against evil and death.  Broken lives are healed.  Communities are reconciled.  Faith and hope flourish.  The Kingdom of God comes near.  We become one people, one flock.


Love is one of the greatest leaps of faith we’ll ever take, because of the risks and because of the costs.  But regardless of the outcome, love leads to Jesus.  Lay your life down; lose it all—and God brings resurrection.  Your time, your selves, your possessions, the outcome of it all—in his hands.  Resurrection begins in Jesus—but it continues, in you, in me, in this church—for the sake of all the world.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Reclaiming Resurrection: Luke 24:36-48 - Third Sunday of Easter

36b"Peace be with you."  37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.  38He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?  39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have."  40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.  41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?"  42They gave him a piece of broiled fish,  43and he took it and ate in their presence.
             44Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled."  45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,  46and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,  47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  48
You are witnesses of these things.


A vast majority of conversations I have with people begin like this:


“Hello.”

“Hi.”

“How are you?”

“I’m fine.  How are you?”

“Good!”

“Good.”

Most of the time, I’d say that this is nothing more than a polite exchange of pleasantries than a serious conversation.  But not always.

An old co-worker of mine would always say “same old garbage, different day.”

It seemed as though every day was a bad day. 

And I can honestly say that there are plenty of days I share his rather stark outlook. We don’t even have to be in a time of pain or high anxiety, but still we roll out of bed to face another day of the “same old garbage…”

But is this how we should live since Jesus is alive?

Today, we encounter Jesus’ disciples in the aftermath of his death.  This was the third day into a life that had turned their world upside-down.  Word was quickly spreading that Jesus was alive—but there was hardly celebration.  When Jesus shows up, and they’re feeling joy, terror, and everything in between.

But watch what Jesus does: his first words to them are “peace be with you.”  He eats a piece of fish to prove it’s actually him and not a ghost.  Then he opens their minds to understand the Scriptures, to help them make sense of everything that’s happened.  Finally, he sends them on a mission of witness. 

Clearly, the days of “same old, same old” are history…

With these scared, weak, and lowly men and women, Jesus is going to build his church.  Jesus will be taking back God’s world and God’s world from the powers of sin and death.  Resurrection will now be the ultimate reality.  Resurrection is our future.

The only problem is: sometimes, we don’t see it. 

All too often, we take the resurrection as just an event that happened 2,000 years ago, with no bearing on life today.  This is especially true when anxiety is high and the pains of life surround us.  This is especially true when the news headlines herald a world spinning out of control.  Our fears and disappointments create doubts that powerfully influence how we live.  When it comes to praying, studying the Bible, going to church, or sharing our gifts, we wonder “what’s the use?”

This is probably why we get such a feeling of dread when we hear the words “you are witnesses.”  Why would anyone care about something that happened thousands of years ago, for which we can offer no undeniable proof?  Is Jesus really doing anything in your life that someone else would want to hear about?

One of the greatest tragedies happening among Christians is that we’re living without resurrection.  We believe in Jesus; we even worship him—but still, we live in the shadows of sin and death.

If we believe that Jesus is alive, it is high time that we start claiming this truth.  Jesus was not only raised on the third day, but he is alive in all of our hearts through faith.  He is alive, out there among our neighbors, serving the needy and forgotten.  All around the world, resurrection is happening.  It’s happening down in Pittsburgh, with the people of Abiding Ministries, as God is building a church out of the poorest of the poor.  It’s happening in places like Africa and China, where people are coming to faith by the thousands.  It’s happening right here, in this building, with the ministries you and I are a part of. 

So if you believe Jesus is risen, DO NOT SETTLE FOR A LIFE OF SAME OLD, SAME OLD.  Claim the resurrection!  Let it bring you to your knees in prayer.  Let it pull you into the Word.  Let it draw you together with your brothers and sisters in Christ.  Let it send you to the neighbors who need your good works.  Claim the resurrection as truth—and live by it. 

This is what makes the resurrection more than just a historical event.  It’s a reality.  It’s a relationship.  Resurrection is what happens when our need for resurrection draws us together to be both hearers of God’s Word as well as doers of God’s Word. 

Though the pains and problems of the world remain, resurrection comes to us as peace.  It comes as relationships where love is given and received.  In comes in patience, forgiveness, and mercy.  It comes as God reclaims shattered lives and broken communities. 

Resurrection is not some rare miracle in the Christian life.  It is God’s truth, coming alive.  It is the promise God has in store for you every single day.  Seek it, and you shall find it.  Believe it, trust it, and live by it—and you shall surely see. 

Resurrection is what we all need.  Resurrection is what God is doing.  We are witnesses of these things.  

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Doubt Offering: John 20:19-31 - Second Sunday of Easter

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."  After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."  Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe."  Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." (NRSV)
 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (NRSV)

Out of all the household expenses, none is more frustrating than the cable bill.

Our TV, telephone, and internet package is one of our greatest household expenses—equal to more than the monthly gas, electric, water, and sewage bills combined.

Much of the frustration comes from the fact that cable television provides such high-quality programming as this: Animal Planet’s reality series Finding Bigfoot.

I personally have no interest in watching fools chase a fantasy.  That being said, Bigfoot is no fantasy to the cast members—and the members of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, who are passionately convinced that there is a Bigfoot to find.  Though they have yet to capture the large, hairy human-like creature, they believe that the “evidence” they’ve found is sufficient enough to dedicate their lives to finally unraveling the mystery…

Personally, I will not believe until someone manages to capture a Bigfoot and prove that it’s not just some guy in a gorilla suit… 

I do believe, however, that God is real.  I believe that Jesus is alive.  But I have never seen him in the flesh—so my faith is never without struggle. 

I don’t find it the least bit outrageous that Thomas doesn’t believe the word of his fellow disciples that they have seen Jesus.  Thomas must see (and touch) for himself.

A week later, Jesus gives Thomas exactly what he demands—and Thomas believes. 

But none of us will ever have the luxury of proof, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Jesus is not only alive, but that he is everything the Gospel reveals him to be…

No matter what, there will always be the problem of doubt.  After all, we’re putting our faith in a Savior we can’t see, whose ways we don’t understand; whose actions we cannot control.  It’s only a matter of time before we’ll find ourselves experiencing doubt. 

Thomas had solid reasons to doubt that Jesus was alive: because Jesus was dead.  And how could people kill a Messiah?

That’s the thing about doubt—it’s born when human experience meets common sense.  Most of the time, doubt emerges in the aftermath of trauma and tragedy.  There’s loss; there’s suffering; there’s pain.  Bad things happen to good people.  Prayers go unanswered.  Things get worse instead of better. You commit an unpardonable sin.

Yet doubt can flourish even in the absence of tragedy.  All it takes is a lack of proof: God doesn’t do anything dazzling to warrant any further attention…

Add up all the evidence (or the lack thereof), and it can lead to some devastating conclusions: God isn’t real; God isn’t love; or God doesn’t love you.  Death is the ultimate reality. 

All too often in life, we’ll find ourselves in a Thomas moment—there’s no sign of God anywhere; just everything we fear closing in on us.

But Jesus doesn’t leave us to drown in fear and doubt.  Instead, he meets us in the places of doubt.  He comes straight into all the hurts and disappointments.  He does this because our faith is so very fragile—and it never takes much for it to be snuffed out.  But when faith dies, Jesus comes to raise it up again.  With doubt, we feel cut off from Jesus.  So Jesus comes to draw us back to himself. 

We won’t always get that miracle we hope for that would restore our faith—but Jesus always gives us himself.  He heals the wounds of doubt with a relationship.

We are therefore called to search our hearts, examine our lives, and name our doubts.  Confess before God all the reasons why you struggle to keep faith and trust Jesus.

None of us should feel ashamed for having doubt—because doubt is the burden of faith.  It’s always going to be there, no matter how much we grow.  The challenge will always be to reach out for Jesus within the darkness of fear and doubt.  The challenge will always be to live and act from the conviction that God is making all things new, even when we have no compelling evidence to believe it. 

This is the kind of faith Jesus commends today—that takes Jesus at his word, no matter what. 

So challenge yourself this week—name before Jesus everything that causes you doubt.  Present to him your doubts as an offering.  This is an offering that will please him. 

Then pray this prayer: “Jesus, open your arms to me in all my places of doubt.  Give me the faith to believe and see that you are near.”

Finally, make up your mind to do one thing differently every day, in bold defiance of your doubt.  Let your faith come alive in action.  Do something good for someone else.  Let it be your doubt offering.  It’s not enough to just believe.  For Jesus to be real, you must believe with all that you are and everything you do.

Do this—and you will see that Jesus’ resurrection isn’t merely something to celebrate, but a truth expressing itself in daily life.  Do this—and Jesus will indeed give you the peace of knowing that he is alive and that he is near.


Sunday, April 5, 2015

Gardens of Resurrection: Mark 16:1-8 ~ Resurrection Sunday

Photo courtesy of khunaspix / freedigitalphotos.net
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.  They had been saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?"  When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.  As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.  But he said to them, "Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you."  So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (NRSV)
For years, the same bizarre dream has been replaying itself in my brain, sometimes multiple times per week: I’m back in school, earning decent grades in all of my courses, except for two: literature and chemistry (which, incidentally, were my two most difficult subjects). 

Suddenly, I find myself extremely behind in my coursework for the English class—and consistently forgetting even to show up to chemistry class.  I put myself in danger of not graduating.

I finally decided I had to get to the bottom of this dream.  I go to the library and find a book about dream interpretation.  The answer I found was profound, yet at the same time blatantly obvious: I have a habit of putting off tasks that intimidate me.  But: procrastination puts me in a situation of even greater anxiety, because now I must face my fears with time against me. 

This dream teaches me what a powerful influence fear can be in my life.  Strangely enough, this wasn’t a fear of death or bodily harm.

But fear, regardless of its form, is a powerful obstacle to following Jesus.

This is something we see constantly throughout the Gospels.  In Mark’s Gospel alone, Jesus and his followers came face-to-face with demons, deadly storms, and brutal enemies.  All of their worst fears come to fruition when Jesus is crucified.  It shattered everything that they had come to believe about him.  It left their lives in pieces, seeing how they had left everything behind to follow Jesus in a mission that had now proved a spectacular failure.  And—with Jesus dead, their lives were in mortal danger.

Is it any wonder, then, that when the women at the tomb hear the news that Jesus is alive, that terror and amazement seize them?  The news is just too outrageous to believe, even though Jesus had foretold it ahead of time.  Not only that—these words could have put their lives in danger.

So they say nothing to anyone—because they are silenced by their fear.

How about you?  Have you ever thought about the power of fear in your life?

Whether we realize it or not, fear will influence the decisions we make, the ways we react to trouble, and how we relate to others. 

Have you ever actually identified your fears: what are the losses and hardships you fear?  What are the mistakes fear?  Are there people that you’d avoid if you them on the street?  Are there situations you try and avoid, because you don’t think you know what to do?  Are you eager to stand up for someone who’s being wronged, when it won’t make you popular or be personally beneficial?

How often does your “fight or flight” instinct take over when there’s trouble, but it’s not a matter of life and death? 

All told, Jesus will seldom if ever lead us in the same direction as fear—because fear will not bring us to the life God desires.

So as awkward an ending to the resurrection story as we have here—it’s a very realistic one.  Even though Jesus is raised, life doesn’t fall into a state of “happily ever after” for anyone.  This is real life with real fears and real challenges. 

For the women at the tomb, the cross was the sum of all their worst fears.  The cross is the sum of all fears.  But at the cross—God defeats the object of all our fears.  Evil and death may bruise and batter us, but they will not control our destiny. 

What we are invited to do is to name all of our fears, both big and small.  Many of you may be in a situation now where you’re worst fears have come to fruition and you don’t know if there can ever be peace or joy in your life again. 

In Christ, the places of fear become places of resurrection.  We can face our fears head-on, because Jesus goes ahead of us into those places.  Resurrection liberates us from fear’s power, to be uplifted by God’s hand.   Instead of avoiding strangers, we serve and befriend them.  Instead of avoiding difficult situations, we let the Spirit move us to do what’s right.  Instead of worrying, we pray and rest ourselves in God’s care.  Instead of keeping resurrection a secret, we let the Spirit bring us alive to speak and do the work of resurrection.  Instead of turning on the news or reading the papers and growing numb with the state the world is in, we come together as people in Christ by the power of the Spirit to work towards a more just world.  And even if our worst fears have been realized, either by our own fault or not, Jesus can make you alive again. 

If God can bring new life to the world through the bitter sufferings and death of Christ, just imagine what God can accomplish in your life, and in a community like ours as we belong to one another in Christ.


Resurrection is not a one-time event.  It is an ongoing, eternal reality.  Jesus goes ahead of you into your tomorrows, to meet you in all the places of anxiety and fear.  Trust in him, and he will raise you up from your fears into the joy of the Lord. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Jesus For You: John 13:1-17, 31-35 - Maundy Thursday

A few weeks ago, a CNN journalist asked a very simple question: “Is Judas Iscariot in hell?”

For centuries, the answer has been a resounding “yes” for this wayward disciple who became one of history’s greatest monsters.

I remember reading Dante’s Inferno in high school.  Dante puts Judas is at the lowest level of hell—lodged in the mouth of Satan who’s frozen in ice all the way at the bottom.  

I think we’d all take a certain satisfaction in believing that to be true; like an injustice has been rectified. 
But the Bible does not answer the question…

That being said, the Bible does present us with facts that are at least as outrageous as concluding Judas is in heaven…

The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas…to betray Jesus.  And Jesus knows Judas’ evil plans full well.  But he’s in the upper room, with Jesus and the other disciples, to eat at Jesus’ last supper.  (I suppose if Jesus were to speak in greater detail of what he knew Judas was going to do, the other disciples would’ve beaten him to an inch of his life and the crucifixion might not have happened.)

But Jesus is hardly thinking of saving himself…  Instead, he gets up from the table, takes off his robe, ties a towel around his waist—then goes down on his knees and washes the feet of his disciples, one-by-one.  Including Judas…

We can only imagine what Jesus must have been feeling as he looked up into the eyes of a man whom he loved dearly, but who was going to stab him in the back.  The grief and anguish would have been indescribable.  Only Jesus could still love a traitor like Judas—and wash the feet that would walk him away from the supper table and straight to the men who wanted Jesus dead.

The love of Jesus is a love like no other—and that is the good news we celebrate on this bittersweet night.  Regardless of whether we’d like to admit it or not, there’s a Judas living inside every human heart, including ours.  We betray Jesus in any moment that love of self takes priority over love of neighbor.  We betray Jesus when we allow him to be pushed to the margins of our busy days, to cry out to him only when we need him.  We even betray Jesus in ways we are completely unaware and cannot explain. 

Sometimes, we get smug and proud—and think we have it all figured out; that we’ve achieved righteousness.  We think we can sit in judgment of people who fall short of our own righteousness.  Sometimes, we get tormented with guilt and shame over the things we’ve done to the point that we feel utterly worthless.  And sometimes, we’re neither here nor there; just dazed and confused about ourselves and God’s direction for our lives. 

But Jesus does not pass us by.  Instead, he’s right there, kneeling on the floor, washing our feet.  He sets us a place for us at his table.  The crucified Jesus says, “This is my body; this is my blood, given for you.” To think—no matter what you’ve done, where you’ve been, or even what you’re going to do, you belong with him. 

Make no mistake—every sin is a nail piercing Jesus’ hands and feet.  Each of us bears as much responsibility for Jesus’ crucifixion as Pontius Pilate, Judas Iscariot, the religious leaders, and the Roman soldiers.  But still, he affirms that we belong with him—and that we belong to him.
If you know you need that love and that forgiveness, the table’s set.  The water is poured.  Come and Jesus will make you clean.  Come, and his love is going to change everything in your life.

Bear in mind that there are many empty places at the table, for the many souls who wander through this life questioning, doubting, doing their own thing; seeking but not finding peace with God.   There are souls who think they don’t belong with Jesus because of their past, or have been made to believe they don’t belong because someone said so. 

In the end, we all need to be washing each other’s feet; bound together and belonging to one another by these words from Jesus Christ: This is my body; this is my blood, given for you.

References

Gross, Craig. "Is Judas in Hell?" 14 March 2015. CNN.com. Article. 14 March 2015.