Limitless Forgiveness

Gemäldegalerie / Public domain

Synopsis: Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness are our favorite ones to ignore. Jesus uses the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant to illustrate quite straightforwardly why we can’t afford to ignore it.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 18:21-35

Click here to listen to an audio recording of this sermon.

Peace be with you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

How many of us have to admit – if we were completely honest with ourselves – that we find it difficult to forgive? You are not alone. I have a confession to make. I found it difficult to forgive my father. I resented him for many years.

When I was 5 years old, my mother became seriously ill and spent months in isolation in the hospital several times over a few years. Needless to say, it was tough time for me. I had lost contact with my mother, and I needed a lot of emotional support.

That’s not what I got. I felt my father was emotionally distant and at times, unreasonably harsh. He had zero tolerance for me and my 2 brothers’ sibling rivalries and shenanigans, and each time he was too harsh was another strike against him in my mind and fuel for the growing bitterness in my heart.

So as much as we like to say, “Good for that unforgiving servant! He got what he deserved!” We can all relate to him. And Jesus said, “That is how my Father in heaven will treat every one of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” Every one of you – no exceptions. This teaching is one of our favorite ones to ignore, but Jesus makes it very clear that we can’t afford to ignore it.

Jesus told parables to illustrate his teachings – often in response to questions posed to him. That’s the case with this parable. Peter asked him a question about how many times he should forgive his brother who sins against him. He suggested seven times.

Peter probably felt he was being quite generous to forgive his brother seven times – and indeed he was. The religious leaders of his day suggested only 3 times – “3 strikes, you’re out!” But instead of praise, Peter hears Jesus say, “No … seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven).”

Now, people try to dive into the spiritual significance of seven-seven times or 490 times, but I think that just complicates Jesus’ simple point that there’s no limit to the number of times we should forgive.

That takes us to the parable. I think this parable answers the question, “What does God’s forgiveness look like in the context of human relationships?” Human relationships are not perfect, so both Judaism and Christianity emphasize mercy and compassion toward one another. If we want a good relationship with God, we must have good relationships with others, who are created in God’s image.

Jesus tells us that this servant owed the king a total of 10,000 talents. In order to fully get his point, we need to translate these figures into today’s terms. So, I did some research and some math.

Ready to do some math?

How much is 10,000 talents worth today? Well, the average hourly wage in Pennsylvania is $17 per hour. If you work 40 hours a week, that’s $680. If you work 52 weeks a year, that’s $35,360 annually. Multiply that by 20, and you have $707,200. That’s 20 years’ worth of wages. That’s about what one talent would be worth today. But this servant owed 10,000 talents, so that would be 7 billion 72 million dollars ($7, 072,000,000).

Knowing the ridiculous amount of money that was, you can imagine Jesus’ listeners snickering when he said, “and as he could not pay ….” Yeah right? He probably owed more than the Jewish national debt! That’s more money than his listeners could even imagine! There’s no way the servant would ever be able to earn such a huge sum even if he worked 24 hours a day 7 days a week until the day he died.

Why did Jesus use such a ridiculous sum of money? Jesus introduces the parable with these words:
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” In the parable, the king symbolizes God, and while we don’t like to think of ourselves as slaves these days, this situation was a common one that 2nd-century Jews could relate to.

God created us and gave us everything in His Creation to enjoy. God gave us our very existence and everything we need to live. If we were to put a price tag on that, what would it be?

If God called upon us to pay off the enormous debt we owe for our existence and sustenance, we’d be in big trouble. Jesus says, “His lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.” Again, this was a situation 2nd-century Jews could relate to. Slavery was commonly used to pay off debts.

What would we do in that situation? Probably do the same thing the servant did – fall on our knees and beg for mercy – and just as the king forgave the servant his huge debt, God forgives us our huge debt. Jesus’ use of a ridiculous sum of money effectively illustrates both our enormous debt to God and God’s limitless forgiveness.

Unfortunately, instead of being grateful for the abundant mercy shown to him, this servant goes out and finds another servant who owed him a hundred denarii. How much is that in today’s world? Well, by today’s numbers, the silver contained in a denarius is worth about $3.62. So, his fellow servant owed him about $362.

This amount of money is an infinitesimally small fraction of what he owed the king. I did the math. It’s literally .000005% or 5 millionths of a percent of what he owed the king.

His fellow servant did what he did when the king ordered him and his family to be sold: he got down on his knees and begged for mercy. But the servant couldn’t even forgive an infinitesimally small debt in comparison to the debt he was forgiven. It’s disgusts us, doesn’t it? Yes, but we are often just like him.

Jesus tells us that the king hears word of his servant’s lack of mercy toward his fellow servant, calls him to stand before him, and sentences him to be tortured until he pays off his entire debt. Since we know there’s no way he would ever be able to pay, that’s basically a life of unrelenting torment. 

Jesus came to correct people’s mistaken idea of God as wrathful and vengeful, so why does it seem as if he goes against his purpose here?

I don’t believe that God punishes us, but God did set-up Creation in such a way that we could learn from our interactions within it. He created the Law of Cause and Effect.

If you have children, then you know that if you keep rescuing your children from the consequences of their actions, they never learn. Your refusal to rescue them from the consequences of their actions is not an act of wrath or vengeance on your part, right? It’s an act of love. We call it “tough love.”

I think that’s what Jesus is implying here. The servant will have to face the consequences for his lack of mercy and compassion. This servant who in his bitterness inflicted suffering on his fellow servant to punish him for a small debt ended up punishing himself.

The main consequence of unforgiveness is separation from God. While we can’t literally be separate from God and continue to exist, we can shut off communion with God, and that’s what bitterness does. God can’t dwell in a heart where there is bitterness because God is love.

Every single human being – everything that lives – is part of God and is unconditionally loved by God. The life that animates every living thing comes from God and is exactly the same within each form just as light is exactly the same though it shines through many different lamps. The content is the same.

If we choose to not love any part of this unity in which we were created, we choose to banish ourselves – to put ourselves in prison – to torture ourselves.

We also separate ourselves from God because the present can’t dwell in the past. God is presence. God is here and now. To God, the only reality is the present moment. The past is only a memory of a former present moment, so God isn’t there.

We humans didn’t have a problem with forgiveness until our brains developed the ability to remember. If we didn’t have a memory, we wouldn’t remember the wrongs people have done.

Memory has served us humans well. It has been useful to us for learning, but when it comes to forgiveness it hasn’t been as useful. Unless – we remember mercy and compassion shown to us and extend it to others.

Unfortunately, our brain evolved with a negativity bias. We quickly forget the good things people do for us, but we never forget the bad things. The king’s servant quickly forgot the mercy and compassion shown to him the moment he laid his eyes on his fellow servant who owed him money.

At a certain point in my life, the iceberg of bitterness in my heart for my father started to melt. It began to melt when a therapist asked me, “So, what was good about your childhood? It wasn’t all bad, was it?”

At first, I was indignant. “Yes, it was!” But then, in spite of myself, I started remembering the good things that happened in my childhood and the good times I had with my father. She was right. My childhood wasn’t all that bad, and neither was my father.

What helped the most to dissolve the iceberg was to actually sit down and talk to my father about those memories and the bitterness I felt. After my father was diagnosed with cancer, I started taking him to doctor’s appointment. I had just taken him to get the test to find out the stage of his cancer, and we stopped for lunch.

I talked about how hard it was for me when mom was sick, and he talked about how hard it was for him when mom was sick – and that he made a lot of mistakes with us kids. I was able to understand that my father did the best he could during that time, and while he wasn’t the perfect dad, we all survived, and we all suffered emotional wounds, including my father.

Holding onto bitterness also keeps us stuck in disempowering roles. The more we see ourselves as a victim, the more we call to ourselves experiences to prove it. We don’t like being wrong. As long as I saw myself as a victim, I experienced victimization. Once I forgave my father, I stopped experiencing that.

Holding onto bitterness keeps the other stuck in the role of perpetrator. If we fail to forgive someone who lies to us, then we keep treating them like a liar. If we keep treating them like a liar, chances are they are going to continue lying – because that’s what liars do.

This might explain why we have problems with crime in American society. Our criminal justice system is very unforgiving. We label people “criminals,” treat them that way long after they’ve paid their debt to society, and then wonder why they keep committing crimes.

People resist forgiveness because they want to “hold the person accountable.” There’s no such thing as holding a person accountable. Accountability comes from inside the person who did wrong. They take responsibility. They hold themselves accountable. It doesn’t come from the outside.

What we call “holding the personal accountable” is often inflicting some form of punishment. Unfortunately, punishment doesn’t help people learn to hold themselves accountable.

It forces them to focus more on their own pain instead of the pain experienced by the person they harmed, which makes them more self-centered and less compassionate. It also doesn’t help them work through the emotions that led to the wrongdoing in the first place, so those emotions will probably cause the same behavior again.

But most of all, punishment takes away people’s internal locus of control because they expect authority figures to teach them what is right and wrong though punishment. Any behavior that doesn’t lead to punishment must be OK.

When we forgive, we release both ourselves and the other from the prison of the past so that we can create ourselves anew and become all God intended for us to become. There’s tremendous power in reconciled human relationships, and we could see it if we’d only give forgiveness a chance.

I’d like to conclude with a story from my Sower’s Seeds book. This one is called “Loving Your Enemies.”

Abraham Lincoln tried to love, and he left for all history a magnificent drama of reconciliation. When we was campaigning for the presidency, one of his arch-enemies was a man named Edwin McMasters Stanton.

For some reason, Stanton hated Lincoln. He used every ounce of his energy to degrade Lincoln in the eyes of the public. So deep-rooted was Stanton’s hate for Lincoln that he uttered unkind words about this physical appearance, and sought to embarrass him at every point with the bitterest diatribes. But in spite of this, Lincoln was elected the sixteenth president of the United States of America.

Then came the period when Lincoln had to select his cabinet, which would consist of the persons who would be his most intimate associates in implementing his programs. He started choosing men here and there for the various positions.

The day finally came for Lincoln to select the all-important post of Secretary of War. Can you imagine whom Lincoln chose to fill this post? None other than the man named Stanton. There was an immediate uproar in the president’s inner circle when the news began to spread. Advisor after advisor was heard saying, “Mr. President, you are making a mistake. Do you know this man Stanton? Are you familiar with all the ugly things he said about you? He is your enemy. He will seek to sabotage your programs. Have you thought this through Mr. President?”

Mr. Lincoln’s answer was terse and to the point: “Yes, I know Mr. Stanton. I am aware of the terrible things he has said about me. But after looking over the nation, I find he is the best man for the job.” So Stanton became Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War and rendered an invaluable service to his nation and his president.

Not many years later, Lincoln was assassinated. Many laudable things were said about him. But of all the great statements made about Abraham Lincoln, the words of Stanton remain among the greatest. Stanton referred to him as one of the greatest men who ever lived and said, “He now belongs to the ages.”

If Lincoln had hated Stanton, both men would have gone to their graves as bitter enemies. But through the power of love, Lincoln transformed an enemy into a friend. That is the power of redemptive love.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we acknowledge the tremendous debt we owe God for all that we have been given. When we have been wronged, help us to remember God’s limitless forgiveness of all our debts and our loving unity with all of Creation so that we can extend mercy to our debtors.  Amen.

Resources:

Markham, Laura. “Why Punishment Doesn’t Teach Your Child Accountability.” psychologytoday.com, 6 May 2014.

Pokorny, Honza. “He Forgave How Much?” Honza.ca 22 Jan. 2019.

The History of Currency: What is a Denarius Worth?smallvizviewpoints.com, 4 Apr. 2017.

Young, Brad H. The Parables (p. 119-129). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This Road to Emmaus

Fritz von Uhde / Public domain

Synopsis: When Jesus was crucified, his followers couldn’t imagine how such an awful event led to their salvation. What if this pandemic is another “awful event” that somehow becomes powerfully redemptive?

Scripture Reading: Luke 24: 13-35

Click here to watch a YouTube video of this sermon.

Why is life so hard?

That was probably the question on the minds of those two men walking that long seven-mile road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. We don’t know much about who they were except that the name of one of them was Cleopas.

While they were walking along, they discussed the events that had taken place in Jerusalem concerning Jesus’ crucifixion. Suddenly, Jesus walks up to them and begins traveling with them – but “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Jesus asks them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’”

Imagine what would happen in today’s society if someone walking down the street caught up to two strangers having a conversation and said, “Hey guys! What are you two talking about?” That person would probably be considered rude and be told, “Get out of here! Mind your own business!”

But back in Jesus’ time, it was common for a group of travelers to allow a single traveler to join them since traveling long roads alone was not a safe thing to do.

It’s also interesting to note that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” This phenomenon, where Jesus appears to be able to disguise and then reveal himself, took place more than once after Jesus’ resurrection. In John’s gospel, he disguised himself as a gardener before revealing himself to Mary Magdalene, and Mark’s gospel reports that he appeared to these two travelers “in another form.”

We might ask, “How is it possible to meet the Lord and not know it?” In Matthew 18:20, Jesus tells us that whenever two or more gather in His name, He is there, too. When he said this, he didn’t mean that he would be there in his physical nature – as Jesus of Nazareth. It would indeed be impossible for him to be physically in the midst of everyone, all around the world, who are gathered together in His name.

He meant that he would be there in his true spiritual nature – as the Christ.

Their eyes were kept from recognizing him because our physical eyes can’t perceive Spirit. In fact, our eyes perceive little of God’s vast, infinite Creation. But because we have been taught to believe only what we can see with our eyeballs, we are “blind” to Christ’s presence within every human being – not realizing that He not only dwells within us but also walks beside us.

In response to Jesus’ question, Cleopas basically says to this “stranger,” “Where have you been the past three days, man? Haven’t you heard the awful news?” Now, Cleopas doesn’t use the word “awful,” but I’m sure Our Resurrected Lord read the despair written all over their mopey faces. So, he asks, “What things?” As far as he was concerned, there wasn’t anything to be depressed about.

Cleopas proceeds to inform him about a prophet mighty in word and deed, whom the people hoped might be the one to redeem Israel, was handed over to be crucified by their own chief priests and leaders. While they had heard some reports that he might still be alive, they didn’t know for sure since they haven’t seen him alive for themselves.

Cleopas’ news report reveals two things about him and his fellow traveler. First, we know Cleopas was not one of the twelve disciples, so the two of them were probably among the many followers of Jesus. They hung around Jerusalem long enough to hear the reports of his empty tomb, but since they didn’t actually see him alive, they hightailed it out of there because followers of Jesus were being arrested.

Second, they obviously understood Jesus as a kind of superhero Messiah who would liberate them from the Romans. We can’t blame them. Many people – even some of Jesus’ closest followers – held this idea about him. If Jesus was this kind of Messiah, then his mission was a total failure, and their depression was justified.

How different are we from them? How many of us had grand hopes and dreams for the future only to have them seemingly dashed by this pandemic? How many of us have felt as if the Lord is truly dead? “Where are you, Lord? Why is this happening? Why aren’t you here?”

Jesus says to the two men on the road to Emmaus, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah wshould suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then he began to teach them the scriptures, especially the parts that describe the Messiah as a suffering servant.

“Foolish” is the Greek word (ah-NO-Ee-tos), which literally means, “without understanding,” but it also carries a sense of blame in a moral as well as an intellectual sense. The use of this word suggests that their condition was a result of their own indifference and self-reliance.

Didn’t these followers hear anything Jesus taught them? Yes – they heard and probably understood at least on some level. While most of Jesus’ followers were not educated men like the Pharisees and Scribes who studied the scriptures, they had teachers, like Jesus, to teach them the scriptures and how to apply it to their lives.

So, the problem wasn’t as much a lack of understanding as an unwillingness to put Jesus’ teachings into practice. What most of his followers wanted to hear coming out of the mouth of their Messiah was his endorsement of their traditions and their nationalistic goals. Since most of what Jesus taught wasn’t about that at all, how many of his teachings went in one ear and out the other?

How different are we from them? How many of us Christians today don’t want to hear what Jesus taught about equality – that everyone is equally loved by God – that everyone deserves peace, happiness, and prosperity in equal measure.

That’s what Jesus taught, and it’s not difficult to understand, but not-so-easy to live by. Yet that’s the only way we’ll ever “get” the value of his teachings– by putting them into practice and experiencing for ourselves how much better life is.

Are we allowing Jesus’ teachings to change our minds, hearts, faces, conversations, and actions? When life doesn’t go the way we think it should, and the Lord draws near to help us to see things differently, do we listen to Him, or do we tell Him, “Get out of here! Mind your own business!”

Our two travelers didn’t say that. They listened intently to this “stranger.” How often do we receive messages from the Lord through strangers? When we are depressed about the events of our lives, how often do strangers help us to see things differently, broadening our perspective beyond our little selves, and lifting our spirits?

When our travelers finally came near the village, they urged the stranger to stay with them, so he stayed. This tells us a couple of things about the Lord. First, he will not enter our lives uninvited. In Greek, the word Emmaus means “medicinal springs,” so there must have been healing springs there. Unless we invite the Lord into our lives, there can be healing – no relief from our suffering.

The second thing this verse tell us about the Lord is that it doesn’t take much convincing to get him to stay with us. All we have to do is invite him. Because he loves us, he wants to heal us. He wants to help us understand Life – so that we can live out of the love, peace, and joy that is our natural state of being.

While these two men were walking down the Emmaus road, talking with the Lord, at some point, their hearts opened, and they embraced a broader perspective about what had happened in Jerusalem – one that replaced their short-sighted, nationalistic vision with something far more magnificent: a vision of the promise of eternal life in a world ruled by Love.

Through this time of communion with the Lord, they were healed. They were finally able to understand how those “awful events” in Jerusalem actually accomplished their salvation.

That road to Emmaus was the time of the first coming of Christ. This road to Emmaus is the time of the second coming of Christ. I know, this is definitely not how we envisioned the second coming Christ to happen – much like Cleopas and his companion didn’t expect their Messiah to end up crucified.

Jesus taught us who we are long ago – that Christ is literally within us and walking beside us. Now is the time to be it – to be the extension of God’s Love we were created to be – to witness the return of Christ within ourselves and others.

How can we do that?

First, we need to trust God. If we honestly believe that God is good and that God is all-powerful, then we must believe that God can use this pandemic for the good of all. Yes, it’s difficult to believe that when we see so much suffering. We understand the ways of the world quite well, but the ways of Spirit – not so much. But just as in Christ’s first coming, what we see as an awful worldly event can turn out to be a powerfully liberating spiritual event.

We can trust that while we might not get everything we want, we’ll get everything we need. In Jeremiah 17:7-8, we read, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.”

This pandemic is like the year of drought. In ancient times, a drought was a disaster because people relied heavily upon agriculture for survival. In our times, a pandemic is a disaster because we rely heavily on commerce. But the truth is that in all times, we can rely only on God to provide for our needs. If we do, we’re like that tree planted by water – by the living water. Without fear, we are free to extend love.

We need to stop judging others. We all know that Jesus taught us not to judge one another. Yes, that teaching is one of our favorite ones to ignore – to let go in one ear and out the other. It seems it’s our favorite thing to do – especially these days.

I am an Easton Ambassador, and one of my jobs is to greet people coming to the outdoor farmers’ market in Scott Park. This is the first year in the market’s 268-year history that the outdoor market hasn’t been in Center Square. Scott Park is a larger space, which makes it easier to social distance.

One of the rules to enter the market is that a mask covering the nose and mouth must be worn. Most people comply, but every week a handful of people walk right by me without a mask, ignoring my pleas to stop. One man does it this every week, with a very defiant attitude.

We report people we are keeping an eye on by entering them into our work phones as “people of interest.” So, I entered this man as a person of interest. I didn’t know his name, so I called him the “unknown unmasked man.”

That got me thinking about something ironic: Now, it’s the unmasked who are the villains. It’s always been the masked ones we’ve judged as no good – even at the beginning of this pandemic, when the CDC told us not to wear masks because there was a shortage, and they needed to be available for healthcare workers. Then the masked were shamed. Now, it’s the unmasked.

But then some of the unmasked are fighting back and shaming the masked. One day while I was working on the streets of Easton, I received a sermon. I received a sermon from a guy who chastised me for wearing a mask like it was some kind of sacrilege. “Think about what you’re doing! There’s nothing wrong with God’s air; breathe God’s air!”

It’s crazy! You see, that’s just how much truth our judgements have. They are based only on our own ideas, not on reality. They can shift at the blink of an eye. Today’s hero can become tomorrow’s villain.

Psychologist Tara Brach talks about how our judgements create “unreal others.” This tendency to create unreal others is strong especially when we’re under stress because we just can’t deal with these people when we have so much else to deal with. It’s easier to just write them off – to consider them a hopeless case.

When we judge people, we close-off our hearts to them. They become inhuman, like machines, without thoughts and feelings, desires and dreams. But in truth they are exactly like us, doing what they think is right, feeling the pain of this pandemic, having desires and dreams that appear to be forever thwarted.

Those wearing masks may be feeling more acutely the pain of fear for their own health or the health of loved ones. Those not wearing masks may be feeling more deeply the pain of economic stress and social isolation. Our circumstances may be different, but we are one with the pain.

One way to make a person real to us again is to ask a simple question: “I wonder what it’s like to be them?” Since my spouse’s immune system is compromised, I wear a mask, but I also wear a mask to protect other people’s loved ones because they are just as important to them as mine are to me.

But what if my situation were different? What if the virus itself wasn’t such a threat, yet I’ve lost not only my job, but also my rich social life? How frustrated might I feel? Might I choose not to wear a mask to express my frustration and my wish for this pandemic to just go away so I can get back to my life?

Finally, we need to be One. That’s why the judgments have to go. Judgements drive a wedge between us, creating the illusion of separation. God didn’t create us to be fiercely independent; God created us to be in relationship – with Him, with one another, and with all of Creation for all eternity.

If that is the truth of our existence, if we are in this eternal relationship, then imagine how much better Life would be if we choose to value every part of it? That’s what Unconditional Love is all about – valuing something just because it exists – just because it is alive – and sharing this life with us.

When we finally decide to be the Unity we are in Christ, there’s no challenge on face of the Earth, including this pandemic and the many other challenges that face us today, that can’t be overcome with Unconditional Love – the most powerful force in the Universe.

What a great opportunity this is to choose to be One. For the first time in a long time, the entire planet has the same enemy, one we will never defeat unless humanity joins together as One – until every single human being values the life of every other human being, and not only other human beings, but every other form of Life on this planet.

This isn’t a choice that can be made for us by some worldly hero or cosmic avenger. In the past, we relied on our leaders to make these choices – to create laws and policies and institutions to take care of people – to do the right thing for the good of all. That hasn’t worked out very well.

And that’s why the people are now taking the cause of Jesus into their own hands and putting his teachings into practice. Can you see it? People are reaching out for unity all around us. Some are reaching out by fighting against racial injustice or environmental threats. Others are reaching out by simply offering to help others in need in whatever ways they can.

So, I invite you to witness the return of Christ within yourself and others through these expressions of Love. Look for love and respond with love – especially if someone is behaving badly because God values them too.

This road to Emmaus is a challenging journey, but the Lord is not dead. He’s walking beside us.

Let’s pray together: Lord, when we experience hardships in life, we invite you to walk with us as we struggle to understand our experiences. We are willing to open our hearts, listen to you, and invite you into our lives so that through a new perspective, we can reach Emmaus and be healed. Amen.

RESOURCES

Brach, Tara. Radical Compassion: LEARNING to LOVE YOURSELF and YOUR WORLD with the PRACTICE of RAIN. Kindle Ed. Viking Life, 2019.

Courageously Stepping Out into Uncertainty

Ivan Aivazovsky / Public domain

Synopsis: We are living in uncertain times as we move through this pandemic storm. We don’t know what the future holds. How can the stories of Jesus calming the storm and walking on water help us face the unknown with courage and step out into uncertainty with faith?

Click here to view this message on my YouTube channel.

Scriptures: Matthew 8:23-27 and Matthew 14:22-33

We can all relate to these gospel stories for today, and I believe they hold important messages for us in these times when we are faced with many overwhelming challenges – so many challenges – both individually and collectively – that we may have found ourselves doubting God’s love for us.

Deep down, we may think that if we believe in God, go to church every Sunday, say our prayers every day, and try our best to do good, we won’t have to deal with any troubles. But that’s not how life is. We’re all in this together. As Jesus says to his disciples in Matthew 5:45, “God causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

There’s a lot of uncertainty in the air. People who are sick with COVID-19 are uncertain about whether they will fully recover. People who have lost loved ones are uncertain about how they will carry on without them. People who have been laid off from work are uncertain about when they will be called back to work – if ever. Many are uncertain about how the struggling economy will affect their assets.

There’s one thing we’re all uncertain about, and that’s the future. We have no idea what the future holds. We never did, really, but now, we really don’t. We can’t assume that anything about our life before coronavirus will go back to the way it was. The rug has literally been pulled out from underneath us, and there’s absolutely nothing out there to hold onto.

We’re experiencing quite a storm. The old boat we’ve been in is getting beat up, it’s starting to sink, and we’re terrified! Surely, the Lord must be asleep! How can he be sleeping at a time like this?

Lord, wake up! Save us!

In our first gospel story, the disciples were experiencing a quite a storm on the sea. Their boat was getting beat up, and they were terrified, but Jesus was asleep. After they woke him up, he commented on their lack of faith, rebuked the wind and the waves, and all of a sudden, it was completely calm. The disciples were amazed. Who is this man that even the wind and waves obey him?

Jesus could have answered that question directly saying, “I AM the Christ,” but he didn’t operate that way. He more or less let the disciples draw that conclusion for themselves. It wasn’t until almost the end of Jesus’ ministry when Peter would declare, “You are the Messiah, the son of the Living God.”

But at this point, Jesus knew himself as the Christ, and if Christ is one with God and all of Life, then Christ is in the wind and waves. We identify with this helpless human form, so we can’t help but feel terrified when we perceive such awesome forces of Nature out there, separate from us, opposing us.

What if the truth is that there’s nothing out there opposing us? What if everything that occurs in Life somehow mysteriously supports Life – and therefore us – as part of Life?

Speaking of something to hold onto, we humans didn’t invent gravity to keep us from flying out into space, did we? No, we did not. Yet gravity exists and never fails. We humans also didn’t create the sun and command it to rise and set, did we? No, we did not. Yet it does – every single day. In so many countless ways beyond our ability to comprehend, Life supports itself.

Yet we scream, “Lord, wake up! Save us!”

Do we now see what little faith we have? Life doesn’t oppose us; we oppose life. That’s the problem. Instead of choosing to see Life as the enemy, how about choosing to trust that somehow Life has brought us this storm to support us as part of Itself – even though we can’t comprehend how? How might that shift in perspective help calm the wind and waves?

Our next gospel story takes place closer to the end of Jesus’ ministry after the death of John the Baptist. This time, Jesus is not in the boat with his disciples when the boat starts getting battered by the waves. They are on their own this time because Jesus went up a mountain to pray – way, way over on the other side of the lake – separated from them by what seemed like an insurmountable obstacle: the water.

The same is true with us: Jesus isn’t physically here in this boat with us because he left to commune with the Father. We may feel as if the Lord is far, far away – unable to help us. Like the disciples, we may feel totally helpless and hopeless in our little boat – in the pitch dark – tossed around by the strong winds and heavy waves of this pandemic.

But there are no obstacles that can come between us and the Lord. Jesus, walking on the water, came to the disciples. Now, I’m no physicist, so I can’t explain how, but I do believe it’s possible. After all, if who we really are is something like light projecting forms onto the screen of Life, then why not?

When the disciples saw him, they cried out, “It’s a ghost!” and screamed with fear. Jesus said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” In all fairness to the disciples, if we saw a human figure walking on water, we’d probably respond the same way, wouldn’t we?

We fear things we don’t understand. We fear the unknown. We fear it so much that we want to know – everything. In fact, we’re so addicted to knowing that we often pretend we know when we really don’t. We can’t handle not knowing; it makes us feel too vulnerable.

What if we gave up the notion that we need to know everything because we can trust Life to give us what we need in perfect timing – just as the Lord showed up at the perfect time to say, “Have courage! It’s not the boogie man! It is Life here to support you exactly when you need it.”

Peter’s options were scary. If he stayed in the boat, it might capsize or sink. If he got out, would he be able to keep his head above water in the tumultuous sea? With either choice, he could drown. After all, he didn’t have a lifeboat, and he wasn’t wearing a life jacket. He had nothing to keep him afloat.

He had nothing to hold onto.

But by this time, Peter had been Jesus’ disciple for a while. Only hours before, he had witnessed Jesus feed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. He had witnessed Jesus calm storms, cast out demons, heal the sick – even raise the dead. And wow! What if he could walk on water too? What if he had abilities he didn’t even know he had?

He said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” There was no way that he was going to step out of that old boat until he knew for sure that it was the Lord. He trusted the Lord. He knew the Lord wouldn’t let him drown. He knew the Lord would support him. If we trust life, we’ll be fearless – like Peter.

So, Peter stepped out of the boat and began walking on the water toward Jesus. What a miracle! But then, the wind and waves distracted him. Instead of keeping his eyes on the Lord, he focused on the wind and waves. He became afraid, and he began to sink.

The apostle Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians: “So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord – for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So, whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.”

Peter was frightened by what we saw out there, so he started to doubt, and then sink. How many of us, when we read or hear the news, get scared, and then get this sinking feeling in our gut? It’s the same problem Peter had. When we’re frightened, we make the mistake of looking for something out there to grab onto to make us feel better when the Lord’s right here, reaching out to us.

Now, it’s OK to feel uncomfortable with uncertainty. We’re only human. But it doesn’t have to keep us stuck in old ways of thinking and behaving that might not work anymore. What if that old boat is sinking – but what if we can walk on water? What if we have abilities we didn’t know we had? Perhaps this story is what we all need to help us to courageously step out of that old boat into uncertainty.

It’s scary, yes, but there are also infinite possibilities – and that’s exciting.

Because it is through challenges like this that we awaken the sleeping Christ within us to calm the storm and to give us the courage to step out of old boats and really live. And it is through these journeys that the Lord within us is glorified and our faith and trust is developed until we can exclaim with Peter and rest of the disciples: “Lord – you really are the Son of God.”

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to trust that you are within us, reaching out to give us help whenever we need it. May this confidence give us the courage to step out into the uncertainty, letting go of our old ways of thinking and behaving, so that we might really live. Amen.

The Way to the Father

Leonard DiVinci | Public Domain

Synopsis: When Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” what did he mean? Did he mean that people must believe in him (Jesus) to be saved, or are we missing the deeper meaning of his words?

Click here to view a YouTube video presentation of this message.

Today’s message is entitled, “The Way to the Father.” You might be thinking, “That’s easy. Jesus is the way to the Father. Didn’t he say, ‘I AM the way the truth and the life – no one comes to the Father except through me?’” Yes, he did say that, but is that what he meant, or are we missing the deeper meaning of his words?

Let’s take a look at that passage found in John 14:1-14.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

In these times, we can easily relate to Jesus’ disciples in this scripture reading. Since 2016, America has been embroiled in political strife. We’ve been hoping for political salvation: to make America great again. We weren’t envisioning a global pandemic for 2020. Now, our hopes and dreams for our country and for our personal lives are completely uncertain.

We’re justifiably troubled and in need of comfort.

Jesus and his disciples were in Jerusalem celebrating the Passover meal in the upper room on the night he was betrayed. Jesus had just predicted not only his betrayal but also Peter’s denial. Rather than talking about his defeating the Romans and being crowned king, Jesus spoke about his upcoming betrayal and crucifixion.

This was certainly not the future his disciples had envisioned; it was the one they feared the most. The terrible reality of what was about to happen to Jesus was finally beginning to sink into the minds and hearts of the disciples, and they were justifiably troubled.

Jesus tries his best to comfort and encourage his disciples before he goes away. At the end of the previous chapter, Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to a place where “you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward” (John 13:36).

Jesus’ disciples did not understand what he meant when he said that he was going to the Father because they did not yet know who they really are, so how could they follow him? Jesus knew that later on, they would follow him, so he assured them that he would save a place for them.

This, my friends, is the main reason we created time. Jesus had no more need of time at this point. His journey back to God was almost complete, but the disciples needed time. Like the story of the prodigal son who needed time to realize that he would be far better off returning to his father’s house instead of feeding pigs and starving to death, we prodigal children need time to remember who we are and to make the return journey back to God.

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” When Jesus first said these words, his disciples misunderstood him. That’s understandable. Jesus was speaking about a great mystery that no words can describe.

We too misunderstand what he meant by these words. Many Christians assume Jesus was speaking about himself personally; therefore, people must believe in Jesus to be saved. When we don’t know who we really are, this mistake is understandable.

When Jesus said, “I am,” he wasn’t speaking about himself personally. He wasn’t speaking from his human nature; he was speaking from his divine nature. He was saying “I AM” with all capital letters. He was referring to who he is beyond the human form called “Jesus.”

He was referring to the state John wrote about in the beginning of his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Jesus was crucified because he claimed equality with God. Certainly, if he had made this claim about himself personally, about his human nature, it would have been a preposterous boast at least and blasphemous at most. How can this crude, finite matter be God? God is eternal, and this ain’t.

Yet back in the mid-80’s, at the beginning of the New Age movement, in her autobiographical book entitled, “Out on a Limb,” Shirley McLain boldly declared “I AM God!”

This shocking declaration got us all thinking rationally not only about our own nature but also about the nature of God. Is God a who or more of a what? Since then, humanity’s concept of God as an entity separate from us, looking down on us from on high and judging us, has lost its appeal.

Now, I think most people conceive of God as more as a what. If we could see and feel this great mystery called “God,” what would we see? What would we feel? Since all we have is our human senses, it would help to have some sensory pointers.

You might have heard people describe God as Light. In fact, in John 8:12, Jesus says, “I am the Light of the world.” Again, he’s not speaking about his human nature; he’s speaking about his divine nature – his IAM nature in union with God.

If we could see God, we might perceive Light. Because of our medical advances, many people have died and lived to tell about it. Many described walking toward a dazzling, loving Light. So now, many think of God not as an entity who lives somewhere apart from us, but as a kind of energy that is all around us – not only all around us, but somehow also mysteriously within us.

Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he said, “Believe in God; believe also in me.” And maybe that’s what he meant when he said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”

Just as God is the Light, we are the Light. Who we really are is not like this form; it’s more like an energy – like light. And doesn’t light project many different forms on a screen, and yet, it’s all the same? Why can’t that be the truth for us too – that even though we appear in many different forms projected onto this screen called “life,” we are exactly the same – made of the same stuff.

God is like the Sun, and we are like sunbeams – an extension of God – an expression of God on this earth. Without the sun’s light, there would be no life on earth. Likewise, without God, who we really are would not exist.

This body with this ego – this personal self – is like how the moon sometimes gets between the sun and the earth and causes an eclipse. We know there’s no way on God’s green earth that that little moon could ever totally block out the majestic sun. Imagine if the moon thought it could do that.

How arrogant!

When we identify with this personal self, we’re like the moon with that level of arrogance. We think that we’ve successfully blocked out God and ceased to be who we are. That’s impossible. This personal self seems powerful, but all it can really do is create … shadows.

An effective way to imagine our true nature visually is to repeat the mantra, “I am the Light,” and image God’s Light entering into the top of the head, filling every cell of the body, and then pouring out from every cell, but mainly from the heart. These bodies are powerful lighthouses when they aren’t being used to create shadows.

You might have heard people describe God as Love. In his first letter, John the evangelist writes, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:7-9).

So, we can visualize God and therefore who we really are as an energy like light. We can also think of God and therefore who we really are as love. That gives us a feeling sense – an idea of what it feels like to be who we really are. It feels like love.

We humans have a hard time understanding this because our idea of love is not the same as God’s. God’s Love is mysterious – just like everything else about God. We can’t describe it in words. 

But we can say for sure that it’s not like human love. Human love is exclusive. We love things in an exclusive way. I love ice cream, but I hate liver. We love people in this exclusive way too. We love certain people, and certain people we … don’t.

Our human love is also a gushy, giddy kind of love. It’s so dramatic. Humans love drama, and our human love is – of course – our idea of it – so there you go.

God’s Love isn’t like that. God’s love is inclusive. How can it exclude anything when God is all there is? God is therefore in an eternal relationship with everything he created, so how could he not love any part it? That would be like rejecting part of himself. That would be insane, and God is not insane.

We might come closer to understanding God’s Love a bit more after we’re married. Because suddenly, we are in a relationship “until death do us part.” That’s as close to the idea of eternity as we can imagine. At some point, the “honeymoon phase” – that gushy, giddy love – goes away. I don’t know about you other married folks, but I was sure glad when it did. It’s exhausting!

Yes, after a while, that gushy, giddy kind of love is replaced by something a lot less dramatic, but a lot more real, and that’s when the meaning of “I do” becomes clearer.

You see, love is more than just a feeling. It’s a choice. It’s an active thing. It’s a choice to actively be in a relationship. If we must share a place and our life with someone, isn’t it a whole lot easier when we get along and care for one another? Wouldn’t it be insane not to – unless, of course, we’re into PAIN?

Are we not in an eternal relationship with God, with our fellow human beings, and with all of Life on this planet? Of course we are! In that case, wouldn’t it be insane to reject anyone or anything that shows up in our life?

The sun gives its light and warmth to every living thing unconditionally. It doesn’t say, “Oh, I think that one’s evil, so I’m not giving that one any light. Plants give its oxygen to every living thing unconditionally. They don’t say, “Oh, I don’t like the color of that one, so I’m not giving that one any oxygen.

If something or someone is here, if it exists, then it automatically and unconditionally receives respect and care. That’s God’s idea of love.

Why are we so insane? Why do we eclipse the light on purpose, why do we cast shadows, why do we reject parts of ourselves? And why does God let us do that if it only leads to suffering?

Because we wanted to learn the value of love. When love is all there is, how can one experience its value? As the saying goes, “You don’t know what you got til its gone.” But if love is all there is, how can its opposite exist? It can’t in reality, but it can in our imaginations.

We humans are the only beings on this planet who have the opportunity to learn the value of love because we’re the only living things with the free will to choose to believe our own fantasies over the Truth. It’s up to each and every one of us to learn the value of love and to ultimately decide that nothing in this world is more valuable – because truly, there is nothing else.

How can we experience ourselves as God’s Love? Well, it’s simple but not easy. We practice gratitude for everyone and everything that’s showing up in our lives. Because that is how God feels about every person, every plant, every animal, and every single living thing on this planet.

God loves the unfolding of life on this earth, including everything that happens here. It’s all good because it’s all God, and it’s all teaching us the value of love. Think about the power of this pandemic to teach us all the value of love. Can you see all the people pouring out love in compassionate action?

Jesus tells his disciples, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

Love is the way to the Father. Because Christ is alive within us, we can now go to the Father though Love, but we must choose Love. We must value love more than anything else. So from this moment on, let us say, “I do” to Life.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to follow you to the place you have prepared for us. Help us to choose gratitude for all that is showing up in our lives that we may be the beacon of Light and the reservoir of Love that we were created to be. Amen.

The End of Senseless Journeys

Click here to listen to an audio recording of this post. Music: “Tomorrow – Calm New Age Ambient Track” by Alexander Blu.

This quote from A Course in Miracles has been ringing over and over again in my mind these days like an ominously wonderful death knell.

I spent these first stay-at-home weeks finding ways to protect my sanity by maintaining my normal busyness. I now find myself losing interest in that effort. I’m tired of constantly eating. I’m tired of watching TV. I’m tired of constantly eating while watching TV. I’m tired of browsing the latest news updates, surfing social media, and playing video games.

Don’t get me wrong – I am working from home. I’m one of the lucky ones who still has some work. Curiously, I’ve found I’m far more efficient working from home, and when you add to that the time saved by not commuting, I’m left with a lot more time on my hands to do … what?

That must explain the “ominous” tone – that scary “lost” feeling. I’ve been like a hamster running on a wheel going nowhere, yet desperate for that wheel to start turning again so I can at least run, run, run! I guess all that running made me feel “normal” and “safe.”

But was all that running truly “normal” and “safe” just because everyone was doing it, or was it a symptom that we were all actually living in crazy, harmful ways? What if everybody was running on the same nameless wheel, taking a senseless journey to nowhere? Perhaps now that the wheel has stopped turning, and we’ve stopped running, we can clearly see that wheel and give it a name.

It is called “consumerism.”

With businesses closing, demand skyrocketing, and supply plummeting, many are beginning to realize that we can live just fine without certain “pleasures” and without much of the “stuff” we thought we couldn’t live without – and we can certainly live without all the misery that comes with the “mad careers” needed to pay for it all.

The spell of consumerism is beginning to wear off. The artificial values we’ve all been taught to believe in are proving false. Consumerism can never make us happy because there’s always bigger and better pleasures and stuff to go after. It’s an insatiable beast.

If an economy built on that insatiable beast can be so easily destroyed by a virus, perhaps we need to figure out a more resilient foundation for a new economy.

That might be why many politicians are crying out for businesses to reopen without much regard to the toll on human lives. “We’ve got to get back to ‘business as usual’ – profit before people – before it’s too late!’” Perhaps what they really mean is, “… before people wake up.”

Before people wake up to what truly makes us happy – developing and nurturing caring relationships, gratitude for what we do have, giving to those in need, and above all – connecting with something within us far greater than our little selves.

Julio Gambuto, in his article “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting,” warns us that very powerful forces are going to do everything they can to try to convince us to get back on that wheel. They’re going to try very hard to convince us that we weren’t really happier and healthier off the wheel. It was just our imagination – along with the Earth’s ozone layer starting to heal and improved air quality around the globe. They will try to make us doubt our newfound sanity.

Let’s make a promise now to ourselves and to our fellow human beings not to step back on that wheel –to not fall back under the spell of consumerism. We know now it doesn’t make us happy or healthy. This is a perfect opportunity, while we are shut in, to go through our fear – though that ominous tone – to that wonderful tone within, where indestructible happiness lies – and begin to envision a new life filled with love, peace, and joy.

Resources

“All quotes are from A Course in Miracles, copyright ©1992, 1999, 2007 by the Foundation for Inner Peace, 448 Ignacio Blvd., #306, Novato, CA 94949, www.acim.org and info@acim.org, used with permission.”

Gambuto, Julio V. “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting: You are not crazy, my friends.” Forge.medium.com, 10 Apr. 2020, forge.medium.com/prepare-for-the-ultimate-gaslighting-6a8ce3f0a0e0

Look with the Eyes of Faith

James Tissot/no known copyright restrictions

Synopsis: When we look with the eyes of fear, we naturally interpret everything fearfully. But we have another choice. We can look with the eyes of faith! When we look with the eyes of faith, we recognize the Christ, and we realize how deeply cared for we are.

Please click here to watch the Saint Paul’s Community Church Easter Sunday Virtual Service in which this message is contained. You are welcome to enjoy and participate in the service, which contains communion. The Opening Hymn did not play in the service video. Please click here to view the Opening Hymn and sing along!

Gospel Reading: Matthew 28:1-10

Peace be with you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Imagine for a moment an entirely different resurrection story from the one we just read, maybe a Charles Dickens type story, where Jesus appears hauntingly to the High Priest Caiaphas, or to Pontius Pilate, or to Tiberius Caesar, saying, “I am the ghost of the Son of God!” Wouldn’t it serve them right to have been proven wrong and shown the error of their ways?

We might think so! But our Father God is different from us and has different priorities. Yes, His Only Son was treated cruelly at the hands of these unbelievers, and yes, God allowed that to happen, but God used their evil deeds to redeem the world. In that way, they too were part of God’s plan, and they played their part.

We can tell where God’s true priorities lie in the real resurrection story. We read that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb early in the morning on the first day of the week. We know Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’ closest followers – as well as the other Mary.

But who was the other Mary? We know it wasn’t Jesus’ mother because she is always clearly named in the Gospels along with Mary Magdalene. The other Mary was probably Matthew’s mother. Matthew (a.k.a Levi) was the tax collector Jesus called to be his disciple.

It’s also possible that the other Mary was Jesus’ aunt – his mother’s sister or half-sister. Matthew’s mother Mary, his father Cleopas, and his brothers James the Less and Joseph were all Jesus’ followers – and perhaps part of his family.

These two Marys were standing at the foot of Jesus’ cross with Jesus’ mother Mary. Didn’t it serve these two faithful and fearless followers of the Lord right to be the first to behold his resurrection? God thought so.

A 19th Century Irish poet by the name of Eaton Stannard Barrett wrote a wonderful poem that pays tribute to the loyalty and courage of these two women:

Not she with trait’rous kiss her Saviour stung,
Not she denied Him with unholy tongue;
She, while apostles shrank, could danger brave,
Last at His cross, and earliest at His grave.

Imagine these two Marys wanting nothing more than to be able to lovingly minister once more to the body of Jesus, perhaps doubting that the guards would even allow them to come near the tomb and doubting that they would be able to get into the tomb with that big stone rolled in front of it.

But just as these two Marys arrive at the tomb, there is suddenly an earthquake. There is an earthquake because an angel of the Lord appears fast as lightening, rolls back the stone, and sits on it.

Why did God send an angel? Did the angel need somewhere to sit? Probably not. Was Jesus knocking on the stone from inside the tomb saying, “Helloooo! It’s Easter Sunday. Time for me to bust out of here!” No – the angel tells the two Marys, “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”

Why did God send an angel, whose lightning-fast appearance and white-as-snow garments frightened the tomb guards so much that they literally shook and fell to the ground, appearing like dead men?

I wonder how many bodies were lying around? How many Roman Soldiers do you think Pilate might have had guarding that tomb to prevent Jesus’ disciples from stealing his body – along with the Temple guards sent by the chief priests and Pharisees just to be sure? There could have been as many as fifty men!

Why did God send an angel to roll the stone away and knock out the guards, and then, after creating this scene of mayhem and seeming carnage, says to the two Marys, “Do not be afraid!” Why weren’t they scared half to death like the guards?

Well, God didn’t send the angel because he wanted the two Marys to be sacred; he sent the angel because He cared – about them. God had a message for them, and he sent the angel to deliver that message.

God lovingly attended to their needs. Imagine the heart-rending pain they might have experienced if they came upon this scene without the benefit of the angel’s message? They would have misinterpreted it because they would have naturally looked with the eyes of fear. They would have thought there was some kind of fight at the tomb, and all the guards were killed, and someone stole Jesus’ body.

But that wasn’t what happened at all. God wanted to spare these two women whom he loved that horrible pain when there was nothing to be afraid of and no reason for despair. In fact, there was cause for great, great joy! Jesus had risen as he said. The angel told them, “Come and see the place where he lay.” Look with eyes of faith!

God wasn’t concerned only for these two women because the angel assigned the two Marys a messenger mission of their own. After having the honors of being the first to witness the empty tomb, they were to go and tell the disciples the good news: that Jesus had risen and that he will see them in Galilee.

In Mark’s gospel, the angel says, “Tell the disciples and Peter ….” Mark’s gospel makes a point to signal out Peter. Why? Well, Peter denied Jesus three times. Did the angel want Peter to be haunted by his denial? No – the angel was making it clear that even though he denied God’s Son, he was still dear to God.

The disciples were not perfect. Their faith wasn’t perfect. Their trust wasn’t perfect. Peter may have denied Jesus three times, but most of them ran away after Jesus was arrested. No one asked Jesus for forgiveness, but clearly, God still cared for them all. God wanted them to know the good news so that their despair could be exchanged for joy!

We read the two Marys leave the tomb with both fear and great joy. That’s an impossible combination of emotions, isn’t it? How can one experience fear and great joy at the same time?

In the Bible, the word “fear” can mean different things in different contexts. Sometimes, it means “anxiety,” but other times, it means, “awe.” It makes more sense in this context that they leave the tomb in awe – or amazement – and great joy.

As they are leaving and running to tell Jesus disciples, lo and behold, they are greeted by the resurrected Lord. Not only are these fearless, loyal women the first to witness the empty tomb, but they are also the first to see the resurrected Lord. Doesn’t it serve them right?

There he is, standing in front of them, needing nothing more to say or do than to give them a simple greeting – like an ordinary guy or an ordinary day. If they were not looking with the eyes of faith, they might have overlooked him. But they do recognize the risen Lord, and all they can do – in their state of awe – is fall down and worship him.

Jesus tells the Marys, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” He calls the disciples “my brothers.” I think that is a testament as to whether the Lord has forgiven them for their fear and doubt. They are still as dear to him as they are to God.

He’s saying to the two Marys, “Do not be afraid and despairing any longer. Rejoice! I am alive! Now go and proclaim the good news!”

How many of us feel as if our faith and trust in God hasn’t exactly been perfect lately? I’m with you on that one. The world scene is a scary one – kind of like the scene of violence, and mayhem, and death that the two Marys saw after the earthquake.

When we look with the eyes of fear, we – of course – interpret everything fearfully. Then all we can do is despair because it appears as if the Lord is truly dead, and God has abandoned us. Evil has prevailed; it’s the end of the world.

Even though we feel that way at times, God still cares for us, and we are still joined with Christ. We are having a human experience, and fear and doubt and despair naturally go along with that territory.

While we can expect to feel this way at times, we do have another choice besides the eyes of fear when it comes to looking at the world. We can look with eyes of faith.

Because only by looking with eyes of faith will we recognize the risen Christ operating within our brothers and sisters and also within ourselves.

When we look out into the world with eyes of faith, what do we see? Let’s look together. I see mind-boggling ingenuity. People are finding ways to stay connected, to hold up and inspire one another, and to come up with ways to provide things that are in short supply, such as hand sanitizer, ventilators, and face masks.

I see abundant compassion. Most people have put aside their differences and have taken on genuine concern for one another. Everywhere, people are telling each other, even perfect strangers, “Be safe and be well.”

People are finding ways to help each other in whatever ways they can, like buying groceries for those who are in quarantine or for those who are vulnerable or donating money and giving provisions to those in need.

I see more unity than I have ever seen in my lifetime. Nations are cooperating with one another to save as many lives as possible – no matter where those lives are – because as long as anyone is suffering from this disease, everyone is at risk.

And my friends, it has always been that way. Whenever anyone in the world suffers dis-ease – whether it be because of poverty, or inadequate healthcare, or educational deficiencies, or injustice – everyone is at risk. We ARE in this together: This situation makes that fact so obvious that it is undeniable.

Who is it that is pouring out all this ingenuity, compassion, and solidarity? It certainly can’t be our human egos – no, our human egos are all about taking care of #1. So, it must be coming from some other place within us.

It is the living Christ. He’s not dead. He’s here within all of us, and all around us, He’s making his appearance, saying, “Greetings!” like an ordinary person on an ordinary day, and we can recognize him if we look with the eyes of faith.

Just this week, someone knocked on our door. I looked through the peep hole, and I saw someone I did not know – a woman with two kids. My first reaction was, “Ahhh Zombies!” Yeah, I think I’ve seen too many Zombie Apocalypse movie previews.

Anyway, I shook off that initial reaction, and opened the door. The woman said, “There’s a package around the corner with this address on it. I just wanted you to know. I didn’t touch it or anything.”

So, I went around the corner of the house and found the package that had literally blown off our porch. It was a very windy day. I thanked the woman from the bottom of my heart.

Here was this woman with small children, taking the risk to knock on a stranger’s door during a pandemic just to make sure we got a package. It wasn’t a zombie after all; it was the living Christ letting us know not to be afraid but be joyful because we are deeply loved.

Let’s pray together:

Lord, we are willing to look with eyes of faith. Through the Power of Your Holy Spirit, send your angelic messengers to us when we are fearful and despairing to encourage us to look with the eyes of faith so that we may recognize the living Christ all around us. Amen.

Resources:

Cole-Rous, Jim. “Mary – the Other Mary.” Global Christian Center, 2010, globalchristiancenter.com/christian-living/lesser-known-bible-people/31268-mary-the-other-mary  

“Lesson 67: Making the Resurrection Story Your Own (Matthew 28:1-15).” Bible.org, bible.org/seriespage/lesson-67-making-resurrection-story-your-own-matthew-281-15

Riding Triumphantly

Benjamin R. Haydon| Public Domain

Synopsis: Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem despite his knowing that suffering and death awaited him. How can we learn from him and ride triumphantly through this pandemic?

Scripture: Matthew 21: 1-11

Click here to watch a YouTube video service for Palm Sunday, in which this message is contained. The scripture reading can be found at around 6:25, followed by this message.

Peace be with you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

One of the biggest fears we humans have is the fear of the unknown. This fear causes us to keep asking ourselves, “what if …?” That can be a dangerous question. The human mind is very creative, so we can always imagine an infinite number of scenarios – especially scary ones – and endlessly occupy ourselves with disaster planning.

How many of us might wish we knew beforehand that this pandemic was coming? If we knew, how might we have prepared ourselves? Those who have lost jobs, loved ones, even their own lives – how might they have prepared themselves if they had known?

Perhaps they would have told their family and friends about their premonition, hoping they would do all they could to help prevent disaster from striking.

We can’t imagine someone telling their loved ones, “This is what is going to happen. I just want you to be prepared. I don’t want you to do anything to stop it.” What kind of person, knowing that tragedy was about to strike, would so calmly and willingly accept it?

Someone like Jesus. Jesus had an advantage most of us don’t have. He knew what was going to happen. He told his disciples several times that he was going to Jerusalem where he would be turned over to the authorities, tried, mocked, flogged, crucified, and on the third day, rise from the dead. He knew this in advance, yet he did nothing to stop it, and he didn’t want his disciples to do anything to stop it.

We read in Matthew 16:21-23, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Jesus knew what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem: that he would suffer and die in the cruelest ways imaginable. Not only did he do nothing to stop it, but he also rode triumphantly into Jerusalem.

How is it that Jesus was able to ride triumphantly – to face a difficult trial with such poise and confidence? And how can we ride triumphantly through these challenging times?

First and foremost, Jesus trusted God. He didn’t say to his disciples, “Well, I’m going into Jerusalem, where I’ll probably be crucified, and maybe rise from the dead in a few days.” He knew God’s plan of salvation, and he fully accepted his role in it.

Jesus completely trusted that if he did his part, God would do His Part. He needed a donkey and a colt, and they were there for him. You know, in those days, wealth was measured by how much livestock you had. A donkey and a colt were worth a lot of money, yet the owner gave them to Jesus’ disciples because they said, “the Lord needs them.”

These days, that would be like someone giving a stranger the keys to their BMW because he said to them, “the Lord needs it.” Can you imagine what a miracle that would be? That was the lesson for Jesus’ disciples. If we are in God’s Will, God provides. That’s His Part. Our part is to relax and trust Him.

In Matthew 6:25-27, Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”

So if we’re worried about not being able to get what we need in the grocery store – like toilet paper – or we’re worried that we won’t be able to afford what we need because of job loss, or we’re worried that we’re losing our nest egg in the plunging stock market, let these fears be a sobering reminder that we are looking for security where it can’t be found.

It can be found in trusting God.

Jesus was able to ride triumphantly into Jerusalem because he trusted God, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t afraid. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed to God, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want,” and he prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Jesus was a human being, so of course, he was afraid – and sad. Any normal human being would feel afraid and sad in his situation. Nevertheless, he submitted his will to God’s Will.

Any normal human being on this earth right now would feel afraid and sad. People are suffering; some are suffering terribly – so terribly that they are taking their own lives. It’s frightening, and it’s sad.

We can pray to God to cleanse the earth of this disease, heal all those who are ill, and provide for those in need. We can pray for the protection and sustenance of our family and friends. We can pray our own protection and sustenance. We can do all we can reasonably do to help others, and to stay safe and well. But then, we must let go and leave the rest up to God’s Will for the good of all.

Jesus was able to ride triumphantly into Jerusalem because he placed his faith in Christ, not in his personal self. Jesus of Nazareth would soon be no more. The life of that individual – of that character in this great play called Life – was about to end. Jesus didn’t identify with that small self as much as with the Christ. He knew that small self was a false, temporary self that paled in comparison to his glorious True Self – his eternal Self – in Christ.

The people shouting “Hosanna” in the streets were not celebrating the Christ and the spiritual salvation that was coming to them. They were not anticipating a suffering, dying Messiah. They were hoping for something else entirely. They were looking for political salvation. They were seeing a political hero in Jesus of Nazareth, someone who would rise up and defeat the Romans.

How many people today are hoping for a political savior? We’ve been suffering a great deal lately because of politics. Many are hoping for a political savior, someone to finally rise up and make things right in this country and in the world, whether it be our current President or someone else. I think like the people of Jesus’ time, those who are hoping for a political savior are in for a big disappointment.

The more we place our faith in another human being, or try to handle things on our own, the more anxious we become. This pandemic is making that even more apparent. Do we really think we limited, helpless human beings have the strength, wisdom, and compassion to handle this apart from God?

No way.

The good news is that there’s far more to us than our human nature. There is something within us that is all-powerful – the Christ – and the Christ has all the strength, all the wisdom, and all the compassion needed to handle this situation – if we would just stop looking for a hero where one can’t be found.

This pandemic is a cross for us personally. It is a cross for us collectively. Our personal and collective lives will never be the same. Who we were before, both personally and collectively, is dying right now.

We’re losing the life we’ve grown accustomed to, whether it be the life we had with a job, or the life we had in our community, or the life with shared with a loved one. We’re losing the self that moved through the life we once knew. We don’t know who we’re going to be, or what life is going to be like after we emerge from this tomb.

But if we have faith in Christ, we do know that the tomb of the small self is the womb of Christ. And, my friends, in this unprecedented time, the small self of not just one individual, but of all humanity, is in the tomb together, and if we have faith in Christ, if we’ve been anticipating his coming and bringing God’s Kingdom to earth, then we can ride triumphantly through these challenging times with more hope than we’ve ever had at any other time in human history!

Ponder for a moment what a blessing it is for you to be here at this time.

So, we don’t need to know what’s going to happen if we trust God, submit to God’s Will, and place our hope in Christ. We can, like the Lord, ride triumphantly through this challenging time.

And just as his riding in on a donkey suggested, we can ride through it in peace.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to trust God, submit to His Will, and place our hope in Christ. Through the power of Your Holy Spirit, make us aware of our misplaced faith so that we can place our faith where it belongs and be at peace in these times and always. Amen.

What it Means to be Born Again

Henry Ossawa Tanner / Public domain

Synopsis: Many Christians claim to be “born again.” The term comes from the scene of Jesus’ visit with Nicodemus in John’s Gospel. When we Christians say we are “born again,” do we understand what Jesus meant, or have we created our own meaning?

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Scripture: John 3: 1-17

Peace be with you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Imagine if a great preacher and healer came into our world at this time, and there was a lot of excitement and speculation about whether this person is the second coming of Christ. Now, imagine if Joel Osteen or Franklin Graham or any of today’s famous Christian evangelists came to visit this person, confessed their faith, and they were told, “Your belief isn’t enough to save you.”

Imagine how flabbergasted they would feel, and you can begin to imagine how Nicodemus might have felt in our scripture reading for today.

First, let’s look at the setting of this event, which might explain why Nicodemus visited with Jesus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the powerful Jewish council. He was one of the most prominent religious teachers of his day, and the power of Jesus’ teaching and healing got his attention.

Jesus astonished his audiences with the depth of his Scriptural understanding from the time he was twelve years old and continuing into his ministry as an adult. At the end of Matthew chapter 7:28-29, after Jesus had finished teaching the crowds, we read, “the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”

Not only did Jesus astound the crowds with his teaching, but also with his healing. We read in Luke 5:17 “One day, while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting nearby (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal.”

At this point, the religious leaders were hard-pressed to criticize Jesus, but Jesus didn’t have any trouble criticizing them. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5, Jesus taught the people that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Then he said in verse 20, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

If that wasn’t enough to get Nicodemus’ attention, then perhaps Jesus’ cleansing the temple was. Nicodemus’ visit is placed immediately after this event in John’s gospel. When the religious leaders asked Jesus to produce a sign to prove his authority to cleanse the temple, he replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

And that brings us to our scripture reading for today. Nicodemus was one of the most renowned Torah teachers of his day, yet when Jesus preached, he captivated audiences in ways that Nicodemus never could, and when Jesus preached, he answered questions that had puzzled Nicodemus for years. Jesus also performed many miracles, yet Nicodemus himself had yet to perform one.

Jesus made the Jewish teachers of the law look like amateurs – even ones as great as Nicodemus. Blinded by pride, most of them refused to believe that he came from God despite the obvious power of his preaching and healing abilities, and most of them would eventually join together to find ways to discredit Jesus and have him arrested.

Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night – alone. The Pharisees normally operated during the day – and in packs. Why is Nicodemus acting so unlike the other Pharisees?

Well … because Nicodemus was indeed unlike the other Pharisees. The first thing he says to Jesus is, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Nicodemus shows Jesus great respect by calling him “Rabbi,” a title reserved for teachers of the law like himself. But notice that Nicodemus doesn’t say, “I know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” He says, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” Is he speaking for all the Pharisees?

The majority of the Pharisees ultimately rejected Jesus, so he must not be saying, “All we Pharisees believe in you, Jesus!” I think he’s saying, “Based on the way we Pharisees judge things like miraculous signs, the evidence suggests that your power must come from God.” He was drawing a logical conclusion based on the evidence according to his Pharisaic training.

At this point, I’m sure Nicodemus was looking forward to hearing Jesus talk all about himself and his divinely-inspired mission. I’m sure he had a lot of questions he would have liked Jesus to answer.

Instead, Jesus makes a statement that totally confounds Nicodemus. He says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” He’s essentially telling Nicodemus, “Thanks for the vote of confidence, but your belief is not enough to save you.”

I’m sure Nicodemus was shocked by this statement. He probably thought, “Wait just a minute here! I don’t need to be born again! I was born a Son of Abraham – an heir to the Kingdom of God. I follow Torah Law and teach others to do the same. How is that not enough?”

I’m sure today’s biggest Christian evangelists would be just as shocked. They might think, “Wait just a minute here! I was baptized a Christian, I say the Apostle’s Creed, I administer and partake in the sacraments, and I preach the gospel. How is that not enough?”

Nicodemus was not afraid to express his confusion and ignorance: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

We Christians got the term “born again” from this story, so our Christian evangelists might say, “Oh, yes, Lord! I know exactly what you mean. I’m a born-again Christian.” When we call ourselves “born again,” what do we mean? Have we adopted Jesus’ meaning or our own?

Jesus explains to Nicodemus that to be reborn from above involves two things: The first is water. I believe Jesus’ use of the word “water” relates to John’s baptism. Remember that John’s baptism wasn’t for the forgiveness of sins. It was a sign of God’s blessing on those who had repented and made a commitment to God.

Jesus liked using parables to make a point, and I’d like to do the same using one of his parables – the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke chapter 15. Jesus tells a story about a father with two sons. The younger son brazenly asks his father for his inheritance – basically expressing a wish for his father to die. In response, the father divides his inheritance between his two sons.

The younger son cashes in all his assets and goes to a “distant country.” When a famine strikes, he comes to his senses, repents, and begins to return home to his father. Along the way, he makes plans to ask his father to be accepted as a hired hand, but his father runs to meet him with open arms and throws a feast to celebrate his return.

The elder son becomes jealous and complains to his father saying in essence, “Here I’ve served you all these years, and you never rewarded me!” Now, it was the elder son’s duty to keep the family together, yet he gladly took his share of the inheritance and said “see ya!” to his younger brother.

Clearly, the elder son didn’t serve his father out of love; he served him for profit. He saw his father more as a boss whom he served only for a paycheck – for what he could get in return – not out of love – not out of gratitude – and with zero concern for him or his brother.

Rather than joining with his father and his brother, the elder brother exiled himself because he resented the fact that he couldn’t use his family for his own personal gain. He shook his finger at his younger brother while he himself despised his family and while he himself desired to be on his own every bit as much as his younger brother had – but without repentance.

The elder son was even more lost than his younger brother. We Christians can be deceived just like the elder son when it comes to our relationship with God and with one another. We can’t have a right relationship with God and with one another if our heart is in the wrong place.

In the wilderness, Satan tried everything in his power to get Jesus to abandon his commitment to God. Satan does the same thing to us – every single day.

I once said that I believe Satan is the ego. I’ve changed my mind. Satan is a fallen angel and the Prince of Darkness. He is real, but we don’t need to fear him. We do need to be aware of how he deceives us. His favorite way to deceive us to tempt us by appealing to our greatest weakness – the ego – our desire to be separate and to serve only ourselves.

Satan has no problem with people being religious. He can easily tempt people to use religion to profit themselves – to acquire more power, pleasure, prestige, or material possessions. Satan has no problem with religious belief at the shallow level of the mind. He can easily tempt people to mask their sins – their apathy, their arrogance, their greed, and their hatred – behind “religious beliefs.”

Satan has a major problem with people joining with Christ. Because once all of humanity joins with Christ, the Light of the World, the Prince of Darkness will have no more power over us.

Being “reborn of water” means a lot more than just admission into “Club Christian” through baptism. Our heart must be in the right place. We must be willing for the Holy Spirit to show us if it isn’t so that we can repent and make a new commitment to join with Christ.

Jesus explains to Nicodemus that to be reborn from above involves not only being reborn of water but also being reborn of Spirit.

Nicodemus responds to this idea with, “How can these things be?” Jesus gently rebukes him saying, “Eeeeya! And you call yourself a teacher of Israel?” We Christians should have some compassion for Nicodemus because we too are deeply ignorant when it comes to our true nature.

If we believe that we were born and will someday die; then, we believe we are of the flesh. But the flesh hardly scratches the surface of who we really are. The flesh is like the tip of an iceberg so vast under the surface that we can’t even begin to imagine how big it is, or how deep it goes.

We’ve focused for so long on the tip of the iceberg that we’ve lost awareness of the vastness of our Being beneath the surface, and now we wonder like Nicodemus, “Really? How can it be that we are more these individuals?”

Think about this: When winter comes, many things in the natural world die. We aren’t horrified by this at all because we know spring is coming. We love spring because life returns to the Earth. Everything is reborn. We accept that the natural world is all part of this cycle of Life, and Life never dies; it continues on in ever-changing forms.

Isn’t that glorious? Well guess what? We’re part the natural world and therefore part of this glorious cycle of life. When Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life,” he was speaking as the Christ, and he was speaking quite literally. In Christ, we are the Life! We are literally Life itself!

That’s how God created us, but we humans refuse to believe that. We’d rather believe we’re separate – maybe because we’d like to think we’re superior to the rest of the natural world. We’d rather believe that we are this individual that dies than simply take our humble place alongside the rest of Life.

We’d rather believe that we can be separate and exploit the rest of Life and keep all the goodies to ourselves. Of course, keeping all the goodies to ourselves is meaningless unless we can somehow figure out how to make this individual live forever. Since that is “mission impossible,” we live in constant fear.

We choose to believe in this illusion of separation and experience fear, suffering, and death rather than to believe in who we are as God created us, as One with Him and All of Life, and to gratefully accept our inheritance: peace, joy, and eternal life.

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” He’s saying that the only way we can see the Kingdom of God is to join with Christ because Christ was born from above, not this thing (body).

Why in the world would we choose to believe we are these individuals and accept fear, suffering, and death when we have a far better choice? Perhaps, like Nicodemus, we can now draw a logical conclusion based on the evidence: We humans are spiritually insane.

Thankfully, God does not condemn us for our insanity. The insane can’t exercise their free will, so God had to intervene to save us. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

This verse sums up the Gospel, but it is usually taken out of context. Because of that, the word “so” is often mistakenly interpreted as “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son ….” But in the Bible, the word “so” is often used to mean “in the same way.”

A better translation would be “For God in the same way loved the world that he gave his only Son ….” In what same way? In the same way as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. Jesus is using the word “so” to point Nicodemus back to an event in Israel’s history.

This event takes place in Numbers chapter 21. The Israelites were still wondering in the wilderness at this time, but they were growing impatient. They spoke out against God and Moses, so the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people. Many Israelites who were bitten by the snakes died, so the people cried out to Moses, asking him to pray to God to remove the snakes.

God didn’t remove the snakes; instead, he instructed Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

Jesus is telling Nicodemus that God has a plan to heal humanity in the same way he healed the Israelites in the wilderness. I believe the serpents represent this false idol (the body), and the poison is our belief in it. God in his love for us sent Jesus to take this false idol to the cross to prove to us that it is nothing and to show us who we really are in Christ. Those who look up to the Christ and believe will be healed of the poison that has caused our spiritual insanity.

To be born again requires more of us than a simple confession of belief on the level of the mind. First, our heart must be in the right place. Therefore, we must be willing to allow the Holy Spirit to examine our hearts and help us come to our senses if we are living in the filth of fear, suffering, and death – or feeling a sense of entitlement and bitterness.

Next, if our heart is in the wrong place, we must repent and turn our faces back toward home, never again to turn them back toward that “distant country.” We must make the journey back to God step-by-step, keeping our eyes fixed on Christ, as we wait for God to run to greet us and enfold us in His Arms.

It is only then that we will truly know what it means to be “born again.”

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to be born from above – to be reborn of water and the Spirit. Through the Power of Your Holy Spirit, bring to our awareness what is in our hearts that may need to be cleansed with the water of repentance so that we can turn our face up toward Christ once again and continue our journey Home. Amen.

Resources

Deffinbaugh, Bob. “8. Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-21).” Bible.org, 19 Aug. 2004, bible.org/seriespage/jesus-and-nicodemus-john-31-21

The Tomb is the Womb

Titian / Public domain

Synopsis: Humanity is currently undergoing a time of great change, which is generating a lot of fear because human beings in general do not like change. The story of Jesus’ transfiguration can give us courage and hope as we face our personal and collective trials.

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon. Note: The live recording of this sermon ends at about 9:45 (my recording device’s batteries died). The remaining sermon audio was recorded in my home.

Scripture: Matthew 17:1-9

Peace be with you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, has been quoted as saying “change is the only constant in life.” It’s strange that a statement containing two contradictory words, “constant” and “change,” can be so true.

What’s just as ironic – and true – is the fact that change is something we humans fear the most. Here we live in a world where the only constant thing is change, and we fear change. What a predicament!

And here we are in this time of great change in our world, and we can feel the fear in the air. I believe the story of the transfiguration of Jesus can help us to be less fearful of change – and maybe even learn to embrace it.

In the previous chapter, Jesus and his disciples entered the region of Caesarea Philippi, located about 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. This area was ruled by Herod’s brother, Phillip the Tetrarch, who changed its name to Caesarea Philippi to honor the Emperor, Tiberius Caesar, and – of course – himself.

At this point in his ministry, Jesus was beginning to face opposition from religious leaders who kept asking him to produce a miraculous “sign in the sky.” Jesus had already performed many miracles, but they dismissed them as magic tricks, coincidence, or the use of some evil power.

Jesus knew that producing this sign would not convince them because they had already made up their minds about him. They believed that he was not of God, so they would once again explain away even a miraculous sign in the sky.

Juxtaposed to their doubts is Peter’s famous confession of faith. When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”

When Jesus asked them who they say he is, Peter declared, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus praised him as blessed for having received this revelation from God.

After Peter professed his faith in Jesus, Jesus began talking to the disciples about what he was going to face in Jerusalem – that he would be turned over to the religious leaders, be killed, and on the third day, rise from the dead.

Peter believed in Jesus as the Messiah, but he didn’t understand why he had to suffer and die. So, he took Jesus aside and rebuked him saying, “Lord, this shall never happen to you!” Jesus responded with a strong rebuke of his own, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Peter had six days to think about that before Jesus took them up that high mountain in our scripture reading for today.

Why did Jesus take them up there? Luke’s gospel says that he took them up there to pray, which is most likely true. In ancient times, people often used mountaintops or the wilderness to remove themselves from the world in order to pray or to receive spiritual revelations or transformations.

What’s interesting is that Jesus didn’t take all of his disciples up the mountain, only Peter, James, and John. Jesus was praying within eyeshot of these three when he was “transfigured.”

The main focus of this passage is on this one word: “transfigured.” The Greek term is meTA-mor-phoh-see, from where we get our word “metamorphosis.” The word describes a complete change in the form and substance of something. We read “his face shone like the sun” – as if light were coming out of the pores of his skin” – and his clothes became dazzling white.”

If that weren’t startling enough, Moses and Elijah suddenly appear. Moses wrote the Law and represents those who obeyed the Law. Elijah was to come to prepare people’s hearts for the coming of the Lord, so he represents those who had fallen away.

The presence of Moses and Elijah on the mountain with Jesus emphasizes his link with the ongoing story of God’s journey with His People, Israel. Jesus is the main character in chapter three of Israel’s Redemption Story – a story that would be extended to the entire world.

We read that when Peter saw Elijah and Moses, he offered to build tents for them. What was that all about? Peter wasn’t being obstinate or irreverent. His offer directly relates to the Feast of Tabernacles. This is a yearly feast in the Jewish tradition commemorating the wilderness wanderings and finally settling in the promised land. The people would build little shelters (or booths) and live under them for a week until the last day – the great day of the feast – to celebrate the promises coming to fulfillment.

In the previous chapter, Peter heard Jesus say, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Peter, upon experiencing this glorious vision of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, probably thought, “This is it – Jubilee! Can I make the tents?”

We certainly can’t blame Peter if his mind was a bit blown by what he had just seen, but he also wasn’t totally off. The prophet Zachariah wrote that in the Kingdom of God people will celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, or the fulfillment of all promises. Peter had the right idea – it just wasn’t the right time.

Peter’s offer was interrupted by a bright cloud overshadowing them, and a voice coming from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The Voice confirmed that Jesus embodied the Christ, so he was not merely a “son of God” like many people of royalty were called in those days, and he was not merely a “son of man,” like an ordinary human being.

Jesus Christ is the Son of God – the beloved and only begotten – and the Son of Man prophesized about in Daniel chapter 7: “I saw one like a human being (or a Son of Man) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.”

The Voice declared, “This is Jesus Christ, who sits at my right hand, to whom I have given authority over all things.” This is the claim Jesus will make at his trial in front of the Sanhedrin, the claim that will ultimately seal his fate.

The Lord’s transfiguration and the appearance of Moses and Elijah were not meant to frighten the disciples. It certainly made it clear to them that Jesus is what Peter declared him to be, not John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.

I’m sure those three disciples were at least awe-struck and from that point on and listened more intently what Jesus had to say.

After Jesus’ transfiguration, they came down the mountain. As much as it might have been tempting to remain there basking in all that glory, Jesus was ready to begin the final stages of his work as Savior.

He warned his disciples not to tell anyone about who he is until “the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” We can assume he didn’t want them to share this experience even with the other disciples. We don’t know why, but Jesus must have foreseen that sharing this with others before the right time would somehow interfere with his mission.

Now, how can this story help us deal with our fear of change in this time of great change?

Jesus’ transfiguration gives us hope for the future of humanity. God made us, and we are magnificent creatures. Just as Jesus’ transfiguration blew the minds of his disciples, we human beings all have the same mind-blowing potential in union with Christ, and Jesus came to prove it.

In 1 Corinthians 15:50-52, the apostle Paul wrote, “What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”

On the Mount of Transfiguration, God gave us a glimpse of that mysterious change. He revealed His Glory within Jesus. That glory is also within you as the Christ. That glory is within you. Do you believe that? Do you believe that you can morph into something entirely different?

When we think of the word metamorphosis, we often think of a butterfly. If I were to show you a caterpillar and a butterfly, would you ever believe in a million years that that little worm crawling around in the dirt would transform into a creature of such exquisite beauty and power, floating around in the sky with effortless grace and total freedom, if you hadn’t seen it for yourself?

Behold the power of God within His Creations! We take it for granted, but isn’t that magnificent?

And here we all are, with the same exquisite beauty and power within us that the disciples witnessed in Jesus. It’s hard for us to believe that we are not really this little worm, this physical body, this personal self, crawling around in the dirt of this world. We are really something else – something of unbelievable beauty and power – something that can soar with effortless grace and total freedom.

But the only way that we will ever believe it is to see it for ourselves. Herein lies the problem. We choose to wait in darkness for the “proof” that only our own light will deliver. The caterpillar is driven by its God-given instincts. When it is time, it begins to make its cocoon. The caterpillar’s tomb will become the butterfly’s womb.

We have free will, so we can choose to delay our transformation as long as we want, but not forever. Unlike the caterpillar, we are afraid of change. We’re a bit attached to who we think we are. We think we’re perfectly happy as a little worm. We don’t want God to show us the butterfly we really are.

We can be like the religious leaders who had already made up their minds about Jesus. We have already made up our minds about who we think we are, and the ego doesn’t like to be proven wrong. It also fears the unknown – at least it knows what to expect as a little worm.

But there’s only one way to become the butterfly we really are: We have to let the little worm go. Most people experience this “letting go” upon the death of their physical body, but we can experience this psychologically – without dying.

The timing is up to God, but we can allow God to give us this glimpse of who we really are in His Time by being willing to let go of all the ideas we have about ourselves – to let go of our beliefs, our desires, our likes, our dislikes, our past, our future, and all the other psychological “stuff” that separates us out and makes us “someone.”

I know that sounds strange, but it is believing all this “stuff” that has us convinced that we are the little worm – separate selves with separate lives – when we are really so much more. There is a purpose for this illusion. It’s how God experiences life as a human being – by temporarily “getting lost” in the human experience just like we get temporarily lost in a story by becoming identified with the characters.

We love getting sucked into a good story, don’t we? That’s because we never lose who we really are. God intends for Life to be fun that way – to be a joy – but when forget who we are, we become afraid, and then it isn’t fun anymore. Trials help us remember who we are. They encourage us to enter our cocoon – so that the tomb of our “character” may become the womb of Christ.

Jesus’ transfiguration gives us hope in times of trial. Peter tried to keep the Lord out of the tomb. During Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, Satan also tried to keep Jesus out of the tomb – to seek personal worldly glory, not Christ’s eternal glory.

But then Jesus would have remained Jesus of Nazareth and would never have become Jesus Christ. And we would not have his path to follow and the Holy Spirit to guide and comfort us.

Can you think of a time when you went through a very difficult trial? At the time, you might have thought, “Why are you doing this to me God? What have I done to deserve this?”

But there’s nothing like a difficult trial to destroy the false ideas we have about ourselves – especially the limiting ones. We often don’t know the strength within us until our personal self finally acknowledges complete loss of control and throws up its hands in surrender.

Unfortunately, to get it to that point usually requires a lot of pain. Arthur Burt once said, “Nothing happens until the pain of remaining the same outweighs the pain of change.”

The good news is that we’re not left there in ruins. That’s when the Christ within takes over and takes care of what needs to be done effortlessly. That’s when God’s love and grace and mercy become most apparent. That’s when we realize that trials are not meant to destroy us; they are meant to make us stronger. They are meant to wake us up.

We not only experience trials individually, but also collectively. Humanity is in a lot of pain right now. Can you feel it? Are you shuddering to think how bad the pain might have to get before humanity’s collective ego finally throws up its hands in surrender?

Me too, but at the same time, I trust that we will not be abandoned.

Jesus’ transfiguration confirms our faith. While we don’t know specifically what was said between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, we can assume that they were discussing his upcoming trial in Jerusalem. Jesus was not abandoned as he approached the most difficult part of his mission.

We can be sure that somehow his experience of being transfigured and his speaking with Moses and Elijah gave him the strength to face it.

Our faith is that strength. From the perspective of the world, Jesus’ march to the tomb was insane. That is why Jesus told his disciples in the previous chapter, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must forget about himself. He must take up his cross and follow Me. If anyone wants to keep his life safe, he will lose it. If anyone gives up his life because of me, he will save it. For what does a man have if he gets all the world and loses his own soul? What can a man give to buy back his soul?”

I’m quoting the NIV version of this verse because I believe this version makes it clearer what Jesus is talking about. The soul is the one consciousness that animates all living things. This one consciousness is Christ. Christ is the content within every living vessel.

Jesus was saying to his disciples, what have you gained if you protect this vessel but lose its contents? You become like a book with no words written within it. You not only become an empty book, but you lose your connection to everything. You lose the Word which is the very content of the Book of Life.

But the Truth about our loving God is that we can’t get lost; we can only experience ourselves lost temporarily. So, no matter what happens in our personal or collective lives, we should never lose hope, but abound in compassion for the pain within ourselves and all humanity as we struggle to wake up and become all God created us to be.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to enter the tomb of our personal selves that it may become the womb of Christ. Shine in us, around us, and through us, that the world may see your glory in the faces of your people – faces transfigured by the light of your love. Amen.

Resources

Ross, Allen. “25. The Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13).” Bible.org 31 Mar. 2006, https://bible.org/seriespage/25-transfiguration-matthew-171-13