Looking to Sunday: Jesus is the Path

Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Once again during the Easter season we go back in time to explore the depth of the resurrection.

This Sunday’s gospel reading from John 14 takes place in what is known as the Last Discourse. Essentially, John 13-17 serve as Jesus’ last testimony. In these chapters Jesus tries to focus his teaching and leave his disciples with final instructions.
 
The disciples understand that he is going, but they don’t understand where he is going. Thomas says I don’t know which path to take. Jesus responds by saying he is the path, he is the way to the Father.

The Voice translation says it like this, “If you know me you know the Father.” This seems to confuse Philip who asks Jesus to show him the Father. Jesus emphasizes that the Father and the Son are one.

I have started listening to Crackers and Grape Juice, a lectionary podcast, and they explored this passage in some depth. They named the post-modern fear of saying that Jesus is the way, the life, and the truth. And yet this is what the faith proclaims. Jesus is not just a nice guy or a good teacher. He is the way, the truth, and the life.
 
Jesus is not an interesting stop on the path to the Holy, Jesus is the path.

Read more...

Transforming Questions: Does God Answer Prayer?

One of the most questions clergy get is, “Does God answer prayer?”
 
The question is difficult because it is normally being asked by someone experiencing pain or loss.
 
It is also a tough question because we sometimes have a misconception about what prayer is and what prayer is not.
 
For many of us prayer is:
  • Something we do on Sundays-that thing we do in church-and it is disconnected from our daily lives.
  • Something we do by rote, a check list item. We pray before bedtime or a meal because that is what we are supposed to do.
  • Sometimes we think of it like leaving God a voicemail. We leave our ask with God, hoping that we may get a return call.
  • Sometimes prayer is like a vending machine, we insert our coins (prayer) and the vending machine (God gives us what we ask for).
The reality is that none of these are what the Bible describes as prayer. In the Bible, prayer is the central, foundational, the most important activity in our lives. Prayer is a way of life.
 
People often prayed to God in response to events in their life.
  • After the flood dries up Noah offers prayers to God. Genesis 8:20-21
  • After Moses and the Israelites cross the red sea, they pray to God. Exodus 15:1-3
The book of Psalms records all kinds of prayers that reflect people’s emotions-joy, sadness, anger, fear, disappointment, relief.
 
Paul even encourages disciples to pray without ceasing.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Maybe most importantly is Jesus prays several times in the Gospels.
 
Praying was so important that Jesus took time away to pray. In the midst of feeding people, healing people, or talking to people, Jesus would pray.
 
The Our Father or the Lord’s Prayer is offered as a pattern of prayer for us.
Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’
Jesus demonstrates that prayer is not a once-a-week obligation, but a conversation that takes place within a relationship.
 
Prayer is conversation. Prayer is part of a relationships with God.
 
Imagine prayer like coming home after a long day and sharing with your spouse what your day was like. What went well? What was bad about the day?
 
Prayer is like this kind of conversation:
  • It involves talking and listening.
  • It involves times of silence.
  • It is not, always, about getting answers or receiving things.
What would a friendship be like if the friend was always asking you for something?
 
The question, “Does God answer prayer?” is not the best question to ask because it assumes:
  • Prayer is a one way street.
  • Prayer is about getting answers.
  • Prayer is about demands to be resolved.
Kathleen Norris wrote, “Prayer is not asking for what we think we want, but asking to be changed in ways we cannot imagine.”
 
Or said another way by Philip Yancey, “The real value of persistent prayer is not so much that we get what we want as that we become the person we should be.”
 
God promises to show up, to meet us in prayer, to be present in relationship. But no relationship can be one-sided. when we neglect prayer it’s like God waiting for us on a date, and we never show up.
 
For God to meet us in prayer, we must also meet God in prayer.
 
Some tips for prayer:
  • Set aside time
  • Find a place to pray
  • Keep a list of prayers
  • Try different ways to pray and see what works
  • Offer grace at a meal

Read more...

Transforming Questions: How do we read the Bible?

“Blessed Lord, who caused all hoyl Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one god, for ever and ever. Amen.”
+The Book of Common Prayer, p.236
 
Last week we talked about how the average American has 4.7 Bibles in their house and yet only 50% of Americans can correctly identify the 4 Gospels. 10% of Americans name Joan of Arc as Noah’s wife.
 
We are not a Biblically literate culture despite the importance of Scripture that we claim.
 
There are many reasons why we don’t read scripture regularly:
+We are too busy.
+Other denominations study the Bible.
+I studied that in Sunday school.
+The Bible is too difficult to understand.
 
We have a lot of metaphors for the Bible.
+The Bible is a rule book.
+The Bible contains life’s operating instructions.
+The Bible is inspirational.
+The Bible is a great love story.
 
The Bible is certainly all of those things and more!
 
The Bible is:
+A library, it contains 66 different books.
+The books were written by different authors in different languages.
+The Bible contains different genres:
  • Historical narrative
  • Law
  • Poetry
  • Prophecy
  • Story
  • Letters
  • Apocalyptic
Understanding that different books have different purposes or genres can help us understand the Bible better.
 
We believe despite these differences the Bible has unity.
+Episcopalians call Holy Scriptures the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible. (Catechism: Book of Common Prayer, p. 853)
+We talked about their are things in scripture that may not be literal but it is still true.
 
A common question about the bible, is how can I read the Bible and discover God speaking to me?
+Get a good study Bible.
+Set a goal.
+Start somewhere.
+Try it!

Read more...

Transforming Questions: What do we have to do?

In the previous session we discussed how salvation is not a problem to be solved, but a gift that is offered by God.
 
The natural question is then, “How do we live in light of this good news?”
 
Many people are attracted to faith traditions because they think that is the way a person learns good values and offers a system of living that instills these values. At times it means Christianity is equated with a list dos and dont’s.
 
The answer to the question, “what do I have to do to be a Christian?” is complex and straightforward.
 
Some might list the 10 Commandments as an obvious place to start. But the 10 Commandments do not offer an exhaustive list of things to do and not do. Jesus seems to point to this in Matthew 19 when he says more is required of us than following the 10 Commandments.
 
He notes two Great Commandments: love God, love neighbor.
 
In John’s Gospel as he prepares for his death Jesus offers a new commandment, love one another as I have loved you.
 
But if we actually reflected on what it meant to love one another and love God we might begin to panic.
 
What does this actually look like?
 
Christians have been wrestling with this for centuries. The answers are rarely simple and straightforward. And while we might think it would be easier if we had a 10 point plan for Christian living the reality is there is not one.
 
Our baptism liturgy offers the following outline for Christian living, but note we do these things only with God’s help.
 
Celebrant: Do you believe in God the Father?
People: I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
Celebrant: Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
People: I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
Celebrant: Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
People: I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
Celebrant: Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
People: I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant: Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
People: I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant: Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
People: I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
People: I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
People: I will, with God’s help.

Read more...

Discovery: Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

Why did Jesus have to die?

This maybe one of the most frequent questions people ask about the Christian faith. Couldn’t salvation come another way than Jesus’ death on a cross?

The churchy word for this question is “atonement.”

The cross, the mechanism of Jesus’ death, is the central symbol of our faith. It is in church buildings, Christians wear them and decorate their homes with it.

The story of Jesus’ death is central to the gospel stories, it takes up about a quarter of each gospel story.

Jesus also talks about his death a lot during his public teaching.

 

Scripture uses a lot of images and metaphors for what Jesus’ death means:

+Redeems/ransoms us from slavery

+Satisfies/pays our debt

+Atones for our guilt

+Cleanses our sin

 

Essentially Jesus saves us. He saves us from evil powers, he saves us from death, he saves us from ourselves.

Instead of asking why did Jesus die, maybe we should ask, “why did Jesus choose to die?” Scripture is clear that God became human (incarnate) in Jesus, and Jesus chose to die.

Why? Because of Love. Jesus chose to die because Jesus loved us.

By flipping the question we change the conversation. The emphasis is not on what we have done, our sins, but on God’s overwhelming love for us.

Salvation is not a problem to solve, but a gift to be received.

 

St. John Chrysostom’s Easter Vigil Sermon from the 3rd
Century may capture it best.

Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!

If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.

To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.
Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!

First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!
You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said,
“You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.”
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.

Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

 


Read more...

Transforming Questions: Who Is Jesus?

Christians by name are followers of Jesus. So to understand what it means to be a Christian it stands to reason we would need to ask the question, who is Jesus?
 
Most people, including non-Christians, agree that Jesus was a real person. Roman historians
Tacitus and Suetonius both write about Jesus. Another Roman historian, Josephus
, writes about Jesus as well. So there are both Christian and non-Christian testimonies about Jesus.
 
There is broad agreement that:
  • Jesus lived.
  • That he was a good person.
  • That he was a prophet (many Jews and Muslims would agree with this).
    • Jesus is a central figure in Isalm’s holy book The Qur’an
  • Most agreed that Jesus died.
The unique claim that Christians make is that Jesus is not just a human being, a prophet, or a good person, but that he was and is God.
 
Christians do not claim that Jesus just lived and died, but that Jesus rose from the dead (resurrection).
 
I would argue that Jesus made many claims about his divinity himself. Most of these come from John’s Gospel, but we also have Saint Paul’s testimony which is written before the gospels.
 
Most of Jesus’ earliest disciples were willing to die for their faith that Jesus was and is God and rose from the dead.
 
This is the central claim Christians have made about Jesus, it is the bedrock upon all other beliefs are built.
 
C.S. Lewis argued this about Jesus:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
Some have summarized this argument as Jesus is either a lunatic, liar, or Lord. This can be a helpful distinction within the Christian tradition but is not as helpful when sharing faith with non-Christians, as Tripp Fuller argues in his book The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Jesus: Lord, Lunatic, Liar, or Awesome.
 
For the Christian the question is not so much who is Jesus, but Jesus’ question to us, “Who do you say that I am?”

Read more...

Discovery #1: Can we question our faith?

There is a common narrative in Christianity which discourages questions. Questions or doubts are often portrayed as attacks on faith and God. I don’t know many Christians who have not spent time questioning their beliefs.
 
In the Bible, almost every person who encounters God asks questions of God. For example:
  • Abraham and Sarah question, and even laugh, at God’s promise that they would have children in their old age.
  • Moses questions God’s selection of Moses to lead the people out of Egypt into freedom.
  • The psalms are full of questions to God, some of them are questions that demonstrate anger and frustration at God.
  • When Mary is told that she will have a child, she asks God, “How?”
  • Doubting Thomas is a prime example of questioning post-resurrection.
  • Even Jesus questions God from the cross, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”
Questioning is part of being faithful. The opposite of faith is not doubt.
 
Bringing our thoughts, fears, questions, struggles to God, believing God has something to say is important.
 
Jesus always challenges people to change and grow.
 
Disciple is a word to often describe followers of Jesus. A disciple literally means “student.” The Episcopal Catechism provides the catechism in a question and answer framework. Questions are welcomed at Episcopal churches.
 
Questions are an important part of faith but how we question is also important.
Here are some ways to not ask questions:
  • Some people question and are critical of everything. Questions are used to be combative and not really understand.
  • We ask questions not to encounter God, but to trip God up.
  • We say anything goes, that we don’t really believe anything.
Faithful questioning might look like Jacob who spent an evening wrestling with God. God changes Jacob’s name to Israel which means “one who wrestles with God.”
 
The question for Christians is not can we question God, but how do we ask questions of God?
  • Ask questions within community. We are not alone, and you are not the only one to ask the questions.
  • God is big enough for our questions. If we simply turn to culture or ourselves for answers we are limiting the answers to our questions. You would not consult a math book for a history question.
  • Use a variety of sources to ask your questions.
Episcopalians have typically used the image of a stool to explain how we wrestle with questions. The stool is held up by three legs (scripture, tradition, and reason). I prefer the image of a tricycle: scripture is what moves the tricycle but tradition and reason hold the tricycle up.
 
If you are looking for additional resources check out these books:
Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott

Read more...

God’s Grand Narrative: Leviticus

On Sunday we talked about how Leviticus can be a pretty difficult book to work through, but I think we were all surprised by how enlightening this book is for life.
 
The book opens with Moses being unable to enter the tent, the place where God resides. The idea behind the book is that to approach God one must be holy. What gets people in trouble is not being unclean it is knowing you are unclean and not caring.
 
The Book of Leviticus lays out ways we deal with uncleanness. The book assumes we are not going to live precisely by the laws in the book, so it provides grace, a way to deal with our difficulties.
 
Chapters 1-7 describes ritual sacrifices which generally fall under two types: thanksgiving or atonement.
 
Although Israel was ordained by God to be a Kingdom of Priests, God ordains a sub group to help the Israel mediate their relationship with God. This in no way negates Israel’s call to be a nation of priests. This is described in chapter 8-10.
 
In chapters 11-15 ritual purity laws are described. There are 5 things which can make someone ritually impure: contact with reproductive fluids, having a skin disease, touching mold, touching dead bodies, and eating impure animals. A key take away for the group is that impurity is not sinful, it is normal and temporary. The ritual purity laws are associated with mortality and loss of life, an obstacle to life.
 
The Day of Atonement is then laid out in chapters 16 and 17. In this rite an animal is sacrificed for the sins of the people and the sins are placed on a goat who is sent out into the wilderness (hence the term scapegoat).
 
Leviticus then describes moral purity laws in chapters 18-20. These fall under three general headings: care for the poor, sexual integrity, and social justice. There was broad agreement that religious types talk alot about sexual integrity but are fairly silent about care for the poor and social justice issues.
 
The qualifications for being a priest are described in chapters 21 and 22.
 
The 7 annual feasts that Jews observed are described in chapter 23-25. These are:
  • Passover-retells the story of the 10th plague and God’s redemption of God’s people out of slavery.
  • Unleavened bread-retelling the story of how they had to leave Egypt quickly.
  • Pentecost-50 days after Passover (connected to the receiving of the law).
  • Tabernacles-Retells Israel’s travels in the wilderness and how God provided for them.
  • First fruits-Remembers God’s providence and providing an offering of the 1st fruits of the spring harvest.
  • Day of Atonement-An annual fast of repentance to atone for Israel’s sin.
  • Trumepts-the Jewish New Year (also called rosh hashanah)
In addition to these observances Leviticus lays out a few more observations. Every 7 years a field shall remain fallow, every 49 years all debts will be forgiven and land lost will be returned to its original owners. And weekly sabbath.
 
Finally Leviticus ends with the warning that if the people are not observant then disaster and exile will be the result, but if they are obedient then peace will abound.
 
Finally, Moses is able to enter the tent where God resides.


Read more...

God’s Grand Narrative Exodus 1-18

On Sunday we discussed the first part of Exodus.

We discussed the following key points:
 
1. God remains faithful to His promise to Abraham even as his family grows and suffers. The growth of Abraham’s family is a sign of God’s blessing, but ironically it is also what causes the Pharaoh and Egyptians to enslave the Hebrew people. God responds to the people’s cries by raising up a deliverer, Moses.
 
2. Pharaoh in the story is an archetype “bad guy.” He is the Darth Vader of the story. God gives the Pharaoh the chances to make the right decision but Egypt is so addicted to an economy driven by slave labor that he won’t make the right decision. The video notes that it is not God who hardens Pharaoh’s heart but that God allows Pharaoh to make the decisions and suffer the consequences.
 
3. The 10 plagues show that the Hebrew’s God is the God of all creation.
 
4. The Passover is the central story in Israel’s story. It is the story of how a people are delivered through the offering of a substitute sacrifice. In the Genesis story death enters the story, it is the ultimate punishment. We were supposed to live with God forever but our desire to be like God was so great that death, our mortality, is one thing that separates us from God, who is immortal. The Orthodox, who reject original sin, says that the punishment that is carried generation to generation is death, not original sin. Christians re-appropriate the Jesus story as a passover story. One of the earliest lines in John’s Gospel is identifying Jesus as the Lamb of God (the passover lamb). Each Sunday when we break the bread in the communion service we say, “Christ Our Passover has been Sacrificed for Us.” This is why Christian passover meals are frowned upon.
 
5. We find Israel celebrating their deliverance and salvation in Exodus 15. A couple of things to note: the word salvation is used for the first time in scripture. The song the people sing praises God as a God above all other gods. The people look to a future salvation.
 
6. Finally, the people grumble. One would think that delivering an enslaved people out of bondage into freedom would buy some goodwill, but the people quickly turn on Moses and on God because life in the wilderness is tough.

Read more...

God’s Grand Narrative: Genesis 1-11

This past Sunday we watched this video about the 1st 11 chapters in Genesis.

 
Here are some questions we pondered:
1. What does it mean for humanity to be created in the “image of God”?
2. Why do you suppose God created a choice for the humans by planting the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?
3. What happens when humans attempt to define good and evil independently of God, and how does sin manifest irtself throughout the first 11 chapters of Genesis?
4. Why does God decide to flood the earth?
5. What was the sinful ambition of the people at Babel, and why did God scatter the people by confusing the language?
 

Read more...