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The Gospel of Thomas

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas

But one of the Twelve, Thomas, called Didymus, was not there when Jesus came to them. So then, the other disciples said to him, “We’ve seen the Master!”

But he said to them, “If I don’t see in his hands those nail wounds, if I can’t put my finger in them, and if I can’t put my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

And after a week, again the disciples gathered together and Thomas was with them. The doors being shut, Jesus came and stood in the middle of them. He said, “Peace be with you!”

Then he said to Thomas, “Bring your finger here and see my hands. Place your hand in my side. Don’t disbelieve — believe!”

Thomas answered him, “Oh my Master and my God!”

Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen me, you believe. Blessed are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

John 20:24-29

“I don’t believe in the resurrection. I know. I’ve been around here for a while, and it’s just kind of the expectation for people like me. I know, I know. It’s been a week. I know everyone was celebrating last week, there were songs, there may have been some dancing somewhere, I know everyone was happy. I know everyone was happy, but I didn’t see it. I don’t have that kind of hope, you know. I can’t just believe. I know you’ve got your arguments. I know they’re there, and I think they’re pretty convincing sometimes, but it’s just not enough. It’s just that after everything I’ve seen in my life, since I was born, all the war, all the hunger, all the suffering … It’s just — how can you look at all that suffering, all that pain, all that misery and say he got up? I just can’t believe it. What makes you think that we’re so special, that we know the Messiah, the Savior? What makes you think somebody from Nazareth of all places was so special? Didn’t Nathaniel say it right? ‘What good can come out of Nazareth?’ What makes you think some carpenter’s son who could pull off some neat tricks is the Savior of the world — that he got back up. They killed him, guys. They killed him. If he could save himself, surely he would have done it beforehand. I just can’t believe this story, it’s too much.  Peter, I know what you say you saw. Mary, I know what you think you saw. John, I know there wasn’t anything there — but there are so many kinds of explanations! I don’t have that kind of hope. Don’t get me wrong, I think what he said was right, I think what he asked us to do was right, I think building this Kingdom is still our job … at least I still think that most days. But some days I don’t have that kind of faith. Not today, not now. Not after what we saw last week — they killed him. I just don’t have that kind of faith. If I don’t see in his hands those nail wounds … if I can’t put my finger in them … and if I can’t put my hand in his side … I will not believe.” Read the rest of this entry

Today

[[Here's the video of my sermon from the 2013 National Festival of Young Preachers! You can find the manuscript here. I'm running a bit behind on stuff right now, but more on our more controversial topic next week. Sorry for the delay!]]

Be Thou My Vision

Be Thou My Vision (Luke 9:28-36)

Transfiguration Sunday, 2013

Heflin Baptist Church; Heflin, Alabama

 

The Scripture

About eight days later, after Jesus said these things, he went up the mountain to pray with Peter, John, and James. In the midst of his prayers, his face changed and his clothing flashed brightly as with lightning. Look! Two men spoke to him. It was Moses and Elijah; they were seen in glorious splendor. They spoke of Jesus’ departure, which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem.

Now, Peter and the others with him had been weighed down with sleep, but they awoke abruptly to his glory and the two men with him. While these two were leaving him, Peter spoke up to Jesus: “Master, it’s good that we’re here! Let us make three shrines — one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!” He did not understand what he said.

While he said these things, a mass of clouds overshadowed them and they were terrified as they entered into it. A voice came out of the fog saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him.” After the voice, they found Jesus alone. They kept silent and told no one what they had seen.

Luke 9.28-36, author’s translation

An Introduction

When we come to passages like this one, especially when we preachers come to passages like this one, we speak too quickly. I have heard many well-intentioned preachers describe every nook and cranny of these few paragraphs. I have read scholars who quickly assign every word with special meaning and significance. There are historical references, literary archetypes, narrative functions; none of these is untrue. Does Moses symbolically speak for the Law and Elijah the Prophets?  Yes, I am sure they do. Does this event signify Jesus’ fulfillment of both? Well, yes, I suppose it does. Does this type of appearance foreshadow the Resurrection? Well, yes, but hold on a moment. Does the cloud represent the presence of God as it does in numerous Old Testament narratives?  Are the shrines indicative of a certain method of venerating holy sites? Is it significant that it was Peter, James, and John who went with him? Does this passage connect with the previous one in any way — “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:27, NRSV)?

Stop.

Listen.

There is something about this passage, maybe a few things actually, that speak deeply about our faith and the nature of our human condition. There is something undeniably strange and inexpressible happening in this passage. Luke does his best to express it in words, but ultimately it must have been indescribable. After all, for quite a while, “they kept silent and told no one what they had seen.” (v. 36, author’s translation)

Sleeping In

It is tempting to look at this passage and talk about our so-called “mountain-top experiences” that more than rival our everyday experiences of God, but that is not what this passage is talking about. In our lives, we do not often experience moments like the Transfiguration. They are rare, very rare. I have experienced profound moments of mystery, infinitude, and communion with God in my life, but none of them quite compare to what Luke tells us happens on the Mount of Transfiguration. Do these things happen? Yes, I imagine they do. I know the stories of the church’s saints and sinners experiencing similar terrifying and awe-full moments. But the simple matter is, as I imagine you already know … the simple matter is, we do not have these experiences in our day-to-day lives. In all likelihood, you and I will never experience anything quite like the Transfiguration on this side of heaven.

So where does that leave us? Unlike Peter, James, and John, we are sitting at the base of the mountain, at the bottom of the hill. We sit looking heavenward with no Transfiguration to speak of. We do not have the confirmation that such a dramatic experience brings. Our God is not so plainly apparent to us. Our faith is a little bit harder, it seems, than it is for those on top of the mountain. Rather than matching the experience of these select disciples, my faith and yours seems more like another Gospel story. As Mark tells it, there is a father deeply grieved over the state of his child. His young boy suffers seizures, convulsions; he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth before collapsing. It has been like this since his childhood. He has tried to cast himself into fire and water, and all his father wants is his healing. He just wants it to stop, and now he has Jesus in front of him. Surely, he thinks, it gets better.

But Jesus lectures the crowd on their lack of faith and he seems to grow weary with the father when the boy’s parent pleads, but only conditionally. “If you are able,” he says, “have pity on us and help us.” (Mark 9:22, NRSV) Jesus replies to him, “If you are able! All things can be done for the one who believes,” and the father quickly replies in earnest faith, doubt, conviction, and despair, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (vv. 23-24) I believe; help my unbelief. “I believe, help Thou mine unbelief.” (KJV) That seems more like our faith, doesn’t it? I believe; help my unbelief. Why? Faith is a tricky thing. It is not so easy to pin down. The man’s expression, paradoxical though it may seem, tells us a deep truth about faith, particularly faith down here at the foot of the mountain.

Faith is not just belief. Faith is not the supposition that a certain proposition is either true or false. Faith is the setting of your heart upon something above everything else. Faith is to care about one thing more than anything else, to not just believe, but believe and trust in that in which you have faith. And if that is the way faith is, I think we understand the father a bit more. I believe; help my unbelief. If faith is trust, if faith is setting our hearts upon God, faith is not absolutely confident. Faith cannot be 100% sure. Faith simply does not know, it cannot know, if it is correct in placing its trust in anything. Otherwise, it would not be faith. So, at the base of the mountain, we have faith, but we also doubt. We can never quite know God on this side of heaven. We do not know the mind of God, the purposes of God, the whole nature of God, the totality of God, but we have faith in God. But we do not know.

We do not know, because at the base of the mountain, we are distant from God. God is both here, present, and active and distant, estranged, and far-off. God is with us, but the fullness of God is at the top of the mountain. We can look, squint our eyes, and try and see God, but even our personal God who loves us more than life itself cannot be fully glimpsed down here in the valley. The nature of our relationship with each other includes such distance. When we trust each other, we assume a certain amount of risk. We do not know 100% that the other person is worthy of our trust. But in an act of love and faith, we trust what we do not fully know — their intentions, their future actions, and their love back for us. It is the same way with God. We cannot see all of God from the valley, we do not know God’s intentions and future actions, but we believe and trust, we set our hearts upon, God’s love for us.

That thought is unsettling. That doubt is unsettling. I believe; help my unbelief. That unbelief disturbs us, it keeps us up at night. Ancient Christians speak of these “dark nights of the soul,” where it seems as if the only thing is us and the stars, us and our bedroom ceiling, us and the clock ticking in the other room. We sit at the kitchen table while everyone else is asleep, wondering, hoping, praying, and sometimes the only thing we hear is the rhythmic tick, tock, tick, tock from across the hall. We are afraid to share these feelings because we think that we are the only ones who feel them. We think that they are bad, we think that they make us less than, and we think they make us bad Christians. Nothing could be further from the truth, because we all, right now, are weighed down with sleep, just like the disciples.

But it was not just the disciples — even the ones who saw this Transfiguration! — who experienced these dark nights. As Matthew tells it, so did Jesus. Earlier that night, Jesus broke bread, saying that it was his Body; he gave them a cup, saying that it was his Blood. He told Peter that he knew he would betray him. He knew that Judas had gone and turned him over to the authorities. As things began to come together, he again went up the mountain to pray. Again, he took Peter, James, and John with him. He tells them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” (Matthew 26:38, NRSV) But again, his disciples are weighed down with sleep, and they cannot stay awake. So, Jesus is left alone, sitting at the kitchen table listening to the tick, tock, tick, tock of the clock in the other room. Jesus is left alone, staring at the bedroom ceiling, and the words escape his lips, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” (v. 39)

Jesus stands up and a dear friend betrays him. He watches as the world starts to crumble. They draw swords, they drag him before a council; Peter says that he never knew him — not once, but three times. He endures the corruption of the courts, the man who betrayed him takes his own life, and Jesus endures mockery on his way to execution. And on that cross, he looks up at the dark skies, only him and the stars distant and unseen, shouting, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (Matthew 27:46) My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If there is anyone who is our model for our relationship with God, it is God in Jesus himself. And Jesus shouted out, I believe, I believe, help my unbelief. Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani.

Waking Up

If that were the end of the story, we might be in a spot of trouble. But, thanks be to God, it is not the end of the story. For Jesus endures all of this doubt, all of this felt separation, all of this pain and distance, only to result in the Greatest Transfiguration. We would not have good news in this story if Jesus just died, but we have good news because Jesus got up. Jesus woke up from this dark night of the soul in the most magnificent way possible. It is the Transfiguration, Take 2.

Now, in those interminable days between the Cross and the Empty Tomb, there is no doubt in my mind that the disciples were again, as they were on the Mount of Transfiguration, weighed down with sleep. Not unlike us, their eyelids were heavy and their trials intense. But eventually, they awoke abruptly to his glory. And that is good news, friends. Right now, we are weighed down with sleep, but one day, too, we will awake abruptly to his glory. “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part,” Paul tells us, “but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.” (1 Corinthians 13:9) He continues, “For now, we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am fully known.” (v. 12, KJV) The day will come when faith shall be made sight, because someday, John of Patmos tells us, the home of God will be among us, he will dwell with us, we will be his people, and God will be with us. God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. And God says, “See, I am making all things new.” Someday.

This reality catches us between two worlds. On the one hand, we strive in our waiting, hoping, and persevering. We doubt and we struggle. But on the other hand, we have hope and we have assurance, but back again: the time has not yet come. What are we supposed to do, caught here in the middle? I think we start looking. We start looking for glimpses of heaven breaking into the world. We look for cracks in the barrier between heaven and earth, places where thin beams of light come shining through, bathing our darkness in small bits of heavenly light. Preacher and writer Barbara Brown Taylor calls this the spiritual “Practice of Paying Attention.” She explains it this way,

“I must have been sixteen, earning summer spending money by keeping a neighbor’s cats while she was away. The first time I let myself into the house, the fleas leapt on my legs like airborne piranha. Brushing them off as I opened cat food and cleaned litter pans, I finally fled through the back door with the bag of trash my employer had left for me to carry to the cans out back. I could hear the fleas inside flinging themselves against the plastic, so that it sounded as if a light rain were falling inside the bag.

“I could not wait to be shed of it, which was why I was in a hurry. On my way to the cans, I passed a small garden off to the left that was not visible from the house. Glancing at it, I got the whole dose of loveliness at once — the high arch of trees above, the mossy flagstones beneath, the cement birdbath, the cushiony bushes, the white wrought-iron chair — all lit by stacked planes of sunlight that turned the whole scene golden. It was like a door to another world. I had to go through it. I knew that if I did, then I would become golden too.

“But first, I had to ditch the bag. The fleas popped against the plastic as I hurried to the big aluminum garbage cans near the garage. Stuffing the bag into one of them, I turned back toward the garden, fervent to explore what I had only glimpsed in passing. When I got there, the light had changed. All that was left was a little overgrown sitting spot that no one had sat in for years. The smell of cat litter drifted from the direction of the garbage cans. The garden was no longer on fire.”

We doubt, but the world is not always dark and God is not always so silent. Sometimes we just have to stop and pay attention. Sometimes we just get to busy walking by the golden gardens in our lives that we miss little moments of transfiguration in our day. Life is not filled with moments like the Transfiguration, but that does not mean life is not replete with transfigurations. We are still at the base of the mountain, but a few times each day, bright rays of sunshine break the shade of the hill. Living with doubt requires the courage of faith, and sometimes the courage of faith is just to look at the world a different way. When we look around corners for little traces of heaven, we start to see things in a different way. It is not a cure for doubt, because there is no need for one, but it brings us closer to God and helps us bring these little bits of heaven to earth.

Keeping Silent

The oddest thing about the passage we read to me might not be the terrifying appearance of God, but the subsequent silence of God’s witnesses. A mass of clouds, perhaps the very presence of God, wraps up the disciples and speaks to them. And then, they are silent. It says, “They kept silent and told no one what they had seen.” This course of action is an affront to our evangelistic tendencies, but I think there is something to be learned from it. There is a lot to learn from silence. When we sit at the kitchen table listening to that tick, tock, tick, tock, reality confronts us with all sorts of things we never knew before, about the world, about others, about ourselves, about God. We do not often hear God speak from burning bushes, clouds, or whirlwinds — have you ever wondered why?

Perhaps God does not speak simply because we are not silent. Perhaps God does not speak because we talk too much. Maybe God is speaking, but we are too busy talking about God to listen to God. Perhaps we would hear God if we simply paid a little more attention. If we paid attention, maybe, we would see little transfigurations in our lives, little bits of heaven on earth, little rays of heavenly light illuminating our night. So, this week, stop and listen — listen to each other, to creation, all of it. See if your hear God, for, “if you seek, you shall find.” Someday.

To avoid the risk of irony, to speak too much about silence, to say too many things about God, let me conclude with prayer. Let our words be those of our old, cherished hymn, “Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart; Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art. Thou my best thought, by day or by night, waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.” Amen.

Today

2013 Fest Banner

[[This past week I had the privilege and pleasure of attending the Academy of Preachers’ National Festival of Young Preachers. I spent the week with fellow Christians of all theological temperaments, races, ages, denominations, and preaching styles. The themes this year was the Gospel and the City. You can also find the collection of last year’s sermons, in which I also have a chapter, here. Also, this marks my 250th post and the first post of 2013! Happy Epiphany!]]

He went to his hometown, Nazareth. As was his custom, he went to the synagogue that Sabbath day. He stood up to read and they handed him the book of the Prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found where it is written:

The Lord’s spirit is upon me,

because God anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

God sent me to proclaim

pardon for prisoners,

sight for the blind,

freedom for the oppressed,

to proclaim the time of God’s favor.

He closed the book, returned it, and sat down. Everyone’s eyes were on him.

“Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” he said.

They all started talking about him, amazed at the words of grace falling from his lips.

“Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.

“Surely, you will remind me,” he said, “‘Doctor, fix yourself!’ and ‘Do what you did in Capernaum here in your hometown!’ But I’ll tell you that no prophet is well-liked in his hometown. Truthfully, there were many widows in Israel during Elijah’s time when the sky closed up and there was a great famine for three and a half years. And Elijah wasn’t sent to any of them; instead, he was sent to a widowed woman in Zarephath in Sidon. There were many lepers in Israel while Elisha was around, but none of them were cleaned, only Naaman from Syria.”

Everyone in the synagogue was enraged when they heard these things. They got up, kicked him out of the city, and brought him to the cliff at the edge of town so they could throw him off it.

He passed through the middle of them and left.

Luke 4:16-30 (author’s rendition)

****

There is an old story that Irish theologian Peter Rollins like to tell about the second coming of Jesus. “It is said that he arrived anonymously one dull Monday morning at the gates of a great city to go about his Father’s business. There was much for him to do. While many years had passed since his last visit, the same suffering was present all around. Still there were the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. Still there were outcasts, and still there were the righteous who pitied them, and the authorities who exploited them. For a long time no one took any notice of the desert wanderer with his weather-beaten face and ragged, dusty clothes — this quiet man who spent his time living among the sick and unwanted. The great city labored on like a mammoth beast, ignorant of the one who dwelt within its bowels.” The story goes on, but that first part has always left me disturbed. A question plagues me; a realization haunts me. At this point in my life, when I hear that story — and when I read the Gospels — I cannot escape the sinking, nagging feeling that we might be missing something. I read about the life of Jesus, I read about what he said and did, and I read about how God chose to spend God’s time on the earth, and I am perplexed. All of it seems so foreign to me, and not necessarily foreign in a first-century Palestinian sort of way. Read the rest of this entry

One in Christ

[[This sermon was given last week (13 November) in the convocation hour at Samford University. Alas, it was not recorded as convocations usually are, but I thought I would post the manuscript as I used it. Unlike usual, there were a few points in which I deviated from the manuscript a bit. Those points are marked with brief explanations of what I said/did. Explanatory remarks are also present for allusions that might not make sense for non-Samfordians. --W]]

[[The Scripture was Galatians 3:26-39, NRSV:  

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

It was read prior to the sermon by multiple members of the present congregation.]]

All right, it’s early, so let’s stand up again and stretch for a second. Now that you are all so very uncomfortable standing next to each other without any song to sing, look at the person on your left. Now look to the person on your right. Now what did we learn from this little exercise?

Not much? You’re not very observant then.

No, that’s what I thought. We’ll come back to that later. You can sit down again.

How many of you have heard this passage before? I would wager that a great deal of you should be raising your hands with me right now. I think this is a part of Paul that we like to throw around with reckless abandon. It sounds nice, doesn’t it? But what does it mean?

The New Testament tells us that Paul himself founded the Church in Galatia and taught them much of the theology that you and I have grown up hearing in churches around the country. They were taught all of this, yes, but after a while, other people showed up in Galatia teaching some things that Paul did not care for. Many scholars believe that these were Jewish Christians who still adhered to the Torah and thought others ought to do so as well. Now, since his meeting with Peter and others in Jerusalem, Paul had been very adamant (even more than a little angry) about this not being the case. But what happened was not that Paul simply won the argument over the Torah but the two sides of the theological debate began to think that the other was dead wrong, that their Christianity was bankrupt.

Shocking.

Undoubtedly, there were questions of who was following Jesus and who was not, who was listening to the right authority and who was listening to a fool, and Paul steps in to settle the issue.

I think that’s the moment when we truly had a church, don’t you think? It was that moment when we had a church with one kind of Christian who thought one way and another kind who thought another way. We have a Church where Christians call each other anything but Christians. We have a Church where circumcision trumps discipleship, Sabbath observation overrules devotion — we have a Church where piety usurps loveRead the rest of this entry

All the Children’s Crumbs

All the Children’s Crumbs 

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Mark 7:24-27 (NRSV)

In many Christian traditions, it is customary for the preacher to say, “This is the word of the Lord” and for the congregation to say, “Thanks be to God.” When we come to a passage like this one, however, that seems hard to say. How are we to respond to such a so-called “hard saying” of Jesus? “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs … to the dogs.” This is the word of the Lord? Who is this Jesus? This Jesus is not the one I met in Sunday School. This Jesus is not the one in whom I professed faith when I walked down an aisle like this one. This Jesus is not the one in whose name I was baptized. This Jesus is not the Jesus I know.

Let me tell you the story of the Jesus who I know. He emerged onto the scene, baptized by his revolutionary cousin John (1:1-11). He was tempted and tried just as you and I (1:12-13). Out of his trials, he emerged a healer, prophet, and teacher (1:14-20). He walked out among the marginalized and the oppressed (1:21-39). Mark tells us he even went to the lepers, the ones everyone considered wholly unclean (1:40-45). He healed them. He even cured the paralytic everyone assumed deserved what he got (2:1-12). He healed him. He called tax collectors, political protestors, and everyday workers to be by his side (2:13-17; 3:13-19). He healed them. He overturned traditional rules and paradigms to the point that they called him Satan (2:18-28; 3:20-30). He healed them. He mystified us with parables and astounded us all the more by going to the Gentiles, casting out even their demons (4, 5:1-20). He healed them. Whether it’s a poor woman coming in the crowd or a religious hotshot coming to his face, he healed them (5:21-43). He traveled across the sea (he even walked on it!) and he fed the thousands (3:7-12; 6:30-52). He healed them. He told the religious leaders that they had it all wrong. “You do a great job,” he said, “of ignoring God to keep your own traditions.” (7:1-23) He healed them. A woman from the fringes, from Syrophoenicia  of all places, a Gentile, comes to him and … “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Read the rest of this entry

“Go in peace.”

“Beloved” by Linda Crossan via Vanderbilt Divinity Library


I live in a very spiritual culture, a very religious culture. The American South is an environment saturated with religion and symbol. And not only that, but I live within a religious context in a religiously-saturated environment. Birmingham has its own tumultuous spiritual heritage, but I also attend a Christian university there. Christianity is all around me all the time. Even living off its campus now, I still live a life full of spiritual exposure. All of this inundation with spirituality and religion makes it hard to see the little things sometimes. When you are surrounded by religious thought and even study it like I do, you miss things. You tend to miss things in favor of their historical or social significance. I fail to grasp the fullness of very small things sometimes. Perhaps you do, too, I do not know.

I was reading in Mark’s Gospel today when I noticed one of those little things. It was in the story within a story in the fifth chapter. While Jesus is on his way to heal the daughter of Jairus, a woman approaches him in the crowd. Unbeknownst to him, she is committed to finding a way to touch his robes because she knows that will heal her. She has been bleeding for years and no matter how much money she pays doctors, none of them have been able to fix it. She’s desperate — this attempt might be her last hope for healing. She touches his robe and feels that healing come. Jesus feels that this happens, as well. He turns around and asks who touched him. The disciples laugh at him a bit and gently remind him that he’s in a crowd. Tons of people are touching him. But Jesus knows someone did it on purpose. So, “He looked around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’” (Mark 5:32-34, NRSV)

There are many little things to notice in this story. One might wonder why this story appears in the middle of another one. One might wonder why the woman comes to this conclusion, that she just has to touch him and not even talk with him to be healed. One might wonder how Jesus feels power leave him. One might wonder why he so needed to see the woman. There are so many phrases to consider: “fear and trembling,” “the whole truth,” or “your faith has made you well.” The phrase that stuck out to me today, however, was the simple “go in peace.”

Go in peace. Jesus says this phrase once in Mark’s Gospel and twice in Luke’s account. In Luke, it is in his version of this story and when the woman anoints him with oil. The phrase stuck out to me because “peace” is something very important to me. It is a concept central to my Christianity. Peace. Why? First, Jesus talks a lot about peace. The word is mentioned at least twenty-four times in the Gospels alone and almost one hundred times in the New Testament. I am committed to peace in my nonviolence and pacifism. Peace has always been something innately good to me. I want to strive for and bring peace into the word. As the famous prayer goes, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

This phrase, though, “go in peace,” seems odd. At first glance, it just seems like a salutation. I think we may have turned it into that. We say it when we leave each other sometimes. It is a passing greeting accompanied by a hand gesture. In the liturgy, it is how we greet one another in the context of worship: “peace be with you.” But I wonder if we can contemplate this phrase of Jesus a bit more deeply. “Go in peace.”

Three thoughts; each build on the others:

We go in peace after an encounter with Jesus.

For Christians, peace comes after an encounter with Jesus, with God. The fruit of the Spirit is peace (Gal. 5:22) and the unity of the Spirit is peace (Eph. 4:3). God is a God of peace (Rom. 15:33, 16:20; 1 Cor. 14:33). If God is truly a God “not of disorder but of peace,” the outcome of our interactions with God should be that we go in peace.

We go in peace.

To go in peace, according to this passage has to do with healing. We are able to go in peace, because we have been healed of our disease. Whatever has plagued us, whatever grabbed us and will not let go, God is an agent of healing in that process. He does this through his love and we are able to go in peace when we recognize and embrace that love.  Henri Nouwen says that to recognize that love is to express “the core truth of our existence” — that we are Beloved by God. In that unconditional, inexhaustible, unending acceptance we are in peace. (Life of the Beloved, 33)

We go in peace.

Nouwen also says that we become the Beloved and that means, “letting the truth of our Belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say, or do.” (45) Being Beloved does not mean that we contemplate our own Belovedness on our own. That kind of peace that only remains in itself slowly diminishes and becomes less confident that it is in fact true. We are not simply told in peace but peace is paired with a verb. In our going, we should be doing what we do in peace because of this core truth. Because we are not the only Beloved; everyone around us is Beloved as we are.

So, to go in peace is to allow ourselves to be affected by the love of God. The peace that comes with that overflows into how we interact with other people, how much patience we have, how giving we are, how understanding we are, and how accepting we are. If God has accepted us and called us Beloved, if God has healed us and told us to go in peace, how much more ought we think to do that for others?

Do not let peace be your property, it is meant to be given away. At your fingertips is in inexhaustible reservoir of peace — let’s give a little, if for nothing else because we are Beloved.

Go in peace.

Day 1: FTE Leaders in Ministry

There are lots of things going on this week! The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is currently holding its meeting in Fort Worth, Texas. The Southern Baptist Convention (I’m sorry, but I just can’t call you “Great Commission Baptists,” but that’s another issue) elected (that’s another issue) its first African American President. But currently, I’m isolated from all that here in Nashville at the Scarritt Bennett Center at the Fund for Theological Education’s Leaders in Ministry conference. I’d love to tell you about it over the next few days if you can spare the time.

What we’re talking about this week is how we as potential ministers (or those possibly considering ministry) are “builders of beloved communities,” to borrow the phrasing of Dr. King. It’s an ecumenical gathering composed of all kinds of Christians. There are a few Baptists (all different kinds), Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Unitarians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Mennonites, and other traditions I am sadly forgetting off the top of my head. Anyway, ecumenical gatherings are one of my favorite things and they are always great learning experiences. I just wanted to share a few snapshots with you and leave a few things to ponder …

The first was this song we sang in opening worship. I loved it. It’s called “The Canticle of the Turning”:

Lyrics

You can’t capture it just in reading it, so listen. It’s fun.

The second is a story that one of our panelists told when discussing beloved community (this whole session will be online later, I hear Click here to listen.). Her organization runs food trucks through the city giving healthy meals to impoverished areas. Once, an organization (well-meaning, certainly) wanted to give Bibles to place on the trucks to give to people who got food. The offer was declined for this reason, “We don’t want people to think they have to believe something to get food.” In other words, we don’t want people to think that they have to listen to us try and convert them or that they have to be converted or agree with us to get our help. I think too often when approaching the complicated issues of social justice and spiritual evangelism, we forget to look at it from the point of view of the people we’re serving. We may be perfectly well intentioned in wanting to share Jesus with them, but it also can get in the way of actually being able to help people. I wonder what would happen if people saw the steeple first as a place to be helped and blessed than as an instrument of conversion. Anyway, something to think about. Another thought from this panelist about doing ministry: “We don’t determine who is worth or unworthy … everyone is worthy of our hospitality.” It was a good session. I’ll try and post a link if the video goes up soon.

A third thought that really resonated with me were the different types of leaders another panelist identified. She described three: your dreamers (Joseph, if you will), your builders (Moses perhaps), and your sustainers (Joshua, could be). It’s important to know which kind you are, because if you’re a sustainer trying to be a dreamer, things will be very difficult and ineffective. It results in burnout and frustration. I gravitate most toward that sustainer role myself, and often I find myself in the context of a lot of dreamers. It is discouraging sometimes and it’s always a joy to meet another Joshua (if you will … I’d rather be gender neutral, but you get the point). The Church needs all three to continue to be a healthy and viable institution and too often we go without them. For anyone considering some type of ministry or leadership role in your church, carefully consider who you are and what gifts God has given you. Don’t try and be something you’re not! In the words of the evangelical cartoon VeggieTales (a great vestige of truth) “God made you special and loves you very much.” Cheesy when said in unison by vegetables, but nevertheless true.

Fourth, if you’ve got time, check out the sermon Rev. Becca Stevens gave at our opening worship on SoundCloud. “Love and grace are the most powerful tools of social change.”

That’s all for today. Many things to ponder. Good night, everyone!

Christian Curse Words

A lot of people are very bothered by curse words, cuss words, or whatever you’d like to call them. Sometimes they bother me, other times they don’t. However, I think the concept could be somewhat useful for the current Church — the idea that certain words are either inappropriate for most contexts or entirely inappropriate for much use at all. In fact, there are a couple words in the American Christian vernacular that I think would be best relegated to this category of “Christian Curse Words.” Here are a few examples:

 

The Word: Biblical — this word has become one of my least favorite in the entire English language

The Original Definition: The word originates in a seventeenth century theological text referring to anything relating to or contained in the Bible. Strictly speaking, all the word means is what might be in the Bible. Seems innocuous, right?

The New Definition: The Word now means something akin to “whatever I think is right.” For example, “My way of spending money, shopping, watching movies, handling healthcare, and voting is biblical.” Or again, “My understanding of politics, academics, science, and marriage is biblical.”

Why to Get Rid of It: Because we do not mean that what we think comes from the Bible or is contained therein. We certainly allege that most of the time, but what we really mean is that our view is right and his/her/your/their view is wrong. “Biblical” no longer has much to do with the Bible at all but only with our own preconceptions, assumptions, and positions. To say something is (or is not) “biblical” is to circumvent argument, discussion, and cooperation.

Read the rest of this entry

An Easter Meditation

From Vanderbilt's The Revised Common Lectionary

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Salome brought spice so that they could come and anoint Jesus. Then, very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb, just at sunrise. They were saying to one another, “There’s that stone at the door of the tomb —who’s going to roll it away for us?”

Then, when they looked up, they saw that it had been rolled away. (It was extremely large.)

So they went into the tomb, and there they saw a young man sitting on the right-hand side. He was wearing white. They were totally astonished.

“Don’t be astonished,” he said to them. “You’re looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has been raised! He isn’t here! Look — this is the place where they laid him.

“But go and tell his disciples — including Peter — that he was going ahead of you to Galilee. You’ll see him there, just like he told you.”

They went out, and fled from the tomb. Trembling and panic had seized them. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

The Gospel according to St Mark 16:1-8; Kingdom New Testament

Mark leaves us with a sense of incompleteness, because while there are some more verses following what we just read, they are likely not part of the original Gospel. At the end of it all, Mark does not show us that Jesus has risen; he simply shows us that the earliest believers ran from the tomb in panic doing nothing. “Trembling and panic had seized them. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

Now, there are a lot of things that ministers could do with that. They could pontificate about evangelism and how we must be better at telling people about Jesus. We cannot be like these believers who were too frightened and ran away from telling everyone they knew about Jesus. How bad a people are we for not telling people about Jesus? But I do not think that is what Mark is trying to tell us.

The resurrection is not a message about evangelism. The resurrection is not about trying to convert people. The resurrection is not about putting you down for not talking about Jesus enough.

The resurrection, especially in Mark, is begging us — whoever we are and wherever we are at — to come and see. He is going ahead of us to Galilee. We will see him there, just like he told us.

The resurrection is about seeing something new.

I will not try to persuade or argue about Jesus. My only reply is, “Come and see.” Come and see what he has done for me. Come and see what he is doing for people all over the world. Come and see Jesus in Galilee. Come and see the Jesus who said, Blessed are you.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, … those who mourn, … the meek, … those who hunger and thirtst for righteousness [and those who hunger and thirst], … the merciful, … the pure in heart, … the peacemakers.” Blessed.

The resurrection is about a world that works a different way. It is the ultimate statement by God for us that says, “Things will be different now. Things are going to change.”

No, things don’t always look that way. It is hard sometimes to look around the world and see all the bad things going on and all the people suffering and believe in the resurrection.

But I think that’s where we come into the story.

When we look and see the resurrection on one hand and a suffering world on the other, we ought to feel like Jesus when he saw the hungry, the blind, the oppressed, and say, “Things will be different now. Things are going to change.”

And that’s resurrection in our lives here right now. Because the “Good News” of the Gospel is not that heaven is coming in some distant future and it’s saving us from hell. The “Good News” is, as Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”

And that starts with Jesus working in our lives. It starts with letting this news change the way we look at the world, the way we look at the people we pass on the street or sit next to on the Tube. It starts with us. So, it’s my hope that Easter is not just a nice little holy day for us, but that it propels us into the rest of the year. It’s my hope that we will go to Galilee and see, and let it change us, too.

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