Sunday, April 28, 2019

Change is a holy word (A sermon from Acts 5:27-32)

We should never assume that other Christians or even non-Christians familiar with Christianity have the same ideas or mean the same thing when we talk about salvation. I think most Christians, regardless of their background, tend to think of salvation as being delivered or rescued from some great peril. Now granted, Christians may have very different ideas about what that peril is we need to be rescued from, but most conceive of salvation in terms of rescue or deliverance. I think of the old hymn, “Rescue the perishing” as capturing for many the main stay of God’s salvation. Rescue from peril is certainly one image of salvation in our sacred scriptures, but only one. There are many images of salvation in our Bible. Other images include return from exile, making whole that which is broken, reconciling the alienated and estranged, being enlightened out of spiritual and moral blindness, experiencing spiritual life in place of death, experiencing liberation from oppression and bondage, moving from hostility and enmity to a state of peace, turning from the little self to the Christ self, moving from a realm of injustice to participation in God’s just world, and many other less used images. All of these images are images of God’s salvation. The image that Luke is fond of is the one that involves turning around and changing directions in life. Luke calls this repentance. Others call it conversion.

It’s interesting how Luke makes use of this image in the context of the early preaching of the apostles to their fellow Jews. We have a fairly full summary of that message in Acts 2. On the Jewish holy day of Pentecost Peter speaks to many of his fellow Jews who had come to Jerusalem to observe that holy festival. Peter says, (I am just going to hit the main points here): You that are Israelites, listen . . . Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to by God by deeds of power . . . that God did through him (At this stage Jesus was understood to be God’s mediator to the Jewish people for revealing God’s will) this man . . . you crucified and killed. According to the first preaching as understood by Luke, God didn’t send Jesus to be killed. God sent Jesus to show us how to live in God’s kingdom and to bring God’s kingdom to earth. But the powers that be took offense at Jesus and killed him. However, when speaking to his fellow Jews on the Day of Pentecost Peter doesn’t say the powers that be killed Jesus. He says, “you killed him” even though many who heard Peter speak were not even in Jerusalem when Jesus was killed. As my granddaughters would say, “What’s up with that?” The apostles, according to Luke, were saying, “You may have known nothing about the execution of Jesus, but you were in on it.” So, how were they in on it? The same way we were.

Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, recited an early expression adopted by the church, when he wrote, “Jesus died for our sins according to the scriptures.” The best way to translate that is not, “Jesus died for our sins,” which gives the impression that Jesus had to die to take away our sins. The English preposition “for” is not the best way to translate the Greek preposition. The best way to translate it is either “on account of” or “because of.” Jesus died on account of our sins. In other words, our sins killed Jesus. When you consider how we use the English preposition “for,” we can say Jesus died for us, but not Jesus died for our sins. Jesus died for us, because he died revealing God’s will to us. He died serving as God’s mediator of God’s redemptive power. But he didn’t die for our sins. He died on account of our sins. God didn’t kill Jesus or send Jesus to die. We killed Jesus, that is, our sins killed Jesus. The old spiritual asks the question, “Were you there when they crucified our Lord?” The early followers of Jesus would say, “Yes. Spiritually we were all there.” We commit the same sins the powers that be committed in killing Jesus, so symbolically and spiritually we were participants in the rejection, suffering, and execution of Jesus.

If we are honest with ourselves, we know this is true. In many ways we are just as blind as they were. We sell out to greed and love of power the way many of the religious leaders did in Jesus’ day. We get jealous when someone else becomes more well-liked than we are. We become envious of others. We get angry when someone challenges our beliefs or our religious practices. We react when someone shakes things up and disturbs the status quo. And we really hate it when someone exposes all that. We commit the same sins as the ones who had Jesus killed, and in that way, sisters and brothers, representatively and spiritually we participated in the crucifixion of Jesus. So Peter says, and we can now include ourselves in Peter’s audience, “this Jesus you crucified and killed.” You could say that by continuing to commit the same sins, we continue to crucify Jesus.

But the story goes on, thank God. “You killed him, but God raised him up, having freed him from death.” God vindicated what Jesus lived for, what Jesus stood for, and what he died for, by raising him up. Then Peter says that “God made him (or appointed him) both Lord and Messiah.” Then Peter calls for repentance. Repentance is both an act and a process of life change. There are at least two important parts to both the act of repentance and the process of repentance.

First, it is important that we admit and own our participation in the sins that crucified Jesus. We need to personally acknowledge are own misguided and misdirected ways of thinking and acting that have been hurtful and offensive to other persons. We need to own up to our failures at loving our neighbor as ourselves and the many times we failed to do for them as we would have them do for us. We need to realize that whenever we mistreat or hurt another person, we are mistreating and hurting God, because God lives in that person, whether the person knows that or not. And then, too, we need to acknowledge not only our personal offenses, but our participation in the injustices of our society. Even those of us who speak out against injustice and work for social justice in our society, need to realize that we, too, are entangled and complicit in unjust systems. We need to look at ourselves truthfully and honestly, and own our personal sins, as well as our collective participation in the injustices of society.

Now, the second part of this takes us takes us in a more positive direction: We must be serious about and faithful to walking in the way of Jesus. The Hebrew and Greek words that speak about repentance have to do with change. Repentance involves a change in how we think and how we live. This may or may not involve a change in belief. Usually, this does involve some change in what we believe, at least, I have certainly experienced it that way. But the primary change is in our attitudes and priorities, as well as our values and practices. This is reflected in the confession that the early followers of Jesus made at their baptism.

For the early followers of Jesus baptism was an important part of their initial act of repentance. At their baptism they confessed Jesus as their Lord. Now, this confession was much more than a confession of belief. Obviously, they did indeed believe that God had vindicated Jesus by raising him up, but when they confessed Jesus as Lord, they were primarily making a life commitment to follow Jesus. That’s why this confession was made at the time of their baptism. They were pledging their trust in and faithfulness to the way of Jesus. They were consciously entering into a new covenant based on love and forgiveness, and committing/entrusting themselves to a new way of life based on the life and teachings of Jesus. Clearly, they had to believe in what Jesus stood for and died for to make that kind of commitment. They believed that Jesus embodied the love and compassion and justice of God. So when these first disciples confessed Jesus as Lord at their baptism they were committing their lives to the things Jesus had committed his life to. They were not making a doctrinal confession. They were making a life commitment. They were committing themselves to a way of life pervaded by divine love, and their model for such a life was Jesus. This is why Christians before they were ever known as Christians, were known as followers of “the way” or people “who belonged to the way.”

When I believed that only Christians could know God, I thought one had to verbally confess and believe that Jesus is Lord in order to be saved. But I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and what I didn’t know is that it’s the way of Jesus that saves. It’s far more important to walk in the way of Jesus – the way of love, the way of grace and truth, the way of compassion and righteousness/justice (doing what is right) than believing stuff about Jesus.

Common sense should tell us this. Common sense should tell us what God cares most about. Think about it. Do you think God cares most about our believing stuff about Jesus, or our loving others the way Jesus loved – showing compassion, meeting needs, and working for a just world? Common sense should make the answer obvious? But you know, sisters and brothers, when we are blind common sense doesn’t make any sense. I speak from experience.

A number of more contemporary spiritual writers have described our personal conversion (or we could say the process of repentance) as a movement out of our “false self” into our “true self.” The true self is the Christ self. It’s both who we really are and who we are meant to be. That is paradoxical, and yet true. This is rooted in the teachings of Jesus and Paul. Jesus talked paradoxically about the need to lose our life in order to find our life in the context of telling us to deny our  self (our ego dominated self, our little self, our false self), take up our cross, and follow him. Paul talked about this symbolically in terms of being “in Adam” and being “in Christ,” and in the contrast he drew between “flesh” and “Spirit.” Repentance or conversion (or we could just say growth in the life of God or the spiritual life) is a journey out of the little self that is ego-centered, defensive, and self-occupied into the larger Christ self that is self-giving, compassionate, gracious and generous.  That’s the personal conversion we all need to engage in – a conversion from the little self to the Christ self. My sense of things today is that the most dynamic witness one can be for Christ in our cultural context is to live out this journey/this transformational process in a way that others can see, and in a way that invites others to participate. I don’t think there is a more impactful way in our context to be a witness to the healing and redemptive power of Christ/Love than living out this transformational journey out of the false self into the true self in a way that welcomes others to participate in it with us.

A country gentleman was known for his talent of carving beautiful images of dogs out of wood. When he was asked about the secret of his art, he explained, “I just take a block of wood and whittle off the parts that don’t look like a dog.” Repentance is about whittling away at the parts of us – attitudes, values, habits, responses, reactions, ways of relating, and so forth – that don’t look like Christ. The parts of us that don’t look like Christ we need to let fall away like shavings of wood, so that the Christ self can emerge. Authentic conversion/ repentance draws us into the art of soul-making. What Luke means by repentance is nothing less than the process that brings about the transformation of our souls.

And not just the transformation of our individual soul, but also the soul of our communities and societies that we are part of. Luke seems to be alluding to this when he mentions in our text “the repentance of Israel.” God is not only interested in our personal transformation into the Christ self, God wants to see whole communities and societies engaged in this process. It’s never just about me. It’s about us. And not just our little group of us. All of us. It’s about a world put right, which at first may feel like a world turned upside down. This is why we are taught to pray, “Our Father,” not “My father.” We pray “give us, forgive us, lead us” – not just “me.” God wants to redeem the world, and all the systems, institutions, and structures of the world. This is why it is important, I believe, to be part of a healthy faith community, because it’s never just about me, it’s about us. Unfortunately, too many faith communities are turned in on themselves. But a healthy faith community will emphasize that we all belong. And we have to learn to get along. And that’s why forgiveness is important. I haven’t said much about forgiveness today, but Luke mentions forgiveness alongside repentance.

One thing I do need to say about forgiveness that is very important but often lost today is that forgiveness of sins is not just about receiving forgiveness from God. Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness in the Gospels is very clear on this point. Our experience of forgiveness from God is inseparably connected to our giving forgiveness to others and receiving forgiveness from others. If we can’t forgive others and accept forgiveness from others, then we cannot experience forgiveness from God. That’s not because God withholds God’s forgiveness. Rather, we are simply incapable of receiving it, if we cannot forgive others or receive forgiveness from others. This is why we are taught to pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” If we can’t forgive, we can’t receive forgiveness, because our heart is not right. Forgiveness is a vital part of putting things right with others and putting our own heart right with God. It’s all about right relationships. When we make forgiveness something else, when we make it juridical, rather than relational, when we confine it to God’s forgiveness, so we can feel like we are forgiven while we go hating others and being mean to others, then we have become legalistic and self-righteous, and our religion actually does us more harm than good.

So here’s the two critical questions I need to consider, and hopefully you will consider too: One, Can I honestly see where I need to change to be more compassionate toward others and passionate about what is right and good for all people? And two, Am I willing to live into this change, to do what is necessary to make this change – this change from the ego self to the Christ self, from focus on self to a focus on what is good for all?

Our good God, help us to look honestly at our lives – our attitudes, our values, our priorities, our common reactions to people, how we treat others – and see where we need to change. Help us know what we need to let fall away, what we need to lose and die to, so that the love of Christ can fill us and flow through us. Help us to see too, that it is never just about me or my group, it’s about justice for all your children. Give us a larger vision and a deeper compassion that extends beyond me and mine. And may we all realize that authentic change, real conversion is a cooperative venture that requires our time and commitment.  

Sunday, April 21, 2019

What about the empty tomb? (Luke 24:1-12; 1 Cor. 15:19-28)

The text we read together in Luke 24 is Luke’s empty tomb story. When it comes to the appearance stories, all the Gospels have their own unique stories to tell, with the exception of Mark, who does not include an appearance story. But all four Gospels have some version of the empty tomb story. Each story is unique and contains variations from the others (there are differences in the details) but the main point, of course, is the main point of all the stories. The tomb is empty, and Jesus is alive. The question this raises for me is this: Why was the story of the empty tomb considered to be of such importance that each of our canonical Gospels contain a version of it?   

It’s not, in my estimation, intended to teach that the resurrection of Jesus has to be physical? In 1 Cor. 15, where Paul is responding to questions about the resurrection raised by the Corinthians, Paul struggles to try to explain what the resurrection involves in terms of the body. He says, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the future realm of God.” He says there is a “physical body,” and a “spiritual body.” He says “it is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” He links our resurrection to Jesus. In resurrection, like Jesus, we are given a spiritual body. What does that mean? Who knows? But it is certainly different than a physical body. If the physical body of the crucified Jesus had remained in the tomb to decay as human bodies decay, that would in no sense disprove resurrection, according to Paul anyway. Because Paul says that in resurrection we are given a spiritual body, not a physical body.

When the spirit or soul departs from the body, the body becomes a shell of our former self. Right? We trust that we will be given a new body – Paul’s says it’s a “spiritual” body, not a physical one. So, if we can trust Paul on this, then the significance of the empty tomb has nothing to do with the kind of body we have in a resurrected state of existence. So why, then, do all the canonical Gospels have an empty tomb story, where the physical body of Jesus is no more?

Personally, I think there are two main two reasons for the empty tomb story. First, the story is important for its dramatic impact in spotlighting God’s vindication of Jesus. Consider the version of the story we read in Luke. The women, grieving the death of Jesus, no doubt dismayed and disheartened, bring spices to the tomb to give Jesus a proper burial. But there is no body to anoint. So, now add to their grief, perplexity and confusion. Then “suddenly” two men in “dazzling” apparel appear. Feel the drama. So now, add to the grief and perplexity fear. “The women were terrified,” says Luke. More drama. We just about have as much drama here as we have in our youth group. Well, maybe not. The two messengers speak to the grief and confusion and fear when they say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” This is high drama highlighting God’s vindication of Jesus.

A story that Tony Campolo shares demonstrates how this drama works in a contemporary setting. Campolo at the time, and may still be, a member of a predominantly African American congregation in West Philadelphia. At the time he said he loved preaching in his church because of the response he gets. He says they let you know how you’re doing. One time he was preaching and knew he was in trouble when a woman raised her hand and yelled, “Help him, Jesus! Help him, Jesus.” Another time, however, he knew he was connecting. It was a Good Friday service and he was one of several preachers that day. He was getting “Amens” and “Keep going, brother, keep going.” I wouldn’t mind hearing that ever now and then. After his sermon he sat down next to his pastor, who was also his senior and who was to follow him in the rotation.  He looked at Campolo with a smile and said, “You did all right! Campolo whispered, “Pastor, are you going to be able to top that?” The preacher smiled and said, “Son, just sit back, cause the old man is going to do you in.” And he did.

The preacher would say, “It was Friday and Mary was cryin’ her eyes out. The disciples were runnin’ in every direction, like sheep without a shepherd. But that was Friday, and they didn’t know that Sunday’s comin’!” “It was Friday. The cynics were lookin’ at the world and sayin’, “As things have been so they shall be. You can’t change anything in this world; you can’t change anything.’  But those cynics didn’t know that it was only Friday. Sunday’s comin’! “It was Friday. And on Friday, those forces that oppress the poor and cause people to suffer were in control. Pilate thought he had washed his hands of a lot of trouble. The Pharisees were struttin’ around, thinking they were back in charge of things. But they didn’t know – they didn’t know it was only Friday, and Sunday’s comin’!

The old preacher did him in – with one line. Back and forth he went. It’s Friday, but Sunday’s comin’ – It’s Friday, but Sunday’s comin’ – until he came to the end of his message. The preacher proclaimed: “It’s Friday!” Then he paused and the whole congregation shouted in joy, “But Sunday’s comin,’” and the congregation erupted in claps and shouts of jubilation. That’s dramatic impact. The empty tomb story is about dramatic impact highlighting God’s vindication of Jesus.  

We live in a world full of Friday experiences. There are multiple and sometime massive injustices and inequities. We live in a world of holocausts and genocides.
We live in a world of hurricanes and floods. We live in a world of horrific natural disasters and diseases that take their toll on our families and our lives. We live in a Friday world, but . . . . Sunday’s comin’!

The messengers at the tomb tell us to remember that Jesus told us all this. He told us that he would suffer, that he would be rejected and crucified. But he also told us that would not be the end. The message of the empty tomb and the message of the messengers at the empty tomb is that Jesus is not here. Jesus is not confined to this little place in time, rendered inoperative and powerless. You can’t hold down, you can’t destroy the power of love and compassion present in Jesus. You can’t kill the passion for justice that got Jesus killed.

C.S Lewis, in one of his books calls the world a “bent planet.” It’s true. But there is a divine conspiracy of love afoot that intends to set things right. In the midst of all the alienation, contempt, evil, and hostility, there is a conspiracy of forgiveness, compassion, reconciliation, and hope going on. Even though the world said, “No” – No to the love and inclusion and righteousness of Jesus. God said, “Yes,” and “No” to the injustice and violence of the world. God said “Yes” to everything Jesus stood for and lived for and died for. That is the drama, that is the power, that is the message of the empty tomb.  

Now, in my thinking at least, there is a second important point the story of the empty tomb makes. It serves to show the connection between the human being, the man, Jesus of Nazareth and the risen, exalted, Christ. What began in the man, Jesus – the love and compassion and justice of God that became incarnate in the man, Jesus is magnified on a much larger, greater, expansive, and inclusive scale through the cosmic, universal Christ. To bring that down to earth in more practical terms what that means is that Love (with a capital L) never gives up. What God, who is Love, wants to do is bring everything and everyone together in unity, in oneness. God wants to make the affirmation, “We all belong,” an actual, practical reality. In Philippians Paul describes this as every knee bowing and tongue confessing that Jesus is Lord, which implies that everyone will come to live in the humble, self-giving way of Jesus. Confession of Jesus as Lord is a confession of allegiance to the way of Jesus. In Ephesians Paul says that God’s plan is in the fullness of time to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth. In Colossians Paul says that through Christ God intends to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven. Here in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul says that all will be “made alive” in Christ and everything will be subjected to God by means of the Christ so that in that fullness of time “God may be all in all.” Everything unified, everyone and everything brought together, reconciled, cooperating with God. That’s one amazing cosmic plan that the cosmic Christ is working to bring to completion.  

Will it ever be realized? Will it ever be fulfilled? Is Paul right to believe this? I don’t know. Who can say? For that plan to be realized in the human sphere means that everyone will eventually have to come to repentance and willfully give up their little selves in order to be changed into their true self, the image of Christ. Because no one is subjected to God’s will unwillingly. No one is redeemed and transformed who does not want to be redeemed and transformed. No one is changed without great personal investment in the process that brings about transformation. God doesn’t zap people, and suddenly they become more loving and compassionate and caring people. If God could do that don’t you think God would? That’s now how life works folks. Salvation doesn’t work that way. Personal salvation is a process that requires our honest struggle with our ego, with change, and with faithfulness to the way of Jesus, the way of compassion and righteousness. Will everyone eventually be willing to engage in that process, will everyone eventually invest in this struggle and learn compassion and righteousness? I am hopeful, but I honestly don’t know. What about people who are hardened by evil? What about someone like Hitler who was responsible for the suffering and deaths of millions of people? I can image someone like Hitler needing to invest thousands of years, perhaps millions of years getting to know all the people his acts killed and caused immense suffering. Is that possible? I don’t know. But what I believe is that God’s vindication of Jesus on Easter morning means that nothing can sever anyone from God’s love which has been made known to us in Christ Jesus. The door is only locked from the inside. God never gives up on anyone.

Some years ago, when I still held to an exclusive version of the Christian faith and I was arrogant enough to think I had the answers and knew who was in and who was out of God’s favor, I was asked by a funeral director to do a funeral service for a man who had no religious affiliation. The man had lived a self-absorbed, wretched kind of life. Only a handful of people were present for the brief service. After the service, the man’s sister asked me a piercing question. She confronted me with this question: Could you not give my brother any hope?

In the Lord of the Rings, Gollum, you will remember, is a scheming, pitiful, deformed little creature obsessed with possessing the ring. He wasn’t always like that, of course. He thought he could possess the ring, but the ring possessed him and led to him regressing into the pitiful little creature he was. Still, he wants the ring back. Gollum has learned nothing it seems. He is consumed with repossessing the ring even though the ring has and continues to diminish and destroy him. Nothing else matters. Sam and Frodo find themselves traveling in circles lost in the Misty Mountains as they make their way to the Mountain of Doom where Frodo intends on throwing the ring into the fire, which is the only way to destroy it. Here they encounter Gollum, who agrees to help them. He knows the way out. All the while Gollum is helping them he is secretly plotting, and Frodo knows this, to steal the ring back. Gollum could well represent the person you most despise, the person you most dislike. Sam despises Gollum and is harsh and demeaning towards him. Finally Frodo confronts Sam. “Why do you do that—call him names and run him down all the time?” Sam responds, “Because that’s what he is, Mr. Frodo. There’s naught left in him but lies and deceit. It’s the ring he wants. It’s all he cares about.” Gollum is the ultimate narcissist. Looking sadly at Gollum, Frodo says to Sam, “You have no idea what it did to him. I have to help him, Sam.” Sam asks, “Why?” Frodo replies, “Because I have to believe he can come back.” Frodo, who finds himself slipping away under the influence of the ring, understands better than Sam the weakness of the human condition. Frodo holds on to hope. I have to believe he can come back, that he can be saved, that he can change.

I wish I could go back and give the man’s sister who I failed miserably some hope. Because now I know there is always hope. There is always hope because Divine Love overcomes all the forces of death. It’s never too late from God’s side. Is it ever too late from the human side? That I don’t know. But if Paul was bold enough to trust that somehow and someway every person and every reality in this universe will be ultimately brought together in Christ, so that God may be all in all, maybe I can be that bold too.

On Easter morning God said “Yes” to Jesus’s passion for what is right and his compassion for all people, even though the world said, “No.” The way of Jesus – the way of compassion and righteousness that Jesus incarnated – is the way of salvation, and God keeps wooing and inviting us to pursue the way of compassion and righteousness of Jesus. God keeps trying to draw us into God’s love, and God will never give up. That’s what I believe, sisters and brothers, the empty tomb is about.

Today, O God, on this Easter Sunday, we give you thanks, because the forces of death will not prevail. You raised Jesus, up. Your love never ends. Hallelujah. Amen.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Why Jesus came (A sermon from Luke’s theology of the Passion of Christ)

Maybe you have heard it said by preachers and other Christians, “Jesus came to die.” That is not true, sisters and brothers. He did not come to die, according to the Gospel of Luke. He did indeed die. He was put to death by the powers that be and the early followers of Jesus did, indeed, find redemptive significance and power in his death. So much so that the saying, “Jesus died on account of our sins” was often cited in early Christian litanies. But that is not why Jesus came. Jesus’ purpose was not to die. His purpose was to live and to call others to live as he lived.

Luke sets forth Jesus’ agenda (his purpose and mission) at the beginning of his story about Jesus. It did not include death. The setting is Jesus’ hometown in Nazareth. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah and then identifies himself as the servant of God sent to fulfill that agenda. Most of you know this well, because I so often reference it. Jesus understood his calling to be one of bringing good news to the poor, setting captives free, giving sight to the blind, liberating the oppressed, and proclaiming God’s gracious welcome to all. According to Luke, this is what Jesus was about. This is why he came.

Now, in fulfilling that mission, Jesus would die. And the way the Gospel writers tell the story, Jesus knew he was going to die. I suspect it didn’t take Jesus very long into his work to figure this out. The story in Luke 4 set in Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, ends with the people wanting to throw Jesus off a cliff. Jesus so upset the power systems and so challenged the conventional wisdom of his day that it didn’t long for the powers that be to start plotting how they might get rid of him

When Jesus leads a peace march into Jerusalem, and stages a small protest in the Temple, he seals his fate. As a prelude to his death he makes arrangements to celebrate the Passover with his disciples and share a final meal with them. He says to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat the Passover with you before I suffer.” In Luke’s sequence, he breaks the bread, and in anticipation of his own broken body says, “This is my body, which is given for you.” His body is given for them in the sense that he gave his life in pursuit of making known God’s kingdom of love and righteousness. Then they eat the Passover meal, and “after supper” says Luke, he passes the cup and says, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” According to Luke, and the other Gospel writers as well (this is not unique to Luke) Jesus interprets his death as the seal of a new covenant he enters into with his disciples as representatives of the covenant people of God. This new covenant, according to the Gospels, is inaugurated through his life and sealed by his death. In their interpretation of Jesus’ death, Jesus does not die as a sin offering. The Passover lamb was not a sin offering. The Passover commemorated Israel’s covenant relationship with God, and the Passover lamb served as a seal of that covenant. It was about eating lamb, and sharing a table of communion and fellowship. The sacrificial lamb was an offering of thanksgiving. It commemorated liberation from bondage. It was not about atonement from sin.

According to Luke, and the other Gospels, Jesus died a sacrificial death because he lived a sacrificial life. The major point Luke makes in his crucifixion story is that Jesus, who called disciples to a new and better way, was faithful even unto death. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t say, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” as he does in Mark’s Gospel, which Matthew’s Gospel follows. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus says confidently and boldly as he dies, “Into your hands, Father, I commend my spirit.” He dies as a faithful martyr in the service of God. Jesus was called out by God to make known God’s will for the world, and he does that through his work of preaching and teaching the kingdom of God, through his table fellowship with all manner of people, his practice of righteousness or justice, his healing the sick, lifting up the poor, giving sight and insight to the blind, and liberating the oppressed. In the process of doing this good work he upset and shook to the core the powers that be, so they killed him, which is what the powers in control do to those who shake things up.  

The new covenant Jesus makes with his covenant people centers on forgiveness and what James, in his letter, calls the “the law of liberty” – that is the law of love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus interprets his death as the seal of this covenant. There is no sense in Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’ death where Jesus sees his death as a substitution. He does, however, call his disciples to participation in living out this new covenant, where he puts the emphasis on forgiveness and love of neighbor.

Forgiveness is a theme that Luke highlights in both his Gospel and in the book of Acts. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus says from the cross, regarding his tormentors, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Forgiveness is what makes possible new beginnings in relationships that have been torn apart and severed. Forgiveness is what makes a new covenant relationship possible. We see this with Jesus and his disciples. All the disciples flee in fear on the night of his arrest, leaving him to face the suffering and humiliation of a Roman execution alone. But on Easter Sunday when Jesus appears to them, there is no sense of rejection or retribution, just forgiveness and grace. And the charge or commission he gives to his disciples in Luke’s version is: Go tell others about the forgiveness of God and invite them to turn from a life of hate and vengeance to a life of grace and forgiveness. That was the message they were to take to the world. Without forgiveness there is no hope for humanity. Nelson Mandela who I talked about last week understood that as well as anyone.

Sometimes forgiveness is necessary simply to be at peace within oneself and with others. Jean Vanier, the author of “Becoming Human” and founder of the L’Arche’ communities, wrote about being in Rwanda shortly after the horrendous genocide  that occurred there. A young woman came up to him and told him that seventy-five members of her family had been assassinated. I can’t imagine, and don’t even want to imagine what that would be like? I’m not sure I could ever recover from something like that. She said, “I have so much anger and hate within me and I don’t know what to do with it. Everybody is talking about reconciliation, but nobody has asked any forgiveness. I just don’t know what to do with the hate that is within me.” What do you say to a young girl who finds herself all alone because all her family has been killed? She was caught up in a world of great bitterness and depression. Vanier told her that the first step towards forgiveness is saying, ‘no vengeance’? He asked her: “Do you want to kill those who killed members of your family?” She responded: “No, there is too much death.” Vanier said, “Well, that is the first step in the process of forgiveness.” I can’t imagine having to struggle with the demons that young lady had to contend with. But she decided “no vengeance” and she took the first step toward forgiveness and finding peace. She took the first toward a new relationship with others, with God, and with herself.

In Luke, the redemptive significance of Jesus’ death – what Paul calls the power of God unto salvation – is not through any kind of substitution. Jesus is not dying in the place of anyone. It’s through participation in the death of Jesus, it’s through participation in the forgiveness of God and love of God that heals and transforms. Jesus even calls his disciples to participate with him in his death. As they make their way to Jerusalem where Jesus will be killed, he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Jesus calls them to participate in his death, by denying their false selves, and by dying daily to self-serving, ego serving attitudes and actions.

Trina Paulus has written a kind of picture book for adults titled: hope for the flowers (a tale partly about life, partly about revolution, and lots of hope for adults and others – including caterpillars who can read). It tells the story of two caterpillars named Stripe and Yellow. In one stage of Stripe’s journey he sees a whole bunch of caterpillars climbing over each other to get to the top of the caterpillar pile. He’s not sure what is at the top, but it must be good, because all the other caterpillars are trying to get to the top of the pile. (Sounds familiar doesn’t it? That’s what the false self, the little self does. It is consumed with getting to the top, whatever that may be. The disciples struggled with this didn’t they? They never could accept what Jesus told them about his suffering and death, for they were too busy aspiring and arguing about who would be the greatest in God’s kingdom. Like so many Christians today they were clueless about the true nature of God’s kingdom.) So Stripe joins all the climbers trying to reach the top. He is determined and persistent. He has to climb on and over other caterpillars to get to the top, but he doesn’t allow himself to think about the plight of the caterpillars he has to knock down and step on to get to the top. (That sounds very familiar today too doesn’t it?) When he reaches the top, he looks around and he sees pillars everywhere. Paulus writes, “Stripe became angry as well as frustrated. “My pillar,” he moaned, “only one of thousands.” “Millions of caterpillars climbing nowhere!” Unfortunately, most of us have to come to that place where we realize that getting to the top gets us nowhere, before we will even consider dying to our false selves.

The caterpillar named Yellow is the first to become a butterfly. She stumbles across a caterpillar one day who is hanging upside down. He tells her that he has to do this to become a butterfly. She asks him, “How does one become a butterfly?” He says, “You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.” (That’s the issue isn’t it? Are we willing to let go of whatever it is that is preventing us from becoming butterflies? It may be our pride, or love of possessions, or prejudice, or anger, or fear, or need to control others. Are we willing to let go of that, whatever one thing or ten things that keep us crawling around as caterpillars?) Yellow says, “You mean die.” The other caterpillar says, “Yes and No. What looks like you will die, but what’s really you will still live. Life is changed, not taken away.” I love that line, “What looks like you will die, but what’s really you will still live.” The “really you” is where the Spirit dwells. The really you is your true self. What you really are, what we really are, is children of God. Once we realize this and trust this, then we want to become who we already are.  

So Jesus tells his disciples that if they are to continue as disciples they must be willing to deny the false self. They must be willing to die to the negative patterns and hurtful attitudes and actions of the little self. Then, he explains with a bit of irony, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” The current humanitarian crisis at our border and our country’s current response to that crisis, our country’s response to the suffering of these who are fleeing murder towns and places that are not safe to live, tells us how much fear and anger and resentment and pride and prejudice and a sense of entitlement pervades our country. Can we lose all of that, can we lose our fear and anger and need to scapegoat people, so that we can experience the compassion and grace and love of Christ, which is “really” life, which is true life indeed? What do we need to lose, what do we need to die to, in order to do God’s will in our lives, and become more compassionate and just like Christ? What do we need to lose in order to experience the forgiveness and compassion of Christ? Am I willing to lose, am I willing to die to my little self, so I can experience the Christ self?  

Our gracious God, as we share together in the partaking of the bread and cup, may we renew our commitment to die daily to anything that would prevent us or hinder us from walking in the way of Jesus, and from expressing in word and deed the compassion and righteousness of Christ. Amen.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Unlearning Righteousness (A sermon from Philippians (3:4b-14)

In order to understand this text, we have to understand the ancient, sacred meaning of two key words Paul uses in this text and frequently in his letters. The two words are faith and righteousness. I think many Christians misread Paul because we understand these words in light of modern English meanings, rather than the way they were intended. The ancient meaning of faith is not primarily the doctrine we believe about God or Jesus or anything else. The ancient Greek and Latin meaning includes belief, but it is more about trust and faithfulness than it is about belief. Belief, however, is the common modern English meaning.

In the NRSV there is a footnote that points out that the expression translated “faith in Christ” could equally be translated the “faith of Christ.” Faith could better be translated faithfulness. So when Paul uses that expression in connection with righteousness he is not talking about believing things about Christ. Rather, he is talking about a righteousness that comes by way of the faithfulness of Christ or by way of our faithfulness to Christ.    

The second term that Paul uses frequently that is just as misunderstood as the word faith is the word righteousness. In the Bible righteousness and justice are two interrelated, equivalent, and interchangeable terms. Both terms are about “doing what is right” – personally and privately, yes, but even more importantly, it’s about doing what is right socially, economically, politically, and corporately. To do righteousness or justice is about doing what is right for others and all society. It’s about living out the golden rule on all levels – in our families, in our church, in our community, and in the world. It’s about how we vote, as well as how we pray.  It’s not just about helping out in the soup kitchen and doing acts of kindness, as important as those things are. It’s also about speaking out and working for just laws, policies and practices in society that reflect the golden rule and love of neighbor as oneself. This understanding of righteousness was a major concern of the Hebrew prophets.

There are numerous texts I could reference, but one of my favorite is Isaiah 1, which is a prophetic indictment against the society of Israel. The prophet calls them a “sinful nation,” even though they were extremely religious. They faithfully observed all the religious sacrifices, holy days, and rituals, never missing a beat. They were in church on Sunday. Some however, perhaps many, were oppressing others. As a society they had failed to take care of the poor and vulnerable. Isaiah calls them out as a “sinful nation” and “a people laden with iniquity” (his words). He calls upon them to put away their evil and “seek justice/righteousness.” Then, in the next sentence he clarifies the kind of justice/righteousness he means: “rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Most people today when they hear the word “justice” they think of retributive justice as in our criminal justice system. While the word is used in the Bible of punishment for wrongdoing, that is NOT it’s primary meaning in scripture. Its primary meaning in scripture relates to social justice. This is how Jesus uses the term when he says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice/righteousness, for they will be filled.” When Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice/righteousness,” he is not talking about private morality or punishment. People are persecuted by those in power not for private beliefs or morality. People are persecuted when they challenge the injustices and unfairness of the system controlled by those in power. This is what Jesus is talking about when he says, “Strive for the kingdom of God and God’s justice/righteousness.” Jesus dreams of a day when all is made right, when every person has not just enough to survive, but enough to thrive – in all ways – economically, spiritually, physically, psychologically, and socially. This is the righteousness of Christ and this is the righteousness/justice emphasized in this passage and in a number of other places in Paul’s letters.

How did we ever miss this? Why were we not taught this? We were taught to keep our faith separate from our politics and economics and our social life as if our faith is just a personal matter. Faith is faithfulness to the way of Jesus. And the way of Jesus is about doing what is right personally, socially, economically, and politically. It’s about creating a world where everyone thrives. Of course, it’s easy for us to keep our faith separate from other things when we make our faith only about what we believe about God, the Bible, and the church. Next Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week, which is observed by pastors and churches that follow the lectionary as either Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday, so let’s be clear about this. Jesus wasn’t killed because he believed in God and did religious stuff. Jesus was killed because he preached and taught and lived the kingdom of God and God’s kind of justice/righteousness, which always challenges the religious, social, economical, and political structures of the world. The very term that Jesus chose to talk about doing God’s will was a subversive one, namely, the kingdom of God. There was only one kingdom in that world, and that was the kingdom of Caesar, the kingdom of Rome. Jesus said, No, God’s kingdom comes first, and it’s a kingdom to be structured according to the golden rule and love of neighbor. If we can accept both Jesus’ and Paul’s understanding and practice of righteousness, then we can no longer hide our own greed and acts of injustice behind the cloak of religious faith and zeal.

Paul shares a little bit of his story in this passage. He tells us that he had to “lose” his false righteousness in order to find the true righteousness or justice of Christ. The contrast Paul develops in this passage in not a contrast between Judaism and Christianity. The contrast Paul is talking about is between a false, self-righteousness pervaded by the ego and a true personal and social righteousness pervaded by compassion. Both kinds of righteousness, one evil, the other good, can be found in all religions – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or any other religion. The one essential, primary quality of authentic religion is that it teaches us how to love.

The Shawshank Redemption is at the top of my all-time great movie list. It is punctuated with some great lines and rich spiritual symbolism. The warden, Samuel Norton, is an icon of the kind of false righteousness I’m talking about. He stands out like an overblown character in a Flannery O’Connor short story.  When Andy and the other prisoners make their first appearance before the warden, immediately the warden’s self-righteousness dominates the scene. He has one of the prisoners beaten for asking, “When do we eat?” Holding a Bible, he tells the prisoners, “Trust in the Lord, but your ass is mine.”

The warden presents himself as a socially respectable, church-going, Bible-quoting Christian. In one scene the warden enters Andy’s cell and picks up Andy’s Bible. Andy and the warden quote Scripture verses back and forth. (The Bible can be used to prove anything. You can find scripture to prove your point.) The warden does not open the Bible, which is good because the hammer that Andy used to tunnel through the cell wall is hidden inside the Bible. When the warden hands the Bible back to Andy he says, “Salvation lies within.” Little did he know. Clearly, Andy and the warden have very different ideas about salvation. That whole interchange is a wonderful piece of irony. The final verse that the warden quotes is John 8:12, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Of course, the warden does not have the foggiest notion about what it means to actually follow Jesus, or what the light of Jesus actually represents. The warden walks in darkness and is about as spiritually and morally blind a person as you would ever find. But, he is a Christian – clearly a self-righteous one.

Paul thought he was righteous. We might think we are righteous, even while we support or participate in injustice. Today, where a Christian stands on immigration and on asylum seekers says a lot about the kind of righteousness that Christian has. Paul thought he was righteous. In his self-righteousness he persecuted others without any sense of personal guilt or regret or remorse, because he had convinced himself he was doing it for God. But then, one day, Paul met God. Paul had a life changing encounter with divine love. According to Luke’s account in the book of Acts, Paul was on a road headed to Damascus to persecute Christians there. According to Luke, Paul encountered Divine Love personified in the person of Jesus. Paul doesn’t give us any details. In Galatians he calls it a “revelation of grace.” Whatever form it took, Paul encountered the divine love of Christ and that experience changed everything for him. Paul says that for the sake of knowing the passion of Christ for a just world, for the sake of gaining the righteousness/justice of Christ he had to suffer the loss of all things, which he did, counting it “rubbish” so he could walk in the righteousness of Christ.

Paul says now, “I want to know Christ,” that is, I want to know the passion of Christ for doing what is right, for helping to make our world a just world. He says, “I want to know the power of his resurrection,” that is, I want to know the power of Christ’s love that is life-producing and life-generating and that will never die. Paul says, “I want to share in Christ’s suffering by becoming like him in death,” that is, I want to share Christ’s empathy and compassion for this suffering world. This is what the new Paul wants to be and do. But in order for that to happen he has to “lose” the old Paul. He has to “unlearn” the toxic, self-righteousness he had been taught and that ruled his life for so long. 

Sisters and brothers, what is it that we have to “unlearn” in order to know the passion of Christ for a just world and pursue fairness and equality and dignity for all? What do we have to “lose” in order to experience the life-generating, life-inspiring, life-enhancing never-ending love of Christ for the world? What do we need to “let go of” or “renounce” in order to share the empathy and compassion of Christ for all those who suffer?

Perhaps I need to “unlearn” patterns of grudge holding where I replay the painful hurts of my past and let them make me bitter and resentful. Several years ago I read a book on leadership that drew upon the leadership and experiences of Nelson Mandela. On the day Mandela turned 84 a worker at one of the insurance companies in Cape Town told about rushing out to buy a newspaper the day Mandela was inaugurated as State President. He said he was amazed to read that Mandela had invited one of his former prison guards to attend. He recalled how that day was the first day he had ever seriously thought about forgiveness. On that same day of Mandela’ inauguration the leader of the opposition party said this of Mandela: “I cannot understand how a man who personally suffered so much can champion forgiveness and reconciliation to the extent that he has done. Madiba does it with such ease that, in spite of my skepticism, I feel invited to try exploring the extraordinary power of forgiveness.”

Now, according to Bishop Tutu, who knew Mandela well, when Mandela first went to prison he was angry. When Mandella was arrested for speaking out against injustice he had been leading the armed wing of the African National congress. According to Bishop Tutu, he was belligerent and quick-tempered. But in prison, of all places, Mandela was able to “unlearn” patterns of bitterness and “lose” any need for revenge. He was even able to joke about it. In a ceremony to open a Childhood Development Centre Mandela said that people often ask him why he is so active – he was 83 at the time. He said it was because of his secretary: “She tells me: You have been loafing for 27 years. Now you must do some work.” Mandela was able to “unlearn” and “lose” his anger and need for retaliation. Maybe some of us need to “unlearn” that as well and cease replaying those grievance stories in our mind.

Maybe I need to lose my sense of entitlement so others may have what I have. That could be about adequate health coverage for all, equal opportunity for a college education, or any number of things that are about how a righteous society should be structured. It’s very simple really. It’s all about the golden rule that Jesus taught and lived: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When it comes to health care, that may mean “losing” my right, my sense of entitlement to the best coverage simply because I can afford it. In my judgment, if I am not willing to “unlearn” my sense of entitlement, if I am not willing for others to have what I have, then I don’t qualify as a follower of Jesus. It really is that simple.

So let me ask again. What do we need to “unlearn” in order to nurture a passion for the righteousness/justice of Christ? What do we need to “lose,” perhaps even count as “rubbish” as Paul did, in order to pray for, work for, and live for God’s righteousness, God’s good, just, and compassionate will being done on earth as it is in heaven?

Gracious God, help us to see that what you want from us is not specific beliefs, but a way of life – a life of faithfulness to the way of Jesus. Help us to see that what you want for us personally, you want for all the rest as well. Help us to “lose” and “unlearn” whatever we need to lose and unlearn in order to be more loving persons and to live for the just world you want for all of us. Amen.