On the Holistic Nourishment Jesus Provides

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John 6:35-51

     35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.36 But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

     41 At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”

     43 “Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. 44 “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. 46 No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. 47 I tell you the truth, the one who believes has everlasting life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. 50 But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread, they will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

I’m honestly not sure why we start the year with these readings. In the passage, Jesus mentions coming down from heaven, which suggests a connection with the Christmas story, but most of the emphasis of the passage is on his statement “I am the bread of life,” which is repeated twice here. That obviously brings to mind our Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. In the words of institution for the sacrament – the words that are always said when we observe the sacrament – we quote Jesus’ words, “This is my body broken for you.” That’s an obvious connection to this reading.

But it seems to me that there’s more going on in this passage than just a reference to the sacrament.

Jesus calls himself “the bread of life.” Bread is commonly used as a symbol for all of our daily needs. Our understanding is that when we pray the Lord’s Prayer and say, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we’re asking God to provide, not just bread or even food, but all our worldly needs. That’s why in one of the alternative versions of the Lord’s Prayer we sometimes use in worship, we say, “We ask that you would provide for our needs this day.”

But the scholars who study the ancient language that Jesus himself spoke – Aramaic – tell us that in that language, the word used for ‘bread’ had an even broader meaning. In ancient Aramaic, they tell us, ‘bread’ really did symbolize our material needs in general, but it also referred to the guidance and understanding we need if we’re going to thrive spiritually as well as physically. So in this passage for today, it seems that Jesus is declaring himself to be the source, not just of what we need physically, but also of what we need for a healthy and growing spiritual life.

And Jesus says that anyone who comes to him in search of a spiritual life of genuine power and meaning will find it. And what’s more, those who come to him searching for that spiritual power will share in his everlasting life. In fact, Jesus says, he has come into this world from heaven for exactly that purpose: to provide what we need to be sustained, not just for mortal life in this world, but also for an abundant and eternal life.

In this reading, the Jewish leaders who hear Jesus make this claim about himself are said to “grumble.” That’s because to them, claiming to be sent into the world from God was blasphemy. But of course, we know what they didn’t know – that Jesus was in fact not just a representative of God, but actually God in human form. That’s an idea they weren’t prepared to wrap their heads around. (In fact, it took the followers of Jesus something like three centuries to figure this out.) So Jesus just told them that he had “come down from heaven.” But even that was beyond their grasp.

And Jesus makes one other point in this passage that seems to me especially worthy of a moment’s reflection. Jesus contrasts himself to the manna the Hebrews ate in the desert on their way to the promised land. Both Jesus and the manna were, in the Aramaic sense, bread from God. But the manna was bread that only sustained the people physically. It kept them alive, but only physically and only temporarily. Jesus, on the other hand, had come to nourish and sustain people spiritually and emotionally as well as physically – and also eternally.

So maybe that’s why the mothers and fathers of the church picked this reading for today in the lectionary. It seems like an appropriate subject for our first reflection of the new year that stretches out before us. I say that because it invites us to open ourselves to receive more ‘nourishment’ from Jesus than we’ve settled for in the past. Jesus invites us to open ourselves to be nourished and empowered for a deeper spiritual life than we’ve ever experienced before – not to settle for a shallow and lukewarm experience of faith and a hope of heaven when we die, but rather to allow Jesus to provide us with a bread that can let us live with a joy and power we’ve never known before.

Let’s pray. Lord, in this new year, move in our hearts and awaken in us a hunger to experience your love more powerfully than ever before. And day by day, help us to open our lives to receive and be nourished by the bread of life he came into the world to bring us. Amen.

May you and those you love be happy, healthy and richly blessed in 2019 and always.


(The other readings for today are Psalms 29 and 48; Genesis 12:1-7; and Hebrews 11:1-12.)


A Moment for the Other End of the Story

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Luke 22:39-53

Jesus Prays on the Mount of Olives

     39 Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. 40 On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” 41 He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

     45 When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow.46 “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”

Jesus Arrested

     47 While he was still speaking a crowd came up, and the man who was called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him, 48 but Jesus asked him, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?”

     49 When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?”50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.

     51 But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.

    52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? 53 Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour—when darkness reigns.”

It seems like an oddity of the lectionary that this passage comes up as the listed gospel reading a week before Christmas every two years. Tomorrow, the readings switch to parts of the gospels that are decidedly more in keeping with what we expect for the season. But today, we’re left with this reading, which is sort of a downer, so to speak. Every two years, I’m tempted to skip this reading and go on to something that’s a little more ‘Christmasy.’ This reading about the betrayal and arrest of Jesus isn’t exactly a reading to fill you with ‘Christmas cheer.’

But I can’t quite bring myself to skip this reading altogether. I guess I can’t shake the feeling that we can’t fully appreciate God’s decision to come into the world in human form unless we’re willing to face without flinching the reality of what it cost him to do that.

Our celebrations of his birth as the baby Jesus are pretty warm and sentimental. We get together with family and friends we might not see much the rest of the year. We have cookies and parties, we put up cheerful decorations and give presents. We picture the baby Jesus all snugly wrapped up and sleeping peacefully in a stable full of friendly animals.

And to share the joy of the season, we take part in special programs to reach out to the poor and the marginalized. We pack shoeboxes for needy kids. We drop money in the Salvation Army kettles.

And that’s all good. Not a thing wrong with any of those activities.

But there’s something missing from the celebration of the Messiah’s birth unless we stop once in a while during this season to think about the fact this child in the manger was the God who created a universe so vast that our brains can’t even process its size or its age. This baby in the manger was God in human form. And he chose to appear as a vulnerable infant in a world where people betray their friends and teachers. A world where those who come preaching a message of peace and love may be seized and murdered by a mob if they get to be inconvenient to those in power.

I always suspect I’m speaking heresy when I say this, but in spite of the common belief that God is “all-knowing,” I can’t escape the feeling that until the moment described in this passage – waiting in the garden to be arrested – God really didn’t know what human fear is like. The only way to really know what the agony of mortal fear is like is to experience it first-hand. I’m not sure God really knew what it felt like to be betrayed until one of his disciples showed up at the garden leading a gang of thugs with clubs and swords. I’m not sure God fully understood the pain of being denied by a friend until the moment the cock crowed, when he looked up and saw a horrified look spreading across Peter’s face.

This passage makes it plain that when Jesus was walking forward into his passion and death, he wasn’t doing it lightly. He wasn’t doing it with a calm and relaxed attitude, content that it would all be over in three days. This passage makes it pretty clear that Jesus approached his passion with the same sickening fear any of us would experience in the same circumstances.

So I suppose it makes it even more meaningful to remember that as a demonstration of his love for us, he swallowed that sickening fear and went to meet his horrible death with a courage that’s just about impossible for the rest of us to imagine.

Being born into a cozy barn full of friendly animals doesn’t demonstrate that much love. The way we think of it, it almost become a cross between a petting zoo and a slumber party. But being born into a world of people who behave like savage predators – that’s a different story altogether. That is a real demonstration of the depth of God’s love for us.

I don’t think we really allow the true meaning of Christmas to confront us unless we stop at least once during this holiday season and remind ourselves of just what a sacrifice it was for God to leave the beauty and safety of heaven to come down into this dirty and violent world. Because it’s only when we stop and remind ourselves of that sacrifice that we confront the truth of what a staggering love for each of us the incarnation represents.

Let’s pray. Lord, in this season of joyous celebration, help us to keep in mind that our celebration comes at great cost to you. In the midst of the sentimental moments of Christmas, remind us that your love was demonstrated through a staggering sacrifice on your part. Amen.

Grace and Peace,

(The other readings for today are Psalms 67 and 122; Isaiah 8:16 – 9:1; and II Peter 1:1-11.)

When the Teachings Get Strange

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John 6:60-69

Many Disciples Desert Jesus

60 On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

61 Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! 63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and they are life. 64 Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. 65 He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”

66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

67 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

For people who have been raised in the Christian faith, one of the real challenges is trying to keep in mind how strange and disturbing many of the teachings of Jesus would have been to those who were hearing them for the first time. We’ve been hearing these things all our lives, so we sort of take them for granted. But some of the things Jesus said would have been shocking to people. And this reading from John points out just how shocking.

This passage comes at the end of a section of the Gospel of John where Jesus has been talking about himself as “the bread of life.” He reminds his Jewish listeners of the part of their history when their ancestors ate manna in the wilderness. And now, he says, God has sent a new kind of spiritual food – the body and blood of Jesus himself. And that food, he says, will nourish them for eternal life. Jesus has been telling his listeners that to have that eternal life, they will need to ‘eat his flesh and drink his blood.’

Those of us have been raised in the church, we read these words and we just think, “Well, sure, he’s talking about communion, he’s talking about the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.” The liturgy we use when we celebrate that sacrament specifically refers to the elements of communion as representing the body and blood of Jesus. We understand that the real point Jesus is making here is that his followers need to be ‘fed’ spiritually by his teaching. The words of the liturgy also point us toward his death on the cross, when his body would be broken and his blood shed as a sign of God’s great love for us.

So this is all pretty familiar ground to us. Hopefully it doesn’t get to be ‘old hat’ to us, but at least it’s a core belief of the faith that we’ve been raised with, so we don’t find what Jesus says to be particularly surprising.

But as for the people who heard Jesus saying these things for the first time – they would have found them startling. Maybe even shocking. They would have been shocked to hear this friendly, charismatic rabbi stating so matter-of-factly that he would soon be tortured to death by the nation’s religious leaders. In fact, it’s pretty clear that lots of those who heard Jesus say these things were freaked out by them. And if the things Jesus was foretelling weren’t shocking enough, the bit about eating his flesh and drinking his blood would have been like fingernails on a chalkboard. Almost all of those listening to Jesus were Jews, and Jews were strictly forbidden to consume blood. So all this talk about eating flesh and drinking blood was more than most of them could handle. The bottom line, this passage tells us, is that many of those who had been disciples just walked away. They stopped following Jesus.

Of course, Jesus doesn’t seem particularly phased by this development. In fact, John tells us that Jesus had also predicted that some of those following him would turn away.

There are Christians who insist that once you start following Jesus, everything becomes crystal-clear and the decisions of life all become black-and-white. But this passage, it seems to me, helps to illustrate the fact that the way of discipleship has never been easy, and it’s never been crystal-clear. Even among those who heard Jesus speak in person, some people have struggled to wrap their minds around his teachings. (Maybe if we’re really honest, all of us sometimes struggle to understand them clearly.) And some people give up in frustration.

But then Jesus turns to Peter and the other core disciples, and he asks if they’re going to leave, too. And Peter gives a great answer: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” It wasn’t that Peter and the others understood everything Jesus said. They got confused, too. They misunderstood Jesus all the time. But they saw one thing clearly: that Jesus was unique – that Jesus was a one-of-a-kind voice through whom God was speaking into the world. And clinging to that one simple belief would get them through all kinds of mistakes later.

This passage says that many left. But a few stayed. And that little remnant, empowered by the Holy Spirit and their belief that Jesus was “the Holy One of God,” would go on to become the most powerful movement in human history.

It’s pretty inspiring for people like us who still wrestle to wrap our heads around some of the teachings of our master, don’t you think?

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for that faithful remnant who knew that Jesus alone had the words to eternal life, and who stayed with him when others were walking away. Let their example inspire and empower us to follow in faithful discipleship.


Grace and Peace,

(The other readings for today are Psalms 54 and 146; Job 6:1-21; and Acts 9:32-43.)


The Crazy Persistence of the Spirit-Led

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Acts 4:13-31

Peter and John before the Sanhedrin

     13 When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. 14 But since they could see the man who had been healed standing there with them, there was nothing they could say. 15 So they ordered them to withdraw from the Sanhedrin and then conferred together. 16 “What are we going to do with these men?” they asked. “Everybody living in Jerusalem knows they have done an outstanding miracle, and we cannot deny it. 17 But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn these men to speak no longer to anyone in this name.”

     18 Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. 20 For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

     21 After further threats they let them go. They could not decide how to punish them, because all the people were praising God for what had happened. 22 For the man who was miraculously healed was over forty years old.

The Believers Pray

     23 On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. 25 You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:

        “‘Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
          26 The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord
and against his Anointed One.’

27 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed.28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. 29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

     31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

Today’s New Testament reading continues a story in which Peter and John were arrested and questioned by the leaders of the temple after healing a crippled man and preaching in Jesus’ name in the temple precincts.

In today’s reading, the two apostles are commanded to stop preaching in Jesus’ name.  But they respond by telling the religious leaders to take a hike, so to speak, insisting that they have been commanded by God to perform this ministry and showing no inclination whatever to obey the temple bigshots. The leadership can only threaten Peter and John, because public opinion is on the apostles’ side after the healing of the crippled man.

After being released, the apostles go back to the other followers of Jesus and tell the story of their arrest and interrogation. When the gathered disciples hear the story, they join in a very interesting prayer.

First, they acknowledge in the prayer that God had spoken through the prophets (in this case, King David himself, acting as a prophet) to foretell that the leaders of the gentile world would “rage” and “plot in vain” against the Messiah when he appeared. Then, they acknowledge that this very thing happened when the Jewish leadership got Herod and Pilate (both gentiles) to participate in Jesus’ crucifixion.

Then, the disciples prayed for the power to keep doing the very things they had been doing – preaching and healing in the name of Jesus. And when their prayer was done, they received a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit that renewed their power and confidence in telling the story of Jesus.

To me, the most interesting aspect of this story is that, faced with harassment and threats of persecution, the followers of Jesus responded by renewing their commitment to the task they had been given. Instead of saying, “Gosh! This is getting dangerous! We’d better cool it for a while,” the disciples prayed for the strength to go right back out and get after it again.

There’s a single-minded persistence among those genuinely empowered by the Holy Spirit – a persistence that can seem crazy in the world’s eyes. That persistence comes, I think, from the sense that you’re actually doing God’s work. And if you really are doing God’s work, how can you be stopped by a bunch of self-interested religious bureaucrats? Or anyone else, for that matter?

Let’s pray. Lord, by the power of your Spirit, empower us to go into the world and tell the story of Jesus. Give us such persistence that it might even seem crazy to some people. We pray all these things in Jesus’ name. Amen

Every Blessings,

(The other readings for today are Psalms 84 and 148; Judges 9:1-21; and John 2:1-12.)


What Do We Want From Jesus?

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John 1:35-42

John’s Disciples Follow Jesus

     35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples.36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”

     37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”

     They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”

     39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”

     So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.

     40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus.

     Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).

This is a New Testament passage that doesn’t seem to get much attention, but it seems to me that it’s one followers of Jesus should make a point to turn to regularly because it poses a question we need to ask ourselves from time to time.

After the introduction to his gospel, John relates several stories about John the Baptist. John interacts with representatives of the Hebrew religious leadership, insisting that he is not the Messiah, but rather one sent to prepare the way. Later, John points out Jesus to some of his own disciples, and reports that when he baptized Jesus, he had seen the Spirit descend on him like a dove.

Now in today’s reading, he points out Jesus once again to his disciples, and identifies him for the second time as “the Lamb of God.” Two of John’s disciples turn immediately and follow Jesus. And when the New Testament speaks of people ‘following Jesus,’ it means following him as a disciple, not just following him down the street out of curiosity.

And here is the part of this passage that seems pretty important to me: Jesus turns to the two disciples and asks them, “What do you want?”

Presumably, being God and all, Jesus knew who these men were. Just the day before he had been near to John and his disciples, so Jesus might have recognized the two. He might even have remembered them from the time of his own baptism. So this question probably shouldn’t be read as an expression of suspicion or annoyance with the two, but rather as a plain question. What did these two men want from him?

That, it seems to me, is a question this passage is meant to ask each one of us. What do we want from Jesus?

I suppose a lot of people follow Jesus because they hope to “go to heaven” when they die to this earthly life. Maybe all of us would admit that that’s at least a part of our motivation for following him. It’s sometimes said (either honestly or crassly, depending on your tastes, I guess) that some people follow Jesus as “fire insurance” – just to avoid the fires of hell after they die.

It seems safe to say that quite a few of the people who call themselves Christians go to church because they think that’s what “good people” do. For those people, participating in the Christian faith is a matter of good citizenship.

Others, I suspect, see that hour of worship each week as a chance to escape from the stresses and pressures of life, and to find rest and refreshment. For them, the place of worship really is a ‘sanctuary’ in a difficult and scary world.

Still others keep participating in the faith because it re-connects them to earlier and simpler times in their lives, and reminds them of bygone days when life seemed better.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, it seems to me. But it seems to me that settling for them misses out on the real “abundant life” Jesus offers to those who are willing to commit their hearts to him in the here and now. Jesus planted the kingdom of heaven in this world, and invites his followers to join him in the adventure of bringing it to fulfillment. And he invites us to sit at his feet, and make his teachings the focus of our lives. And Jesus also invites us to become people of prayer, going deeper and deeper in our relationship with him. Jesus offers us the profound joy he himself experienced in his relationship with the other persons of the Trinity.

I can’t recall ever meeting someone who said they had made a deep commitment to serving Jesus – and serving others in his name – who had found it disappointing. I don’t remember anyone saying that they had made a point of immersing themselves in his teachings and living in imitation of him who found it a waste of time. On the contrary, people who have committed themselves to that kind of discipleship are among the most joyful people I’ve ever met. And it seems to me that Jesus freely offers these blessings to anyone who comes looking for them.

Now, it’s important to distinguish between living a life of deep discipleship and “church work.” Helping out with committees and projects and programs is a good thing, and it helps the church as a body. But if that’s the whole focus of our life of faith, ultimately we’ll burn out. But going deeper in a devoted relationship with Jesus will cause us to be built up, not burnt out.

So today, as we read and think about this passage from John, it’s an invitation to ask ourselves the question Jesus asked the two men: What do you want from following him?

Let’s pray. Lord, let your Spirit guide our hearts as we embrace this question, and ask ourselves what it is that we want from our relationship with you in Jesus. Let us not be satisfied with shallow faith, but cause us to long for a deep sense of your presence in us, and the joy that comes from that presence, each day that we live. Amen.


(The listed readings for today are Psalms 26 and 130; Judges 8:22-35; and Acts 4:1-12; and John 1:43-51.)


The Spirit Comes in Wind and Fire

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Acts 2:1-21

The Holy Spirit Comes at Pentecost

     When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

     5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in their own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 11 We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

     13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”

 Peter Addresses the Crowd

     14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

        17 “‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
        18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
        19 I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
        20 The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
        21 And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’


Today’s New Testament reading is one of the best-known passages from the Acts of the Apostles – the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. This is obviously a long passage, so I’ll be brief in these reflections. (I’ve also deleted verses 9 – 11a, which lists the many languages the followers of Jesus were suddenly able to speak.)

This is obviously one of the most important passages in the Acts of the Apostles – maybe even in the whole New Testament. And there are several things about the story that we need to keep in mind as we read it and think about it.

First of all, the story tells us that the disciples experienced two different manifestations of the Holy Spirit – wind and fire. Those manifestations are pretty well known to us, but the thing we sometimes miss is that the two manifestations came upon the gathered disciples differently. The wind came as a force that struck the group as a whole, but the fire separated and settled on the followers of Jesus as individual “tongues of fire.”

I can’t help thinking that means something – maybe that the Holy Spirit still engages us both individually and as a group. We understand that the Spirit is the presence of God at work in the world now, and when we think about how believers experience it, sometimes that experience comes to us when we’re alone in prayer or reflecting on the Bible or whatever. But sometimes the Spirit seems to catch hold of the church as a group, and set it in motion like the wind drives a sailboat. The reality is that the church only moves with real power when it’s being blown by the Spirit, so every congregation (and denomination, for that matter) needs to be praying for the Spirit to be directed into our sails. But we all need to be praying regularly for the Spirit to renew its fire in our hearts, igniting us day by day with a passion for God’s mission.

One part of this story that always intrigues people is the disciples’ sudden ability to “speak in other tongues.” It seems pretty clear from this story that the gift of tongues was intended to be a tool for the followers of Jesus to ‘declare the wonders of God’ to people in their own native languages, not as some incomprehensible babbling. (The apostle Paul expresses some skepticism in his letters about the continuing practice in the church of “speaking of tongues.)

But the ability to speak other languages fits right in with one of the major themes of the Acts of the Apostles. That theme is that from the earliest days of the church, God was equipping and sending the followers of his Son to carry the Word into the homes and lives of people of every nation and tribe. Later, God would do that by canceling the requirements to eat only kosher foods, so the apostles could sit at the tables of gentiles and tell the story of Jesus.

The urge to translate the good news into new languages is still a mark of the Holy Spirit’s moving in the church. And that might mean more than just translating it into languages as we traditionally understand the term. It might also mean communicating the word through social media. Or even telling the story of Jesus without the “churchy talk” we’re used to, so that people who weren’t raised in the church can understand it – people who might feel alienated from the church today. Some of the most effective evangelists in our country tell the story of Jesus in language my congregation would consider too coarse for church – Nadia Bolz-Weber is one well-known example. But tons of people are opening their hearts to the gospel because of her “outside the box” translation.

Finally, notice that the prophesy of Joel that Peter quotes incudes a promise that God would speak into the world in unexpected ways through all kinds of people. We sometimes make the mistake of thinking that the Word of God only comes into the world through “professionals” like preachers and theologians and seminary professors. But none of those disciples in Jerusalem fell into those categories. They were just fishermen and other ordinary people who found their hearts being set on fire by the Spirit that came on Pentecost, and who used the power they had been given to tell anyone who would listen what God was up to.

Let’s pray. Holy Spirit, come upon us once again with wind and fire. Ignite us with passion for your mission in the world, and drive us irresistibly to move out and tell the story of Jesus to anyone who will listen. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Amen.

Grace and Peace,


(The listed readings for today are Psalms 96 and 134; Judges 7:19 – 8:12; Acts 3:12-26; and John 1:29-42.)

Faith.Hope.Life National Week-end of Prayer

Serving Those in Need, Worship Study Prayer

Dear Friends in Christ,

I’ve recently joined the Faith Communities Task Force of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, and urge you to participate in our Faith.Hope.Life Initiative.  In connection with World Suicide Prevention Day on Sunday, September 9, 2018, we are inviting individuals and faith communities to participate in a National Week-end of Prayer for Faith, Hope & Life from September 7-9, 2018 – a national opportunity to pray for those whose lives have been touched  by suicide.

I hope that all of you will take a look at the resources on the website.   Many of the liturgies and prayers focus on mental health issues and encourage hope and life, many of the materials can be made available on resource tables, and everything can be adapted to your community.  The resources can be used for a service, a speaker’s event, a class, or simply as handouts in appropriate locations.

PLUS! Congregations can focus on the Faith.Hope.Life initiative anytime in September, National Suicide Prevention Month, if the “official” designated week-end doesn’t work for you.   I hope that every congregation will consider signing on to participate in whatever way works for the them! There’s a pledge button on the website – please make use of it!

If I can be of any help as a resource person or speaker, please let me know!


Rev. Robin Craig

Independence Presbyterian Church

Paul Talks about Prayer, Hardship, and Predestination

Worship Study Prayer

Romans 8:26-30

     26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.

     28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

Paul’s Letter to the Romans is a book of the Bible that’s sort of “theologically dense.” What I mean is that some passages of Romans have so much important information in them that you can spend a lot of time thinking about just a few verses. Take this reading, for instance. It’s only five verses long, but it has three important ideas in those five verses.

One of these ideas is predestination, which is so intimidating that preacher types have been known to cross themselves when it comes up – and Protestants don’t even believe in crossing ourselves. But predestination has also been associated with the Reformed tradition Presbyterians are part of, so we can’t just ignore it.

The basic idea, as Paul outlines it here, is that God has known since the down of time who would be moved to follow Jesus – in fact God has called some people but not everyone to be followers of Jesus. In fact, Jesus himself once said to his disciples, “You did not choose me. I chose you.” To some people, this seems grossly unfair of God – to choose some people and not others.

But the real point that is made with this doctrine is that we can’t claim any credit for our own salvation. We can’t claim to have earned it in any way – even by deciding to be followers of Jesus. Our new life as followers of Jesus is entirely a gift from God, so we can’t look down on non-believers as in any way inferior. Our faith is not an achievement on our part – it’s a gift of God’s grace.

The second idea in this passage is that the Holy Spirit participates in our life of prayer – that the Spirit represents a kind of communications link to God. Paul says that our faith and our understanding are so limited that we really don’t even know what to pray for. Sure, we can pray for those who are sick or hurting around us, we can pray for blessings for our loved ones, and we can pray for our own needs. But is that the end of what God has in mind for us when it comes to prayer? Probably not.

If we’re serious about prayer, it seems like we should be praying for God to reveal his will more and more to us. And we should be praying for God’s wisdom, and for God to show us what he has in mind for us. It seems like we should be praying for God to pry open our stubborn hearts so we can really deepen our relationship with him. It seems like we should face the fact that we really don’t even know what we should be praying for. But the good news, Paul says, is that the Holy Spirit is willing and able to serve as that link with God. The Spirit can lift our own needs and longings to God and bring back to us the messages God wants us to hear and pay attention to.

This should be a relief for people who think they need to pray the kind of long, formal, theological, “churchy-sounding” prayers that you hear in worship. Paul seems to be saying that it’s really enough just to fall silent in the presence of God and say, “God, help me to love you more and to know what you want me to do.” Or maybe the famous prayer, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Or maybe even to say nothing, and just trust the Spirit to take it from there.

The third big idea in this passage appears in verse 28 – “In all things God works for the good of those who love him.” Some people read this verse, and misunderstand it to mean that God causes all our sufferings to test us or to teach us lessons. But that’s not what Paul says here. He also doesn’t say that everything happens ‘for a reason.’

It seems especially important for us to see that’s not what Paul is saying. So many Christians respond to tragedy in life by telling suffering people that “everything happens for a reason,” with the clear implication that God decided to bring suffering and tragedy into those people’s lives. To me, that seems ill-advised. For one thing, it leads people to think of God as capricious and cruel. And it’s not really what Paul is saying here.

What Paul is saying, it seems to me, is that in every circumstance of life, good or bad, God stands with us and works to bring good out of it.

We serve a God who has shown that he is willing to be with humankind in the most tragic and difficult circumstances. He shared our human life in full, even suffering death on the cross. And the God we serve has shown that he is able to bring powerful good out of those horrible circumstances, like starting from the cross to build a worldwide movement that has done more good for more people than any other movement in human history.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the gift of new life in Jesus that you have given us out of your grace. Help us always to embrace it as the gift it is, and guard us against thinking that faith is something we have achieved by our own morality or good deeds. Help us to open our hearts in prayer, not relying on religious-sounding words, but instead allowing it to speak to us your words of comfort and guidance. And when we face hard times, remind us that you are always with us, working to bring good out of evil and peace out of turmoil. Amen.


(The other readings for today are Psalms 62 and 145; Numbers 32:1-27; and Matthew 23:1-12.)


Saved by the Faithfulness of Jesus

The Gift of Grace, Worship Study Prayer

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Romans 3:21-31

Righteousness Through Faith

     21 But now apart from the law (although the Law and the prophets bear witness to it) the righteousness of God has been made known. 22 This righteousness of God is given through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference [between Jew and Gentile] 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are freely declared innocent by God’s grace, rescued by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the faithful shedding of his blood. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and yet to declare innocent all those who trust in the faithfulness of Jesus.

     27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the ‘works of the law?’ No, through the principle of faith. 28 For we maintain that a person is declared innocent on the basis of faith, apart from performing the ‘works of the law.’ 29 Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, 30 since there is only one God, who will declare innocent the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 31 Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.

Over the past week or so, we’ve been reflecting on passages from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and you might remember that we said that Romans is one of the cornerstones of Christian theology, especially Protestant theology. It’s just packed with important insights about the meaning of Jesus and about what it means to be his followers. But those important insights are sometimes expressed in language that makes them a little tough to wrap your head around.

So for today’s passage, I’ve done something I usually don’t do: I’ve compared three different translations, and combined language from all three to make the passage as understandable as possible.

So, now, about today’s passage . . .

Paul is writing here about the idea that’s usually stated as “salvation by faith, not works.” In other words, our salvation comes from faith, not from being good or doing a bunch of religious activities. But it’s really a little more complicated than we usually take it.

Most translations of Romans talk about righteousness to us coming “through faith in Jesus.” But some of the best New Testament scholars say that a better translation of the Greek original would say that righteousness comes to us “through the faithfulness of Jesus.” In other words, Paul seems to be saying that God’s righteousness, which had been revealed through the history of Israel over the centuries before, actually became a powerful force in our lives because Jesus was faithful to his calling to die on the cross.

The common Christian belief is that if we believe in Jesus, then we will be saved as a reward for believing. But in a sense, that’s just another way of being saved by works. If we’re saved as a reward for believing, that would make our salvation an achievement on our part. Paul’s point seems to be that by the faithfulness of Jesus in going to the cross, God’s grace began to work in the hearts of people, causing some to believe in Jesus. In other words, we aren’t ‘saved because we believed,’ rather we ‘believe because Jesus saved us.’

Paul’s point – and it’s a very important point for Presbyterians and other Reformed followers of Jesus – is that we are saved by what God did, not by anything that we do. That’s what it really means to be “saved by grace” as Reformed believers understand the phrase.

And Paul writes that because of what God did in Jesus, we are “justified.” That’s the word that’s used in most translations of the New Testament. But I’ve chosen to substitute the phrase “declared innocent,” for “justified.” That’s because that’s what the Greek word really means – that because of the faithfulness Jesus showed by dying on the cross, we have been declared to be innocent in God’s eyes, even though we’re really guilty of all kinds of sins. Jesus took upon himself a verdict of ‘guilty’ (although he was really innocent) and allowed himself to be executed in place of people like us, who have been declared innocent (although we are really guilty).

Now, when Paul talks about observing “the Law” in this passage, scholars say what he really had in mind wasn’t obeying the Ten Commandments and so on. They say he’s really talking about what the Jews called “the works of the Law.” Those were the ritual acts that marked somebody as a Jew – being circumcised, eating kosher food and keeping the Sabbath, mostly. But Paul says you can’t earn a verdict of ‘innocent’ in God’s eyes by doing those works of the Law – that verdict is given as a gift to those who have been moved to faith in Jesus.

It’s not that the Law of God is worthless or a waste of time. It’s actually a useful tool for understanding the kind of lives God wants his people to live. But we can’t keep that law faithfully enough on our own to earn that verdict of innocent – to be ‘justified’ – in God’s eyes.

OK, so, I know this isn’t exactly light reading. But there are a couple of really important ideas here, ideas that we need to keep in mind. One is that we’re saved by Jesus’ faithfulness, and that our faith appears in our hearts as a gift, not as an achievement on our parts or something we’ve earned. Paul also says that it was through the death of Jesus on the cross that the nature of God’s compassionate righteousness was shown. And finally, that no amount of religious behavior is enough to earn us God’s favor – that comes to us only as a free gift of grace.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the faithfulness of Jesus by which the penalty for our sins has been paid, so that faith might be kindled in our hearts and we might be declared innocent in your eyes. Help us to live out our faith with thankful hearts, eager to live as your law directs and to make your gracious love known to others. Amen.

Grace and Peace,

(The other readings for today are Psalms 97 and 112; Numbers 16:1-19; and Matthew 19:13-22.)

General Assembly Day Six (and a hint of Day Seven)

General Assembly

home stretchWe’re in the home stretch here in St. Louis, MO.  The 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) completed the 2nd day of plenary on Thursday.  As has been the practice since the Assembly convened on Saturday, June 16, we prayed and worshiped.  And as has been the practice since the Assembly convened, the commissioners and delegates have listened to, responded to, debated, and voted on the myriad of overtures that have come before the Assembly.


Some of the decisions that the Assembly made yesterday are:

In each instance, I have been moved by the diligence, energy, and commitment these faithful disciples of Jesus have given to the work placed before them.

As a mid-council leader, I am looking for and hoping to see ways in which we as the Presbyterian Church (USA) move into the 21st century, responding to the hurts and injustice experienced by our siblings in Christ.  How will we as part of the body of Christ take what has happened in this Assembly to guide and inform our activity in the world?  Will our faith expressions be enhanced? Will the Gospel of Jesus Christ be proclaimed in the places God has placed us?  Will the decisions that have been made this week, guide us to be more faithful, more generous, more compassionate, more trusting, more committed?

(Even as I write this, the Assembly is debating Fossil Fuel divestment.  You can watch the live stream here)