A good friend of mine wrote a Declaration for Life, making a strong statement regarding the dignity of all human life, even that of the unborn. I invite you to read and sign the declaration.
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!
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;
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)
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).
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)
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. (Ad orientum is the facing of both priest and congregation to the East during the Eucharistic celebration that results in the priest’s back to the people. For some, such an orientation embodies a sense of the transcendence of God and is desirable for those seeking a return to ‘traditional’ Catholic worship, often based on a misunderstanding of the origins of the practice. For more about ad orientum, please see http://themystagogue.org/?p=192.) 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 had received a great deal of feedback during my short time in the parish. Some had been very positive, and all had been offered by those who clearly care about our parish and its impact. I discovered that many were deeply alarmed by the direction we took in the mass and ways our worship impacted 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 believed the Holy Spirit had developed in our parish and that demonstrated an undefined but active agenda that worked 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 had brought their concerns that we had good things to celebrate and build on, even as we looked to confront and correct those things that needed attention.
The concerns were significant enough, though, that there was 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 could result in a revitalization of our ministry at Saint Clare, and it was their sense that we had not addressed them directly or adequately that appeared 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 had been the capitulation of the church (culture as well) to the minor threat of the coronavirus. Rather than continuing 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 was in the face of a threat that was, quite frankly, less potent than many humankind has faced and still faces in the course of life in a fallen world. We had enough evidence to suggest that the ‘safe’ practices in which we engaged were not really going to mitigate the virus (they might have delayed some from getting it, but it will always be around). At the same time, even with surges in infection, the death rate had dropped by more than 60% since June (and continued to drop such that it was a fallacy to suggest that death is common). More and more evidence challenged the ‘accepted’ narrative that this virus was worse than the flu and other related illnesses, and we had imposed as much harm as we 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 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 were 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 saw the minor threat as apocalypse and retreated behind presumptions of a facile social ‘unity’, fleeting ‘protection’, and false ‘compassion’, the church could have proclaimed 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 were not going to find it at Saint Clare. Even as I struggled myself, I watched them sink deeper into depression and apathy to the point where I felt we would 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 quickly 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 shared their own concerns with me through the previous year. In fact, that hope dissipated altogether as I witnessed more small, but potent, signs of an unarticulated agenda that I believed ran counter to the work of the Spirit that triggered the concerns of people in the parish who were 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 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 in one parish and a restoration program in the other. Some of the concerns I mentioned also related 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 had 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 would have a beautiful building, but its reduced capacity would 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 would 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 would, 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, would 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 seemed 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 raised at what I witnessed at Saint Clare drove a renewed urgency in my studies of the Fathers and divines Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant, and I came to the realization that the restored communion of the one, holy, apostolic church would 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 came 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 believed, 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 was 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 did not agree with everything Pope Francis has done and said, but I 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 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 witnessed in some of our most engaged members, who 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’, permeated our worship and sacramental life, our stewardship and building programs, and all of our formation efforts, formal and informal, those partial and isolated efforts would falter.
Even as I resigned, I prayed that vision would develop and bear fruit at Saint Clare, but my hope that it would had 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 put 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.
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)
From the days Christ himself commanded that his disciples “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…,” the church has been obediently baptizing new converts (Matt. 28.19–20, NRSV). From the day of Pentecost, when Peter spoke, full of the Spirit, and “…those who welcomed his message were baptized,” the apostles, and the apostolic church that followed, were true to Christ’s own example and command and brought all who would repent into the community of faith through baptism (Acts 2.41). In fact, virtually no account of conversion in the New Testament is relayed without reference to the immediate, even concurrent, baptism of the new believer.
Of the people in Samaria to whom Philip was proclaiming the gospel, we read in Acts 8, “they were baptized, both men and women” (8.12). Even Simon the magician, “believed, and after being baptized, he stayed with Philip…” (8.13). Shortly after Philip opened up the scriptures to the Ethiopian Eunuch, who with urgency was baptized along the road, the blinded Saul obediently sought out Ananias, had his sight restored, and was told, “And now why do you delay? Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name” (8.26-39; 22.16). Cornelius and his entire household, and the jailor from whom Paul and Silas were delivered, and his entire family were all baptized into the great and wonderful journey of life in Christ and his church (10.22-48;16.25-34).
Throughout the New Testament, no other ritual or practice is mentioned or alluded to more than baptism. It’s as important to the new covenant as circumcision was to the old. Its imagery hearkens back to the waters of creation, the water for the thirsty in the desert, and the prophesied outpouring of the Spirit. It’s the act which Peter says was prefigured by the flood through which Noah and his family was saved and which “now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” and that Anglican John Wesley called “…the initiatory sacrament, which enters us into covenant with God…perpetually obligatory on all Christians…” (1 Peter 3.20-22; Wesley, Treatise on Baptism, I.1).
Baptism is one of only two sacraments enjoined by the entire church from its earliest days to its latest years. And it’s the one event in the life of the believer that happens but once and yet is to be remembered for a lifetime. “Remember your baptism,” is the cry of the ancient ritual, accompanied in some traditions by the splash of water across the faces and shoulders of the congregation from a soaked branch of hyssop.
What is so important about this ritual of getting wet that is worth such urgency and remembrance? And why have so many Christians in recent years then treated it so lightly, as so much empty words and actions, that they have ignored the command of Christ, the witness of scripture, and the example of the early church and treated baptism as incidental or even unnecessary?
The answer to both questions, as you might expect, can be found in scripture, especially in the person to whom it gives witness. “In the beginning,” John tells us, “was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1.1). “…the Word became flesh and lived among us,” and John the Baptist, he who baptized for repentance and foretold the coming of the Word, baptized Jesus, the Word himself (1.14).
The first quiet and miraculous act by Jesus, the incarnate Word, was to change the water in the jars of purification, water set aside for washing away uncleanness, symbols of the cleansing of sin and defilement, into wine—new, pure wine from Jesus, the incarnate word, a foreshadow of the wine of his own blood that would be shed for our purification (John 2.1-11).
Shortly after, in the still of the night, Jesus reveals to a confused and seeking pharisee the mystery of rebirth by water and the spirit, a strange notion made even more mysterious as he connects it with eternal life found in belief in himself, the incarnate Word of God (John 3.1-21). What follows is a dispute over the new baptism of Jesus and his disciples and the continuing baptism of John the Baptist in which John helps his perplexed disciples understand his own secondary importance to the incarnate Word, through whom the Spirit is given and eternal life found (3.25-30). And then in chapter 4, the incarnate Word, whose disciples have been baptizing in his name, superseding John and annoying the pharisees, sits at the ancient well of Jacob in Samaria, the favored source of water for the thirsty, and offers himself to an outcast and sinful women as “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4.14).
As the Word incarnate and the living water returns to Cana, where, we are reminded, “he had changed the water into wine,” Jesus heals the son of a desperate government official who is near death (4.46-54). Then in chapter 5, by the pool of Bethsaida, Jesus the living water heals the man who cannot make it to the waters that heal (5.2-15).
Do you see it? Do you grasp it?
Only a short time later, after he feeds thousands with abundance out of scarcity, and after he stills the chaotic waters of a raging sea, Jesus utters the words we use so often in that other great sacrament—eucharist:
Very truly I tell you, unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink of his blood, you will have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. (6.53–55)
The bread of life and the living water!
Jesus, the Word incarnate, God among us in the flesh, the very agent and substance of creation, has made everything new—even the water of birth, of satisfaction of thirst, of healing. Jesus even masters the waters of chaos in the storm (John 6.16-21).
So what is so important about this ritual of getting wet that is worth such urgency and remembrance? Jesus Christ himself!
Baptism is the wonderful, physical symbol, that points beyond itself to the to the great mystery and spiritual reality of the new life of the incarnate Christ! Christ, who is the spiritual reality of God given to the world in and through the physical reality of creation—which is what we call “incarnation”—is at the very center of the action we call baptism that is given all meaning and substance by the work of Christ. Jesus Christ himself, the living water, is the person who is the very substance and center of our baptism!
And so Paul not only assumes that we have been baptized in full obedience, he recalls our baptism again and again in order to make sure we live our baptism.
What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6.1-11)
Amen and amen!
Then why have so many of us in recent years ignored the command of Christ, the witness of scripture, and the example of the early church and treated baptism as incidental or even unnecessary? And why have those of us who have been baptized and who would never question the reality of the grace of God and the regenerative activity of his Spirit in the sacrament, trivialized it by the way we live our lives?
I think the answer also lies in what we read in John, and Paul’s letters, and even the Old Testament. When so many have emptied our lives and the church of a living faith in the living Christ and have separated the ritual from the living, saving work of Christ Paul described in Romans, we have reduced baptism to a meaningless external form and have sought the internal work everywhere but the place God intends to offer it. As we have sought the newness of Christ as shown through the witness of the New Testament, and as we’ve looked for the spiritual promise of the new covenant, we have forgotten the power and meaning of the incarnation and the fact that Christ’s redemption touches all of life—body and spirit.
In other words, anyone who insists that the performance of baptism is enough to save without a real and personal participation in and knowledge of the one to whom it points, is not obedient to the Lord they claim to serve. And anyone who treats baptism lightly and insists on being able to enjoy a saving and growing relationship with the incarnate and living Word while ignoring his command, the witness of the apostles, and the example of the early church is not obedient to the Lord they claim to serve.
Baptism is nothing without Christ, but without baptism, we risk living without Christ. Baptism directs us to Christ and marks us as his own. Through the powerful physical symbol of submersion under the water and the activity of Christ himself, baptism embodies the truth of our death to sin and life in Christ and the reality of life giving and cleansing presence of the living water in our lives. Baptism embodies
…the power of Christ over the waters of chaos that would otherwise overwhelm us.
…the wellspring of the Spirit of Christ and the new creation he makes of us.
…the unity of all who are baptized into Christ Jesus, who bear his name and his cross.
Wrapped up in the mystery of the incarnation, the water and the Spirit, is the great sacrament of our new birth that marks the real change in our lives and participation as new creatures in the community and Kingdom of our victorious Lord. Through baptism into the death and resurrection of our Lord, we partake in his victory over sin and death, over the powers of this world. And beginning with our baptism, we live the fullness of new life even as we rejoice in the promise of eternal life in the world to come.
And so again we hear from Paul, this time in his letter to the Colossians.
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.
If with Christ [in baptism] you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?
So if you have been raised with Christ [in baptism], seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal [of baptism] there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (2.8–15, 20; 3.1–17)
Remember your baptism, Paul is saying. Remember that you were buried with Christ and raised with Christ. Why? So you can live your baptism!
To those who are about to be baptized, I wish you the joy of knowing the living water even as you are surrounded by the water of the pool as you feel its coolness on your face as it rushes over your body when you come up clean and refreshed from its depths.
And I admonish you, from this point forward—live your baptism!
To those who have not yet been baptized but who have begun to walk with Christ, although you have not yet been obedient in baptism, I pray that you will soon let go of all that holds you back and let Christ and his church welcome you fully into the community of faith and unreserved participation in his death and resurrection.
Very soon—come and be baptized!
To you who do not know Christ, I invite you this day, as you witness the great mystery and power of baptism, to also witness the realty of Jesus in the lives of these who proclaim it through their obedience. See their repentance as they enter the cleansing water. Witness the wonder of their new creation as they emerge from the depths. Hear and know of the life-giving victory Jesus Christ as you see before you those who have accepted his love and committed themselves to his service. And even this day, come as we pray in a few minutes to confess your need before the only one who can give you eternal life, repent and be baptized!
And finally, to all here who have been baptized, remember your baptism! Remember the change Christ has made in you. Put off the old earthly and sinful ways. Refuse to be ensnared by the charms of selfishness, the temptations to sin, the priorities of the world. Accept with joy and obedience the newness of life. Allow the work of Christ begun when you accepted his Lordship and obeyed in baptism to be perfected in you as you grow in grace and holiness.
Live your baptism!
Another attempt to visually represent a rich, dynamic process!
- Jesus, his audience, their expectations, and his message to them (the original context of the events as they happened decades before the gospel writers dealt with them).
- The gospels as they fit within the full sweep of God’s creative and redemptive purpose and activity, which is reflected in the perspectives of Christ, the gospel writers, and the church through the ages (biblical theology–the canonical context).
- The church as it circulated and used the gospels in worship and then came to affirm them, together, as the normative witness to Christ for the whole church (the applied context–as it is historically been understood).
- And finally the church in our time as it too receives the gospels as well as all of the reflection on them by the church through the ages as the authentic and normative witness to Christ as well as the understanding of all that he meant and means for the church in every age (the applied context–as it is contemporary to us).
The following is a guide for individual and family devotion during Holy Week. A PDF of the guide can also be downloaded from this link: Holy Week devotional guide.
Suggested for use with the readings for each day in Holy Week for individual or family prayer. Adapted from the Greek Orthodox prayer book for Holy Week.
Blessed is our God, always, now and forever. Glory to you, Lord!
O heavenly king, comforter, the Spirit of truth, ever-present and filling all things, the treasure of all blessings and giver of life, come and dwell within us; cleanse us from every blemish, and save us, O blessed one.
Holy God, holy mighty, holy immortal, have mercy on us. (3X)
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning is now, and shall be forever. Amen.
Read the psalm
All-holy Trinity, have mercy on us. Lord, pardon our sins; Master, forgive our iniquities; O holy one, visit and heal our infirmities, for your name’s sake. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.
Read the Old Testament and epistle readings
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and forever. Amen.
Read the gospel
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! Glory to you, O God. Our hope, our Lord, Glory to you.
Prayer—seek God bringing praise, petitions, and gratitude to him.
Help us, save us, have mercy upon us, and protect us, O God, by your grace. Amen.
Glory to you, O God, our hope, Glory to you!
May Christ, our true God, the Lord, who willingly came to his passion for our salvation, through the intercessions of his all-pure and holy mother; the power of the precious and life-giving cross; the protection of the honored powers of heaven; the supplications of the honored, glorious prophet and forerunner John the Baptist; the holy, glorious, and all-laudable apostles; the holy, glorious, and victorious martyrs; our saintly and god-bearing Fathers; the holy and righteous divine ancestors Joachim and Anna; of the blessed Clement of Rome, our beloved patron, and of all the saints, have mercy on us and save us, as a good, loving, and merciful God. Amen.
The mission and anointing of the servant upon whom the Spirit of God rests and who has come to establish justice.
Psalm 36.5-11; Isaiah 42.1-9; Hebrews 9.11-15; John 12.1-11
The commission of the Messiah, the light to the nations, and the scandal of unbelief.
Psalm 71.1-14; Isaiah 49.1-7; 1 Corinthians 1.18-31; John 12.20-36
The passion of our Lord and his betrayal.
Psalm 70; Isaiah 50.4-9a; Hebrews 12.1-3; John 13.21-32
Three special days—a time to die to sin
Adapted from Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Time, pages 123-134
Our spiritual journey is rooted in the great mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, which is remembered especially on the three great days in Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday (called the paschal Triduum).
We have the opportunity to observe these three days with the humility and focus befitting the redeemed who owe our lives to Jesus Christ and what he suffered on our behalf. Therefore, these three days should not to be taken lightly or frittered away in casual conversation, the search for pleasure, or the pursuit of business. In these days we experience and encounter our own reality in the reality of Christ’s horrible death and burial and in his triumphant resurrection from the dead. If we miss these days, we have missed the heart of our spiritual pilgrimage.
Therefore we ought to organize our time and commitments in such a way that we can center entirely on our own participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus and do our best to set aside anything that might interfere with the deep spiritual focus these days bring to us and the unique ways the Holy Spirit can speak to us through their observance.
We pass with Jesus into the darkness of his last night in which his determination to go to the cross is set in vivid contrast to the powers against which he must struggle. We walk that path with him.
Psalm 116.1-2, 12-19; Exodus 12.1-4, (5-10), 11-14;1 Cor. 11.23-26; John 13.1-17, 31b-35
We worship with both the sorrow we bring through our identification with Jesus in his death and the joy we experience knowing that his death was the death of death, the ruination of the powers of evil.
Psalm 22; Isaiah 52.13-53.12; Hebrews 10.16-25 or 4.14-16; 5.7-9; John 18.1-19.42
A day of rest and preparation for the great service of resurrection (the vigil).
Psalm 31.1-4, 15-16; Job 14.1-14 or Lamentations 3.1-9, 19-24; 1 Peter 4.1-8; Matthew 27.57-66 or John 19.38-42
Suggestions for reflection and discipline during Holy Week
Take time each day
- To remember God’s mighty acts of salvation and consider what they mean to your spiritual journey and to Falcon Ekklesia as the body of Christ in our community.
- Reflect on the past year:
- How have you entered into his death this year? What sins in your life need to be brought to death?
- How have you been raised to new life in his resurrection this year? What in your life still needs renewal?
Consider reorganizing your time leading up to Easter and make it a point to be participate in all the celebrations of the church. Demonstrate the importance of your faith, your submission to Christ as Lord, and your grateful love for his sacrifice by refraining from anything that would interfere with the worship of the body of Christ and your own focus on Christ’s death and resurrection.
Extend the fast through the week, perhaps through simplfied meals each day, continuing to limit your diet, or abstaining from a meal or two each day.
The attached PDF is a devotional guide designed to be used throughout the Lenten and Easter seasons. Initially based on the 28 day guide posted on this site, this revision adds material from many sacramental liturgies and portions of the sermons from the great mystagogues of the 4th century. The themes and readings are designed to integrate well with Sunday worship throughout Lent and Easter, and yet the guide can also be used for Advent and Epiphany or any other time throughout the year.
The guide will eventually accompany the book on which I am currently working, but it is ready for use now for both individual and corporate reflection on our sacramental journey into the body of Christ and our ongoing transformation for his mission in the world.