Honest Doubt

Honest Doubt

The first written reference to the resurrection is in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

For I handed on to you what I had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised from the dead on the third day, and that he appeared to Peter, then to the Twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time.  Then he appeared to James, then to all of the apostles.  Last of all he appeared also to me.

Nowhere in the gospels is there a record of an appearance to more than 500 brothers and sisters at one time, unless perhaps our scripture this morning is a memory of that mass appearance made by the risen Christ.  The location where Jesus met with the disciples in the last chapter of Matthew was in Galilee on a mountain top.  The particular mountain was not specified, although according to tradition there were two possible locations, Mt. Tabor and Mt. Hermon.  Mt. Tabor is a sort of Monte Sano size mountain in the Jezreel Valley in southern Galilee.

Mt. Hermon in northern Galilee rises to over 9,000 feet above sea level.  Either location would have provided a safe place away from the watchful eyes of the authorities for a group of 500 or more subversive peasants to gather.

The followers of Jesus climbed the mountain and the risen Christ appeared to them, and what did the disciples see?  Our scripture doesn’t give us much of a clue, just one verse 17:  17  And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted.

I am always struck by that verse.  “And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted.”  Whatever the followers of Jesus saw that day must not have been as plain as the nose on your face.  Despite his appearance there was still room for doubt, honest doubt.  Some among them couldn’t believe their eyes or their ears.  Jesus appeared to them and spoke to them, and still they doubted.

I take some comfort from this passage, because people who were closest to Jesus, followed him, heard him teach and witnessed the miracles around him, even they had honest doubts.  Mother Teresa had doubts, even while she was doing great good work for Jesus.  Sometimes we are tempted to think, if only I could have been with him then, listened to Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount, watched him heal a leper, touched the hem of his garment, then I would see and believe.  But here we have a report that followers of Jesus who had every opportunity to know him, to listen to him, to follow him, to witness his miracles, when they saw with their own eyes the Risen Christ, they had honest doubts.

So what does this mean for our faith?  First, I think it means we have to give up the Tinker Bell faith.  Remember in the play Peter Pan, when we were supposed to help Tinker Bell recover, and we were supposed to clap our hands and say, “I do believe in fairies, I do believe in fairies, I do believe in fairies?”  The path to greater faith is not clapping our hands and repeating:  “I do believe in Jesus, I do believe in Jesus, I do believe in Jesus.”

We don’t increase our faith by insisting that we have to believe everything in the Bible is literally true, or praying certain prayers, or reciting creeds, or listening to Christian music all day long.  No, the way to a more mature and stronger faith is to follow the way of Jesus.  Do the things Jesus asked us to do.  You know the hard things like, “love one another as I have loved you.”  Love God and love your neighbor.  Share with each other.  Don’t judge one another.  Practice radical hospitality and egalitarian table fellowship.  Turn the other cheek.  If your neighbor needs food, feed him.  If your neighbor is cold, give him a coat or a blanket.  If your neighbor is homeless, help him find shelter.  Turn the other cheek and while you’re at it, pray for your enemies.  Check your ego at the door, and consider other people to be as important as yourselves.  If you would be greatest in the Commonwealth of God, you must become as children.  Understand that God is God and you are not.

That’s part of the problem with Jesus he says, “come follow me,” and then he wants us to do all of this hard stuff.  But doing the hard stuff is the path to more mature faith.  Now it is true that prayer and worship can support us in doing the hard stuff.  Prayer helps us connect with that divine energy source that can help re-program and reshape our unconscious thoughts and desires.  And joining a community of faith, where we have good spiritual friends, who will help hold us accountable to doing the hard stuff is essential to our spiritual formation.  Asking people to pray with us and for us allows God to speak to us through other people.  Living out our faith in a community of love is part of God’s gift to us to follow in the way of Jesus.

Jesus and the faith community will even help us with our physical health as well as our spiritual health.  Jesus was a healer.  What are the three most common prescriptions offered by physicians?  Exercise, lose weight, and change your diet.  We can ask good spiritual friends to pray with us for weight lose and exercise with us to help us in our efforts to achieve better health.  If we give our spiritual friends permission, they can even help us to be accountable about our diets.  As we learn to offer thanksgivings daily for our blessings, we improve our psychological and spiritual outlook, becoming more optimistic and lifting depression.  Also, when people pray, miracles happen.  Our faith community can be a powerful agent of healing.

And remember it doesn’t require perfect faith to make a miracle.  Consider the father of the epileptic boy.  He asked Jesus to help his son.  He said, “If you can do anything please help us.”

And Jesus said, “If you can?  All things are possible to those who believe.”

And the poor distressed Father responded, “I believe, but help my unbelief.”  And that was enough faith to heal his son.  So remember even faith mixed with doubt has the power to work miracles.

Jesus also offers us hope that reaches beyond this life.  If for this life only we have hoped in Christ we are of all people most to be pitied.  The resurrection of Jesus is a message to all who follow him that not even death can separate us from the love of God.  None of us will get out of here alive, but we are assured that this life is not the final answer.  How do I know that?  I don’t.  That’s why it is important to know that God has room for honest doubt, just like those followers on that mountain top so long ago who even saw and heard the risen Christ and still doubted.  But let me tell you this, even though I have my honest doubts, the more I follow Jesus, the more I do some of the hard stuff Jesus asks me to do, the more I pray and seek to be accountable with good spiritual friends, the more I am learning to trust.  Ultimately faith is about trust.  Going ahead and doing what we are called to do even in the face of our doubts.

Let me share with you a story about the great 20th century preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, who pastored Riverside Church in New York City.  As a young man just out of seminary Fosdick was plagued by doubts.  He wanted to believe, but he found contradictions in the scriptures, and sometimes it seemed to him that the message of Jesus, just wasn’t realistic in a dog eat dog world.  You know that argument some people like to use, Jesus’ teaching is all well and good, but it just isn’t very realistic.

So Fosdick went to visit his spiritual mentor, an older pastor, who invited him to his summer retreat.  As they sat beside the ocean Fosdick poured out all of his doubts to the older minister.  Finally his mentor said, “Harry you worry about too many things.  You don’t have to give up any of your doubts.  But here is what I want you to do.  I want you to live as if the way of Jesus is true for one year.  And after that year, you will have your answer.”  So Fosdick went back to his church, and he began trying to live as if the way of Jesus is true.  It wasn’t easy.  As we’ve said, Jesus asks us to do some hard things.  But after a year, Fosdick had learned to trust, and he had his answer.

And so I make the same suggestion this morning.  If your doubts seem to get in your way, don’t deny your doubts, but live as if the way of Jesus is true for one year, and you will have your answer.  Pray, worship, and love one another as Jesus has loved us.  Love God and love our neighbors.  Share with each other.  Don’t judge one another.  Practice radical hospitality and egalitarian table fellowship.  Turn the other cheek.  If our neighbor needs food, feed him.  If our neighbor is cold, give him a coat or a blanket.  If our neighbor is homeless, help him find shelter.  Turn the other cheek and while we’re at it, let’s pray for our enemies, even the people we are angry or irritated with.  Let’s check our egos at the door, and consider other people to be as important as ourselves.  If we would be greatest in the Commonwealth of God, we must become as children.  Understand that God is God and we are not.  And even faith mixed with honest doubt has the power to transform lives and work miracles.

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Bible Study 4.30.12, 5.3.12, 5.6.12 For Worship 5.13.12

Bible Study 4.30.12, 5.3.12, 5.6.12 For Worship 5.13.12

Acts 5:12-29

 

Acts 5:12 Now many signs and wonders were done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico.

13 None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high honor.

14 And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women,

15 so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and pallets, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them.

16 The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.

17 But the high priest rose up and all who were with him, that is, the party of the Sadducees, and filled with jealousy

18 they arrested the apostles and put them in the common prison.

19 But at night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out and said,

20 “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.”

21 And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and taught. Now the high priest came and those who were with him and called together the council and all the senate of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought.

22 But when the officers came, they did not find them in the prison, and they returned and reported,

23 “We found the prison securely locked and the sentries standing at the doors, but when we opened it we found no one inside.”

24 Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were much perplexed about them, wondering what this would come to.

25 And someone came and told them, “The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people.”

26 Then the captain with the officers went and brought them, but without violence, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people.

27 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them,

28 saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”

29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.

COMMENTARY

The followers of Jesus were still centered on the temple. Last week Peter healed a lame man who had been begging at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple for years, because the disciples were still going to the Temple to pray the hours. There was no denying this healing. Everyone had known the lame man at the gate of the Temple, and now he was walking. News about new healing therapies travels fast even in the 21st century. In the First Century world where there were fewer treatment options, news of miraculous healing spread like wild fire. People were bringing their sick friends and relatives to the disciples in hopes of a healing.

In our lesson this week the followers of Jesus were gathering on Solomon’s porch to preach the good news of Jesus. Solomon’s porch was a covered portico on the south side of the Temple compound in the court of the Gentiles, where many rabbis and religious teachers hung out. We can imagine the High Priests fretting over these followers of the Nazarene. After all they thought they had stamped out this Jesus thing, and here were his followers right there in the Temple Courts preaching in his name. Worse people were bringing sick people to the followers of Jesus for healing. It was clear to the Sadducees things were getting out of hand. It was time to move in on these Jesus people. So they sent the Temple Police to arrest all of the followers of Jesus who were on Solomon’s Porch that day and threw them in the common prison, even roughed them up a bit. The High Priests may have figured allowing the disciples to cool their heels in prison might put the fear of the Temple into them. In the middle of the night, however, according to the text, an angel came and let the disciples out of the prison and told them to go stand in the courts of the temple and preach the gospel.

Maybe it was an angel. I am tempted to think it might have been a Jewish sympathizer, who out of guilt or resentment against the High Priests for the death of Jesus, chose to risk himself to set the disciples free. Either way, the disciples were there in the morning in the Temple Courts preaching. Meanwhile the High Priests were convening the council to hear the case of these troublesome Jesus people. But when they sent for the prisoners, the prisoners weren’t there. What an embarrassment! And the prisoners hadn’t just escaped they were back at it preaching in the courts of the Temple! I can imagine there was a lot of finger pointing, shrugging and general embarrassment in front of the whole Sanhedrin.

When the assembly was informed that the disciples were back in the Temple preaching, the captain of the guard and his functionaries went to arrest them. We should not they did so “without violence,” because they were afraid of being stoned by the people. We should note this indicates the disciples were building up some of the same kind of support Jesus enjoyed at the beginning of the Holy Week.

When the disciples were brought before the Sanhedrin they were asked why they were continuing to preach, when they had been told not to preach, and Peter, inspired with new courage answered: “We must obey God rather than men.”

Living by faith can be scary especially when our actions threaten those who are in control and authority. Living in a democracy is a rare privilege, but all we have to do is look at places like China, Russia, Syria, Iran to see the kinds of oppression those members of the early church were facing. As the early church began to experience some success in their ministry the authorities tried to intimidate them with arrest, jail, beatings.

Even though for the most part we do not face life threatening intimidation our livelihoods can often be threatened, when we commit truth. This can be true for whistle blowers and even clergy. The corporations will stop at almost nothing to protect their power, and now that the Supreme Court has guaranteed the Corporations the unlimited use of their money to dominate the media, we have to work incredibly hard just to make sure the truth gets a hearing. Hopefully the church can be an arena, where truth can be spoken. There will always be complaints that we can’t discuss politics in church. And certainly we need to be carefully identified with any partisan political side, but we still have to speak the truth, even if that means contradicting the conservative falsehood machine. We can use social media. We need to work very hard to spread the Progressive Christian gospel.

LET’S ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF THE TEXT

1. Where were the apostles hanging out to perform their ministry?

2. Of what activities did their ministry consist?

3. How was general public opinion running about the disciples?

4. What about the disciple’s ministry seemed to attract the most attention?

5. How did the Temple authorities react to the disciples and their ministry?

6. When the disciples were arrested, where were they kept?

7. What happened in the night?

8. Where did the disciples go the next day?

9. When the Temple authorities tried to convene a hearing to consider the case of the disciples, what did they find?

10. When asked why they were disobeying the High Priest, what was Peter’s answer?

LET’S ALLOW THE TEXT TO ASK QUESTIONS OF US

1. Why do you think the disciples were centering their ministry on the Temple?

2. Ultimately where would the church find the most fertile ground for its message?

3. Do you see any message in this passage for the church today?

4. Do you see any parallels between the Temple authorities trying to silence the disciples and our current situation today?

5. What role do you think the faith community can have in health care and healing?

6. How do you think the disciples got out of prison?

7. What do you think the situation looked like, when it was discovered that the disciples weren’t in the prison, where they were supposed to be?

8. What do you think empowered Peter’s courage to be able to talk back to the High Priest?

9. Have you ever felt intimidated by the authorities?

10. Have you ever felt that your life or your livelihood was threatened?

11. What issues or issues might inspire you to speak out against authority?

12. Can you think of “political issues,” the church should be speaking about?


What’s It To You?

What’s It to You?

One of the charming and very human aspects of the Gospels is the followers of Jesus never seemed to grow up. Remember the story when the disciples were walking on the road and Jesus overheard them arguing about who was the greatest among them. When they got to their destination, just to make his point, Jesus asked them all to sit down, and then he asked them, “what were you discussing on the road?” But according to the text they all hung their heads in shame and were silent. So Jesus summoned a child to stand in the middle of the circle, and he said, “whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the Commonwealth of God.”

Wow, what a lesson. But did the disciples seem to learn anything? The night of the Last Supper, while Jesus was trying to tell them he was going to be arrested and executed, what were the disciples discussing? They were arguing about who was going to be the Prime Minister, and the Secretary of State, and Treasury Secretary, when Jesus was crowned King. Such childish behavior. And these were people who had Jesus right there to show them the way.

In our scripture from John this morning after the resurrection the disciples still didn’t get it. The setting was Galilee. The disciples were at loose ends about what they should do. O.K. the tomb was empty, but what were the followers of Jesus supposed to do?

Sometimes when we have suffered a trauma, we just want to do something from our ordinary routine, something mundane. Peter says to some of the other followers of Jesus, “I’m going fishing. Who’s going with me?” Thomas, Nathanial, James, John, somebody else, and that mysterious figure, the one called the beloved disciple all pile into the boat, and they set out on the lake at night.

When Beth and I first traveled to Israel, we stayed in a hotel in Tiberias right on the Sea of Galilee. At night we could see fishermen out on the lake in their boats with lights and torches to attract the fish. I felt like I had stepped back in time.

Peter and the gang were out on the Lake all night, and didn’t catch a thing – not even an old tire. About first light they noticed a figure on shore who was calling to them to cast their net on the right side of the boat. When they did, they encompassed a shoal of fish so large it almost broke the nets. When they dragged the net to shore they had 153 large fish.

When the disciples had netted the fish, Peter said, “that’s Jesus,” and he jumped into the water and waded to shore. When the others arrived, they found a fire with fish roasting and bread baking. They all had breakfast with Jesus.

After eating Jesus beckoned to Peter to walk with him along the shore. Jesus asked Peter, “do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord,” Peter replied.

“Then feed my sheep,” Jesus said.

They walked a little further, and Jesus turned and looked squarely at Peter and asked, “Peter do you love me?”

“Of course, I love you, Lord.”

“Then tend my lambs.”

They walked down the shoreline a little further, where the little hot spring empties into the lake. In the cold dawn the water was wonderfully warm on their feet with just the faint smell of sulpher in the air. Just as Peter had denied knowing Jesus three times on that awful night before his crucifixion, so for the third time Jesus looked Peter right in the eyes and asked again, “Peter do you love me?”

Exasperated, Peter almost pleaded, “Lord you know everything, you know that I love you.”

“Then you know what to do, feed my sheep.”

I hope we can all recognize this scripture is a metaphor intended for us. Jesus is asking all of us, “Do you love me?”

And Jesus is waiting for a response. Do we love Jesus? And Jesus’ answer to Peter is also his answer to all of us, “you know what to do, feed my sheep.”

The Risen Christ had taken Peter, given him special attention, forgiven him, loved him, and given him a mission. And just then Peter turned around and saw that mysterious figure only known to us as the “beloved disciple.” And all of Peter’s childish jealousy and resentment bubbled up from the depths of his being and cried, “Lord what about him. Why do you like him best?”

And Jesus responded, “Peter what’s it to you. I love him in the way that I love him. I love you in the way that I love you. I’ve given you a mission to perform, now come follow me.”

I recite this story again, because so often in the church we are as childish as Peter and the other disciples. We want appreciation. We want recognition. We want attention. We want our own way. We argue about what songs to sing, and what hymnal to sing from, and who is going to be in charge. We get our feelings hurt, when we are criticized, and we often fight, rather than working out our differences. Jesus invites us to the sharing table and we are argue about who is going to be in control. Jesus says, “feed my sheep,” and we let our egos get in the way. We assume because we’re the smartest people in the room that surely God intends for us to do something more important than serve other people. But sometimes what God needs from us is to love others in very mundane ways – take someone to a doctor’s appointment, help someone with their groceries, share a pot of soup or a casserole, or just sitting and really listening.

Sometimes we even become angry with God and resentful of our fellow followers of Jesus. God why don’t you bless me like you bless those other people? Why can’t I be charming and pretty, or healthy and strong, or even rich? Why don’t you let me have my way? God why do you like them better than you like me?

We’re not much different than those first followers of Jesus. We want the love, peace and understanding that comes from following Jesus, but we are still wounded children at heart. None of us get out of childhood unscathed. We all carry with us some of the anxiety of our families of origin. We all have little unredeemed corners of our souls we are as yet unwilling to offer up to the healing redeeming touch of Christ. We could be better for having been worse, but that would mean we would have to be willing to change. And change is so hard, so difficult. We just want to remain the way we are. And God assures us that we are loved just as we are. But Jesus loves us so much, he doesn’t want to leave us just the way we are. Jesus wants to help us to be transformed by God’s love, so we can become the loving, caring, liberated people God created us to be.

Allow me to borrow some thoughts from a Methodist church consultant by the name of Dan Dick about working with childish behavior in ourselves and in the church.

Nothing is less charming than an over-tired child. The surly, cranky, selfish, off-putting behavior of exhausted children can try the patience of even the most saintly adult. I save this for last because in over twenty years of mediation and conflict work I believe that exhaustion and burn out are the leading causes of unpleasant, childish behavior in congregations. People bicker, and snipe, and snark, and argue, and insult each other because they don’t have anything more interesting or exciting to do. Any change will require effort, and many in the church are “too tired” to face any significant challenge.

In those cases, what is needed is a time out. But rather than make everyone go sit in a corner or lay their heads down on a desk, people in church leadership most often need retreat, silence, time to pray, to talk about their faith (not the demands of the institutional church), to discuss scripture, to vision, to listen, and to go outside and play for awhile. I regularly recommend a moratorium on meetings — suggesting that congregations that feel stuck take a few months off, replacing business meetings with Bible study, problem-solving with prayer, and planning with play. Shifting the focus from the task to rebuilding relationships helps people to remember why they come to church in the first place. Putting God and each other back in the center offers an opportunity to recover some childlike grace — building trust, loyalty, imagination, a sense of adventure and play — and to escape some of the drudgery that leads to childish acting out — bullying, fighting, protecting turf, and just plain old crankiness.

So friends, as we head into the rigors of a Capital Campaign, let’s be sure we take enough time to breathe. Deep breathing prayer helps to control the anxiety that is the enemy of faith. Taking time for retreat, silence, time to pray, opportunities to discuss the scripture, to walk with Jesus, to listen, to go outside and play. Maybe we need a summer moratorium on meetings, a little time off to renew relationships, to rediscover why Jesus calls us into the life of the community of faith. Let’s make a commitment to one another to set aside our anxiety about how the bills are going to get paid, and whether or not the church is going to survive, and how the numbers are doing, and instead let’s offer up all that anxiety in prayer. Let’s ask God to walk with us, and one by one offer up to Jesus’ healing touch those little unredeemed corners of our souls. So that God might transform all of us into the loving, caring, liberated people God created us to be.


Bible Study 4.23.12, 4.26.12, 4.29.12 For Worship 5.6.12

Bible Study 4.23.12, 4.26.12, 4.29.12 For Worship 5.6.12

Acts 3:1-10

Acts 3:1 Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour.

2 And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at that gate of the temple which is called Beautiful to ask alms of those who entered the temple.

3 Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked for alms.

4 And Peter directed his gaze at him, with John, and said, “Look at us.”

5 And he fixed his attention upon them, expecting to receive something from them.

6 But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”

7 And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.

8 And leaping up he stood and walked and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.

9 And all the people saw him walking and praising God,

10 and recognized him as the one who sat for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

COMMENTARY

According to tradition initially the early church stayed in Jerusalem. Apparently in the beginning they believed that Jesus was coming back any day, and they wanted to be in Jerusalem to welcome him. They probably believed that the cosmic Christ would also bring an army of angels to establish the reign of God, and then they would be appointed Prime Minister, and Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Secretary of the Interior etc. Slowly but surely they began to figure out that Jesus wasn’t physically coming back any time soon. Jesus was with them in the breaking of the bread. Jesus was also with them in the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was with them as they began to continue his ministry of feeding and healing people. Our story today comes not too long after the experience of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit surprised them all, showing up when they least expected it, and rather than bringing back Jesus, the Holy Spirit propelled the disciples out into the streets to share the good news of Jesus. This passage is about the very first time one of the followers of Jesus became the agent of healing after the death of Jesus.

Of course the hero of the story is Peter. Feed my sheep. Heal my lambs Peter. Peter had failed Jesus, of course no worse than any of the other disciples, but he had failed Jesus, and now Peter was going to lead the community of faith into a whole new ministry – healing.

At this point the disciples were still going each day to the Temple in order to pray. Peter and John were going into the Temple at the “hour of prayer,” the afternoon hour of prayer about 3 p.m. In the Jewish practice of praying the hours, 3 p.m. is still one of the important hours of prayer, and you can see people rushing through the streets of the old City in order to pray at the Western Wall.

There is some question about what gate in the story is the “Beautiful Gate.” There was a gate inside the temple leading to the court of the men that was called the Beautiful Gate, but some scholars believe a more propitious place for a beggar to sit and ask for alms would have been at the main gate on the south side of the temple next to the Hulda Gates, where there would have been more traffic. This would seem to be more in keeping with the phrase “to ask alms of those who entered the temple.”

The beggar sees Peter and John and asks for a hand out. Peter makes eye contact with the beggar. We should remember that most people do not make eye contact with beggars. Even people who give panhandlers money mostly treat them as non-persons. But Peter engaged this beggar by saying, “look at us.” Have you ever gone to an appointment with a physician, and they walk into the room look down at the chart the whole time, write a prescription and leave, without ever looking you in the eye? In the past many doctors have treated patients as non-persons, and we wonder why people didn’t get well? A healer has to have the courage to look a patient in the eyes and make contact. Unfortunately many of our physicians are so rushed for time now trying to sandwich in as many patients as possible, even if they wanted to make eye contact, I’m not sure they have enough time to connect with the patient.

Peter connects with the beggar. He makes eye contact, and then he utters unusual words, who knows where they came from? “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” What Peter does have is faith, and he manages to impart that faith to the beggar. We should note the lame man probably did not stand up immediately and dance or run. Slowly he began to walk, and slowly he began to realize he had been healed. This was the first healing of the early church without Jesus. For Jerusalem this was a major event. Many of Jesus’ reported healings from Galilee were undoubtedly dismissed as a charlatan. They weren’t really sick or lame of blind in the first place. But this beggar, who had panhandled at the Temple day after day, this healing could not be dismissed so easily. He was well known to the people as the lame beggar, and now he was walking right into the Temple Courts big as life.

Now this story raises an interesting question. If this beggar had been sitting at the gate to the Temple day after day, why had not Jesus healed him, as Jesus passed by on his way into the Temple? The gospels leaves an impression that Jesus was healing everyone all over the place all the time. Probably Jesus healed some people and didn’t heal others. The healing miracles of Jesus are so wide and varied it is hard to make any generalizations about those healings. In fact the generalizations I am about to make can be contradicted by examples from the gospels.

First, Jesus didn’t heal anyone against his or her will. There were times when Jesus healed individuals at the behest of a third party, but I think we can assume the individual had a desire for healing.

Second in more of Jesus’ healing miracles the person desiring healing engaged Jesus. They actively sought him out, and expressed some belief that Jesus could be an agent in their healing.

Third, again and again and again after a healing Jesus said, “your faith has made you whole.” Therefore I think it is fair to imply that faith was somehow an important agent in the healings performed by Jesus.

The lame beggar at the Beautiful Gate had sat begging for alms, when Jesus passed by, but perhaps he had never reached out in faith in a way that made healing possible until Peter engaged him by truly looking him in the eye. My experience in pastoral ministry is people don’t change unless they are highly motivated. I think that observation is also true of healing. Unless we are willing to listen to the physician, and follow the treatment plan, we probably won’t get well. The same is true in spiritual direction. Until we are willing to make the effort to change, pastoral counseling won’t help very much.

LET’S ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF THE TEXT

 

1. Who was accompanying Peter to the Temple?

2. Why were they going to the Temple?

3. At what hour of the day were they going to the Temple?

4. Who was at the Beautiful Gate asking for money?

5. How much did they give him?

6. What was the man’s name?

7. What did Peter ultimately offer the person?

8. What did the man do?

9. What was the response of the other people in the Temple?

LET’S ALLOW THE TEXT TO ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF US

1. What is your usual response to panhandlers?

2. What patterns of prayer do you practice in your life?

3. What is your most significant health challenge?

4. How does your spiritual life impact your health?

5. How important is it to you to make eye contact with other people?

6. Are there any people with whom you have difficulty making eye contact?

7. What are some of the ways the faith community can help bring healing to people?

8. What is the most significant miracle of healing you have witnessed?

9. What in your life would you like other people to pray for you?

 


In the Breaking of the Bread

In the Breaking of the Bread

As I read all of the places in the scripture concerning the resurrection, I count 18 different references. The first written reference to the resurrection is in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

For I handed on to you what I had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised from the dead on the third day, and that he appeared to Peter, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time. Then he appeared to James, then to all of the apostles. Last of all he appeared also to me.

We might note the appearance to more than 500 brothers and sisters, and the appearance to James, do not appear in any of the gospels. We can also note Paul does not mention the empty tomb.

The followers of Jesus started proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus, because they experienced his living presence after he had been tortured to death and buried, not because they found an empty tomb. Even in the accounts that include an empty tomb, the disciples remain unconvinced until they encounter the Risen Christ. Our story today in Luke, about two disciples meeting the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus may be a more authentic reflection of the early church’s experience of the Risen Christ, than accounts about an empty tomb.

Let me propose six reasons the Road to Emmaus story seems authentic. Cleopas and his unnamed companion were leaving Jerusalem in a hurry. If your leader has been arrested and executed, you don’t want to hang around waiting for your turn on the cross. The tradition that the Risen Christ appeared to his followers in Galilee, or on the road out of Jerusalem is probably reliable. Once Jesus had been killed there was no reason to stick around waiting to be identified as one of his disciples. Remember how on the night of Jesus’ arrest Peter was accused of being one of Jesus’ followers, and how Peter denied even knowing Jesus in order to avoid arrest himself. The disciples were not waiting around Jerusalem in order to be witnesses of a resurrection they weren’t expecting. Like Cleopas and his unnamed companion, they were getting out of town fast.

I like the story on the Road to Emmaus because Cleopas and his companion were followers of Jesus who were not part of the Twelve. When Jesus came to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday he had a critical mass of followers with him that may have numbered 500 or more. Remember Paul’s reference to a resurrection appearance to more than 500 brothers and sisters at one time. Jesus may have had an inner circle, but one of the things that made the resurrection convincing was it was not confined to the Twelve. The Risen Christ did not appear only to a privileged few. The resurrection was a much more egalitarian experience. A wider circle of followers were witnesses of the Risen Christ.

A curious detail in the Road to Emmaus story is the name of Cleopas is remembered, but his companion remains nameless. Why? John Dominic Crossan believes Cleopas’ unnamed traveling companion was a woman. The early Christian Community was much more radically egalitarian than the later church. Women held leadership positions of importance. In the Gospel of Thomas that was later suppressed, Mary Magdalene, was portrayed as the intellectual equal of the male followers of Jesus.

The authentic letters of Paul name a number of women who were leaders in the early Christian communities: Phoebe, who is described as a Deacon of the church, Priscilla, Junia, Julia, Olympus, and Lydia, the founder and benefactress of the church in Philippi. Women played a vital and crucial role in those early years. But as the church began accommodating to the male dominated hierarchical culture of the Mediterranean World, women were consigned to the background and many of their names were lost. After all a woman traveling with a man to whom she was not married would have been labeled a whore, and that might explain why Jesus was criticized for associating with tax collectors, sinners and prostitutes. There were many women in his entourage, and his ministry was bankrolled by Joanna, the wife of Chuza, the Steward of Herod, and another wealthy woman named Susanna. So, Cleopas’ unnamed traveling companion, may have been a vague memory of the more egalitarian early followers of Jesus, where women were prominent and important even disciples.

Another mark of authenticity of the Road to Emmaus story is that the two disciples did not recognize the Risen Christ. They walked with him and talked with him for several hours, and never recognized this stranger as Jesus. Mary Magdalene in the Garden looking for the body of Jesus mistakes the Risen Christ for the gardener, until he calls her name. The disciples fishing on the Sea of Galilee see a stranger on shore, and do not recognize him until they have a miraculous catch of fish. When the disciples meet with the Risen Christ on a mountain top in Galilee the text says, “When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.” The risen Christ apparently was not always immediately recognizable. He wasn’t as plain as the nose on your face. And I think that is also our experience.

Jesus is alive in the world, he goes on before us, but we too often do not recognize him, because he comes to us in the disguise of the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the mentally ill, the elderly the prisoner, the poorly clothed, the substance abuser, the people we often want to avoid, because they are people in need. And so often the needy are messy. So we shy away and hope they will go away. Just think how often we fail to recognize the Christ among us. Cleopas and his companion had a hard time recognizing Christ in the guise of a stranger.

So how did Cleopas and his companion recognize the Risen Christ? They recognized the stranger as Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Now we have come to associate the breaking of the bread with communion that consists of a stale bread cube and a little sip of wine or grape juice. But in the early church and during the ministry of Jesus “the breaking of the bread,” was a full communal meal, a common table to which everyone was invited and everyone was fed. John Dominic Crossan tries to help us understand how radical was the inclusive table fellowship of Jesus.

Think, for a moment, if beggars came to your door, of the difference between giving them food to go, of inviting them into your kitchen for a meal, of bringing them into the dining room to eat in the evening with your family, or of having them come back on Saturday night for supper with a group of your friends.

. . . . What Jesus advocated was eating together without discriminations or separations. The social challenge of such equal or egalitarian table fellowship is radical. . . . Jesus practiced open table fellowship and therefore he was accused to being a gluten and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and sinners. He made no socially appropriate distinctions and discriminations. And since women were present, especially unmarried women, who even joined in the discussion, the accusation was made that Jesus ate with whores, the standard epithet of denigration for any female who was outside of appropriate male control. . . .

Jesus envisioned a radically egalitarian society he called the Kingdom of God, that was represented by his practice of open table fellowship and symbolized by the breaking of the bread. When the stranger sat down with Cleopas and his female traveling companion and blessed and broke the bread, they knew this was Jesus.

Open Table Fellowship reminds me of a story, about a woman who invited some people to dinner. At the table, she turned to her six-year-old daughter and said, “Would you like to say the blessing dear?”

“I wouldn’t know what to say,” the little girl replied.

“Just say what you hear Mommy say,” the mother said.

The little girl bowed her head and prayed: “Dear Lord, why on earth did I invite all these people to dinner?”

Christ calls for the community of faith that follows him to continue to advocate for a radically egalitarian community, that invites everyone to come to the table, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, everyone is welcome here at God’s table. The Kingdom of God is not somewhere in the sweet by and by, the Kingdom of God is here today as the Christ is known in the breaking of the bread.

The last mark of authenticity in the Road to Emmaus Story is the emotional realization of the two disciples, “did not our hearts burn within us, while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” The encounter with the Christ is almost always an emotionally significant experience. In the words of John Wesley, “My heart was strangely warmed.” Or we might experience something like the great theologian Paul Tillich, “Sometimes a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than yourself, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!’ If that happens to us, we experience grace.”

The tomb is empty. Jesus goes before us. Christ is on the road. The Kingdom of God is here and now as we embrace the radically egalitarian way of Jesus. Practice open table fellowship. Do not let the discriminations of the world chose who you will eat with. Come for soup and bread, where everyone is welcome, and everyone who comes to the table is fed. And there perhaps you will recognize the Christ in the breaking of the bread.


Bible Study 4.16.12, 4.19.12, 4.22.12 For Worship 4.29.12

Bible Study 4.16.12, 4.19.12, 4.22.12 For Worship 4.29.12

Matthew 28:9-10, 16-20 

Matthew 28:9And behold, Jesus met them (the women) and said, “Hail!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him.

10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.

17 And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted.

18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

COMMENTARY

Matthew 28:9 is different from the resurrection account in John 20. In John the resurrected Jesus tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him, because he has not yet ascended to his Father (whatever that means). Here in Matthew the women take hold of his feet and worship him. In verse 10 we can note two important aspects of Jesus’ message to the women. First he says, “do not be afraid.” There were many things to be afraid of: the Romans, the Temple Authorities, a ghost. We might imagine both confusion and fear on the part of the women. What were they seeing — a vision, a resuscitated corpse, a zombie, a hallucination? What were they seeing? In Matthew the women are told to tell the followers to go to Galilee and there they will see Jesus. In John Jesus shows up that night in the Upper Room, and reveals himself to the disciples, but Thomas isn’t there and doesn’t believe the others, when they tell him they had seen Jesus. So Jesus shows up a week later and tells Thomas to place his finger in the nail holes. After loitering around Jerusalem for a couple of weeks, John then presents his resurrection appearance story in Galilee in Chapter 21.

Many scholars believe that the author of Matthew was either located in Antioch, or the Lower Galilee after the Fall of Jerusalem. This would explain his adherence to the tradition of appearances in the Galilee.

So in Matthew the Disciples went back to Galilee. But that was kind of a no brainer, since they lived in Galilee. What’s the percentage in hanging around Jerusalem, especially with the Temple authorities and the Romans looking for them? They go to an unnamed designated mountain – could have been either Mt. Tabor or Mt. Hermon – probably the site of the transfiguration. There are good arguments for either Mt. Tabor or Mt. Hermon. This event may be the appearance mentioned in Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians: “For I handed on to you what I had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised from the dead on the third day, and that he appeared to Peter, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time.” Appearing to 500 followers at one time would have required an outdoor venue, and a mountain top would have been a good place not to attract the attention of the authorities. Also mountain tops tend to affect our spiritual perspective. There is something about getting above it all, that can inspire visions.

 

The resurrected Christ appeared to the gathered followers, “and they worshipped him, but some doubted.” Hey wait a minute, what’s this some doubted? Didn’t everyone see him? Couldn’t they see with their own eyes? Why the doubt? Maybe like many of us Jesus’ followers lived somewhere between belief and doubt. Seeing is not always believing. They wanted to believe, oh how they wanted to believe, but there was that little niggle of doubt in the back of their minds. It’s O.K.! We don’t have to have perfect faith to be disciples of Jesus, we just have to have enough faith to trust, to go ahead and live the way of Jesus even when we are plagued by doubts. Remember the Father of the epileptic child, “I believe, but help my unbelief.” Faith the size of a mustard seed is just enough to see us through, if we are desperate enough and hopeful enough to bring our needs to Jesus. But actually following Jesus, changing our behavior and caring for the poor, being honest with ourselves, sharing with others, blessing others, that is hard.

We should note that by the time Matthew was writing the early church had developed a fairly set baptismal formula: “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This would have been different from any baptismal formula used by John the Baptist. We have only a faint memory in the gospel of any formula John may have used: “I baptize you with water for repentance of your sins.”

Maybe the problem on the mountain wasn’t believing that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead, maybe the challenge was trusting Jesus when he said, “Go and make disciples, teaching them to do all that I have done.” Feed the poor. Heal the sick. Embrace the outcaste. Challenge the Roman Empire. Speak the truth. Love others. And trust that Jesus will be with us strengthening us, encouraging us, when we meet the inevitable opposition that will try to intimidate us and oppress us. Lord give us the courage to follow in your radical, loving way.

LET’S ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF THE TEXT

1. How many women meet the Risen Christ outside of the tomb?

2. What message does the Risen Christ give to the women?

3. Where are the disciples directed to go to meet Jesus?

4. How many disciples were in attendance?

5. Upon seeing Jesus, what was the response of the disciples?

6. What did the Risen Christ look like?

7. What claim did the Risen Christ make on the mountain top?

8. What charge did the Risen Christ give to the disciples on the mountain top?

9. What promise did the Risen Christ make to the disciples on the mountain top?

LET’S ALLOW THE TEXT TO ASK QUESTIONS OF US

1. Why do you think the Risen Christ appeared first to the women?

2. When you hear Jesus say, “do not be afraid,” what do you think he means?

3. Why do you think the Risen Christ might have chosen a mountain for an appearance?

4. How many people do you think might have been in attendance on the mountain?

5. When you read “but some doubted,” what do you think it means?

6. What your doubts about religious faith?

7. What do you think the text means when it says, “go make disciples?”

8. For you what is the meaning of baptism?

9. What do you think are the most important things Jesus wants us to teach others?

10. What do you think Jesus meant when he said, “I will be with you until the close of the age?”

11. What do you think should be the mission of United Church?

 


He Has Gone On Before You

He Has Gone On Before You

If we place the Easter accounts of all four gospels side by side, we soon discover four very different stories. The gospel writers only agree on three details of what happened when the women arrived at the tomb in the early light of that first Easter Sunday. First, it was women who went to the tomb. The men were still in hiding. If anyone ever has any questions about whether or not women should be ordained, or why women are so important in the life of the church, we just need to remind ourselves that the first witnesses of the resurrection were women. Women were the first people entrusted with the best news of the gospel.

The second detail on which the gospels have agreement is that Mary Magdalene was among those first women to visit the tomb. In fact in the gospel of John Mary Magdalene was alone, when she went to the tomb at first light. We should also note that in the Gospel of Thomas, a gospel that was not included in our Bible, the other disciples were jealous of Mary Magdalene, because of the high regard shown for her by Jesus. Jesus is represented as respecting Mary as the equal of the male disciples. And this may explain the tradition that developed around Mary Magdalene that she was a whore, because any woman in those days who was not under the control of male relatives and who considered herself to be the intellectual equal of men was labeled a whore.

The third detail agreed upon by all of the gospels was that the tomb was empty. But an empty tomb by itself was not proof of a resurrection. Someone could have stolen the body. In the gospel of John that was Mary’s suspicion. When the Risen Christ appeared to her she first assumed it was the gardener and asked him, “If you have taken his body, please tell me where you have placed it.” In the gospel of Matthew the Temple elders bribed the soldiers who guarded the tomb to tell the people that Jesus’ disciples had stolen the body.

Some scholars even believe the empty tomb was a later tradition to explain the disciple’s experience of the risen Christ among them. They believe the disciples got out of Jerusalem as quickly as possible after the crucifixion and left for Galilee. There or even on the road out of town, as in the Road to Emmaus Story in Luke, they had experiences of the risen Christ that called them back to Jerusalem, where on Pentecost they experienced the Holy Spirit that propelled them to begin proclaiming the Resurrection. It was the experience of the Risen Christ energized by the infusion of the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that was proof of the resurrection.

The key to the Easter experience then is the words of the angel, “he has gone on before you.” He is not dead, he is not in the tomb, he cannot be found where you think you have placed him, “he has gone on before you.” He is out there in the world beckoning us to follow him into the hard places of life ministering to the poor, the unemployed, the rejected, the sick, the powerless, the marginalized.

He is not a tame Jesus. We cannot carry Christ around in our hip pocket. So often on Easter, we focus on the empty tomb to the exclusion of the living presence of Christ in the world, because we would like to put him back into the tomb and seal it shut, because if we keep Jesus in the tomb then we can be safe from his call to follow him out into the world, where our faith can challenge us and lead us into difficult situations. And that is why it is so important to continue to welcome the world into our church. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here.

Two weeks ago, several of us attended a webinar about church renewal, and the presenter, Michael Piazza, offered us some statistics about declining church attendance in the United States. In summary the statistics show that church attendance in mainline churches, Methodist, Presbyterian, UCC, Disciples, etc., has been declining for thirty years. That is no surprise. What is surprising is that attendance in Catholic Churches has also been on the decline for the past twenty years, and now in the last ten years evangelical churches are registering a decline in attendance. In fact because Millennials, the generation from 18 to about 32, are so turned off by the evangelical social agenda, there is now being forecast by demographers an evangelical collapse in the next ten years. Churches across the spectrum are in decline.

The situation is even worse in Great Britain, where the decline has been longer and steeper. And if you will bear with me for a moment this really is related to Easter. First, we can see that the decline in church attendance has been precipitous.

Second we can see that even though a majority of people in Great Britain identify themselves as Christian, the vast majority of those people identify themselves as non-churched or de-churched.

And third when asked whether they can envision returning to a church, the vast majority of those folks said that it was “not likely, or not very likely.” And this may help to explain the spiritual but not religious phenomenon in the United States.

The conclusion of the people making the study in Great Britain was this.To sum up then it’s not Christ but the Church, that most Christians in the United Kingdom reject. It’s not a question of getting people to become Christians (evangelism), but that the Church in the United Kingdom is repelling Christians. It seems that Church in the United Kingdom is an unattractive place for most Christians.

SLIDE 14:

THE CHURCH HAS LEFT THE BUILDING

In response to the problem of the church repelling people who identify themselves as Christians but don’t attend, a new movement has appeared in Britain under the name “the church has left the building.” These people hold their Bible Studies in Pubs – “the Bible and a beer.” This movement meets in people’s homes to share a potluck and communion. And they organize mission projects and invite everyone to come who wants to help. They are seriously trying to follow the Jesus who goes before them into the world.

The problem isn’t Jesus, it’s the church. As Greg Kamback calls us to undertake a visioning process as a congregation, we need to take a good hard look at ourselves and figure out how we are going to follow the Jesus who goes before us into the world and then run to catch up.

We already have a significant relationship with Foodline, both raising money for them, bringing in food for the food pantry, and four or five members of our congregation who are volunteering at Foodline. That is following Jesus into the world. Jesus told us, whenever you reach out to people in need, the hungry, the naked, the sick, you have found me. We have people driving for meals on wheels, testing water in our streams, volunteering with habitat.

We also have a significant relationship with NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. We have several members volunteering with NAMI. And there is important work to be done right now as the Department of Mental Health in Alabama is facing massive budget cuts. The Department of Mental Health is losing over 20% of their budget, and closing the regional Mental Health Hospitals. I believe our congregation is especially aware and uniquely equipped to minister to the needs of the mentally ill. We can’t replace that kind of money, but we can serve as advocates for the fair and humane treatment of the mentally ill. We can also welcome the mentally ill and their families into the life of our congregation.

As we consider an Easter vision, let me close with this story. A little boy wanted to meet God. He knew it was a long trip to where God lived, so he packed his suitcase with Twinkies and a six-pack of Root Beer and he started his journey. When he had gone about three blocks, he met an elderly man. The man was sitting in the park just feeding some pigeons. The boy sat down next to him and opened his suitcase. He was about to take a drink from his root beer when he noticed that the man looked hungry, so he offered him a Twinkie. The man gratefully accepted it and smiled at the boy. His smile was so pleasant that the boy wanted to see it again, so he offered him a root beer. Again, the man smiled at him. The boy was delighted! They sat there all afternoon eating and smiling, but they never said a word.

As it grew dark, the boy realized how tired he was and he got up to leave, but before he had gone more than a few steps, he turned around, ran back to the man, and gave him a big hug. The man gave the little boy his biggest smile ever.

When the boy opened the door to his own house a short time later, his mother was surprised by the look of joy on his face. She asked him, “What did you do today that made you so happy?”

“The little boy replied, “I had lunch with God.” But before his mother could respond, he added, “You know what? God’s got the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen.”

Meanwhile, the elderly man also radiant with joy returned to his home. His son was stunned by the look of peace on his face and he asked, “Dad, what did you do today that made you so happy?”

The old man replied, “I ate Twinkies in the park with God.” However, before his son responded, he added, “You know, God is much younger than I expected.”

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn our lives around. Jesus has gone on before us. He is out there in the world. We just have to have a little courage to venture beyond the walls of the church and the desire to run to catch up.