Is God speaking?

Text: Amos 7.7-17
(This sermon was given in a Nazarene Church in Frederick, Maryland. References to people and places were to members of the congregation and places familiar to those gathered.)

Has anyone heard God speaking this morning? Did you really? What is he saying? (You don’t have to answer that out loud.)

We walk through these doors week after week. We sit and stand, sing and pray, listen to or sleep through sermons. Once a month we commune at the Lord’s table.

But do we ever really hear him speaking to us?

I don’t know about you, but I hear everything but God all too often. I hear my voice when we sing. I hear my worries when we pray. I hear coughs and kids, rustles and sniffles. I hear questions: “What is to come this week?” What is for dinner in an hour?” “Who did not make it in this morning?” “Why did I wear these shoes today?” “What am I doing on this platform?” I hear random thoughts, to do lists, noises, daydreams, sound system hums, and the soft tick of my watch.

Oh, I do think I hear from God, sometimes—but so little considering the time I say I spend in his presence. I hear God in whispers and snatches—but I wonder too many times whether I am hearing him speak, or just my own thoughts about him. Too often I take action and make decisions, and I wonder if it is something God really wants.

Have you ever wondered, as I have, what it must have been like to hear God like the apostles or the prophets? Don’t you wish you could?

Everything would be perfectly clear, wouldn’t it, if he would just call us to the mountain like Moses and tell us what he wants us to do. Or what if he met us on the road and spoke to us like Paul. We would change our careers in heartbeat and run off to be a missionary then, wouldn’t we?

What if, while we were sitting here today like Isaiah in the temple, God met us and told us exactly what to do and say—burning coals and all? We would hit the floor on our faces and change our attitudes about worship, wouldn’t we? How about if, while were just minding our own business and trimming the trees in the back yard, like Amos, God commanded us to run off to Canada to get the Prime Minister’s attention—we would do it, wouldn’t we?

The Lord speaks clearly, and loudly, perhaps, and we would all have little problem knowing what to do and taking action (or at least we think so). But what if we don’t hear God’s voice that way? How then do we hear what he has to say to us?

I have not heard of or experienced too many direct encounters that rank with those of the prophets and apostles. So what if God chose to send us a prophet?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if God’s prophet walked into our church this morning to tell us exactly what is on God’s mind? Wouldn’t it be grand if he waltzed into the our District Superintendent’s office and told everyone where God was really moving? Or what if he appeared at the doors of Nazarene headquarters in Kansas City and walked into a General Board meeting to deliver God’s word to the church?

We would hear God, then, wouldn’t we? We would all take notice, hunger for the Word of God, hang on the prophet’s every phrase…woudn’t we? Surely our DS would recognize God’s messenger and enlighten us as to what God has to say. If not him, of course our General Superintendents would. After all, they are leaders of a holiness denomination—they must already know what God has to say enough to recognize it from his prophet, right?

What would our prophet look like, I wonder. He would be alright, certainly, if he was dressed well. They would listen if he walked in with a nice suit (or at least business casual clothes), his latest book, and a forty day program based on five purposes. Or perhaps he would get a wide hearing if he held a conference on new ways of communicating to a postmodern world. His mixed-media presentation would generate some excitement. We would take notice if he worked in a little “message from the Lord” after the praise band and before the small group break-out sessions.

Or maybe God would send us a great speaker in blue jeans who really knows how to connect with us. Surely we would know he was authentic if he sat on a stool and gave us a real honest talk. We would know for certain that he was a prophet if he read from The Message and made everything understandable and homey.

What would happen, I wonder, if God spoke to Mike this week as he’s building out a new Safeway? He’s still in his coveralls, and his hands are coarse and grease stained from working on the sliding doors that morning. The blood dried where he nicked himself when he changed the circular saw blade before finishing the manager’s office, and he still has the pencil behind his ear, but the Lord said to go. So he grabs something from his tool box, jumps into his truck, and calls Kathy on his cell phone as he drives up to York Stillmeadow Church of the Nazarene where the pastors and church leaders for that mission area are gathering to meet with DS.

He gets there a bit late and notices that he hasn’t even taken off his coveralls yet, but it looks like things have started, and he feels the urgency of his message, so he walks into the building and heads off to where he hears the beat of the worship choruses.

He hesitates a bit when he gets to the door. Someone standing at the entrance looks at him a bit askew and begins to ask him why he’s here, but with a whispered prayer and a burst of courage, Mike presses on into the sanctuary (or is it a gymnasium?). He glances from side to side as he walks briskly towards the platform, noticing the puzzled looks, and not a few sneers, from those who notice the dirty carpenter in the coveralls rushing down the aisle.

Several see that he has something in his hand, and that he moves with urgency, so they move out of the rows of chairs to intercept him, concerned about his intentions. By this time, though, he’s reached the platform stairs and has begun to ascend to where the DS, still having a real God moment, has failed to see this new prophet. The pastor notices, though, but before he can move from the glass podium, Mike stops at one of the nearby microphones, nudging aside one of the band members in the process, and holds his right hand high. Dropping from his palm is a small brass weight at the end of a string—a plumb line from Mike’s tool box.

“This is what the Lord said to me,” Mike declares in a somewhat shaky voice. “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of the Church of the Nazarene and its people, as a measure of their faithfulness. I will no longer let them get away with what they’re doing.” The music has stopped and everyone is staring, some bemused, others puzzled, many irritated. “Your largest churches,” Mike continues with a little more confidence, “and your new gymnasiums shall be turned to rubble, and I will rise against your superintendents and your elders. I despise your gatherings, and I take no delight in your worship. Even though you sing and waive your arms, I will not hear you.”

By now the pastor has made it to Mike’s side and tries to gently push him away from the microphone. “Look , sir,” he says. “You can’t just come barging into a worship service like this. I’m not sure where you came, from, but let’s go to my office and talk.” As he’s led off the platform, Mike can hear the DS take charge of the service asking prayer for this obviously disturbed man.

“Go on home,” the Pastor says after he’s heard Mike describe his encounter with God. “I know what you feel God has said to you, but perhaps you should talk to your pastor about it. I know him. I’ll give him a call right away.” When Mike begins to protest he adds, “Look, there are many men of God here, ordained elders and district leaders. If God has such a message for us, he’ll tell us. Now why don’t you go on home, get some sleep, and talk to your pastor tomorrow.”

No one really expects something like that to happen, nor would any of us wish it on a good pastor. And we would certainly hope that God would speak in some other way to church leaders and members who are listening for his voice.

But are we really listening? Would we hear?

Bethel was the center of worship in Israel, kind of the York Stillmeadow of the northern kingdom. When Israel split with Judah to the south, Jerusalem and the temple was no longer available as a place of worship, and the capital in Samaria had no special religious significance. So worship was conducted and sacrifices made in the high places, such as Shiloh, Gilgal, and Bethel, places associated both with Canaanite worship and with the worship of Yahweh in Israel’s past.

It was to Bethel that the humble prophet Amos came at a time when Israel was enjoying renewed prosperity. Bethel was the official place of worship of the King, Jereboam II. After years of fighting between the northern and southern kingdoms, between Israel and Judah, and loss of territory from struggles between the superpowers of the time, both Israel and Judah were enjoying peace. Both kingdoms were regaining territory—in fact they had restored between them almost the full reach of Solomon’s kingdom.

Israel was prosperous, and many considered the king and kingdom blessed by God as a result. We even know from a brief entry in Kings that Jereboam had a prophetic supporter by the name of Jonah (2 Kings 14.25). He likely had the support of the prophetic voices of the court prophets, professionals assigned to the royal sanctuary at Bethel.

Things were going very well indeed, but God calls upon Amos, a shepherd and tree dresser from Judah, to go say otherwise. Let’s read about it in Amos.

This is what the Lord God showed me: he was forming locusts at the time the latter growth began to sprout (it was the latter growth after the king’s mowings). When they had finished eating the grass of the land, I said,

“O Lord God, forgive, I beg you!
How can Jacob stand?
He is so small!”

The Lord relented concerning this;
“It shall not be,” said the Lord.

This is what the Lord God showed me: the Lord God was calling for a shower of fire, and it devoured the great deep and was eating up the land. Then I said,

“O Lord God, cease, I beg you!
How can Jacob stand?
He is so small!”

The Lord relented concerning this; “This also shall not be,” said the Lord God.

This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said,

“See, I am setting a plumb line
in the midst of my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by;
the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said,

‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.’ ”

And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’

“Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.
You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel,
and do not preach against the house of Isaac.’

Therefore thus says the Lord:
‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’ ” (7.1-17)

Needless to say, Amos was quite unpopular around Bethel, and the word of the Lord, sent through a simple shepherd from the other side of the kingdom border, was not heard. But why so harsh a message when things were going so well? What was so wrong that Amos was sent to contradict the king, his prophets, and his priest?

In chapter five we find out why:

They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.

Therefore, because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.

For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.

Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time. (5.10-13)

OW! We hear echoes of Amos in John, don’t we, when he says, “Whoever says, ‘I have come to know him,’ but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist” (1 John 2.4); Or in Paul, when he says, “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their actions. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (Titus 1.16).

Amos comes with the word of the Lord that cuts through the false piety and the lie of Israel’s empty ritual. “Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of hosts,” we read in verse 16 of chapter 5.

”In all the squares there shall be wailing; and in all the streets they shall say, ‘Alas! Alas!’ They shall call the farmers to mourning, and those skilled in lamentation to wailing; in all the vineyards there shall be wailing, for I will pass through the midst of you,” says the Lord.

“Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (5.16-20)

And if that’s not enough, the Lord through Amos continues,

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. (5.21-24)

No wonder Amaziah tried to shoo Amos away!

At a time when Israel was quite comfortable, the Lord, through a very simple man named Amos, exposed them for what they were, and made them uncomfortable. Essentially he said,

– You’re not living in obedience to me. Your religion hasn’t penetrated your life.

– You play at worshipping me, and then you betray me through your injustice.

– You talk of truth and righteousness, but you practice all kinds of deceit and trample on the poor and needy.

– You pretend to be my people, to love me, and yet you mock me through your arrogance and your sin, and so, “I will command and shake the house of Israel among the nations as one shakes a sieve, but no pebble shall fall to the ground. All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword, who say, ‘Evil shall not overtake or meet us’” (9.9-10).

We’re all squirming a bit now. Don’t worry, no need to look nervously at your watches. Let me put your mind at ease. I’m not about to launch into a pointed examination of our spiritual condition.

I’m going to let you do that yourself.

What I would like to do is have us think about how we hear God, as we consider for a moment why Israel could not. Why didn’t Israel listen to Amos (or the many other prophets who came after them)? Why did God fulfill his promised punishment by sending Tilgath Pilesar and the Assyrians upon them?

Was it because:

– They were comfortable and complacent?

– Because they were distracted

…by the demands of their successful lives?

…by their work, their commerce, and their profit?

– Or perhaps because they were deafened by the noise of their own faithfulness

…their happy attendance at worship (even as they looked at the clock and wondered when they could get on with things).

…their singing and feasting, their sacrifices and their offerings (their worship teams and their conferences, their concerts and their programs).

…their obedience of the their rules and forms that kept them from seeing how they were failing to live in true obedience.

It was all of these things and more.

Another time we will consider how God chose to speak his word to Israel. We might at least wonder now if they would have heard if anyone but a peasant from the south had brought the message. And yet, when we look at all the other prophets he sent and all of the times he was not heard, even through nobles and sons of priests, we know the answer: Israel and her king were too wrapped up in themselves to hear and live the word of God, and they paid dearly as a result.

But one more question remains before I let you go to get on with whatever may be more important than being here to hear God’s word.

What about those who do hear? What was to happen to them?

Amos has only a few words of promise, but they are so precious and so full hope. They didn’t mean much, I am sure, to those who wouldn’t heed the warning, for what are words of promise to those who don’t sense disaster?

But the Lord said, “On that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen, and repair its branches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old; in order that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name, says the Lord who does this.

“The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.

“I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.

“I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them, says the Lord your God” (9.11-15)

So as you leave this morning and reflect on God’s word through Amos the shepherd and tree dresser, I want you to consider these few simple questions:

– How has God been trying to speak to you?

– How receptive are you really to what he’s trying to say?

– How selective is your hearing?

Paul said to the Corinthians, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test” (2 Cor. 13.5)! And so also he said, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (2 Cor. 5.17)!

I leave you this morning, as you consider whether or not you can take hold of the promise and not fear the punishment with a very simple plea: Hear the word of the Lord!

The terrifying light of Epiphany

Text: Isaiah 9.1–7; (Matt. 4.12–23); Luke 5.1–11

The weeks between the feast of the Epiphany and the beginning of Lent are treated by some Christian traditions as ordinary time. Ordinary time for the church has always been more an extraordinary time in which the ongoing reality of the kingdom of God and the gospel are explored, never untethered from the anchoring feats that preceded them—Epiphany and Pentecost. In that spirit, the readings for this brief season advance the themes of the feast of the Epiphany itself, the most ancient on the Christian calendar. This is the season of the celebration of the appearance and revelation of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and our readings today are those from the 3rd week of the Epiphany season.

Epiphany, by definition, is a disclosure of something hidden, a revealing of something that was once obscure or unknown. To have an epiphany is to have one’s eyes opened, to see the true nature of something for the first time. To be an epiphany, as Christ was, is to make something known through one’s own nature and way of being.

Epiphany has its opposites—obscurity, blindness, and darkness. It is not hard to find descriptions of the darkness that preceded the epiphany of Jesus Christ. Most of the prophets spent the best part of their lives trying to identify and dispel this darkness. Today we will reach back a little before our Old Testament reading in Isaiah for a sense of the darkness the prophet Isaiah attempted to lift with the light of God’s revelation.

Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity,
Offspring who do evil,
children who deal corruptly,
who have forsaken the Lord,
who have despised the Holy One of Israel,
who are utterly estranged. (Is. 1.4)

Your country lies desolate,
your cities are burned with fire;
in your very presence aliens devour your land;
it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners. (1.7)

Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. (1.13–15)

Therefore says the Sovereign, the Lord of Hosts, the Mighty one of Israel:
“Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes!
I will turn my hand against you; I will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove your alloy.” (1.24–26)

Rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together,
and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.
The strong shall become like tinder,
and their work like a spark;
they and their work shall burn together, with no one to quench them. (1.28, 31)

Enter into the rock, and hide in the dust from the terror of the Lord, and from the glory of his majesty.
The haughty eyes of people shall be brought low, and the pride of everyone shall be humbled; and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day. (2.10–11)

Ah, you who call evil good and good evil,
who put darkness for light and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

Ah you who are wise in your own eyes, and shrewd in your own sight!
Ah, you who are heroes in drinking wine and valiant at mixing drink,
who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
and deprive the innocent of their rights!

Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble,
and as dry grass sinks down in the flame,
so their root will become rotten, and their blossom go up like dust;
for they have rejected the instruction of the Lord of Hosts,
and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.

Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against his people,
and he stretched out his hand against them and struck them;
the mountains quaked, and their corpses were like refuse in the streets.
For all this his anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still. (5.20–25)

Such was the darkness in Judah when Isaiah first prophesied. In fact, so dark with disobedience and injustice was Israel’s history, that Israel had divided, the Northern kingdom had fallen, and Judah was now also exposed to the threat of invasion and destruction. The continued apostasy of their current king, Isaiah knew, would do nothing to avert the Lord’s punishment or lift the impending doom. Their past was riddled with guilt and shame, and the result was a darkness of their own making, of their own sin. For those who were astute enough to heed the prophets, it was a time of great fear and foreboding.

In chapter 9 of Isaiah, in our Old Testament reading for today, a word of hope appears much like the epiphany of the messiah himself.

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.

You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.

For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.

For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (9.1–7)

Light, joy, peace, justice, righteousness—what a contrast with the darkness of Israel’s past. From the destitute land of Zebulun and Naphtali, a region already lost to Judah and occupied by the Assyrians, will come a great light. (Isn’t it so like our God to bring hope out of the place of deepest darkness!) For the people of Judah, this is a light dimmed by a present darkness, a hope for a distant future as the darkness deepens, the Assyrians plunder, and the people are scattered. When Isaiah speaks these words, Judah has much yet to face. As Isaiah has already said, “his anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still” (5.25).

Isaiah was a great prophet crying for repentance in the midst of gathering gloom, holding up the light of a distant hope to which the destitute and scattered Israel would cling for hundreds of years. More than 700 years later, another prophet forseen by Isaiah, John the Baptist, cries alone in the wilderness for repentance. In a land of darkness and oppression, of sin and injustice—in the very land of Zebulun and Naphtali, known as Capernaum in Galilee—the light Isaiah described appears to establish the kingdom of God and “uphold it with justice and righteousness from this time onward and forevermore” (9.7).

Ah, but this light is still hidden.

This light comes in the unexpected form of a man named Jesus who begins his ministry quietly in a remote seaside town. This light is no longer distant, for it is with us in the person of Jesus, but few recognize it for what it is. The light itself is not dimmed, but the eyes of the people have been dimmed through centuries of disobedience.

Blessed are those who do see, who are graced with epiphany and witness the great light:

– the shepherds in the hills;

– the wise men, gentile princes from far off lands;

– an old man, Simeon, at the temple;

– Anna, a little known but faithful prophetess;

– Mary and Joseph, simple folk and unexpected parents of an amazing child;

– and John the Baptist—a filthy religious fanatic in the dessert (known as a prophet to those who listen) who saw the great light, and the lamb.

Jesus is the great light in the darkness—wonderful counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.

But he was born…in obscurity;

circumcised…just like any ordinary Jewish boy;

dedicated at the temple…with all the rest;

baptized…in the wilderness;

tempted…alone;

and began to unfold the glorious truth of the eternal kingdom of God…in a small, God-forsaken region called Galilee (can anything good come from Galilee? someone later asked).

Jesus’ coming was not the way most expected the messiah to make his appearance, and so only a few witnessed this epiphany of God for what it was—but what a blessed few!

Those who experienced the true epiphany of Christ were changed forever:

– The shepherds remained shepherds, but returned to their flocks “glorifying and praising God” (Luke 2.20).

– The wise men, “overwhelmed with joy,” worshiped the great light and returned to their countries in secret to protect the newborn Lord (Matthew 2.10-11).

– Simeon glorified God and entered his eternal rest in peace, having seen the salvation of the Lord, the “light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of the people of Israel” (Luke 2.32).

– Anna rejoiced, having seen the “redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2.38).

– Mary and Joseph wondered and marveled at what they witnessed, and who they nurtured. When Joseph was gone, Mary would follow her son as Lord, even as she witnessed the fullness of what that meant. She would witness everything—even the resurrection!

– John the Baptist knew what he saw perhaps better than anyone else, and in his awareness recognized that he was not even worthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals (Luke 3.16).

Our gospel reading this morning, tells us of a few others who encountered this living epiphany only to leave all that they were to be changed forever.

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (Matt 4.18–22)

Let’s focus this morning on one of these and turn to Luke 5 for a more complete picture of his own encounter with the light in the darkness.

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5.1–11)

Peter had his own epiphany, the first of many, we know.

His reaction to Jesus might seem at first a reaction to the miracle of the catch of fish. But we know from other accounts in Luke and the other gospels that Peter had been around Jesus for a while by this time, perhaps almost a year. In fact, Jesus had spent some time in and around Peter’s home in Capernaum and had even been a guest in his house. We know that this was not the first miracle Peter had witnessed. It was not even the most spectacular.

In Peter’s own home, Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law from a fever, and it was in Peter’s home that people from around the region brought their sick to be healed, including many plagued by demons (Luke 4.38-41). While staying in Capernaum, presumably still in Peter’s home, Jesus also taught at the local synagogue, gathering crowds and eliciting amazement from those who heard him (Luke 4.31-37).

So what was a small catch of fish to a man who had already witnessed so much? Why was this day, when Jesus taught the crowds from Peter’s boat, any different from any other for Peter? What was it about this very simple miracle that lifted the veil enough for Peter to realize who Jesus was?

We cannot know for sure, but we might be able to guess.

We could start by looking at Peter’s reaction—and what it tell us about him. His fear is obvious, as is the fact that it is directed at Jesus. He fell at Jesus feet—something a servant would do before his master, or a worshiper before his God—but his words were not words of praise for the miracle or thanksgiving for the fish. Something in what he witnessed made Peter see beyond the veil of his own darkness to the light of Jesus, and it made him afraid.

What he saw made him realize how truly unprepared he was to face the great light. What he saw caused him to face up to the darkness of his own past, and in an act of pure desperation, Peter confessed his sinfulness and begged Jesus to leave.

But we still might ask—what triggered such a reaction?

Notice that all of those with Peter were equally amazed at the catch of fish, but only Peter reacts this way. Perhaps it was the fish themselves, something Peter knew well as a fisherman. As only Peter would, he very nearly scolds Jesus for suggesting they try to catch more fish. After all, he is the expert (and of what we know of his personality and the leadership he takes later on, he was likely the fisherman in charge that day). Perhaps it was the unexpected abundance. Maybe Peter was confronted not only by miraculous ability of Jesus by the full force of his gracious generosity. “…they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break” (5.6). And after they called over another boat, both were filled until they began to sink.

Whatever it was, like when a curtain in a dark room is thrown open to reveal the bright, even harsh radiance of the sun, Peter stood face to face with the overpowering brilliance of the light of the world—and he was afraid.

Afraid of what might be asked of him?

Afraid that he was not good enough to respond?

Afraid that his sin, his past, would be shown for what it was?

Afraid of that all that he had been doing to cope with life would prove to be inadequate?

Consider this moment for Peter from the perspective of songwriter Michael Card. Put yourself in Peter’s shoes. Let the Lord speak to you through Peter’s story.

In response to the miraculous catch, Peter asks for what he really does not want—he asks for Jesus to leave. He has become the frightened fish, thrashing in the net, wanting to get away, or at least for Jesus to get away from him. Peter has come face to face with the frightening possibility of complete success. Failure, like their earlier empty nets, seems so much safer and predictable.

…often in the presence of Peter, when Jesus reveals his true nature in a new way, the first worded from his mouth anew “Don’t be afraid.” When he calms the storm (Mark 4:40), when he walks on the water (Mark 6:50; John 6:20), when he is transfigured into blazing light (Matthew 17:7) and when he is raised from the dead (Matthew 28:10)—each time Jesus comforts and calms Peter with these words. In each instance, when the veil is temporarily lifted and Peter has the terrifying realization that he, a veteran sinner, is in the presence of undiminished Deity, it totally undoes him (as indeed it should).

…But what’s so terrifying about a net full of fish? Though this kind of volume was certainly a rarity for Simon and his partners, they had seen lots of fish before. Even the miraculous fact that they had come from out of nowhere, out of a lake they know was empty, is an occasion for wonder certainly, but fear?

Simon fears because he is a man who, thanks to the preaching of John the Baptist, has become aware of his sinful state. And now he has become the beneficiary of Jesus, who has graciously filled his nets in spite of himself. There was nothing in his experience, nor in ours, that could have prepared him for this kind of frightening generosity. We are forever asking for things we think we deserve. Simon knew then what we need to learn now: what we deserve is only death and separation from God and all his goodness. If we, for one blink, could step back and glimpse the awesome generosity of the One who should, by all rights, destroy us, we would join Simon on our knees with same confession on trembling lips.

Fear is what has driven Simon to his knees. He has heard the preaching of John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom is at hand.” His heart has been preconditioned by that preaching; he has been pricked by an awareness that he is, in fact, not ready for the kingdom’s coming. We should all be rightly afraid for the whole world to be on fire. But now, behold, it has so obviously come. Jesus’ miracle language provides the perfect message for the fishermen. You speak to Magi with a star. You convince a fisherman with fish! What he has waited, prayed and longed for all his life is here! And the thought of it absolutely scares Simon to death. The overflowing nets are the sign. (Card, Michael. A Fragile Stone: The Emotional Life of Simon Peter. Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, Illinois, 2003, 39–41)

Look at Peter. He’s afraid. He’s very aware of his own sin. And Jesus is very aware of Peter’s sin.

Peter’s going to screw up again and again. He’s impulsive, headstrong, and cowardly. He’s going to deny his Lord and friend. Even later as the foremost apostle and leader of the church, he’s going to screw up and have to be called to account by Paul as we read in Galatians (2.11-14).

But this makes him the very person Jesus is looking for!

Jesus’ word is crucial. “Fear not!” Our sinfulness will ultimately be dealt with. Now, because of his coming, our sin can never stand between us and Jesus. Peter’s confession of his sinfulness means he is precisely the man for whom Jesus is looking. In fact, he is the first person to confess his sinfulness to Jesus.

“They must burn their boast and plunge into absolute insecurity to learn the demand and the gift of Christ” (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 53).

Jesus has come, and the line between the world of the Old Testament and the New is now clearly drawn in the sand beside the lake. In the world of the Old Testament, having faith meant waiting faithfully for God to make good on his promises. In the New Testament world, faith means only one thing: following Jesus. Not only did the four of them walk away from their nets and boats, the left behind a net full of fish to follow Jesus! The promises have all been fulfilled; the Promised One is here. Now having faith means following the One in whom God has spoken his “Yes!” to every pledge he ever made to us. The fishermen really have no choice: if they are to be faithful, they must follow. We too really have no choice. Waiting is no longer an option. (Card, 41)

Fear not!

In Peter’s most honest moment of fear and confession, when he is the most vulnerable, most aware of his weakness and sin, his brother and Lord reaches out to him and says, “Don’t be afraid—I want you for something important, and I’m going to help you do it.” Jesus meets Peter at the point of his fear and his sin and calls him to be unsettled, to become part of God’s story of redemption for the whole world, to put his fear and his weakness into the service of the kingdom, and to abandon himself to the will and the care of Jesus.

And Peter—he goes. No questions, still full of fear, still aware of his own inadequacy, still wondering what will come next, still terrified at the prospect of letting go of all he knows and holds dear, and he follows Jesus to seek others who are in darkness and afraid.

“Fear not,” Jesus said. “Follow me.”

If we are to be honest, we’ll admit that to follow—to really leave everything behind—is an absolutely terrifying prospect. Our most natural response would be, like Peter, to fall down and say, “Go away! This is more than I can deal with. I couldn’t be the person you’re looking for.”

We stand before these terrifying possibilities—to let go of our security, to open ourselves to the frightening possibility of complete and utter success, to leave all that is familiar and safe for an unknown world. But then we notice that standing beside us is Jesus. He confidently whispers, “Don’t be afraid. Let go of the nets. Do not be afraid. After all, it’s me.” Jesus has shown Simon that the sea he thought was empty was in fact full of fish. And Simon has begin to learn what it means to become partners with Jesus. A new kind of fishing lies ahead.

There comes a point in our lives when al the pieces of our past, both good and bad, come together to make a meaningful whole. It came for Peter at this point. All this time he had been fishing for fish, with varying success. Now Jesus tells him it is men and women he will be fishing for, and it makes such complete and perfect sense to Peter that he simply walks away from his old life and embraces the unknown new. Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, was also, it seems, a fisherman. And it was Simon Peter who got caught that day. (Card, 41–42)

You know, Peter, and those with him (Andrew, James, and John) left everything to follow Jesus—their homes, their livelihood, and their families. We know that Peter was surrounded by his family in Capernaum, and he was married. His wife was later to join him on his ministry to the church. One wonders if she also followed him to his death when he was, as tradition suggests, crucified upside down for serving his friend and Lord. Everything Peter knew, everyone he knew and loved—everything he held dear—was in Capernaum. And he left it all to follow Jesus.

Peter was not perfect, nor was he well-prepared. He was not fearless. He was not the “super apostle” we make him out to be. He had his epiphany, and it brought him to his knees.

But he was willing to trust Jesus and to follow him without reservation and without knowing what came next. Because of Peter and others with him who together followed Jesus, “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the shadow of death, light has dawned” (Isaiah 9.2)!

Look around you. You are living near someone like Peter. The person you know as friend and neighbor, no matter what you have heard them say, is scared to death. The person you sit nearby in church has done some pretty terrible things in his or her past, and might do so again. And the person sitting in your seat—that’s right, you—is terrified of what might happen if you really left everything to follow Jesus.

We have all had the frightening privilege today in this place, here in the presence of Jesus and through this story of Peter, to lift the veil and to glimpse the true nature of the one who calls you. And yes, we should all hang our heads in shame. We should all quake in our shoes. We should be afraid before undiminished deity. If we are not, we need to get our heads out of the sand and realize just who it is we are facing!

And then we should hear and heed his words—“Fear not!”

The world lives in darkness and the Lord God, its creator, has moved in a mighty way to provide for the salvation of the lost and to shine the light of his glory and righteousness where death has had dominion. He breaks into the dark and sin ridden lives of you and I to call us to become a part of his redemption. Though we are terrified by his power, his reality, his glory, his light, he says, “Fear not! Follow me.”

Though we would want to throw ourselves at his feet and demand that he leave us alone; though we might throw our fear and our sin in his face as good reason that we cannot possibly do what he asks and cling ever more tightly to all that we have created for ourselves as a way to cope with life; and as we hang on for dear life to what we think will see us through—jobs, money, homes, family, friends, or anger, grief, self-pity, resignation—Jesus says, “Fear not! Follow me. No matter what you fear, no matter what you value, no matter what you have done, I have a place for you.”

He loves us enough to grant us the epiphany of who he is, to calm our fear and forgive our sin, and to call us to look outside ourselves to get caught up in his kingdom!

And we have nothing to do but respond and abandon ourselves to his care.

This is what epiphany meant for Peter and for us. In the abundance of the fish Jesus had them catch that day, Peter saw the true nature of the great light, and he was caught forever. What do we see in the abundance of Jesus’ grace for us?

“Fear not,” Jesus says. “Follow me.”

And now I pray that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess 11–12).

A dirty little secret.

Text: Hebrews 11.29–12.2ff

We Christians have a dirty little secret. It is rarely shared these days and not often spoken aloud. It is almost as if we might be afraid that if it gets out, people won’t want to fellowship with us or know our Lord. It is not exactly pleasant, but it’s the substance of our greatest hope. It is the secret the disciples spent the lifetime of Jesus learning, and then as apostles had to realize every day.

There is no fancy way to tell this secret. It is a very straightforward truth that we all must face. It is also an unpopular secret, especially among Christians these days, for it goes against the grain of much that is said and taught in order to fill our churches. In fact, this secret is unique in that it is widely available to any who would see. It can be found all through scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments, and yet it is so often overlooked and all too rarely spoken.

What is especially disturbing about this secret, much like the secret Jeremiah was compelled to proclaim, is that to fail to share it is tantamount to telling a lie.

We are reminded in the Old Testament reading for today that when all of Judah felt like all was going well and that God was blessing them for their obedience, and when all the other prophets of the time were proclaiming peace and prosperity in the name of the Lord, the Lord said to Jeremiah,

“Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth?” says the Lord. “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’ How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back—those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? …Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. …Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? See, therefore, I am against the prophets, says the Lord, who steal words from one another. See, I am against the prophets, says the Lord, who use their own tongues and say, ‘Says the Lord.’ See, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, says the Lord, and who tell them, and who lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or appoint them; so they do not profit this people at all, says the Lord.” (23.23–32)

No, the secret to which I refer is not the same as the judgment of God upon Judah with which Jeremiah was burdened. But like Jeremiah, I am prepared to tell you the truth that may be quite different from what we hear these days. What we are to hear from God’s word is like a fire. Although some have kept it secret, it will not be quenched, and it cannot be sugar-coated.

Recently we spent a little time in Hebrews 11 remembering the heroes of the faith and looking for the assurance they enjoyed:

-Abel, who found God’s favor, Enoch who did not die.

-Noah who escaped destruction and judgment.

-Abraham who obeyed and received back the life of his son.

-Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Gideon, David, Samuel.

The list is endless. These were the faithful about whom the author or Hebrews said, “through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection” (11.33–35).

Wow! This is the kind of faith we want, this is the faith we like to proclaim.

Faith is triumphant, it moves mountains, it heals and consoles, it fixes problems. What a God we serve—look what he can do when we have faith in him! Side by side with the wonderful love of Christ, faith like this is the stuff of modern Christianity. We extend promises, forgiveness, love, and hope.

People are hurting, and faith is the solution. People suffer sickness and loss, pain and death, fear and uncertainty, hopelessness and depression. People struggle with their own sin, with greed, lust, hatred, and selfishness, and Christ is the answer, the church proclaims. Come and be healed, filled, and fulfilled.

Many of us know enough to know that this is not the whole story. This is obviously not our dirty little secret, for this is what the church proclaims almost universally. This is the attractive truth of the Christian faith to a hurting world. And it is truth. No doubt, and praise God!

It’s funny, though, isn’t it, how the most straightforward and powerful truth can become a destructive lie when it is not the whole truth. When we withhold our dirty little secret, this great and wonderful truth of faith and love becomes to some the great lie that keeps them from faith.

This truth is the one all believed who now curse God for letting their son or daughter die. This truth is what embitters the cancer patient laying in pain in the hospital, wondering why. This truth is the one referred to when someone in disbelief exclaims, “I can’t believe God would let this happen!”

Some are quick to say, “they didn’t really have faith in the first place, if this is where they ended up.” They couldn’t possibly have known Christ if they gave up so quickly.

But we are not talking about those who never had faith in the first place. We are talking about those who once knew faith. We are talking about those who came to the church seeking real solutions to real problems and found them. We are talking about those who, like the people the writer of Hebrews was addressing, know Christ but are facing troubles that their faith doesn’t seem to be solving.

Let’s be honest. Some of us here today feel deceived by this truth. Some of us even this week have asked God, “Why? How could you? What good is it for me to trust you?” Some of us who have known Jesus for many years are up against trials we don’t think we’ll be able to bear. We’re hurt. We may be angry. We may even feel betrayed.

Where is our loving God in all of this? After all the years I have known and served him, how can he let me go through this?

I must pause for a moment, to address those of you who may not know Jesus, yet. I know there may be someone here this morning who is looking for faith and love. You may have been told that Jesus is the answer you’re looking for.

If you are not sure, I’ll tell you now that he is.

You are seeking someone or something to make sense out of life; someone to help you face your struggle; someone to help you fill your emptiness; someone to bring you hope, give you peace, to fill your life with love.

Please do not fear—you have come to the right place and the right person. Jesus is everything you are expecting him to be…and more. And today, you will have the chance to hear our dirty little secret, the whole truth about faith in Jesus that will make all the difference in your life if you will make the commitment of faith.

In fact, our dirty little secret is for all who seek and question; for all who know of God’s great love and power and yet wonder why life is still so cruel and trial unbearable.

But why a “dirty” little secret, you wonder. Why is it even secret at all if it will mean so much?

It’s ‘dirty’ because it is not a comfortable truth. Our dirty little secret is at first a harsh reality. Much like our gospel reading today, our dirty little secret is not fluffy and nice. While certainly consistent with the love of Christ, it is not necessarily what we want out of that love.

Our dirty little secret requires a divine flip flop, a change in perspective much like the disciples had to make as they followed Jesus. When they looked for deliverance from the Romans and peace in the land under the rulership of a king, they got Jesus who said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed. Do you think I come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Luke 12.49–51)!And so our secret requires us to accept an uncomfortable flip flop, a lurch in our perspective that will at first be offensive to us, especially in our struggle.

Let’s return to Hebrews 11 to find a hint about our secret. Of the heroes of faith, the writer also tells us beginning in verse 35,

Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised…” (35–39)

Ah, now we catch a small glimpse of our dirty little secret. These heroes of the faith suffered, even to death, and they did not even receive the promise of God for relief, deliverance…for peace. Why? “Since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect” (40). Their immediate hope was deferred for that time when all of us, them and those of us who are faithful in these and times to come, share in the final perfection of God in glory.

So here we are at the moment of the revelation of our dirty little secret, just as we have reached the point of the review of the heroes of the faith in Hebrews.

With those who conquered in faith in ways we too would like to conquer, alongside of all of those who found victory, healing, strength, and blessing, were all of these who did not. All these together, become the “great cloud of witnesses” in chapter twelve (1). And that to which they witness, the conquerors and the sufferers, is our dirty little secret;

-the secret that is hard to hear and harder to live.

-the secret that if rejected will leave us with nothing but anger at the truth and the one who failed is.

-the secret that if known and lived will put us in the company of these heroes of faith and will guarantee our share in the “something better” mentioned in 11.40.

Now I’m a little worried. I have built up our dirty little secret, and yet it seems to be the simplest truth. I am almost afraid that I have already given our secret away, and your response might be…“Duh!” But then I guess if that is your response, you know our secret, and you know the whole truth, and when you lay in bed this evening and cry “Why?” it will not be followed with unyielding despair. But if that is not your response already, if our dirty little secret is not yet obvious to you, I hope you will listen very closely, now, for everything you will ever face hangs on this.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. (Hebrews 12.1-4)

What is our dirty little secret? In a word: ENDURE.

Set aside anything that is holding you back. We know these things from Colossians—fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed, truthlessness, anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusiveness. ENDURE (3.5).

Face the fact that we have a race to run and ENDURE.

Look not only to those who bear witness both to the victory and struggle but to Jesus himself who faced the immeasurable torment of the cross, and ENDURE.

ENDURE for the sake of the joy, not that you have now, for you may not at this moment, but for the joy set before you.

“In your struggle against sin”—your own sin, the effects of other’s sin, the sin that has corrupted this world and brought sickness and death and violence and injury and despair—“you have not resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12.4). You don’t even know yet what it means to suffer, so ENDURE.

This is our dirty little secret. Faith in Christ is not always easy. We will face struggles with few answers and must endure. This is the truth that makes the real difference when the rubber meets the road in our walk with Christ.

I know—this secret is difficult to accept, especially when we feel like we need comfort and answers. For those of us who have not yet committed to love and serve Jesus, it makes us think twice, doesn’t it. When we have faith, and when we accept the grace of Jesus Christ and commit to serve him, we are committing to press on and endure no matter what and to set aside anything that will hinder our perseverance. We are committing to not having all of our problems solved in this world. We are committing to not finding an easy way through life.

If we read on, we find that we are committing to submit to God’s discipline and in that discipline to find our greatest hope.

Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed. (12.7–13)

And so our dirty little secret becomes the full hope of our salvation; the refining fire that leads to holiness, the full realization of the love of God in Christ that brings us to his righteousness, and the hope of our salvation and eternal rest—if we but ENDURE.

Last week we read that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11.1). And at the end of chapter 12 we are reminded of this.

You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. (For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”) But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (12.18–24)

We don’t have faith in something visible and terrible that will lead to our destruction, but we endure what can be terrible for the hope of that which is not seen that will lead to our salvation. The very blood of the one to whom we look as the example for our own endurance is the blood that will save us. The very result of his pain and suffering is the word to us that though we suffer we will be saved—if we but endure. This is the word to all of us who walk in faith and face the struggle. This is the difficult little secret that will bring us into the kingdom that cannot be shaken.

To we who know Christ in faith and who struggle with sin and its effects, even as we know the secret of his eternal love that shares in our struggle, I commend this secret to strengthen our hope and add to our resolve. “Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your week knees, and make straight paths for your feet” (Hebrews 12.12-13).

To those who have been fed the falsehood of the easy love of God and the healing without the pain, I disclose this secret to give you hope when you despair and to bring you to the fullness of hope in the blood of Christ. “Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart” (12.3).

To you who do not know Jesus and are looking for the peace, grace, and love he has to offer, I declare this truth to you that you may know in full what it means to commit to Christ and may find the full depth of his love as he walks with you through your trials and prepares you for eternal life in his kingdom. “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God,…and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (12.22-24).

And finally, on behalf of all who would know what it means to walk in faith, to live in victory and in suffering for the sake of he who died for our sins, I thank God for the depth of his love and the privilege to endure in his name. “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed, our God is a consuming fire” (12.28–29).

And so I leave you with the very simple plea, the very profound hope, and the secret upon which our lives depend. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (12.1–2).

As he did, and as he is with us, endure, endure, endure.

Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. (Hebrews 10.19–23)

Amen.

My struggles as Director of Faith Formation

On January 4, 2021, I resigned as Director of Faith Formation at the Saint Clare of Assisi Catholic Church on Daniel Island, in Charleston, South Carolina. I began in the position in July 2019, moving my family from our home in Colorado where we had lived for fourteen years. Only months into what I had anticipated as an opportunity to work in deeply mystagogical ways with adults, children, and their families, I discovered barriers in worship and patterns of spirituality that spoke to larger issues in that parish, and in the Catholic Church in general, that needed to be addressed.

As I undertook to identify those issues fully and to work with our pastor and other staff members to develop an integrated approach to address them, I ran into a morass of hidden agendas, attempts to silence and redirect the narrative, and the surprising complexities of debate and division within the Catholic world that were deeply affecting our young parish. I discovered as well, through the insights of a former member of the pastoral council who had also been part of my interview team, that concerned parish leaders had hoped I would become a champion for voices in the parish who had attempted and failed to address the challenges of pastoral leadership, liturgical collapse, and ministry fragmentation we continued to face.

What follows is a summary of my approach to the problems I discovered along with additional observations that led to my resignation.

Late October 2019, our priest announced his plans to shift to ad orientem in the mass during Advent. I began to explore why he wanted to make that change and the reasons I and others felt so strongly that we should not. Not long into that effort, I realized that we were wrestling with that particular issue without the advantage of a clear sense of our identity and purpose as a parish—without a clear vision—and that we had an opportunity to discover both deeper issues and potential in the body life of our community.

Very quickly my attention shifted, as I explained in the ensuing document, to an attempt “to evaluate all aspects of parish life such that we would have a basis from which to find a way forward, as a staff, to help develop Saint Clare of Assisi Catholic Church into that vibrant, kerygmatic community in which all comers can encounter and grow into a profound and fruitful relationship with Jesus Christ” (“Considerations for Building the Body of Christ” aka “Thoughts Moving Forward”). I began sharing versions of that evolving evaluation with our pastor in December 2019 with the hope that we would use it as a basis for discussion and planning as a staff. Sadly, he cautioned me not to share it with other staff members and for a long time failed to respond directly the the concerns and suggestions it contained, which included a very personal appeal to recognize the urgency to address the issues with clarity.

In my role, I explained, I have received a great deal of feedback during my short time in this parish. Some has been very positive, and all has been offered by those who clearly care about our parish and its impact. I discovered that many are deeply alarmed by the direction we have taken in the mass and ways our worship impacts the vitality and effectiveness of other aspects of our identity and mission. The potential shift to ad orientem was only one of the small but impactive things I witnessed that appear to deny the inclinations I believe the Holy Spirit has developed in our parish and that demonstrate an undefined but active agenda that works against our ability and desire to fulfill our calling as the body of Christ. As I listened and observed, I worked to look as objectively and yet realistically as possible at the parish out of my own experience and training while making every effort to assure others who have brought their concerns that we have good things to celebrate and build on, even as we look to confront and correct those things that need attention.

The concerns were and are significant enough, though, that there is urgency in the need to address them. Many of our staff also desired to have opportunity to discuss those concerns and to seek a way forward that can result in a revitalization of our ministry at Saint Clare, and it was their sense that we have not addressed them directly or adequately that appears to have played a role in the resignation of several staff members, including my predecessor, our previous music and liturgy director, and most recently, our coordinator of children’s ministries.

I indicated that I was deeply concerned myself. “Because our worship is the heart of the church, the very embodiment of her identity and mission from which both are derived and empowered,” I wrote, “the concerns related to the mass are those that need to be addressed most urgently” (“Considerations”). Putting my level of concern in very personal terms, I continued,

A parish can survive for a long time while remaining entrenched in forms and practices that are not ideal, but worship that risks stifling the Holy Spirit and dampening the joy and expression of God’s people can too easily become a slow death for a community that is struggling to demonstrate to its members and to the world the compelling love of Christ and the joy of serving him.

I must confess that such a risk as I have seen it at Saint Clare has become for me something of a crisis of faith and mission. When I interviewed, my impression was that Saint Clare was in many ways appropriately progressive in terms of her formation efforts, willing to learn and try approaches that are not typical in the Catholic world. I found that to be true in many ways, and I have enjoyed the flexibility to further evolve those efforts and to find glimpses that our work has been effective and well-received. But I was wrong to think the worship at Saint Clare was equally forward-looking and discovered quickly that the Catholic Church, from this vantage, looks very different than the one I and my famliy came to call home. I felt called to be a part of Saint Clare, but even as my professional concern grew at the signs of incongruity between our worship and the vitality for which we long in our parish, I became alarmed to find that I was questioning my place in the church and whether or not the reality I was seeing was more indicative of the church’s true identity than what I had known of the church before coming to Charleston.

I am praying for a renewal of the sense that the Catholic Church is the place in which I can worship and serve with confidence that she embodies the gospel in the best possible way. I am praying especially that Saint Clare becomes a parish in which I can continue to serve with genuine passion and the hope that we are all working together to discover what Christ desires us to be. Even as I write this, I am still worried that I have to be too guarded in the ways I present the concerns I have mentioned and others have brought. I feel the need to describe them with weight befitting their significance but with tact that keeps the criticism from appearing too severe. That I have to tread so carefully is a concern itself that I pray is unfounded, but I do hope it is perceived as a desire to build on what is good and to find constructive ways to examine and evolve those things that can become a rich and healthy foundation to all aspects of our life and ministry as the body of Christ. (“Considerations”)

One element of disquiet I never thought I would encounter has been the capitulation of the church (culture as well) to the minor threat of the coronavirus. Rather than continue to worship the Lord of all creation, boldly approaching the throne of grace and demonstrating to all the world that what we believe is true, about Christ, about his active and potent presence in our worship, about his sacramental gift of himself in the mass, about his call to enter suffering and death with the confidence in his promise to save all things through death and resurrection, we declared through our actions that suffering and death are to be feared and avoided. Even apart from consideration of Christ, a reasonable and measured response to the reality of any threat was nowhere to be found. In that absence, the church could and should have proclaimed by its worship the hope of Jesus, rooted in the very source of redemption and healing.

And all of this is in the face of a threat that was and is, quite frankly, less potent than many humankind has faced and still faces in the course of life in a fallen world. We have enough evidence to suggest that the ‘safe’ practices in which we have engaged are not really going to mitigate the virus (it may delay some from getting it, but it will always be around). At the same time, even with surges in infection, the death rate has dropped by more than 60% since June (and continues to drop such that it is a fallacy to suggest that death is common). More and more evidence challenges the ‘accepted’ narrative that this virus is worse than the flu and other related illnesses, and we have imposed as much harm as we have helped through the restrictions. The church, including our own parish, capitulated to fear, culture, and even to insurance companies over Christ himself, undermining the truth we claim by our actions. Our own worship with masks and elimination of critical elements, such as the peace, the blood of Christ, and communion within the mass (as we did for a time), was and is not really the worship of a people confident in the grace and mercy of our Lord.

For me, this capitulation added to my concerns about the church and my participation in it. For those for whom we are responsible, we further obscured the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit and deepened the urgency to restore the integrity of our worship, the authenticity of our hope in the present and future kingdom of God, and the joy of knowing and serving the Lord of all creation, in season and out of season, even when it runs counter to the prevailing narratives of fear and isolation. To the world that sees the minor threat as apocalypse and retreats behind presumptions of a facile social ‘unity’, fleeting ‘protection’, and false ‘compassion’, the church could proclaim the depth of grace, mercy, and salvation in the face of all threats with the courage of the redeemed in Christ who do not fear to risk everything, even health and safety, to proclaim Christ and the hope of the new creation.

As I explored these and other concerns in the document I came to call “Thoughts Moving Forward” and asked for our pastor’s help in exploring them as a staff, I watched my own family and others withdraw from worship and parish life in ways that betrayed their disillusionment with the church and its ability to embody the joy of the gospel and an abiding faith in our Lord reflected in all we are and do as the people of God, a living sacrament of his kingdom. My wife and sons, like many in the parish, began to yearn for life-giving evidence of the presence of the Spirit in the church and expressed again and again that we are not going to find it at Saint Clare. Even as I have struggled myself, I have watched them sink deeper into depression and apathy to the point where I feel we have to go elsewhere to rediscover the presence of Christ and the joy of serving him.

After nine months and our pastor’s caution not to share the evaluation with anyone else, he finally made an overture to explore the concerns I had been raising, and I saw his visit in August 2020 over dinner a glimmer of hope that we might begin that process of discussion, even as a staff, that might help us openly and honestly develop a vision for mission and ministry that might revitalize our parish and restore the joy for which we had been yearning. That hope has since faded, as he did not followed though with the time and attention he promised to give to those concerns nor the pastoral care I thought he might extend to my family and to all who have shared their own concerns with me through the past year. In fact, that hope dissipated altogether as I witnessed more small, but potent, signs of an unarticulated agenda that I believe runs counter to the work of the Spirit that has triggered the concerns of people in the parish who are hungry for worship and leadership that courageously embodies the challenge and joy of the gospel. I also witnessed a tendency towards historical and theological revisionism, both in some of the curriculum that we have used from popular Catholic sources (Ascension Press’ Epic: The Early Church series especially) and in our pastor’s desire to continue to use that curriculum, as well as from comments he made in classes he led, in homilies, and in other contexts. Such things belied the truth we presumed to proclaim.

Until July 2020, our pastor had been leading two parishes, which is certainly not easy, especially as he was also handling a building program. Some of the concerns I mentioned also relate to issues of leadership and vision beyond the parish. I was surprised to discover, though, that both taking on the second parish, Saint Mary of the Annunciation in Charleston, and building in the more elaborate, expensive style (the gothic cathedral), were made over the objections of concerned voices in the parish, including those serving as leaders on our councils. I came to see both, especially the building program, as analogous to the way the Catholic Church has in many ways obscured the very gospel and the apostolic faith she claims to preserve and embody. Although he resigned as pastor of Saint Mary’s, we did not witness a renewed vigor in pastoral leadership at Saint Clare, although the building program received a great deal of time and attention. As it continued to evolve under his careful and energetic guidance, still to the detriment of other ministry, it too impeded rather than advanced our call to embody the mission of the body of Christ.

As I watched the costs of the building balloon from the astounding to the ridiculous even as its value to the mission of our parish diminished, I began to despair that the values espoused by our Lord, values we have been trying desperately to reflect in our ministry in formation and evangelism in the parish, would ever fully define our priorities or find expression and foundation in the worship of our local community. As the costs skyrocketed, many compromises were made to the plans, including a significant reduction in the number of pews it could accommodate. The parish will have a beautiful building, but its reduced capacity will mean fewer opportunities to worship together as a body, especially at those times like Christmas and Easter when more than usual would hope to attend. Also missing will be the spaces necessary for robust formation programs and gatherings outside of the mass, not to mention facilities that I hoped would one day support mission-minded service ministry, as they were shunted to latter phases.

One of the biggest barriers to consistency in our formation and evangelism efforts had been a difficult and often contentious relationship with Bishop England High School, where we had been sharing autitorium and classroom space. At its best, that relationship left us with less than ideal access to facilities and imposed a significant burden on staff and volunteers to facilitate ministry. The additional space afforded by larger administrative offices into which we moved in June 2019, while helpful, remained limited and expensive. I came to fear that increased debt and the burden of maintaining both a new building and the continuing expenses of office and classroom space not addressed in the first phase of construction would significantly delay our ability to address those needs. The beautiful building will, in its inadequacy, perpetuate barriers to mission in the local parish, even as the worship space, clearly designed to support “traditional” forms and aesthetics rooted in more medieval than apostolic norms, will continue to obscure the vitality of worship that is dynamic, compelling, and life-giving.

The edifice of transcendent beauty that emphasizes solemnity and ‘tradition’ over joy and mission does seem to me to parallel the all-too-rigid edifice of presumed infallibility of the truth of the Church that has dimmed the light of the gospel in much of the Catholic faith. The concerns I have raised at what I have witnessed at Saint Clare have driven a renewed urgency in my studies of the Fathers and divines Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant, and I have come to the realization that the restored communion of the one, holy, apostolic church will require as much humble reform of the Catholic Church—even through honest reexamination of the hitherto unassailable magisterium—as the submission we often expect of our ‘separated brethren’. The Catholic Church has begun in recent decades to rediscover some of the essential nature of the gospel and our call to mission, which is what brought me and my family to her nearly nine years ago, but it continues to struggle under a great deal of baggage codified and blessed as ‘apostolic’ that is not and that has made that rediscovery falter. The fullness of truth is found not in the Catholic Church but in the gospel of our Lord to which we must again submit all assumptions of ‘Sacred Tradition’, seeking with our brothers and sisters in the truly universal (catholic) church the unobscured, foundational truth of the Spirit of God who challenges all of his people to bear the joy and grace of Jesus Christ to a fallen world. With Pope Francis, I have come to “dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation” (Evangelii Gaudium, 27). His radical, call is, I firmly believe, the call of Christ himself to his church.

The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself. As John Paul II once said to the Bishops of Oceania: “All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion.” (EG, 27)

In her ongoing discernment, the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them. At the same time, the Church has rules or precepts which may have been quite effective in their time, but no longer have the same usefulness for directing and shaping people’s lives. Saint Thomas Aquinas pointed out that the precepts which Christ and the apostles gave to the people of God “are very few.” Citing Saint Augustine, he noted that the precepts subsequently enjoined by the Church should be insisted upon with moderation “so as not to burden the lives of the faithful” and make our religion a form of servitude, whereas “God’s mercy has willed that we should be free.” This warning, issued many centuries ago, is most timely today. It ought to be one of the criteria to be taken into account in considering a reform of the Church and her preaching which would enable it to reach everyone. (EG, 43)

I am convinced that rather than a conviction that she embodies in perfection the apostolic tradition, the Catholic Church needs to see herself more as the disciple still seeking that truth and willing to submit all she has learned and become to the refining scrutiny of the Spirit that leads her to a maturity yet to be realized. Again, as Pope Francis perceptively argues,

The Church is herself a missionary disciple; she needs to grow in her interpretation of the revealed word and in her understanding of truth. It is the task of exegetes and theologians to help “the judgment of the Church to mature.” The other sciences also help to accomplish this, each in its own way. With reference to the social sciences, for example, John Paul II said that the Church values their research, which helps her “to derive concrete indications helpful for her magisterial mission.” Within the Church countless issues are being studied and reflected upon with great freedom. Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow, since all of them help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word. For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion. But in fact such variety serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel. (EG, 40)

The deep and life-giving truth of God extends beyond the Catholic Church and her magisterium, and I saw in Vatican II and in the leadership of recent leaders a sensitivity to that reality when I entered the Catholic Church. I have not agreed with everything Pope Francis has done and said, but I have found in him and other recent popes a willingness to think anew about the challenges the gospel presents to the church and the willingness to submit everything to our risen Lord in an effort to reform and refocus all we are and do with God’s redemptive mission at the center. I have struggled to find that same willingness in our leadership at Saint Clare.

I encountered it in some of our people, and I worked to support and equip them as much as possible. I have witnessed in some of our most engaged members, who have worked often in partial and uncoordinated efforts, a laudable desire to push the boundaries of tradition and expectation for the sake of the gospel. Until a clear vision built around the joy of knowing Jesus and inviting others to do the same, with great risk to ourselves and the comfort of our Catholic ‘culture’, permeates our worship and sacramental life, our stewardship and building programs, and all of our formation efforts, formal and informal, those partial and isolated efforts will falter.

Even as I have resigned, I pray that vision develops and bears fruit at Saint Clare, but my hope that it will has dimmed. I have spent most of my adult life preaching and teaching the truth of the gospel, often at great cost to livelihood and security and very often challenging the traditions of the faith to which I have belonged. I found some fulfillment in doing so at Saint Clare and some in the parish hungry and receptive to a deeper call to realize the mission of Christ, but I also encountered the need to compromise what I have learned to be the truth of Christ and the hope of the new creation to an extent that puts me at odds with the vision of the church our pastor and others, some of the staff included, appeared to embrace. While I struggled to remain faithful to our Lord in asking our pastor to explore reform in our community, I found many of those efforts marginalized, and I came to realize that I could not stay while I watch hope fade in my own family and others who care most deeply in the parish.

Ad orientem

Below are my thoughts expressed to our pastor at Saint Clare of Assisi Catholic Church regarding his announcement that he would shift to ad orientem in the Mass.

As we consider this move to celebrating ad orientem at Saint Clare, I thought I would summarize the arguments I have found in its favor, offering responses that demonstrate an alternative perspective and that highlight some of the deeper issues involved as I, and others who have responded negatively, see them. I hope this serves as a guide to any discussion we might have about the wisdom of making this kind of change at Saint Clare, and I do so with the prayer that the Holy Spirit, whose Church this is, will guide all of us to gracious exchange, to understanding, and to clarity on what we should do moving forward.

Dr. Chris Diffenderfer, October 24, 2019

Regarding ad orientem, arguments for it are in bold, and responses follow:

• The Church still allows it.

Response: This is true, but it is not really an argument for or against it per se. However, this orientation is associated with the extraordinary Mass and is allowed but not encouraged. Responses I have seen from the Vatican tend to emphasize that it should not and will not be supported as an ordinary form.

• Assumptions that the early church celebrated versus populum are wrong (arguments are made based on some references to praying towards the east as evidence that the Mass had been ad orientem in the first place).

Response: While it is very true that many idyllic, oversimplifying assumptions have been made about the early church in many ways, that tendency is not indicative of scholarship as a whole. We do have considerable evidence that versus populum was the more common practice, beginning with the evolution of the eucharistic prayer and Christian worship from the synagogue and including carvings and other images depicting the eucharistic worship of the church at various points in history. Worship in the early centuries of the church was not really uniform in many ways, and so it is difficult to argue to strongly for or against many things due to the variation in regional practice. It is also true that we do not have any overwhelming evidence that ad orientem was common practice until the early medieval period, around the eleventh century, when it appears to have been introduced in the West as a conscious change.

• Facing the East (or at least the apse) more appropriately signifies the leadership of the priest in praying as one with the assembly to God and to Jesus who will return from the East. Conversely, versus populum is praying to the people, not God. Facing the East more appropriately signifies the sacrifice being made to God with priest as in persona Christi, eliminates a visual confusion, and is less disorienting for the priest. Versus populum adds to the elevation of the priest over the laity, creating an orientation of separation and presentation to rather than unity and offering on behalf of the assembly. Facing the East also keeps the assembly less closed in on itself (the closed-circle).

Response: A couple of initial observations can be made, including the fact that the assembly does face the East (or at least the apse) in either case, so there is inherently a sense of anticipation of Christ’s physical return even in versus populum. To insist that the priest must also reorient himself for that anticipation to be fully valid is itself commentary on the priority of priest over the assembled body, as if it is really the orientation of the priest that alone matters. The priest’s comfort or resolution of disorientation is not really the point (and that disorientation can itself be resolved through a more robust theological understanding of worship communicated to all involved).

Notwithstanding those observations, one might question the notion that for prayer to be lifted up to God, we must orient ourselves to a place where God is, as if he is not also among us. Such an argument is especially interesting in a tradition that emphasizes the very presence of Christ himself, not only as the eucharistic species, but alive and active as the real celebrant, as the living Word, as the Holy Spirit who animates and indwells each individual and the body as a whole. It is not really that worship is either about an anticipation of Christ coming some time in the future or about remembering something he did in the past. Worship is really about both the past and future activity and presence of Christ made fully present in the liturgical, eucharistic assembly—in word and table, in prayer and song, in action, posture, heart and mind, body and spirit. Worship is at once anamnetic and proleptic, holding the tensions of the already and not yet in glorious union. In fact, worship is a beautiful symphony of paradox and mystery which is at once past, present, and future. It is earthly and heavenly, it is joy and lament, sacrifice and gift, death and resurrection. Worship is rich with the transcendence of God and his intimate presence as all things are drawn by the Christ of the cross and the resurrection himself, sanctified by Christ himself, offered by Christ himself, and made real by Christ himself, and through him by his people, priest and the assembled priesthood, the very body of Christ.

Rather than closed in upon itself, the circle of priest and assembly hold these tensions in appropriate harmony, as prayer is made to God who is both fully present among us and fully transcendent, not least in the many words, actions, postures, silences, and elements of the liturgy and the sacred space in which it is enacted. In the awareness of the priest acting in persona Christi as the one sacrificing, praying, praising, graciously giving, receiving, speaking, guiding, transforming, making new, humbling, exalting, and more, the assembly and priest together with him are also fully aware of the cosmic assembly of the Church past, present, and future in the very presence of God the Father. All of this is appropriately embodied by the priest and the assembly facing each other, with Christ himself at the center. The circle itself most profoundly evokes eternity, community, unity, and communion.

Ad orientem is an imbalance, an emphasis of but one primary movement in worship, with others grafted through a catechetical insistence perhaps, but without the richness of symbol and movement that brings Christian worship into its fullness.

• People, especially millennials, flock to parishes celebrating ad orientem.

Response: This assumption is one easy to make but more difficult to validate. Many may respond well to the things embodied by ad orientem, but it is also true that many react viscerally to other things it implies, such as actions removed from the assembly and the reinforcement for some that the priest acts as the assembly looks on more as audience, on their behalf and yet without them. The resistance of many has been documented against such an orientation that does not fully embrace the breathtaking theology of Vatican II and that hearkens to a period in the church that was just as rife with attrition, an emphasis on internal piety, and the need for the reforms that were sought in council.

The millennial response, and that of subsequent generations, is itself hardly a measure of value, for those generations often respond to that which makes sense to their personal fulfillment and to things that appear innovative and different. Perhaps a renewal of catechesis and an effort to extol (and embody in music and response) both the joy and depth of current forms, postures, and orientations can bring that same desire to fruition for all generations to worship God in fullness and in truth without alienating others who have come to appreciate the fresh air of the Church renewed and restored, in many ways, to the richness of the worship we now enjoy.

There are many things we can do within the Mass as it exists to help build and reinforce community and draw millennials and others into the joy and beauty of the Mass without making this kind of change that will have, I fear, an opposite impact.

Further observations

The notion that individual priests choose to celebrate ad orientem, over and against common practice, insisting that it somehow enlivens a parish tends to look much like the Protestant tendency to elevate personal and denominational doctrinal choices and practices over the tradition and unity of the church. Variation in local practice does exist, but an accommodation, even an encouragement, of that kind of conscious assertion does devalue the uniformity of faith and practice that speaks to apostolic consistency and communion. While differences in piety reflected in gestures, postures, and patterns do not necessarily take on the weight of dissension or of doctrine, especially at the level of the laity, they can cross into that level of significance when they fundamentally alter the nature and experience of the liturgical assembly and are driven by the priest. That risk is deeply concerning for many of us in relation to ad orientem.

Do you understand?

Text: Matthew 13

Our Gospel lesson is a parable and its explanation that come from a series of conversations Jesus had with his disciples and a crowd by the sea one afternoon or evening . Our temptation is to isolate each of them and to look at them individually. Many parables, as stories, are pretty well encapsulated and seem to stand on their own, so we tend to draw on lessons and meanings, all important and legitimate, without looking into their broader context.

But Matthew relates parables and side conversations in the context of a bigger story, one with several layers and clues that point us to the fact that each parable and conversation is inter-related. The lessons to be learned are bigger and broader than those from any one parable.
The kingdom and the person to which those parables refer is more profound than any one story can communicate.

In this case, the first verse of chapter 13 gives us a clue that we must look back a little to understand what Jesus is trying to say. “That same day” Matthew writes, “Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea” (13.1).

That same day—”The same day as what?” we might ask. It was the same day, we learn in chapter 12, that Jesus had been through a serious confrontation with some of the scribes and Pharisees after casting demons out of a blind and mute man, delivering him from the demons and healing him (12.1-32). He had been accused of being a demon himself by these leaders who should have known better, and he said some of the toughest things in response that we have ever read. “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” he said (12.30). He spoke of blasphemy and sin, of bad trees known by their rotten fruit (12.33-37).

Spiced with “brood of vipers” and “evil and adulterous generation,” he laid out charges of careless words out of evil hearts, of judgment and condemnation, of an evil generation (12.34, 45). “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” he said, drawing the line between those who know much and obey little and those who are truly members of God’s kingdom and household (12.50).

Worn out, probably discouraged and heart sick, Jesus went to sit by the sea (13.1). As so often happened when Jesus sought rest and tranquility, a crowd gathered, and Jesus was forced to get into a boat from which he could address them.

I invite you to keep this image in your mind and to put yourself in the place of the people waiting to hear Jesus speak. Perhaps you are one of the crowd who came to hear him out of curiosity. Maybe you are one of his disciples (not necessarily one of his 12 closest, but one who has followed him for some time and witnessed what happened earlier in the day).

You watched with amazement, and a bit of fear, as he battled with the wisest men you knew until now. You are close enough, maybe even in the boat with Jesus, to see how weary he is, to notice how his voice has grown hoarse, how often he closes his eyes and pauses before speaking, as if to gather as much energy as he has left before speaking another sentence. You are in earshot to hear the comments he makes that are only for the ears of his disciples—the ones he speaks in hushed tones that cannot hide his concern and his exhaustion, the ones through which he speaks his heart to those he desperately hopes will hear and understand the full truth, when no one else seems to.

Although you are exhausted as well, somehow you know that he feels the weariness more deeply. You sense somehow that he has something very important to say, or he wouldn’t even make the effort at this point. So you listen carefully, and Jesus speaks.

Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen! (Matthew 13.3-9, NRSV)

Jesus pauses for a moment, letting the weight of his words settle among the people.

One of the disciples with us asks, “Why do you speak to them in parables” (13.10)? Jesus thinks for a moment and steadies himself with a hand on Peter’s shoulder as he sits down in the boat. A little softer, so the people on the beach don’t overhear, Jesus responds.

To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:

“You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it. (13.11-17)

Our hearts leap for a moment! We have been given to know the secrets of the kingdom. We are seeing and hearing what our teachers, the scribes and Pharisees have failed to see and hear. We are privy to the fulfillment of prophecy!

But some of us wonder, for we are still a bit puzzled by what Jesus has said. We don’t really understand everything he’s said. We are not that much different than the crowd of people on the beach. We have just been following Jesus a little longer. We are still a bit confused. Maybe our eyes are closed, our ears hard of hearing, and our hearts dull after all.

But we only have a moment to be doubtful, for after a deep sigh during which he closes his eyes and bows his head, almost as if he’s asleep sitting up, Jesus lifts his head slowly and continues.

Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty. (13.18-23)

Some of us nod our heads knowingly as he speaks. We have seen many turn away without understanding, without any desire to know more. Many on the beach this afternoon will leave without any real knowledge of what they heard or who was speaking.

As Jesus talks about those who receive with joy and then fall away under pressure, several of us clear our throats and mumble names. Already we lost several who were afraid of the way Jesus invited the anger of the scribes and Pharisees. A few of us glance at a brother sitting at the back of the boat who had been acting nervous and withdrawn since we returned from the synagogue, and he doesn’t return our gaze. He’ll be gone in the morning.

We lost another just a few days ago when Jesus said that “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (10.37). That didn’t sit well, even with the twelve.

Jesus stumbles a little when he mentions those burdened by the cares of the world and lured by wealth—perhaps he is remembering the same thing. Ah, but he manages a smile when he talks of those who hear and understand, those who bear fruit. As he stands again to continue talking to the crowd, giving Peter a knowing squeeze on his arm, we wonder about the people and others of our dear friends around us. Who will hear and understand? Which of us will buckle under the pressure and fall away? Do any of us really love Jesus enough to see this through? (“See exactly what through?” some of us ask ourselves.)

We glance around again at each other and see tears in some eyes and the far-away look of distant thoughts in others. We know that we are all asking the same questions.

Jesus clears his throat, and after quieting the crowd who had been discussing the parable among themselves, he continues.

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” 13.24-30

At this some of us in the boat gasp. A murmur among those on the beach tells us that a few of them understand as well. Did he really say that? After what we have heard recently, we are really not surprised, but still…

Jesus ignores the murmuring, and even though his voice sounds a bit strained, he continues.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. (13.31-33)

And then, without ceremony, and while his words yet echo in the still of the evening, he motions to Peter and the others to row back to shore.

Most of us are quiet as we make our way through the crowd and back into town. A few talk to one another in hushed voices, and Jesus smiles wanly at the few people who press for him to speak to them some more. Most of the crowd know that he’s finished and disburse to their homes—some looking puzzled, some in deep in conversation with one another, and others, a few mind you, follow thoughtfully behind us, even into the house.

Weeds among the wheat—that would make for a small crop. Much of the wheat would wither and fail to make grain in time for the harvest. Much that once was wheat would be useless and thrown into the fire with the weeds.

A mustard seed, yeast—a small thing with great potential, a hidden ingredient, a little of which leavens a whole batch of dough. There is hope in those words, thank God!

Even though few seeds take root in good soil , and even though the few that bear fruit may lose some to weeds, the few will grow the kingdom. We are a mustard seed, a small thing with great potential. We are yeast, a hidden catalyst that leavens.

As we make our way into the house, the mood lightens a bit as we begin to grasp the implications of what Jesus has just said For a moment the hushed tones turn to friendly noise as we begin to talk and even jest with one another again.

A look at Jesus quiets us, and as we all look to see what’s going on, we notice that his is still the grim countenance of one with much on his mind. We are all aware again of just how few of us there are and how strong the resistance is to Jesus and his message. We see again those among us who will likely be gone by morning, and the room falls quiet.

After a long and awkward silence, Thomas addresses Jesus without quite looking at him, almost as if he’s not sure he should open what might be a painful subject when we are all so tired. “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field” (13.36).

Again, Jesus sighs and does not answer right away. When he does, the intensity of his voice overcomes his weariness for a moment, and he answers as if he’s trying very hard to get us to understand much more than what Thomas asked about.

The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (13.37-50)

Jesus stops again, but his face is ablaze with urgency, and although the lines of fatigue are still obvious, his eyes are bright and clear. We are all caught by his words, like the fish in the net, as if they have power beyond being heard—as if they are working their way into our hearts.

The moment lasts an eternity, and one by one heads nod and gazes lift to look at Jesus who seems to be staring intently at each one of us all at the same time.

Wheat and weeds. Good fish and bad fish. Seed on a path, on rocky soil, on thorny soil, and on good soil. The mustard seed and the yeast. Falling away, uprooting and burning, fire and judgment. Selling everything to possess what is most precious. The hidden treasure and the pearl of great value.

Before us in the flesh is the treasure, the seed, and the yeast. If our hearts are not dull, our ears not deaf, and our eyes not blind, we will see and hear and know this treasure for what it is—its surpassing value, its hidden, but explosive potential. We will give everything that we are and everything that we have to be a part of it—to know and cherish it, to love HIM.

If we endure trouble and persecution, if we do not allow the cares and concerns of this world, of making money and living standards, of comfort and security, of success and promotion, we will yield fruit for the kingdom. We too will be the mustard seed and the yeast. We will “shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father” (13.43).

Already a few have gone, and all who remain are locked in the gaze of the Son of Man. “Have you understood all this?” he whispers (13.51).

No one breathes, and his words reverberate in the silence.

“Have you understood all this?” “Yes” we all say together with one voice. “Yes.”

Somehow we know we don’t know everything you are trying to tell us, but we understand all the same. More than that, we are willing to pay the price for the treasure and the pearl. We’re ready to bear fruit for the kingdom. “Yes.”

Jesus leans back against the wall, and the weariness returns in fullness to his face. The lines are more pronounced and the slump in his shoulders more obvious. But for the first time today he is relaxed and at peace, and the smile on his face is full and warm.

With one last sentence, he who is the only one with authority to do so, places the treasure of the kingdom in our hands. “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven,” he says, and he smiles a little wider (13.52) He knows what it means to us to be called scribes of the kingdom—men of wisdom, those who preserve and teach its secrets. “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (13.52).

At once we feel the privilege and the responsibility. We remember his words from earlier that same day. “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it” (13.16-17).

The scribes and Pharisees did not see it. Most of the crowd did not and will not hear it. Even some close to us fell away and others will. “Have you understood all this?” he asked. “Yes, Lord, we have. And still we follow.”

We are not in the house by the sea, but we have seen and heard all that Jesus shared with the crowd and his disciples that day. Wheat and weeds. Good fish and bad fish. Seed on a path, on rocky soil, on thorny soil, and on good soil. The mustard seed and the yeast. Falling away, uprooting and burning, fire and judgment. Selling everything to possess what is most precious. The hidden treasure and the pearl of great value.

And the question Jesus asks of all of us, that we must answer even now, is simply this: “Have you understood all of this?”

The kingdom has come. The hidden treasure has been revealed and the pearl found. Have you sold all that you have to buy the field and the pearl? Are you ready to grow and bear fruit for the kingdom? Are you wheat or a weed?

Let anyone with ears listen!

And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1.9-11)

Transfiguration—so what?

Text: Mark 9.2-8

Let us pray,

Father, we have gathered again today at your invitation and by your grace, to worship and to fellowship with you. We have heard your word this morning, many of us through ears that are yet deafened by the noise of this world and all that would seek our attention. And so, in your great mercy, I ask that you would open our ears to the voice of your spirit and prepare our hearts and minds to receive all that you would teach us and all the ways you would change us as we meditate further on your word, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Today is the feast of the transfiguration, a day when we traditionally celebrate the transfiguration of Christ on the mountain, the account of which we just heard from the Gospel of Mark.

And if someone were to ask what the transfiguration is all about, in addition to reading from Mark, or Matthew, or Luke, we might tell them that much of the church has celebrated transfiguration in August over the years. Starting in the fourth century the Eastern Church celebrated it as a movable feast. The West picked up on it by the ninth century, but even then it was not on a fixed date until after the defeat of the Turks at Belgrade on August 6, 1457 when it became a celebration of that victory as well. And so Roman Catholics still celebrate it on August 6.

Although the celebration of transfiguration in August obviously didn’t really begin for this reason, some of the more astute associate it with the Jewish festival of booths (or feast of tabernacles), a harvest renewal of covenant and thanksgiving to God who tabernacles, or dwells, among us.

For much of the Protestant world, transfiguration has become a transitional remembrance, the last Sunday after Epiphany, as they move into Lent.

A friend recently reminded me that some of the words we use to describe certain biblical ideas and events of the church year are very “churchy” words. Even if we have some idea what they mean, they often seem rather disconnected from the basic day to day process of being Christian. So with a few churchy words, like epiphany, lent, booths, tabernacles, and covenant, and an impressive fact or two from Church history, I have just summarized most of what you need to know about another churchy word: transfiguration.

If that’s really true, I would expect that even as many of us churchy folk will dutifully nod our heads and settle in to hear a few more edifying details. Most of us, if we are honest, might begin ask a more interesting and nagging question: So what?

Well, I might say indignantly, so what?! Why Jesus went up on the mountain and was changed! He glowed. He talked to Moses and Elijah. God the Father spoke. That’s what transfiguration is all about!

Again we might nod our heads, and if we are evangelical, a few of the more pious among us might even say “amen” out loud.

Well it squares with what we know of Jesus. He was the Son of God, of course—we believe that. So the Son of God goes up on the mountain, glows all over, talks to a couple of dead men, and God calls him his son. Why that happened when it did, we may not be entirely sure, but it is a great story and must have been quite a site!

Great—I’m warm and fuzzy all over. Let’s sing a hymn—SO WHAT.

The more honest, or maybe just the more cynical, among us might begin to think to ourselves, “Life’s a bit overwhelming right now to be talking about transfiguration or anything else on the Christian calendar. Perhaps we should focus on something a little closer to home.

If most of us are completely honest with ourselves, the fact that Jesus glowed on the mountain means less to us than the fact that he died on the tree. To tell the truth, when we get right down to it, most of us know what Jesus should mean to us, and transfiguration, though it has the makings of a nice story, seems to have little to do with it. Sure, we love to come to church each Sunday to remember all of the great things he did and to use the churchy words, but we struggle with making sense of what all of that means when we have to keep up with life, when we see more of the effects of sin in the world than we do of Christ, and when Jesus seems a lot more distant and less real than time pressures, bills, irritating people, and working hard to get ahead.

So if we are really honest, we still say, so what?

Even if we look at it in context, from the perspective of Jesus and the disciples, even with all that was going on when Jesus went up the mountain, what difference did the transfiguration really make? Jesus still had to die on the cross. He still had to face the disgrace of betrayal, arrest, and torture. He still had to go back down the mountain to face the combative Pharisees and the demands of the crowds.

His disciples still had to go through all of that with him as well. When all this happened, their heads were reeling from what they just heard was coming. Jesus had just told them that his road led to the cross, that he was going to have to die (Mark 8.31). He puled them into all of this by telling them that whoever wanted to be his disciple would have to take up his cross and follow him.

They still had to stand by or deny him. They still had to weep when the cock crowed or at the foot of the cross. They still had to hide in the upper room, face persecution and imprisonment, and die their own ignominious deaths.

In fact, the account of the transfiguration seems to have occurred at roughly the same time that John tells us that Jesus was saying some very difficult things—things that created quite a bit of debate about who he is and that caused many to fall away (John 6:22-71).

After many miracles and confrontations with the Pharisees when Jesus seemed to have the upper hand, things were now becoming a bit more difficult. Even though the disciples may have had quite a bit of confidence in Jesus, they were seeing more anger and hearing more venom in the taunts of the authorities, and Jesus was suddenly talking about death and crosses. (Look back just a little ways in Mark and you will find Jesus predicting his death and talking about his disciples taking up their crosses to follow him.)

By this time Jesus is still with the disciples, but Christ, the messiah Peter confessed him to be, that long awaited deliverer, was beginning to seem very far away. So when they saw Jesus glow a little and heard God speak, they must have wondered what was going on, why this was important and what it meant.

Of course Peter handled it in typical Peter fashion. Great, he said, let’s put up a few tents. What he was really saying is that he was not sure what to do with all of this either.

So what!

So…WHAT?

So the disciples, overwhelmed and confused, go with Jesus up the mountain, away for a few moments from the pressures below, away for some stolen moments to clear their heads. Those of us who have been up our own mountain know what this is like.

Jesus, knowing what is ahead and already full of grief over what he must do and why, and maybe even a bit weary and fearful, takes his closest companions up the mountain for a little solitude and reflection.

While they are there, in the midst of their fear and fatigue, when they all needed something to hold onto, when they probably were looking for something to make sense in their struggle, even before they knew everything that struggle would involve—for a moment, they glimpse the glory of God in Jesus.

There was much going on on that mountain that was important, of course. It was all there: Moses and Elijah, glowing faces, brilliant white garments, the cloud and the voice of God. But I am sure there was much about what happened that they probably didn’t understand until afterward, maybe until long after the resurrection. The best that Peter could think to do was try and capture the moment by throwing up a few tents.

Later, when they discussed it together and shared it with those who would eventually write the account into the gospels, I am sure they realized a bit more about what was going on and picked up on some of the details that give us the best clues.

Jesus shone with the glory of his future, and ours. He spoke with Moses and Elijah, the great lawgiver and the prophet of prophets, demonstrating that what he was doing was continuous with the fullness of God’s plan from the beginning. Jesus was the next and greatest phase of God’s gracious effort to restore creation and bring his people into fellowship with himself.

All of the seeming chaos was part of the plan. The cloud was there, just as it was when it led the Israelites, just as it covered the mountain when Moses spoke to God and came back white and glowing long before, and just as it was in the whirlwind that took Elijah into heaven. From the cloud, the mysterious presence of God, the Father’s voice commands, and reassures: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him” (Mark 9.7).

Jesus is who you thought he was, and more. The dark things Jesus is predicting—the gathering conflict and the confusion—cannot hide the glory of God in Christ nor thwart the fulfillment of what he has been planning from the beginning of time.

They may not have fully grasped all of the implications in that moment, but for the disciples, and even for Christ, transfiguration meant,

Clarification (of just who it was they were following). This IS my son, the Father reaffirmed. Christ shone and fellowshipped with the patriarch and the prophet—no mistaking that he was no mere Rabbi, nor was he Moses or Elijah returned—they were there with him, but he was different.

• In their confusion, the transfiguration meant comfort (the comfort of knowing that God was in control). The law, the prophets, all that has been and all that will be, is fulfilled in these moments, in Jesus, this man they have been following and in whom they have trusted. Even though they have been both awed and puzzled, now they have the comfort of knowing that their faith and trust are not misplaced.

• And when they needed it most, the transfiguration was confirmation (that all of this talk of death really did have something to do with the messiah and deliverance). They had known who Jesus was (Peter admitted as much not long before). But they come to find out that this messiah they were following was going to die. This was not the plan they expected! But now it was confirmed—Jesus, not those who plotted against him, is the keeper and fulfiller of God’s plan for the salvation of his people. In Luke’s account, we are told that Jesus, Moses, and Elijah “…spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem” (Luke 9.30-31). There was a plan, and it was progressing as it should.

• The disciples were not just onlookers, though, in need of this sign to confirm and comfort. For these few, who would later lead the way in spreading the gospel and building the kingdom, the transfiguration was a commission. Though confused and feeling way in over their heads, the disciples were part of the plan. “Listen to him,” God the Father said (Mark 9.7). When Jesus said “Take up your cross and follow me,” and “lose your life for the sake of me and the gospel,” he was enlisting those who would really go the distance—those who would take their place at his side and give everything to see his kingdom come (Mark8.35). And the Father himself let them know—this was indeed their calling.

Did they grasp all of this that night on the mountain? Probably not. But in that simple, glorious, moment of mystery, that fleeting glimpse into the glory and plan of God, I am sure the disciples were given something they could hold onto as they turned their attention to the struggle below and followed Jesus on his path to the cross.

In that moment, they were given something to remember and something to anticipate all at the same time. In the midst of the gathering darkness, they were reminded just who was in control.

So what?

So the transfiguration may have made the difference between staying the course or falling away for them. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve in John (6:67). It may well have been that evening on the mountain that helped confirm the response of Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68).

All through the church year we have been saying that God is with us, just as Jesus walked with his disciples saying “God is with you,” and “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” We have been looking at the miracles and message of Jesus as evidence of the truth of the kingdom and presence of God. But like his disciples, we may know that Jesus is with us, but we face much in life that would lead us to wonder how close our Lord and Savior really is. Even though we might understand the big picture well enough, even when we when we can, like Peter, admit with some measure of confidence that Jesus is Lord, we still have a difficult time facing our daily struggles with joy. In fact, I suspect many of us have a difficult time facing our daily struggles…period.

During those days when we feel spent and wasted—which seem to come a little too often…

When we are hard pressed, perplexed, and confused

When the darkness seems to veil the light of Christ…

When war and terrorism persists…

When the moral state of our world and our country crumbles…

When servants of the Gospel are attacked and tortured…

When our lives seem out of control, and we face financial pressures, pandemics, riots, workmates or neighbors who cause us trouble, temptations, physical ailments, or grief, fear, loneliness, and depression…

Or when we fail, and we do things we are not at all proud of…

When we cause pain in our families and hurt those we love…

When guilt and despair seem more real and more present in our lives than Jesus…

Christ’s transfiguration says, God REALLY IS with us—even when his way leads through the valley of the shadow of death, through the uncertain times, through suffering for his sake. Even when we who follow might yet fail him as Peter would, we can be sustained through the hope that this Christ we serve really is the Son of God, the glory of the Father. Even the darkness cannot hide the light of his glory or obscure his presence forever, and the plan of God for the salvation of the world, even for our own deliverance, has taken into account the darkness and the confusion and will conquer it.

We are invited to have hope in the transfigured Christ, even as the darkness gathers. “This is my Son, whom I love.” God the Father said. “Listen to him!”

Many of us have encountered a moment of transfiguration—an unexpected glimpse of the fullness of Jesus and his glory. Perhaps it has been a moment in worship at his table, a moment in the quiet of prayer or reading his word, a dream or a vision, a moment on a mountain, away from the struggle, or maybe a moment in the deepest darkness when his presence was revealed just as things seemed to be the most hopeless.

Remember that moment and reflect on it again. Remember when you were overcome by God’s presence, reassured, and caught up in a brief glimpse of the fullness of who he is and the magnitude of his love and his plan.

That is what the transfiguration is all about.

When we turn our attention to the cross, to contemplation of the cost of being disciples, to face the realities of sin and the need for repentance and discipline, and even more so as we struggle to follow Christ each and every day and face the presence of sin in a fallen world and in our lives, as we say that Christ is with us, but as he seems a little too far away…

This moment in which we have caught a glimpse of the glory of our Lord, the closeness of God, and the fullness of his plan and purpose, this moment that we share with his disciples as read their story, this moment that we call “the transfiguration” can make the difference for us as it did for them.

So what? So everything! So God REALLY is with us—even when he seems so far. So God really is in control—even when life is overwhelming and confusing. We really are loved by and are serving the holy one of God who holds time in his hands. Although the veil of sin and darkness seems impenetrable, we are changed by the light and glory of Christ—the light that shines in the darkness.

Paul knew what the transfiguration was all about. He knew what it meant to struggle and suffer, even to the point of being overwhelmed. He knew what it meant to remember and rely upon the glory of Christ when the darkness seemed to close in. He knew what it meant to persevere and rejoice in the hope that glory, even when pressing on was most difficult. And so he reminds us in our reading from 2 Corinthians for today, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:6). He continues,

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. (2 Corinthians 4.7)

“Therefore we do not lose heart,” he says a little later.

Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4.16-18)

So what?

So we have caught a glimpse of God’s glory in Christ, of the eternal purpose of God. Now we just have to hang onto those moments and stay the course!

Let us pray.

Father God, you know the weariness and confusion the struggles of life can create, especially when we not only try to meet the challenges of living day by day, but when we try to do so as your disciples, servants of your kingdom and bearers of your good news. We are grateful for those moments when you reveal your glory and remind us of your plan, and we hunger even today to witness the transfiguration of Christ in our midst.

When we do, Father, and when we must afterward descend from the mountain to the valley below, help us to take comfort from the words you speak, that Christ is among us, and help us to heed you when you tell us to listen to him.

Yours are the words of life, and we have no where else to go, no one else to serve. We have seen your glory, and we have come to believe. Uphold us this and every day, through the hope of your glory that we have come to know in Jesus Christ by your grace and the witness of your Spirit.

Amen.

O Jesus, joy of loving hearts,
the fount of life and our true light,
we seek the peace your love imparts,
and stand rejoicing in your sight.

We taste in you our living bread,
and long to feast upon you still;
We drink of you, the fountainhead,
our thirsting souls to quench and fill.

For you our restless spirits yearn
where’er our changing lot is cast’;
glad, when your presence we discern,
blest, when our faith can hold you fast.

O Jesus, ever with us stay;
make all our moments calm and bright;
oh, chase the night of sin away,
shed o’er the world your holy light.

–Bernard of Clairvaux

Be a rock!

Text: 1 Peter 2.2-10

Jesus spent a good portion of his last days with his disciples preparing them for what would lie ahead. In the 40 days between his resurrection and his ascension, he appeared to them many times, as Luke tells us in Acts, “speaking about the kingdom of God,” and preparing them for the Holy Spirit (Acts 1.1-11, NRSV). He was preparing them for how they would carry on and minister in his name even as he was no longer with them in body.

We have but a few accounts from this period in the gospels, and during this Easter season we have read and considered several of them. Even with the few accounts recorded for us, we do have much of what Jesus shared with them. We have, in the gospels and the letters of the New Testament, his teaching and their experience of him all filtered through the needs and experiences of the developing church—the wisdom the resurrected Christ passed on to his disciples. Out of that great storehouse of wisdom, out of his experience with the master, Peter says in today’s epistle, “Let’s grow up to become rocks.”

Now in this passage, Peter is the master of mixed metaphors. He begins with newborns, milk, and maturity and moves right on into rocks and buildings. He then segues right into priests and sacrifices, returns to rocks and buildings, shifts back into priests (mixed with a bit of darkness and light), and then jumps straight on into no metaphor at all: a people.

We can forgive him, of course, after all he was a fisherman, not a writer. So given the milk, the rocks, the priests, the buildings, and cornerstones, I think the only really pertinent question, really, is this:

What does it mean to be a rock?

We might chuckle a little, but to ask that question is not really all that far of the mark. Peter just finished telling us about our great share in the living hope of Jesus Christ, the salvation of which angels are envious, and the holiness expected of us who live under the blood of Christ. “So rid yourselves,” he says at the beginning of chapter 2, “of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander, and long for the pure, spiritual milk that by it we may grow” into all of this he just described—our salvation (1 Peter 2.1-2)! For the very first example of what this means, Peter turns to the one thing he knows very well: Be a rock. He does not really say it quite so bluntly, although he could and it would not be out of character for Peter. But in essence, this is what he says: Grow up and be a rock!

Peter knows rocks very well. He knows they can be dead and useless. He knows they can be too large and immovable. He knows they can be lifted and thrown in anger. He knows they can ruin soil and keep good seed from taking root and growing.

But Peter also knows something else about rocks. He know that rocks are solid. He knows that rocks make great foundations. He knows that even the largest rocks can be rolled away. He knows that even rocks can cry out in praise at the presence of their creator.

More than anything, Peter knows that rocks can be crumbled and remade by the one who makes all things new.

In Peter’s memory is his confident proclamation that Jesus is the Christ (even when the wet-behind-the-ears fisherman had no idea what that really meant). He remembers the kindly words of one who did—”upon this rock, I will build my church” (Matt. 16.18). Peter remembers the man who built his house upon the rock, the seed scattered on the stony ground, and the rocks in the hands of Pharisees and others as Jesus and his disciples made many narrow escapes. Peter remembers the rock who slept on rocks in the garden when he was meant to keep watch and pray. Peter remembers the rock that crumbed when it could not stand under the pressure of accusation and denied the Lord.

I am sure Peter remembers as well every stone on which Jesus stumbled as he carried the cross to Golgotha, the rock on which Jesus died. I am sure he still winces at the memory of the huge immovable stone placed to seal the rock-hewn tomb.

But Peter also remembers the immovable rock moved aside and the cool touch of the stone on which the empty burial clothes lay. He can still feel pebbles on the beach where his risen Lord sat cooking fish on the fire and the rock on which he sat when Jesus asked, “Peter, do you love me” (John 21.15)? How could he forget the rock from which his Lord rose into the heavens and on which the angels sat to say he would come again (Acts 1.6-11)?

Then there was the cool stone floor as the tongues of fire leapt in the air overhead and the hard stone of the temple near where Peter stood as he proclaimed “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainly that God has made him both Lord and Messiah. this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2.36).

Ah, “Peter, you are a rock, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16.18, paraphrased).

So Peter tells us in his first letter, prepare your minds for action, discipline yourselves, and be not conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Live in reverent fear, and rid yourselves of malice, guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Long for the pure, spiritual milk and grow into salvation. Be holy (1 Peter 1.13-15). Be a rock! But not just any old dead, immovable rock—be a living stone! “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…” (2.4-5).

Who better to tell us what this means than Peter, even with the mixed metaphors of an excitable fisherman. What does Peter have to tell us about living stones? A living stone is only useful to the creator, and even then only in the kingdom he is building. In fact, living stones are useless enough in themselves to have been rejected by everyone else. The value of a living stone is not that it is especially beautiful in and of itself and not that it is especially suited to any particular purpose. To be honest, most living stones are rough around the edges, uneven on their surfaces, and maybe even cracked and crumbling.

But God has chosen the living stones to be used to build something even more precious than they are by themselves. In the master builder’s hands, living stones are precious because they submit to his skill and his purpose. Living stones are useful, because they have been broken and are ready to be made into something new. A living stone in the master’s hand takes the shape of the cornerstone, Jesus Christ himself—the first chosen and precious stone, the very foundation on which we are grounded, and a stumbling block to those who do not believe (2.6-8).

On our own, we are but a useless rock, tossed aside and of little account. Used by the master, hewn into the shape of Jesus and laid on his foundation, fulfilling our function by his design, and laid alongside all other living stones who have submitted to the master to become a spiritual house of his own making, we become the holy priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people (2.9-10).

Notice, by the way, that we are not houses, but a house, not priests, but a priesthood, not people, but a people, a nation. We are one body, one entity, built upon the one foundation that is Jesus Christ to fulfill his purpose. That purpose, as Peter tells us is 1) to worship—“offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” and 2) to proclaim the gospel—“that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (2.5,9). This is the very simple nature, mystery, and ministry of the church.

Peter tells us in a very straightforward way that God has done something wonderful for us through Jesus Christ. Certainly he has given us the great and wonderful gift of salvation for which we longed—the salvation that even the angels envy. But this is not reason to rejoice in our good fortune or to rest on his grace without concern. This is reason to prepare, to discipline ourselves to be obedient and holy, and to live the new life he has given us—together.

To fulfill that purpose means to grow up and be rocks—living stones that the Lord takes and builds into the church: The church that looks like and is built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ; the church that is conformed to his plan and his image; the church that is a holy priesthood that worships its Lord sacrificially, the church that proclaims his mighty acts of salvation by being his people; and yes, the church that is a stumbling block to those who see the living Christ in us and must make the choice of darkness or light, of death or life. Our calling is to be one household, one priesthood, one nation, and one people—God’s people, living stones who glorify God by being used of him.

Yes, Peter proclaims, you have been recipients of his great grace and glory, now grow up and be rocks! Be eager to be used. Be eager to fulfill your intended function. Be eager to be hewn and reshaped. Be ready to minister as God’s own people, living stones, useful rocks.

Peter goes on in the next chapters to explain further what that means in terms of relationships to the lost, to authorities and earthy masters, to wives and husbands, and to one another. I encourage you to read on this afternoon. Consider Peter’s word’s of wisdom, of life, and of submission to the will of God.

Before we go, I hope you’ll allow me one last mixed metaphor. Our cornerstone, our head, and our foundation was also the Good Shepherd we remembered last week. Peter, the rock, crumbled under pressure when Jesus was taken to be crucified. Peter was broken, and useless, and had gone back to the only thing he knew to do: fishing. Sometime during the weeks we now remember between Easter and Pentecost, Peter the crumbled and useless rock encountered the Good Shepherd on the shore (John 21). Much like the very first time he encountered his Lord and was undone (Remember Luke 5.8—“Go away from me Lord,” he said. “I am a sinful man!), when he realized his worthlessness in the face of Christ’s worthiness, and when Jesus put his fears to rest and called him to follow. Much like that time years before when Peter the useless fisherman was made into a fisher of men, this time Peter heard the words that would pick up the pieces of broken and useless rock and make him into a living stone. “Do you love me,” Jesus asked three times, and three times to Peter’s affirmation he responded—”Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep” (John 21.15-17). “Peter, you are broken now, you are ready to be what I need you to be. Be my living stone. Fulfill the purpose I had for you from the beginning. Peter, follow me.”

As before, Peter followed. Peter knew what it was to be a living stone. Peter knew that who he was and what he did were all wrapped up in submitting to the master’s building plans. As Peter tells us all, it is time to grow up and be rocks, crumbled and remade into living stones, dead rocks reborn into the living people of God, useless rocks chosen and remade into a spiritual household, the church of Jesus Christ our Lord.

As we sit this morning on our soft cushions in this building of brick and mortar, reflect on these questions: Are you a dead and useless rock, or a living stone? Are we but a pile of rubble, discarded rocks with no purpose but our own, or are we God’s people, one household, one holy priesthood, a holy nation?

“We are living stones,” I hope we can say, “built upon the one foundation, God’s own people!” Yes?

Think about one last question, the one Peter answered with his life—the one he tried to get us to answer with ours.

What are we going to do about it?

Hear this final admonition from Peter:

Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks, must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4.10-11)

Ascension

Text: Acts 1.1-11; Luke 24.36-53; Ephesians 1.17-23

Many years ago I was approached by a single mother seeking prayer and guidance. Her teenage son, nearly an adult, was living in his father’s home. She was deeply concerned, for her son, who had been given a job in his father’s company, was squandering his opportunity, working only sporadically and reluctantly. Disobedient and irresponsible, he had pushed the limits of his father’s patience and was nearing an age when his father threatened to kick him out of his home.

Knowing he had less than a year before he might be on his own, this mother had made many attempts to protect him from the difficult times that were likely to follow. She tried to impress upon him what it would take to live as a responsible adult and to make a living. She tried to teach him about what he would face financially and emotionally, showing him how to budget his money, manage his resources, and conduct himself as a young adult.

Needless to say, he was not receptive, and this young mother was facing the reality that she might not be able to protect him from the very difficult years that he would soon face. She was learning what all parents do that as much as we try so hard to let our kids know what’s coming and to prepare them for life, they will not always listen and accept the wisdom of their parents. All to often, they need the hard knocks in life before they are ready to meet the difficulties with maturity and grace.

“Will he ever get it?” the mother asked in tears. “What else can I do to help him?”

So what does this mother’s concern have to do with the ascension of Jesus, the subject of our readings today? Take a look at what’s happening Luke’s two accounts.

In this first chapter of Acts, which serves much as a summary introduction to the rest of his story, we find the promise of the Spirit and the almost naive question from the disciples, “Now are you going to restore the kingdom? Now are you going to be messiah in the way we expect?”

The answer, very parental in its delivery: “it’s not for you to know. But in the mean time, the Spirit will come, and you will receive power so you can do what I need you to do and be my witnesses” (see Acts 1.6-8).

Then Jesus leaves them, wide-eyed and staring at him as he goes. The angels show up and essentially say, “Get your heads out of the clouds—he’ll come back you know.” Strongly implied is the message, “Stop gawking and get on with what he told you. You have a job to do until he returns” (see Acts 1.10-11).

It’s all very remarkable. In the Acts account, Luke paints a picture of a parent preparing his children for his absence. Jesus gives his instructions, convinces them that they need to trust him and listen to him by showing himself to them after his death, reminds them that they need to focus on their tasks and responsibilities, and offers them considerable help in the process. “You have a job to do,” he says in essence, “and I am going to provide all the resources you will need to do it.” Then he leaves them to it—kind of nudging them out of the nest, so to speak.

Even more remarkable is what we see when we jump back to Luke’s other account, the one with which he closes his gospel. After the instruction and the promise, after he leaves them with the responsibility, they respond as parents wish their children would. Instead of hiding in fear, instead of grumbling and complaining, instead of grudgingly accepting their task, instead of crying over the loss of their friend and mentor: They worship him, return to Jerusalem with great joy, and begin to bless God publicly in the temple.

They still did not know what was going to happen tomorrow. They did not know how often they would be arrested, how many days or years they would spend in chains, or which of them would be tortured or martyred. They did not know how far they would have to travel, how much sand they would clean from between their toes, or in how many strange places they would take up residence and begin the difficult task of witnessing to strangers friendly and hostile. And yet, as Luke demonstrates at the close of his gospel, they were joyful and thankful and embraced their new task, which began with waiting, enthusiastically (Luke 24.52-53).

Are these the same disciples we knew in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry? Are they the same petulant children who often acted on impulse, who whined and fought over position and privilege, who hid from pain and persecution, and who could not quite understand what Jesus was trying to tell them about what was to come?

Of course they were. These were the same disciples Jesus walked with and loved, taught, rebuked, and forgave as parent does his children. They were the same disciples he tried to prepare for what was to come, to save them the fear of his death and to offer them the hope of his resurrection before it all happened. They were the same disciples he tried to give the tools of love and trust they would need to weather the trials ahead.

We have been looking at some of those moments in John’s gospel over the last several weeks, so let’s turn again to John 14 to refresh our memory.

Before we do, let me make an observation. We, the disciples of today—the children of today—have the benefit of looking back on these experiences in the lives of these first disciples and learning from them in ways they could not. If we really take scripture seriously as God’s word to us, we will realize that we have the guidance we need to be children in God’s own household. In these moments we read about in the disciples’ lives, we get a real glimpse into the entire process of growing up in the life of faith. In the moments prior to and after his death and resurrection in particular, we see in the intimate time Jesus spent with his disciples. We see the night he was betrayed and the glimpses of fear and denial as Jesus is tried, tortured, and hung on the cross. We witness the reactions to his appearance after his resurrection, in the upper room, to the two on the road, and to Peter on the beach. In these moments leading up to what we know as the ascension, we get to see how Jesus prepared them, how they struggled and grew, and how they went from being children to becoming friends and adults in the kingdom; from disciples to apostles.

If we really take this seriously, we recognize that as much as this is their story, it is also our story, and we get the benefit of the whole story. So as we look back to those moments when Jesus tries, as a father does for his children, to prepare them for what is to come, listen as though he is speaking to you as well—because he is.

So let’s take a quick look at John 14-17. Jesus just finished washing the disciples’ feet, and he sits down to share his heart with them (after which he prays for them, and for us). Jesus prepares them, as a parent does his children, for the time when he will not be with them—when they will be on their own. Although he says much that looks to the immediate future and his crucifixion, the majority of his comments are looking forward to his ascension, to the day when he returns to where they cannot yet go.

Look at how he begins. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14.1, NRSV). Don’t fear, don’t worry—trust me. I am going to tell you what you need to know, and you need to believe me. And if you do, you will make it! Then the promise—I am going away to prepare a place for you, and then I will come back for you (not to take you away, but to dwell with you). In fact, you already know the way. “You know the way to the place where I am going” (14.4).

Notice the confused and somewhat childish questions the disciples ask throughout this conversation. Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” And Jesus patiently answers. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (14.5-7).

Jesus makes lots of promises—good, peaceful things he promises to his disciples about this time when he’ll be gone from them.

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.

…I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (John 14.12-20, 25-27)

Wonderful—all is and will be well! But along with the good things, Jesus hints that what is to come will also be difficult, and the promises are mixed with warnings about responsibility and perseverance.

I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

…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.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. (John 15.5-6, 10-13, 18-19)

But there is more: “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you…” (15.20). Nevertheless, “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning” (15.26-27).

And it gets worse.

I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them.

I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes [when he’s going to be about the same business I was—the business that invites the ire of the world], he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. (16.1-2, 7-12)

Seriously—what else must they face?

The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16.32-33)

Look at the great pains Jesus went through to help them see, to prepare them for what was to come—especially for his leaving. While he is still with them, before he is arrested and before he suffers, they have a very difficult time understanding and accepting what is to come.

Later, when he does leave, when all has taken place, and when his words to them about the persecution that is to come is probably ringing anew in their ears: Just when he leaves as he said he would, and they are in all appearances left alone, they get it, and they rejoice!

If we look ahead in Luke’s account in Acts, we find countless stories that play out Jesus’ parental words to them in vivid detail. They are persecuted, tortured, jailed, and killed. They learn what it means to be hated by the world, and to lay down their lives.

Look briefly at just one of those stories in Acts 16.

The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God. (16.22-34)

Look at how Paul and Silas reacted to the situation in which they found themselves. Look at the peace they exhibited in the face of prison, the trusting presence of mind that held them steady through the chaos and panic, and the focus they retained on their task, their witness to the Jailer and his family, even the other prisoners.

Often I think we have so much in the New Testament that takes place in extreme situations in a time so long ago that we almost cannot appreciate what really happened, and we have a difficult time understanding how it really applies to our lives in this time and place. They are great stories, but they seem so disconnected from us—and yet they are not. We need to allow the Holy Spirit—the very same Spirit that was to guide them and us into all truth—to give us the same peace and presence of mind and to give us the same holy resignation that keeps us focused on the task without fear of the road ahead.

What did the ascension mean for the disciples and for us?

• They would be persecuted.

• They would learn first hand what it meant to lay down their lives, to work and struggle for Christ and his kingdom.

• They would learn how different his peace is from the peace the world promises—that his peace meant joy in suffering, the peace of loving and serving even when people refuse to listen and put them in chains.

• They would receive the comfort of the Holy Spirit, not in leisure and material provision but in the power to persevere and the comfort of his presence in pain and difficult times.

• They could count on the preparation of Jesus to return to be present with them and give them rest—the rest after the struggle and the hope of a home with the Father when the task is completed.

• And they had a commission, a job to do in the mean time—the cross to bear, the witness to provide, the people to love and to heal, the gospel to spread, and the world, the one that hates Christ and hates them, to reach.

In the face of all of this, they worshiped and rejoiced, blessing God. Why? Because they finally grasped that which Paul desires for all of us to know in our reading from Ephesians.

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (1.17-23)

When Christ ascended, he ascended to reign over all things, including in and through us, his body, his church: “The church which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (1.23). And in that very fact is the peace to endure, the belonging and hope in which to rest, the commission to fulfill, and the resources with which to do it.

When Christ ascended, his disciples, now apostles, worshiped and rejoiced in the face of a daunting task and a great unknown because they finally understood just who it was they belonged to and the full extent of his peace and his promise. They were ready to give themselves over without reservation to the task of building the kingdom, even though it was not for them to know when it would be brought to completion.

They grew up and left the nest.

We have a tendency to talk in Christian circles of living a resurrected life. We are not wrong, of course, for at the heart of all that Christ is and did and what he calls us to is the resurrection. But today we need to consider living ascended lives—lives of maturity and purpose as the body of the ascended and reigning Christ; lives that heed the wisdom of Christ and face our commission with responsibility, that face the unknown with trust, that face the difficulties and struggles with peace and joy, and that face the temptations to complain and worry with resolve and hope.

As Jesus left, he promised his Spirit and inaugurated a new age when he would be present in his people with a power and a purpose heretofore unseen. We live in that age, and we are those people. As we look forward to celebrating Pentecost next week, let us open our hearts fully to his Spirit who is here with us and allow him to make of all of us apostolic witnesses to the ascended Christ.

Let us pray.

Father God, our prayer is simple this morning. By the example of the disciples you have shown us what it means to live under the power of your Spirit and the fullness of the reign of your Son, Jesus Christ. By his words of comfort and warning, by his death and resurrection, and by his ascension, you have given us all we need to know to learn to face this world with peace and joy as we bear witness and do the work you have given us to do. And so we pray that you will find us open to your Spirit, willing to obey our Lord and trust in his promises, and ready to face all that comes with the peace, joy, and hope that comes from giving ourselves wholly to your kingdom and to the task of bearing witness to your love and to your reign. In the name of the resurrected and ascended Lord Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.