Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Don't Just Stand There

"When Jesus had said this [and told the apostles that they would be his witnesses], as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, 'Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.'  Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day's journey away."
--Acts 1:  9-12

At the intersection of 10th Avenue and 20th Street in New York City is the Church of the Guardian Angel. All along the edge of the roof are frescos narrating various scenes in the Bible.  When you reach the end of the Gospels you see the faces of the apostles looking upward, and all you see at the top are a pair of feet dangling there.  It’s totally adorable--one of my favorite depictions of the Ascension! 

Depiction of the Ascension by Kulmbach (1521).  This is not the one at Guardian Angel Church, but note the feet at the top.

I told y’all last week I would be posting on the Ascension, and I’m a man of my word!  The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ takes place 40 days after Easter Sunday, always falling on a Thursday, which means many church only get to remember it on the following Sunday.  It’s a high holy day on our calendar, when we celebrate that scene in the fresco where Jesus goes back up into heaven, back to glory and majesty, and the apostles stand there looking at his feet.  But then what happens?  Out of nowhere, as the apostles are gazing toward heaven, watching Jesus go with their mouths gaped open, two men in white robes—presumably angels—grab their attention.  “Men of Galilee,” they say, “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”  And after that call back to reality, Luke tells us the apostles returned to Jerusalem and devoted their time to praying together. 

But they needed to be called back.  The angels might as well have said, “Don’t just stand there, do something!”  Jesus has gone back to heaven, now what are you gonna do about it?  They wanted to preserve the moment.  They likely would’ve been content to just keep staring at the soles of Jesus’ feet as the clouds overtook him.  But this is not what Jesus wanted.  He never asked his followers to focus all their attention on admiring him.  Instead he called them into action, over and over again.  Even now, in this moment as they watch him go into heaven, the apostles need to be reminded of that.  Stop staring!  Go and put everything you have witnessed into action!

Sometimes we modern followers of Jesus fall into the same trap as the apostles.  We stare up at the sky and wait on Jesus, forgetting that he has empowered us to do the work that he began; that is, sharing the Good News that the kingdom of God is here right now.  I suspect this has something to do with the fact that we are unable to remember our unity with God.  It is that very unity for which Jesus prays in the Fourth Gospel:

"'And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.'”
--John 17:  11

 Alone in the garden, waiting for his arrest and eventual death, Jesus prays to God the Father on behalf of those whom he says are "in the world." He prays that God will protect them and that they may be one as Jesus and God are one.  That oneness isn’t about following the same doctrine or always agreeing on certain issues.  It means knowing in their souls that God is in them, the same way Jesus knew God was in him.  Such a prayer was not just for those 12 who were called apostles by Jesus, nor was it simply the hundreds who followed him day after day.  That prayer is for every man, woman, and child trudging through this dark and difficult world.  It is for you, me, and them! He knew where he was going, so he prayed that the rest of us would remember our unity with God, that God is in us, and if God is in us then we can do even greater things than Jesus himself did.  Those aren't my words, they're Jesus':

"'Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and in fact, will do greater works than these because I am going to the Father.'"
--John 14: 12

But we forget this, don’t we?  We forget that oneness, and we end up petering out.  Eventually we just throw our hands up, look into the sky, and wait around.  When we remember that we are one with God, though, we also remember, as Teresa of Avila said back in the 16th century:  “Christ has no body but ours.  No hands or feet on earth but ours.  Ours are the eyes with which he looks compassion upon this world.”  Teresa got it all those years ago!  She knew that it's up to us to be Jesus to others, to be active with our faith. This leads us to pray together, as the apostles did after the Ascension, and to work together to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and preach Good News to the poor and outcast, as they did.  Hers was (and still is) a call to be mindful, day in and day out, that we are one with God. 

Teresa of Avila, 16th century Carmelite nun who reminds us all that Christ has no hands or feet but ours.

A while back, amidst all of the chaos of our social and political climate, I saw a few Facebook posts from folks saying things like, “We need to pray for Jesus to come back and fix all of this!”  No!!  That’s not how this Christianity thing works!  If you’re unhappy with the way the world is operating, pray about it, and then go put your prayer into action.  That's what the apostles did!  That's what the early Church was all about, putting prayer into action.  The Church is still about this.  This is why we, as the Church, exist!  We are still the community of Christ.  We are his hands and feet.  We are his compassion, meant to be shared with the world.  We are not passive. We may be waiting expectantly FOR Jesus to return, but we not waiting ON Jesus to fix everything; after all, he has prayed for all of us that we may be one with God, and if we are one with God then there is nothing that will stop us from transforming this world with God’s redemptive love working through our own hands,feet, and hearts!

We dare not forget, brothers and sisters!  We dare not forget that Jesus’ prayer that night in the Garden was for us.  We dare not stand around and wait.  Let’s get out there and be Jesus for our time, just as the apostles were in their time.  Don’t just stand there.  Let’s do something!  

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Letters of Peter and the Message of Hope

"Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God's will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you-- not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him."
--I Peter 3: 13-22

Since the second week of Easter we have been reading from the First Letter of Peter.  We’ve got one more week to go with that letter, but since—spoiler alert—next week's blog will be about the Ascension, it’s now or never if we want to talk at all about the First Peter this year. 

An icon of the author of the Letters of Peter...maybe.

The big question most of us probably have is:  did the apostle Peter actually write these letters?  Well, Dude, we just don't know!  Issues surrounding the style of Greek and the fact that the writer uses Peter rather than Cephas or Simon—which were the names Paul and Jesus most used for the guy—have caused speculation over exactly who wrote the two Letters of Peter and to whom they were written; in fact, it wouldn’t be until the later part of the fifth century that the letters were being read throughout the whole Church. Nevertheless, in spite of all of this the Letters of Peter got in, and we’re still reading them and searching them for meaning and messages of hope. 

Hope is what I would classify as the theme of the letter we’ve been reading, and we hear that today.  The writer is clearly addressing Christians who are going through terrible times, enduring sufferings that we today cannot even imagine.  The writer tells the audience that they are blessed, even when they are harmed, and that they should sanctify Christ, rather than give in to fear and intimidation.  You can see why this letter was so popular, despite the controversies.  Stand firm and be hopeful, even when there are hardships.  This was and still is Good News.

But where does such hope come from?  It comes from Jesus Christ, of course, namely Jesus' own sufferings. The letter reminds believers of Jesus' hardships in order to give them hope in their own.  More than that, however, the writer points out that Jesus “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey.”  In other others, Jesus went to hell.  Let that sink in for a second.  This is one of those icky parts of our faith, but it’s right there in our Apostles Creed—not the Nicene, but that’s another blog post.  “He descended to the dead.” is what our Creed says (or if you are a 1928 Prayer Book fan, "He descended into hell.")  We even affirmed so at our church last week when we renewed our baptismal vows during our Confirmation liturgy, although some of us may have muttered that affirmation under our breath; after all, it's easy to see Jesus enthroned in glory, but in hell?!  That's tough.

At this point it's worth noting that what first century followers of Jesus knew as hell is not what we know.  Our image of hell is due in large part to the influence of Dante's Inferno, where hell is a place of punishment and torment.  For Jews and Christians in 1st century Palestine hell was not a place of torment, rather it was a place of shadow.  It went by many names--hell, Tartarus, Gehenna, Hades, the Pit--and it was a place where all souls went after death.  This hell was the worst place imaginable, not because of torture, but because it was the one place God could not reach.  To be in dead and in hell meant that you could not be in relationship with God, or anyone else.  It is this place to which Jesus went and preached, thereby destroying any power that death had over humanity and closing the gap between the dead and God.  Thus, this is the hope that Peter—or whoever—was giving those early believers.  You can endure your sufferings and face any challenge because Jesus has gone to hell and destroyed all meaning that suffering once had.

 Jesus goes to hell.

Maybe that’s why this Christianity thing took root and gave hope to everyone from the richest to the poorest.  Everyone suffers, after all.  It cannot be avoided, no matter who you are.  But being a Christian isn’t about avoidance.  It’s not as if once we decide to follow Jesus our job problems go away, our terminal disease magically heals, or we are sheltered from the harsh social and political realities of our days.  If anything, it sometimes means all these things get worse!  But because Jesus has died, because he has gone ahead of us into the depths of hell itself,  we don’t have to.  Because he has suffered he has made it possible for us to endure suffering and has helped us find meaning and hope.  As one person told me, her conversion to Christianity didn't fix the problems, but it gave you the strength to face the problems.

That is why Jesus going to hell is so important.  By facing death and going to the place where the dead people resided, he took away the power that death and suffering had.  No longer need we fear any adversity because Christ has already endured them and has given us hope.  It's that hope that sustained the martyrs as they marched to their deaths.  It's the hope that tells a  Coptic Christian girl not to fear when her church is bombed.  It's the hope that says to the young gay Christian man, "You are beloved and need not live in fear!"  We have this hope, too.  How do we know this?  Because Jesus made a promise to his disciples:  

"I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever.  This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees her nor knows her.  You know her, because she abides in you, and she will be in you."
--John 14: 16-18

The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, is the gift that Jesus gives to his followers, so that they will always have that hope.  Forever.  That's how long Jesus gave the Spirit to those who love him, which means that the Spirit is still alive today, still moving in us, and still giving us that same hope.  We can face anything.  We can endure anything.  Because Jesus already has.  

Some of you may be enduring sufferings right now, and if you’re not you at least know someone who is.  This is the message of hope for us this week:  that Jesus has endured every suffering, and has conquered every evil, and in doing so has made it possible for us to do the same. Suffering and hardships are still a reality for us all, but thanks to Jesus, we can face them, and we have the hope that we are free from whatever power they may have had. And when we forget all of that, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, is there to remind us.  Thanks be to God for the hope that the Letters of Peter gave to our fathers and mothers and are still giving us today.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The "Original" Church

"Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.  Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.  All who believe were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.  And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved."
--Acts 2: 42-47

One of the neat peculiarities of Easter is that we don’t read from the Old Testament during this whole season.  Have you ever noticed that?  Instead, our first reading on Sunday mornings during this season is always taken from the Acts of the Apostles.  Why does our lectionary do this?  I suspect it is to give us a glimpse into the life of the early Church.  What was it like for these folks who had witnessed Easter first hand?  How did the post-Resurrection days shape the ways that they lived and worshiped together?

An icon's depiction of members of the early Christian community.

Our Acts reading this past Sunday isn’t very long, but it is full of wonderful information that shows us what life was like for these early followers of Jesus—who weren’t even actually called Christians yet!  The first part of the very first line reminds us that the sign of belonging to this community was baptism, as it still is today, and the second part of that very first sentence calls to mind our own baptismal vows:  “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  If that sounds familiar it's because its one of the first vows that we take at our baptism, and this is where we get it from. What we do today is directly connected to what they did way back then.  As they were baptized into the community of faith they took the same vows that we take, the same vows we renew anytime someone new joins the faith.  How cool is that?!

The faith that we profess and the community that we create and nurture in our own places of worship is nothing less than what is described in these early chapters of Acts.  So in a very real sense, if we look at what Luke writes—remember Acts is something of a sequel to the Gospel According to Luke—then we see what characteristics make up a community—any community—that professes Jesus Christ as Lord.  So what are some of those characteristics?

We’re told that wonders and signs were being done among the members of the early church.  We don't necessarily know what these are, but can you imagine any wonders and signs in your faith community?  I've seen them at the Church of the Good Shepherd, where I serve as rector. In the last two years I have seen a Men’s Fellowship grow in its faith, I’ve seen women gather together to have meaningful conversations about God and to go deeper, and I’ve seen Episcopalians knock on neighbors’ doors and actually invite them to church.  I’d call those wonders and signs!

We’re told that all who believed were together, had all things in common and would sell their goods and distribute them according to need.  Having all things in common doesn't mean that they all agreed on everything, rather it means that they were able to put aside their own needs for the sake of one another and address any need that a member of the community had.  They weren’t concerned with right doctrine or biblical interpretation, and their priests weren’t trying to tell them everything they should and shouldn’t do.  All they cared about was letting the love of Jesus flow through them, so that they could build each other up.  In what ways have you seen your faith community support one another and meet one another needs?  Here at Good Shepherd we have recently been working on a Habitat house for a family in our congregation, and our newly created pastoral care teams have been sharing Holy Communion and supporting folks when I can't get to them. It’s a sharing of the load, a reminder that priests or not, we are all ministers of the love of Jesus Christ.  That’s how the apostles did it, that’s how we are meant to do it!

We’re told that folks spent much time together in the temple, worshipping and praising God, while also breaking bread at home and sharing the goodwill of all the people.  These early followers remembered that worshipping and praying together were essential to their spiritual growth.  But at the same time, they knew that Jesus went out to the people, eating and drinking with them, laughing with them, and meeting them right where they were.  The early church kept this up, knowing that whenever two or three gathered, Jesus was there, in the temple, at home, or out in the streets.  What about your community?  Do you worship together, while also taking your faith outside the walls of your church?  The folks of Good Shepherd began a monthly Communion service last year at a local assisted living facility, where we share church with folks who can't get to church themselves.  Our town of Asheboro also a brewery--Four Saints(!)--and Good Shepherd folks have participated in the monthly Beer & Hymns at the brewery, plus this past Sunday we blessed the brewery on its 2nd anniversary!  These are reminders that our faith is to be taken out of the church and that Jesus goes with us wherever we go.  

Blessing Four Saints Brewing Company

In short, the early church was about relationship.  Everything they did, they did together.  Praying.  Fasting.  Praising. No one was ever alone.  No single person did it all, and folks were not stuffy about who they shared their faith with.  They were constantly engaging each other, talking to people they met on the streets, sharing the good news of Jesus’ love for them.  They held each other, supported each other, and even had some hard conversations with each other.  But everything they did was out of love and in relationship because they knew that to be in relationship with each other was to be in relationship with Jesus himself. That's what it means to be the Body of Christ, and it is that legacy of relationship-building that all of our faith communities carry on today. Doesn’t matter what we do, we’re in it together, and Jesus is in it with us!  That’s what makes the church the church!

So if you ever wonder how we might be more like the "original church," open up the Acts of the Apostles and it’s right there.  Creating relationships with each other.  Building each other up.  Worshipping together.  Breaking bread and sharing fellowship together.  Always being joyful for what God was doing in their lives, and always remembering that Jesus was alive and in their midst.  Does that sound like your faith community??

Monday, May 1, 2017

On the Road to Emmaus

"Two disciples were were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles outside Jerusalem, and talking about all these things that had happened.  While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him...As they came near the village to which the were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.  But they urged him strongly, saying, 'Stay with us.'  So he went in and stayed with them.  When he was at table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  They their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.  They said to each other, 'Were not our hearts burning with us while he was talking to us on the road?'"
--Luke 24: 13-15, 28-32a

I once walked to Emmaus.  Well, sorta.  In the summer of 2011 I spent three weeks with a group in the Holy Land, and on our last day we did our own Emmaus walk, hoping to experience the risen Christ on the road.  Sort of. 

I say sort of because no one actually knows where Emmaus is, or was.  There is no town with that name anywhere near Jerusalem.  Luke tells us it was the equivalent of about 7 miles outside the city, but some ancient manuscripts say otherwise.  Through the years four different towns lay claim to being the modern-day Emmaus, so we walked the road to one of them and then had Eucharist at another, that way hedged out bets!

Walking to Emmaus, Summer of 2011

But trying to figure out where modern-day Emmaus is located is really not the point.  This storyfound only in Lukeis not concerned with facts, even though some of us in the group wondered whether we on the real road to Emmaus.  What the story is concerned with is truth, and theres a big difference between the two.  Facts are about details like whether or not that was the real road.  But truth is about the deeper meaning of the story, and the truth of Emmaus is that Jesus is alive, and if that is the case then the risen Jesus still walks beside us, usually unrecognized, and is still revealed in the most ordinary of actions, like breaking bread.  For that reason, Id say this story, more than any other post-Resurrection account, sums of our modern-day Christian experience.  As Marcus Borg put it, Emmaus is happening all around us. The story of the two disciples meeting Jesus on the road then is our own post-Resurrection story now.

Those two are interesting, arent they?  One gets a nameCleopasbut that name never appears anywhere else in Scripture, and the other doesnt get a name at all.  I like that!  This story reminds us that Jesus comes to us allboth the well-known and totally unknownand more often than not, we dont recognize him,.  We, like them, are so pre-occupied with whats going on in the world around us that we cant see him.  After the fact we realize he was there the whole time, but then we, like them we are left to wonder, "Now what?!" and go to reveal the Good News to others, as they revealed what they had seen to the Eleven. This is Gospel Truth, even if the facts are kinda wonky. Jesus is still walking with us. Listening to us.  Teaching us. Revealing himself in the mundane moments, like during a meal. Still, I wish I didn't have to wait until after the fact to realize he was there!  It would be so much simpler that way! Im sure Cleopas and that other guy wished that they had  been able to recognize him on the road, too.  Yet thats what it means to live in an Easter reality!  Christ is risen.  Alleluia!  But like Mary at the tomb, or the apostles on the seashore, or Cleopas and the other guy, we dont notice him.  At least, not until after the fact. 

Can you recall a time when you looked back at an interaction with someone and said, Wow!  I think Jesus was in that!  Thats an Emmaus moment.   Maybe it was a day later, or a month, or a few years, but I betcha most everyone here has had those moments that you have looked upon after the fact and realized it was Jesus all along.  I once picked up a hitchhiker while driving between Pound, Virginia and Pikeville, Kentucky.  He was a heavy-set fella, who was trying to get to West Virginia, and he didnt look like he was making much progress.  So I picked him up and drove him as far as I could.  He told me about his family, his siblings who were ill and children who were going through various struggles, and when I dropped him off, and I met my friend for lunch in Pikeville, I told him what had happened, and he saidin that Free Will Baptist tone of his—“Well, brother, ya never know!  That fella might have been Jesus!  The thought had not even occurred to me until I was sitting at a meal with my friend (go figure!).  As I look back on that Emmaus moment of mine I know that I met Jesus on US 23 between Pound and Pikeville.  I know I helped Jesus get to West Virginia.  And I know that Jesus used that moment to shape the way I would interact with every stranger I'd meet from that day forward.  Because Emmaus moments aren't just nostalgic opportunities for us to look back and see Jesus, but they set our hearts ablaze--as they did Cleopas and the other guy--and they change our lives from that day onward.  

I wonder:  what have been your Emmaus moments?  How have those moments shaped you?  Where does Jesus walk now, unrecognized, in your life? Y’all may not know it, but the risen Jesus is still walking with you.  He’s sitting right next to you as you read this blog.  You meet him anytime you break bread and share that same meal he shared with his friends. He’ll be in the checkout line at the store.  He’ll be in the warm embrace of a loved one.  He might even be in that person that you help with a ride .  That’s because every road we travel is the road to Emmaus.  Every place we go Jesus goes with us, listening to us and teaching us.  Every ordinary action is a chance for him to be revealed to us.  I wonder what Emmaus moments are awaiting you.  What ways will Jesus come to you, unrecognized?  How will he set your heart ablaze?  How will you go forth from such a moment to share the Good News?