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How Can I Know When I’ve Seen A Real Miracle?

How Can I Know When I've Seen A Miracle?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/6/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Acts 10:44-48, 1 John 5:1-6, & John 15:9-17. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

One of my favorite movies is Pulp Fiction. When it first came out, I was a kid, so of course I wasn’t allowed to see it. My parents watched it, and they told me that they thought it was terrible. Way too violent!

Well, like all of Quentin Tarantino’s films, Pulp Fiction has no lack of violence and gore. But, more than any other of his films, I found it deeply compelling on a variety of levels. The characters are vivid and memorable. The scenes are colorful and imaginative, managing to be both dark, tense, and hilarious at the same time.

I’ve watched Pulp Fiction a number of times over the years, and it’s entered into my own personal canon. It’s among the pieces of literature, art, and film that I come back to repeatedly for reflection and inspiration. It’s the kind of movie that grows with you. When I was a teenager, it was just fun and entertaining. But each time I’ve watched it, I’ve found a new angle to consider.

Pulp Fiction is a movie that has many storylines, many threads to follow. But I would argue that the core storyline, the key thread, is the one that follows a pair of gangsters named Jules (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (played by John Travolta).

Jules and Vincent are thugs. They’re hit men, hired muscle for the crime boss Marcellus Wallace. And early in the movie, they pay a visit to a lower-level criminal who has attempted to defraud Mr. Wallace. We find out pretty quickly that the penalty for this betrayal is death. Vince and Jules summarily execute the unfaithful criminal in front of his gang.

What they don’t know is that one of these guys is hiding in the bathroom with a large revolver. The door opens, this man bursts into the room, and fires all six rounds into Vince and Jules.

And nothing happens.

The two of them stand there for a minute, processing it. Bullet holes cover the wall behind them, just barely visible on either side of their heads. The bullets must have passed within an inch of them. But they are completely unharmed.

From this point on, Pulp Fiction becomes a movie that is, at least in part, an extended theological reflection.

Vince is ready to shrug off the whole incident as a fluke. “Things like this happen.” But Jules is convinced that the two of them have just witnessed the hand of God. “This wasn’t luck. This was divine intervention.”

Vincent clearly doesn’t buy it, but with police on their way after this firefight, he placates Jules and they make their way quickly from the scene of the crime.

Fast forward to another scene towards end of the movie. Vince and Jules are sitting together, having breakfast at a diner, and they take up their theological reflection once again. Rather than describe this scene, I think it would be best if we watched it together. (Just as a warning, there’s some profanity in this clip, but I hope you’ll bear with me!)

“God got involved.”

Vince and Jules could argue and theorize about whether God had intervened in history to move the bullets and spare their lives. What happened to them may or may not have been a miracle in that sense. But for Jules, who felt the presence of God in that moment, it was a miracle regardless of the physical details. It’s not what happened; it’s the Spirit that was present in what happened. God got involved.

In our scripture readings this morning, we hear about someone else who God has called to wander the earth, Kung Fu-style, meeting people and getting into adventures. We hear the story of Peter and his journey to visit the household of Cornelius. Peter was up on a roof top praying before lunch, when a vision from God appeared to him. Something like a large sheet came down from the sky and in it were all sorts of unclean animals, that the law of Moses commanded should never be eaten. Then Peter heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

At first, Peter resisted. “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” But the voice persisted, telling him three times that he was to get up, kill, and eat these creatures that up until now had been forbidden by God. The voice from heaven said to Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Just then, as Peter was trying to make sense of this confusing vision, men came from the household of Cornelius, inviting Peter to come visit him. Cornelius was a faithful, God-fearing man. He was also a pagan, a centurion in the Italian Cohort of the Roman legion. He was unclean and uncircumcised, outside of the household of faith. A good Jew like Peter should have nothing to do with a man like Cornelius, no matter how good his reputation and how charitable his actions.

But God had determined that the time for these barriers between peoples had come to an end. The distinction between clean and unclean, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free were to be abolished. Despite his the fact that Cornelius lay outside the bounds of the Jewish nation, God was pleased with him. Though Peter could not see it yet, Cornelius was part of the household of faith, the church invisible, the body of Christ.

Because of God’s love for Cornelius and his family, angels came to speak with him. They told him to seek out Peter and invite him to Cornelius’ home. God got involved, setting in motion a series of events that would bring reconciliation between peoples long divided by tribal divisions and animosity.

This wasn’t easy for Peter. Peter was a good Jew. He knew the rules. He knew what to expect, how life was supposed to be lived. His worldview provided him a sense of order and predictability. Yet here, suddenly, was this experience of God’s intervention, changing the whole picture. Externally, nothing had changed. To any outside observer, Peter was just sitting on a rooftop during the heat of the day. But God got involved. The Spirit was at work. Inside Peter, something changed.

That’s how Peter ended up in the house of Cornelius, an unclean place that the Jewish law taught him he should never set foot. Peter had travelled to Cornelius’ house out of obedience to the unseen Spirit of God, the hidden power that breaks down barriers and redefines life in ways we can’t possibly see coming. This life, this Spirit touched his heart so that he knew: God was breaking down the barriers between clean and unclean, Jew and Greek, male and female.

God got involved. You know, that was the only way this was ever going to happen. Everything in Peter and Cornelius’ life argued against this apostolic visit. For Peter to step into the household of Cornelius was a transgression against everything that Peter believed that it meant to be a righteous person. To be a son of Abraham was to be separate, set apart, holy. This leading of the Spirit to visit Cornelius seemed to contradict everything that Peter knew about leading a faithful life. But he felt the touch of God, and he couldn’t go back to sleep.

Cornelius felt it, too. He knew that this whole encounter was a miracle. Only God could have brought Peter to visit his house. After years of prayer and devotion, God was doing something he had never expected. Cornelius was so overwhelmed by Peter’s arrival that he fell down at his feet and began to worship him! Peter had to tell Cornelius to get up – “Cut it out! I’m just a man like you.”

That’s kinda awkward, huh? I hate it when people fall down and start worshipping me when I visit them in their homes. Don’t you?

The truth is, this whole meeting was really uncomfortable for everyone involved. Both Cornelius and Peter knew that God had commanded them to come together, but they had no idea for what purpose. Like Jules in Pulp Fiction, they know that God has gotten a hold of them, but they don’t know where he is leading yet.

When Peter arrives, he’s basically like, “Hey… So, uh, yeah – I got your message, and God told me to come and visit you. So what did you need?” Cornelius doesn’t really know anything more. All he can say is, “Well, yeah. Very glad to have you here. You come highly recommended by the angels. So, um… Why don’t you just go ahead and tell us whatever you have on your mind? We’re interested to hear it!”

With this invitation to speak, Peter proceeds to lay out the gospel for Cornelius and the members of his household. He tells them about Jesus, about how he healed people and liberated them from demonic oppression. He tells them about how Jesus was put to death on the cross but now has been raised from the dead and reigns in a new community of God. In very simple, straightforward terms, Peter lays out the basic facts about Jesus.

And God gets involved. As Peter is speaking, everyone present notices something changing. The Holy Spirit is present with them, touching every heart. God gets involved, touching the hearts and minds of everyone present. It’s an experience that goes beyond the gospel story that Peter is sharing with them; now it’s not just the words Peter is speaking. God gets involved. They feel the presence of the Holy Spirit together. It’s a miracle.

And it says that “the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.” And then Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Peter orders them “to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” And they stay together for several days.

God got involved. Peter and Cornelius couldn’t have been more different from Vince and Jules from Pulp Fiction. But they have at least one thing in common: They each experienced an event that broke them free from the life and worldview that they had been traveling along. God worked a miracle in their lives. A hidden power breathed into their hearts, allowing them to change course entirely, to make a new life and find a new community. To wander the earth until God put them where he wanted them to be.

John – in his gospel and his letters – speaks to us of this experience. He writes of the hidden power of God, the Spirit that touches our hearts and makes change and transformation possible. He tells us about how God gets involved – how he got so involved in this world that he loves, that he sent his only begotten son to live among us, to become one of us. He tells us about the living Spirit of Jesus that is present to guide and teach us right now. This life, this power gets involved.

How can we recognize God’s power and presence when he gets involved in our lives? John is very clear about this: We know the Spirit of God when we act in love. We know that God is involved when we are filled with compassionate joy. This is the kind of joy that moves us to bless others and free them from brokenness and confusion. It’s the kind of joy that called Jules out of a life of murder and crime and into a path of trust – wandering the earth until God places him where he ought to be.

This is the power that pulled Peter out of his safe and comfortable religious existence, so that he could discover just how big God’s love is for the world – all the people of the world, not just Peter’s tribe. It’s this love that calls us together into community, despite all our differences and all the factors that threaten to pull us apart. This is the love that conquers the world.

The Spirit of God challenges us so deeply, and yet it’s not burdensome. The love that comes from God disrupts our lives in ways that we can’t ever predict. We’re often tempted to ignore it, because we want to be in control. But the love of God conquers the world. It’s not burdensome. It doesn’t force us to be something we’re not. Instead, it frees us to be truly ourselves for the first time – the lively, unpredictable, joy-filled men and women that God created us to be.

This is the victory that conquers the world: our faith. God gets involved. Whether or not God stops the bullets, turns Coke into Pepsi, or finds our car keys – we can’t judge these things on merit. When we feel the touch of God, our lives must change.

When we abide in the love of the Spirit, we will be transformed. Jesus said, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

That our joy may be complete. Like Peter and Cornelius, we are finding a new and unexpected family in the Spirit. Like Jules from Pulp Fiction, we are being pulled out of the predictable track we’ve been following, the life that we have settled for. God gets involved, and we’re shaken out of our complacency.

That our joy may be complete, God calls us into a new way, an unpredictable path. It’s a path of love, making us brothers and sisters to people that we may never have gotten involved with previously. It’s a love that casts out all fear. It gives us a fresh start, and the boldness we need to live in ways that seemed impossible before.

This is the victory that conquers the world: God gets involved. He shows us the love that is in Jesus. He transforms our hearts. He breaks us out of determinism and teaches us how to love.

We’ve experienced this love, life, and power. God got involved. Now things have to change. We can’t go back to sleep.

Related Posts:

Nobody’s Perfect – Is It Possible to Be Like Jesus?

The Kingdom of God is Freedom – Why Are We So Busy and Anxious?

Nobody’s Perfect. Is it Possible to Be Like Jesus?

Nobody's Perfect. Is it Possible to Be Like Jesus?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/15/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Acts 3:12-19, 1 John 3:1-7, & Luke 24:36b-48. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

We are the children of God.

I know that for a lot of us today, this phrase, “children of God,” has been cheapened. It’s been universalized to refer to practically everyone. It’s become a way of saying that every person is worthy of respect, dignity, and fair treatment.

And I agree with that way of looking at the world. Every single human being has inherent value. As followers of Jesus, we are called to love everyone – especially our enemies, the people that the world has taught us to hate.

But when the author of John’s first epistle writes that we are the children of God, he’s talking about something distinct. For John, sonship and daughtership in the kingdom of God is not a matter of universal human dignity. It is not inherent to us that we are the children of God. For John, it is a very particular, contingent, and radical claim.

When we read John’s gospel and John’s letter, it’s clear that he’s not writing out of a community that sees the world as a benign, loving, and healthy place. John’s community is one that has has seen the evil of the world – the imperial rulers, the religious authorities and false teachers, and the everyday selfishness of ordinary people. They’ve seen the darkness of the world.

But they’ve also seen the light.

The Johannine community has seen the light of God in the face of Jesus. It is a community that testifies to the resurrection – not just with words, but with transformed lives. This is a community that can say, “we have seen Jesus, and we know him. Because of him we have moved from death into life. Because we are his friends, we have been called out of this world of darkness and hate. We have been adopted as sons and daughters of God. We are becoming like Jesus.”

John and his community knew from personal experience that sonship and daughtership is not our natural state. The original followers of Jesus failed miserably. They abandoned Jesus when he came to his time of trial. The disciples – especially the men disciples – ran and hid while Jesus was being tortured and tried as a criminal. Peter – who at that time was apparently the bravest of the Twelve and followed Jesus to the house of the High Priest – denied Jesus three times before dawn. The early Christian community knew what darkness looked like, because they themselves had been moral failures.

The resurrection changed all that. The return of Jesus on the third day, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the continuing presence of the risen Jesus throughout the months and years that followed – this guidance and power allowed the weak and fallible disciples to become the children of God.

John’s community knew Jesus. They had seen him and touched him with their hands. They experienced the resurrection, the living body of Jesus in their everyday life. And God gave them authority: To live in life, power, and boldness. To share the good news of the kingdom, inviting others to become children of God. And to speak into the darkness and confusion of this present world, even when doing so made them sound crazy.

The early church was not afraid to call out evil. They were not afraid to name the fact that we are not, by default, children of God. Living as we do in this fallen, rebellious, and confused world, only the grace of our Lord Jesus can rescue us, can transform us from being children of hate, violence, greed, and self-centeredness. Because of the resurrection, because of the love and hope that we know in Jesus, we can become the children of God. We can become like Jesus.

A lot of people misunderstand this. A lot of Christians miss the point here. So often we’re taught to imagine that the gospel is about Jesus dying on the cross so that we don’t have to face the consequences of our sin – our greed, our aggression, our brokenness. According to this version of the gospel, Jesus conquered darkness so that we don’t have to. Thanks to his sacrifice, all we have to do is believe certain doctrines about Jesus and we will be saved. In heaven, after we die.

But that sad gospel is a pale imitation of the truth. It’s a Wonder Bread parody of the whole wheat gospel that John and his early Christian community knew. This fallen world, and its version of Christianity, teaches that our faith is about damage control. Christianity becomes about avoiding punishment for our misdeeds rather than being reborn for justice.

But the real gospel is radical – it gets to the root of things. The true gospel message is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus. It promises us – not through words, but through hope in action, that we can be transformed. Our lives can change.

We can become the children of God, the children of the light – sons and daughters, reborn in the image of Jesus. All of the old dividing lines are broken down – between men and women, citizen and foreigner, rich and poor, black and white. Even between God and us. The radical, incredible, scandalous message of the gospel is that we can become like Jesus. Through the power of the resurrection, we can become sons and daughters of God.

So what does that mean? Concretely, what does it mean for us to become sons and daughters of God – brothers and sisters to Jesus? Well, right here in 1 John 3, he tells us how we can distinguish between the children of this world and the children of the light.

Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that [Jesus] was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.

Have you experienced the resurrection presence of Jesus? Is he teaching you? Have you surrendered yourself, to be brought out of rebellion and lawlessness, hatred and fear? Have you allowed the Holy Spirit to draw you into a new life, one where you do the deeds of righteousness and become holy, just as our brother Jesus is holy?

There’s some hesitation here. I know I have some hesitation. Holy? Me?

On the one hand, we’re right to hesitate. Who am I to think so highly of myself? Sure, the writers of the New Testament refers to all the believers as “the saints” – the holy ones – but it feels like a big leap to apply that to myself. I know how far short I fall on a daily basis. I’ve got a long way to go, and I don’t know how I’m ever going to get there. It seems a little premature to start saying I’ve made it. Who here can say they are like Jesus? I know I can’t.

The earliest Christians must have known this experience, too. The first generation of disciples knew so much failure – even after the resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The saints made mistakes. They fought with one another and a level of church drama that makes our modern-day disagreements look like softball. The early church was a hot mess.

But they were also the children of God. The brothers and sisters of Jesus. The saints.

For John and his community, the line between the children of God and the children of this world was clear. The children of this world live in darkness and rebellion. The children of God follow Jesus and do what is right.

Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

Who here is righteous? Let me see some hands!

OK, that’s fair. In one sense, none of us should raise our hands. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

That’s one way of looking at it. And it’s true. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

But there’s another way of looking at sin and righteousness. The first way – the Paul’s letter to the Romans way – looks at our nature in terms of our past failures. But John’s way is to look at the saving power of Jesus, the resurrection that transforms us into a new creation. Rather than looking down at our sin, John says, “look up at the holiness of Jesus. He is present to heal you, transform you. He is your salvation.”

Little children, children of the light, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous. And through the resurrection, through Jesus with us, we have received power and authority to do what is right.

This isn’t about perfectionism in the world’s sense of perfection. We don’t have to be the world’s greatest student, or worker, or parent, or anything else. We don’t have to always be cheerful or be an inspiration to those around us. We just need to do what is right.

Do you do what is right? Do you follow the light of God in your heart? When God shows you that something is wrong, do you stop doing it? When he calls you into action, do you follow? Do you love the Lord with all your mind, heart, soul, and strength? Do you love your neighbor as yourself?

Do you do what is right? Not perfectly, not with superhuman powers – but humbly and simply, even if no one notices?

Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous. We are children of the light. We are brothers and sisters of Jesus. We are salt and light in this dark and flavorless world. We are righteous when we do what is right. It’s a high bar, but with Jesus as our present teacher, guide, and friend, we can be faithful. We can do what is right, we can follow as God leads us.

In Jesus, God became like us. He became a human being. He had a mother. He wept for friends who had died. He suffered humiliation and death. And God vindicated Jesus. God proclaimed him righteous by raising Jesus from the dead, and now we can become righteous like he is. Simply, humbly, following in the footsteps of our brother and our Lord.

Little children, we are the sons and daughters of God. We are salt and light. We are the saints, the righteous ones that God has called out of the darkness to bless and heal the world.

Jesus asks the disciples, and he asks us: “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” Look at his hands and his feet. Look at Jesus. See that he is here with us.

We are the children of the light, the sons and daughters of God. “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.”

Related Posts:

The Kingdom of God is Freedom – Why Are We So Busy and Anxious?

What Does It Mean For Me To Believe in the Resurrection?

The Kingdom of God is Freedom – Why Are We So Busy and Anxious?

The Kingdom of God is Freedom from Anxiety and Busyness
When I first moved to Washington, DC, one of the first things I noticed was how busy everyone was. The capital of the United States is a place where people come to fight for their dreams. This city draws ambitious, well-educated, high-achieving people from all over the world.

Few other cities offer the kind of intellectual stimulation and challenge that our city does. Living here, we think fast and talk fast. We work hard to achieve a more positive and prosperous social order through business, science, and government.

But there’s a dark side to living in a land of such high expectations. Our culture leads to high performance and innovation, yes – but also to stress, workaholism, burnout, and even despair. When work becomes an all-consuming identity, all our other relationships – family, friends, hobbies, faith community – risk being diminished. Work and career success becomes the bright center of our universe, and all else must find its place in orbit.

For those of us who want to follow Jesus, this is an especially challenging dynamic. Jesus calls us to surrender our whole lives to loving God and neighbor. He commands us not to worry, and to give away what we have to those who are in need. He says, “don’t concern yourself with tomorrow, but show love to others – even your enemies – today.”

Our collective focus on career success is at odds with the life of gospel simplicity that Jesus teaches us. The unceasing treadmill of achievement threatens to overwhelm the joy and rest that Jesus offers us. The peace of Christ is swallowed up by the demands of sixty hour work weeks, networking, and an endless parade of goal-oriented tasks.

In this environment, even our faith can feel like just another task to be completed. Sunday morning worship – check. Spiritual disciplines – check. Grace before dinner – check. Prayer is yet another conference call we need to fit in before dinner.

But that’s not the gospel. The good news of Jesus is abundant life – freedom from fear, hatred, and the tyranny of busyness. As we learn to follow him, Jesus becomes the center – not another task to perform, but the unitive meaning and foundation of our lives. He liberates us from our task-oriented, success-dominated culture. He relativizes all those other demands in our lives. He reminds us that there is only one thing that is needful – his life, his presence, his love.

In Jesus we can find rest, relief from the burden of busyness. This is good news. Yet few of us are willing to walk this path, because it demands that we surrender our need to be important, be productive, be affirmed by our culture, colleagues, and bosses. It means giving up the security that this world offers in order to inherit the peace that the world cannot give.

What does this look like for you and me? How is Jesus calling us to embrace the bold and courageous spirit of the gospel in our daily lives? What would it mean to reject the culture of anxiety and overwork? How can we support one another in living as friends of Jesus, and inviting others to join us?

Related Posts:

Is My Life Too Busy for Contemplation?

What Does it Mean for Me To Believe In the Resurrection?

What is the Faith that Makes Resurrection Possible?

What is the Faith that Makes Resurrection Possible?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 2/25/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; & Mark 8:31-38. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

When I first read through the scripture readings for this Sunday, it wasn’t immediately clear to me how our gospel reading relates to the passage from Genesis. The story of Abraham and Sarah seems to be all about God bestowing unconditional blessing and abundance on two old people who had no hope at all for the future of their family.

The story of how God promised to make Abraham the father of many nations is one that, at first glance, seems very human and not supernatural at all. All of us want to leave a legacy. No one wants to see their name die out, to be forgotten by future generations. On its face, the story of Abraham and Sarah seems like a case of divine wish-fulfillment – a very human story with very human motivations. I can relate to it instantly.

On the other hand, there’s this story about Jesus and his hard-core insistence on embracing torture and death. In our gospel reading from Mark, Jesus rebukes Peter in front of all the other disciples. He says Peter’s mind is set on human things, rather than on the things of God. Jesus calls Peter “Satan” for his suggestion that Jesus should avoid the cross.

Peter and the other disciples didn’t believe in the cross. They didn’t believe in the path of self-emptying and dying to ego that Jesus was teaching them. Such things are incomprehensible to the human mind. Every one of us can understand a story about God granting new life, vitality, and progeny to an old man and his wife. Is it miraculous for an old woman to bear a child? Absolutely. Does it challenge our conception of the good life? Of who God is and should be? Probably not.

We want a God who guarantees our own survival and prosperity. We want a God who makes us fathers and mothers of many nations. Successful careers, happy families, public acclaim, and personal prosperity. We want the God of the good life, a God who promises joy, not suffering. We want the triumphant and generous God of Abraham and Sarah, not the whipped and crucified God that Jesus introduces us to.

But there is only one God. The God of the promise is the same God who endures the cross and invites us to walk in his way of self-abandonment. The God who provides us with a hope and a future is the same one who asks us to suffer for truth.

What is the relationship between these two faces of God? How do we reconcile the apocalyptic, bone-shaking God of Golgotha with the reassuring, sustaining God of the Promised Land?

For the apostle Paul, the answer is clear: It’s the resurrection. In our reading this morning from his letter to the Romans, Paul draws a clear line between the promise that God gave to Abraham and God’s act of raising Jesus from the dead.

Believe it or not, I find it easy to forget about the resurrection. I don’t know why, but I guess I’m a little more captivated by the fire and brimstone. When Jesus issues his challenge to the disciples, warning them about the suffering and persecution that he and his followers will face, that challenge seems like everything to me.

But the cross is not the end of Jesus’ story. The end of all the challenges that we face as friends of Jesus is not the grave, but victory. The message of Jesus one of life, truth, peace, and joy. As I mentioned in my last sermon, the very word “gospel” comes from the Greek term for a victory announcement. It is very good news.

From Genesis to Revelation, we discover a God who heals, guides, and protects us. God’s character doesn’t change. God was not first generous to Abraham and then hard-hearted towards Jesus. God demands the same thing from each one of us. He calls us into a kind of faith that brings us into conflict with the world as it is. And this same faith promises unconditional joy, growth, and wholeness as we choose to follow Jesus.

In our passage from Romans this morning, Paul teaches that God’s promise to Abraham wasn’t based on following a legal code. It wasn’t based on genetics, either. God promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations – not just his own biological descendants, but all those who share in his faith. It is Abraham’s faith made this promise from God possible. It is the righteous living that comes from faith that allows those who live in the spirit of Abraham to inherit the world.

I said that sometimes it’s easy for me to forget the resurrection in the midst of Jesus’ suffering. In the same way, I tend to ignore how much challenge and suffering Abraham and Sarah endured to receive God’s promise and blessing. Abraham and Sarah left home and family, wandering to an unknown land in the west. They did this on nothing more than a promise from God, that Abraham would be made into a great nation, and become a blessing to the whole world. Abraham and Sarah took an enormous risk based on a promise from a still, small voice that whispered in the night. Abraham and Sarah ventured out into the unknown. They took a leap of faith.

It all could have gone so badly. But God was faithful to Abraham and Sarah. Even when times were hard and they were on the run – even when Abraham got scared and did things like try to pass Sarah off as his sister! – God didn’t waver in preserving their lives and their marriage.

God was just as faithful to Jesus and his friends. Jesus suffered beatings, imprisonment, torture, and death on a cross – but on the third day, God raised him from the dead and glorified him. The faith of Abraham, the faith of Jesus, this faith has the power to birth children from the barren elderly and to raise the dead to life.

Before the resurrection, Peter and the other disciples simply couldn’t fathom how powerful this kind of trust could be. They couldn’t imagine how the path of pain and darkness could ever lead into the light. But after the resurrection of Jesus, the friends and followers of Jesus were filled with boldness, joy, and power. The apostles, who before the resurrection had been so clueless and frightened, found courage to share the good news throughout the world. They accepted the many challenges and hardships that came with this ministry. All but one is believed to have been murdered for their faithful witness.

In a world without the resurrection, this would seem a great tragedy. Why throw your life away when you could lead a safe and comfortable existence? But the faith of Abraham and Jesus teaches us a new way of living. Through the resurrection, we are rooted in the power of God, who is not constrained – even by death – in the ways that he blesses us.

We all have access to this resurrection power. Those of us gathered here this morning have been touched by his salvation. In large ways and small, we have experienced many spiritual baptisms into his death. We know darkness and suffering, the kind that requires trust to endure. We know the power of Jesus, through his Holy Spirit, which can raise us into new life.

We experience God’s call to yield ourselves, to embrace the challenges of righteous living. It’s a kind of life that draws us out from the mainstream culture and into the vibrant and risky counter-culture that is the kingdom of God. We know from experience and from the testimony of scripture that God calls us to take great risks. Through his resurrection power, God can overcome any adversity.

The world doesn’t understand this. Our own human minds can’t comprehend it. That is why Jesus rebuked Peter. He just couldn’t believe that Jesus was serious about submitting himself to death on the cross rather than leading a violent revolution to overthrow the Roman oppressors. Peter was only able to conceive of victory in the world’s terms. But in Jesus, God has revealed another way of conquering the world: with love, restoring wholeness and peace to the creation.

Most days, we’re just like Peter. We’re not capable of understanding God’s way of conquering love until we receive the faith of Abraham. We have to set our mind on the things of God, not on the human fears that hold us back from faithfulness.

There’s good reason for our fear. It’s rational to be afraid. Because God is calling us to a way of life that seems to threaten our very existence. As followers of Jesus, we’re called to surrender our wealth, our comfort, even our lives, to bless our neighbors and show love to our enemies. As the Lord Jesus tells us in our reading this morning:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Jesus asks us, What does it profit you to gain the whole world – of comfort, wealth, status, and acceptance by worldly authorities? What does it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your life? What can you give in exchange for your life?

Only the God of Abraham, the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, holds that kind of power. The power of life. Our God will defend you and bless you in the presence of enemies. He will walk with you through the pain and darkness. He will give you victory through the cross of Jesus.

Through faith, Abraham was able to see this. Now, through the resurrection, we can, too. God is the master of life and death. We can trust him, even when his word is totally out of sync with the wisdom of the world around us.

What are the areas of your life where God is inviting you to embrace the faith of Abraham? What are the challenges that seem insurmountable? What is the death that you’re afraid of? What does it mean for you to live in the power of the resurrection?

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In the Ash Heap and By the River – There’s Only One Way Home

In the Ash Heap and By the River – There’s Only One Way Home

In the Ash Heap and By the River - There's Only One Way Home
When I first felt called to ministry over a decade ago, I had a lot to say. I thought I had solutions to important problems. There was so much I wanted to contribute.

For many years I was extremely active. I studied and traveled. I spoke and wrote. I plumbed the depths in spiritual exploration, and shared with others what I had found. I was on fire for the truth, and I wanted to share it.

In recent years, I’ve gone through a process of slowing down. I transitioned from full-time ministry to a life full of secular work and family responsibilities. Things were bound to change when my wife and I began to have a family. Raising children takes a lot of time, energy, and resources.

As I found myself withdrawing (or being withdrawn) from the kind of ministry I had known in my twenties, my voice began to change. The herald’s trumpet that I had been wielding no longer suited me. My basic convictions had not shifted, yet my clarity about how to apply them had. Who am I to instruct others, when my own life is full of such struggle, compromise, and uncertainty?

The events of the past year – in politics and culture – have also made speaking more complicated. With the rise of extremist political ideology, our public discourse seems filled almost exclusively with trumpets and war drums. Brash, self-styled prophets who have no volume setting lower than ‘maximum.’ Pundits, bloggers, and Twitter jockeys who fill the airways with righteous indignation, furious condemnation, and apocalyptic certainty.

As these voices have gotten louder, mine has grown quieter. As the trumpets blare, my gospel song seems less audible – and perhaps less relevant. Some days I feel that I am losing my voice. After all, what is left to say? The world is full of shouting. Maybe what we need most right now are praying hearts and working hands.

I have always prided myself on being strong, but I have become weak. I was full, but now I’m empty. I’ve never been at a loss for what to say, but these days I feel muted. I resonate with the words of Job, who finally saw the face of God and the fearsome nature of the universe: “…I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know… therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

I have faith that God is providing a voice and a witness that can speak in these times of turmoil and confusion. Amid this age of blaring trumpets, there is a need for the lament of violins, and the praise of choirs.

In a time of many words, where is the power of silence? In the face of arrogant ideology, what does genuine humility look like? In a whirlwind of violent and chaotic spirituality, who are the peacemakers? What does it mean to repent in dust and ashes?

I am becoming convinced that this is precisely what God is requiring of me: Not solutions, but repentance. Throughout the pages of the Bible, in times of tragedy and crisis, God is always seeking men and women who respond with repentance. God spared Nineveh, a truly violent and wicked city, because its king and people humbled themselves, repenting in sackcloth and ashes. They pleased God – not by building a monument, establishing a new philosophy, or solving their economic issues – but by simply stopping cold and turning towards God.

When Jesus began his ministry, this was his message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” The kingdom of God is at hand. But first, repentance. First we must stop dead in our tracks and turn around. Turn again to God so that we might be healed.

The calling for me in this war-like age is not to double down on the things I think I know. It is not to fight to win. The way of Jesus does not defeat the enemy and establish a kingdom through force of argument or strength of arms. Instead he invites us into a life of humility and self-emptying. His ministry is one of healing and reconciliation. His challenge is one of endurance. We need marathon strength to answer hatred with love, injustice with righteousness, violence with firmness and compassion.

I say again with Job: “Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” I have nothing to offer but surrender, trusting that the God who created this world will sustain it. In turning, we can be healed.

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When Your Personal Brand Becomes Your Personal Hell

When Your Personal Brand Becomes Your Personal Hell

When Your Personal Brand Becomes Your Personal Hell
“Who am I?” It’s never been an easy question to answer. Adolescents have always struggled to define themselves, but these days it seems like we’re all teenagers. Each of us feels pressure to create a personal brand. Whether we meant to or not, we’ve all become political agents, minor celebrity personalities, and part-time philosophers.

Our entire society is caught in a perpetual quest for identity. We’re hungry to understand who we are. Because we honestly don’t know sometimes. There are far too many variables to juggle. Every time we think we may have found a satisfying answer, a new cultural trend, marketing campaign, or political scandal hits and we’re thrown into doubt and insecurity all over again.

Ours is the age of market segmentation. Identity has become a super buffet, with virtually unlimited mix-and-match options. Each one of us has a whole slew of identity-laden merit badges: attachments to a variety of communities, multiple ethnic and sexual identities, and unique commitments. Identity has become a patchwork quilt, uniquely cut for each individual.

In other times and places, identity had relatively little to do with the individual. It was something inherited – from family, tribe, nation, and religious communities. When new identities did emerge, it was in the context of mass movement. The rise of the early church, the early Quakers, nationalism and communism – each of these was a community you joined, a movement you gave yourself to.

In this new age of consumer choice, identity and community aren’t necessarily linked. Identity is available in single-serving doses. In fact, it’s become a challenge to get it in any other format. Identity has become yet another commodity that we consume. A product to sell us. We can be anything or anyone we want to be, a combination as unique as our social media graph and Amazon browsing history.

Yet at the heart of this single-serving life, we find emptiness. We are given a thousand and one ways to differentiate ourselves from those around us, and we do. Almost as if by plan, we have become so unique that our only common life is the consumer economy. Our baptism is buying. Our prayer life is selling. The closest we come to holy communion is our shared participation in the market.

In some ways, this is new. The degree and scale of our market-based atomization is certainly unprecedented. Yet in other ways, this experience is ancient. The idolatrous power of the market, and its ability to redefine identity and subvert community, is as old as civilization.

This is the way empire has always worked. In the ancient world, consumer activity was explicitly tied to worship. Shoppers in ancient Rome were required to offer a pinch of incense to the divinized emperor, paying tribute to the gods of the marketplace. The object of worship was the wealth and power of the state, the security it provided and the terror with which it reigned.

Things aren’t so different today. Despite our claims to individuality, we bow before the gods of the market. We may not be able to find unity in party, religion, culture, or science – but there is near unanimity when it comes to economics. Even those who rail against the system and see the evils of capitalism cannot resist it in practice. “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”

For those of us who are seeking to follow Jesus, the deck is doubly stacked against us. On the one hand, we are scattered and distracted by a multitude of competing identities, causes, and subcultures. On the other, we are seduced by the ubiquitous ad campaign of consumerism. Our creative energies are drained by the demands of a system that promises us luxury, but only in exchange for unquestioning devotion to the gods of productivity. We are offered autonomy and self-determination precisely in those realms where we are ultimately powerless – that of personal self-conception and representation. Meanwhile, the imperial economy demands our obedience in every way that matters.

How long will we obey?

What would it look like to reclaim our freedom from the gods of the marketplace? What would it mean to reject the lure of the personal brand, primping and styling our myriad identities without end? What would it feel like to question the unquestionable – the economic and social order of this world? Such a change would require an alternative community, a new kind of identity and social order.

The kingdom of God is this alternative. It is a life and community that stands in stark contrast to the economies and value systems of empire. Jesus invites us to an economy of love and self-denial.

The kingdom of God and the consumer cult of empire are mutually exclusive. As citizens of this kingdom, we utterly lose ourselves – and find our true identity for the first time.

What is this true identity worth? In world ravenous for identity, what am I prepared to sacrifice to never hunger again? What would it look like for me to subordinate all of my identities to the true self I find in Jesus? What hardened walls would I have to let down? What debates would I have to be willing to lose? What kinds of people must I learn to call “neighbor”?

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Should Christians Question Authority – Or Obey?

Should Christians Question Authority – Or Obey?
The Bible’s teachings on authority come not primarily though a set of terse doctrines set forth in a few lines, but rather through hundreds of stories. We learn about God’s authority and humanity’s original rebellion in the Garden of Eden. We encounter Moses’ authority, and the challenge it represented to the authority of Pharaoh in Egypt.

We learn that words spoken with authority can bring death, such as in the case of Ananias and Sapphira in the Book of Acts. On the other hand, godly authority has the power to bring life. Jesus often healed the sick, the lame, and the blind with the laying on of hands and words of authority.

When Jesus spoke in the synagogues, the people marveled at the authority with which he spoke. He opened the scriptures, not as a dead letter to be adhered to, but as a promise and a challenge to be received with joy and trembling. Jesus’ authority – the power of his ‘yes’ to truly mean ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to mean ‘no’ – was a hallmark of his ministry.

There is a thread in the biblical tapestry that argues clearly and forcefully for subjection to authority. Romans 13 comes to mind as an important – and often abused – example of this line of thinking. All authority is instituted by God, says Paul. The governing authorities are to be honored and obeyed, not just out of fear, but for the sake of conscience. God wants us to obey.

This is fascinating, coming from Paul. After all, Paul regularly tussled with the established authorities – religious and political – publicly challenging their world view. He was no one to shy away from upending the religious and cultural chieftains of his time and place. It’s not a coincidence that he regularly had to flee for his life. He spent much of his time in jail. How strange that among his teachings should be the idea that a violent, often tyrannical government like that of Rome should be honored and obeyed.

It’s not just Paul. We encounter this unexpected message in the life of Jesus, too. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist – not because he was in need of repentance, but “in order to fulfill all righteousness.” John’s ministry possessed authority, and Jesus found that in submitting himself to John, he was submitting himself to the Father.

Jesus didn’t submit himself to every authority. Jesus openly defied the life-denying teachings of the Pharisees and priests that dominated Jewish religious and political life. He challenged Herod, the notoriously unjust local strongman who murdered John the Baptist, even calling him names at one point. Jesus seemed to have no problems picking fights with those in authority.

And yet, when Jesus was arrested by the Sanhedrin in Gethsemane, he ordered his disciples not to fight. He submitted himself, first to the abusive authority of the priests, and later to the state violence of Rome. According to scripture, Jesus had no defiant words for the Pilate. The Roman governor was amazed at his passivity! Jesus exercised a ministry characterized by direct confrontation with those in authority, yet he was led to his death without resistance.

No matter how much some of us may resonate with the maxim, “question authority,” the Bible gives consistent witness to the importance of obedience. Jesus himself is the ultimate authority. In him all things hold together. Everything that does not join with him scatters. All authority is instituted by God; it is the skeletal system of the God-created cosmos. The kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but power.

We live in an age in which almost all of our authorities and civic institutions are being ripped down. The individual reigns supreme. In the absence of authority, truth becomes a moving target. With no one able speak with authority about the things that really matter, we are all relegated to the realm of “alternative facts.”

Despite the twistedness of our human authorities and value systems, we clearly need them. God instituted authority when he said “let there be light!” and divided the day from the night. Through his supreme, creative authority, God drew us out of chaos and into a beautiful, ordered universe. Only God’s authority can overcome the chaos and confusion that now reigns in our personal and civic life.

Yet there’s good reason that so much authority has been rejected. Our authoritative institutions in government, business, and religion have all been thoroughly discredited. Corruption abounds. It’s hard to see how we should submit ourselves to an authority that is so hollowed out, so rife with injustice and hypocrisy. The Bible supports us in this conclusion, too, with its many stories of resistance to an unjust social order.

How do we reconcile this biblical ambiguity? Are we to submit to the governing authorities – to the civic and religious institutions that govern our society – even when they’re wrong? Or is it more important to stand up for truth, even if it means trashing the authority structures that lend shape and coherence to our communities, nations, and the world at large?

It would be easier if we could simply say, “submit to authority, always” or “question authority, no matter what.” Black-and-white rules are easier to follow than principles guided by conscience. But for better or worse, we don’t live in a black-and-white world. God has given us free will, in clear anticipation of the challenging and nuanced choices we are called to make.

What does it mean to imitate Jesus in our relationship to authority? What does it mean when he teaches us to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and render unto God that which belongs to God”? Like so many profound teachings, these words of Jesus contain a tension that demands discernment on our part. We are to subordinate ourselves to the authority of the state. Yet we can only rightly submit ourselves to human authority in the context of our ultimate submission to God.

Who are the authorities in your life? Police, the IRS, employers. The money economy, church leadership, social expectations. Fashion, loyalty to sports teams, family. Here in the United States, we like to think of ourselves as free and independent people, beholden to no one. Yet there are so many authorities that we answer to. What does it mean to obey – or to resist?

Paul, who in Romans calls us to submission to the civil authority, also writes, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” All authority is instituted by God, yet not all authorities are to be obeyed. How does Paul navigate this dilemma? How do we?

Though not an author of the Bible, C.S. Lewis provides a clue when he writes that the devil doesn’t create anything. The Father of Lies can only twist the good creation that God has made. God created all authority to bless and give life, but through our rebellion against that holy and healthy authority, we have allowed the creation to become twisted. Authority no longer works as intended. Rather than acting as a skeletal structure for the body of Christ, it can be misdirected to empower evil.

How do we tell the difference between authority instituted by God and demonic strongholds that must be challenged? Sometimes it seems impossible to sort out all the mixed motives in our relationships and institutions. Fortunately, the author of all authority is available to guide us in our discernment. Jesus promised us that the Holy Spirit would be present, speaking through us as we interact with authority. As we submit ourselves to God, we can be instruments of healing and reconciliation for earthly authorities that have become twisted with rebellion and diverted from their God-given purpose.

This process of courageous discernment requires that we maintain an awareness of who is in control. All authority is delegated by God, and so all authorities are answerable to God. The Holy Spirit lives and speaks in us, so even the weakest of us can be called to speak in God’s authority. We are called to submit to the governing authorities, and to all authorities that God has instituted over us – citizen to government, child to parent, worker to employer. Yet in all these relationships of authority, God must always reign supreme. Each one of us stands or falls before our own master – the Lord Jesus. We are primarily and ultimately responsible to him. We must be mindful of our obedience to him even in the midst of our subordination to lesser authorities.

As the early church said to the religious authorities who ordered them to speak no more in the name of Jesus, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

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