Monday, March 31, 2008

We Are Easter People…So We Believe

(A sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter based on 1 Peter 1:3-9 & John 20:19-31)

Long before there was a denominational calendar with things like mission offerings and ministry emphasis days, which are certainly important, there was a Christian calendar, the purpose of which is to order our worship and our lives according to the seasons of the Christian year. When we consider the Christian calendar we find that some interesting facts emerge. For example, on the Christian calendar, Christmas Day is both the end of the Advent season and the beginning of the Christmas season, a season that does not end until the second Sunday in January. For another example, Easter Sunday marks the end of Lent and Holy Week but also marks the beginning of the Easter Season, which does not end until Pentecost. Observing the Season of Easter allows us to pay particular and prolonged attention to what difference Easter really makes in the world, in the Church, and in our lives. It reminds us that we are always Easter people.

So, for a few Sundays I want to think with you about what it means to be “Easter people.” We begin by observing that because we are Easter people, we believe. That is, we believe in the resurrected Jesus Christ. And that’s not as easy as we make it sound.

If we are honest, many if not most of us would have to admit to some struggle with such belief. It’s not that easy to believe in someone being raised from the dead, given that none of us has ever experienced or witnessed such a thing. I did see a sign in a business once that said, “If you don’t believe that the dead can be raised, you should be around here at closing time.” Really, though, none of us has ever seen it happen. We want to believe and we need to believe. But the resurrection of Jesus is not scientifically verifiable and so we are left with a belief that must be based on something besides physical evidence.

In public worship, we proclaim our belief. In private reflection, sometimes we wonder.

Thomas is helpful to us here. Thomas has come to be regarded as something of a patron saint for doubters. “Doubting Thomas,” we call him, but he has frankly gotten something of a bum rap. Let’s take a close look at what happened. On Easter evening, the disciples were locked away in case those who had done Jesus in came after them, too. Suddenly, in that locked room, Jesus appeared and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he showed them his hands and side. “Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” Thomas was not there. We are in no position to fault him for his absence because we have no idea where he was. When the other disciples told him that they had seen the resurrected Jesus, Thomas said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Notice that all he was asking for was the same opportunity that the other disciples had received. They believed only upon seeing for themselves. He wanted to see for himself, too.

Upon seeing and believing, Thomas made a tremendous affirmation: “My Lord and my God!” Hearing that, Jesus said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Every believer after that generation of disciples who saw the resurrected Lord is numbered among those happy ones. From where does our belief come? We have the testimony that has come down to us through the gospel message (v. 31). And surely the faith that we are able to express comes somehow as a gift from God: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). Such faith comes exactly from hearing the gospel message: “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).

So our faith comes through hearing. But there is a sense in which we have seen the resurrected Lord even though we have not literally seen him. We have seen the effect of the resurrected Christ on other people. We see him in the lives of those who have come to believe in him. Those out there who do not believe can see the effect of the resurrected Lord on us.

But they struggle, too. If we who follow the resurrected Lord have our own crises of faith and our own struggles with belief, we can imagine how hard it must be for those who have not yet reached the point of belief. All kinds of things get in their way. Sin gets in their way. Tragedies and trials get in their way. Wealth and success get in their way. Sometimes, unfortunately, professing Christians get in their way by bearing inadequate witness to who Jesus is and to what salvation is all about. It can be different than that, though; they really can see the power of the resurrected Christ in our lives.

They can see the power of the resurrected Christ in the ways our lives are changing. In 1 Peter we read,

By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1:3b-5)

Easter people have been given a new life with a certain future, all guaranteed by the power of God. We have a deep heart-felt joy that shows itself in our lives, even when we are going through trials and suffering, because we know that our trials strengthen our faith. Indeed, Peter said,

Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1:8-9).

Jesus said that we are blessed when we believe in him even though we don’t see him. Peter expands on that by saying that in such faith we can display love and joy because we know that we are being saved. That’s what the people out there who are struggling to believe can see in us: faith, love, hope, and joy. And that’s what they need.

They can also see the power of the resurrected Christ in the workings of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The resurrected Jesus breathed on his disciples and told them to “receive the Holy Spirit.” As the events of the Day of Pentecost and the teachings of the New Testament reveal, all Christians are empowered by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is God’s ongoing presence with us. We are empowered, molded, led, and taught by the very Spirit of God. That must make a powerful difference in our lives! “The fruit of the Spirit,” Paul said, “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23a). God gives us the power to live remarkably transformed lives, lives that run counter to the predominant ways of the world and thereby bear powerful witness to our life in Christ.

Finally, they can see the power of the resurrected Christ in our lives through the ministry of forgiveness. When Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on his disciples he named a particular way that they would be empowered: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (v. 23). Now, the overall witness of the Bible is that only God can forgive sins. But here we are told that the followers of Christ have a role to play in forgiveness as well. What does this mean, then?

First, it means that the ministry of Jesus is continued through his Church. Jesus came to be the avenue through whom people would find God’s forgiveness. We of the Church are to be a similar avenue. But it is important to note that we are empowered by God’s Spirit to carry out that ministry. We do this not in our own power but only in the power of God.

Second, it means that we are to proclaim the message of forgiveness. We do this with our words and with our actions. When someone repents of her sins we are to communicate the assurance of forgiveness to her. We do that in the ways that we talk to her; we also do it in the ways that we treat her. A church that holds a grudge or that refuses to acknowledge repentance or that chooses to be closed to the people who need God’s forgiveness forfeit this ministry of forgiveness. On the other hand, we are not called to treat forgiveness as if it is a light thing or to treat grace as if it were a cheap thing. We are to live lives that are changed by God’s Spirit and love and we are to call others to live such lives as well.

Third, it means that we offer forgiveness ourselves. Jesus calls us to forgive as we have been forgiven. Jesus calls us to forgive radically and abundantly. We can do so only because we are empowered by the Holy Spirit and by God’s grace to do so. But as people see we who bear the name of Christian forgive, they will be better able to receive the forgiveness of God. But if they see us withhold forgiveness, they may be impeded from believing in God’s forgiveness.

We are Easter people. Because we are Easter people, we believe. We are blessed to believe even though we have not seen Jesus with our own eyes. But we have seen his power in the lives of others and we have heard the good news proclaimed. Through the hearing of that good news we have had awakened God’s gift of salvation by grace through faith. Now we have the wonderful privilege and responsibility of showing the power of the resurrected Christ in our lives through our changing lives, through the workings of the Spirit, and through the ministry of forgiveness. We believe. Now, we want others to believe. May they see Jesus in us.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Opening Day

Today is Opening Day in Major League Baseball.

(I know, the Red Sox and Athletics played two "regular season" games in Japan earlier this week. Those games were played before the Spring Training season was even over and they were played at 6:00 a.m. Eastern time. I know they count, but to me they don't. Sorry.)

Tonight my Atlanta Braves will help the Washington Nationals christen their brand new ball park. I'm happy for the Nationals. I hope the Braves break in the new stadium by shellacking the hosts.

The first day of the baseball season is always an exciting day for me. It is also a day with theological undertones.

First, everybody starts off with a clean slate. Last year's records and last decade's records don't matter. It puts me in mind of forgiveness.

Second, it is the beginning of a long haul. The Major League Baseball regular season lasts for 162 games. It really is an endurance test and those who endure to the end will be saved.

Third, teams start off with varying levels of giftedness. Some teams have better players than others. Some players are better because they work harder. But other players are just more naturally gifted. There's a mystery to that, just as there is with the "spiritual gifts" we talk about in church. The best players are those who work the hardest to develop the best natural gifts.

Fourth, it's all about the team. I saw many a terrible Braves team that had great individual players on it. But I have seen teams with less talent that came together, played as a team, developed great chemistry, and performed admirably. The strongest churches are like that.

Finally, the goal of a World Series championship is dancing before every team's eyes. It's out there somewhere beyond the horizon. It is what draws and drives every team forward. They're looking for a trophy. We're looking for a city. And on Opening Day, it's easy to believe.

Amen, and play ball!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Where We End and God Begins

At the end of Holy Week I read an article at by Ann Bauer entitled “God Talked to Me Today.” How could I resist this lead-in: “I was an agnostic who never took my family to church. And then, my son starting hearing the voice of God”?

Her son Andrew is autistic. Bauer said that one day when Andrew was eleven he said, "When God talked to me earlier today, before I went to school..." After some prompting and waiting, she was finally able to get Andrew to tell her what God had said. “He said ‘no,’” her son said. When she asked him “No what?” he replied, “Just no. Because I knew the rest of what he meant.”

I don’t know much about autism. Bauer explained that

Classic autism is a disorder of divisions. There is no sense of "I" and "you" as being whole and separate in the world. Either that, or there is a lack of understanding that "I" and "you" are even of the same species, any more similar to each other than, say, a human being and a walrus. I've never understood exactly which it is.

With therapy, Andrew had become able to differentiate himself from others. But, Bauer said,

Then this God thing cropped up -- an echo, I decided, of all the old problems. Whereas Andrew had learned to differentiate his thoughts from mine or his teacher's, he didn't seem to understand where he ended and God began, or which of the two was speaking to the other.

“He didn’t seem to understand where he ended and God began”—what a fascinating thought.

Now, so far as I can judge such things, I’m not an agnostic; in fact, I think I’m a fairly orthodox Christian. So, lest anyone misunderstand, let me say very clearly that I recognize the existence of a clear distinction between God and humanity. That’s a pretty easy one—if God is much like we are, if he is much like I am—then “Oh no” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Still, is there not a sense in which God sometimes comes to us in and through other people? The incarnation is the most drastic and important example of that fact—God “was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” God came in human form in order to reveal God’s self to us human beings. Again, orthodox Christian that I am, I recognize the uniqueness of the Christ event. Still, do we not find Christ in other people? Does not God show himself through the other?

And, given God’s way of which the New Testament so often speaks, the way of making his strength made known in human weakness and his grace made known in human brokenness, does it not stand to reason that we may catch a glimpse of God in the frailty and brokenness and weakness of another?

In his book Ruthless Trust, Brennan Manning tells the following story.

I will never forget the witness of an Episcopal priest named Tom Minifie…. He spotted a high-profile couple sitting in the last pew with their one-year-old Down’s syndrome child. It was clear from the parents’ demeanor that the little one embarrassed them. They hid in the rear of the church, perhaps planning a hasty exit once the worship service had concluded.

On their way out the door, Tom intercepted them and said, “Come into my office.” Once seated, Tom took the Down’s baby in his arms and rocked him gently. Looking into the baby’s face, he began to sob. “Do you have any idea of the gift that God has given you in this child?” he asked.

Sensing confusion and even concern in the parents, he explained his reaction: “Two years ago my three-year-old daughter, Sylvia, died with Down’s syndrome. We have four other children, so we know the blessing that kids can be. Yet the most precious gift we’ve ever received in our entire lives has been Sylvia. In her uninhibited expression of affection, she revealed to us the face of God as no other human being ever has. Did you know that several Native American tribes attribute divinity to Down’s children because in their utter simplicity they’re a transparent window into the Great Spirit? Treasure this child, for he will lead you into the heart of God.”
(pp. 10-11)

“He didn’t seem to understand where he ended and God began.”

“This child…will lead you into the heart of God.”

My goodness.

Maybe there is a sense in which we should not try to see where other people end and God begins. Maybe we should look for the ways in which people in their humanness, in their brokenness, and in their frailty show us who and how God is.

Maybe there is something in this of which the church needs to be reminded. After all, Jesus said to those “sheep” in Matthew 25 whom he credited with feeding him when he was hungry, housing him when he was homeless, and visiting when he was sick, “Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me” (The Message). Maybe the church needs to be reminded that in being open to and loving and serving those who are wounded—and in a way that is all of us, isn’t it—we are being open to and loving and serving Christ himself.

It all raises some interesting and troubling questions: to what extent are many of our churches really being open to God and really serving Christ by serving “the least of these”? To what extent are we really being Christian?

In her book Broken We Kneel, Diana Butler Bass recounted the pilgrimage that led her to begin worshiping at the Church of the Epiphany in downtown Washington, D.C. She had become disillusioned at her previous church because of, among other things, the civil religion that was practiced there. She wrote,

Not long ago, I preached on a Sunday morning at Epiphany. I arrived early—before the end of the eight o’clock service, the service geared toward the homeless. As I walked into the church, a woman was talking loudly to her invisible friend; several men were sleeping on back pews; and some people were standing and singing a hymn. About two hundred people were at that Eucharist—they were an amazing cross section of humanity for a church! It was unruly, disorderly, and utterly hospitable. And holy. Indeed, a church member, who first came to the church when she was homeless, once commented to me, “Epiphany is the first church I ever visited that treated me like a human being. Nobody looked at me as if I was going to steal something.” I thought of Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew (25:35), “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (pp. 121-122)

Doesn’t that sound more like church than much of what passes for church? Doesn’t that sound more like Christianity than much of what passes for Christianity? Do we not meet Christ in those who are broken? Must we not accept and love and serve and learn from them?

Now, I don’t mean to paint all brokenness with the same broad brush. Autism, Down’s syndrome, homelessness, and mental illness are all different realities. But brokenness is a common thread that runs through all of those realities.

We are all broken. Perhaps one of the reasons that so many of us Christians don’t feel any closer to God than we do is that we have not been open to the Christ who is present in the brokenness of others and thus we are not open to the Christ who is present in our own brokenness.

Where, really, do the broken and vulnerable and weak and hurting and poor end and God begin?

Where, really, do our loving hearts and helping hands end and God begin?

Surely God is present where brokenness and love meet.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Jesus Christ, Our Life

(An Easter sermon based on Colossians 3:1-4)

A few years ago, when our Minister of Worship Bob Walker returned from a mission trip to Russia with the Sons of Jubal (the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Men’s Choir), he told me that the Baptist worship services there always begin with an affirmation of belief in the resurrected Lord. I thought that sounded like a good idea. After all, the reason that we Christians worship on Sunday rather than on the Sabbath is that Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday. Sunday is the Lord’s Day; Sunday is Resurrection Day; each Sunday is a “little Easter.” And so for some time now we have voiced such an affirmation at the beginning of our worship services:

Pastor: Christ the Lord is risen!
People: Christ the Lord is risen indeed!

I continue to find that affirmation very meaningful.

On this Easter Sunday morning, though, I want to pose a question about that affirmation: So what? What difference does it really make? What difference does it really make to us that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead?

Such a thought has been on my mind all through this Holy Week. On Palm Sunday I wondered what difference it makes that Jesus Christ is our King. On Maundy Thursday and Good Friday I wondered what difference it makes that Jesus Christ is our Lamb and our Priest. At our Sunrise Service I wondered that difference it makes that Jesus Christ is our Lord. And now, at our final Holy Week service, I wonder what difference it makes that Jesus Christ is, as Paul put it in Colossians 3, our Life. After all, if all the things that we say are true about Jesus and us are in fact true, then it really should make quite a tremendous difference, shouldn’t it?

So what difference does it make that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead?

First, it makes a difference then.

That is, it makes a difference in the future. It makes a difference for eternity. “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory,” Paul said (vv. 3-4). One of the things that this statement means is that we do not yet see all that we will be. But one day, when the resurrected Christ appears and is made known to all, then we will also be known as we are meant to be known. In other words, the fact of Christ’s resurrection includes the fact of our resurrection. That will be glory for us. The family of Christ who make up the body of Christ will be all that God intends for us to be.

You know, some things are even one way or they are the other. Either this life is all there is or there is such a thing as eternity. Either our death is the end of our existence or it is an entry point into a life beyond death. Either there will be resurrection for those whose lives are hidden in Christ or there will not. Our Christian faith tells us that eternity is real, that there is life beyond life, and that there will be a resurrection. We base all of that on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. When it comes, that will be glory for us.

Such glory draws us toward it; it draws us forward. We are not all that we should be here and we never will be. This life will always be one of incompletion and imperfection; we will always have our struggles and our doubts and our fears. But the resurrection means that a better day is coming and that the full life that God intends for us that is presently hidden with Christ will one day burst onto the scene. His life guarantees our life. His appearance guarantees our appearance. What a cause for “Hallelujah!”

Second, it makes a difference now.

Since Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, and since our life is hidden with Christ in God, and since when Christ who is our life is revealed we will also be revealed with him in glory, the resurrection of Jesus makes a tremendous difference now. Since all of those things are true, how can they not make a difference in our lives here and now? Listen to what Paul said: “So, if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (vv. 1-2). Earlier in the letter Paul had said, “When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (2:12). Our baptism symbolizes something that is literally true: we have died to self in Christ and we have been raised to new life in Christ—right here and right now! Our life is hidden with Christ in God for the future, but it is also hidden with him right here and right now.

It is an amazing thing: we can and should be so identified with Jesus Christ in his crucifixion and resurrection that we literally experience his kind of life becoming our kind of life. Because we have been raised there are things that we can rise above. We have been raised and so we can rise above the things that threaten to hold us down. Paul told the Colossian Christians that they could rise above the same things that we can rise above.

We rise above superstition and speculation. The Colossian Christians needed to rise above “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (2:8). They ran the risk of being led astray by people who taught them that they could gain some kind of super knowledge that went beyond the teachings of and about Christ. Now, there are all kinds of knowledge available in this world. Wherever truth is found, God is in it, because God is the author of truth. But we need to avoid superstition and speculation in our faith. Everything we need to know about God we finally see in Jesus Christ, in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (2:9) and in whom we “come to fullness” (2:10) as well. When it comes to knowing what we need to know to be saved, we see it all in Jesus. In him we can rise above the need for anything else. When Jesus Christ is our life, we live secure in our relationship with him, not insecure in what we might or might not understand.

We rise above sin and guilt. “When you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross,” Paul said (2:13-14). We are all aware of our sin and of our sense of guilt. But we can rise above them. God has nailed our sin to the cross with Jesus and in Christ God has taken away our sin and the necessity for our guilt. How much greater will our lives be if we don’t live them encumbered by guilt? We are forgiven! We can rise above it. When Jesus Christ is our life, we live under the power of forgiveness, not the power of guilt.

We rise above legalism and moralism. The Colossians were being told by some that they needed to observe certain laws and that they needed to follow certain rituals and that they needed to avoid certain things if they were going to be good Christians. To believe and live in those ways, while it may appear that it makes one a better Christian, actually has quite the opposite effect. It actually drains from us the power of the new life that we have in Jesus Christ. Granted, there are things that we will do and that we will not do when we are living the Christian life, but we will do or not do those things precisely because we are growing in our life in Christ, not because we are trying to prove or to show what good Christians we are. When Christ is our life, we live under grace, not under law.

We rise above what hurts us and what hurts others. In our passage, Paul told the Colossians to set their “minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (3:2). They could do that precisely because they had died and their lives were “hidden with Christ in God” (3:3). Then Paul went on to detail some of the things that they should “put to death”; they were “earthly” things (3:5). We need to put the same things aside and we can because we are alive in Christ. What kinds of things did Paul name? They were things that will harm us, such as fornication and impurity (v. 5). But they are also things that will hurt others—“anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language” (v. 8).

Indeed, because we are in Christ, because Christ is our life, because our life is hidden in the life of the resurrected Christ, we can live in amazing ways that build up others and ourselves up. Listen to what Paul says:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, cloth yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (3:12-17)

Doesn’t that sound like a marvelous way to live?

Well, that is the difference that the resurrection of Jesus Christ makes. Because he is risen from the dead, he is our life and in him we can live in ways that rise far above the kinds of ways that drag us down. We can live in ways that reflect his life. We can live in grace, in love, and in faith. We can live truly remarkable and amazing lives because they reflect the life of Jesus. They reflect the reality that we are based in eternity.

But do our lives really reflect those realities? Does the resurrection of Jesus really make that kind of difference in us and to us? It can. It really can. Will you let God do what he wants to do in your life? Will you, from this day forward, live toward the new life in Christ that is in fact yours?

So, what difference does the resurrection make in our lives? It makes all the difference in the world and in the world to come. Our lives are hidden with Christ in God; Christ is our life. So, whether we are here or whether we are there, we are in him. Frederick Buechner, writing in his book Peculiar Treasures about what Lazarus might have experienced when he was raised from the dead, said, “When Lazarus opened his eyes to see the figure of Jesus standing there in the daylight beside him, he couldn’t for the life of him tell which side he was on.” May we live so thoroughly in Christ here that it is that way for us.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Jesus Christ, Our Lord

(An Easter Sunrise Service sermon based on Acts 10:34-43)

You may have noticed that in my sermon titles for Holy Week I have been using the first person plural possessive pronoun “our” rather than the first person singular possessive pronoun “my.” So, for example, this particular message is entitled “Jesus Christ, Our Lord” rather than “Jesus Christ, My Lord.” While I didn’t think out the implications of that choice as I was getting ready for Holy Week, I have come to believe that the good Lord led me in an important direction. I say that because in my reading and praying this week the truth that what God did in Christ is more about us than it is about me keeps coming back to me.

For instance, an article in the New York Times about two new books on resurrection said that “both books emphasize that in classic Jewish and Christian teachings, resurrection refers to a collective resurrection of people and renewal of all creation at the end of time.” [Peter Steinfels, “Resurrection is Often Misunderstood by Christians and Jews,” New York Times, March 15, 2008] When you stop and think about it, when the New Testament talks about the future resurrection, it always talks about the resurrection of all believers and not of this individual here and that individual there. We will be raised together.

For another instance, there are these words from Barbara Bowe as she reflects on Paul’s teachings about the body of Christ: “Somehow, as Christians, we have often missed the main point—that Christian identity is a corporate identity and there is no such thing as ‘an individual Christian.’ Those words are an oxymoron. To be a Christian is to be a member of the body of Christ.” [Barbara E. Bowe, Biblical Foundations of Spirituality: Touching a Finger to the Flame (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), p. 158] When we are saved we become a part of the body. To be Christian means to be in relationship with other Christians.

Easter reminds us that we are saved to be a part of the body and that we will all be raised as a body when Christ returns. Easter is first of all about Christ and it is second of all about all of us who are in Christ. But Easter is third of all about everybody in the whole wide world; it is about every person of every nation and of every race and of every language. That is so because the forgiveness of sins that is possible through the resurrected Christ is available to all who will believe.

When we gather to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the salvation that we have found in him, it is natural that we would be glad for what we have found in him and for what he has done in us. I have already said that we need to move beyond thinking about what it all means to “me” and move to understanding what it all means to all of us who are in Christ. Now I want to challenge us to understand, to accept, and to celebrate what the resurrection means to absolutely everybody.

It all comes down to this fact: “Jesus is Lord of all” (v. 36).

In the context of Peter’s sermon in Acts, that meant that he was Lord not just of the Jews but also of the Gentiles. A major conflict in the earliest days of the church revolved around whether or not Gentiles could be accepted into the Christian faith without first accepting the marks of Judaism. Tied into the conflict were Jewish attitudes toward Gentiles; Gentiles were regarded as unclean and therefore as people with whom a Jew should not associate. The question was whether the Gentiles were going to be regarded as equals in the family of God that had been made possible through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We really should be thankful that the problem was resolved in the way it was—otherwise you and I, all of whom are Gentiles, might not be Christians! Again, though, what I am calling us to celebrate is the fact that Jesus really is Lord of all and that through his crucifixion and resurrection the way of salvation really has been thrown open to all who will believe. It is right that we celebrate what the resurrection means to us but we also need to celebrate what it means to everybody—and our celebration of what it means to everybody only deepens what it means to us. Christian joy, after all, is compounded and multiplied when others share in the blessing.

Simon Peter had been there when the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus had said, just before he ascended to heaven, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). “All nations” means “all people in all nations,” but Peter and the other disciples probably heard “all Jewish people—all people who are like we are—in all nations.”

But then Peter had that remarkable dream in which three times he was commanded by God to kill and eat animals that Jews would not eat because those creatures were regarded as unclean. Each time Peter protested that he had never eaten anything unclean. And each time he heard the Lord’s voice say to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” On the heels of that three-fold dream came men who had been sent by a Roman centurion named Cornelius who had been told in a vision to send for Peter. Peter went, and having been taught by his dream, he preached the gospel to those Gentiles. In his sermon Peter made clear that the salvation made available through Christ was available to everyone—he really was Lord of all.

And he really is Lord of all.

Early on this Easter morning, as the light breaks into the darkness, I hope and pray that the light of God will break into our darkness like it did that of Peter. I hope that as we affirm that “Jesus is Lord” we will affirm that he is Lord of all. I hope that we will celebrate the fact that God’s family is a big family and that “everyone who believes in him”—red or yellow, black or white, American or Asian or African or European, rich or poor, male or female—“receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (v. 43). The Lord Jesus died not for a select few—he died for all who will believe. The Lord Jesus rose from the tomb not to benefit just a certain group or certain groups—he rose to give life to all who will believe.

So let us celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But let us not celebrate selfishly—let us celebrate generously and graciously. Let us celebrate the amazing grace and love of our Lord.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Jesus Christ, Our Priest

(A Good Friday sermon based on Hebrews 10:16-25)

The death of Jesus Christ on the cross changed and changes everything. Jesus, the book of Hebrews says, is our great high priest who has cleansed us of our sins through his sacrificial death and who has opened the way to God up for us. Because of what he did on Calvary we are forgiven. Because of what he did on the cross our sins have been blotted out.

That is reality for us. As our great priest Jesus has brought about our salvation. By his once for all sacrifice he has taken away our sins. Our salvation is all because of Jesus Christ.

Because of what our priest Jesus Christ has accomplished for us and in us, the author of Hebrews encourages us to do some things. We can do these things because of what Jesus has already done and we can do them with his help.

First, let us have faith. The full statement is, “Let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (v. 22). We are to approach God with sincerity and with faith. Let us not understate the wonderful thing that happened because Jesus died for us: we have direct access to God and in Christ we can go to God knowing that he receives us. Here is a good opportunity for us to remember our baptism: the water of baptism reminds us that we have been cleansed of our sins by God in Christ.

Are we exercising our faith? Are we approaching God with bold faith, knowing that Christ has opened the way for us? Are we living in the glory of our baptism and in the power of our salvation?

Second, let us have hope. The full statement is, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (v. 23). Because of what Christ our priest done in dying on the cross we know for a fact that eternal life is ours and that God is going to work his purposes out in the end. We know that our salvation will culminate in life with and in God forever. We know all of that because we have the promises of God and God is faithful. His faithfulness is seen in the death of Jesus on the cross—that is how far God will go to bring his promises to fruition.

Do we waver in living in hope? Sometimes circumstances weigh us down, but in the strength of Christ our hope can remain sure and strong, not because of what we can do but because of what Christ has already done and continues to do in us.

Third, let us love. The full statement is, “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (vv. 24-25). The word “provoke” has negative connotations but here it is used in a positive sense. We are to incite love and good deeds in one another. How do we do that? We do not do that by nagging or by cajoling or by berating. In the Christian life, love begets love. We show our love for one another by meeting together.

I would very much like for this Holy Week to be remembered as a time when we recommitted ourselves to gathering together for the worship of the Lord. We do that first and foremost for the Lord. But we also do so out of our love for one another. Think of how much more inspiring worship is when more of us are here. As you consider whether or not to attend worship (which frankly should not be a matter for consideration at all!) remember how your presence here inspires and helps your fellow church members. One healthy byproduct of our meeting together is the encouragement it offers to us all. How much more encouraging it is to worship with all of our brothers and sisters! Let us practice love toward one another and thereby encourage love in one another.

[Note: My attention was called to the faith, hope, and love triad in these verses by Hugh Montefiore, The Epistle to the Hebrews(San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1964), p. 174.]

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Jesus Christ, Our Lamb

(A Maundy Thursday meditation based on Exodus 12:1-14; John 13:1-17; 31b-25)

[The image is Washing of the Feet by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308-1311)]

The Hebrews celebrated the first Passover on the night before the exodus from Egypt. One component of the observance was the killing and eating of a lamb “without blemish.” The blood of the lamb was to be placed on the doorposts of each family’s house. When the death angel came to Egypt that night, the Lord said, “When I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:13). The New Testament interprets the death of Jesus as the ultimate Passover lamb sacrifice. So, for example, we read in 1 Peter,

You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. (1:18-20)

Jesus was, as John the Baptizer put it, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

Thursday night of Holy Week, like the night of the first Passover, is a night on the precipice. On that night in Egypt over 3000 years ago, deliverance was to come tomorrow. It was a night of expectation, of excitement, of tension, and of apprehension. It was a night of incompletion—deliverance was not yet [I was pointed in this direction by Thomas W. Mann, The Book of the Torah: The Narrative Integrity of the Pentateuch (Atlanta: John Knox, 1988), p. 91]. The Hebrews were living in the already and in the not yet; nine plagues had come and one was yet to come and then would come the march out of Egypt, which they anticipated, and the victory at the sea, which they did not see coming. They ate the lamb, waiting for and wondering about what God was about to do.

On that Thursday night in Jerusalem over 2000 years ago, betrayal and arrest were to come later tonight and crucifixion was to come tomorrow. It was a night of expectation, of wonder, of anxiety, of apprehension, and of confusion. The disciples were living in the already and in the not yet; they had spent much time with Jesus and they had heard him speak repeatedly of what was to come for him, but still they did not understand it or expect it. They ate the bread and drank the wine, waiting for and wondering about what God was about to do.

On this Thursday night in 2008 in Augusta, Georgia, we find ourselves living on the precipice as we do on each Maundy Thursday and as we really do all of the time. We are living in the already and the not yet. Like all Christians who have shared in the Lord’s Supper over the past two centuries, we celebrate it on the other side of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. But also like all those Christians, we do so with much yet to experience. We do so with unfulfilled hope and with incomplete faith and with inadequate love. And we find ourselves confronted again with Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.

Those Passover lambs did not volunteer for duty; they were drafted. In contrast, and most remarkably, Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). Jesus gave himself up to be the lamb whose death would take away our sins.

In John’s narrative, Jesus performed an act that night that foreshadowed the kind of Messiah he was—he voluntarily condescended to wash his disciples’ feet. When he came to Simon Peter, that outspoken disciple expressed wonderment (“Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”) and then denial (“You will never wash my feet”). I have always assumed that Peter was expressing some humility here, as in “You are too good to wash the feet of a sinner such as I.” But Barbara Bowe has given me a different perspective.

(Jesus’) action is meant to show us that the meaning of Jesus’ life and death is to call us to be a human community where we are all foot washers.
No wonder Peter objects! This example of Jesus called Peter, as it calls each of us, to a radical conversion wherein we relinquish status and power (as Jesus did) in love and embrace a posture of service to one another.
[Barbara E. Bowe, Biblical Foundations of Spirituality (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), p. 148]

Jesus taught his original disciples and us of the need to give ourselves up, to die to self, and to follow him. But, human nature being what it is, how easy it would be for us to say something like, “As the Lamb of God, Jesus died on the cross for our sins. That has no practical application to the way I’m to live.” The washing of the feet reveals that nothing could be farther from the truth. Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, washed his disciples’ feet and then he told them and us that we are supposed to do the same thing. We do it to show our love for one another. We do it in obedience to his command. We do it in remembrance of him. Bowe continued,

Just as the Synoptic institution narratives include a command by Jesus to “do this in memory of me”…, so in John Jesus commanded his disciples to repeat the action he performed: “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn 13:14-15). [Bowe, p. 148]

So we partake of the Lord’s Supper, which Jesus instituted on that first Maundy Thursday, in remembrance of him. We also wash one another’s feet—we also serve and love and give ourselves up for one another—in remembrance of him. We partake of his broken body and his shed blood in order to remind ourselves of what he has done for us, but in partaking of it we are also reminded of what he calls us to do for him and for each other. Therein lies the path to Christian sacrifice and service that leads to Christian victory.

In the book of Revelation, John reported a fascinating vision of the resurrected Lord. He said that he saw “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (5:6). Through this powerful imagery John said that it was the slaughtered Lamb who was also the resurrected Lamb. Crucifixion precedes resurrection. Death precedes life. Sacrifice precedes victory. It is that way for Christ. It is also that way for Christ’s followers.

So as we remember his death, let us also remember our call.

He is our Lamb.

We are his sheep.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Jesus Christ, Our King

(A Palm Sunday Sermon based on Matthew 21:1-11)

[The image is The Entry into Jerusalem by Fra Angelico (1387-1455)]

As Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the crowds that surrounded him cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” In citing those lines from Psalm 118, the people were proclaiming that Jesus was the king from the line of David who would come as the Messiah.

People are funny about kings and other kinds of rulers. Sometimes I wonder if we want the kinds of rulers that are best for us. Sometimes I wonder just how much our sinfulness really gets in the way of our ability to recognize how good it really is to follow Jesus as king rather than to follow some other kind of ruler. Sometimes I wonder if we prefer a King Jesus of our own making who is cut from a very different cloth than is the real King Jesus. Sometimes I wonder if we cling to other rulers who are not nearly so benevolent and good as is King Jesus.

We can learn something about this from the history of kingship in Israel. Not too many decades after the Hebrews entered the Promised Land, they began to clamor for a king. At the time they were being led by the priest/judge Samuel whose sons proved unequal to the task of following him as leader. When the people told Samuel that they wanted a king so they could be like other nations, Samuel resisted. God told Samuel to give them what they wanted but to “solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them” (1 Samuel 8:9). And so he did, saying,

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day. (1 Samuel 8:11-18)

Amazingly, the people responded, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:19b-20).

Saul was anointed as the first king of Israel. He was followed by David, the “man after God’s own heart.” Of David and his ancestors the Lord said through the prophet Nathan,

(T)he LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me…. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever. (2 Samuel 7:11b-14a, 16)

Eventually, in 587 B.C.E., the kingdom of David came to an end, historically speaking, but the Hebrew prophets came to understand that God would one day send a Messiah, a “king” who would rule in justice and righteousness, from the house and lineage of David.

Jesus was and is that king, that Messiah. As the king, he deserves our allegiance. As the king, he merits our obedience. As the king, he has claim on our lives.

I wonder why we don’t do better than we do in giving him our allegiance, our obedience, and our lives. Could it be because he is a different kind of king than the one that Samuel told the Israelites they would have and did in fact end up having? Would we respond with more obedience and with greater sacrifice if he took what he needed, by force and coercion if he deemed it necessary? That’s the kind of king that the Israelites agreed to take. I wonder if that’s the kind we want. I wonder if we want to be used, manipulated, and taken advantage of.

Make no mistake about it, now—Jesus Christ has the right and the authority to make demands of us. He has the right and the authority to expect that we will respond to his instructions with obedience. As he was preparing to enter Jerusalem, he needed a donkey on which he could ride. So he sent two disciples to get it. He told them that if anyone asked him why they were taking the animal they were to answer, “The Lord needs (it).” And, he said confidently, “he will send them immediately.” Now, while we can’t know for sure, it seems to me likely that the animal was borrowed from a follower of Jesus. If so, then that disciple responded with obedience to Jesus’ instruction. He gave up for Jesus what Jesus needed for him to give up.

Do we do that? Do we acknowledge the kingship of Jesus by giving up for him what he calls us to give up? A donkey was to a first century Jew an asset. How willing are we to give up our assets as he calls us to do? Do we gladly give of our material possessions—and of our money—so that others might be touched with the love of Jesus? Do we gladly live simply so that we will have more to share? What about the asset of our reputation and standing in the community? Are we willing to give that up for Jesus if that is what it takes to minister in his name? What about the asset of our cherished ways of doing things? Are we willing to give those up if Jesus needs for us to in order to accomplish his mission?

You see, here’s the thing: if Jesus marched in here today with a flaming sword in his hand and with his omnipotence and his divine glory written all over him and said, “Give this up” for me, every last person in the building would do so because we would be afraid not to do so. If he were a king that ruled through fear, we would do whatever he demanded. If he were a king that ruled through intimidation, we would do whatever he said. If he were a king that ruled through threats, we would do whatever he instructed.

But that’s not the kind of king that Jesus showed himself to be when he rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He entered the city, as the prophet had said, “humble, and mounted on a donkey.” What did it mean for him to be humble? Think of it this way: what kind of king would tell his subjects as he prepared to enter the capital city, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised” (20:18-19)? Such humility was not forced on him; he took it onto himself voluntarily. In the words of Paul, he “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).

Our king bids us to follow him in that same kind of life. He bids us take up our cross daily and follow him. He bids us to think more of others than we do ourselves. He bids us die to self and to rise to a new life of service to God and to others. He bids us to lay down our lives for each other. He bids us to be much, much more interested in what we give than in what we get. He bids us to give and give and serve and serve and love and love—like he did.

But he won’t make us do it. He could. He could be the kind of king that Samuel told the Israelites they would have. He has much more authority than David and Solomon and their descendants ever thought of having. And maybe we’d like that—maybe we’d like it if he forced us to do what he wants us to do and if he forced us to be what he died to cause us to be.

But he won’t. His way is for us to respond to love with love, to grace with grace, to forgiveness with forgiveness, to humility with humility, to peace with peace, to sacrifice with sacrifice, and to service with service. His way is for his grace and love to so penetrate our hearts and our lives that we just can’t help but be what he wants us to be and do what he wants us to do.

Maybe it says something important about us if we can’t seem to get motivated to serve that kind of Savior and to serve in that kind of Savior’s way. Maybe it says something important—and scary—about our discipleship if we have to be forced or coerced or begged or cajoled to live faithfully and graciously.

We are really not our own, you see—we really were bought with a price. The claim that king Jesus has on our lives is a claim that he placed there by his own death on the cross. In this life we get pushed around so much. We have so many people in our lives who thrive on telling us what to do and who are often not motivated by love or grace. How tremendous a thing it is to have a king who loves, who forgives, and who gave himself up for us.

How can we help but give him our all? How can we help it?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Spring Training

I just finished glancing through the 1978 edition of the Cauldron, which is the name of Mercer University's yearbook. 1978 was my senior year. Gosh, I was young. And I had a lot of hair. And I had a mustache. And I was skinny. A lot has changed.

Some things have not changed, however. I loved baseball then and I love baseball now.

Back during my student years, I would occasionally drop by the office of my professor, advisor, and mentor Dr. Howard Giddens. He had an open door policy--literally. If he was in his office he kept the door open and that open door was an invitation to anyone who needed to see him. So, when I needed advice or guidance or just some good conversation, I'd go by to see him. Sometimes I'd just listen to his stories. He had great stories.

Some of the stories he'd tell me were about his trips to Florida for the annual ritual of baseball Spring Training. The first time he told me that he was going to be going to Spring Training I asked, "Are you going to West Palm Beach to see the Braves?" "No," he answered, "we're going to see some good baseball." You must undertand that he uttered those words during a time when the Braves were not a very good baseball team. I learned later, though, that it was his tradition to go to St. Petersburg, which was on the opposite coast from West Palm.

Dr. Giddens made his first trip to St. Pete for Spring Training in the late 1940s when he was pastor of the First Baptist Church in Athens, Georgia. His father and brother, both of whom lived in Dr. Giddens' South Georgia hometown of Nashville, had been going for a few years and they finally prevailed upon him to accompany them. Thus the tradition began. Eventually a large group of men from Athens joined in the trip and, from the stories Dr. Giddens tells, I gather that a grand time was had by all.

Time changes things, though, and eventually Dr. Giddens' father died and one by one the other men became unable to go. Finally the travelling party got reduced to Dr. Giddens and his brother Holmes. At some point, I guess not long after I got out of seminary, Dr. Giddens began asking me to go with them. I couldn't, of course, because I was too busy. I stayed too busy for far too many years.

Finally, though, around 1997, Dr. Giddens called and said, "Mike, if you don't go with us, we're not going to be able to go. We need someone to drive. Holmes is getting old." At that time Dr. Giddens was around 86 and his brother was two years older than he! So I told him that if they could go during my Spring Break (I was teaching at Belmont at that time), I'd go. As it turned out, Holmes was unable to go that year and he never returned. In fact, he died one year while Dr. Giddens and I were at Spring Training.

Thus began a string of ten years that Dr. Giddens and I went to Spring Training together. Those memories are among my most cherished.

Dr. Giddens can't make the trip anymore. The last two years three men from my church have acccompanied me and we have kept the tradition alive. We have made one change--we go to Orlando where the Braves now train because we are all diehard Braves fans. We stay in Orlando and watch them at their Spring Training home at Disney's Wide World of Sports. When they play somewhere else during our time there, we travel to see them.

This year we caught a break and were able to go at a time when the Braves had six straight home games in Orlando so we didn't have to travel. It's always a great trip. We basically watch baseball and eat and tell stories. I suspect it's much like what Dr. Giddens and his buddies used to do. God is good.

So, here are some impressions I have about the 2008 Atlanta Braves. My impressions are based on the six games we saw. I should offer some qualifications to my remarks. First, we were there pretty early in the process. There are two weeks to go in Spring Training and a lot can happen in two weeks. Second, neither veteran ace John Smoltz nor anticipated closer Rafael Soriano pitched while we were there, Smoltz because he was on an individualized training regimen and Soriano because of illness and arm soreness. Third, trades or other changes could always come about. With those qualifications, here are some of my thoughts.

First, the starting lineup will almost certainly include these players probably batting in this order:

2B Kelly Johnson
SS Yunel Escobar
3B Chipper Jones
1B Mark Texeira
RF Jeff Francoeur
C Brian McCann
LF Matt Diaz
CF Mark Kotsay.

Second, it's hard to tell whether we can depend on very expensive and oft-injured pitcher Mike Hampton. He started the first game we saw and left in the second inning with a mild groin strain. He was scheduled to pitch the last day we were there but pitched in a simulated game instead. If he is able, he will be the #4 starter in the pitching rotation. The first three slots will be filled by Tim Hudson, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine. Hudson and Glavine looked solid in the games we saw them pitch.

Third, the fifth starter will most likely be 22-year-old Jair Jurrjens, who was acquired in the offseason trade that sent Edgar Renteria to Detoit. He looked fantastic on the day we saw him. I understand that he had a rough time in his start today (Saturday), so we'll see. Other candidates are Jo-Jo Reyes, who has looked terrible, Chuck James, who is coming off a shoulder injury, Buddy Carlyle, who has looked average, and Jeff Bennett, who has not pitched a lot yet due to illness. I still think it'll be Jurrjens unless he bombs from here on.

Fourth, middle relief is the biggest question mark. They have a lot of candidates for just a few spots. The team has already sent Matt DeSalvo, a pickup from the Yankees system, to the minor league camp and I was very impressed with his ability to make batters hit the ball on the ground. Blaine Boyer looked good. I was also fairly impressed with Chris Resop, who pitched last year for the Angels. All of those are righthanded pitchers. I was not terribly impressed with the left-handed options, although Will Ohlman, acquired from the Cubs, will almost certainly be on the team and play an important set-up role.

Fifth, two of the young prospects are the real deal. Brent Lillibridge, who was acquired before last season in the Adam LaRoche trade with the Pirates, may make the team as a utility player. We saw him play both shortstop and third base; I understand that he can also play in the outfield. He is a good, hard-nosed player. Jordan Schafer, who, although he has not yet played above Class A ball, is regarded as the likely Braves centerfielder in 2009, is fun to watch. He plays sound defense, has some speed, and hits well. I believe he is pencilled in to play center for the AAA Richmond Braves this year.

I hope the Braves have what it takes to make a run at the division championship. They look to me to be more of a contender for the Wild Card.

The first game of the regular season is March 30 vs. the Washington Nationals. 162 games later, we'll know.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Singing Together

I have a bee in my bonnet or a fly in my ointment or ants in my pants or termites in my temple. Anyway, I’m bugged.

I have had the good fortune to attend five Atlanta Braves Spring Training games in five days. Tonight we’ll see number six and tomorrow we’ll head home. That’s all good. This Saturday I hope to post an article about my impressions of this year’s Braves team.

So what’s bugging me? Singing—that’s what’s bugging me.

As everyone knows, before any major American sporting event, the National Anthem is sung. In my humble opinion, the Star-Spangled Banner was a bad choice for our National Anthem. For one thing, it’s more about the flag than about the nation. For another thing, it’s hard to sing. America the Beautiful or God Bless America (church-state concerns notwithstanding) would have been much better choices.

But, as my wife is so fond of reminding me, it is what it is.

It could be worse. It could be God Bless the U.S.A. (If it were, I reckon that we couldn't even stand up until Lee Greenwood sang the phrase "I'd gladly stand to you...").

But I digress.

I remember when, before a ball game, the public address announcer would say something like, “Ladies and gentlemen, to honor America, please rise and join in singing our National Anthem as it is played by organist Magic Fingers Nelson.” The important phrase was “join in singing.” And we would sing. It would sound rather pitiful, but most of us would join in and sing our National Anthem. Together. As Americans. E pluribus Unum.

It’s not that way anymore. Before each ball game over these past five days, the announcer has said, “Ladies and gentlemen, to honor America, please rise as Miss Hitter of Impossibly High Notes 2004 performs our National Anthem.” The important word is “performs.” And we have all dutifully stood, removed our hats, looked toward the flag, and listened as the singer “performed” the song. A few game souls tried to sing along, but most of us didn’t even try. After all, we had not been invited to do so and we couldn’t have followed the semi-professional rendering had we wanted to.

This is wrong. The singing of the National Anthem should promote national unity. We should blend our imperfect voices in an imperfect harmony and thereby celebrate our citizenship in this wonderfully imperfect country. It is high time that the singing of The Star-Spangled Banner stopped being some obscure or even famous singer’s moment in the spotlight and went back to being a group sing-in. Such singing celebrates and increases our unity in diversity.

Contrast our non-singing of the National Anthem with what happens during the seventh inning stretch. (As an aside, I should note my irritation with the announcement that they make at Disney’s Champion Field: “It’s time for the seventh inning sing-along,” they say. For Pete [Rose’s] sake, it’s been the seventh inning stretch ever since baseball started at the moment of creation [“In the big inning”—“In the beginning”—get it? Sorry.] Why not just call it the seventh inning stretch? But I digress—again.).

Anyway, what happens during the seventh inning stretch? Well, we stand, we stretch, and then—we sing! We sing that great old baseball song Take Me Out to the Ballgame. We sing it with gusto. Some, who have had way too much of the most expensive beverage that they sell at baseball games, sing with too much gusto. But the thing is that we all sing together. We sing badly for the most part but we sing. We sing to celebrate being together. We sing to celebrate our common love for a great game. We sing to celebrate baseball.

That’s the way that the National Anthem should be done, albeit with a good deal more reverence and respect.

This all of course also has something to do with the ways that we do church. I am always saddened when I look out on our congregation on a Sunday morning and see a high percentage of our folks not singing, even when we are singing their “favorites” like Amazing Grace or Because He Lives or How Great Thou Art. I am troubled that so many church folks don’t seem to understand, despite our best efforts to teach them, that worship is not a spectator sport and that our congregational singing, even when it amounts to making a joyful noise, binds us together as the Body of Christ.

In the matter of our worship wars, perhaps people should not insist on maintaining a worship style that they claim to love but in which they refuse to participate.

The best way to sing the National Anthem is together.

The best way to sing hymns or praise songs or choruses is together.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Beast on the SBECI

For an insightful take on the announcement of the SBECI, read my friend Philip Meade's post at The Beast's Lair.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Southern Baptist Environment & Climate Initiative

Something called the Southern Baptist Environment & Climate Initiative (SBECI), which is referred to by its website as a "ministry," has issued "A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change."

The initial signatories to this Declaration include, among others, Southeastern Seminary President Daniel Akin, Union University President David Dockery, First Baptist Springdale Arkansas Pastor Ronnie Floyd, Beeson Divinity School President Timothy George, Prestonwood Baptist Pastor Jack Graham, First Baptist Woodstock Georgia Pastor Johnny Hunt, Cross Pointe Pastor James Merritt, and current SBC President Frank Page.

I have intentionally tried to avoid reading what others are saying about this. I did look at the comment stream at SBCOutpost (I even left a comment myself) but other than that I have read no other analyses of this declaration.

I don't think I need to do so. I can predict with what I fear is great accuracy what the reactions will.

Many "conservative" or "fundamentalist" Baptists will accuse the framers of and signatories to this declaration of having somehow "sold out." Such commentators will say that these folks are trying to form some kind of alliance with liberals or that they are trying to cause Southern Baptists to look more respectable in the eyes of mainstream media or that they are giving undue respect to the findings of widely accepted science or that they are trying to take Southern Baptist eyes off the goals of missions and evangelism.

Meanwhile, many "moderate" or "liberal" Baptists will accuse the framers of and signatories to this declaration of being Johnny-come-latelies on the issues of global warming and climate change or of not going nearly far enough in this initial advocacy effort or of only giving lip service to environmental issues.

Also meanwhile, many "rank and file" Baptists will yawn and figure that this really isn't important and really won't matter.

I of course have absolutely no idea what lies in the hearts of the folks who are involved in the SBECI.

I do regret that the initial response of many on both the left and the right is to question those motives. Only time will tell.

I believe, though, that this effort creates an opportunity for dialogue between Baptists of different persuasions on this important issue. Regular readers of On the Jericho Road know that I have been lately advocating for more dialogue between Baptists (and other Christians) of different persuasions. It is time, I maintain, that we quit talking about and at each other and start talking to and with each other.

I therefore propose that a Conference on Baptist Stewardship of the Environment be held as soon as possible. I furthermore propose that it be held at Ridgecrest Conference Center. I furthermore propose that it be co-sponsored by Southeastern Seminary, Southern Seminary, Beeson Divinity School, McAfee School of Theology, Truett Seminary, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC, and the Baptist Center for Ethics.

This is a great example of an area in which Baptists of all persuasions should and can be vitally interested.

I say let's strike while the iron is hot and before the planet gets any hotter!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

An Act of Civil Disobedience

I am with some friends in the land of the Mouse on our annual Spring Training trip. We are in the midst of six Braves games in six days at Champion Field at Disney's Wide World of Sports. So far, no good--the Braves have lost both games we have seen, one to Detroit and one to Houston.

At today's game, the public address announcer jumped the gun and invited us to stand for the seventh inning stretch at the end of the sixth inning. For those of you who are unfamiliar with baseball tradition, the seventh inning stretch takes place in the middle of the seventh inning. But when the announcer asked us to stand a half-inning early, the Philharmonic Saxophone Orchestra (they really have such a thing) rushed out onto the field and played "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and most of the people in the place dutifully stood and sang along.

I kept my seat. It was just wrong.

I'm not one to rock the boat, but sometimes you just can't in good conscience go along with the crowd.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Another Good Argument for Mutual Submission in Marriage

My father was apparently one sexy fellow.

OK, I have never written a sentence that made me feel weirder than that one.

Thankfully, I cannot testify to the romantic habits of my parents. Given that they left this lovely orb thirty years ago, I can’t question them about such things, either. I wouldn’t if I could, of course. I reckon my existence is evidence of something, isn’t it?

So, why do I choke back my embarrassment and say that my dad was one sexy dude?

I do so because of all the times that I saw him standing, apron tied around his waist, in front of the stove cooking supper or in front of the sink washing dishes. It’s one of the vivid images from my childhood: my parents sharing the burden around the house.

I never heard them quote it, but I think that they understood Paul’s admonition that we should, in our marriage relationships and in all of our Christian relationships, “submit ourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Such mutual submission in Christ is the right thing to do because it’s the loving, caring, and grace-filled thing to do.

We men should need no other reason.

But now we learn that there is another, very good reason. It seems, as a recent Associated Press headline rather indelicately put it, that “Men who do housework may get more sex.”

According to a report issued by the Council on Contemporary Families, the contribution of men to the doing of housework has doubled or tripled, depending on which study you go by, over the past 40 years.

Joshua Coleman, a psychologist and author of The Lazy Husband: How to Get Men to Do More Parenting and Housework (now if that’s not a bestseller it ought to be!) is quoted in the AP article saying, “"If a guy does housework, it looks to the woman like he really cares about her — he's not treating her like a servant. And if a woman feels stressed out because the house is a mess and the guy's sitting on the couch while she's vacuuming, that's not going to put her in the mood."

When I talk with couples who are preparing to get married, I always tell them that each one of them ought to be more concerned with meeting the needs of the other than with having their own needs met. I furthermore tell them that if both of them will live that way each of them will have the joy of making the other happy. A natural benefit of that is that everybody will be having their needs met and so everyone will be happy!

It’s a great system. That Bible really knows what it’s talking about!

So, guys, my advice to you is to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. Put your wife’s needs ahead of your own. Love your bride with the love of Christ. Give yourself up for her in every way that you can.

And be romantic. Give her flowers, take her to a nice dinner, and go on long walks with her. And by all means, put on that apron and wash those dishes!

Do if for her.

Apparently it will work out ok for you, too.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Sneaky Easter

Easter is sneaking up on me this year. I have heard many other folks say the same thing. Usually I would chalk up such remarks to our tendency not to pay attention even to very important things, but this year we have an excuse. Easter falls really, really early on the calendar this time around.

Easter can fall on any date between March 22 and April 25. That is because Easter is always celebrated in the Western Church on the Sunday following the Paschal Full Moon, which moves around on the calendar. As I understand it, the church leaders who devised this system many centuries ago were interested in observing Easter at the time of year that most closely approximated the astronomical conditions of the first Easter.

So, the earliest that Easter can occur is March 22, which has not happened since 1818 and will not happen again until 2285. Nobody reading this has or will experience a March 22 Easter.

The last time that Easter fell on March 23, as it will this year, was 1913, so those of you who are 95 or older were around for that one. The next time that Easter will fall on March 23 will be 2160, so none of us will witness that one, either.

Therefore, for the vast majority of us, this March 23 observance of Easter will be a once in a lifetime event.

I have in the past said that I wished that Easter would fall on the same date every year. But this year in which Easter has snuck up on me has caused me to change my mind about that. I have decided that it is a good thing that the date of Easter moves around, causing us to think about it, wonder about it, plan around it, and be caught off guard by it.

After all, that’s the way it ought to be, because that’s the way that it is.

The resurrection of Jesus changed and changes everything. The event itself was unanticipated and unexpected. Nobody was looking for it. Just as some of his followers adjusted to the idea that his body was in the tomb and that they needed to pay their respects, he left it.

The new life that the resurrection of Jesus brings about even now is startling and sometimes—some of you will know what I mean—frightening. Resurrection, new life, hope for the future—they are all, when they grab hold of us, wondrous.

So Easter has snuck up on us this year.

And you never know—it may sneak up on us in some other ways.

I would tell you to watch for it—but maybe God does his most amazing things in us when we are not looking.

Monday, March 3, 2008

From Today's Devotional Reading

First let us establish three premises:

Those who do not love feel superior to everyone else.

Those who love feel equal to everyone else.

Those who love much gladly take the lower place.

Each one of us can identify his position somewhere along this spectrum, which comprises the three degrees of the spiritual life here on earth:

Death for those who do not love.

Life for those who love.

Holiness for those who love much.

[From In Search of the Beyond by Carlo Carretto]

The Christian Index on the New Baptist Covenant

In the February 14, 2008 issue of the Christian Index, the newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention, Editor Dr. Gerald Harris published an analysis of the Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant entitled "Jimmy Carter Aglow Over New Baptist Covenant Celebration."

In the February 28, 2008, Dr. Harris very kindly published a letter from me that responded to his article.

I am grateful to Dr. Harris for allowing me to participate in this dialogue.

Blinded by the Light

(A sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent based on John 9:1-41)

[Image: Jesus Heals Blind Man by Heinrich Hofmann]

I was thinking about situations in which light prompts flight.

When a spotlight lands on an escaped criminal, he runs.
When a light is thrown on in a darkened room, the cockroaches scatter.
When sunlight falls upon a vampire, he dissolves.

Why does light prompt flight? Is it not because in every case the light reveals something about the nature of the one upon whom the light has shined? As John said in an earlier part of his Gospel, “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather then light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed” (John 3:19-20). Criminals, cockroaches, and vampires are all evil and so they flee before the light!

What John really had in mind, though, was the reaction that people had to the coming of Jesus into the world. Jesus is the light of the world (9:5) and as the light of the world he reveals the truth about those who live in the world. He reveals the truth about you and me. He reveals the truth about all of us. But, in the immortal words of Jack Nicholson’s character Col. Nathan R. Jessep in A Few Good Men, sometimes we “can’t handle the truth.” Sometimes we want to run from the light because we want to run from the truth.

We learn some important things when we compare the responses of the blind man and the Pharisees to their encounter with the light of the world.

Consider first the blind man who was healed. Here was a man who knew and grew in his awareness of the truth about himself. At the beginning he knew the truth about this physical condition. There was no doubt that he was blind. He had been born blind. Having been born blind, he did not even know what it was to see. Blindness was all he knew; the concept of “sight” meant nothing to him. So he knew the truth about his physical condition.

Once he was touched by Jesus, though, he began to grow in his knowledge of himself and of Jesus. First, he grew in his awareness of himself. He insisted on the truth about the change that he had experienced. After he was healed, people questioned whether or not the man they now saw was in fact the formerly blind man. His neighbors identified him primarily by his disability and when the disability went away they had difficulty accepting that it was the same person. He insisted that it was he. “I am the man,” he said. Later, when pushed by the Pharisees to agree with their negative assessment of Jesus, he said, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (v. 25). The light had come into his life and had brought illumination to him—that he knew; that he could tell; that he had to tell. He knew what he knew. He once was blind; now, he saw.

Second, he grew in his awareness of Jesus. When his neighbors asked the man how his eyes were opened, he said, “Jesus did it” and he told them how (v. 11). Joe Friday of Dragnet fame would have been pleased with his response. He had given just the facts.

When the man was asked by the Pharisees what he thought about the one who had opened his eyes, he replied, “He is a prophet” (v. 17). He realized that there was something from God in this man who had given him sight. He said so very explicitly later when the Pharisees asked him a second time how Jesus had opened his eyes. In the course of that conversation the Pharisees insisted that they did not know from where Jesus came. The man was shocked by that. “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (vv. 32-33). Jesus was from God, he came to understand.

Finally, Jesus sought the man out after he had been driven away by the Pharisees and asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man asked who it was that Jesus was talking about and Jesus said, “Me” to which the man replied, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped Jesus. In that moment the blind man really gained his sight. In that moment his eyes had truly been opened. In that moment he saw the truth about Jesus and we can safely assume, although we know nothing else of what happened in the life of this man, that he lived the rest of his life trusting in Jesus and bearing witness to others of what Jesus had done in his life.

Consider next the Pharisees who remained blind. The Pharisees were blinded by the light of Jesus. When they were confronted by what Jesus embodied they could not see and accept who he was. But in fact the light accentuated the blindness that they already had, a blindness that was compounded by the fact that they thought that they could see just fine.

How were they blind?

They were blind to the compassionate ways of God. Let’s consider what had happened here. A grown man who had been blind from birth had received his sight. Wouldn’t you think that the first thing that supposed people of God would do in light of such an event would be to celebrate the marvelous grace and compassion of God that had been exhibited in Jesus? But no. The Pharisees’ first response was rather to debate whether or not someone who violated the Sabbath by making mud could in fact be a conduit for God’s power. They could not celebrate because of their anxiety that a regulation had not been followed. How much blinder can you be than to think that God cares more about the keeping of a rule than he does about caring for a hurting human being?

They were blind to the saving ways of God. They tried to explain away the healing of the man. They did not believe that he had actually been born blind until his parents confirmed it. Why was that so hard for them to believe? Did they just not believe in the healing power of God? I doubt that was it.

I suspect that we find our explanation in the question that the disciples had asked Jesus: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (v. 2). Jesus pointed out that such was not the issue but rather that they needed to be on the lookout for what God was about to be up to in the man’s life. Their question, though, reflected the way that a lot of people thought and the way that the Pharisees were probably thinking. They believed that the man had been born in sin (see v. 34) and they could not tolerate the fact that the healing of such a one might just be a sign of radical grace and radical forgiveness. Such, they thought, could not be.

They could not accept where and how God was working because it did not fit with their vision of themselves or of the world. The man who had been healed persisted in telling them what had happened. He insisted that Jesus must come from God because otherwise how could he have been healed by him? Listen to their response: “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” (v. 34). They then drove him out of the synagogue. You see, in their view, they were the religious people, they were the righteous people, and so their vision of the way God worked had to be right. Here was someone who did not know what they did and who, to their way of thinking, was a sinner, and he was trying to instruct them.

And therein lies the rub. The blind man was poor in spirit; these Pharisees were not. The blind man was capable of simple child-like faith; these Pharisees were not. The light of Jesus revealed that the blind man had a heart that was ready to open up to God’s grace and love and forgiveness; these Pharisees did not. The eyes of the blind man—both physically and spiritually—were opened up by the light of Jesus; the eyes of these Pharisees were screwed even tighter shut by that same light.

The light blinded the Pharisees both to the good thing that had happened to the blind man and to the good thing that could happen to them because they were unwilling to recognize the need in themselves or in others. In a recent essay, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about the effect that drought was having on her husband and her. They have a shallow well and they have been running low on water. So, to conserve, she’s been going to the laundromat. Folks there look at her like she doesn’t belong. Taylor said, though, that her going there has been a good thing.

Some of my friends feel sorry for me because I have to go to the laundromat, but I tell them not to. Not having enough water at home has brought me into contact with people who do not have enough of other things at home, and I am enjoying their company. I never really thought about it before, but scarcity evokes community.

When people share in scarcity they see themselves and each other in a different light. The Pharisees could see the need neither in themselves nor in the blind man nor probably in anyone else.

They thought they were passing judgment on the blind man (“You were born entirely in sins”) and on Jesus (he was a sinner who violated the Sabbath). In fact, they were passing judgment on themselves. They were revealing who they were and who they weren’t. The claimed to “see”—they were convinced that they saw the world, themselves, and Jesus in the right way—but in fact they were blind.

There is more hope for the truly blind than for those who claim to see; the latter are the self-righteous and the self-approving. But don’t such folks have to, somewhere down deep, know better? Don’t they?

I believe that there are important truths here for both kinds of people in the world and in the building—the lost and the saved.

For those of you who are, like the blind man in our text, well aware of the state of your life and the hole in your soul, you need to know that you can come into the light of Jesus and be saved.

For those of you who are, like the Pharisees, thinking that because you are at least a little better than the best person you know and that you really don’t need any help, the good news is that somewhere down deep you just may know better and the Lord is waiting to have you come into his light, admit what you are, and be saved.

Then for those of us who are Christians but are emphasizing the wrong things—keeping the rules rather than the compassion of Christ, being good rather than being forgiven, self-righteousness rather than real righteousness—you can be warmed up and lit up and brightened up by the light of Jesus.

Let the light show you who are and who you can be. Let Jesus shine his grace into you. The light of the world will show you the truth about who you are. But can you handle the truth? Will you run from the light or will you let the light change you?