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

Monday, March 19, 2018

Pastoral Prayer (March 18) Athens First UMC

[The Greek Orthodox icon of the Risen Christ raising up Adam and Eve was mentioned in this week’s sermon  “Come, Touch the Burial Robe of Jesus.” It’s a powerful image of how Christ’s death and resurrection offers us new life and hope. This Sunday (March 25), our choir will sing the cantata, “Come, Touch the Robe of Jesus” at one combined 10:30 am service. We will be able to ponder each of the robes of Jesus that we have been focusing on during this season of Lent.]

Redeeming God, only you could turn the shameful, torturous, ancient instrument of execution into a symbol of hope, salvation, and new life. Only you could do that and you did!

And so, we tremble because we are in awe of your redeeming work. We tremble because you did for us what we were unable to do for ourselves. We tremble because the agony you endured on the cross was no match for the magnitude of your grace. We tremble because as the Easter hymn says, “Love’s redeeming work is done.”

O God, we worship you this day because we hold on to the hope that your redeeming work continues to bring transformation to our broken and hurting world. We are in need of your all sufficient redeeming grace to help us overcome racism, gun violence, human trafficking, nuclear threats, drug abuse, domestic violence, world hunger, and anything else that brings harm to this world that you created and called good.  

But we also worship you this day because we hold on to the hope that your redeeming world is offered to each and every one of us in a very personal way. You extend us forgiveness especially when we find it hard to forgive ourselves. You offer us salvation especially when we think that we can save ourselves. You provide guidance especially when we don’t know which way to turn. You comfort us especially when we mourn and are confronted with the reality and sting of death. 

Yes, O God, we tremble because thanks to the cross, love’s redeeming work is done and continues to be active in our world and in our lives. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!

And it is in his redeeming name that we pray together saying…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sermon (March 18) by Rev. Robert McDowell "Come, Touch the Redeeming Robe of Jesus”

During Lent, we have imagined the robes of Jesus and what they can tell us about his life and his ministry. Today, we look to the burial robe as we remember the ending of Jesus' life. Jesus was condemned and executed by the Roman powers on a cross on a prominent hill outside the Jerusalem walls.

This happened on a Friday and his death occurred in the afternoon. All four Gospels state that a Joseph of Arimethea went to the Roman ruler Pilate and asked to have the body of Jesus so it could be cared for before the Sabbath began at sundown. The violence is over, the crowds have thinned out. Joseph comes and retrieves Jesus' broken body for burial. The Gospel writers emphasize that there is a burial; there is no doubt that Jesus really died on the cross.

The Jerusalem area has many stone tombs from the time of Jesus. Rock quarries were plentiful and tombs were carved out with small entry passages.

A tomb itself may consist of a rectangle room with ledges, or shelves where bodies would be placed. Extended family members (children and adults) would be buried in the same tomb. About a year after a burial, the bones would be gathered and placed in another area or in a stone box. The shelf then could be used for another burial. It is said of the tomb that Joseph provided that there had not been a burial in it; it was newly cut from stone.

Jewish custom for burial is that the body would be bathed, oils/spices added, and then wrapped in cloths. Joseph and those helping him did all they could do in the short time that they had before sunset.

There is a family tomb from the first century that was excavated in Jerusalem in 2000 which contained several remains, including those of a young man.

What was very unusual about this burial is that there were remnants of his burial cloths that had not completely deteriorated. There appeared to be three or four cloths, some from linen, and one from fine wool. It was speculated that the young man was from a family of wealth. 

We don't know many details about Jesus' burial cloth, only that is was a clean cloth of linen. 

To provide the burial clothing was an act of love from Jesus' friends. They did what was needed to take care of his body. They responded even though their grief must have been tremendous after witnessing his death on the cross.

A friend of mine shared about a time a couple of years ago when her mother-in-law was very sick. Her father-in-law asked her if she would go and buy the clothing that she would be buried in. He said that if she would do so, it would relieve him of a heavy concern. Several family members went to a Cincinnati department store. Weary and distracted, they couldn’t find what they were looking for.

A saleswoman came to their rescue and quickly understood their task. She stepped in and helped them find everything that they needed. She was very grateful to her for her attentive care and compassion for them on that sad afternoon.

Sadness and disbelief surrounded the cross. For the disciples of Jesus, his family, and those who followed him, the cross was a sign of broken dreams, hate triumphing over goodness, sin having the last word.

The cross robbed them of their Lord. The one who had healed so many, who had shared about God's love, who had promised abundant life, was gone.

Even though we know the rest of the story, I don't want us to turn away from this scene just yet. Something important has happened. Love for the world propelled Jesus forward even if it meant death on a cross.

The story of the burial brings up difficult questions that we have about our own losses. We ask “Why did this have to happen?” We wonder “Why did her life have to end as it did?” And we struggle with how we can continue to live in the face of death when nothing is the same. 

There is an ancient devotional practice called the Stations of the Cross where one walks from station to station, reads Scripture, and remembers an action that happened to Jesus in his last 24 hours. In the modern Stations of the Cross, the first station begins in the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus praying , and the last station #14 is Jesus’ burial.

Mark Roberts has written a devotional and prayer to be used at each station of the cross. This is his prayer for the Station of Jesus Burial: “I'll never be able to understand fully the wonder of your death, Lord. But I can grasp the fact that your real death opened up the door for me to experience real life.”

There is a song, I believe, that can be heard faintly at this final station. The words go: “Death, where is they sting? Grave, where is thy victory?”

We could rightly argue that there is plenty of pain and sting in life. We can see it on the faces of those who mourn. We have known the pain from our own experience of loss. For all of us, it has been hard to say goodbye.

But the melody continues. The reason that we can sing the song is because Christ has overcome death for us. We still know sorrow and grief but we mourn as those who have unbelievable hope.

I was reading about a common image for Easter in the Orthodox Church, but one that was not familiar to me. This powerful icon of the Resurrection depicts the risen Christ reaching out, beginning with Adam and Eve, pulling them out of a tomb and into new life.

Not only is Christ risen, but he is bringing new beginnings to all people, to all creation, to us. No matter how deep the darkness, the light and power of Christ enters, chains are broken, the doors to the prison of death and defeat are flung open. This is why this robe of Jesus isn’t just a burial robe. It’s a redeeming robe!

We are all lifted up by Christ from despair to joy!

Oh, but back to my friend’s story about finding clothes for her mother-in-law. She said that they found a beautiful pink suit for her to wear as her burial clothes. That person picked that color because it was a suit fit for an Easter celebration!

And then my friend shared that because of that helpful salesperson, her family discovered that in the midst of winter and our sadness, they were able to anticipate the glorious life to come. They knew at the funeral that this was not the end.

She said that even with heavy hearts when they gathered for her mother-in-law’s funeral, and with tears in their eyes, they knew deep down. They knew deep down, that death wasn’t the last word.

The color pink reminded them that the last word isn’t death. The last word is “resurrection.”

Thanks be to God! 

Come, Touch the Redeeming Robe of Jesus
Small Group Questions
I Corinthians 15:53-57 & Matthew 27:57-61
March 18, 2018
In 1st century Judaism, when someone died, it was customary to clean the body and include oils/spices and then wrap the body with linen cloths and place the body on one of the shelves in a tomb. After a year, the bones were collected by the family and placed in a box which freed up the shelf for the next body. This burial rite was a way of showing love and respect to the person who had died.
What emotions do you think were going through the minds of the people who prepared Jesus' body for burial? How do we show love and respect in our culture today for loved ones who have died? 
When Jesus died on the cross and was placed in a tomb, his followers most likely felt defeated since the promised Messiah was not expected to die on a cross. We of course, know how the story ends, Jesus was raised to new life on the 3rd day. Each year on Good Friday and Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday) we are invited to reflect on the meaning of Jesus' death.
What does Jesus' death on the cross mean for you? What are you thinking about on these days leading up to Easter Sunday?
In the Orthodox faith tradition, an icon depicts the Risen Christ reaching out, starting with Adam and Eve and drawing people out of their graves. It's a symbol of how Christ brings new life out of death.
Share a time in your life when you felt Christ offering you new life.
Mark Roberts has written a devotional and prayer to be used at each station of the cross. This is his prayer for the Station of Jesus Burial. Read this as a group in unison:

“I'll never be able to understand fully the wonder of your death, Lord. But I can grasp the fact that your real death opened up the door for me to experience real life.”

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Story Behind My Nikos Blog

Tomorrow’s New Testament Lesson is I Corinthians 15:53-57. This is TOTALLY at the very top of my favorite scriptures list! This scripture is why I named my blog, “Nikos” when I created it back in the summer of 2008. I just realized that this year marks the 10th anniversary. 

Footnote: “Nikos” is pronounced “Neekos.”

In verse, 57, Paul writes, “But thanks be to God who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ.” “Nikos” is the Greek word for “victory.” So, here’s why this particular Greek word that we find in the Bible is so awesome, awesome enough for me to choose it as the title of my blog. 

In this chapter of his letter, the Apostle Paul explains the meaning of "resurrection." By resurrection, Paul is NOT referring to a "spiritual" non-physical state of being. The resurrection body is physical, just not subject to sin, illness, and death. This is what resurrection meant in the 1st century Jewish world.

This chapter in I Corinthians depends on the readers having the particular Jewish worldview that there is the present age and a time is coming when heaven and earth will fully overlap and sin and death will be no more. When heaven and earth come together completely, God will raise up the faithful and give them resurrected bodies. Jesus' resurrection was a foretaste of what awaits God's people at the close of the present age. When people are given resurrection bodies, they will be changed and transformed and this will happen in an instant.

Many people today misinterpret this passage because our culture's worldview has changed significantly since the Jewish worldview of the 1st century. Their worldview believed that heaven and earth were two separate parts of God's creation. Today, we often see heaven and earth as far away from each other. The Jewish worldview believes that they are closer than we think and the future hope is that one day they will fully unite.

This biblical worldview is why the Celtic Christians from the early centuries referred to the overlap of heaven and earth as “thin place” moments. They are thin places because the distance between heaven and earth is razor thin. How do you know when you are experiencing a “thin place” moment? It’s when your soul, the deepest part of your being has an “aha!” moment. It’s that mysterious moment where you realize God was present in a very real way. These aren’t always dramatic experiences. Sometimes, we miss them and only notice them after they happened to us. 

The important thing is for us to be conscious of these “thin place” moments in our everyday lives. This will lead us in having a more biblical worldview and we will be more likely to share with others how God is at work in our lives.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Pastoral Prayer (March 11) Athens First UMC

[During yesterday’s sermon“Come, Touch the Honoring Robe,” the congregation passed around Dewey, the Donkey. This toy donkey became a symbol of the gifts that we have to offer Jesus. In a clever theological move, a parishioner placed Dewey in the offering as the plates were being passed. He ended up on the altar during the doxology and the offering prayer of dedication. This week, Dewey is helping us to think about the question, “What are the donkeys/gifts that you have to honor God and bless others?” Who said the season of Lent can’t be fun?]

O God, I’m not sure where Dewey the Donkey is right now, but I’m sure he is in good hands. Thank you for reminding us this morning about the unnamed person who offered his donkey for Jesus to ride into Jerusalem. Thank you for reminding us about the robes that people placed along your path as a way of honoring you as well.


Like the unnamed person and the crowd from the Palm Sunday story, lead us to touch your honoring robe during this season of Lent. Lead us to offer the gifts we have to be a blessing to others.


Thank you for the many gifts, large and small that were given by so many people in this church to help us provide a meal for the Good Works Outreach meal this past Friday night.


Thank you for the the many donations that are helping us to provide meals for the different college groups that are staying at our church over their spring breaks this month to work at Habitat for Humanity. 


Thank you for the church member who has offered to do volunteer work in our church office each week. 


Thank you for blanket makers, flower arrangers, flood bucket packers, faithful givers, choir members, ushers, greeters, Tuesday prayer team members, Sunday School teachers, small group facilitators, and so many others who offer whatever they have to honor you and be a blessing to others. Thank you for all gifts great and small because any gift given in your name is a way of honoring you.


O God, we ask, “what gift can we bring” and your answer to us is to give like you give; fully, completely, unconditionally, and lovingly. 


This is how we touch the honoring robe of Jesus and it is in his name that we offer the prayer he taught us to say together…


Our Father, who art in heaven…

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Sermon (March 11) by Rev. Robert McDowell "Come, Touch the Honoring Robe of Jesus”


    In his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, Christian author Philip Yancey, describes Palm Sunday this way:  

“The triumphal entry has about it an aura of ambivalence, and as I read all the accounts together, what stands out to me now is the slapstick nature of the affair. I imagine a Roman officer galloping up to check on the disturbance.  He has attended processions in Rome, where they do it right. The conquering general sits in a chariot of gold, with stallions straining at the reins and wheel spikes flashing in the sunlight.  Behind him officers in polished armor display banners captured from vanquished armies.  At the rear comes a ragtag procession of slaves and prisoners in chains, living proof of what happens to those who defy Rome.”

     Yancey goes on to write, “In contrast, in Jesus’ triumphal entry, the adoring crowd makes up the ragtag procession: the lame, the blind, the children, the peasants from Galilee and Bethany.  When the officer looks for the object of their attention he spies a forlorn figure, weeping, riding on no stallion or chariot but on the back of a baby donkey, a borrowed coat draped across its backbone serving as his saddle.”

     The story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is a familiar one for many of us. We hear this story year after year. But the great thing about God’s Word is that even the most familiar story can become fresh if we listen carefully, and sometimes even in familiar accounts you see things in a new way.  

     We will be celebrating Palm Sunday in a couple of weeks, the Sunday before Easter Sunday. There are a lot of great lessons in the story of when Jesus rode a donkey into the city of Jerusalem.  Today I want to focus on two parts of this story that perhaps we have never really given too much thought.  I want to draw your attention to a so-called, insignificant, unnamed person in this story:  the man who owned the donkey.  And I want to focus a little attention on the admirers of Jesus who spread their cloaks on the road.

    Now, a good question to start with in regard to the donkey owner is, why the owners loaned out their donkeys in the first place? There are a few possible reasons:

     First of all, loaning out a donkey was an important part of  Eastern hospitality.  Especially at Passover, the locals knew that they needed to lend what they could to their visiting countrymen.  So, the loaning of the donkey may have been a common courtesy.

     The second thing to keep in mind is that in that time period, it was an honor to have a rabbi ride on a donkey you owned.  In other words, they allowed the disciples of Jesus to take the donkey as a matter of pride.

    It’s also true that Jesus had arranged for the use of the donkey much earlier, and he set up the password of the phrase, "the master needs him.”  In other words they gave him the donkey as part of a business deal.

     Now these are all valid explanations about Jesus borrowing the donkey, but I’d like to suggest another possibility.  I think this man was willing to loan his donkey to Jesus because the disciples had referred to Jesus as their master. Once it was stated that "The Master needs it", the discussion was over.

     I think if he gave the donkey to the disciples for one of the other reasons alone, there would have been a more in depth conversation. The owner would have had the disciples sign some kind of rental agreement. He would have asked for their driver’s license and proof of insurance. Just kidding, but you know what I mean. There was none of that. When the owner heard that their Master was in need of the donkey, that was all he needed to hear.

     I think the owner of the donkey had faith.  I also think he had come to three conclusions that apply to how God reacts to those who seek to follow after Jesus.

     First, the true follower is willing to give what He has to the Lord.  I don’t know how many donkeys this man had. Whether he had one or a hundred it doesn’t really matter. Donkeys were valuable.

     They were a burden-bearing animal, which meant they could transport things.  They were doing what trucks do today.  They were able to help care for the land. They were doing what tractors do today. They were a means of transportation. They filled the need that cars fill today.

     This matters because I want you to see that this is no small gift and this is what the Master needed, so this is what the Master was given. God doesn’t ask us to give what we don’t have. God invites us to give what we do have. We may not feel we have anything significant to give, but God sometimes takes what we already have and uses them in great ways.

    Moses was asked to give his walking stick. Rahab gave a corner of her roof to hide the spies. David gave his sling shot. The widow at Zarephath gave the last of her oil and flour to make a meal for Elijah.  

     The Shummanite woman gave a room of her home to Elisha.  The widow that Jesus praised gave her only two coins. The young boy gave his five loaves and two fish. The early church shared their possessions with those who had a need. The Bible is full of people who gave what they had, to be used by the Lord.

     Following in the donkey owner’s example, the one who seeks to be a follower of Jesus knows that everything we have belongs to the Lord. Everything we have has been given to us as a gift from God. Everything: our time, our talents, our resources, they have been entrusted to us so that we might use them for God. Stewardship is not just about giving money; it is about managing what God has given us well.

     I wonder what God thinks when we waste the gifts that have been given to us. Listen to these words from Christian author, Max Lucado:

     He writes, “Sometimes I get the impression that God wants me to give him something and sometimes I don’t give it because I don’t know for sure, and then I feel bad because I’ve missed my chance.  

     Other times I know he wants something but I don’t give it because I’m too selfish.  And other times, too few times, I hear him and I obey him and feel honored that a gift of mine would be used to carry Jesus to another place.  And still other times I wonder if my little deeds today will make a difference in the long haul.”

     Maybe you have those questions, too.  Each of us has a donkey. You and I each have something in our lives, which, if given back to God, could, like the donkey, move Jesus and his story farther down the road.  Maybe you can greet or hug or set-up a computer or serve a meal or write a check. Whatever you have, that’s your donkey. And whatever it is, your donkey belongs to the master.

     Sometimes I feel like my gifts are too small to really matter much to the Lord.  Then, I get a word from someone that reminds me that no gift when offered in sincerity to God is ever too small in God’s hands. 

     A friend of mine shared with me that a woman from one of his former churches sent him birthday wishes through Facebook and she said, “WE MISS YOU SO MUCH, YOU WILL ALWAYS BE A VERY SPECIAL PERSON TO FRED AND I.  YOU GUIDED US AS WE BEGAN OUR JOURNEY TO FAITH AND WE WILL ALWAYS APPRECIATE THAT SO MUCH. WE LOVE YOU. HAVE A WONDERFUL DAY!!!

     The message was in all capital letters to emphasize how much she appreciated my friend’s pastoral ministry along their faith journey. In such a simple way, she offered her gift of encouragement as a way to bless my friend.

     No gift is too small or insignificant when offered sincerely to God and for God’s purposes. And all our gifts really do belong to God. We are invited to offer our gifts to the Master.

     The original wording of the instructions Jesus gave to his disciples really emphasizes this truth: Jesus told them, "If anyone asks you why you are taking the donkeys, you are to say, ’Its Lord is in need.’" You see?  It’s not about donkeys; it’s about our attitude.

     The robes that the crowds of people laid on the path in front of Jesus may not have been significant in many people’s eyes. They probably didn’t seem very significant in the eyes of the Roman officer watching the procession. 

     Remember, he has seen similar processions in Rome.  But the victor rides in a golden chariot, pulled by a stallion, not on a donkey. And there are banners waving, not palm branches. 

     But Jesus’ followers offered what they had. They took off their outer garments, and laid them at Jesus’ feet.

     God has given us many things: our talents, our resources, our time, our children, our jobs, our interests.  They belong to God. God has given them to us as a gift. They are ours to use, but God can ask for them back at any time.  At any time God can request that what He has given be returned in some fashion. He can do this because He is the true owner; and we are the stewards.

     And finally, a follower of Jesus knows that the value of what we have will be multiplied when it is placed in the Lord’s hands. The man gave his donkey, even though it was valuable to him. But look at how much more valuable it became when placed in the hands of Jesus.  

     His donkey had a part in fulfilling a prophecy. His donkey transported the Lord of all creation. His donkey and the owner, have been remembered for two thousand years because of the owner’s simple act of generosity.  

     None of this would have been possible if the man had refused to give what He had. If we talked to the man, he might very well have downplayed his kind gesture, but what this man did will not be forgotten. What we place in the Lord’s hands will be used in  remarkable ways.

     The person who gives their time to read to or visit with people in a nursing home may feel like they are doing little, but it certainly means a lot to them. The Sunday School teacher who prepares a bible lesson is helping people to grow deeper in their faith.

     The person who gets alone with God and fervently prays for the needs of our church, our community, and our world, may feel like their prayers are going unheeded, but they may not see how God is changing hearts and circumstances in response to those prayers. The person who faithfully puts their check in the offering plate week after week may feel that their contribution is insignificant but they don’t see that God is using their faithfulness to make it possible for the ministries of the church to flourish.

    The person who takes the time to jot a note, to make a call, to stop by and visit may feel that they don’t have much to offer, but by giving what they have, God is using their efforts to encourage someone who is weary, to comfort someone who thought they were alone, or to reach someone who was drifting away.

     This past week, I was reminded again why I am super blessed to be your pastor. Check it out! 

     This past Monday, on that one day alone, we served our weekly Monday Lunch meal that’s open to our community. We also hosted the Bowling Green State University men’s choir for a concert. We provided lodging this past week for Georgetown University students and a meal for them on Monday night.

     We held our Worship U service Monday night. We had a bible study here. The scouts met here. The Korean congregation met here for prayer. We had our Growing Tree preschool children like we do every day during the week. Almost every single room was being used in our church this past Monday. I almost had to move my bible study to one of the broom closets.

     Later that week, many of you helped with the Good Works Outreach “Friday Night Live” meal. And we delivered 21 flood buckets to help with the flood relief efforts here in southern Ohio.

     Tonight, I will have the privilege of welcoming two more college groups who will be staying at our church this week. And yes, tomorrow night, we will be feeding them dinner.  

     Honestly, don’t you ever get tired? I remember going home late this past Monday night thanking God for being part of a church that is so generous, so accommodating, so welcoming, so giving, so loving. 

     In one week alone, through all of your gifts of time, resources, donations, and making space, who knows how these many gifts were multiplied many times over!

     Friends, what we have is never more valuable than when we place them in the capable and loving hands of Jesus.  

     A church member sent me a news story that aired on the CBS evening news this past year. It’s about a little boy in Toledo, Ohio who gave what he had. It wasn’t a donkey for Jesus to ride and it wasn’t a robe to spread on the road. But it was a gift that one man will never ever forget. Let’s watch.

Come, Touch the Honoring Robe of Jesus
Discussion Questions
Zechariah 9:9-10 & Luke 19:28-40
March 11, 2018

Our focus the week is on the robes that the crowd placed on the pathway when Jesus entered into Jerusalem on a donkey. They were offering him a royal welcome by giving what they had. In a similar way, the man who offered his donkey to Jesus, gave what he had sacrificially. 

Share a time when you offered a gift to someone and it ended up blessing them in more ways than you anticipated. How did that make you feel?

Pastor Robert shared a video of a little boy who found a $20 bill and gave it to a military person just because he wanted to do something nice for someone. He could have spent it on himself but he chose to give it away. The person who received it was so blessed by what this little boy did for him, that he will never forget it. The military person decided to "pay this gift forward" so that somebody else could be blessed by it.

When have you been blessed by somebody's gift to you? How did that make you feel?

The owner of the donkey was willing to give his animal freely to Jesus so that he would be able to ride it into Jerusalem.The crowd was willing to lay their garments and palm branches along the path to honor Jesus as the coming king. All of these people offered what they had and believed that their gifts would make a difference.

Is there somebody that you or your small group might help, even if it's in a small way? It could be visiting someone, sending an encouraging note, or providing a much needed gift card. Remember, no gift is too small if given in the name of the King of kings.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Pastoral Prayer (March 4) Athens First UMC

[Sometimes our offering begins to get collected even before the actual worship service. This was the case this past weekend when some of our Athens First Saturday volunteers assembled 10 flood buckets which will be used to help clean up from the recent flooding in southern Ohio. The following day on Sunday, we included these buckets as well as additional cleaning items donated by our children’s Sunday School classes in our offering prayer. Serving in the name of Christ is one of the ways that we “Touch the Uniting Robe of Jesus.” Click here for the sermon.]

O God, this journey to the cross is getting real. We’re already talking about how the soldiers stripped you of your robe. 

Lord, as we think of those soldiers, reveal to us where we have sought to divide, rather than unite. Help us to see our own blind spots where we have become so entrenched in our theological views that we no longer are open to new ways of looking at our faith.

Forgive us for our divisive ways where we focus so much on our disagreements, that we give little thought to what unites us which is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And so, as we think about your uniting and seamless robe, we offer our prayers for our denomination and “The Way Forward” commission. We pray for the Council of Bishops as they decide on one of the options to present to next year’s special General Conference. Grant them wise discernment as they conclude their work.

As we pray for our denominational leaders to be guided by your Spirit in this important work on our behalf, help us to be a church that seeks to unite, rather than divide. May every single person feel welcomed in this place because your love has room for everyone. Nobody is left out.

Forgive us for when we spend more time worrying about who doesn’t belong in your circle rather than celebrating your grace which is extended to every single person. Blest be your tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 

We pray this in the name of Christ who taught us to be one by praying in unison…

Our Father, who art in heaven…

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Sermon (March 4) by Rev. Robert McDowell "Come, Touch the Uniting Robe of Jesus"


     What can we learn about this fourth robe of Jesus, the Uniting Robe? First of all, this robe is mentioned in all four gospels and is related to when the Roman soldiers stripped Jesus of his robe during the crucifixion. 

     The Gospel of Luke tells us that when Jesus was being crucified in between two criminals, he said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.  And they cast lots for his clothing.”

     This was common practice for Roman soldiers to divide up the clothing of executed criminals among themselves. When these soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothes, they fulfilled the prophecy in Psalm 22:18.  “They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.”

     In Mark’s telling of the crucifixion, probably the first written account which we have, it says in chapter 15, verse 24, “And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.”

     In Matthew’s gospel it says in chapter 27, verse 35, “And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him.”

     It is from John’s Gospel account of the crucifixion that we get the most detail about this robe which Jesus had been wearing.  

     Beginning in chapter 19, verse 23 John writes, 

     “When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top.  So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.”  This was to fulfill what the scripture says, “They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.”  And that is what the soldiers did.”

    There’s a book by author Marjorie Holmes called The Messiah.  This was the third in a series of books about the life of Jesus that were based on biblical knowledge about Jesus, but then Ms. Holmes filled in the blanks using historical fiction.

     In her book, she said that Jesus’ grandmother, Anna had made the seamless robe for her grandson Jesus as an act of love.  She had given it to him before he left to travel to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, which would be his last here on earth. 

     The author describes Anna’s feelings of agony and despair as she watched her grandson being crucified, along with the other women at the foot of Jesus’ cross.

     While none of this is biblical, it does help us to think about this particular robe of Jesus. Jesus had parents and grandparents, and they must have shown human love and emotions and gave gifts as acts of love just like any other normal family does.  

     There are also some traditions held by the church surrounding the soldiers gambling for Jesus’ seamless robe.

     It is said that this actual robe from Jesus is held as a relic in Trier, Germany.  Here is what the information page on the cathedral’s website says:  

     “The most precious relic in Trier Cathedral is the Holy Robe, the tunic of Christ.  According to tradition, the Empress Dowager Helena brought the seamless robe of Christ to Trier. 

     The Holy Robe is mentioned for the first time in the 11th century; the history of the Holy Robe is documented with certainty only from the 12th century, when it was removed from the west choir to the new altar in the east choir on May 1, 1196.
     Since the Cathedral renovation in 1974, the Holy Robe has been kept in its wooden shrine from 1891, lying under an air-conditioned glass shrine.  The last great pilgrimage, in 1996, became a celebration of all the faithful, with its continuation in the annual Holy Robe Days.  

     Only during the Holy Robe Days is the Holy Robe chapel accessible, but the garment cannot be viewed. The original state of the textile has altered because of past events and the unfavorable storage conditions, as repairs have frequently been made.”

     The question of the genuineness of the Holy Robe cannot be answered with certainty.  For the faithful, the symbolism is important: the relic signifies Jesus Christ himself, his incarnation and the other events in his life up to the crucifixion and his death. 

     The undivided and seamless garment is also a symbol of Christian unity and evokes the binding power of God, as is expressed in the Trier pilgrim's prayer:  

     "Jesus Christ, Savior and Redeemer, have mercy on us and all the world. Be mindful of Thy Church and bring together what is divided. Amen."

     The symbolism of the unity of Christ’s Church exemplified in the seamless oneness of Christ’s seamless tunic is interesting.  Too often the Church fails to be unified and instead we rip and tear at the fabric of the unity of the Church for which Christ prayed in the Gospel of John.

     Today’s focus on the uniting robe of Jesus gives us an opportunity today to reflect on unity as it relates to our denomination as well as at the local church level.

     The United Methodist Church has approximately 13 million members throughout the world. That’s a big number! Here in the United States, there are a little more than 7 million United Methodists. 

     Our church here in Athens is one of 32,148 congregations here in the United States! There are another 10,631 congregations in other countries.

     Every four years, our denomination holds what we call “General Conference” where United Methodists elected from all over the world meet for several days to make decisions on a range of issues from how we are structured as a denomination to our stances on a variety of social issues. 

     Half of the General Conference voting members are laity and the other half are clergy. Our most recent General Conference met out in Oregon in May of 2016.

     The purpose of having a General Conference is to make any needed changes to this procedural book, “The Book of Discipline,” and this book, “The Book of Resolutions.”

     Just look at how thick “The Book of Resolutions” is! It contains the United Methodist stance on over 200 social issues ranging from gun control to issues related to human sexuality.

     So, our elected United Methodist delegates, half of which are laity and the other half are clergy meet every four years to decide on these many important issues. That’s why General Conference lasts close to two weeks. That’s how long it takes to cover all of these important topics.

     And guess what? These delegates don’t all agree on what our stances should be. But at the end of the day, after a lot of prayer, conversations, debate, and more prayer, a vote is taken and that is what becomes the official stance of the United Methodist Church. We agree to disagree on these matters of faith.

     We don’t all interpret the Bible in the same way. John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement back in the 1700’s encouraged people to interpret the Bible by keeping in mind what he called the quadrilateral approach which involves interpreting the Bible by through the lens of church tradition, reason, and experience.

     That’s why when you go to a bible study and people offer their thoughts about a scripture passage or hear a sermon, you can come away with a very different interpretation of scripture. And that’s OK because that’s what the Bible is designed to do. 

     It’s been said that whenever two Jewish rabbis come together to study the scriptures, that there will always be at least three different opinions.

     Have you ever noticed how much of the Bible is not designed to be an answer book as it is more of an invitation for each one of us and for the whole church to think in a deeper way about our faith? People who think that the Bible is simply an answer book often become disillusioned when they realize that most of the Bible is in story form. And these stories of faith are not meant to give us simple moral lessons and spoon feed us but to get us to think about who God is and who God is calling us to be.

     Think of it this way. Always keep in mind that the Bible was not written TO you, but it was written FOR you. 

     And that means we first need to understand what a bible passage meant to the original listeners before we decide on what it might mean for us today. 

     So when you leave from a worship service, the goal isn’t that you get an easy answer on how to live out your faith. The goal is that you will leave here on any given Sunday prepared to wrestle, struggle, think, reflect, discuss, and pray about how you encountered God through that worship service. That’s the goal.

     That’s a different kind of unity than simply a bunch of people believing in the same things. The biblical approach to unity is that we are all striving together in discovering what it means to be God’s faithful people. And guess what? That striving together never ends. God wants us to strive, to grow, and wrestle throughout our lifetime.

     Think of unity like this. We are fellow strivers in our faith journey. We are fellow strivers in our faith journey.

     Here’s an example of this striving and discerning process that the United Methodist Church is facing today. We are in the process of discerning a way forward regarding our understanding of human sexuality as it relates to our faith.

     Our current church rule states that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with the Christian faith. This language was added to the Book of Discipline back in 1972. This means that people who are gay and who are not celibate are not permitted to be ordained in our denomination. It also means that clergy are not permitted to officiate a gay marriage.
    United Methodists are not of the same mind on this issue. Over the course of my 30 plus years as a pastor, I have had people come to me and say that they are leaving the denomination because they don’t even think that this issue should be debated because they are absolutely convinced that the Bible views the practice of homosexuality as a sin. 

     I have also had other church members who are more progressive in their interpretation of scripture come to me to say that they are leaving the denomination for the opposite reason. They don’t view it as a sin.

     And factor in that we have many people who are somewhere in the middle of those two ends of the theological spectrum. 

     This is why our denomination has called a special session of the General Conference which will meet in February, 2019 to find a way forward on this issue. A commission representing United Methodists from around the world has been meeting for the past several months to come up with a recommendation that will be presented at this special General Conference for official consideration.

     Currently, they are now considering a couple of options. One option would be to remove the prohibitive language on this issue from the Book of Discipline and allow annual conferences, local churches, and pastors decide on how they will handle this issue. The other option would be for the United Methodist Church to divide into smaller denominations underneath the larger United Methodist Church name. This smaller denominations would be based on a church’s stance on these issues related to human sexuality. 

     We should know sometime in July, which of these recommendations will be submitted to the February special General Conference for consideration.  

     I share this very specific issue as it relates to the unity of the church with you because I invite you to be in prayer for everyone who is involved in this process.

      I also share this with you because this is just one example of the wrestling, the discerning, and the struggle that is part of being a people of faith. There are no spoon fed answers when it comes to following Christ. 

     In the scriptures, we find this tug of war happening all of the time. Peter and Paul have a fierce conversation in the Book of Acts about the inclusion of Gentiles into the new Christian faith. They had to have their own special commission to decide on that very important issue. It was called the Jerusalem Council. You can read about that in Acts, chapter 15.  Luke tells us that there was much debate over this.

     Notice that they disagreed over a very controversial issue and yet they found a way forward together. They found a compromise in how they interpreted the scriptures differently. Even the people in the Bible had to strive and wrestle in their faith together.

     What keeps us together? What makes us one? What helps us to touch the uniting robe of Jesus?

     Well, it’s not like I have an easy answer because that would kind of go against everything I just said in my sermon wouldn’t it? There are no spoon fed answers.

     Just three short phrases that a diverse group of people say in unison every time they gather for Holy Communion.

     Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Come, Touch the Uniting Robe of Jesus
Discussion Questions
Psalm 22:1-18 & John 19:16b-25a
March 4, 2018

As we think about the different robes of Jesus during this season of Lent and how they can draw us closer into a deeper faith, the robe that the soldiers took from Jesus has been traditionally known as the “seamless robe.” A cathedral in Trier, Germany claims to have this robe and it can be viewed today.

When have you experienced God's presence because of people being unified behind a cause or purpose? What was that like for you personally?

In the sermon, Pastor Robert shared these words: “So when you leave from a worship service, the goal isn’t that you get an easy answer on how to live out your faith. The goal is that you will leave here on any given Sunday prepared to wrestle, struggle, think, reflect, discuss, and pray about how you encountered God through that worship service. That’s the goal.”

When have you wrestled or struggled in your faith over a particular scripture or issue? How did it help you grow stronger in your faith?

A challenging issue related to the unity of the church is facing the United Methodist Church. Our denomination is wrestling with what our stance should be on the issue of homosexuality. Currently, our Book of Discipline does not allow the ordination of people who are gay and non-celibate. It also does not permit a pastor to officiate at a same sex marriage. This summer, a special commission will present a recommendation for consideration at a February, 2019 General Conference. The recommendation will be either 1) Remove the prohibitive language in the Book of Discipline and let annual conferences, local churches and pastors decide what to do or 2) Divide the United Methodist Church into smaller denominations where each local church can decide which to join depending on their stance on homosexuality.

What questions or thoughts do you have about this process?

Pastor Robert concluded the sermon by saying that even though the Bible doesn’t provide easy answers to complex issues, it does invite us to wrestle in our faith and find our unity in Jesus Christ.

Close your time together by praying this prayer for unity that comes from the cathedral in Germany that houses the seamless robe of Jesus:

Jesus Christ, Savior and Redeemer, have mercy on us and all the world. Be mindful of Thy Church and bring together what is divided. Amen.