Judas of Galilee Would Have Sided with the Jan 6th Capitol Rioters – Not Jesus

Jan Wijnants, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Disclaimer: This is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of the members of the church I serve or other organizations for which I am employed.

The Christian Nationalists who stormed the Capitol on January 6th claimed that Jesus was on their side. I don’t believe Jesus would have sided with them, but if we were to pick someone from Jesus’ time who would have sided with them, a good choice would be Judas of Galilee.

Judas of Galilee was the founder of the Zealots during the time of Jesus. The Zealots hated anyone who paid taxes to the Romans or accepted their rule. They refused to accept any ruler other than God and any law other than Torah. They attempted to undermine Roman rule through violence.

There was a splinter group of the Zealots called the Sicaris who were terrorists. They would stealthily infiltrate a crowd and stab Romans and Roman sympathizers. Either the world would be run their way, which they claimed was God’s way, or there would be hell to pay.

This attitude was not one Jesus supported. Jesus taught people to respect civil law. When the Pharisees asked him whether it was a violation of Torah to pay imperial taxes, Jesus answered, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).

Many Christian Nationalists clearly entered Washington, D.C. with violent intentions. Jesus would not have approved of this behavior. When Jesus entered into the City of Jerusalem, he rode in on a donkey, not a war horse. In this way, he made it clear that his intentions were not violent.

Immediately after entering Jerusalem, Jesus cleansed the Temple, calling it a “den of thieves” (Matthew 21:12-13). Some say this demonstrates that Jesus was not a pacifist, and they use this incident as an excuse for their violent behavior. When Jesus cleansed the Temple, he wasn’t protesting political behavior; he was protesting religious behavior.

Jews were coming from long distances to worship God at the Temple. Since it was difficult to bring sacrificial animals long distances, people would buy them at the Temple, but first their money had to be converted to Temple currency. The moneychangers converted foreign money at a low rate, and the merchants charged high prices. So essentially, people traveling long distances to worship God at the Temple were being robbed in God’s own house.

This made Jesus very angry. How would you feel if visitors coming to your church to worship God were being treated this way? Wouldn’t you protest? Well, Jesus didn’t simply complain about it; he protested using a demonstration – one that didn’t hurt anyone, only the pocketbooks of the corrupt.

Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves. And when a Pharisee asked him, “And who is our neighbor?” he opened the door to one of the greatest parables ever told – the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

The Samaritans were the people the Jews hated the most – and the feeling was certainly mutual. Yet when a fellow Jew was robbed, beaten, and left for dead on the side of the road, two other Jews refused to help him for “religious reasons.” They were too concerned with cleanliness to practice the greatest commandment.

What good is going to church every Sunday, partaking in the sacraments, and studying the Bible if it doesn’t teach us to love one another? If it doesn’t teach us that every life is worth saving? The Samaritan went above and beyond to take care of his “enemy.” He might not have followed the Torah as closely as those two Jews, but he knew and actually practiced the Spirit of Torah better than they.

Most of the Zealots were from Galilee. The fact that Jesus was also from Galilee probably contributed to his crucifixion. Given the behavior of the Zealots, the Roman authorities seriously doubted that a religious teacher from Galilee was a peacemaker, not an insurrectionist.

When Pontius Pilate gave the crowd the choice to release Jesus or Barrabas, they chose Barrabas – a Zealot who had committed murder. Some Christians hate the Jews for this, yet they are making the same choice.

Most Galileans were not well educated. They knew just enough religion to make them dangerous, but not enough to get the point. I would say the same is true of Christian Nationalists.

Harvesting and Sharing

Philipp Peter Roos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: In the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, Jesus does not give us the right to judge others. Instead, he teaches us the importance of distinguishing between our goat-like human nature and our sheep-like divine nature so that we can consciously choose which nature to express in each present moment experience.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 25: 32-46

Our scripture reading for today comes from the end of Matthew chapter 25, a section entitled, “The Judgement of the Nations.” I myself have never considered this a parable, but some call it “the Parable of the Sheep and Goats.” Many Christians love this parable because it seems to say that all the evil people will be thrown into hell. Serves them right!

Unfortunately, because of this passage, many Christians have felt they have the right to say to others, “You’re going to burn in hell,” or the less harsh but just as judgmental version, “I’m concerned that you won’t be in heaven with me.” Jesus taught us in so many other verses NOT to judge one another, so there must be another way of interpreting this passage.

Before we take a closer look at it, let’s look at the context.

In Matthew chapter 25 Jesus tells two parables to illustrate his teachings in the previous chapter on the importance of being prepared for his coming. He warned his disciples not to be deceived by false Messiahs or presumptuous predictions and not to be alarmed by wars, rumors of wars, or natural disasters, for these are simply the birth pangs.

Jesus told both of these parables close to the time of his arrest and crucifixion. They both include a long period of waiting before the master returns and consequences for not being prepared.

We took a look at the first parable, the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, where Jesus teaches that only those with the “oil” of spiritual resilience are empowered to keep shining their lights in the darkness and are prepared to participate in the celebration when Christ returns to establish the Kingdom of Heaven.

In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus teaches that only those with this empowering faith will enter into the joy of the master because they will put the gifts God has given them to work to profit His Kingdom.

And that brings us to the end of chapter 25 with what some consider a third parable, the Parable of the Sheep and Goats. Jesus once again begins with the setting, but rather than creating a fictional one, Jesus opens with a non-fictional one – a real event – the coming of the Son of Man, who is seated on the Throne of His Glory as King and judge of all the nations, placing the sheep on his right hand and the goats at the left.

Jesus’ disciples would have been familiar with this setting because in Matthew 19:28-30, Jesus tells them that at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the Throne of His Glory, they will each sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. All those who have left their families and vocations for his sake will inherit eternal life. The first will be last, and the last will be first.

Jesus’ disciples also would have been familiar with the importance of separating sheep and goats. During the day, sheep and goats often mingle as they graze. At night, they need to be separated because they have different needs. Prior to specialized breeding, it wasn’t easy to tell the difference between a sheep and a goat because they look very similar, but a good shepherd could tell the difference.

Who are the sheep that Christ the King places at his right hand? To get a clue, let’s talk about what real sheep are like. Sheep are extremely dependent upon their shepherd. If they get rolled onto their backs, the shepherd has to lift them back up on their feet because they will die. They can’t “right” themselves. They are also easily panicked to the point where they would run themselves right off a cliff.

Sheep depend upon their shepherd for the basics of life – for food, water, shelter, and protection from predators. But even though they are so dependent on the shepherd, they still have a tendency to go astray. A shepherd must find lost sheep, or they will die because they are essentially defenseless.

Shepherds lead sheep, and the sheep listen intently to the shepherd’s voice. Sheep are very calm in the presence of the shepherd because they trust the shepherd. With the shepherd, life is easy: All they have to do is listen and follow.

We are the sheep; we belong to God. We are completely dependent on God for all our needs. Because we are not of this world, we are vulnerable – not because we are weak, but because we are gentle ones living in a harsh world. Without a shepherd, we can be easily frightened, go astray, and become prey to malicious people or evil tendencies.

God has appointed the Good Shepherd to take care of us. In Mark 6:34, we read, “As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”

Christ the King says to the sheep, “‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

People get confused by these verses because it sounds as if the Lord is giving salvation to those who earned it through good works. But we know that we are not saved “by” good works. We are saved “unto” good works – “released” to do the good works God gave us to do.

The sheep are confused by the King’s reward because they do not recall ever having seen their Lord hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick, or imprisoned. But because they did good works for “the least of these,” they did it for the Lord. The “good work” that God created us to do in Christ is to love and serve the Christ in all. We love our neighbor as we love ourselves because in Christ our neighbor is our Self.

Who are the goats the King places at the left? To get a clue, let’s talk about what real goats are like. Goats are very independent. If they want to do something, they’ll do it whether you like it or not. For example, goats love chewing on hair. A goatherd might punish a goat or chewing on his hair, but if he took a snooze out in the field, he’d probably wake up with less hair and a very happy goat.

Goats also have a huge appetite; they will eat anything. A goatherd has to be careful not to let a mother goat eat her young’s food because a mother goat will use her head to shove her young out of the way to eat their food – basically letting their own young starve.

Goats are extremely selfish; they want what they want, and they don’t care if they destroy things to get it. Goats generally don’t need protection from things; things generally need protection from goats. And goatherds don’t lead their goats; they follow their goats because the goats just browse around looking for whatever they feel like devouring, and the goatherds just do their best to protect the environment.

Christ the King says to the goats, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

Just like real goats, these ill-fated ones led very selfish lives. They wanted what they wanted, and they didn’t care if they destroyed anyone or anything in the process. They were not “released” from their self-absorption and selfish desires. They rejected God’s love, so they did not depend on Him to provide for their needs. Instead, they relied on themselves while trampling on others.

The goats defend themselves using the same words the sheep used to humble themselves. When did we see you hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick, or imprisoned? We can’t say that these “goats” didn’t do ANY good deeds. Perhaps they did, but they did them selectively – perhaps only for people they liked – or perhaps for the wrong reasons. We know that not all good deeds are done without strings attached. Perhaps they expected things in return for their good deeds or used them to manipulate or shame others or simply to make themselves look good.

In verse 46, we read, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” This is the verse where Jesus appears to say that all the evil people will be “thrown into hell.”

God created humanity in his image, so I believe that every human being, whether saved or not, has a soul that is eternally connected with God and with all of Life. That God would reject and destroy a part of Himself doesn’t make sense to me. However, since God has given us free will, we are free to make our own choices and to experience their consequences.

I believe that as more of humanity joins with Christ, the Earth will begin to move toward the Kingdom of Heaven. As the light and love of God grows to be more and more prevalent, those souls whose hearts have not embraced the light and love of God will choose to leave the earth and/or reincarnate on some other planet where there’s more souls like them. Eventually, they will all be gone.

But they will condemn themselves to a hellish world because their hearts are not prepared to live in a heavenly world. They won’t be able to tolerate it or operate within it. But God will never give up on these souls and will eventually gather them back to Him through the irresistible Power of Love.

What does this parable have to teach us today?

I don’t believe it is giving us permission to try to judge one another a sheep or goat. Human beings don’t have specialized breeding, so it is truly difficult to tell which is which. We all have our opinions, of course, and we are entitled to them, but do we really know? We can’t see inside people’s hearts – but God can, and he has given Christ, not these personal selves, the authority to be the judge.

We are part human and part divine. The human part is temporary; the divine part eternal. But in this life experience, you could say we are part goat and part sheep. That’s not a problem because God created us that way for a purpose. There is a place for our human side and a place for our divine side – just like there is a place for goats and a place for sheep in this world.

We can’t be whole if we don’t accept both parts of ourselves. I believe Jesus is teaching us that the key is to be able to distinguish between the two parts of ourselves – and be fully aware of both parts – so that we can choose which part to express in every present moment experience.

Without this knowledge, we have no choice, and that has been the problem. We have not been aware of our divine side, so our human side has taken too much control over our lives. Our human side has become our common expression and our divine side the rare one. It should be the other way around.

Since we are not shepherds, it’s harder for us to relate to this setting. How many of you are gardeners? When you go out into your garden to harvest, you might notice that some weeds have cropped up in some places or that some of the fruits or vegetables got infested with blight or bugs or maybe a groundhog stole your cabbage.

As a gardener, you pretty much accept that these things go with the territory of gardening. You really don’t have a choice because if you choose not to accept it, you’re only setting yourself up for a whole heap of frustration and disappointment, which can really zap the joy of gardening right out of you.

We should have that same level of acceptance when we look within the garden of ourselves and notice the weeds of ingratitude, the blight of intolerance, the bugs of resentment, and fear – that sneaky thief that steals our joy. These aspects of our human side are within us along with all of the wonderful spiritual produce we have inside us by the grace of God.

As a gardener, you know that when you go out into your garden to harvest the good fruits and vegetables you have grown, you often have more than you need, so you probably enjoy sharing the extras with your family, friends, and neighbors.

It’s because of our divine side that there is an infinite supply of wonderful spiritual produce to share with the world. So, we can enjoy the challenge of being human.

If we look within and see jealousy, impatience, intolerance, meanness, or even hatred, we simply need to recognize that these things are not things we want to extend to others if we are preparing our hearts and the hearts of all for the Kingdom of Heaven.

As a gardener, you know that you need to do the work to look for the weeds and the infected and infested plants, pull them up, then trash or burn them, and you need to create barriers to keep the sneaky thieves out. Otherwise, all these things can do a lot of damage to your garden.

But you don’t necessarily judge yourself a bad gardener because you need to do these things. You know it just goes with the territory of gardening. In fact, you might even enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to win these battles for an even better garden because hey, there’s always another season.

Just as there are many different types of produce, there are many different manifestations of love within us that we have to share, such as patience, kindness, compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and gratitude.

We don’t realize it, but there is a huge number of opportunities to extend love every day. If you wake up in the morning, and your spouse is grumpy, extend forgiveness. If you listen to the news, and it makes you want to cry, extend compassion. As you’re enjoying your morning cup of coffee, extend gratitude. If you went out the door and forgot your mask – again, extend kindness. If the car in front of you is moving too slow, extend patience.

So, let us take advantage of every opportunity to extend love. God is calling us to share love with others – especially those who most need love – the poor, the stranger, the sick, and the imprisoned. People need it more than ever right now. When we share love, we demonstrate who we belong to – that we belong to God – that we are the sheep of his pasture – and that we want to live in a world ruled by love.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we get so caught up in our own lives and needs that we often fail to notice those who are struggling in their lives, those who are in need. Help us to slow down, be present, and be ready extend love because in this way, we move the earth ever closer to the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen.

Resources

“What is the Meaning of the Parable of the Sheep and Goats?” gotquestions.org, www.gotquestions.org/parable-sheep-goats.html

Hooper, Jodi. “11: The Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25: 31-46).” Bible.org, 21 Jun. 2012, bible.org/seriespage/11-sheep-and-goats-matthew-2531-46

Spiritual Resilience

Hieronymous Francken II, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: How do we keep the oil of our spiritual resilience stocked in dark times so that we are prepared for Christ’s coming? We do what Jesus did in times like these: We surrender to our feelings and to the unknown, trusting in God’s promises.

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Scripture reading: Matthew 25: 1-13

How many of you have experienced being “on call?” When I was in my twenties, I was an Emergency Medical Technician for Barrett Township Volunteer Ambulance Corp. When I was “on call,” I had to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. I didn’t know if we were going to get a call that day, but I had to be prepared and expectant.

Jesus uses the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids to make a point about the importance of being prepared and expectant for Christ’s second coming.

You might remember that Jesus told parables to make a point, so it’s important to know the context to understanding its meaning. Since the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids begins Matthew chapter 25, the context is in the previous chapter.

In chapter 24, after Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple, the disciples began questioning him about the signs of his coming at the end of the age. They assumed the destruction of the Temple would herald the End Times, but the Lord warned them about making such predictions.

He warned them not to be deceived because it might be some time before he returns. He said to them that many will proclaim themselves to be the Messiah, and there will be wars and rumors of wars, but these are simply the birth pangs.

Using the example of the fig tree, Jesus taught his disciples to be watchful for signs of the “season” of his coming, and to be expectant, but no one knows the day or hour.

The setting of this parable is a Jewish wedding. To get an idea of what’s going on, it’s somewhat helpful to understand a first century Jewish wedding, but we can’t take what happens literally since Jesus is using it as a literary device. Like any good storyteller, he might twist or embellish facts a bit to make his point, even leave out major elements that aren’t relevant to the point – like any mention of the bride!

A Jewish wedding begins with the groom leaving his home to go to the bride’s home where certain rituals would take place. After nightfall, the bride and bridesmaids would process through the streets to his home, the bride’s new home, where the marriage celebration would take place over several days.

Everyone in the procession must carry a torch; otherwise, they might be considered party crashers or bandits. They are expected to meet the groom on his way to his house, but no one could predict exactly when the groom would arrive at the meeting place.

In the previous chapter, in verses 37-39, Jesus says, “When the Son of Man returns, it will be like it was in Noah’s day. In those days before the flood, the people were enjoying banquets and parties and weddings right up to the time Noah entered his boat. People didn’t realize what was going to happen until the flood came and swept them all away. That is the way it will be when the Son of Man comes.”

The bridegroom doesn’t arrive until quite late in the evening, so they all fell asleep waiting for him. When I was on call overnight, sometimes I would stay at the ambulance building, and sometimes I would stay at home. Either way, I would go to sleep, but before I went to sleep, I made sure my uniform was ready to be slipped on, and my gear bag was packed and ready to go.

The bridesmaids had all fallen asleep, but they are awoken with a shout as the groom finally arrives at midnight. That’s when we learn that some of them weren’t prepared. When they get up to trim their lamps, the foolish say to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.”

The Reverend Bob Diffenbaugh sheds a lot of light on this lamp issue – pun intended. First, he explains that the “lamp” they used isn’t the kind of lamp we think of when we hear the word. The Greek word, “lampas,” is more of a torch. It was just a large, flat bowl with a rag or rope-like wick that could be attached to a pole to light one’s way in the darkness.

Next, he notes that New English Translation Bible states that the word “extra” is not used in the original Greek – which is also true of the version we use. Some translations, such as the New Living Translation, suggest that the foolish ones took oil with them, but not enough. If that were the case, why would all of their lamps be “going out” at the same time?

Rev. Diffenbaugh concludes that they must not have brought any oil with them. He writes, “There must have been some residue of oil on the rag or wick of the five empty lamps, which quickly burned out, only moments after being lit. This would explain why all five torches went out at the same time. Perhaps, too, these foolish [bridesmaids] minimized their foolishness by describing their plight as ‘running out’ so as to look less foolish.”

If I agreed to be on call for the ambulance corp., I had to be ready to respond – period. No excuses. That meant I couldn’t leave the area because I needed to be able to get to the ambulance building quickly. I also couldn’t get delayed in any way. Little things like sitting in the drive thru at Burger King would be a problem if my pager suddenly went off. It wouldn’t cut it to say, “Sorry I missed the call. I wanted a Whopper.”

The foolish bridesmaids’ excuse for “running out” didn’t cut it either. They were supposed to be prepared. It might seem cold that the wise bridesmaids didn’t help them out, but they couldn’t.

So, the foolish bridesmaids went out to buy more oil, but by the time they got to the groom’s house, the celebration was already underway. The door was shut. They were too late. The groom probably thought that since they didn’t arrive with the other bridesmaids, they were imposters trying to crash the party.

How can we apply this parable to our lives today?

Let’s be honest. We are living in a very painful and chaotic world right now. Many are dying, many are grieving, many are afraid, and many are angry. What should be our response? What should we say to people? How about what Jesus said in times like these: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Remain here and stay awake with me.”

If any of you are feeling great sorrow today, it’s OK. It’s totally appropriate. It doesn’t mean you’ve given up on the world. It just means your heart is wide open. You haven’t become numb through it all. You’ve been very brave.

Jesus felt great sorrow in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he accomplished his redemptive work. Even though he felt great sorrow for the world, he still had hope because he trusted in God’s promises.

Christ first came in one individual named Jesus to introduce humanity to who we really are. I believe Christ will come the second time not as a single person, but in a multitude of people. That is the only way that Christ can be revealed in all His Glory. Since His Glory is in each of us, all of it must be in all of us.

There is only one thing that will save the world, and that is the love of God. God’s Love is made known through Christ. Christ dwells within every living thing, but only human beings have the capacity to make God’s love and creativity more fully known in this physical world.

For the world to be saved, we need enough wise people to meet the Christ and to join with him in the procession back to his home, the True Self. 

As an EMT, I remember how awesome it felt to save someone’s life – to be part of a team of people that saved someone’s life. Maybe some of you have had that experience and remember how awesome that feels.

Imagine how awesome it will feel to be part of something that saves the whole world! To feel the joy of the fulfillment of all we came here to do. That’s a celebration we wouldn’t want to miss!

I would like to suggest that the lamp oil in this parable represents spiritual resilience. The word resilience means “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.”

A therapist once told me that once I make up my mind to tackle a challenge, I tackle it like a rodeo cowboy tackles a bull. I take that thing by the horns, wrestle it into submission, and bind it up tight. That kind of resilience works well for personal challenges, but when we’re dealing with world-wide challenges, spiritual resilience is needed.

Spiritual resilience is the ability to trust God, remain hopeful, and shine our light even when it’s mighty dark out there, and it’s getting late. It’s something that can be cultivated only through a close relationship with God, so it’s not something that can be faked or bought.

We can keep the oil of our spiritual resilience stocked through surrender. First, we need to surrender to our feelings. Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me….” What an honest prayer. Jesus was so brave that he allowed his heart to be wide open such that he was able to feel the sorrow of the whole world.

Maybe now, all of humanity can begin to appreciate that pain. All of humanity is feeling the pain of this pandemic and all the political and social chaos that has come with it. Like Jesus, in our humanity, we wish the pain would go away because … it hurts! Like so many people today, we just wish we could go back to normal.

There is nothing wrong with feelings. What matters is not our feelings, but how we respond to them.

There are two ways to respond to feelings. The first way is with fear. When we respond with fear, we try to push the feelings away by taking control. We make quick decisions and act on them. But actions based on fear are usually foolish. We often create more suffering for ourselves and others.

The second way is with love. When we respond with love, we surrender. We allow the painful feelings to be there, and we let go of control. We let events play out as they will, and respond only when it feels right. We demonstrate our trust in God and our willingness to allow His Will to be done.

Jesus responded to his feelings of deep sorrow with love when he prayed, “… yet not what I want but what you want.” Jesus surrendered. He turned his will over to God, trusting that God knows what it takes to accomplish the salvation of the world.

So, to keep the oil of our spiritual resilience stocked, we need to surrender to our feelings, trusting God in the darkness while we are in pain by constantly praying, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

Whatever transformation you have in store for me, Father – and for all of humanity – I am willing to accept because I know you know how to save the world better than I do.

We know Christ is coming and that there will be a big party at his house when he arrives – we just don’t know how or when. To keep the oil of our spiritual resilience stocked, we need also to surrender to the unknown.

We think we know so much more than we do about ourselves, others, and life in general.

If we can let go of what we think we know, or at least hold onto what we think we know a little more loosely, we will be able respond when Christ arrives because we will recognize him. As we know, it’s our judgements that keep the Christ hidden from us.

We need to let go of who we think we are because we are becoming far more than that. Joyce Meyer writes, “Potential cannot manifest without form. There must be something for it to be poured into, something that will cause it to take shape and become useful.”

That got me to thinking about this form (body) in which God’s potential through Christ is made manifest. Through Christ, God poured His Potential into everything that is alive, including us human beings. But if we keep judging ourselves, the vast space within us that is the Christ becomes smaller and smaller because it’s like we keep choosing to pour our form into smaller containers.

How many of you have a set of those containers where there’s a big one, but then a smaller one fits inside of it, and a smaller one fits inside of it, and a smaller one fits inside of that one, so there’s maybe six containers inside this one big container.

It’s awesome for kitchenware, but not for human beings. As the Christ, we start out as an infinitely vast container with infinite potential, but each time we judge ourselves, it’s like we’re putting another smaller container inside the space within us and with each container, the space becomes smaller and smaller and smaller, and our potential shrinks along with it.

We do the same thing to others when we judge them, and they take our judgments to heart, so we need to let go of who we think others are because they are becoming far more than that. We need to stop judging people for what they think and feel. allow them to have their thoughts and feelings, and create a loving, safe space for them to be whoever they are. We might discover that there’s far more to them then what we “knew.”

We need to stop judging life also. Through judgments, we put Life itself into smaller containers also. We need to let go of our ideas about the way things “should” be happening. With God, there are infinite possibilities and infinite potentialities for life on Earth. When we are so fixated on our own ideas about how life should be, we might not see Christ’s arrival happening right under our noses.

Yes, this time could very well be the late evening through which the Christ is making his way back to his home for the wedding celebration, so we need to be ready to join the party by surrendering to our feelings and to the unknown.

Marianne Williamson has said, “Something amazing happens when we surrender and just love. We melt into another world, a realm of power already within us. The world changes when we change. the world softens when we soften. The world loves us when we choose to love the world.”

Let’s pray together: Lord, when we are in pain, help us to remember to surrender our will to God’s Will and to open our heart even more widely in acceptance of ourselves, others, and of this beautiful life we have been given. Amen.

Resources

Deffinbaugh, Bob. “26. The Ten Virgins: What It Means to Be Ready (Matthew 25:1-13).” Bible.org, 10 Apr. 2005, bible.org/seriespage/26-ten-virgins-what-it-means-be-ready-matthew-251-13

Meyer, Joyce. The Confident Woman Devotional (p. 354). FaithWords. Kindle Edition

Williamson, Marianne. “Quotes: Quotable Quote.” goodreads.com, www.goodreads.com/quotes/387102-something-amazing-happens-when-we-surrender-and-just-love-we

The Three Pillars of the Greatest Commandment

James Tissot | Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: By practicing the three pillars of the Greatest Commandment – appreciation, acceptance, and sharing – we can be a complete, perfect, unique expression of God, encourage others, and return Love to its Source.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 22: 34-40

Click here to listen to a recording of this sermon.

I think it would be safe to say that most people know the Great Commandment Jesus spoke of in our scripture reading for today, or at least the Golden Rule part of it: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. If that’s the case, then why are we living in a world where love appears to be so lacking.

The same was true during Jesus’ time. Most Jews knew that that they were supposed to love God and one another. Even so, there wasn’t much love going around. Most Jews knew of God as a God of justice, but there wasn’t much justice going around either.

The problem is the same today as it was back then.

After Jesus entered Jerusalem, his conflict with the chief priests and elders became clear. Jesus’ conflict was not only with the chief priests and elders. Jesus also had a conflict with the Pharisees because he refused to follow their “teachings of the elders.” He refused to follow them because he believed they were overly burdensome to the people. Generally speaking, the Pharisees themselves didn’t even follow them (which is partly why Jesus calls them hypocrites in the next chapter).

So, the Pharisees were also looking for opportunities to discredit Jesus. After Jesus discredits the chief priests and elders, the Pharisees attempt to trap him with a question about taxes, which Jesus successfully escapes by saying, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

Then, the Sadducees attempt to stump Jesus with a question about the resurrection of the dead, which was obviously deceitful because the Sadducees did not believe in it. The Pharisees did, so the two factions were constantly debating one another about it. Jesus’ response made it clear that he believed in the resurrection of the dead – indeed, he would soon demonstrate its truth.

That brings us to our scripture reading for today. Rather than being happy with the fact that Jesus actually sided with them for once, the Pharisees continued to try to discredit Jesus, so they decided to test him again with a question about the greatest commandment.

There are over 600 Torah Laws, so there was always plenty of debate over which ones were more important and which ones were less important. The man who asked Jesus “which is the greatest commandment” was an “expert in the law.”

He wasn’t a “lawyer” like we think of one. In our society, church and state are separate, so our lawyers are experts in civic law, not biblical law. For Jesus and his fellow Jews, Torah law was civic law, and these men were experts in the practical applications of it. 

This question was posed to Jesus to test his judgment, not necessarily his knowledge of the law. They probably hoped that he would answer in a way that displeased the crowd gathered that day, which would be enough to successfully discredit him.

Jesus answered the question the way the “experts of the law” would have answered it since it was known which law they had previously judged to be the greatest commandment and the sum of all the rest. Jesus obviously had no conflict with their position on this point, so to ask him this question was a bit condescending.

He knew the law, but I think what the chief priests and elders found so disturbing was the fact that he actually practiced it, which made them look bad. With their mouths they declared the Greatest Commandment, but their hearts were far from it. They were more concerned with power, not love.

The confusion many people have with the greatest commandment is a misunderstanding of the word “love.” God’s love and human love are different. Human love is exclusive; we love only certain people – usually our family members and closest friends. God’s love is inclusive; God loves everything in Creation.

Human love is finite; we might stop loving those who hurt us. God’s love is infinite; it never ends no matter what we do. Human love is conditional; it often depends on what someone can give to us. God’s love is unconditional; it’s s all about what God can give.

It has been said that we can’t love others unless we love ourselves, but I also believe that we can’t love God unless we love ourselves. I believe the foundation is love of Self (with a capital S). If we love our Self then loving God and others will naturally follow.

This is why the idea of original sin has been so damaging. We certainly can’t love ourselves with such a negative view of our nature. And how can we love a God who creates defective creatures and then punishes them for it? At most, we can fear such a God, but never love. Fortunately, we are not defective creatures, so we must start there to correct our mistaken perception of ourselves.

We have all acknowledged the truth that we are not these personal selves – these bodies with personal thoughts and feelings. These personal selves are merely tools that we use to be an expression of God in Christ. God is infinite, so God would need an infinite number of expressions to be fully expressed – to be fully known.

We can be that expression by practicing the three pillars of the Great Commandment.

The first is appreciation. How many of you have engaged in a creative piece of work? Maybe you composed a piece of music. Maybe you like to write. Maybe you like to draw, paint, or create other pieces of artwork. Maybe you like to knit or crochet. Maybe you like to cook or bake goodies.

Everything you create is a unique expression of who you are. It starts out as an idea, and then you begin to work on it, but that original idea keeps developing. There are many stages in the creation process, and each stage has value. In every stage, your creation exists in relationship to you, its creator, and in each stage, it is what it is. Sometimes, it’s a complete mess.

What you create is a unique expression of you in form. In that sense, you and it are united. There might be some challenging times in the process, but even those have value and help your creation to be all it can be, and you love it despite those challenges because it lives within you and you within it.

Now, there’s a point in which your creation is “finished.” It then becomes a static expression of who you were at a particular point in time. We live in time, so our personal selves are finite, but God lives in eternity.

God is infinite and as an expression of God, Christ is infinite – always changing and evolving –something always changing and evolving would expresses God’ infinite nature perfectly and completely.

This is difficult for us to understand since we live in time. In eternity, we can never really be “finished,” but we are nevertheless complete. This is good news because if we have this “ideal” image in our heads of who we will be when God is “finished” with us, we can burn that as a false idol. We are already complete in Christ even though we are constantly evolving. God sees each of us right now as the complete, perfect, unique expression of His infinite nature and deeply appreciates us.

Let the appreciation for the unique expression of God that you are fill you heart, allow it to extend to an appreciation of the Creator who is joined with you, loving and supporting you in every moment of your life, and let this appreciation extend to the others who are also complete, perfect, unique expressions of God as together we are all woven like unique threads in this beautiful tapestry called “Life.”

The second pillar of the Great Commandment is acceptance. If we are complete, perfect, unique expressions of God in Christ just the way we are in each moment, then we can accept the thoughts and feelings we experience without judging ourselves.

This is especially true of painful thoughts and feelings. How often do we have thoughts or feelings we wish we didn’t have? We wish we didn’t have them because they are painful, and most of the time, we feel pain because we are believing lies.

These lies are judgments that enter the mind, but they do not come from the Mind of Christ. Thoughts and feelings that come from the Mind of Christ are always in the moment. They aren’t generated by regrets about the past or predictions about the future. They don’t protest what is because it already is.

I’ve been feeling impatient a lot these days. Everything seems to take longer to happen, right? So, I’ve been calling myself an “impatient person,” which has been painful because it’s not the truth.

Just because I feel impatient now and have felt impatient in the past doesn’t justify a future prediction about how I will act. Impatient feelings don’t make me an “impatient person.” But if I slap an “impatient person” label on myself, I will more likely act impatiently – thus fulfilling my own prophecy.

Even though I feel impatient, I often choose to act with patience. That is a present moment inspiration coming from who I really am – from the Christ within.

Lies might enter our minds about others as well. We might feel uncomfortable in the presence of someone who is gossiping about another person. What often happens is that simple feeling of discomfort quickly turns into disgust as we imagine that that person has probably gossiped about us behind our backs too and will do so in the future, so we choose to stay away from that “gossiper” and all those other “gossipers” that we see them talking to.

In that single moment, we imagine a past that may not exist and predetermine who that one person and all those other people are and how they will act in the future. Instead, we might simply accept our discomfort and choose to politely excuse ourselves. That inspiration comes from the Christ in the present moment.

This is why Jesus taught us not to judge others. We judge ourselves in the same way we judge others. Judgment is how we create the many layers concealing the Christ within others and ourselves. We don’t see ourselves or them in the present moment; we see only the layers of judgements.

The only way we can become expressions of God in form is to have a form – a human self. As human beings, lies will naturally come into our minds. We can accept this without believing them. If we don’t believe them, then we won’t react to them in unloving ways.

We can choose to appreciate and accept ourselves and our brothers and sisters in the present moment and act out of that appreciation and acceptance. When we do, we are the extension of God’s Love we were created to be. In fact, the words “appreciation” and “acceptance” are good words to describe the “attitude” of God’s Love.

The third pillar of the Great Commandment is sharing. If appreciation and acceptance are the “attitude” pillars, then this one is the “action” pillar. Acceptance is not passive. Jesus certainly was not passive when he turned over the tables of the moneychangers and merchants in the Temple. He dealt with the situation in the moment without judging the people involved. He felt anger, and he acted in the moment without really hurting anyone – only their wealth and pride.

After Jesus cleared out the Temple, he shared something we all have to share – our time and attention. People came to him, and he lovingly gave them his time and attention. No matter how little time we have, it’s not so little that we can’t give someone “the time of day” – a simple gesture like a smile or a nod toward a complete stranger just to let them know we acknowledge their existence. Something as simple as that can make someone’s day.

It is very loving to take the time to really listen to someone. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced what it’s like to have a conversation with someone who really listens, and I don’t mean in a clinical way, like a therapist who would ask, “So tell me, how did that make you feel?” Most people don’t want to feel like they’re talking to a therapist – unless of course they’ve hired one and are paying for it.

What really helps both speakers and listeners to feel connected is when listeners are quiet but use good eye contact and facial expressions to indicate that they are truly listening. They speak sparingly – only to ask relevant questions or rephrase what the person has said to make sure they understand.

We think it’s helpful to share our experiences, but most of the time, it isn’t. It can be a form of giving unasked-for advice. Most people would rather figure things out for themselves, and they will, if we lovingly give them our time and attention – the “space” to talk about it.

Everything in creation was given to us by God, not to hoard, but to share with others. One of God’s laws we have difficulty understanding is that when we give, we receive. We always get something in return for what we give especially if it was given in love with no strings attached.

In Luke chapter 12, Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool. A landowner had such an abundant harvest that he didn’t have big enough barns to store it all. He had this brilliant idea to tear down the old ones and build bigger ones so that he could sit back, relax, and enjoy life.

We might think that the landowner was being smart, but God called him a fool saying, “This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Instead of taking the opportunity to share, all that surplus will end up rotting in his barns.

So, if we have more than we need, we should give away the excess to someone who needs it. We receive the blessing of having less to manage, but we also open our lives up to receive new gifts from God – like something we need.

Sharing talents is part of appreciation and acceptance. We need to appreciate that as a unique creation, we have unique gifts and talents, but we must accept those gifts and talents in order to share them.

Part of that acceptance is accepting the fact that we don’t have certain gifts and talents. We often compare ourselves to others, wishing that God had given us what they have, but that just keeps us from appreciating and using what God has given us.

I’ve always been intrigued by people like Sylvia Browne who was one of the greatest psychics of our time – how she was able to communicate directly with her spirit guides and other disembodied entities and as a medium give comfort to those grieving the loss of loved ones. She even had telepathic abilities.

I’m no psychic, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be one. But I do know that God loves me just as I am and has already given me exactly what I need be a complete, perfect, one-of-a-kind expression of Him in each present moment. Because of that, I can choose to appreciate myself, accept myself, and confidently express myself in each of those moments, and I can give that appreciation, acceptance, and encouragement to others.

By loving ourselves and others we return love to its Source. That is what the Greatest Commandment calls us all to do.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to appreciate and accept ourselves as God created us and to act lovingly using the resources, gifts, and talents we have been given. May this appreciation and acceptance inspire us to act lovingly in each present moment of our lives as we extend God’s Love to others. AMEN.

Resources:

Perron, Mari. A Course of Love. Combined volume, Kindle ed. 2nd ed. Take Heart Publications, 2019.

Pearson, Stephen. A Faith of Love: Teachings of the Greatest Commandment. Kindle ed. 2017.

God’s Gracious Invitation

Brunswick Monogrammist|Public domain

Synopsis: Our mistaken human perception of God as an employer and Creation as a paycheck to be earned causes us to resist God’s blessings, thus rejecting His gracious invitation to partake in the wedding banquet of His Son.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 22: 1-14

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Imagine that you’re planning a huge graduation party for your son or daughter, so you send out invitations to all your friends and neighbors, and they all send back their RSVPs stating that they would attend.

You spare no expense and put a lot of time and effort into making the party awesome with everything anyone could possibly want: spreads of delicious food, a DJ spinning favorite tunes, and fun games for all ages.

Finally, the time arrives for the party to start, and you wait … and wait … and wait … but no one is showing up. So, you send your son or daughter out to tell people, “Hey! The food is out! The DJ is spinning tunes! The games are ready! Come now!”

You assume the invited guests will say something like, “Oh! The party’s today – like right now? Holy Toledo! I’ll be right there!” But instead, when your son or daughter returns, you hear that they’re saying, “Well … I’m kind of busy right now.”

How would you feel, and what would you do? It’s hard for us to imagine people acting this way, but Jesus teaches us in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet that that’s pretty much how we respond to God’s Gracious invitation.

Our scripture reading for today is situated within Jesus’ response to the elders and the scribes questioning his authority. They questioned his authority because the day before Jesus had entered into Jerusalem peacefully on a donkey, and the crowds welcomed him shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord!”

Immediately after his entry, Jesus went to the Temple and drove out the merchants and moneychangers who had set up shop to essentially rob worshippers coming to the Temple from distant lands through low currency exchange rates and high prices. He then set up shop himself to teach and heal the people.

The next day, he returned to the Temple to continue his teaching and healing ministry when the chief priests and elders confronted him, asking “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” They were trying to discredit Jesus, but he turned the tables on them – something he was very good at.

First, he turned the questioners into the questioned, agreeing to answer their question only if they would answer his first. Then he struck them between a rock and a hard place with a question about whether the baptism of John had come from God.

The chief priests and elders couldn’t answer his question yes or no without either discrediting themselves or angering the crowd, so they said, “We do not know.” As a result, Jesus refused to answer their question.

He then launched into a series of three parables designed to discredit the chief priests and elders – to expose their lack of divine authority because they were not following Torah Law. Instead of guiding the people toward a closer relationship with God, they were guiding them in the opposite direction.

He began with the Parable of Two Sons, followed by the Parable of the Wicked Tenets. The Parable of the Wedding Banquet is the third in this series of parables.

A king throws a wedding banquet for his son. The two calls are consistent with Middle Eastern tradition. The first call’s purpose is to invite the guests, and the second call’s purpose is to announce that the festivities have begun. This was practical since they didn’t have clocks back then, so it’s not like they could tell everyone to show up at 1 PM.

But when the servants give the second call, we read, the guests “made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business.”

In our Western culture, if no one showed up for your son or daughter’s graduation party, most people will judge your son or daughter. They figure, people must not like him or her for some reason. Maybe he or she is weird – like some nerdy middle school kid who invites everyone in the class to his or her birthday party, but no one shows up. They don’t blame the classmates; they blame the kid for being a nerd.

In Eastern culture, it’s the opposite. Guests are obligated to attend, or they would shame the host. Shame is a big deal in the East, so you’d better not even think about not showing up unless you have a really good reason. The fact that the invited guests in Jesus’ story made light of it, “blew it off” as we would say, would have been appalling to his audience.

Brad H. Young, professor of Biblical Literature in Judeo-Christian Studies at Oral Roberts University, believes Luke’s version of this parable is probably the closest to the actual parable Jesus taught. Matthew adds some things to allude to historical events and to combine several of Jesus’ teachings into one parable.

Remember that all the gospels were written for a specific audience and purpose. Matthew wrote his gospel for the Jews, and his purpose was to show them the error of their ways by proving that Jesus is the Messiah the prophets predicted.

In Matthew’s version of this parable, some of the invited guests mistreated and even killed the servants. Young believes Matthew added this part to allude to the Jews’ mistreatment of the early Christians.

In response to this disrespect, the king refused to be shamed. We read “He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” Young believes this part was also added by Matthew to allude to the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. – a tragedy Jesus predicts in Mark’s gospel, which is the oldest of the four gospels and used as a source by both Matthew and Luke.

Next, we read the king sent his servants out to invite anyone they find – both the good and the bad – to fill up the wedding hall. This act of charity would place the king in high esteem and shame those who insulted him through their refusal to attend.

But it turns out that a man was there who was not wearing a wedding robe. We read he was thrown out to “the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Young believes that Matthew also added this additional complication to emphasize one of Jesus’ teachings.

In his gospel, Matthew makes it clear that Jesus’ problem with the religious leaders of his day was their ability to put on good outward show, but their hearts were not pure. Many Jews believed they were “entitled” to take their place in the Kingdom of Heaven because of God’s covenant with Abraham.

That’s why they rejected John’s Baptism, and that’s why, in Matthew chapter 3, John the Baptist said to them, “And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.”

In the very next chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus denounces the scribes and Pharisees. In verses 25-26, he says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.”

You might be asking, “How is it that we respond in much the same way to God’s gracious invitation? “

Jesus begins the Parable of the Wedding Banquet with the words, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” We can safely assume the King is God, His Son is the Christ, and we are the invited wedding guests. In fact, we are the betrothed – the ones destined to join with Christ.

Just as a host goes through extensive preparation to ensure that all the guests have everything they could possibly need or want, God created Creation just for us, and He gave us everything we could ever need or want. Everything that we could ever need or want exists within Creation.

In fact, God loves us so much that he made it impossible for us to be separated from this abundance by creating us part of it – part of the whole of Creation. We are made of the same stuff as everything else that God created – everything in existence, so everything that we could ever need or want literally exists within us.

All of Creation is our inheritance as God’s offspring. He gave it to us as a free gift. If this is so, then why do so many struggle to get the bare essentials they need to survive while others have far more than they need?

The clue is in the words, they “went away, one to his farm, another to his business.” We turn down God’s Gracious Invitation because we have learned to see God and His Creation incorrectly. Jesus came to try to correct our misperceptions – to give us a fresh (and truthful) view of ourselves, of God, and of Creation – all of Life.

How are we mistaken in how we see God and Creation? We see God as an employer and Creation as a paycheck to be earned. But God is not an employer, and Creation is not a paycheck because it can’t be earned – it’s a free gift. We can either accept it or reject it, but we can’t earn it.

And that, my friends, is why we often feel so angry around the topic of money. No matter how much we earn, it’s never enough because money is really just a symbol for the abundance of God’s Creation which cannot be earned.  

It is also why we often feel as if we are lacking. Those who are the “have-nots” are afraid they won’t get what they need, and those who are the “haves” are afraid of losing what they have, so they keep striving for more, even at the expense of others.

Because we don’t trust God and are too proud to accept his free gift, we rely totally on ourselves, so we’re far too busy working hard to obtain or maintain what we need or want. We are a culture that values hard work, and I’m German, so trust me, I understand that mindset. But this “need-to-earn” mindset prevents us from accepting our inheritance from God.

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke chapter 15, both sons viewed their father like an employer. When the prodigal son returned, he hoped his father would at least take him as a hired hand. Wasn’t he surprised when his father embraced him, forgave him, and took him back in full standing as a son?

The father was so happy that his son returned that he threw a feast, but the older son refused to participate because he was angry. The older son felt that since he served his father his whole life and never left him, he “earned” that feast – not his prodigal brother. The father responds with basically, “What are you talking about, my son? Everything I have is yours. There’s nothing to earn.”

The older son’s anger is our anger. Think about how much people resent those who come into money by inheritance because they didn’t earn it. But what kind of parent would you be if you made your children earn their inheritance, instead of giving it to them freely and equally just because they are your son or daughter, and you love them?

What if you offered your child a huge inheritance, one that would have him or her set for life, and he or she stuck up his or her hand and said, “No thanks! I’d rather work my fingers to the bone until the day I die.” Would that not break your heart?

Do we need to earn the beating of our hearts? Do we need to earn the breathing of our lungs? Do we need to earn the oxygen we breathe? Do we need to even ask God for these blessings? No – they are a free gift, and if these are free gifts, then all of it is a free gift. All of it.

Of course, human perception sees things differently – just as in our human perception, we believed that we are just this personal self and nothing more. This was necessary for a time for our learning, but that time is over. We know better now, and we don’t need to buy into that misperception any longer.

The same is true of this one – this misperception of God as an employer and Creation as a paycheck to be earned. Obviously, we can’t walk into a store, grab something off the shelf, and walk out without paying for it because it’s a free gift of God’s Creation! We still have to live within the systems and institutions that were created by humans who didn’t know who they are, who God is, and their unity with All That Is.

But we know, so while we must operate within these systems and institutions of earning, we don’t have to agree that they represent reality. Reality is that God is our loving Father and Creation is a free gift.

If we don’t believe this, then it’s like we’re throwing logs into the stream of God’s blessings and creating log jams. We also can’t view God like a genie in a bottle, who, if we rub the right way, must give us what we ask because he promised in his covenant with us.

That’s just another way of seeing God outside of ourselves and another way of trying to “earn” his blessings. That’s no different from the scribes and elders saying, “We don’t need John’s baptism because we are descendants from Abraham.” With that attitude, we may be at the banquet looking for some blessings, but we’re not wearing wedding robes.

When we are united with Christ, our will and God’s Will become one, so whatever we ask will be granted. And there is no one on the face of this earth who has the power to remove God from his throne or your authority in Christ, not even the President of the United States, whoever it ends up being.

 So, my friends, how do we accept God’s Gracious invitation to join the wedding banquet of His Son? We ask God for what we need or want with full faith that it will be granted. Because if it is God’s Will to grant our request, nothing will stop what we asked for from coming to us expect our own resistance – our own belief that we must somehow “earn it.”

Then, we be on the lookout for the arrival of our request. We might be given some brilliant idea, or a messenger might come along with some helpful information, or an opportunity might present itself that will move us in the right direction, or someone might just come along and give us exactly what we needed or wanted at the perfect time.

Finally, we must be grateful – grateful for everything we have been given because if we are grateful, God will bring more and more things into our life to be grateful for, and that’s when we know we’ve accepted his gracious invitation: when the banquet becomes our reality.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we accept who we are in Christ and God’s gracious invitation to receive his blessings. We are willing to become aware of old patterns of resistance that prevent us from receiving God’s blessings so that we, wearing the robes of Christ, may joyfully and gratefully participate in the glorious banquet of Creation that God has lovingly given us as our inheritance. AMEN.

Resources

Young, Brad H. The Parables (p. 171-188). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Courageously Stepping Out into Uncertainty

Ivan Aivazovsky / Public domain

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

Click here to view this message on my YouTube channel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord, wake up! Save us!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had nothing to hold onto.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way to the Father

Leonard DiVinci | Public Domain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re justifiably troubled and in need of comfort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How arrogant!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look with the Eyes of Faith

James Tissot/no known copyright restrictions

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

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

Gospel Reading: Matthew 28:1-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s pray together:

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

Resources:

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

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

Riding Triumphantly

Benjamin R. Haydon| Public Domain

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

Scripture: Matthew 21: 1-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It can be found in trusting God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What it Means to be Born Again

Henry Ossawa Tanner / Public domain

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

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Scripture: John 3: 1-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources

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