Archive for January 2019

Think You Know Jesus? Don’t Be So Sure

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/27/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, & Luke 4:14-21. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

Wow, Jesus. They really wanted to kill you. I mean, really – these were the people who knew you as a little kid. These should be the folks inclined to think the best of you. They should like, you Jesus! Yet by the end of your first sermon in their synagogue, they’re ready to run you off a cliff.

How did it get to this point? How does a community go from loving and admiring this young man, to wanting to tear him apart with their bare hands? How does a congregation go from being impressed with Jesus’ sermon to being so enraged they can’t contain themselves? What did you do, Jesus?

When Jesus showed back up in his hometown, Nazareth, he already had quite a reputation. He’d been gone a long time. He’d been out exploring. Learning. Growing. Getting baptized in the river Jordan. Living out in the wilderness with the wild animals. Doing battle with the Devil and being attended to by the angels. Jesus had seen some things.

And now the world was seeing some things from Jesus. It says that Jesus returned to his homeland of Nazareth, after his sojourn with John the Baptist and his experience in the desert. It says he was “filled with the power of the Spirit.” Word had spread about Jesus. This man was on fire. You just had to hear him.

And so they did. Throughout Galilee, Jesus visited his people in their synagogues. He taught them, fed them, healed them. He brought them the good news of God’s empire – the reign of peace, justice, and love that would overcome the empires of this world. And people were just lapping it up. The scripture says that he was “praised by everyone.”

Praised by everyone. That’s always nice, isn’t it? I like it when I’m praised by everyone.

So Jesus has been in Galilee a while. News has spread, and some folks in his hometown are probably even getting a bit frustrated. “Hey, Jesus. You grew up here, man. When are you going to come visit? You’ve been everywhere else. We heard what you did in Capernaum – a city full of gentiles. When are you gonna come and give some love to your own people, the folks who raised you?”

Jesus does eventually make it to Nazareth. Apparently not his first stop, but he gets around to it eventually. And it makes me wonder: Was there some hesitation on Jesus’ part? Did he stay away from Nazareth for a reason? What was holding him back?

We’re about to find out, aren’t we?

When Jesus gets to Nazareth, it says he does the same thing he always does when he’s in a new town. He sees the sights. He checks out the local cuisine. Maybe goes to a party or two. And he most definitely makes it to synagogue on the Sabbath.

So there he is. It’s Saturday morning. Jesus walks into the synagogue, and everyone is waiting to hear him preach. There’s no TV, no radio, and it’s like a young Michael Jackson just showed up in Nazareth. Except, you know, imagine that Michael is your nephew.

They give Jesus the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he reads from it:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And with that, Jesus rolls up the scroll, passes it back to the attendant, and sits down.

Now, I’d assume that Jesus was done at that point. Because for me, culturally, sitting down in a big gathering like that means that you’re ceding the floor. You’re fading back into the woodwork. Someone else is going to talk now. But that’s not how things worked in the synagogue in Jesus’ day. When you were reading, you stood up. But when you were preaching, you sat down.

And so Jesus began to preach. He says:

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Boom. Jesus reads from Isaiah, from a passage announcing the coming of God’s anointed. He reads about a leader who will bring good news to the poor. Release for the captives. Sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed. He tells the people gathered in the synagogue that day, “You’ve been waiting for a liberator. You’ve been waiting for a savior. Don’t wait anymore. He’s sitting right in front of you.”

Just let that sink in for a moment. How radical that must have been. How politically charged that statement must have felt. How much emotion those words must have inspired. What a huge claim Jesus was making. Here was the neighborhood kid, back from his study abroad program, and he was claiming to be the King of Israel, the anointed one of God.

I guess I’d only expect two kinds of reactions to this message. Either ecstatic joy, or total rejection. I mean, what else is there? You either believe he’s God’s anointed, or you don’t. You either are ready to follow him and face the slings and arrows of the Roman occupation – or you’re not. It’s gut check time.

And it says that, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’”

“Is not this Joseph’s son?”

So they liked him – they really liked him! Jesus was a very impressive man, and he won the people of Nazareth right over. Here was their Messiah! He’s our guy! He’s the son of Joseph. This Jesus is our very own, home-grown Messiah. Hallelujah!

Can you imagine the civic pride? I mean, I don’t know how things are here in California, but back in Kansas where I grew up, small towns will put information about notable locals on their welcome signs. Like, “Welcome to Abilene, Kansas – home of Dwight D. Eisenhower!”

Oh yes, the elders of Nazareth could see it now. “Nazareth, home of God’s anointed!” Our boy Jesus is going to be large and in charge. Life is gonna be pretty good!

But that’s not the kind of messiah God had anointed Jesus to be. Jesus knew where his identity came from. He knew who his daddy was. It wasn’t Joseph, and it most certainly wasn’t the Greater Nazareth Chamber of Commerce. Jesus didn’t come to make the comfortable feel even better about themselves. He didn’t come to privilege his clan over the others. He didn’t even come to bless the Jews rather than the gentiles.

The Spirit of the Lord was upon Jesus; a spirit that dwells with the humble, the lost, the marginalized, the weak. It’s a spirit that finds its home among those who have been broken. This spirit doesn’t care about your genealogy or your resume.

This is where Jesus’ sermon takes a sharp turn. It’s like a Jesus is rolling down the highway, doing ninety in his dodge minivan, and all of a sudden he just rips hard to the left. He crosses the median and all four lanes of traffic – right out into the desert.

[Jesus] said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”

The people of Nazareth still hadn’t understood who Jesus was. They still thought he was Joseph’s son. They thought they could own Jesus, appropriate him as a member of their clan. And Jesus knew that they would demand signs of him.

Jesus has come to Nazareth with a big message of redemption. The Kingdom of God is at hand, and Jesus is inaugurating it. Jesus is the doctor, and he’s been healing all sorts of people throughout Galilee. He’s healed Jews aplenty, and there’s word that he’s even healed people in Capernaum, a gentile enclave.

So for Jesus – the doctor – to cure “himself”, that meant to heal his own people in Nazareth. If he was able to do signs and wonders among the gentiles, surely he could do the same or better among his Jewish relatives.

The Nazarenes would “believe in him”, alright. They would acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah – but only so long as he was the right kind of messiah. A messiah who performed miracles for them. A messiah who bolstered their own sense of exceptionalism. A messiah who told them that they were the center of the universe. That God was for them and not for others.

But that’s not the kind of messiah Jesus is. Jesus is a servant of the unknown God. The God of the tent, who can’t be tied down by human demands. Jesus is the Messiah of the wilderness, who rejects the call for signs and wonders. He is the prophetic voice who brings liberation for those who are the margins, and who restores the sight of those who know they are blind. For those who place themselves at the center, for those who believe that they already see just fine, he has nothing to offer.

And so Jesus tells them this. He reminds them of the actions of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Both of them performed great miracles for people who were beyond the bounds of Israel. The pagan widow at Zarapeth, the gentile warlord Naaman. People who were indifferent to the Jews at best, enemies of Israel at worst. Jesus tells his people that being blood relatives of the Messiah won’t earn them God’s favor. The healing power of God will pass them over as good news is preached to the poor, the marginalized, the outsider.

Basically, Jesus says to his aunts and uncles, cousins and nephews, “I have nothing for you. You never knew me. And you definitely don’t know what God is up to. Repent. The empire of God has come near.” In the words of John the Baptist from the previous chapter of Luke:

Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Don’t wait for signs and wonders. Bear fruit. Don’t place yourselves at the center and expect blessings to come. Bear fruit. The ax is lying at the foot of the tree, and the woodsman is coming. Bear fruit.

We can see now that Jesus is walking in the path that John made straight. That path is the way of the prophets.

Jesus’ relatives in the Nazareth synagogue see it, too. And they’re not happy. They’re enraged, as a matter of fact. They’re so furious that it says everyone stood up and chased Jesus out of the synagogue.

They wanted to kill him. They would have killed him. They would have thrown him off a cliff. But it wasn’t Jesus time yet, and so it says that, “he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” On to greener pastures. On to minister to those who were ready to hear his words, to bear fruit worthy of repentance.

In our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we hear about how the church is the Body of Christ. All of us – gathered together in this room, much like Jesus’ synagogue two thousand years ago – we are the body of Christ. Just as the body is one and has many members, so it is with Christ’s body. As Paul says, “In the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”

The body of Christ isn’t about our biological parentage. It isn’t about how important we are in the world around us. In fact, all those factors might get in the way of discovering who we really are in the Holy Spirit. Whose children we truly are.

We are the body of Christ, and individually members of it. God has given us roles to perform and gifts to share. Apostles, prophets, teachers, deeds of power, healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. God gives gifts and calls us to ministry as members of the body. These treasures are given through the individual for the community. And, because we are the body of Jesus the crucified one, our community is given up to death for the salvation of the whole world.

What would Jesus find if he came to preach in our churches today? Would he encounter a people prepared? A people of inner strength and humility? A people given up to death and aware of our amazing responsibility as his body?

How would we react if Jesus came to us with the same message he had for his own home synagogue? What if Jesus told us, “Don’t ask for signs from me. Don’t ask for miracles. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Serve the poor and needy. Live among the marginalized and oppressed. Make common cause with the despised and imprisoned. Don’t expect signs and wonders from me. You must become the signs and wonders.”

Are we ready to become the signs and wonders? Are we prepared to grapple with the reality of what it means to be the body of Christ in this world? Are we ready to bear fruit worthy of repentance, and to face the cross like Jesus has? Are we ready to move beyond ourselves, to become the body and blood of Christ, broken and poured out for our neighbors and for the whole creation?

Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” But we have become one with the Doctor. We have been baptized into his life and spirit. We are his body, and individually members of it. It is we who are called to heal. To liberate. To give sight to the blind and proclaim good news to the poor. It is we who are to become vessels of the miraculous.

Related Posts:

Lift Up Your Heads – Our Redemption is Drawing Near

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Quakers Don’t Baptize with Water – Should We?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/13/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Isaiah 43:1-7, Acts 8:14-17, and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs significantly from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

Who here has been baptized with water? Sprinkled, dunked, infant or adult – it doesn’t matter. Can I see a show of hands?

It’s interesting. I think a lot of us have been immersed in water as a part of a Christian ceremony. A demonstration of faith, of our intention to follow Jesus as part of the Christian community.

I say it’s interesting, because the Quaker tradition takes a pretty low view of water baptism. For most of Christian history – and certainly in the time of the early Quakers, back in 1650s England – water baptism had been weaponized. The government-sponsored churches claimed that being sprinkled with water – usually as an infant – was required for salvation. If you hadn’t been sprinkled, you weren’t right with God. It was a power play, a way to enforce the power of the government church’s hierarchy. The early Quakers saw right through it.

Quakers were unique in that they completely abandoned water baptism. There were a lot of really radical movements in England and on the continent of Europe, and they fought endlessly about when and how baptism should be practiced. I mean, people were killed over this stuff! But practically nobody did away with the practice of water baptism entirely.

The Puritans were ferocious in their critique of the liturgy and structure of the state church of England, but they upheld the establishment church’s view on infant baptism. Baptists and Anabaptists went further, rejecting infant baptism. Different groups had different styles of baptism they preferred, but they agreed on one thing: Only adults could make a conscious decision to follow Jesus, and so only adults could meaningfully make a public commitment through baptism.

The Baptists and Anabaptists were considered extremists, and were often persecuted for their faith. But starting in the 1650s, Quakers took things even further. The basic problem for Quakers wasn’t the way baptism was being practiced – it was that it was being practiced at all. For the early Friends, it was self-evident that John’s baptism – a ritual baptism with water – is superseded by the baptism of Jesus. The baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire.

The Quaker movement holds up the centrality of spiritual baptism as the “one baptism” mentioned in chapter four of the letter to the Ephesians. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism – and that baptism is the spiritual transformation that Jesus pours out onto us, enabling us to follow him and become children of light.

It’s easy to look for other baptisms – other ways to feel assured that we are in right relationship with God. We humans are really good at this. Circumcision, water baptism, nazarite vows, holy pilgrimages – we have endless ways to express our desire to come closer to God. But ultimately, all of these rituals are means to an end, a pointer to what is truly essential. We kneel, we bow, we sit in silence in order to invite the Holy Spirit to descend on us. We engage in ritual as a gesture of surrender and invitation. It’s a way to welcome the living Jesus, asking him to come and show us how to be disciples.

Our tendency to look for ways to welcome God is natural, and often beneficial. I think it’s a good thing that we’re gathered here this morning to practice the ritual of Sunday worship. This practice helps draw us together and strengthen us as a community in Jesus.

Unfortunately, our rituals can easily become the focus, the center – an end, rather than the means. It’s easy to get fixated on certain ways of welcoming God, while neglecting others. For example, when is the last time you were anointed with oil? There are many biblical references to recommend anointing with oil – and this is still considered a sacrament in many churches. But most Christians have never been anointed with oil. It’s certainly not seen as a requirement.

For some reason, baptism with water became one of the mandatory Christian rituals. It’s the initiation rite. Like circumcision. The thing you’ve just got to do if you want to be considered part of the club. For thousands of years, the institutional church has used water baptism as a gatekeeper device. Do this ritual. Do it in the way we tell you to do it. Do it under our authority. Or you’re going to hell.

I’ve been baptized with water. I was twelve years old, and beginning to hit the emotional hurricane of adolescence. As a young child, I had had a deep faith in God. But now as I reached the “age of reason,” I felt increasingly angsty. I had attended some Evangelical church summer camps, and they put the fear of God into me. I remember that they told me that the Devil ruled the world, and so I asked my camp counselor, “Do you think he controls the moon, too – or does that still belong to God?”

Anyway, I was very afraid of going to hell. I had no sense of assurance, no way to know if I was right with God. And so, in my fear, I asked my mom to baptize me in the pool in our pool in the back yard. I still remember going down into the water. I remember coming up. And I remember feeling so disappointed. I felt nothing. Nothing had changed. The heavens didn’t open. And I was still afraid.

It wasn’t until years later that I experienced true baptism – the “one baptism” that the letter to the Ephesians tells us about. When the baptism of the Holy Spirit came, I received it without ritual, without witnesses, and without explanation. There was no earthquake, wind, or fire. Just a still, small voice. The living presence of God.

So I can relate to the Samaritan Christians that we read about in Acts. It says that the apostles in Jerusalem had heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, and so they sent Peter and John down to visit them. And on their visit, Peter and John prayed for the community of Jesus followers in Samaria, and they laid hands on them. And it says that then they received the Holy Spirit.

Now, this is important. It says that then, when Peter and John laid hands on them, they received the Holy Spirit. It also says that they had already been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. These folks had already received water baptism, but they hadn’t received the Holy Spirit yet. They knew about God. They wanted to be friends of Jesus. They longed for him. But the Spirit hadn’t come to them yet, hadn’t filled them yet.

I know what that’s like. I know what it’s like to go for years, longing to really know Jesus. Not just words about Jesus. Not just an ideology about Jesus, not just a religion. But to be intimately connected with him. To be one with him, and with his father. To be united with him in love and joy.

That was John’s whole life, his whole ministry. It was a ministry of expectation and preparation. It wasn’t about the water baptism. That was just a familiar ritual to help people focus. The ministry of John wasn’t about baptizing with water – it was about preparing to the people to receive the Messiah.

John himself says:

I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. He will immerse you into his life, presence, and awesome power. He will fill you with his joy and cover you with his forgiveness. This is the one baptism of our Messiah Jesus. This is the true baptism that John pointed to. This is the substance; everything else is just a shadow.

John’s ministry was a prophetic ministry. A ministry that pointed toward the kingdom of God, toward the dawn that was about to break on the horizon. Jesus is the day star, and the Holy Spirit is the sunrise.

This is the daybreak that Jesus encountered when he came up from the waters of the Jordan. When he saw the sky ripped open, and the dove descending. This was the fulfillment of John’s ministry, the end of John’s baptism, when Jesus heard those words: “You are my beloved son; with you I am well-pleased.”

Sometimes we Quakers are a little too good at being against things. We’re against war. Against slavery. Against injustice of all kinds. But this is what we are for: The light shining in the darkness. The healing Spirit hovering over the troubled waters of our soul and our society. The crucified Jesus whose life judges the blindness and hatred of this world.

At our best, Quakers aren’t against water baptism. We don’t need to be. It’s just a form that has fallen away. It served its purpose, but now the real baptism is here. If pouring water over your head makes you feel closer to God – go ahead. Or ask a friend to anoint you with oil. Or perhaps we could lay hands on you and pray, that you might receive the Holy Spirit. God wants us to reach out to him, no matter what form we choose.

But don’t yield to fear. Don’t let anyone tell you that a ritual is required for your relationship with God. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re going to hell because you didn’t check a liturgical box. Fear doesn’t come from God; and neither does water baptism that functions as fire insurance.

Remember the criminal who was crucified beside Jesus. A man who was condemned as a murderer. A man who had no water for baptism. A man who became a friend of Jesus, to whom Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

The heart of the Christian faith is the presence of the Holy Spirit. And that presence is one that drives out all fear. Our inheritance is not ritual as a ticket to heaven, but the unearned grace of God. This grace is the baptism that fills us with power, assurance, and a strength to live boldly as children of light in a world that is often very dark. As the prophet Isaiah writes, this is God’s promise to us:

Thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,

he who formed you, O Israel:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;

when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.

For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

Related Posts:

Lift Up Your Heads – Our Redemption is Drawing Near

God Doesn’t Need Your Religion – Love Is All That Matters