Establishing Our Worth

[[File:Tissot The Pharisee and the publican Brooklyn.jpg|Tissot The Pharisee and the publican Brooklyn]]

Synopsis: Pride can infiltrate even the most spiritual people by tempting them to establish their own worth by what they do rather than by who they are in Christ.

Scripture: Luke 18:9-14

Click here to hear an audio of this sermon.

Craig Brian Larson, pastor of Lake Shore Church in Chicago and author and editor of numerous books, shares this story.

“Pali, this bull has killed me.” So said Jose Cubero, one of Spain’s most brilliant matadors, before he lost consciousness and died.

Only 21 years old, he had been enjoying a spectacular career. However, in this l958 bullfight, Jose made a tragic mistake. He thrust his sword a final time into a bleeding, delirious bull, which then collapsed. Considering the struggle finished, Jose turned to the crowd to acknowledge the applause. The bull, however, was not dead. It rose and lunged at the unsuspecting matador, its horn piercing his back and puncturing his heart.

Just when we think we’ve finished off pride, just when we turn to accept the congratulations of the crowd, pride stabs us in the back. We should never consider pride dead before we are.”

That’s what today’s scripture reading is about. Jesus always told parables to make a point, so the context is important. Luke tells us that Jesus told this particular parable in response to those who were “confident in their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.”

In this story, there are two people: the first is a Pharisee. Today, the word Pharisee has become synonymous with “religious hypocrite.” But back in Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were highly respected. They were deeply religious laymen who committed themselves to moral behavior and religious tradition. They can be compared to church deacons or other highly-respected lay members of the Christian church.

So, a Pharisee comes to the temple to pray, and he thanks God that he is not like “other people,” his list including the tax collector standing at a distance. He also mentions how he fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of all he gets. The Torah requires fasting only once a year and tithing only on income, not property. My friend Yvonne would call this guy an “overachiever.”

The Pharisee feels pretty good about himself, doesn’t he? Is it OK to feel good about ourselves? If we grew-up in certain Christian churches, we might not feel like it is. We might have spent a whole lot of time contemplating our sin, confessing our sin, and begging God for forgiveness.

I don’t believe Jesus’ problem was with the Pharisee’s self-esteem. I think his problem was with what it was based on. It was based on what he does, not who he is.

This particular Pharisee sees himself as self-reliant, perfectly capable of establishing his own righteousness though his deeds. He probably figures that he’s earning even more favor with God than even the other Pharisees since he’s going above and beyond the call of Torah.

What is his true motivation for performing these deeds? Does he do them out of his devotion to his loving Creator, who gives him life, sustains his life, and without whom he can do nothing? Or does he do them out of devotion to his religious self-image: his own personal “golden calf.”

The Pharisee thanks God that he is not like “other people.” Yet, is he really different when the Life animating his physical body is exactly the same in everyone and everything that lives?  Life that comes from God, is eternally connected to and sustained by God, and is part of all of Life in Christ. The separation the Pharisee is thanking God for is impossible.

But with that one statement, he reveals that in his pride, he has drawn a little circle around himself designed to keep out all those whom he perceives to not be as righteous as he is. He has no idea that in doing so, he has separated himself.

Contrast the Pharisee with the second character in Jesus’ parable: the tax collector. Jesus tells us that he stands at a distance, beats his breast, and says, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” How does the tax collector’s attitude compare to the Pharisee’s?

The tax collector is repentant. Instead of thanking God for how good he is, he approaches God calling himself a “sinner” and asking for forgiveness.

His use of the “s” word might make some of us cringe, but the Hebrew word for sin (khaw-taw’) means “to miss.” Some of us might have heard this word interpreted to mean “to miss the mark,” like to miss some kind of target.

But really, it’s more like when we say, “Oh, I missed that” because weren’t paying attention. We weren’t present. We weren’t aware. The word is less about acts and more about attitude. It’s less about what we are DOING and more about who we are BEING. Are we being who God created us to be, or are we living unconsciously, in forgetfulness?

The tax collector is humble. He stands at a distance, which demonstrates how unworthy he feels in God’s presence. He holds no illusions about how he has been living his life, and he doesn’t compare himself to anyone but God, in whose image he is created.

From the perspective of its Hebrew meaning then, when the tax collector calls himself a sinner, he is confessing that has forgotten himself – that has been living his life unconsciously. And he knows that coming into His Father’s presence, being present, can restore to him the memory of Christ within him, in unity with the Father, whose righteousness was, is, and ever shall be firmly established by God.

What does this passage have to say to us in our modern times? I think it’s asking us an important question. The question is this: How do we want to establish our worth?

Let’s say that, like the Pharisee, we want to establish it ourselves through our religious deeds. The world places a lot of value on achievement: physical, educational, economic, religious, even spiritual. There is nothing wrong with feeling good about our triumphs. But when we choose to establish our worth by ourselves through our achievements, “doing” becomes the yardstick, and we step into a life of constant “measuring up.”

This leads to incessant striving. There are 614 Torah laws, and following them all is quite an undertaking. That’s why the Pharisees were so highly respected. Most Jews didn’t have the education, resources, or (frankly) the motivation to follow Torah so meticulously. But it wasn’t enough for this Pharisee to simply follow Torah laws; he had to exceed them, but not out of devotion to God. He just had to be better than everyone else.

It also leads to constant judgment and rivalry. You can see how the Pharisee takes his yardstick and places it next to the tax collector. This kind of rivalry makes mutual respect and cooperation impossible.

Prideful people can’t give anyone but themselves credit. They can’t admit when they’re wrong, so they never apologize. They won’t allow people in their lives who are “beneath them” or those who are “above them” because it would threaten their self-image. What effect do you think this has on their relationships with others?

The belief that our personal life experiences, education, religious beliefs, etc. are more valid than anyone else’s – that we are right and everyone else is wrong – that we are a saint and everyone else is a sinner – that we are God’s chosen, and everyone else is rejected by God – is nothing more than a delusion.

This delusion makes peace impossible, both inner peace and peace out there. It is an insatiable monster. The more we feed it the more it hounds us, never giving us a moment’s peace. We’re no longer free but chained to an idol that demands constant polishing.

So, should we be more like those Christians who slog through their lives, viewing themselves as hopeless sinners, constantly beating their breasts in self-contempt, professing themselves totally worthless? Those sackcloth-and-ashes Christians must be really good Christians!

Actually, they are no better than the Pharisee in Jesus’ story. They are also attempting to establish their own righteousness, but on the flip side. Rather than congratulating themselves in an attempt to prove themselves “more righteous than thou,” they are castigating themselves in an attempt to prove themselves “more humble than thou.”

It’s just the other side of the same coin called “pride.”

Do these Christians see themselves united with God as One with Christ, whose righteousness is eternally established by God – or – in an attempt to earn righteousness, do they stubbornly cling to a separated view of themselves, the way the Pharisee sees himself in Jesus’ story?

Wouldn’t it be a terrible blow to their pride to learn the Truth: that all their congratulations and castigations – all that hard work they have done their entire lives to establish their own worth – is totally futile because their worth has already been established – but not by them?

An apt proverb found in Guideposts magazine states, “God wisely designed the human body so that we can neither pat our own backs nor kick ourselves too easily.”

Now, let’s say, like the tax collector, we want to let God establish our worth through our unity with Christ. His attitude reflects a life of reliance upon that as the sole measure of his worth. It’s not about what he is DOING, but about who he is BEING.

The tax collector embraces self-examination and repentance. He is not afraid to take an honest look at himself, so he has no charades to preserve, no illusions about himself to protect. He can live fearlessly, because, knowing that his actions are not a measure of his worth, he is free to learn and grow from both his triumphs and mistakes. He is free to take both in stride.

The tax collector embraces a life of humility, comparing himself only to God. He recognizes that he is created in the image of God, so he has no need to compare himself to others. He has no need to be “unlike” or even “like” anyone else. Not only does this secure peace within himself, but it also makes peace with others far more likely.

Truly humble people easily and frequently give others credit where credit is due. They freely admit when they’re wrong and have no difficulty apologizing. They make friends easily with all kinds of people because they have nothing to hide – no self-image to defend. What effect do you think this has on their relationships with others?

Being real requires embracing being vulnerable. REAL people have better relationships with God, with themselves, and with others because they have nothing to hide. And they have peace because they accept the fact that their righteousness is already established – by God.

So how can we make the tax collector’s choice, the choice to let God establish our worth instead of constantly trying to measure up and establish it ourselves?

We can stop doing. God says to us, “You are my creation, and I love you forever,” and we respond, “No thanks God, I’d rather earn it.” You see how arrogant that is? That’s a decision made by the stubborn, delusional little self.

The idea that nothing we do makes any difference when it comes to our relationship to God or our worth in his sight is difficult for many people to accept. Some think, “Well, if people can do anything they want without any consequences, then what’s to stop people from feeling free to commit all kinds of evil?”

If you have children, it’s easier to understand. Children related to you by blood will forever be your son or daughter, linked to you by heredity. Nothing can change that. And no matter what he or she does, you will always love him or her. Yet your children’s hereditary relationship with you and your unconditional love doesn’t prevent your children from making their own decisions, and it doesn’t protect them from the consequences of the decisions they make.

It’s the same with God. No matter what we do, we are eternally linked to God as His offspring, and God will always love us. However, our experience of our relationship to God and of God’s love for us can be blocked if we choose. It’s blocked mainly by fear, which is the root feeling behind other human emotions like pride.

So, would people allowing themselves to accept and therefore experience our eternal connection with God and the love of God most likely inspire them to commit acts of evil, or acts of love? You see, those who insist on DOING to establish our righteousness do not understand that when we are BEING who we truly are, we don’t have to worry at all about what we’re DOING because everything we do will be inspired by the love of Christ.

We can also stop comparing ourselves to others. If we’ve stopped doing, there’s no need, right? When we stop comparing ourselves to others, we begin to feel OK about being different from others, and we begin to feel OK about others being different from us. We can have different opinions, different beliefs, different needs – it’s all OK – because these differences do not threaten our worth at all.

When we stop comparing ourselves to others, we are able to gracefully acknowledge our own imperfections. We love being around people like this, don’t we? In their presence, we feel we have permission to be authentically who we are – warts and all. In their presence, we feel safe – accepted for who we are – because there is no competition.

When there is no more striving to earn God’s love, when there is no more desire to compare ourselves to others, when there is no more need to hide the shadowy parts of ourselves, what is left?

BEING. That’s all. We are free to be – and to let others be. So, in every moment of our lives, we can ask ourselves, “Am I BEING the love, peace, and joy that I AM, or have I forgotten myself?”

Let’s pray together:

Lord, it’s so easy to get swept away by the chaos in our daily lives. It’s so easy to lose the present moment: to become anxious, to slip into “doing,” to slip into measuring our worth by comparing ourselves to others. Help us to accept the firmly established righteousness gifted to us by our Creator, to know that we are OK, and that others are OK, that we may have peace within ourselves and peace with our brothers and sisters. AMEN.

Faithful Stewardship

Андрей Николаевич Миронов (A.N. Mironov), CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: Like the dishonest manager, the Christian church has squandered the master’s wealth to enrich themselves instead of engaging in proper stewardship by helping those in need. We corrupt stewards deserve to be dismissed, so we need to act fast to make friends by using those hoarded riches to identify and help those in need.

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Scripture: Luke 16:1-13

I’d like to begin today’s sermon with a pertinent story from Reader’s Digest. A traveler, between flights at an airport, went to a lounge and bought a small package of cookies. Then she sat down and began reading a newspaper. Gradually, she became aware of a rustling noise. From behind her paper, she was flabbergasted to see a neatly dressed man helping himself to her cookies. Not wanting to make a scene, she leaned over and took a cookie herself.

A minute or two passed, and then came more rustling. He was helping himself to another cookie! After a while they came to the end of the package with one cookie left, but she was so angry, she didn’t dare allow herself to say anything. Then, as if to add insult to injury, the man broke the remaining cookie in two, pushed half across to her, ate the other half, and left.

Still fuming sometime later when her flight was announced, the woman opened her handbag to get her ticket. To her shock and embarrassment, there she found her package of unopened cookies!

This story illustrates perfectly the problem we have with sharing. Just as the traveler believed those cookies were hers, we are often of the mindset that what we have is “ours,” and we don’t want to share with others what is “ours.” But it isn’t really ours. It belongs to God, who so graciously shares everything with us, and expects us to do the same with the gifts he has given us.

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

The Parable of the Unjust Steward is one of the most perplexing, if not the most perplexing, of the parables of Jesus. It has been approached in many different ways all generating a variety of meanings and messages, which has been quite an embarrassing and humbling experience for Christian scholars.

Although this parable is not found in Matthew or Mark, most scholars agree that this is an authentic parable of Jesus. Perhaps the writers of Matthew and Mark didn’t include it because it is too shocking and confusing. Shocking and confusing his audiences to make a point was one of Jesus’ specialties.

The wealthy master of a large estate finds out that his steward is squandering his wealth, so he fires the steward. Facing poverty, the steward quickly goes to work to save his own neck before anyone finds out that he’s been fired. He ingratiates himself to his master’s clients by reducing their debt.

But the most astonishing thing of all is that, instead of throwing this guy in jail, the master actually praises him for being so shrewd. So, this parable seems to glorify the actions of this corrupt steward, who looks out for himself at the expense of his master. Why is he made out to be a hero?

Some Christian commentators view the wealthy master as the bad guy, accusing the steward unjustly, and the steward as the hero who makes things right. But this parable is not a commentary on the cruelty of ancient slavery. The steward is guilty as charged. He not only mismanaging his master’s goods; he also embezzled them and cheated his master’s clients.

This parable can be best understood within its first-century Jewish context. Back in Jesus’ time, agriculture was big business, and Jesus’ audience would have understood how it worked. The master owned a lot of land, and his clients were tenant farmers, who paid a portion of their harvest in exchange for the use of the land.

The steward’s job would have involved land leasing, collecting produce, keeping records, receiving income, and paying out disbursements. He probably received a salary as well as commission and gratuities from grateful renters for doing them favors. He occupied a powerful position of authority, basically acting as the POA for the master.

Losing his job, the steward will face poverty, but far worse than that in eastern culture is losing face. He will be put to shame. His prospects were dim, and he knew it. When he falls into the ranks of the poor, he would be not be welcomed among other stewards. He also wouldn’t likely be hired in a similar capacity because news of his dismissal would spread, and he wouldn’t have the money to travel someplace far away.

He realized that he needed to make friends fast, so he acted on behalf of the master before anyone knew he had the authority to do so. Under Mosaic Law, it is illegal for a Jew to charge another Jew interest, but that made commercial transactions unprofitable. So, things like interest and managers’ fees were hidden in the bill, which typically showed only a single charge, usually stated in terms of commodities like oil or wheat.

Scholars believe the steward simply removed these hidden charges from the bill. First, he visited an olive tree farmer, who owed the master 100 jugs of oil. Since the olive oil business was very profitable, the steward’s commission and fees were high – a 50% cut – which he removed from the bill.

Next, he visited a wheat farmer. Wheat being not nearly as profitable as oil, the steward removed a smaller cut of 20% from his bill. We can conclude that he continued applying these discounts for many more farmers over the course of the rest of the day.

Some scholars surmise that the discounts could have equaled around $38,000.00. That’s a lot of money even today. So, we can begin to imagine just how wealthy the master was. The actions of the steward cost the master dearly, but he obviously valued the steward’s shrewdness more than the money he lost, which reveals his kind and generous nature.

When we keep in mind the importance of saving face in eastern culture, this parable makes more sense. Both the steward and the master wish to avoid shame. The steward will be loved because of his actions on behalf of the generous master, who has no choice but to play along with what the steward has done if he wants to save face.

We can imagine that the master’s tenet farmers were all rejoicing the master’s generosity across his entire land. Now, imagine if the master went back to them all and said, “Sorry, it was all a mistake. The steward had been fired and therefore the agreements he made with you are null and void.” The tenet farmers would become very angry and curse him for his stinginess.

Instead, the master decides to keep silent, accepting the praise he is being giving while allowing the steward to bask in the favor he has so shrewdly earned. Really, that was his best option. And the master was highly noble; he didn’t appear to be flustered by it. In fact, he was quite impressed.

Now, the clue to the main point of this parable can be found in verse 8, which reads, “for the children of this age are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

What does he mean?

The “children of the light” was what the Essenes called themselves. To them, everyone else was a “child of the darkness.” The Essenes made the people within their communities pledge to hate the children of the darkness and limit interactions with them.

The Essenes also required the members of their community to relinquish all their assets to the community. They called their money the “mammon of righteousness” and all other money the “wealth of unrighteousness.” Financial transactions were forbidden except for simple cash transactions.

Jesus along with many rabbis of the second temple period believed that people were more valuable than money. Financial resources should be put to work for social reform that benefits all. In the pursuit of God kingdom, money should be used to help people, a tool for assisting those in need, not hording it exclusively for oneself or for one’s own community of believers.

But the Essenes created a community of strong sectarian hatred which left no room for charity, a highly-prized Jewish value. In Jesus’ opinion, like the corrupt steward, the Essenes were wasting God’s gifts by hoarding money to enrich themselves. God, our benevolent and just master, would not be pleased.

But what if the Essenes changed their behavior, and started using their wealth to help anyone in need? Then, they’d be behaving properly. Then, the Lord would be pleased because that’s how He expects us to use the resources he has given us. To share His love and make friends.

Life is about investing in relationships.

In verse 10, Jesus says, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much, and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.” In Judaism, the steward’s dishonest behavior demonstrates the behavior of those who fail to use the gifts God has given them to help those in need.

Jesus and the rabbis rejected Essene separatism and bigotry. They also rejected the Essene doctrine of double-predestination: the idea that God has already determined or predestined both the individuals who would be saved and those who would be eternally damned. Jesus emphasized God’s love for the outsider while their attitude was that everyone outside their circle could “go to hell.”

But there is hope for the Essenes and those like them. This parable also illuminates God’s grace. The parable is funny because the steward outwits the master, but all the people were blessed by his actions, and the master was praised for his noble generosity. The point is that God forgives us, and since God owns everything there is, our generous actions on his behalf doesn’t bankrupt Him at all. It glorifies Him.

Jesus praises the behavior of those who engaged in both business and charity with everyone, calling them the “children of this age.” They did not judge others in the way the Essenes did, separating people into sheep and goats according to their own beliefs, and then using their own judgments to justify treating them with contempt.

Followers of Jesus must reach outside their own communities and self-righteous prejudices. Jesus teaches us through this parable that it is through our non-sectarian interaction with others that we can be made aware of and meet needs, and it is through our non-sectarian generosity that we can win friends, extend God’s grace to others, and glorify Him.

What does this parable have to teach us today?

Well, it’s clear what Jesus is NOT saying. He’s not saying that it is okay to be a con artist or to manipulate events to benefit us at the expense of others. It’s never okay to behave like that even if it’s in the service of God’s Kingdom. Those who use this parable to justify underhanded methods are fooling themselves if they think the Lord approves of such behavior.

In this parable, Jesus compares side-by-side improper and proper use of the resources God has given us. Money is power, and it can be used for evil or for good. Unlike the Essenes, Jesus didn’t view money as something that defiles someone on contact, but he did acknowledge the fact that nothing has the potential to corrupt the heart more than money.

This is why Jesus said, in Matthew 19:24, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.”

Many people are of the mentality that they are “entitled” to do what they want with their resources because they “earned” them – so much so that they would rather let an unused asset rust in the garage rather than giving it away to some less fortunate stranger who could use it.

But that idea is a human one, not God’s. God is our master, and we are the managers on his land. As far as God is concerned, we aren’t “entitled” to anything because we didn’t “earn” anything. Everything we have is His property, which he shares with us. We are expected to share in return.

So, in order to be shrewd in this day and age, we need to be careful how we use money. Are we using it only to enrich ourselves, or are we using to make friends thereby cultivating love, which is the most valuable commodity in the Kingdom of God?

It’s also clear from this parable that Jesus rejected the creation of sectarian communities of wealth. Unfortunately, a lot of Christian churches have become just that. They use their financial resources mostly to help themselves, some of them convinced that this is justified because they are saved and everyone else is going to hell.

Rather than using money to attract people to the church, the Christian church in general has alienated people from the church. Rather than making friends, the Christian church in general has made lots of enemies – both externally and internally. The Christian Church deserves to be dismissed as God’s stewards because we have perpetuated suffering in the world instead of putting an end to it.

So, like the unfaithful steward, the Christian church needs to think fast about our future security. What are we going to do? How are we going to make friends and save face? To answer these questions right and save our necks, we need a completely different mindset from the one that got us into this mess.

In my opinion, we can start by remembering Jesus’ words, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” It is the same with the church. It was meant to serve people, not the other way around.

Life is not about accumulating wealth for ourselves and our small circle; it’s about using our wealth to bring the Kingdom of God to fruition by recognizing and meeting people’s needs. Because in God’s Kingdom, no one is hungry, no one is thirsty, and no one is homeless. There is no suffering or sadness. To use our resources to make this world a reality is what faithful stewardship is all about.

Let’s pray together:

Gracious and loving God, we understand that you call us to be the stewards of Your abundance, the caretakers of all you have entrusted to us. Help us always to use your gifts wisely and teach us to share them generously. May our faithful stewardship bear witness to the love of Christ in our lives. AMEN.

Resources

Inrig, Gary. The Parables: Understanding What Jesus Meant. Our Daily Bread Publishing, Kindle Edition, 1991.

Mueller, Deniray. “Sermon |What are Our Priorities? | Luke 16:1-13.” Saintjohnsworthington.org, 18 Sept. 2016, www.stjohnsworthington.org/priorities-luke-161-13/

“Sermon Illustrations: Stewardship.” thepastor’sworkshop.com, thepastorsworkshop.com/sermon-illustrations-2/sermon-illustrations-stewardship/

Young, Brad H. The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation. Baker Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2012.

Following Jesus Requires … What?

Photo by form PxHere

Synopsis: Christ is our real name. It is our eternal name. It is the name we should love the most. When we love our family, religious, gender, racial, or political name more, we separate ourselves from the Body of Christ.

Scripture: Luke 14:25-33

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Imagine that I suddenly became a very popular preacher and a huge crowd of people just walked into this church all wanting to become Christians and join this church. You’d all be thrilled, wouldn’t you?

Now, imagine if I would say to them, “Before you all decide to join us, you should know the membership requirements. You must hate your family, and your life, and be willing to face an agonizing death.”

You probably wouldn’t be too happy with me for that less-than-encouraging “welcome” speech. Most if not all of them would most likely turn around and walk right out the door. But that’s essentially the speech Jesus gave the crowd in our scripture reading for today.

A large crowd was following Jesus because was a very popular preacher. People held high expectations of him – mostly political ones. Maybe they wanted to fight in the revolt they thought he was starting. Maybe they wanted to be a member of the court they thought he would establish as king. Or maybe they were just groupies who wanted to get to know the famous guy.

Jesus knew that most of them were following him for all the wrong reasons. So, he decided to use his powerful way with words to smack them all upside the head.

I’m sure he got their attention. Hearing his words two thousand years ago, the crowd would have been like, “What? Wait a minute … didn’t the prophet Malachi write that the Messiah ‘will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents …?’ And reading them today, we might be like, “What? Didn’t Jesus tell us to love one another – even our enemies?”

The problem with us understanding this passage is with the word “hate.” If your favorite flavor of ice cream is chocolate, and someone buys you a vanilla ice cream cone, chances are you’ll eat it. You’d say, “Thanks!” and you’d enjoy it, but not as much as you would have enjoyed a chocolate ice cream cone.

But if you were from Biblical times, you might say, “I love chocolate, but I hate vanilla. Then, you’d start chowing down on the vanilla cone because it’s not that you despise vanilla. It’s just not your favorite. That’s how the word “hate” is used in the Bible.

For example, in Genesis chapter 29, there is the story of Jacob, Rachel, and LAY-ah. Jacob was in love with Rachel, but on his wedding night, Laban tricked him into sleeping with his eldest daughter, LAY-ah. Eventually, Rachel became Jacob’s second wife.

In verses 31, the Lord opened LAY-ah’s womb and left Rachel barren because “the Lord saw that LAY-ah was unloved.” After naming Jacob’s first son Reuben (“behold a son”), LAY-ah said in verse 32, “because the Lord has looked on my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.” After naming her second son Simeon (“listening”), LAY-ah said in verse 33, “because the LORD has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also.”

So, in this passage, as in other passages in the Bible that use the word “hate,” its meaning is really “to love less.” So, we can translate “Jacob hated LAY-ah but loved Rachel” to mean “Jacob loved Rachel more than LAY-ah.” We can confidently say that Jacob didn’t despise LAY-ah. If he did, we doubt she would have given birth to his six sons and one daughter.

Jesus is telling the crowd that anyone who loves their family more is not worthy to be his disciple. To understand the full impact of Jesus’ words, we need to understand the role of family in Jewish culture.

In Jesus’ time and culture and in many eastern cultures even to this day, the people exist as a collective unit. They don’t see themselves as individuals. They see themselves as part of an extended family, or clan, and their fate is entirely dependent on the fate of their clan. Their lives revolve around their clan. Their clan is essentially their lifeline.

In these cultures, to shame your family would cost you dearly. It could cause you to be disowned by your immediate family and expelled from your clan. You would then be cut off from any support, which would make life very difficult. It’s doubtful that another clan would even take you in because of the shame you carry with you.

We Americans are strongly individualistic – and capitalist. In our society, industry has taken over much of the support extended families once provided, so it’s not unusual for Americans to shame or even shun their families.

When we introduce ourselves, we typically use our first and last name, but next comes our occupation. In fact, the first question people typically ask us after we tell them our name is, “So – what do you do for a living?”

American identity tends to be wrapped around work more than the family name. Most people identify more with their occupations and businesses, so they don’t worry as much about shaming their families as shaming their employers or shareholders.

So, as Americans, if we’re having a hard time feeling the full impact of Jesus’ words here, imagine him saying, “He who comes to me and does not hate his paycheck, his pension, his profits, his investments, his 401K; yes, and even his retirement plans, is not fit to be my disciple.”

As a Jew, Jesus probably introduced himself by saying, “I am Jeshua bar Joseph of the tribe of Judah.” Whatever Jesus did was a reflection not only on him but also on his parents and on his entire tribe. His honor equaled their honor; his shame – their shame.

Jesus was of the tribe of Judah, and everyone knew that the Messiah was prophesied to come from the tribe of Judah. Everyone from that tribe, including some of the members of Jesus’ immediate family, expected Jesus to glorify them.

But it wasn’t Jesus’ mission to glorify the tribe of Judah. It was his mission to glorify God. Now, we can clearly see that Jesus didn’t despise his family, but that he did “hate” them in a biblical sense by not loving the name of Judah more than the name of Christ.

He expects the same level of commitment from his disciples.

The name of Christ is our real name. It is our eternal name. Our family name and other names we carry such as our religious name, gender name, racial or cultural name, and political name, stick to us for only as long as we walk the earth in this life, and in the context of eternity, that’s the blink of an eye.

If we love any of these worldly names more than the name of Christ, then we’re not following the Lord, and sooner or later, that truth will be made painfully obvious.

Jesus gives the example of a man who proposed to build a tower, but he never counted the cost, so his tower remained unfinished. Rather than bringing him glory, the unfinished tower brings him nothing but shame, a perpetual monument to wasted time and money.

That example was directed toward the people who were following him for fame and fortune. Those who follow the Lord to bring glory and honor to their own name end up ruined and ridiculed.

Jesus gives us another example of a king who goes to war against another king, without calculating whether he has the manpower to win. Because he was sorely outnumbered, he had to surrender, placing himself and his people entirely at the enemy’s mercy because of his foolishness.

That example was directed toward the people who were following him for political power. Those who follow the Lord for political power end up enslaved by our worst enemy, the human ego, and anyone who follow them marches right into slavery with them.

Our scripture reading ends with Jesus saying, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Most people will interpret this verse literally, that we must give up all our material possession to be the Lord’s disciple. But given the context of the passage, I think he’s taking aim at something bigger than just our material “stuff.”

I think he’s taking aim at our psychological stuff. The names we cling to. Our identity baggage. We need to let go of these “possessions” to be joined with Christ.

What does this scripture reading have to say to us today? Well, we can certainly relate. Since the advent of the Christian church, families have been torn apart because someone chose to love the name of Christ more than their religious name.

In her book Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus, Lois Tverberg tells the story of enjoying a lovely dinner with Christian friends who lived in Jerusalem. They had invited another guest to dinner – a man who was active in their congregation and who looked obviously Jewish.

Lois said to the man, “So, what did your family say when you told them you had become a Christian?” An awkward silence followed, and her friend changed the subject. Later her friend explained that when he told his parents about his faith in Christ, his father “sat shiva” for seven days. This is the ritual Jewish people observe to mourn the death of a loved one. As far as his father was concerned, his son was dead.

The same religious name attachment happens within the Christian faith. I remember Tabatha telling me a story about her childhood. She started attending an after-school church youth group with a friend of hers. Soon, the minister was knocking on the door of her house and asking her parents to join their church.

Now, Tabatha’s parents never went to church, but this incident scared her father so much that he started faithfully taking Tabatha to church – but to the Catholic church – because as far as he was concerned, his family was Catholic, doggonit. God forbid his daughter become a Baptist.

When we love our religious name more than we love the name of Christ, we are not fit to be the Lord’s disciples. But there are many people out there today who do not have a religious name because they are not religious people. There’s no problem with them, right?

Well, I wish religious names were the only names people love more than the name of Christ, but people also love their racial name, and their gender name, and their sexual orientation name, and their political name, and I could go on and on and on.

It’s not that the Lord is excluding these people. Truly, every human being is the Christ wearing a human costume. But when we love other names more, we exclude ourselves. This wrong attitude separates us from the body of Christ. We separate ourselves from love, and that leads us into the enemy’s territory.

It’s a terrible consequence. Many families have been torn apart when a family member loves the name of Christ more than any other name the family holds dear. Any name more beloved than the name of Christ will destroy family unity. It takes the fabric of family unity and tears it into pieces.

At that point, love is gone and animosity takes its place.

Perhaps now, the meaning of Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:34-39 are clear: He said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Names tear the fabric of any unity into pieces. It not only tears into pieces the fabric of a family. It also tears the fabric of a community. The fabric of a nation. The fabric of a world. Jesus came to heal the illusion of separation these names create. He came to remind us of the true name we all share.

Certainly, names are not fundamentally bad. We need them to a certain extent to organize our lives as human beings. The problem is when we love them more than our true name. When we let them tell us who we are instead of letting God tell us who we are.

Jesus was headed for the cross. He was willing to pay a terrible price for the Name of Christ. He wanted the people following him to be fully aware that they would have to carry a cross too. At the top of Jesus’ cross, the soldiers nailed a name: King of the Jews. This was the name Jesus hated, this was the life Jesus hated, and he was willing to face an agonizing death to glorify his True Name.

Thankfully, chances are that we won’t have to face the kind of agonizing physical death Jesus faced, but we must be willing to face a psychological death. Depending on how much we love our other names, it might be agonizing. We can see the agony in the eyes of those who are desperately clinging to their beloved names and defending them at all costs.

We can have compassion for them in their suffering but also gratitude that we are saved from this torment. We have the peace of the Lord because we are willing for the glory of our True Name to nail all our other names at the top of our cross and die to those names.

Let’s pray together:

Lord, we love the name of Christ more than any other name, and we are willing to die to any other name. Give us the courage to stand for the name of Christ in these times and compassion for those who are suffering. AMEN.

Resources

Brown, Jeannine K. “Commentary on Luke 14:25-33.” Workingpreacher.org, 5 Sept. 2010, www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-23-3/commentary-on-luke-1425-33

Deffinbaugh, Bob. “49. How to Hate Your Wife (Luke 14:25-35).” Bible.org, 24 Jun. 2004, bible.org/seriespage/49-how-hate-your-wife-luke-1425-35

McLarty, Phillip W. “Sermon| Luke 14:25-33| How Much Are You Willing to Give?” Sermonwriter.com, sermonwriter.com/sermons/luke-1425-33-how-much-are-you-willing-to-give-mclarty/

Leininger, David E. “The Danger of Discipleship.” Sermonwriter.com. sermonwriter.com/sermons/luke-1425-33-the-danger-of-discipleship-leininger/

Extreme Religion

James Tissot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Scripture: Luke 13: 10-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources

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

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

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

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

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

How Do We View Our Heavenly Father?

https://openclipart.org/detail/271571/human-characteristics-mercy

Synopsis: In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus showcases three mistaken viewpoints that we can hold about our Heavenly Father and how these bad attitudes cause trouble for us and the entire Family of God.

Scripture: Luke 15: 11-32

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

In writing sermons lately, I noticed that the Parable of the Prodigal Son kept coming to mind. I remembered that I once preached a sermon about this parable called “the Father’s Heart,” so I looked into my sermon archives, and I found it in a folder labeled April 3, 2016. That was a long time ago. I figured Spirit was calling me to revisit this parable.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is my favorite parable. I love it because the three characters in the parable, the father, the prodigal son, and the older son, are so rich. You can focus an entire sermon on either of them.

In my sermon back in 2016, I focused on the father and how through his character, Jesus revealed to his audience what our Heavenly Father is truly like. Our Father’s heart is filled with nothing but compassion and unconditional love for his children. 

For today’s sermon, I’d like to focus on the two sons, how they view their father, and how these viewpoints caused trouble for them and the rest of the family. But first, let’s review the context of this parable.

Jesus told parables for a specific reason: to make a point. If we ignore the context in which they are told, we can easily miss the point. In the context of this parable, Jesus tells three parables in response to the grumblings of the Pharisees that he “welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Who are these “sinners” coming to listen to Jesus? They are identified in verse 1 as “tax collectors and other sinners.” It’s interesting how tax collectors are grouped with sinners. We don’t like paying taxes in today’s world either, but most of us don’t consider tax collectors “sinners” for simply doing their jobs. In Jesus’ time, however, it was a bit more complicated.

The Jews despised tax collectors. There were several reasons for this. Tax collectors were fellow Jews collecting taxes for the Roman oppressors, so they were considered traitors. Even worse, they often collected more taxes than was owed and pocketed the extra. That scheme made them very wealthy, which the lower-class Jews resented since it was their stolen hard-earned money that made the tax collectors so wealthy.

The Pharisees’ term “other sinners” referred to ordinary non-religious Jews. Religious Jews called them “am h’aretz,” which can be translated as “the people of the land.” Because these non-religious Jews didn’t observe Torah Law, pious Jews like the Pharisees considered them unclean and therefore unworthy of their company.

The Pharisees were people who studied and dutifully observed Torah law, and while the am h’aretz were not “pious” in their observance of Torah Law, they were obviously spiritual people. They wanted to know more about their Heavenly Father; otherwise, they would not have come to listen to Jesus speak.

The parable begins with the younger son asking his father to give him his share of the estate. Many people don’t realize the audacity of this request.  In essence, he’s saying, “You’re not dying fast enough for me dad, so give me my inheritance … now.” Imagine the pain you’d feel if the child you nurtured from birth and dearly love said this to you.

To Jesus’ audience, this would have been a shocking offense – so appalling that many listeners would probably have considered it unforgivable. But the father grants his son’s request, making himself completely vulnerable. His future security is now divided in half. Three days later, half of his security says, “See ya!”

We read that the younger son “gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country.” He probably sold anything he couldn’t take with him – all his fixed assets. The son is making it clear that he intends to sever all ties to his father.

Jesus’ audience would have interpreted the “distant country” as the land of the gentiles. So, the son was not only leaving his father – but also his father’s god – to dwell in a land of pagan values and morals. There, we read that he “squandered his property in dissolute living.”

Bad choices lead to bad consequences, and the ones the young man suffers are pretty rough. Eventually, he runs out of money, and to make matters worse, a famine begins. A local man hires him to feed pigs, a totally degrading job especially for a proud Jew.

Food was so scarce that his employer wouldn’t even let him to eat the pig’s food. I know that seems cruel, but in a famine, a pig is more valuable because it is a source of food.

The Pharisees would have loved for Jesus’ story to end leaving the disobedient son in the pigpen, but Jesus, our great redeemer, couldn’t just leave him there, unredeemed.

So, the young man comes to his senses. He realizes that even his father’s hired men have food to spare, and here he is, starving to death. He probably thought, “How can I go back to my father after what I have done?”

Visions of an angry father danced around in his head: a father angry over his son’s insolence, angry over having to sell all he owned while he still lived, angry over half of his security walking away with his son, angry over the shame of having a son who chose a life of debauchery.

If he were his father, he’d sure feel that way, he figures. He concludes that his father will never accept him back as a son because he has broken the father-son relationship beyond repair. He believes there is no way that his father could ever forgive him for what he has done, so he assumes that his father will accept him back but as nothing more than a hired hand.

He finds out that he doesn’t know his father at all.

Instead of a father repulsed by the sight of him, he discovers a father running toward him, as if he had been searching for him a long time. Instead of an angry and judgmental father, he discovers a father full of compassion and forgiveness.

Unable to comprehend such unconditional love and forgiveness, the son begins his well-rehearsed speech. He doesn’t get to finish his speech because his father interrupts him by ordering his servants to dress him with garments and jewelry that reflect his status – not as a hired hand, but as a son.

To celebrate the return of his son, the father throws a party. The older son hears all the commotion and finds out what’s going on from one of the servants. He then becomes angry and refuses to join the celebration.

So, we have these two sons in this parable: the prodigal son and the older son.

We can probably figure out who they symbolize. The prodigal son is the am h’aretz, the people of the land. They haven’t followed Torah law as meticulously as the Pharisees. Some may have been trying their best to follow as many of them as they could. Others may have not tried at all. Like the prodigal son, they were living lives of debauchery. I’m sure all of them felt not worthy enough to be called children of God.

But there they are, gathered around to hear Jesus. Like the prodigal son, they had come to their senses. They want to return home, but they don’t expect much. They are humble and contrite, and they are warmly received by the Messiah, the Son of God. And through his parable, they learn that they didn’t know their father at all.

The older son is the Pharisees. The older son expected his father to impose some form of punishment on his younger brother. And he felt entitled to some kind of reward for his allegiance to his own father. What did he expect? A longevity payment?

The father, instead of becoming enraged by the older son’s selfishness and disrespect, tries to reason with him: “My son, how can I give you more than everything, and how can I not rejoice and be glad that my son has returned?”

The older son refers to his prodigal brother as “this son of yours” instead of as “my brother.” Obviously, he hates his brother. Why would he hate his brother for coming home? Well, the father welcomed his prodigal brother back with open arms, restored his status as a son, and threw a party for him. What does that say about the older son’s perceived superior status?

What does this parable have to say to us today? I think it says, “Beware of how we view our Heavenly Father.” There are a few different viewpoints revealed in this parable.

At first, the prodigal son viewed his father as someone he could use to satisfy his selfish desires. He knew his father owed him an inheritance, so he demanded it. Then, he walked away with half of the family’s assets, assets that were supposed to be used to support the entire family. He wasted them on pleasures and treasures for himself.

Many Christians view God this way. They believe, “God owes me, so I’m going to demand whatever I want and expect to get it whether it’s His Will or not, and I don’t care who it hurts.” It doesn’t matter if this attitude is preached from a pulpit in a church. It is an attempt to spiritualize greed, and greed hurts the entire family of God.

Like the prodigal son, they will learn that their pursuit of pleasures and treasures does nothing for them but to leave them in a state of spiritual bankruptcy.

After the prodigal son realized he had sinned, he viewed his father as angry and vengeful. Many view God this way also. Like the am h’aretz, some fall away from God because they can’t follow the rules well enough to feel worthy. And some fall away because they’ve done some really bad things – things for which they think they can never be forgiven.

Hopefully, like the prodigal son, they will come to their senses, find the courage to return home, and find out the truth about our Heavenly Father’s compassion and unconditional love.

The older son viewed his father like an employer. Listen to what he said, “‘…For all these years, I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command. He resents his father so much that he feels like nothing more than a slave who follows orders. It’s obvious that he doesn’t really love his father. He just wants to get paid.

He’s the son who is more like a hired hand – but by his own choice because of his bad attitude.

Many Christians with a legalistic faith view God in this way. To them, God is just the CEO of a major corporation, and we’re all just jockeying for positions on the corporate ladder. They don’t know God any better than the prodigals. In fact, their attitude might just be landing them in a place even farther away from God.

Notice that in the parable, the older son never comes to his senses. In the story, Jesus just leaves him there sulking, standing outside looking in, just as the Pharisees were on that day – sulking, because Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

We can say that there is a fourth view of the father that isn’t really portrayed in the parable. But imagine how the prodigal son felt after his father so warmly welcomed him home? Can you imagine the enormity of gratitude the prodigal son felt, and the sincere desire to serve his father because the prodigal son loved him with a pure heart, and he loved his father with a pure heart because his father loved him that way first. As we read in the apostle John’s first epistle, chapter 4, verses 19-21: “We love because he first loved us.”

The prodigal son’s father taught him to feel worthy not because of anything he has done but because of who he is: his beloved child.

How we view our Heavenly Father matters a great deal. When Jesus prayed to God, he used the word “Abba,” which is Aramaic for “father,” but it’s a more intimate term – like our English word, “daddy.”

So, in this parable, Jesus taught us that it is a mistake to view God like a genie in a bottle. God doesn’t give us everything we want. He does give us everything we need to grow in the direction He wants us to grow. If He doesn’t give us something we want, then receiving it will somehow interfere with our soul’s plan.

It is a mistake to view God like an angry, vengeful judge. God is does not judge us or condemn us. He gave us Free Will, so why would he condemn us for using it? We are free to make our own choices and experience their consequences. That is how we learn to master life, and that’s how God designed it.

It is a mistake to view God like an employer. If we have truly accepted Christ into our hearts, then we have Christ to define sin for us. Only those who haven’t accepted the Christ need sin defined because apart from Him, we can’t figure out what sin really is. So, the mind of me deals with that like it deals with everything else it doesn’t know. It pretends to know.

So just like the Pharisees and their “traditions of the elders,” the mind of me makes up sins and ignores real sin. Then it resents God when it doesn’t get the reward it thinks it deserves for “following orders” while violators go unpunished. They stand outside sulking, while their brothers and sisters enjoy the peace, love, and joy that is our inheritance.

The correct perception of God is like a doting daddy. Our Heavenly Father has unlimited compassion and love for us. No matter what we do, God will never stop loving us. In fact, all he wants to do is shower us with presents – with unlimited blessings. That’s why he gave us everything – this entire Creation – to enjoy and share with our brothers and sisters.

God wants us to enjoy life like we would a grand party. In order to do that, we must learn what we need to learn. What is it that we need to learn? We need to learn to love God above all else, to cherish all of life, and to love our brothers and sisters the same way God loves us.

So let us be mindful of how we view our Father so that we can experience the love, peace, and joy God wants for us and set an example for those who are standing outside so that they may choose to view God correctly and join the party.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to embrace a proper view of Our Heavenly Father. Reveal to us any ways in which our perspective is in error so that we can experience the love, peace, and joy that is our inheritance and help our lost brothers and sisters. AMEN. 

New in Christ

Source: openclipart.org

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

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

Scripture: Colossians 3: 1-11

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Use of visual aids here)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources

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

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

Ransomed into the New

Josef August Untersberger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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

Scripture: Mark 10: 35-45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources

Life Application Study Bible.

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

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

God Shows No Partiality

Artwork on the wall of the Saint Paul’s Community Church in Swiftwater, PA , shown above, is alluded to in this sermon. This artwork was created by Jackie Lima of Easton, PA.

Scriptures: Acts 10: 34-43

Today, we celebrate Easter Sunday, the day our Lord Jesus Christ resurrected from the dead. Every year, we celebrate and discuss how eagerly we await his return. Jesus’ disciples believed he would return in their lifetime to establish the Kingdom of Heaven. Obviously, that didn’t happen. We’re still waiting.

But I believe the door to the Kingdom of Heaven can be opened quickly if humanity so chooses. We already have the key, and it can be found in Peter’s speech from today’s scripture reading. Peter’s speech is a beautifully succinct summary of the gospel, but if we simply admire his speech without looking at the context around which he gave it, we miss a very important point.

Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he told his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

As Jesus promised, the disciples received the power of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem at Pentecost. After Peter addressed the crowd, many Jews became believers. The disciples began a commune, and there were two different types of Jewish believers in Jesus within this commune: the Hebrews, who were from Judea and Galilee, and the Hellenists, who were from outer-lying regions.

So, from the very beginning of our Christian history, there was diversity within the community of believers – even before gentiles become involved.

The Hellenists spoke Greek and had been influenced by Greek culture since they had lived outside of Jerusalem prior to moving to the city. The Hebrews spoke Hebrew and Aramaic, had always lived in the area of Judea and Galilee, and regularly worshipped at the Temple.

The Hebrews were proud of the fact that they had always spoken the language of their fathers, had always lived in the promised land, and had always worshipped at the Temple. In Acts chapter 6, the Hellenists complained that their widows were being neglected, so perhaps the Hebrews thought themselves superior to the Hellenists.

So, from the very beginning of our Christian history, partiality (or prejudice) infiltrated the community of believers – even before gentiles became involved.

At this point, the apostles had fulfilled the part of the mission of being witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. The “to the ends of the earth” part would be more challenging. This part would be fulfilled through the gentiles who, as we know, eventually became involved.

Our scripture reading for today is a speech that Peter gives in response to the first gentile believer in Christ, the Roman Centurion Cornelius. He and his family were what the Jews called “God-fearers.”

Now the Hebrew word “fear” can also be translated in some contexts as more like the English word “awe.” So, we could say that the God-fearers revered the God of the Hebrews and to some extent attached themselves to Judaism and its practices without going through the conversion process.

Cornelius received a vision from God to send for Peter. The next day, Peter was up on the roof of his house, and he also received a vision: one that challenged him to eat foods that would be considered “unclean” according to the Torah.

You see, Jews were traditionally forbidden from associating with Gentiles. But after the vision, Peter said, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”

Then he began his speech with words that I believe are the key to the Kingdom of Heaven and would open the door quickly if only enough of humanity would truly understand them. Peter said, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

God shows no partiality because we are United in Christ. But unity does not mean sameness. This beautiful piece of artwork in our sanctuary serves as a good illustration: this cross with the image of the flowing water.

It has an interesting history. It was loaned to us for a time. When the artist wanted it back, we realized that we had all grown quite attached to it. So, we took up a special offering and purchased it so that we could continue to be inspired by it.

The droplets of paint that make up the image are all part of the unity of this one piece of artwork, but they are not all the same. Some droplets may be the exact same color, but some are different. If this were not so, there could be no image of the flowing water.

Without the availability of different colors of paint, there could be no image. It is a great blessing to artists to have such a tremendous variety of colors with which to create images. This artist deliberately chose specific colors to create this image that says something about the Christ, who is symbolized by the shape of the cross. The image on the cross says something about who Christ is.

We are like those droplets of paint. Together, we make up an image that says something about who God is. Without our diversity, there could be no image. God is infinite, so it makes sense to me that God would need an infinite variety of life through which to express his infinite nature.

God shows no partiality. We are created in His Image, and He places great value on each of us because each of us is part of the unity of His Image even though we are not all the same.

The different colors in this beautiful piece of artwork are all unique, but unique doesn’t mean special. Imagine if one color judged itself superior to all the others and decided to steal all the light for itself so that it could outshine the others. What would happen to the image?

Imagine if some of the colors decided that certain colors shouldn’t even be in the painting. What would happen to the image? Do mere droplets of paint even have the power to do these things? Of course not! Who do they think they are? The artist?

If a color is there, then it has value equal to all the other colors, for the image would not be what it is without each color. The artist purposely selected that specific color for the image; it was not a mistake.

The same is true of each and every human being. God is the artist, and we all know from Genesis chapter one that he liked His Creation. Everything in Creation is part of His Reflection. No part is more special than another. Each unique human being is equally valuable in God’s sight, for without him or her, His image would not be what it is. God shows no partiality.

Who do we think we are if we judge other parts of God’s image to be inferior or an abomination?

The Gospel of Jesus Christ does not ask the question, “Are you in God’s grace?” or even “Are you saved?” These questions imply that it’s possible not to be. The moment Jesus resurrected from the dead, he answered “Yes” to these questions on behalf of all humanity. “Jesus Christ is Lord of all.”

The Gospel of Jesus Christ asks one question to people of all nations: “Do you know who you are?” Do you know that you are Life itself, the Perfect Image of God, who is Perfect Being? If you do, then you can recognize your eternal life in Christ. Death has no sting; the grave has no victory. But if you don’t, then you live in fear of death, and that is hell.

God shows no partiality. These words were quickly forgotten because of our human pride. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being proud of the person we are: proud of our gender, race, culture, religion, lifestyle, and so forth.

But when our pride is inflated to the point where we decide that we are superior to others because of our gender, race, culture, religion, beliefs, lifestyle, or whatever, then we are making these things more important to us than the love that binds us together in Christ.

At that point, our pride has become the sin of idolatry. We have made our personage a golden calf, and we are bowing down and worshipping it. People who don’t know who they have no other choice. So of course, they will cling to and viciously defend this image of who they think they are. But the truth needs no defense. Our true identity in Christ needs no protection.

Jesus was very proud of his Jewish religion and culture. Certainly, his primary mission was to his own people, but he never snubbed others. Jesus taught that if you are Jewish, then follow the Torah properly, and teach others to do the same. If you are not Jewish, you are still worthy because you are part of God’s Image.

God shows no partiality. Jesus believed every human being, as part of God’s Image, is valued by God. When we talk about the unconditional love of God, we’re not talking about sappy romantic love; we’re talking about treating every human being as equally valuable and equally deserving of respect and care.

Jesus treated everyone that way – both Jews and non-Jews. His arms stretched out on the cross to embrace all people in God’s unconditional love. If we say we love Jesus, then we must embrace all of humanity as he did – and that includes ourselves.

So, I tell you, my friends, whichever part of the diversity of God’s Image you represent, represent it gloriously. Let it shine. Don’t believe anyone who tells you you are inferior. Don’t believe anyone who tells you you don’t belong. You can be proud, but always remember that the glory belongs to God.

Peter said, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” I believe Truth is like an underground river in our hearts that we all have access to. Each culture taps into that underground river and constructs a well from which to drink of this Truth. The main material is some form of scripture. Each culture attempts to live life to the fullest based upon their understanding of their scriptures, out of which beliefs and traditions also emerge and become part of the well.

Since each culture is different and understands things in different ways, the materials used to build these wells are all different. The wells may look different, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t express the Truth each in a different way. I believe Christ is the only way to the Father, but I also believe that Christianity is not the only way to Christ.

God shows no partiality. With this statement, Peter confessed that Judaism was not the only path to Christ. Eventually, he turned the reins of the gentile mission over to the Apostle Paul – a pharisee who dedicated his life to Torah. He placed the burden of Torah on himself as a Jew, but he did not insist that other believers in Jesus become Jews.

Unfortunately, Paul was unable to convince other Jewish Christians that it wasn’t necessary for believers in Jesus to become Jewish, and gentile Christians returned the favor. They eventually began criticizing Jewish believers in Jesus for continuing to follow Torah. If both had been secure enough in their true identity in Christ; they would not have been so threatened by cultural differences.

Instead, both sides clung to their “Jewish” or “Christian” identity. In the end, both sides protected their identities by creating definitions. This made it very difficult for Jewish believers in Jesus to find acceptance because they were unwelcomed by Jewish communities for believing in Jesus and by Christian communities for continuing to follow Torah. Because of this conflict, the number of Jewish believers in Jesus began to decline.

God shows no partiality. Christ had not yet entered into the hearts of enough people for those words to stick, but I believe that has changed.

I know it doesn’t appear that way at times, but I believe most people want peace on earth and that can come only through accepting the value of every human being and every human being’s right to be respected and cared for just as much as every other human being.

How can we in this day and age allow Peter’s words to enter into our hearts and finally bring about the Kingdom of Heaven? First, we need to honestly ask ourselves, “Do I truly believe that God loves every single human being on this planet just as much as he loves me? Do I truly believe that every single human being on this planet deserves as much respect and care as I do?

It’s easy to answer, “Of course I do!” But we humans love to feel special. We can easily treat people unequally or tolerate their unjust treatment without even realizing it.

Next, we need to take the time to get to know people who are different from us. It is human nature to gravitate toward those who are more like us. We enjoy the company of like-minded people. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as we don’t spend time only with people who are like us.

When we do that, it’s easier to vilify people who are not like us because we don’t know them. Often, much of what we think we know about them isn’t the truth. We humans like to pretend we already know people even though we haven’t taken the time or effort to actually get to know them. That’s why stereotypes are so popular.

If we really want to challenge ourselves, we can take the time to get to know someone we really dislike. Here in America, especially these days, we don’t seem to have as much of a dislike for people who are religiously different from us as we do for people who are politically different from us. So, I challenge you to get to know someone with different political ideas.

I’ve read several stories about a Republican and a Democrat actually taking the time to have a civil conversation. They realized that they have a lot more in common than they thought. That helped to greatly “soften” their harsh attitudes toward one another. In fact, it might even have helped them embrace one another as equally worthy human beings. What a miracle!

Let that miracle and others like it spread throughout the world, open the hearts and the arms of all to embrace every human being in the Love of Christ, and usher in the Kingdom of Heaven quickly. Amen!

Waiting for the Lord in Peace

Matejko|Public Domain

Synopsis: In difficult times such as these, we may begin to ask, “Why hasn’t the Lord come already to make things right?” To be at peace, we must accept God’s timing and patience as well as our responsibility to obey the Law of Love by extending Love to others.

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

Scripture: 2 Peter 3: 8-15.

What makes difficult times even more difficult is when there is strife close to home – when there is conflict with your spouse or children or other relatives. I know of at least one friend who has sadly become estranged from her parents over their different opinions around politics and the pandemic.

The same strife can occur within the church in tough times. Christians can lose their patience. They may wonder, “Why doesn’t Christ come already and set things right?” They may wonder if Christ is coming at all. They may begin to believe those who tell them, “Stop believing in fairytales. God doesn’t exist, and no one’s coming to save the world.”

This problem is why Peter wrote his second letter to the churches in Asia Minor. Some false teachers were scoffing at the idea of Christ coming again to judge the world. Peter wanted these Christians to focus on the Word of God as their primary instruction, not on the word of false teachers.

Those false teachers were living lustful, greedy lifestyles. The teaching about the final judgement was inconvenient, so they tried to persuade other Christians to abandon their faith in the Lord’s promise. Perhaps that way, they would lose having to constantly hear about the final judgment and gain some party friends.

The first subject Peter addresses is the question, “If Christ is coming again, why hasn’t he come already?” Peter’s explanation makes perfect sense. God’s timing is different from ours. We live only about 100 years, but God is eternal. Just like $2000 is like a penny to a billionaire, two thousand years is like a day to God.

Christ will come again at the right time, and only God knows when the right time will be. Only our eternal God can see what is happening in all times: past, present, and future because God is connected to everything. Through Christ, God is aware of everything because Christ is connected to God. Everything that has ever existed, is existing now, or will exist in the future is within this One Consciousness that we call Christ consciousness or the Mind of Christ.

We all share this One Consciousness. Those who designed this church, who built this church, who created every aspect of this church, who witnessed it being built share this One Consciousness with us. That is why we can all see this church and describe it the same way. Its creation is recorded in Christ Consciousness.

We do not have the ability to be aware of everything as these personal selves, but we all have the ability to perceive beyond our personal experiences to a certain extent because our individual consciousness is part of Christ Consciousness.

Some of you might have experienced this ability, known as “clairvoyance.” Some people have developed this ability to the point where they can help with things like criminal investigations by looking into the past or guide people by looking into the future.

It’s pretty cool! But not even the most skilled clairvoyant can see all that God sees, so we don’t understand what’s taking so long for Christ to return. We’re like the little kid who doesn’t understand calendar time, so she keeps asking, “Is it my birthday yet?” or the little kid in the car who has no concept of time as it relates to distance, so he keeps asking, “Are we there yet?”

Are you coming, Lord? Are you coming? Are you coming? We Christians have been asking this question nonstop at least since the 60 A.D mile marker. That’s when this letter was written. We’re at the 2,020 A.D. mile marker. Those Christians in Asia Minor thought they had been waiting a long time? Huh! The Lord promised he would come again, didn’t he? Yes, but God’s sense of time is different from ours.

Now, imagine if you were one of the people who was not yet saved when Christ returned. Wouldn’t you wish the Lord would have waited for you? What if one of your loved ones was not yet saved? Wouldn’t you wish Lord would have waited for them? That’s Peter’s second explanation as to why Christ hasn’t yet returned; it also makes perfect sense.

God loves all of humanity and doesn’t want anyone to perish. He’s not making us wait because he’s foolishly procrastinating or reluctant to keep his promise. He’s patiently waiting for as many people to come to Christ as possible. Let us not use His merciful patience against him by claiming that He can’t save us – or won’t.

It took about 100 years for Noah to build the ark. During that time, Noah preached repentance to the people, trying desperately to change their hearts. God didn’t want anyone to perish. He gave them as much time as he could to repent, but when it was it time, the judgment came in the form of a great flood, and no one could escape it.

That’s how it’s going to be when Christ comes again. If everyone is not saved by the time He comes, it isn’t because God failed; it’s because of our free will, which God gave us. Some will not enter into the kingdom of heaven, but eventually, all will return to the Kingdom of God.

What’s the difference between the kingdom of heaven and the Kingdom of God? I believe the kingdom of heaven is what we are working toward – the part in the Lord’s prayer where we say, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” At some point, most of humanity will choose to follow God’s Law of Love, and that will transform all of our lives on earth.

I believe humanity joined with Christ will judge the world, using God’s Law of Love as the measuring stick. Love supports Life unconditionally. Christ will judge all our earthly institutions, systems, policies, and laws to determine if they support Life. If they don’t, they will be destroyed or reconstructed to support Life. That’s my vision of how the kingdom of heaven will come.

I think Peter is alluding to something else: The Day of the Lord – the day when all of heaven and earth will pass away. I think of it as the pause between God inhaling and exhaling. When God exhaled, that was the Big Bang. Everything came into existence. Eventually, God will begin inhaling – drawing everything back into Himself. When all has returned, that is the Day of the Lord, the Kingdom of God – the pause before the next exhale. No manifested forms, only the Spirit of God.

Peter imagines this day as there being another loud noise, like the Big Bang, and everything being disclosed before it is dissolved in fire. It’s the end of the world – all worlds – all of Creation, and the beginning of a new Creation. It’s the Cycle of Life, and the Universe is part of it. It begins and seems to end only to begin again anew. 

So, while not everyone will enter the kingdom of heaven when it arrives, all will eventually be drawn back into God Himself, the Kingdom of God, and purified before the next round of Creation begins.

Peter’s description of the end of the world is terrifying for those who don’t know who they are, but it isn’t terrifying for me or for you. Beneath all of the layers of my humanity, I know there is a part of me that will always be me, and that part is God.

And you know that beneath all of the layers of your humanity, there is a part of you that will always be you, and that part is God.

I will always be aware of me, and you will always be aware of you, and we will always be aware of each other because in Christ, we are literally God’s identity. We are his “I AM.”

That is the good news that Jesus came to not only teach us but to demonstrate to us. There is no need to fear because in Christ we never lose our “I AM,” not when we die physically, not even when all of heaven and earth passes away.

So, what do we do with this knowledge? First, let us be grateful that we know this and have no fear of death. We know the death of our physical bodies is not the end of our “being.” But not everyone knows that, and those who don’t are living their lives very afraid. That should touch or hearts. That should inspire us to go out and spread the good news.

Unfortunately, the way we Christians have spread the “good news” has often been a fire-and-brimstone kind of approach. Fear is what blocks love. We can’t expect people to turn to love by making them feel afraid. And if we make people feel guilty or ashamed, how will that make them fear God less?

So, let us extend love to others, not judgment. The more you make people feel safe and accepted as they are, the more likely they will be open to hearing the good news that they are just as safe and accepted with God because of who they are, not what they have done. They are God’s child, and God has given them eternal life in Christ.

The more we extend love to others, the faster the kingdom in heaven will arrive. So, when you’re feeling a bit impatient, let that impatience be the fuel that motivates you to extend love to more people to alleviate their fears and to make them more open to hearing the good news from you.

Peter advises us to “strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.” What did he mean by this?

One of the biggest misconceptions some Christians have is the belief that Jesus abolished Torah Law. Part of the problem is the anti-Semitic teachings of Marcion, who basically taught that Jesus canceled the entire Old Testament. Although he was declared a heretic in 144 A.D, some remnants of his teachings have unfortunately remained in Christian thought.

Another part of the problem is with the interpretation of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5: 17-18, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

Brad H. Young, professor of Biblical Literature in Judeo Christian Studies at the Graduate Department of Oral Roberts University, believes that three words in this verse have taken on different meanings than they would have had in ancient Jewish thought.

First, the word “law.” The Hebrew word “Torah” comes from the root “yarah,” which means “shoot an arrow,” or “teach.” So, the word Torah refers to the teaching or instruction that is true and straight so that it hits the bulls-eye, which is to guide us toward experiencing the fullness of life God intended for us.

So, Torah is more than just the first five books of the Old Testament with all the rules Jews follow. When Jesus used the word, it meant far more to him than that. Remember Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees’ question about which is the greatest commandment in the law in Matthew 22: 36-40.

He answered, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Jesus loved Torah. Paul loved Torah. Torah was their life. To them, the Torah is Life because it gives Life – the abundance of Life. As Christians we do not need to follow Torah the way Jews do as part of their covenant with God, but we do need to follow the Law of Love, which is essentially the spirit of Torah. This is the bridge that Paul constructed for us – a bridge that was intended to enable Jews and non-Jews to live in harmony with one another within the community of believers.

Second, the word “abolish.” In ancient Jews thought, to abolish the law meant to destroy it through wrong interpretation. “Fulfill” refers to the proper understanding of the text, which leads to a lifestyle of holiness dedicated to God.

Another passage that is often misunderstood due to a difference in understanding the wording from an ancient Jewish point of view is Paul’s words in his letter to the Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

The word “faith” in ancient Jewish thought is not just belief, it is also action. It is faithfulness or obedience to God’s Law of Love. We are not saved by works, but grace doesn’t remove our responsibility to be obedient.

What’s the role of grace then? The flesh is not evil all by itself. It’s just that we humans, being of the flesh, have the potential to commit evil deeds when we forget who we really are. God designed us that way, so how can he judge us for it? He does not.

Instead, he gives us grace through how he created us. We are experiencing ourselves as human beings with a deluded nature that often causes us to sin, but who we really are in Christ never fails to follow the Law of Love because it is Love.

So, when we identify with Christ, we are freed from the condemnation of the flesh – from the “evil inclination” of the flesh. Because of what Jesus accomplished for us, we don’t need to die in order to be “released” from bondage to the flesh and its “evil inclinations.” We can experience freedom while we are still in a body.

The less deluded we are about who we really are, the more we will be obedient to God and faithful to the Law of Love and the more we will be at peace as we wait for the coming of the Lord. This is the Light that we shine, the Light that drives away the darkness, the Light that draws people to Christ, the Light that will hasten the coming of the kingdom of heaven.

Let’s pray together: Lord, when we feel dismayed over the events of the world, we sometimes begin to doubt your promise to return, or we become impatient, wondering why you haven’t returned yet. Forgive us, for we know that God loves everyone and is as patient with them as he has been with us. In gratitude, we are willing to extend God’s Love to others as we wait in peace for your coming. AMEN.

Resources

Cole, Steven J. “Lesson 12: Why Doesn’t Christ Return? (2 Peter 3:8-9).” Bible.org, bible.org/seriespage/lesson-12-why-doesn%E2%80%99t-christ-return-2-peter-38-9

Cole, Steven J. “Lesson 13: Living in Light of That Day (2 Peter 3:10-13). Bible.org, bible.org/seriespage/lesson-13-living-light-day-2-peter-310-13

Perron, Mari. A Course of Love: Combined Volume . Take Heart Publications. Kindle Edition.

Young, Brad H. Paul the Jewish Theologian. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Who Has Divine Authority?

James Tissot / Public domain

Synopsis: The CDC has the authority to guide us appropriately in how to survive the current pandemic, but most of us want more out of life than just survival. We want to really live. Who has the authority to give us the guidance we need to not just survive, but to thrive?

Scripture Reading: Matthew 21:23-32

Today’s scripture reading brings up the question of authority. We turn to authorities to give us guidance about what to do when faced with certain challenges. We trust that they are well-educated and sincere enough to guide us appropriately.

Today, we’re dealing with the coronavirus and COVID-19, and most recognize the authority of the CDC to give us appropriate guidance as to what to do to stay healthy. We here at Saint Paul’s recognize the authority of the CDC, which is why we have made a lot of changes in how we worship together.

We follow the CDC’s guidance in the hopes that we will survive this pandemic. Survival is good, but I think most of us want more out of life than just survival. We want to really live. We want to thrive. Who has the authority to guide us in how to thrive – even in tough times like these?

That’s the question Jesus answers in this passage. First, let’s look at the context and the parable within it. As Pastor Edward F. Markquart so aptly states, the context enhances the beauty of Jesus’ parables like the setting enhances the beauty of a diamond.

This incident took place after Jesus’ triumphant entry into the City of Jerusalem, where the final scenes of his earthly life would take place.

After entering into the city on a donkey to symbolize his coming in peace, he immediately cleansed the Temple for the second time. As he drove out the merchants and overturned the tables of the moneychangers, he said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”

What did he mean by that? Well, moneychangers and merchants were setting up shop in the Temple and taking advantage of travelers coming into Jerusalem. Since many traveled long distances, they couldn’t bring sacrificial animals with them, so they purchased them at the Temple.

Their currency had to be converted to Temple currency first. The conversions were low, and the prices for the sacrificial animals were high. In this way, travelers coming to the Temple to worship God were being robbed in God’s own house.

Jesus had a serious problem with that.

After cleansing the Temple of those who were selfishly taking advantage of people, Jesus set up shop to do the opposite: to serve people by teaching and healing them. At the end of the day, he would leave Jerusalem and spend the night in the city of Bethany at the home of his friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha.

The next morning, he was on his way back to Jerusalem to continue his ministry at the Temple, and he was hungry. He saw a fig tree but found no fruit on it, so he cursed it saying, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” It immediately withered. The disciples were amazed. Jesus then commented about the power of faith to move mountains.

Jesus often used parables illustrate his points. The fig tree was like an acted-out parable to make two points. The first point was stated: God can do anything they ask in prayer with faith as long as what they ask is aligned with His Will.

The second point was unstated and sets the scene for today’s scripture reading quite nicely. To Jesus, the fruitless fig tree represented the Jewish religious leaders of his day. Just as a fig tree’s purpose is grow figs, or to bear fruit, the religious leader’s purpose is to bear spiritual fruit and cultivate it in others.

The fig tree looked good at first glance, but upon closer inspection, Jesus discovered it lacked fruit just as the religious leaders of his day put on a good show, but they did not bear spiritual fruit.

The Jewish people put their trust in their religious leaders to guide them in how to thrive – in how to live to their lives in communion with God.

Instead of guiding the people appropriately, they forced them to follow complicated “traditions of the elders” while they themselves didn’t follow these traditions. They also ignored Mosaic Law when it was inconvenient.

Jesus had a serious problem with that.

It’s important to realize that Jesus didn’t have a problem with Judaism; he was defending Judaism – traditional Judaism – from those who were changing it beyond recognition or ignoring it and thus leading the people astray.

That brings us to our scripture reading for today. Jesus returns to the temple to minister to the people. While he is there, the chief priests and elders ask him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” They were probably referring to when Jesus drove out the merchants and overturned the tables of the moneychangers the day before.

Jesus knows that they aren’t interested in knowing the truth; they just want to trap him in order to discredit him among the people. So, he turns the questioners into the questioned. He agrees to answer their question only if they can first answer his question as to whether the baptism of John was of divine or human origin.

If they answer that John was sent by God, then they would have to acknowledge that Jesus was also sent by God since John testified on Jesus’ behalf. But if they answer that the baptism of John was of human origin, they will anger the crowd since many strongly believe that John the Baptist was a prophet.

Since they couldn’t answer his question, Jesus refuses to answer their question. He avoided their trap by trapping them. Instead of being discredited, he discredits them not only by stumping them but also by using parables to illustrate their failure to perform their duties as religious leaders.

If you are a parent, the point Jesus is making with the Parable of the Two Sons is probably obvious. Let’s say you have two sons, and you tell both of them to clean their room. The older one says, “Sure, no problem!” But the younger son says, “No! I’m not going to do it!”

Later on, the older one’s best friend says to him, “Come to my house! I just bought this cool new video game!” And he says, “Sure! I got nothing better to do!” So, his room never gets cleaned. The younger one’s friends say to him, “We’re going to the park to play some football. Come with us!” He’s tempted, but then he thinks about his parents and his messy room. So, he says, “Nah, I can’t. I gotta clean my room.” Then, he goes and cleans his room.

So … who did what they were told? It’s obvious right? The older son was just putting on a show of obedience but wasn’t really obedient at all. And even though the younger son at first refused to do what his parents asked, he eventually came to his senses and did it.

That’s why Jesus told the chief priests and elders that the tax collectors and prostitutes are going to Heaven ahead of them. At least the tax collectors and prostitutes recognized the righteousness of John and accepted his baptism.

Many of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were appointed by the Romans. They thought that gave them divine authority. It didn’t. I have an ordination certificate, but that doesn’t give me divine authority either.

Who has divine authority? Who has the authority to guide us in how to thrive? In how to live in unity with God and All That Is? The one who obeys God by acting out His Will so perfectly that he is literally an extension of the Divine. The one who has not only accepted the Christ as his or her true identity, but who is also living in physical form as the Christ.

The Christ within the man Jesus has divine authority, and Jesus successfully portrayed the Christ in physical form during his lifetime. He lived out of the unity in which we all exist. That, my friends, is why he was the most influential person in the history of humankind.

All of us have just as much divine authority as Jesus had because all of us have the same Christ within us as he had within him. I have accepted this, and I think all of you have accepted this. We have accepted that there is so much more to us than our personal self. Infinitely more.

So, the challenge at this point isn’t accepting who we really are. The challenge is overcoming those old patterns of living within the illusion of separation – not only personal patterns but societal patterns.

I’m sure we all still feel the momentum of those patterns within us, pushing us in directions we’d rather not go, but we don’t have to go there because we are stepping into a new way of being.

Recognizing that is half the battle.

You probably aren’t too sure about how to live from the unity of the Christ within. Neither am I. I think the first thing we need to recognize is the fact that our personal self really has no clue. Its purpose is to provide us with the experience of separation, so we can’t expect it to know anything about unity.

So how do we learn unity? We don’t. The Christ doesn’t need to learn unity because the Christ is unity. We needed personal selves to experience what separation was like so that we could fully appreciate unity – to experience it with full awareness. Now that we have accepted who we are, there is nothing more to learn. All that’s left is to experience the Oneness of Christ with full awareness.

My friends, we have graduated. It is now time to put on the robes of the Christ, be the living Christ in physical form, and get to work. Lord knows, there’s a lot of work to do. And I believe that is why our souls have chosen to be here at this time.

But the question remains: how do we overcome those old illusion of separation patterns that keep pulling us back into the attitudes and behaviors of our old identity so that we can experience the mystery of the oneness that we truly are?

I have some ideas about that, and you will know whether what I have to say has divine authority by how it feels within your heart.

If we exist in unity, then there is an infinite supply of assistance available to us if only our personal self would relax and stop meddling. So, the first pattern to overcome is the feeling that we’re “on our own,” and we need to exert a lot of effort to survive – to get what we need – to solve our problems.

Jesus was speaking as the Christ when he said in Matthew 11: 28-30, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

We are not alone. We don’t have to do this ourselves. We are part of an interconnected web of life, and the purpose of this web is not to just to help us survive but to help us to really live – to thrive.

There’s a lot going on in this world right now that is disturbing to say the least. So, if we get that sinking feeling that says, “I’m on my own. I’ve got to figure this out myself. No one can help me,” we can recognize that as the old illusion of separation mindset and let it go. Don’t believe it. We know better now. We can tell the personal self, “Relax! The Christ has this.”

The second pattern to overcome is the fearful overthinking and overreacting of the personal self – which is of course fueled by that “we’re on our own” feeling.

There are a lot of unknowns stressing everyone out right now, so many are struggling to figure out how they are going to survive the challenges that might lie ahead. The personal self does not like the unknown, so it tries to find solutions before it completely understands the situation and before all the options present themselves.

How many times have we made a choice out of fear, only to find later on that what we feared wasn’t nearly as bad as we imagined or didn’t happen at all?

How many times have we made a choice out of fear that if we had waited, we could have taken advantage of a far better option?

How many times have we had a problem where we just had to throw up our hands in defeat, but then later on, the perfect solution presented itself?

We need to withdraw our trust in the personal self and place it where it belongs. The personal self is driven by fear, which often complicates our lives and creates more problems. We need to place our trust in the Christ within. The Christ has all the answers and everything we need.

Jesus said in Matthew 6:25-27, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

If we have a problem or need to make a decision, we need to direct our energy out of the realm of the personal self (the head) and into the realm of the Christ (the heart). We need to become quiet and still and wait for a solution comes to us.

We’ll know that solution comes from the Christ if it gives us comfort and peace.

The final pattern to overcome is the habit of passing judgment on ourselves, on others, and on what’s going on in the world. Since we exist in unity, if we judge or condemn anyone or anything, we are judging and condemning ourselves.

Life is perfect just the way it is, but there is always room for improvement! I know, it’s hard for us to wrap our heads around that. How can something perfect be improved upon? But that’s how God created Life. Think about it. Life can’t be stagnant. The book of Genesis tells us that Creation began with the movement of Spirit over the waters of the formless, empty earth.

So, if you, or someone, or something is this or that way now, you, or that person, or that situation will not stay that way forever. You are the way you are, that person is the way he or she is, and things are the way they are for a perfect reason until it’s time to move into something new.

If we recognize judgment coming into our minds and filling our hearts with anger or despair, we can let it go as part of the old patterns of our old identity. There’s a whole lot of judgment going around – especially in the media – so we can choose to limit our consumption of all of that. We don’t need it.

We can put away old distractions because nothing matters now except that we are fulfilling our purpose as the Christ. That is why God created us and why we are here. That is the only endeavor that will give our life true meaning and the love, peace and joy that is our divine inheritance.

There are people today “setting up shop” to take advantage of others in this challenging time. We can follow Jesus’ example and do the opposite. We can “set up shop” in whatever ways the Christ within tells us to serve the people.

When we’re doing what give us joy, doing what give us peace, doing what makes the love flow from our heart, and then we’ll know we’re fulfilling our role as the Christ.

Be open to the mystery of the experience of oneness. Don’t grasp for it with the mind, just open your heart to it. Be willing for the Christ to extend through you. This is how you will get to know yourself – your True Self.

You might just be amazed at the revelations you will receive, the gifts and talents you will discover, and the bottomless well of peace, love, and joy accessible to you even in these tough times.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we accept who we are, and we are ready to step into our Divine authority as the Christ. We open our hearts to the mystery of the oneness that we are, and we are ready to receive guidance, revelations, and gifts from our True Self. Amen.

Resources
-Lewis, Karoline. “True Authority.” workingpreacher.org, 24 Sept. 2017.
Life Application Study Bible: NIV. Ron Beers, ed. Zondervan, 2012.
-Markquart, Edward F. “Two Sons: Yesses That Don’t Mean a Darn Thing.” sermonsfromseattle.com.
-Saunders, Stanley. “Commentary on Matthew 21:23-32.” workingpreacher.org, 01 Oct. 2017.