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.


Grace and Peace,

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


Earth Care Fair – Putting our Faith in Action

Caring for Our Environment, Rational Thought, Reformed and Always Reforming

Join the Earth Stewardship Action Network at Lyndhurst Community Presbyterian Church for an Earth Care Fair on Saturday, May 12th from 9am-12pm!  All are invited to hear and see how we can faithfully and practically serve our world today through earth stewardship.  Attendees will be provided copies or links to helpful information about Earth stewardship, including presentations, guidelines and grant forms.

Here is the schedule:

  • 9:00
    • Introductory remarks from Rev. Carmen Denise Cox Harwell
    • Keynote Speaker Rev. Jim Butler
  • 9:30
    • Earth Stewardship Panel of Witnesses
      Our speakers will share their passion for earth care, the moral issues involved and their sense of urgency to take action.
  • 10:00
    • How to become an Earth Care Congregation, presented by David Neff from Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian
  • 10:15 – Earth Care Congregations Fair
    • Our churches who have already become Earth Care Congregations will share their stories and actions.
    • Meet Alycia Ashburn from Ohio Interfaith Power and Light
    • Application for Earth Stewardship Action Network grants
  • 10:45
    • Energy Efficiency Workshop, focusing on low cost energy saving opportunities and the Energy Stewards
    • Video presentation by Katherine Hayhoe, climate scientist & Christian, hosted by David Neff — to be followed by a Q&A Session
  • 12:00
    • Closing prayer

Light snacks and beverages will be offered.  No charge to attend – Please click here to RSVP

Remembering to Build the Temple

Reformed and Always Reforming, Seeking God Together, Serving Those in Need, Speaking Truth to Power, Worship Study Prayer

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Haggai 1:1-15

 A Call to Build the House of the Lord

     1In the second year of King Darius, on the first day of the sixth month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest:

     2 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come for the Lord’s house to be rebuilt.’”

     3 Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”

     5 Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.”

     7 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the Lord. “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the Lord Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house. 10 Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. 11 I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the olive oil and everything else the ground produces, on people and livestock, and on all the labor of your hands.”

     12 Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the whole remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the Lord their God and the message of the prophet Haggai, because the Lord their God had sent him. And the people feared the Lord.

     13 Then Haggai, the Lord’s messenger, gave this message of the Lord to the people: “I am with you,” declares the Lord. 14 So the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of the whole remnant of the people. They came and began to work on the house of the Lord Almighty, their God, 15 on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month in the second year of King Darius.

For my money, the Book of the Prophet Haggai might just be the most under-appreciated book in the whole Bible. In fact, I’ve only heard one other guy preach a sermon on Haggai, and he joked about how obscure the book is. Haggai only has two chapters, both of which involve the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem after the return from the Babylonian exile. Today’s passage is a little longer than our usual readings, so I’ll be a little briefer in my comments.

Haggai tells about the time after the king of Persia had issued a decree that the people of Jerusalem and the surrounding Judean countryside, who had been dragged off into exile by the Babylonians, could now go home. (The Persians had subsequently conquered the Babylonians.) Some portion of the exiled Jews made the trip back to rebuild Jerusalem, which had been in ruins for about sixty years.

When they got back to the ruined city, the exiles set about rebuilding. And it seems that their first priority for rebuilding was to rebuild the city wall. That makes sense, since there were enemies all around them trying to stop the rebuilding of the city. Apparently their second priority was to rebuild their homes. From this passage, it seems that when they rebuilt their homes, they didn’t just throw up simple shelters, but rather constructed “paneled houses.” The scholars say that means houses that were nicely built and fairly luxurious.

The problem was that the people never got around to rebuilding the temple. They were living in nice houses, but the temple was still lying in ruins. So God sent the prophet Haggai to complain.

Now, obviously, it wasn’t that God needed the temple to live in. This is a God who has created a universe that’s run on schedule for 13.8 billion years. He didn’t have to worry about being homeless. And in the minds of the ancient Hebrew people, the temple of Jerusalem didn’t really represent God’s ‘home,’ so to speak, as much as it represented God’s ‘throne room.’ The Hebrew people understood that God reigned over the universe from that structure. So by leaving the temple in ruins, the people were expressing a lack of respect for God’s role as Lord of their lives. That’s the point God sent Haggai to raise with them.

One of the things about this passage is that God wasn’t threatening to punish them with some great catastrophe, like a flood or an earthquake or another foreign invader. Instead, the people would experience a general withholding of God’s full blessing. The chosen people would not really flourish as they might have. They would get by, but not really do that well. The message was pretty clear: If you fail to honor God by acknowledging him as Lord and by keeping his reign at the center of national life, then you will not know the full blessing he has in mind for you.

Obviously, we live in a very different kind of society. In spite of what some people might mistakenly think, we Americans are not God’s new chosen people. We live in a pluralistic democracy that accepts people of different faiths and people of no faith. (Or at least, we usually accept people of different faiths.)

Our understanding is that it’s the followers of Jesus who are, in a sense, God’s new chosen people. So the challenge to us – whatever country we may live in – is to honor God by keeping him at the center of our lives. Not to be consumed with ‘building our own houses’ – with advancing our own interests and our own agendas. But rather to be focused on helping God build his kingdom, in which peace and justice will rule, in which the needs of the poor will be met, in which the hungry will be fed and the sick will be healed, in which those of us who claim to be his people will hold ourselves to the highest standards of personal integrity, will honor our marriage vows and not exploit others for our own pleasure or enrichment.

And it might seem obvious, but I would say that’s true of our life together as well as our individual lives. Sometimes decisions we make as churches can be driven by worldly concerns instead of genuine commitment to God’s kingdom. Bigger membership, growing budgets and nice meeting houses are of less interest to God, I’m pretty sure, than congregations who are genuinely making spiritual growth, bearing witness to outsiders and service to others the central principles of their life together.

That, I think, is probably the 21st century equivalent of rebuilding the temple of God in the center of our lives, and of our life together.

Let’s pray. Lord, move in our hearts to cause us to make your reign the center of our lives as individual believers, and of our life together as congregations of followers of your Son. Amen.

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


(The other readings for today are Psalms 130 and 148; Revelation 2:18-29; and Matthew 23:27-39.)

Jesus Teaches on Following and Leading

Reformed and Always Reforming, Serving Those in Need, Speaking Truth to Power, Worship Study Prayer

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Matthew 23:1-12

      1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

     5 “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long;they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to have people called them ‘Rabbi.’

     8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Master, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Today’s gospel reading has some interesting points to reflect on. These points all relate to a basic principle that Jesus expresses on a number of occasions in the gospels: that leadership among the people of God is not intended as an honor for leaders, but rather as a responsibility to the people of God. In this passage, Jesus points out some of the mistakes and shortcomings of the religious leadership of the Hebrew people of his time, and he uses those mistakes and shortcomings as object lessons in teaching his own followers about the nature of godly leadership.

Jesus starts by pointing out that for all their shortcomings, the Hebrew religious leaders actually did have authority, by virtue of the fact that their teaching follows on the long traditions of their people, and that it is based on the Torah. That Torah was understood to be the Law of God given to the people through Moses, so the Hebrew religious leaders were considered Moses’ spiritual successors. And Jesus seems to uphold the Jewish leaders’ claim to theological authority.

It seems surprising to read that Jesus tells his followers that they should obey the teaching of these Hebrew religious leaders. (It’s especially surprising in light of the following passage, in which Jesus calls these religious leaders “hypocrites” and “blind guides.”) But Jesus tells his followers that they should not imitate the behavior of the religious leaders, because they do not “practice what they preach.”

It seems to me that we tend to think that we have the right to ignore any religious figure whose actions seem unacceptable, but Jesus doesn’t seem to buy that. As the saying goes, Jesus tells his followers to do what the religious leaders say, but not what they do. That runs against the grain of our normal default outlook. We sort of take it for granted that religious leaders who commit sins should be run out of the church.

But Jesus seems to be saying that even teachers and others who have serious spiritual flaws can play a constructive role in the life of God’s people. I suppose we might say that God has to work through sinful people, because when you get right down to it, that’s the only kind of people there are.

Jesus then goes on to list some of the failings he sees among the religious leaders of the covenant people. First of all, Jesus says that they place heavy burdens on people, but don’t do anything to help people meet them. He seems to be talking about the very detailed and demanding rules about ritual purity and keeping the Sabbath and so on. These detailed rules that become deeply entrenched in Jewish life. For some people, taking part in these rituals was even becoming a financial burden, so that practicing their faith was causing genuine hardship for people. The teachings of the religious leadership were actually making life harder for these people.

And then Jesus goes on to criticize the leadership for their efforts to glorify themselves instead of God. The leaders, he says, loved to strut around in public in religious attire and be treated like bigshots wherever they went. These leaders had become more interested in the praise and admiration of others than in pleasing God.

But Jesus cautions his own followers that in their ministry, they are to refrain from letting others treat them with great honor and reverence. In fact, he says, they are not to let people address them by religious titles, like ‘Rabbi’ or ‘Father.’ Instead of allowing others to honor them in that way, the leaders of Jesus’ movement were to deflect all honor back to God. It’s to be intentional humility, not glorification, that is the hallmark of the leaders among Jesus’ followers.

It seems to me that those who are called to leadership among God’s people – and especially among the followers of Jesus – are challenged to lead by example. They are to set an example of discipleship by being committed to spiritual growth through study and prayer and worship. They are to set an example of service in Jesus’ name to those who are suffering and in need. And they are to set an example of growing more holy by being more concerned with their own sins than they are with the sins of others. And they are to set an example of humility, wanting God to be glorified, not themselves.

And when the leaders in his church grow closer to God in all those ways, Jesus seems to be saying, they will be leading others closer to God, as well. When the leaders of the church demonstrate the kind of humble servanthood that Jesus himself showed, then the others of the church will be led to do likewise. That, it seems to me, is the heart of Jesus’ vision of leadership among his followers. And it’s a stiff challenge to those of us who are called to any form of leadership among the people of God.

Let’s pray. Lord, we ask that you will turn the hearts of our leaders to show the humility and servanthood that marked Jesus himself. Share with them your vision for the church, and empower them to lead us in fulfilling that vision. Draw them closer to yourself, so that the rest of us will be led closer to you, as well. Amen.

Grace and Peace,

(The other readings for today are Psalms 53 and 147:1-11; Amos 8:1-14; and Revelation 1:17-2:7.)