God is not mad at you

Trinity Sunday always follows Pentecost because the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost complicates our thinking about God. We think we know God the Father, and Jesus shows us who the Son is, but the Holy Spirit remains a mystery to many of us.

Sometimes on Trinity Sunday, we pastors complicate things even more by trying to explain the Trinity the way we might explain how an internal combustion engine works. All we do is confuse the daylights out of people, not to mention ourselves.

As I wind down my time with you as pastor, I am very conscious of having only a few weeks left and so many things I want to share with you. So today I’m going to offer you three messages in one. And it’s no mere coincidence that these three mini-messages happen to concern Father, Son and Holy Spirit – in that order.

Part one: God is not mad at you.

Not the Father, not the Son, and not the Holy Spirit, but especially not the Father, whom many of us have been taught to fear. Many of us have grown up hearing the mixed message of fundamentalist-evangelical pop religion. You know it well. God loves you very much and has a wonderful plan for your life, but if you don’t shape up, God is going to send you directly to hell, where you will roast in agony for all eternity.

As often as we hear the part about God loving us, it’s the second part that worms its way deep into our heads and influences everything we do. Truth is, most of us, most of the time, are pretty sure that God is mad at us and that God is just looking for an excuse to clobber us. It’s an awful feeling, isn’t it, feeling that God is out to get you?

Against this anti-gospel I wish to declare the real gospel. Our English word “gospel,” you know, comes from the Anglo-Saxon “godspell,” meaning “good story” or “good news.” Some Christians have managed to turn it into very bad news.

Here is the good news. God is not mad at you. God may often be disappointed in you because of the way you treat yourself and others, but God is not angry with you.

Consider this statement that runs through the Old Testament like a refrain: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8).

What the Bible sometimes refers to as God’s anger is better described as God’s disappointment over what our sin is doing to us. It’s similar to what any parent feels when a beloved child screws up bigtime. Our sin hurts God in ways that we cannot fathom, but I think what may hurt God the most is the toll that sin takes in our lives and in the lives of those we mistreat. What really hurts God is our inability to be happy in God because we are so mired in sin.

“God is love,” according to 1 John 4:8. And God never stops loving us, ever, because loving is basic to God’s nature. It is never said that God’s anger lasts forever, but it is frequently said that God’s steadfast love lasts forever. The Hebrew word we frequently translate as “steadfast love” is hesed. It occurs several hundred times in the Old Testament. That is impressive testimony to its importance.

It is frequently said that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more and nothing you can do to make God love you less. You can try to impress God all you like with more good works or more prayer or more Bible study, but there is nothing you can do to make God love you any more than God loves you already. Similarly, you can do the most awful things imaginable, and there is nothing you can do to make God love you any less than God loves you already.

God loves you exactly the way you are. There is always vast room for improvement, and God will always push you toward that, until you become the person God created you to be. But, to mangle a hymn lyric, God loves you just as you are.

God loves you, period. That’s the mantra of Rudy Rasmus, who pastors a huge United Methodist church in Houston. Rudy is famous for saying: “God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

For your mental and spiritual health, I urge you to ignore all the voices from pop religion that tell you that God is mad at you. That’s a lie. God loves you. God will never stop loving you. And there is nothing you can do about it!

Part two: Jesus shows what God is like.

This ought to be one of those “duh!” revelations, but so many people just don’t get it.

Let’s glance at the testimony of the New Testament, starting with the words of Jesus himself. John 10:30: “The Father and I are one.” John 14:9: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” John 14:11: “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”

Hebrews 1:3: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…” Colossians 1:15: “He is the image of the invisible God…” Colossians 2:9: “All the fullness of deity lives in Christ’s body.”

Get the point? If you want to know what God is like, just look at Jesus. Why is it necessary to say this? Because a lot of people when they think of God think not of Jesus but of the angry God image that have based on some memory they have from the Old Testament.

They think of God smiting all those who worship the golden calf. They think of God ordering the slaughter of every man, woman and child in the cities that the Israelites conquer in Canaan. They think of these atrocities and more, and they say: “God is really not very loving. In fact, God is a monster.”

But we do not believe that every word of the Bible is the final word. We believe in progressive revelation. That means that God reveals more and more of God’s self as the story the Bible tells progresses through the Bible. So the incomplete picture of God that we get in parts of the Old Testament may be very different from the more complete picture of God that we get from the New Testament.

Jesus himself talks about this. At one point on the night he is arrested, Jesus tells his disciples: “I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now.” And he adds, “When the Spirit of truth comes, the Spirit will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12-13).

Before we turn to the work of the Spirit, though, let’s finish this thought. God is just like Jesus. If you can’t imagine Jesus doing something, then you shouldn’t imagine God doing it. If you don’t believe that Jesus would order the slaughter of innocents, don’t believe that God would order it. Because God the Father cannot do what Jesus would not do, just as Jesus cannot do what God the Father would not do.

Let’s follow that thought a little further. Since human beings are made in the image of God, and Jesus is the perfect image of God, we also can say that Jesus is what a genuine human being looks like.

So if you want to know what God is like, just look at Jesus. And if you want to know what a genuine human being looks like, just look at Jesus. Keep your eyes on Jesus, and you’ll be OK.

Now part three: The Holy Spirit is alive in you, remaking you in the image of Jesus.

The point of salvation is restoring us to the image of God in which we were created. Since this is the image of Jesus, when we are restored to the image of God, we will look just like Jesus.

1 Corinthians 15:49 contrasts our present state with our future state, saying. “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.” That is, just as we have borne the image of sinful Adam, we will bear the image of the new Adam, Jesus Christ.

In Colossians 3:9-10, the Apostle Paul says we are stripping off our old self and clothing ourselves with the new self, “which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.”

2 Corinthians 3:18: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

Earlier I mentioned the term “progressive revelation.” It sounds scary to some people. Does that mean it’s not in the Bible? Well, guess what? A good 80% what you’re routinely told by pop religion isn’t in the Bible at all. It’s just pop culture propped up with some random Bible verses that don’t say what you’re led to believe they say.

Progressive revelation? The Bible hints that slavery is evil but never comes out and says that. Today, the Holy Spirit testifies to our spirits that slavery is evil. A few verses in the Bible say that women should not be pastors, but far more others testify that from the very start women have always been pastors. And that is the clear testimony of the Holy Spirit today, though some churches have closed their ears and minds to such testimony. These churches worship patriarchy and imagine that it is God.

God is not mad at you. God also is not a sexist jerk.

I could go on. The Holy Spirit is not done talking to us. The Spirit did not die at the end of the apostolic age. Nor did the Spirit die when writings of the New Testament were completed. God is not dead. The Son is risen, and the Holy Spirit is very much alive and active today, and we ought to be actively listening to the stirrings of the Spirit in everything we do.

Thanks to the testimony of the Spirit, we are able today to see more clearly than ever before what God is saying to us about how to live in peace with our neighbors. There are still things that, as Jesus says, we are not able to handle yet. This side of Resurrection life, we will always see, as Paul describes it, “but a poor reflection as in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

But that reflection keeps getting clearer, and it’s not because we keep getting a whole lot smarter. It’s because the Holy Spirit keeps speaking to us, as Jesus said, to guide us in all truth to all truth.

Friends, God loves you and there is nothing you can do about it. If you wonder what God is like, just look at Jesus. And if you wonder what your long-term future will be, just look at Jesus, because the Holy Spirit is working in you to make you just like him.

Amen.

This message was delivered May 30, 2021, at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas.

Everything is spiritual

Our scripture reading tells the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit. It occurs on the first day of the Jewish festival of Shavuot. It’s a harvest festival that also celebrates the giving of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, the basic teaching of Judaism.

Shavuot is also known as Pentecost because it comes on the 50th day after the first day of Passover. Christians celebrate Pentecost 50 days after Easter. So, for Jews this year, Pentecost was May 16. For Christians, it’s today.

I’m not going to elaborate on it much more than that this morning. Instead, over today and next Sunday, I want to explore some dimensions of what it means for us to even talk about the Holy Spirit’s presence with us and within us.

I want to begin this morning with a simple exercise. I would like you to do whatever you need to do to concentrate. You may close your eyes, look down at your hands, look up at the ceiling, do whatever you need to do to clear your mind for some heavy duty thinking. Now I want you to think a purely spiritual thought.

By purely spiritual, I mean that it has no physical or material connection. This thought may not refer to any person, place or thing, past, present or future. It must be purely spiritual. Understand? I will give you 30 seconds. In that time, think one purely spiritual thought. Begin now.

Time is up, thank you. Now I have a question, though I ask you not to answer it verbally or with a gesture. Were you able to think a purely spiritual thought? If you think you did, I want to suggest that either your thought was not purely spiritual but actually included some material aspect, or you are perhaps the first person ever to have had such a thought. So if you think you did, you’d better write it down now before you forget it and it’s lost to history.

Fact is, you cannot think a purely spiritual thought. It is not possible for embodied creatures such as ourselves to think such a thought.

Not that we don’t try. We commonly make this crazy distinction between what is physical and what is spiritual. My point is that there is no difference. Everything is spiritual. Nothing is purely material, without a spiritual component. Nothing is purely spiritual, without a physical component. Everything is spiritual.

Rob Bell has an hourlong presentation by that title. It’s very different from what you are about to hear. I did not steal the title from him, and I doubt that he stole it from me, though I’ve talked about it occasionally for more than 20 years.

Various dictionaries define it various ways, but in general they all describe “spiritual” as something that is incorporeal – that is, it has no corpus, no body, no physical existence. By its very definition, the spiritual is not the physical.

This strict duality divides not only the spiritual and the physical but other realms as well. It begins as spirit versus matter. It becomes sacred versus secular. Then it’s religion versus science. And so it goes. When you split things apart this way, putting the spiritual in one box and the physical in another, bad things inevitably happen.

Pioneering psychotherapist Carl Jung once said that most psychoses he saw were spiritually based. Some people today sneer when they hear stories of Jesus casting out demons from people. They say: “We know better today. It’s all psychology.” No, it’s not. Mind and spirit and body are linked in ways that we are only beginning to understand.

A few years ago, Gus Speth, a Yale University forestry expert, said: “I used to think that top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

Global warming isn’t just a physical problem. It’s also a spiritual problem. The two realms interact because, in fact, they are a single realm. Because everything is spiritual. All our problems today – social and political and cultural and environmental and economic – at base, they’re all spiritual problems.

We want to separate the realms because we want to keep God out of certain areas. We want to keep questions of right and wrong out of certain areas. We want to do things our own way, God be damned.

Let’s take a closer look at the sacred versus secular divide. The idea is that some things are spiritual and sacred. These things belong to God. Everything else is physical and secular. God doesn’t care much for them. Didn’t Jesus say, “Give to God what belongs to God and to Caesar what belongs to Caesar”?

So if God gets the spiritual part and Caesar gets the material part, how does that work out? What’s included in the spiritual? Praying, going to church, reading your Bible, maybe working at the Food Pantry and in other ministries. What percentage of your time is that? Five percent, maybe 10 percent tops?

That means Caesar’s got all the rest. Working, sleeping, eating – all that stuff you do every day just to get by – that’s all material, isn’t it? That’s all physical. That’s all secular. You don’t need God for that, do you? And God can just keep God’s nose out of those things.

See what we’ve done? We have effectively removed God from the world. We have evicted God from our daily lives. And we wonder why the world is so screwed up.

People who work in the church – pastors and priests and nuns and the like – they all have spiritual vocations. They work for God, as it were. Everybody else works in the secular world. They work for Caesar. They work by different rules. They can cheat and get away with it because God’s not looking, right?

But what if you’re an accountant or a truck driver or a farmer or whatever, and you want to follow Christ in your everyday life? Forget about it. Your everyday life is secular. You’d better leave God out of it, or you might lose your job.

Need I tell you that all of this nonsense is unbiblical and unchristian?

It is true that God and the world are separate. We do not believe in pantheism, the notion that God and the world are somehow one. But we do believe that God cares very much for what happens in the world and God is active in working for God’s will in the world. When we pray, we bridge the spiritual and the physical. We ask God not only for spiritual blessings but for physical blessings as well – health, well-being, a new car, winning the lottery.

Do you have a concordance at home? A concordance is a book or a computer program that that allows you to search for how words are used in the Bible. If you have a concordance, look up the word “spiritual” in the Old Testament. You should not find a single use of the word because Hebrew lacks a word for spiritual. Hebrew has no word for spiritual because the way the ancient Hebrews saw things, everything is spiritual.

Turn to the New Testament, and you’ll find many uses of the word spiritual in the writings of Saint Paul. That’s because for Paul just about everything is spiritual. When Paul uses the word, he means “animated by God’s Spirit” or “inspired by God’s Spirit.”

A moment ago I said you “should not find” a single use of the word “spiritual” in the Old Testament. But in a couple of translations, you will find the word used, improperly, to translate a word that would be better translated as “animated” or “inspired.”

What does the word “inspire” mean? It means to take in, or breathe in, and be animated by the Spirit. In fact, all human and animal life is animated by the breath of God. Everything that breathes is inspired by God.

Fundamentalists often defend their erroneous doctrine of verbal inspiration by citing 2 Timothy 3:16. It says, “All scripture is inspired,” or “All scripture is God-breathed.” Big deal. According to scripture, all living creatures are inspired; all living creatures are God-breathed. In this regard (and probably only in this regard), scripture enjoys no distinction from a cat or a dog. God moves and breathes in all living creatures.

Genesis 2:7 says that when God breathed life into the first human, he became a living being, or a living soul. We often misunderstand the word “soul.” It is not an incorporeal thing to be distinguished from our material bodies. It’s not something that is eternal that escapes and lives on when your body dies. In biblical usage, your soul is the whole you, body and spirit, material and spiritual.

The idea that spirit and body can be distinguished and separated comes from the Greek philosopher Plato. The idea is not biblical. Your soul is you – all of you, body, mind and spirit. When we Christians speak of resurrection, we mean that you will be raised in a new form of soul. In 1 Corinthians chapter 15, Paul calls this “a spiritual body.” Try imagining that, if you can. Whatever it is, in some ways it must be similar to the body Jesus has after his Resurrection.

It all comes back to and is tied up with not only the Resurrection of Jesus but the very incarnation of Jesus. God becomes incarnated in Jesus. That is, God takes on a body in Jesus. That may be the ultimate proof that everything is spiritual. In Jesus, human and divine are bridged. In some way we cannot understand, human and divine become one.

In the garden before he is arrested, Jesus prays that his followers may become one just as he and his Father are one, “I in them and you in me” so that the world will know that Jesus is of God and we are of Jesus (John 17: 22-23).

In short, we are to become the new incarnation of Jesus. Here’s how Teresa of Avila put it 400 years ago.

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

We cannot see the way Christ sees or touch the way Christ touches unless Christ lives in us. And how does Christ live in us? Through the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, our Advocate, our Comforter, our Counselor, our Helper.

Some believers insist on seeing certain physical manifestations of the Spirit: speaking in tongues or speaking in other languages, as the apostles did on that first Pentecost. Others think of the nine gifts of the Spirit, or Fruit of the Spirit, as described in Galatians chapter 5. The change in us and the effect on us don’t have to be showy. They does have to be powerful and real.

A spiritual life is a life lived in Christ. It’s a life inspired by the Spirit, animated by the Spirit, made alive by the Spirit. A spiritual life is one in which the realms of spiritual and physical are not separated but are lived as one, as we are one with Christ and one with our Heavenly Father. No aspect of our lives is excluded. Everything is spiritual, and as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:32, everything is for God’s glory. I think that is a perfectly marvelous idea! That’s why everything is spiritual. Because everything is from and for God’s glory!

Amen.

This message was delivered May 23, 2021 at Egerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas.

Friends in Christ

On Ascension Sunday, we celebrate Christ’s transition from earth to heaven. It’s an event that’s hard to imagine and maybe even harder to describe or illustrate.

I’m going to show you the earliest pictorial representation of it that we know about. It comes from the Rabbula Gospels, an illuminated version of the gospels created in Syria in the year 586.

It shows Jesus ascending to heaven, surrounded by angels who sing his praises and offer him crowns of glory. As he ascends, Jesus raises a hand in blessing. It almost looks as if he’s saying goodbye. In fact, he’s saying hello in a new way.

Every time I think of this story, I think of the Paul McCartney song recorded by the Beatles in 1967, “You say goodbye but I say hello.” The disciples think they are saying goodbye to Jesus. It is true that they are seeing the last of him in the bodily form that they have grown to love and revere. But he won’t be gone long.

“I will not leave you orphaned,” he has told them. “I am coming to you” (John 14:18). We’ll hear more about that next week, when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Today, on this last Sunday of the Easter season, I want to wrap up this worship series that I’ve called “Living the Resurrection.” It’s about learning to live in light of the Resurrection. We’ve hardly looked at everything we could learn, but this sets us off in the right direction.

We began with the story of Thomas. He is famous for initially doubting that Jesus was raised from the dead. But when he saw the risen Jesus face to face, he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”

It is no sin to doubt. Doubt is the door to faith. If you can’t doubt something, you don’t need faith to believe it. If you’re not skeptical, then you live in a fantasy world called certainty. As Paul the apostle says in 2 Corinthians 5:7, “We live by faith, not by sight” (NIV). We live by faith, not by certainty. If you live by certainty, you live in an alternate universe that isn’t real. Certainty is the real enemy of faith.

That’s partly because even sight does not necessarily lead to faith. Sometimes we see and will still do not believe. Sometimes – maybe most of the time – we have to believe something before we are capable of seeing it. We have to trust something or someone as real before we can even recognize their existence.

To see the truth of the Resurrection and learn to live in light of it, we have to make the Resurrection of Jesus the lens through which we see the world. We need to put on Easter lenses and see with Easter vision. Our vision has to be transformed by our own personal experience of the risen Christ.

Our transformation also means learning to listen and to respond to his voice. Listening is more than hearing. Hearing is about perceiving a noise. Listening means paying attention to what a particular noise is trying to tell you.

Like sheep who are lost without their shepherd, we respond to the voice of the Good Shepherd. We learn to recognize that voice through training and experience. The more we mature as Christ followers, the more God’s voice outside us becomes our own inner voice, so that eventually the shepherd leads us from within rather than from without.

All along the way, we have to abide in Christ, to stay connected with him the way a branch is connected to the grapevine. Christ is the True Vine and we are the branches. We get all our nourishment from the vine. Separated from the vine, we can produce nothing. Separated from the vine, we wither and die.

But connected to the vine, we not only flourish personally but more importantly we bear fruit. We share our faith with others, in tangible as well as intangible ways, and in both ways helping to create other disciples.

We do it all in imitation of Christ’s love for us and for his heavenly Father. “I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me,” he tells us. So now he commands: “Love one another the way I loved you” (15:9, 12).

The love Jesus is talking about is a sacrificial love. It means dying to self, setting aside for the sake of another your own priorities, your own comfort, your own safety. There is no greater love than to give your life for your friends, Jesus says (John 15:13).

Referring to himself, he meant that literally. Referring to us, most likely he means what I call “everyday heroism” – those smaller day-to-day sacrifices of self that each of us can make that add up to a life of selflessness and service in the name of Jesus.

Some of us seem to be better at it than others. Some actually seem to come by it almost naturally. Maybe they were raised that way, and it stuck. Others of us have to fight our own self-centered inclinations every step of the way, and again and again we are surprised by how good it feels when we put others before ourselves.

In an era corrupted by Trumpism, some people seem to think that “Looking out for Number One” is the national motto. Others want to keep Jesus first. They follow that JOY motto: “Jesus, others and you.” That’s where real joy resides, putting Jesus first, others second and yourself third. I’ve always preferred to personalize it as “Jesus, others and me,” but JOM is a lousy acronym. JOY works much better.

When he spoke of his greater love, Jesus told his disciples that he no longer considered them disciples; now he considered them friends. I think that is just about the highest compliment he could ever pay them. Who wouldn’t want to be friends with Jesus?

I have mixed feelings about that hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” I love the title, but I think the music is sappy and the lyrics are anemic; they just don’t go far enough. “Got a problem?” the song says. “Take it to the Lord in prayer.” I certainly have no problem with making our requests known to God. I do it all the time, as your pastor and as an individual.

But 166 years ago, when the lyrics were written, I wonder how many people understood prayer as conversation with a friend. Truly, I wonder how many people today understand prayer as conversation with a friend.

But that’s what it is. Or at least that’s what it should be. It is, first of all, a conversation: it works two ways. Sometimes you talk and sometimes you listen. Talking is easier than listening, of course. Secondly, prayer is conversation with a friend. That means you don’t have to get all puffed up with self-importance and use big words and fancy phrases. It does mean that you speak honestly and plainly. It also means that you listen carefully for what your friend has to say in response, even if that response is not what you want to hear.

Quakers call one another “friends” and form a Society of Friends. Originally, and for most Quakers still today, that means “friends in Christ.” Christian friendship has a special bond. We are friends not only in the human sense but friends also in a heavenly sense. We are friends “in Christ.” We are friends bound together by the love of Christ for us and for the world.

“In Christ,” we are able to pray to Abba, our Father in heaven, the way Jesus prayed to his Father in heaven. We have received a spirit of adoption as God’s children, Paul says. As adopted sons and daughters of God, we have received Christ’s own Spirit in our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father!” (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6).

Swiss theologian Karl Barth says that Jesus is the self-giving of God, and that Jesus in turn gives his life back to God. Jesus asks us to give ourselves back to God through our self-giving love for others. Just as he died for us, he asks us to die to self in the giving away of self.

We give more of ourselves as we are more closely conformed to the image of Christ – as we more fully “put on Christ,” as Paul says in Romans 13:14. As I outlined two weeks ago, it’s a slow process of lengthening in some areas, learning to extend ourselves, as it were; and pruning in other areas, cutting back our tendencies to serve self first and others later, if at all.

The end product, which we won’t likely see in our earthly lifetime but hope to see eventually, is no longer just me, but Christ who lives in me. As Paul says in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

We’re not just nice people, as some outsiders may think. We’re friends of Christ who are being remade in Christ’s image and someday will look just like him – certainly not in a physical sense but in a spiritual sense that encompasses all that we are, both physical and spiritual.

“We love because God first loved us,” 1 John 4:19 says (CEB). John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, comments: “This is the sum of all religion, the genuine model of Christianity.”

God loved us first by creating us, by giving us this wonderful world so full of delights. God continued to love us by becoming one with us in Jesus, living for us and dying for us, being raised to new life for us and ascending to the heavenly throne of grace for us.

God continues to love us by residing within us by the Holy Spirit, working to change us from a pale human glory to a robust divine glory, leading us to live the right way, leading us to love the way Jesus loves, the way God loves, the way we first were loved and are being trained to love in return.

There is more to living in the light of the Resurrection than what we have said in the last six weeks, but we have learned a few things.

We have learned to seek the depth of true faith that resides just beyond our doubt. We have learned to see the world through the lens of Christ our Savior. We have learned to listen for the distinctive voice of our Good Shepherd. We have learned to stay connected with the True Vine. And we have learned that these things are all part of what it means to be friends with Christ and to be friends in Christ.

Friends, this is a new day. The Resurrection of Christ makes all things possible for those who trust in him. May we joyfully explore the possibilities in days to come.

Amen!

This message was delivered May 16, 2021, at Edgerton United Methodist Church.

No greater love

One of the few good things to come out of the pandemic is a wider definition of heroism. I don’t spend more than a few minutes a week on Facebook anymore, but I used to waste a lot of time paging through it, and I was alarmed by a trend that I saw.

It seemed like every ninth or tenth post was a photo of a man in military garb carrying a semi-automatic rifle and a caption that said, “This is what a real American hero looks like.”

Occasionally the soldier would be replaced by a police officer, always male, his sidearm prominently displayed. Rarely a firefighter would show up, but firefighters don’t carry guns, so they apparently ranked low in the Facebook hero department.

I always wondered, “What about other first responders? What about medics and corpsmen and chaplains, who also serve on the front lines, and doctors and nurses, who are just off the front lines? What about military families who wait at home for word of their loved ones? Isn’t their service heroic?

“What about the single mom who works three low-paying jobs to keep her family fed and clothed? What about the teachers who buy their own school supplies because schools can’t afford to provide them? What about old folks who struggle to live their last days in dignity, abandoned by family and friends in dingy nursing homes? Aren’t these people heroes, too?”

Then came the pandemic, and with it came stories of doctors and nurses working under impossible conditions to treat covid patients while risking exposure themselves. Suddenly, they, too, were recognized as heroes. They were giving themselves for others, sometimes giving all of themselves. People began to line up outside hospitals to cheer them and send them care packages and other signs of regard.

Even today there’s a nursing facility near me that has a sign out front that says, “Heroes work here.” And they do. Heroes also toil, largely unrecognized, in nearby homes and apartments. Once a year, on Mother’s Day, we pause to recognize some of them.

Today is the day we celebrate our moms and the love we’ve enjoyed receiving from them and from other special women in our lives – grandmas, aunts, next-door neighbors.

Sometimes we make the mistake of saying that God’s love for us is like Mom’s love for us. But the opposite is what’s true. At its best, Mom’s love for us is like God’s love for us. “We love because God first loved us,” 1 John 4:19 says (CEB). God’s love always comes first. But someone had to convey that love to us. Someone had to teach us how to love, by showing us how to love. For many of us, maybe most of us, that was Mom.

Not every Mother’s Day card is adorned with flowers and frills, but we tend to over-sentimentalize our love for Mom. Often what we love most about her has little to do with sentimentality. We love her not just because she smelled nice and we enjoyed her warm and soft hugs.

We love her also because she was the one who pried us out of bed every morning, force-fed us breakfast and shoved us out the door in time for school. She was there when we skinned our knees, and when we fell down in other ways, too.

Her fury was a frightful thing, but we knew it was kindled only because we had failed so totally to be the best we could be. And we had no louder cheerleader than her when we jumped back into the fray. Whether we won or lost, she would do whatever she needed to do to turn our defeats into victories and our victories into moments we would always remember.

Yes, what Moms do, or what other special women in our lives do, is mirror for us the love of God.

Friends, this is another in our series of messages about Living the Resurrection. It’s the second to last, to be exact. We pick up today where we left off last Sunday, as Jesus is speaking to his disciples right after the Last Supper.

“I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me,” he tells them (John 15:9). So now he gives this command: “Love one another the way I loved you” (15:12).

See how that works? The Father loves the Son, and the Son loves us and tells us to love one another the same way.

The disciples can’t know yet how much he loves them, though they soon will learn. “This is the very best way to love,” he continues. “Put your life on the line for your friends.” (15:13)

That’s how the Message version words it. We may be more accustomed to hearing something like this: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (NIV).

It’s his friends he is speaking to now, not those who follow him as his disciples. Their relationship has changed. He says: “You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father” (15:14-15).

The best way to love, Jesus tells us, is to love sacrificially. That means putting your life on the line for your friends – or in more traditional terms, laying down your life for your friends.

It may come to that, literally, and you may be recognized as a hero because of it. A friend of mine has a son who was a corpsman, a medic, in the Marines before he went to college. My friend says he was never prouder of his son than the day there was a live shooter on campus and while everyone else was running away from the sound of gunfire, his son ran toward it, the way he was trained to do, and he ministered to the wounded as well as he could, putting himself in harm’s way while doing so.

That’s the greater love Jesus is talking about. It’s sacrificial love, dying to self, setting aside for the sake of another your priorities or your comfort or your safety. Yes, that is the best way to love and to live.

Most of the time for most of us, it won’t be on a field of carnage, and it won’t be an act that is often recognized as heroic. No, it will be in quiet and familiar places, in the normal moments of our daily lives. It will be something we may have done a thousand times already but by doing it one more time, for someone else, when we don’t have to, in a way that inconveniences us – by acting in this way, we make this act heroic.

What makes it heroic is not the pain or inconvenience it causes us but rather the good that passes to someone else because we are willing to suffer the pain and inconvenience. That’s how the greater love of Jesus changes the world.

We are willing to go one step more, one step beyond the expected, one step beyond what we think we are capable of making – and that step has a cascade effect. It snowballs, as it were. It keeps having a greater effect than any one step can normally be expected to have.

One step changes the world because it changes another person. If that person takes a similar step, soon hundreds, even thousands, of others are affected. All because one person decided to make a phone call, just to say hello to a friend. Or send a card. Or drop by with a plate of brownies. Just one little step.

We all know, though, just how hard it can be to take that little step. Maybe I’ll sleep five minutes more before waking the kids. Maybe, instead of making that phone call tonight, I’ll just watch a little more TV. Maybe … maybe … maybe. Understand, I’m not berating you. I’m talking about me. If there were a procrastinator’s club, I might run for president, if I had the energy, which I don’t. Surely someone else will do it.

Jesus calls us friends. Do you understand what a big deal that is? Some years ago, one of my daughters was going through confirmation at the church we were part of then. For Confirmation Sunday, the confirmands were asked to write a statement about what they had learned, about what Jesus meant to them.

Several of them wrote long paragraphs full of the kind of theological profundity only 12-year-olds and doctoral candidates are capable of. By contrast, my daughter’s statement was short and simple. She wrote: “I learned that Jesus is my friend.”

I was momentarily shocked. That’s all? Jesus is your friend? That’s all you learned? Sometime later, Jesus got me alone for a moment, and he said, “Look, dummy, she got it right. I’m your friend, too, when you let me be.”

Jesus says we are his friends when we do what he commands us to do. And what does he say about that? He says: “This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you” (15:12).

We do our darnedest to complicate that. We want to make it undoable so we can throw up our hands in mock despair and say, “I knew it would be too hard.”

It is hard. But it is not undoable. God loved us first by creating us, by giving us this wonderful world so full of delights. God continued to love us by becoming one with us in Jesus, living for us and dying for us and being raised to new life for us. God continues to love us by residing in us by the Holy Spirit, leading us to live the right way, leading us to love.

“Love one another the way I loved you,” Jesus says. Sort of the way Mom did, or maybe still does. It’s the best way to love. It’s the best way to live.

If you can, give your Mom a big hug today. If you can’t, give somebody a hug for her. You’ll both be better for it.

Amen.

This message was delivered May 9, 2021, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, from John 15:9-15.

“Abide in me”

In the gospel story we’re about to read, Jesus talks about growing grapes. I can tell you that just about everything I know about growing grapes comes from this story.

Many years ago, I did a children’s message about it. For “show and tell,” I brought some grapevine that I’d cut from the wildly overgrown grape arbor in our back yard. The grapes were there when we moved to the property. We didn’t know how to care for them, so we let them grow pretty much willy-nilly as food for the birds.

As people were leaving that morning, I was approached by a lady farmer who never hesitated to share her thoughts. She was a true saint but she had a sharp tongue. She shook her head and said, “You sure don’t know much about growing grapes.”

Happily, the story Jesus tells pretty much explains itself, so we don’t need to know much about growing grapes in order to understand it. In John’s gospel, this is part of a long speech that Jesus makes to his disciples right after the Last Supper. It comes just as they are leaving the Upper Room on their way to the Garden of Gethsemane. So this is important stuff that Jesus wants to make sure he shares with his friends.

Here are his words, in John 15:1-8, from the Message version by Eugene Peterson:

I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn’t bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken.

Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me.

I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant.

Separated, you can’t produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire.

But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon. This is how my Father shows who he is – when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.

In previous messages in this series about Living the Resurrection, we’ve talked about seeing and touching and listening to the risen Jesus. Today our focus is on abiding with him.

This message is titled “Abide in Me” because in most translations of the passage we just read, the word “abide” appears seven times in eight verses. Rather than repeat the word “abide” seven times, the Message version uses several synonyms. That’s apt because the Greek word for “abide,” meno, has many associated meanings: indwell, remain, persevere – or, as we might say today, hang in there.

In the Message version, Jesus tells us to live in him, make our home in him and be joined with him. He’s talking about such an intimate connection that if the connection is broken, we will wither away and die the way a branch of grapevine withers away and dies if it becomes disconnected from the vine.

We are branches, and the vine is our lifeline. We get all our nourishment from the vine. Separated from it, we can produce nothing. Separated from it, we die.

A less organic way of expressing this in today’s terms might be to compare it to electrical wiring. If we’re not plugged in, not much is going to happen. Furnace, refrigerator, hair dryer, TV, computer, you name it, it’s gotta have juice, and if you’re not plugged into a source of power, you are powerless.

Fine and dandy. We can understand that well enough. But what’s this stuff about pruning? That’s when you take those garden shears, right, and you whack, whack, whack and cut back the rosebush or the spirea bush or whatever it is. Or maybe you use the hand clippers and go snip, snip, snip.

Whatever you use, when you’re done, what’s left may not look pretty. It may look like you’ve killed it. But if you’ve done it well, that bush will green up and grow like crazy and produce a bumper crop of blossoms.

That’s what you want, of course, and that’s why you cut it back. It needed pruning, the way some prairie grasses need burning in the spring. You’re helping a natural process, even if it seems unnatural at the time.

Pruning is necessary for all of us. Remember Bo Jackson? He played baseball for the Royals at the same time he played football for the Raiders. As incredible an athlete as he was, even he struggled to excel in more than one sport.

Over our lifetimes, we all have to learn to narrow our interests so we can focus our energies more effectively on what we do best. Pruning is necessary not only to remove deadwood but also to enhance growth and promote fruitfulness.

To explore this process more closely, I want to change the metaphor from grape growing to house construction and work with a quotation attributed to famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It seems like every blogger and columnist and opinionator in the world has mentioned this quote in the last few weeks.

I don’t know why it’s suddenly popping up everywhere, unless it was just made up, the way a lot of things are these days. Possibly it’s like a lot of quotes attributed to famous people. They might have agreed with it, but likely they didn’t say it. As Abraham Lincoln has been quoted as saying, you can’t believe everything you read on the internet.

Wright is said to have given these four cautions to prospective clients before they signed on the dotted line. Though building a house is a one-time deal and abiding with Christ is a long-term proposition, I think you’ll see how Wright’s counsel applies.

Caution No. 1: This will take longer than you planned.

Some people think that all you have to do say “yes” to Jesus, and you are instantly transformed into the living image of Christ. I hope you have never toiled under this delusion. Being formed in the shape of Jesus takes a lifetime.

The Apostle Paul has a great way of describing it. He suggests that you “put on Christ,” the way you put on a new coat or other piece of clothing (Romans 13:14). Let’s say you buy a custom-made suit or dress. This is not something that fits right off the rack. It’s made to fit your unique dimensions. It’s tailored to fit your body.

When we put on Christ, the opposite happens. He is the perfect pattern, and we are tailored to fit his dimensions. That means we need to be trimmed here, let out there, shortened here, lengthened there. A whole lot of pruning, as it were, has to be done before we fit the pattern of Christ.

As Wright warns, this will take longer than you planned – a lot longer. It will, in fact, take a lifetime.

Wright’s second caution is one you probably have experienced with many home improvement projects. It will cost more than you figured. Likely it will cost a lot more than you figured. Count the cost before you start building, Jesus suggests (Luke 14:28), or you may run out of money and end up with only half a house.

Wright’s third caution: This will be messier than you ever imagined. Face it, you are not just a fixer-upper. You need more than a few boards replaced and some new paint. You need a total and complete makeover.

You’ve seen it many times on those house-flipping shows on TV. The contractor gets to rolling and things are going great and then – wham! Who put all that black mold in the walls? Home come nobody noticed that huge sewer leak before? What do you mean, we have to replace all the wiring? Oh, this is going to be messy!

If you think it’s not going to be messy with you, I suggest that you are falling way short in the self-awareness department. Of course, it’s going to be messy! You’re a mess! Fixing you is going to make an even bigger mess.

Finally, Wright’s fourth caution: It will take more patience, perseverance, and determination to get through it than you ever dreamed.

That’s where abiding comes in. Remember that abiding also means persevering, hanging in there, not giving up, whatever roadblocks you face, despite the cost of overcoming them. Also remember that you’re not in this alone. “Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus says (John 15:4). Or, as the Message puts it: “Make your home in me just as I do in you.”

See how that works two ways? You make your home in Christ. You abide in him. Similarly, Christ makes his home in you. He abides in you. You are not just connected downstream – Christ’s blessings flowing to you. You also are connected upstream – your blessings flowing to Christ.

The nourishment you need as a human being who is a follower of Christ flows to you from Christ. This nourishment keeps you alive. If it is cut off, you will wither and die. But this is a two-way street. Branches are intimately connected to the vine. Branches are extensions of the vine. They are one organism.

You and Christ are not separate. You and Christ are one. What affects one of you affects the other. If you become separated from Christ, Christ also is separated from you. You will wither and die. Christ will not die, but Christ will be diminished. Christ will feel the loss of not being connected to you.

You want to remain connected not just for your own benefit and the benefit of Christ but also for the benefit of others. One point of growing, after all, is to reproduce. The point of being a branch on a grapevine is not just to look pretty but to produce grapes, to bear fruit. That is what we do when we are mature disciples. Witnessing to our faith to others, we help create other disciples.

So remember, this extreme makeover in Christ’s image is going to take time, it’s going to cost you, it’s going to be messy, it’s going to require endurance – and it’s totally going to be worth it!

Through it all, Christ will be with you. He will abide with you as you abide with him. He will live in you as you live in him. He assures you of his continued presence. He says, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15.11).

Living with us and within us is a joy for him, and he promises that it will be a joy for us. However long it takes, however costly our makeover is, however messy it is, however much patience it requires, it’s a joy to be a branch connected to the True Vine and growing stronger every day and producing fruit the way we are intended.

Abiding in Christ, living in Christ, and him in us – that’s the key to Living the Resurrection!

Amen.

This message was delivered May 2, 2021 at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas.

Listen for the Voice

The fourth Sunday of the Easter season is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday, though we don’t always observe it as such. On this Sunday we review two key texts – first, the 23rd Psalm, then the passage in John’s gospel where Jesus declares, “I am the Good Shepherd.”

In our last two sessions we’ve talked about seeing and touching Jesus. The focus today is on hearing Jesus, listening to his voice, and most importantly, obeying, following him.

Let’s begin with Psalm 23. It is King David’s landmark statement of faith in God. It is one of the most beloved passages in scripture. Jews and Christians have revered it for more than 3,000 years. Muslims admire it as well because they also consider the Lord as their shepherd.

Remember, too, that Jesus would have learned this psalm as a boy. To him it would have been a prayer to his Heavenly Father. Every time he recited it would remind him of his vocation to shepherd God’s people as God’s personal representative to Israel and to the world.

To set it in our minds, let’s recite it together. We’ll do that not in the usual King James Version, but in an eclectic version that reflects the insights of several modern translations. So if parts of this sound jarringly unfamiliar, that’s quite intentional. Sometimes the overly familiar becomes just pleasant background noise rather than something in the foreground of our minds, guiding our thoughts and our actions.

The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing.

He lets me rest in grassy meadows. He leads me to restful waters. He renews my life.

He leads me in the right way so I won’t dishonor his name.

Even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not be afraid, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.

You set a table for me right in front of my enemies. You bathe my head in oil. My cup is so full it runs over.

Surely goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

When we say, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” we are not saying, of course, that we will spend the rest of our days living in this or any other church building. The “house of the Lord” is not so much a place as it is a state of mind. It’s a state of existence, a way of being. It is membership in a great family, a network of relationships centered on God.

The people of Israel were herders before they were farmers, so they naturally thought of their relationship with God as one of sheep and shepherd. “Know that the Lord is God,” says Psalm 100:3. “We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.”

The human leaders of Israel were supposed to shepherd their flock in God’s name and rule justly and righteously. They rarely did so, however. The prophets dreamed of a day when God would shepherd Israel personally. On that day, Isaiah said, God “will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom and gently lead the mother sheep” (Isaiah 40:11).

It’s natural, then, for Jesus to think of himself as Israel’s shepherd. When he sees crowds of people flocking to him, he has compassion on them, Matthew 9:36 says, “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

Some herd animals, like cattle, have to be driven, but sheep prefer to follow. They want to be led. The difference is significant. Following is a relationship. Followers must trust their leader.

So in John chapter 10, in one of his famous “I AM” statements, Jesus declares, “I am the good shepherd.” I’m not just a shepherd, he says. I’m the good shepherd. I’m the model shepherd. You want to know what shepherding looks like, model yourself on me.

I’m going to show you one of the earliest known artistic representations of Jesus. It was done perhaps 300 years after Jesus’ death. It was created not long after the Roman Emperor Constantine issued his Edict of Milan in 313 giving Christianity legal status. Before this time you might get into deep trouble making something like this.

It’s a statue about 39 inches tall. It depicts a young Christ, who might well be mistaken for the young shepherd David. His dress and pose are common in Greek art of the time. Notice the intimacy implied in the way the shepherd carries the lamb, and the way their faces are turned toward each other.

For an interesting contrast, here is an advertisement I found not long ago for Loro Piana, an Italian company that specializes in woolen goods. The shepherd has an intense look, perhaps conveying concern, and the lamb appears quite fragile. This is a shepherd who gathers his lambs in his arms, as Isaiah foresaw and Jesus modeled.

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him.

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep” (John 10:11-15).

There’s a big difference between the good shepherd and the hired hand. The shepherd knows his sheep, and they know him. A special relationship is involved. When the wolf appears, the hired hand heads for the hills. He’s not willing to risk his skin for the sheep. But the shepherd is ready to give his life to protect his sheep.

The sheep recognize the voices of both the good shepherd and the hired hand, but it’s the shepherd’s voice they want to hear because they trust him. They’ll follow that other guy if they have to, because they have to follow someone. But they want to follow the shepherd they trust.

“My sheep listen to my voice,” Jesus says. “I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).

I don’t know this personally, but I’ve been told that if you walk up to some sheep and say, “Hey, hey, I’m the new shepherd, and we are going to go to some fun places today,” they’ll either ignore you or look at you funny. But all the shepherd has to do is say, “Heads up,” and he’s got their attention. The sheep know him, and they trust him. They listen for his voice, and they’ll follow him almost anywhere.

In this series of messages on Living the Resurrection, we’ve talked about learning to see and touch the risen Jesus. Today we are concerned with listening for his voice, hearing and obeying.

Hearing and listening aren’t the same, you know. You’re probably familiar with this one-sided dialogue involving a parent and child.

Have you been listening?

Have you heard a word that I said?

Were you paying attention at all?

Are you going to do what I asked you to do?

Hearing is about perceiving a noise. Listening means paying attention to what the noise might be trying to convey. I know there are times when Linda is speaking and I am hearing but only half listening. I’m sure it works the other way, too. My point is that we are called not to hear but to listen – not only when others are speaking but especially when God is speaking.

We likely don’t hear a rumble like thunder, of course. God tends to speak more softly, the way God speaks to the prophet Elijah that day on the mountain. You remember the story. Elijah needs to hear a word from the Lord. A wind comes up so powerful that it shatters rocks, but the Lord is not in the wind. An earthquake shakes the mountain, but the Lord is not in the earthquake. After the earthquake comes fire, but the Lord is not in the fire. After the fire comes the sound of silence, and then perhaps a gentle whisper. (1 Kings 19:11-12)

Sometimes it takes a lot of listening to hear the voice of the shepherd. Most often we turn to scripture, and in the words of the Bible we often hear God speaking to us. Sometimes scripture only primes us for other revelations – for a timely word from a friend; for an answer that appears like a quiet breeze while we’re walking in the woods; for a truth that stands out from all the distracting noise around us.

We need to pay attention. Today it’s often called being mindful. It’s being open to hear and to recognize the voice of the shepherd. First, hearing: We have to keep our ears open, so we will know what’s going on around us. If we keep our heads down in the grass, like grazing sheep, we can easily follow our noses into trouble.

Second, recognizing the voice of the shepherd: How do we learn to do that? It happens through training and experience, sometimes painful experience. We don’t want to accidentally follow the wrong voice, the voice of the hired hand or the voice of the bad shepherd who has sold out to the wolves. Some days it’s not easy being a sheep.

Besides being Good Shepherd Sunday, today is also widely observed as the Festival of God’s Creation. It’s always near Earth Day, which this year was April 22, last Thursday.

There’s a vital link between creation care and good shepherding. The shepherd leads his flock to good grass and plentiful water. He doesn’t overgraze or pollute. He’s careful about his work. Being made in the shepherd’s image, we also are called to be careful, though we tend not to be.

It is past time to recognize poor creation care for the sin it is. Whether it’s illegal or allowed by law, devastating our environment is a sin against God. It’s a sin against our human brothers and sisters. It’s a sin against all animal and plant life as well. We think that as long as we get away with it, it won’t matter. It matters far more than we know. Everything we do in this life matters. Nothing doesn’t matter.

I don’t recall whether I’ve told you this or not, and if I’ve forgotten, probably you have, too. I was present at the creation of the original Earth Day 51 years ago. It began in March of 1970 with a national teach-in in Washington. I covered it as a student journalist. It had the ungainly but prophetic title “What’s the difference if we don’t wake up?”

We’re still half asleep, and we’re seeing some of the consequences of not being awake, of not hearing, of not listening, of not being sensitive to God’s call to us, however it comes to us.

The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing. I don’t need anything but my Lord. But if I don’t listen to my shepherd, I’ll be one lost and forlorn sheep. To live in light of the Resurrection of Jesus, I have to learn to see and touch and listen!

Amen.

This message was delivered April 25, 2021 at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas..

Touch and see

The incident I’m about to relate took place more than 30 years ago, so it’s possible I don’t remember some details correctly. But as best I can reconstruct it, this is what happened.

It’s Sunday morning in the midst of a highly liturgical worship service. The scripture has been read, and the choir is singing a response, “Gloria Patri” or something similar. The pastor is standing at the pulpit, ready to begin his sermon.

While the choir finishes singing its response, the pastor leans down around the front of the pulpit, picks up a large ornamental cross that stands there, and hides the cross behind the pulpit.

He does this in plain sight. Everyone sees him do it. No one sees him do it.

Partway through his sermon, he asks people what happened to the cross. No one knows. It was just there a moment ago, wasn’t it? When the pastor explains what he did, and holds up the cross to prove it, there are titters and gasps from the congregation. Wow, you sure pulled one over on us.

I don’t remember what point he was trying to make. The problem with stunts like this is that people tend to remember the stunt and forget the point it was intended to make.

My point, in relating this story, is that sometimes we are incapable of seeing the obvious, we tend to see only what we expect to see, and we are often blind to the truth staring us in the face. Sometimes, in other words, we need to touch before we can see, and even touching may not be enough.

This is the third week of the Easter season. Throughout this season we’re exploring ways of Living the Resurrection in our daily lives. My point today, to telegraph it far ahead of actually making it, is that the Resurrection ought to change some of the ways we see ourselves, our world and our God.

We begin by returning, one more time, to the evening of the first Easter day. Last Sunday we heard the story as told in the gospel of John. Today we’ll hear it as told in the gospel of Luke. The accounts are similar, of course, but they emphasize different things.

Last week, the focus was on the disciple Thomas. He famously declared that “Unless I see and touch” the marks of crucifixion in Jesus’ body, he would not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead (John 20.25). Seeing was enough for him, though. He didn’t need to touch. Touch is more important in Luke’s version of events.

Both stories begin as a “locked room mystery,” or rather a “locked room encounter” with Jesus. Behind closed doors, the followers of Jesus are discussing what they know about his resurrection.

Luke chapter 24, verses 36-37: While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified. They thought that they were seeing a ghost.

Several of them have already seen the risen Jesus – Mary of Magdala, and Peter, and two who’d traveled to Emmaus and back after encountering him on the road. Yet they all are startled when he appears in their midst, without warning, apparently without even bothering to use the door. And they’re terrified. It must be a ghost, some are thinking.

So, have any of them actually seen a ghost before? Likely not. So why do they think he’s a ghost? How is a ghost story easier to believe than a resurrection story?

Verses 38-40: He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is me. Touch me and see. A ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.

Touch me and see, he says. You can’t touch a ghost. He’s not a zombie either, unless they’re in a really bad movie. He doesn’t fit their wildest hallucination, or even wishful thinking. Who could imagine this? They certainly can’t.  He’s standing there in front of them. They can see him. They can touch him. They can feel his breath upon them. They probably can smell him if they get close enough. He has to be real. But how can he be real?

Verses 41-43: While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Well, that settles it. If he can eat leftovers, he must be real! And that’s his point entirely. He’s not a disembodied spirit, a wisp of fancy. He is a thoroughly embodied human being, just as they are. Sure, he appears to have capabilities far beyond the normal, but didn’t he always? He has flesh, he has bones. He’s real! Touch and see!

I love that phrasing: “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” Too good to be true is the feeling here. Have you ever gotten a bit of good news – news so good that you can hardly believe it? It makes you so happy, and yet the sheer unexpectedness of it is enough to make you shake your head to clear it. You worry that if you blink, it will all go away and things will be back to the way they were. You want to savor the moment, but you’re afraid someone will come along and yank the rug out from under your hopes – and, wow, will you feel silly, not to mention hurt and very disillusioned.

So the disciples are joyous and yet cautious. They believe, yet they don’t believe. It’s too much for them for them to take in all at once. I imagine that they would have loved to have hugged him but are fearful that if they do, he’ll just fade away, the way Obi Wan Kenobi fades away in that “Star Wars” movie. Touch him and he’s gone for good!

Well, only when he’s ready to go. Verses 44-45: Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand what the scriptures said about him.

Notice that he’s already distancing himself from them. He speaks of the time “while I was still with you.” I’m here with you now, it’s true, but I’m not with you the way I was before, and soon I’ll be with you in another way entirely. This is a liminal moment, a threshold moment, a time between the times when everything has a shiny quality of hope and expectation. Who knows what lies ahead and what wondrous things may yet happen?

I wish we had a recording of the lesson he gives them. Our problem is that the testimony of scripture is both clear and murky. When you look from Jesus backward through scripture, it all appears so obvious. “Of course, this is what God had in mind all along!” But when you look forward through the pages of the Old Testament, it’s not so obvious that what you’re going to end up with is Jesus. It’s no wonder the disciples don’t get it right away, and it’s no wonder most Jews don’t get it, then or now.

That’s why Jesus has to “open their minds” to understand the scriptures. They have to learn to see the truth about him that’s embodied there. They have to learn to see Jesus in scripture the same way they’re seeing Jesus now, standing in front of them, defying their expectations. They need eyes of faith to see.

We often talk about “seeing is believing,” as if it were always true that we believe in something once we see it. But it’s not always so. Sometimes we see and we still don’t believe. Sometimes – maybe, in fact, most of the time – we have to believe something before we are capable of seeing it.

Scientists who study human cognition say that it’s quite possible for two people standing side by side to witness the same event but perceive it very differently. And haven’t you seen that in your own life, with your spouse or a good friend?

No two of us view things through the same life lens. Each of us is preconditioned through experience and training to see things a certain way, and that’s how we will see things until some important experience shatters our complacency and alters our vision.

Some people continue to believe that the pandemic is a hoax. It’s nothing but the flu, they say. Mere facts will not convince them otherwise. Some people continue to oppose the COVID-19 vaccine, if not all vaccines. Mere facts will not convince them otherwise. Some people continue to believe the cynical lie that Trump won the last election. Mere facts will not convince them otherwise.

Some people continue to believe that climate change is not real, no matter what the evidence shows. Some people continue to follow QAnon and other ridiculous conspiracy theories – and the list goes on.

As I said, last week, some people will believe almost anything, and their unwillingness to repent, their inability to change heart and mind, will mire them in confusion and doubt until some event jolts them into seeing the new reality that stands right in front of them, beckoning them to touch and see.

The Resurrection of Jesus can provide just such an experience. If it becomes the lens through which we view the world, things will never be the same again.

If we believe that God loves us so much that God became one of us in Jesus, and lived with us and among us, subject to all our trials and limitations and hopes and dreams, shouldn’t that shape how we view everything?

If we believe that Jesus stood with us against the powers and principalities that oppress us and make us believe lies about ourselves and others, and that the powers conspired against Jesus to silence him, doesn’t that bring a lot of other things into sharper focus?

If we believe that God would not let Jesus stay dead but brought him back to life on the third day to prove to us that God’s love for us just won’t quit, doesn’t that change how we see ourselves and others and God as well?

And if we believe that this message of forgiveness and reconciliation can heal the wounds of the world, and that God enlists us as ambassadors of healing to the world, how can we not see ourselves differently than before?

We need eyes of faith – Easter vision, if you will – to see the truth and live in light of that truth in ways that truly change the way we behave.

Sometimes we are incapable of seeing the obvious. Jesus can show us the truth.  Sometimes we see only what we expect to see. Jesus can widen our expectations. Sometimes we are blind to the truth staring us in the face. Jesus can heal our sight.

Sometimes, yes, we need to touch before we can see, and see before we can believe. Jesus invites us, yes, to reach out and touch him, and be transformed by the experience.

And you’ll notice that the cross that I used earlier to illustrate my opening story is still fully visible, and it’s still empty – because Jesus is alive and Jesus is real! Amen.

This message was delivered April 18, 2021, at Edgerton United Methodist Church.

‘Unless I see’

I don’t recall whether I’ve told you this before, but in my 25 or more years of pastoral ministry, I have sometimes suffered from what I call PED. That stands for Post-Easter Depression. It’s the malady that befalls pastors when on Sunday they preach excitedly about the Resurrection of Jesus and on Monday they realize that most of the world simply does not care.

We say, “Christ is risen!” The world says, “So what?”

It’s deflating. It’s depressing. And I suspect that pastors aren’t the only ones who suffer from it. So today we’re going to start addressing the “So what?” question in a series of messages titled Living the Resurrection. It’s about how we can live out some of the implications of the Resurrection in our daily lives.

I’ll follow a lectionary-based outline from Discipleship Ministries, which provided the nifty graphic you see here, but as you may guess, I’ll pursue several rabbit trails of my own choosing.

We begin today by returning to the Easter story on the evening of the first Easter day. It’s been a very busy day, so let’s review the story so far, as related in the gospels of Luke and John.

Early that morning, Mary of Magdala and some other female followers of Jesus go to his tomb to anoint his body.

They are startled to discover that his tomb is open. The stone blocking the entrance has been rolled away. Inside sits a young man in dazzling white who tells them, “He is not here. He is risen.”

Shaken and scared, they run away. When they tell the male disciples what they’ve seen, their report is dismissed as an idle tale, Luke tells us. But Simon Peter and another male disciple are concerned enough to run to the tomb to check. They find the graveclothes lying there, but no body, and no mysterious figure in white to explain what happened.

Mary returns to the tomb with them, and she remains after they leave. The risen Jesus appears to her. At first she mistakes him for a gardener, but when he says her name, she knows immediately who he is. She returns to where the disciples are hiding and tells them, “I have seen the Lord.” This time, they believe her.

As the day goes on, Jesus makes himself known to two followers who are walking the road to Emmaus, and also to Peter, who is trying to live down the shame of denying Jesus three times.

Now it is evening, and the disciples are huddled in their safe house, probably the same place where Jesus shared a Last Supper with his closest disciples only a few days before.

We pick up the story from the gospel of John, starting with chapter 20, verse 19, in the New Revised Standard version.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

Stop right there. The doors are locked “for fear of the Jews”? Whatever can that mean? They’re all Jews. The gospel of John was written at a time when Christians and Jews are not on good terms – they’re both suffering from what we might call separation anxiety – and John is notorious for referring to Jesus’ enemies as “the Jews.”

This careless wording has helped fuel 20 centuries of anti-Semitism, blaming Jews for the death of Jesus. The Common English Bible correctly states that the doors are secured because the disciples are afraid of the Jewish authorities – not all Jews, certainly, just those who are their enemies.

So there they are, in the Upper Room, and Jesus suddenly is there, too – totally unannounced, not even let in because he stood at the door knocking. He delivers a standard greeting, “Peace be with you.”

Verses 20-21: After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

“Peace be with you,” Jesus says when he enters the room, but his followers are hardly at peace. Far from it, they are terrified – at least according to Luke’s version of the same story, to which we’ll return next week. For now let’s simply say that when they finally accept that it really is him, they rejoice.

Now Jesus commissions them to service. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The gospel of Matthew delays this commission until later, but John places it right here, on the evening of Easter.

Verse 22: When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Wait, doesn’t the book of Acts say that the disciples receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which is still 50 days in the future? Indeed, it does, but John seems sometimes to operate on his own chronology, totally independent of any other.

But think about the implications of Jesus breathing on them. On Friday evening, he was dead. He was not breathing at all. Now he’s alive, and he’s breathing his Spirit into them! Whoa!

Verse 23: Jesus said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

In Jewish understanding at the time, this is called “binding and loosing.” It’s the ability to allow or forbid certain behaviors, to forgive or not forgive certain offenses. In Matthew, Jesus gave his disciples this authority back in chapter 18 (Matthew 18:18). Again, John has his own chronology.

Verse 24: But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.

Whose twin was Thomas? We have no idea. We also don’t know where he was that evening. Some preachers like to scold him for being absent, for allegedly falling out of fellowship with the others. Maybe he had a perfectly good reason for being elsewhere –  as good a reason as Peter had for being alone when Jesus appeared to him. All we know for sure is that Thomas is not there at this moment. Anything beyond that is idle speculation.

Verse 25: So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Thomas takes a lot of garbage because of his “unless I see” attitude. Down through the ages, he has been stuck with the title of Doubting Thomas, and he’s still pilloried with that slander today. It’s nothing but trash talk from people who ought to be above such things. If you look at the several references to him in the gospels, Thomas is one of the most supportive and resolute of Jesus’ disciples.

In John chapter 11, Jesus is ready to go to Judea even after his disciples warn him it’s dangerous. It’s Thomas who tells the others, “Let’s go and die with him” (John 11:16).

In John chapter 14, Jesus tells them that he’s going away to prepare a place for them, and he says, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Only Thomas has the guts to say, “No, we don’t know the way.” That sets Jesus up for his famous saying, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:2-6).

Thomas is a straight talking straight-up sort of guy. He is not wrong to doubt. If you were in his shoes, wouldn’t you doubt, too?

It is no sin to doubt. Those who tell you that it’s a sin to doubt do not want you to think at all. They want you to swallow any amount of hogwash they can fill you with, and they use this story as a pretext for brainwashing you.

If you can’t doubt something, why do you need faith at all? If you have total certainty about something, faith is not necessary. Truth is, you can’t have faith if you don’t have doubt. Doubt is the door to faith. If you never doubt, you can never have faith. Faith is born in doubt.

So I call him Faithful Thomas. And here’s why.

Verses 26-29: A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “‘Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. No more disbelief. Believe!” Thomas responded, “My Lord and my God!”

Thomas doesn’t have to touch Jesus to know that it’s him. Seeing is good enough for him. All he wanted all along was to have the same experience of the risen Jesus that the others had. Once he sees Jesus, he is thoroughly convinced. He is so convinced that he can see through his doubt to the deepest truth about Jesus’ identity.

He sees through the other titles – Teacher, Master, Messiah, Son of God – and he jumps to the greatest title of all when he exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus not only accepts the title of divinity. He even blesses the doubt that led Thomas to it. He tells him, “Do you believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who believe even though they have not seen.”

That’s us, isn’t it? Blessed are those, like us, who have never seen the risen Lord in the flesh and yet believe. Blessed are those whose doubts can never be dispelled. Blessed are those who can see Jesus only through the eyes of faith.

Blessed are you when you doubt and you leap over that doubt in faith, for there are some things you will never see unless you have eyes of faith. Blessed are you when you believe despite your doubt, because we will always be blind if we remain in doubt.

There’s nothing wrong with a little doubt. If we’re not skeptical, we’ll fall for anything. We go wrong only when we remain entrenched in doubt and stubbornly refuse to accept evidence that contradicts it. We have to doubt because doubt is necessary to faith, but we can’t stay stuck there.

Everyone has doubts. There may be days when you say, “I can’t understand God.” I have those days, too. There may be days when you wonder, “How could God allow this terrible thing to happen?” I have those days, too. There may be days when you question, “How can Christ be raised from the dead?” I have those days, too.

But if you have the tiniest bit of faith, faith the size of a mustard seed, Jesus says, then the Holy Spirit will take that little bit of faith you do have and work within you to move you past your doubt to a faith that is stronger than it was before.

I know because I have those dark hours, too. But I also know that beyond those dark hours there is a sunrise of faith. Doubt, if you must – and I say, you must doubt. But be like faithful Thomas. Stick around and wait. Wait for God to renew your faith. Then you will see. Then you will see and believe.

This message was delivered April 11, 2021 at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas., from John 20:19-29.

All my Easter needs

A few years ago about this time of year, I was driving down the street, and I was startled by a sign outside one of the big chain pharmacies. The sign said: “We have all your Easter needs.”

Well, I had to check it out. Just think of the possibilities. One stop shopping at its finest. Why, I might even be able to skip church on Easter!

So I went inside the store, and there, indeed, were chocolate bunnies and chocolate eggs and jelly beans, several kinds of Peeps, many sizes and varieties of Easter baskets and stuffed animals of all description. Why they even had bags of Easter grass – you know, the dreaded shredded plastic stuff that clogs your sweeper and keeps turning up in the darndest places months later?

But I quickly learned that the sign out front was wrong. The store did not have all my Easter needs. First and foremost, it lacked any reference whatsoever to my most pressing need at Easter.

Because what I need at Easter, more than anything else, is not something you can find at any store. It’s not something that’s for sale, and it even resists our best efforts at clever packaging and marketing.

What I need at Easter, more than anything else, is a risen Savior. What I need at Easter, more than anything else, is a Jesus who is alive again and promises to raise a;; of us to new life as well.

This salvation that Jesus offers is not for sale, but it does come at a greEat price. It comes at the price of Jesus’ own life.

About nine on Friday morning, they nailed him to a cross to die. In unspeakable agony he hung for six hours, until the accumulated trauma of whipping and beating and other torture broke his great heart, and he breathed his last. Even then, his tormentors jabbed a spear into his chest, just to make sure. And when they were sure, they allowed him to be buried.

It had to be done quickly, because the Sabbath started at sunset. They wrapped the body in a linen shroud, carried it the body into the tomb and placed it on a stone slab.

Only one thing was left to be done. We aren’t specifically told that they did this, but it was a custom of the time, so it’s quite possible that they did. They unwrapped the shroud around his head and then placed a tiny feather, just a little bit of bird fluff, on his upper lip, right under his nostrils. Then they sat back and watched. If the feather moved in the slightest, there was hope that he was still alive.

In the cold silence of the tomb, they waited. Five minutes. Ten. The feather did not move. So they wrapped the shroud back over his head, and they rolled a large stone against the door of the tomb, and they went away.

On the morning after the Sabbath, bright and early, some of the women who had followed Jesus throughout his ministry return to the tomb. They hope to touch Jesus’ hands and face one last time, to anoint him with spices, to put his body, and their own spirits, at rest.

They discover that the stone has been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb, and the body is gone. Inside sits a young man dressed in white. He tells them: “Don’t be afraid. You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He’s not here. He is risen.”

The women run away in terror, afraid at first to tell anyone what they’ve seen. But they can’t keep this to themselves very long.

Easter is the story of the love of God and the power of God revealed in a feather and a stone.

On Friday afternoon, the Son of God was powerless to move a feather. But on Sunday morning, the power of God rolls the stone away to show Jesus’ triumph over sin and death. On Friday, Jesus was dead. Incapable of the slightest movement. Incapable of moving a feather. But on Sunday morning, he is alive again.

He is alive again, and not merely resuscitated, but resurrected – raised from death in triumph and glory. He is raised in a body that is both similar to his old body and yet radically different – similar in that the marks of death are still there in his hands and his feet, and yet radically different in that he can appear to loved ones and be mistaken for someone else; similar in that he can eat and drink but radically different in that he can pass through locked doors; similar in that he is obviously human but radically different in that he is obviously more than human, at least as we usually understand being human.

The message of Easter is that God allowed Jesus to die on that cross out of love for us and God raised him from that tomb out of love for us – and out of God’s great power and great love, God promises to raise us as well, so that we may live eternally with Jesus in resurrection bodies similar to his.

The message of Easter is that God loves us so much that God became one of us in Christ so that we could encounter God face to face and see the quality of life he intends for us. We spat on him and abused him and killed him, but he refuses to take no for an answer.

The message of Easter is that Jesus died for us and was resurrected for us and lives today. That’s right. He’s still alive today. We do not serve a dead historical figure. We serve a risen Savior.

No tomb can hold him. Death can’t keep him down. He is alive today, and his live Spirit is loose in the world, and all we have to do is trust in his living presence, and we, too, can be transformed, remade in his image, born anew as the vital and loving human beings God created all of us to be.

Jesus calls us to rise with him. Jesus calls us to throw off our burial shrouds and rise from the tombs of sin and death where we are captive. Jesus calls us to throw off the illusions of this world and see reality clearly for the first time.

Jesus calls us to throw off our illusions of power and self reliance and self centeredness and see that the center of reality is the great loving heart of God, and all of creation beats in sync with that love, and all we have to do to live abundantly is get our hearts in sync with that beat.

Yet our hearts are entombed by sin. At the door of our hearts is a great stone that we are not strong enough to roll away. We’re dead, and there’s nothing we can do about it. When it comes to saving ourselves, we can’t move a feather.

But God can save us. God can roll away the stone that blocks the door of our hearts, and God can raise us to new life, to eternal life, life of such quality that it starts at this very moment and extends throughout all eternity. God can roll the stone away from our tombs and raise us, too, so that we, too, can be alive, truly alive. Just like Jesus.

That is our personal stake in the Easter story. The Resurrection is not simply a good yarn about something that happened a long time ago in a faraway place. It’s the story of what happens in us and to us today, as well. Simply stated, we participate in Jesus’ death, and because we participate in his death, we also participate in his Resurrection.

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul tells us that when we are baptized into Christ, we also are baptized into his death. Therefore we are buried with him, and just as he is raised from the dead, so we also may walk with him in the newness of life (Romans 6:3-11).

The Resurrection of Jesus is God’s promise that death no longer has dominion over us. The Resurrection is God’s promise that, just as Jesus was resurrected, so we also will be.

God would not allow Jesus’ death to be the final answer, and God will not allow our deaths to be the final answer either. God will raise us, just as God raised Jesus, and all because of Jesus and because of God’s great love for us most fully revealed in Jesus.

Jesus himself tells us: “This is the will of my Father, that all who trust in the Son may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6.40).

The Resurrection is proof that God has the power to raise the dead to new life. It is proof that God has the power not only to raise Jesus from the dead but that God has the power to raise us from the dead as well. It is proof that God has the power not only to raise us to eternal life but to transform us from the living dead to the truly living.

The first change that God works is one of relation. On the cross, Jesus takes our sin upon himself. By bearing the pain of our sin, he removes all barriers to right relation between us and God.

This change in relation produces a change of condition. When we are put in right relation with God, we are raised from living death and empowered for new life – empowered for life eternal, for life that not only goes on forever but starts right now, at the very moment we accept it, and keeps getting better, as moment by moment we are transformed into the very image of Christ, into the very likeness of the one who lived and died and was raised for us.

That is the significance of the Resurrection. God became human in Christ to show us how to live. God died in Christ to make that life possible. God lives in Christ to make that life a reality for each of us.

It is Easter morning, and Jesus is alive. And we can live with him, in love and in peace and in wholeness, in right relation with God and neighbor, if we place our trust in him.

God rolled the stone away from the tomb to show us that God has rolled away all the barriers between us and abundant life. All we have to do is trust, and we, too, will be raised to new life, in this and the next.

That’s the message of Easter. That’s what we celebrate today.

Christ is risen! Hallelujah! Praise God!

Amen.

A personal postscript: If my math and memory are correct, this is the 25th Easter morning on which I have preached about the Resurrection of Jesus. You don’t keep telling a story like this unless you not only believe it rationally but you also trust it existentially and experientially. Deep down inside, you know that it is true, and that truth and your trust in it changes everything. It is so with me, and I pray that it is so also with you.

This message was delivered April 4, 2021, at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas.

Good Friday?

Good Friday? That seems like an odd name for such a day as this. Some say it’s actually an accident of language – the German for “God” or “holy” sounding like “good” in English. It wasn’t actually a good day, but God made good use of it.

Have you ever been awakened in the middle of the night by a leg or foot cramp?

You react to the cramp by pushing against it, and that only makes it worse, so you try not to push against it but to push with it, thinking that will ease the cramp, and that, too, seems only to make it worse.

For 30 seconds or a minute or more, you try not to cry out in pain. You can’t do anything except feel that muscle cramping. It controls everything you do. You want to roll around and beat your fists against the bed and scream.

And that’s just one muscle cramping. Try to imagine, if you can, all of your muscles cramping like that at the same time – not only your calf and foot muscles but also the muscles in your thigh, in your hip, in your lower back, all the way up your back into your shoulders and your neck and the full length of both arms and hands and your fingers, too.

Imagine every muscle in your body cramping that way, but not stopping after 30 seconds or even after a minute; instead continuing for hours – sometimes relenting briefly because your muscles are exhausted, but then seizing up again, and the pain is even worse then because your muscles are so tired.

Imagine that continuing for six hours. Now consider what is causing your muscles to cramp. Big nails have driven into the base of your hands and into your feet. The nails in your hands go right through a major nerve center.

The pain sets your whole body on fire. It’s like nothing you’ve ever felt before, and then you’re elevated so that the weight of your body is hanging on those nails and the only way you can relieve the pain of that weight is to push up on the nails in your feet.

You roll and writhe in agony, and every movement makes it worse, but you can’t stop moving, and you can’t stop the pain. It goes on this way until finally your body just can’t take it anymore. Your chest muscles are so tight that you can no longer breathe. Slowly, you suffocate.

Jesus suffered this way for six hours on Good Friday. It was not all his suffering that day. But it’s the part we remember the most, the six hours he hung on a cross. For us.

There are many ways of explaining how his suffering and death save us. I think it’s enough to understand that God’s purpose in the cross is to bring us into right relationship with God and neighbor and to join us in a community of faith that testifies to God’s love.

Writing hundreds of years before the time of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah speaks of a servant of God who suffers for us all. Isaiah 53 is deep and dark and mysterious, and it can’t help but remind us of Jesus. Hear how Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message.

Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?

The servant grew up before God – a scrawny seedling, a scrubby plant in a parched field. There was nothing attractive about him, nothing to cause us to take a second look.

He was looked down on and passed over, a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand. One look at him and people turned away. We looked down on him, thought he was scum.

But the fact is, it was our pains he carried – our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us. We thought he brought it on himself, that God was punishing him for his own failures.

But it was our sins that did that to him, that ripped and tore and crushed him – our sins! He took the punishment, and that made us whole. Through his bruises we are healed.

We’re all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost. We’ve all done our own thing, gone our own way. And God has piled all our sins, everything we’ve done wrong, on him, on him.

He was beaten, he was tortured, but he didn’t say a word. Like a lamb taken to be slaughtered and like a sheep being sheared, he took it all in silence.

Justice miscarried, and he was led off – and did anyone really know what was happening? He died without a thought for his own welfare, beaten bloody for the sins of my people. They buried him with the wicked, threw him in a grave with a rich man, even though he’d never hurt a soul or said one word that wasn’t true.

Still, it’s what God had in mind all along, to crush him with pain. The plan was that he’d give himself as an offering for sin so that he’d see life come from it – life, life, and more life.

And God’s plan will deeply prosper through him. Out of that terrible travail of soul, he’ll see that it’s worth it and be glad he did it. Through what he experienced, my righteous one, my servant, will make many “righteous ones,” as he himself carries the burden of their sins.

Therefore I’ll reward him extravagantly – the best of everything, the highest honors – because he looked death in the face and didn’t flinch, because he embraced the company of the lowest. He took on his own shoulders the sin of the many. He took up the cause of all the lost sheep.

An old spiritual asks, “Were you there?” Of course not. It happened a long time ago.

But Jesus was there. God-in-person was there. And that’s what counts. It still counts for you today.

A version of this message was delivered online to Edgerton United Methodist Church on April 2, 2021,    Good Friday.