Archive for 2021

Like Sheep Among Wolves

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/25/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: John 10:11-18. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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Sheep are herd animals – so much so that, in English, we even use the same word for the singular and plural – one sheep, two sheep, a flock of sheep. When we think of sheep, we’re usually thinking about a group of them, not a single individual.

Just like there is really no such thing as a lone sheep, there is no such thing as an individual Christian. Jesus doesn’t just call us as individuals, he calls us to community. We are gathered into one flock, under one shepherd.

That’s why we’re gathered this morning. This is a flock meeting. Our shepherd Jesus has called us together. We are learning that we can trust him, because he lays down his life for us. He guides us in the way we need to go. He protects us from the wolves.

Sometimes we don’t take the wolves seriously enough. The wolves are real. The wolves do tear, and devour, and scatter. Selfishness, addiction, confusion, pride, racism, and greed. The wolves are the spiritual powers of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and despair.

We do not live in a neutral world without moral consequence. We are in a spiritual warfare between the forces of light and darkness, good and evil, sheep and wolves. In the words of the apostle Peter, in chapter five of his first epistle:

“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brothers and sisters throughout the world.”

In Jesus, we stand triumphant over the power of sin, death, and the devil. The key words here are, in Jesus. As sheep, we aren’t capable of fighting the wolves ourselves. We survive their predation by hanging together as a flock. We escape the wolves by trusting our good shepherd to protect us. 

Sheep need shepherds. We need those who care for and protect the flock. We need those who help us determine which way the flock should move, and to warn us when wolves are threatening the community. And with the gift of the Holy Spirit, God has raised up good shepherds among us. Men and women of spiritual depth and power, who thanks to God’s grace have been made trustworthy to care for the flock, as sub-shepherds to Jesus. These individuals should be honored and heeded and encouraged.

But a lot of discernment is in order. Not just any shepherd will do. There are so many hired hands, false shepherds who would gather us for the fleece. They would lead us out of self-interest and vanity rather than love. And when the wolves come, they will abandon us to our fate.

The church has a long history of discerning between false shepherds and true ones. From the first generation of Christians, the apostles and fathers of the early church warned against those who would turn human tradition into a new law – telling us, “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch.” There have always been those who would sell us easy, mechanistic spiritual laws rather than the challenging freedom that we find in Christ.

There were those who would tell us that God is so holy that Jesus could never have come in the flesh. Others said that Jesus is merely a human teacher, but not divine. All the ancient heresies of the early church period were the work of false shepherds. All of the paths that they offered tickled the mind and puffed up the ego, but led to spiritual death.

The early Quakers faced off against false shepherds of their own. In their day, it was the state church’s priests and bishops, who inherited their office as a title and made a living off of the mandatory tithes that all were required to pay them, under penalty of law. These were men who turned the gospel into a business. They used the mantle of Christ as a way to extract wealth from the flock of God – shearing the sheep with abandon, but having no interest in protecting them.

False shepherds aren’t just a thing of ancient church history. They’re a present-day reality that we must be on guard against. The false shepherds are on the loose in the form of prosperity gospel preachers and secular hustlers. People who want to sell us on the idea that if we just put the right “energy” out into the world, that we will get back whatever we desire. People who say that if you are poor, or sick, or unlucky, it’s because you haven’t got the right attitude, or that you don’t have enough faith.

The false shepherds are the political pundits and leaders who sow fear to boost their ratings and cement their power. They’re the social media influencers who use our outrage and horror to fuel engagement. The false shepherds step forward as leaders, only to lead us on paths of destruction.

They hand us over to the wolves. Wolves like militant nationalism, stock-market speculation, gambling, addictive video games and social media, pornography, and hard drugs. These false shepherds entice us into patterns of compulsive behavior that cheapen and destroy our lives.

But there is good news. There is a shepherd who is not false! We recognize his voice, because he lays down his life for the sheep. He won’t let any of us be lost. He is here to protect us. We can rely on him.

Jesus is the good shepherd – not just to us, but to the whole world. Jesus says that he has sheep who are “not of this fold.” In the context of John, Jesus is probably referring to the Gentiles – flocks beyond the people of Israel, who were traditionally thought to be beyond the reach of God’s love. Who are those outcast sheep today? Jesus is coming for them, too.

There will be one flock, one shepherd. As Jesus reconciles us to God, he gathers us together as one planetary community. No one is to be excluded. Every single one of us is invited to hear the voice of Jesus and become part of the one flock of God.

I’m tempted to say that Jesus calls us to be good shepherds, too. To imitate Jesus and lay down our lives for the flock. To go forth and preach the gospel, and bring those other sheep into the one flock – to gather all the peoples of the earth into the family of God in Jesus.

I’m especially tempted because it’s true. We are called to do all these things as friends of Jesus. That’s the Great Commandment: love God, and love neighbor. It’s the Great Commission: go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature under heaven. This is what it looks like in practice. We are called to imitate Jesus.

But I don’t think that this is what Jesus is saying here, in this passage in John. Jesus is not saying, “I am the good shepherd, come and be shepherds like me.” Jesus is saying, “I am the good shepherd; you are my sheep.”

We are his sheep. He gathers us into one flock. We hear his voice. He guides us to springs of living water. He feeds us on the bread of life. He restores our souls. He makes us one body in him.

We are the sheep, and Jesus is the shepherd. Our job is not to replace Jesus as the shepherd; our job is to be obedient, faithful sheep. Loving one another. Caring for one another. Listening to the voice of the shepherd as he leads us.

This sheepy-ness is the protection that we have from the false shepherds, from the hired hands that do not really care about the flock but seek leadership for their own reasons. This is our protection from the wolves: Reliance on Jesus, our one shepherd leading our one flock.

We humans are so wired to think we need more than that. The Jews wanted a king. The early church wanted archbishops and popes and ecumenical councils under the authority of emperors. The story of the people of God is one of continuous self-seduction with our sub-shepherds.

The Good news of Jesus is not the reign of sub-shepherds. God does not offer us a new temple, or a law, or sacrifices, or a political order. God offers us his son, Jesus, our good shepherd. God says, “this is my son, the beloved – listen to him!”

As the psalmist says, “He is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. O that today you would hearken to his voice!”

Jesus is the good shepherd, and we are his flock. One shepherd, one flock, and Jesus will gather us together. We can participate. We can be the flock, but he is the shepherd. Know his voice. Listen to him. Hear him. Follow him.

We must stop looking for another answer, another leader, another ideology that will save us. Jesus is telling us, that’s a dead end. As long as we’re seeking something more than Jesus, all we’ll find is hired hands – gurus and preachers and politicians and TED Talkers and activists and CEOs – people whose interests are served by leading us for now, but who have no intention of laying down their lives for the flock.

Jesus lays down his life for the flock. Jesus is the voice we can trust. Jesus is the pillar of cloud and of fire that Israel followed in the desert. He is the water from the rock and the manna from heaven. He is the answer. On Christ the solid rock we stand; all other ground is sinking sand.

So let’s not be distracted by arguments over Paul or Apollos or Cephas – human leaders through whom we have heard the word of God and come to believe. All of our true leaders point us to Jesus, the good shepherd. Listen to him!

Trust him. Follow him. We can walk without fear, because he is guiding us. The Lord will fight our battles. The good shepherd has already triumphed over the wolves of this world. We don’t have to accomplish anything on our own. Wait on the Lord, hearken to his voice, and watch as he accomplishes it.

Do You Feel Left Out At Church? So Did The Apostle Thomas

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/11/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: John 20:19-31. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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It was night time on the day that Jesus rose from the dead. Mary Magdalene had seen Jesus – at first she had thought he was a gardener, but it was Jesus. Mary had told the other disciples what she had seen. She told the Twelve, “I have seen the Lord!”

John doesn’t say whether the other disciples believed Mary, but there are some clues that they still had doubts. It says that they were gathered together in a locked house. They were afraid that the same people who arrested Jesus and turned him over to be killed might be coming for them next.

The disciples didn’t want to get in trouble. They didn’t want to suffer and die the way they had seen Jesus die just a few days before. The disciples knew that the priests and scribes and leaders of the people were out for blood. If they could do that to Jesus, imagine what they could do to Jesus’ disciples!

You can understand that, right? A couple of your friends – Peter and John – saw an empty tomb where Jesus’ body was supposed to be; that’s pretty strange. And then Mary says that she saw Jesus alive. It’s hard to believe. You’d want to believe, wouldn’t you? You’d want to believe that somehow, your friend and teacher wasn’t really dead. But you saw it happen. You saw him get nailed to a cross. They killed Jesus, and you might be next.

So, you might be cautious. You say, “Peter, John – tell us that story again. You say the tomb was empty? Did it look like there had been a robbery? How did the tomb robbers move that huge stone?”

You say, “Mary, I know you think you saw Jesus. We all see Jesus. On the cross! We can’t get that image out of our vision. It’s like we’re seeing him every hour, every moment. We understand, Mary. This is all just too much for you. You need to rest, Mary. Go lay down.”

The good news can be hard to believe, because bad news seems so much more plausible.

But Mary keeps insisting, “I have seen the Lord!” Behind the locked doors, despite all the fear, there’s a spark of hope. You aren’t sure what to believe. Could it be? Could Mary have really seen the Lord Jesus, raised from the dead?

And then, suddenly, everybody sees him. The doors are locked, but Jesus is there. He’s standing right there in the middle of the room, saying “peace be with you” and breathing on you. He’s breathing the Holy Spirit on you and giving you power to forgive others. He’s taking away your fear and filling you with hope. Jesus is alive! 

But poor Thomas, one of the disciples is out picking up pizza. He was gone while Jesus appeared to everybody else. And when he gets back, you’re all going crazy, saying, “Thomas! Thomas! You won’t believe it! We have seen the Lord!”

And here’s Thomas, holding a stack of pizzas in his arms. “You’re right. I won’t believe it. There’s no way Jesus is alive. There’s no way that he just showed up here while I was gone. Even if that were possible, there’s no way he left me out like that.” 

Thomas is angry. He says, “I won’t believe this crazy story of yours unless I see him for myself. I want to touch him. I want to touch the places where they nailed his hands to the cross. I want to put my hand into his side, where they pierced him. Then I’ll believe you.”

Have you ever felt like that? Has it ever felt like the church is a place full of people who believe crazy things that you just can’t? Have you ever felt left out, like Thomas did? Like everyone else has had this amazing experience of God and Jesus, but you just haven’t had that same experience?

The disciples loved Mary, but it doesn’t seem like they could quite bring themselves to fully trust the good news of the resurrection. Not just because she said so.

And even when all the others had seen the risen Jesus, Thomas still couldn’t believe. This was just too much to take on faith. He needed to see it for himself.

We know from John’s story that Jesus came back. He didn’t leave Thomas out. He didn’t make Thomas take the other disciples’ word for it. Jesus loved Thomas and wanted to see him. He wanted to be with Thomas. He wanted Thomas to know and believe that he had risen from the dead. Jesus was happy to make himself visible to Thomas, to give him the gift of his presence.

Jesus says, “Touch my wounds, Thomas. Put your hand in my side. I will give you what you need so that you can believe.”

Thomas is overwhelmed by emotion. He cries out, “My Lord and my God!”

And I know that Jesus is so happy to see Thomas, and to be seen by him. He’s so happy that Thomas can now feel on the inside of the story. He’s joyous that Thomas can believe. But he also reminds Thomas and the others: It would have been nice if you had trusted Mary from the beginning. Oh ye of little faith, why didn’t you believe her when she came bearing the good news? Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

And this has been the line of most of the church for the last 2000 years: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Or, put another way, “Take our word for it. We have seen, and you can trust us.” The church, with its Bible and tradition and collective memory, proclaims the good news to us. Like Mary. Like the apostles. They testify to the good news, and ask us to accept it as a gift.

That’s hard for a lot of us. It’s hard for me. I am very much a Thomas-style Christian. I need to see. I need to touch. I need to hear. I need to experience the risen presence of Jesus for myself. It’s not enough to hear the stories, even from people who are trustworthy. I want to believe, but it’s so hard when he has appeared to others, but not to me.

The good news in our reading this morning is that both of these things can be true. We really are blessed when we believe without seeing. We are blessed when we trust Mary Magdalene who brings us the good news of the resurrection. We are blessed when we trust the great cloud of witnesses – the apostles, the saints, and the church through the ages. We are blessed when we trust them, even when we can’t see clearly.

But the good news is also that Jesus Christ is here to teach his people himself. That’s the emphasis of the Quaker movement. That’s the special value that we bring to the wider church – a church that often says “trust us, trust us, trust us”, but is sometimes skeptical that Jesus is really here for us like he was for his first disciples.

The good news that Quakerism lifts up is that God does not condemn us if we are like Thomas and the twelve apostles. If we need to see Jesus for ourselves, he will show up. Jesus will be present with us. This isn’t a burden for him; Jesus loves to do this for us. Jesus is available to guide us and teach us. We are blessed if we believe without seeing, but he will be present when we need him.

Have you seen the Lord yourself? Or are you a blessed person who has come to believe without seeing? 

Do you feel left out sometimes? Do you feel like you are missing something? Do you wonder if anyone else feels like you?

I have. I do. We have. We do. You are not alone.

Just like those first disciples, we are gathered together waiting on the Lord. Waiting to see what will happen next. To see how he will guide us. Learning how to trust one another as we trust him. Learning to say, “We are blessed, because we have come to believe without seeing.” And also learning to say, “We have seen the Lord!”

Living Like Jesus in a World that Hates the Light

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 3/28/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: Mark 11:1-11. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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Jesus riding into Jerusalem was out of sync with the world.

The streets of Jerusalem were full of people, waving leafy branches and calling out “Hosanna!” They were amped up and ready for a show. They believed – or hoped – that Jesus was the Messiah, God’s anointed one, the new king of Israel. 

But the crowds had no idea what God’s messiah would be. They had made God – and his messiah – into their own image. A strong man. The Son of David.

Jesus arrived in the heart of God’s world, the holy precincts of the Temple. He arrived “after hours”. Nothing was going on, no one was waiting around to greet him. Jesus was irrelevant to the institutions and the leaders. Before Jesus started disrupting the operations of the Temple, clearing out the moneylenders. Before he started debating the priests and authorities in the midst of the holy place. Before he made himself such a nuisance that he could no longer be ignored, the leading men in Jerusalem were content to turn a blind eye.

But even before they decided to kill Jesus, he was already rejected by the world.

The Pharisees rejected Jesus because they rejected the sovereignty of God – his creative presence in the world. They didn’t believe God could or would do anything outside of their interpretation of his law. The Messiah couldn’t be Jesus, because Jesus didn’t slavishly obey the rules. In Jesus, we meet the image of a personal God – a God who acts in context, not hemmed in by a set of leather-bound legal statutes.

The priests and Temple administration rejected Jesus as a blasphemer – someone who offends against God’s dignity, someone who insults God. Why? Because he claimed to be the Messiah, the Son of Man. From the perspective of the priests, it was an insult to God that someone as lowly as Jesus, someone born in Nazareth, someone without pedigree and – most crucially – someone who was an outsider to their institution, would claim to be God’s anointed.

But what about the people? It sure seems like the crowds believed in him. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the people were celebrating Jesus as a hero, praying that he would be God’s anointed one who would finally save them from the power of death, the sword of the Roman conqueror.

Jesus was the Messiah that they had been waiting for. The crowd – as ignorant, fickle, and dangerous as they were – were right to cry out “Hosanna” for him. But they, too, misunderstood Jesus – and when they soon came to realize that he did not come to bring the kingdom of David, but rather a different kind of kingdom, the crowd would collaborate with the priests and scribes to have Jesus put to death on a cross.

So the priests said, “No, you can’t possibly be the Messiah, because you’re not one of us.”

The scribes said, “You cannot be the Messiah, because you do not follow the rules.”

And the people said, “You cannot be the Messiah, because you do not fulfill our wishes.”

Jesus was out of sync with them all. He wasn’t what any of them had hoped for or expected.

Even the disciples, in their moment of truth in the Garden of Gethsemane, would flee and abandon Jesus. They believed that they were ready to fight and die at the side of a Davidic messiah; but they didn’t know what to do with a suffering servant.

No one understood Jesus, not even those he loved most.

Because we know that Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah – the anointed one of God. Because we know that he is God’s word to us. Because we know that he is the original apostle, the one God sent to bring good news to us, we know that Jesus was not out of sync with the world. The world was out of sync with Jesus. The world was out of sync with God.

Jesus could never have been what the world expected him to be without betraying the very nature of his mission. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Jesus said all of this quite openly.

Jesus knew what it meant to be a servant of God in a world that rejects the light and loves the darkness. As friends and followers of Jesus, we must never forget this.

As we remember what is called Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem this morning, I am reminded of another so-called triumphal entry. This time, into Bristol, England.

It was the year 1656, and the Quaker movement was growing by leaps and bounds. Quakers were disrupting the established religion of England, proclaiming the good news of the resurrection – the living presence of Jesus Christ – available to every man, woman, and child. England at this time was living under an unstable revolutionary government; one which had failed to deliver on its promises of social justice, liberty, and peace; one which feared that it might soon be ousted from power – as indeed it was just four years later.

In the midst of this cultural and political tinderbox, James Nayler rode into Bristol, seated on a donkey, with other Quakers around him shouting, “Hosanna” and “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Israel.” Quakers had done public signs like this before, but this time the political winds had shifted. After years of dealing with rowdy Quakers, the authorities had decided that the Religious Society of Friends was a fundamental threat to their ability to govern. 

And so James Nayler was arrested and sent to London, where he was tried and convicted of blasphemy. Parliament just narrowly decided against executing James, instead torturing him nearly to death. They left him to rot in prison. When they finally released him several years later, he was attacked on the road as he made his way home to the north of England. He died, a physically wrecked and broken man.

Most Quakers utterly abandoned James Nayler, and for centuries he has been a notorious part of the Quaker story. A cautionary tale of what can happen when individual Quakers “go too far” and “run ahead of their Guide.” The implication, repeated for centuries by the Quaker community that fled and abandoned Nayler in his moment of greatest vulnerability and suffering, has been that Nayler deserved what he got, and that Quakers need to be more careful.

I’m sure that’s what the scribes and the priests and the crowds thought when they crucified Jesus. I wonder, if it weren’t for the fact of the resurrection, if that might not be the story that Jesus’ own disciples would have been telling a few months later. “That crazy old Jesus. He had some really good ideas, but he just went too far. We tried to talk him out of it, but he just wouldn’t stop antagonizing the authorities. Anybody could have seen it coming.”

Jesus was tortured, humiliated, and executed for blasphemy. He was out of sync with the world to such a degree that the only response that he could expect was violent rejection. Jesus was the anointed one, sent to his people to set them free. To bring the word of God to them. To announce the kingdom of God. For a world that rejects the light and loves the darkness, that’s blasphemy. That’s spiritual insurrection.

As we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem this morning, and as we look forward to Holy Week – including the last supper; the betrayal and arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane; the trial and conviction of Jesus for blasphemy by the high priests; his torture and execution by the Roman authorities; and finally his resurrection – as we remember all these things in the coming week, we have an opportunity to enter more fully into the life and mission of Jesus.

Are we in sync with a world that hates God, or do we risk being misfits and “dangerous” characters with Jesus? In a world where even Jesus’ disciples abandoned Jesus, and the Quaker community abandoned James Nayler, will we be different? What does it look like to practice steadfast loyalty to God and to our brothers and sisters in Christ? 

Will we stand together, or will we flee and abandon one another when things get hard?

Jesus and James had to go it alone. They walked that lonesome valley by themselves. But the good news is that the Holy Spirit gives us power to become a community that is out of sync with the world, and in sync with God’s love. 

We are called to join Jesus and James in their witness as suffering servants, to lay down our lives for a world that does not yet know God, which loves the darkness and hates the light.

As we enter into this season of remembrance, prayer, and finally celebration on Easter Sunday, let us examine ourselves to see how we may be more faithful and persistent, supporting one another in this walk of suffering, triumph, and joy with the risen Jesus.

The Light of Jesus Shines on Everyone – Even our Enemies

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 3/14/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: John 1:1-14. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

That’s how the apostle John describes Jesus. Jesus is the true light. He is the word of God that was born into the world and became a human being. He became one of us.

He is the true light that enlightens everyone. He gives light to everyone.

Isn’t that amazing? But it’s hard to believe, isn’t it?

I mean, is John really saying that the light of Jesus shines on the bad people? The light of Jesus shines on people who don’t believe? Is he saying that the light shines on the people who treated him with cruelty and even killed Jesus? This true light enlightens everyone?

This simple teaching from the apostle John has been hard to hear for many people throughout the ages. It’s hard to believe that Jesus would really come to save everyone, not just a select few.

Berkeley Friends Church is a Quaker church, and so we look back to the early Quakers to help us understand the teaching of the apostles. The early Quakers were women and men who lived a long time ago in England, before America was even an independent country. 

In those days, lots of people said that you had to be the right kind of person for Jesus to shine on you. You had to believe the right things and belong to the right organizations to experience the light of Jesus.

But the Quakers said: “No, that’s not what the apostles taught us. John says that Jesus is the source of everything we see and everyone we meet. He is our life, and his life is the light of all people.” The early Quakers pointed to the apostle John, who says: every single one of us has the light of Jesus shining on us.

That’s good news! Everybody is included in the light and presence of God. He is here with us. He was from the beginning, is now, and will be with us forever.

So why did people hurt and kill Jesus? If we are all being shined on – enlightened – by the presence of Jesus, why didn’t we treat Jesus with more love when he walked among us?

John says that “the world came into being through [Jesus]; yet the world did not know him.” Jesus was right here with us, walking and talking to us, and we didn’t realize who he was! His own people didn’t accept him.

We made a terrible mistake. We were so blind that we couldn’t see the light when he was standing right in front of us.

But, again, there’s good news. The light of Jesus was from the beginning, living a perfect life together with God. He shines on all of us, always. He’s always here for us. All we have to do is open our eyes and see. Open our ears and listen. If we do that, John says that Jesus will give us power to become children of God. Sons and daughters, just like Jesus.

That’s what the early Quakers said, too. They said, “You don’t have to be anyone special. You don’t have to look a certain way or have the right kind of car. You don’t have to eat organic food or go to the right school. If you open your eyes to the light of Jesus that is shining on you. If you open your ears to his voice. If you let his light fill you and guide your steps, you can be a child of God.”

We all have human parents, moms and dads who gave us life. We inherit so much from them. But the light of Jesus gives us power to become children of God. Brothers and sisters of Jesus. Receiving a much bigger life. Inheriting grace, truth, and love from our Father God.

John says: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Life is hard sometimes. But we don’t need to be afraid when people talk about how bad the world is. Because God created everything good, and he can make things good again. Everything that is broken can be healed in the light of Jesus.

“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” Jesus is here. He is shining on you. Open your eyes, open your ears, open your heart, and you will see him.

Why is the Cross a Symbol of Christianity? It Didn’t Used to Be!

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 2/28/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: Mark 8:31-9:1. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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The early Christian church didn’t use the cross as a religious symbol. The cross didn’t appear in the Christian art and artifacts that we have from before the reign of Emperor Constantine in the 300s AD. For the first three hundred years of the church, Christians used the image of fishes and shepherds, doves, and even boat anchors – but never the cross. The cross didn’t become a logo for Christianity until after the Roman Empire began to be Christianized and crucifixion was banned as a form of execution.

So why not? Given how central Jesus’ death on the cross is to the Christian faith, why wasn’t the cross a cherished symbol from the very beginning?

Maybe we ought to ask Peter. In the text of Mark that comes just before our reading this morning, the soon-to-be-apostle Peter has just confessed the identity of Jesus as the Christ, the Jewish messiah. This is the correct answer, and Jesus doesn’t deny it. But Jesus silences Peter and orders the disciples not to tell anyone.

That’s weird enough. But what comes next is even more unexpected.

The Jewish messiah is supposed to be the person that sets the world right, kicks out the foreign invaders, and re-establishes the kingdom of David in Jerusalem – this time forever!

But immediately after Peter confesses Jesus as that very messiah, Jesus launches into a frank discussion with the disciples. He tells them, to paraphrase Obi Wan Kenobi, that he is not the droid they are looking for. He is the messiah, but this messiah is not the conquering king that the disciples expected. He is the suffering servant that Isaiah prophesied, saying about him:

But he was wounded for our transgressions,

    crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the punishment that made us whole,

    and by his bruises we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;

    we have all turned to our own way,

and the Lord has laid on him

    the iniquity of us all.

(Isaiah 53:5-6)

Mark says that Jesus, “began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Now, Peter thought that Jesus was going to lead him and the other disciples to victory. He thought that they were going to be doing the killing! They were going to be ruling in a kingdom of justice and peace, like the reign of Solomon, but even better. What was this craziness about being killed?

So Peter says, “Hey, Jesus, lemme talk to you for a minute.” And he speaks to him privately. I imagine it went something like this: “Come on, teacher. I know you must not mean what you are saying – you’re always talking in parables after all. But just in case I misunderstood – you know that you can’t be going up to Jerusalem to die, right? We are going up to conquer

When we get to the holy city, we are going to set all those priests and rulers straight. We’re going to get God’s house in order. And then we’re going to kick those wicked Romans out once and for all. Maybe crucify a few of them for once! Am I right, or am I right?”

Peter thought he was giving Jesus a private pep talk, but Jesus isn’t having it. He turns away from Peter and faces all of the disciples, and he says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

“Get behind me, Satan.” Wow. Can you imagine how crushing it would be to have Jesus say that to you? And not just in private, but in front of everybody? I feel sorry for Peter.

But for all his good intentions, Peter was the mouthpiece of the evil one in that moment. The Tempter was speaking through him, just like in Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the wilderness beyond the Jordan. The devil said to him, “If you will only bow down and worship me, all the kingdoms of the world can be yours.”

And so Jesus calls everybody together. Peter, the disciples, the crowds – everyone. And he tells them: “If you want to follow me, deny yourself and take up the cross. Embrace shame and execution. Accept death. Because that’s the only way to truly live. If you are not ashamed of me, you will walk with me in this path of the cross. But if you are ashamed of me, I will be ashamed of you when I come into my kingdom.”

So ask Peter about the cross. Ask him why it wasn’t a religious symbol for the early church. Because it was a stumbling block to him. It was a scandal to everyone who heard Jesus’ words that day. 

The Roman cross was a horrifying evil, and for centuries the Christian church did not center it as a symbol. It took the Christianization of the Roman Empire and the ending of crucifixion as a punishment for the church to begin to see the cross as anything other than unalloyed horror.

That’s how we should view the cross, too. That’s the key to understanding Jesus’ words to us in the gospel of Mark. Because Jesus wasn’t using the image of “taking up your cross” as a pious metaphor. He was being literal. He was talking about the shocking, excruciating, public execution that he and many others would endure for their faith.

It’s easy to lose sight of that today, seventeen hundred years after crucifixion was consigned to the dustbin of history. It might be easier for us to hear Jesus telling us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and get strapped into the electric chair.” Or, “those who want to be my followers have to be ready for the gas chamber.” 

To be a disciple of Jesus is to face the firing squad. It is to be counted as a mortal enemy of this world. It is to face the wrath of society. It is to become a scapegoat. It is to become that suffering servant with Jesus, just like Isaiah foretold, one who “makes many righteous” and “bears their iniquities.”

We can’t step back from this message. As friends and followers of Jesus, we can’t look away from the cross, as truly horrible as it is. We can’t pretty it up, and make it just about some pious, private, “spiritual” reality. To walk with Jesus is a public and literal act. It means embracing his path of downward mobility and suffering for the love of those around us – especially those who hate us.

The early church was right. The cross isn’t a symbol of glory; it is a signet of suffering. It is what Christ suffered in order to give us life, to show God’s love to us when we hated him.

Jesus is saying to us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

The devil offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for his life. We are each offered the same bargain. But Jesus reminds us that the devil is a liar, and his bargain is a scam: “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”

What Jesus offers us is life and truth. “Those who want to save their life will lose it,” but in the way of the cross, “those who lose their life for [his] sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Will we be ashamed of Jesus and his words? Will we cling to the life that we have? Will we scratch and claw and kill to defend it? 

Or will we embrace the way of our crucified messiah, the suffering servant, who has promised us that “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power”?

What Does God Look Like?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 2/14/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: 1 John 4:7-12. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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What does God look like?

A couple of minutes ago we looked at an image of a mama lion and a baby lion, and we talked about how this image could represent love for us. The love of a parent for a child. God’s love for us as a community. 

This is important, because the apostle John tells us that God is love. So when we know what love looks like, we know what God looks like.

What does it mean that God is love? It means that when we care for our brother or sister, we’re seeing God. When we share. When we protect. When we say we’re sorry. When we give a hug. That’s what God looks like.

When George and Francis and I walk together to the park, the rule is that we have to stay together, and when we cross the street we always hold hands. That’s the rule, because if we don’t hold hands, we might get hurt crossing the street.

So when I tell George or Francis to hold my hand, even if they don’t feel like doing it right then, that’s what love looks like. 

We can see God through the way that a father protects his children. We can also see it through how children take care of their father. 

Sometimes, I forget to hold someone’s hand, and George or Francis remind me. They say, “¡manos, papa!” And we remember to hold hands. Francis and George are watching out for me. They don’t want me to get hurt crossing the street. That’s what God looks like. Francis and George are showing me love by protecting me. That’s what God is like.

The apostle John tells us that we know God when we love other people. If we don’t show love to other people, then we don’t know God – because God is love.

So how do we know if what we are doing is love? How can we tell that our love comes from God, that we’re really seeing God?

John tells us that we can recognize God’s love in our lives when we remember Jesus. George and Francis and Amos are my sons. Jesus is God’s son, and God loves Jesus so much, just like I love my boys. I would never want to let anything bad happen to George or Francis or Amos, and God doesn’t want anything bad to happen to Jesus, either.

But God loves us so much that God sent Jesus here to be with us, even though he knew that we would hurt Jesus. God knew that people would kill Jesus, but Jesus came anyway. He became a man and lived with us, so that we would see what God’s love looks like.

Jesus coming to be with us was like God putting out his hand and saying, “Stop! Don’t cross that street without me. You need to hold my hand. I love you, and I am going to keep you safe. I’m going to set you free so that you can cross the street.” God says, “I love you, and we will get to the other side together.”

No one has ever seen God, but now we have seen him because we have seen the love he has for us in Jesus. Because of his love for us, we can walk with him no matter how scary the world feels sometimes.

No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God’s love is perfected in us. The love of Jesus shines through us, so that the people around us can know what God is like. 

And in spite of all the hurt and scared and confusion we see in the world, we know that God’s love in us can heal the world, until everyone is holding hands and walking together.

Still Waiting for the Kingdom of God? Time’s Up.

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/24/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Mark 1:14-20 & 1 Corinthians 7:29-31. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

This is Jesus’ announcement as he begins his ministry, a ministry that becomes public and active after the arrest of John the Baptizer.

The time is fulfilled. John has been carried away by Herod’s soldiers and locked in a dungeon. The greatest prophet of them all, the one in whom the spirit of Elijah lives again, has been removed from the field. The Way Preparer has completed his ministry; he must decrease as Christ increases. The time is fulfilled.

The kingdom of God has come near. John, and Elijah, and Moses, and all the prophets of God have prepared the way, calling us out of the shadows. And now the Light is arriving. The reign of God has come near to us.

Repent, and believe in the good news. Repentance was John’s message. Turn back from your evil ways. Turn away from all the compromises you have made with the spirit of this age and the kingdoms of this world. Repent! Experience a full life change. Prepare yourself for the coming presence and reign of God.

The ministry of John has been fulfilled. The time is fulfilled, and now it is time not only for preparation, but full participation. It is time to believe in the gospel – the victory announcement of God, proclaimed to us by Jesus in his three years of ministry, coronated on the cross, and vindicated through the power of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Believe in the gospel. Believe the news that we have received from Jesus – that God has triumphed over the power of sin and death. The battle has been won. The spiritual armies of the King of Kings will soon be arriving to judge, and heal, and reconcile all things. We must prepare ourselves.

The battle has been won. God is already victorious. The spiritual forces that have kept us in bondage have been thrown down. And the messengers of God, his prophets, his apostles, and even his own son Jesus, have raced to us as messengers. They say to us: “Don’t be fooled by the continued operation of this city you live in, that still follows the rules of the old regime! Their armies have been smashed in battle, and the true King is returning to settle accounts! Rejoice, o daughter of Zion. Behold, your king comes to you! For the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ!”

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand – even at the very gates. Repent, therefore, and believe in the victory announcement that we have proclaimed to you.

This was Jesus’ announcement to the very first disciples – Simon and Andrew, James and John. This was the victory announcement, the good news of God’s victory and coming kingdom. He said to these wide-eyed fishermen, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

These were humble men, for sure. But they had something to lose. Following Jesus meant leaving their family business behind, abandoning everything – livelihood, parents, everything that provided them with a sense of place and identity. They gave everything up to follow Jesus.

They believed the victory announcement. They believed in the gospel. They believed that the armies of God were on the march, and that the king would be returning very soon.

The early church operated under this same sense of urgency. This morning we read from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in which he urges his fellow disciples to regard the present age as the type of order that exists in a conquered city only as a sort of inertia. The former rulers have been defeated in battle; but for a period of time, amidst the confusion, the local officials and police continue to enforce the old laws.

As followers of Jesus, as people who have believed in the gospel of God, we know that – as Paul puts it – “the present form of this world is passing away.”

We have heard and believed the victory announcement, and what a different perspective this gives us! For those who believe in the gospel, we are practically living in a different universe from the vast majority who take the present ordering of society for granted. For Paul’s hearers, this order was the Roman Empire. The power of the legions and the might of the imperial economy. The culture of honor and shame, of rulers and enslaved.

Today, we hear the victory announcement in the context of a waning American empire. We inhabit in a world that depends on the might of NATO and the World Bank, the strength of the dollar, the extractive, fossil-fuel-driven global economy. We live in a city that goes about its normal operations, unable or unwilling to see that God’s triumph has changed everything. Unwilling to repent and believe in the victory announcement.

This past month, I had some health issues that were serious enough that I went into the doctor to get checked out. I really don’t like going to the doctor, so for me to go in meant that I was pretty concerned.

This gave me an opportunity to think quite a bit about my own mortality. About the fact that, one way or another, for me, the present form of this world is most certainly passing away. Whether I live for another fifty years or another five minutes, this life doesn’t go on forever.

It got me thinking. Thinking about what really matters. Got me thinking about how much I love my children, and how I want to be here for them. How I want to raise them to be friends and followers of Jesus. 

I’ve been thinking about the work I do as a servant of the gospel here at Berkeley Friends Church. About my life’s legacy. The legacy that all of us in Berkeley Friends Church might have, when we invite our friends and neighbors to discover the good news of Jesus Christ in these days of great shaking and revealing. I’m thinking about what it looks like for us to be fishers of people.

When I consider my inevitable death, there is so little that truly matters. So much of what occupies my conscious thought melts away as transient silliness. How much money do I have? Am I successful and rewarded at my job? What will the stock market do? Does this or that person like me? How long do I get to live? None of this really matters in the light of eternity. The present form of this world is passing away.

And this is the advice Paul gives us. He says, to quote Princess Elsa from Frozen: “Let it go.”

Are you married? Don’t worry about it. Are you mourning? Don’t get too caught up in it. Are you happy? Don’t let that distract you either. Is business up or down? Don’t get too attached to it. These are not the things that really matter.

Because we live in a city that has just received the victory announcement from the true king. We have learned that the present order has been stripped of all authority. Sure, the city may continue in the status quo for a little while longer, while we wait for the king and his army to arrive from the battlefield. But anything we do in the meantime, anything we build or come to rely on in this old order, is going to be swept away. A new order is coming. It is the only thing worth investing in.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

If this present order were to come to an end this year, if the kingdom of God came with full force, would you be ready? Is your life built on the things that are eternal, or do you have a sandy foundation? 

Are your energies focused on caring for others – tending the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the broken-hearted? Is your life dedicated to sharing the victory announcement, so that everyone has the opportunity to know life – real life – as it truly is, and not missing it chasing this twilight empire that is is crumbling around us?

The early Quakers shared this sense of demanding urgency with the first disciples and the early church. George Fox wrote to his mother and father, warning them not to get lost in the froth and confusion of the present age, but to pay attention to the voice of Christ within them to lead them. He wrote to them these words, which I will sing for you:

Ye have no time, but this present time: therefore prize your time for your souls’ sake.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

We have no time but this present time. There are so many whose hearts are thirsting for the good news of Jesus. Pray that God will tender our hearts to embrace repentance, so that we will become fishers of people.

As followers of Jesus, we are co-bearers of the victory announcement. But ours is not merely the task of announcing the gospel; we are co-heirs with Jesus in enacting it. We are to become fishers of people, drawing others into the same life and power and immediacy that we have discovered. We are not merely to live in freedom from this present age that is passing away; we are to actively participate, now, in the new order that is coming. Our job is to invite others into that new age.

Because the victory is already won. Our king is already triumphant. Jesus Christ is Lord, and the kingdom of God has come near.

The church often seems very comfortable with the idea that the kingdom of God was present for three years during Jesus’ ministry, and then for the forty days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. But after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, it seems like many of us imagine that we have returned to a world that is fundamentally unchanged – still under the administration of the same powers that nailed Jesus to the cross.

But that’s not the truth. The powers have been defeated on the battlefield of Calvary, and we await the arrival of the king.

Are we as the church of Jesus Christ waiting for another victory announcement? Are we waiting for the second coming to start living in the life, power, and kingdom of God?

That’s not what the early church taught in the streets of Jerusalem and the highways of the Roman Empire. That’s not what Paul taught the communities he founded across the ancient world. That’s not the message of the early Quakers, or any other movement of the Holy Spirit that we can point to.

Jesus’ message to us two thousand years ago is still his message to us today: 

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

It’s time to get clear on what really matters. It’s time to re-dedicate our lives to the good news of Jesus Christ. It is time to reorient – to repent – so that we can be effective fishers of people, expanding the circle of God’s love, and teaching others to follow Jesus and become fishers themselves.

We have no time but this present time. The present form of this world is passing away.

Jesus is calling – and maybe not so softly and tenderly this time – Jesus is calling us: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”