Extreme Religion

James Tissot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: Taking our religion seriously is a good thing, but there is such a thing as taking it too seriously. Those in positions of power who take their religion too seriously make up cruel rules and enact cruel enforcement policies designed to exclude and persecute those who do not follow them. Jesus criticized people like this for their hypocrisy in his time and culture … and so should we.

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Scripture: Luke 13: 10-17

In August of 2004, a headline in the Warren Times inquired, “Wheat Intolerance Invalidates Girl’s First Communion?” In the article, an 8-year-old who suffers from a rare digestive disorder and cannot eat wheat had her first communion invalidated by the Catholic church because the wafer contained no wheat, which violates Roman Catholic Doctrine.

The girl’s mother was pushing the Diocese of Trenton and the Vatican to make an exception, arguing that her daughter’s condition should not exclude her from the sacrament, but the Catholic church was reluctant to change the rule that the wafers must contain some unleavened wheat.

Within our religious institutions, as with our institutions in general, people in positions of authority struggle with appropriate limits and enforcement of standards. What exceptions should be allowed? Where do we draw the line? What consequences should be imposed for failing to meet standards?

That’s what today’s scripture reading is all about. Just like extreme sports, extreme religion can be quite exhilarating, but also very dangerous, and the more deeply a person gets into it, the more dangerous it becomes for him or her and for everyone within their sphere of influence.

Let’s take a look at the context around our scripture reading for today. It follows on the heels of several related incidents where Jesus spars with the Pharisees and teachers of the law over the enforcement of traditional standards.

In chapter eleven, Jesus was teaching at the synagogue, and he was invited to come inside to dine with a Pharisee. As soon as he started eating, he was criticized for not engaging in the proper hand-washing ritual before the meal.

Jesus responded by denouncing the Pharisees and teachers of the law in no uncertain terms, calling them hypocrites, who clean the cup on the outside while leaving the inside filthy dirty. In other words, they were more concerned with ritual defilement than with ethical defilement.

Why didn’t Jesus wash his hands before eating? Isn’t that a hygiene thing? I mean, shouldn’t we all wash our hands before eating?

Actually, it wasn’t a hygiene thing. It was one of the Traditions of the Elders – a collection of Jewish practices and understandings that had grown over the years but were not found in Torah. They were also interpreted in a variety of ways. By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, these traditions had become burdensome and confusing as well as being out-of-touch with the concerns of the times.

The Pharisees created these traditions as a way to keep the Jewish people in line. They sometimes called them a “fence” around Torah Law, believing that if people kept these small traditional practices, they would be more likely to follow Torah law. Unfortunately, these practices became more important to them than the law itself.

So, it wasn’t that Jesus resented being told to wash his hands before dinner. The fact that the Pharisees placed more importance on human traditions than on God’s laws made Jesus very grumpy. He taught that when the heart is corrupt, human-made laws can still be followed, but God’s laws cannot.

Now we come to our scripture reading. After this incident, Jesus is back at the synagogue teaching on the Sabbath. He routinely attended worship at synagogues, and he was often invited to teach. 

A woman was there who had been crippled for eighteen years. She was bent over, unable to straighten herself up. We can imagine living like that would put a strain on her internal organs as well as on her everyday life and relationships. Verse eleven suggests that her condition was caused by a demon, but Jesus didn’t treat her condition like a demonic possession.

It’s interesting that Jesus called her to him. Usually, he healed someone after they demonstrated their faith in some way and/or expressed a desire to be healed. She didn’t ask to be healed; she was simply attending synagogue like everyone else. He must have sensed that this woman had great faith and wanted to be healed. So, he placed his hands on her, and she was immediately healed.

The fact that Jesus healed this woman on the Sabbath outrages the leader of the synagogue. He doesn’t directly reprimand Jesus; he does so indirectly by speaking to the people. My guess is that he has heard stories and knows better than to verbally spar with Jesus. He just wants to make it clear that Jesus violated Torah Law by healing this woman.

In his opinion, Jesus violated the Fourth Commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy. Just as God spent six days creating the world and rested on the seventh, so we should follow His example. Jews are not permitted to work on the Sabbath, and they must also give their servants and animals the day off.

Let’s take a closer look at Jewish Sabbath laws so that we can get a better grasp of them and what they mean to the Jewish people. In 167 B.C., almost two centuries before Jesus was born, Antiochus’ army tried to put a stop to sacrifices at the Temple. The people of Jerusalem revolted and then fled to the desert, but their hiding place was soon discovered by the pursuing soldiers.

The soldiers surrounded the Jews and demanded they surrender. The Jews didn’t give in, but they refused to fight because it was the Sabbath. They wouldn’t even block the entrances to their caves. As a result, one thousand men, women, and children died without resistance.

That gives us an idea of the intensity of the Jews’ conviction that the Sabbath should not be violated. Anyone who unintentionally violated the Sabbath was required to pay a heavy sin offering. Anyone who intentionally violated the Sabbath would be stoned to death.

By the time Jesus was born, the Jews’ conviction around Sabbath Laws had only become stronger. Because of the pagan influences all around them, the Pharisees had taken it upon themselves to keep the Jewish faith pure, and that is why they created the “Traditions of the Elders.”

Now, the problem is that what actually constitutes “work” is an ongoing debate to this very day. It was never clearly defined. We can imagine what the Pharisees and teachers of the law, the “fence makers,” did with this vague area of the law.

Obvious work was banned, but then anything remotely related to obvious work was also banned. For example, a farmer couldn’t plow his field on the Sabbath. Sounds reasonable, right? But then they ruled that no one could drag a chair across the ground because that would create a furrow which is related to plowing.

A Jew could not carry a heavy load on the Sabbath. Sounds reasonable too. But then they decided that no one could wear an extra piece of clothing because that was somehow related to carrying a heavy load.

One dilemma that caused a lot of discussion was what a Jew could do if their house caught on fire on the Sabbath. The Pharisees ruled that a Jew could save only clothing, wearing one piece at a time, but it had to be taken off before going back into the burning house to save another garment. Can you imagine the spectacle that would be?

So, what the leader of the synagogue was essentially saying, “Look people, you have six days out of the week where you can be healed. Woman, you’ve been dealing with this illness for eighteen years, surely you could have waited one more day to keep the Sabbath holy.” Sounds reasonable, right?

The synagogue leader didn’t get away with his indirect criticism. Jesus immediately calls him out on his hypocrisy and the hypocrisy of all those who share his mindset about the Sabbath. They believe it is fine to unbind stable animals on the Sabbath to lead them to water, but it is a violation to unbind this human being, their sister in the faith, who has been bound by her disability for eighteen years?

Like many religious leaders of Jesus’ day and even today, the synagogue leader couldn’t see the forest for the trees. He was so focused on all the trifling rules that had been built up around the law that he lost sight of the main point. His focus on the letter of the law blinded him to the spirit of the law.

His viewpoint was not reasonable; it was cruel. It lacked compassion. The Torah is supposed to reveal to us the holiness of God, and since compassion is one of God’s traits, acts of compassion extended toward others are among the holiest we could do.

Since the time of Jesus, there have been two schools of Pharisaic thought: the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel. The main difference between the two schools is that the School of Shammai was more restrictive in its interpretation of Torah Law, and the School of Hillel was more lenient.

For example, if it is unknown whether a woman’s husband is alive or dead, Hillel ruled that the woman could remarry with even indirect evidence of the husband’s death, but Shammai ruled that witnesses must come forth with direct testimony before she was permitted to remarry. If no witnesses came forth, a woman would be forced to live a widow’s life for the rest of her life. Without a husband to support her, hers would be a very difficult life indeed.

Hillel recognized the cruelty of this. He was more concerned for the welfare of others than with strict interpretations of the law. His views were more popular and usually chosen by the Sanhedrin. But over time, the unity of these two schools began to fracture and the unity of the Jewish people along with it.

The disputes between the two schools started with only a few minor things, but ultimately, they had grown so far apart in their interpretations that it was as if two different Torahs were being taught, and the mutual respect there once was between the two schools had morphed into mutual animosity.

There were many laws that lacked compassion, and those from the school of Shammai often instigated severe punishments for those who challenged them – including Jesus. They were put to shame on this day, and the crowd rejoiced. The crowd was made up of ordinary people who could relate to the woman who had suffered for so long. They had all been suffering for a long time under the rigid authority of the Romans, and some of their own people were adding to the burden with their own brand of it.

So, what can we learn from this scripture reading today? How does it relate to our times? I believe we have a similar problem in today’s world. Within our Christian institutions, there has always been a conflict between the more restrictive ones and the less restrictive ones.

Lately, it seems that there are two totally different Bibles being taught and two totally different stories about Jesus being told. Just as in Jesus’ time and culture, Christian unity has fractured, and there isn’t much mutual respect remaining between the opposing sides.

Why does religion become oppressive? Well, people take religion very seriously. It’s a deeply-cherished part of our identity. Think of how all-encompassing your Christian identity is. It touches every aspect of who you are. So how people define Christianity and view Christians is important to us.

But as with all things in life, we need a proper balance. It’s good to take religion seriously, but there is such a thing as taking it too seriously. Religion is good. Religiosity is not good because it creates repressive religious systems.

In Mark 2:27, Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Rules are intended to serve us, not the other way around. The Sabbath was meant to remind us to rest, not to burden us. What was meant to be a reminder of the nature of our compassionate God has been corrupted with cruel rules by those who take religion way too seriously.

Communion was meant to remind us of the love of God our Father, of our unity in Christ, of our belonging in the family of God. It has been corrupted with cruel rules by those who take religion way too seriously.

The Bible was written to guide our understanding about the nature of God and who we are in Christ. It has been corrupted, used to create cruel “fences” meant to exclude others at best and persecute them at worst, by those who take religion way too seriously.

I believe that Christians who practice extreme Christianity have Christ more in their heads than in their hearts. For them, Christianity is all about beliefs, not action. For them, the word “Christian” is another identity that must be properly defined and defended. Their perspective is very limited – so is their life and the life they wish to force on others.

Like the prodigal son’s older brother, they make slaves of themselves, imagining God to be like an employer whose orders they must follow, orders they themselves make up. Then they expect special privileges based on their perceived superiority. Just like the Pharisees and teachers of the law in Jesus’ time, if they are in positions of power, they set up systems to oppress those who don’t follow their rules.

But if we have Christ in our hearts, we know that Christ is unlimited and therefore undefined. When it comes to our true nature, we need no definitions. Christ knows who Christ is. We’re the ones who have forgotten who we are, and we rely on Christ, not human definitions, to tell us who we are.

Before Jesus healed the crippled woman at the synagogue, all she could see was dirt and other people’s feet because she was bent over and couldn’t straighten herself out. Her perspective was bound like this for eighteen years. It was extremely limited.

Extreme religion does the same thing to people’s perspective of God, themselves, others, and the world. In addition to freeing the woman, Jesus was also trying to free the Pharisees and teachers of the law from their limited perspective and anyone today who suffers because they take religion to the extreme.

We are not called to take our religion to the extreme. We are called to take our religion to the streets. We are not called to sit in a pew on Sunday mornings, listen to someone talk about Jesus, and pass judgment on the rest of the world. We are called to go out into the world every day of our lives and extend love and compassion to those in need.

With all the noise in today’s world made by those who have more Christ in their heads, it can be tempting to doubt what we know to be true in our hearts. In this time of spiritual warfare, it is therefore important to wear your spiritual armor.

As Saint Paul advised the Ephesians in his letter to them chapter 6, verses 13-17:

“… Take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

And as for us, the Word of God is not some book outside of us; it is the Christ within us. Now is the time for all of us to get Christ out of our heads and into our hearts and start LIVING as the Christ. Now is the time to stop WAITING for the second coming of Christ and start BEING the second coming of Christ.

Let’s pray together: Lord, thank you for setting us free from slavery to human rules and traditions with your simple gospel of love for one another. Help us to shine the light of God’s love and compassion as we deal with people suffering from extreme religious views and those harmed by them. AMEN.

Resources

Donovan, R. “Biblical Commentary (Bible study) Luke 13:10-17.” Sermonwriter.com, sermonwriter.com/biblical-commentary/new-testament-luke-1310-17/

Hensell, Eugene. “Homily Helps: Jesus and the Tradition of the Elders.” Franciscanmedia.org, 30 Aug. 2018, franciscanmedia.org/franciscan-spirit-blog/homily-helps-jesus-and-the-tradition-of-the-elders

“Hillel and Shammai.” Jewishvirtuallibrary.org. www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/hillel-and-shammai

Leininger, D. “Sermon|Luke 13:10-17|Repressive Religion.” Sermonwriter.com, 2004, sermonwriter.com/sermons/luke-1310-17-repressive-religion-leininger/

“Why Did Jesus Heal on the Sabbath?” GotQuestions.org, www.gotquestions.org/heal-on-the-Sabbath.html

New in Christ

Source: openclipart.org

Synopsis: What does it mean to be raised with Christ? It means that our attitude and behavior are so different from most people’s that we can be legitimately considered “weird.” When it comes to establishing His Kingdom here on earth, God needs thoughtful people with pure hearts, not rule-followers with rotten hearts.

Note: During the sermon, I showed two illustrations. To illustrate the Greek word “orge” (angry), I showed a picture of the Disney character “Shrek” looking angry. To illustrate the Greek word “thumos” (wrath), I showed a picture of Shrek screaming at Donkey. I have not included these images in this post in compliance with copyright law.

Scripture: Colossians 3: 1-11

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Last week, we started looking at Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Paul had received word from Epaphras, the missionary who started the church there, that heretical beliefs were spreading among the Christians. First, Paul builds up the Colossians in the true faith, advising them to hold fast to what they had been taught.

Then he attacks the heretical beliefs that were undermining the gospel, threatening their freedom in Christ – ideas that they needed certain “props” in order to approach God – props like circumcision, observing the Sabbath and certain festivals, worshipping the angels, and engaging in extreme forms of self-discipline.

Paul reminds the Colossians that they don’t need to “elevate” themselves in order to approach God. Raised with Christ, we are One with God and All of Life. We are of the same substance, beloved sons and daughters of God. God is not like earthly rulers who need people to grovel at their feet.

But what does it mean to be raised with Christ? That’s the question Paul answers in our scripture reading for today, chapter three of his letter to the Colossians.

When we accept Christ as our new identity, our old identity dies. We no longer identify with the flesh; we identify with the Spirit. At that point, we have a totally different mindset because we are no longer of this world. We begin seeking things that are above.

This change in mindset is what the Apostle Paul refers to when he writes in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind that you may prove what is the Will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

When our minds have been transformed, we are no longer obsessed with worldly pleasures and treasures. In Luke 12, Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool, who built bigger storage bins for his excess yields, thinking that he would be “set for life.” But that very night, he died.

Our pleasure is serving God through service to others, and our treasure is love – the only treasure that we can take with us when we leave this world. As our Lord said in Matthew 6, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

The Bible focuses a lot on the mind and talks a lot about beliefs. What we believe is important. We filter reality though our beliefs, so they influence what we expect from life and our behaviors, which often cause us to experience exactly what we expect.

If we believe that we don’t deserve to be happy, then we will behave in ways that lead us further away from happiness. We’ll get into relationships with people who treat us badly, take jobs we know we’ll hate, and tolerate things that make us unhappy – complaining all the while, but doing nothing to change any of it.

And if we believe that there isn’t enough, we will take more than we need in an effort to “fix” the sense of lack in our lives. But since this sense of lack is an illusion, and an illusion can’t be fixed, it always feels as if there is never enough. This mindset is responsible for the unbridled greed causing much suffering here on earth.

But if we believe that we are beloved children of God worthy of peace, love, and joy, that belief will change everything. We’ll attract relationships with good people, take jobs that are meaningful to us and give us joy, and change whatever in our lives doesn’t feel right. We’ll never feel trapped in anything that makes us unhappy, knowing that as children of God, we are loved and supported.

And if we believe that we are beloved children of God, then we know that we are One with All There Is. Nothing is separate from us. We are literally connected with everything that exists. That’s a lot. All we have to do is ask for what we want, believe that we can have it if it is God’s will, and we will receive it.

As our Lord says in Matthew 7, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone?”

Paul writes, “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” That is an incredibly direct statement about who we are. Christ is Life. God is pure Being, and Life is its expression. It’s like God is potential energy and Christ is kinetic energy. Kinetic energy is hidden within its source as potential until it is released, or expressed. Then, it becomes something else. It is a new thing.

We are very mysterious to those without faith. They really can’t figure us out. People look at us as if we are weird. That’s because we ARE weird. We are not of this world, and we shouldn’t be. We may not have a lot of friends, but the few we have are really good ones and just as weird as we are.

Verse 5 says, “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly.” Everything changes when we die to our old life and are raised to new life in Christ. Our minds change, and our feelings change, so our behaviors naturally change too. Everything about us should reflect our new identity.

Paul then goes into a list of specifics, beginning with sexual immorality. I noticed that he doesn’t define sexual immorality here, so I wondered, “How did Jesus define it?”

Whenever I have questions like this, I turn to the New Testament Bible expert Bart Ehrman, who wrote one of my favorite books, Misquoting Jesus. I was delighted to find that in April of this year, he posted on his blog an article entitled, “Jesus and Sexual Immorality.”

Ehrman lists two passages where Jesus uses the words “sexual immorality.” First in Matthew 5:32, where he says that it is unlawful for a man to divorce his wife except in cases of sexual immorality. Next in Matthew 15:19, where he says, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts – murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”

In the New Testament, the Greek word interpreted as “sexual immorality” is the word “porneia.” Some scholars argue that this term refers to the list of inappropriate partners found in Leviticus 18. Ehrman argues that the Greek word “porneia” means one thing: prostitution. But over the years, Jews and Christians started broadening its meaning.

Ehrman’s point is that no one can claim that they are truly refraining from all forms of Biblical sexual immorality unless they are having relations with their first spouse and only for the purpose of procreation. But people love to pick and choose their favorite sins and point their fingers at others.

If there’s any topic that clearly illuminates the two types of faith, it’s the topic of sexual immorality. The extreme libertines feel free in Christ to engage in any form of sexual activity they want, while the extreme legalists condemn almost every form of sexual activity known to man.

Yet Paul doesn’t define “sexual immorality.” Instead, he lists the causes of sexual immorality: “impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” This is similar to what Jesus says Matthew 15: sexual immorality is one of the evil thoughts that come out of the heart. But it’s so much easier to come up with definitions with which to condemn others than it is to look inside our own hearts.

Paul warns that because of the evil in our hearts, the wrath of God is coming! Whenever I hear this phrase, I get this image in my head of the Greek god Zeus hurtling lightning bolts. I don’t believe in the wrath of God. I believe our Father in Heaven loves us and does not judge us. It doesn’t make sense to me that he would give us free will and then punish us for using it.

The only way to grow in wisdom about life is to have the courage to make our free will choices and experience the consequences. Then we can decide whether that choice was a good one or a bad one. Karma, the law of cause and effect, helps us figure that out. We all know there are bad consequences for unethical sexual behavior, but they are natural consequences, not supernatural ones.

Next, Paul moves to a new set of iniquities to put away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk. The Greek word for used anger is “orge.” Orge is the simmering, seething type of anger. The Greek word used for wrath is “thumos.” Thumos is orge unleashed.

(Use of visual aids here)

Jesus warned us about this kind of anger in Matthew 5. He said, “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.”

You see, when it comes to the foot soldiers God needs to establish His Kingdom here on earth, he can’t use rule followers with rotten hearts – what Jesus called “whitewashed tombs.” He needs people with pure hearts – hearts filled with His Love.

In verse 9, Paul writes, “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” Since God is Truth, telling lies is not in His Nature. Neither should it exist in His Image.

How do we apply the concept of Christ being our life? Well, our souls are all like particles of the energy of life. We know from science that energy can never be destroyed; it can only change form. The same is true of our Life in Christ. It is eternal. It can never be destroyed. It can only change form.

We exist as both Spirit and flesh, and we alternate between forms. When we know this, we have no fear of death because we know that it’s not really death. It’s just a change in form.

That knowledge alone will greatly enhance the quality of our life. But even though we may not fear death, we can still suffer. We may identify with the Christ, but we humans have all developed the mind of me, and we suffer to the extent that we allow it to be our guide.

The mind of me takes us to a place called “Never Enough, “where we will constantly crave pleasures and treasures and anxiously pursue them in a vain attempt to leave that place. It’s like the Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

The only way to leave is to choose a different guide. If we let the Mind of Christ be our guide, it will take us out of there to a new place called “Always Enough.” And there we can relax without fear or cravings, knowing that we are perfectly supported by the Love of God. We will experience more peace and joy than we can ever imagine, without having to die first.

How do we apply “putting to death whatever within us is earthly?” I believe that as Christians, we are obligated to lead ethical lives. We are here as God’s emissaries, and our purpose is to extend His Love – to show humanity what it looks like to love one another. If Christ truly dwells in our hearts, that is what we will do naturally most of the time.

So, we don’t need to be legalistic. Since Christ is in our hearts, the last thing any of us want to do is hurt someone. We can always turn to our hearts for guidance. We can pay attention to how we feel about behaving in certain ways. Figuring out if our behavior truly hurts someone is not easy. People can be hurt by our behavior only because they are being judgmental or selfish. They may expect us to be just like them or to always cater to their needs at the expense of our own.

If we are truly responsible for someone’s hurt, we can apologize and do whatever we can reasonably do to make it right. Making mistakes comes with the territory of being human. We aren’t expected to be perfect; we are expected to learn from our mistakes.

Even if we are not responsible for people’s hurt, we must still extend love because that’s why we are here. But we don’t have to live our lives the way others choose to live theirs. Everyone is at different places on the path to Christ Consciousness, and that will affect lifestyle choices.

As we move forward on that path, some things about our lifestyle may no longer feel right, and we may feel inspired to make some changes. Others may be moving into our old position on the evolutionary journey. They may not understand the changes we made, and we might feel tempted to judge theirs as “unenlightened.”

There are many Christians telling lies today, very harmful ones about people they’ve never even met. These kinds of lies are intended to divide us, not unite us in Christ. Their goal is to fortify the walls that separate us into categories of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic class. They create an “us” verses “them” mentality, which leads first to indifference and ultimately to hatred.

My supervisor at work recently had a meeting with the city council, and I was so glad that she had the courage to speak the truth in that meeting. One of the people on the council made a comment about homeless people making a mess in one of the parks. We work on the street, so we know the homeless people, and we clean the streets and the park he mentioned, so we know who can’t seem to find the trash can. It’s not the homeless people; it’s the visitors.

It’s important for us as Christians to have the courage to speak truth to lies. We should also be very careful to not believe everything we read or hear. We must check the truth of statements before we share them. Many are mixing some truth with lies to be more persuasive, but partial truths are still lies.

What will it be like when Christ who is our life is revealed? Well, I believe it means that at some point, people will love and care for one another regardless of who they are or what they have done. As Paul writes in verse 11, there will be no difference between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.”

“Christ is all, and in all.” Christ who is our life (Christ as Life Itself) will be revealed within all. Human beings will come to accept their true identity. When they look into the eyes of another, they won’t see another, they will see a reflection of themselves. At that point, following the Lord’s command to love one another as we love ourselves will be easy because we will recognize each other as ourselves.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to live our new life in Christ. We acknowledge that it is time to be who we truly are. Give us the courage to be weird as we reveal to those who are of this world what it looks like to be “not of this world.” Through our example, may they be inspired also to die to their old selves and be raised new in Christ. AMEN.

Resources

Donovan, Richard N. “Biblical Commentary (Bible Study) Colossians 3:1-11.” Sermonwriter.com. sermonwriter.com/biblical-commentary-old/colossians-31-11/.

Ehrman, Bart. “Jesus and Sexual Immorality.” The Bart Ehrman Blog.” 13 Apr 2022. ehrmanblog.org/jesus-and-sexual-immorality

Free in Christ

Synopsis: Just as in Paul’s day, many Christians today are trying to keep Christ for themselves by distorting the gospel. How can we remain free in Christ when heretics claim that we must first be like them and follow their made-up rules?

Scripture: Colossians 2: 6-19

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

In Jesus’ time, there was a great deal of concern about political freedom. Living under the heavy yoke of Rome, the Jews had very little ability to influence laws and policies or to advocate for themselves. They were just pushed around like pawns on a chess board by those in power. Some of us might be feeling a similar sense of powerlessness with the current political climate in our country.

Political freedom is important, but there is something far more powerful than political freedom, and that is the kind of freedom Jesus was concerned about. Jesus came into this world because he wanted everyone to reclaim their spiritual freedom in Christ.

Yet, as the Christian church grew, Paul was constantly dealing with people attempting to nullify the gospel. How can we remain free in Christ when people keep messing with the gospel? That is what today’s scripture reading is all about.

Our scripture reading for today comes from the epistle of Colossians. Paul and his coworker Timothy wrote this letter to the church at Colossae. This small city was located about 15 miles east of the Denizli province in modern-day Turkey. Paul had never been to Colossae, but he had received reports from Epaphras, a missionary who probably founded the church there.

Epaphras reports some problems with false teachings that scholars have named the “Colossian Heresy.” Where the heresy came from is debatable. Some scholars believe it originated from Greek philosophy; other scholars believe its source was Jewish philosophy.

The Colossian Heresy undermined the gospel – the Truth that we are saved through faith in Christ alone. There were several components of this heresy, and Paul deals with each of them in turn. But first, he grounds the Colossians in the True faith.

As we learned from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the Torah was a temporary covenant given to Moses in order to constrain the Israelites and to make them aware of their need for salvation until the time that perfect salvation was accomplished through the work of Jesus Christ. To receive the Christ is to receive perfect salvation. Once we receive the Christ, we no longer identify with the flesh; we identify with the Spirit. We become a new creation – a son or daughter of God.

Paul uses the words “rooted” and “built up.” When we are rooted in Christ, our spiritual resources are literally infinite. When we are built up in Christ, we have a sturdy foundation. As the offspring of the Creator of All That Is, we have an equally indestructible essence. Whether times are good or bad, we can always draw upon the Christ for nourishment and support. There is nothing more we need.

Paul advises the Colossians to hold fast to what they were taught. What we believe matters because we perceive life through the lens of what we believe. Jesus said in John 8:32 that “the truth will make you free.” The opposite is also true.

Lies rob us of our freedom because they cause us to perceive ourselves, others, and the world through a distorted lens. Under those circumstances, our vision is limited. We can’t see clearly, so we respond to life in ways that hurt us, other human beings, and all of life.

Paul reassures the Colossians that they can be thankful that they are rooted and built up in Christ through proper instruction. As long as they hold fast to what they have been taught, nothing can rob them of their freedom in Christ.

Paul then attacks the heretical beliefs that are threatening to rob them. Some fellow Christians were teaching that the Godhead does not dwell fully in the Christ; therefore, human beings cannot approach God through faith in Christ alone. They must use certain props to “elevate” themselves spiritually.

This reminds me of a husband-and-wife team in Easton who dress up in costumes and walk around on stilts for the city’s festivals. Now, plenty of people approach them to talk to them and to get some pictures with them apparently without feeling the need to first find themselves a pair of stilts.

Why don’t they feel the need to “elevate” themselves in order to approach these two? Well, because they know that the stilts create an illusion. These two are not superhumans; they are ordinary humans. Anyone who would go through all the trouble to find themselves a pair of stilts and to put them on before feeling “worthy enough” to approach these two would probably be viewed as insane.

And so it is with God and the Christ. They are essentially the same. When we have joined with Christ, we do not need any “stilts” to approach God. To think we need them is not humility. It’s ignorance.

Returning to our reading, some heretical Christians were claiming that in order to approach God, people needed to elevate themselves spiritually through observing several practices. One practice was circumcision. Another was the observance of certain ceremonial laws pertaining to what they could eat and drink as well as the observance of the sabbath and certain festivals.

Sound familiar? Many Jewish Christians believed that gentile Christians had to become Jews like them in order to approach Christ, so I think it’s obvious that these ideas originated with the Judaizers.

This was similar to the legalism imposed by the Pharisees in Jesus’ time. It wasn’t enough for them that the Jews were already required to follow 613 Torah laws. In Mark chapter 7, the Pharisees criticized Jesus’ disciples for not performing the proper hand-washing ritual before eating bread. This ritual was nothing more than a Pharisaic tradition. It was not part of Torah law.

Jesus criticized the Pharisees for requiring such burdensome traditions like this one and treating violations of them as if they were violations of Torah. He also exposes their hypocrisy and wickedness for breaking God’s laws in favor of their own “Traditions of the Elders.”

Returning to our reading, a third way these heretics claimed people needed to spiritually elevate themselves was through the worship of angels. They taught that Christians should not arrogantly assume that they can reach God directly or even through the mediation of Christ. They needed to humble themselves by reaching lower on the totem pole.

This is a misunderstanding of who angels are in relation to us. It’s inappropriate to worship the angels. God created angels to serve us, not the other way around, and we are supposed to worship only God.

It’s appropriate to ask the angels for help. They respect our free will, so they won’t become involved in our lives unless we ask. So don’t hesitate to ask. They are powerful beings. It’s also appropriate to love and respect the angels for their dutiful service to us. They will do anything for us as long as it doesn’t interfere with God’s Will.

Finally, these heretics claimed that people needed to spiritually elevate themselves by practicing a form of asceticism including severe self-discipline and avoidance of all forms of indulgence. This is the idea that the body is evil and that only the soul needs to be preserved. But without the body, God would not be able to express His Love in this world. The body is God’s Temple, so we should take good care of it. Certainly, that requires some level of self-discipline and avoiding self-indulgence, but nothing extreme.

Both of these ideas originated with the Essenes, a mystical Jewish sect that existed in Jesus’ time. Essene thought influenced the Gnostic Christian philosophy that was developing among Christians around this time. So, I believe that the most likely source of the Colossian Heresy was Jewish philosophy.

How can we apply this lesson in our world today? Are there any ways in which we are we being robbed of our spiritual freedom in Christ?

Imagine yourself as pure energy floating safely in unlimited space. Within this space, you can be, do, and have anything you want. You decide that you want to experience being human, so you are born into this world. You are immediately assigned a gender, and you begin learning who you can and can’t be, what you can and can’t do, and what you can and can’t have based on your gender.

That unlimited space suddenly becomes a box. You also inherit a race, and you begin learning who you can and can’t be, what you can and can’t do, and what you can and can’t have based on your race. Now, you’re inside a smaller box within your gender box. 

You also inherit a socioeconomic status, and you begin learning who you can and can’t be, what you can and can’t do, and what you can and can’t have based on your socioeconomic status. And now, you’re inside an even smaller box within the race box.

Over time, you adopt many more identities, with each one forcing you into smaller and smaller boxes until the unlimited freedom to be, do, and have whatever you want is gone, and after some time, you have forgotten you ever had that kind of freedom.

At that point, the very thought of losing these identities becomes extremely frightening because you think that you will cease to exist without them, and so you do everything you can to protect these identities without realizing that what you’re really doing is fortifying the walls of your own prison.

What I have just described is the development of the mind of me and how it becomes prominent over time, pushing the Mind of Christ further and further into the background.

Now, it’s all part of the game. We need the experience of individuality to function in this world, and we use identities and roles to structure human life. They are the costumes we wear in this play called Life. But when we start to believe that we are these costumes and nothing more, we begin defending them tooth-and-nail, and life becomes very painful for everyone.

Anyone who behaves in ways that do not conform to them becomes an extreme threat because they are making it clear that they are not-so-solid – that they are nothing more than illusions. These brave souls are treated as if they are public enemy #1 when the truth is that they are the ones who are taking a sledgehammer to our prison walls.

Yet those who are trapped inside tiny prisons vehemently criticize everything that these truly Christ-like men and women are doing to set us free while giving carte blanche to men and women who engage in mind-blowing levels of corruption designed to keep us all in prison.

Because you see, when someone doesn’t accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ, they have no other choice for an identity, and so they feel they need to prove their worth and entitlements based on these things rather than simply on their status as sons and daughters of God.

That is why the Pharisees created the “traditions of the elders.” They created these burdensome traditions so that Jews could be more distinguishable from non-Jews. They didn’t want to make the unthinkable mistake of treating a non-Jew as an equal. They were attempting to fortify their religious and cultural walls, and Jesus was taking a sledgehammer to them.

The Judaizers in the early Christian church were attempting to do the same thing. They wanted keep Christ for themselves, and there are many Christians today who are attempting to do the same. They make up their own rules and treat violations of them as if they are violations of Scripture.

They may call themselves Christians, but they have not accepted the true Gospel. When we accept true Gospel, we become aware of our true spiritual nature, our essential unity with All That Is. We became aware that, as Paul writes in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

We realize that our personal characteristics like our gender, race, religion, and socioeconomic status are all part of the illusory personal self – costumes that will be shed when we leave this world.

In John chapter 13, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. Peter objects saying, “You shall never wash my feet.” He said this because in his culture, teachers didn’t wash their students’ feet. It was the other way around. But Jesus replied, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.”

Jesus taught us here that in order to join with Christ, we must be willing to let these roles go. The biggest reason why we feel unable to be, do, or have whatever we want isn’t so much due to external forces; it’s more due to internal forces, and the biggest internal force is that we don’t feel we deserve it.

Just like Peter, we believe we are unworthy. And we believe that because we identify more with these roles instead of with the Christ, and we try to follow the gazillion human-made rules that go with these roles instead of with the Christ’s one rule, and that rule is “Love one another.”

Indeed, there are countless cultural and religious rules designed to keep us within the boundaries of our identities and roles. But listen to what Paul writes about the Lord: “having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.”

He canceled the bonds. We are free in Christ. The powers that be have no real power over us. As One with Christ, we are still floating safely in unlimited space. We still have the freedom to be, do, and have anything we want. There is no one on the spiritual level judging us.

Of course, on the worldly level, there are plenty of judges. But if you’re a guy, you’re free in Christ to wear pink. If you’re a woman, you’re free in Christ to be a firefighter. If you’re poor, you’re free in Christ to go to college. And regardless of your race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation, you’re free in Christ to have a lucrative career and to own nice things and to enjoy your life as much as everyone else. Because the Truth is that, as far as God is concerned, no one is more entitled than another to the gifts of His Creation. No one!

We can choose to experience whatever we desire because God gave us free will. He gave us free will so that we could freely learn from our experiences – both the good and the bad. We are Life learning how to master Life. Life in the process of self-mastery.

If we make a not-so-good decision, God set this world up in a way that we will eventually learn from our mistake. It’s called Karma. Karma is a teacher, not a judge. So, we are free in Christ to break the law, but we might end up in prison – literally – like behind bars.

But if through that experience we learn some good lessons about life, then there’s nothing to be ashamed of because that’s what life is all about! Our soul knows exactly what we need to learn and how we can best learn it, and sometimes, it picks the School of Hard Knocks.

That is true on both a personal and collective level.

Paul tells the Colossians not to let anyone judge them, and he’s telling us today the same thing. We are One body in Christ growing in the way God wants us to grow. So let us let go of the modern legalism that binds us, keeping us separate from one another and our True Nature, for it was from these bonds that Jesus Christ came to set us free.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we accept the wonderful truth that our Father loves all his sons and daughters equally. Through the power of Your Holy Spirit, help us to let go of any identities or roles that make us feel unworthy or entitled so that we can be truly free in Christ. AMEN.

Resources

Donovan, Richard N. “Biblical Commentary (Bible Study) Colossians 2:6-19.” sermonwriter.com, 2013, sermonwriter.com/biblical-commentary-old/colossians-26-19/

Epistles: the Colossian Heresy. Grace Communion International, archive.gci.org/articles/the-colossian-heresy/

Loving Our Gentiles

James Tissot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: When Jesus gave his disciples a “new” commandment to love one another, he was telling them to stick together through the hard times. We are commanded to do the same – to love our Christian brothers and sisters – especially our “gentiles” – those who think very differently from us and live very different lives. We all know how difficult that can be, so what’s the secret?

Scripture: John 13:31-35

If we were to visit a variety of Christian churches over several Sundays, and asked people, “Do you love your brothers and sisters in Christ?” I’m sure they would all say, “Yes, of course I do!” We all know that we’re supposed to love our Christian brothers and sisters, but how well do we do that in reality?

Even within our own congregations, it’s not always easy to love one another through conflicts over church administrative decisions, worship practices, music selection, and even fellowship hour goodies. But generally, it is far easier to love people who are more like us than it is to love those who are very different from us – those who think very differently and live very different lives.

The apostles were faced with this same challenge when they started the church. There were major conflicts among the Jews over whether the gentiles could be accepted as Christians without becoming Jews like them. Who are our “gentiles,” and how can we learn to love them?

That is what our scripture reading for today is all about.

The setting of our scripture reading is the night the Lord was betrayed. During supper, the Lord took off his outer garments and washed his disciples’ feet to demonstrate the true purpose for his coming to earth – not to be served, but to serve.

You may remember how much Peter objected to the Lord washing his feet because he didn’t believe a master should wash his disciples’ feet. The Lord responded by reminding Peter that unless he allows this, he can have “no share” with him. Jesus meant that unless Peter can accept his essential equality with the Lord, he will always feel estranged (or separated) from him.

The same is true for all of us. We struggle to give and receive service unless we feel equal. In this world, there is status, but in God’s world, there is no such thing. We are essentially equal – quite literally. The only real part of us is the spark of the Divine within us all, so our essential nature is exactly the same.

After setting this example for his disciples and encouraging them to follow it, Jesus foretells his betrayal, and Judas exits the scene. Here is where our scripture reading begins. The disciples’ relationship with the Lord is about to undergo a huge change, and the Lord does the best he can to explain it.

It must have been a lot like trying to explain to a child where a loved ones goes after they pass away. It’s so difficult to comfort children because they don’t understand why the loved one has to go away and why they can’t follow. Even though we adults understand this more, we feel much the same way.

Jesus has compassion for his disciples, knowing how difficult it will be for them to understand the transformation he is about to undergo, and how it will change his relationship with them. First, he explains that he is about to be glorified with the Father.

The Father within the Son is about to be revealed. The way I understand this is that Jesus’ life and death perfectly expressed the love of God. When he resurrected, he became the Love of God, and so he was immediately glorified with God as God’s perfect expression.

In his teachings, Jesus had told the crowd that he would be with them only a little while longer and that where he was going, they could not follow him or find him. Now, the disciples probably thought that this didn’t apply to them since they went everywhere with Jesus – even the most remote places – when he retreated from his adversaries.

At this point in time, they were determined to follow Jesus wherever he went – even if they had to die with him. When Jesus decided to return to Judea even though the Jews were trying to kill him, Thomas said, “Let us also go that we may die with him.” And later in this passage Peter will say, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”

You see, when Jesus says he’s going to a place where they can’t follow him or find him, they think it’s some earthly place. They haven’t accepted what Jesus had been trying to tell them – that he is going to die and then resurrect three days later.

Back to our scripture reading. Jesus gives his disciples what he calls a “new commandment.” But how can it be considered “new” when they all know the greatest commandment of Jewish Law is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Well, in preparing his disciples for his crucifixion, Jesus is telling them to stick together and to take care of one another – to not abandon one another – no matter what happens. He knew that what was about to happen to him in Jerusalem could potentially shatter the group, which could prevent them from spreading the gospel.

They had to love one another through Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial and Thomas’ doubt. They had to love one another through trying to comprehend the purpose of Jesus’ death and the meaning of his resurrection. They had to love one another through figuring out how to bring Jesus’ message of salvation to the world. They had to love one another through making decisions about how to establish and nurture the church.

I can imagine Jesus calling it a “new” commandment with a little wink, knowing that it wouldn’t be easy. In Acts chapter 11, we learn that Peter, along with many Jews, struggled to view gentile Christians as equals because they were not Jews like him. Then, he had a vision that changed his mind and, in verse 12, Peter advises the Jews, “not to make a distinction between them and us.”

Jesus commands us to love our Christian brothers and sisters. But why should we? Jesus told us why. He said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” By loving one another, we set an example for others because it’s just not how most people behave.

Historical records reveal that in early Christian history, non-believers mocked Christians because of how they loved one another. For instance, Tertullian, who lived toward the end of the second century, wrote, “Behold, how these Christians love one another!” And Caecillius wrote, “They love one another before they know one another!”

If these two could step into a time machine and transport themselves into these times, I’m afraid they would admire today’s Christians. They’d be like, “Behold how the Christians hate one another! They hate one another before they know one another!”

Because I am so liberal-minded, my personal “gentiles” are conservative Christians, particularly Evangelical Christians, and until recently I decided that they weren’t really Christians, so I didn’t have to love them. Yes, I was taking advantage of a very popular ploy designed to dodge the Lord’s command.

Then I realized it’s not my place to judge other Christians’ relationship with the Lord. They may genuinely love the Lord just as much as I do, and they feel just as strongly as I do about certain things. I resent it when they judge my relationship with the Lord, and here I was doing the same thing to them.

How can we learn to love them? Well, my parents are two conservative Christians who figured it out. While I was growing up, my parents made it very clear how they felt about homosexuals. My mother didn’t hate anyone, but she had her beliefs, and she believed being gay was sinful. My father, on the other hand, hated homosexuals so much that he said he hoped the AIDS epidemic would kill them all.

I tried to tell my parents when I was in my early twenties that I am gay, but they didn’t handle it well. Since I needed their support, I withdrew my confession, explaining it was due to my mental health crisis. I didn’t attempt coming out again until I was almost fifty years old, after I met my future wife.

My parents didn’t attend the wedding because they didn’t believe in gay marriage. It hurt, but we respected their decision. Some might judge them harshly for this choice, but in not coming to the wedding, they were simply living their lives according to their values, and everyone has that right.

Despite their beliefs, they have always treated both me and my wife with love and respect. Believe it or not, my mother was finally able to accept who I am after she confessed to one of her personal care home friends that she has a daughter who is a lesbian. Her friend replied, “You should be proud of your daughter!” I guess all mom needed was a second opinion.

My father still considers our lifestyle sinful, but he has always treated both me and my wife lovingly – and he recently he told me that he is proud of me – even though I’m gay. Now, that meant a lot to me. All it took for my father to stop hating gay people was for him to know one.

My parents discovered the secret to loving Christians who are very different from us. The secret is this: Love is more important than beliefs. When we make our beliefs more important than love, then we are worshipping an idol, and that idol is ourselves. When we judge others, we are overruling God’s judgement of His Creation as “good” and making of ourselves a rival to God.

This state of mind that separates us from God and one another because it leads to estrangement, which leads to apathy, and often to hatred. The trouble starts the moment we place our fellow Christians into the “them” category.

I was inspired to apply the secret to loving Christians who are different from us in the ruthless arena of social media. I recently posted on Facebook how I feel about a very controversial subject that’s all over the news. There were three comments on my post. The first and third were comments from friends in support of how I feel, so I clicked the “like” emoji for their comments.

The second comment was from a friend who is an evangelical Christian who strongly disagreed with how I feel, and I could just feel the devil’s horns pushing up against my halo! I knew better than to reply and start a discussion with her since we’d been down that painful “Road to Nowhere” before. I thought about deleting her comment, but I decided that was too mean. Then I thought about ignoring it, but I decided that was mean too.

A solution finally came from the Holy Spirit, and it was so easy! I decided to click the “care” emoji for her comment to indicate that I “care” about her feelings even though I feel differently. So, with the click of a button, I let her know that I loved my fellow Christian without requiring her to be like me.

It is the same choice Peter made – a choice we need to make every day – not because we want to, but because the Lord commanded it. What a difference it would make if we Christians could all find a way to love one another despite our differences instead of demonizing one another?

All we need to do is be willing to try to actually care about how they feel. We don’t have to agree with them. We don’t have to feel the same way. We just have to respect them enough to acknowledge the fact that they also feel strongly about their values and that they have the right to express them and live according to them.

That is true for all of us. We don’t have to tolerate the bad behavior of Christians who judge other Christians who have a very different mindset and lifestyle. Paul certainly didn’t. We read in Galatians chapter 2 that Peter caved under the pressure of his Jewish peers and stopped eating with the gentiles. As a result, other Jews followed his lead. He was not setting a good example, and he was the rock.

I can understand Peter’s conflict. It’s like being invited to someone’s house and being served meat when you are a vegan or a vegetarian, but I personally know someone who in that situation will, out of respect for his hosts, eat the meat. Why? Because he believes love is more important than his beliefs.

Religious leaders from both sides have set bad examples by encouraging their flock to categorize as “them” Christians who think differently on things like church doctrine, worship practices, and women in the ministry as well as on social topics such as abortion and gay marriage.

Paul writes in Galatians 2:20-21 “… it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”

Some Christians think that they earn God’s justification through their beliefs, but if we become righteous through our beliefs, then Christ died for nothing. There is no belief that earns us justification because we are already justified by virtue of who we are.

Christ died to show us who we are, not what to believe.  It is only the knowledge of Christ living within us that makes us aware of our justification, and that knowledge comes through faith alone. Thanks be to the Lord that we have been brought to this truth.

In gratitude, let us choose to love all our brothers and sisters – especially our gentiles – by letting go of our beliefs, our need to be right, and our obstinacy about having our way. These are all nothing more than the dysfunctional addictions of our human nature. Letting go of these vices helps us to access our Christ nature by opening our hearts so that we can begin to genuinely care about how others feel.

This is how we can restore rational thinking and the ability to compromise not only in the Christian church but also in our country and around the world. This is the path to unity and peace, and through our example, we can lead the way.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to obey your command to love our Christian brothers and sisters, but we confess it is hard to love those who think and live differently from us. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, help us to release all that keeps us estranged from others so that we can be the good examples of unconditional love that you desire for all your disciples to be.

Resources

Deffinbaugh, Bob. 32. “The Eleventh Commandment (John 13:31-38).” Bible.org 20 Aug. 2014 bible.org/seriespage/32-eleventh-commandment-john-1331-38

Do We Love the Lord More than These?

Pieter van der Borcht (ca. 1540-1608), CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: Just as the disciples tried to go back to their old way of life after Jesus’ crucifixion, many have tried to go back to “normal” after recent events have “crucified” their old way of life – with disappointing results. How can we move from hard labor on the lake of self-reliance to the calm shores of God-reliance?

Scripture: John 21:1-19

The gospels report that on the days following Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, he appeared to his disciples and some followers who all struggled to make sense out of his crucifixion and to believe the reports of his resurrection. The events that took place severely tested their faith and hope.

Cleopas and his companion, traveling down the road to Emmaus, recounted the events from their worldly perspective, which offered them nothing more than a sense of futility and defeat. Even Jesus’ disciples struggled to believe that he had risen – especially Thomas, who refused to believe until he had seen Jesus with his own two eyes and conducted his own forensic investigation of Jesus’ wounds.

They all had doubts. They all struggled to understand what Jesus had taught them. And on the evening of his arrest, most of them deserted him. According to Luke 22, Peter, one of the first disciples Jesus called, denied him three times and was living with the terrible memory of those denials.

Then after Jesus’ crucifixion, they were all hiding out cowering in fear of being arrested, and Jesus suddenly appeared to them saying, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you.”

How do you think they felt?

How many of you remember the show “Welcome back Kotter?” This show first aired back in 1975, and it was one of my favorites. How many of you can still remember the theme song? Hah! Now’s it’s going to be stuck in your head all day! Anyway, Gabe Kotter returns to his old high school as a teacher, and he’s put in charge of a classroom full of students called the “Sweathogs.” They’re a band of wisecracking, underachieving, incorrigible students.

The disciples probably felt a lot like the Sweathogs. They had been in Jesus’ school for three years, and when the final exam came, they pretty much flunked. But like Gabe Kotter, Jesus sees tremendous potential in his little band of doubters, deniers, and deserters.

Our scripture reading for today reports that the disciples attempted to go back to their old way of life. This story reminds us of when Jesus first called them to be fishers of men. Before the Lord showed up, no matter how long or hard they labored, the results were disappointing.

But there they were – at it again. Didn’t Jesus say to them, “As the Father sent me, so I send you?” Did he then say, “Go ye therefore and be fishers of fish!” No, he didn’t. In Luke 9, Jesus invites some people to follow him, but they all had other things to do first. Jesus commented, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

The disciples had all been called out of their old lives to follow Jesus. They had put their hand to the plow of cultivating the vineyard of the human race, but now they were looking back, and it would only be a matter of time before they would go back permanently.

We can understand their frustration. With their perceived failure as Jesus’ disciples, they had lost their meaning and purpose, and the smell of the sea brought back the memory of an old meaning and purpose that had once made them happy. So, they figured, “Well, we can always catch fish.”

So, that evening, they got into their boats, shoved-off, drifted into position, and cast their nets, eagerly longing for that exhilarating feeling you get from catching fish and the return of that old meaning and purpose for their lives. But all night long, and not a single fish.

Then as the sun rises, Jesus appears on the beach. You or I might have yelled out, “Hey! Did you catch any fish?” But Jesus already knows the results. He says, “Children, you have no fish, have you?”

That reminds me of the first time I made a cake. Mom specifically told me to use baking soda, but since that was on the top shelf of the cupboard, and I didn’t feel like getting a chair to stand on to reach it, I decided to use something within reach on the bottom shelf: baking powder. I figured it was close enough – only a difference of one little word.

When I took the cake out of the oven, mom said, “It didn’t rise, did it?”

The disciples didn’t listen to Jesus either. Without reaching up higher for the baking soda of God’s purpose for their lives, all their efforts would turn out like my cake – flat. We think that we can work things out with our own power, might, and ingenuity, but if we’re not where God wants us to be, the results will always be disappointing.

What do you think the disciples thought about their fishless night? You know how it is: When fishermen catch fish, they call it “skill.” When they don’t, they call it “bad luck,” or they blame it on the weather, or the temperature of the water, or the bait. And even if no fish were caught, there’s always the ego-preserving fish story entitled “the big one that got away.”

But the disciples didn’t offer any excuses or fish stories. They simply answered with a truthful one-word confession – “No.” Sometimes it’s hard to admit failure. Maybe they thought, “Yeah, we can’t even catch simple fish, and he expects us to catch men!”

Once they admit failure, Jesus offers a solution. Throw the nets on the right side of the boat. In metaphysical philosophy, the right side is the side of Truth, the side of power. The results are immediate – tons of fish – the net was so full of fish that they couldn’t even haul it in.

And that’s when Peter experiences déjà vu. Now it may seem a little strange to us that he put on his outer garment before he jumped over the side, but it was a show of respect. He had probably been working in just a loincloth and that wasn’t enough to wear when you approach a teacher.

I’m sure their enthusiasm over finally catching some fish was amplified by their growling stomachs, but by the time they had all gotten to shore, the Lord had a meal already prepared for them. Fish was cooking over a charcoal fire, and there was some bread for them to eat also. Jesus knew that they were hungry and hurting, so he provided what they needed – food and communion with Him.

Peter grabs the net full of fish, 153 of them, but they didn’t need any of them because God had already prepared a blessing for them without the toil. And the same is true for us. God has a place of food, rest, and fellowship always waiting for us. All we have to do is accept His purpose for our lives.

That was the question Jesus had for all of the disciples, but he directs it specifically toward Peter. He asks him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Peter answers, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus responds, “Feed my lambs.” 

What was Jesus referring to by the words, “more than these?” He was asking Peter if he loved him more than the sea, his boat, his net, and the fish. He had once called Peter out of that life and into a new life, and now he’s asking him to make a choice.

The “lambs” refers to fledgling believers, who are essentially defenseless. Those who are young in the faith can easily fall prey to lies because they don’t know any better. They need to be fed the Truth about who God is, who they are in relation to God, and why they are here.

The second time Peter professes his love for the Lord, Jesus responds, “Tend my sheep.” The “sheep” refers to veteran believers, and in using the word “tend,” he’s asking Peter to be their shepherd.

Sheep need a shepherd because frankly, they aren’t too smart, they are prone to wander, and they can’t defend themselves from predators looking for a late-night snack.

Now, the “sheep” comparison might not seem very flattering to us older believers, but we are still vulnerable in many ways. The personal self is very tricky, and we all have one. It’s so easy to be deceived by its bad advice. So easy to wander away, end up lost, and become prey for the predators of this world.

Peter feels hurt when the Lord asks him the third time, “Do you love me?” So, he says to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep.” Now, he’s asking Peter to help his sheep find pasture – a place of food and fellowship like he was providing for them on the beach.

Peter felt bad that the Lord asked him three times if he loved him, but we can easily figure out why. Peter was burdened by the guilt of his three denials. By giving Peter the opportunity to profess his love for him three times, the Lord gave him a way to cleanse his guilty conscience so that he could forgive himself and move on with the new life, the new meaning, and the new purpose into which he had been called.

What does this story have to say to us today, in these times? Well, I believe it has a lot to say. Many events that have recently taken place have severely tested our faith and hope – particularly the pandemic. It has brought to the world an extreme degree of uncertainty and groundlessness.

In many ways, it forced us out of our old way of life. Many lost their jobs, but we all had to limit our spending and our activities due to lockdowns. Some people tragically lost family members and struggled to meet their basic needs. We pray that they will find the strength and comfort of the Lord within them to rebuild their lives and to restore their peace and joy.

But for others, the pandemic wasn’t so tragic. It only felt that way because it was an assault on the personal self’s insatiable desires for bodily pleasures, worldly treasures, and the freedom to do whatever it darn well pleases despite the harm.

Those who hoped that Jesus would be a political savior who would save them from the Romans viewed his crucifixion as a disaster. In the same way, the pandemic felt like a disaster to those who are addicted to and those who profit the most from American workaholism, consumerism, and rugged individualism.

Because the longer the restrictions lasted, the more time people had to realize that maybe they didn’t really need to work so much, buy so much, and go out so much. In fact, when they didn’t work so much and spend so much, and actually spent more time at home cultivating meaningful relationships with those closest to them, life was actually … more satisfying.

It seemed to me that for the addicted, that time was excruciatingly painful, and for the profiteers, the thought of people realizing this was absolutely terrifying. So, they pushed us back into the old ways as fast as they could. Now, like the disciples in our story, many are back in that old boat toiling away.

And the Lord is standing off shore, waving at us saying, “Ahem children! … the same old same old is giving you the same old disappointing results, isn’t it?”

The disciples worked all night long with no results. Some people work eight hours a day, five days a week. Some work a lot more than that – around the clock, tons of overtime. What are the results? Lots of cash in the bank account? Plenty of stuff? A bigger pension or 401K?

Are we busting our butts storing up riches so that we can enjoy life … someday?

That reminds me of a documentary I saw recently. It was about ravens and how smart they are. One scene took place in Holland in the dead of winter. Since food is so scarce, hunters purposefully gut their kills in the woods and leave the entrails there to feed the wildlife. As soon as one buzzard landed and started to enjoy its feast, another buzzard divebombed it, and they both started fighting over the pile.

While those two buzzards were busy fighting, the ravens and all the other scavengers and birds of prey who needed to eat swooped in, took a piece, and flew away. Swooped in, took a piece, and flew away. So that by the time the champion buzzard returned to the pile it had worked so hard to defend, it was like, “Hey? Where’d it all go?”

It’s hilarious, and it’s sad because we humans often act just like those dumb buzzards. In our fear and greed, we work so hard to store up and protect our stash, but it doesn’t make us happy. Cast your net on the right side of the boat. The truth is that we can enjoy life right now – any time we choose – if we accept God’s purpose for our lives and trust in Him to provide.

The Lord knows what kind of work feeds our souls, so he asks us to feed his lambs, tend his sheep, and feed his sheep. That kind of work is truly meaningful. It’s called service.

Meaningful work is what many people are beginning to realize they really want. They don’t want a meaningless job that don’t pay. They don’t even want a meaningless job that does pay unless they can use it as a temporary bridge to something more meaningful. They don’t want to be rich; they simply want a meaningful job that at least provides them with a livable wage. And they won’t settle for less.

You might ask, “But Pastor Joan, why are so many leaving the service professions in droves?” They are leaving because they feel as if they can’t serve. They want to serve – badly. It’s just that many of our current systems are making true service very difficult if not impossible, and many no longer want to be part of a system that does not truly serve.

That is absolutely maddening to those who are addicted to and profit from the old ways, but those who are looking for work that truly serves can rest assured that they are doing nothing wrong. Within their hearts, they have heard the Lord’s request, and they are responding, “Yes!”

So, we need to honestly ask ourselves if the work we are doing is truly working for us. Even those of you who are retired may be working part-time or perhaps engaging in volunteer activities. Is our work feeding our souls? Or are we toiling too much on the turbulent lake of self-reliance when the Lord has everything we need already prepared for us on the calm shore of God-reliance?

And are we providing pasture for ourselves? The old proverb to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before you help someone else put theirs on is relevant when it comes to taking care of souls. We can’t provide pasture for others if we don’t provide it for ourselves first.

Coming here on Sunday morning to spend time with the Lord and to fellowship with one another is one type of pasture, but we need more than just this. We need daily pasture, and we can do whatever works for us to commune with the Lord and feed our souls. We need this time every day to study, reflect, pray and meditate on the Lord’s teachings.

If we do this regularly, we can become a pasture for others.

It’s not easy to transcend the personal self. It’s very challenging, especially when many are still gripped by it and look at us like we’re nuts. It’s hard not to cave into the pressure of what we know doesn’t work when everyone else thinks it works. If you think it’s easy for me to practice what I preach, think again. It’s just as challenging for me as it is for every other human being.

But no matter how much we struggle, no matter how many times the Lord has wave at us, it’s a worthy challenge because it’s calling us back to calm shores and the peace and joy of our true nature. And the longer we stay there, the better the likelihood that we will stay there permanently.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we love you more than worldly pleasures and treasures and our own self-reliance. We say “yes” to tending to and feeding your flock because we know that our souls long to serve. We are ready to trust God for all our needs. AMEN.

Loving it All

Public domain

Synopsis: What does it mean to have eternal hope? It means to know who we are and to unconditionally love ourselves, others, and all of the wonderful challenges life brings to help our souls grow.

Scriptures: 1 Corinthians 15:19-26

Our epistle reading for today comes from Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians. Paul wrote this after he heard from Chloe’s people that there were problems in the church. In it, he addresses challenges to his authority, divisions within the church, unethical behavior, and issues regarding spiritual gifts.

In our selected reading, he is dealing with a doctrine issue. Some believers in the Corinthian church questioned the resurrection. Some of the believers were Jewish, and not all Jews believed in the resurrection. It was a major bone of contention between the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Other believers were Greek, and they were strongly influenced by Plato’s teachings which separated the human being into two parts: body and soul. Plato taught that the body is merely an imperfect copy of a perfect form which has always existed.

So, the Greeks tended to view the body with some degree of negativity, ranging from unimportant to evil. The idea of the resurrection of the body was not-so-appealing to them since their attitude was basically, “I can’t wait to die and be rid of this thing.”

The Jews, however, didn’t like separating people into parts. They emphasized the wholeness of who we are, and that viewpoint carried over into the Christian church. So, in this chapter, Paul discusses the doctrine of Jesus’ resurrection as well as the resurrection of all believers on the last day.

“If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” By making this statement, Paul begins to clarify his claim that through Christ, our hope extends into all eternity. First, he has us consider what hope we would have if it were true that Jesus was not raised from the dead.

I was taught by the church of my youth that only Jesus is the Christ and that we have only this life to believe in Jesus the right way if we want a chance to get into heaven when we die. Luckily, I was a member of the only church that had it right.

I didn’t find that very comforting because I kept thinking, “How do I know for sure that my church has it right? What about all of those other churches in the world that think they have it right? How can we know for sure who is right? Why would God make something so important so confusing?”

Those who believe that only Jesus is the Christ believe only for this life, hoping to gain reward and avoid punishment in the hereafter. It’s no wonder they so zealously protect the beliefs they think are their “ticket to heaven.” I would have to agree with Paul that their state is indeed pitiable.

It is pitiable because they are living in fear! They are already in hell because they don’t understand that belief in Christ isn’t about believing in who the man Jesus was; it’s about believing in who we ALL are now and for all eternity.

If Jesus did not resurrect, then Christ is dead, and so are we. Fortunately, that is impossible, and that’s a fact of life. As Paul writes, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead.” Life can’t die and still be Life because Life is by definition alive. As Martin Luther has stated, “Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in the books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.”

God as pure Being has always existed. Life as His Expression has also always existed. Christ is the Soul of Life. It follows then that if we are alive, then Christ is alive within us. Our soul is One with Christ. This knowledge makes us aware of our eternal life and gives us eternal hope.

Paul compares believers in Christ who have died to the first fruits of the crop after a long, hard winter. The choicest first fruits were offered to God to be blessed, but they were just the beginning of the abundance to come. All who place their faith in Christ from the time of Jesus’ resurrection until the time of his return are part of this abundance – the harvest of God’s Kingdom.

In verses 21-23, Paul writes, “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”

Death came through a human being. We all know that Paul is referring to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis chapter 1. Unfortunately, the literal interpretation of that Bible story has left many with the mistaken idea that we separated from God in actuality, and a woman is to blame.

We can interpret this story another way – though the lens of the evolution of human consciousness. Everything in life must evolve in order for life to continue, and Life provides whatever is needed for this evolution to occur. It’s a perfect, self-sustaining system.

Our human consciousness must evolve just like everything else in Life. Before the development of the cerebral cortex part of the brain, humans were not capable of saying to themselves, “Hey! I exist!” They had no self-awareness – no sense of “self” to worry about. That was the bliss of the Garden of Eden.

But over time, the cerebral cortex developed, and human beings became self-aware, symbolized by Adam and Eve taking a bite of the apple and suddenly becoming aware of their nakedness. God asks in verse 11, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” Now, I’m sure God, in his omniscience, didn’t really need to ask.

Since Life must evolve, human development of self-awareness wasn’t a surprise or a mistake. It’s just a troublesome stage in consciousness development – like when babies become toddlers. Suddenly, they know just enough to get themselves into big trouble but not nearly enough to stay out of it. They have no wisdom, and the only way to gain wisdom is through experience – and experience is often painful.

Parents can’t stop their children from growing up, and they can’t protect their children from all the painful experiences they need to grow in wisdom. If you’ve had children, you knew your little baby boy or girl was eventually going take those first steps. When it happened, you were overjoyed, but at the same time you probably felt like, “Uh-oh. Now we are in trouble.” I think that’s the sentiment behind God’s question.

In ancient Greek mythology, the Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail, is the symbol for eternity, rebirth, and the unity of everything. It’s a symbol for the Cycle of Life. So, Eve did not sin when she listened to the serpent. The serpent was simply the Cycle of Life within her moving her evolution forward into the next stage – the development of a personal self.

You see, in the Garden of Eden, All is One. Adam and Eve experienced the bliss of this Unity, but they didn’t experience it knowingly. They were blissfully ignorant. Our task is to become blissfully knowing – to both experience and know this Oneness. We can’t know oneness without also knowing separation – just like we can’t know “hot” without “cold.” So, it was necessary to leave the Garden and enter into a world where we can experience separation.

When I was struggling with severe anxiety, I saw a picture of myself as a baby playing with a little tug-boat with an expression of complete joy on my face. I was in a state of total bliss! I wondered, “What happened to me? Where did all that joy go? Why am I so miserable now?”

Now, I know why. I had not yet developed a sense of self to worry about. Then at some point in childhood, we all begin to realize that we have a private inner world of thoughts and feelings. As we grow up, we take on beliefs about ourselves regarding our gender, nationality, race, religion, social status, occupation, and many more burdens.

We start out as infants having only a few demands from life – food, milk, warmth, and a clean diaper. But as we grow older, we place more and more demands on life. Our false beliefs about ourselves and the many demands we place on life cause us suffering. Yet, this suffering is what wakes us up! It’s the grist for our spiritual mill.

The Lord, through his great love for all humanity, willingly sacrificed himself to show us the way out. He loved us so much that he wanted to be the last human being on this planet to ever experience suffering. Since his loving sacrifice, many have followed him – a harvest of ripe souls.

Paul writes in verses 24-26, “Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

Once we have transcended the mind of me and enter into the Mind of Christ, we can no longer sin because we know that we are One. We know that whatever we do to others, we do to ourselves. That awareness destroys sin. Love is only true ruler, authority, and power. When Love rules, no other ruler, authority, or power will exist. And when Love rules, the idea of “the enemy” will be destroyed because there is no such thing.

Death is real only to those who believe that they are nothing more than human. Birth is just as much an illusion as death. The forms coming into and going out of the physical realm is not birth and death. It is simply the snake eating its tail – the Cycle of Eternal Life.

We are triune beings of body-mind-soul. All three parts are eternally united in Christ. But what about the body? Don’t we shed the body when we leave this physical world?

Well, after Jesus resurrected, he had a body, but it wasn’t like the body he had before. It was different. He could instantly change his appearance if he wanted to disguise or reveal himself. He could appear or disappear at will. But remember there was a time before his death when his body was different: on the day of his Transfiguration on Mount Tabor in the presence of Peter, James, and John.

Does that mean that this body is an imperfect copy of a perfect form? Perhaps. But I don’t agree with the Greek Corinthians that this imperfect body isn’t important or that it is evil. It’s like looking at your reflection in the mirror. If you hate your reflection, how can you not hate yourself? Hatred corrodes the quantity and quality of life, so we must unconditionally love the whole package of who we are.

What does this mean for us in these times? We must leave behind all thoughts of separation – of you and me – and begin thinking only in terms of “us” – “us” meaning all humanity. What we need most today is compassion – compassion for ourselves and for others – because we’re all in this mess together.

Life is wonderful! And it’s messy. It’s a wonderful mess! It’s wonderful because we are magnificent, eternal beings who cannot ultimately be harmed by anything that happens to us here. It’s all good because it’s all opportunities for the soul to learn and grow. Our souls are in very good hands.

It’s messy because we’re all in different places on the path to Christ Consciousness. Some of us are further along than others. Our different beliefs and values can be far more accurately blamed on this than on anything else – like race, religion, or politics.

We cut young people slack when they do stupid things because we can see that they are young. We can easily forgive them because we understand that they don’t have the wisdom to act differently. But we can’t see where anyone’s soul is on the ages-long path to Christ consciousness.

Just because someone is old doesn’t mean he or she has an old soul, and a young person doesn’t necessarily have a young soul. We can all probably think of a child who seems wise beyond his or her years and a grown-up who we think should be old enough to know better.

So, when we hear someone spewing negativity, fear, or hatred or we see him or her acting in hurtful ways, instead of entertaining judgmental thoughts, we can think to ourselves, “It must feel awful to be so unhappy all the time.” Or “It must be really painful to be haunted by all that fear.” Or “It must really hurt to constantly burn with hatred like that.”

There is nothing we can do to change them. Suffering will wake them up. When they can’t stand the suffering anymore, they may then come to us seeking to know the secret to our peace and joy. Until then, any attempt to change them will only add more suffering to the world.

So, we can cut everyone slack, including ourselves, because we all are all suffering – more or less. And it’s not entirely our fault; it’s by design. Everyone truly is doing the best they can at every moment with the level of wisdom at their disposal. The only choice we have is to be willing to learn whatever WE need to learn to stop causing ourselves and others suffering.

We must also change how we relate to others and life itself by transforming our demands into preferences. When we demand to get what we want or to not get what we don’t want, when we don’t get what we want or get what we don’t want, we get mad. When we don’t get what we simply prefer, we don’t suffer. But when we do get it, we are delighted!

When I demand that someone treat me nicely, when he or she does not, I get mad. But when I simply prefer to be treated nicely, I don’t get mad when he or she doesn’t treat me nicely. But when he or she does treat me nicely, I am delighted!

When I demand that I don’t get stuck in traffic, when I get stuck in traffic. I get mad. But when I simply prefer not to get stuck in traffic, I don’t get mad when I get stuck in traffic. But when I am not stuck in traffic, I am delighted!

You see, having preferences instead of demands makes it so much easier to unconditionally love others and the whole of life because then all people and life can really do to us is delight us! Nothing makes us mad. Then it’s easy to remain united with All of Life because we’re not pushing pieces of it outside ourselves in order to make them objects of manipulation – to get what we demand.

If we believe that we are One in Christ, then we believe that we are One with all of Life – eternally joined with everything else that is alive, and there is no separation. Then we unconditionally love it all: ourselves, others, and all of the challenges life brings to us to help our souls grow.

So, in every moment of our lives, let us do our best not to choose separation. If we do at times, it’s okay. We’re only human. But let us grow more fully into the awareness of what we are choosing. We are choosing suffering. Thanks be to the Lord; we now know that have another choice.

We can think about love, and talk about love, and preach about love all we want. But peace will come to earth only when we all choose to live love.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to enter into the Mind of Christ. We are willing to release our mistaken ideas about ourselves and our insatiable demands on life and to unconditionally love ourselves, others, and the whole of life. We are willing to experience all our soul has designed for us so that we can turn away from all that keeps us from experiencing the peace and joy of our True Nature. We know that you are always with us, Lord, so we cannot fail. AMEN.

Resources

Carlson, Richard. “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:19-26.” Workingpreacher.org, 27 Mar. 2016, www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord-3/commentary-on-1-corinthians-1519-26

Donovan, Richard N. “Biblical Commentary (Bible study) 1 Corinthians 15:19-26.” Sermonwriter.org, sermonwriter.com/biblical-commentary/new-testament-1-corinthians-1519-26/

Keyes, Ken Jr. Handbook to Higher Consciousness. 5th ed. Living Love Center, 1975.

Lake, Gina. “Cycles of the Soul: Life, Death, and Beyond.” Kindle ed.

Moore, J. Daniel. “The Real Meaning of the Garden of Eden — it’s Not at All What You Think.” Medium.com, 6 Nov. 2017, medium.com/the-worldview-of-a-millennial-eccentric/the-real-meaning-of-the-garden-of-eden-72f3292924bc

Ringe, Sharon H. “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:19-26.” Workingpreacher.org, 4 Apr. 2010. www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord-3/commentary-on-1-corinthians-1519-26-2

Redeeming the Law of Attraction

“There are those who are now saying that the way Personal Creation is currently being taught has taken a wonderful gift out of a sacred treasure chest and placed it in a store window.”

Walsch, Neale Donald. Happier than God (p. 47). Hay House. Kindle Edition.

Many have become critical of the Law of Attraction because of its association with churches that teach the “Prosperity Gospel” – what critics call the “Gospel of Bling.” I have been among the ones who have been leery of the Law of Attraction for this reason. However, I now believe the Law of Attraction is a God-given tool that we were meant to use even though some unfortunately choose to misuse it.

How can we redeem the Law of Attraction from the Gospel of Bling? Let’s consider why the Law of Attraction works. It works because we all have a spark of the Creator within us, and we share the Creator’s power. Individually, we can’t claim to be the totality of God, just as a drop of water can’t claim to be the entire ocean.

God created us as part of Creation – of All That Is – so everything that exists is already a part of us. It already exists within us, but since we can’t experience all of Creation at once with these limited bodies and minds, we can “attract” what we want to experience through desire.

When we think about what we want and feel what it would be like to have it, we are using the Law of Attraction to draw that experience to ourselves. The opposite is also true. When we think about what we do not want and what it would be like to have that, we are drawing that experience to ourselves.

The Universe doesn’t understand fear, so if we nurture negative thoughts and feelings, the Universe assumes that is what we desire to experience.

The Law of Attraction always works. People who draw to themselves negative experiences aren’t necessarily miscreating. Sometimes, we draw to ourselves the experience of what we DON’T want to bring to ourselves more clarity about what we DO want. This happens a lot with relationships. We draw to ourselves the kinds of relationships we don’t want, clarifying what we do want along the way, and eventually, we attract the kind of relationships we want.

 So, we don’t have to feel bad about attracting the things we don’t want. We can simply bless the experience and use it to fine-tune what we do what.

God created the Law of Attraction so that we could create with Him/Her, but there are those who use it apart from God to serve only themselves. They view God as a genie in a bottle whom they can command. When they do this, they are using God’s gift to serve an idol – their small, personal selves.

They are separating themselves from God because they want things only for themselves without concern for others or even at the expense of others. They can do that if they wish, and they may become rich, but the price is spiritual bankruptcy.

We can redeem the Law of Attraction from the Gospel of Bling by properly using it. To properly use the Law of Attraction, when we desire something, we must desire it not only for ourselves, but also for everyone who needs it. We must also be willing to not receive it if it is not for the good of all. In this way, we are using the power of the entire ocean instead of arrogantly choosing to believe that the little drop that we are is all there is and all that matters.

There is so much needed in our world right now: global access to food and clean water, affordable housing, adequate healthcare, suitable education, good-paying jobs, a COVID-free world, racial justice, national and international peace and harmony, etc. Let us begin to desire what is needed for everyone to thrive in this world and imagine what it would be like if we all had these things. If we do, the world could change very quickly for the better.

Fear Not!

Gerard van Honthorst, Adoration of the Child (1622)

Synopsis: God holds the REAL power, and God reaches out not to the rich and powerful, but to the meek and lowly. Unlike worldly rulers, God seeks not to intimidate, but to offer us comfort and reassurance. We need not fear because God is with us. Like Mary, we have said “YES” to being a vessel through which God’s promises come to fulfillment.

Scripture: Luke 2:1-20

“In that region, there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” This is the part of the Christmas story that speaks most to our hearts – that God would choose lowly shepherds to herald the news of Jesus’ coming.

God also chose Mary, a young girl, a handmaiden, to be the vessel through which the Savior would come into this world, and our Lord Jesus would choose poor men from Galilee to be his disciples.

It’s comforting to know that God reaches out not to the rich and powerful, but to the poor and humble. And when God reaches out, the display of his power is awe-inspiring. There were the lowly shepherds in the fields with their flocks in the dark of night, and suddenly the glory of the Lord shone all around them. That same display of glory was seen by Mary when the angel Gabriel visited her, and it would be seen by Jesus’ disciples when he is transfigured.

This is real power – power beyond anything they had seen on earth – so surely, they were afraid. But each time, the response to their fear was the same. The angel who appeared to Mary said to her, “Do not be afraid.” The angel who appeared to the shepherds said to them, “Do not be afraid.” The Lord said to his disciples who had fallen face-down on the ground, “Get up. Do not be afraid.”

The moment fear arose in the presence of God’s power, they were all immediately offered comfort and reassurance. Unlike those with worldly power, God does not wish to intimidate us; God seeks only to love us. Remarkably, the Bible tells us in some way, shape, or form not to be afraid a total of 365 times. I guess you could consider that God’s way of giving us a daily reminder.

We fear people with worldly power – especially those who use it to serve themselves. These people often seek honor and glory, but their fame does not last if God is not with them.

Gaius Octavius succeeded Julius Caesar as the ruler of Rome in 44 B.C. He brought peace to all of Rome by uniting warring factions. To honor this achievement, the Roman Senate conferred on him the title of “Augustus,” which means “great” or “awe-inspiring.” The Roman Empire was born with Augustus crowned its first Emperor.

The “Pax Romana” (or Roman time of peace) lasted from 27 B.C. until Augustus’ death in 14 A.D. It was right in the middle of this period of time that Jesus was born. Yet today, most people wouldn’t be able to tell you who Augustus is. Some might say, “Hmm … that name does ring a bell.”

It rings a bell only because of a single sentence. And that sentence is, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” It’s the first sentence of the greatest story ever told. What’s superbly ironic is that this story is not at all about this worldly ruler who was supposed to be so “great” and “awe-inspiring.”

Augustus and Jesus couldn’t have been more different. One lived in splendor in the capital of the world while the other was born in a stable in a minor colony. Yet 2,000 years later, the world remembers not this eminent Roman Emperor; they remember the lowly child in the manger.

Because you see, after Augustus’ death, other men would assume power – men like Nero and Caligula – men whose names will be synonymous with treachery and cruelty – and the Pax Romana would quickly crumble. The angels introduced the Prince of Peace, the one who brings peace everlasting, a Savior who will continue his saving work throughout human history.

When God is with us – the one who holds the real power – we need not fear. Mary, the most fearless one of all in the nativity story, knew this. When she conceived by the Holy Spirit, she was betrothed to Joseph. Joseph could have refused to take her as his wife in her condition. Then, she could have been not only shamed but also stoned to death by the religious authorities.

She was a woman in a society where men held all the power, but their power was nothing compared to the One who held the real power. So, instead of giving in to her fear, she said “YES.” She fully trusted in God to protect her and to provide for her. She saw herself not as a victim of life, but as a vessel through which God’s promises would come to fulfillment.

When the shepherds came to see the newborn baby, they reported everything the angel had told them, and everyone was amazed. Mary was amazed too. We read in verse 19, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

Mary didn’t know the specifics of God’s plan for her Son. All she knew was that there, lying in that manger, was the Savior of the World, and she would take that journey with him one day at a time.

And here, within our hearts, lies the Savior of the World. God is with us because God is within us. We may feel frustrated with ourselves at times for what we perceive to be our lack of spiritual growth, and we may look at others out there in the world and shake our heads.

But the time of the Christ’s arrival into our hearts and into the hearts of others isn’t up to us. The time is up to God, and we can trust that until then, God will protect us and provide for us because, like Mary, we have said “YES” to being a vessel through which God’s promise of salvation comes to fulfillment.

The rose doesn’t know when it will bloom, but it will indeed bloom when its time has come if it has been fed and pruned, and then it will bless the world with its magnificent beauty and fragrance. In the same way, we don’t know when the Christ will bloom within our hearts or within the hearts of others, but we know it will happen when the time has come according to God’s plan.

We have all come to this place, here and now, at this time in history, for this purpose, and we will be remembered for all time as envoys of the Prince of Peace. So, let us patiently but expectantly take the journey with one another one day at a time without fear because God is far more than just with us; he is within us.

Let’s pray together: Father, we have said “YES” to being the vessel through which your promise of salvation comes to fulfillment. Help us to trust you and be patient with one another as we wait expectantly for the Christ rose to bloom within our hearts and the hearts of all. AMEN.

Resources

“Biblical Commentary (Bible study) Luke 2:1-20.” Sermonwriter.com, sermonwriter.com/biblical-commentary-old/luke-21-20/.

Reese, Ruth Ann. “Commentary on Luke 2:1-14 [15-20].”WorkingPreacher.org, 24 Dec. 2012, workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/nativity/commentary-on-luke-21-14-or-21-20-2

Blessed Like Mary

Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: When we ask people, “How are you?” we might hear them respond, “I’m blessed.” Hashtag (#) blessed has become a meme, and “feeling blessed” shows up in many Facebook posts. But is our cultural idea of being blessed so fragile that it is easily shattered by tough times? If so, then perhaps it is a false idea. We can learn from Mary what it truly means to be blessed.

Scripture Reading: Luke 1:46-55

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

When we ask people, “How are you?” we might hear them respond, “I’m blessed.” Hashtag (#) blessed has become a meme, and “feeling blessed” shows up in many Facebook posts. People love to share posts of themselves enjoying exotic vacations or eating delicious-looking food. It’s a thing these days.

There’s nothing wrong with feeling grateful when things are going well – at least in our little corner of the world. But what about when things aren’t going so well? Do we still consider ourselves blessed, or is our idea of being blessed so fragile that it is easily shattered by tough times?

If so, then perhaps it is a false idea. Today, we will learn from Mary what it truly means to be blessed.

Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel, who informed her that she would conceive by the Holy Spirit and give birth to the Son of God, whom she was to name “Jesus.” During this angelic visitation, Mary was also informed that her cousin Elizabeth, who was both elderly and barren, would give birth to a son in only a few months’ time.

Mary immediately traveled to the hill country to visit with Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child in her womb leaped. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she basically told Mary, “You are blessed above all women because of the holy child in your womb.”

Elizabeth also expressed wonder as to why “the mother of my Lord” would come to visit her, making the child in her womb leap for joy. Just as her son John would later humble himself before Jesus, Elizabeth humbled herself before Mary because Mary was carrying the Lord. She equated Jesus’ Lordship with Yahweh’s.

Finally, Elizabeth blessed Mary because Mary believed the word of the Lord unlike her mute husband. Her husband, Zechariah, was much older than Mary, and he was a priest. Yet his last words before he was struck mute were, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” How will I know that this is so? He required proof. Perhaps that’s why his tongue wasn’t loosened until the child was born and named. That was God’s way of saying, “Do you believe me now?”

Mary was truly blessed because she had confidence in the awesome power of God. You see, she didn’t ask the angel, “How will I know that this is so?” She didn’t require proof. She asked the angel, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” Now, these words might be mistaken for words of doubt, but she was simply expressing her awe of God’s power. She fully expected that she would soon be expecting.

We can be blessed like Mary by not doubting the awesome power of God to make things happen even when it seems impossible. If it’s God’s will, it will happen. If it’s God’s will for someone to fully recover from a terminal illness or debilitating injury, it will happen. If it’s God’s will for humanity to recover from its insanity, enthrone the Christ within their hearts, and usher in the Kingdom of Heaven, it will happen.

As Jesus promised in John 20: 20-21: “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

We might be asking, “How can this be since … we are all so divided?” It’s okay to wonder how in the world God is going to pull it off. Be blessed like Mary. Have complete confidence in the awesome power of God, and do not doubt that he will indeed pull it off. 

After Elizabeth blesses Mary, Mary sings a song of praise known as the “Magnificat” – our scripture reading for today. It is known as the Magnificat because that is the first word in the Latin translation of this verse.

Mary begins her song by praising God that she has been given the honor of bringing God’s Son into the world, the greatest honor ever bestowed upon a human being. She occupies a humble station in life: a woman in a patriarchal society and a young person in a society that venerated age.

As a Jewish woman, she can look back into history and remember the great women whom God called into service: Sarah, Rebecca, Deborah, Esther. Every child knows their names and their stories. Now her name will join theirs. God has reached down to her, a simple girl, and elevated her to a place of greatness. But isn’t that like our wonderful God: to exalt the lowly and make the proud eat humble pie?

Mary was truly blessed because she trusted God to dispense justice and mercy. The knowledge of God’s saving grace gives comfort to those like Mary, those who are poor and marginalized, but it is no comfort to the wealthy and powerful.

Those enslaved by the mind of me seek to establish their worth through the attainment of wealth and power at the expense of others. They create unjust social structures to preserve their false sense of superiority, and they use religion to justify them.

We can get so angry that we are tempted to take justice into our own hands. Liberation theologians have indeed used this verse to justify violent revolutionary action, but Mary’s intent here was to focus not on man’s action, but on God’s action – on God’s saving grace.

God is unfailingly just and merciful. Human beings are not. God knows how to compassionately teach people the lessons they need to learn. Human beings do not. God’s truth always prevails over men’s lies. God’s truth is that all are equally worthy, and those who refuse to accept this truth will eat humble pie.

As Jesus said in Matthew 20:16, “the last will be first and the first will be last.” Those who choose worldly power over spiritual power, man’s rule over God’s rule, conflict over peace, are the last to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven because they are the last to discover the key to the door. So, my friends, do not envy or hate these enslaved people. Simply trust that God will mercifully heal their minds in His Time and be grateful that your mind is being healed now.

Those ruled by the Mind of Christ seek ways to redeem and include others in the embrace of God’s love. To remind them of immeasurable worth. Rather than fighting against those who perpetuate injustice, our focus should be on giving aid to those who suffer from it. Our work is to take advantage of every opportunity to let people know that they are loved and cared for – and that they deserve to be just as much as everyone else.

We might not consider ourselves rich and powerful, but let us not forget our neighbors in need. There are many simple ways to help. As John said in Luke 3:11, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Let us not forget also that we are citizens of a rich and powerful nation. Many poorer nations struggle to provide its people with enough food, clean water, and proper medical care, including vaccinations.

This need not be so. There are enough resources on this planet to go around. If we, both as individuals and as nations, would be more willing to share, everyone on this planet would have the resources they need to not only survive, but to thrive. Be blessed like Mary. Be grateful for all you have and willing to share the extras, trusting that God, in due time, will make the Scrooges eat humble pie.

Mary concludes her song of praise with the words, “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” Mary was truly blessed because she had faith in God to save her and her nation as he promised. She viewed her pregnancy through the perspective that it is part of God’s remembrance of his people and his promise of salvation.

She could have had a very different perspective. It didn’t make her life easy. If her betrothed, Joseph, had not taken her to be his wife in spite of her condition, she could have been not only shamed but also stoned for adultery. Even though Joseph did not reject her, she may at least have had to deal with people pointing at her and gossiping to others about her. And ultimately, her heart would be pierced at the foot of her son’s cross.

But rather than viewing her pregnancy through the lens of inconvenience to the personal self, she viewed her pregnancy though the lens of God’s promises coming to fulfillment through her. She would face tough circumstances, yes, but she saw herself not as a victim, but as a servant of the Lord.

How often do we, when we are faced with tough circumstances, both personally and nationally, look at our situation through the lens of inconvenience to the personal self? If we want to see ourselves as a victim, then that is the perfect short-sighted lens to use.

If we would rather see ourselves as servants of the Lord, then we need to look at tough circumstances through the broader lens of God’s promise of salvation. Everything that happens in our personal and collective human life is moving us toward its realization. Be blessed like Mary. Expect to be expecting – even you guys out there. God’s promises are coming to fulfillment – this time, through all of us.

If we were to take all of these things that truly made Mary blessed – her confidence in God’s awesome power, her trust in God to dispense mercy and justice, and her faith in God to save her and her nation, and combine them all into one statement, we could say that Mary was truly blessed because she truly loved the Lord her God with all her heart, with all her soul, and with all her strength.

Mary’s love of God enabled her to love life – to say “YES” to it all. And that is indeed the only way to truly open ourselves to love and to be at peace. We don’t have much control over what happens in life, but we do have control over our perspective. If we adopt the limited perspective of the personal self, we will always be at odds with life, and we will never be happy.

Mary was blessed at that young age to be able to perceive life through the wiser part of herself that exists beyond the human mind. She let everything be as it is, trusting in God’s grand design. Now, does that mean that we do nothing? No, it simply means that we do not react to life’s challenges.

Reaction is resistance. Instead, we accept what is, and then respond as we are guided by the wiser part of ourselves. That is a far more functional way to live. Really, how can deal with any situation when we are refusing to accept that it is happening in the here and now? When we are resisting the truth of it?

Be blessed like Mary. We can say to ourselves, “All is well and unfolding as it needs to.” Now, the mind will quickly dismiss that idea with something like, “Yeah, right!” But the heart knows the truth, and the heart knows how to skillfully deal with all of life’s challenges if we would only listen to it.

No wonder Mary found such favor with God as to be selected to be the mother of the Savior of the world. Her parting words to the angel demonstrate why she was the perfect choice. She said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Let us pray: Lord, we are willing to be blessed like Mary by loving You with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our strength. Help us to embrace life as Your servants. AMEN.

Resources

“Biblical Commentary (Bible study) Luke 1:39-55.” Sermonwriter.com, sermonwriter.com/biblical-commentary-old/luke-139-55/

Jones, Judith. “Commentary on Luke 1:46-35.” Workingpreacher.org, 20 Dec. 2015,www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-146-55

The Peace of Zechariah

Luca Giordano, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: During turbulent times, it is tempting to believe that God is no longer in control and that our dreams are lost. Zechariah believed his dream of having a son was lost, but he ultimately learned to be at peace by trusting God no matter how impossible things may appear. How can we learn his lesson and enjoy the peace of Zechariah?

Scripture: Luke 1:68-79

When we look out there at what’s going on in our country and in our world today, we can understand why many people are embracing a variety of doomsday scenarios. Even for us Christians, it is difficult to remain calm, keep the faith, and trust that God is in control. The coming of the Christ into the hearts of all seems to be an impossible dream in stormy times like this.

How do find peace in these times? That’s what our scripture reading is all about. It’s about a man who found peace after he experienced firsthand the awesome power God to make what he thought was impossible, not only possible, but real. In his arms, he was holding his “impossible son.”

Let’s review the story leading up to our scripture reading for today – a story I’m sure many of you know well. The gospel writer Luke tells us Zechariah was a priest and his wife, Elizabeth, was a descendent of Aaron, the brother of Moses and founder of the priesthood. They were both righteous in the eyes of God, but they had no children because Elizabeth was barren.

One day when Zechariah was offering incense to the Lord in the sanctuary, he saw a vision of an angel, who told him that Elizabeth would give birth to a son, and he was to be called John. The angel told Zechariah many wonderful things about his future son – that he would be great in the Lord’s sight, filled with the Holy Spirit from conception, and turn many back to God with the spirit and power of Elijah.

Zechariah questioned the angel’s news because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both elderly. The angel introduced himself as Gabriel, a messenger sent from God. Then he tells Zechariah that, because he did not believe the Lord’s words, he will be mute until they are fulfilled. Shortly thereafter, Elizabeth conceived and spent five months in seclusion.

Then Elizabeth’s cousin Mary came to visit her. Mary had also been visited by an angel, who told her that she would conceive by the Holy Spirit and give birth to the Son of God, whom she was to name “Jesus.” The child in Elizabeth’s womb jumped at the sound of Mary’s greeting.

Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, exclaimed a blessing over Mary and the child in her womb and also wonder as to why the mother of the Lord would visit her and make the child within her womb leap for joy. Mary stayed with Elizabeth until she gave birth, then she returned to her home in Galilee.

After eight days, it was time for the child to be circumcised. People thought the parents would name the child after his father, Zechariah, but Elizabeth said, “No, he is to be named John.” The relatives couldn’t figure out where the name John came from since no one in the family was named John.

So, they asked Zechariah what he wanted to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” At that moment, his tongue was loosened, and he began to prophesize. And that brings us to our scripture reading for today, known as Zechariah’s song.

Zechariah first praises God for being faithful to his covenant with the people of Israel. He is looking back into history – a long history of subjugation and slavery. The people languished in Egypt under the heavy yoke of slavery for over 400 years. God sent Moses to free them, and he led them to the Promised Land, the land of Canaan.

But once they were in Canaan, they often sinned against the Lord. The Lord warned them to repent through many prophets, but they ignored the prophet’s warnings and persecuted the prophets. As a result, Israel was defeated in turn by the Philistines, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Romans.

Their glory days under King David and King Solomon were short-lived, but now, God was promising them a Savior from on high who would set them free from their enemies once and for all and whose kingdom would have no end. Zechariah professes that he can see through his prophetic eyes this Savior coming out of the house of David. The time was coming when the people of God would be able to live in peace.

Zechariah ends his song by praising God that his “impossible son” John would be the one to prepare the way for God’s promised Savior.

I think it is safe to say that Zechariah learned an important lesson – a tough one, but a very good one, because in the end, he found peace. How can we learn from his lesson and enjoy the peace of Zechariah?

Well, first of all, an angel of the Lord announced that his wife Elizabeth would give birth to a son, and Zechariah responded by speaking words of doubt. We can’t blame him. The observable facts made it appear to be impossible indeed. Not only were they both quite advanced in age, but Elizabeth had always been barren. A double-whammy!

The angel’s response to Zechariah’s doubt was basically, “Look dude, I’m coming to you with a message straight from God Almighty and telling you that you’re going to have a son, okay?” At that point, Zechariah would no longer speak words of doubt – because he couldn’t speak at all. He was struck mute.

Doug and I were talking a few weeks ago about how today’s video games are a good metaphor for life – especially the open world role-playing ones. I enjoy playing a game called Skyrim: The Elder Scrolls. In this game, I can create my character down to the slightest detail – such as the thickness and placement of the eyebrows – or eyebrow. Yes, you can even create a character with a unibrow! My current character’s name is Xena. She does not have a unibrow, in case you were wondering.

Anyway, this game takes place in a world called Skyrim on a continent called Tamriel. Through Xena’s travels and interactions, I can experience the many different regions and cities in Tamriel, and I can interact with its many different citizens – characters of different races, religions, political affiliations – and some with very strange personalities.

Through Xena, I can make all kinds of choices throughout the game, for good or evil, and experience the consequences of each choice. But no matter what, I can’t make a choice that would alter the basic plot. For example, there are certain characters in the game that never die no matter how much they are attacked because they are an important part of the story. They are called “essential characters.”

So, while players of these games enjoy a great deal of free will, they can’t do anything to alter the basic plot or destroy the game itself. That’s smart, right? How foolish it would be for the game designers to create a game that allowed players to either mess-up the plot or destroy the game itself?

I think we can trust that God is at least as intelligent as these game designers. He designed Life in such a way that gave his created characters a great deal of free will, but he did not give them the power to mess up his plan or destroy Life itself.

I think that’s what the angel was trying to explain to Zechariah. John was an essential character in God’s plan, so John was going to show up at the appointed time – no matter how impossible it seemed. God, in his infinite mercy, put a lid on Zechariah’s words of doubt because he didn’t want John’s pure soul to hear them or subject Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, to hearing them.

You know how painful it is to be around negative Ned’s and Nancy’s. Whenever they speak their negative thoughts, you get a sinking feeling in your gut. That sinking feeling is literally your soul recoiling from the doubtful words because it knows that nothing is impossible with God.

To have the peace of Zechariah, we need to strike mute any words of doubt. Don’t give voice to them. Now, it’s natural to have thoughts of doubt. We can’t control the thoughts we have. But we can choose not to give them a second thought, and we can certainly control whether they come out of our mouths.

Zechariah began his song by reviewing the times God saved Israel from their enemies and his trust in God to save them from all their enemies. The Jews of his time believed that their foreign enemies were the Romans, the Samaritans, and the gentiles. Domestically, the Pharisees might have viewed the Sadducees as their enemies, and the Zealots, of course, were radical terrorists who believed that anyone who didn’t support their cause was the enemy.

Who are our enemies? If we were to go to the Stroud mall or the Crossings to ask people this question, they might say our foreign enemies are China, North Korea, and Al-Quaeda, and our domestic enemies are home-grown terrorists, and depending on who you talk to, Democrats or Republicans. We’re not much different today from the Jews of Zechariah’s time. They believed their enemies were “out there” – just as many do today. We have always been wrong about this. Our true enemy has never been “out there.” It has always been “up here.” (point to the head)

We truly do have a split mind – the Mind of Christ and the mind of me – the angel on the sitting on the right shoulder, and the devil on the left. The mind of me is our true enemy because it contains all of the false ideas we have about who we really are. Our Lord drove a stake right into the heart of the mind of me through his death and resurrection. Because of our Lord’s brave and loving sacrifice, the mind of me has been slowly losing its domination of the human mind.

The mind of me clings to its false identities and to the same-old-same-old. It hates change of any kind because it is afraid of the unknown. It’s afraid of the unknown because it doesn’t trust life. It doesn’t trust life because life doesn’t cater to it. Life doesn’t cater to it because Life caters to the soul. But the mind of me has no clue that the soul even exists. What a quandary! No wonder it’s always so frustrated!

The Mind of Christ knows who we really are and the true purpose of Life: the growth of the soul. Now, the soul can feel enslaved under certain conditions – a job we hate, a bad relationship, or even a false notion we might hold about ourselves. We might hear the cry of the soul for change, but the mind of me will convince us to ignore it – usually by filling us with fear – or shame.

If we ignore the soul’s cry for too long, the soul will find a way to forcibly liberate us from the situation. Something unexpected will happen, and we’ll be forced out. It’s usually a painful experience for the personal self, but we often realize later down the road of life, perhaps even many years later, that it was the best thing that ever happened to us. It set us free in some way so that we could continue to grow.

Can you remember a time in your life when you were stuck? Maybe you didn’t even know you were stuck at the time. But then something out-of-the-blue happened, and you were set free? And then later down the road, you realized that you ended up in a far better place in life because of it? That was God keeping his promise to save us from our enemies.

Now I want you to enlarge that experience beyond the individual soul and realize this same experience can happen to the collective soul of humanity. The soul of humanity is enslaved in many ways. The soul of humanity is stuck in many places that are not good for the collective whole. For starters, we are stuck when it comes to getting along with one another, and we are stuck when it comes to ensuring that everyone’s basic needs are met.

The soul of humanity has been crying out for a long time, and I believe that God’s answer to that cry is now moving quickly toward fulfillment. The old systems that have enslaved us – that have kept us stuck in these harmful places – are crumbling. This process is very frightening and painful for the personal self – especially those who are enslaved by the mind of me. Things will eventually change for the better for everyone, but in the process, we may experience some turbulence.

To have the peace of Zechariah, we must trust that God will save us and ultimately all of humanity from our true enemy. We are all in a good place for these stormy times. We are becoming more and more aware the mind of me and the true purpose of life. But most people have no idea that they are enslaved by the mind of me, so life is very frustrating – perhaps even meaningless – to them.

Can you imagine how difficult their lives must be? Let us have compassion for them and forgive them instead of judging them to be the enemy. We can also have compassion for ourselves and forgive ourselves in our struggles with the enemy too.

Zechariah ends his song with the words, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” God’s way is the way of peace. The enemy’s way is the way of conflict. We can’t have both. That was John’s message. He prepared the way by saying to people, “It’s time to make a choice. Which way do you choose?”

Those who came to John to be baptized had not only chosen God’s way of peace but also were already living that way for some time. They had made a commitment, and they convincingly demonstrated to John that their commitment wasn’t just words. Otherwise, John would not have baptized them.

We must be willing to make the same commitment – to “turn the other cheek,” a teaching which really means to listen to the voice of peace, not the other voice, the voice of conflict, that devil that wants you to strike out at life. Turn the other cheek and listen to the angel, the voice inside your heart.

To have the peace of Zechariah, we must have unwavering commitment to God’s path of peace. We must have peace with life by accepting the fact that life always goes our way – always – it always grows the soul. The mind of me will grumble. Just notice the grumbling with the understanding that the mind of me will never get it. Don’t agree with it, and don’t disagree with it. Just don’t give it a second thought.

To walk God’s way of peace, we must love the Mind of Christ more than the mind of me. We must be willing to sacrifice the desires of personal self for the desires of the soul – for the desires of the soul of Life. And we must have unwavering trust that no matter how things appear, God is in control.

When we can live this way 100% of the time, we enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven is much closer than we think. Yes, we don’t have to wait until we die to experience heaven or wait for all of humanity to accept the Christ into their hearts. We can experience the bliss of heaven now because it is within us. The door is waiting to be unlocked, and the key is peace.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to walk God’s way of peace. We desire the key to the Kingdom of Heaven. Be with us in our struggles with the enemy. Fill us with unwavering trust that God is in control and moving us ever closer to freedom.

Resources

McLarty, Philip. “Sermon| Luke 1:68-79| Zechariah’s Song.” Sermonwriter.com,  sermonwriter.com/sermons/luke-168-79-zechariahs-song-mclarty/

West, Audrey. “Commentary on Luke 1:68-79.” Workingpreacher.org, 6 Dec. 2009, www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-168-79-2