The way the story is told

Look at the man whose community has judged as possessing a legion of demons. He has been pigeon-holed. Ostracized. Bullied. Looked down upon. Pitied. The man whom they looked upon, and said to themselves, ‘Thank God it’s not so bad with me.’ This is the kind of person who, it has been argued, we need. If only to make the rest of us feel better about ourselves.

Schadenfreude is the term we use to depict and distinguish those ‘less fortunate’ than us to justify our complaints and our more privileged status. So, we need ‘them’. And we need ‘us’. We need the distinction. To envision the opposite, to imagine some kind of union, to unearth the unholy distinctions between ‘them’ and ‘us’—well, that may be far too threatening to our fragile egos.

The way the story is told is not to focus on the man’s illness. Though, that’s what we like to talk about: the frothing at the mouth, the rattling of the chains which bound him, the pigs rushing dramatically to their watery deaths. The way the story is told, however, is not to fixate on whatever ails him, his sin, his problem. We say this is a healing story. But who else besides the man is invited to be healed?

Important though it is not to overlook the man’s problem, the way this story is told leads us to the climax of the telling—the last few sentences that describe the reaction of the man’s community, there across the Lake in Gentile territory.

When, at first, he is healed, and is shown to the people, how do they respond? You would think they would rejoice. You would think they would praise God. You would think they would marvel at the goodness, the promise, the hope, the delight of God in bringing transformation and healing to this man who once was lost in sickness and despair but now is saved. In Greek, the word for salvation is the same word for healing. This man we look upon, alongside the Gerasene community, is now restored, healed and given a new beginning in life. A second chance.

You would think those who witness this would rejoice in the promise and anticipation that this healing and transformation be offered to each of them also. Amen?!

The way the story is told, however, emphasizes the point not once at the end of the story, but twice: They were afraid, seized with a great fear.[1]They didn’t like what Jesus was doing. They had become too comfortable in their opinions, their prejudices, their categories, their pigeon-holing this man. And they didn’t like what Jesus was doing to upturn and completely reverse their world-view. They even had the gall to tell Jesus to leave. No more of this. Do you blame the healed man for wanting to get out of there, too, with Jesus?

This story shines an uncomfortable light not on the Gerasene Demoniac. The title of this story should rather be the community’s demoniac. The community’s sin. Their prejudice. And their incapacity to repent—to change their minds about the people they have normally pigeon-holed into convenient places of malice and schadenfreude, them and us.

The Gospel story opens with Jesus taking his disciples to the ‘opposite side’ of Galilee. To be faithful to Jesus, to follow Jesus, they have to leave their zones of comfort and familiarity to go to the Gerasene territory across the lake.  Every city, every community, every country, every culture, every church, has an ‘opposite side.’ And it’s to that ‘opposite side’ that we—Lutheran Christians in Canada today—are called to go.

The way the story is told, is that Jesus’ presence and power disrupts the social order of the way things are. Because, for one thing, to the people whose living depends on the pigs, their loss is catastrophic. The swineherds are understandably afraid.

From this standpoint, the way the story is told, the coming of the gospel of Jesus brings upheaval and sets in motion forces that will disrupt even economic and social arrangements. In other words, the good news will not seem good to everyone at first. Maybe, to us.

Especially to those who are comfortable, privileged and set in our ways. Indeed, for the community in Gerasene and for us, we might prefer the devil we know to the freedom we do not. We might take a false sense of security from the dysfunction, the prejudice, the self-righteousness we have learned to tolerate in ourselves, cope and live with, ignore and sluff off. And we might therefore fear what change—even change for health—may bring.

We fear freedom from what binds us:

Locked and bound in some prison of our doing—telling ourselves we are not good enough, that we can’t do it, that we don’t deserve the immeasurable love which God has for us.

Locked and bound in some prison of our doing—telling ourselves and each other that the poor, the newcomer to Canada, the Indigenous people of this land, our home on native land—deserve their plight as if we don’t have any responsibility to care for them. To tell ourselves we need not seek understanding from another’s point of view.

Locked and bound in some prison of our doing—maintaining beliefs, even religious ones, that serve only to belittle others from a different social, religious background than ours, others whose gender orientation is not ours, others who are impoverished financially. Maybe Paul’s words must ring true again today to our hearts that are divided and distressed over these issues: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[2]

What is the ‘opposite side’ of the lake, for you? Is it a troubled personal relationship? Is it a long-held assumption or belief? Is it something you’ve wondered about doing but had up until now been too afraid to try? Perhaps in this season after Pentecost, the Spirit of God is calling us to consider going there.

To discover anew that whether we succeed or fail, whether we accomplish our goals or not, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s forever.[3]Healing and salvation will come to us, regardless of our pedigree. For, again in the words of Paul, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”[4]The gospel doesn’t begin with us. It’s always about what God is doing in us.

As Richard Rohr writes, “It’s not what you do that makes you holy, it’s what you allow to be done to you that makes you holy.” (in today’s ‘daily meditation’, http://www.cac.org)

Grace does that. One doesn’t first become Christian, then go to church; One goes to church to become a Christian—and it will take a life time, and beyond. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. As fourteenth-century Saint Catherine of Siena once said: “It’s heaven all the way to heaven, for Jesus is the way.”

Jesus invites us to join him on his journey to the opposite side. To grow and change. To reach further, deeper, into health and wholeness. To open ourselves to the unity we share with all people in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And that story will have a good ending.

 

[1]Luke 8:35,37, NRSV

[2]Galatians 3:28

[3]Romans 14:8

[4]Galatians 2:19-20

God in Acts

In Mark Burnett’s recent visual adaptation of the entire Bible, some scenes from Jesus’ passion still stand out for me. Weeks have passed since the dramatic events of Holy Week and Easter. So, I ask you, to rewind the tape for just a minute. And recall with me when news of the upstart prophet from Galilee first came to ears of the high priest in Jerusalem:

The scene in the temple is dark, illuminated only by the flickering flame of candlelight sending fleeting shadows throughout the cavernous room. The religious leaders draped in their flowing robes shuffle about.

An anxious member of the religious elite makes his way to the high priest, catching his attention: “There are reports of a man performing miracles, and some five thousand followed him to Galilee.” At first, news about Jesus does not worry the high priest. He turns away without saying a word. But the messenger persists, pulling at the high priest’s shoulder. “He calls himself the Son of God!”

The high priest’s mouth stretches in a cold smile, “They all do.”

Then, the night before Jesus’ death, Pilate consoles his wife who is disturbed by news of Jesus’ arrest and trial. Pilate’s wife tries to convince Pilate to have nothing to do with Jesus and let him go.

But Pilate, feeling caught between a stone and a hard place, is playing a delicate political game in order to keep control. He says to his wife, trying to justify his own actions to have Jesus condemned to death: “Don’t worry, in a week this man will be forgotten.”

Both the high priest and Pilate, struggling for political control, convince themselves Jesus is a no one, or at best, a pretender. And will be forgotten, like all the rest of them.

We fast forward now, to life in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Now, in the Book of Acts, the focus shifts to the disciples. A man who is disabled, sitting by the gate near the temple in Jerusalem, finds healing. Peter and John meet him on their way into the temple. “In the name of Jesus Christ”, Peter touches the man, and he is able to walk again.[1]

“By what power or by what name did you do this?” the religious leaders in Jerusalem ask Peter and John when they are arrested. The Sadducees, who were a powerful religious group in Jerusalem, did not believe in the resurrection of the dead.

Strike one, against Peter and John who did not stop preaching the resurrection of Jesus and all who believe.

It is said that five thousand people converted to Christianity after hearing and seeing what miracles and words Peter and John performed.[2]

Strike two, against them. Five thousand people is a huge threat to the religious establishment. And to social stability. Rome held Jerusalem’s religious leaders responsible for keeping the pax romana – Caesar’s idea of political control over each region in the vast Mediterranean empire. There was no way the Sanhedrin were going to allow Peter and John to continue their disruptive work.

So, they were arrested and brought before the religious council called the Sanhedrin. Did Peter and John know that a few weeks prior, Jesus stood in the same place before the religious leaders?

Strange, I find, that something obviously positive – the healing of a person – turns into something negative so easily where human nature is concerned. Questions of resurrection, the mercy of God and healing turn into a question of power: “By what power or by what name did you do this?”

It is also clear, as the author of Acts present, that the religious leaders were “jealously protective”[3]of their franchise on religion. They wanted the masses to be prayerful and faithful. But they wanted people to do so under the exclusive banner of the temple.

Yet, from the beginning, the Christian movement was an outbreak of the Holy Spirit, spreading like wildfire. It cannot be contained in any one, exclusive denomination, group or church claiming to be the only, right way. That is not the nature of the Christian movement, from day one to the present. Exclusivity is not the preferred style of Christian life.

“By what power or by what name did you do this?” Peter and John have an answer: There is no other name by which we all are healed. Jesus Christ stands for all.[4]For God shows no partiality, for there are people in every nation who are acceptable to God.[5]

There is no other name. Other gods will give up on you:

The god of war and violence will give up on you when you turn the other cheek.

The god of consumerism will give up on you when you give what you have to those in need.

The god of power and control will give up on you when you let go of any pretence of being in control of others, forcing them to be like you.

The god of competition and hatred will give up on you when you welcome, affirm and show mercy to those who are different from you and your kind.

All these false gods of the world will forget you. They will be forgotten. The high priest of Jerusalem and Pilate were right because there were so many claiming to be the Messiah who were just that: fakes. These are the false gods who will be forgotten.

But not Jesus. Even after his resurrection and ascension, Jesus will not be forgotten.

Peter and John may have had a couple of strikes against them standing as prisoners before the religious leaders in the temple’s portico. But they, and the Christian movement, would never strike out. God was about to blast a grand slam out of the park of history.

The God of resurrection and new life will continue to inspire, to push us forward, to pinch our consciences, even challenge us to move forward. There is no hiding from this God who will not give up on you and on us.

The God who created you, who loved you,

Who, even in your sin forgives you and shows you mercy,

The God who gives you a second chance, always,

The God who is your loving shepherd, compassionate friend,

This God will never, ever give up on you, nor forget you. Nor any lost, hurting person or creature in all of creation.

Whether it is Peter or John, or the voice of God speaking this through the church and in the world today …

There is no other name under heaven by whose power all can be saved.

Amen.

[1]Acts 3:1-10

[2]Acts 4:4

[3]Thomas C. Long cited in David L Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year B Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008) p.432

[4]Acts 4:10-12

[5]Acts 10:34

No easy way up those stairs


Perhaps you know someone like Sue.

Sue had Multiple Sclerosis (MS). As the disease progressed in her relatively young life, she nevertheless wanted to stay at home as long as possible. Her house, unfortunately, was not outfitted appropriately for someone in her debilitating condition.

And yet, she battled. For example, it took her twenty minutes to crawl upstairs to her bedroom. Sue called the stairs “Mount Sinai”. Because it was by struggling on those stairs, moving limb for limb through each laboured breath through gritted teeth; it was through determination for each step gained, that she learned so much (1).

The prophet Isaiah does this to us again — gives us an ideal vision of a world where no one suffers any longer, a utopia where everyone is joyful. What is perhaps even more astounding is that this vision of hope and promise is proclaimed in the midst of everything that was not:

These verses speak to Babylonian exiles (2). They are the captives of war, and as such have been wounded maimed, even intentionally blinded as was King Zedekiah (2 Kings 25:7). It is to this failed community now subjugated and marginalized in an oppressive regime far away from Jerusalem that Isaiah paints this picture of a highway leading back home through the desert (Isaiah 35:1-10).

The cynic in us alights, as it must have in many of the exiles in the sixth century B.C.E. For, when do we see the eyes of the blind opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the disabled leaping like a deer, the tongues of the speechless sing for joy? (vs.5-6). Words that Jesus later repeats almost verbatim (Matthew 11:5; Luke 4:18) surprise because he seems to validate the promise of a vision, hundreds of years after Isaiah, that has yet to be fulfilled.

The vision, the promise, operates like a bouncing ball through history. Indeed, our world to this day — two thousand years later — is still rife with human brokenness, both visible and hidden from sight. Many have given up on God precisely because they can’t see how a God of love can be represented in a world of suffering, disease, violence and disability.

What if this promise is given, is meant, for us today? Can we believe it? Yet, perhaps human beings will always struggle with the God who came, and is coming again and again, in Jesus. We have to be careful with Isaiah’s vision, for it can pander to our perfectionism, which denies the reality of a life lived in the graces of God: That what is of God is exclusively the purview of the rich and famous, successful, beautiful and handsome — only for the perfect ones.

Perfectionism pretends that we have to achieve that vision of wholeness and restoration by our own herculean efforts and responsibilities. A denial of the suffering in life leads us to attempt a path around all that is difficult, challenging and transformative.

“A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way, and the unclean shall not pass it by, but it shall be for them.” (Isaiah 35:8)

When John the Baptist shouts that the coming Jesus will make a way through the aridity and desolation of the desert (Matthew 3:3), it bears reason to pause and reflect on the place of John’s prophetic work. Not in the public square in downtown Jerusalem nor on the steps of the Temple.

He stands on the banks of the Jordan River — which separated two worlds. On the one side, the desert which represents the long journey, the pilgrimage, that the people of God made from slavery in Egypt. On the other side of the Jordan lies the Promised Land, the place of arrival, destination, highlighted by the holy city of Jerusalem.

John the Baptist stands preaching words of challenge and hope in the in-between place — the River Jordan. Baptismal in its imagery, this in-between space is the place where something happens. A change occurs in our lives. The space in-between is often a place of disruption as the mental furniture of long-held beliefs, assumptions and values are re-arranged. In this in-between place of discomfort and turbulence we experience, nevertheless, a transformation to be people ‘on the way’ to our destination with God.

We must be willing to go there. And not deny this path through the wilderness. A holy highway does not circumvent the desert places of our lives. What ails us, what disturbs us, what challenges us — these are often valuable clues, yes even invitations, to a deeper engagement with our lives and with God. The disruption is actually God calling us into a transformative experience of life.

Do we accept this? Advent is a time to be honest. Advent is a time of reckoning. Will we stay the same, stuck in our inhibitions and motivated by fear? Or, are we willing to take the risk and go through this in-between place that does not deny our suffering and discomfort, but which actually holds redemptive power?

It is no accident that God chose to be revealed in a broken body. A bloody and pierced body hanging on a Cross. God showed us the way, in Jesus’ death and resurrection. God opened to us the way of salvation.

We know God saves. The names of Isaiah, and Joshua — important in the Hebrew Scriptures — echo the same meaning of Jesus’ name: God saves. No dispute there. But what is the way, the how, of God’s saving? How does God save?

The path through the desert. Before there is a re-ordering of our lives, there must first be a dis-order or sorts. There is no direct-flight from ‘order to re-order’ as much as we might wish there were. In God’s realm, according to the way of Jesus, we must go from ‘order to dis-order before arriving at re-order’ (3).

Julian of Norwich wrote: “First the fall, and then the recovery from the fall. And both are the mercy of God” (4).

We can’t have Easter without Good Friday. Both are held in tandem. Even today in popular Christianity, people avoid worshiping on Good Friday; most experience the ‘hosananas’ of Palm Sunday only to return the following Easter Sunday to sing ‘halleluia’. No wonder we get seduced by culture’s ‘glory’ theology that pretends we can somehow deny suffering in order to validate our faith.

But without somehow acknowledging the Passion and suffering of Holy Week culminating in death on the Cross of Good Friday, we miss the point of Easter. We miss the point of Christianity:

The body of Christ is broken in love for us. God loves us not despite our brokenness as human beings but precisely because we are broken.

Lutherans talk a lot about grace, and unconditional love of God for us ‘while we were yet sinners’ (Romans 5:6-8). This is good talk. But — being a diehard, lifelong Lutheran myself and so I can say this — it is not easy living, behaving and inter-relating according to that unconditional-love-‘way’ with others. It may be a simple concept for the mind to turn over and accept, but it certainly is not easy for our egos to put into practice.

Climbing the steps of “Mount Sinai” as Sue was want to do was a feat of incredible endurance. Whether it took her twenty minutes or two hours is not the point, really. It’s the journey: Learning to love, forgive and accept our lives not because everything is ‘just right’ but precisely because God is there in the ‘not alright’ — is a discipline that may indeed take a lifetime to learn.

Enduring whatever suffering comes your way. Grieving whatever loss or mourning a loved one. Carrying on in the midst of the in-between places of our lives. Being present to all the feelings and thoughts and sensations of life — good and bad. Accepting our own imperfection and disability — and still enjoying moments of grace with one another on the way.

So as we learn on the way, may our journeys be inspired by moments when we do experience the presence of a God who understands and walks with us, when the vision appears no longer a mirage on the horizon of reality. But is truth incarnate. An inexplicable gift of joyous wonder.

When, “everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10).

 

(1) Charles Foster, “The Sacred Journey” (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2010), p. xxiii
(2) Bruce C. Birch in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1” (WJK Press, Kentucky, 2010), p.51-55
(3) Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditation”, Tuesday, December 6, 2016 (Center for Action and Contemplation), http://www.cac.org
(4) Julian of Norwich, “Revelations of Divine Love”, 61, ed. Grace Warrack, R.Rohr paraphrase (London: Methuen & Company, 1901), p.153

The other side

In a Brazilian folk tale called, “The Little Cow”, a master of Wisdom was walking through the countryside with his apprentice. They came to a small disheveled hovel on a meagre piece of farmland. “See this poor family,” said the Master. “Go see if they will share with us their food.”

“But we have plenty,” said the apprentice.

“Do as I say.”

The obedient apprentice went to the home. The good farmer and his wife, surrounded by their seven children, came to the door. Their clothes were dirty and in tatters.
“Fair greetings,” said the apprentice. “My Master and I are sojourners and want for food. I’ve come to see if you have any to share.”
The farmer said, “We have little, but what we have we will share.” He walked away, then returned with a small piece of cheese and a crust of bread. “I am sorry, but we don’t have much.”

The apprentice did not want to take their food but did as he had been instructed. “Thank you. Your sacrifice is great.”
“Life is difficult,” the farmer said, “but we get by. And in spite of our poverty, we do have one great blessing.”

“What blessing is that?” asked the apprentice.

“We have a little cow. She provides us milk and cheese, which we eat or sell in the marketplace. It is not much but she provides enough for us to live on.”

The apprentice went back to the Master with the meagre rations and reported what he had learned about the farmer’s plight. The Master of Wisdom said, “I am pleased to hear of their generosity, but I am greatly sorrowed by their circumstance. Before we leave this place, I have one more task for you.”
“Speak, Master.”

“Return to the hovel and bring back their cow.”

The apprentice did not know why, but he knew his Master to be merciful and wise and so he did as he was told. When he returned with the cow, he said to his Master, “I have done as you commanded. Now what is it that you would do with this cow?”
“See yonder cliffs? Take the cow to the highest crest and push her over.”
The apprentice was stunned. “But, Master …”

“Do as I say.”

The apprentice sorrowfully obeyed. When he had completed his task, the Master and his apprentice went on their way.

Over the next years, the apprentice grew in mercy and wisdom. But every time he thought back on the visit to the poor farmer’s family, he felt a pang of guilt. One day he decided to go back to the farmer and apologize for what he had done. But when he arrived at the farm, the small hovel was gone. Instead there was a large, fenced villa.

“Oh, no,” he cried. “The poor family who was here was driven out by my evil deed.” Determined to learn what had become of the family, he went to the villa and pounded on its great door. The door was answered by a servant. “I would like to speak to the master of the house,” he said.

“As you wish,” said the servant. A moment later the apprentice was greeted by a smiling, well-dressed man.
“How may I serve you?” the wealthy man asked.

“Pardon me, sir, but could you tell me what has become of the family who once lived on this land but is no more?”

“I do not know what you speak of,” the man replied. “My family has lived on this land for three generations.”

The apprentice looked at him quizzically. “Many years ago I walked through this valley, where I met a farmer and his seven children. But they were very poor and lived in a small hovel.”
“Oh,” the man said smiling, “that was my family. But my children have all grown now and have their own estates.”

The apprentice was astonished. “But you are no longer poor. What happened?”

“God works in mysterious ways,” the man said, smiling. “We had this little cow who provided us with the slimmest of necessities, enough to survive but little more. We suffered but expected no more from life. Then, one day, our little cow wandered off and fell over a cliff. We knew that we would be ruined without her, so we did everything we could to survive. Only then did we discover that we had greater power and abilities than we possibly imagined and never would have found as long as we relied on that cow. What a blessing from Heaven to have lost our little cow.” (1)

This story is not a prescription for how the church or society should treat economically disadvantaged, underprivileged people — by ignoring their plight and expecting them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. 

Instead, I offer this story as an allegory, a parable, of whatever it is in our lives that keeps us bound, that keeps us stuck. 

The cow, in the story, represents that which the farmer believed would help them survive in the big, bad world. And without it, they would be lost.

What is ‘the cow’ in your life? Whatever you believe you cannot live without. What keeps you bound, shackled in a sense? It may not appear or even be a bad thing. It can be the ‘best’ thing in your life, you will say! And that’s point of the fable.

The cow was the only thing, the best thing, the poor family had going. In our lives, it can be the relationship we have with our work. It can be a person. It can be some activity of our lives that we think we want and need. What is the ‘cow’ in your life — things to “let go ” of, either in church life or your personal lives, that would enable the freedom of God to operate?

Letting go of over-attachment to building? Property? Material riches? Some significant aspect of your financial portfolio?Clutching on to church programs and processes that have had their day, making room for something new?

It could even be your reputation, your status, or social position. Whatever it is …

If we should lose that, why would God want that for us? And when we do lose it, we may be angry at God for taking it away from us. We may shake our fists at God, walk away in disgust and anger, never to darken the door of a church again. We may be blind to the possibilities on the other side.

In the Gospel text today (Luke 8:26-39), Jesus travels to opposite side of Lake Galilee. He goes to what I will call ‘the other side’, where the people in the Gentile territory there respond to the miracle of exorcism with fear. The man they knew to be living on the outskirts of town, out of his mind, full of demons — now sat at the feet of Jesus “in his right mind” (v.35).             

Odd as it may sound, we often prefer the devil we know to the freedom we do not. We can take a false sense of security from the patterns of our lives we learned to cope with over the years. 

And we may fear what change — even change for health — may bring. Because that would mean losing that which we have grown accustomed, even cherished, for a long time. We keep ourselves from seeing the possibilities on the other side.

The truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ reverses the fortunes of those in low estate. The “good news to the poor” which Jesus announces in his inaugural speech (4:18) becomes a reality in the healings and exorcisms that follow in Luke’s Gospel.

But this freedom and health does not come without major disruption in people’s lives. This is the part we like to dismiss in our “feel good”, “prosperity-gospel” driven culture of church in North America. 

Because to the people whose living depended on the pigs — those pigs who ran off the edge of a cliff to their deaths — their loss is catastrophic. The swineherds in the Gospel story are understandably afraid, too, even angry at Jesus. And despite the healing, they want Jesus to leave them (v.37).

The story demonstrates that the the Gospel brings upheaval and sets in motion powerful forces that will disrupt our lives. 

At first, the good news of Jesus will not seem good to everyone. At first, our economic and social lives are put on their heads. At first, we will experience pain and suffering. We will need to surrender that which has given us a sense of security in life. 

We cannot have Easter without “Good” Friday. The cross precedes the empty tomb. The way of salvation goes through suffering, not around it. We cannot avoid pain in our journey towards liberation, healing and salvation.

The good news is the promise that there is no darkness, no loss, no pit too deep that God will not go into, in order to carry us through to the other side.

(1) cited in Richard Paul Evans, “The Walk” Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 2010, p.285-288

Leading with love

When I saw the man pull up to the church doors, I was afraid. I am ashamed to confess that I was fearful when the man with olive-coloured skin, his neck wrapped in a scarf worn by Arab men, knocked at the door of the church. It is all the negative associations mainstream society has built up around people from the Middle East that went swirling through my brain in that moment.

What would I do? Act, based on my fear — and ignore, reject, send away this man? 

I therefore read the story of Saul’s conversion this past week through the eyes of Ananias, who is called by God to attend to Saul. Of course, Ananias at the point of his calling, does not know what dramatic change happened in Saul’s life on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). He objects. You might say, understandably: “Lord, I have heard how much evil this man has done to your saints in Jerusalem … he has authority to bind all who invoke your name” (Acts 9:13-14). Ananias was scared. How does he get past his fear?

We normally associate the beginning of Paul’s story with his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus when light flashed around him and Jesus spoke to him. But the story of Paul, formerly Saul, begins earlier. 

In fact, the first time we read of Saul’s name is during the stoning of Stephen outside the gates of Jerusalem (Acts 7). More to the point, The first time Saul’s name is mentioned in the Bible is right before and after Stephen prays: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:58-60). In other words, Stephen prays for the forgiveness of his executioners, including Saul, at the moment of his death. Saul needs forgiveness, as he stands by “approving” (Acts 8:1) of the killing of one of Christ’s most passionate, ardent and faithful followers.

I have often wondered why God would later choose this Saul — the worst enemy of the early church — to become its greatest advocate. You cannot design a more effective and impressive strategy! In a war between good guys and bad guys you take out your primary enemy. But how is it that God would even have the heart to consider him? After all, Saul does not come with the right resume, to say the least.

I believe God answered the prayer of Stephen made at the moment of his death. The reason the drama on the Damascus road happens in the first place is because God listened to Stephen’s request to forgive Saul and the others who stoned him to death. I believe Saul was a forgiven man already before that “light from heaven flashed around him” (Acts 9:3). God honoured the prayer asking for the forgiveness of sins.

Peter, too, realizes forgiveness from the risen Lord. The Gospel text (John 21:15-17) is set up that way: Three times Jesus asks Peter: “Do you love me?” This three-times echoes the three times Peter had denied knowing Jesus in the courtyard of the high priest on the night of Jesus’ arrest (Luke 22:54-62).

Peter felt ashamed for this transgression against his friend and his Lord. Then, when Peter sees Jesus by the lake shore, he “puts on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the water” (John 21:7). Normally, when we go swimming more clothes come off than on. Why does he put on clothes to get into the water? I would suggest this action echoes the Adam and Eve story from the first book of the bible, Genesis. 

When Adam and Eve realized their shame and guilt after disobeying God, they clothed themselves (Genesis 3:7,21). It seems that donning clothes in the presence of God is a penitential act — a confession of sin, and an expression of the guilt of sinning.

That is why we read this intentional dialogue between Jesus and Peter. The conversation has a liturgical feel to it, as if Peter needs the ritual of the speech to finally recognize and believe the truth of his forgiveness and being loved.

Here, there is an interesting wordplay on ‘love’. For example, ‘agapao’ is the the kind of self-giving, dedicated, total-commitment, unconditional type of love frequently associated with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is this love that Jesus asks of (Simon) Peter the first two times the question is asked: “Simon, son of John, do you love/agapao me?”

Peter, on account of his guilt, can only respond affirmatively to that question using another Greek variation of love — ‘phileo’ — which is a heartfelt and emotional type of love often expressed between good friends. He, in effect, answers by saying he can only love Jesus as a friend. He can do no more. He is stuck in his guilt. And that is why Jesus needs to continue pressing. When Peter answers again that he can only ‘phileo’ Jesus, we see an incredible shift on the part of Jesus:

The last time Jesus asks: “Simon, Son of John, to you love me?”, Jesus switches to ‘phileo’. He meets Peter where he is at. He validates Peter’s feelings. He allows Peter to be where he’s at. And that acceptance, then, releases the power for Peter to grow. This conversation, I believe, is the moment when Peter finally forgives himself. After Jesus loves Peter, Peter is able to love himself.

When we know we are loved by a God who initiates contact with us, who reaches out to us in our pain, and forgives us, then and only then can we do God’s work of loving others. Only when we know we are forgiven, and loved unconditionally by a God who can relate to us, then and only then can we ‘feed God’s sheep’ effectively and powerfully. Until that time we will live bound by and stuck in our guilt and our sin, and therefore in our fear.

The good news, is that our conversion and our salvation is not something we can do. In truth, there is nothing we can do to ‘save ourselves’. These heroes, giants, of the faith — Peter and Paul — do not gain their status in Christian tradition because of anything they did! Quite the contrary: the biblical witness shows in both cases that their conversions were all God’s doing, despite and especially because of their downfalls.

God saves. God calls. God empowers. All because of God’s forgiving love. Before we lift a finger to do anything for God, we are already forgiven. However we respond to that call, it’s already given. Given by a God who totally ‘gets us’ and already loves us.

Yes, I relate to Ananias. His first, and habitual reaction, is fear. And yet, praise be to God, he doesn’t lead with fear and judgement. He doesn’t deny his fear; he just puts fear in its proper place. He doesn’t stay put in his house. He doesn’t ignore, deny, or turn down the call of God which is to do something risky even reckless. 

Instead, He leads with love and trust of God. And therefore he experiences the great things God is already doing in the lives of the saints. He, along with Paul and Peter, can now ‘feed my sheep’.

I am grateful to have met that young man after opening the door of the church to him. He was, after all, a believer in the God of compassion and love. And he just wanted a quiet place to pray for a few minutes.

Praise be to God!

Easter: Jesus on the loose, now!

A mother was putting her young, eight-year-old girl to bed one night. The girl, accustomed to saying her prayers as part of her bedtime ritual, said to her Mom:

“I want to die so I can see Jesus.”

Taken aback, the mother realized in that moment that everything her daughter had heard to that point about Jesus was about eternal life — how Jesus came to earth to save us from our sins so that after we die we will go to heaven. 

No wonder the girl, who had faith, thought that the only way to see Jesus was to die first.

Quick thinking, the mother put her hand in her child’s, looked her in the eye and said, “Jesus is alive. Jesus lives in you and in me. If you want to see Jesus, look for him in the people you meet in the church, in your school and wherever we go. If you want to see Jesus, sweet child, just open your eyes. And live your life!”

Jesus is alive, today. Right now. That is the message of Easter. And the foundation of our faith as Christians.
A few weeks ago the Jewish Rabbi who met with our confirmation class answered a question about who he thought Jesus was. His answer made me think. He said, “Jesus was and is a very important and significant person for Christians.”

I wondered if someone asked me, “Who is Jesus?”, what would I say? I think my first response would be: “Jesus is alive.” Not dead. Not just a great teacher who walked the earth over two thousand years ago and died a criminal on a cross outside Jerusalem. Not just a healer of the sick and prophet who spoke God’s good news to the people of his time. All those things, yes. But more. So much more.

You notice the traditional Easter acclamation is NOT: “Alleluia! Christ was risen! He was risen indeed! Allelulia!” He IS risen!

When we come to worship God, we are not just praising a man from the past, studying an important historical figure, or reading a great story from history. We are not just about being a bunch of ‘talking heads’ who like to debate religion, theology and doctrine, but go on living as if nothing really needs to change in our lives in this world, today. 

We cannot turn this great story of Jesus’ death and resurrection into a platitude that just makes us feel good on a holiday long weekend in Spring. There’s too much at stake. The Easter proclamation means something for our lives today. Our job is no different from the first disciples who met the risen Jesus.

Jesus, outside the garden tomb, had to shift Mary’s focus away from the past to the future. After calling Mary’s name, Jesus rebuffs Mary’s attempt to ‘hold on’ to Jesus as if he were the same as before he died (John 20:17). In that encounter with Jesus, Mary learns from her Teacher that she is being caught up into a larger drama that includes not only Jesus’ death and resurrection, but also his ascension — and beyond!

In other words, Mary learns that this is not merely a story about the re-union of friends with tears and hugs all around, case solved. It is about ultimate destinies: (1) Jesus’ and Mary’s — and the disciples’ destinies too. The story has not concluded; it is still unfolding. She must relate that to the rest of the disciples. Her story, and Jesus’ story, his experience and hers, cannot be anchored in the past. The story of Jesus, then and now, must move on.

That’s where our sights are focused on Easter morning. Where are we going? Where are you going, in your faith? The promise of new life in Christ Jesus means something special for you, now. It means something very special for the church, today. To live out of the Easter message, we must look forward, to where the risen Jesus awaits our following.

It seems so many people these days are reading Rumi, the great 13th century Sufi poet. Sufi described an image of a mirror in the hands of God. It fell, and broke into billions of pieces of glass strewn all across the face of the earth. Everybody took a piece of it, and thought at first they had the Truth — the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth.

Let’s imagine that each shard represents a unique reflection of God’s being, God’s will, God’s presence. Let’s imagine that each piece of glass represents one who has faith. Each piece of glass reflects the beauty and light of God’s creation, manifest in the individual person or congregation — however you want to look at it.

God is, over time, restoring all the pieces back into wholeness, into the original mirror. God also seeks our cooperation in mending what has been divided. 

We are like that little girl who wants to see the face of Jesus. And is learning that we don’t have to wait until we die, to experience a fullness of the Lord’s presence. Using the words of the Apostle Paul, We may see as in a mirror dimly while we live on earth (1 Cor 13:12), for sure. But slowly, surely, God is also already at work reflecting the love, the light and presence of the living Christ in each and everyone one of us. Who in gospels was not changed after encountering the Lord?

We are, as Paul also describes, the “Body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27), on earth. The tradition of Christianity since the Resurrection of the Lord has claimed that the church together is the Body of the Living Jesus. We are the living representation of Jesus on earth. As Martin Luther stated, in our baptism we are “little Christs”. 

Jesus is on the loose! Jesus can show up as a cashier in the grocery store, the young man who changes the oil in our car, a coworker in the office, our doctor, a good friend or even our spouse, child or grandchild. You may even find him looking back at you in your bathroom mirror! (2)

Paul concludes, “All of us … are being transformed” (2 Cor 3:18). God is already at work, in the power of the resurrection, healing what has been broken, bringing together what has been divided, restoring to completion a glorious transformation of our very lives. This is our hope. This is our Easter joy.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!


(1) Gregory A. Robbins & Nancy Claire Pittman in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2009, p.377

(2) Sr Bernadette Gautreau, “Jesus is Loose!” in Holy Week Reflections 2016 published by On Eagle’s Wings, p.9

Reformation Themes 2017

The Day of Reformation (October 31) for Protestants, and especially Lutherans, calls us back to basic questions about who we are, as people of faith. Celebrating this day gives us the opportunity to ask again, “Who are we in the variety of religious expression on a diverse, social landscape?” And what do we have to offer?

For Protestants, the word itself may give us a clue. Protestants have often identified themselves as protesting against something. Many of us know the history: In 1517 Martin Luther nailed those 95 arguments on the doors of the Wittenberg Church. “Theses”, we’ve called them, were statements against certain religious practices and beliefs in the 16 century church. “Here I stand” has become a popular Martin Luther quote as he stood his ground and accounted for his beliefs before the Pope and Emperor at the famous meeting in Worms, Germany, shortly thereafter.
Many of us remember the Lutheran legacy as substantially a theological assertion: that you cannot ‘buy’ your way into heaven (by purchasing indulgences); rather, we are justified by grace through faith. Faith and salvation are fundamentally gifts from God.
And this is why the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) — a worldwide communion of 144 national churches — has come up with the theme of “Liberated by God’s Grace” for the 500th anniversary in 2017, commemorating Luther’s first protestant act in Wittenberg. Its sub-themes resonate with the indulgence debate: “Salvation not for sale; Humans not for sale; Creation not for sale.” 
In the pronouncement of these themes Lutherans worldwide and in Canada are claiming that we are not only celebrating something that happened in history. We are also asserting that we are a continually reforming church; that century-old themes can be relevant even today.
“Salvation – not for sale; Humans – not for sale; Creation – not for sale”. When something is not for sale, it is not on the market. We can not procure it by our means — any material means for that matter. When something is not for sale, it is a gift. We cannot possess it, in the same way we can never really possess God, salvation, anyone else, nor can we possess the earth.
The world today wants us to think and believe we can. We therefore delude ourselves into thinking and believing that we can buy salvation, that by our own hands, efforts and hard work we can earn God’s favour, God’s forgiveness. Do we go to church because we feel we need to manage our spirituality more as an insurance policy against hell, even though we are not sure about living out the mission of Jesus today? But God’s love in Jesus is unconditional. It is free. We have nothing to lose in positively living out our faith. Really! “Salvation — not for sale!”
Second, humans: It’s incredible that in the 21st century, there is still slavery practiced in the world; according to a 2013 study, there are still some 30 million slaves in the world today. Even in Canada, young people are gone missing and forced into the sex trade. Many Aboriginal women have disappeared, some murdered and some no doubt exploited in some despicable way. But, we claim: “Humans — not for sale!” What are we doing about this?
Finally, creation: As I said, our culture wants us to believe we can buy it. In fact, a recent survey measuring happiness revealed that our happiness is often dependent on ‘owning’ property. While the exchange of goods is in many ways an important building block of our economy, how differently would we look on our lives if creation (the environment, the land, the water and the resources therein) was not only something we must buy, possess and exploit for profit — but simply given as a gift from God that we share with all people? “Creation — not for sale!” Is finding meaning and purpose in life not the real sources of happiness? (“Money Really Can Buy Happiness, Study Shows”, thecanadianencylopedia.ca, 2013)
The confirmation class last week planted a tree in our church yard. Not only did we do this to respond to one of the Reformation challenges of our church (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada) to plant 500,000 trees by 2017, we performed a loving and caring act towards God’s beautiful creation which we share with all living creatures.
  
When it comes down to it, and we are honest, we must confess that it is often very difficult to be loving. It is challenging, even though we say we believe in a God who loves us unconditionally, loves the world unconditionally, loves creation unconditionally. 

So, how can we learn to love better?