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Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures:

Ascension Day—Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47:1-9 OR Psalm 93:1-5, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53
Sunday Readings—Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35, I Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11, John 17:1-11

I’ve listed the readings for Ascension Day (June 2) as well as for Sunday, June 5, which includes some Ascension scriptures even though the Sunday may or may not have that focus.

Before looking at the scriptures, I want to say a word about my approach in this blog—not just this week, but all the time. When I agreed to write regularly for this blog, I said I would share my own thoughts on and responses to the lectionary scriptures each week, period. I do new research only if something beckons me in that direction. I read journals regularly and often am exposed to new research, although I make no claims what I write reflects the latest scholarship. It is my opinion that pursuing the question, “What did the writer really mean?” (if we think we even know who the writer was), while perhaps informative, is ultimately leads to something unknowable. Speaking from years of preaching, I can say that we preachers (or at least this one) sometimes aren’t even sure why we include or exclude things from our sermons. How can I possibly get fully into someone else’s mind?

I have been particularly influenced by a 1971 statement by Phyllis Trible, well-known Old Testament scholar. “ . . . all scripture,” she said, “is a pilgrim, wandering through history, engaging in new settings, and ever refusing to be locked in the box of the past.” She pointed out that within the Bible old truths are reinterpreted and applied to new situations, that even Jesus engaged in such reinterpretation and application. You and I are part of that continuing process. What I write is intended to stimulate your thinking and to be part of a continuing conversation as we interpret and apply old truths to our own experience and situations.

So, what about the ascension? What really happened? I recently read about someone who, visiting the Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, was “directed to a footprint-like depression in the rock, said to be the exact point from which Christ parted from his disciples and from our world—as if he sprang into the heavens with such vigour that the very rock underneath his feet was compressed in the act!”

My take is that the resurrection, the ascension, and Pentecost (however you describe the events) all are attempts to interpret the continuing power and presence of Jesus’ Spirit in our midst. They move us from an earthly physical presence to a universal spiritual power at work in and through the entire cosmos. Rising from that spot in the stone is a big leap. I hope it’s not sacrilegious to say something like, “One small leap for Jesus; one giant leap for the cosmos and all things big and small that dwell in it.”

Still, I don’t want to get stuck looking into heaven as if watching the trail of a shuttle lift-off, or witnessing a Star Trek beam-up. I rather suggest that Jesus’ wants our focus to be on this earth where we’ve been “left behind.” The phrase “Left Behind” has been coopted by those who are waiting to be taken up into heaven, sometimes at a specific day and hour. We recently witnessed another failed prediction of that moment. The Ascension reminds us that we have all been “left behind.” When Jesus’ earthly physical ministry was complete, he left the job to us. “Don’t just stand looking up toward heaven,” he said. (Acts 1:11) In his prayer for his disciples, in John 17:12, Jesus said, “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world . . . protect them in your name . . . so that they may be one, as we are one.”

This world is our reality, the place of our ministry. It’s all we have at this moment. Whatever comes next has been described, and debated, in a variety of ways, but Jesus declared that his Spirit would empower us for living right here.

Miscellaneous thoughts and comments on the various scriptures that may provide other themes for exploration or guidance for the living of these days:

1. Sometimes the thing to do is wait. We human beings are inclined to rush into this activity or that activity without trying to discern where God’s Spirit is at work and where God wants us to go. In Acts 1:4-5 & 8, Jesus tells his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they are empowered by the Holy Spirit. In Luke 24:29 he says, “I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

2. Several of this week’s readings, including the Psalms, speak of the universal reign of God. There is nothing that is outside the working of his Spirit. That universal presence is often depicted in terms of kingship. “For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth . . . Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises. For God is king of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm.” (Psalm 47:2, 6-7) “The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty.” (Psalm 93:1) “God has put this power to work in Christ . . ., far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” (Ephesians 1:20-21) The Ephesians passage concludes by speaking of “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (vs. 23) It’s hard to get any more universal than that.

3. While Psalm 68 also speaks of a powerful God, “who rides upon the clouds” and (vs. 4) and “whose power is in the skies” (vs. 34), its focus is upon God’s compassion in response to the needs of this earth, God’s work among those “left behind.” He is the “father of orphans and protector of widows.” (vs. 5) “God gives the desolate a home to live in; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity.” (vs. 6) God is “awesome” because God “gives power and strength to his people.” (vs. 35)

4. The reading from I Peter comes the closest to the situation the “left behind” movement anticipates, but perhaps it can be applied to all of us as we live in this imperfect world. It describes a situation of testing. (I Peter 4:12) It is, however, not described as a time of terror. It is a time to “be glad and shout for joy” because Christ’s Spirit is with us in the midst of the testing. (vs. 13) As those who, after the ascension, are “left behind,” we are to live humbly, cast our anxiety on him, discipline ourselves and keep alert, and resist temptation and the power of evil. (I Peter 5: 6-9) The ascension does not mean we are left alone. Christ’s Spirit continues to “restore, support, strengthen, and establish” us. (vs. 10) Do those words sound familiar? Our pastor uses them almost every Sunday to send us into the world.

5. Finally, back to the waiting. They “returned to Jerusalem with great joy;” it says in Luke 24:52 “and they were continually in the temple praising God.” They went “to the room upstairs where they were staying” and “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” (Acts 1:13-14) If we who are “left behind” are to be restored, supported, strengthened, and established, we need to pray for one another. The reading from Ephesians, in which the writer prays for those with whom he is corresponding, offers a model. In our prayers we can give thanks for one another. (Ephesians 1:16—“I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.”) We may pray that we all have “a spirit of wisdom and revelation . . . so that, with the eyes” of our hearts enlightened, we may “know what is the hope to which he has called” us. (vss. 17-18) It is a prayer of empowerment. The ascension may have seemed to some like they were being left behind. Instead, this prayer signals “the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.” (vs. 19)

Sometimes Jesus’ ascension may distract us into an obsession with heaven, when he wanted us to pay attention to the power of his Spirit in our midst right here on earth!
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 17:22-23, Psalm 66:8-20, I Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-23

We human beings are good at boundaries, building walls and fences, to mark what and who is in and out. We often shape our identities around such boundaries, whether they be geographic or religious. God, on the other hand, seems to be in the business of breaking down walls and barriers. Although it’s not one of this week’s lectionary texts, Ephesians 2:14 (one of my favorites) says of Jesus, “ . . . he is our peace; . . . he has . . . broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

Each of our readings for this Sunday, I believe, contains themes or insights that can stretch us to see God at work beyond the limited boundaries that dominate so much of human thinking.

The whole book of Acts is a story of the early movement of the followers of Jesus across geographical boundaries, beyond the narrow confines of a single nation even to “the ends of the earth.” Acts begins with Jesus’ departure into heaven when he says, “But 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.” (Acts 1:8) The book tells of the continuing crossing of boundaries by the early “missionaries,” ending in Rome, from which the message will spread to the ends of the earth.

The methods used by these early spokespersons when they cross boundaries is instructive. They meet people where they are. They adjust to the circumstances they find in each place. The do not go out with chips on their shoulders building new barriers between “us” and “them.”

Today’s story of Paul’s message in Athens is perhaps the most inclusive. He does not dwell on Jesus but reaches across the boundaries that often divide people of different religions. He acknowledges their religiosity. “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” (Acts. 17:22) He notices their many altars, including one “To an unknown god.” (vs. 23) He is there, he says, as a representative of that unknown god. What an interesting place to start, one which already acknowledges that there is mystery beyond our understanding. God is bigger than we think, bigger than any of the altars we build. “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” (vss. 24-25)

We are all children of this God, Paul says (vs. 26), noting that one of their poets has said, “For we too are his offspring.” (vs. 28) Would that we all might approach one another across religious “boundaries” in this spirit.

We also sometimes act as if there were a “wall” of separation between the church and the world where we live our everyday life, as if worship in the sanctuary on Sunday were the most important part of our relationship with God. Scripture tells us otherwise. God cannot be contained by church walls.

My ordination and active ministry were among American Baptist churches, and I am still a member in good standing of that denomination, although mostly, these days, The United Church of Christ is my home. In 1959, the American Baptists commissioned a book by Marcus Barth, son of the widely-known theologian, Karl Barth. It was a study of the book of Ephesians, taking its title, The Broken Wall, from that verse I quoted at the beginning of this blog. A colleague of mine, Jitsuo Morikawa, wrote in the “Foreword” to that book: “Our real field of serving and witness is not in ‘churchly’ ecclesiastical functions and activities, but in the ‘worldly’ functions of secular society.” He said that Marcus Barth spoke about that “with eloquence and power.”

The reading from I Peter writes about our living faithfully in the world as being prepared to “suffer for doing what is right . . .” (I Peter 3:14) It is not a matter of seeking suffering, but of living according to one’s conscience. “Keep your conscience clear.” (vs. 16) In fact, the section ends with an interesting observation about baptism. It’s purpose is not to wash clean, but to “appeal to God for a good conscience.” (vs. 21) Living our faith in the world is an expression of conscience as we follow the example of the crucified and resurrected Christ. (vss. 18 & 21) As he was faithful to God’s righteousness and overcame, so it is to be with us. Jesus says, in John 14:20, “ . . .because I live, you also will live.” The Gospel reading is also about breaking down any walls between ritual religion and the world of daily life. Keeping God’s “commandments” is a way, Jesus says, of showing that we love him. (vs. 15 & 21)

Psalm 66, in its own way, also sees God’s arena of activity as everyday life. God is present in, and brings us through our suffering. We live through tests. We fall short, but God offers hope, forgiveness, and restoration. (See especially vss. 10-12 & 18-19) Whether the Psalm expresses the experience of an individual or speaks for the nation as a whole probably matters little. It was probably written after the people returned from exile. While in exile, many felt separated from God and now experienced “restoration.” If we’re talking about walls and boundaries, we can read the Psalm as a reminder that we cannot draw lines between the good times and the bad times and say God is one but not the other. God cannot be contained within such walls. Even in times of suffering and exile we need to be attentive for God’s presence.

Finally, John’s Gospel speaks of the unity of Father, Son, and followers, repeating what we have read the past couple of weeks. “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (John 14:20) God cannot even be contained by a wall between heaven and earth, with God remaining comfortably upon a throne. All walls have been broken down and, as Paul says, in his sermon in Athens, some “would search for God . . . though indeed he is not far from each one of us,” quoting one of their poets: “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:27-28)

The Gospel lesson describes this presence of God among us as an “Advocate,” “the Spirit of truth . . . You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” (John 14:16-17) We are approaching Pentecost when we celebrate the presence of God’s Holy Spirit. The presence of that Spirit lurks in this week’s readings and might provide another theme.

For now, it is sufficient to celebrate, live into, and proclaim the reality that God is in the business of breaking down walls and reaching across the artificial boundaries we human beings are often inclined to build. Marcus Barth, in that book I mentioned earlier, spends many pages identifying the many ways in which the broken wall in Ephesians 2:14 can be interpreted. He concludes that the interpretation cannot be limited to any single wall, saying, “Jesus Christ has to do with whatever divisions exist between races and nations, between science and morals, natural and legislated walls, primitive and progressive peoples, outsiders and insiders.” Do I hear an “Amen”?
Thursday, May 19, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, I Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14

There is discussion going on in various religious circles these days about the nature of (or perhaps even absence of) heaven and hell. Part of that discussion can motivate us to think about where we find God and where the life of faith finds its fullest expression. Are we often looking over the fence (beyond the veil) when God is standing right in our midst. Someone once said (I forget who), “All the way to heaven is heaven.” Now I certainly don’t experience life on that plane every moment of every day, but I believe a central part of Jesus’ teaching directed us to the presence of the fulness of divine love right here in every present moment of our lives. Don’t stand looking into the skies. Get connected and live in heaven right now. Paul Tillich talked about it as “The Eternal Now.”

This week’s readings can be part of that continuing discussion.

From Acts we have the story the stoning of Stephen. Saul (whom we know better as Paul) was present. He had not yet had his Damascus Road encounter with a blinding light. He was known as a persecutor of the followers of Jesus. We are told in Acts 8:3 that “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” I’m sure this story about the stoning of Stephen is included because of Saul’s presence. He is mentioned in Acts 7:58 as the one before whom “the witnesses laid their coats.” The next verse after this week’s reading says, “And Saul approved of their killing him.”

What impact do you suppose all this had on Saul’s psyche? Here was a person (Stephen) who was not in the least intimidated by the power of Rome. After being arrested, he preached a long sermon reviewing the history of persecution faced by God’s prophets, another reason for including his story. Not one to mince words, he concluded by saying, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” (Acts 7:51-53) That was certainly enough to stir up this already not very friendly crowd.

The story calls us to think about what’s worth dying for, where we are ready to take a stand. A few nights ago, Margie and I watched the PBS special on the “Freedom Riders” that were part of the civil rights movement in the early sixties. Although I wasn’t one of the original freedom riders, I traveled through the south during that era—in a car shared by black and white together as we did what we saw to be the work of the church. I will never forget stopping at restaurants in rural Mississippi nor the always present local sheriff in each place we visited. One scene in the PBS documentary particularly stood out. The Kennedys were trying to get the Freedom Riders to back off, warning them that someone was going to get killed. The riders stated simply and eloquently that they had all signed their wills and knew someone was likely to get killed.

Stephen had that kind of assurance, and this reading from Acts offers one image of heaven and how a person of faith can die. Even as he was being stoned, it says that Stephen “gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:55-56) His words echo those of Jesus on the cross: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (vss. 59-60)

The reading from Psalm 31, a prayer for escape (vss. 1-4) which includes Jesus’ words of surrender on the cross: “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” (vs. 5) The attention seems to be as much upon the spirit of dying as it is on the place to which one is going. A good death is seen as standing strong in the face of threat, trusting (surrendering) to the supportive presence of God’s Spirit, and letting go of all grudges (i.e., dying with forgiveness on one’s lips). Pretty heavy stuff, but stuff to think about as we consider the meaning of life and death.

The Gospel reading from John, contains an image of heaven that is often read at funerals. In whatever tradition the writer of the Gospel According to John has received (and wishes to pass on), he associates these words with Jesus. In these verses, Jesus speaks of heaven as a place with mansions, or dwelling places, or rooms—a place he has gone to prepare for us. (John 14:2-3) A separate room for each one of us? For each of our divided earthly religious groups?

I believe, instead, that the overall thrust of these verses is upon the reality of our continued communion/fellowship with Jesus (or his Spirit). There is a place for us wherever he is or will be. When Thomas is puzzled, Jesus reminds him that he himself represents all that one can hope for in heaven. In him, we are as close to God as we ever need to be. “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him . . . Whoever has seen me has seen the Father . . . Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (vss. 7-11) Even the opening verse of the chapter, which may provide the topic sentence, says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” (vs. 1) Don’t worry. God (and I) will be with you wherever I am, wherever you are. Is the house with its many rooms simply a metaphor for a place where we can live together in intimacy with one another and God?

The “I Am” statement in these verses shows that we are not dealing with “heaven” in a narrow, otherworldly, way. Jesus doesn’t say simply, “I am the way to a life of ease beyond this earth eternally.” He says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” the “way” being a common term for describing the life Jesus’ disciples expressed in their living on earth. Jesus came to show how “life” is to be lived, how heaven is all around us if we just see it and believe it and live into it.

If we wanted to dig into more difficult sayings, we could try to unpack the statement that has Jesus saying, “those who believe in me will do greater works than I do.” (vs. 14) Or, we could consider verses 13 & 14 about his doing whatever is asked in his name. The operative word, of course, is “in my name.”

Those are discussions for another time, except to say that the emphasis upon greater works may just refer to the fact that it is through us that his works accumulate through the ages. The work of heaven is continued through us. “All the way to heaven is heaven.”

Last week’s blog emphasized some images of that life together to which we are called on this earth. The reading from I Peter offers some more images. First, we are newborn infants needing to “taste” spiritual food so that we grow. (I Peter 2:2-3) How do we taste “that the Lord is good.”

Then the writer moves into the image of building a “spiritual house” from “living stones.” Jesus is “a living stone.” We are “living stones” who are to let ourselves “be built into a spiritual house.” Then Jesus is the cornerstone. One could spend hours meditating on the various facets of these images, and then putting them to work in the way we live together. These verses always call me to reflect on what kind of a stone I am in the building. What do I bring to the structure that helps build up our ministry together? What do you bring? It takes all us—and then it only works if we are held together, fed by, made strong by Jesus, the cornerstone.

Mixed into the passage are images of race, priesthood, nation, and peoplehood. (vss. 5, 9-10) Some have been misused at times, like “chosen race.” Their intent is to picture a shared identity. If we are to follow Jesus, live heaven on earth, we are called to be part of a movement which shares a vision and a spirit. Our diversity somehow becomes a unity. We are one, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love! It may be a dream some would call pie in the sky. That’s what some have said about heaven all along. It sounds like a good pie to me, so let’s get to baking.
Friday, May 13, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23:1-6, I Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10

When I ask, “Who are we?,” I tend to move to traditional theological phrases like, “We are the Body of Christ,” or “We are the People of God.” Such phrases, while each having significance, have become trite or stale. They also have enough subtle overtones and possibilities of misinterpretation that some are hesitant to use them.

I’m talking about the movement of people who have some connection to Jesus, inside the organized church or outside. Who are we? The images in this week’s lectionary readings are both warm and fuzzy and disturbing. The overlapping images include (1) eating together and sharing what we have, and (2) sheepfold with sheep and shepherd going in and out through a gate.

Let’s start with the eating together. It’s one of the things most churches do well. Every occasion has “refreshments.” I grew up with “potlucks.” Everybody brought a dish to share. Sometimes they were planned, so that according to where your name was in the alphabet, you brought salad or a main dish or dessert, etc. Other times, when it was more free-wheeling, it was could be surprising how many different bean dishes there were, without much else. In some churches when I was serving as pastor in the eastern U.S., these meals were called “tureens,” the name of the dish in which many people cooked “casseroles.”

Meals, of course, don’t always go well, and not everyone has good table manners. Some get fidgety and want to be excused. Some are impolite. So let’s not idealize this image. “Eating together” as an image of the church is more than a time of warmth and intimacy. It is a call to self-consciously model compassion, inclusion, and justice.

The banquet or feast appears more than once in the Bible as an image of God’s ideal. Consider Isaiah 25:6—“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” Jesus instructs, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” (Luke 14:12-13) One can even, by implication, say that one’s “enemies” are included. Certainly the table set in the 23rd Psalm (one of this week’s readings) is “in the presence of my enemies.” (Psalm 23:5)

In both Testaments, a meal is one of the central “rituals”—the Passover Seder or the Lord’s Supper. Both, in the origins, were regular meals, not something tacked onto worship with wafers or bread cubes. In the New Testament the phrase, “the breaking of bread,” gains significance, so that in last week’s story about the Emmaus road, Jesus is recognized in “the breaking of bread.”

The lectionary reading from the book of Acts describes a gathering which includes “the breaking of bread and the prayers,” and says that “day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” (Acts 2:42 & 46) Just as the inclusion of unexpected people at the table can disturb us a bit, so do the descriptions around this post-resurrection gathering in the book of Acts. Some have seen in it a call to socialism. It says, “All who believed were together and had all things in common’ they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (vss. 44-45)

Church historians tell us that the church wasn’t often faithful to this image as an ideal, but it is clear that gathering at the table in the Bible is about more than sharing food. If we look to this image to guide us in understanding who we are, we are in for some serious sharing. Are we ready? Is this who we are? Is this who we want to be?

It is true that our congregation, and many congregations, do a good deal of sharing beyond our walls. It is even a case for rejoicing like that which we see in this Acts passage, but the challenge of an ever-expanding inclusion is still there.

Let’s move on to the sheep and shepherd. The Gospel lesson is all about the way the shepherd knows the sheep and the sheep know the shepherd. I’m not going to get into the detail of the epistle reading from I Peter except to note that it ends with the words, “For you were going astray like sheep, but now have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” (I Peter 2:25)

The parable in John seems to have several foci, although it begins and ends with the thief who comes “to steal and kill and destroy.” (John 10:1 & 10) Are the hearers (and we) perhaps being warned to pay attention to who we follow, to know the leaders to whom we give our loyalty?
Overall, I don’t much like the image of sheep and shepherd, nor is it one that is easy to grasp in the nonagricultural settings where most of us live. Sheep are dirty and not very bright. They seem to play “follow the leader” somewhat blindly. Is that who we are? I know there are traditions that dwell at length upon what “sinners” we are. Scripture does tell us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23) and the verse already quoted from I Peter talks about sheep who go astray. In the more progressive churches (and perhaps quite a few others), we don’t like to think of ourselves that way. We’re not sure we really need a shepherd. I don’t like to think of myself as a submissive sheep who doesn’t know how to take care of himself.

Therein lies the rub, and the power of this image. Without dwelling too much on “sin,” it is true that we all need someone to know and care for us intimately. That doesn’t have to mean blind submission. Parables suggest images, not exact likenesses. We are not exactly like sheep in all respects. The story is told, in part, to remind us that we are part of a loving community where there is a spirit of caring, the kind of caring seen in a shepherd, or in Jesus. Moving beyond the image of sheep we are able to become a community where we care for one another.

In reading about the sheep and the shepherd this time, my attention was drawn to the sheepfold. When I was growing up, this parable seemed to be about going to heaven. Jesus is the gate (or “door” as the older translations have it) to the sheepfold. (Isn’t it interesting how Jesus’ place in so many of the parables shifts? He is the host at the table as well as the bread. He is the shepherd, but also the gate. Does this perhaps suggest that the parables do not have a single set-in-stone interpretation? Maybe they are meant to stimulate our imaginations about the many ways in which we can participate in and grow as members of a caring community.)

I see the sheepfold as the community of believers. It is another image of who we are. Notice that it is a place where the sheep come and go. It is not a destination. The “gatekeeper” opens the gate and leads the sheep out. (John 10:3) They “come in and go out and find pasture.” (vs. 9) In Jesus’ time, more than one shepherd would have had sheep in that sheepfold. Each shepherd came and called and only his sheep came, because they recognized the voice. That’s really more detail than I want to digest right now, but it suggests that the population of the sheepfold is not just a narrow group of sheep. It is a diverse mixture of flocks. Now there’s something to think about! And if I don’t understand the full implications, I’m in good company. It says, “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” (vs. 6)

Images rich with implications and possibilities as we seek to understand who we are. Let them stir our imaginations about the inclusive love that empowers our life together.
Wednesday, May 04, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 2:14a, 36-41, Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19, I Peter 1:17-23, Luke 24:13-35

Some 2000 years ago a humble, but great, teacher walked the rural roads of Galilee and entered the courts of temples in Jerusalem, and the world has never been the same since. He talked about God, God’s presence, and God’s work, in a way that shook some of them into a new way of looking at life. They sensed a holiness about him. In his presence, they found themselves experiencing God in new ways. He upset the systems of the Jewish and Roman world of his day so much that he ended up paying the price with his life. The sensitive souls among his followers felt some responsibility for his death. It was as if he had died because of their action or inaction—their sins, so to speak. They remembered that he had told them, “This is what love does. It sticks by its principles and friends (and maybe even continues to wish the best for its enemies) all the way to death.” Somehow, when that happens, we find that love is more powerful than the forces of evil and death.

When he died, his followers were discouraged. They went back home, back to their old jobs. But they found themselves haunted by his presence. They’d catch a glimpse of someone who looked like him, who reminded them of him. He seemed to stand in their midst alive. They began to talk with one another, sharing and comparing their varied stories. Whatever they were seeing wasn’t like what usually happened when you met an old friend. This presence walked through walls, wasn’t always recognizable—yet there was a reality and substance as palpable as the wounds from death on a cross. They all agreed that they felt a new burst of power as the breath of his Spirit moved among them.

His name was Jesus, and they began to try to find ways to explain this man, who he was and what he did, what he meant to them. They did it not only for themselves, but so they could pass the story on. This man’s living presence was so momentous to them that they wanted others to share in the experience of the love emanating from him.

We have been trying to explain it ever since. The conversation is still going on. Some have tried to freeze their answers into a few short phrases, failing to realize that Jesus and the early Christian used all different kinds of phrases and images, and still failed to capture the full reality of this man was. I heard the other day about a speaker who offended some of my friends by suggesting that their formulas were nothing but “primitive” belief. I wasn’t there so I don’t know the exact nature of the conversation. From my vantage point, it sounds like a failure, on both sides, to recognize that there are many different ways to talk about our experience of the living Christ. When we’ve exhausted all the limits of our explanations, we will still not have fully captured the nature of that experience and what it means to us.

I believe that each of the lectionary readings for this week has its place in that discussion.

The reading from the book of Acts brings us to the end of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, in which he has retold the story of Jesus life, ministry, death, and resurrection, concluding, in Acts 2:36, by calling his hearers to recognize that “God has made him both Lord and Messiah . . .” The epistle of I Peter speaks of being “ransomed . . . with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish . . . Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory.” (I Peter 1:18-21)

The Psalmist, while not specifically talking about Jesus, sees “the Lord” as one to whom he can call out, “O Lord, I pray, save my life!” (Psalm 116:4) The Lord is one who has “loosed my bonds.” (vs. 16)

The Gospel lesson from Luke, however, moves us beyond formulas and phrases to a mysterious presence. Two of Jesus’ followers are on their way home to Emmaus, discouraged because their hopes have been dashed by Jesus’ crucifixion. A stranger joins them and they begin to discuss what has happened. Their agony is apparent when they say, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:21) They are words filled with pathos. Who among us does not know what it is to invest our energies in a hopeful person or cause only to experience disappointment? Not every hopeful campaign promise comes to fruition.

The stranger attempts to interpret scripture to the two men in a way that may help them to understand what has happened. They arrive at their home and invite the stranger to join them for a meal. During the meal they recognize that it is Jesus and he suddenly disappears.

What a contrast to doctrinal arguments and carefully crafted statements! This Jesus is more subtle and elusive than that. After he disappears they remember what happened on the road and say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road . . .? (Luke 24:32) Maybe we should be talking more about “burning hearts” and less about creedal statements. What is it that burns in our hearts? When do we experience a burning presence at the center of our being? What are the things that “light a fire” in us? Do they, perhaps, signal the presence of Jesus?

Our faith is finally not about getting the words right; it is about living and moving and having our being in the divine presence. In Peter’s sermon, it is about moving from being “far away” to experiencing forgiveness and closeness in the here and now. “Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.’” (Acts 2:38-39) In I Peter that presence is manifest in “genuine mutual love” in which we “love one another deeply from the heart.” (I Peter 1:22) Who is this guy? He’s the one who enables us to “love one another deeply from the heart.” I like that answer better than some doctrinal statement—primitive or hot off someone’s twittering early this morning.

A few other comments:

1. The meal in Emmaus seems to evoke Jesus’ precrucifixion meal with his disciples, as well as the continuing observance of that occasion in churches through the ages. The stranger, it says, “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” (Luke 24:30) And that is the moment of recognition. “Their eyes were opened, and they recognized him . . .” (vs. 31) Does this suggest that meeting him in the breaking of the bread is as important as any doctrinal statement? Does it point to any gathering around a meal as a possible place to recognize and experience the divine presence?

2. The resurrection, among other things, is about passing on the story so that others continue to recognize the divine presence on the roads and at the tables of our daily lives. Peter’s sermon in Acts results in 3000 new people becoming part of this world-changing movement. (Acts 24:41) Like all the others in the biblical stories of resurrection appearances, the two men ran to “the eleven and their companions.” “They told them what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” (Luke 24:33-35) Notice the phrasing again—about being known “in the breaking of the bread.” It’s not just about us knowing who this guy is; it’s about sharing with others the fire that burns in our hearts.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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