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, August 28, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (August 27) Athens First UMC

[There is something very calming and peaceful when you get to church before anyone has arrived and silently pray up in the balcony (top left photo.) There is also something very joyful and inspiring when a little later that same morning, you are with your church family worshipping in that same space! (top right photo.)]

God, this weekend has that feel of a new beginning here in Athens. Students are back on campus, there’s no place to park, and hamburgers and brats are once again being grilled at the frat house next door. We can feel the energy, the excitement, and the anticipation of a new school year.

And so, during this very busy time of year, we thank you for giving us this morning to catch our breath, and remember who you are and who you are calling us to be. Thank you for this church, this haven of blessing and peace where we can gather as your people.

Help us to think of our church as that setting from our Gospel reading where Jesus asked the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Like the disciples, you want us to think about this question as often as possible. May our church be a place where we grow in our understanding of who you are.

Remind us throughout this new year that Jesus wants to be our Savior, Lord, Shepherd, Guide, Friend, Redeemer, Deliverer, Teacher, and Healer. Lord Jesus, you are all of these things and so much more.

Even as we are excited about what this new school year may bring, we are mindful of those who are anxious about their studies, what their major should be, their future career path, being away from home, and the challenge of not succumbing to negative peer pressure. You care about all of these areas of our lives, and you call us to follow Christ in all that we say and do.

O God, on this beautiful and sunny morning here in southeast, Ohio, our hearts go out to the people of Texas who have been in the pathway of Hurricane Harvey where there has been so much devastation, destruction and loss these past few days. Thank you for the United Methodist Committee on Relief that is already coordinating supplies and identifying churches that are positioned to provide temporary housing for those in need of shelter.

O God, as I offer this prayer, I am reminded of the church member who has experienced Jesus as the one who is the anchor and the seabed in the tempest-tossed waters of life. May the people of Texas turn to you as their anchor in this dangerous and difficult time.

Thank you, Jesus for being our anchor during the storms of life and that with you by our side, we can live each day with courage. And so it is with great confidence in the midst of any storm we may be facing in any given moment, that we join together in praying the words you taught your disciples, and now teach us to pray together…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sermon (August 27) by Rev. Robert McDowell "The Ultimate Question"

        Someone went to a rabbi and asked him, “Why do you always answer a question by asking another question?  I just find that very annoying!”
     And the very wise rabbi answered, “What’s wrong with asking questions?”
     You would think that Jesus would have asked the disciples who they thought he was a lot sooner in his ministry.  We find this question in Matthew 16, well into Jesus ministry with his disciples.
     Here, these twelve individuals left everything to follow him, and yet, this question presumes that they just might not have a grasp as to who he is.
     How can that be?
     There are a lot of different ways of answering who Jesus is.  Some folks would give you a long drawn out answer that will make you wish you never asked the question to begin with.
     “Who is Jesus?”  Well according to the Nicene creed, he is the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made and it goes on and on.
     And certainly there is some validity to answering this question with theological language which explains how Jesus Christ can be fully God and yet fully human at the same time.  The early church spent many years reflecting on this ultimate question which is why we have these ancient creeds.
     But the disciples did not have the advantage of this kind of reflection.  They were always on the move with Jesus.  And they, along with so many other people, were astonished at his miracles and the way he was able to teach great crowds of people with authority.  They knew that Jesus was a very special person.
     And they also knew from their time spent with him, that he was the promised Messiah.  The promised one who would hopefully free Israel from Roman occupation.  They saw him as a miracle worker who would perhaps lead the people of Israel into the glory days of old.
     Here in chapter 16 of Matthew’s Gospel, the disciples are with Jesus in Caesarea Philippi, and Jesus actually asks the disciples two questions, not just one.  The first question he asks is -  “What are other people saying about me?”
     And they tell Jesus what they have been hearing.  “Some people think that you are John the Baptist. Others think that you are one of the prophets from of old.”
     There are an incredible amount of opinions out there about Jesus.   It would be an interesting little project to go to some place here in town and ask them the question, “Tell me who Jesus is to you?”
     But Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to settle for what other people are saying about him.  Jesus also wants to know what they are thinking.  And he asks them, “But who do you say that I am?”
     Actually, I’m a bit surprised that Peter was able to give the right answer.  Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
     It’s one thing to give the answer.  It’s another thing to live the answer. To say that we believe that Jesus is the Messiah, means that we are to love our enemies.  It means that we are to forgive others when they hurt us. It means that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.
     Jesus also said things like, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.  Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.” Jesus was crucified on a cross for saying things like this. 
     And what about the time that Jesus said to “Go and sell everything you have and give it to the poor” and if someone forces you to go one mile, go two.
     As the humorist, Mark Twain once said, “It’s not the things in the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me.  It’s the things that I do understand that bother me the most.” Sometimes, I wish that Jesus was more mysterious or cryptic in his teachings.  
     Almost every Sunday that I worship with you in this place, I hear something in the scripture reading that reminds me that I have so much more to learn about who Jesus is and what it means to follow him.
     I suppose that we could simply ignore all of these hard sayings and just focus on whatever is appealing to us at the time.  We certainly have the option of forming Jesus into our own image and many people do. There are people who associate Jesus with their political party or within their particular worldview. But that’s not the way of Jesus.  “Narrow is the way into my Father’s kingdom,” Jesus tells us.
     No.  We are left with Jesus’ troubling question.  “Who do you say that I am?”
     I much prefer the Nicene Creed response to that question.  The theology is orthodox and it really says it all.
     Except…it’s not in my own words.  Jesus says to Robert McDowell – “I know what the Nicene Creed says…but who do you say that I am?”
     The first time that I really answered that question was when I was on the playground during recess when I was in the 3rd or 4th grade and my best friend came up to me, and out of the blue, asked me if Jesus was my Savior.  He said to me that if I invited Jesus to come into my heart that I would be able to go to heaven someday.

     Now, you need to understand that I grew up in a bible belt so these were the normal kinds of conversations, 3rd & 4th graders would have on the playground.
     And so, right there on the playground, I invited Jesus to come into my heart.
     That little experienced showed me that Jesus wants to be my Savior.
     Sometime during my middle school years, I attended a summer youth retreat with my youth group at the shore. People form the East Coast call it “going to the shore” instead of “going to the beach.” 
     I’m not “shore” why that is.
     Anyway, I went to this summer youth retreat to the shore.  Each evening, we would gather around the campfire and we would sing all of these campfire songs about Jesus.  And one of those songs was “Pass It On.” 
     “It only takes a spark, to get a fire going.  And soon all those around, can warm up in its glowing.  That’s how it is with God’s love once you’ve experienced it; you spread his love to everyone; you want to pass it on.”
     After I got home from the retreat, I felt really different.  I could feel Jesus’ love in a very real way.  I knew deep in my heart that He loved me.  I couldn’t stop singing those words over and over – “that’s how it is with God’s love once you’ve experienced it; you spread his love to everyone; you want to pass it on.”
     Not only did I feel Jesus’ love for me, but I had this desire to share God’s love with others.
     From that experience I learned that “Jesus is someone who loves all people and that you can actually feel Jesus love if you just let Jesus love you.”
     Then during my freshman year of college, things really changed for me.  My grades were bad.  I got cut from the baseball team.  I was feeling alone.
     I didn’t feel Jesus’ love anymore, let alone a spark or a fire.  And I certainly didn’t want to spread his love because I was looking for it myself.
     At that point in my life, Jesus only seemed like a nice memory from my distant past, not someone who could help me now.
     I was even angry at Jesus, angry that I didn’t know what to do with my life, angry that I felt alone, and angry at feeling rejected. This went on throughout my freshman year of college, but then something happened toward the end of my freshman year.
      I stumbled across a cassette tape of a sermon that had been delivered at a county wide Christian youth rally.  Without anything to lose, I listened to that cassette tape.  What the speaker said helped me to see Jesus in a whole new way.
     Jesus wasn’t just somebody who offered people a warm fuzzy religious experience.  It was a Jesus who offers a challenge to us.  This preacher used Luke 9:23 as his text in which Jesus says, “If any one would came after me, that person needs to deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” And this preacher went on to challenge his listeners to put their total trust in Jesus, to obey Jesus completely.
     I thought to myself, “I’ve never thought of Jesus in this way.”  I always thought that Jesus was kind of like a security blanket who offered comfort when you needed it.  I never thought of Jesus as someone who would challenge me to trust him.
     One day toward the end of my freshman year of college I made a decision to put Jesus first in my life. I told Jesus that I would totally trust him.  That day changed my life because from that day forward, I became much more aware of Jesus' presence in my life.
     I decided to quit feeling sorry for myself, and to start trusting and living for Jesus.  That led to many, many changes in my life that eventually led me into the pastoral ministry. 
     I discovered during this time that Jesus wants to be first in every area of our lives.  Jesus wants us to follow him to places that we would have never chosen to go on our own.  And the really important thing I discovered about Jesus during that time in my life was that he wants the relationship to be a two-way street. Jesus meets us where we are, but he also wants us to follow him and be willing to take our faith to a whole new level.
     I’m still learning and discovering who Jesus is.  Every day and every year and every new situation provides another opportunity for us to put Jesus first in our lives and place our trust in him. When we do that on a consistent basis, Jesus becomes more than just a warm fuzzy in our lives. Jesus becomes real. Our faith becomes real.
     I’m always interested in hearing how people view Jesus and what Jesus means to them. Hear are some responses that people in the congregation have shared with me.
     Jesus is the calm, eternal center of life. I go to him in times of distress to find peace. I pray to him to restore balance. I ask him to give me clarity in the times of confusion. He is the anchor and the seabed in the tempest-tossed waters. He blesses me again and again.
     Someone shared said that Jesus is like a compass through life. I like that. That shows a willingness to allow Jesus to guide and direct us through our faith journey.
     Another said that Jesus is like a rock, a sword, and a shield. For this person, Jesus provides safety and security.
     I like how someone referred to Jesus as a lighthouse. We need that lighthouse because we are the ship that is in need of direction and a safe harbor.
     A new church member mentioned that it’s because of Jesus that he lives each day with courage. He said that he is not fearful of the future because he knows that he will live with Jesus forever. And his  desire is for people to see Jesus in everything he does.
     Another person said that Jesus is her constant companion.
     This person says something similar. “Jesus is my friend who I talk to in the middle of the night, who always forgives me, guides me, loves me, and so much more.”
     Another person puts it this way: “Jesus is as ever present as the air I breathe and always patiently waits for me to discover his love.”
     I like how someone shared that when he was a child, he felt that Jesus was his heavenly Brother since God was his heavenly Father. As an adult, he sees Jesus as his Savior and the light showing the way on the pathway to God’s kingdom of love and forgiveness.
     Somebody else shared that when he was thirteen years old he became aware that Jesus was his Savior. As an adult, he has found Jesus to be his healer as he has helped him to survive a massive stroke. This person thanks him everyday for saving his life so that he can continue to be a witness for him.
     Those are some of the responses I received from many different people in the church when asked the big question, “Who do you say that Jesus is?”
     Gregory Nazianzus was one of the early church fathers from the fourth century. He was baptized at the age of 30 and became a Christian.  He also went on to become a great theologian. 
          Here’s how he answered the question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” He wrote:
·     He began his ministry by being hungry, yet He is the Bread of Life
·     Jesus ended His earthly ministry by being thirsty, yet He is the Living Water
·     Jesus was weary, yet He is our rest
·     Jesus paid tribute, yet He is the King
·     Jesus was accused of having a demon, yet He cast out demons
·     Jesus wept, yet He wipes away our tears
·     Jesus was sold for thirty pieces of silver, yet He redeemed the world
·     Jesus was brought as a lamb to the slaughter, yet He is the Good Shepherd
·     Jesus died, yet by His death He destroyed the power of death
     When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” 
     Later, Peter will be asked this same question in a slightly different way as he warms himself by a fire in a courtyard and with his life hanging in the balance.  “You’re one of Jesus’ disciples, aren’t you?”
     And then while standing on a sandy beach, the resurrected Christ appears to Peter and he asks him not once, not twice, but three times in a row, “Peter – do you love me?” And each time, Peter answers, “Yes, Lord you know that I love you.”
     Evidently, this ultimate question is too important to ask only once. It needs to be asked again and again and again and again.
     Who do you say that Jesus is?

The Ultimate Question
Small Group Questions
Matthew 16:13-20
August 27, 2017

Sunday's sermon focus was on Jesus' question to his disciples: "Who do you say that I am?"

Who is Jesus is to you?

The disciples' understanding of who Jesus is grew over time. They saw him as an insightful teacher, a healer, and someone who might lead the people of Israel to freedom over the Romans. Jesus' death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead forced them to see him in a much deeper way.

How has your view of Jesus changed over time?

The church provides us with many helpful ways to help us answer the question, "Who is Jesus?" One of those ways is the Nicene Creed that is found toward the back of the hymnal.

Read the Nicene Creed together and share what these statements about Jesus mean to you.

Christians have found it helpful to answer the question, "Who is Jesus?" by following certain disciplines of the Christian faith which include: participating in a small group, reading the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John) on a regular basis, attending worship, serving others in the name of Christ, and sharing in the Sacraments.

How have you grown in your understanding of who Jesus is by participating in these disciplines?