Drinking the Father’s Cup in Peace

Mihály Munkácsy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: Humanity is facing many changes – personally and collectively – and some of these changes have been very challenging. How can we learn to accept what life brings our way with composure and peace? Jesus shows us how in his response to his arrest.

Scripture: John 18:33-37

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

There are many changes going on in our lives today – both personally and collectively – and some of these changes have posed serious challenges for many. People are feeling a great deal of fear and the result is bad behavior and much suffering. How can humanity learn to respond to life’s changes, especially the challenging ones, more calmly?

How Jesus responds to his arrest provides the perfect example of how not only to navigate life’s changes with composure but also how to face a very weighty challenge with peace.

John chapter 18 opens with Jesus being arrested in a garden outside the city, during which Peter cuts off the high priest’s slave’s ear. Jesus tells Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?”

Jesus was initially questioned by Annas, the former high priest, who still held people’s respect. While Jesus was inside, Peter was outside at the gate, standing around a charcoal fire with court slaves and police. Three times they asked Peter, “Hey, aren’t you one of his disciples?” Peter denied it each time.

Annas questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teachings. Jesus responded that he has done everything out in the open, so why does he need to ask? One of the police struck him across the face for being snarky, but Jesus objected saying, “Why do you strike me for telling the truth?”

Annas then sent Jesus to be questioned by the reigning high priest, Caiaphas. John’s gospel doesn’t tell us how Jesus’ meeting with Caiaphas went, but we know from Matthew’s gospel that Caiaphas found Jesus guilty of blasphemy, so they took him to Pilate.

The Jews refused to enter Pilate’s headquarters so that they would not become ritually defiled before the Passover. So, Pilate came out to them. Pilate asked them of what they were accusing Jesus. They had no real charge to present to Pilate. Instead, they insisted that they wouldn’t be bringing Jesus to him if he wasn’t a lawbreaker.

Pilate encouraged them to judge Jesus according to their laws, but didn’t Caiaphas already take care of that? Yes, Jesus was found guilty and had been sentenced to death. But the Romans didn’t allow Jews to carry out death sentences, so they brought Jesus to Pilate, hoping he would carry it out for them.

Do you catch the irony in this? They didn’t want to enter into Pilate’s court because they didn’t want to become defiled before the Passover. Yet, here they were, seeking to put an innocent man to death. That’s why Jesus called them “whitewashed tombs.” (Matthew 23: 27-28).

And that brings us to our scripture reading for today. Pilate is scuttling back and forth between the accusers and the accused. He’s trying to figure out what to do with Jesus since his accusers aren’t helping him much with their extremely vague accusations.

He has gone back inside his headquarters to question Jesus. He asks him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” That’s a legitimate question. Since Caesar is technically the ruler of the Jews, for Jesus to call himself king would be treason, punishable by death. I’m sure that Pilate, looking at this man so humbly standing before him, seriously doubted that he had such ambitions, but he had to ask.

Not surprisingly, Jesus responds to the questioner with a question: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” He wasn’t being snarky here. Since Jesus never called himself King of the Jews, he needed to know where Pilate was coming from. Did Pilate wonder if Jesus believed himself to be a king, or did he simply hear others call him one?

It is clear from Pilate’s response that he is frustrated. We can’t blame him. He still doesn’t understand why the Jews have brought Jesus before him in the wee hours of the morning. He replies, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”

Jesus sorts out what Pilate is worried about, so he explains that if he were a political king, his followers would be defending him. If he had wanted to start a rebellion, he certainly could have. Although he had only a small band of disciples, he had many followers.

His instructing Peter to put away his sword at his arrest should have made it clear to all witnesses that he did not condone violence and had no intention to lead a rebellion. His kingdom is a spiritual kingdom, one not of this world, and thus no threat to Rome. Pilate responds, “So you are a king then?” Since Jesus didn’t deny being some sort of king, Pilate is seeking additional assurances.

In the synoptic gospels, Jesus simply responds, “So you say.” Here in John’s gospel, Jesus says this also, followed by an explanation of the meaning of his kingship, which makes sense since John’s gospel is more concerned with theology and philosophy than with history.

What follows is the theological and philosophical meaning of Jesus’ kingdom as John understood it. Jesus responds, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

What “truth” is Jesus referring to? Well, humanity has been trying to figure that out for a couple thousand years now. I’ve been trying to figure it out my whole life, and I’ve pondered it many different points of view. Along the way, I’ve been sharing my journey with you. I call it a journey because it is evolving. I am not your authority on this. You are your authority. You are on a journey also.

So, having said that, here is where I’m at currently on my journey. I believe Jesus was born into this world to testify to the Truth that we are not only these bodies. We are a three-part being consisting of body, mind, and soul. The body and mind make up the personal self. The personal self is temporary.

The soul is the part of us that is connected to God and all of Life. God is Pure Being, and Life is God’s expression through the Christ, who is the very soul of Life. Our soul is part of the Christ and is therefore forever joined with the Christ. This part is eternal just as Life is eternal.

Because Life is eternal, it is always changing – always evolving into higher, more functional levels. Life informs itself about what it needs to continue to evolve from the process of life. It is a perfect system: Life informs and sustains Life through Life.

The soul knows everything that Life needs to continue evolving. When we understand this, then we can drink the Father’s cup in peace. We can respond to life’s changes – especially the challenging ones – with more composure in three key ways.

First, we accept ourselves as we are and where we are at all times. Like Jesus, we were born into this world for a life-enhancing purpose, and we were flawlessly created for that purpose. When we understand this, we stop trying to “fix” ourselves because we trust that we are exactly who and where Life needs us to be at every moment. Life brings us exactly what we need to guide us toward the achievement of our purpose.

If we’re not where we need to be, we need not worry. Life will nudge us back in sync quickly and painlessly as long as we know how to go with the flow. But that is the challenge. The personal self isn’t so good at “going with the flow.” That’s because it has no idea of the soul and its purpose. All it cares about is how things affect its own little world. That’s why we hear it up here in our heads constantly grumbling about life. Listening to that voice is the main cause of human pain and suffering, not change.

We have free will, so we are allowed listen to that voice and go rogue – to choose to go against the purpose for which we were created. But when we go against life’s plan, we experience pain and suffering – and not just us, but all of life. We are each cells in the Body of Christ, so when one cell goes rogue, it negatively impacts the whole body in some way – until it is healed.

We are working on raising our level of consciousness, becoming more aware of who we are, so that, by tuning into the Voice of Christ in our hearts and tuning out that other voice in our heads, we can live our lives with more peace and joy and less anger and fear. We may think we are doing this work to heal only ourselves. But in reality, our work helps to heal the collective human mind. So, if that’s all we’re doing, that is enough to change the world for the better.

Next, we accept others as they are and where they are at all times. If we were brought into this world for a life-enhancing purpose, then so was everyone else. Then everyone else is exactly who and where they need to be at every moment. And they are also allowed to go rogue if they choose to. When we accept this truth, we stop judging others, and we don’t feel as threatened by people.

You see, when we know who we really are, we no longer feel the need to protect ourselves psychologically – to protect the personal self’s temporary stash of worldly identities established though things like wealth, status, culture, religion, etc. People who don’t know who they really are feel the need to protect these identities at all costs because they have no other identity – as far as they know.

For this reason, the personal self is very paranoid, and we can clearly see its paranoia playing out in this story. Jesus was no real threat to anyone, but he was crucified because his teachings posed a psychological threat to powerful people. To this very day, his teachings cause us to question the justice of social hierarchies and to recognize the corruption at the top levels.

If Annas and Caiaphas had taken the time to follow Jesus, to actually get to know him and his ministry by first-hand experience, they could have discovered the Truth and found peace. They could have been healed. They could have lived under God’s rule instead of men’s. Instead, they chose to believe what they wanted to believe, and they viciously protected their small selves. That’s how people get “crucified” every day.

When we are aware of the human mind’s tendency to protect the personal self’s illusory identities, we are far less likely to view everyone as a villain involved in some conspiracy against us. We become more willing to give people the benefit of the doubt and to take the time to actually get to know them instead of believing everything we hear.

Finally, and most importantly, we accept that no matter what happens, everything works for good. Every event in life must somehow elevate life – even events that seem horrible from our limited human perspective.

You see, we tend to judge the events of life as “bad” or “good” depending on how they affect the personal self. We don’t have the perspective or wisdom to see how life’s events ultimately serve all of Life – and that is by design.

For that reason, we shouldn’t judge anything that happens. When we can approach the events of life non-judgmentally, then we can be at peace with whatever happens to us, as Jesus was: non-resistant, allowing life to proceed as life must, even when facing the worst scenario imaginable.

Some Christians have pointed their fingers at Jews calling them “Christ killers,” and others have defended the Jews saying the Romans killed Jesus, not the Jews. But I believe the truth is that it was nobody’s fault. It was Jesus’ decision to drink the Father’s cup, and all of the events of the day were arranged by Life to support that decision.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus faced the personal self’s fear of annihilation. If I could summarize the gist of Jesus’ prayer, it would be this: “Father, if Life can still be elevated without my personal self being elevated on a cross, then please save me now!”

But there in the garden, Jesus came to full acceptance of what life needed from him in order to evolve. That was the cup the Father was giving him. Jesus had free will just like all of us. He could have gone rogue. Who would have blamed him? But instead, he said, “Ok, I’m willing to drink it.”

That is why after telling Peter to put away his sword, he commented, “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” He understood that in order for all of life to evolve, humanity’s level of self-awareness needed to rise. Humanity needed to become aware of its unity with Christ, the Soul of Life.

And Jesus, our beautiful Savior, would bring that awareness to humanity. It would be an absolutely grueling experience for his personal self – for his body and mind, but the soul – the soul of Life, which includes the soul of all humanity, would be enormously served.

Indeed, what a friend we have in Jesus. Our beautiful Savior would make the greatest sacrifice for others the world has ever seen – and in making that sacrifice he would demonstrate the greatest outpouring of the Father’s love the world has ever seen. His monumental sacrifice in loving service to all of Life is why Jesus Christ is King.

So, this advent, as we reflect on the birth of our beautiful savior, his purpose for coming into this world, and his choice to drink the Father’s cup in peace – a heroic decision born out of pure love for all humanity – let us also be willing to drink the Father’s cup in peace as we await for the promised arrival of Christ the King into the hearts of all.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we can’t thank you enough for the tremendous sacrifice you made to bring to humanity the awareness of its unity in Christ. In appreciation for this monumental act of love, we are willing to lovingly accept ourselves, one another, and the events life brings. We open our hearts to love. Amen.

Resources

Donovan, R. “Biblical Commentary (Bible Study) John 18:33-37.” John 18:33-37 – Sermon Writer.

Lake, Gina. “How to Heal Humanity and Transform the World – Gina Lake Channeling Jesus.” YouTube, www.youtube.com/watch?v=-05btloovyA&list=WL&index=3&t=760s

Marsh, M. “The Truth Does Not Belong to Us – a Sermon on John 18:33-37.” 22 Nov. 2015, The Truth Does Not Belong to Us – A Sermon on John 18:33-37 – Interrupting the Silence.

A Time to Mourn – with Hope

Josef August Untersberger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: How can we bear witness to all the sins of our society and still have hope? We can do it by following the example of Our Lord, who bore witness to the corruption in his society yet maintained his trust in God ‘s promise that despite all the pain and suffering we may face, there will be a happy ending.

Scripture: Mark 13:1-8

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

One of the most well-known passages in the Bible is the one from Ecclesiastes 3, known as “A Time for Everything.” It’s so well-known because in the 50’s Pete Seeger turned it into a song called “Turn, Turn, Turn.” In verse 4, the song goes, “a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance.”

In our scripture reading for today, Jesus had borne witness to the ills of his society, and he sensed destruction coming. So, he said to his disciples, “Sorry guys, it’s not time to smile; it’s not time to cheer. It’s time to weep; it’s time to mourn.”

It’s becoming impossible for us today not to bear witness to the sins of our society. Advances in media technology have made us privy to everything that is wrong with America. It’s like a voice constantly screaming in our faces. Many of us can probably sense some form of destruction coming as much as we don’t like to think about it.

So perhaps, like Jesus, it would be helpful to all of us to find a way to name and grieve the wrongs to which we bear witness. Terri Wilkins from Red Letter Christians has done just that by writing an article called “A Time to Mourn.” I would like to read some of it to you as a present-day example. (Click link to article listed under “Resources”)

I know we don’t like grief. We don’t like to be sad. But as much as we dislike grief, grief is transformative. We must grieve before anything can change, but let us not become so mired in grief that we forget that there is hope.

That’s what today’s scripture reading is all about.

Jesus entered Jerusalem and immediately had several negative encounters with the religious leaders in the city. He cursed a fig tree as a form of commentary on the unproductive Jewish religious system of his day, which largely failed to inspire the growth of spiritual fruit within its adherents.

He cleanses the temple, calling it a “den of thieves,” full of moneychangers and merchants who in essence robbed travelers coming from outside Jerusalem through low currency exchange rates and high prices for “temple-approved” sacrificial animals.

He recounts Israel’s rejection of the prophets and the Son in the Parable of the Wicked Tenets, predicting that Israel, like the wicked tenets, will lose the vineyard to others. Then, in a shocking statement, he declares that by rejecting him, they are foolishly rejecting the very cornerstone upon which faith is built.

What Jesus says so clearly denounces the religious leaders that they want to kill him, but they are afraid to attempt it because of his popularity with the crowd. So, they try to whittle away at his credibility, first by questioning his authority and then by asking a variety of questions intended to trap him.

As always, Jesus cleverly evades their efforts to trap him and once again clearly denounces them at the end of chapter 12 stating, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

And that brings us to our scripture reading for today. As Jesus is leaving the Temple with his disciples, one of them comments on the massive stones and magnificent buildings. It appears that it is this particular disciple’s first time visiting Jerusalem, and according to the synoptic gospels, Jesus entered Jerusalem only once during his year-long ministry.

It’s not surprising that this disciple was impressed by the massive Temple complex. It was the glory of the Jewish people. Located at the top of a mountain, it was as big as a stadium and as tall as a modern 15-story building. Its huge marble stones weighed as much as 500 tons each. The stones were adorned with gold on the outside, so the Temple shone brilliantly in the sun.

Notice the contrast between this disciple’s comments about the Temple’s lovely exterior and Jesus’ comments about the corruption within. That golden glory was maintained by not only the exploitation of worshippers taking place in the Temple courts, but also by offerings from people like the poor widow, who gave everything she had to live on.

Jesus predicts that very soon every one of those gold-adorned stones will be thrown down, but there is hope: the Son of Man will come and put all things right. Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple isn’t the first. Jeremiah made the same prediction six centuries earlier, and it happened! The entire city was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar of Assyria in 587 B.C.

Jesus’ prediction will come true in 70 A.D. In response to a Jewish rebellion, the Romans will build great fires at the base of the walls, and the intense heat will cause those huge golden-marble stones to crumble and collapse under their own weight. The entire city will be destroyed.

When people in powerful positions don’t like a message, they often shoot the messenger. So just as Jeremiah was persecuted for making his ominous prediction, Jesus’ prediction will be shared with the religious authorities and used as evidence to prove that he is a dangerous subversive who needs to die.

Certainly, Jesus’ prediction makes the disciples nervous, so they ask the Lord what signs to look for, so they can be prepared. Instead of giving them actual signs, Jesus names events that we must endure before the end comes – trials like wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famines.

He can’t be more specific because only the Father, the author of this play called “Life,” knows when the Son of Man arrives in the script.

Can Jesus’ words to his disciples be comforting to us today when many are wondering, “Is this it? Is this the end times?” Well, I like to think of it this way. When we’re in the middle of watching a TV series or reading a book, it’s really annoying when someone who has seen the whole series or read the whole book tells us how it ends, right? We call them “spoilers.” Well, God is not a spoiler! He’s not telling anyone how his play will end.

Imagine being an actor in a play where you don’t know what the next line is going to be, or even the next scene, and you really have no idea what the next act will contain and no clue how it’s going to end. There’s no human-authored play in the world like that! Only God can create a play like that. And he has! It’s called “Life,” and guess what? We’re all actors in it! What fun!

Whether we find it fun or terrifying depends on how much we trust the playwright. Jesus is giving us a very cryptic preview of the end. It’s like those “final episode” previews we see on TV; it’s just enough to keep us in suspense without giving away the ending. Jesus is saying, “Look, the ending might feel scary and painful, but don’t worry. There will be a happy ending.” If we trust the Lord’s words here, then we can relax and enjoy the play a lot more, right?

What we experience in the midst of the play, what happens in the scenes and in the acts, might be scary and painful, but Jesus instructs us to think of them as “birth pangs.” Just as a mother suffers from fear and pain before the birth of the new life she will bring forth, there will be fear and pain before the happy ending, before the coming of the Son of Man, and the new life all of humanity will bring forth.

In verse 5 where Jesus says, “Beware that no one leads you astray,” the word “beware” is from the Greek word “blepete” (bleh-pet-teh), which means to be carefully discerning. Jesus is urging his disciples to be on the lookout for false prophets and messiahs. We know from the historian Josephus that many messianic pretenders arose in the first century after Jesus’ death.

Is Jesus’ warning useful to us today? I believe it is. There have certainly been modern-day religious leaders who have claimed to be the messiah and have led people astray, such as Jim Jones and David Koresh. But more recently, there have emerged entire Christian movements who, like the Zealots of Jesus’ day, seek to turn Jesus into a political messiah who applauds their sacrificing of others to serve their political agendas.

And there are Christian movements who, like the moneychangers and merchants at the Temple, seek to make Jesus a messiah of consumerism who encourages acquiring more and more wealth while shouldering no obligation to help those in need.

You see, if people don’t like who Jesus really was, they will turn him into someone more to their liking – someone who conveniently endorse their corrupt values.

It is so easy to be led astray this way, and many have been. That is why we struggle with so much divisiveness even within families. Jesus himself was estranged from his family. They thought he was crazy. Perhaps that’s one reason he chose Capernaum as the home base for his ministry, not his hometown of Nazareth.

This potential for family estrangement for the sake of the gospel is why Jesus said to his disciples in Mark chapter 10:29-30, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”

So, no matter what we see happening, we must say to ourselves, “the end is not yet.” We must not try to figure out when the end is. That’s yet another way many are led astray. We must remain calm and keep the faith, knowing that the end will come in God’s perfect timing. The Christ will come into the hearts of all, and great change will occur, but until then, I believe we must wait until all the things in which we have misplaced our faith fail utterly and completely.

Just as the people of Jesus’ time misplaced their faith in people and buildings to lead them back to God – such as religious authorities and the Temple – events of recent times have made it clear we, too, have misplaced our faith in many of our religious authorities and institutions. They have failed to lead us back to God.

Just as the people of Jesus’ time placed their faith in a political Messiah to bring Israel back to God through the defeat of the Romans, hoping that Jesus would fulfill that role, events of recent times have made it clear that we have misplaced our faith in many of our elected leaders. They have failed to lead us back to God.

Who or what will lead us back to God? Nothing out there. No people or institutions. Jesus demonstrated what will lead us back to God by sacrificing his personal self for the sake of others. He showed us who we really are when the personal self is stripped away – the Christ – who has never left God. We return to God and usher in the Kingdom of Heaven when we return to our Self (with a capital “S”) and do what comes naturally and effortlessly in that state: loving one another.

Yes, the labor of giving birth to the Christ within our hearts is scary and painful, just as going through physical labor can be. Watching the events of today happening scene-by-scene in the news can lead us to despair when we forget to think of them as birth pangs heralding the happy ending. However terrible, the events of the day are not the final act! The Christ will arrive! The time to laugh and dance is coming!

Let’s pray together: Lord, like you we grieve the sins of our society and sense destruction coming. Give us the courage to mourn with hope – to stand firm in the faith, trusting God’s promise of a happy ending: the coming of the Christ into the hearts of all, and the birth of a new way of life. Amen.

Resources

Donovan, R. “Biblical Commentary (Bible Study) Mark 13:1-8.” sermonwriter.com, Mark 13:1-8 – Sermon Writer.

Powery, Emerson. “Commentary on Mark 13:1-8.” workingpreacher.org, 15 Nov. 2015, Commentary on Mark 13:1-8 – Working Preacher from Luther Seminary.

Wilkins, Terri. “A Time to Grieve.” redletterchristians.org, 18 Oct. 2021, A Time to Grieve – Red Letter Christians.

Ransomed into the New

Josef August Untersberger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: How do Christians experience the peace of the Lord in a world gone mad? Jesus addresses this issue when he discusses with his disciples the spiritual perils of seeking worldly power and prestige. He compares this turbulent way of life under human rule to a peaceful way of life under God’s rule, where the greatest are the humblest servants of all.

Scripture: Mark 10: 35-45

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

If I were to conduct a one-question poll of a random group of Christians, the question would be, “What is the one burning question on your mind related to the Christian life today? I wouldn’t be surprised if the response was something like, “How is it possible to experience the peace of the Lord in a world gone mad?” So, if that’s the burning question on your mind, you’re in luck, because that’s what our scripture reading for today is all about.

As always, let’s review the context. Jesus was making his way toward Jerusalem for the final stage of his selfless ministry to humanity. Along the way, he was doing his best to prepare the disciples for what would happen to him there. In verse 33, Jesus tells his disciples for the third time about his upcoming arrest, death, and resurrection.

He says, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”

The disciples struggled to understand the kind of Savior Jesus is and the kind of kingdom he would set-up. They, like many Jews of Jesus’ time, wanted Jesus to be a political savior who would save them from the tyranny of the Romans. They had their hearts set on Jesus’ setting-up a worldly kingdom that would allow them to occupy positions of worldly power and influence.

They had their hearts set on the wrong idea. Jesus was doing his best to teach them that his kingdom was not a political, worldly one. In his kingdom, the greatest is the exact opposite of the kind of person considered the greatest by the standards of this world. In his kingdom, the greatest is the humble servant who welcomes the lowly, not the arrogant big shot who scoffs them.

And that brings us to our scripture reading for today. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approach Jesus requesting positions of power and prestige in his kingdom. They knew that glorification awaited Jesus because they had witnessed his transfiguration; they wanted some of that glory for themselves.

Jesus responds, “You do not know what you are asking.” He responds this way for two reasons. First, he knows that they don’t understand the kind of savior he is and the kind of kingdom he would set-up. He asks them if they are willing to drink the cup that he is about to drink and receive the baptism that he is about to receive.

What cup was he referring to? In the gospel of Luke 22:42, Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”

He was referring to the cup of suffering that he would drink before his baptism by fire – a permanent transfiguration through the death of his personal self. He was asking James and John if they were willing to sacrifice their personal selves for the sake of others.

This is the level of selfless, loving service the greatest in Jesus’ kingdom possesses. At this point in time, James and John were not able. We know this because all the disciples would flee and hide after Jesus is arrested. Jesus would be crucified between two bandits, not two disciples. James and John would not get the true meaning of Jesus’ mission and what his kingdom was all about until after his resurrection.

Yet both claim that they are able, and Jesus predicts, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” James would eventually be martyred, and John would be exiled to the Island of Patmos – both persecuted for the sake of Jesus’ kingdom. Curiously, James would be the first disciple to die, and John the last.  

What did Jesus mean when he said, “but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” Jesus is saying that God is the playwright, and Christ is the actor. When it comes to the casting the actors in this play called Life, God makes the decisions. In fact, God has already made those decisions.

Apparently the other ten disciples were furious with James and John for vying for positions of power over them. So, Jesus calls the disciples together because it was clear that none of them realized the spiritual perils of the human drive for worldly power and prestige.

This is the second reason why Jesus responded, “You do not know what you are asking.” Many who are in positions of power and prestige “sell their soul to the devil” to protect their positions and privileges. They use any means necessary – including violent means.

Soon, the disciples will witness the violence unleashed by those seeking to protect themselves from the implications of Jesus’ ministry. The Sadducees feared that Jesus’ ministry would inspire an uprising, potentially triggering the Romans to destroy the Temple, which would completely destroy the role of the Sadducees since their job was to direct Temple activities.

Pontius Pilate feared that he too might lose his job if he could not keep things under control in his district. So, he ruled through intimidation by dealing very violently with any and all troublemakers. Jesus might inspire an uprising. That’s all he needed to know. As with John the Baptist’s death, whether Jesus’ death was fair didn’t matter to these worldly rulers.

While they killed others to save themselves, Jesus would – in direct contrast – willingly sacrifice his life to save others. He would forgo any attempts to control his fate or to prevail over others. He was willing to be powerless and vulnerable (like a child) to demonstrate the true meaning of power – the immense spiritual power that lies within each and every one of us – and how that incredible power is unleashed.

Jesus explains to his disciples that they will not occupy positions of worldly power and prestige. If they wish to be the greatest in his kingdom, they must resolve to be the greatest servant of all and the humblest of all.

Our scripture reading ends with Jesus saying in verse 45, For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” This statement gives us a glimpse into the purpose of Jesus’ ministry as the gospel writer Mark sees it. Remember that Mark’s gospel is the oldest gospel and was used as a source by all the other gospel writers.

The word translated as “ransom” is the Greek word lytron (LEE-tron). The Old Testament’s use of a related word sometimes refers to a redemption or purchased freedom, but also often refers to God’s acting to deliver people.

When we hear the word “ransom,” we think of someone who has been taken against his or her will, and the bad guys are demanding cash from the family to get their loved one back. The person who has been taken is innocent. They haven’t done anything wrong.

Many pastors argue that Jesus is talking about a ransom for sin here, but Jesus isn’t talking about sin. He’s comparing worldly leaders to spiritual leaders. He comparing those who sacrifice others for their own sake to those who sacrifice themselves for the sake of others.

He’s comparing an old way of life ruled by men to an entirely new way of life. Jesus is suggesting that his death will free people from oppression and captivity to another power, restoring them to membership in the community that is ruled by God.

Jesus’ death will be a ransom from human rule for the many who recognize that they are enslaved by this old way of life – a way of life that revolves around violently protecting the personal self where those with the most worldly power always prevail over those with the least.

But we can live an entirely different way once we remember who we are. Once we remember whose we are. Once we chose spiritual power over worldly power. Once we no longer feel the need to protect an illusion. Jesus endured crucifixion to demonstrate to all humanity the truth that who we really are cannot die and needs no protection.

What does this scripture reading have to say to us today? It has much to say to us today. If anyone thinks that only the political leaders of Jesus’ time were driven insane by worldly power and prestige, they haven’t watched the news lately.

We see the same strong-armed political theater happening today – men and women who engage in blatantly unjust and tyrannical deeds just to remain in their positions of power and enjoy their privileges even though it’s at others’ expense. There’s not so much physical brutality as in Jesus’ day, but there is a great deal of mental and emotional brutality going on.

Not only do we see this behavior in political leaders seeking to maintain their elected positions, we also see this in members of the general public who wish to maintain their positions of power and privilege over others on the basis of their gender, race, religion, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, etc.

I believe their tactic has become quite clear: to sow seeds of hatred by spreading misinformation and lies. If we all hate each other, we won’t join together and fight for one another because we’ll be far too busy fighting against one another to have the time to challenge the legitimacy of their privileges.

Why do they seem so desperate? Because their privileges are not legitimate, and they are spotting the fact that more and more people are figuring that out. Jesus taught his disciples that the gentiles and the Samaritans were just as worthy as they to receive God’s blessing, and he is telling us today that no one is unworthy because the truth is that on the fundamental level, we are all nothing less than a sunbeam of God.

The things that make us appear different – things like positions, genders, races, religions, socioeconomic statuses, sexual orientations, etc. are just that – appearances – temporary appearances. They are illusions that all pass away with the personal self.

So, the question Jesus is asking his disciples, including us, is this: Do we want to live under human rule with worldly power and privileges and the stormy, complicated, perilous life that comes with it?  Or do we want to live under God’s rule – with the immense spiritual power of childlike humility – and enjoy the privileges of unwavering peace and an elegantly simple life of extending the Love of God to all?

If we say we do, then we must not allow ourselves to get caught up in the drama of those who still chose to live under human rule. It’s easy to get caught up in all the fear-mongering and intimidation when we forget that we are not ultimately ruled by these insane people, and they can’t do a thing to harm who we really are.

They have no power over us except for the power we chose to give them. When we allow their words and deeds to trouble us, then we are giving them power over our thoughts and feelings. We can choose not to do that either by tuning them out or by observing their words and deeds without getting upset. Hey, it can be a form of entertainment for us. That way, we keep our power, demonstrate our faith in who we are and whose we are, and keep our sense of humor.

We can do that because we live according to God’s Will, and we trust God’s Will for our lives. We trust that nothing can happen to us that is not God’s Will for us, that does not have some loving purpose for our spiritual growth. That goes not only for us individually but for humanity as a whole.

What will our lives be like if we no longer feel the need to protect our bodies, our stuff, our statuses, our lifestyle – the “story” of our lives? We would have the peace that Jesus left with us – peace that nothing in this world could take away from us.

If we say we want this indestructible peace under God’s rule, then we must commit to it by watching out for the temptations of power and privilege that can so easily pull us back into human rule.

There’s nothing wrong with having power as long as we don’t lord it over others and demand that they kowtow to us. And there’s nothing wrong with privilege as long as we don’t attempt to block others from access to the same privileges. Because when we lord our power over others or attempt to block others from the privileges we enjoy, then a very relevant question is, “Who do we think we are?”

Because when we lord our power over others or try to block others from the privileges we enjoy then we are doing nothing less than protecting the personal self and its “story” of superiority. In that moment, we are making a very clear statement about who we really think we are and the kind of rule we prefer.  

But when we are humble servants, we do whatever we can to help others without strings – without any demands or expectation of reward or even thanks. We are willing to sacrifice the personal self’s need for kudos because we recognize the truth that it’s just the personal self’s attempt to steal the glory that belongs to God. That is the kind of servitude Jesus is talking about – a greatness in servitude that is reflected in the apostle Peter’s first letter, chapter 5:1-4.

He writes, “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”

We serve others by correcting the misinformation that inspires discord. We serve others by rebuking the lies that sow hatred. We serve others by ignoring the mind, tuning into the heart, and responding to God’s call – each instance of inspiration to extend love to someone in need. Not because we’ll feel guilty if we don’t. Not because we want people to think we’re a good person. But just because we are willing to allow God to use us in this way.

This is how we accept the ransom Jesus paid for us – by our commitment to step out of the old turbulent way of life under human rule and into a new peaceful way of life under God’s rule. Let us aspire to be no one – no one but who we really are in Christ, and let our only ambition be to express the love of God through selfless service to all of humanity.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to accept the ransom you paid for us and to live in a new world ruled by God. We accept the peace you leave with us by letting go of the heavy burden of protecting the personal self. We are ready and willing to be used by God to serve others in need and to let all the glory be reserved for God alone. AMEN.

Resources

Life Application Study Bible.

Skinner, Matt. “Commentary on Mark 10:35-45.” Workingpreacher.org, 18 Oct. 2009, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-29-2/commentary-on-mark-1035-45-2

Vitalis Hoffman, Mark G. “Commentary on Mark 10:35-45.” Workingpreacher.org, 18 Oct. 2015, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-29-2/commentary-on-mark-1035-45-3

Ultimate Security

Heinrich Hofmann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: Why is it so hard for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God? Jesus teaches us that it isn’t wealth itself that is the problem; it is our attitude toward our wealth that can cause us to feel estranged from God.

Scripture: Mark 10: 17-31

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

In today’s world, security is big business. People spend a lot of money on security. They buy insurance policies, contribute to IRAs and 401Ks, and invest in the stock market. They buy virus protection programs for their electronic devices and put security systems in place to protect homes and businesses. For example, there’s a company called Ultimate Security Systems, Inc. Its by-line is “Your one-stop shop for all your electronic security needs.”

Most people don’t lack knowledge of the things the world offers to help alleviate our anxiety about the future. However, what they do lack is the knowledge of what will help alleviate our anxiety about the future forever – of where our ultimate security lies – the one-stop shop for all our security needs.

That is what our scripture reading for today is all about. First, some context. Jesus went up a mountain with Peter, James, and John. There these three disciples witnessed Jesus transfigured and his speaking with Moses and Elijah. They return to the other disciples, and Jesus begins to prepare them for the last stage of his journey – Jerusalem and the cross.

On the road to Capernaum, the disciples had a heated discussion about who was the greatest among them. To deal with their pride, Jesus taught them that the greatest in his kingdom is humble like a child and welcomes the lowly. He also warned them of the grave cost of causing those who are vulnerable to fall into sin and of ignoring the sin within themselves.

Jesus left Capernaum and entered into Judea, where he is tested by the Pharisees with a question about divorce. People were also bringing children to Jesus to lay his hands on them and bless them. The disciples protested, but Jesus was indignant when he heard about it.

He told them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

That brings us to our scripture reading for today. Jesus is now in Judea, and he is setting out on a journey toward Jerusalem. A man kneels before him and asks him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Unlike the Pharisees, this man is not asking this question to test Jesus. His words and actions demonstrate that he has a lot of respect for Jesus, so we can safely assume his question is sincere.

Jesus reminds the man that no one is good save God alone. He then lists the commandments, but notice that all of them are the ones concerning our relationships with one another, not the ones regarding our relationship with God.

The man responds that he has obeyed those commandments since his youth. What do we think of this man? Is he lying, or self-deceived? Is he a hypocrite? The text tells us that Jesus gazed at him and loved him, so perhaps we should love him too. Perhaps he was “blameless with respect to righteousness under the law” as Paul states about himself in his letter to the Philippians.

The man is obviously a devout Jew. He keeps the commandments – at least the ones related to human interactions. But what about the ones that Jesus didn’t list – the ones about our relationship with God? Was it truly God alone he worshipped, or were there idols hidden in his heart?

Jesus’ challenge made the answer to that question clear, and the man walked away very unhappy. His relationships with other people were good, but his riches had gotten in between him and God.

Jesus’ comment on how hard it is for the wealthy to enter into the Kingdom of God leaves the disciples perplexed. To drive home his point, Jesus uses a shocking exaggeration: It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle! We all know how small the eye of a needle is and how huge a camel is.

Why are the disciples so shocked? Well, they lived in a culture that associated wealth and power with divine favor. It’s that hard even for those who are the most blessed? If it’s that hard even for this man, an obviously law-abiding, socially-responsible Jewish citizen, who then can be saved?

Jesus’ response is perfect. “For mortals it is impossible” (We can’t earn our own way into the Kingdom of God), “but not for God; for God all things are possible” (We get there only through God’s grace).

You see, the man’s question itself revealed that he felt estranged from his Heavenly Father. Imagine if your children came to you and asked, “What must I do to earn my inheritance?”

They don’t have to earn it, right? They are entitled to it because they are your children. If they are asking you that question, you’d have to wonder if they had somehow forgotten who they are or if they believe that you have disowned them for some reason.

We are God’s children. We don’t need to earn the gifts God has graciously given us. He gives them to us simply because we are his children, and he loves us. The Kingdom of God is our inheritance, and that includes eternal life. All we need to do is remember who we are and God’s love for us. If we feel estranged, it is certainly not because God has rejected or abandoned us.

There’s nothing wrong with being wealthy, but if our wealth is more important to us than our relationship with God, then our attitude is keeping us estranged from God – not the wealth itself.

Peter asserts that he and the rest of the disciples had left everything behind to follow Jesus. Now, they were not rich like this man. Many of them were quite poor, like Peter, barely surviving as fishermen.

But whether they realize it or not, as followers of Jesus, they are now really living by God’s grace. They do not need worldly wealth because they are no longer estranged from their Heavenly Father and their ginormous family. All of Creation belongs to them, so they literally have everything they need: people (brothers and sisters; mothers and children) and things (houses and fields).

They will also face persecution because they reject the world’s values, but they will be the first to inherit eternal life because they are the last on the totem pole when it comes to who the world values. The world admires arrogant rulers, not humble servants.

What does this teaching have to say to us today? As with many of Jesus’ teachings, they are timeless, so this teaching is just as relevant today as it was in Jesus’ time.

Our relationship with God is just as important as our relationship with others, so if we somehow feel estranged from God, we can’t experience the bliss of our union with God.

We are a three-part being: body, mind, and soul. When we come into this physical existence, the soul takes on a body and a mind. Some call it the body-mind, and it’s written as “body dash mind.” The body-mind is what makes up the personal self: the body and what I call “the mind of me.”

The personal self is like a thread in the Tapestry of Life – a beautiful tapestry that expresses Who God Is. Think about how thin a piece of thread must be in order to fit through the eye of a needle. The thicker the thread is, the harder it is to fit it through there. If the Kingdom of God is like the eye of a needle, and the body-mind is like a thread, then if the body-mind is too thick, it won’t be able to fit through.

What makes the body-mind too thick? In short, anything that causes us to identify more with the personal self than with Who We Really Are. Those who practice Buddhism call these things “attachments.” The Buddha taught that attachments are the root cause of all our suffering. I believe Jesus is teaching the same timeless wisdom here.

The man in our scripture reading for today was attached to his wealth. Wealth gives us the ability to enjoy many worldly pleasures and material things. I’m sure this man didn’t want to give up the lifestyle that he had grown accustomed to. This is a bodily type of attachment. What would he do with himself if he wasn’t so busy indulging his desires and taking care of all of his accoutrements?

This man’s wealth not only kept him attached to pleasures and possessions, but it also kept him attached to his status. This is a mental type of attachment. Who would he be if he were not a rich man? If he was as poor as a pauper? He would be a nobody. He would be nothing – so he feared.

To better understand this rich man’s spiritual plight, imagine that you are an actor or actress. You are wearing a costume, and you are on a stage. You are acting in a play. Imagine that in this play, you are a very rich person. You are wearing very lavish clothing and jewelry. You are decked out like royalty!

And not only that, you also live a huge castle with a grand courtyard, and you get to go to feasts and eat and drink until you are about ready to explode. You get to take baths in luxurious hot tubs. You can have anything you want; people wait on you hand and foot.

As a good actor or actress, you really get into this role. You even do your best to think like this rich person with all his or her wants, needs, and fears. You take on the attitude of this rich person so that you can do a good job on stage. You want to do a good job expressing who this character is. That is your job, after all.

Now, imagine that this play is going on non-stop for many years, and because of that, you never really give yourself the chance to “get out of character.” Even when you step off the stage, you still feel the need to act, think, and feel as this character does. Over time, the memory of who you really are fades away.

That is the spiritual problem the rich man in our story has, and Jesus recognized this. The man is just playing the part of a rich man in God’s play so that God can experience what it is like to have and do all these things through him.

But since he has never taken the time to “get out of character,” he has forgotten who he is at the core of his being – without the costume and jewelry and other elaborate props. He has forgotten who he is without the “storyline” of a rich man’s life.

Jesus basically said to that man, “Step off the stage, leave all the props behind, take off your costume and jewelry, drop your storyline, and follow me. That is the only way to inherit eternal life – to experience the core of your being.”

If he had accepted Jesus’ challenge, he finally would have been free to find God within himself. The personal self can keep us quite busy if we let it – so busy chasing after all our worldly desires that we never have time to look within and find God there. We never “detach” from the world long enough to experience who we really are at the core of our being – within the eye of the needle.

But how do we make ourselves thin enough to slip through the “eye of the needle” – to step off the stage so that we can experience the core of our being?

Some believe that only in death are we able to detach from the personal self. Neale Donald’s Walsch, the author of Conversations with God, wrote a fascinating book called Home with God: In a Life that Never Ends. In this book, Neale has a conversation with God about death.

According to Neale’s book, we go through three stages when we die. The first stage is when we release our identification with the body. This happens when we come to the realization that we have indeed died, but we’re somehow still alive.

The second stage is when we release our identification with the mind. We experience our idea of the afterlife until we get to the point where we say to ourselves, “Surely, there must be more to the afterlife than this.”

That is when we come to the realization that we create our reality with our minds, but we are not the mind. Once we release our identification with the mind and our ideas about the afterlife, we experience the afterlife as it really is – which is, of course, far better than any limited ideas we held about it.

The third stage is when we release our identification with the soul – yes, the soul. The soul is not destroyed; it is simply reintegrated. We melt into the light of God, and we remember our total unity with God. We experience untold bliss in this moment, and we can stay here for as long as we want.

When we re-emerge, all three parts are integrated – body, mind, and soul as one.  At this point comes the Holy Inquiry. It’s the most important question of our existence. The question is this: “Do you want to stay?” Do you want to stay in the spiritual world, or go back to the physical world? If we feel there is something incomplete about our last life, we can return to it. If we choose to stay, we can enjoy the spiritual world for as long as we wish.

But every soul eventually decides to be reborn into physicality and to continue to experience its divinity in whatever way, shape, or form the soul chooses. That is what God does; he makes himself known through his infinite expressions, and as much as our personal self grumbles about life, the soul finds it a great joy to be able to experience its divinity in grander ways for all eternity. That is what soul growth is all about, and soul growth is what life is all about.

So, if we believe that we must die in order to experience release from the body and mind, then that is what we experience. But the truth is that we don’t have to believe that. We don’t have to wait until death. We can do it while we are still experiencing the body-mind in physicality.

How can we do that?

Well, some of you have may have already experienced it – at least for a moment. You may have felt yourself melt away and joined with All That Is. If not, that’s OK. All that matters is that you are willing to experience it. If you are willing, then by God’s grace you will have that experience because there is nothing God wants more than for you to return to him.

We set up the blockades – not God. Our blockades are fear-based. We are afraid of God because we have been taught many mistaken ideas about God. That is one of the reasons why Jesus came – to teach us that we don’t have to be afraid of God. In God lies our ultimate security – not in our bank accounts.

We need not fear having nothing because God gives us everything we need. All we need to do is ask, believe, and receive. And we need not fear being a nothing because in God we are literally everything. Everything there is! We have everything because we are everything!

Since the blockades exist in the mind, we can’t think our way back to God. That doesn’t work, trust me. Because I am a thinker. I analyze everything to death. The hardest thing for me is to stop thinking so much, and that’s the fastest way to experience the core of our being – to just live in the moment.

This sounds so easy, but it’s not so easy for humans because we are so addicted to the mind of me. We believe the mind of me is a good guide, and the mind of me does everything it can to pretend to be a good guide. But don’t be deceived: it is like a wolf in shepherd’s clothing.

Most of the things the mind of me has us worrying about and imparting its “marvelous” advice about are illusions. They are about a future which isn’t here yet and can’t be known. The Mind of Christ is the life expert; it guides us in the present moment. We can deal effectively with what is actually showing up, but we can’t deal with illusions.

So be willing, don’t think about it too much, and live in the present moment. That is how we can open ourselves to experiencing the core of our being – our unity with God – and the peace, love, and joy of our ultimate security.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to experience the core of our being by dropping the attachments that are causing us to feel estranged from our Heavenly Father. Make these attachments known to us, and give us the grace to live in the present moment. AMEN.

Resources

Vitalis Hoffman, Mark G. “Commentary on Mark 10:17-31.” workingpreacher.org, 11 Oct. 2015, http:\\www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-28-2/commentary-on-mark-1017-31-7

Walsch, Neale Donald. “Home with God: In a Life that Never Ends.” Atria Books, 2006.

Childlike Humility

illustrated by O.A. Stemler, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: Jesus taught us that the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are humble like a child and welcome the lowly. How can we deal with pride within ourselves, develop childlike humility, and welcome the lowly as Jesus did?

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Scripture: Mark 9:30-37.

The Catholics have a list called “the seven deadly sins.” Does anyone know which sin is typically #1 on that list? Pride. They are called “deadly” sins because in Roman Catholic theology, these sins inspire other sins. St. Augustine believed that pride is the very essence of sin because pride seeks to glorify oneself rather than God. Pride is a big threat, and in today’s scripture reading, Jesus takes aim at his disciples’ pride.

Let’s take a look at the important context around it. Jesus and his disciples had entered gentile territory, with Jesus conducting several miraculous healings. Within a few days, quite a large crowd had gathered around them, and Jesus, concerned that they had not eaten, fed about 4,000 gentiles just as he had fed the crowd of Jews in Galilee – miraculously with very little available food and with plenty left over after everyone had eaten.

After Jesus fed the people, he and his disciples headed back into Jewish territory to the district of Dalmanutha (Dal-man-OO-tha), which is located on the northwest coast of the Sea of Galilee. They got into a boat and began sailing to the other side of the sea. Along the way, the disciples complained that they had no bread. Jesus commented on their lack of faith. They had witnessed two large crowds miraculously fed, and they didn’t trust God to provide bread for thirteen men?

After landing at Bethsaida and healing a blind man, Jesus and his disciples head to the villages of Caesarea Philippi, where Peter proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah. Jesus then spoke about his upcoming death and resurrection, and Peter took him aside and scolded him for saying such things. Jesus strongly rebuked Peter saying, Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Mark chapter 9 opens with Jesus taking only three disciples, Peter, James, and John, up a high mountain, where Jesus is transfigured. After descending from the mountain, they met up with the other disciples, and Jesus casts a demon out of a boy after the other disciples were unable to do so.

And that brings us to our scripture reading for today. Jesus decides to make his way back to Capernaum with his disciples, but he doesn’t want anyone to know about it. You see, Jesus knows that he has entered the final stage of his mission, and it’s time to prepare the disciples for Jerusalem – for his final destination – the cross.

Jesus knew they would struggle to understand what he was about to tell them, so he created some time alone with them. His words are crystal clear: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”

I’m sure that they had all been daydreaming about Jesus taking the throne as King of the Jews. I’m sure that their excitement grew with every miracle he performed. So, upon hearing Jesus’ words, their first befuddled thought might have been, “Oh, there he goes again – speaking in parables.”

But they were afraid to ask him what this “parable” meant. There are several possible reasons for this. First, perhaps they were embarrassed. They had not understood many things lately – and here was yet another thing they didn’t understand.

Or perhaps they didn’t want to know what he meant. We’ve all had experiences where someone says something kind of cryptic to us that we can’t quite translate, and we’re afraid to ask, “What’s that mean?” Especially with teenagers. We’re like, “Eh? … never mind, I don’t want to know!”

This wasn’t the first time Jesus spoke about his suffering and death. He spoke about it back in chapter 8 after Peter proclaimed him to be the Messiah. This is a third possible reason why they were afraid to ask. Perhaps Peter shared with them the harsh words he received from Jesus after having rebuked him for saying such things. I can imagine the other disciples quickly glancing over at Peter, who was wide-eyed, and shaking his head as if to signal “don’t say a word, trust me!”

What Jesus told them just didn’t fit into their vision of what they wanted to see happen – especially the part where he would be “delivered” into the hands of men and be killed. The word, “delivered” hinted at betrayal, and the word “killed,” suggested murder. I’m sure their minds filled with some very disturbing questions: “Jesus is going to be betrayed and murdered? Who would do that? Is it one of us?”

After they arrived back at Capernaum, at Jesus’ home base, Jesus asked them what they had been discussing among themselves along the way. It seems that the Lord was walking alone some distance in front of them, probably in deep thought about his coming trials. The disciples were walking behind him, grouped together, in a heated discussion with one another about who was the greatest.

I can imagine their egos blustering during that discussion. Peter says, “I am greatest! Jesus told me that I am the rock on which his church will be built!” And Matthew says, “He probably meant you’re as dumb as a rock, Satan!” And Peter says, “Well what about you Matthew? You’re a traitorous, corrupt tax collector! Your heart is as hard as a rock. And you call me Satan?”

Mark tells us that the disciples didn’t want to tell Jesus what they had been discussing. I’m sure the sick contrast wasn’t lost on them. Immediately after Jesus discussed with them his upcoming betrayal and execution, they were arguing about their honor and glory. Immediately after Jesus discussed with them his coming cross, they were arguing about their coming crowns.

To their credit, they recognized their prideful behavior. Notice that Jesus knew what they were discussing even though they remained silent. But Jesus didn’t scold them, he taught them. He said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Let’s compare what he said here in Mark’s gospel to what he said in Matthew 18:1-5. “At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.’”

The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is humble like a child. What does it mean to be humble like a child? How many of you, when you were a kid, remember eating at the kids’ table for those big family meals – like Easter, Thanksgiving, or Christmas dinner? All the adults ate at one table, and the kids ate at a separate table. Yeah, me too.

I remember how proud I felt when I was promoted to the adult’s table, but I quickly found out that the kids’ table was a lot more fun. You know, you could blow bubbles in your milk; you could create interesting artwork and conduct science experiments with the food on your plate; you could toss food into each other’s mouths; you could flick peas or corn nibblets at the kid across the table from you – endless fun and games without worrying about annoying the adults.

And once in a while, an adult would yell out, “Hey kid, get us some more rolls, will ya?” or “Get your Uncle Tony another root beer, alright?” or “Get your Aunt Millie another slice of apple pie!” Yeah, the kids’ table was also the go-fer table. Go-fer this, and go-fer that!

The kids’ table was the table for the lowliest and the servants of all. But at the kids’ table, life was simple and fun. We didn’t fret about ourselves or our lives. We didn’t have a care in the world because we knew we were loved, and we knew we were well cared for, and we didn’t mind being the go-fer because we loved opportunities to help. That is childlike humility.

At the Marriage Feast of the Lamb, the greatest will eat at the kids’ table.

What did Jesus mean when he took a child in his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”?

During Jesus’ time, children were the lowliest Jewish society. In Matthew chapter 19, the disciples scolded the people who were bringing their children to Jesus for his blessing. But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”

How do we treat people who are lowly? Do we welcome them as Jesus welcomed lowly children? Do we welcome not only children, but other lowly people, such as those who struggle with poverty, homelessness, mental illness, or disability?

I’ve noticed that many people either avoid lowly people or won’t even acknowledge their existence. They walk past them as if they were invisible. I think that’s worse than treating them with contempt. The lowly just want to be treated like a human being – with simple care and concern.

It can be challenging to treat them with respect. I work on the city streets as a cleaning, safety, and hospitality ambassador, so I encounter them all the time. Last week, I saw a homeless man whom I hadn’t seen in a while. I’ve known this man for a couple of years, and he has caused mayhem. I was keeping a close eye on him because I didn’t trust him.

I was cleaning up an area near where he had settled down to take a nap. As I got closer to him, my mind was telling me, “That man is trouble! Stay away from him!” But my heart was telling me, “That man is a beloved expression of God.”

As I started cleaning up near him, he stirred, and said, “Hey Pops!” Then he realized I wasn’t Pops, so he said, “Oh sorry, I thought you were Pops. He usually cleans up around here.” He was referring to one of my co-workers.

I said, “No, he’s off today. How are you? Are you OK?” He replied that he was OK, but I noticed that he had a black eye, so I asked, “What happened to your eye?” He explained that he got punched. I replied, “Oh, I’m so sorry that happened to you.” We chatted a bit more, then I told him, “Take it easy, OK?” As I was walking away, he said, “Thanks! God bless you!”

You see, he wasn’t the “evil monster” my mind was making him out to be. He was who my heart told me he was. The moment I was able to shift my focus from my mind to my heart, I welcomed him into my experience as a beloved child of God, and I treated him like a human being – with respect and care. It meant so much to him, and it filled me with joy. That little chat made my day.

How can we be humble like a child? First, we need to understand the source of pride: the fear of not being good enough. Prideful people are very insecure people. They are attempting to establish their own worth when their worth has already been established by God. It’s like they are trying to fix something that isn’t broken. That’s not possible, so they live lives of constant anxiety-ridden striving. 

If they knew who they are and how much God loved them as they are, they wouldn’t have a problem with pride. We are not really these imperfect human beings; we are a part of the perfection of God’s Creation, which is part of God Himself. If that’s not something to be proud of, I don’t know what is.

Next, we need to accept the fact that we will have prideful thoughts. They come with the territory of being human. The mind of me is programmed to experience ourselves as separate when we are really One with All This It. There is a purpose for this. Just as we can’t experience hot without cold, the illusion of separation allows us to discover and experience this Oneness.  

I believe the mind of me’s programming is not yet fully developed in young children. Unless we come from an unstable or abusive home environment, it doesn’t really take root until around the teenage years. That’s when we’ve lost the memory of who we really are – add to that the confusion of our changing bodies, the peer pressure to be cool (whatever that means), and the parental pressure to make decisions about our future, and you can understand why the teenage years can be so miserable.

The Mind of Christ knows the truth about who we are, and the Mind of Christ is where our true thoughts reside. The thoughts that come out of the mind of me, thoughts of separation, thoughts of pride, thoughts of judgment of others, are NOT our real thoughts. So, we do not need to feel bad for having them.

We can simply observe those thoughts and then let them go. We can choose not to believe them. When those thoughts compare us to others or judge others, we can simply remind ourselves that they are false. The truth is that all are equally beloved of God. I am beloved, you are beloved, everyone is beloved.

Finally, we need to turn our focus away from our grumbling minds and toward our grateful hearts – especially when we are engaging in service to others. Our souls love to help others because we are so grateful for the infinite love and support we receive from God, and all we want to do is return that love.

My family put my mother in a nursing home back in March, and I’ve been helping my father out with the necessary tasks to ensure that my mother’s care is paid for. My father is an anxious guy, so this process has been extremely stressful for him. It’s been challenging for me not to absorb all of his anxiety and to keep myself calm and focused.

When I pay attention to what’s going on in my mind, I have noticed that there’s a whole lot of grumbling going on. Grumbling about my father, grumbling about how much time it’s all taking, grumbling about how difficult some processes can be. But when I tune into my heart, I feel love for my father, gratitude for all he has done for me, and delighted to be of service to him.

Humility is not simply the absence of pride; it is the presence of love inspired by gratitude for all that we have been given – gratitude that comes from knowing that God loves us just the way we are and knowing that God provides for all our needs. Out of that gratitude, springs a selfless desire to serve.

And it was that selfless desire to serve that inspired Jesus to take the road to Jerusalem, to be betrayed, and to endure the cross – a tremendous demonstration of pure love so that humanity could be freed from the fear of death – and truly live.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to be humble like a child – to stop fretting about ourselves and our lives – so that we, full of gratitude and love for all that we have been given, are free to selflessly serve all – especially the lowly in our midst. Amen.

Resources

Kistler, Jerry. “The Deadly Sin of Pride.” Montrose Press. 8 Mar. 2019, www.montrosepress.com/news/the-deadly-sin-of-pride/article_1589c4ac-4227-11e9-80b0-23ef11363d68.html

Mueller, Chris. “Living Last in a ‘Me First’ World (Mark 9:30-37).” FBC Media Library. 24 Nov. 2013, media.faith-bible.net/scripture/mark/humility

Hard Gospel Lessons

Jean Germain Drouais, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: Why did Jesus respond so harshly to the Syrophoenician woman seeking healing for her daughter? Perhaps he wanted to put her great faith on display in order to help his disciples learn three hard gospel lessons.

Scripture Reading: Mark 7:24-37

Click here to listen to this sermon.

How many of you remember a lesson you learned in life – the hard way? Yes, hard lessons are often the ones we are less likely to forget. Allow me to share with you one lesson I learned the hard way.

Years ago, I saw a friend of mine in Kasa’s Pizzeria. I had not seen this friend in years, so it was so good to see her again, and even more joyfully, she was with child! So, I asked her, “When’s the baby due?”

Well … she wasn’t pregnant. I wanted to crawl into a hole. Thankfully, she was gracious enough to just laugh about it. But it was mortifying for me. I learned a lesson: Never ask a woman when the baby is due unless she tells you she’s pregnant.

The hardest thing for us humans to accept is that our assumptions are not always correct. In fact, our assumptions are often incorrect, and that is exactly what the disciples were about to learn in our scripture reading for today. They were about to learn three hard gospel lessons.

We’ve been studying the Gospel of Mark, the most chronological gospel of the four and the most action-packed, focusing primarily on what Jesus does to serve humanity.

Let’s take a quick look at the context around today’s scripture reading. Jesus had been teaching and healing all around the region of Galilee. In chapter six, he performs miracles unrelated to healing, such as calming a storm and walking on water. He performed these miracles in the presence of his disciples.

But the miracle that really got people’s attention was when he fed 5,000 men, which was probably more like 20,000 people when we include the women and children. However, Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand the significance of this event.

We know this because when Jesus walked on the water, Mark reports that the disciples were at first terrified and then astounded by it. Then he comments in verse 52: “for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”

Mark chapter 7 opens with Jesus facing opposition from the religious leaders over his disciples not following the teachings of the elders related to ceremonial hand washing. Here is where Jesus teaches that it is not what goes into the body that is defiling, but what comes out of it – particularly what comes out of the heart, which can hold evil intentions that lead people to say evil words and commit evil deeds.

This scene is significant because Jesus is about to enter into the territory of the gentiles. If there was anything that kept Jews and gentiles separate, it was the Jews’ kosher diet. Jews were not permitted to eat in the homes of gentiles because they would most likely be offered food that would break Torah laws and thus defile them.

You see, the traditions of the elders were created by the Pharisees to separate the Jews from the pagans in the region. It was their way of protecting the Jewish race from pagan influences. The more they kept the Jewish people busy following Jewish traditions, the less chance they would be tempted to go astray. But this separation was an illusion. It was based solely on ideas, not reality.

This is first hard gospel lesson: There is nothing that truly separates us from one another. Ideas can create the illusion of separation, but they can never tear apart the unity that God created.

That brings us to our scripture reading for today. After this incident with the Pharisees, Jesus left Galilee and entered the region of Tyre (TEYE-ur), located about twelve miles north of the border with Israel. He entered a house, but he didn’t want people to know he was there.

Why not? Perhaps he was hiding from the Pharisees, or perhaps he was hiding because he had entered the home of a gentile, or perhaps he just didn’t want to attract a big crowd. Maybe all three.

Anyway, we know how it goes whenever Jesus tries to hide – it never works, and it didn’t work here either. Soon, a woman with a demon-possessed daughter approaches Jesus for help.

Who was this “Syrophoenician” woman? The Phoenicians were an ancient Semitic people related to the biblical Canaanites, who inhabited city-states throughout the Mediterranean. The fact that she was a woman and a gentile was two strikes against her. The third strike was the fact that she was a Canaanite from Tyre. King Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, the evil queen of Israel, was a Canaanite woman from Tyre.

Perhaps that’s why in Matthew’s gospel, the disciples beg Jesus to send her away. In both gospels, Jesus responds to the woman in a way that is quite harsh, which I’m sure is bewildering to many of us who don’t think of Jesus as intolerant.

Why does Jesus respond to her so harshly? I’ve heard several points of view. One point of view is that Jesus needed to be taught a lesson by this woman. That’s a bit surprising. After all, it is usually Jesus who teaches the lessons and wins arguments, right?

Another point of view is that Jesus wanted to lose this argument. This makes sense to me because in Matthew’s gospel, this woman says, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” Up to this point, Peter has yet to confess Jesus to be the Son of David, the Messiah, the Lord. So, it’s quite possible that the first person to actually proclaim Jesus to be the Messiah was this gentile woman.

At this point, Jesus’ disciples have not understood many of his teachings. They didn’t understand the significance of the feeding of the 5,000. They didn’t understand his teaching about what really makes a person unclean. Who was more unclean in the heart here? This woman who came to Jesus for help, calling him “Lord, Son of David,” or the disciples who were saying, “Send her away?”

And that is the second hard gospel lesson: It is our belief in separation that corrupts the heart. 

It took great humility for this woman to approach Jesus. As a gentile, she knew she had no standing. She had no right. Jesus was a Jew, and his god was the Jewish god. She was most likely a pagan who worshipped many gods, but she had heard that the god of the Jews was healing people miraculously through this man, Jesus, and her daughter needed healing.

Obviously, she had great faith in Jesus and in his god to heal her daughter. Jesus must have recognized this even before he made his statement to her. I believe he wanted this gentile woman to teach his disciples about real faith, so he set her up.

He responded to her with words he knew his disciples were thinking. They were undoubtedly thinking, “How dare you! He has come to serve the nation of Israel. You are a dog. His serving you would be like throwing the children’s food to the dogs.” The word “dogs” was often used to refer to non-Jews back in those days.

Jesus had already offered the Bread of Life to the Jews. Remember Jesus teaching about the Bread of Life in the gospel of John? The body and blood of Christ being the true bread and the true drink that satisfies forever? They didn’t want that bread, did they? They wanted bread that satisfied their stomachs, not their souls.

They rejected the Bread of Life. I believe that’s why Jesus left the area of the Jews at this point and entered into the gentile’s territory. Now, listen to the woman’s response, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

The crumbs of the Bread of Life. She was willing to accept even the crumbs for the sake of her daughter. She accepted that the Jews deserved their portion as the first to be offered the Bread. They were the first, yes, but that didn’t mean the bread was for them exclusively. She barely knew the god of the Jews, yet she had faith that he was a god of inclusion. She had faith in God’s grace. Jesus praised her great faith in front of his disciples and declared her daughter healed.

This is the third hard gospel lesson: God does not turn his face away from anyone who comes to him with faith. Anyone. It doesn’t matter what religion you belong to, if any, what church you belong to, what doctrines you believe in, or what you have done in your life. All that matters is that you believe that you are part of something greater than yourself and that this “something greater” cares for you.

You don’t even have to publicly confess Jesus as Lord for God to respond. The Syrophoenician woman did, but the deaf and mute guy obviously didn’t, did he? But that didn’t seem to matter to God.

Jesus moves southeast into the region of Decapolis along the eastern edge of the Sea of Galilee. He’s still in gentile territory, and he is approached by some men who bring to him another man who is both deaf and mute. His friends speak for him, asking Jesus to lay his hands on him. We can safely assume these men were all gentiles.

Notice the level of sensitivity Jesus has toward this man suffering from a disability. First, he takes him away from the crowd. Why? Well, it’s like when we enter the doctor’s examination room. We don’t want a crowd of witnesses when the doctor’s poking and prodding us, right?

So, Jesus takes the man away to a more private location. He sticks his fingers in the man’s ears, then spits on his finger and touches the man’s tongue. It’s as if the Lord was doing the sign language version of the healing first followed by the verbal command.

The man was healed, and everyone was astounded at how well Jesus did everything – even making the deaf hear and the mute speak. Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone, but you know how well that always went for the Lord. They all blabbed. How could they keep such astounding deeds a secret?

What does this scripture reading have to say to us today? I believe it has much to say to us – not only individually, but collectively in these challenging times. Jesus came to teach us not just how to survive, but how to live and live abundantly. Basically, if the goal is to get out of this mess we’re in and usher in the Kingdom of Heaven, these three hard gospels lessons provide three steps toward that goal.

The first step is that we must end the belief in separation. What we are seeing in our world right now are the creations of a humanity that has believed in separation for a very long time. We all create our experiences through thought, word, and deed. First, we think about what we want, then we talk about it, then we create it.

The hardest truth for people to accept is that because we are one, we can’t think, say, or do anything that doesn’t affect everyone else in some way. We don’t experience our creations alone. They come into this world, where everyone else lives, so everyone else experiences them.

The good news is that I believe most people are beginning to let go of the idea of separation; they just don’t know it yet. That’s because thoughts of separation will always be in our minds as part of our human programming, but that doesn’t mean we have to believe those thoughts. We can simply notice them and recognize them as false.

Our thoughts, words, and deeds must be aligned with the truth – that we are one. Every thought, word, and deed must turn away from what’s good only for me to what’s good for all.

The second step is that we must purify our hearts. Let’s talk about worth. That word doesn’t exist in God’s vocabulary. Why? Because all of creation is equally worthy in his sight. Creation is God’s expression of Who He Is. It is God’s Image. How can he reject any of it since it is one and all part of Him?

Just as every wave is an expression of the majestic ocean, every form is an expression of our awesome God. Without each wave, the ocean would not be what it is. Without each form, God would not be who God is. Can we imagine the ocean favoring one wave over another? Of course not! That’s ridiculous! So is the idea of God favoring one form over another.

We made up the word “worth” once we believed in separation. We believed that we could tear apart God’s unity and sort out for ourselves who is worthy and who isn’t as if we were God. If we could really do that, none of us would exist.

It is very difficult for many people to accept the truth that God loves everyone equally. Those who are very religious like to believe that they are God’s favorite. Those who are not very religious like to imagine that they are God’s nemesis. They are both wrong. Both are equally loved by God.

To purify our hearts, we must release the idea that some are more worthy of love – of basic care and concern – than others. We must accept and practice the idea that every time we look into the eyes of another human being, no matter who they are, there is an expression of God looking back at us – an expression that is deeply cherished by God.

So, we must learn to deeply cherish them too. We must drop all judgements because everyone is on a path back to God that cannot fail (say it again). Why?

Because God, our wonderful God, who is so full of love and grace, is not willing to lose a single soul. And if God is not willing to lose a single soul, then we must never give up hope for anyone.

That is the third step: We must never give up hope for any brother or sister. Not the prostitute, not the drug addict, not the felon. These and many others are treated like the “dogs” of our society. We don’t want to extend real love to them, just some niceties and platitudes. When they show up, we just want to say to them, “Bless you! Now go away.”

Because the truth is that they are on a path back to God – a hard one, yes, but they are on a path, and they can’t fail. But we can do whatever we can to make their path a little easier with a little love.

Now, I’m not going to tell you specifically what to say or do to help them. I will simply advise you to stay out of your head, and allow your heart to tell you what to say or do. It will come at just the right moment. And it will be very wise. It will be something that lifts them up, not shames them. It will be something that empowers them, not enables them. It will be the Lord extending his hand, touching them, and healing something broken in them through you.

Trust him, because he does everything well.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to release the idea of separation, purify our hearts, and extend love to all those in need. Help us to live more within our hearts so that as we go about our daily lives, we may hasten the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven by being who we really are: an extension of God’s all-inclusive love. AMEN.

Resources

Deffinbaugh, Bob. “13. Does God Ever Like to Lose an Argument? (Mark 7:24-37).” Bible.org, 4 Apr. 2012, bible.org/seriespage/13-does-god-ever-lose-argument-mark-724-37.

What’s on the Menu?

Da Vinci Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: When Jesus first taught his followers to “eat his flesh and drink his blood,” he was not speaking to Christians. As Christians we forget this, which causes us to miss the humor and richness of this passage – along with Jesus’ teaching brilliance and colorful personality. What did Jesus really mean when he said these words?

Scripture Reading: John 6: 51-58

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

In our Scripture reading for today, Jesus teaches us something very important for our spiritual health. Unfortunately, just like the Jews of his day, many Christians today misunderstand this teaching. Those of us who do understand it take it very seriously, and rightly so, because this passage is very serious … but it’s also very amusing.

When we take the Bible too seriously, we fail to see the humor in it, and the humor adds richness to the stories. We also miss Jesus’ teaching brilliance and his wonderfully colorful personality. So today, my goal is to present this story to you in a way that will help you experience just how rich it is.

In order pull this off, I really need your help. Part of the problem is that we are Christians, so Jesus’ words here are ingrained in our Christian make-up, words of a sacrament in which we have all participated most of our lives.

That was not the case for the Jews he was speaking to, so I need you to temporarily forget you’re a Christian who has heard these words hundreds of times and pretend that you are a Jew hearing them for the first time. OK … here we go!

You’re a Jew among a crowd of perhaps 20,000 people all around the Sea of Galilee. At first, you were following Jesus because you were amazed by his ability to heal, but now he’s completely blown you away. Last night, he somehow miraculously manifested food for all of you – tens of thousands of people.

That’s right, you were there when Jesus fed the 5000 men, which was probably more like 20,000 when the women and children are also counted. But that was last night. It’s now morning, and your stomach is growling. You are not alone. Everyone is hungry and looking for Jesus to provide their breakfast.

Suddenly, he is found on the other side of the sea with his disciples. You hear some murmuring around how he got there, considering that his disciples took the boat out last night without him. But no matter – there he is, and it’s time to eat!

You hear some of the men in the front talking to Jesus, asking him to manifest food again, just as Moses supplied the people with bread in the wilderness. Jesus seems reluctant. He’s saying something about how he is the bread of life, and the bread he gives is better bread than the bread Moses gave – which makes him better than Moses. You can’t imagine anyone being better than Moses.

You hear the men in the front now pressuring Jesus, saying something like, “Hey, if you expect us to believe in you, at least give us the bread Moses gave us – and at least 40 years’ worth.” You hear Jesus reply that it was God, not Moses, who supplied that bread, but that wasn’t the bread that satisfies forever. He is that bread.

You sense the crowd is growing impatient and starting to tune Jesus out. They’re not really listening anymore. All they’re hearing Jesus say now is “wont … wont … wont … wont … wont,” you know – the way Charlie Brown and his friends hear the teacher in the Peanuts cartoon.

That is the context that sets up our scripture reading for today. Jesus has a problem. He’s trying to get the crowd to listen to his words with their souls, not with their stomachs. But the crowd isn’t getting it. It’s like they have a one-track mind. What can Jesus do?

He begins by repeating, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever – and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is … my flesh.” Now, as a Jew, there are very strict laws around what kind of flesh you are permitted to eat, and human flesh is definitely not on the list.

Jesus has launched a verbal assault on the crowd’s Jewish sensibilities, and it is accomplishing many purposes simultaneously. First, it is shocking. So, anyone who had tuned Jesus out – isn’t now. Those words were like a verbal smack in the head. Huh? What’s on the menu?

You begin to hear a lot of murmuring among the crowd, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” They’re still listening with their stomachs, so Jesus ups the ante. He says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

As a Jew, you are not permitted to eat meat that still has blood in it. All the blood must be drained or cooked out of it. You would never eat your steak rare. That is because blood is considered life. So, if telling this crowd of Jews to eat his flesh was like a smack in the head, telling them to drink his blood was a poke right in the eye.

And he doesn’t stop there. He is relentless. He keeps going with this analogy that is both appalling and downright disgusting to all the Jews who are still listening with their stomachs.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

If they’re still listening with their stomachs at this point, they are regretting it. Now, they can’t help but imagine Jesus’ flesh and blood in their stomachs, and that image would surely make their stomachs turn. This accomplishes another purpose. Jesus has completely grossed them out, and you know the last thing you want to think about when you are grossed out is food.

Problem solved. Now, maybe they are listening with their souls, so Jesus, for perhaps the third time, repeats the main point: “Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

I am sure that at least one of these Jews reported this teaching to at least one of the doubting religious leaders of Jesus’ day. Can you imagine that conversation? I can, and I have. I have imagined it would go something like this:

Reporting Jew: “Rabbi! Have you heard what Jesus said to a huge crowd in Galilee? He said that they have no life in them unless they eat his flesh and drink his blood!”

Religious Leader: Oi vey! God, save us from this demon-possessed man!”

Anyone who continued to follow Jesus after that teaching was a true follower. Yet another purpose for the verbal assault. And there was one more purpose: it served as a brilliant memory peg.

A memory peg works by creating a mental association between two things. The more memorable the association, the better. Here, Jesus was symbolically associating eating his flesh and drinking his blood with the need for us all to not simply believe in him, but to incorporate the Christ into our very being.

Some Christians believe that it is in this passage that Jesus made Holy Communion a sacrament, and they use this passage to argue for the necessity of the transubstantiation ritual before the sacrament. They believe that the transubstantiation ritual allows the bread and wine to the body and blood of Christ once ingested.

I grew up in a church that believed this, and I was not permitted to take Holy Communion in a church that did not perform the transubstantiation ritual. To be honest, whenever I took communion, I could never bring myself to think about the bread and wine as the actual body and blood. I thought there was something wrong with me.

Jesus’ words were meant to be taken symbolically, not literally. So many Christians mistakenly believe that as a long as they partake of the “actual body and blood,” they are saved. They’re completely missing the point, just like many Jews of Jesus’ time.

Jesus instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion at the Lord’s supper on the night he was betrayed, not in Galilee on this day. And did you ever notice that he didn’t explain any of it to his disciples? He simply said, “Take and eat; this is my body,” and “Take and drink, this is my blood.” There is no explanation. Why?

I believe it’s because the disciples didn’t need one. They knew exactly what he was talking about. They knew exactly what teaching he was referring to. They were there on that day in Galilee, and I’m sure there were many discussions about this teaching afterwards. It was a potent memory peg.

Jesus was a physical vessel for the Christ, just as we all are. The only difference between him and most of humanity is that Jesus was consciously aware of it and lived his life in total commitment to the Christ through service to humanity – even if it meant that the vessel would end up broken.

On the night he was betrayed, Jesus knew that the vessel would soon be broken. The Christ would no longer be with the disciples in human form. Jesus’ flesh would be broken, and his blood would be shed. He was saying to them, “the time is now to consciously incorporate the Christ into your own being.”

That is the true meaning of Holy Communion. When we participate, it is a symbolic gesture. We are publicly announcing our intention to consciously incorporate the Christ into our being and to live our lives in total commitment to Christ through service to humanity.

The sacrament alone doesn’t accomplish this. It is accomplished through many lifetimes of hard spiritual work, but we can speed up the process quite a bit by being aware and willing. If Holy Communion is a symbolic gesture, is there anything we can do to more literally incorporate the Christ into our being?

Yes, there is. There is a spiritual practice that I am going to teach you all right now. You can do this anytime and anywhere. First, a bit of an explanation. The subtle realm of your Divine Self is a realm of pure energy. The emotional nature of this energy is love, and the visual nature of this energy is light. This is the energy that permeates the entire Universe – the stuff of which the universe is made – the very essence of God.

Here are the steps . First get comfortable, clear your mind, and for a few minutes, focus on the sensations your body is experiencing – without thinking about it. Just notice. You’re tuning into the subtle realm that exists beyond the mind.

After a few minutes, shift your focus to breathing slowly and deeply, but naturally. As you breathe in, say to yourself, “I am love and light.” As you say this, visualize love and light coming into the top of your head and filling every cell of your body. Then as you breathe out, say “I am love and light,” again but this time, imagine that the love and light is overflowing within you and then pouring out of every cell of your body into the world.

I recommend that you practice this for at least 10 minutes every day. Some of you may be able to immediately feel something flowing in and out of you when you do this. For others, it will take some practice before you feel anything. That’s OK. Because whether you feel it or not, it is happening – literally.

Because you are – in reality – that love and light, and you are commanding it to move in this way. You are that powerful. You are the Christ – the one who has been given all authority in heaven and on earth.

Love and light are what’s on your spiritual menu. It is very good for your spiritual health. It is healing and rejuvenating for you, and your receiving in this way impacts the rest of creation in a very positive way.

You are literally and consciously drawing the essence of the Christ into your bodies, the essence that gives Life to all things. This is exactly what Jesus was talking about when he said, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you.”

When you do this, you are nourishing your soul, fulfilling your one true desire, helping to awaken all of humanity, and bringing the Kingdom of Heaven closer and closer to fruition. Now is the time!

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to satisfy our soul’s hunger and thirst by incorporating your essence into our own beings. As we celebrate communion together this day, bless our willingness, and give us the grace and courage to be what you have created us to be: a living vessel of your love and light pouring out into this hurting world. Amen.

Resources

Cole, Steven J. “Lesson 36: What Are You Eating? (John 6:48-59).” Bible.org, 5 Dec. 2013, bible.org/seriespage/lesson-36-what-are-you-eating-john-648-59.

Forever Bread

Paul Brill, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: Dissatisfaction with life is at an all-time high. Now is the time to do what we have been called to do: integrate the personal self with our Higher Self, the Christ. It is only when we know who we are and act out of our one true desire that we can finally taste the “Forever Bread” that satisfies for all eternity.

Scripture Reading: John 6:24-35

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

How many of you have ever eaten Wonder bread? It’s the oldest sliced bread around.  It’s been around since 1921 and in pre-sliced form since 1930. I used to eat Wonder bread, and it always made me wonder what was in it that made me crave more of it less than an hour after eating it.

In an article entitled “The 18 Unhealthiest Breads on the Planet,” Olivia Tarantino lists Wonder bread as #2. Yes, she gave it the silver medal for best in unhealthy. She gave the gold medal to Pepperidge Farm Farmhouse Hearty White.

Ms. Tarantino put an end to my wondering about my Wonder bread cravings with a simple explanation. The simple carbohydrates in Wonder bread digest quickly, and that causes a sudden blood sugar spike and just as sudden a drop, leaving my stomach growling a short time later. So, Wonder bread doesn’t satisfy our hunger; it actually makes us hungrier.

Who would want to eat bread that doesn’t satisfy and why? How can we find bread that does satisfy – better yet, bread that satisfies forever – you know, “Forever bread.” That is what our scripture reading for today is all about.

It comes from the Gospel of John. This gospel was actually written by John the apostle. As you know, Jesus’ first disciples were two sets of brothers: Peter and Andrew and the sons of Zebedee, James and John.

John is known as the “disciple Jesus loved.” He was the only disciple who was not martyred; however, he was exiled to the Island of Patmos. Eventually, he was released because of his old age, and he died peacefully around the age of 95.

The writer of each of the four gospels wrote it for a specific audience and purpose. John’s gospel was written around 85-90 AD – after the destruction of Jerusalem but before his exile to Patmos. His audience was new Christians and searching non-Christians, and his purpose was to prove conclusively that Jesus is the Son of God and that all who believe in him have eternal life.

John seeks to prove that Jesus is the Son of God by revealing eight miracles. By the time we reach chapter six, he has already revealed three of those miracles: turning water into wine, healing a royal official’s son, and healing the invalid at Bethesda.

Chapter 6 begins with Jesus near the sea of Galilee. Many people were following him because they had seen him heal the sick. Jesus had just walked up a mountainside and sat down with his disciples when he noticed that a huge crowd was coming up the mountainside toward him. Here John reveals Jesus’ fourth miracle: feeding the 5000.

When evening came, the disciples took a boat out onto the Sea of Galilee, but Jesus was not with them. The wind started blowing though the wind tunnel of that valley, creating rough waters on the sea. Here John reveals Jesus’ fifth miracle: walking on the water.

And that brings us to our scripture reading for today. During the night, the crowd lost track of Jesus, so they go in search of him. They find him on the other side of the lake, and ask him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”

They were confused about how Jesus got to the other side of the sea without passing them by. They knew the disciples had taken a boat to the other side without Jesus, so they didn’t expect that he would be with them. They didn’t see him walk on the water.

Now, if Jesus had been a politician seeking to be appointed King of the Jews, he might have said, “Well, since the disciples had taken the boat without me, and I needed to get across to the other side ahead of you, I simply used my supernatural powers to walk on the water. So, you see, folks, that’s just added proof that I am the Messiah, your king.”

But Jesus didn’t want that, so he didn’t tell them about that miracle. If the crowd had seen it, they might have made him their king by force. Jesus didn’t commit to people with sign-based faith – people who required seeing grand signs to believe in him. He knew that if people didn’t want to believe in him, all the signs in the world wouldn’t change their minds.

The miracle of his walking on water was for the disciples’ eyes only. They had already made a commitment to Jesus without insisting on grand signs. I believe Jesus was providing them with some much-needed reassurance that they had not left everything behind to put their faith in some spiritual con artist. He was the real thing.

The people were already excited enough about the arrival of the Kingdom of God due to Jesus’ performing the miracles they had witnessed – especially feeding the 5000. By the way, that was 5000 men. The women and children didn’t count. If the accompanying women and children were counted, how many people did Jesus likely feed?

How many of you have ever been to a minor league baseball game – maybe an Iron Pigs, Reading Phillies, or Scranton-Wilkes-Barre Yankees game? Those stadiums can seat 10,000 people. Imagine 5,000 men sitting in one of those stadiums. They would fill up half the stadium.

Throughout the history of the Jewish nation, getting married and having children has been encouraged to keep the nation strong. So, if each man brought his wife, the number of men with their wives would fill up one stadium.

Now, the average number of children in a Jewish household is three. So, if each couple brought at least two kids, the total number of people would fill up two stadiums. 20,000 people. That’s how many men, women, and children it is believed Jesus probably fed.

Impressed? So was the crowd following Jesus. Now you can better understand their enthusiasm in this text. Jesus understood it quite well. He knew exactly why the people sought him out: they wanted free bread.

Jesus wasn’t willing to give them the kind of bread they were seeking. The bread they were seeking would satisfy their physical hunger, but not their spiritual hunger. And, like Wonder bread, bread that satisfies physical hunger satisfies only for a short time. Jesus wanted to give them bread that satisfies spiritual hunger – for all eternity.

The people asked, “What should we do?” The truth is they didn’t need to do anything but accept the truth – the truth about who they are, the perfect example standing right in front of them – the Son of Man on whom God has placed his seal.

A seal makes a statement about the authenticity of a product. When we see the seal, we can trust that we’re getting the real thing, not some knockoff. There is no higher “seal” than that which the God the Father placed on the Son of Man.

Now, in the Bible there are two contexts for the term “son of man.” In general, the term son of man refers to a human being. I don’t believe Jesus was using it this way in this passage. I believe he was referring to the Son of Man described in the Book of Daniel – the integrated son of man (or human being) and Son of God (or divine being) who would bring salvation to all.

But you see, we humans don’t want “free” salvation. The mind of me insists on doing something to earn it. But salvation does not arise out of anything we do. It arises out of who we are. What we do is simply the natural expression of who we are. If we think we are this body with its mind of me, we will act that out and never be satisfied. If we accept who we really are, we will act that out and be forever satisfied.

Jesus knew that the people required him to miraculously give them the kind of bread Moses gave the Israelites in the wilderness – at least 40 years’ worth – in order to believe in him. Jesus offers them better bread, and he makes it clear to them in doing so that he is even better than Moses.

Jesus immediately corrects their mistaken perception about where that bread Moses gave actually came from. It came from God. But that wasn’t even the best bread. It wasn’t meant to satisfy them forever – just long enough to survive in the wilderness.

“Forever bread” is the “true bread from heaven.” And that bread Jesus can give them. In fact, he was giving it to them at that very moment. He is that bread. The people didn’t like this teaching at all. Here is where Jesus’ rock-star popularity tanks.

This lesson has important implications for us in these times. We humans are driven by three sources of desire. We have the desires of the body, the desires of the mind of me, and the desires of the soul. It’s important to understand that since we are not in reality this body with its mind of me, desires coming from these two sources are not our “real” desires.

Our desires for physical pleasures come from the body, and our desires for power, wealth, and status come from the mind of me – a mind full of mistaken ideas about who we are. These desires are all part of our human programming, so they are more like addictions than real desires.

We don’t necessarily want to indulge them; we just can’t seem to help it. I don’t really want to read the news or scroll Facebook, but I find myself doing it anyway. I recently had an epiphany around why I do this: The mind of me craves drama. It’s constantly looking for something to get all riled up about. Drama gives the mind of me a temporary “sugar high.” But what inevitably follows that? The crash.

Why does the mind of me crave drama? Because peace is the enemy. Peace is the enemy because it belongs to the realm of the mind of me’s rival: the Mind of Christ. The mind of me doesn’t want us to experience peace for fear we might want that instead – and for good reason. Peace satisfies.

The mind of me working so hard to get us to chase after things we don’t really want accomplishes another purpose. It keeps us away from feeling gratitude. That’s another threat in the realm of the rival Mind of Christ.

Not only does it work hard to keep us chasing after things we don’t really want, but it also works hard to convince us that we don’t really want what we already have. There’s always something better, and we should have it. The mind of me doesn’t want us to experience gratitude because gratitude satisfies.

Now, we all have the body, the mind of me, and the Mind of Christ. We are all both human and Divine. Jesus was human and divine just like us. The difference between us and Jesus is that Jesus integrated his humanity with his divinity. He married his personal self to his Divine Self. That is why he is called Jesus Christ.

How did he do it? Well, I believe that at some point in his development, he learned how to tell the difference between his human self and his Divine Self. He learned how to differentiate between the desires of the physical body, the mind of me, and the soul.

Once he was able to tell the difference between these desires, he made meeting the desires of the soul his top priority. He paid more attention to the desires arising out of the Mind of Christ than the cravings of the physical body and the mind of me. Eventually the Christ was promoted to the driver’s seat of his life, and the personal self with its mind of me was demoted to the passenger’s seat.

Now, I’m not saying that we should ignore the desires of the physical body. Some of those desires are necessary and healthy. For example, we need to pay attention to the body’s desires for food, water, and rest. I’m not even saying that we should ignore the desires of the mind of me. Sometimes it is necessary to gain some power, wealth, or status in order to accomplish the soul’s desire.

The problem is when we indulge the desires of the physical body and mind of me at the expense of the soul’s desire – which is to express Love. Indulging in any desire that is not loving toward ourselves or others is not good for the soul.

We are being called to marry our personal self with our Divine Self, and now is the time to do it. But how do we do it? Well, we start by paying attention to our desires. When a desire comes up, we need to center ourselves in our hearts, and ask, “Where is this desire coming from, and would indulging it be good for the soul?” Then we need to listen for the response. Be prepared – the mind of me usually responds first and loudly. Wait for the still, small voice.

We also need to pay attention to our thoughts and feelings because Creation interprets them as desires – as if we were saying a prayer. That goes for both positive and negative thoughts and feelings. So, if we’re indulging in thoughts and feelings around something we don’t want – like something we fear – we need to stop the moment we become aware of that. This is how humanity creates its own suffering.

We need to stop immediately and begin generating thoughts and feelings about what we want. What exactly do we want, and what would it feel like to have it? It can be anything – even a car. It’s OK to want material things as long as we are willing to bow to the Will of God. If something we want isn’t for our highest good and the good of all, we must be willing not to receive it. That is spiritual maturity.

People who are unhappy will begin to notice those of us who are happy. Some might think we are insane. That’s OK. They thought Jesus was demon-possessed, remember? The truth was he was Christ-possessed. Others might be curious. They might ask, “What do I need to do to be happy like you?” Well, you know how to answer that. “Do nothing – simply be who you are.”

Why is now the time to marry our personal self with our Divine Self? Because people’s dissatisfaction with life is at an all-time high right now. People are looking for something new – a truly satisfying life. And what truly satisfies is the same for everyone. The desire of everyone’s soul is the same because it is of one essence, one soul. It is the desire of the Christ to be who Christ is – the perfect expression of God’s being, which is Love.

What do you think will happen when every human being recognizes that it has one true desire, and that is to express love? When all of humanity unites in this one desire coming from the one soul that is the Christ? My friends, human beings united in this one desire coming from the one soul that is the Christ is, in my opinion, the meaning of the second coming of Christ and the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven.

And we are here to help the rest of humanity “wake up” to its one true desire. There will be no stopping it, because every human being will be united in that one desire to create a world that expresses Love.

The extreme dissatisfaction is setting up the choice, and I believe that most of humanity has chosen love. They just don’t know it yet. It is up to us to show them what they know. To demonstrate it, so that they can say, “Yes, that’s it! That’s how I really want to act. That’s how I really want to live.”

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to serve you the way you served God – by standing before our fellow human beings as examples of those who, in knowing who they truly are, find their sustenance and contentment in the Living Bread alone. Give us the wisdom and courage to be that example so that You may come soon into the hearts of all humanity and usher in the Kingdom of Heaven. AMEN.

Resources

Deffinbaugh, Bob. “16. The Bread of Life (John 6:22-71).” Bible.org, 19 Aug. 2004, bible.org/seriespage/16-bread-life-john-622-71.

Life Application Study Bible. Zondervan, 2011.

Tarantino, Olivia. “The 18 Unhealthiest Breads on the Planet?” eatthis.com, 7 Sept. 2020, eatthis.com/unhealthiest-breads-on-the-planet.

No Rest for the Unweary

Washington Allston, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: How can we serve humanity like Jesus did when we are worn out? When we are disheartened by all the trouble in the world and overwhelmed by so much need? Jesus lived in times much like ours, yet he served humanity so tirelessly and so loyally that people thought he was out of his mind. How did he do it?

Scripture Reading: Mark 6: 30-34; 53-56

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

In spite of people suggesting that things have going “back to normal,” many are still in pain as a result of the events of recent years. Not only are some feeling the pain of the loss of loved ones and jobs, but all of humanity has been fed heavy doses of fear and hatred from a variety of sources for quite a long time.

This has caused many to embrace indifference at best and animosity at worst. Those of us in this room may be in pain too, and we may be tempted to protect ourselves by closing our hearts. We might feel it’s time to take care of ourselves and forget about others for a while. We’re just too tired. Worn out. We may want to just stick our heads in the sand because living in this world has become too painful.

Jesus lived in times much like ours. His world was full of corruption and greed. His world was full of hypocritical religious leaders. They talked about loving God and one another, but they didn’t practice it. They didn’t demonstrate it through their actions.

How do I know? Because when Jesus actually demonstrated it, people thought he was out of his mind.

How is it possible be like Jesus in times like this? When we’re feeling so tired and worn out? When there is so much trouble in the world that it is disheartening? When there is so much need that it is overwhelming? I believe our scripture reading for today provides the answer.

Our reading comes from Mark’s gospel, the most chronological of the four, meaning that the events are told in the order that they actually occurred in time. Mark focuses a great deal on Jesus, the servant. It’s an action-packed gospel. Much of what we read in Mark is about Jesus healing people and performing other miracles.

In the previous chapter, chapter 5, Jesus and his disciples came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. There, he drove out a legion of demons within one man and healed a woman who touched the fringe of his cloak and a young girl who was at the point of death.

Chapter 6 begins with a lot of drama. First, Jesus is rejected at the synagogue in his own hometown because they thought they already knew him. They probably thought, “Who does he think he is, the Messiah? Hah! He’s just Jesus, Joseph the Carpenter’s son.”

That is what judgment does. It blinds us to the truth about people.

Then Jesus gave his disciples the authority to cast out demons, and he sent them out two-by-two, ordering them to take nothing with them but a staff, their sandals, and one tunic – no bread, no bag, no money, no extra tunic. The disciples went around the villages, proclaiming for all to repent, casting out demons, and healing people by anointing them with oil.

Finally, we read about the death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod, well – actually it was his wife Herodias who was behind it. She trapped Herod with an oath he had made. When the disciples heard about it, they came and took John’s body and laid him in a tomb.

That brings us to our scripture reading for today which begins with verse 30, “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.” Notice that Mark uses the word “apostles” here rather than “disciples.” The word “apostle” means “one sent” as messenger, authorized agent, or missionary. It would become an official title for Jesus’ 12 disciples after his resurrection.

Jesus and his disciples were so busy with people coming and going that they didn’t get a chance to eat. This is common theme in Mark’s gospel. Jesus – the servant – so dedicated to his work of caring for the needs of those who came to him that people thought he was out of his mind.

Jesus was not a workaholic, and he was not a slave driver. He knew when he and his disciples needed to rest, so he suggested that they find a deserted place where they could all rest.

Well, that didn’t really happen. It’s not easy to get away when there is such great need. Jesus and his disciples got in a boat to go to a solitary place, but the crowds saw where they were going and rushed to arrive there first.

It’s easy to view people with needs as a nuisance. We feel we don’t have the time, energy, or resources to serve them. But there is no better use of our time, energy, or resources than to help others. In fact, God put us on this earth to help others – to be his hands and feet in this suffering world. Nothing gives us more energy and joy than fulfilling our purpose. We just don’t know that.

But Jesus knew that. When Jesus saw the crowd, he wasn’t like, “Oh, come on! We need to rest! Leave us be!” He saw them as sheep without a shepherd. Sheep are helpless without a shepherd. The shepherd guides them and protects them from predators. And if a sheep ever ends up on its back, the shepherd has to pick it up and place it on its feet because sheep aren’t able to “right” themselves.

If it were not for the Good Shepherd, we would die because we aren’t able to live “right” by ourselves. Humanity is suffering not because the shepherd is absent. He’s there for every one of us, but there are too many people who don’t know him or who know him, but don’t follow him. Instead, they use him as an object of worship, or to glorify themselves, or to obtain material possessions, or to justify their hateful behavior.

Now, this Sunday’s lectionary curiously skips over verses 35-52, where Jesus feeds the five thousand and walks on water. Instead, it focuses on what happens immediately before and after these two events. What’s the point of this scripture split? We shall see.

We read in verse 53 that after they crossed over, they landed in Gennesaret, which was a small, fertile plain located on the west side of the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum, Jesus’ home, sat at the northern edge of this plain.

We read that the people recognized him, and brought people to him for healing, and he went all throughout the region healing people. I read verses 30-56, and the only time Jesus was able to rest was recorded in verse 46-47, where we read that he went up on a mountain to pray into the evening.

Can you imagine the energy in the air at that time – people’s immense faith and anticipation that Jesus can and would heal them – that he would free them from whatever it was that was keeping them from living their lives to the fullest? And he could! He was capable of doing that for them, and so he did. He served and served and served as if he somehow had an inexhaustible source of energy.

How did he do it, and how can we do it too as tired and worn out as we may feel right now? Well, first, let’s be clear. Jesus was out of his mind – out of the mind of me. He was operating out of the Mind of Christ. To the Christ, people’s call for love is irresistible. To respond to that call is as natural to the Christ as breathing is to us humans.

Many people believe that our strongest human instinct is survival, but the survival instinct is simply built into the physical brain. Since we are not really physical beings, our strongest instinct is actually spiritual: to express our Divinity. We express our Divinity by extending Love. That is one of the purposes for which God created us, but our human programming – the mind of me – often blocks that expression.

Now, I’m not saying that we “should” or “ought” to do anything. The “shoulds” and “oughts” come from the mind of me also. It’s the mind of me trying to tell us what to do and making us feel guilty if we don’t do it. It wants to control us so badly that it will even resort to disguising its ulterior motives as something spiritual.

The Christ will not tell us what we “should” or “ought” to do. If we truly get an impulse from the Christ to help someone, we will respond effortlessly and joyfully. We will not need to force ourselves to do it out of any sense of guilt or obligation.

We will also find no scarcity of time, energy, or resources to answer the call. That is why Jesus instructed his disciples to go into the villages with nothing but a staff, the sandals on their feet, and the tunics on their backs. It’s like he was saying, “I dare you to trust God to provide for your daily needs.”

Let’s go back for a moment to those skipped verses: the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 and walking on water. What did Mark mean when he writes in verse 51-52, “Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

The answer is the point of our split scripture reading. When we are doing what it is that God created us to do – when we live fearlessly day-by-day, when we serve others in gratitude, we realize that we need not fear scarcity or the unknown. We need not fear running out of resources or energy or time or being faced with calamity without help. God is here for us and lovingly supplies all our needs.

Why wouldn’t he if we are doing what he created us to do?

Jesus didn’t have much time to eat or rest, but he obviously didn’t need it. Even though there was practically no rest for him, he was unweary. That’s because God supplies unlimited energy and resources to empower the Christ to do what Christ does – extend love. This is the lesson the Lord was teaching his disciples – and us.

That time of great trouble coupled with great need was the perfect time for Jesus Christ to come into the world the first time and do his work. We live in a time of great trouble and great need, so it’s the perfect time for the second coming of Christ and the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven.

When Jesus came the first time, most people were not awake. That is not the case this time. People are awake; they just don’t know it. They think they are crazy because the rest of the world doesn’t appear to think or feel like they do. The truth is they do; they just don’t have the courage to act differently from everyone else. They don’t have the courage to speak and demonstrate the Truth.

I recently read a post from someone I knew when I attended the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Poconos years ago. She made a suggestion on her community’s Facebook group. She suggested that two single-stall park bathrooms be labeled for both male and female use instead of having one for men only and one for women only. 

Certainly, that would eliminate the difficulties transgender individuals face under those circumstances, and that’s important. But that’s not the only issue. You know how it is, ladies. There’s often a line for the women’s bathroom, but no one in the men’s bathroom. So, there you are, a woman who really needs to go, standing right next to an empty bathroom that you’re not allowed to use.

It was a practical suggestion, but people in the Facebook group attacked and ridiculed her. She was shocked. I was not because the same thing often happened to me when I posted a suggestion on the Easton community page. All I suggested was that people try to be a little more patient with others and stop obnoxiously honking their horns at people for the slightest little thing – like not stepping on the gas pedal the nanosecond the light turns green.

It is not easy to be different. It takes courage. I know there are more people out there who are like us then there are like those hecklers. They are just afraid of the hecklers. They are afraid to be ostracized. What they don’t know is how much they are loved by God – so who cares what silly humans think?

Jesus warned us that we would be persecuted, so we shouldn’t be surprised when we are. That’s the price we pay for picking up our cross and following Jesus. If we are really doing that, then we should not be acting like everyone else. Being heckled is proof that we’re doing what Jesus called us to do.

Because you see, it is what we do that will startle people into seeing the Divinity within themselves. That is what Jesus did. His actions said to people, “You see, you have the same power, the same potential within you to change the world for the better if you choose.”

There is another purpose why God created us beyond extending love. That reason is to be co-creators with Him. God gave us the free will to create whatever we choose – but now, because of all the ugly stuff that is being revealed, much of humanity is crying out to God, “Please God, help us change. This is not the life we wanted to live. This is not the life we wanted to create.”

We created out of ignorance, out of a lack of awareness, out of being asleep. The mind of me is what caused this sleep, and it works hard to keep us asleep, so it’s so important for us to be aware of it so that we can stay awake, and not keep falling back into the sleep of our default human programming.

We have turned our creative power over to others instead of claiming it for ourselves. We do have the power to create the life we want if we chose to act out of our Divinity. First, in our personal lives, we need to follow the promptings of the Divine to change the way we are living our lives. If there is something that isn’t working for us spiritually, we will know it by experiencing discomfort.

So, if we’ve started to feel some discomfort when we eat certain foods, or visit certain people, or watch certain TV shows, or read certain newspapers or magazines, or engage in certain habits, it means that these activities are no longer good for us. It’s important to notice that and make changes so that we can be better aligned with our True Self.

We can make deliberate choices around the foods we eat, the people we surround ourselves with, and the media we consume. We can make deliberate choices about how and where we spend our money, where and what kind of health care we receive, and many other lifestyle choices. Once we make those deliberate choices, then we do what we need to do to create the life we want. We have that power.

We also have the power to create the kind of world we want if we choose. We may think that we are just one person, so how can we create global change? Jesus was just one person. So was Mahatma Ghandi. Mother Theresa. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many other remarkable individuals who changed the world because they had the courage to act out of their Divinity – to not be like everyone else.

The mind of me is afraid of change, but the Mind of Christ embraces it. So let us ignore the mind of me’s fear embrace the Mind of Christ’s courage by answering the call and extending love to those crying out for love. Yes, those hecklers and anyone else who behaves badly are crying out for love because they are frightened.

Let us create the life we want to live – a life in alignment with our Divine Self – our True Self – beginning with our personal lives, making whatever changes we need to make so that our light can shine brighter in this world. Let people think we’re out of our minds. Let them heckle us. Let them ostracize us.

Eventually, they will see themselves – their True Self – reflected in our loving eyes and in our loving actions and in the loving ways in which we chose to walk on this earth.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to take up our cross and follow you. We are willing to put our trust in God to provide for our daily needs. Help us to release our fears, open our hearts, and answer the call for love.

Resources

Life Application Study Bible. Zondervan, 2011.

Grace in the Thorns

Philippe de Champaigne, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: Why does God allow people to suffer- especially good people? Paul was a good person; he was one of the Lord’s greatest apostles. Yet, he suffered from an affliction. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul explains that no matter what we have done, God is on our side. Therefore, we can trust that there is always grace in the thorns.

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 12: 2-10.

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Why does God allow suffering? That is one of life’s “big questions” and one that many people struggle with the most. Why are some people afflicted and others aren’t? Why are some people healed and others not? Why do some live while others die? Why do bad things happen to good people?

Paul was certainly a good person as one of the Lord’s greatest apostles. He was the one who took the gospel to the gentiles, but still, he suffered from an affliction. He writes about this experience in our scripture reading for today, and I believe what he has to say offers answers to these questions.

Paul wrote two letters to the church at Corinth. They struggled with the Christian lifestyle because they were surrounded by idolatry and immorality. Paul wrote his first letter to deal with specific problems and moral issues within the church.

Today’s scripture reading comes from Paul’s second letter. He wrote this letter to defend his authority as an apostle because there were false teachers in Corinth who denied his authority and slandered him.

Paul’s second letter is an intensely personal and autobiographical letter. To summarize the contents of this letter briefly, Paul begins by explaining his ministry, then he defends his ministry, then he defends the collection of funds for the Jerusalem church, and finally, he defends his authority. Our scripture reading falls toward the end of his letter, where he defends his authority as an apostle.

When Paul writes, “I know a person in Christ …” he is talking about himself; he is just trying to be humble. As a humble servant in Christ, it must have been difficult for him to “toot his own horn.” He probably never intended to share this experience, but under the circumstances, he felt it necessary.

He describes an experience where he was taken up to the “third heaven.” The people of his day believed that this is the place where God dwells, beyond the atmosphere and the stars. We know today that God doesn’t really live “way up there” far away from us.

Paul calls it “paradise,” so he’s basically saying he went to heaven either in body or in spirit. We can only speculate when this occurred: maybe during those three days of blindness after his conversion or during a period of intense prayer.

Because of our advances in medicine, we hear stories of people who have experienced paradise in what we call “near death experiences.” Many report going through a tunnel; seeing a white light; joyfully reuniting with relatives, friends, and pets who have passed away; and reviewing events from their life.

Sometimes people report being gifted with profound revelations that they find impossible to put into words. Some experience these types of revelations during moments of prayer or meditation. This might be what Paul means when he writes that he “heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.”

Why was he sharing this experience with his audience – fourteen years later? Well, he was attempting to establish his authority as someone who has been uniquely “touched by God.” God honored him by bringing him to his abode and sharing secrets with him.

What did Paul mean when he wrote in verses 5-6, “On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.” I believe Paul was saying something like, “My Christ Self is something to be filled with pride over; whereas this personal self is filled with nothing but weakness.”

Now, the biggest weakness of the personal self is its intense desire to feel special. Its job is to give us a sense of separateness, but unfortunately, the mind of me translates separateness into superiority. Remember that the mind of me holds all the mistaken ideas we have about ourselves existing separately from everyone and everything else.

Many spiritual people have desired unique spiritual experiences and gifts. But why? Why do we want them? Is our motive truly to serve God though serving others, or do we just want to feel special?

To have spiritual experiences and gifts is an honor not to be taken lightly. There comes with them a very high level of responsibility because of the extreme temptation to slip into pride: to use these experiences to glorify our personal selves rather than God and our gifts to serve ourselves rather than others.

People who use their spiritual experiences and gifts in self-serving ways can do a great deal of harm. They can cause people extreme mental, emotional, and spiritual pain – even to the point of losing their faith in God.

When I realized this, I made a deal with God: “I’m willing to accept any special spiritual experiences or gifts you want to give me – as long as you think I can handle it!”

So now, like Paul, I’m trying to be humble. Jean, you said to me two weeks ago how much you have been impressed by my sermons lately and that you “don’t know where I get it all from.” Now, the mind of me wanted me to say, “Oh, I don’t know Jean. Guess I’m just a spiritual genius.” I kept my mouth shut because I knew exactly what the mind of me was up to: it was trying to Edge God Out.

To be honest, some of my sermon content comes from my own reading of scholarly Bible research and spiritual literature. But where the really good stuff – the best insights – come from is far more interesting.

Once I begin the process of writing a sermon, insights start dropping into my mind. The best way to describe it in this computer age is to say it’s like a “download.” Whenever I ask for help – like when I don’t understand something, don’t know how to explain something, or need a good example – I always get it. When it happens, it amazes me every time because it’s so good. I’m like, “WOW!”

I believe these insights come from my Christ Self. As a new minister, I experienced this once in a while. I believe that’s because I was more worried about impressing you. My self-doubt was like a dam holding back the river. With the pandemic, my focus shifted to comforting and reassuring you. Since then, it’s become a constant flow.

So, I can understand Paul’s words that it is his Christ Self that is his source of pride – not his personal self – because I know where the great stuff in my sermons really comes from. This personal self, Joan Kistler, is no spiritual genius – but the Christ is. I am not special because all of you have access to the same river of Christ Consciousness.

Paul explains that God used a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him from slipping into pride. No one knows for sure what it was, but a good guess is that it was a disease of the eyes because in his letter to the Galatians 4:13-15, Paul writes, “As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. Where, then, is your blessing of me now? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.”

If it were a disease of the eyes, you can understand why Paul begged to be healed. Imagine how much more difficult it would have made his ministry. Three times, he asked God to remove the affliction, but God refused.

Now, the personal self with its mind of me would view God as capricious and cruel for this refusal. It doesn’t buy the answer Paul received: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Grace? What is grace? Grace is the idea that God designed life to work in our favor. The purpose of life is spiritual growth: to free us from everything that keeps us enslaved by the personal self and the mind of me – everything that causes us to distrust and everything that makes us feel small, fearful, lacking, and unworthy.

That is what the soul is up to when life brings us certain experiences, and sometimes it’s an affliction. To the soul, a bodily affliction is nothing compare to a spiritual affliction. When we leave this physical realm, we don’t take a bodily affliction with us. We do take a spiritual affliction with us, lifetime after lifetime after lifetime, until it is healed.

Of course, the mind of me doesn’t care about that because it knows nothing about the soul. It identifies with the body. That is why it fails to see any purpose for affliction other than unjust punishment, which is exactly why it judges God to be capricious and cruel.

When someone you know is suffering from an affliction, I advise you not to say to them, “God has given you this affliction for a purpose.” That may be true, but most people don’t want to hear that. It sounds like just the religious version of “suck it up!” What they really need is your understanding and compassion. If they say something about God having a purpose for their affliction, then you can then feel free to encourage that line of thinking.

I am reminded of when Jesus healed the man who was born blind in John chapter 9. The disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” They wrongly assumed that his affliction was some kind of punishment.

Jesus explained to them the actual purpose for the man’s blindness. He said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” In other words, the man’s soul made a contract with God to be born blind so that God’s glory could be revealed.

So, the cause of his blindness had nothing to do with his having sinned or his ancestors having sinned. The cause was nothing less than spiritual heroics on the part of the blind man’s soul. He chose to patiently endure blindness until the time came when God’s glory would be revealed in Jesus.

Notice that Jesus explained the cause of the man’s blindness to his disciples, because they asked, but not to the blind man himself. He just healed him.

So, you see, it’s not fair to ourselves or to others to assume that our affliction is some form of punishment. It might not even be to free us from a spiritual thorn. It could be to reveal God’s glory in some way or even to prepare for a calling in this life or the next.

There are many purposes. Our personal self can only guess at them, and usually, it’s wrong or only partly right. It can’t know for sure. However, Spirit may reveal the purpose to us if it is for our good.

And how can power be made perfect in weakness? That makes no sense to the mind of me. To answer that, let’s go back to that passage in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul was with them when he was suffering from an eye affliction. The people loved him so much that they seemed willing to tear out their own eyes and give them to him.

Now, if Paul had been with them in perfect health, do you think the people’s hearts would have been so open to him? He was persecuting Christians only a few years before his first missionary journey to Galatia, so I’m sure his disability helped him appear far less threatening to them. Their hearts opened in going out to him. It makes sense that Paul’s weakness was necessary for the power of God’s love to be able to perfectly and powerfully touch the hearts of the Galatians.

People who suffer from afflictions are often the most loving, accepting people. In their vulnerability, God’s love flows powerfully out of them. I can think of no better example than people who were born with Down’s Syndrome. They are perfectly powerful conduits of God’s love, aren’t they?

We don’t turn to God so much when we are strong; we turn to God more when we are weak. We rely more on God. We are forced to trust God. That is when God’s power is revealed to us and in us – when our small personal self is brought to its knees.

Think about the power of God released in Jesus’ resurrection. As Paul writes in the next chapter of this letter, chapter 13, verse 4, “For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power.”

So, how can we learn to accept God’s grace in the thorns? First, we need to stop trying to figure out why. That is an exhausting mental exercise that takes us nowhere and accomplishes nothing good for us. The personal self isn’t supposed to know what the soul is up to. The soul knows why, and that has to be good enough for us.

Next, we need to stop judging ourselves and others who are experiencing afflictions. This becomes a whole lot easier once we stop trying to figure out why. Really, it’s none of our business why – that goes for both ourselves and others.

The reason is between the soul and God, but we can say for sure that it is NOT a punishment. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans chapter 8 verses 38-39, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In other words, no matter what we have done, God is always on our side.

Finally, we need to place our complete trust in God. We must fully believe that God is on our side. When we are feeling strong in our abilities and resources, that is when pride slips in, and we start edging God out of our lives. We start thinking we can live our lives apart from him – without his help.

We need to pray for healing and trust our bodies to God’s care by being still and calm as much as possible. Being still and calm opens us up to receive healing, and it also helps to relieve stress. And please, don’t be afraid to ask Spirit for what you need. Make it a regular thing you do – not just when you’re desperate.

We all live by God’s power. When we choose to live our lives in partnership with God, we can do so much more than our small, personal selves could ever do. I believe that is the grace-filled lesson thorns teach us, and it’s a wonderful lesson.

That is why Paul is content with thorns, as he writes in verse 10, “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

Grace is in the thorns of not only our personal lives, but also our collective human lives. I know much of what is going on in the world these days is sad and frightening, but I would like for you to try to view it from the perspective of God’s grace.

The suffering all of humanity is experiencing today is for the purpose of freeing humanity from everything that keeps us enslaved by the personal self and the mind of me – everything that causes us to distrust and everything that makes us feel small, fearful, lacking, and unworthy.

That can’t happen until what is keeping all of humanity enslaved is revealed, and much is being revealed now. As painful as it is to see this ugly stuff, it is necessary in order for it to be confronted and healed. You might feel like the world is going insane. Actually, the world has always been insane; it’s just that the insanity is being brought to the light now whereas before, it was mostly hidden in darkness.

Be content with the thorns. It’s all good; it’s all God; it’s all grace; it’s all love. Let it be as it is, and be at peace.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to depend on you in all we do. We acknowledge our personal weaknesses and your amazing strength and wisdom. Help us to be content with the thorns in both our personal and collective human lives, trusting fully in God’s grace and love for us all. AMEN.

Resources
Life Application Study Bible.  Zondervan, 2011.