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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Acts 2:14a, 36-41, Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19, I Peter 1:17-23, Luke 24:13-35

 

As early Christianity developed there were many discussions about who Jesus was or continued to be.  At breakfast this morning I tried to focus our discussion on who Jesus is to us.  I say, “tried,” because we’re the kind of group that some weeks just tends to spring from place to place.  Today was one of those days.  The corollary question was, “Why does it matter who Jesus is?”

 

For the early Christians, Jesus was the center that brought them together.  Some had experienced his physical presence while he walked the earth.  Others sensed a continuing presence in one way or another.  A long process of trying to make sense of that began---and continues to this day.  Much of the New Testament is devoted, in one way or another, to that discussion.  That is true of three of the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday.  The answers took many forms.  There was not a single answer, although there were---and continue to be---forces that seek to fit everything into one mold, one size---one answer---fits all.

 

Today we are a considerable distance from those early experiences and discussions.  When one asks, “Why does it matter who Jesus is?” or “Why bother with Jesus?”, one is apt to get a variety of answers.  Some would say it has to do with getting into heaven.  Some who are part of the Christian Church might be interested because of the significance of Jesus in our history.  Those who are aware of Jesus' influence on western culture, including the arts, might feel it is necessary to ask and answer the question in order to understand that influence.  Some would say answering the question is a matter of sin and salvation.  Knowing and understanding Jesus is to find the way to being “saved.”  I’m sure you can come up with other reasons.  It has a lot to do with our personal history and experience.  For some, especially those who may have grown up in other religions or cultures, or outside the church, it may not seem to be particularly important.  If you are one of those, all I can do is invite you to consider a conversation, a moment of reflection, on who Jesus is.

 

For me, with my history, it starts rather simply---with a couple of Sunday School songs.  “Jesus loves me, this I know,” and “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.”  Very early I learned that Jesus represented unconditional and personal love.  I lived in a world where I was loved beyond measure.  I was worth being loved.  I had a place in the universe.

 

My early life was influenced by fundamentalist churches, but somehow or other I was lucky that the ones in which I participated did not major in judgment.  They reached out to be inclusive.  I could offer a number of stories about that inclusiveness.  Today I just want to note in passing that, despite some people’s rampant use of stereotypes, not all "fundamentalist" churches are alike.  More importantly, I want to underline the reason my question of the day is important to me.  I continue to explore who Jesus was and is because I want to know everything there is about this love that I have experienced and continue to experience.

 

Now, our readings for the week do not come at the question in that way, but there are things in each of them to consider and they bear on who Jesus was and is.  Two of them connect Jesus with the “Messiah,” a Hebrew word for one anointed by God to be some kind of king, “Christ” in Greek.  Peter, in Acts, talks about God having “made him both Lord and Messiah.”  (Acts 2:36)  The Gospel lesson from Luke has a stranger joining two disillusioned disciples on their way to Emmaus after Jesus was crucified.  This one (whom they don’t recognize as Jesus) engages them in a discussion of a Messiah who is to suffer such a death.  (Luke 24:25-27)  Such verses could lead us to continued participation in that discussion, with a focus upon what it means to be a Messiah and what kind of Messiah Jesus was.

 

Instead let me comment upon each of the texts, including some things that bear upon the experience of love.

 

The reading from Acts is still connected with the message of Peter’s preaching.  Peter’s words fit into the classic framework for understanding Jesus, which is summarized in the declaration that “Christ died for our sins.”  It’s a short declaration which is often used to invoke guilt and call for repentance.  Peter seems to be doing a little of that in this reading.  He speaks of Jesus as the one “whom you crucified,” going on to call them to repentance so that their "sins may be forgiven.”  (Acts 2:36-38)

 

It is verse 39 that draws my attention this week: “For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far way, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”  It reminds me of words we find in the book of Ephesians:  So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God . . .”  (Ephesians 2:17-19)  It’s more subtle in the reading from I Peter which begins with a reference to God as a Father “who judges all people impartially . . .”  (I Peter 1:17)

 

In the early church such references had to do with the inclusion of the Gentiles, the breaking down of barriers between Jew and Gentile.  However they are read, they are texts of inclusion.  In my book, that’s one way to tell if love is at work.  Do we include those who might otherwise be excluded?  In one of my childhood churches, it was the inclusion of Japanese farmers and German refugees in a postwar America where there was a lot of suspicion of such people.  It meant the inclusion of a boy from “the wrong side of the tracks” (myself), encouraging and enabling him (through love) to be a contributing member of the community, eventually supporting him along a path toward becoming a pastor.  During my lifetime we’ve seen the church continuing to deal with issues of inclusion related to African-Americans, women, homosexuals, and others.

 

Before leaving the reading from Acts, notice that whatever the nature of this early group of Jesus’ followers, it seemed to be attractive.  Three thousand new people joined the movement that day.  (Acts 2:41)  Would that our love were that attractive!

 

Also notice that I Peter is one of the few places in the New Testament that refers to new birth. “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.”  (I Peter 1:23)  Early Christians understood that at the center of Jesus’ identity and teaching were values which were deeper than outward appearances, values that would last---were “imperishable”---values like love.  In fact in the verse just before, we read:  “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth, so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.”  (vs. 22)

 

Which takes me back to the Gospel reading.  The story about the two men and the stranger is ultimately a story about the experience of Jesus as a communal event.  When we “love one another deeply from the heart”, community is created.  For the two men it happens when they invite the stranger to join them from dinner.  “When he was at the table with them,” we are told, “he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him . . .”  (Luke 24:30-31)

 

This story became part of the life of the early church as an explanation of the importance of the experience of communion.  Gathering for a “supper” is one of the times we experience and recognize Jesus for who he is.  The “physical” Jesus immediately “vanished from their sight”  (vs. 31), but the story ends with those two men rushing back to Jerusalem to tell “the eleven and their companions . . . how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”  (vss. 33-35)

 

It was the practice of the early Christians to gather in one another’s homes to eat and study and worship.  This story was a reminder to them that it was as they joined together as a caring community that the Spirit of Jesus was known.  The words I quoted from Ephesians earlier, about an inclusive community known as “the household of God,” goes on to speak of that household as “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”  (Ephesians 2:20-22)  I bother with Jesus because he has shown me, and included me in, a community of love which knows no boundaries.

 

One other comment on this reading from Ephesians.  I’ve always been moved by the intensity of the realization that came to the two men in verse 32.  “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road . . .?”  The Jesus that matters is known when we have hearts filled with passion and love which reaches out to include and bring peace and justice to those who are far off and those who are near.

 

Finally, a quick comment on the Psalm.  In Acts, the people who hear Peter’s message ask, “Brothers, what should we do?” (Acts 2:37)  The Psalmist asks, “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?”  (Psalm 116:12)  There was a great deal of emphasis upon “grace” in the household of my childhood---“grace,” another word for that unconditional love I experienced.

 

I still experience life as filled with grace.  I know that there are all kinds of bad experiences.  We can’t read the headlines without knowing that.  Some of those experiences found their way into our discussion this morning, but I continue to experience life as a gift.  In my childhood, “doing good” was not something done because we had to toe the line and follow the letter of the law.  It was---and continues for me to be---a response to the grace---what the Psalmist calls “bounty”---we have received and continue to receive.  Gratitude cannot help but spill over from such grace.  It’s at the very center of why I bother with Jesus.

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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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