Thinking about the Poor Widow’s Offering

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Mark 12:41-44

 The Widow’s Offering

     41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.

     43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

This story is pretty well known – a poor widow gives a tiny offering while rich people give “large amounts.” And Jesus praises the offering of the widow. A quick reading gives us the “surface meaning” of the passage, which is that God is pleased even with the small offerings of the poor. And especially with offerings that are sacrificial in nature – offerings that represent a real hardship for the giver.

But it seems to me there’s more to the story than that — including some other things that are easy to miss unless you look closely.

First of all, I think we’re meant to notice that in the passage, Jesus actually sits down to watch people giving their offerings. It’s not that he just ‘happened by’ and noticed what was happening. The way the story is told, Jesus deliberately sits down to watch these offerings – and it’s during the last week of his earthly ministry, so presumably Jesus wasn’t wasting his time with idle pursuits that week. It seems like everything he was doing was deliberate and with a purpose. There’s a special kind of resonance to the things Jesus did and said during those last few days. All those things seem to be intended as a kind of wrapping-up of the most important teachings of his time on earth.

So this story should eliminate any doubt we might have about whether the way we use our money matters to God. Scholars who study both the Old and the New Testaments say the scriptures consistently make the point that what we do with our material resources is regarded by God as an important indicator of our spiritual health.

And I can’t help noticing that in this story, Jesus doesn’t criticize the rich who give the large amounts. There’s another story in which Jesus criticizes wealthy people who loudly announce their giving, but that’s not what this passage is about.

As we said a minute ago, it seems that what distinguishes the poor widow’s offering is its sacrificial nature. As far as we know, maybe the rich people gave sacrificially, too. We don’t know. What we do know is that this lady gave all she had. She gave, as the saying goes, until it hurt. And for that act of sacrificial devotion, Jesus honors her humble offering.

It seems to me that it means something that the woman is a widow, too. Widows and orphans were the most vulnerable people in that culture. So in those circumstances, her giving was an even greater act of faith. By giving all she had, the widow was expressing enormous confidence in God to provide for her needs.

One thing about this story always makes me a little nervous. It’s easy for those of us who are in comfortable circumstances to romanticize poverty – to think of poverty as somehow ‘ennobling.’ (Think of what fine and noble people Bob Cratchit’s family are in A Christmas Carol. Tiny Tim is practically a saint.) And it’s a short step from romanticizing poverty to thinking that it’s actually some kind of blessing. And once you get there, it’s easy to tell ourselves that it’s not important for us to do anything about it.

But I don’t think Jesus would want us to take this story as “getting us off the hook” in helping the poor. This story probably calls on us to give sacrificially, too – to give sacrificially to the relief of poverty. Maybe it’s even an ingenious story to guard against “compassion fatigue” on our part, since what we can give might seem like just a couple of pennies against the vast needs of the poor.

But there might even be another lesson to be drawn from this story. Sometimes in the teachings of Jesus, financial resources – money – is used to represent our spiritual gifts. Most of us feel like we’re not really that ‘gifted’ in terms of service to the kingdom of God. But this passage might also be intended to make the point that however modest we might think our spiritual gifts are, what matters is how willingly we offer them in God’s service. The quiet service of a humble person of faith might be received just as joyfully by God as the sermons of the most famous preachers or the solos of the most talented singers.

Ultimately, the real point Jesus might want us to take away from this story is that whatever we have, whether it’s time, talent or treasure, God receives it joyfully when we offer it sacrificially to the service of his kingdom.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the rich blessings you give us each day. Whatever those gifts might be, make us more and more willing to give them sacrificially and joyfully, knowing that you receive them as gifts of your loving children, and that you will always provide for our needs. Amen.

Have a great weekend, and worship God joyfully on Sunday!

Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 130 and 139; II Samuel 19:24-43; and Acts 24:24-25:12.)

Leadership among Followers of Jesus

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Mark 10:35-45

The Request of James and John

     35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

     36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

     37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

     38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

     39 “We can,” they answered.

     Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

     41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

It’s interesting that this passage always comes up in the lectionary in the middle of August, because that means it comes up shortly after the annual Global Leadership Summit, which is put on by the Willow Creek Association. The GLS is probably the finest leadership-training event put on by any Christian organization in the world. This year’s event drew something like 450,000 participants at satellite locations all over the country, including 81 prisons.

(Some of the largest prisons in the country have dozens of churches operating among the inmate populations, and I think two actually have branches of seminaries inside the walls.)

In the weeks following the Summit, the presentations are translated into foreign languages and sent to more than 90 countries around the world.

If you’ve never participated in a Global Leadership Summit, I highly recommend it. There’s a registration fee, but the two days of excellent speakers and related content are well worth it. Some of the speakers come from a specifically Christian perspective, but most are leadership experts from business, government, the military, the academic world, etc. I always come back with my perspectives on leadership in the church broadened and deepened.

Anyway, I say it’s interesting that this reading come up right after the Summit because it confronts us with the difference between the vision of leadership that arises out of our selfish human nature and the vision of leadership that Jesus taught his disciples. And of course, that’s the vision that’s supposed to be the model for those of us who claim to follow him today. The organizers of the GLS always stress that a central value for effective Christian leaders is humility, but today’s reading is about self-promotion, which is the other end of the spectrum.

In the story, James and John ask Jesus to grant them the places of honor when his kingdom comes to fulfillment. What they actually asked was to sit at his right and left hand ‘in his glory.’ Jesus’ first response to their request is sort of a warning to be careful what they asked for. He knew what they didn’t – that his ‘glorification’ would come on a cross. So being at his right and left hands might not seem like the honor they were imagining

The two brothers declare their willingness to share in whatever lay ahead of him. (And church tradition tells us that they were probably killed in much the same fashion as Jesus.)  But even so, Jesus says, the places of honor in the heavenly kingdom are part of a divine plan, not something to be handed out on request.

It probably comes as no surprise that when the rest of the disciples hear about the brothers’ request, they are “indignant.” So Jesus calls the whole group together to explain the difference between leadership that arises out of our worldly human nature and leadership inspired and directed by the Holy Spirit among his followers. Worldly leadership involves self-promotion, self-glorification, and ‘lording it over others’ – exercising power. But leadership among Jesus’ followers means being a servant to others, and as Jesus explains it, the greatest leaders in his movement are those who are best able to allow the Spirit to foster an attitude of servanthood in themselves.

It seems to me that for most of us, it really requires a sustained effort to get rid of the worldly, human-nature model of leadership. Those of us in positions of leadership – and that includes a lot of those who are actively involved in the church – we need to be constantly on guard against self-glorification, or against exercising the authority of our positions to get our own way. Sadly, church leaders can be just as guilty of ‘one-upmanship’ as others.

One way church leaders can guard against self-glorification is to make sure that they are leaders in service as well as in preaching and teaching and administration and so on. Pastors and other church leaders should have a hands-on role in feeding the hungry and fixing up houses for the poor and other service work of that kind. That’s important for two reasons: It provides leadership-by-example for other members of the church, and it also reminds us that leaders of the church are meant to be followers first – and followers of a guy who got down on the floor and washed the feet of others.

Let’s pray. Lord, we pray that by the power of your Holy Spirit, you will touch the hearts of all those who play leadership roles among your Son’s followers, and shape them as servants of all. We ask that you use them to display a form of leadership that makes Jesus known more and more among us. Amen.

Every Blessing,
Henry

(The listed readings for today are Psalms 51 and 148; II Samuel 15:19-37; Acts 21:37-22:16; and Mark 10:46-52.)

The Casual Evil of the World’s Powers

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Mark 6:14-29

John the Baptist Beheaded

     14 King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

     15 Others said, “He is Elijah.”

     And still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.”

     16 But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!”

     17 For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, 20 because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.

     21 Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.

     The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” 23 And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.”

     24 She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?”

     “The head of John the Baptist,” she answered.

     25 At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

     26 The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her.27 So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, 28 and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. 29 On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

It seems to me that we tend to assume that when people in the Bible do things, they do them for important and theological reasons. But when you really look closely at the stories in the Bible, a surprising number of them show people doing things for selfish, and even petty reasons. This story is an example – it’s a story of a powerful man indulging his girlfriend who had an axe to grind with someone who made her feel threatened.

This reading tells the story of the death of John the Baptist on the orders of Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. It seems that Herod Antipas had stolen the wife of his brother. Herod wasn’t a Jew, so presumably he didn’t worry too much about obeying God’s laws about this kind of thing. But this adulterous behavior had drawn the public condemnation of John the Baptist, who was known to be pretty blunt in his criticism of the nation’s leaders. So Herod had John thrown in prison.

Herodias, the woman in the story, wanted John executed. But Mark reports that Herod “feared John,” because he understood him to be “a holy and righteous man.” And what’s more, although Herod found himself “greatly puzzled” by what John the Baptist had to say, he apparently found him fascinating and he “liked to listen to him.”

Which is really interesting, when you think about it. The Herods had a reputation for ruthlessness that bordered on bloodthirsty, but here we find Herod Antipas intrigued by a strange Jewish preacher who had actually denounced him in public. Instead of having John executed as his girlfriend wanted, Herod was keeping him alive and listening to him. Surprising behavior for someone like Herod. It probably speaks to the spiritual charisma that John had.

Eventually, though, Herodias got her way. Herod threw a birthday party for himself, and invited all of his friends and advisors. In the course of the evening, Herodias’ daughter came in and danced for the assembled party guests, and her dance impressed the men so much Herod offered her any reward she could name, even up to half his kingdom. (Apparently it was a pretty good dance.)

My assumption is that Herod and his friends must have been pretty drunk by this point. This is an absurdly extravagant gesture — offering a young girl any reward she wanted, even half his kingdom. Apparently Herod was feeling especially full of himself on the occasion, because as an appointed Roman official, he wasn’t really a king. So he had no kingdom to give away.

But in the story, the girl consults with her mother, and then demands the head of John the Baptist. Herod finds himself trapped. The birthday party must have fallen silent. Herod was faced with the choice of either murdering a holy man or being embarrassed in front of his friends and irritating his girlfriend. Tragically, but maybe not surprisingly, he chooses murder over embarrassment. And to preserve his own reputation as ‘Mister Big,’ Herod commits one of the most shameful crimes in all of the New Testament.

Of course, Herodias winds up with blood on her hands, too. And why? Because her resentment of John’s condemnation led to such cold-blooded hatred that she was willing to demand a murder to silence a voice that called her to account for her behavior. Some commentators portray Herodias as a victim in the story, but that seems pretty bogus. If she were just a helpless pawn in the story, the voice of John would have been a comfort and encouragement to her, not a cause for murderous hatred.

I guess from a certain perspective, we could see the death of John the Baptist as consistent with the rest of his ministry. John went before the Messiah when he came into the world, and he went before Jesus to his death at the hands of the powers of the world. Like Jesus himself, John stood in the face of the powerful and called them to account for their sins. Both were killed in part because those in power are usually perfectly willing to respond to the challenging word of God by killing the messenger.

It’s every bit as true today as it was in first-century Palestine: It takes a lot of courage to speak for God in the halls of power. But people of faith still name their children after John the Baptist, and Herod Antipas is a nobody on the trash-heap of history.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the bold witness of John the Baptist as he called the world to repentance and prepared the way for Jesus. We pray for your strength for those followers of your Son who stand in the face of power as John did, calling it to account for its sins and often suffering for their faithfulness. Amen.

Blessings,
Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 57 and 145; II Samuel 2:1-11; and Acts 15:36 – 16:5.)

Jesus Prays for Us

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John 17:20-26

Jesus Prays for All Believers

     20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

     24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

     25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

This passage from the Gospel of John, like the readings in several of our recent Reflections, comes from John’s account of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples. It’s actually a part of the prayer Jesus prayed before the gathering broke up.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Last Supper in John. Many of the most important things Jesus said and did in that gospel happened during that gathering. Jesus got down on his knees and washed the feet of the disciples – and then he commanded them to do likewise. Jesus foretold his betrayal by one of them, and his impending death. Jesus promised the coming of the Holy Spirit and that he would return to take the disciples to be where he was. And Jesus commanded them to love one another, so that their love for one another would be the identifying mark of his followers.

And after all those things happened, Jesus prayed. And think about what that means: We are given the privilege of listening in as God the Son spoke to God the Father through God the Holy Spirit. On this occasion, humankind was allowed to listen in on the internal dialogue – or maybe ‘trialogue’ – of the Holy Trinity.

Jesus began by praying that the passion and death he was about to undergo would bring glory to himself and to God and bring eternal life to his followers. Then he prayed for God’s continuing presence with those followers as he finished his earthly ministry and they were left on earth to take up that ministry on his behalf.

And then we come to this passage that is our gospel reading for today. Having prayed for his own mission and for the disciples gathered around him, Jesus turns his attention – and his prayers – to those who would come to believe in him through the witness and ministry of the first disciples. So when you think about it, Jesus was praying for us.

Isn’t that overwhelming – that the last act of Jesus’ earthly ministry was to pray for people like us? It seems to me there’s a human instinct to close your time with someone you care about by expressing the thought you most want them to carry away with them. That’s why it’s so common for people parting from loved ones to say, “I love you,” as they go their separate ways. So the fact that Jesus, who in the next 24 hours would be subjected to a horrible death, would be thinking about me and you in that moment – well, I definitely find that overwhelming. It strikes me as a staggering testimony to his love for us.

That also magnifies the importance of what Jesus actually prayed on that occasion, doesn’t it?

First of all, Jesus prayed that those of us who follow him might “be one.” He prayed that we would demonstrate the same unity that exists between the Father and himself. And Jesus says that the unity of the church will be essential to making the world believe in him.

That’s pretty challenging, don’t you think? Most of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus sort of give lip service to the idea of ‘Christian unity,’ but really only want to be ‘unified’ with those who agree with us about the important issues of the faith. But apparently, if we really want to make Jesus known to the world, we have to share his commitment to fostering unity with all of his disciples – including those who disagree with us and criticize us. Not always easy.

And Jesus also prays that those who follow him might be with him in the heavenly glory he’s going to when he leaves this world. Presumably that’s a prayer God would be ready and eager to grant. So those of us who give our hearts and our lives to following Jesus can do that in the hope and confidence that we will meet him in the heavenly kingdom when our service in this world is done.

If you ask me, this prayer that Jesus prayed on his last night on earth really is one of the most uplifting passages in all of the New Testament.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for thinking of us in your last hours on earth, even in the face of the great suffering that stood before you. By your Spirit, empower us to work tirelessly for the unity of all believers, and help us to cling to the hope of finding a place with you in your heavenly kingdom. Amen.

Grace and Peace,
Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 4 and 4; Daniel 2:17-30; and I John 2:12-17)

 

Obeying Jesus by Imitating Him

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I John 1:8-2:11

1:8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.

    2: 1My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

     3 We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. The one who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in them. But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.

     7 Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.

     9 Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates their brother [or sister] is still in the darkness. 10 Anyone who loves their brother [or sister] lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. 11 But anyone who hates their brother [or sister] is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.

This reading comes from the First Letter of John, which is a letter that doesn’t get that much attention in the church of our time. In fact, there are three letters from John, and none of them really gets that much attention. The second and third letters are very short and written to people in very specific circumstances, which probably contributes to their relative obscurity.

But they clearly deserve some attention, because they are understood to have been written by the apostle John, the author of the Revelation and in some sense responsible for the Gospel of John. I put it that way because some scholars think the Gospel of John may have been compiled after John’s death by his disciples – from the things John had passed along to them from his time with Jesus.

The passage we’re going to be reflecting on today actually includes the last three verses of yesterday’s reading, because it seemed to me they all hang together as one logical section.

The first thing that should probably be said about this passage is that it casts some interesting light on the idea of sin as it’s presented in the writings of John. Especially in the Gospel of John, the text communicates the idea that there is really only one sin, which is the failure to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah and accept him as your Savior. But this passage from John’s first letter paints a slightly different picture. It seems to say that there really are other sins, but that those who have embraced Jesus as their Lord and Savior are forgiven of those sins because Jesus intercedes for us.

And in the next sentence, John goes on to say that Jesus is “the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” This is a very important idea in the Christian faith: that by his death on the cross, Jesus has paid the penalty for our sins, and put us right with God again.

I suppose most of those who follow these Reflections would find these to be very familiar ideas.

But there are a couple of other thoughts in the passage that some people who call themselves Christians seem to forget or overlook. The first of these is that none of us is without sin, which seems to mean sin in the more conventional sense of the word. Because the point he seems to be making is that for those of us who have embraced Jesus as the Messiah and our Savior, we can be forgiven of the sins we will still commit.

But John also says that anyone who has really made a commitment to Jesus will be committed to obeying his commands, and to living in imitation of him. A person who claims to be a Christian but does not live a Christ-like life, John says, is just plain lying.

And as John expresses it in this passage, the main indicator of whether we are obeying Jesus and living in imitation of him is how we treat other people – whether we ‘love’ or ‘hate’ others. The New Testament meanings of these terms is probably a little different than the meanings we typically assign them when we hear them. ‘Love,’ in its New Testament sense, means to make a commitment to the needs and interests of others. And ‘hate’ in the New Testament, tends to mean something like refusing to do that. So John probably doesn’t have in mind here a choice between hugs and kisses or furious hostility, but rather the question of whether or not we show others the kind of sacrificial compassion and caring Jesus himself showed.

Now, just to loop back a bit, John assumes that all of us, even followers of Jesus, will sin and need forgiveness. So that seems to mean that we’ll sometimes fail to extend one another that Christ-like compassion and caring. But the mark of those who truly know Jesus will be a commitment to do better and better in demonstrating that kind of love to others – both in the community of faith and in the world at large.

So, as we said at the beginning, these letters from John really do seem to have some important lessons that are worthy of some thoughtful reflection from time to time.

Let’s pray. Lord, by the power of your Holy Spirit, move us to live more and more in imitation of Jesus, so that we show to others the kind of servant-love he himself showed. And we thank you that when our love for others fails, we can trust in your forgiveness through him. Amen.

Grace and Peace,
Henry

(The other listed readings for today are Psalms 116 and 146; Daniel 2:1-16; and John 17:12-19.)

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.

Henry

(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,
Henry

(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

Reformed and Always Reforming, Seeking God Together, Worship Study Prayer

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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.

Amen.

Grace and Peace,
Henry

(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,
Henry

(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.

Blessings,
Henry

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