Sunday, April 26, 2015

Whose Slaves?

Whose Slaves?
Romans 6:15-19
            We don’t like to think of ourselves as slaves.  Most of us find the idea of slavery of any kind reprehensible.  That we might ourselves be in that condition doesn’t appeal to us at all.  We like our freedom—freedom to do what we want, live as we please, live where we please, and run our own lives.  No slavery for us, no sir!
            Paul says otherwise.  For context we must realize that slavery was a much more prevalent institution in the first century C.E. than it is today.  The New Testament doesn’t seem to draw a distinction between servants and slaves, at least not in Greco-Roman culture.  Luke, the writer of the third gospel and Acts, and Paul’s companion on at least some of his missionary journeys, may have been a slave for at least part of his life.
            For people in the first century, slavery was not necessarily a lifelong condition.  It was possible to purchase your freedom—and the freedom of your family if they too were slaves.  Occasionally, someone else might arrange for your freedom. 
            Because of the prevalence of slavery in that culture, it was a useful metaphor for Paul when he wrote about a person’s spiritual condition.  In previous verses Paul spoke about being dead to sin and alive to God.  He makes it clear that, once someone has been justified by faith in God, sin no longer controls his/her life.  Instead, that person has been reconciled to God.  We know from Paul’s writing here and in other letters that our justification is by God’s grace and not by anything we have done.
            Paul wants to speak in terms everyone will understand.  He uses the slavery metaphor because he knows everyone will get it. 
            “Do you not know,” Paul says, “that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”  (We understand that when Paul says “obedience,” he is speaking about obedience to God.)
            There you have it!  We have two choices.  We can be slaves to sin or slaves to God.  We can choose our destiny, but only between these two possibilities.  There is no third way.  Either we recognize God’s claim on our lives and submit ourselves to God’s will, or we submit ourselves to be slaves of sin.  Praise be to God Paul doesn’t leave us there. 
            “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”
            This freedom from the slavery of sin is something we could not achieve on our own. We couldn’t afford the purchase price.  God has bought our freedom through the immeasurable grace of Jesus Christ—but we are still not free to be our own creatures.  Instead, we have exchanged masters. 
Is this a problem?  It shouldn’t be—at least not if we understand the dynamics of the situation.  If we read further (Romans 6:23), we understand what it means to be God’s slave.
            “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior we move from death to life, from a never-ending progression of more and more lawlessness to righteousness and sanctification. 

            What great news!  

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Prepare the Way

Prepare the Way
Matthew 28:16-20
            The musical Godspell is a retelling of Matthew’s gospel.  Written in the 1960’s, it tells the story of Jesus’ adult life through interactions between the actor playing him and those playing his disciples and other characters in his story. 
            It begins with actors quoting from a wide variety of philosophical viewpoints.  One by one they add their voices to the mix until they create a cacophony of unintelligible sound.  Suddenly, cutting through the noise we hear the voice of the actor playing Jesus.  He sings “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” over and over.  He is joined by the other actors and the band.  It becomes clear to the audience that Jesus’ voice is the one—the only one—we should be listening to.  The force of his voice drowns out all other philosophies.
            As the story develops, we see several of Jesus’ parables acted out.  We hear him teach.  The other actors play a variety of roles, sometimes listening to him teach, other times playing the characters in the parables.  Occasionally they become people allied against Jesus.
            The execution scene is played out with Jesus holding on to a chain link fence and gyrating as if he’s being electrocuted.  The music is loud and frantic.  Whenever it stops we hear Jesus utter some of his final words.  Finally, he dies.  The other actors pick up his body and carry it out, holding him over their heads.
            Suddenly he jumps down and begins singing.  And what does he sing?  “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”  The musical ends as it begins.  There has been no change—or has there?
            Easter changes everything.  The Messiah who was misunderstood and finally rejected during his life becomes the Lord and Savior of the world.  His disciples, having followed their teacher for three years, become apostles, those who bring the message of good news.  While the words the actors sing are the same as at the beginning, the message behind those words is different. 
We see that difference reflected in the final words of Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus meets the remaining eleven of his closest followers on a mountain in Galilee and gives them their marching orders.
“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always; to the end of the age.”
As Jesus made disciples of them, they are to make disciples of others.  It’s their turn to prepare the way of the Lord.  Instead of announcing that the Messiah has come to earth, it is their task to announce that Jesus has made reconciliation with God available to all.  Furthermore, Jesus will be returning to earth at some time in the future.  It is this event for which the apostles must prepare the world. 
This is our task as well.  These verses are called The Great Commission.  This commission wasn’t given just to those eleven who stood with Jesus on the mountain.  The task of preparation has been passed down through the centuries until it has fallen to us.  We are to prepare the way of the Lord.  We are to make disciples of all nations.  We are to baptize new believers in the name of the Trinity. 

We may not be great singers and actors, but we must be the body of Christ in this world, taking his message not only to the ends of the world, but to our neighbors next door.  Wherever God calls us to serve, there we must be about the business of preparing the way of the Lord.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Receiving the Holy Spirit

Receiving the Holy Spirit
Acts 20:19-29
            According to John’s gospel this is Jesus’ second resurrection appearance.  The first is to Mary Magdalene in the garden.  It is now Sunday night, and the disciples are gathered—hiding, really—possibly in the same upper room where they had celebrated the Passover Seder the previous Thursday night.  Where else could they go?  They dare not show their faces outside—at least not in large numbers, or for prolonged periods of time.  They’re too debilitated by fear to try to leave Jerusalem.  So here they stay, and wait, and worry.
            Then Jesus comes, and says, “Shalom.”  It means “Peace be with you,” but it means much more than that.  It can mean “Hello,” or “Goodbye,” but these are uses, not definitions.  When Jesus says “Shalom,” or when we say it in the context of our faith, it refers to God’s shalom—not just peace, but peace that passes all understanding. 
            Jesus knew better than to wish them external peace.  He knew what lay ahead for them—conflict, beatings, torture, death—everything he had suffered and more.  To wish them peaceful lives would have been a cruel joke as well as an impossible promise to fulfill.  The peace Jesus offered—God’s shalom—blessed them with the inner strength they would need to weather the storms ahead.  That’s what  shalom meant to them, and what it means to us.
            Jesus said again, “Shalom.”  Then he added, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”  Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
            This should have been the end of their voluntary confinement.  The disciples should have known it was time to move out.  They had been given permission—no, they had been given their marching orders.  “You’ve been cooped up here long enough,” Jesus seems to be saying.  “I understand why you’ve been waiting here, but here is not where you should be any longer.  Now that I am back with you, you need to be elsewhere, moving on to the task I have been preparing you for.  Go!  My Father sent me to you; now I send you out to the world.  But I am not sending you out alone.  You go in the strength of the Spirit.  This is the Comforter I promised you at our last meal together.  With the Spirit’s help you will achieve all I ask of you.”
            And still they didn’t move.  Eight days later, they’re still in the same room, still behind locked doors.  The only difference apparently is that Thomas—missing for some reason the last time Jesus appeared—is now with them.  Jesus comes to them again, expressly, it would seem to address Thomas’s refusal to accept the disciples’ claim, “We have seen the Lord!”  Much has been made of these verses. Many sermons have been preached, many devotionals written—enough that we don’t have to spend time here on Thomas’s change of heart and confession.  Suffice to say that his prayer, “My Lord and my God!” would be a good one for each of us to utter as we begin and end the day: 
            What should be of great concern to us is that when the disciples finally moved they didn’t go any farther from that room than to go fishing in Galilee.  They certainly didn’t get on with going out to the world in the strength of the Holy Spirit.  That would have to wait (according to Luke) for the Spirit to come upon them with power at Pentecost.  We know what happened after that.
            Jesus is also telling us to go forward in the strength of the Holy Spirit.  We believe the Spirit was given to us at our baptism, along with the command, “even so send I you.” 

What are we waiting for?

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter People

Easter People
John 20:1-18
            What does it mean to be “Easter People?”  Let’s look at some examples.  Perhaps we can develop a composite picture that will help us form an accurate description.
            According to John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene was the first Easter Person.  This is one of the most beautiful stories in the Bible.  Jesus had meant so much to Mary—and no, we have no proof that she was a prostitute, as one of the early popes declared her to be.  Apparently he wanted an example of someone whose life Jesus had changed, so he conflated the stories of two or three women to arrive at a conclusion Scripture in no way confirms.
            We know Mary had been very close to Jesus.  She is the only woman all four gospel writers place at the tomb that resurrection morning.  Jesus had changed her life.  Now here she was, outside the empty tomb, with an aching emptiness inside because her Lord’s body was not there.  Through her tears she saw a man she presumed to be the gardener.  When he said her name she knew who it was.  Her life was transformed once again as her sorrow was turned to joy.  She couldn’t wait to tell the good news.  She became an Easter Person.
            Peter was an Easter Person.  Before we criticize him for denying Jesus we must ask ourselves:  Would I have behaved differently?  In John 21 we read the story of Peter’s encounter with the risen Jesus.  Three times he had denied his Lord, and three times Jesus asked him the most important question he would ever answer:  “Simon, bar Jonah, do you love me?”  We know his answer, and we know what happened to Peter at Pentecost.  This sometimes brash/sometimes fearful disciple became a tower of strength among those who were called Followers of the Way.  He became an Easter Person.
            Thomas was an Easter Person.  When Jesus appeared to his disciples that first Easter evening, Thomas wasn’t among them.  When he returned, his friends said, “We have seen the Lord!”  Thomas refused to believe until he saw for himself.  Before we criticize him, we must ask ourselves again:  Would I have behaved differently?  When Jesus appeared to the disciples again, and Thomas saw him, there were no doubts.  His confession is one we should all be eager to make:  “My Lord and my God!”  With those words Thomas became an Easter Person.
            Luke (24:13-35) tells the story of two disciples, despondent over the death of their beloved Master, who left Jerusalem that first Easter evening heading for Emmaus.  Suddenly they were joined by another traveler who, as they walked along, taught again the same lessons he had been trying to teach them for three years.  When he joined them for supper, and presided at the table, breaking bread as he had done so often in their presence, they recognized their risen Lord.  They couldn’t wait to tell the good news.  They became Easter People.
            We could mention many more:  Philip, who taught the Ethiopian eunuch; Paul, who with his enthusiasm and God’s help turned the world upside down; the disciples who overnight became apostles—messengers of the good news.  I think we have enough to form a definition.
            What do these people have in common?  Their encounters with the risen Jesus changed their lives.  Whatever they had been before—sad, afraid, depressed, reluctant, angry—they were now different people.  Jesus took their weaknesses and gave them strength.  No longer content to be what they had been; no longer content to live half-lives; no longer content to be less than they could be, they began new lives—lives dedicated to letting everyone know that life could be different, and that they too could become Easter People. 

Are you an Easter Person?