Jesus Brings Division?

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Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! ~ Jesus

lucy-player-buttonAs we gather on this back-to-school Sunday, we gather to celebrate teachers and students, families, and community. It would have been nice to have almost any other gospel reading appointed for this day other than the one we just heard. I mean, let’s just be honest, Jesus doesn’t sound like he is having a very good day. You can hearthe frustration in his voice as Jesus announces his desire to bring fire to the earth. You canfeelthe tension in the air as Jesus complains to his disciples about the intensifying stress in his life. You can sensethe discomfort of the crowd as Jesus lashes out at this multitude and ridicules them as ignorant hypocrites. But if that’s not enough, perhaps what is most unsettling of all, is the moment when Jesus, in no uncertain terms, declares that he has not come to bring peace, but division. As I said, this is not exactly the inspirational and motivational message that I was going for on this back-to-school Sunday. But it seems this is indeed the Word of God for us, the people of God, here this morning!

Now to begin, let’s state the obvious.  The primary reason that we find these words of Jesus to be so jarring is because the promise of peace, and the promise of reconciliation and unity,are central to the proclamation of the gospel. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus seems to embody the peace, the wholeness, the shalom of God. Jesus is consistently breaking down religious, social, and economic barriers that keep people separated and isolated from one another. The followers of Jesus who went out to form Christian communities, proclaimed a message of peace and reconciliation. The first apostolic leaders like Paul, Peter, and John, frequently reminded their congregations to be unified, to be at peace, to be of one heart and one mind and one purpose. Without question, this vision of peace and unity lies at the heart of the gospel. Now, of course, if you’re a good Episcopalian and you don’t know your Bible very well, that’s okay! All you have to do is turn to page of 855 of the Book of Common Prayerand you will find that the mission of the Church is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” And so, if the mission of Jesus and the mission of the movement that bears his name are all about peace and reconciliation and unity, why does Jesus say he has come to bring division?

To answer that question, we have to step back and look at the whole mission of Jesus. We need to be reminded that Jesus came to proclaim and embody an entirely new reality. And we call that new reality thekingdomof God or thereignof God or the dreamof God. But in order for that new reality to be manifested here on earth, some things have to be dealt with. Sin and pride and arrogance have to be confronted. Injustice and intolerance have to be challenged. Systems of oppression, degradation, and shame have to be opposed. And when the powers of this world are confronted, when the dream of God comes up against the injustice and suffering of this world, conflict and division are almost inevitable. Because ultimately a decision has to be made. Will we align ourselves and our lives with the value system of the kingdom of God or will we align ourselves and our lives with the value system of the kingdom of this world? Will we say “yes” to God’s dream? And at the end of the day, saying “yes” to God’s dream of healing and reconciliation, means saying “no” the nightmare of injustice and suffering that so often characterizes our world.

My friends, Jesus said “yes” to the dream of God. And in response, the powers of this world, both physical and spiritual, rose up against him and nailed him to a cross.

And those who would take up their own cross and follow Jesus would often be called upon to follow a similar path – to forsake their families, their economic security, their social status, and, at times, their very lives. To make the decision to align our lives with the values and vision of the kingdom of God comes with a cost.

Now this is hard for us wrap our heads around, because for most of us the cost of discipleship hasn’t been that significant. I think almost all of us gathered here this morning have had the privilege of exercising our faith in a “Christian nation.” A nation in which, for most of our history, being a Christian has been equated with being a good citizen. We haven’t really had to count the cost of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. For the most part, our family connections, our financial investments, our social responsibilities are completely unaffected by the fact that we call ourselves Christians.

But that has not been the case for most of the history of the Church. And it is not the case right now in many other parts of the world. As we sit here this morning, almost 250 million Christians are currently live in places where they experience high levels of persecution.

For many of these men and women, choosing to say “yes” to God’s dream, choosing to align their lives with the values of God’s kingdom, choosing to say “yes” to Jesus, means abdicating their inheritance, walking away from educational and economic resources, facing the ridicule of their community, and, in some cases, even giving up their lives. And so, for those millions of Christians, today’s words from Jesus are not confounding or confusing but confirming – confirming of their experience and the sacrifices they have made to follow God’s dream.

But what about us gathered here at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in the Village of Tequesta, Florida on Back-to-School Sunday? How do these words speak to us?

Perhaps these are words that should challenge us to examine the ways in which we have grown too complacent, too comfortable, and too casual in our faith.

Perhaps these are words that call us to recognize the potential cost of discipleship.

But perhaps most of all, these are words that remind us that when it comes to following Jesus, a decision has to be made.

In our baptismal liturgy, there is a moment when the candidate is asked if he or she will turn to Jesus Christ. In the early days of the church, that moment of turning was an actual physical movement. Turning from west to east. From darkness to light. From the value system of this world to the value system of God’s kingdom.

But, you know, that moment of turning is not just a moment of decision, it is also a moment of division – between the old life of sin and new life of grace. And that moment of turning and reorienting our lives is not just a one-time event, it is something we choose every single day.

And so, my friends, I pray that we will have the courage to hear and heed the words of Jesus no matter the cost. To align our lives with the values and vision of God’s kingdom. To say “yes” to God’s dream. To turn and orient our lives toward justice, freedom, and love. And then I pray we will have the courage to go out those doors and set the world on fire!

Freedom from Fear

Freedom

lucy-player-buttonOne week ago, as most of you were gathered here in this place for worship, my family and I were disembarking from a cruise ship at the Port of Miami. For eight nights and seven days, we enjoyed the pristine waters of the southern Caribbean Sea, which also meant that for eight nights and seven days my cell phone had no reception. In fact, it was placed on airplane mode the entire time. No email, no voicemail, no text messages, no social media, almost zero contact with the outside world. It was magnificent! And so, of course, last week as my family and I disembarked from the ship, it was with great hesitation that I pressed that small green toggle switch to turn off the airplane mode. Immediately, my phone exploded with those read dots that indicated the hundreds of unread emails, voicemails, text messages, and Facebook notifications that had been accumulating all week long. But as all of those various notifications populated my phone, a news alert began scrolling across the top of my screen – “At least 30 people killed in back-to-back mass shootings.” And all of sudden the reality of the outside world came crashing in.

Now the events of last weekend have once again brought to the foreground the host of cultural and political issues that have come to define the age in which we live – issues like gun rights, immigration, racism, mental illness, security, safety, and the list goes on. But this week in the midst of all the noise, in the midst of all the sound bites and debates, I heard a persistent theme, a thread that connected story after story after story – and that theme or thread was fear. Whether it was talk radio or cable news or Facebook comments, the topic of conversation consistently came back to the topic of fear and anxiety. People shared about the ways they are consciously altering their patterns of behavior in order to avoid placing themselves in a vulnerable, and possibly dangerous situation. People are looking over their shoulders in large crowds and they find themselves increasingly anxious in large public spaces. Just a few days ago, a series of loud noises set off a panic in Times Square. The noise turned out to be the backfiring engine of a motorcycle, but fear had already gripped the hearts and minds of hundreds of people. Now we can debate the rationality of these fears. We can discuss the political and cultural issues that feed into these fears. But what we can’t deny is the reality that fear has the capacity to powerfully shape our lives and the world in which we live. To see that reality all you have to do is turn on your phone!

Now this morning, it is in this cultural context of fear and anxiety that we hear the words of Jesus, “Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Do not be afraid! You see, throughout his ministry, Jesus recognized that fear has the capacity to powerfully shape our lives and the world around us. Over and over again, when men and women are called by God, they are persistently exhorted to not be afraid.

When Zechariah was told he would father a son in his old age, the word of the Lord came to him and said, “do not be afraid.” When Mary was told she would bear a son despite the fact that she was not married, the word of the Lord came to her and said, “do not be afraid.” When Jesus called his first disciples and commissioned them as fishers of people, the word of the Lord came to them and said, “do not be afraid.” When the disciples came to Jesus to announce that the daughter of the synagogue leader had died, and her family was grieving, the word of the Lord came to that family and said, “do not be afraid.” This is the refrain we hear over and over again from Jesus. Every time a person is called by God and commissioned to fulfill their purpose they are commanded to not be afraid.

The problem is that we hear this refrain repeated so often that it begins to lose its meaning. We take these words from Jesus and we print them on plaques that we hang in our kitchen or we engrave them on a keychain or we paint them on magnet for our refrigerator. My friends, these words from Jesus not simply polite words of comfort. They are not simply sage words of advice. Jesus is issuing a radical repudiation of the power of fear in our lives and in the world. Jesus knows that fear has the capacity to enslave us. Jesus knows that fear is like a straight-jacket that prevents us from reaching out and embracing the abundant life that God has for us. Jesus knows that fear is the one obstacle that must be dealt with before we can step out into the fullness of God’s purpose for our lives. And so, Jesus says, over and over again, “do not be afraid.”

Now I used to think that the opposite of fear was faith. But the more I reflect on the life and ministry of Jesus, the more I have come to think that the opposite of fear is freedom. Jesus wants to set us free from everything that holds us back. Jesus wants to set us free from everything that enslaves us. Jesus wants to set us free from the paralyzing power of fear. And when we experience that spiritual freedom, we are empowered to let go, we are empowered to fully surrender our lives we are empowered to let God have his way.

I have shared with some of you before about my first experience participating in a team building exercise called the Trust Fall. A trust fall is when one of the participants stands on a platform about 4-5 feet in the air, crosses their arms, and falls backwards, while the other participants form a human net with their arms, which then (in theory!) catches the person falling off the platform.

The thing that I still remember about the trust fall is the moment when my feet were no longer being supported by the platform, but I did not yet feel any of the hands of my friends underneath my back. Now I’m not ashamed to admit that I felt some fear in that moment. There was some anxiety. Because there was no getting back on the platform. Either my group of friends caught me, or they weren’t my friends anymore.

I used to think about the experience of the Trust Fall as being primarily about the movement from fear to faith. But the more I reflect on that experience, the more I think it’s really about the movement from fear to freedom. Because it requires total surrender. It requires completely letting go of what was in order to embrace what will be. Once your feet leave the platform, there is no going back.

My friends, this morning, no matter what you’re facing in your life.

No matter what challenges may lie ahead of you.

No matter how uncertain the future may seem.

No matter what fears and anxieties you are wrestling with right now.

May you and I have the courage to Jesus set us free, to let go of what has been and to embrace what will be. Our feet will most assuredly leave the security of the platform, but we fall into the arms of the One who loves us! The arms of the One who saves us! The arms of the One who says to us “do not be afraid.” The arms of the One who embraces us, and will never, ever let us go!

The Distracted Life

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Martha, Martha, you are anxious and distracted by many things! – Luke 10:41

What would you do if Jesus stopped by your house this afternoon? Would you be embarrassed by the mess and quickly try to tidy things up by shoving things in the hall closet or the junk drawer in the kitchen? Would you scramble to the pantry wondering what in the world you should cook for the Son of God who has just dropped in for dinner? Or would you struggle for a moment to come up with a few casual conversation starters, because naturally you want to look cool in front of the Savior of the World. What would you do if Jesus stopped by your house this afternoon?

This, of course, is exactly what happens to Martha, and her sister Mary. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and he stops to find respite at the home of his friends. Now Martha immediately begins to fulfill her role as the hostess, which presumably included the preparation of a meal and attending to the needs of Jesus, who was a guest in her home. Mary, on the other hand, contrary to the cultural norms of first century, takes a seat and begins to listen to the words of Jesus. Martha grows rather frustrated with her apparently lazy sister, but instead of speaking with her privately, Martha just calls Mary on the carpet right there in front Jesus. She says, “Jesus, don’t you care that my lazy sister has left me to do all the work?” To which Jesus responds, “Martha, dear…dear Martha, you are worried and distracted by so many things! You are getting all worked up over nothing!”

Now this short episode in Luke’s gospel has been interpreted in a variety of ways throughout the history of the church. Some have thought that Luke was bothered by a group of women seeking to exercise too much leadership in the church and so, he was trying to demonstrate that the proper role of women was to be quiet and remain seated. The good news is that most contemporary scholars no longer hold this view. In fact, over the last few decades, scholars have commended Mary for her leadership as well as the counter-cultural character of her witness as a disciple. Other interpreters have argued that this story presents a stark contrast between “good works” and “faith,” between “doing” and “listening,” between “action” and “contemplation.” In this interpretation, Martha is rebuked for her reliance on works, while Mary is praised as an example of faith and piety. But, throughout his ministry, Jesus is not anti-good works. He is not anti-action. Martha is actually doing exactly what she is expected to do.  She is fulfilling her role as the host. She is extending radical hospitality. She is the one who is charged with caring for the needs of her guest. And so, it is no accident that the word Luke uses to describe Martha’s actions is the Greek word from which we derive the word “deacon.” Martha is simply seeking to fulfill her role as a faithful servant.

So, if this story is not about the role of women and it’s not about choosing the life of faith and piety over against the life of actions or “good works,” then what is central message of the story of these two sisters? The answer to this question, I believe, is found in the response of Jesus to Martha’s complaint.He says, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and distracted by many things!” Anxious and distracted! The word translated distracted literally means to be pulled apart in many directions.You see, there is nothing inherently wrong with Martha’s work. Her actions are essential for the proper working of the household. But in the midst of her work, in the midst of her activity, she has become anxious and distracted by many things! As one biblical commentator put, Martha has lost herself in her work. She has forgotten that, ultimately, she is loved and valued not because of what she does, but because of who she is as a beloved daughter of God.

When we understand Martha’s story as a story about anxiety and distraction, it speaks powerfully to our present culture. Because we live in a culture in which value and meaning are based primarily on productivity, efficiency, and success. The demands of life are often pulling us apart in many different directions. We try to put a positive spin on all this and call it “multi-tasking” – but the reality is that quite often deep inside we are profoundly anxious, confused, and distracted by many things.

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Extravagant Generosity

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Have you ever walked into a building or a room that you have entered many, many times before, but on this particular occasion you see something or notice something that has never caught your attention before that moment? It might be something as simple as the color of the walls. Or a planter sitting in the corner. Or a piece of artwork hanging over the couch.

Whatever it is, when you say to the owner, “Hey, I like the new paint color!” or “I like the new plant or the new piece of art over the couch,” the owner replies, “Oh, that’s not new, it’s been that way for years!” And you’re left scratching your head, thinking, “How could I have entered into this space so many times before and never noticed that obvious detail?” We all have those spaces or places or even experiences that have become so familiar to us that we no longer see the details. We longer see or notice the nuances that give something its unique character and identity.

What I have found is that precisely the same thing can happen when we are reading the Bible. We can become so familiar with a particular biblical story, that we longer see the details. We no longer notice the nuance and texture that give that story its unique character and identity.

And I think for a lot of people, that’s exactly what happens with a story like the parable of the Good Samaritan, which we heard in our gospel reading this morning. The story of the Good Samaritan is deeply embedded in our religious, spiritual, and even our cultural consciousness. I mean, a person doesn’t have to know that biblical story to know what a “good Samaritan” is supposed to be. Just hearing the phrase “good Samaritan” conjures up images of upstanding citizens doing nice things for their neighbors. Things like rescuing a lost kitten out of a tree or helping someone carry their groceries across the street. As a result, when we hear the biblical story in Luke’s gospel, we think we know it’s all about.

But this week, when I read the parable of Good Samaritan, it was like walking into a room and noticing the paint color for the first time. I saw something and experienced something that has been there all along, but I had never noticed it quite the way I noticed it this week.

Now the basic contours of the story are fairly straight forward. A lawyer is having a conversation with Jesus about what makes a person eligible for eternal life. After a brief exchange about the requirements of the law, the lawyer turns to Jesus and says, “That’s all well and good, but who exactly is my neighbor?,” which prompts Jesus to tell his famous parable.

In the parable, of course, an anonymous man is robbed, stripped, beaten, and left for dead in a ditch on the side of road. Two religious leaders, a priest and a Levite, members of God’s covenant community, see the man in the ditch, but choose to pass by on the other side of the road. But a Samaritan, someone outside the covenant, a religious and social outcast, sees the man in the ditch and stops to provide aid and comfort. The moral of the story is, of course, be more like the Samaritan. Serve and help those in need, even the stranger, even those who are different from you. Now this is a powerful interpretation of this story. In fact, when most people walk into the room of this parable, what I just described is precisely what they see. But as I said, this week, I saw something different. I saw this parable for first time as a story about extravagant generosity.

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God’s Mission of Hospitality

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“Eat what is set before you.” – Luke 10:8

lucy-player-buttonWhen I was growing up, our summer vacations would almost always include a multiday road trip in our family’s brown Chevrolet Celebrity station wagon. Those extended road trips would, of course, require us to secure overnight accommodations for several nights in a row before we reached our final destination. On a good day that meant that we would stay at a Holiday Inn. You remember, the one with the green sign, the swimming pool in the back, and a Denny’s restaurant in the front. For a nine-year-old boy, that was the best possible scenario.

But it turned out my parents had a lot of friends and family up and down the entire eastern seaboard of the Unites States. And so, more often than not, we would make arrangements to stay with a family member or a friend. Now, for a nine-year-old boy, that scenario raised several profoundly important questions. Will I have to sleep on the sofa bed? Do they have a swimming pool? And, most important of all, what will they serve for dinner? I mean, at the Denny’s there was the guarantee of chicken fingers and French fries on the kids’ menu. But at someone’s home, all bets were off. You might get a casserole with multiple unidentified ingredients. You might get a meatloaf that sort of tastes like your grandmother’s basement. You might get goulash, which doesn’t sound bad, but it’s been getting soggy on the stove for hours waiting for your arrival. But whatever the mystery dinner might be, my mother would always give me the same stern instruction: “Remember, you will eat what is set before you.” These are words that have echoed in the hearts and minds of children for generations. You will eat what is set before you.

However, it was only recently that I realized that mom’s everywhere have actually taken their cue from Jesus. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is sending out seventy disciples to go out into the surrounding villages to proclaim that the kingdom of God, the reign of God, has come near. In preparation for this missionary work, Jesus gives his disciples very specific instructions. He says, “Don’t take a purse or a bag or an extra pair of sandals. Don’t even talk to anyone until you come to a house. And to each house you enter you declare, “Peace to this house.” Shalom, wholeness, and healing to this house!” If they don’t receive you, don’t worry – your peace will return to you. But if they receive you, stay there! And like a mother preparing her children for a road trip, Jesus reminds his disciples not once, but twice, to eat what is set before them.

Now, these might seem like just basic instructions. We might hear these instructions from Jesus and view them as sort of a checklist that Jesus is reviewing to ensure his disciples behave themselves and have proper manners. But I think there is something deeper going on. I think Jesus is reminding his disciples that the mission of God in the world is rooted and grounded in radical hospitality. Think about this: Jesus is sending out his disciples into the world with no means of support other than the hospitality of those to whom they are being sent. No purse. No bag. No staff. No sandals. No food. The disciples have to fully depend on the resources of others, and they have no choice but to eat what is set before them.

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The Spirit of Truth

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“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will lead you into all truth.” ~ John 16:13

lucy-player-buttonWhen I was first ordained fifteen years ago, the “Word of the Year” was the word truthiness, which means “the belief that something is true based on intuition, opinion, or perception, rather than logic or factual evidence.” Last year the “Word or Phrase of the Year” was fake news, which refers to “false or misleading reporting that aims to deliberately deceive or misinform.” Truthiness. Fake News. These are just a few examples of the way in which we continue to struggle as a culture to discern was is true and good and right. Whether its politics or religion, the environment or the economy, over the past few decades we have been come to face to face once again with age-old question, “What is truth?”

Now, of course, the quest for truth is as old as human civilization. For thousands of years, philosophers and great thinkers have been searching for what is true and good and right. The difference for us is that we live in the so-called “age of information.” When it comes to living in this age of information, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that billions of people have almost unlimited access to information and data along with opinion and analysis. The bad news is that billions of people have almost unlimited access to information and data along with opinion and analysis. Therein lies the crux of our problem. We might as well call this the age of information overload, because the cell phone in your pocket has more computing power than was present in the computers that navigated the Apollo missions to the moon and back? The great paradox of our age is that we can’t possibly process all of that information, let alone discern, and assimilate into our lives, what is true and good and right.

Truthiness. Fake News. The Age of Information. It is in this cultural context that we hear the words of today’s gospel reading, in which Jesus says, “when the Spirit of truth comes, he will lead you into all truth.” When the Spirit of truth comes, he will lead you into all truth. What does that mean? How is it that the Spirit leads you and me, as followers of Jesus, into all truth?

To answer that question, we have to step back for a minute and look at the bigger picture. Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus is repeatedly using words like “truth” and “believe” and “knowledge” and “understanding.” Typically, when we hear these words, we interpret them through our twenty-first century cultural context that tells us truth is about information. For the past few hundred years, ever since the Enlightenment and scientific revolution, the dominant cultural message has been that truth is about empirical evidence; it’s about what we can see and touch and prove and demonstrate through experimentation. Truth, according to contemporary culture, is about information.

And so, when we hear Jesus talking about “truth,” we think he must be talking about having the right doctrine and proper teaching. When we hear Jesus talk about “belief” and “knowledge” and “understanding,” we think he must be talking about having the right information. He must be reminding us that in order to be good Christians, we have to have believe and understand all the right things. If you skip one word of the Nicene Creed, you’re automatically disqualified. We conceive of truth primarily as information. And so, if Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth, he must be talking about information. He must be telling us that the Spirit will make us understand and believe all the right things. Now, let me be clear, that information is important. What we believe is profoundly important. Doctrine is important. As Christians, we have two thousand years of incredible theological study and reflection, and we have more books than we can count on every spiritual and theological topic you can imagine.

But, my friends, the truth of the gospel is not primarily about information. The truth of the gospel is about relationship. Because, you see, in Christianity, Truth is not a concept or an idea. Truth is not a doctrine or theory. In Christianity, Truth is a person, and his name is Jesus. When the disciples were confused and unsure of what they were supposed to think or do, Jesus said to them, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

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Paul: A Biography

51QbGN7T8JL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_I recently read N.T. Wright’s new book entitled Paul: A Biography. Utilizing the narrative of the Book of Acts as well as biographical details from Paul’s letters, Wright provides a compelling picture of Paul, the man and his mission. What motivated Paul? Why did he endure such great personal sacrifice in order to share the good news of Jesus? What caused his message to find such broad appeal across the ancient world? These are the questions that Wright explores as he seeks to paint a portrait of Paul with all of his passion, perspicacity, and peculiarity! The reader must keep in mind that Wright’s chronology of Paul’s life is only one possible reconstruction, but the overall structure of the book provides a helpful overview of Paul’s missionary endeavors, his theological commitments, and his deep personal struggles. Rather than attempt to summarize all of Wright’s arguments and insights,  I simply offer the following excerpts for prayerful reflection.


God’s New Creation

[For Paul’s life and mission,] Jesus was the starting point. And the goal. The goal? Yes, because Paul never wavered in his sense that Jesus would reappear. He would “descend from heaven,” though to get the flavor of that we have to remind ourselves that “heaven” is not “up in the sky,” but is rather God’s dimension of present reality. Jesus would come from heaven to earth not – as in much popular fantasy – in order to scoop up his people and take them back to “heaven,” but in order to complete the already inaugurated task of colonizing “earth,” the human sphere, with the life of “heaven,” God’s sphere. God’s plan had always been to unite all things in heaven and on earth in Jesus, which meant, from the Jewish point of view, that Jesus was the ultimate Temple, the heaven-and-earth place. This, already accomplished in his person, was now being implemented through his Spirit. Paul always believed that God’s new creation was coming, perhaps soon. By the time of his later letters he realized that, contrary to his earlier guess, he might himself die before it happened. But that the present corrupt and decaying world would one day be rescued from this state of slavery and death and emerge into new life under the glorious rule of God’s people, God’s new humanity – this he never doubted.

We Are God’s Poems

God has made us what we are; or, to bring out a different, but equally valid flavor of the Greek, we are God’s poetry, God’s artwork. God has accomplished, and will accomplish, the entire new creation in the Messiah and by the Spirit. When someone believes the gospel and discovers its life-transforming power, that person becomes a small but significant working model of that new creation. The point of being human, after all, was never simply to be a passive inhabitant of God’s world. As far as Paul was concerned, the point of being human was to be an image-bearer, to reflect God’s wisdom and order into the world and to reflect the praises of creation back to God. Humans were therefore made to stand at the threshold of heaven and earth – like an “image” in a temple, no less – and to be the conduit through which God’s life would come to earth and earth’s praises would rise to God. Here, then, is the point of Paul’s vision of human rescue and renewal (“salvation,” in traditional language): those who are grasped by grace in the gospel and who bear witness to that in their loyal belief in the One God, focused on Jesus, are not merely beneficiaries, recipients of God’s mercy; they are also agents. They are poems in which God is addressing his world, and, as poems are designed to do, they break open existing ways of looking at things and spark the mind to imagine a different way of being human.

Unity In Diversity

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And they all spoke in other languages. – Acts 2

lucy-player-buttonIn the year 1951, a new word was officially added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. This one word has come to define the period of rapid change that we have experienced for the past half century. This one word describes the growing interaction and integration among peoples, companies, and governments around the world. This one word helps us understand the explosive growth of big-tech companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook. And this one word, you might have guessed, is the word globalization. If you think about it, in the twenty-first century, more than any preceding century, we have come to realize that we are living in a global society, which wasn’t even possible just a generation or two ago.

Now, about this word globalization. On the one hand, it’s a word that speaks to our potential for unity. We are interconnected and interdependent in unprecedented ways. And yet, on the other hand, globalization is a word that underscores our differences. Like never before, we are aware of the profound cultural, economic, and political diversity that comprises our world. Whether we like it or not, we live the age of globalization. We live in a world with over seven billion people, over two hundred countries, and over seven thousand languages.

And so, it might be hard for us to back in time and to imagine the world described in Genesis, chapter 11, a world in which there was one people and one language. Yet that is where our story begins this morning. God’s ancient people living in an ancient land. Speaking one language, seeking one goal, serving one God. At face value, it all sounds great. And yet, the apparent unity of God’s people is actually working against them and what follows is the famous story of the Tower of Babel. The people conspire to build a city, to erect a vast tower, to make a name for themselves, lest they be scattered over the face of the earth. The problem is that at the very beginning of creation humanity was blessed and commissioned by God to be fruitful and multiply and to fill the earth. And so, by building this tower and staying in one place, God’s people are not just being arrogance, they are actually abdicating the calling and purpose that God had entrusted to them. In response to their unwillingness to fulfill their purpose, God confuses their language and scattered the people throughout the world. You might think of Genesis 11 as the beginning of globalization. Divinely induced diversity. The one becomes many.

Now fast forward to the Book of Acts. The disciples have been told by Jesus to wait in Jerusalem until they are clothed with power from on high.  And so, the great Jewish festival of Pentecost arrives, and the disciples are all in one place, waiting and praying, and waiting and praying. Suddenly, there is the sound of mighty rushing wind. Tongues of fire begin floating over of the heads of the disciples. And they begin to speak in other languages, but each one hears them speaking in their own language. Now some commentators have referred to the events on the day of Pentecost as the reversal of the events at the Tower of Babel. But that’s not quite right. Because notice that what happens on the day of Pentecost is not the movement from many languages back to one. But rather, the miracle of Pentecost was that even in the midst of diversity, even in the midst of the multitude of languages and cultures, there was understanding and comprehension. In other words, the Parthians keep on being Parthians. The Elamites keep on being Elamites. The Mesopotamians, the Cappadocians, the Pamphylians, the Romans – they all remain who they are. They retain their language, their culture, and their identity. Yet now they are one in the Spirit.

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Living Resurrection: WEEK SIX

A New Creation

Click here to read Revelation 21


As we come to the end of our six week study on Living Resurrection Life, our final topic for reflection is the promise of New Creation. Our ultimate hope is not only to enjoy heaven after we die, but to participate in God’s new and restored creation – to enter God’s new world, which is no longer subject to the powers of death and decay, but is filled with glory of God as the waters cover the sea. Please take a moment to watch the following video from N.T. Wright, which provides an extremely helpful overview of all that we have discussed throughout this Easter season.

May They Be ONE

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lucy-player-buttonOn the night before Jesus was crucified, he prayed for his disciples. Now he prayed for many things, but one of the most specific things Jesus prayed for was unity. “Father, may they, my disciples, be one, just as you and I are one! And then after the resurrection of Jesus, in the earliest days of the church, the great apostolic leaders, Paul, Peter, and James all exhorted their congregations to be of one mind and one heart and one purpose. In the book of Revelation, the apostle John is given a vision of the throne room of God and he sees a vast multitude from every tribe, language, people, and nation worshipping and praising God in unity and harmony with one another. So, what we discover in the New Testament is a chorus of voices calling for God’s people to be united in ONE heart, ONE mind, and ONE purpose. This is the call that has been upon the church from the very beginning.

And yet, for nearly two thousand years, the church has struggled to answer this call. In fact, I think it is fair to say that we have failed rather miserably. The most recent data indicates that there are an estimated 43,000 thousand Christian denominations throughout the world. To put that in perspective, there are only 206 sovereign nations in the world today, which means that for everyonecountry, there are approximately 209 Christian denominations. Something is not right with this picture.

So, what have what done about this problem? Well, what we have done is what the church has done since the Acts of Apostles, we formed a committee! Or several committees to be exact. The Episcopal Church has the Office of Ecumenical and Inter-religious Relations. The Methodist Church has a General Commission on Christian Unity and Inter-religious Concerns. The Roman Catholic church has the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. And the list goes on!

These various committees, commissions, and councils have done important work over the past several decades. However, over the past 100 years…the number of Christian denominations has exploded from around 1,600 to almost 20,000 in 1970 to 43,000 today. It seems pretty clear that we are moving in the wrong direction. So, what are we missing? Why is it so difficult to move toward ONENESS as the body of Christ?

I think, first and foremost, we have lost sight of the fact that the UNITY Jesus prayed for is forged in the context of relationships. We can get lost in the numbers. 43,000 denominations! We ask ourselves, “How do we even begin to tackle a problem of such magnitude?” We begin by cultivating and nurturing the bonds of love and affection that are meant to characterize our relationships as brothers and sisters in Christ.

You see, Jesus didn’t come to start a committee. He didn’t say to the disciples, “If you all vote exactly the same way, then you will be one.” He didn’t exhort his disciples to agree about every theological, philosophical, and political precept. What he said was, “A new commandment I give to you, love one another as I have loved you!” Serve one another. Wash each other’s feet. Lay down your lives for one another. My friends, Jesus’s prayer for unity is a prayer that we might love one another. It is a prayer that the same bond of love and affection that exists between Jesus and his Father might also exist between each one of us.

We often witness this unity in the unlikely of places. I have had the privilege of serving twice as deputy to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Now, you might think of the General Convention as the mother ship of all committees. Between the bishops and the clergy and lay deputies, there are over 1,000 voting members of convention. And thousands more attend the convention as guests and visitors. It’s hard to overstate the incredible diversity represented by these thousands of people. Every theological and political position is present in some form or fashion. But in the midst of that diversity, I witnessed moments of profound Christian unity. And I witnessed those moments in the context of relationships. People praying together. People sharing meals together. People wrestling with important issues, but doing so with great love and compassion and respect for one another. The unity of the Spirit can’t be legislated. It can’t be mandated by a committee, a commission, or a council. It has to be forged in the context of the hard work of relationships.

UNITY requires effort. Think of some of the most intimate relationships in your life. Relationships with your spouse, a child, a parent, a close friend. These intimate relationships can be hard. But Jesus didn’t pray, “Father, may they be one…unless it gets too hard and then it’s okay for them to walk away! But that’s exactly what we do!  We live in a culture of disposability. The prevailing mindset used to be that, “If something is broken, you fix it!” Today, the prevailing mindset is that, “if something is broken, you replace it!” This mindset of disposability is affecting our relationships as well.

But, you know, sometimes there are things worth rebuilding and restoring. When I was a young boy, I spent my summers on the shores of Lake Ontario in upstate New York. And my grandfather had an old dock. Every year, the dock would continue to deteriorate and eventually it became unsafe for us to use. Many of us kids were encouraging my grandfather to simply buy a new dock. Most of the other cottages along the lakeshore had new state-of-the-art docks with ladders and diving boards and slides. But my grandfather, being a rather frugal man, decided to rebuild and restore the old dock – and guess who got to help!? First, we disassembled the dock and salvaged all the parts that could be reused. And then we took a trip to the lumber yard to purchase the necessary materials to rebuild the dock. To this day, I still vividly remember spending the next two weeks of vacation rebuilding the old dock under the direction of my grandfather and guess what? – It’s still there! There are things in life that are worth rebuilding. There are things in life that are worth restoring. And our relationships with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ should be at the top of that life.

UNITY IS FORGED IN THE CONTEXT OF RELATIONSHIPS

UNITY REQUIRES EFFORT

The work of UNITY is countercultural. It is not something that comes naturally to us.  The reality is that the difficult work of forging unity in the context of relationships often takes us out of our comfort zones. The first sermon I ever heard by our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, was a sermon entitled “Crazy Christians.” He said, “We need some Christians who are just as crazy as Jesus. Crazy enough to love like Jesus, to forgive like Jesus, to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God — like Jesus.” I believe the work of forging Christian unity among the people of God requires a similar degree of craziness. We need Christians crazy enough to believe that God really is working through the messiness of our divisions to build his Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. We need Christians who are crazy enough to look at the divided and polarized world in which we live and proclaim boldly, there is ONE Lord, ONE faith, ONE baptism, ONE God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. My friends, Jesus prayed that we might be one. And God’s answer to that prayer begins with us!