"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57
Wednesday, April 28, 2021
Sunday, April 25, 2021
Wednesday, April 21, 2021
Monday, April 19, 2021
Every once in a while, as you are driving, you pull up to a stop light, and notice that the car in front of you has a bumper sticker which has a fish symbol. It’s a way of letting you know that this person is a Christian.
I’ve always felt that this is a bold move on the part of the driver, because what happens if you are pulled over for speeding or running a red light? That would not be a very good witness.
And the worst thing would be if the driver of that car would offer some sort of negative hand gesture if somebody would cut him or her off. What kind of witness would that be?
But nevertheless, this fish symbol has been quite common among Christian motorists for some time now.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon has led to a fish symbol war pitting Darwinist minded atheists against Bible believing Christians. Never mind that Darwinism and Christianity are not mutually exclusive, but these fish wars make for some very entertaining comic relief on our highways and byways.
Once the fish symbol began to be placed on bumper stickers, it wasn’t too long before we started to see the word “Darwin” in the middle of the fish symbol. These religious bumper sticker debates can be so much fun!
But recently, I saw a bumper sticker which seems to be indicating that a truce is about to be made between this false dichotomy pitting the Christian community with the Evolutionist thinkers.
This new bumper sticker, at least new to me, has these two opposing fish symbols next to each other, apparently kissing one another as if to say, “Enough’s enough.” Or maybe, I’m reading way too much into this new peace loving bumper sticker, and all it is, is another marketing scam.
This morning, I would like us to think about the role that fish play in the Bible. Have you ever thought about just how many fish references there are in the Bible?
I find it very interesting that our Gospel reading this morning contains one of these important fish references. We find the disciples on the first Easter evening huddled together, scared, worried, and uncertain about what had happened to Jesus when they heard that the tomb was empty. They are a fearful bunch.
In this midst of this doubt and uncertainty, Jesus appears among them. And Luke is careful to tell us that they thought he was a ghost. And so Jesus proceeds to invite the disciples to actually touch him and he shows them his hands and his feet which still contain the marks of the nails from Good Friday when he died on the cross.
But these attempts prove futile, because the disciples are still confused. Maybe they are thinking that he was still a ghost. And that’s when Jesus does something that finally helps the disciples to move from disbelief to a resurrection faith. He eats a piece of broiled fish in their presence.
What better way of dispelling the whole ghost thing. This little fish eating exercise was all that these disciples needed to recall those special moments with Jesus.
I wonder if Peter’s mind flashed back to the time when Jesus got into his boat and told him, “Take this boat away from the shore and let down your nets so you can catch some fish.”
What a strange request, especially since Peter and the others had been fishing all night long without catching anything. What do you mean, “Let down your nets? This is the way fishing works Jesus. Sometimes you just don’t catch anything and some days you do. This is a ‘don’t catch fish kind of day.’” So Peter humors Jesus by taking the boat out to deeper waters to let down the net, probably looking forward to showing Jesus that he knows more about fishing than he does.
This is probably the only time a fisherman has ever hoped to not catch a single fish, just to prove a point to Jesus. “Jesus. Leave the fishing business to us. It’s pointless to let our nets down one more time.”
The funny thing about this story is that Peter didn’t just end up catching three to five fish. That alone would have proved Jesus’ point. Picture in your minds these two large nets filled from top to bottom with fish. And now picture these two nets being pulled into the boat and tearing from the huge weight of the catch.
Game, set and match. Jesus wins. I think Jesus knows something about fishing, don’t you?
And the story ends with Peter, this tough and proud fisherman falling to his knees, swallowing his pride, and acknowledging that Jesus is someone very special.
But Jesus doesn’t leave Peter on his knees along the shore. He tells him, “You hang around with me. And you’ll learn how to become fishers of men.” It was that fish story that led Peter, James and John, to leave everything and follow Jesus. How’s that for a fish story?
And as Jesus was eating that piece of broiled fish in our Gospel reading for today, I’m sure all of the disciples thought of the fish stories of all fish stories.
You remember. Jesus had been teaching and healing people one day and it was getting late in the afternoon when the twelve disciples came to Jesus with a solution for a problem.
Now, on one hand, don’t you just love it when people don’t just tell you about a problem, but when they also give you a possible solution for that problem? When people just give you a problem without a solution, it kind of leaves you flat-footed.
So hand it to the disciples. They come to Jesus not just with a problem, but with a possible solution. “Jesus, this whole day has been great. People can’t get enough of your teachings. They are responding to your message about the in-breaking of God’s kingdom and how God loves them, and cares about them. You have brought healing to the blind, the infirmed, and the diseased. But Jesus. You need to give the benediction and get these folks home. They’re getting hungry.”
Well, hand it to the disciples. They brought a solution. Just send them home. But Jesus doesn’t accept the solution. Instead, he gives them a challenge. He says, “Uh. No. You give them something to eat, right here.”
And the disciples, like good Methodists, do what comes naturally. They ask for the treasurer’s report and sure enough, there isn’t enough in the budget to feed 5,000 people.
But half jokingly, and maybe to call Jesus’ bluff, they tell Jesus what seems like an absurd and meaningless statement. “Actually, we do have five loaves and two fish leftover from yesterday.” Can you hear the nervous laughter of the disciples after they say this? “C’mon Jesus. Enough’s enough. Let’s get practical and get these people home.”
“No. I want you to have them sit down in groups of fifty and I’ll take it from there.”
And from there, Jesus offers a prayer of thanksgiving to God and Luke tells us that they all ate and were satisfied.
The exclamation point in that story is that, not only were 5,000 people fed with five loaves and two fish, but the disciples ended up collecting twelve baskets full of leftovers.
“Jesus – you proved yourself again. We really didn’t think you could pull it off. You really are someone special, aren’t you?”
We know that sometime around the middle of the 2nd century, a little over a hundred years after the time of Christ, the early church began using the symbol of the fish to express their belief in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, hence the fish bumper stickers that we see on the back of cars.
The early Christians realized that not only are there several fish stories in the Gospel accounts, the word “fish” actually makes a very nice acrostic in summarizing the Christian faith.
The Greek word for fish is “Ichthys” and those Greek letters also served as an acrostic which provided those early Christians with a reminder of the the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Those letters spell out the words, “Jesus Christ, God, Son, Savior.” “Jesus Christ, God, Son, Savior.” Say that with me. “Jesus Christ, God, Son, Savior.”
So whenever the Christians of the early church used that fish symbol, they were in effect saying, “We believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and the Savior of the world.”
When people become followers of Jesus, this is the basic statement of faith they are making. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and the Savior of the world.
Back to our Gospel reading. After Jesus eats that piece of broiled fish, which no doubt reminded those disciples of the many fish stories they had shared together, he then gives the disciples a new name. He calls them witnesses. “You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus tells them.
We’re not just church members. We are primarily known as witnesses. Witnesses that Jesus has been raised from the dead and is alive today.
Some will find this hard to believe and they will say… “This all sounds a little “fishy.”
But don’t worry about what people might think when you say that Jesus is alive. Just remember what Luke tells us.
Jesus says, “we are witnesses.”
Sunday, April 18, 2021
Wednesday, April 14, 2021
Monday, April 12, 2021
Poor Thomas. All the poor guy wants is a little physical proof and he ends up getting stuck with the label, "doubting Thomas."
Who gave him this name? All it takes is one person to give someone a label and the rest is history. Good or bad. Is it fair to remember somebody by one incident?
And yet we remember Thomas by this story in John 19. And ironically, it’s because of his statement of faith in verse 28 of this chapter that would later help the early church to formulate the doctrine of the deity of Jesus Christ.
Outside of what the scriptures tells us about Thomas, tradition tells us that he risked his life by using money that was supposed to be used for building a palace for an Indian King and instead he gave that money to the poor. Never mind that tradition also tells us that Thomas was eventually speared to death for his faith in Jesus Christ, joining several of the other disciples in becoming martyrs.
And so, it’s unfortunate that we remember him as Doubting Thomas. History can be so unforgiving and selective when it comes to remembering someone's life.
Our Gospel reading this morning invites us to ask the question, “Is there any room for doubt in the Christian faith?”
A woman asked Bertrand Russell, the world’s best known atheist at the time, what he would say if it turned out he had been wrong and found himself standing outside of the Pearly Gates. His eyes lighting up, Russell replied, “I would simply say, ‘God, you gave us insufficient evidence!”
Maybe that answer is fitting for an atheist, but what about for those of us who do profess faith – is there a place for doubt in our lives?
Christian author, Philip Yancey shares this story from his book, “Reaching for the Invisible God.” He writes that Peter De Vries, the product of a strict Calvinist home and undergraduate studies at Calvin College went on to write novels about the loss of faith. One of his characters could not forgive God for not existing – words that explain much of De Vries’s own God obsessed work.
His novel, “The Blood of the Lamb,” tells of Don Wanderhope, father of an eleven year old girl who contracts Leukemia. Just as the bone marrow begins to respond to treatment and she approaches remission, an infection sweeps through the ward and kills her.
Wanderhope, who has brought in a cake with his daughter’s name on it, leaves the hospital, returns to the church where he prayed for her healing, and hurls the cake at the crucifix hanging in front of the church. The cake hits just below the crown of thorns, and brightly colored icing drips down Jesus’ face of stone.
In referencing this story, author Philip Yancey goes on to say that one of the reasons he remains a Christian is not so much that he can explain away tragic stories such as this one, but because of a lack of good alternatives. He goes on to write, “The only thing more difficult than having a relationship with an invisible God is having no such relationship.”
When our daughter was in High School, she would often accompany me on pastoral visits. One of those visits was with a young girl in the hospital who was about to begin chemo treatments. We shared in a prayer together in her hospital room and we told her that the church was lifting her in prayer.
As we left that room, I couldn’t help but to wonder why God would allow this beautiful little girl to suffer through chemo treatments, when she should be at home enjoying life. I know that none of us can ever fully know the whys, but it’s good to know that we are allowed to shake our fists at God sometimes. That was one of those times.
I remember a time when I sat in the living room of a couple who had recently attended the funeral of their 57 year old daughter. As you can imagine, the death of their daughter had left them feeling very empty and sad. And I’m glad that they didn’t pull any punches when I met with them that day. They said, “We just can’t understand why God would have allowed this.” I told them that even though I didn’t have any answers for them, that it was good that they were expressing their true feelings with God.
I’m actually glad that the disciple Thomas was honest enough to tell the other disciples who had the advantage of seeing the risen Lord, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
And how could we ever put Thomas down for a statement like this when we already know that the rest of the disciples had locked themselves in a room because they were afraid that the Jewish authorities would be coming after them. That doesn’t sound like an Easter faith to me. That sounds more like the kind of faith I have many times. Fear. Worry. And doubt.
The good news in our scripture is that the risen Christ returned to this same place and this time Thomas was with them. Jesus enters the room and says, “Peace be with you.” By the way, isn’t this a wonderful way to begin a meeting? To remind people that even in the midst of our doubts, questions, and uncertainties, that God’s peace is with us.
And then we have this dramatic scene where Jesus turns to Thomas and invites Thomas to actually touch the wounds of his body to help him move from doubt to belief. I always find it interesting that John never specifically says that Thomas actually touched those wounds. But he does tell us that Thomas responded with a powerful statement of faith, “My Lord and my God!”
And then we have the ending of the Gospel. John writes, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
John wrote his Gospel for those of us who did not have the opportunity to physically see and touch the resurrected Lord. But notice how our scripture reading concludes.
I have this image in my mind where Jesus turns his head away from the disciples and looks into a the video camera and turns his attention to us. He looks at you and me in that camera and says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And if you think about, Jesus does bless us if our hearts are open to see his presence in our day to day living.
Like the day when I was visiting one of our conference’s mission sites where volunteers from a several of our United Methodist churches serve at a soup kitchen and a free clothing store. Someone in our group that day asked the volunteers and staff members who work there, “How do you keep your faith strong when you’re working in this kind of impoverished and dangerous environment?”
And one of the workers responded by saying that they keep their faith strong by realizing that they are helping one person at a time. This worker pointed at another volunteer sitting next to her and said, “This woman sitting here next to me is the reason that my faith stays strong. Thanks to God’s grace and this mission site, this person has been able to find a better life for herself and for her children and she has been able to break free of poverty. She now has her own home, and while it may be a very modest home, it is still a big step forward for her.”
I left that mission site thinking feeling so blessed. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
I received this personal letter one year. It was right after we had celebrated Easter Sunday.
“Pastor Robert, You may remember me. I visited your church several times now, but have not been able to since January, due to some very difficult days in my life. The chemo given to me beginning in January has caused some difficult side effects. Also, we experienced the sudden death of one of our sons in February. I’ve enclosed the memorial folder from his service which was most uplifting. So…as I said, we’ve had difficult times of late. Time heals, they say – we’re relying on that. Our son’s death has not diminished my faith at all for he was a child of God and it is clear (the word “clear” is underlined) it is clear to me where he is now. This brings me much comfort. Easter blessings!” And then she signed her name.
How has this woman been able to stay strong in her faith? She has believed without seeing.
Our reading from the Book of Acts, tells us about how Peter boldly proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ to the people of Jerusalem. The disciples were able to move from their betrayals, and their denials and become the bold witnesses that Jesus had called them to be.
They were still people who had doubts – but now they had the power of the Holy Spirit at work in their lives. They were given an assurance that Jesus would always be with them.
These past several months, stretching now to more than a year have been so challenging, heart-wrenching, and difficult. We have seen so much sickness and death in our nation and world because of COVID19.
Maybe we can identify with Thomas who needed some assurance that Jesus had truly risen from the dead. We long to know that there is life in the midst of so much pain and brokenness in our world. And today, we have this Gospel reading about Thomas and his doubts and how he came to a deeper faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
T.S. Eliot once said, “These are only hints and guesses, Hints followed by guesses; and the rest is prayer, observance, discipline, thought, and action.”
Prayer, observance, discipline, thought, and action. And yet through these things, Jesus offers us his peace and blessings.
I was listening to the news one day which was even more depressing than usual and was feeling really down because of it. You could say that I was in need of a blessing in that moment, some sign that the Risen Christ was present in the midst of so much sadness in the world.
And that’s when I received a phone call from some dear friends who just had their baby. They said it was a girl. And they were naming her, “Grace.” Mom and baby Grace were all healthy and doing well. What a beautiful name. Grace. You know, we all need a little grace now and then.
These hints and guesses remind us that the Risen Christ continues to say to each one of us, “Peace be with you.”
Peace Be With You
Sunday, April 11, 2021
Wednesday, April 7, 2021
Monday, April 5, 2021
During these past several weeks of the season of Lent, we have been looking at different spiritual challenges that we all face in our lives. These challenges relate to our identity, our trust, our passion, our healing, our focus, and our humility. We’ve been calling these “wilderness challenges” because Jesus faced the challenge of being in the wilderness for forty days at the beginning of his ministry.
On this Easter Sunday, our Gospel reading for today offers us another challenge. It’s the challenge of our belief and specifically, our belief in the resurrection of Jesus.
A while back, I heard someone direct this sobering question to preachers: “You’d all be surprised how many people in your churches really struggle in believing that God exists, compared to those who say they’re believers. They might not admit it, but for many, they find it really difficult to believe. Trust me. They’re in your pews. They are looking for a church that welcomes their questions and doubts and one that doesn’t judge them.”
So this observation has been on my mind as I worked on this Easter sermon. And I got to thinking. How many people might be struggling to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead? And in particular, how many church type people, the “go to church every single Sunday church member” who attends, but finds it difficult to believe in the resurrection, what many would say is a central claim of the Christian faith.
So, obviously, as a preacher, I would like to think that everybody is a believer in the resurrection. But here’s the thing. If we all simply believe this story without any questions or doubts, than that leads me to wonder if we might be missing the explosive nature of this story.
In John’s telling of that early Easter morning, he wants us to see that even the first people who encountered the empty tomb were far from ready to sing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” They needed some time to process what they were experiencing.
For those first visitors to the empty tomb which included Mary Magdalene, Peter, and the other disciple who is unnamed in our Gospel reading, they weren’t prepared for resurrection to happen. They knew, as we know today, that when people die, they don’t come back to life.
During the time of Jesus, there were some Jews who believed that there would be a resurrection of God’s people at the end of time, what they referred to as the end of the age and the beginning of God’s kingdom here on earth, but they had no belief that resurrection could happen to only one person before the end of time. Even though Jesus hinted to them that he would be raised on the third day, they still didn’t see this coming.
So this is why we find Mary Magdalene early on Easter morning running from the tomb to tell two of the disciples that somebody had stolen Jesus’ body from the tomb. Not exactly what we would call an Easter faith. It wasn’t until Mary returned to the tomb and saw the resurrected Lord that she came to believe.
When Peter and the other disciple arrive to the tomb, they realize that Mary had it right. No body to be found, just some grave clothes. We are told that the other disciple “saw and believed,” but what does that even mean? Does it mean that he believed what Mary told them that the body had been stolen, or does it mean that he believed that Jesus was resurrected? Kind of cryptic. And then, we are given this mystifying comment that these two disciples simply went back to their homes.
You get the impression after listening to this story that the gospel writer is giving us permission to respond to Easter in a variety of ways. Maybe for you, you need time to process it like Mary whose first thought was that somebody had stolen the body. Or maybe you can relate to the two disciples who saw the empty tomb but it’s a little unclear what conclusions they were making.
Or maybe you identify more with Mary when she returns to the tomb weeping only to encounter the Risen Lord and shout with joy, “Rabbi!” And like Mary, you can’t wait to leave this sanctuary and tell others about this joyous moment that you’ve experienced. You can’t wait to share what a powerful Easter service we had today.
There are all kinds of levels of belief in this powerful moment, and the same is true for us as well.
Flannery O’Connor, the highly acclaimed 20th century American short stories novelist was a Roman Catholic who often included the Christian faith in her stories about the Deep South. At age 19 when she was a college student, she kept a private prayer journal.
Here is what she wrote for her first prayer reflection:
“Dear God, I cannot love thee the way I want. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon.”
Her prayer entries are often filled with spiritual questions rather than with satisfying answers. In some journal entries, she prays for spiritual trust. She prays for forgiveness. And then Flannery O’Connor writes this insightful line in her prayer journal, “Please help me to get down under things and find where You are.”
Even though she was a person of faith, Flannery O’Connor was willing to wrestle with the mystery of God and questions about her faith. I wonder if we have lost some of this curiosity where we approach faith thinking that the goal is to have absolute certainty where we remove doubts and questions altogether.
When I arrived at seminary fresh out of college, my hopes were high. To be honest, I was wondering what an academic institution of higher learning would offer someone like me who already had a strong belief in God. Little did I know that my faith was about to be suddenly rattled by the remarks of one of the seminary professors at our first day of orientation.
This wise New Testament scholar offered us this analogy which I continue to remember to this day. He said, “Think of your faith as a brick building. Our job at the seminary is to blow up your building and then help you reassemble the bricks so that you will leave from here with an even stronger and more well-rounded faith.”
I remember shaking my head and thinking to myself, “Yeah. Whatever. Don’t be messing with my bricks. They’re fine the way they are.”
It was only a few months into my first year of seminary, that I began to realize the importance of that brick building analogy. Not only was I being introduced to a variety of biblical and theological perspectives that l never knew even existed, but I was also meeting other seminary students who represented a variety of faith experiences and backgrounds so different from my own.
Professors were challenging our long held assumptions and had the audacity to make us think and rethink and then think again! That professor at orientation was right. My faith was beginning to blow up brick by brick. I was feeling unsettled, anxious, and even angry at times. I’m not sure when I started to finally begin feeling like the bricks were starting to get reassembled, but I remember leaving seminary with a deep appreciation for that experience as difficult as it was at times.
I think we are constantly facing the wilderness challenge of belief. As we go through life, we encounter new situations and new experiences. We meet people and hear how their faith perspectives are different or similar from our own. Maybe we go to a bible study or read a book about the Bible that forces us to rethink our long held assumptions. This is what it means to learn, grow, discover, and rethink our faith.
These times of growth can be unsettling at times, just as unsettling as it was for Mary when she first discovered that the tomb was empty. Mary had a strong belief before she arrived at the empty tomb, but an even greater one after she had seen the Risen Lord.
Mary and the other two disciples would go on to share the good news of Easter with others. There would be more for them to learn and discover about their faith even after that surprising Sunday morning. And this is true for us as well.
Maybe the more important question about the wilderness challenge of our belief isn’t so much if we can recite the Apostles’ Creed by heart, how many years we have attended church. Maybe it’s more about how we live out our faith in the best way we know how however strong our beliefs may be.
Maybe the real test of our belief comes down to this question that I came across on Twitter recently. This person asked the question, “Do you want to know if you’re a Christian?” And then offered this insightful answer to his own question: “Just ask your neighbor.”
Wilderness Challenges - Our Belief