Reflection for June 1, 2104

Acts 1:1-11, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53 

     Today’s readings are assigned for Ascension. The Ascension of Jesus into heaven forty days following Easter was celebrated this past Thursday. Ascension was once a rather large festival in the church. These days we do not make that much out of Ascension and probably do not spend that much time thinking about heaven either.

 

     But the first reading and the third reading are two stories of the Ascension. The two readings are written by the same person. The reading from Luke is the end of the story of Jesus known as the Gospel of Luke. It is volume one of a two volume series on early Christians. The first reading today from Acts is the beginning of that second volume in the series. The end of the first volume is the beginning of the second.

 

     This year when I focused on these Ascension readings, I noticed how they reveal the tensions of the Christian faith.  Notice in the passage from Luke, as the ministry of Jesus comes to an end; the disciples wonder when the earth and its peoples will be transformed by the gospel: when things on earth will be different and evil is overcome. They are focused on changing this world. When will this world be transformed?

 

     But then notice how their attention is drawn away from their worldly perspective into a heavenly perspective. They become focused on Jesus ascending into heaven. And their attention is turned to heaven.

 

     But then notice how the angels shift their attention back to things on earth. Why do you stand here, gazing up to heaven? It’s time to get back to Jerusalem. What should be our focus? Earth and its condition or heaven yet to come? That tension is here in this story.

 

     And this tension is still with us. Sometimes the tension becomes a difficulty between denominations or in church groups. But the tension really lives within each one of us. We want our faith to be engaged in this world. We want to make a difference here and now. And yet we also sense that there is more to the faith than this world. We sense that it all does not end in death. And yet we don’t want to get so caught up in the afterlife that we forget this life. Part of being a disciple in this two volume series is living with this tension between focus on earth and focus on heaven. Sometimes disciples stand for justice, work for peace, and spend their time and energy focused on caring for those in need. Other times we all gather in the heavenly light of God and sense that we are not in the end bound to this world but will be moved by God’s love beyond it.  And a thoughtful faith engages all of that tension.

 

     There is a second tension embedded in these Ascension readings. It is the tension between mission and maintenance. In these two books of church history, the church is deeply committed to mission: sharing good news about God’s love for all, helping those in need, healing, offering common meals, and sharing goods with those who have nothing. In these books of the Bible, there is nothing more important than this mission. Volume Two is called the book of Acts or we might say, the Book of Action.

 

     And yet it appears that the disciples also spend a lot of time in prayer, worship, in fellowship, in mutual support, and bearing one another’s burdens. They sing, and they pray. And they wait for the spirit of God.  All of that is the nurturing maintenance side of the faith, the undergirding of the mission with prayer and song and fellowship and waiting on God.

 

     And once again this is a tension that we cannot avoid. We do need to get out there and get the job done. People depend on that and we make a substantial difference in this community. At the same time, we need to worship, pray, sing, support, and love each other in our time together so that we are equipped for the effort.

 

     And just as people or churches can become too focused on changing the world or too focused on heavenly bliss, so also some churches can become so focused on maintenance that they never get to the mission their supposed to be maintaining. While others get so deep into getting things done, that they forget to pray.

 

     And there is a third tension in this story. For the end of one book is the beginning of another. This morning an ending becomes a beginning. We see the tension built into, not only this book, but in all nature: as what ends, brings the beginning of something else. In nature what dies gives rise to new growth. And the closing of the book on the life of Jesus is the opening episode of the lives of the apostles.

 

     I wonder, especially in the spring with things like graduations, and the fall with its sense of harvest, about the endings and beginnings in our lives. What is ending for you? And how is that ending leading to a new beginning?

 

     Today, many think the institutional church is ending or in decline. It may well be. But that sense of ending is a beginning of a new and different church founded not so much on the supporting momentum of a culture that was religious, as it is on the enthusiasm of new generations for sharing and helping with a compassionate heart. In such transitions of endings into beginnings there is always a lot of tension.

 

     So today, as we look at an ending that’s a beginning, the need for both maintenance and mission, and the tensions between the worldly view and the heavenly view, I think we are called to look at our own lives, consider the tensions we feel, and what those tensions mean.

 

     Often in family life there is a tension as two things pull us in opposite directions. In your family, what are those tensions you feel and how do they shape your life? Often in our life at work or school there is a tension as things pull us in opposite directions. What are those tensions you feel at work and how to they shape your life? Often with friends there is a tension as things pull us in opposite directions. What are those tensions you feel in your friendships and how do they shape your lives?

 

     These tensions often involve themes of independence and loyalty, freedom and responsibility, old and new, self care and caring for others, being nice and being direct, focusing on the long term or short term, and whether one is practical or emotional. All of these tensions can be destructive unless we begin to see that these things are working together, sometimes with struggle, to help us find the way or path we need to take. The true, the good, the right are not found by just heading off in one direction. They are found most frequently as we shape the balance we need in order to accomplish the greater good on earth as it is in heaven.

 

     And perhaps it helps when we face these and other tensions to reflect on the two volumes of the Bible we have today.  For ending actually becomes beginning, the maintenance of faith leads to our shared mission, and the heavenly is accomplished on earth in, with, and under the love we share.

 

    At first tensions seem like the collision of opposites, two lines headed in completely different directions. But in these stories, tensions are actually two different sides of an arc, reflecting on each other, revealing a unity that undergirds all tension. What appear to be opposites are really people moving along the arc of a circle around a common center as all things eventually come together.   And whenever we sense ourselves being pulled apart, being pulled in too many different directions, then (to use circular language) it is time to discover again the compassion which we say is the center of all things.

 

Reflection for May 25, 2014

Acts 17:22-31, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21 

I.

     Today in the readings we have three ancient speeches.  In the first reading from Acts, Paul has been moving through Greece, starting congregations all along the way. Now he arrives in Athens. It’s a center of ancient culture, filled with many wonders, and Paul has been taking in the sites before arrangements have been made for him to publically speak. This is Paul’s most important sermon on this tour and in the New Testament.  Athens is the seat of Greek culture and philosophy, and the sermon takes the form of philosophical debate. Paul makes several points: This God is the foundation of humanity. Let us move beyond the false idols of our pagan past to embrace a new relationship with the one God. The vision of this new God is found in the person of Jesus who by the true God was raised to new life. In this divine person of Jesus we see the power of hope, grace, love, and compassion needed for the coming new world.

     Much has been said and written about this major sermon. It is highly polished, and in its original Greek sounds like a prose poem or piece of music.   It is filled with classical Greek rhetorical flourishes: assonance- the same vowel sounds in neighboring words; alliteration- words starting with the same sound; reduplication – repetition of words in phrases for amplification; antistrophe – the repetition of the last word in a string of phrases; litotes –  affirming by negating the opposite; and paronomasia similar sounding words with dissimilar meanings. (Mikeal Parsons’ Commentary on Acts, 2008) And most of that sophisticated polish is lost in the translation into English.

     The extent to which Paul has polished his words indicates how important it was for Paul to adapt to this sophisticated audience. Paul is a highly adaptable missionary. Perhaps he is most famous for his adaptation of the faith so that Gentiles need not be circumcised or practice Jewish dietary restrictions in order to join The Way of Jesus. Further, his message behind the rhetoric of the sermon is also, well, “new age.” Guy Stromsa in his book, The End of Sacrifice, and others have suggested that the first century saw a radical shift in religion. Paul’s words reflect this shift and new perspective. All over the Roman Empire, people were no longer interested in sacrifice to deities in temples or the adoration of idols. That kind of worship was ending. And a new form of religious expression was emerging that involved personal faith, living in community, practicing compassion in fellowship, believing not in idols, but in one creator God who transcended loyalty to the various cults of the city, state, or empire.

     This is the spirit of this sermon. Along with the polished grammar, and the accommodation regarding Jewish regulations, we sense how Paul adapted to his culture, his audience, and the neighborhood in which he found himself, just as we are called to do this day in our own contemporary city of Madison.  Times change, and as the church finds itself in new situations, it also adapts and changes. 

II.

     The second speech today is a piece of I Peter. As you know by now, I’m not a fan of I Peter. This speech is yet another admonition or exhortation framed in lofty language: the sort of thing for which Christians have become infamous. We’re known for our tendency to exhort, admonish, and chastise in using such terms.

     But let’s take a look at the structure of the admonition. Here and in 2:18-25 there is a pattern to these ancient admonitions to shape up. First, there is a premise —God is on the side of good. Then comes the exhortation—do what is right in suffering. Then there is a moral choice—doing good, showing grace in suffering is the best moral choice. And finally in this pattern are examples or images —the examples are Jesus, God waiting for Noah’s family, and the image of drowning and new life.

     Now we may not like exhortations and admonitions. They can be hard to hear. Should we not be focused on love rather than condemnations? That’s true. But now and then we do need an admonition, a boundary warning, or an expectation set.  Even in our own time, well practiced love will require some boundaries, restrictions, and admonitions. For example, we are deeply involved in the compassion of sheltering the homeless.  But shelters also require restricts, boundaries, rules, and admonitions.  We don’t want weapons, or drunkenness, or drugs in the shelters. There are limitations to how long one can stay. And we expect people to respect each other and the property. And sometimes all of that requires regulation and admonition, boundaries and restrictions layered into the compassion.

     When that is necessary, this ancient pattern of admonition helps us. What are the premises of our shelter work, the things we really want to happen, and the things that matter? And how can we encourage and set rules when necessary for the best ways to live together? These days, moral choices need to be made that require deliberation and careful thought as we plan the compassion we wish to enact. And we all need examples and images to help us along the way.  What do other shelters do facing similar issues? Our premises, encouragement, choices, and examples of people who get it right, help us create an orderly life, in shelter ministry, in our families, and even in public life.  And it may be good for us to think this afternoon about our principles, our need to work on something, to reflect on the choices and examples needed to accomplish a necessary admonishment.

III.

     The final speech today is from John. It is a small part of the very long farewell address of Jesus to his disciples. Think about the farewell address of George Washington when he declared his intent not to seek reflection, but to retire from public office. Washington assured his audience that his departure was the result of careful consideration and did not signify a loss of zeal for America’s future. He praised what the citizens of the new country had accomplished because of their unity. He warned of dangers ahead that threatened that unity. Then he prayed with them for the future well being of the nation.

     George Kennedy and George Parsenios have recently studied such farewell addresses. They usually contain the following: parting is necessary and for the best now. It has come only after careful consideration and at the appropriate time. Those present have been one community. The relationships that have been forged will be sustained. The purpose of the community has been noble. The community’s work will endure, even with new leaders.

     We are in the middle of a very long farewell address by Jesus found only in the gospel of John. His farewell address covers at least four chapters of John from the opening in John 13 to the chapter long closing prayer in chapter 17. Since it is spoken just before his death, it takes on the feel of a funeral oration.

     For us, four chapters of is too long. It takes well over an hour to read the whole thing out loud. The repetitive wording which originally was comforting seems irritating to us. We want sermons and addresses to be much shorter, not longer, crisper and more direct. But its length is fitting for its time.

     These chapters contain all of the elements of a good farewell address in the classical tradition: announcement of the parting when the time is right; the call to love one another; assurances that the work will continue with the help of the Spirit or Paraclete, a new leader; assurances that our relationships will continue, and that eventually the goals of the community will be accomplished.  Jesus’ farewell address has a special emphasis on unity, common bond, and mutual affection. He then closes with a very long prayer: all of chapter 17.

     In our section today, the speech lifts up the importance of relationships. We will not be abandoned by God. We are called to sustain one another in the absence of Jesus. And this may be the core of any farewell address or funeral oration no matter how long or how short it is. As we say goodbye, or as we face death, our relationships are central in our minds. We know the importance of family and friends caring for one another in these moments of departure. Nothing is more important.

     And Jesus reminds us, in the middle of this third speech of the day, that the spirit or Paraclete is there to keep us in relationship with God as we build or rebuild our lives. Jesus’ death is coming, and the disciples grieve that loss. But the spirit, the helper will keep God close.  And God will continue to stand with us through the days ahead.

     Today’s speeches from the Bible remind us that it is important to adapt;  that sometimes carefully crafted admonitions are needed; and that our relationships with one another and with God will see us through the difficulties we may be dreading. Fear not. The spirit is coming. Amen

Reflection for May 18, 2014

Acts 7:55-60, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14 

I.

     The first reading continues our Easter season series from the book of Acts.  Oh, the ghosts of those first Christians still seem to haunt our lives.  Here we have the story of the stoning of Stephen. Last week we learned of the communal living of the earliest Christians, including common meals. Stephen was one of the table waiters or deacons who helped with the distribution to those in need following these meals. He was selected to take the place of Judas who hanged himself. Stephen is known as the first Christian martyr stoned to death for his faith in Jesus.

     In the background of this story I notice the figure of Paul or Saul lurking in the background. Saul is one of the Jews who organize the persecution of the Christians, and he plots the death of Stephen. Later in the book of Acts Saul becomes a Christian. With a new name, Paul, he becomes a missionary to the Gentiles. He ends up writing half of the New Testament. But at this point in the story he is zealous in his efforts to kill Christianity and what it stands for.

     Whenever I encounter this Saul or Paul, in this chapter of his life, I realize again how wrong we all can be, me especially. Here Paul believes so strongly in what he is doing that he kills others who disagree with him. And yet, in the end, he embraces the faith he once persecuted, as he regrets his past.

    Oh, we who are of strong opinion and will, despite all of our certitude and certainty that we know what’s best: well, we can be so wrong.  How is that possible? Sometimes we just miss the point. Sometimes we press our case too strongly. Sometimes things change and we do not go with the flow. Sometimes we stubbornly disregard the emerging obvious. Sometimes we go with the flow when we should have held firm. Sometimes disasters shape things differently. Sometimes the facts we are working with are wrong. Sometimes we forget something. Sometimes we lose our focus.  Sometimes we become selfish or greedy or narrow minded. It really doesn’t matter. All of us can be so wrong even when we think we are so right.  And the ghost of Paul in this chapter of his life, reminds us all of how fallible we humans are, and how it is best to practice humility and gentleness in our opinions so that we hurt others as little as possible in the inevitable error of our ways.

     And then there is the ghost of Stephen. So much could be said about Stephen, but what I’d like to point out this morning, is that his apostleship is very brief. He’s appointed and perhaps a couple of months later he dies. Stephen reminds us that God works not only in the gradual movement of the organized church through the ages and not only through the destiny of creation through the eons; but also sometimes in the quickly burning bright light of compassion and forgiveness found briefly in the human heart. Even if we don’t have years to develop projects and ministries, even if we do not devote our entire lives to compassion and charity, sometimes just a moment is enough, just a flash of grace, that single act of courage or amazing forgiveness may be far more important than we think. Stephen’s short term reminds us that those who come later and do not last long may have still have a profound impact and legacy. You may not have a life time to dedicate to compassion, but you do have this day. What small thing is God calling you to do, now? 

II.

     Now the second reading continues our series from I Peter. I’ve never been a real fan of I Peter. The style is rather grandiose. Written during a time of persecution, it calls people to stand firm. That’s good when we are being eaten by lions. But we live in the age of practical Christianity, and the grandiose language is not helpful. And admonitions to stand firm in persecution have been appropriated in our time to buttress attitudes and practices that actually hurt other people. We’re not being persecuted. But we can hurt others when we stubbornly insist on our own way.

     And then I Peter there are the long lists of should’s and don’ts that fill out the book. Did you notice that the lectionary committee omitted the first verse of this chapter? That’s because the first verse packs five sinful things to avoid into less than 140 characters, even when that’s not the main point of the passage. Peter just can’t help himself. He just exudes ethical admonition even when he’s trying to be comforting or inspiring. And then on top of all that, the passage is a mixed metaphor. It starts out talking about the nursing of children and then shifts completely to stones and rocks. Ufdah! What is a thoughtful Christian to do?

     Well, for one thing, the reading reminds us that the odd stone, the one too big to fit into the wall, can be the cornerstone. We like things to go smoothly and have people fit into our vision of things. We like the building blocks of life to be assembled evenly. But it’s the awkward stone or person that becomes the corner.

     Do you remember a few years ago, when someone just blurted out in the middle of our Sunday service that he wanted to be baptized? That sort of thing can happen here. That was sort of awkward. Spontaneous baptism isn’t really part of the Lutheran tradition, even though Stephen performs one with the Ethiopian in the book of Acts. But the baptism that followed our worship that Sunday reflected the love and mission of God. The awkward stone, rejected by so many because it doesn’t fit, may best express the compassion for which we stand.

     And then notice that Peter is into living stones. Stones are not alive. They are dead. Or are they? The contradiction built into the phrase living stones is a reminder that even when it all seems dead, there is still the possibility of life, that even the most dead congregation filled with the most unlikely and un-spirited Lutherans can still be enlivened for joy and new life and new vision.

    Oh, let’s really mix the metaphors and talk about living stones, dry bones, deliverance from fiery furnaces, the dawn of springtime in Wisconsin, and the resurrection of even the dead. God can work wonders of life in the desert of our fallible sin. And God will use us regardless of how mistaken and misshapen we are to accomplish some good, sometimes in the twinkling of an eye. 

III.

     Until it is time to take us home. The third reading continues our series from the gospel of John in these Sundays of the Easter season.  It’s a common passage for funerals because it reminds us that when it’s all said and done, it’s time to go home to be with Jesus forever. We’ve heard this passage a lot. Since I’ve been here, we’ve had 150 funerals, eight already this year.

     But today, no one has died; so let’s notice something in the background of John 14. In the household of God are many rooms. The Middle Eastern vision behind this image is a large compound with different buildings and rooms. Many people from different perspectives and traditions are gathered at the end of time in one of those large community meals we found in the book of Acts, now a heavenly feast. It’s a big house, and all sorts are there: the mistaken, misshapen, and short lived of every age, in this heavenly space. All coming together, not because they are right in their views, or even because they can agree, or because they were perfectly and smoothly formed, but because they have heard the voice of Jesus calling them out of their empty headedness, out of their awkwardness, into compassionate living: out of the deadness of shallow apathetic meaninglessness into new life.

     So today, we just continue reading from the Bible in light of the new life we have received in Jesus Christ, once dead but now alive. And today our stories are found in Acts, I Peter, and John.  Amen.

Reflection for May 11, 2014

Acts 2:42-47, I Peter 2:11-25, John 10:1-10 

      For several weeks now the first readings in the season for Easter have been from the book of Acts. Acts of the Apostles is the second in a two volume work on early Christian beginnings by the person we know as Luke. Volume I is the gospel of Luke and is focused on the life of Jesus. This second volume begins with Jesus ascending into heaven and Pentecost, and then describes the activities of the first Christian communities. Volume II, or Acts of the Apostles, may be divided into two sections. The very first chapters describe the beginnings of what was known as The Way. A second section tells the story of Paul and other missionaries in the expansion of the faith by establishing additional communities in Greece and Asia Minor. 

     At first one might look at Acts as a history book, and in some ways it is an historical record. But as one looks closely at it, one senses that the history has been highly massaged to reflect a particular point of view. For example, in the struggle between traditional Jewish Christians and acceptance of new Gentile members, the author seems to be on the side of the new Gentile converts. And the document emphasizes the growth to the north and west and does not really address the similar growth taking place at the same time south and west into Africa.

     All that said, this morning we have a fairly short passage which summarizes Luke’s interpretation of how the very first Christian communities organized themselves. The work may be highly idealized as it lifts ups the values of Luke. Luke is writing about sixty years after the events took place. Just as we writing today may have an idealized memory of church life in the fifties when everyone came to church all the time, Luke may be writing with longing memories for something that he felt was a golden age. 

     So we are looking at the values of Luke’s Christian community as much as a history. And perhaps those values are inserted into this historical account with more than a bit of nostalgia. 

     With that in mind, we see Luke lifting up four basic values for Christian communities. And in some ways, regardless of the history, these values have become somewhat timeless. Christian gatherings and congregations (1) devote themselves to teaching and learning ministry. (2) They engage in fellowship. (3) They break bread together. (4)They worship and pray. (5) And finally they share things in common. We also see in this passage that they both gather together in public meeting space, usually a synagogue, and that they also meet and eat in homes. 

     There are two outcomes of these practices in these places. One is mighty acts of healing. The earliest Christian communities were focused on healing. They may have resembled medical clinics more than our contemporary churches. When one thinks of an early Christian congregation, it would be a place where the sick would gather and where healing and recovery would take place. We might reject the ancient concept of miracle healing, but we all know that the body and mind are connected in many ways, that our attitude makes a difference in our health, that people who are prayed for recover more quickly than those who are not, that our blood pressure drops when we think about God, and that people who are cared for recover more quickly and with more certainty than people who are not cared for regardless of what that care is.

     Besides healing, the second outcome of these practices in these places was that people flocked to The Way. The church grew. And it grew exponentially. Growth because of the desire for health care is still a powerful force in society. These days it accounts for the growth of hospitals and clinics, and such things as Medicare and Obama Care. Today, we do not turn to the church for health care.  We use money and secular institutions and structures to provide that care. But first century Greeks and Romans did not have that resource. The early congregational gathering provided mighty acts of care, and so they grew.

     As we think about congregational life, we would still do well to focus on these principles outlined by Luke. Teaching, worship, fellowship, and caring ministry are the cornerstones of congregational well being. If a congregation is engaged in these four things, it will do well. For us this is the reminder that our Sunday Assembly in which we sing, think, and pray is the center of our life. It is important for us to break bread together symbolically frequently and regularly. Adult forums, sermons that reflect current complexities, Sunday Learning Place, and confirmation ministry all still speak to the importance of learning and teaching. Coffee fellowship after worship is a critical image of our mutual care. Around the table discussions on Sunday morning and on Wednesday evenings in Lent we nourish one another. And that fellowship often extends into friendships that are nourished throughout the weeks and lifetimes. Caring ministry takes place as we suffer together, grieve together, and as we face the needs of those around us who need shelter or assistance or support. Caring ministry takes place through our Senior Care Team and the visiting they do on our behalf. Let us continue to rededicate ourselves to these efforts at being a well rounded, well founded congregation in the tradition of The Way of Jesus.

     But for just a few moments I would like to focus on one of these principles: being dedicated to the teaching of the apostles, and to explore three of those ancient teachings and what they might mean for us now. In the three readings together, we sense three different ancient teaching themes which still instruct us.

     From Acts we should consider the principle of communal life or sharing things in common. From I Peter we have the teachings regarding undeserved suffering. And from John we have the teaching of gatekeeping or thresholding.

     Communal Life: One of the ancient teachings was about economics. It is simply stated here. Life, possessions, and things were held in common. This is actually a form of primitive communism, probably best described as communal living. Actually urban Christian communities in the cities of the Roman Empire probably practiced a hybrid economy. Within the group things were shared and individual property was discouraged. However the group itself probably sold things like fish or tents or food or medicine to the larger society for profit in order to support the community. Within the German and Scandanavian Protestant and Lutheran traditions, this approach to communal living was expressed by Mennonite, Finnish, Amish, and Shaker traditions.

     On the one hand, we all recognize that we generally cannot be communal in this ancient way. Our economy is vastly different. But this ancient teaching regarding economics reminds us that capitalism without some sort of sharing mechanism may not be the ultimate economic good. An economy is only as good as it provides for the common good. And capitalism according to this ancient teaching should always be tempered so that it limits human greed and provides for those who are in need.  An economy exists not to for the wealth of a few but for the well being of all. Ancient Christian communal life calls us to strive for the economic good of everyone, and to modify our economic systems and behavior gradually and continually so that through the biblical miracle of sharing we experience exponential growth.

     Undeserved Suffering: A second ancient teaching is found in I Peter. This document, written even later than Acts, indicates that Christians who are facing suffering, persecution, and struggle are wondering why these bad things are happening to those who are leading good lives. This is still a matter that faces us. What are we to say about undeserved suffering? 

     So much could be said here, but it is clear from this reading, that the ancient church wondered about undeserved suffering, especially in times of persecution. The teaching in I Peter is that undeserved suffering is sacred. It is a sacred path, experienced by Jesus in the story of his execution. It is the sacred way walked by Jesus. In undeserved suffering we find ourselves walking with Jesus or rather Jesus walking with us. And as Jesus is walking with us in the suffering, he is leading us through it, into a new ending, a new hope, and a new possibility. Sometimes that suffering leads us into a new mission for this life as people who recover from cancer or alcoholism help those coming after them. Sometimes that suffering leads to new life in Jesus Christ through death. Either way, whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. We are made sacred through the suffering we share with Christ.

     Gatekeeping and Thresholding: This ancient teaching is not from the tradition of Peter, nor from the tradition of Luke, but from the tradition of John. This tradition came to fruition later than the other two in the area of Asia Minor. John’s language is complicated, filled with metaphors, and difficult to understand at times. This teaching is that Jesus, the risen Christ, is a gateway, or a threshold. One way to understand this involves exclusion. One could say I suppose that Jesus is the only way, the only gate, the only threshold which one might use to draw close to God.

      But I’m not thinking about that. What gatekeeping and thresholding involves is not certifying the number of gates, their position, and width as if we were some sort of theological auditors. Those days may be over.

     John teaches that Jesus is the gateway, a threshold into something: something deeper, richer, fuller, broader, and greater. This something transcends suffering, struggle, hopelessness and sorrow. It transcends even death. Jesus is a gateway into new life, life in this world and beyond it. For example, in light of the teaching on communal living, as we cross this threshold into a new way of thinking it might no longer be said that I own this land. We might no longer be able to even say, we own this land. What we would say as we cross through the gateway into a new life is that we belong to this land, this sacred space in this wonderful world, in this vast universe sustained and cradled by a God of compassion who loves us still. 

     Gate keeping, the mystery of undeserved suffering and holding things in common are three ancient teachings that still speak to us. One time, a long time ago, these earliest Christians dedicated themselves to the teachings, to prayer and worship, to fellowship. They healed. And people saw what they did and came. Their faith brought them into a new world, a new life. And we still shape ourselves on these principles of healing and hope.

Reflection for May 4, 2014

Acts 2:14a, 36-41, 1 Peter 1:17-23, Luke 24:13-35 

     After the resurrection, Jesus appears to two followers. The are returning home after celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem and witnessing the brutal crucifixion. These two are among the followers of Jesus, not part of the inner circle. They live about a half day’s walk from the city, about seven miles, in a village named Emmaus. As Jesus joins them on their walk home, they do not recognize who Jesus is. Only later in the fellowship of a shared meal, do they see who their traveling companion has been. They discover it was God walking with them along the path home.

 

     Discernment of God is the theme in Luke today. And it is one of the religious themes of our times. Sometimes we wonder if God is really there. Sometimes we feel that God is not walking with us, but is absent. Sometimes life seems so complicated that it is hard to tell what God would want. Sometimes it feels like evil is winning. Sometimes we seem to be the only ones left thinking about God in a world that is taking a walk in the other direction. How do we discover the presence and the will of God in our lives? For contemporary Christians, discernment of the presence and will of God is important.

 

    This story is constructed in such a way that it gives us clues to how discernment happens, how God is revealed as we walk along the life’s path. Discernment here (1) takes place at the end of the day after things have passed. (2) Jesus first appears as a stranger or fellow traveler. (3)They wonder about the strange tales of women. (4)They seem pretty sure of themselves, but have a new insight. (5)They invite Jesus to dinner. (6) They break the bread of communion.

 

      The end of the day: Sometimes it is in the close of a session, after things are over, in the debriefing, that what has happened and who all was really involved come to the surface. We might not discern God at work until after we’ve had a chance to process what has been going on, at the close of a great event.

 

     The stranger and the other: We sometimes discern Jesus, the presence and will of God, in the face of those in need, the stranger, the one who is different. God’s will is revealed as we walk with the poor, or as we are joined by others who at first seem strange along life’s journey.

 

     The tales of women: In this story, God is not discerned during the great events of the day or age, not even in the discourse of men, but in the tales of women. The resurrection in all of the gospels begins with the experience of women. That is a reminder that we discern God when we listen to the intuitive voices of women around us. It is also a reminder of how important women were in the formation of the early church. We sometimes find the will of God by asking what is right for women or children.

 

     These followers seem pretty sure of themselves, but have a new insight: We sense that the two followers were part of the Jesus movement because he may have been the Messiah, the one who would liberate them from Roman rule. They now have decided they were wrong, because of the crucifixion. Rome has won. But in dialog Jesus disagrees. Messiah-ship is not about winning a military victory, he argues. It is about the power of love and compassion to overcome all evil. Sometimes we discern God as we follow our thoughts more deeply, refining our opinion along the way, and as we focus not on victory but on compassion.

 

     The invitation to fellowship: They invite Jesus to stay with them, to tarry, to have something to eat and to rest. Sometimes we discern God’s will as we extend an invitation to someone, or when we are willing to entertain a new idea, or when we practice hospitality. Sometimes we discern the will of God when we decide to ask God to spend time with us in prayer, to tarry with us.

 

     The Eucharist: They suddenly see Jesus when he uses words of thanksgiving with the breaking of the bread in their fellowship meal. Luke here refers to Holy Communion, the Christian way we sense God present with us: in, with, and under the bread and wine, in the gathered fellowship of the people.

 

     Discernment in the story takes place at the end of the day after things have passed. Jesus first appears as a stranger or fellow traveler. They wonder about the tales of the women. They seem pretty sure of themselves, but have a new insight. They invite Jesus to dinner. They break the bread of communion. The details of the story indicate how we still discern the presence of God. But if we stay in the details of the story, we may be missing the point of God’s revelation. In this story, we may miss the forest when we concentrate so much on the trees.

 

     For the details of discernment shape the story. But the story is a story of human disaster. This is a story about people who have survived something awful and are now returning home to regroup. This is not the story about people meeting in church in small groups discussing their prayer life, and how they can pray better, and feel closer to God. That’s a good thing. But that’s not this story.

 

     This is a story about people whose lives have fallen apart, whose hopes are dashed by a public execution, and who are potential victims of a growing and pervasive evil. This is a story about humans trying to pull things together again after the disaster of the crucifixion. This is a story about how God becomes real when we are overwhelmed as our hopes are dashed by the destruction of what we hold dear. The road to Emmaus is not some abstract theological conversation. Nor is it really the foundation for some sort of group process or the seven steps to knowing more about God. It is the road of despair for followers of a cause that has been destroyed. It is the road that leads to giving up and going home. It is about the loss of what we dreamed of.

 

     So the story reminds us that God is revealed, God becomes real in such times, walking with us on such roads. And God will become real to you and to me, in the details. But the reality of God is especially deep when we have been overwhelmed with disaster, and everything seems broken, and our hopes are demolished. There are a few of those times in each of our lives: when health or fortune or family or friends or vocation are lost. And we are on this road wondering about what we believed and held dear, wondering where God is, wondering what we should do now. 

 

    Sometimes these are personal disasters. Often this road speaks to the destruction of justice or fairness or honesty or the capacity of us all to dream as we become mired down in a society that has lost all of those things, as less and less attention is paid to the common good. And in that despair for the common good, we also encounter a risen Jesus. Communities also walk this road as they find again the commonweal, discern the presence of God in their neighborhoods, cities, and world.  At the close of the old day, a new day dawns. Strangers come together to talk and to act. The stories of women and children and those on the margin become more important in the reconstruction of common hope. Preconceived ways of thinking are revised. People invite new ideas and new people into their lives. And Holy Communion becomes not only the meal of a church, but also the festival of a community on its way to a new future. And in all of that, in the face of deep darkness, both personal and societal, God becomes deep and real, and we discern God active in this world again. For we, who have lost our dreams, now sense in, with, and under the details of this story that something new is possible.