By HEM for BCC on July 5, 2015 (see meditation @ Reconciliation service June 25, 2015)
SAFETY vs PEACE
Wow! What a day to be preaching! So many momentous things going on! Shall I preach about same-sex marriage? Affordable healthcare? Gun control? Terrorism?
Some of you are thinking, “Oh, no! Please! Stick to religion, preacher!” But don’t you know that your discipleship impacts all these issues? Or do you prefer an innocuous, irrelevant faith?
Well, fifteen minutes is not enough to do any one of these issues justice, so I am going to preach on all of them. We will think of them all together under the rubric of change.
How shall we as Christians respond to such a rapidly and radically changing world?
The answer is, “We shall respond in faith, hope, and love.” But don’t leave yet just because you already know the answer; there is more to say about this.
None of us welcomes change, and, honestly, I don’t see anything good about change itself. It all depends on what the change is; doesn’t it?
Here we have a Book that is all about change. It starts with the first sentence when there is a change from nothing to something: “God created the heavens and the earth.” Then a change from a dark, formless void to light and land and sea. Then God commands the earth to make changes of its own. Did you ever notice that? God says, “Let the earth bring forth all kinds of plants. And the earth itself started making changes. And God commanded the sea to bring forth all kinds of moving creatures, and the sea started making new developments at God’s command. And they were BIG changes. SEA changes.
We are facing sea changes this week, aren’t we? I mean, literally, the seas are changing. They are getting warmer. They are getting higher. Beach houses that once were second or third back from the water now have tides lapping against them, and the tides are full of sharks!
Our Bible, written by hundreds of men and women inspired by God over thousands of years, is all about changes. Adam and Eve changed the dynamics of Man’s relationship with God. Cain went out and built a city. Abraham packed up and left the city to follow God he knew not where. Joseph went down into Egypt where his descendents became slaves. Moses led God’s people out of Egyptian slavery. David built them into a kingdom; they were taken into Babylonian exile; were brought out of exile; came under the oppression of the Roman Empire. And a baby was born in Bethlehem.
And as he grew and taught and was killed and was resurrected, a new creation was introduced. For those who are in Christ Jesus are a new creation, the Bible says. The old is gone; the new is come.
And then changes really started happening. God told an apostle to eat some ham, and he said, “No you told us right here in the Bible not to eat pig meat.”
And God said, “No, I told your ancient ancestors not to eat pigs. Now, I am telling you it is okay.”
And God said, “Now go into the house of a Roman and tell him about Jesus.” And the apostle could have said, “No, you told us not to enter the houses of ritually unclean people,” but by then he got it. Quick study, that Apostle Peter. He understood that he must no longer consider Gentiles unclean.
Yet some apostles insisted that the Gentiles still had to be circumcised and follow Jewish dietary laws, but the Holy Spirit testified, “Jesus is enough! Jesus paid it all! If you require more than Jesus, you make the cross of Christ of none effect!”
What changes! What unsettling changes when Jesus came, not to destroy the law, but to fulfill its highest purpose: Love! Love God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. It all hangs on love.
I read President Eisenhower’s farewell speech yesterday. It is absolutely prophetic. You should read it. He says we must not let our world become a community of dreadful fear and hate, but one of mutual respect and LOVE!
How shall we respond to change? LOVE!
But change incites resistance; resistance causes trouble; trouble means danger; danger makes us long for safety. “Where can I go? O where can I go, seeking a refuge for my soul…?” Walled, guarded borders? Gun under the pillow? Safe neighborhood. Um-hm.
Nine counts of murder. Illegal use of a fire arm. Illegal possession. I wonder about disturbing the peace? That is an important charge, you know. Jesus knew peace was important. "Peace I leave with you," he said; "my peace I give unto you, not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid (John 14:27).”
How many times since June 17 have we heard, “If you can’t be safe in church, where can you be safe?” And it is not only about shooters in our midst; there is a fear of something more menacing going on. Things are coming undone at the seams it seems. Society, civilization is unraveling. Everything is unstable. Even the climate, for crying out loud; the wind and the waves. Whose will are they obeying these days? Where can we run? Where can we find safety in times like these?
Well there are things we can and should do to make our homes, our streets, the world safer – we can achieve a measure of safety so that we do not go around in a constant state of anxiety. But we all know that there is no absolute safety in this dangerous world. Jesus does not promise safety. He promises something better. He promises something more enduring. He promises peace. If we are desperate for safety, we are sure to remain desperate. Fear, anxiety will be our portion if we seek only safety. But if peace is what we long for, we can find it in Christ. “In the world you shall have tribulation,” Jesus said, “but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (John 16:33).”
We can find peace in the same place those sisters and brothers in the Charleston church found peace - in following Christ. They opened their arms to a stranger in their midst. They did so with no thought for their safety, and so, in their dying, they bore witness to the Spirit of Christ - to faith, hope, and love. They became true martyrs.
Jesus said, “You shall be my witnesses.” The Greek word translated witness here is martyr. Jesus is actually saying you shall be my martyrs. But, you don’t become a martyr by dying! You, Christian, are a martyr by living in a way that bears witness to the love of God in Christ.
True martyrs do not seek suffering. Those who are always talking - boasting - about the way they are mistreated may have the martyr complex, but they are not martyrs. Those who strap bombs around their waists, walk into a crowded shop, and detonate, killing themselves and many others, are not martyrs, but suicidal murderers. They bear witness to nothing but hopelessness and hatred.
A true witness, a true martyr, does not seek suffering, but is willing to accept it when it comes. Jesus is the perfect example. Before his crucifixion Jesus prayed, “Father if possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done (Matthew 26:39).” And he rose from that prayer, not in safety, but in peace, faithful to his Father in death just as he had been in life.
You see, a true martyr lives and dies bearing witness to faith, hope, and love. Just like those nine sisters and brothers at Mother Emanuel Church did. And, I might add, just as their families are doing in the midst of the most gut-wrenching sorrow.
I attended the memorial service over at Wesley AME church two days after the massacre and heard a young rabbi from Beth Emanuel synagogue remind us that “Emanuel” means “God with us.” When we stand where God stands and move when God moves, God is with us, and we are at peace with Him.
True witnesses, true martyrs, know how ephemeral is the false illusion of safety in this world, but they also know how sure is the promise of peace in Christ because of the hope of resurrection.
In this church, we sometimes sing hymn #536. Would you turn to that hymn now and sing just one Spanish and one English verse:
Pues si vivimos, para El vivimos
y si morimos para El morimos.
If we live, we live for Him. If we die, we die for Him.
Sea que vivamos o que muramos,
Somos del Senor.
So whether we live or die, we belong to Christ.
When we sing that song and mean it from our hearts, we find something much more precious than safety; we find the peace of Christ.
So what about same sex marriage, affordable health care, terrorism, shark attacks? How shall we live in the face of all these changes? We shall live – and die some day – in faith, hope, and love.
I JUST WANT TO TELL YOU
WHAT JESUS MEANS TO ME
“I just want to tell you what Jesus means to me.” That’s how Wayne Oates began his farewell speech after forty-some years of service at my seminary in 1974.
Dr. Oates is well-known among ministers of all denominations as one of the founders of the pastoral care movement that has become an essential aspect of every seminary’s curriculum today. He wrote the classic textbook titled, The Christian Pastor, as well as about fifty other books including his spiritual autobiography, My Struggle To Be Free, and the best seller, Confessions Of A Workaholic. After he retired from seminary, he served on the faculty of the University of Louisville Medical School where he taught young physicians how to be sensitive to the spiritual needs of their patients. He was the teacher, mentor, and personal friend of Dr. Andrew Lester, who recently headed up of the Department of Pastoral Care at our own TCU Brite Divinity School. There simply is not a seminary professor anywhere in the country that holds more prestige than Dr. Wayne Oates. He was my teacher. And I was not about to miss his farewell speech.
But no sooner had he choked out those words, “I just want to tell you what Jesus means to me,” than my mind began to wander. I thought of many other times I had heard Christians begin their comments with a statement like that. I remembered a skinny, pimply-faced teenaged girl at a youth revival in Cactus, Texas. I don’t even remember her name, but her words and her emotions were identical to those of my esteemed professor. “I just want to tell you what Jesus means to me,” she said through tears. And then she told us. And Dr. Oates, the father of Christian psychology, did the same thing that young girl did.
What a wonderful gospel God has revealed to little children of all ages! What wonderfully good news God has given to people of all stations in life – that all of them – rich and poor, young and old, educated and illiterate – would feel a stirring inside to say, “I just want to tell you what Jesus means to me!”
Isn’t that amazing? Are you grateful for the good news of Jesus Christ?
You know, we applaud entertainers, we cheer at ball games – let’s not do that here. But we can say a “hearty amen.” That is acceptable here. Will you do that? I will say, “Thank God for Jesus;” you say, “Amen.”
How do you know God? How do you know God is good? Does it have anything to do with Jesus? I believe it does. It is hard to imagine how anyone could not believe God exists. The evidence in the universe seems overwhelming to me. How could there not be a God.
But it is not evident what kind of god God is. Is God good, bad, or indifferent? Is God reliable or capricious? Primitive people imagined many gods – some of them downright hostile. It seems to me the evidence is mixed until you come to Jesus. Jesus reveals to us not only God’s existence, but also God’s power and, most happily, God’s love.
How do you respond to this revelation of God that we find in Jesus? Paul has a suggested response. He says, in Romans 12:1f,
“I beseech you therefore brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your minds, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
Okay, it is more than a suggestion. It is an impassioned plea. The apostle urges us – since God has been so good to us, Paul urges us to give ourselves as a sacrifice to God.
Isn’t that astonishing? Is there anything you would sacrifice your life for? Is there any cause you would die for? Would you die for your country? Many have – many are. And, frankly, many have died for causes that were not worthy of their blood.
Would you die for Christ? Many have. Many are.
“Yes! Yes! I would die for Christ!” we say. “We can drink the cup he drank. We can receive the baptism he received,” as his early disciples said.
Good. You would die for him. Now. Will you live for him?
God is, in fact, calling you and me – probably not to die for Christ, but to live for Christ. Present yourselves as a living sacrifice. Extend his blessing. Christ calls us to lift up our eyes unto the fields that are ready for harvest. "Quit contemplating your own navel, church!" begged a speaker at our General Assembly a few years ago. Turn yourself inside out. Know Jesus and show Jesus. We’re not talking about bumper stickers and yard signs… necessarily. We’re certainly not talking about fighting for your Christian rights in this heathen society. We are talking about showing Christ’s love – saying to those who might need a word of hope, “I want to tell you what Jesus means to me,” and then simply telling them.
Can we practice that this morning? Right here? Can we take half a minute right now? Let’s do that. I have an idea: Just turn to one person near you and say these words, say, “Jesus gives me hope.” Don’t say any more than that, but if you can say it honestly, say, “Jesus gives me hope.”
“Misha, Jesus gives me hope.”
You may face pressures in your world to keep quiet about your faith, keep quiet about Jesus. But the Bible says, “Do not be conformed to this world.” Don’t let the forces of society shape you. Instead, be transformed – changed – into what God intends you to be. That is the only way you or I can ever do God’s will, and it is only reasonable that we should do that much for the One who has done so much for us.
Now, I just want to tell you what Jesus means to me. That’s actually impossible because there is no end to his significance, but a few things come to mind.
Jesus is my light. I mean he opened my eyes to my sin and to God’s love. He opened – maybe I should say he opens my eyes to my capacity for sin when I take the crucifixion seriously, and at the same time he opens my eyes to God’s love and God’s desire to forgive – to reconcile us to himself.
If we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, 1st John 1:8 says. But if we confess our sin, God is faithful, God cares about justice – setting things right, so God will forgive our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness, the Bible says, reconciling us to himself. And paradoxically, in opening my eyes, Jesus gives me a sense of how little I really can see of the incomprehensible love of God, his father and ours.
Immortal, invisible, God only wise.
In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.
All laud we would render: O help us to see
'Tis only the splendour of light hideth thee.
So when I say that Jesus is my light, I don’t mean that I suddenly know everything. But I do mean that recognizing God’s love shown in Christ is a life-giving, life-changing kind of enlightenment.
Jesus is light to me. And Jesus is a living presence to me. You know the story of the footprints in the sand. When there were two sets of footprints, we were walking together. During the most difficult times, there was only one set of prints, and that was when Jesus was carrying me. That has been my story more than once. Maybe you have had that same experience.
I got my first glimpse of trust in Christ when I was ten years old. My dad said, “Son, if you hang onto me, I won’t always be with you. But if you hold onto Jesus, he will always be with you.”
Even when I had serious doubts and even when I was not paying attention to him, he did not let me go. Jesus has held on to me and pulled me through some very difficult times. Jesus is my only real hero, you might say. All others have clay feet – just like I do. But I can give all my adoration to Jesus Christ without reservation. He is worthy to receive all my honor and loyalty. What does Jesus mean to me? He is the One who has won my heart to God. I love God passionately, joyfully, and it is all because of Jesus.
And I believe you or anyone else who sees Jesus will love God, too. And when we love God, we cannot help loving – at least we can’t help wanting to love our fellowman as God loves us. So we pray, “forgive us our debts, our trespasses, our sins as we forgive those who mistreat us.”
THE SELLING OF THE SELF
1 Kings 21: 17 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: 18 "Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who rules in Samaria. He is now in Naboth's vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it. 19 Say to him, 'This is what the Lord says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?' Then say to him, 'This is what the Lord says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth's blood, dogs will lick up your blood—yes, yours!'" 20 Ahab said to Elijah, "So you have found me, my enemy!" "I have found you," he answered, "because you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord. 21 'I am going to bring disaster on you. I will consume your descendants and cut off from Ahab every last male in Israel—slave or free. 22 I will make your house like that of Jeroboam son of Nebat and that of Baasha son of Ahijah, because you have provoked me to anger and have caused Israel to sin.'
Adolph Eichmann was the man who arranged for the extermination of six million Jews under Hitler. Hannah Arendt, who covered Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem years later, said she saw no sign that Eichmann, himself, hated the Jews, even though he was responsible for killing millions. She said he did his part in the murders because of a simple-minded banality and a single-minded loyalty to his leader. Because his highest loyalty was to the Fuehrer, he could say after the most shocking atrocity in history, “What we have done, we have done for love of the Fatherland, and therefore we suffer no pangs of conscience.”
“For love of the Fatherland?” Are we supposed to think this is the portrait of a patriot? Eichmann certainly considered himself a patriot, as did his leader and many others. But the prophet Elijah would have called Eichmann an idolater, because his highest loyalty was to something other than God. His love for “the Fatherland,” as he called it, led to the selling of himself to Adolph Hitler. Eichmann put himself in a class with the ancient King Ahab, from our scripture lesson, who also sold his soul.
Here is how Ahab did it:
Ahab was king of Israel, and, as king, of course, he had the finest palaces and most extensive land holdings in the nation. But adjacent to his palace property, there was a beautiful little vineyard that belonged to a peasant named Naboth. It was the only plot of land Naboth owned, but the king wanted it. So he made an offer to Naboth. It was a fair and maybe even generous offer to trade for the vineyard or to buy it. There was nothing wrong with that offer. Many of us would be glad to sell our Bellaire property at an above-market price, and buy a bigger house in a newer neighborhood farther out.
But Naboth didn’t want to sell or trade. Maybe his family had been on that plot of land for generations, and he was fond of it. Maybe he considered it a gift from God. Whatever the reason, he said, “God forbid that I should sell the land I received from my father and that I will pass on to my sons.”
When you have nothing but family and land, family and land mean something to you, I guess. So Naboth rejected the king.
That in itself is amazing, isn’t it? It says a lot about the kingdom of Israel in comparison to the kingdoms that surrounded it. In other places, the king was absolute dictator. Whatever he said, whatever he wanted, is what happened. That was never the way it was supposed to be in Israel. Kings had great power, but the Promised Land was promised to the people of Israel, and the lowest peasants had property rights not even the king could violate. God taught the people he led out of slavery in Egypt that a great king was one who served the welfare of his people – not one who exploited the people for his own pleasure as Pharaoh had done in Egypt. Naboth was not afraid to say no to the king.
King Ahab could not take Naboth’s vineyard.
Hmmm. Welll. Not leeegally. But when did legalities ever stop a head of state from doing what he wanted?
In the 1830s, President Andrew Jackson, “Old Hickory,” “Hero of the Battle of New Orleans,” founder of a new Democratic Party, wanted some land for his white neighbors that was legally owned and farmed by Cherokee, Chicasaw, Chactaw, Creek, and Seminole Indians. Several treaties said the land belonged to the Indians, but Jackson took the land anyway and sent the Indians on a thousand-mile hike that came to be known as “The Trail of Tears.” The trail ended in confinement on a reservation in what is now Oklahoma.
The Supreme Court ruled against Jackson on that “Indian Removal” project. Chief Justice John Marshall said Jackson’s violation of treaties with the Indians also violated the U. S. Constitution. But what can you do when the Court rules against the only guy who can enforce the court’s rulings? Here was the president’s answer to the Supreme Court: "John Marshall has made his decision; let him enforce it now if he can."
Shocking, isn’t it? But like I said, when did legalities ever stop a determined head of state when he had his own ideas of right and wrong?
Not even the law of God could stop King Ahab from taking the land he wanted. Actually, Ahab was too wimpy to do it for himself, so his wife Jezebel did it for him. She had Naboth falsely accused of blasphemy and stoned to death along with his sons. And that is how Ahab, “the man who had everything,” got even more – a poor man’s vineyard. Sort of a little gift from the wifey.
I. HOW TO SELL THE SELF
But enough about kings and presidents. None of us are likely to be heads of state. We have no power to abuse, right? How is this horrifying story of the selling of the self relevant to us?
Well, the fact is – powerless as we may think we are – we do have power, and we can abuse it. It happens when we sell our souls – that is, our selves – to something or someone other than the One we rightfully belong to. And temptations to sell ourselves are abundant.
The selling of the self is not always as dramatic as Faust selling his soul in a face-to-face bargain with the devil. It does not always have the intrigue of Ahab’s selling of his soul for Naboth’s vineyard. It is easy to look at those examples and say, “Wow! What a bad bargain those guys made! How foolish can you get?” But the selling of the self is most often more subtle and slower. We sell a piece here, today, and, tomorrow, a piece there until we can hardly find anything left of our selves.
Here is a devout young Bible scholar who is offered a job at a seminary. In order to take the job, she must sign a declaration that she holds and will teach only the verbal inspirationist view of scripture. She clearly has a much different understanding of the inspiration of scripture than that, but she needs and wants a job. She tells herself there is much more to Bible teaching than just the view of inspiration. She figures she can just keep quiet on that one issue and do a great job on everything else. She signs the document and takes the job and tries not to give the slightest hint that she doesn’t necessarily believe the universe was created in only six actual days. She hasn’t sold her soul. Just a piece of it.
Here is a corporate CEO whose product is manufactured overseas by workers who are barely paid enough to survive the hours they work. And if they miss a day because of something like the flu, they are likely to die because they will have neither medical care nor enough food or clean water to recover from even a minor illness.
But our CEO has to compete with other companies who do the same thing. And if it weren’t for the jobs he offers, these poor people would have nothing at all. And he has to satisfy his stockholders with high dividends. And one way to do that is to keep labor costs low.
Still, it troubles his conscience to see the living conditions of his own workers, so he tries not to think about it. He takes part of his $150 million bonus and buys a thousand computers for the schools in the country where his assembly plant is, and the government over there loves him. And he gets good press at home. And he feels he has bought back at least a little piece of his soul.
Here is a preacher in his most intense wrestling match with the Word of God. And the Lord says, “There has never been more injustice in the world than today. False prophets of selfishness and fear and pride are everywhere. Why aren’t you preaching my prophetic message of justice and mercy?”
And the preacher says, “Well, Lord, those themes can be kind of offensive, and I love these people and want them to love me, and I want our church to grow. And besides that, I am a pastor, you know. I’m not really a prophet.”
And the Lord answers, “You got that right.”
And the preacher wonders if he has not sold a piece of his soul.
A couple of summers ago I had the privilege of studying at Christ Church College in the University of Oxford. It was founded in 1525 by a Roman Catholic Cardinal named Thomas Woolsey. Woolsey could tell which way the winds of Protestant Reformation were blowing, and he knew which side his bread was buttered on, and he wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth, and he knew better than to bite the hand that fed him, and… well, you get the idea: he sided with King Henry VIII against the Roman church – not for reasons of conscience, but for political advantage – the same reason a lot of TV preachers sell out to a political party these days. In essence, he sold a big chunk of his soul to the king. And it all ended badly for Woolsey.
In Shakespeare’s version of the story, Woolsey ends his career with this soliloquy:
Act III: Scene ii
So [farewell, All My Greatness!]
farewell to the little good you [do] me.
This is the state of man: today he puts forth
The tender leaves of hope; tomorrow blossoms,
And bears his blushing honours thick upon him [self];
The third day comes a frost, a killing frost,
And, -- when he thinks, good easy man, full surely
His greatness is a-ripening, -- [the frost] nips his root,
And then he falls, as I do. I have ventur'd,
Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders,
This many summers in a sea of glory;
But [I have swum] far beyond my depth: my high-blown pride
At length broke under me; and now has left me,
Weary and old with service, to the mercy
Of a rude stream, that must for ever hide me.
Vain Pomp and Glory of this world, I hate ye!
I feel my heart [ripped] open--. O, how wretched
Is that poor man that [depends on the favors of princes]!
[There is in his heart]
More pangs and fears than wars or women have;
And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,
Never to hope again.
II. HOW TO AVOID SELLING YOUR SELF
Not many of us are kings or cardinals. Few are CEOs. But a father is better than a king, and some of us are fathers. Let me ask you, fathers: Is it always clear how to fulfill the duties of your vocation without sacrificing the spiritual and emotional needs of those who depend on you?
We are citizens of a nation. Are we always content that the nation we love and support with our taxes, our service, and, in some cases, our lives always honors that support and uses it for just purposes? Must we not sell bits of our souls just to live as part of a larger body?
Ahab sold himself to do evil. The fact is we cannot escape sin in this life. But that does not mean we have to embrace it. We do not have to welcome sin. We do not have to accept it and excuse it and say it isn’t sin. To do so is to sell our souls as Eichmann did when he switched off his conscience at the command of the fuhrer and became insensitive to the atrocities he committed.
We cannot live sinless lives. But there is a way to avoid selling our selves to do evil. And that is by making sure that our highest loyalty is to God – to God, as we know God in Jesus Christ.
We belong to God, you know. Fathers, don’t you know your children belong to God? Prophets, priests, kings, presidents, ayatollahs, mullahs, terrorists, don’t you know the people you exploit and manipulate and kill belong to God? And what are you doing to God’s children?
God made us. God also bought us by the blood of Christ. We belong to God. And we can never be full human beings in the image of our Creator apart from a reciprocal, loving relationship with God and with all those whom God created and loves. That’s why Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with all you heart, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus said every teaching of the scripture hangs on that commandment.
There may come times when loyalty to God causes hardship. It may run counter to the current winds of government politics or social trends or both. But in the long run, the person who loves God with all his heart and mind and strength and who loves his neighbor as himself – the person who devotes his heart and mind to Christian discipleship never turns out to be a poor father, or a poor husband, or a poor patriot.
We need not go back 500 years to Cardinal Woolsey, we need not go across the ocean to Adolph Eichmann in Nazi Germany; we need not go far at all to find examples of idolatry – the abuse of power – the selling of the self. No, the place we must search most thoroughly is our own souls.
Let us pray.
Father, have mercy on us this morning. Help us to see, to confess, and to repent of our sins and find ourselves in the forgiving embrace of your arms. Amen.
THE CUT TO THE HEART
"Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified."
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, "Brothers, what should we do?"
Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him."
Have you ever killed anybody? Some of you may have had to do that in war or some other circumstance. My heart goes out to our warriors and executioners who bear the burden of taking human life. And, of course, we all share that burden, whether we are aware of it or admit it or not, because it is done in our name. Through the democratic processes that make the laws and put the officials in office, we all take part in making killing possible. It is a heavy burden even if it is done for the cause of justice or national security or self-defense or by accident.
Killing is traumatic. Seeing the horrors of war and living in constant danger for months at a time often leads to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and military chaplains are discovering that, in turn, the PTSD that comes from the danger of being killed often overlies a feeling of guilt for surviving when comrades don’t. And sometimes it overlies a shame that comes from being involved in killing fellow human beings. Lieutenant Colonel Greg Thogmartin explains that it is a wound to the core of a person’s being that alienates that person from his or her own soul. The Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School, our seminary in Fort Worth, is a leader in dealing with that moral injury.
We human beings really aren’t built to be killers. Some animals are built for it. They have the claws and the teeth and the speed to do it. But it is hard for us to kill without special tools. Our claws can’t go more than skin deep. And, yeah, we have a couple of pointed teeth we call canines, but real canine critters laugh at those teeth.
We are not built to be killers. Not physically. Not psychologically. Taking another human being’s life is a heavy burden even if it is justified. But what if were not justified? What if you found out that you had sentenced an innocent person to death? That would cut to the heart, wouldn’t it?
So imagine Peter announcing to a huge crowd on the city square that they had crucified the Anointed One that God had sent to them. The very One who had opened his arms to them, saying, “Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” - The one who so desperately wanted to gather them to himself “as a hen gathers her chicks,” he once said. But instead of responding in love to the One who loved them, they executed him along with thieves and murderers. - All done very officially under the auspices of the government and the clergy.
Good news: Your Messiah has come.
Bad news: You killed him.
Now as a sidebar, I have to mention that these verses and others have been used from time to time to blame the Jews for the crucifixion. “They did it; not me!” If that were the case, then Jesus died only for the sins of the Jews, didn’t he? “It wasn’t for my sin, because I had no part in it,” we could say. But if the sin is not mine, then the savior is not mine – because Jesus came to seek and to save those who were lost, he said. Blaming the Jews in first-century Jerusalem for the crucifixion of Christ, is like blaming Adam and Eve for the sin in today’s world, as if, had the First Couple not eaten that forbidden fruit, the rest of us would still be pure and innocent. It reminds me of Sir Lancelot singing,
“I’ve never strayed from all I believe; I’m blessed with an iron will. "Had I been made the partner of Eve, we’d be in Eden still!”
No, as Lancelot proves later on in the fictional tale, if Adam hadn’t sinned, he, Lancelot, would have. And so would I. And so would you. We are perfectly capable of sin on our own – even without the bad example set for us in the Garden of Eden.
It was not because of Jewish sin that Jesus died; it was because of sin in the heart of every human being. And it was not just for the sinful deeds that you and I have committed; it was because of the sin that all human beings are capable of, given the right circumstances. And if it were not for Jesus confronting us with that truth, would we not go on blindly living in our misguided self-indulgence? You and I would still be living in the falsehood of our own self-righteousness. And dying there, too.
So let me ask you again, “Have you ever killed anyone?”
The people’s reaction to Peter’s accusation surprises me. Notice that they don’t defend themselves. They don’t blame. They don’t make excuses. They might have said, “Wait a minute! We didn’t kill Jesus; the Romans did. Their soldiers swung the whips. They drove the nails. They hung him up. They stabbed him with that spear.”
Of course, they would have had to back up immediately and admit, “Well, yeah, we did ask the Romans to do it. We did yell ‘crucify him’ a few times. But that was because we were misled by our sorry priests and elders, and we were caught up in that crazy mob mentality, you know. It’s not really our fault.”
And they might have added, “Besides that, Peter, you’re not so lily white yourself. You cursed and lied and denied him three times in one night just hours after promising to be faithful. You have no right to accuse anyone.”
Isn’t that the usual way people react when they are hit in the face with such an accusation? It tends to make us defensive. The people Peter spoke to could have reacted defensively. They could have maintained a defensive posture, trying to protect themselves from the trauma of facing up to their sin. Of course, if they could not acknowledge their propensity to sin, neither could they have appreciated the depth of God’s love in forgiving that sin. They could have continued rejecting the truth about themselves and the truth of God's love. Maybe they would also kill the next person who confronted them with the truth. Maybe someone like Stephen, eh?
But not on that day. On that day, the Bible says, they were cut to the heart. “What have we done?” they must have thought. “What should we do now?” they asked.
I wonder what could have moved them to turn from what would seem to be the usual human path of defending their actions, defending their egos. How could they immediately accept the truth of Peter’s accusation without putting up a fight? I believe it could have been nothing but the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Truth – the Spirit of Love – that rested upon the apostles and permeated their very attitude and their very words.
See, not only does the cross of Christ confront us with the truth of our corrupted human nature, but it also reveals to us the truth of the infinite love of God.
A young minister once told me how he wound up in the ministry. He told me that he was, let’s just say, a certain kind of person who often suffers rejection and sometimes abuse. He pretty much stayed away from church because of that. But he was a talented musician, and a Disciples congregation hired him to play the piano and organ. One day the pastor asked him to lead the children’s moment during Sunday worship. The only thing he could think of to do for the kids was to teach them an old “motion song” he learned when he was young. So he taught them “There’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.” Do you remember that one? You stretch your arms vertically to show deep and horizontally to show wide.
Then he asked them the questions, “What does the fountain represent?” Answer: "The love of God."
“Yes, the love of God is like a fountain that is always flowing,” he said. And as he said the words, he questioned within himself whether he really believed that. But, of course, he had to press on with the next obvious question.
“And how deep is God’s love?”
“As deep as that fountain downtown,” said one child.
“No, no. I know,” said another. “It’s deeper. It’s deeper than the ocean!”
Yet another one chimed in: “No. It’s deeper than the whole universe!” Nobody can top the whole universe answer.
“Then how wide is God’s love?” he asked.
A little girl pointed to the stained glass window depicting Jesus on the cross. “It’s as wide as that man’s arms,” she said.
My friend said he almost lost it. He choked up. His eyes watered. He could barely finish the moment. He felt – he believed – just then that the love of God, shown in Jesus, was, in fact, wide enough to welcome “a certain kind of person who often suffers rejection and sometimes abuse.” He turned to Christ, found a depth of acceptance he had never known, and continues to follow Christ in professional ministry to this day.
The people were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, "Brothers, what should we do?"
Peter said repent.
To repent means to turn. It means to turn from the way you are going and go another way. In this case, it means to turn toward the truth. It doesn’t necessarily mean to change your job or where you live or how you dress or your personality. But it does mean to turn toward God in whatever you do – in what you say, what you think. What you love.
But, of course, the people who listened to Peter were already turning, weren’t they? The fact that they asked what to do shows that. See, God always takes the first step. In motivating the people to ask, He takes the first step.
Augustine confesses that he was praying one time, “Thank you Father, that because I turned to you in prayer, you accepted me.” After a moment of silence, he asked himself, “Was it because I turned?” He added, “But what could have moved me to turn except your Spirit first wooing me?”
Jesus said, “No one comes to me unless the Father first draws them.”
Does God draw you to him? When the Spirit of God draws us and we then turn toward Him and say yes to him, we are fully and completely accepted and received by God. We are immersed, not only in that pool of water up there, but we are immersed in Christ. We are forgiven. The Father looks upon us as He looks upon his own son, and He implants within us His Spirit, the Holy Spirit to guide us. When we go astray, His Spirit calls us, and we gratefully turn back in repentance. He never loses track of us. He works within us to transform us into the likeness of His son. “Beloved, now we are the children of God,” the Bible says. And though we cannot comprehend exactly what we will be like, we know that we will be like Jesus.
DO I DISGUST YOU?
Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
. . .
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?"
Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, "Does this offend you?
Jesus is so…. I am not going to say anything critical of my Lord Jesus, but if anybody else had talked like this…. I mean, “Eat my flesh?” “Drink my blood?” Come on!
There is nothing more repulsive than cannibalism. What’s more, Jesus knows his language is repulsive. “Do I offend you?” he asks.
Do you think Jesus intends to shock his listeners – the Jews? The disciples? You and me? I think so. I think he intends his words to test his followers. I think he wants us to get a feel for just how serious, how intense his relationship with us is.
“You must eat my flesh and drink my blood,” Jesus said.
I don’t know what you expect from me in dealing with this text. Jesus did not try to explain himself – far be it from me to try. All I can do is lift up this event – this encounter between Jesus and the Jews, including his own disciples – and try to look at it without grimacing. We will turn it one way and then another – the way you oenophiles might examine a glass of fine wine for its color and its legs and dregs. And then we will take a sip and decide whether or not we will drink it.
Be warned: There were those on that day in history when Jesus spoke these words – there were those who would not drink the cup he offered. Will you?
Let’s look at this pericope. We run some risk by trying to pull these paragraphs out of their context in the sixth chapter of John. Actually, the whole book is so tightly woven that we risk tearing the fabric when we take one part of it without considering how it is sewn into the rest of the book, so I want to be careful to point out that our text this morning is tightly interwoven with the earlier text on the Bread of Life. And that text, in turn, follows a thread from the first chapter of John: “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word became flesh.”
“I am the Bread of Life,” Jesus said.
“You must eat my flesh,” Jesus said.
A REACTION OF REVULSION
It repulsed a lot of people. The grumbling that started earlier when Jesus claimed to be the Bread of Life now became a sharp argument. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Maybe it was an argument between those who take everything literally and those who were looking for some kind of figurative meaning in what Jesus was saying. I don't know.
There might have been good reason for some to think Jesus was speaking literally about his flesh and blood. There were, after all, several pagan cults in the empire that actually did drink blood in their ceremonies. They did it because they thought it allowed them to tap into the greater powers that controlled the universe. It brought rain to their crops. It helped them have lots of children to work their fields and to fight their wars.
Those cults were all about manipulating the spirit world to get what they wanted. They had no sense of a righteous and holy God who was worthy of their obedience. Those cults had no sense of righteousness, no moral compass, no ethical teaching about loving God and neighbor.
The Israelites, the Judeans, the Jews detested those cults. Those cults were in direct opposition to the inspired word of God that says plainly in Leviticus 17:10
Whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, that eateth any manner of blood; I will even set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off….
Now Jesus, whom everybody knows to be the son of that carpenter in Nazareth, is saying, “I am the Bread God sends from heaven. Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you cannot live.”
None of us would think Jesus meant that we must literally eat his flesh and drink his blood, but those who first heard him say this weren’t so sure. They must have wondered if he were introducing a new cult. They got into a sharp argument about it.
They were, in fact, offended by his words. The Greek word there is skandalidzo from which we get our word scandalize. In the first place, his words were a scandal to their religion because their scriptures taught them not to drink blood or eat flesh with blood in it. He offended their minds because it was completely irrational to expect everyone to eat his flesh and drink his blood. And perhaps worst of all, he made them sick at their stomachs.
And Jesus? Here is what astonishes me: Jesus did nothing to calm the disturbance! He could have said something like, “Hey! Wait a minute. I’m just talking about Communion – you know – symbolic. I’m not talking about real flesh and blood."
A LESSON IN REALITY
But, Jesus didn’t do that. If anything, he added fuel to the fire. “You cannot live without consuming me,” he said again. “My flesh is real food. My blood is real drink,” he insists.
Is that what this is all about? Is this a lesson in what is real and what isn’t? What is real food? What is real drink? For that matter what is real you? Real me? Is there anything more to me than what you see standing here? And you – are you anything more than a Sunday morning fashion plate?
Yes! You are!
The whole purpose of the coming of Christ is to show us who God is and to show us who we are. And we are more than meets the eye. We really are.
When I was in India as a young man, I noticed that everybody seemed to greet each other and leave each other by putting their palms together and bowing. And sometimes they would say the word, namasté. It came from the Hindus, but Christians did it, too. I asked the local minister if namasté meant hello. He said, “Can you tell me what hello means?”
You know, it’s hard to say what hello means. “I don’t know. It is just something we say when we greet someone.”
Well, he said that namasté means a little more than that. It means “I honor that which is in you that I cannot see.”
There is more to you and me than meets the eye. There is more to this life than meets the eye. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was tempted by Satan to acknowledge only his physical hungers and to ignore his eternal soul. Jesus responded, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” He told his disciples, “Labor not for that meat that perishes, but labor for that meat that fortifies you for eternal life.”
The bread, the meat, the wine that is real is not what we consume day after day until we die. Jesus told the crowd, “Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, but they are all dead now. That manna was not the Bread of God.” The Bread of God is that which nurtures eternal life. “That is me,” Jesus said. It is the Word made Flesh. And it is real.
We gather every Sunday and share the Sacrament, the Eucharist, the Communion of the Lord’s Supper. It is not as if the bread and grape juice were chemically changed into flesh and blood. But what really happens is that the body of Christ becomes life-giving Bread for us, and his blood becomes the Wine of Salvation. And only by eating that Bread of Heaven – only by taking his life into our own – only then do we have eternal life. Really.
I am just telling you what Jesus said. I am just telling you what I believe. I’m sorry if it offends you.