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.