I want to share a funny story that happened at our house last week. It probably doesn’t connect with anything in today’s lessons. Last Saturday, I bought muffins for our vestry retreat. There were four muffins left over and I brought them home. I suggested to Jan that I might take them to church on Sunday for coffee hour. I was surprised that Jan didn’t want them to go anywhere. She wanted the muffins to stay in our house. I didn’t pick up on her strong statement very well. You see, we never have muffins at our house for breakfast and Jan chooses to eat things that don’t have carbohydrates, so I didn’t understand how important it was for her that we keep the muffins for her to eat. So, on Sunday, silly me once again suggested that I might take some of the muffins to church. Jan said, something like, “Why do you keep trying to give away my muffins?” I learned that while she doesn’t usually eat muffins, she really likes them and wanted these muffins to stay in the house. I agreed. Before we left for church, Jan took great care to put a note on the muffins that they had to stay in the microwave so that our daughter’s dog wouldn’t eat them. Unfortunately, our son-in-law left the muffins out by mistake after warming the baby’s milk in the microwave and they were eaten by the dog. Jan didn’t get her muffins and I didn’t take any muffins to church. Jan and I had a good laugh about that outcome. I thought to myself that God must have decided that if we are going to disagree about what is going to happen to the muffins, then neither of us will get them. Or maybe this was such a small thing that God didn’t really decide to do anything about the muffins. I do know, however, that God wants us to treat each other with love and to remember that we are all children of God. In the epistle for today, there is a verse about how we treat children of God. It goes like this, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.” I like the way the Contemporary English version of the Bible says it, “If we love and obey God, we know we will love God’s children.” Let’s spend this time remembering all the different ways we are God’s children and what it means to love and obey God. It seems appropriate to do that this Sunday, family Sunday, when we are especially reminded of our children. There are so many references in Scripture to help us realize that we are all children of God. One of my favorites is this verse from Galatians 3:26 and 27: “for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” It is through our baptism that Jesus has chosen us as children of God. I also like this quote from 1 John 3:1 “See what amazing love the Father has given us! Because of it, we are called children of God. And that’s what we really are!” In Romans 8:14: we are told that “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” Scripture is clear that everyone one of us is a child of God. We have been adopted as God’s children through God’s love. Jesus made sure that we are children of God through his life and work and sacrifice. As we live in the spirit and ask the Spirit to guide us we continue to live as God’s children. The acceptance that we are God’s children can actually be overwhelming. We sing about it in songs taught to young people like All God’s Children of the World. We write about it. Here is what Maya Angelou once said, “I believed that there was a God because I was told it by my grandmother and later by other adults. But when I found that I knew not only that there was God but that I was a child of God, when I understood that, when I comprehended that, more than that, when I internalized that, ingested that, I became courageous.” As we follow in Maya Angelou’s footsteps, we too become courageous. We live in God’s love and we share that love with others. Knowing that we are God’s children lifts us up but today’s lesson is about how we respond. The reading from 1 John encourages us to love God and to follow God’s commandments. I sometimes wonder if it is easier to love God than to obey the commandments. But that is a silly idea. The truth is we show our love by doing what God commanded us to do. And the model we have for doing God’s will is Jesus. In the gospel today, Jesus spoke of following God’s commandments and abiding in God’s love. The word abiding isn’t used much anymore. I think abiding has a sense of continuity to it. Synonyms include enduring and everlasting and permanent. Abiding in God’s love is a commitment that we make for our entire life. Abiding means accepting the gift we have been given. In particular, it is about the gift Jesus gave us in his death and resurrection. It is about the water and the blood that came from Jesus when the soldiers pierced him in the side. It is the gift of life that Jesus gave for us. It is the promise of everlasting life. That is why we choose to abide, to choose an everlasting love. This week, I once again felt a strong connection between our epistle and our gospel reading. The gospel speaks of following the commandments of God. It speaks of the love of Jesus and the love of God. The epistle has similar words about God’s love. These two scriptural texts seem to be perfectly paired with each other. Last week, we learned that when we love one another God lives in us. This week it says that when we love God, we love one another. It sounds as if these are two opposite theologies. But it is as if love leads us in all directions. Loving others means God is in us. Loving others, the children of God, means that we love God. It is like a circle of love lifting us up and bringing us close to God and each other. Jesus spoke of another gift. It is the freedom to live as his friend. We are no longer servants, he said, but rather his friends. Our friendship means that we are no longer bogged down by sin. We follow God’s word because we have been taught by Jesus. We understand the truth that is found in Jesus. Of course our friendship doesn’t make us equal to Jesus. It instead makes us able to live our lives in joy and thanksgiving. We often think about following God’s commandments as if it were a hardship. We have to set our mind to it and have a grim determination to see it through. Jesus never saw it that way. When we abide in God’s love, it makes things easier. Our life is no longer difficult or a chore. The commandments are no longer burdensome we are told. Jesus thought of following God’s commandments as something he did with joy. I believe Jesus thought that when he asked the disciples to follow God’s commandments, he expected that they would do so with joy. It certainly gave them a sense of fulfillment, a knowing that they were doing the right thing. We seek that sense of fulfillment as well. We too want to bask in God’s love. That is why Jesus spoke of his own joy and why he wishes for us to share in that joy. It is the joy that is found in obeying God’s wishes for us. Our theme throughout this Easter season has been about God’s love. We understand the gift that has been given to us and we accept that gift which brings us comfort and strength. We understand how Jesus wants us to live and we do so with joy. Most especially we are joyful because we share our love with God’s children. Today, I think about the young people that we encounter, the real children who need our help and support and love. I am thankful that people have worked hard to make a difference for the young people in this state through increased funding for our school systems. I am thankful for the gifts we give to those who need it the most, the backpack program that feeds hungry children. All the while, I remember that everyone here is a child of God, a person who needs our love and support whether they are a newborn or the most mature person in this congregation. Let us cross those barriers that divide us, cross the barriers of age or race or gender and accept and share in the love that we all have as children of God. Amen.
Today, we hear a lot about grape vines and branches. It takes a lot of time and work to produce grapes. A new grape vine may take up to three years to produce fruit. According to the Arbor Day Foundation, pruning a grape vine is not a little thing. “Pruning maintains the vine's form, size, vigor, and next season's fruiting wood. Grape vines produce more wood than necessary. Typically 70-90 percent of the new growth is removed on a mature vine. Balanced pruning involves only wood produced during the previous growing season. Wood two years and older is not counted or pruned annually in this system.” I am not sure that I am the best one to discuss gardening skills. After all, Jan and I have tried from time to time to grow different vegetables in our garden but not often with a great deal of success. It seems that we are pretty good at growing plants but we are not usually very good at getting vegetables to produce fruit. There are many in this congregation who do a much better job. I am sure that it has to do with skill and I also think they put more time into their gardening. I am also certain that they know much better than I how to coax their plants into producing the most fruit possible. That is what Jesus does for us. In the gospel Jesus spoke about pruning. Jesus told his disciples that he is the vine and we are the branches. Let’s pay attention to the message that Jesus is the true vine. It means that Jesus is our God and the one that we follow always. It also means that Jesus provides us with the Word of God. It is the word of God that feeds us and helps us to bear fruit. As it says, without Jesus we can do nothing that is worthwhile. In the story, the branches that bear no fruit are cut off and thrown away. Notice that Jesus said God removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. It suggests that some people have left Jesus and they must be destroyed. We think of the pruning as painful to us but Jesus must have been pained by those who left him. Those that do bear fruit are pruned regularly. Yes, we are the branches, we need to bear fruit every season. And when we are successful at bearing fruit, our branches are pruned so that we may bear more fruit. This idea of pruning our branches sounds pretty painful. I don’t think that is what Jesus meant. I think a better way to think about this message from Jesus is that Jesus wants us to always be healthy. Healthy comes in several different ways. It means healthy in our relationship with God. It means healthy in our relationships with other people. It means healthy in body, mind and spirit. For me, then, being pruned is more like having your nails cut than it is like having a finger cut off. The reason pruning would help is not that we should be punished, but that pruning promotes health of the whole person. It is more about taking away the growth that we have done and going back to basics. It reminds us that we are not able to produce fruit on our own, rather it takes Jesus to help us produce fruit. It means staying close to Jesus as our source of nourishment. We need pruning because we may have started to think that we can do it all on our own. We may have forgotten that we need Jesus. Jesus feeds us with the words of scripture and Jesus feeds us in the communion service. Jesus also feeds us by sending the Holy Spirit to guide and comfort us. In the 19th century, there was a Dutch Reformed missionary named Andrew Murray who was sent from Scotland to South Africa. Murray ended up writing about 200 books, one of which was called “The True Vine”. It was a book about today’s gospel reading. Murray matters because he believed that Christians were free to experience the grace of God. I like that. He wrote this about Jesus as the vine. “Christ Jesus said: I am the Vine, ye are the branches. In other words: I, the living One who have so completely given myself to you, am the Vine. You cannot trust me too much. I am the Almighty Worker, full of a divine life and power. You are the branches of the Lord Jesus Christ. If there is in your heart the consciousness that you are not a strong, healthy, fruit-bearing branch, not closely linked with Jesus, not living in Him as you should be—then listen to Him say: I am the Vine, I will receive you, I will draw you to myself, I will bless you, I will strengthen you, I will fill you with my Spirit. I, the Vine, have taken you to be my branches, I have given myself utterly to you; children, give yourselves utterly to me. I have surrendered myself as God absolutely to you; I became man and died for you that I might be entirely yours. Come and surrender yourselves entirely to be mine.” I would say that Andrew Murray’s words fit nicely in our thinking in the 21st century. I would say that the most important message in today’s gospel is about Jesus as the one. Jesus feeds us and comforts us and gives us strength. That is what I hear Andrew Murray wrote. But the gospel is never just about comfort and sustenance. It is always about what we are called to become. Jesus told us that we are called to be fruitful. During this Easter season we have been reading from the gospel of John but we have also been reading from the letter which is called 1 John. It is not nearly as well known as the letters from Paul. As with many scriptural books, we don’t actually know who wrote it. It may have come to be called 1 John because it does mirror in some ways the gospel of John. The clear message from 1 John is about God’s love which is the basis for salvation. It was out of love for us that God sent Jesus to live among us and to sacrifice his life for us. It connects so well with the image of Jesus as the vine and we are the branches, doesn’t it? This passage from 1 John, is like a reprise of what Jesus himself said, that we are to love one another. 1 John adds that we love because love comes from God. “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” And later, “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” Isn’t it wonderful to think that when we love others then God lives in us. So we are fruitful when we love one another. When we love one another, then we do things for other people. Loving one another means that we help those who are less fortunate, we take care of people when they are sick, we console others when they have lost loved ones. We come together to show hospitality to each other. We make sure that someone who is alone is not forgotten. Andrew Murray offered these words, “How can we glorify God? Not by adding to His glory or bringing Him any new glory that He has not. But simply by allowing His glory to shine out through us, by yielding ourselves to Him, that His glory may manifest itself in us and through us to the world.” I am sure that when Jesus was telling us about pruning, he wanted us to get rid of the sins in our life. Whatever has come into our life that separates us from God needs to be gotten rid of. But when we listen to 1 John, I think pruning is more about bringing ourselves back to Jesus, perhaps going back to the word of Jesus for sustenance. I would say it is about trying to do as Jesus did, to love others and to show our love in the way we talk to others and care for them. Let us allow Jesus to feed us so that we may feed each other. Amen.
There are times when people are given names that are funny. I knew someone who was called Imma Pigg. I saw the name of a lawyer who called herself Sue Yoo. There is a man who was named Dyl Pickle. I have seen wedding announcements where the combined names are cute. How about the announcement of the impending wedding between Looney and Ward? Or the couple whose names before the wedding were Hardy and Harr. The credits on a movie listed a gentleman named Chris P. Bacon. I am sure you could share many other examples of funny names. More often names are serious. Children are frequently named after someone in the family who was truly admired by the parents. The name connects a child to that other person in a special way. Perhaps the child feels as if they carry on the family name and legacy. Names are important. Some of us are thankful for the name we were given and others wish it were different. Some even choose to change their name. William Shakespeare once suggested that the person was more important than the name and that is true. Romeo and Juliet struggled with the divides created by their families and at one point Juliet spoke about the meaning of names in this famous passage, “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. It wouldn’t matter if you called a rose a thorn, it would still be beautiful. But the family names Montague and Capulet made a dramatic difference in the lives of Romeo and Juliet. God changed the name of several people in Scripture. Their new names were a better indication of the characteristics or calling of that individual. The name Abram means “High Father” and God decided that a more appropriate name was Abraham which means “father of a multitude”. God also changed the name of Abraham’s wife Sarai which means princess to Sarah which means “mother of the nations”. The name Jacob means “heel catcher” or “the one who grasps the heel” because Jacob held on to the heel of his twin brother Esau when they were born. The name Jacob also described his desire to receive the blessing of his father which he later accomplished to the chagrin of Esau. Much later God changed Jacob’s name to Israel. Israel means “May God prevail”. It was the name given after Jacob fought with the angel, for the name can also mean “struggles with God”. In the New Testament, Jesus changed the name of Simon to Peter which means “rock”. Jesus said he would be the rock of the church. After his conversion, Saul’s name was changed to Paul which means, “small or humble.” Paul may have been small but I’m certain that he was humble. I would say that in each case in which a bible character’s name was changed, it signified that his or her life had taken a new direction, their life had a new meaning. Their new names signified their new role in life. Our baptism is a time when we think of names as well and the meaning of the name. The parents are asked in the baptismal ceremony to name the child and later we hear that the child is marked as Christ’s own forever. Names matter. Today, we focus on the importance of our own names. While our names may have been given to us by another human, the important message for today is that our names are known by God. The collect summarizes the lessons for today with these words, “Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads”. God calls each of us by name. God knows each of us individually and is there to protect and guide us. This personal relationship we have with God is something we can hold on to when we are troubled and when we are comforted. For God knows each of us by name. The Message that God knows each of us by name and cares for us is clear in the gospel lesson. Jesus told us that he is the good shepherd, watching out for us and accompanying us as we seek nurture and solace. But Jesus did not stop with the notion that he cares for us. Jesus said, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” The relationship between ourselves and Jesus is one on one. And Jesus is ready to do whatever it takes to make our life whole. He said, I will lay down my life for my sheep. There is nothing more that we can ask for than this. Jesus’ words are similar to those found in Psalm 23. That is when we say the Lord is my shepherd. Psalm 23 reminds us that God is constantly guiding us, helping us to find our way. And God’s wish for us is that we are well fed, comfortable and safe from our enemies. There was a song written by Carole King called “You’ve Got a friend.” Carole recorded the song as did James Taylor in 1971. The refrain goes like this. You just call out my name And you know wherever I am I'll come running to see you again Winter, spring, summer or fall All you have to do is call And I'll be there You've got a friend I know that the song is about relationships between humans. But I think the words apply to our relationship with God as well. God is there for us and all we have to do is reach out and call God’s name and God will be there for us. Because God knows our name, God will respond. As I said earlier, names are important. And we sometimes mistreat the names of other people. There is an expression that says, “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” It is often used to deflect the name calling that happens between children. I cannot tell you how many times my last name was used as a negative term when I was young. I have heard every possible interpretation of the last name Saik that you could imagine and I’m sure many of you could share stories about how your name was made fun of. Name calling may not hurt us physically but I would say name calling can be damaging to our emotional state. There could be no greater knowledge of this than what we find in politics today. It seems that name calling has become even more significant than it ever was. People in politics who do not agree call each other by names that we should not even repeat. But today, I ask you to think about names that you may call yourself. I believe that we are hardest on ourselves. We know full well what we have done that is wrong and we often speak about ourselves in negative terms. We may refer to ourselves as a sinner or as a mean person or as someone who has not done good things for others. We might know ourselves as someone who has messed up a relationship with others. The names we give ourselves may be accurate but they may also be keeping us from being what God has called us to be. In contrast, I ask you to focus on what God calls you. Please remember that God calls you by your own beloved name. God will treat your name with respect. In fact, God may give you another name that describes that to which you have been called. If you have not heard of any other name that God has given you then please accept the declaration that God has called you as God’s child. It is another indication that God knows you as an individual and that God will protect you and prepare you for only the best in this world. Desmond Tutu once said, “most churches when they have images of the good shepherd, they show Jesus carrying a nice fluffy lamb. Now fluffy little lambs don't stray from their mommy's. The sheep that will stray is the most obstreperous, troublesome one.” It doesn’t matter what we think of ourselves. We may be the worst of the worst. We may be the one who sins the most. But we still belong to Jesus and Jesus cares for us because we are his own. We turn one more time to the gospel. Jesus didn’t just say that he would lay down his life for us. He took it one step further. He said, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again.” I hear that as a reference to the resurrection. Jesus died so that he could rise from the dead and show us the way to eternal life. Jesus gives that gift to each of us, by name. What greater gift could we have than that? Let us be thankful for God knows each of us by name, not as a number in a crowd but as a person of importance to God. Amen.
I wish all of you could spend just one day as a priest. When I go out in public, I am always amazed at how much respect I receive. One of the more interesting situations is how people change their language when I am around. Jan and I have some family members who like to use colorful language. But when they came to visit us, they watched their language the entire time that they were here. I have also had this experience when I play golf. My fellow golfers have often told me how they change their language when I am part of the group. The reaction to a bad shot is not so explicit. It is not that I say something. I have heard bad language before and I am not some prude that believes people must behave just because I am around. It is just that they respect my position. But I do like it when people watch their language whether it is because of me or not. I don’t think bad words are necessary to explain our feelings. It is just that some people have gotten used to using those kinds of words. Today, I ask you to think about how you behave when you are around other people. Are you impacted by their behavior? How do you impact them? Does it matter who is present to determine how we behave? Today, I am thinking about the various encounters that people had with Jesus and with the disciples. If people change when they are around me, can you imagine how they must have acted when Jesus was with them? Not as much as you might think. The first reading is from the Acts of the Apostles. Let me give you a little background. Peter and John were going to the temple late one day. They entered the city of Jerusalem and a man who could not walk stopped them and asked for help. Peter told him that they had no money to give him but said instead, “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk”. He helped the man onto his feet and the man followed Peter and John into the temple. The Jewish people were astonished that the man had been healed. Peter uses this opportunity to proclaim the good news of Jesus. I have the impression that the common folk who heard this story marveled at the power of Jesus Christ. But “the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. So they arrested them.” In the presence of the miraculous power of Jesus, the leaders of the temple felt threatened and they decided to stop the threat by arresting Peter and John. How would you have acted if you had been there? Now, I want to discuss with you the visit of Jesus with his disciples after his resurrection. Today we read the story from the point of view of Luke. I cannot help but remind you that the passage just before today’s gospel is the story of the Walk to Emmaus. We only read it once every three years and I wish that we would read it more often. In that story, Jesus joins two of the disciples on their walk. They tell him all about their sadness that Jesus was crucified. They have heard rumors that Jesus has risen from the dead but they aren’t sure. They don’t recognize Jesus until the walk is completed and they are sharing a meal with him. In the dialogue, I hear the disciples focusing on their concerns and not really looking to find Jesus. It takes a long time before they realize Jesus is with them. Their inability to understand scripture seems to hold them back. Have you ever struggled to “see’ Jesus in your life because you were too concerned with your own problems? Those two disciples who encountered Jesus on the Walk and the meal run back to Jerusalem and tell everyone that they had seen Jesus. Almost immediately, Jesus appears again, this time in the locked room. The actual sentence goes like this, “While they were standing around and talking, Jesus himself stood among them.” Everyone was startled and terrified, thinking they had seen a ghost. Jesus was present. How might you react if Jesus came into this room right now? Would you be afraid? Would you recognize Jesus? Jesus asked them why they doubted that he had risen from the dead. I remind you that the disciples often had doubts about Jesus even after he rose from the dead. Would we have doubts? How are we like the disciples? What is it that causes us to have doubts? After all, we have the experience and knowledge of years to accept the fact that Jesus has risen. And yet aren’t there times when we wonder whether it really happened? Well it really did happen. I am reassured by the appearances of Jesus not just to the disciples but also to us. Can you consider what it means that Jesus comes to us? For I believe that Jesus still appears in our midst. Matthew wrote about it. He said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Paul wrote in the letter to the Philippians that “ Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. For The Lord is near.” Thomas Merton once wrote, ““God, who is everywhere, never leaves us. Yet He seems sometimes to be present, sometimes to be absent. If we do not know Him well, we do not realize that He may be more present to us when He is absent than when He is present.” When Jesus appeared to the disciples he offered them peace. I say that Jesus comes to be with us and offers us peace. When I began today, I mentioned how some people change their behavior when I am around. I think a better question is how do we change our behavior when Jesus is around? And then, when we realize that Jesus is always around, how might that impact us? There is an acronym that has been used in the last few years WWJD, what would Jesus do? It is a good thought for us to have. Today, I prefer the question what would I do if Jesus were here? And then I realize that Jesus is always here and it helps me to remember how I should be all the time. Another way to look at this is to remember that we are made in the image of God. We then reflect God’s image to others. I often think about the fact that our behavior influences the behavior of other people. Sometimes we know exactly how our behavior has impacted others. At other times, our actions may not show fruit for a long time and sometimes we never know that we have impacted another person. The same is true for how others impact us. We often say to children that they should choose their friends carefully. Choosing friends who are bad will lead children into some bad behavior. That is why we choose good friends. Jesus can be found in others just as sometimes people see Jesus in us. Jesus appeared to many of his disciples after he rose from the dead. The apostles were frightened when they first saw Jesus. They didn’t even recognize him at first. He must have looked different than what they experienced before his resurrection. Perhaps he was taking on the mantle of divinity more than the mantle of humanity. Whatever the change was, we are informed that Jesus was still human, not like a ghost. Jesus’ visits made a lasting impression on the disciples. They may not have responded immediately but before long they went out into the world and proclaimed the story of Jesus. Their response may have been fear and amazement at first but eventually it turned into outspoken evangelism. Today, let us open our souls to the presence of Jesus. We may at first have our doubts, we may simply be amazed, we may not even recognize that Jesus is there. Perhaps the appearance of Jesus will eventually change our behavior as it did his first followers. Through the power of Jesus we have become children of God, just as we read in 1st John this morning. It is a sign of God’s love for us. John wrote, “when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” His presence changes us. His actions help us to be different. We are a people set apart, a people who live as if Jesus is with us each day on our journey. May God bless us and continue to be with us always. Amen.
I hope that you have some big plans for today. An Easter dinner with lots of people is a great event. Someone in our congregation told me that they were going to have nine people at their house today and they were excited. Jan and I are going to Flagstaff to see our family and we plan to have a big Easter dinner with our family and friends. We can’t wait to see our new baby granddaughter again and her sister. It should be wonderful. There are many other Easter traditions that you may take part in. Easter egg hunts are fun. Perhaps you will have a chocolate Easter bunny. Or maybe the Easter bunny will bring some Easter eggs stuffed with some goodies to your house. Jan has prepared Easter baskets for our children and grandchildren. I suppose we should appreciate the fact that so many traditions have grown up around Easter Day. I am sure that these rituals all started for good reason as people wanted to make Easter special to celebrate. But these various traditions seem to have established a life of their own, no longer connected to the real reason for Easter. In this increasingly secular world we live in, many do not even stop long enough to appreciate that Jesus rose from the dead on this day. After all Easter has not kept the college basketball finals from taking place. I love all of the trappings of Easter. I can easily fall victim to all that happens today and forget why we do it. For example, I love that the Alleluias are back and I am so happy that we have uplifting music rather than the quiet hymns of the Lenten season. Despite all of the distractions and events, each of you has come here to take part in a celebration for the real meaning of Easter, to give thanks to God for the glorious resurrection of Jesus; To take part in the good news that Jesus has gone before us to prepare a place for us. Through his resurrection we often say that Jesus has opened the gates of heaven. That image is helpful. We so often have fences to protect something we value. In my subdivision, we have fences so that only those who are authorized can come in. And the gates into my subdivision have a code so that only those who know the code can enter. The image of a gate is often used in Scripture. For example, in Matthew Jesus said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” The devil cannot stop the followers of Jesus. In the Apostles Creed, we say that after Jesus was crucified, died and was buried that he descended into hell. The idea is that Jesus went and freed those who had died before him and took them up to heaven. Jesus opened the gates of hell. In another passage, Jesus gave Peter and the apostles the authority to forgive sins. Jesus said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.“ It is out of that passage we come to the belief that Peter will meet us at the gates of heaven and will only allow in those who have been faithful. I like to think that Jesus has already opened the gates and Peter is just inside enjoying it. In the Psalm today we ask God to open the gates for us, “Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter them; I will offer thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; he who is righteous may enter.” And in today’s collect, we hear these words, “Jesus Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life”. And that is why we celebrate so much on this day. The resurrection of Jesus has changed everything. Jesus rose from the dead and through his rising, he opened those gates for us. In John’s gospel Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?* And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” It was the promise of everlasting life given to us by Jesus. That same promise is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans, “We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.” What joy we have to look forward to. Thanks be to Jesus for all he has done for us. Jesus has opened the gates of heaven to us and Jesus has promised that the faithful will follow him there. It doesn’t get any better than this. Let’s reflect for a moment on the resurrection story. Mary Magdalene arrived first and when she saw the tomb was empty she ran to get Peter and the other disciple. The two men see the empty tomb and even go inside but strangely they do not encounter Jesus. If you came here today and do not feel the joy and hope of the resurrection then you are not alone. Because someone as faithful and well known as Peter was uncertain as well. I wish we knew how Peter felt but we are only told that he did not yet understand what the empty tomb meant. I imagine that Peter struggled with what to think. Is it possible that he thought the authorities took the body of Jesus? Was he afraid that something would happen to him if he shouted excitedly about Jesus being raised from the dead? Was he like Thomas, waiting to see Jesus for himself before he came to a conclusion? We just don’t know. All that we are told is that the two men simply went home. The story might have ended there but Mary stuck around. Mary encountered Jesus and she was the first to go out and proclaim that Jesus was resurrected. Every one of the gospel stories reports that it was the women who told what had happened. Doesn’t it help you to appreciate the role of the women followers? I know that the role of women was different in those days. They had the responsibility to go and anoint the body with oils. And I know that the women might have been able to move around more freely because the authorities would not have worried about what the women were going to do. The men may have been more cautious about their activities. Despite all of this, I would bring your attention to the fact that the women are the ones who go and tell everyone what had happened. They were the ones who got everyone excited. The reading from Acts reminds us that the resurrection of Jesus offers the hope of salvation to everyone. That same Peter, who was uncertain when he first saw the empty tomb had grown so much. Peter had become a leader of the early Christians community and was willing to speak out about his Savior, Jesus Christ. Peter gives the best summary of our Christian beliefs in his talk with Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and other Gentiles. Peter had come to the conclusion that Jesus died for the sins of all and that Gentiles did not have to convert to Judaism in order to be faithful followers of Jesus. Let us welcome all who would be followers of Jesus for that is just what Jesus taught us to do and what Peter did himself. I hope that most of you are here today full of joy, full of hope for everlasting life. It might make you wish that you could just sit back and take it all in, absorbing the glory of God and of his son, Jesus. I would just ask you to realize that the story doesn’t end with the resurrection of Jesus, nor does it end with the announcement by Mary Magdalene that she had seen the risen Lord. For Jesus appeared to his followers several times after his resurrection. Jesus continued his ministry of peace and love until his ascension into heaven. The ministry continued as the apostles began to share the story of Jesus with others starting on Pentecost. It continued with Paul who was converted when Jesus appeared to him on his ride to Damascus and Paul began to tell the story of the risen Jesus. And it continues to this day as we share the joy we have with others loudly proclaiming that Jesus Christ is risen today. Amen.
John’s gospel opens this way, “In the Beginning was the word”. He was referring to Jesus as the word. In the passion story, I am drawn to the words that Jesus offered to Pilate. Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Earlier in John’s gospel Jesus said, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." The words of Jesus are truth which guide us and give us courage. When we listen to and follow the words of Jesus we are free from sin and free to do God’s will. Today’s truth is that Jesus died on the cross. He died because the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem believed that Jesus was preaching against their faith. It is also likely that they were jealous, afraid the people would listen to Jesus more than they listened to the chief priests. Jesus died because he loved us and wanted to show us how to be in relationship with God. We often say that Jesus died for our sins. I think that is true but I don’t believe that Jesus’ sacrifice was some payment made to God for our sins. There are many times in Scripture, both Old Testament and New, where God forgave the people. So, Jesus didn’t have to convince God to forgive our sins. That happens when we ask for forgiveness. I believe Jesus death was an effort to change us, to take us out of our sinfulness. We often use the word atonement for the sacrifice of Jesus. It can mean reparation for some wrong that was done. But a Christian definition of atonement is the reconciliation of God and humankind through Jesus Christ. Jesus wanted to bring us into one with God. I read a sermon this week given by Diana Butler Bass, a distinguished author from the Episcopal tradition. She pointed me to the words of an English lady named Julian of Norwich. Julian lived a long time ago from 1342 until 1416. She was an anchoress, that is she led a solitary life in a small building connected to the church. All the interactions she had with people were through the window of her small cell. When Julian was about 30 years old, she contracted some illness, perhaps the plague. She was lying on what was believed to be her deathbed. While in that state she had a series of visions of Jesus Christ bleeding in front of her. A web site called the Julian Centre offered this information, “She received insight into his sufferings and his love for us. Julian’s message remains one of hope and trust in God, whose compassionate love is always given to us. In this all-gracious God there can be no element of wrath. The wrath — ‘all that is contrary to peace and love — is in us and not in God. God’s saving work in Jesus of Nazareth and in the gift of God's spirit, is to slake our wrath in the power of his merciful and compassionate love’.” I would say that Jesus came to show us God’s love, God’s mercy and in so doing change us from people of wrath into people of peace and love. Julian eventually wrote about her visions in a book called Revelations of Divine Love, which is thought to be the first book written in English by a woman. In this book, there is a place where Julian focused on the suffering of Jesus. She wrote, “Of all pains that lead to salvation this is the most pain, to see thy Love suffer. How might any pain be more to me than to see Him that is all my life, all my bliss, and all my joy, suffer?” As followers of Jesus, we have pain because Jesus had so much pain. This led her to a conclusion, that Jesus suffered with us. She wrote, “Here saw I a great ONEING betwixt Christ and us: for when He was in pain, we were in pain.” That expression, ONEING, is just like that other expression I mentioned, atonement. Jesus suffering brings us into one with him and with God. Diana Butler Bass concluded that while we might say that Jesus died for us, we might better say that Jesus died with us. With us is so much different than for us. It joins us in community with other people. It indicates that we are experiencing an event together rather than separately. When we say that Jesus died with us it makes all the difference to me. Jesus isn't somehow apart from us. He joins with us in our lives, coming to meet us where we are, sinners who struggle, and yet he is right there with us. When I feel that Jesus is with me, it makes my journey easier. It creates an understanding that God didn’t just come to earth as some strange person but rather as someone that knows me and stays with me. It is like a best friend. Jesus showed how he is with us when they arrested him in the garden. They asked if he was Jesus of Nazareth. He responded ‘I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.’ This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken, ‘I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.’ Jesus was with his disciples and protected them from harm. What does it mean to be with Jesus? Today, it means that we suffer with him, we join him in his agony. It means that we share in his sorrow for some deserted him when he died while others refused to give up their sins. It means that we commit ourselves to following the will of God, even if it hurts us in some way. So, we reflect on the suffering that Jesus went through both for us and with us. We are thankful for his sacrifice. Given what we know about the word of Jesus, the truth of Jesus, we commit ourselves to be with him, walking with our Savior, staying committed to God each step of the way. Amen.
In the normal course of a Sunday liturgy, we encounter our faith and our relationship with God in multiple ways. We use our minds and the senses of sight and hearing as we listen to God’s word as it is found in Scripture. We enter into the ritual of our service. In so doing, we connect to the words of Jesus and the words of countless Christians over the centuries. And we use our sense of taste when we join as a community in the Eucharist, a meal of bread and wine, sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ. As we begin the busiest and most important week of the church year, we can expand our connection to God by using the additional sense of touch. We also have the opportunity to become emotionally connected with what Jesus experienced during Holy Week. I think this happens differently than at any other time of the church year. We began on this day with the procession of palms. As we carry the palms and process around the parking lot, we seek to recreate in a small way what the people experienced on that day. We add our voices to all of those who praised Jesus as the true Messiah, our Savior. The emotion is one of great joy. Hosanna to God in the highest we proclaim. This week will also end in great joy as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and excitement of Easter. But in between those two places of great joy we have sorry and suffering as we share the story of the terrible crucifixion of Jesus. It is as if we are on a roller coater, which has the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. I would suggest that we try to place ourselves in these stories. Imagine how it would have felt if we were one of the disciples. Can you allow yourself to feel the confusion and the fear of what would happen to Jesus and to yourself if you were there? I believe they also felt the terrible loss from the death of Jesus. And on Easter, they must have had questions about whether what they heard was real. Then they finally shared the amazement and joy when they saw Christ once more. Let’s give into our senses and emotions as we live this Holy Week. Our gospel readings are from Mark. It is the shortest and I would say the most straightforward of all of the gospels. The largest portion of the gospel tells the story of the last week, focusing on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Just today, we read 20% of the entire gospel. It is often said that Mark’s Gospel is a Passion narrative with a very long introduction. Many times prior, Mark prepared us for that last week such as the times when Jesus foreshadowed his death and resurrection. Mark has some twists as well. You may remember that every time Jesus performed a miracle in Mark’s gospel, he would tell folks to keep quiet about it. Tell no one he said. Now we switch from the idea of keeping the miracles of Jesus quiet to a magnificent, processional entrance into Jerusalem. Suddenly Jesus is surrounded by people who are cheering him on as the messiah. We had some interesting discussions on Wednesday after we had read the Palm Sunday story. How could the disciples go to a place where a donkey or colt was hitched and just take it? And when they were confronted by some bystanders they just said, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately and they were allowed to take it. One writer suggested that the use of the donkey had been preplanned, that when the disciples said the Lord needs it those words were a secret code about what was to happen. I usually think about the procession with the palms as something that happened on the fly but it may have been planned for some time. Maybe they were allowed to take the donkey because they were in Bethany, the place of Lazarus. Bethany may have been a stronghold of faith in Jesus. Another idea is that the fame of Jesus spread dramatically after he raised Lazarus from the dead and perhaps when someone heard that Jesus wanted a donkey, they were quite willing to allow it. Another discussion had to do with the palms. Processions with palms were part of another Jewish feast called the Feast of Tabernacles which was held in the fall so perhaps the palms were a connection to people of the glory of God. Of course, palms and tree branches as well as cloaks were strewn on the ground in front of Jesus as he rode the donkey. All of these are signs of honor for a king. And then there is the donkey. Using a donkey that had never been ridden before was a sign of honor for Jesus. It also connected him to King David who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. In my daughter’s church in Flagstaff, they will have a donkey present during their procession of recreating, another way to touch, feel and smell what happened as Jesus entered the great city. The emotions we experience continue throughout the week and they are often accompanied by ways that we use our sense of touch as well. On Maundy Thursday, we will have the washing of the feet. For those who wash the feet, it recreates the washing of the feet that was done by Jesus for the apostles. Jesus demonstrated that we are to be servants of others. If you have your feet washed, it requires you to humble yourself to allow someone else to do this kind of thing for you. Peter actually refused when it was first suggested by Jesus. But Jesus told him that was required. Serving others and allowing others to serve you is part of our Christian life. We learn in the recreating and in the doing. The same thing is true of Good Friday. Someone will carry the cross into the church. As we do so, it is another opportunity to touch and to feel the emotions of fear and suffering that Jesus experienced for us. Perhaps we might even have the same sense of abandonment that Jesus must have felt, being left by his followers, knowing that this is what God the Father asked of him and wishing that it could be different. One way for us to understand the fullness of the crucifixion of Jesus is to realize that through his death and resurrection he can relate to the deaths that we experience. It is a time to remember those that have died and left us. As we reflect on the loss that we have at the death of Jesus, the sadness and the despair, we also know that Jesus joins us in the times of our sadness and despair. But the crucifixion is not the end of the story. The cross of Calvary is connected to the resurrection of Easter. We do not just remember the death of Jesus, we know the joy of the resurrection. When we remember the loss of our loved ones, we should also celebrate the joy of life after death for them, our hope of everlasting life. The crucifixion is intertwined so closely with the resurrection and the Easter joy that comes with it. We cannot come to Easter without having gone through the death on Calvary. We do all of this to connect to the things that happened when Jesus, the Son of God, came to earth. We recreate something that happened in the past, the reality of Jesus and his disciples going through the week that changed our lives. But it is not just about the past. It is also about the present. It is about the way that Jesus comes into our lives today, for I believe that he joins us on all of our individual emotional journeys. Jesus is with us in our suffering and sadness as well as in our joy. This week is also about the future. For Christians believe that Jesus died and rose again. He promised that he would go and make a place for us. We prepare ourselves for the future this week. I invite you this day and this week to consider how Jesus changed your life, not just by using your mind, the words you say or the things you hear. Let’s allow our other senses to be a part of this week as well, the sense of touch in particular, to feel the things that Jesus and his disciples did. And I invite you to open your hearts to the emotions of this week. Allow the feelings of sorrow and joy to enter you. Perhaps the highs and lows you experience will be more meaningful. For me, it increases my thankfulness for all that Jesus did for us. Amen.
Have you ever thought of yourself as a pilgrim? We use that term to refer to people who left England on the Mayflower in 1620 and came to Massachusetts searching for religious freedom. You may also remember that John Wayne called some people “pilgrim” in his westerns. I think he meant it as a derogatory term about people who came from the eastern part of the United States who were soft and timid, not ready for the harsh realities of frontier living. I am thinking specifically about our Christian pilgrimage. The idea of taking a pilgrimage is ancient. Fifteen of the Psalms are called Songs of Ascent. It is believed that these Psalms were sung by people on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Folks sang these songs as they ascended to Jerusalem some 2500 feet above sea level. Christians have taken pilgrimages to holy sites for centuries. The most famous of these is Camino de Santiago or the way of Saint James through northern Spain. Martin Sheen made a movie called The Way which is about that path to Santiago de Compostela. He learned things about himself and about his relationship with God on that pilgrimage. Our gospel story today is about a pilgrimage. The story takes place in Jerusalem during the Passover. The city may have grown by six or seven times its normal population during Passover. I am sure it was a spirit filled time for them. Jesus and his followers came to Jerusalem from Galilee. In fact, Jesus was somewhat of a celebrity because he had just raised Lazarus from the dead. We read that some Greeks came to Jerusalem as well. It would have been a long trip. Those Greeks must have heard the buzz surrounding Jesus. They asked Philip if they could see Jesus. Whether they wanted a sign, to just be able to see someone like Jesus, to get his autograph or perhaps to hear his preaching we are not told. Of course, Philip was one of the apostles, called by Jesus at the same time he called Andrew and Peter. Eventually Philip and Andrew told Jesus about the Greeks. I wonder if they understood the response Jesus gave them. Our whole life can be a pilgrimage, a journey to bring us closer to God. But today, let’s consider the journey we have taken during this Lenten season. Lent is a pilgrimage to bring us to the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday and the glorious resurrection on Easter. Maybe on your pilgrimage you have fasted or given up some kind of food. You may have entered into a time of study. Perhaps you have attended in a different way to your relationship with God in prayer. But all of us have also taken a journey in Scripture. The gospels of this Lenten season take us on the journey of Jesus, preparing us for the upcoming events. We have studied the baptism of Jesus, his temptation in the desert and the beginnings of his ministry as he proclaimed the good news that the kingdom of God was near. Jesus told people in Galilee that he would undergo great suffering, be killed and raised in three days. Peter rebuked him for saying that. It brought to mind times that we refused the words of Christ. We journeyed with Jesus to Jerusalem where he threw the money-changers and the vendors out of the Temple. We heard that God sent Jesus to redeem us that we might be saved through him. Today, we once again are reminded that Jesus will die and be raised from the dead, all to glorify the name of God. We join Jesus on his journey. I remember a time when I visited the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. While I was there, I went on a short pilgrimage on the grounds of the cathedral. They took us out into the gardens and we couldn’t see the cathedral for a time. When the enormous cathedral came into view again, I had the sense of excitement and joy that real pilgrims must feel. They know that the journey is near an end and they look forward to visiting a special place. We are getting close to the excitement of Easter. Perhaps you even imagine that your journey is at an end. How has the journey through scripture prepared you for the sadness of Good Friday and for the revelation of Easter? Let me encourage you to think about it this way. Last week, in my sermon, I asked you to feel this overwhelming message of God’s forgiveness and mercy, found in every lesson. In the Old Testament, God forgave the Israelites when they sinned as they followed Moses in the desert. God’s forgiveness was found in the Psalms. Later, we read about God forgiving the people Paul wrote to in Ephesus. And we listened to John tell us about God’s love for us which is so strong that he sent Jesus to save us from our sin. I know you have been through these events many times in your lives. Still, I wonder if it is possible for you look forward one more time to what is about to come. Can you be excited that you can see it in the distance? Can you look forward to experiencing one more time the love of God in Jesus? Jesus offered us compassion and forgiveness. Jesus said that he would do what God the Father asked him to do. Jesus gave up his life that we may be united with God. We are called to follow Jesus and to live our lives in the spirit of what Jesus taught us. Let’s dedicate ourselves to following the example of Jesus in our own life through compassion and forgiveness. Jesus showed compassion often. In Matthew “When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” Matthew 4:14 In Mark, “‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat.” Mark 8:2 And again in Mark, Mark 6.34: “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” We show compassion for those who are sick and suffering, for those who are lonely, for those who are depressed, for those who have lost loved ones, the list goes on and on. I hope that you are inspired to have compassion because Jesus showed his compassion. And the other trait that Jesus showed is forgiveness. Luke’s gospel speaks of the forgiveness Jesus offered, “they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”. In Matthew, we read “Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Matt 18:21-22. Forgiveness is something easy to preach and hard to do. I would suggest that we forgive others who have wronged us and seek reconciliation with those from whom we have been separated. The Peace we have each Sunday is about reconciliation, an effort to be united with others before we come to the communion table. Forgiveness is something we offer to those who ask for it. Forgiveness is something we give to people who are trying to change their behavior. Forgiveness is something we look for when two people may have misunderstood each other or simply forgot how to treat each other. But forgiveness does not mean that we should make ourselves vulnerable to being hurt again. So, forgiveness may not come with the reestablishment of a relationship. The Amish people are an amazing group for their communal ability to forgive those who have harmed them. We could learn from what they do. May you find forgiveness in your heart this season. We are coming ever closer to the end of Lent. I hope that you can see the end in sight, not because you are tired of the work of Lent. Rather, I hope that you look forward to the experience of Holy Week. And I invite you during Holy week to all of the experience that our robust liturgy offers. We all have the chance to experience the mystery of Tenebrae, the humility and servanthood of Holy Thursday, the sadness and the gift of Jesus on Good Friday and the joy of Easter Evening and Easter day. Come and share in the time when Jesus glorified the name of God and join Jesus as he continues his journey of compassion and forgiveness. Amen.
I remember watching golf tournaments and seeing Christians who wanted to make a statement. They would wear some colorful outfit, maybe a rainbow colored wig on a man. They would stand in a place where the camera would find them in the background. They would have a sign or a shirt that had the verse John 3:16 on it. Others have that verse on a license plate or even a sign. Today we read that verse as part of the gospel. It may be the most famous verse in the entire New Testament. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Today, I hope that you feel all warm inside. Because this single verse is clearly a statement about God’s love for us, God’s gift to us and the willingness of Jesus to save us regardless of what we have done. It is comforting. This single verse gives us reassurance in our faith. This verse comes with warning signs to the preacher saying beware, be careful. You see, the verse is so famous that it has come to have a particular meaning to all who know it and the preacher must tread cautiously around this verse in preaching the gospel. I think the good news we receive today can cause us to become complacent, to lose our focus or even to become lazy. For the work of a Christian is still hard even though God gives us so much. There is a very consistent theme that runs throughout all of today’s scripture lessons. In each reading, people have sinned against God and yet God reaches out, forgives them and heals them. So in Numbers, we heard that the Israelites complained to Moses about God. God gave instructions about placing a bronze serpent on a pole and when the people looked at the pole, they were healed from the bites of serpents. The Psalm has two verses that say something similar, First, we say, “Some were fools and took to rebellious ways; they were afflicted because of their sins.” Then we hear that “they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.” The letter to the Ephesians tells about the people in that city who were sinners and followed Satan rather than God. But God’s mercy came and saved them. God’s mercy comes to save us. This letter is full of theology and good news. We realize in this reading that God’s love is unchanging. Despite the fact that we have sinned, God’s love has never left us. God offers us renewal of life through Jesus Christ. Jesus brings us back into God’s fold. Jesus gives us new life whether we are Jewish, pagan, Gentile, whether we are man or woman. It is clearly a measure of God’s great mercy. We hear of God’s saving grace twice in this short reading. We seek to accept the grace that God has given us. It is a gift that we have not earned. Because nothing we do earns the grace and mercy of God, we have nothing to boast about. Our good works are the result of God working in us. We do not do these good works to obtain any benefit. Rather, we offer our good works out of thanks for the goodness and mercy we receive from God. Even the gospel speaks of the fact that some lived in the darkness of sin rather than the light of the world. But those who follow the light of Christ will be saved. God’s mercy is always present. God’s love for us lifts us up and brings us into the light of Christ. We have a consistent theme of God’s love, a cornerstone of our faith. I would also ask you to remember that reading this verse all by itself may cause us to miss a portion of what John is trying to tell us. I think there is also an indication of how difficult it is to follow Jesus, a message about how hard it can be to understand God’s mysterious ways and also a message about our actions in this world. John’s gospel connected us to the reading from Numbers. The people complained about God’s work. Then God sent serpents to kill them. The people repented and then God had Moses create a bronze serpent on a pole to heal them. Why would God have Moses create what seems to be an idol, a serpent on a stick? Our modern day minds cannot imagine that simply looking on a bronze serpent would heal the bite of a snake. Yet somehow, John decided that this story would provide additional meaning to his declaration that God sent his son to save us. The serpent on the pole brings us right to the tragedy of the crucifixion. John calls on us to lift up our hearts to the cross of Cavalry. In so doing, we are healed from our sins. The Greek word we translate as lift up can also be translated as exalt. So, comparing the lifting up of Jesus can be a way for us to remember not only his terrible agony and death on the cross but also a way to glorify the name of Jesus, the Son of God. We see the death of Jesus as a sign of his love for us. We know his resurrection as a way to eternal life. Theologian Lance Pape wrote about the serpent and the cross this way, “But in John’s theological imagination, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension are collapsed into a single movement of divine agency: Jesus exalted by God. Just as the Israelites were paradoxically required to look upon the very thing that brought death in order to receive life, so we are asked to look upon Jesus’ “lifting up” in humiliating crucifixion and receive it as part of God’s plan to glorify Jesus and save the world.” The passages in our gospel are part of a commentary given by Jesus at the end of a discussion he held with Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee who came to see Jesus at night so no one else would know what he was doing. He asked Jesus several questions. Nicodemus appeared confused by the answers he received especially after Jesus told him that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Jesus told Nicodemus that we must be born in the spirit. For Episcopalians being born is the spirit happens when we are baptized. Perhaps that is why Jesus later refers to those who will be saved as those who choose the light of Christ, a light that we receive in our baptism. It may be easy for us to understand all this now but Jesus’ words were not so easy to understand then. There are mysteries of God that we find difficult to understand now. We live by faith accepting that God will take care of us. When John told us to lift up the Son of Man it is more than just an act of worship, it is also a call to action. We are called to turn away from sin and to follow the way of Jesus. That call means living in unity with others and sharing God’s love with everyone in this world. It is not always easy. It can be hard to do in a world that often does not return God’s love to us. Despite the challenge, it is a wonderful place to be. We are blessed by God’s love for us. Nothing we say or do can change that love of God. It comes with forgiveness when we have sinned and confessed those sins, seeking never to sin again. It is because of that gift of grace that we now are free to offer that gift to others. As we find in the Book of Common Prayer we are now perfectly free to go and love one another. I am not sure what you have thought or felt during this Lenten season. Perhaps you have reflected on something in your past or current life that you wish was different, some way that you have sinned or missed the mark and now you want God to help you overcome your failures. Today’s message is that God is always there, loves you and wants you to receive God’s grace and mercy. May you feel the power of God’s unchanging love as you continue on your Lenten journey. Come and receive the bread of Christ that that he may live in us, and we in him. Amen.
When I was young, one of the special persons in my life was my grandmother on my mother’s side. We called her Nanny and she would come sometimes and stay with us for several weeks or a month. By that time in her life, Nanny wasn’t able to do a lot of things. She didn’t drive and didn’t do much around the house. But she was a fun loving, spiritual and caring individual. She loved all of her grandchildren and we loved being with her. Nanny had some special habits and hobbies. She loved to stay up late at night, perhaps 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning and she slept until about 1:00 in the afternoon. She also loved to watch professional wrestling. Pro wrestling used to come on TV around 11:30 at night and sometimes we got to stay up and watch with her. Why this lovely, genteel lady who wouldn’t hurt anyone liked pro wrestling is not something I can explain. What I do know is that sometimes people like to watch fights especially those that they know will not be particularly harmful. I think about going to professional hockey matches and the fans getting excited when two hockey players start to fight. Fans stand up to watch. The cheers and the jeers fill the stadium. Well, today we have a fight, or at least an altercation, involving someone we didn’t expect. Jesus gets angry with the moneychangers and those selling animals for sacrifice in the Temple. I wonder how many quickly ran to see the action, how many wanted to see it just for the sport. Did anyone really want to know what he said or what he was trying to accomplish? Unlike the fights in hockey and professional wrestling, this wasn’t something done just for show. It reminds me of the anger that God demonstrated to the people of Israel in the Old Testament, the times God decided to punish the people because they were unfaithful. The very fact that Jesus became angry and took action against those who had profaned the Temple was amazing. We always think of Jesus as the healer, both physically and emotionally, and yet here he is shouting instructions to those who did wrong. In response to people who questioned him, Jesus’ actions provide us with an important message, a message about his reason for coming to earth. Each of the other three gospel writers placed this event in the week that Jesus was crucified. They made the point that Jesus’ actions caused the Temple leaders to be so angry that they put him to death. But John describes this scene at the very beginning of his gospel, at the start of Jesus’ public ministry. John wants us to know from the start that we find God in Jesus, he is our temple. Jesus was describing his horrible death and the good news that he would be raised up again after three days. It is the centerpiece of our faith. Let us consider why Jesus made such a scene in the first place. Jews were required to come to the Temple and to offer a sacrifice. They came from all over the world and needed to change their money into Jewish coins. It is likely that those changing money and those selling animals for sacrifice were trying to take advantage of the pilgrims, tipping the scales so to speak. They were most likely encroaching on the sacredness of the Temple, moving ever closer to the holy place. Jesus didn’t want the honor of his Father’s name to be treated that way. He didn’t want the poor people to be taken advantage of. The changing of money and the selling of sacrifices took place in the Court of the Gentiles, the last place that non-Jewish people could go. I would say that Jesus wanted everyone, including the Gentiles, to know that God loves us as we are, that there is no need to pay for a burnt offering to have a relationship with God. We don’t have to pay a Temple tax to live in God’s spirit. This Jesus we encounter today is so different than the Jesus we will experience during Holy Week. This Jesus is strong and determined, willing to fight for his Father in Heaven. This Jesus seeks social justice for the poor Jewish people of his day. This Jesus seeks inclusiveness for the Gentiles in his world. When Jesus was arrested during Holy Week, he became quiet, often silent when he was confronted by his accusers. Perhaps Jesus knew that his time on earth was not just about teaching or healing, it was also about being. Jesus chose to be with us in all of our lifetime experiences. He even chose to be with us in our death. And through his death he leads us into a new life, the life of the resurrected Jesus, the life of the glory of God. The more important words in this Scripture come from the response he gave to the people who confronted him. Some of the Jewish people wanted a sign from Jesus, proof that he was from God. Jesus told them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Later we are told that Jesus was referring to his own body, that he would be crucified and raised up on the third day. I would say that Jesus was not just referring to his own body as a Temple. I was inspired this week by a commentary written by a lady named Debie Thomas who wrote about our bodies as a holy and wonderful offering to God. She suggested that Jesus wants each of us to think about our bodies as temples. As we continue our Lenten preparation for Holy Week, I would ask you to think about how you might consider your body a temple, a good place to welcome God into our lives. It seems that so often we think of our bodies in negative terms. I am too fat. I don’t like my gray hair. I wish that my clothes fit better. I don’t like my wrinkles. Or I don’t like the way I look as I get older. In this world, we tend to glorify beautiful bodies and people are made to feel badly if they cannot look like the models on TV. All this, of course, forgets about the fact that the models are often unhappy with their bodies as well. Even in our religious lives, we often come to believe that our bodies are somehow sinful, something to be controlled so as not to cause us trouble. In the spirit of Jesus’ statement today, can we think of our bodies as a place to welcome God? Can we see our bodies as a temple of the spirit? Can we realize the grace and beauty that we have been given? Can we see that our bodies were meant to be used in worship, to offer hospitality to others? Do we know how much God wishes to be with us in body, mind and spirit? When we open ourselves to God, then we invite God to give us faith to follow. We ask God in today’s Psalm to cleanse me from my secret faults. Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me; God is our strength; through God we are enlightened. There is a song that was written by Brian Wren called Good is the Flesh. The song reminds us that Jesus was the incarnation, the coming of God to earth. The last verse goes like this, Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh, longing in all, as in Jesus, to dwell, glad of embracing, and tasting, and smell, good is the body, for good and for God, Good is the flesh that the Word has become. Despite all of our faults, we are made in the image of God. During this Lenten season, we take the time to remember God’s blessings to us and to consider how we might prepare for the glory of that Easter morning. I ask you to think about opening up your body, your mind and your spirit to God. For God loves you just the way you are. Invite God to come into you that you might live in God. I say that God wanted us to open ourselves that we might live in God’s glory. And let us give thanks for Jesus. He was willing to fight for the honor due to God the Father. He was willing to fight for each of us and he was willing to die that we might find God and receive God’s mercy. We find God in and through Jesus. Let us worship God with every fabric of our being by praising God, by praying to God and by listening and following the words of Jesus. Amen.