Tuesday, December 25, 2007

In Praise of a Secular Christmas

The Church has wept many a crocodile tear over the War on Christmas - a bogeyman invented by marketeers with a genius for demagogury. Their story goes that the secular humanists hate Christ and Christmas so much that they would like to stuff them both back up the chimbley and dump them off the top of Mount Crumpet. Instead of costuming themselves as St Nick, these Grinches have fashioned a hat and a coat out of the so-called separation of church and state.

Now, I'm sure that the war on Christmas has been a great fund-raiser for somebody, but behind the cynical smokescreen hides a truth that the Church dreads even more than her imaginary conspiracies - I refer to this: Christmas belongs to the world, not to the church. I will weep through Silent Night with the best of them as the candles light the darkened sanctuary on Christmas Eve, but in my heart I have to admit that Christ's incarnation must have been done with more than this comforting ritual in mind.

Our great fear may be not that we will lose Christmas, but rather that we will loose ownership of Christmas. Because the church belongs to Jesus, we feel that the opposite should be true - Jesus should belong to us. But God's heart is too great to be contained in so small a vessel as Christianity. The secular world seems determined to wrest Christmas from our grasp. Perhaps it is doing God's work. God may be moving to restore stewardship of Christ's nativity to the world to whom it was given. Our grief may be for the loss of an ownership to which we were never entitled.

The world belongs to its Creator. We - that is, the Church - are only a small part of God's plan. We presume too much when we insist that Christmas must be as we see fit.

And so I take up my pen (this message was drafted the old-fashioned way, in honor of the day. ed.) on this clear Bluegrass morning to praise a more secular Christmas.

Luke's narrative describes the root of God's Christmas tree, but the fruit is not buried in the dark soil - it is out in the light. Many of the sweetest of those fruits are secular, not religious. The evangelists of this secular Christmas are known to every American and to many parts of the rest of the world: not only Dr. Luke, but also Dr. Seuss and Charles Dickens and Clement Moore. The creche reminds us what Christmas is, but George Bailey's wonderful life teaches us what it means.

Linus knows that Christmas is all about shepherds and a manger - he also knows that it is all about compassion for blockheads. The Grinch, with his hand cupped to his ear, learns that Christmas comes without packages, boxes, or bags. Somehow or other, It comes just the same without these things.

The true meaning of Christmas is not the fact of the incarnation, it is the fruit of that holy event. Because God became humble and was laid in a manger, Christmas is the day when we ought to remember to walk humbly among God's children.

At the end of the year, there are three great holidays in Christian America. At Thanksgiving we celebrate creation - giving thanks for all the things that we have.

On New Years Eve we celebrate life - rejoicing in the great wheel of birth and death that frees us from yesterday and allows us to hope for tomorrow as we remember the Auld and welcome the New with banging pots, popping corks, and laughter at ourselves in our funny hats.

And here at the center of the holidays is Christmas - the high holy day when the delight of receiving a present is exceeded by watching our loved one's eyes light with happiness at they accept our gift to them.

In that joyful moment, we encounter the true meaning of Christmas. This is the day when we celebrate one another. At Christmas, our joy comes from what we give, not what we receive. I hand you your beautiful combs and you give me my watch fob and what passes between us is more precious that those expensive, useless trinkets. We have given a part of ourselves to one another . If only for a moment, we have given one another the fleeting, loving gift of happiness.

The secular world owns the manger because Christmas belongs to the world.On that holy,silent night,a man and a woman gave the best of themselves to God, to one another, and to the world. When shepherds came to see what had happened, the spirit of Christmas was there in their joyful faces.For a few hours in a stable in Bethlehem yesterday's troubles and tomorrow's terrors were put aside. For a few hours, grown men and women gazed in wonder at a beautiful gift - and God's heart will filled with the joy of a child who has given his best, and brought it happiness to the receiver.

Keep Christmas in your own way Church, and let the world keep it in hers. Secular Christmas has done us good, and will do us good and I say God bless it. God bless Blockheads and Grinches - lonely misers and disappointed Building and Loan executives - snowmen who can talk and reindeer who don't fit in and jolly old elves. God bless us, all whos far and near. May God bless you and me this Christmas and may each of us know the joy of giving.

God bless us, every one.


The image of the Nativity is by Brian Jekel

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Bonhoeffer on Advent and Prison

A wonderful post on Kingdom People, a blog I am really coming to enjoy.


A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes… and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Advent 2: The Ax at the Root

I think of Matthew as the great storyteller among the evangelists. In my imagination, Mark's action packed gospel makes him God's screen writer, while Luke's chronicles of the life of Christ and the early church remind me of Homer's epic poetry. Mystical John stands outside the narrative tradition of the other three - his story is one of cosmic forces colliding. Together, they form the Gospels - and at the beginning of Matthew, just after the story of Jesus' birth, we meet John the Baptizer. Like a Shakespearian prologue, John sets the scene for the drama that is to come. His appearance, illustrated in this 6th century Byzantine icon, is as memorable as any Greek chorus could ever be.

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
`Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.'"

Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

"I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

Matthew 3:1-12

In the quiet Advent season of waiting, I was startled to hear John's warning about the ax at the root. There are roots in my life's tree that have grown long and deep. I am comfortable with them. They define me. I don't mind lining up to be washed in the Christmas river like the pharisees at John's riverside revival meeting, but I am not so excited about having parts of me chopped away and thrown into unquenchable fire.

Just when I'm starting to get cozy with hot chocolate evenings in my big chair, Mrs P across the room reading quietly, Sniffy the cat snoozing on my chest, visions of sugar plumbs and all that -that's when the crazy man in the camel hair coat and the honey breath reminds me that the Gospel isn't just about salvation, it is also about change. I can wade in the water of John's baptism if I wish, but I have to be prepared for the consequences of that bath. Advent is more than just a way to "holy-up" the weeks before Christmas. Advent is time to let go. A child is coming who will gather up the dry husks and chaff -the dead, useless by-products of my life - and throw them into the fire.

I can choose to let go of the useless things that comfort me.

Or I can choose to be destroyed with them.

That's straight talk from a wild man in the desert. Not exactly the stuff holiday TV specials are made of, but it is an important part of the Christmas story. Whoever encounters the Baptizer in the Jordan or the Babe in the manger is confronted with a choice - live as if these stories were fables, or as if they were true.

Confronting the implications of Christ's incarnation for my life may begin with a sprinkle, a splash, or a dunk in the river - but discipleship does not end there.

God, grant me the vision to recognize the chaff in my own life, and the grace to accept your judgment as you cast it away to make me your more perfect servant.


Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Gospel according to AIDS

The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen. Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ's sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.
1 Peter 4:7-13 (NRSV)

As usual, the wisdom of the lectionary amazes me. This is part of the epistle from today's Daily Office.

Today is World AIDS Day. I remember the first article I read in Time or USNews about some sort of "gay cancer" that was killing young men in terrible ways. The connection between the community and the suffering gave license to many of our culture's deepest fears and prejudices. The problem was not the disease - the problem was the behavior. Righteousness distracted us from doing right.

And so many, too many died without the church's loving presence.

Now things are different. Celebrities have kept AIDS in the public's consciousness. Experience has taught us that HIV doesn't just kill gay men. Decades of research have made "living with AIDS" more than just a euphemism. Like so many cruel diseases, there still isn't a cure - but there is more hope and less ignorance than there used to be.

Peter was not writing about a disease, he was writing to a persecuted church who suffered at the hands of righteous people. His counsel? Love one another. Cover one another's sins with the love of God. Be stewards of one another, for the steward of another's heart cares for a child of God. Offer holy hospitality, speak godly words, serve as Christ did, with all the strength God gives you because serving one another gives glory to God.

So much of the church's initial response to AIDS was not about the disease either. It was about sins and sinners. Many offered shame in the place of service - condemnation instead of compassion. As a consequence, the people who needed Christ's church the most were pushed away. Such failure of charity grieves God's heart.

Peter's exhortation to rejoice in suffering is a tough pill to swallow. On the one hand, we feel ashamed to compare our suffering to Christ's. At the same time, few of us are faithful enough to keep our eyes on Jesus when our own bodies or minds are in pain.

A friend of mine who lives with deep depression episodes once told me that the one thing that comforted her at her darkest hour was knowing that the darkness would not last forever. Our suffering, and the pain of those who love us is not an eternal curse. In the glory of God our trials will come to an end.

While Peter seems to joyfully anticipate the end of the world, he also gives good counsel for the time between now and then. As long as it is possible to glorify God, it is possible to rejoice, even in our own brokenness.

As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, "Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!" The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, "Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!" Jesus stood still and called them, saying, "What do you want me to do for you?" They said to him, "Lord, let our eyes be opened." Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.
Matthew 20:29-34 (NRSV)

The blind men in today's gospel remind me of two things - persistence and faith. I have had friends who refused to let the disease define them. They were not victims of HIV, and they did not allow themselves to be labeled as people with AIDS. They found the courage to insist on living - the virus was incidental, not central to their lives. Their strength and will to go on was not a cry for mercy, but a demand to be allowed to exist. Like the blind men from Jericho, they refused to be discouraged or shouted down. They knew that Jesus would feel their suffering. They believed in life, and many of them believed in Jesus. Though their bodies failed them. their faith never did, and I believe Jesus never did either.

Our compassionate savior suffers with us and desires the health of our hearts as well as our minds and bodies. My friends' hearts are no longer under my stewardship, they are in the arms of Jesus. I pray that God will judge my service to them to have been faithful.



The beautiful portrait of Jesus is by horseman. Please visit http://www.jesusweptart.blogspot.com/

Friday, November 30, 2007

Keep awake!

This will be an experiment in altered consciousness. Last Sunday, I was in the emergency room My left leg was the shape of a melon and the color of a beet. The doctor said I have phlebitis. They gave me meds and told me to sit still with a hot compress on my leg. The combination of drugs, stillness, and warm legs has kept me in and out of sleep for most of the week. Being awake has usually meant a droop-eyed stupor just one notch shy of drooling. So imagine my amusement when I read the gospel for the first Sunday of Advent.

Jesus said to the disciples, "For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."

Matthew 24:37-44
Noah's neighbors never saw it coming. They saw the signs. Some of them may even have asked what in the world he was doing. But they wouldn't accept the truth of his words. In my mind's eye, I can see them coming out on Sunday afternoons with a picnic lunch to watch the crazy man building an ark in his field, then filling it with a menagerie. God's plan wasn't hidden from them - it was there big as life. They just chose to call it madness.They never saw it coming.

As a child, Mrs P was terrified by the gospel song;
Two shall be working, working in the field
One shall be taken, and the other left behind
Will YOU be ready when Jesus comes?
Have you encountered the little tracts from Chick Publications? I was fascinated by them when I was a teenager.The drawings were graphic and disturbing. I remember one about the rapture. In an instant, where someone had been driving or working or reading their Bible a moment before, there was only a pile of clothes. Their discreetly posed naked spirits flew up to heaven while the others were left behind to try and understand what had happened. These tracts are still being published and I don't recommend them. They combine simple mindedness and mean spirit in a way that has impressed me since my teen years.

Still, it is an ill cartoon that blows no good, and even from these little comics I was able to learn about the seriousness of matters like good and evil, sin and repentance, destruction and salvation. The picture Jesus presents in this story is worth a thousand words of theology. The image of one woman delivered from the terrible events to come while another is left behind reminds me that I don't have the luxury of putting Jesus off. I can't move him down on my list of priorities. I need to live each moment as if it is my last chance to do God's work in the world.

So what am I supposed to do, stay awake like a homeowner waiting for a thief? Spend every moment in tense vigilance waiting for the second coming? I find wisdom in this thought from Will Rogers:
"Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip."
Jesus doesn't want us to wait. He wants us to live AS IF every moment matters - as if whatever we do, wherever we are, we would welcome him to join us.

The Son of Man is coming. I don't know when, and it really doesn't matter. My job is to always be about his work. My role is to feed his sheep so he doesn't find them hungry when he returns.

Even when I'm only half awake.

May God bless your worship as we begin a new Liturgical Year and the holy season of Advent.

Image Sources
Sleepless Smithers
Rapture Shoes
Who's Missing?, Jack Chick, LLC, 2003.
Will Rogers

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Christ: the King who Remembers

This week, the church year comes to an end. The lectionary calls this “The Last Sunday after Pentecost”. Now there’s an ominous phrase – the last Sunday.

The day has a second name – Christ the King Sunday. This is the day when contemporary preachers try to make sense of this medieval, patriarchic image as if God were the head of a government who lived in a palace and sat on a big chair giving audiences to rich tourists. To my 21st century ears, a king in heaven sounds more like a cartoon than an inspiration.

It’s an uncomfortable Sunday. Most American Christians have not yet recovered from the obscene dance of consumption that passes for what should be our nation’s High Holy Day. We give thanks by eating until we can’t move while most of the world can’t move because it doesn’t have enough to eat. The next day we join the great procession to the temples and high places where we pay homage to the things we love and worship – the things we can own.

So by the time Sunday morning rolls around, we’ve had at least three meals of turkey and old mashed potatoes, we’ve spent time we can’t spare spending money we don’t have buying things we don’t need.

This Sunday’s gospel is the last thing any of us needs to hear.

The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

Luke 23:35-43

The stores are playing Christmas carols. Miracle on 34th Street was just on TV. Our football team is going to a bowl game. Why in the world to we want to hear about Good Friday today?

It just seems so --- distasteful.

Is this just another example of the way the church tries to take the fun out of anything that gives us real pleasure, or is there something more going on here? What does the thief on the cross have to teach us about Thanksgiving and the end of the church year?

Our text tells us that the first thief derided Jesus. Even at the threshold of his own death, he found the strength to mock Jesus. Under normal circumstances, sarcasm is a lazy sort of self-gratification – a cheap substitute for thinking. Under these circumstances – two men being publicly executed – the first thief’s will to hurt his neighbor is at once pathetic and terrifying. Is the impulse to abuse one another really so strong that it can distract us from our own mortality? Upon finding himself in the presence of the living God, was he really so blind that he could not see what was happening right in front of him?

Yes, he was. He had the words right – “you are the savior, save us” but he had the spirit all wrong. He saw no farther than his own suffering. The world beyond his outstretched arms had no meaning for him.

The second thief had vision that the first did not. We are not told anything about him. We don’t know why he saw the truth that so eluded all the wisest and most powerful men in Jerusalem. We only know that he testified. He was able to see beyond his own pierced hands and feet – to gain a cosmic perspective on the scene of which he was a part.

And from that cosmic point of view, we hear his prayer. Such a prayer! If you could ask God for anything – and you knew your request would be granted - what would you ask? Peace and prosperity? Good health? Security?

Jesus, remember me.

Remember me: the last request of a dying man. Don’t forget me. Hold me in your memory. Keep me alive in your imagination, though I am dead and gone. Don’t let me stop mattering.

He looks at a man suffocating on a wooden beam, suspended above the earth, covered with blood and spit and his own filth and he sees a King.

But to the thief, this is not the last day of Christ the King. He sees not only the tortured present, but also the glorious future. In testifying about this unjustly condemned man, the thief becomes more than a good thief – he becomes a prophet. The universe is peeled open, and from his cross, he peers at the truth of who Jesus is and who he will be. On a day when all whom Jesus knew and loved betrayed him with their silence, this visionary thief spoke the word of the Lord. And Jesus blessed him for it.

The thief was not naïve. He knew they were all going to die. But he also knew that their terrible ending would bring about a new beginning. His testimony to the world that day was that by dying, Jesus would become a heavenly king - Christus Rex - the ruler who redeems.

The King who remembers.

The church year will soon be over. We will change the altar cloths, take out the Advent candles, and begin a journey toward a manger in Bethlehem. We will agree that the commercialization of Christmas is a sad thing, even as we browse the internet for presents and cruise the parking lot for a closer space. Sometimes we will be like the first thief – so consumed with our own wants and desires that we can’t see anything beyond our own reach. Other times we will be like the second thief – blessed with a prophet’s vision of the truth about who we are and who Christ is.

This cycle of vision and blindness, of awareness and distraction is a part of what we are as human beings. We are made in the image of God. Inside of us live both creature and creation. We remember and we forget.

Before a bloodhound is set on the trail of a lost child, the trainer will place some article of the child’s clothing in a bag and hold it over the dog’s face so he can remember the scent. Then they begin the long journey in search of the one who has been lost. It is an amazing thing to witness these animals using senses far more perceptive than our own as they follow the path toward their goal. It is also instructive to see that before they can begin their journey, they must have a way to recognize the true path from the false trails – a single tone to pick up out of the symphony of scent that they encounter on their way – their trainer gives them something to remember.

Before you set off on the Advent trail to Bethlehem, remember that the stable is not the end of your journey, any more than the cross was the end of the thief’s own path. The cross and the tomb are not the end, any more than the second coming or the New Jerusalem. The last Sunday after Pentecost is the first Sunday before Advent and the seasons, far from beginning and ending, flow into one another like rain feeding a stream into a river into the sea whose water vapor becomes rain clouds.

This circle of life is who we are. It is the reflected image of the God who made us. It is full of scents that are both beautiful and repulsive and it is a very easy place in which to become distracted and lost.

This is why we talk about life at funerals and about death at Thanksgiving. We need to remember who we are, where we are going, and why. We need to remember the ones who have taught us, and the ones who will learn from our own journey. We need to remember that neither joy or grief or prosperity or poverty or weakness or strength can change our value in the eyes of the Christ who sees us for who we truly are.

The Christ who saved us.

The king who, in spite of the billions of reasons we give him to put us out of his memory forever….

Remembers us.

Jesus, remember me. And for God’s sake, help me to remember you.



Links to the images used in this post.
Burger King
The Good Thief, Albrecht Dürer
Black Friday Shoppers
Christus Rex

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Prayer of Rememberance

It is a foggy, drizzly morning in the Bluegrass. So unlike most of the mornings in this drought-stricken year. So unlike that morning whose stories always seem to include comment on the clearness of the blue sky.

I'm glad for the rain. I'm not ready for another clear sunny September 11th just yet. There is still too much hanging in the air, too many still crying from the ground for crisp autumn skies on this of all days.

I was too young to remember the deaths that punctuated life in the sixties, the "where were you when..." moments of that generation. But I will never forget the moment my country seemed to change forever.

I pray today for families lost, for killers and victims, for sponsors and targets. I pray for the redemption of forsaken souls, and the healing of broken hearts.

And I pray for my country. I was born here by accident of fate. She is what she is and we, her people are what we are. The debt I owe her, I did not take on, but it is mine nevertheless. It is the debt any child owes to the mother who gives it life and nourishment and a compass for finding right and wrong on life's highway.

My country is not always right and she is not always great, but she is mine. She has enemies, foreign and domestic against whom I am duty bound to protect her. Since she gave me life, honor requires that I give life to her as well by adding my strength and knowledge and judgment, such as they are, to those of my neighbors as we work together to make our country a stronger, wiser mother to her children and a better neighbor to the nations with whom we share this planet.

Such is the work of America's sons and daughters. It is work that does not end. It will not go away. But it will wait for a day. Today I pray for the lives unlived, the dreams undreamed and the promises unkept. I pray for the courage of those who worked to save, rescue and recover. I pray for all who were touched by what fell from the sky that morning.

In short, I pray for the world today. Dear God, please keep us in your mind and your heart this day and everyday. We want to live so well. Yet we can get so lost along the way. Be our strength in times of weakness, our courage in times of fear, our compassion in times of anger, and our mercy when all we desire is the blood of our enemies. Unless the Lord build our tower, vain is our labor. Lord deliver us from vanity, from meaninglessness. And please, most merciful, heavenly Father -- grant us your peace. All this I ask in the name and for the sake of the one whose spirit not even death could hold in the ground, your son, our savior, Jesus Christ.


Monday, September 3, 2007

Review: Stanley Grenz - A Primer on Postmodernism

I participate in a small number of online communities. The one I have always found most rewarding is TMF – The Motley Fool. I can’t recommend it highly enough. People from all over the world come together there to share knowledge about everything from finance and investing to home-brewed beer. Each of these boards generates a community of relationships – friends and rivals come there to be challenged and to grow.

Along with learning to manage my personal finances, I have been drawn to two religious communities on TMF – "Christian Fools" and “Faith in a Postmodern World.” I joined the latter community because I liked the people who built it, and I hoped to learn more about postmodernism in general, and Christian living in a postmodern context in particular.

Since my own education did not include an introduction to postmodernism, (or at least we didn’t call it that in Pennsyltucky in the ‘seventies,) I’ve always felt ignorant participating in the conversation. Over time, it became apparent that many others on the board were as vague in their understanding as I was. Many expressed an understandable reluctance to change a place of lively conversation into a forum for arid academic and philosophical esoterica. A friend recommended a resource to me, and I promised to read it and share some of the information and insights gleaned from the journey. What follows is the fulfillment of that promise.I hope you may find something useful in the course of our trip together.

Review: Stanley Grenz - A Primer on Postmodernism

Grenz, Stanley J., A Primer on Postmodernism, William B Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 1996.

Stanley Grenz died in March of 2005. He was 54 years old. He left a legacy of bridge-building. His life's work reflects a ministry to the church - a mission to call her to carry the Gospel to the world of the present - not to let the news of Christ be lost in nostalgia for the way things used to be. He was passionate about helping the church to look through the lens of postmodernism, and to discover ways to minister to a generation that was raised while looking through this lens. His Primer has become a touchstone for anyone in the church seeking to carry on this missionary calling.

In the preface to Primer Grenz describes his objective:

…to assist students, church leaders, youth workers, and even colleagues in understanding the attitude or mind-set that is becoming increasingly prevalent in North American, especially (but not exclusively) on university campuses. (p ix)

Grenz' subject is not a simple one, and Primer is not always a simple read. In spite of the challenge of wrapping his arms around the principles of postmodernism, he was often successful in giving this old English major a glimpse of the often-nebulous face of this culture shaping movement.

Primer opens with a review of the article Grenz first published in the 1994 edition of Crux, a quarterly religious journal published by Regent College in Vancouver, BC. In "Star Trek and the Next Generation: Postmodernism and the Future of Evangelical Theology, Grenz proposes that contrasting the original series with its latter incarnation can offer insight into the differences between the modern and the postmodern points of view.

Captain James Tiberius Kirk’s Enterprise reflected the modern world that produced it. The ship’s personnel were nearly all human. Their mission was “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” The use of the male gender here is not so much sexist as it is anthropocentric. The universe that Kirk’s starship explores has humankind at its center. The modern principle that “man is the measure of all things” reigns in Star Trek. The series emphasized diversity, but human diversity: explorers of multiple nationalities whose planetary civilization had advanced enough to enable them to work together to explore and discover the nature of “the final frontier.”

Kirk was the ultimate rugged individualist, trusting his gut, his experience, and his passionate nature far more than the counsel of small circle of advisors. Warrior, poet, orator, lover: he was a Renaissance man.

The modern ideal is no swashbuckler. A strong individual whose approach to the universe was reasoned and dispassionate, the unfailingly logical Mr. Spock represented the modern emergence of science as the real problem-solver for humanity. In spite of the fiery courage of their Captain, the humans on the enterprise were ultimately able to pursue their mission thanks to the rational expertise of their half-Human/half-Vulcan Science Officer.

Jean Luc Picard’s Next Generation Enterprise is a very different place that its predecessor. Their new mission – to boldly go where no one has gone before – is more than a nod to politically correctness. Man – humankind – is no longer the measure of all things on the Enterprise. The crew’s diversity now includes beings from all over the galaxy. Far beyond the familiar multi-cultural nature of Kirk’s crew, Picard leads an inter galactic team. At his side are a diverse team of advisors. Unlike Kirk, Picard’s second in command, Riker - his “Number One” - is present and prominent. The team includes the blind engineer, Geordi, the fierce Klingon security officer, Worf and the ship’s beautiful and motherly physician, Beverly Crusher. Instead of the super-human strength and intelligence of Spock, Picard has the assistance of the android, Data. Data’s character is very different than that of his Vulcan predecessor. Even though he is a machine, Data desires a more holistic understanding of what it means to be alive. Where Spock finds human emotional life to be an obstacle, or at best “fascinating,” Data actually wants to experience that life.

Like Commander Riker, Counselor Troi has no real antecedent on the original crew. Her empathic abilities bring compassion and emotion to the forefront. Rather than being an obstacle to reason, emotion and feelings are considered to be integral parts of life on the new Enterprise.

Next Generation’s
great villain is the Borg, a collective intelligence that robs beings of their emotional selves and integrates them into something that is not a community but an enormous machine of conquest. In the original series, the universe is an often mystifying, but rarely mystical place. Next Generation introduces the supernatural Q, a recurring omnipotent visitor from “the continuum”.

Grenz hypothesis is that Next Generation reflects the postmodern changes that began to occur in our culture in the decades between the launch of the original NBC series in 1966 and the generation that saw its release in first-run syndication in 1987. Our culture is moving away from one that idealizes reason, science, and individual achievement. Postmodernism leads us toward a more inclusive view of our existence - one that includes not only reason, but also intuition, emotion, and individual perceptions in the context of community.

The conclusion of Primer’s first chapter sums up what Grenz feels is the importance of the church considering postmodernism:

We dare not fall into the trap of wistfully longing for a return to the early modernity that gave evangelicalism its birth, for we are called not to minister to the past, but to the contemporary context….

Postmodernism poses many dangers. Nevertheless, it would be ironic – indeed, it would be tragic – if evangelicals ended up as the last defenders of a now dying modernity. (p 10)

In this tribute to Granz, written on the blog Generations in Conversation soon after his death, the Star Trek comparison is described this way:

The first chapter gives us the beautiful metaphor for modernism and postmodernism - Star Trek as a series. The first series - boldness and certainty. The second series - humility, subtlety and uncertainty.

As the modern world changes, postmodern thinking will influence everything about our culture. As a people called to be in the world, but not of the world, Christians need to understand how to negotiate the postmodern landscape, even if it never becomes our true home.


Next: The Postmodern ethos and world view.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Pentecost 2007

Happy Birthday, old girl. Nearly 2000 years since that ordinary day when the most amazing things started happening in an obscure, troublesome corner of the Roman empire.

The wind, the Spirit of the Lord - that same breath that moved over the face of the deep on the first day of creation - that wind filled their little room and tongues of flame appeared above their heads and a new creation was born.

Happy birthday.

You've been through a lot, Mother Church. Wars and dictators. Plagues and earthquakes. Saints and madmen. You've gone through it. And by the grace of God, you've come through it. The cheeks aren't as smooth as they once were, and the hair is touched with gray, but the eyes still sparkle from time to time.

We've done a lot with the flame God gave us in that upper room. We've used it to light the darkness and to warm the chilly bones of your suffering children.
We've spread it over the face of the earth. We haven't always been careful as we ought to have been. We've mingled our own breath with the flame, hoping to make it burn brighter, spread faster. In our impatience, we've done harm in the world, and done harm to you.

But you're still here.

Like a mother who will not give up on her wayward children, you weep with us, discipline us, rejoice with us. You help us to welcome our babies and you help us to bury our dead.

Travel the world and you will find the church's flame burning. Shining like a beacon in the middle of a sin-sick city or glowing softly in the middle of a forest she stands - a stubborn reminder that we are not alone in this lonely universe. The church has many critics, and many of them are right. She is old and stubborn, set in her ways. She doesn't like to change, and is often hard on people who try to change her. She keeps too much, gives too little, holds on too tight, and lets go much too reluctantly. She's got a mean streak a mile wide and often seems more interested in obedience than reason. Much too much harm has been done - too many wounded hearts broken on her stone steps and wooden beams.

But she's still here.

She has been my friend since I was a child. I remember the dark Presbyterian wood of my youth. The smell of lilac perfume and moth balls and Lifeboy as the hard working people in our church in Pittsburgh would crowd into the heavy pews with the hymnal racks and the hearing aids. Her dark stone walls reminded us that even on Sunday, life was hard work - hard as the mills whose stacks filled the air with the dark soot that colored our lives and stained her walls. Her tall square bell tower called us to church and called us to reflect upward - her finger pointing ever heavenward.

I remember the mystery of the communion cups, like a little shot glass in my grandmother's trembling fingers. She would drink when the minister said "This do..." and then place the empty cup in the wooden holder on the pew in front of her. Dad never came to church when I was little. I just thought it was something a man grew out of. There were a few grown men there, but mostly it was the women who greeted my mom and gramma. They would smile at me and talk while I tugged at my mother's sleeve, wanting only to go home and take off my church shoes. Women taught my Sunday school - Miss Margaret, Mrs Misplay, Mrs. Swango. The minister was a man, but it was pretty obvious to me who did the work and who did the sleeping in on Sunday mornings.

When I was older, I joined the Boy Scouts and Dad became our Scoutmaster. At camp, we always had Sunday services and one of the other fathers would speak about honesty or helping people or one of the other scout values. All this made sense to me. These were grown men, but they weren't really talking about church stuff. They were talking about being good scouts and becoming good men. Then one weekend, Dad stood up. I was a little freaked and a little upset. I thought it was kind of hypocritical of him to talk in a chapel service when he didn't even go to church. He read to us from Psalms. "The heavens are telling the glory of God." Dad talked about the trees and the mountains of Western Pennsylvania where our families had grown up. This was where he found God. This was where his own father had shown him how to recognize a bird's song or track a deer through the autumn leaves. When Grampa died, the church stopped making sense to Dad. The rational, compassionate Father and Friend who was preached about from the big pulpit was no friend of my fathers. He had taken away his dad. There would be no more hunting trips. No more fishing in Canada. No more evenings at Forbes Field watching the Pirates and eating hot dogs. His father would not get the chance to watch me grow up. The God of church had seen to all that.

Here in the woods, it was a different story. Here my dad spoke a language I had never heard. He talked about a God whose fingers had scooped out the valleys and whose voice sang in the night. He saw the Creator's fingerprints all over the woods. God had provided fresh water, plants to provide shelter and save food. Even the stones for our fire ring were gifts from God over which we were not masters, but stewards. God had placed all this beauty in our care so that we might find rest from the smoke and the noise of the city. This was the place where the God my Dad knew lived.

Soon after that, Dad started coming to church. I grew up. He grew old and tired. When he died. I was not angry at God. My father had taught me to forgive, even my Creator's sins. We buried my father on a hill in the woods, far far from the city. He is with God.

The church and I have had our ups and downs. I am in awe of her most of the time. She has been through so much, meant so much, helped so many. The old tricks of the cathedral architects still take my breath away. Flying buttresses, soaring domes, rose windows, tiny side chapels. The church has been all these things, but so much more.

She has been our flawed and beautiful guardian - our beautiful partner in the stewardship of creation. She is a glorious monster, a tender giant watching over us, yet reliant on us for her life.

We are the church. That is true. A church is not a building, it is people. But the church is much more than we could ever be on our own. The church is people, but it is not only people. "Only people" is a room full of disciples who have said goodbye to Jesus twice in a few months, lost and a little confused about what it all meant and where they should go from here. "The church" is a street full of apostles speaking in strange languages to suspicious ears about the glory of a Creator who leaves fingerprints everywhere - even on human hearts. The church was born of the marriage between God and God's people. She is our mother AND our child.

Happy birthday, old girl. God bless you.


Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Great Letting Go

At the last supper, when Judas had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, 'Where I am going, you cannot come.' I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
John 13:31-35

In this short Gospel lesson, Jesus speaks words his disciples are destined to understand only after his death. It is possible that he spoke for their sake of course, but it also seems to me that he spoke to his own heart which ached with grief at the loss of his friends. Jesus was about to begin his journey through The Way of Letting Go.

The Great Letting Go is a part of human life. Our birth is the primal example. We must leave – in fact we are driven out of the only existence we know. We lose the relationship that has kept us alive. We are thrust into a new world, one where the person we were is no more than a subconscious memory. We have no choice but to let go of the person we were, in order to become the person we will be.

A mother must also travel this painful and confusing road. For nine months she has lived in relationship with someone she has never seen, but with whom she shares an intimacy that is completely unique in creation. She has willingly offered her body to be the home of a being who is not an invader or a parasite, but a new creature. She has changed with her child’s transformation from a single cell into a thinking, breathing person. From the beginning, she knows it is a relationship that is destined to end, this intimate hospitality of mother and unborn child. If her child is to live, a mother has to let it go.

My first memory of The Great Letting Go was when my Grampa died. He had been a special friend to me, my mother’s Father. His angular country features were different from the round, Ukrainian faces I knew in my father’s family in the city. Grampa had a laugh that filled his little house like music. When I misbehaved, or did something dangerous outside, his anger could reach across a pasture like thunder. I remember the smell of his Chesterfields and the Captain Black as their smoke curled around the posts that held up the porch roof. I remember the tiny holes he would sometimes burn in his pants when an ember would accidentally fall from his straight, brown pipe. Those tiny holes began to grow more frequent after he became sick. They grew and spread like the tumors my mother said the doctor had seen in his X-rays. The weekend we went to visit and saw the burn on the arm of Grampa’s big chair in the living room, I knew that something was really wrong with my strong, tall laughing friend. We watched the light slowly fade from his eyes as the stairs became too difficult and the old oak dining room table was moves aside to make room for a hospital bed. Finally an ambulance brought him to the city, driving fast along The Great Letting Go. Finally, I came home one afternoon and my father’s mother, my city gramma was waiting for me. She sat me on her big rocking chair while she sat on the edge of the bed and explained to me that Grampa was dead. He had been a very sick man, but now he was no longer sick.

I had known tears before then - tears of frustration, of pain, of disappointment, fear, or anger - but that was the first time I remember weeping the tears of The Great Letting Go.

Those tears become part of our lives. A friend goes away. Our family moves to a new place. Summer vacation ends.

Later we learn about love and its cost. We learn the joys of having a sweetheart and the pain of losing them. Our parent’s arguments (or their silence) finally tears them apart. We become “every other weekend” children of people who have let go of one another.

School days end, speeches are made. We dress in strange medieval costumes while people talk about exciting beginnings and possibilities. But in our hearts we know that what is really happening is the death of the life we have always known. We are traveling down the shadowy, unknown valleys of The Great Letting Go.

We will return to its winding way many times. There will be weddings and funerals. Children will become teenagers. Love nests will fill with little birds, then one day we look around and the nest willl be empty. Promotions will give us new colleagues and old ones will be left behind. Obituaries, alumni magazines, and late night phone calls will bring news of loved ones whose life journey is over. Lost opportunities at reunion or reconciliation become a part of our lives. Finally, the time comes for our own greatest letting go. Our strength fades, our minds cloud, our health abandons us, and our breath leaves us one last time – one last expiration – and we let go.

Christ’s incarnation means salvation for humankind – but what does it mean for God? One of the lessons of the Hebrew scripture is that God does not act unilaterally. We are in relationship with a God who acts in covenant. In giving, God takes. In taking, God gives. This is not paradox – it is a description of the relationship God desires with us. “You will be mine and I will be yours.”

What does God get out of the agony of the incarnation? God learns what it means to let go. The physical torture is only part of the Passion of the Christ. There is also the pain of a person whose consciousness stretches back to the creation of the universe. Christ’s embrace is capable of gathering all of creation to himself, and yet now, having accepted the bondage of human, temporal existence, the creator of the universe has no choice but to let go.

Of home.

Of serenity.

Of a father’s courage.

Of a Mother’s embrace.

Of friends, disciples, students, and believers.

Of enemies, even. The ones who challenged his heart and sharpened his mind.

Of life itself.

One of the lessons of the incarnation for God is the experience of The Great Letting Go. In Jesus, God finally knows from the inside out what it means to truly lose and to grieve the loss. Standing at the grave of Lazarus, Jesus wept – but they were God’s tears.

The time of letting go is never far from us. Paul used to say that he had died to himself. Like a child being born, Paul had to let go of everything he had once believed to be true in order to become a new creation in Christ.

Each of us encounters The Great Letting Go many times in our lives. We may face it with anticipation or anxiety or with dread or despair – but we will never face it alone. Jesus knows the way because he has traveled it himself. Our God chose to travel the way of letting go so that even in this, we might remain in covenant. Even at our times of greatest loss, we remain God’s people – God remains our God. A God who can both rejoice and weep with us throughout the journey of our lives.

Christ’s example is our commandment and our blessing – live a life that can both embrace and let go. Put down what must be put down, and take up what must be taken up – be it a friend, a vocation, or a cross. Cling to nothing but God’s faithfulness.

And always love one another. This is Christ’s commandment. This is the vocation of a disciple. Love one another through the victories and the defeats, in strength and in weakness, in rejoicing and in mourning. Love one another in the holding, and love one in the letting go.

This is the way the world knows the “little children” of Christ. Not from their jewelry or their bumper stickers or the sign in their yard or the slogan on their sweat shirt. The world knows the children of God because they love one another.

May God grant that we might recognize that love in our own lives – that we might join with Christ in his great ministry, even as he faithfully joins with us in our Great Letting Go.


Pieta, Paula Rego, 2002.

All other images are from one of my favorite companies, Bridge Building Images. I hope you enjoy them.


Sunday, April 29, 2007

Family Business

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." Jesus answered, "I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one."
John 10: 22-30

Those shepherds who saw a host in the heavens and went to Bethlehem to visit a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes could not have understood who the child was, not really. But even if they had, they could never have anticipated the important role they would play in the life and ministry of the one the angel called “Christ, the Lord.”

Many times in the Gospel narratives, Jesus portrays himself as a shepherd who loves his sheep – one who would die for them. Heroic self-sacrifice is part of a shepherd’s life, but there is much more.

The shepherd is always with the sheep. When they are born, when they learn to walk, when they grow into adulthood, breed, and give birth, the shepherd is there. When they fall ill, the shepherd heals them. When they are injured, he gives them comfort. When they are lost, the shepherd seeks them out and brings them home. When they sleep, the shepherd keeps watch over them and protects them. And when their life’s journey is over the shepherd is there, too. Even in death, they are not alone.

Whenever I have heard Jesus refer to the “works” that he does, I have always thought of the miracles: water and wine and walking on the sea and waking the dead – big things. But Jesus’ public ministry lasted three years. The miracles might sell a lot of Bibles, but they are a relatively rare part of his ministry. Most of the time, Jesus is doing much less dramatic works. He teaches. He listens. He comforts people in trouble. He tells riddles. He irritates what we used to call “the establishment.” A lot of what Jesus does, modern managers might refer to as “team building.” He develops a group of leaders who can continue his work when he is gone. Most of the time, Jesus did a lot of boring stuff that had nothing to do with quieting storms and healing the blind.

While the miracles are important, the low profile, day-to-day items on Jesus’ task list are just as powerful a testimony to who he is. Jesus did not spend most of his time doing miracles and garnering publicity. He spent his days quietly shaping the characters of the women and men who would carry his ministry out into the world. The ones who heard his voice and followed revealed themselves to be his sheep. After his death, they would become his “body” in the world. They would become the church.

And what would become of them?

In the seventh chapter of his Apocalypse, John describes a vision…

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

They cried out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!"

Revelation 7: 9,10

The language is important here, I think. This is not a gathering of tribes or a convention. These are not delegations from every state, all expressing their identities with foam rubber cowboy hats or buttons or signs on poles. John did not see a mosaic of independent groups – he had a much more radical vision. John saw “a multitude.” He saw a great sea of humans who had come from all nations and languages in order to join this body that “no one could count.”

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Rev 7: 13, 14

John’s Revelation was written as a message of hope to a persecuted church. In parts of our world today, Christians are tortured and murdered for recreation or entertainment. In John’s time, this activity was not isolated in pockets of political conflagration – it was the official policy of the government that ruled what John understood to be the entire world. The church needed a message of hope. They needed to hear that Death, who seemed to rule this world as surely as Rome did, would not have the last word. They needed to know that their battered bodies and broken hearts would not be stained with grief forever. In John’s vision, they could find that hope. His portrait of the throne of heaven, is full of echoes from the Gospels. The multitude in clean white robes washed in the blood of the Lamb recall Jesus own baptism. The palms they are holding conjure images of Jesus triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a white colt. The illegal, despised, and persecuted early Christian church needed reassurance that what the Roman world seemed intent on destroying would not be destroyed. John’s letter from Patmos offered that reassurance.

The church in my country knows nothing about persecution. Politically polarized Americans who pretend to be threatened by their ideological antagonists speak blasphemy against the blood of the martyrs when we compare ourselves to them. Outside of extraordinary and rare circumstances, no American Christian is ever going to have to choose between faith and a tortured, humiliating death at the hands of people who hate everything that the church represents.

And yet, this multitude is not irrelevant to us. The message is not a dated artifact from another, ancient civilization. We may be safe from persecution, but “the great ordeal” remains. If nature abhors a vacuum, the devil hates one even more. If governments will not do his work for him, he can always find other agents to try to dismember the body of Christ. Our contemporary church’s ordeal moves from the inside out like cancer cells. Like her people, the church suffers from narcissism, addiction to substance, obesity, anxiety, depression, and the arrogance born of fear. Since feeding us to the lions no longer amuses our world, Satan has a thousand intricate ways of encouraging us to devour one another.

Each of us lives in what Islam calls jihad - not the perverted “holy war” of politicians and gangsters, but the spiritual struggle with the demons who torment us, wherever we live. We suffer casualties in that struggle, both as individuals and as the church. Hearts are broken. Faith is lost. Families are destroyed and life becomes an option to be chosen, not a gift to be treasured. Our ordeal cannot compare to the suffering of Christians in China or Sudan, but Satan can use it to destroy our faith just as surely as if we were being threatened by Pilate himself.

There are many ways to come through an ordeal, of course. You can run away. You can pretend it isn’t there, and just go about your business. Or you can look it straight in the eye and stay faithful. That sounds like the course of the multitude in white who have known hunger and thirst during lives without shelter from the weather or the elements. These are they who have chosen to answer the call of the Lamb who is also their shepherd. The people who gather at the throne of God will be those who were not frightened away from Jesus –not by the world, not by the devil, and not by their own fears and doubts. For the ones who come out of that ordeal, John’s promise remains intact…

[for] the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

We have a savior who will not send us, but will guide us to the healing waters of life. We serve a creator whose own hands will caress our cheeks and wipe away all our tears. Guidance and healing; compassion and comfort: these are the “works” Jesus did in his life. This is the family business of God the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer.

This is the family business inherited by the church.

And now, it’s time to get back to business.


Greek Shepherds is from the collection of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association

St John the Evangelist at Patmos, Hans Memling, 1479 from the Christian Art Gallery of Art History Archive.com

Want to learn more about today's persecuted church? try The Voice of the Martyrs.

The photo of The Falls of the Youghiogheny (thats "YOCK-a-gainey" for you non-pennsyltuckian speakers. Just "YOCK" if you've ever been dumped into it from a rubber raft) - in any case, the photo was pulled from visitUSA.com.


Sunday, April 15, 2007

Wonderful... Dreadful...

The Second Sunday in the Easter Season is traditionally the day when the church picks on Thomas. Sometimes, for a change of pace the sermon might be about how Thomas gets a bum rap with the whole “Doubting T” thing.

The appeal of this approach to today’s gospel is that you don’t have to deal with the difficulties of the first part of the lesson.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
John 20: 19-23

It was the end of the first day of the week – the first Easter day. There had been no chocolate bunnies, no hard-boiled eggs, and definitely no baked ham. There was plenty of fear, though. They had seen their rabbi arrested in the middle of the night, tortured, and executed. They had seen the public sentiment toward him turn on a dime as easily as a contemporary TV audience picks a new favorite reality show. Their bellies were full of the bitterness of their own betrayals. Their friend Judas was dead – Judas, whose sin each of them had mirrored in silence or denial. The long Sabbath had been spent in terrified anticipation. They were known throughout the city. Jesus’ persecutors certainly knew who they were. It was just a matter of time before each of them would be roused from sleep, and led one by one off to prison or worse.

On the morning after the Sabbath the knock came but it was not a Roman patrol. It was the women returning from the tomb with a crazy story. A few of the men ran to confirm what the women had said. They confirmed the worst. Jesus’ body was not there. The stories of angels and mysterious strangers in the garden were apparently not told or else not believed because they all returned to the locked upper room and spent the day in fear. Word on the street was that some lunatic had stolen Jesus’ body. The disciples had no doubts about who the authorities would blame for the crime. They were dead men locked in the upper room, just as surely as Jesus had been when they sealed him in his grave.

John’s gospel reports the next events with a strangely cool, clinical eye. He merely reports facts with none of the commentary we might expect from Matthew and none of the dramatic flare that characterizes Luke. There is no wind, no flash of light, no walking through walls. Jesus simply “…came and stood among them and said. “Peace be with you.” He showed them his hands and feet and the mortal wound in his side. John tells us that only then did their fear subside and they rejoiced. (So you see Thomas wasn’t the only one who needed proof before he could believe.)

The next thing that happened was truly extraordinary and very difficult to preach about indeed. Everyone knows Luke’s cinematic story of Pentecost – the upper room, the wind, tongues of flame, preaching in strange languages, 3000 converts. John’s story of Pentecost is very different. It does not begin with special effects, but with the joyful disciples and the risen Christ repeating his blessing on them – “Peace be with you.” He then pronounces the ten words that created the religion we know as Christianity. “As the father has sent me, so I send you.” With than brief pronouncement the disciples were transformed from followers into leaders. Once Jesus had traveled to their boats and work places and their homes and said “Come.” Now he said “Go.” They were no longer Disciples of Jesus – they were Apostles of Christ.

Jesus then breathed on them, just as God had breathed life into the mud and given life to Adam. Jesus breathed his Holy Spirit into them and gave them the wonderful, dreadful responsibility for carrying on his ministry, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”Jesus had proclaimed forgiveness during his earthly life by the power of the Holy Spirit. Now he had given that responsibility to the Apostles.

The responsibility is wonderful because it allows the church to offer the peace of forgiveness to the repentant. It is dreadful because it commands the church to hold the unrepentant accountable for their actions. We do not have the authority to forgive – that belongs only to God. The authority we have is to bear witness to God’s forgiveness through the suffering and resurrection of Jesus. What we may not do is bear false witness to the unrepentant by proclaiming a forgiveness God does not grant. The sinner who will not release sins chains can never be set free by the pronouncement of the church. If a man or woman desires to remain a slave to their own sin, God will not force them to repent, and the church may not deceive them by claiming that God has done so.

In spite of all our most fervent prayers and best hopes, Jesus warns that in our ministry we will encounter some folks whose conversion we must simply leave to God. No heart can receive the peace of Christ until it has been softened or even broken by sin’s burden and God’s grace.

In John’s simple rendering of the day of Pentecost, Jesus reminds us that we are to walk humbly, just as he did. We are to tell the Good News to all who will hear it not only with our words, but also with our lives. We can offer the blessing of Christ’s peace as we rejoice with other sinners who have chosen to lay their sins on the altar of God’s love.

We can do all these things, but we cannot change people’s hearts.

My wife once worked for a veterinarian. One of the painful realities of animal medicine is euthanasia. Sometimes an animal is beyond the help of the doctor’s art. The only options are to let them suffer or to put them down. For the compassionate people who do this kind of work every day, that choice takes a toll on the heart. Mrs. P had worked and grieved for many years before coming to this epiphany – you can’t save them all, but you can love them all. When one of our fellow creatures is sick with disease, we may not be able to deliver them from their illness, but we can still offer them compassion and loving-kindness until their suffering is over. That is a gift we can always give.

Likewise, when one of our fellow creatures is sick with sin, we cannot deliver them with all our art and science. But thanks to the spirit of Christ in us, we can offer them compassion and mercy until God relieves them of their burden. This is the authority given to the Apostles. This is the ministry of the church. If we are to take up Christ’s mission, we are free to rejoice with the redeemed and grieve for the lost, but in imitation of our Savior we must love them all – even the Doubting Thomases.

But his story is another subject for another day. Maybe next year.


Illustrations in this post are the work of the Swiss artist Corrine Vonaesch.

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