A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Dave's Deep Thoughts - A Man's Best Friend

Here's Pastor Dave McDowell's weekly devotional that he sends out to members of his church. Dave is my brother and serves as the Music Minister at Stewartstown UMC in PA.

He came running up to the pickup truck,
and that was it.

 November 2002.

It had been 6 months since I had put my last dog down
and it was time to welcome a new dog to the family.

As I got out of my truck,
he came came running from his play area
and greeted me with kisses.

The breeder had not even made it out of the house
and the deal was done.

He was an English Springer Spaniel.
 12 pounds of utter cuteness.

The runt of his litter,
he was the last puppy available.
Sometimes,  the best is saved for last.

I named him Juggernaut,
which means " a powerful force not easily defeated."
I named him for my favorite football team which was
once again becoming a powerhouse.
But in the end,
he was a juggernaut of love,
a love that extended over eleven years.

He bore many names.
While he became Juggy to most,
he was always Juggernaut to me.

To the hip crowd, he was the J-dog.
And because he broke the cuteness meter,
he also took on the nickname "Precious"

As I held this young puppy in my arms,
I had no idea of the journey
on which he would take me.

He loved life on the farm
In his early years, he kept Grandma company during the day
and protected Master in the evening and through the night.

It was on the farm
where the famous skunking incident of 2007 occured.
March 15th to be exact.
 Master learned that day,
that a skunked dog turns a home into a toxic waste site within seconds.

5 scrubdowns did little.
Skunk shampoo was rendered useless.
Tomato juice just turned him pink.
But oddly enough,
feminine hygiene products helped
For the remainder of the year and the stink,
he was known as the "Anti-Precious."

He became one of the few dogs
to make the front page of the county newspaper,
(photo and full article)
when Master's team was scheduled to play the local team.
When interviewed by the reporter,
he just licked the reporter's face.
(This became the J-dog's common response to most questions)
It was then that he truly became the rock star that he was intended to be.

He had a weekly feature in Master's e mail newsletter
called the Juggernaut Update,
letting everyone know what was happening in his life.
This included everything from the antics of Mr. Stupid Gray Barncat
to the arrival of his soon-to-be fiancee, Miss Hannah.
It wasn't very long, that people far removed from Master's world,
knew the power of the J-Dog.

But there were also disappointments along the way.
He auditioned for several of Master's musicals,
but was never cast.

In 2008, he auditioned for the role of Toto but was told
"He didn't quite have the look they were looking for."

In 2007, when auditioning to be an animal for the ark,
he was told that "they were going to use humans to play the parts."

Outdoor Nativity auditions
ended with "We'll call you if we need you."

He did actually make it onstage once.
That was the abduction in July of 2007.
Costumers kidnapped him during a dress rehearsal
and shamed him with a skunk outfit created just for him.
He was paraded onto the stage
but once again, never made it to opening night.

Perhaps his greatest triumph,
besides loving Master,
was when he defended the home against the infidels.
January 1 of 2009.

Somehow the J-dog heard intruders at the other side of the property
over the din of the surround sound Rose Bowl pre-game.
Once Master was alerted,
he leaped from the doorway, over the porch,  to the lawn to ward off the invaders
 who were planting innapropriate signs in Master's yard
and trying to steal Master's football flag.

The lesson learned that day.......
you might be able to fool Master,
but don't even think of messing with a Juggernaut.

He was the only one that was with Master everyday when Master built his home.
He was always there when Master needed a hug.

He was always there.

On All Saints Day, Nov 1, of 2013,
Master said goodbye to Juggernaut
as a cancer became the only thing to ever defeat him.

Do dogs (or other animals) really go to heaven?
In my earlier days, I didn't think so.

But I am re-thinking my view.
Part of it,  no doubt is an emotional response to loss .
But the more reading I do,
the more I am convinced that animals do have a place in eternity.

Elijah was taken up to heaven in a chariot pulled by horses (2 Kings 2:11)
Revelation 6:2-8 and 19:11 speak of enough horses for the vast army of heaven to ride.
And Isaiah 65:25 speaks of the presence of the wolf, lamb, lion, ox,
and sorry, even the serpent.
(though the good news is that it appears  that aggressive behavior
among animals would cease to exist.)

In Genesis 2, Adam is called on by God
to give names only to one other part of creation........

While he worked the garden,
he was not called on to give names to the vegetation.
Clearly, animals had certain qualities that set them
above other aspects of creation
By naming them, God made this relationship most personal.

On Easter Sunday, the day we celebrate resurrection,
my new dog, Bushwacker,
came back to the door from outside playtime.
He had something in his mouth.

It was Juggernaut's favorite toy.
I hadn't seen it in months,
well before his death.

Sometimes God just gives you a sign.

It looks like cancer didn't defeat him either.

Upcoming Sunday Scripture Commentary (April 27)

Sermon (April 27) – “Who Were the Twelve Disciples of Jesus? Thomas”

Acts 2:14a, 22-32
In our reading from Acts chapter two, the disciple, Peter explains to a crowd of people in Jerusalem the meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection. 

Peter is trying to explain that the resurrection of Jesus is the fulfillment of promises made through King David centuries earlier.

Verses 25-28 – Peter emphasizes the resurrection of Jesus by quoting Psalm 16 which he believes to have been written by King David. This points to the future resurrection of Jesus.

Verses 29-30 – Peter points out that David was not referring to himself in this Psalm since he died and they can point to his burial place. He must have been referring to a future king (Jesus.)

John 20:19-31
Our Gospel reading from John chapter twenty tells us of two times when Jesus appeared before the disciples following his resurrection. This story focuses on the disciple, Thomas who needed to see in order to believe.

Verse 23 - The risen Christ is giving them authority to forgive sins. God will work through them to forgive sins since only God can forgive sins. They are being given the Holy Spirit to continue the work of Jesus in the world.

As John likes to do in his gospel, he is using the creation story to tell the story of the first day of the week and how the Spirit is being given to the disciples. In the creation story, the wind (Spirit) breathes life into humanity.

Thomas has shown reservations in being a disciple. He sarcastically says that they will die in Jerusalem with Jesus (11:16), complains that Jesus isn’t making things clear enough (14:5) and now doubts the other disciples that Jesus is alive.

Even with all of these doubts, Thomas is actually the first person in the Gospel to refer to Jesus as God!

Verse 29 isn’t a rebuke by Jesus as much as it is an encouragement to others to believe that he is risen.

The opening of John’s Gospel with the phrase “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” is fulfilled in this scene of Jesus with Thomas. This is the visible expression of the presence of God in the world!

[Note: The resources used for these scripture reading commentaries are based on the Everyone series by NT Wright, The Wesley Study Bible, and the “Montreal-Anglican”lectionary commentaries.] 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Worship @ First United Methodist Church (2014)

Easter is all about love!

Sermon by Rev. Robert McDowell (April 20) - "Who Were the Twelve Disciples of Jesus? Matthew & John"


     For the past several Sundays, we have been learning about the twelve disciples of Jesus. Today, we look at the disciples Matthew and John. Thomas is the remaining disciple and we will focus on him next Sunday.
     I saved John and Matthew for today because they are the only two of the twelve disciples who have gospels attributed to them. Both of them describe that first Easter morning.
     The word “gospel” literally means “good news.” Easter is the good news of Jesus’ victory over sin and death.
     We have four gospels that tell us of the good news of Jesus. These are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. People have asked why we have four gospels instead of just one.
     The four Gospels are very similar but they also have their own unique ways of telling the story of the good news of Jesus Christ. The four Gospels complement one another and they help us to hear the story of Jesus from slightly different perspectives.
     All four gospels were written approximately forty to sixty years after the resurrection of Jesus. Before the four gospels were written, Jesus’ disciples and the early church shared stories about the life and ministry of Jesus. These stories were based on the eyewitness accounts of those first disciples and they were told over and over again.
     Story telling in the ancient Jewish world was quite an art form. It was how news was shared. When they shared the stories of the good news of Jesus with each other, it was an important way for them to remember what Jesus had done and what it means to be his disciples.
     Three of the gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels because they share very similar stories of Jesus. The word synoptic means “parallel.” The Gospel of John includes some stories of Jesus that are not included in the Synoptic Gospels.
     By the way, even though Mark and Luke were not part of the original twelve disciples, they were able to write their gospels because of their close connections with the twelve disciples. Mark relies heavily on the disciple Peter and Luke relies heavily on the Apostle Paul who worked closely with Peter and the other disciples.
     So the first thing we want to take note about Matthew and John is that they are the only two of the twelve disciples who have gospels attributed to them. That’s quite a distinction.

     Let’s first focus on the disciple Matthew and we’ll save John for last. What do we know about Matthew besides the fact that he wrote one of the gospels?
     When you look at the famous “Last Supper” painting of Leonardo da Vinci, Matthew is the third disciple from the right. You’ll notice that Matthew is looking at Simon, not to be confused with Simon Peter, but this is Simon the Zealot, who was our focus several Sundays ago.
     Jesus has just shared the shocking words with the disciples that one of them will betray him. Perhaps Matthew turns to Simon because as we saw a few weeks ago, Simon was known as a Zealot, meaning that he was probably very zealous for his faith. Because he was zealous for his faith, it could be that the other disciples turned to him during troubling times. We don’t know for sure but this is probably what Leonardo da Vinci was thinking when he portrayed the disciples in this famous painting.
     The symbol that is often used for the disciple, Matthew is the symbol of the money bags. This reminds us that Matthew was a tax collector when Jesus called him to be one of his disciples.
     This is so important to keep in mind because the Jewish people looked down upon anyone who worked for the Roman Empire. During that time, the Roman Empire controlled the Jewish people and they forced them to pay heavy taxes. And not only did they collect taxes but they also would charge you more than you owed so that they could line their pockets with the extra money.
     I fine it amazing that Matthew, the despised tax collector, the one who was viewed as a traiter to his own Jewish people was part of the twelve that also included Simon the Zealot. You couldn’t have had two people that were more opposite on the political spectrum. At one end you had Matthew who was a cohort of the Roman Empire and at the other end, you had Simon the Zealot who was most likely very anti-Roman Empire.
     Can you imagine the conversations these two disciples had around the campfire at night? I mention this because we too live during a time when issues are very polarizing. The question for us is, even though we may disagree on all kinds of political and social issues is this:  Will we be like the disciples, Matthew and Simon the Zealot who despite their significant differences, still saw each other as brothers in Christ.
     I am so proud to be a pastor of a church such as this where we value community over ideological and theological differences. Friends, there aren’t too many churches with that kind of openness. Thank you for being one of them.
     One other interesting thing about Matthew is that after he became one of Jesus’ disciples, he invited his business associates to come with him and meet Jesus. Matthew teaches us how simple it is to share our faith with others. All we need to do is invite the people we already know to come and meet Jesus.
     According to tradition, we are told that Matthew was a missionary to Ethiopia where he died for his faith. He was crucified in a Tau cross and was then beheaded with an ax.
     Let’s spend our remaining time looking at the disciple, John.
     As you face the Last Supper painting by Leonard da Vinci, the disciple, John is the sixth disciple from the left and he’s sitting next to Jesus.
     The Christian symbol for John is a chalice and a snake. The chalice is to remind us of the time when John and his brother, James went to Jesus to see if they would be able to sit next to him in his kingdom. Jesus responds by saying that they are not able to drink from his cup because later we find that the cup is symbolic of the sacrifice that Jesus was about to make when he died on the cross for the sins of the world.
     The snake in the symbol is based on tradition when the Priest of Diana tried to kill John with poison but John was able to turn the poison into a snake instead and his life was spared.
     It’s interesting to note that John was the only one of the twelve disciples to die a natural death. All of the other disciples were killed for their faith with the exception of Judas Iscariot who took his own life. Tradition tells us that John spent the last decades of his life toward the end of the first century in Asia Minor. John guided the churches in that province and it was probably from the city of Ephesus that he wrote the gospel that bears his name.
     From various sources, we are told that the disciple, John died in 100 AD which would have made him about 90 years of age. This means that John was able to share the good news of Jesus for about seventy years after that first Easter Sunday.
     Tradition tells us that toward the end of his life when he was very frail, he would have to be carried to church gatherings and whenever he spoke, it was always the same message. He would tell the people in his weakened voice, “My children, love one another.”
     I am thankful that John was able to live a full life. The church needed this saintly elderly disciple to remind them of something that we all need to hear again and again and that is to love one another.
     We can’t be certain if John also wrote the three letters of John that we find toward the back of the New Testament.  We’re also not sure that he was the one who wrote the Book of Revelation that includes is name.
     My hunch is that he did write those letters. Listen to what he writes in the First Letter of John. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
     This emphasis on loving one another sounds a lot like the disciple John who was known to tell the churches during his old age, “My children, love one another.”

     Thanks to these two disciples, John and Matthew, we have two perspectives on the telling of the first Easter. In John’s account which is what we heard read for us this morning, we are told that Mary left the empty tomb to go and tell Peter and the other disciple, who is not named but who we assume is John.
     Upon hearing this news from Mary, they both ran to the tomb to see for themselves. And when they saw the linen wrappings in the empty tomb, John tells us  that they believed.
     Matthew’s account of that first Easter is the most dramatic of the four gospel accounts. Matthew says there was an earthquake, there was an appearance of an angel, and Matthew tells us that the guards at the tomb became like dead men because of this incredible event. He uses very dramatic language to describe the events of that first Easter morning.
     Some people are concerned that there are differing details among the four Gospel accounts regarding that first Easter morning. John tells it a certain way and Matthew adds his unique perspective of what happened on that glorious morning. Easter is too big and too wonderful to be told only one way.
     All four gospel writers agree that it was God’s love that made Easter possible, a love that will never let us go, a love that forgives us of our sins, and a love that is meant to be shared with the whole world. Easter is all about love.
     When Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday even though he knew it was a very dangerous time, it was all about love. When Jesus shared a meal with his disciples at the Last Supper knowing that one of them would betray them and all of his closest friends would forsake him, it was all about love. When Jesus died on a cross for the sins of the world, it was all about love. And when the tomb was found empty on that first Easter morning, it was all about love.
      This is why Matthew and John wrote their gospels. They wanted to share this love with us so that we in turn will share this good news with others.
     And this is why an elderly man nearing the end of his life was known to say with the little strength he had left, “My children, love one another.”

     Happy Easter!