Archive for May, 2019

Don’t Forget the Seed

May 30, 2019

Last night’s Bible study was very instructive.  We were working our way through the parable of the sower in Mark 4.  Before we continued on to Jesus’ explanation, I had the class flesh out what they thought the various aspects of the story represented:  sower, seed, path, rocky soil, weeds, good soil, etc.  Good conversation and some good insightful answers that often paralleled Jesus’ own explanation.

When Jesus’ disciples ask him to explain the parable to them, he defines the seed as the word.  What did the disciples make of this explanation?  If we assume Mark’s gospel is more or less chronological, this comes pretty early in Jesus’ ministry and the disciples would likely presume the word to mean what Jesus was proclaiming himself in his ministry – the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel.

At which point the hearers might have wondered what the gospel, the good news, really was.

I asked the class what they thought Jesus meant by the word in his explanation of the parable in Mark 4.  One said the commandments – this is how you ought to live your life.  Another thought love was the word.  It was clear there was a struggle.

These are answers we like – that the word is basically instructions, insights, secret tips on how to live our best lives now.  Variations on familiar themes.  Encouragements, exhortations, pleadings, even threats – do what you know to be right or else!  Those are things we can deal with.  We can’t fulfill them, of course, but we can allow ourselves to be whipped into a frenzy for short periods of time, believing we can and must and will fulfill them.

But that places the word in ourselves.  We are the answer, the solution, the key to a bountiful harvest in our own life.  We would essentially be Buddhists.  Or Hindus.  Or Muslims.  Or secular humanists.  Or pretty much any other belief system on earth, all of which ultimately place the responsibility for change and accomplishment, for enlightenment or obedience squarely on our shoulders.  Do it.  Discern it.  If you do, you can be proud of your accomplishment (though this is a relative accomplishment, in relation to other people but almost never our own metrics, let alone  God’s!).  If you fail to do it, it’s your own fault and you deserve what you have coming to you.

Only the Bible gives us a word that is outside of ourselves.  Completely, totally, forever outside of ourselves.  And that Word is the Word made flesh, the Son of God, Jesus.

So I wrote out John 3:16 on the board for the class, suggesting that this is a good encapsulation of the good news, the gospel, the word, the seed.  Then, substituting whoever or whosoever with an actual name, I repeated this verse to every single person using their name.  I gave them the seed.

How easy is it to talk about the seed, to reference the word but never define it, never spell it out?  How easy it is to presume that everybody understands what Jesus means by the word, when even his own disciples probably didn’t get it.

This is my job, and I need to remember it and break it down as simply as possible as often as possible.  I’m scattering seed.  It’s not my seed.  It’s not my job to make the seed grow – I can’t do that.  I can simply scatter the seed.  Explicitly.  Spelling it out, as it were, to make sure people actually get the seed.  Are they a well-worn path or rocky soil or full of weeds?  I can’t know that for sure, and I may not be the one to discern that.  But I cast the seed.  If that person is a hardened path with no crack for the seed to fall into, I pray someone else, at another point in time  will cast the same seed again, when perhaps the ground will be more receptive.  That someone else will scatter the word again, when the soil is less rocky, or when more of the weeds have been pulled.

But for the love of God, make sure to preach the Word!  Clearly.  Without assumptions.  Spell it out.  Make it personal and specific.  Make sure you don’t pass over good soil and toss out lint or chaff or anything other than the seed of God, the Word of God!

Most of the News

May 29, 2019

I haven’t heard a lot about the knife attack in Japan this week.  But I’m pretty positive that the little I’ve heard about the attack hasn’t mentioned most of the students were waiting not just for an ordinary school bus, but a rather amazing thing in Japan, a bus to take them to a Catholic school.  While I don’t want to rush to the presumption that this was a hate crime directed against Christians, it remains an interesting piece of data at the very least.   I wonder if it will be investigated from this angle or not, and I wonder if it will be reported on if it is discovered that the attack was motivated specifically against Christians.

Speaking Out

May 28, 2019

Good to hear that there is growing willingness to speak out against the atrocity of legalized abortion on demand in our country.  Though for some folks not so inclined on the topic, the source of some of those words of outrage will be troubling – none other than Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.  Justice Thomas rightly notes the troubling ideological roots of legalized abortion both in our country and in other parts of the world (like Nazi Germany), and notes the devastating effect  abortion has disproportionately on minority children, mothers, families, and communities.

If you want to know how someone could possibly not see the words of a highly educated African-American man as relevant to this topic, here’s an alternate perspective.

Note the headline, which aims to garner far broader empathy and sympathy not for abortion itself (though this is clearly presumed) but rather for birth control.  Rather than seeing this as an effort to preserve life – all life, as opposed to the far more selective range of life envisioned by Margaret Sanger – it is repositioned as a racist attack against black women.  The idea seems to be (and I pray that this isn’t actually what somebody says, though in this day and age that’s undoubtedly wishful thinking) that bringing up the disproportionate number of abortions by minorities is a means of making minorities racist against themselves.

While  some rather odd individuals might make this case, it’s not one I’ve ever heard in any pro-life discussion.  The idea is not that minority women hate their children, but rather that they are lured into aborting them by an ideology that denies the humanity of the unborn child (unless of course you’re excited to be having a baby, in which case, it magically is a human being!) and posits quick, secretive, and free abortions as the solution to communities where minority family and community life have been devastated over generations by many of the programs purporting to help them.

The argument links higher abortion rates to reduced access to contraception, and then goes on to paint the picture that ultimately, contraception is going to be threatened for all women, therefore women should get involved now to defend abortion and nip all this lunacy in the bud.

The reality is that I don’t think contraception will ever be in danger of being outlawed.  The largest Christian group to teach that contraception is sinful is the Roman Catholic church, and most of their own folks don’t agree with this teaching, and even if they did the Catholic Church has been so marginalized via scandalous behaviors that it has effectively lost any voice it might have once had towards larger moral issues.  Most non-Catholic Christian groups don’t have a problem with contraception, even if they oppose abortion.  And while I tend to think this is a rather poor bit of theology and Biblical exegesis, that’s not likely to change or catch on.

The reality remains that an unborn baby is a human being.  The law can’t change this, it can only ignore it.  Considering our divisive this issue has been literally since the Roe v. Wade verdict was handed down, I find it interesting how dismissive people can be of any theology or philosophy (or science) that finds it reprehensible.  I have hopes that Roe v. Wade will be overturned, but I have no illusions that this will be the end of the discussion by a long shot.  So long as pro-life positions are characterized as right-wing religious nut-jobs, and the clear science on the matter is ignored out of convenience, there will be no long-standing fix to this issue.  The next version of Roe v. Wade will already be in the queue before the ink is dried on any rescinding of the original.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to work and pray for the overturning of Roe v. Wade, but it’s a good reminder that, at least for Christians, the more important work is relationship to the people around us – including those on the other side of the ideological fence.  The Holy Spirit changes hearts, and when hearts are changed, it matters far less what the laws on the books say.  If abortion remains legal, fewer people will avail themselves of it.

Reading Ramblings – June 2, 2019

May 26, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Ascension Day (Observed), June 2, 2019

Texts: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

Context: Ascension Day is observed 40 days after Easter, based on Acts 1:3. Some people think that Luke 24 describes Jesus asce nding on the evening of Easter, and that therefore there is either a contradiction between Luke 24 and Acts 1, or that Jesus ascended twice. It’s important to remember that Luke authored both books (which were originally a single book), so it would be odd if Luke contradicted himself. A careful reading of Luke 24 shows that Luke is very careful to link events that happen on the same day (24:1, 13, 36). However there is no such deliberate timing introduction to 24:50-53. While I can understand how people might be inclined to assume it continues on the same day, I don’t see it as an absolute necessity, given the phrasing. Particularly given Luke’s comments in Acts 1:1-3, which don’t indicate a repetitive coming and going of Jesus. In both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, the Ascension is highlighted as a singular event, and it seems best to take it as the culmination of 40 days of appearances to his followers and disciples.

Acts 1:1-11 – Luke concludes his Gospel and begins his history of the Holy Spirit’s work in the early Church with Jesus’ ascension. This event is the triggering for the Holy Spirit’s arrival on Pentecost, as Jesus tried to explain to his disciples (John 14:25-26; John 16:4b-16). Jesus departs as He arrives – bodily. Both his conception and his ascension are miraculous, but in both cases He participates physically. In his mother’s womb and as He ascends to heaven He retains full humanity, even as both events are divinely orchestrated and empowered. These anchor Jesus’ humanity, and add credence to the emphasis of the Holy Church (based on Jesus’ own insistence, ie. Luke 24:36-42; John 20:20, 26-27) that Jesus as the Son of God is also fully a Son of Man, fully human rather than just appearing to be human. Jesus completed the purpose for which He came, and so ascends back to the Father to await the completion of all things and the Day of Judgment. In the meantime, we are to expect that the promised Holy Spirit of God will arrive and will continue his work.

Psalm 47 – This psalm first calls people to praise, and then provides the praise itself. The setting (vs. 5-7)might have been the procession of the Ark into the Temple as part of a worship ritual, or might have been associated with the coronation of a king or the king’s entrance to the palace and the throne, understanding that the king is the representative of God, rather than God himself. God is described as the greatest of kings who through his power established his people Israel and provided them with a homeland. The important thing is that the people of God are not limited to just the Hebrews, but all who recognize the rule and reign of God. In the context of Ascension this psalm (particularly v.5) works well with the Ascension of Jesus. Jesus goes up as the triumphant king. Not everyone knows this at the time, but his followers are tasked and then empowered to spread the news. His victory over his enemies is not a temporal, political or economic victory in the sense we are used to reading about, but rather a demonstrated victory over sin, death, and the plans of Satan to keep us bound in those chains.

Ephesians 1:15-23 – The ascension of Jesus is both literal and figurative. As the Son of God who has completed his incarnational work of resisting sin and therefore defeating death, Jesus returns to the heavenly throne room (Revelation 4-5) as the conquering king. His place at the right hand of God is testified to by Stephen (Acts 7:55-56) as he becomes the first martyr for Christ. The right hand or right side is emphasized as far back as Exodus 15:6 or Leviticus 8:23-26, and was recognized as the dominant hand/side. So in the story of Ehud (Judges 3), he is able to sneak a weapon past security by tying it to his right thigh rather than his left. Since the assumption would be that any weapon would be on the left side of his body, to be accessed by the right hand, nobody finds the short sword or realizes that he is left-handed. The right hand side of a throne seems to denote equality in power, while also deference to the one on the throne. This is in keeping with Jesus’ own teaching about his relationship to God the Father. In reference to power (divinity), Jesus can proclaim that I and the Father are one (John 10:30). Yet in reference not just to his incarnate mission but his relationship as a whole with the Father, Jesus can declare his obedience to the Father (John 6:44, 8:28, etc.). This is a mystery our sinfulness won’t let us understand, that one could be voluntarily obedient despite having equal power and authority!

Luke 24:44-53 – Jesus provides his followers with an introductory revelation to Scripture, allowing these simple men to see what so many enlightened and educated theologians had missed for so long – Jesus. This is the Christian way of understanding Scripture – that the primary importance of the Old and New Testament is to show us Jesus. It isn’t that the material is not true historically, or of value artistically as poetry, or useful for guiding our lives. But all of these things take their value and meaning ultimately from Christ alone. If we have Christ, we have everything. If we don’t have Christ, we ultimately have nothing, regardless of what we may appear to possess right now. And more specifically, the message of Christ is his sacrificial death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness can be proclaimed because of his sacrificial death and resurrection – the two are inextricably linked. There can be no other basis for the assumption of forgiveness. All the deaths of all the sacrificial animals up until that point were pointing towards this final, efficacious sacrifice on behalf of all people at all times and places, and in a very real sense the sacrifice of the Son of God is what gave power to the sacrifices of the Old Testament. Jesus’ revelation here is not complete – He does not give them everything they need. That will be the job of God the Holy Spirit, the promise of God referred to in v.49. It is this promise, the Holy Spirit, that they must wait for before starting their evangelistic work.

Jesus ascends to heaven as the victorious king. His death and resurrection accomplish the defeat of all evil and sin in the world, and therefore break the power of death and free us in faith for eternal life. This work is complete. It is not fully revealed or fully experienced, but it is complete. Nothing you and I do can further it or improve upon it. We are called simply to live in this reality, a reality that defines who we are in relationship to our God and therefore in relationship to everything and everyone else our God has created.

Reading Ramblings – May 26, 2019

May 19, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 26, 2019

Texts: Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:9-14, 21-27; John 5:1-9

Context: The resurrection is the vindication of Jesus as the Son of God, and of everything that He did and say prior to his execution. It is the power of the triune God, a power that has been at work since the dawn of creation and continues at work throughout creation today.

Acts 16:9-15 – Paul is on his second missionary journey. He goes to visit the churches he founded in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. He intends to head further north to preach the Gospel but the Holy Spirit prevents this. Instead, in response to a dream-vision, Paul and his associates Silas (Silvanus) and Timothy (as well, most likely based on Acts 16:11, as Luke himself) head from Asia Minor to Europe, starting their missionary work along the Via Egnatia, a Roman military and trade road that runs from east to west across the southern edge of the European continent, between modern Greece to the south and Albania, Macedonia and Bulgaria to the north. Their first stop is Philippi, the site of today’s reading. Settled by retired Roman military veterans and other colonists, it appears the city did not have a synagogue, but rather a small Jewish community that met outdoors near a river. Lydia is mentioned prominently here and throughout the chapter as an important ally for Paul and his associates. Upon receiving faith, she has her entire household baptized and is a host to Paul and his associates both prior to their arrest in Philippi and afterwards. She is the first European Christian mentioned by name in Scripture, followed rapidly by the unnamed jailer later in this same chapter.

Psalm 67 – A short, beautiful psalm that integrates echoes of the Aaronic blessing from Numbers 6:22-27. It would be familiar language to God’s people, hearing it regularly during worship and prayer services. But here the blessing is explained. It isn’t simply for the benefit or comfort of God’s people, but rather towards the end that God’s saving power would be experienced among all the nations. It recognizes that in choosing a special people to work through, they were to be examples so that all who knew or heard of them would recognize their God as sovereign. All should be brought in to praise God who is the creator of all things and the giver of all blessing. Moreover, contrary to human ideas that are subject to change and have no basis beyond opinion (popular or otherwise), all of God’s creation should be glad and relieved to know that God provides solid, reliable guidance for his creation, as well as the assurance of perfect , equitable judgment. While our judgment sometimes errs or is sometimes corrupted, God’s is not. As people recognize this, creation will flouris, and truly the blessings of God can and will flow throughout it!

Revelation 21:9-14, 21-27 – Where the story of creation begins with a garden, it ends with a city – the City of God, the new Jerusalem, the place where God will once again dwell with his perfected creation. Since the city is referred to as the bride, the wife of the Lamb (v.9), it is synonymous with the Church – with all those who have, do, and will put their faith in Jesus as the sacrificial lamb which removes our sin from us and reconciles us to God. This is the Lamb introduced in Revelation 5 and mentioned 30 times throughout the book of Revelation. While earthly Jerusalem as the capital of God’s people is just another earthly city, the city of God described here fairly glows and radiates with beauty and perfection. The prominence of the number 12 likely indicates a completeness, representing the totality of God’s Old Testament people through the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and the totality of God’s New Testament people through the 12 apostles. Everything about this place denotes the abundance of God’s grace and blessing. This is because God dwells here, with his people. While there is much scholarly debate about how to interpret this passage, at the very least we get a positive and beautiful picture of what the resurrection makes possible – the reconciliation of God with his faithful, and the final abolition of Satan, sin and death.

John 5:1-9 – The other possible reading was out of John 16 and a continuation of last week’s Gospel reading. But I like this passage, and the continuity of God’s restorative power both in the life of Jesus during his ministry as well as in the years that follow his resurrection and ascension. The psalm nicely reminds us that God’s power has been at work at all times throughout creation history to sustain us.

John provides a great deal of detail in this passage regarding the where of this healing. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of the pool that corroborate John’s description. It was a place associated with healing, and you might have noticed that verse 4 is missing in some translations. That verse reads something to the effect of:

waiting for the moving of the water; 4for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred the water: whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease he had

In this context, Jesus asks the man if he wants healing, and the man responds with the reason he has not received healing already – he doesn’t have anyone to help him into the waters when they stirred. Perhaps the man wonders if Jesus will stay and help him, or if Jesus knows that the waters are about to be stirred. Likely the man doesn’t expect that Jesus will simply speak his healing to him. But when Jesus does, the man responds obediently, standing up and grabbing up his mat from off the ground. We aren’t sure how Jesus knows the man or his story. Is it revealed to him by the Holy Spirit? Does He remember the man from his many other trips to Jerusalem over his lifetime? Should we be comforted with the knowledge that our Lord knows each one of us by name? Perhaps all of the above, with an emphasis on the latter. How and why God does what He does is not our privilege (or duty) to know, but we are to trust that what God does is ultimately for us, ultimately that we might praise him eternally.


May 15, 2019

What a beautiful reminder of the possibilities when things aren’t overscheduled or over-planned.

Wednesday evenings I lead a Bible study.  It started out for people in my congregation who couldn’t make the mid-afternoon weekly study.  We started with one set of topics.  But over time, those folks quit coming, while another group began attending.  A group of three to seven ladies from a local drug & alcohol residential recovery program began coming.  It’s a slightly different group each week, so I’ve had to keep the programming relatively loose.  At times, I worry that our time together lacks direction or purpose on any given evening.  And other nights, I’m reminded of how God can step into situations where there’s a gap.

Tonight there were three ladies who came.   I know these three ladies.  Shortly after they arrived in the program (in one girl’s case – the next day from her arrival)  our family began opening our home each week to the ladies from this program, having three of them over at a time to help cook & eat dinner, to hang out, play board games or video games, and just be part of a family for an evening.  They’re committed to a year-long recovery program that takes some of them out of their families for  a long time, and a chance to just be has turned out to be a welcome thing for them.  Who knew?

But also on hand was a woman from a Friday Bible study I lead at the retirement and assisted living community next door to us.  She’s attended Friday Bible studies for probably five years now – ever since I started offering them there.  She’s 96 years old.  She’s lived long enough to begin worrying about her siblings and now children dealing with cancer and death.

One of the recovery ladies started out, when I asked tonight if there was something they wanted to talk about, simply asking for help.  Her sponsor told her today she thought there was some sort of block between this girl and God that was inhibiting her relationship with God and threatening the success of her recovery.  She was understandably frightened by those words, even as she  acknowledged that she’s suspected this herself for some time.  It was frank and open and honest.  Humble and vulnerable from a young woman known much more for her mischief.

Her honesty set the tone for the evening.  One of the other recovery ladies shared about how she’s been looking for work now for several weeks as she enters the final phase of the recovery program.  But so far her diligence has only resulted in rejections.  And the rejections are piling up and she’s having trouble dealing with them.  Rejection isn’t any fun.  And rejection after seeing your life transformed must be even harder.  She shared – both as part of her story and as encouragement to the young woman who had just shared her difficulty connecting with God – that her way of re-connecting was to look at plants and flowers.  To study one particular one up close, observing it in detail, and that this would lead her to eventual worship of the One who must have created it.  She spoke more this evening than in the entire nine months I’ve known her, and her honesty was breathtaking.

The third lady shared how she had just been admitted – by surprise and two weeks early – to the final phase of the program, and that she’d be starting a transition class at the local community college in the summer but was looking for work in the meantime.  Once again she shared and was open in a beautiful way.  She shared about the way her mother loves her, and is so excited for the new possibilities in her life now that she’s free from her addictions.

Finally the older woman from next door spoke.  She’s a very shy, private woman.  But it was obvious she was delighted and touched by meeting and listening to these younger women.  She talked about how she could relate to each of their struggles, as she had already lived through each of their stages of life.  She offered words of simple encouragement, even as she shared a little of her own struggle in having a husband and siblings pass away before her, and now watching even some of her children struggling with disease.

I heard more tonight from these ladies than I have in months or years.  After I prayed for them each, they exchanged hugs with the older woman, as they were touched by her care and concern for them.

It’s so easy to worry all the time about schedules and plans, agendas and objectives.  Tonight was a beautiful reminder of how God can work in the spaces we leave open.  That given the opportunity beautiful things can and do happen, opportunities to give him thanks and praise as He draws us together in unexpected ways.  I’m grateful for that humbling reminder that it isn’t about me, or about always doing or teaching, and that listening is critical.  When the opportunity arises, listening can be holy work, or more accurately a holy blessing.

Thank you, Lord.



Missing the Obvious

May 13, 2019

It’s funny how sometimes you don’t see the simplest things right in front of your face.  It’s nice when you can think of it as funny, when missing the obvious doesn’t kill you or cause disaster of one form or another.  But when you can appreciate the irony of how wrapped up we are in ourselves that we sometimes forget who we are.

Thinking through possibilities for the future for my congregation and family, it struck me today that these considerations all come through the aspect of me.  It was not a pleasant thought at first.  After all, who am I?  Certainly, my ideas and hopes and dreams and whatnot should be more objective than that?  Certainly, how I cast a vision for things should be clear to others as the logical, reasonable way forward?

Yet that’s not the case.  Whether I like it or not, and I don’t.

The cult of personality in our culture is so strong and pervasive that I recoil from it as often as possible.  I’m not here to promote me.  Yet in the process of doing what I do, I do it as me.  And therefore, how I do it is different than how anyone else might do it.  This might not be true in some vocations, but it’s true in mine, and I have to deal with it.  Acknowledge it.  Come to grips with it.  Try not to let it destroy me.  Try to determine if what I propose for others is really as reasonable as it seems to me.  The danger of the I overreaching is always crouching nearby, waiting for an opportunity.

So that needs to be taken into account.  The vision I have may not make sense – at least initially to others.  There’s no way to really escape from that.  It may not be a bad thing, but it’s something very pertinent and real to bear in mind.

There’s so much more to learn, even in just the basic, simple, obvious things.

Reading Ramblings – May 19, 2019

May 12, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 19, 2019

Texts: Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-7; John 16:12-22

Context: The Holy Spirit is loose in the world. While we look forward to the formal inauguration of his arrival on Pentecost in a few weeks, it is difficult to speak of the power of the resurrection apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. His work in the world is at times unexpected, but a glorious outpouring of God the Father’s love and care for us. We are never alone, and we should never think that our God is absent or mindless about any aspect of his creation.

Acts 11:1-18 – Peter’s vision and the subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit on non-Jews sets a new direction for the early church – outwards to whomever will receive the Good News. This was unexpected, but it doesn’t take long for the leaders of the church to recognize that this is of God and their responsibility is to acknowledge and praise God. This will, in short order, necessitate some clarification and further leading by the Holy Spirit in terms of what is required of those seeking to follow Jesus – do they need to become Jews first, or are Gentiles welcome? In the meantime, the scandal of preaching to and baptizing and even associating with Gentiles must have been very unnerving for Peter as well as the others who listened to his story! The Church must always be on the lookout for the Holy Spirit’s leading even in unexpected directions.

Psalm 148 – I’m frustrated that we had this psalm just a few weeks ago, and we’ll have it once more before the end of the liturgical calendar. Aren’t 150 psalms enough to avoid this kind of repetition!? In any event, this psalm calls on all aspects of creation to give God praise. He is praised first and foremost for his act of creation in the first place (v.6). But ultimately He is to be praised for the personal relationship He has with his people (v. 14).

Revelation 21:1-7 – The effects of the resurrection are eternal, reconciling the faithful to God . God once again will dwell with his people. Suffering will be banished and death will be removed from creation as perfection once again reigns as it did in the initial days of Adam and Eve. Here it is pictured as a divine city rather than a garden, but it is clear that as in the beginning, God is firmly in charge of all things according to his master plan. The new beginning He will inaugurate can be trusted because it is God the Father himself who will initiate it, and it is not dependent on our efforts, only our acceptance of the victory of God the Son.

John 16:12-22 – As Jesus prepares for his ordeal, He instructs his disciples at the last supper pertaining what will happen after his departure. While they will not have his presence, they will have the Holy Spirit of God who will guide them into truth as He reveals whatever the Father desires to have revealed. In the process, Jesus doesn’t become irrelevant but serves as the focal point for praise and honor. The revelation of the Holy Spirit is only possible because of the victory Jesus is about to win through his suffering and death. Jesus says to his disciples what He has said on several other occasions to his accusers – they will not see him much longer. Like his accusers, his disciples don’t know how to interpret his words, despite his clear explanation of things on multiple occasions. However the ultimate result is that they will see him again, and this will be a cause for celebration even though He will not stay with them indefinitely. Their joy will be such that they don’t remember the sorrow and anguish they will endure over the next three days as they watch their Lord suffer, die, and rest in the tomb.

The Log in Our Own Eye

May 6, 2019

I’m all for mission work.  The task of taking the Gospel of Jesus Christ to other places and peoples who haven’t heard it already or need greater teaching and grounding in it has been understood to be part and parcel of following Jesus since, well, pretty much Jesus.  This work does need to continue, by all means.

But I’m struggling with an issue in my own Christian denomination, where troubling times and failures on the home front of evangelism are compensated with by directing people’s eyes overseas.  In my local regional polity of our denomination, there is a push to unite our congregations in support of mission work in India.  I think this is wonderful.  There are many people in India who have not heard the Gospel and we should reach them.  It isn’t that I’m against this effort.  But what I would prefer to see alongside it is an equal effort to figure out how to share the Gospel here, in the United States, on the West Coast.

But that’s harder work, and people feel stymied.  There isn’t an obvious rallying point.  People can be hit up for a few dollars to send to India, and know that their spare coffee money pays for entire school buildings and equipping dozens of missionaries.  There is, quite literally, a bigger bang for the buck in this sort of mission work.

But here at home, the situation is not far removed in grimness or urgency than the pictures of overseas children with smiling faces as they huddle over a Bible or a bowl of porridge.  Our children are killing each other, their teachers, strangers.  We’ve lost the ability to discourse civilly on important ideas and concepts.  We’re barely able to love our friends let alone our enemies.  We are hooked on drugs – prescription or illegal – and monumental amounts of alcohol (particularly wine) to help us cope.  The only answers our culture has offered are to legalize drugs or ban weapons or determine that opposing ways of looking at an issue or  the world are due to psychological dysfunction or literal brain damage.

The Gospel is needed here, in the United States, every bit as much as it is in India.  And just because it’s hard or difficult or confusing shouldn’t mean that we ignore this mission field.

Reading Ramblings – May 12, 2019

May 5, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2019

Texts: Acts 20:17-35; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

Context: In the Latin (pre-1970) Roman Catholic liturgy, these readings are reserved for the third Sunday of Easter, but the date has shifted now to the fourth Sunday in the liturgical season of Easter. I haven’t been able to track down how or why this tradition began, but it is obviously related to the 23rd Psalm. It might also seem reasonable to have the Gospel from John encompass the first half of chapter 10 instead of the last half, since the first half is his Good Shepherd section. For whatever reason, the lectionary isn’t using that this year, which weakens the Good Shepherd theme considerably. The Epistle reading picks up on shepherd language at one point but it’s hardly enough to carry the theme, even if the scene from Revelation 7 honors and glorifies the Lamb who was slain, but through his death has made possible the salvation of the faithful.

Acts 20:17-35 – Paul’s goodbye address to the congregation he founded in Ephesus is a touching mix of reminding them of the past and preparing them for the future. After his departure from them he will return to Jerusalem, where he will once again face accusations from his opponents that will follow him and necessitate his appealing to the Emperor in Rome for a fair hearing. From Rome he is alleged to have traveled on to Spain before heading back towards Jerusalem, only to be caught up in the persecution of Nero in Rome and executed. His final words here are well chosen. Paul has learned the importance of this. He has to review the past – namely his conduct among them – because in other places (Corinth, Thessalonica, etc.) he has been accused by those who came after him or opponents of the Gospel of being no better than a wandering leech, pawning off fantasies as truth in exchange for personal gain. But this is not what Paul has done. He spent time with the Ephesians and worked to support himself and others rather than relying on their benevolence. He must also speak to them about the future, as he also knows what is likely to happen. Satan will bring others into their midst to confuse or distort the Gospel, or cause divisions among the Ephesians or prompt people among them with strange ideas, seeking to make themselves great. Paul has watched over them as a shepherd but now they must care for one another and should use his own conduct as a model to follow.

Psalm 23 – Perhaps one of the best known passages in Scripture is this short but powerful affirmation of God’s loving care for his creatures. This care spans the speaker’s lifetime, up to the point of death. But it doesn’t stop there. The Lord accompanies the speaker not to or into but through death. On the other side of that journey things are different. No longer is the speaker a metaphorical sheep, but rather a man who can sit at a banquet to be blessed with bounty and richness as those who once sought to destroy him can only watch. This shepherd knows all the needs of the sheep and how to best provide them. Nothing is overlooked, whether physical needs or the emotional and spiritual support to face even death itself. Although the shepherd is no longer an image that evokes strong associations among most Christians, it isn’t hard to identify the kindness and gentleness, the complete and total care of the shepherd for the sheep that should lead the sheep to praise and thank the shepherd, trusting in him completely.

Revelation 7:9-17 – I love to describe this as the great family reunion snapshot, the sight of all the faithful in Christ gathered around the throne to praise him and receive his goodness for all eternity. Nobody is forgotten or overlooked. I like to think that St. John sees even you and I there (and yes, probably himself as well if he looked closely enough!). This is what we look forward, the kick-off party, as it were, to an eternity without persecution and without sin, freed from all forms of oppression or tyranny internal and external. There at the center of it all is the Lamb, the Lamb who was slain but is standing and very much alive now. The Lamb who triumphed over our enemies and is the center of our praise and thanksgiving forever.

John 10:22-30 – Sheep know their shepherd’s voice. Jesus claims that his works bear witness as to his identity; Jesus’ miracles are a second kind of voice in addition to his preaching and teaching. But because his antagonists do not see these works in light of God’s works in the Old Testament, they cannot and will not correctly interpret who Jesus is or what He is doing. It isn’t a matter of whether they have enough evidence – they clearly do! But if they refuse to interpret the evidence properly, to hear the shepherd’s voice properly, then no amount of further miracles will sway them. Those who place their faith and trust in the Good Shepherd (Jesus) rest securely. The Shepherd’s grasp is strong and He will not let them go. Nothing that the Jewish leadership can say or do will change this reality, even if they strike the Good Shepherd and attempt to scatter the sheep. This is what continually confounds the Jewish leadership in the days after the resurrection and Pentecost – the sheep continue to proclaim the voice of their shepherd!

Likewise, there is no power today that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ (Romans 8:38-39). We do not ever need to doubt the Shepherd’s grasp, even if we don’t understand where He is taking us at the moment, or would prefer another route, or would prefer to stay and graze. He is the Shepherd and we are not. And if we are confused, or unhappy with what we have to go through at the moment, we rest assured that the Shepherd who has brought us safely thus far will see us through to our final destination around his throne.