Sermon at Grace Community

Sermon for Lent 1 preached at Grace Community, Plano, and translated into Farsi and Arabic

Last time I preached here, I mentioned chess, which, I learned had a very clear Persian connection! I want to start this sermon with another one, though more obscure.  A little more than a century after the death and resurrection of Jesus, there was a disciple of His who died in Adiabene, which was a northern province of Persia. His name was Tatian. He was faithful, though some of ideas were seen by some as extreme, for example about fasting. But he did ask a very reasonable question- why have four Gospels?  Why not take the best accounts, and put them in what seems the most accurate order, so that we have one Gospel, an amalgam of them all? His book was literally called ‘out of four,’ namely the Gospels, so as to be one, since there was one story of one Lord. But it turns out that the worldwide Church, over time, in the era of the Church Fathers, came to a different conclusion, and for good reasons.  Imagine a grandfather, someone remembered fondly by his family. OK, but if his wife, brother, business partner, son, and granddaughter all wrote memoirs, they would have different things to say. And the variations wouldn’t really be around facts, but rather about who he was, which touched on who he was for them!  They would remember the relationships, colored by their own perspectives, not to distort the picture of the patriarch, but to enrich it.  Here we can bring to our aid the title of an introduction to New Testament studies by a famous evangelical Anglican, the late Bishop Stephen Neill: ‘Jesus Through Many Eyes.’ He was one, and his grace the same, but Matthew and John and Peter and Paul describe it from different angles, known to them themselves, and we are richer for it.  When they diverge in a detail or other, the truth of the whole is confirmed, since human memories and perspectives do differ.

Even though the Church rejected Tatian’ project, that doesn’t mean he was entirely wrong.  For we do learn something by comparing accounts, for the smaller contrasts can help us understand what the memories of each are emphasizing.  Something is thrown into relief.  Nowhere is this more clear than in the story of the temptation of Jesus, for today we have heard Mark’s version.  And quite simply, the story as we usually think of it is not there! In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke the devil comes to tempt Jesus in religious, seemingly noble, ways. Save the people! Hasten the coming of the kingdom! Rule the nations justly, in contrast to worldly corruption! But in each case the temptation is not in the goal, but in the ego, the desire for power, as its means. This is similar to Tolkein’s ‘Lord of the Rings.’ The ring of power could vanquish evil, but along the way it turns the heart of the one using it in a corrupt direction.  Jesus turning a stone in to bread, Jesus jumping from the temple height, Jesus surveying the kingdoms of this world atop a mountain- all this profound information is gone. So what is in its place here in Mark?

Simply that Jesus was tempted. The Gospel of Mark is well aware of the demons, who immediately recognize him, just before our reading.  It is the sheer fact of the temptation Mark recounts. This also brings into relief and clarity the where of it. It is in the wilderness. Now in ancient Hebrew culture this was dangerous country, where dangerous creatures, spiritually as well as fleshly, resided. The wilderness is what became of the garden made by God in the beginning.  It is where the wild beasts reside, according Mark. But when Jesus obeys his Father, when he overcomes the temptation, even the desert reverts to being a paradise. The latter is where ‘they kingdom come father’ is said and lived. And that kingdom, and its restoration, are exactly where the whole Gospel story is going. The clash with the evil one will of course have its climax in the passion story, and the beginning of the restoration of paradise in the resurrection. The animals were a peaceable kingdom in the beginning and so they will be at the end.  Here, in the middle, where the Son says Yes to his Father, that peaceable kingdom is found even in the midst of the wilderness. The angels ministering to him, mentioned by Mark, is another proof for ancient people, and indeed for us, of that fact.

Mark’s temptation story is simple, what we call in English ‘bare bones.’ That lets us focus on its import.  Jesus’ victory over evil, begun in the wilderness, complete on the cross, spells the restoration of the point of creation, from the beginning, and the sure promise of paradise at the end. It binds all salvation history in one.  And that leads finally to the question- if the work is complete, what is there for us to do? Look again at Mark’s version of the story, for it is wrapped, as if in a blanket, by the calling of the Church on either side. Before the temptation, we hear the preaching of John- prepare the way. Then we learn of the baptism of Jesus as the Father beloved child. After the temptation comes the calling of the disciples. Straightway they are thrown into the struggle, healing and cleansing. And because Jesus has done these first, we are called to follow, to take up the task of witnessing through these ministries, in obedience. Preaching, baptizing, discipling, healing, that is the shape of the Church life, as it follows in the steps of Jesus, who has already faced all that we do, and more, and prevailed.  Into just this life of blessing and struggle, are summoned this afternoon newer followers.  But in recommitment indeed all of us, who by grace inhabit a wilderness become a paradise, are so called. Amen.

Above the Below

Sometimes the deepest questions are both obvious and surprising at the same time. The very first question for the early Christians was this: how could God’s chosen be the crucified, since this was an accursed kind of death?  They weren’t expecting that, for the most part. They worked it out by listening again to the books that we call ‘the Old Testament,’ though they were simply ‘the bible,’ since the book we call the New Testament were only beginning to be written.  But wait a minute. The good news about Jesus were new. And their proclamation of grace was different than the holy works of the law, the Torah. So why do we really need those earlier books of the early history, the law, the prophets, and wisdom… If you have 5.0, who needs 1,2,3, and 4.0? Of course the answer of orthodox Christianity is that we need them very much, and that they remain part of the final revelation of God for humankind, namely Holy Scripture! But why exactly?  The New Testament has clear answers to the human spiritual quest- but answers alone don’t make sense without the questions. And the words used for all the important questions use the Old Testament. The God of creation, who made the world out of love alone, and no necessity, though he is not a part of the world- we rely on the Old Testament for that. The people of God, who are called into a relationship called ‘covenant’ with that God, for the sake of all the world, we rely on the Old Testament for that. Then there are the themes of Lent- sin, repentance, sacrifice, forgiveness, found in the story of Israel’s exile and return, all.  Finally, the anointed one to come to usher in the kingdom of God at the conclusion of history- found uniquely in the Old Testament. You can’t speak a language without vocabulary, and faith needs a language we learn, as well as a plot-line we have a bit part in. 

Sure, but once we have gleaned these ideas, these words, this background, why do we still need the Old Testament? Couldn’t we reject it like a booster rocket, especially  since God seems there to be rather rules-obsessed and harsh?  This question was asked in the early second century by an heretic named Marcion. He was surely wrong: why else would we have an Old Testament lesson every Sunday in order for us to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who was born more than half a millennium after most of those writings?, but it remains important to know why he was wrong.

There is a famous painting of Jesus from Germany in the late Middle Ages, by an artist named Guenewald and a town named Isenheim. It was actually painted in the time of the plague of the black death. Jesus’s skin is pock-marked, so that his suffering can be readily related to that of his followers. Biblical theology always touches the lives of its hearers at the deepest and most distressed levels.  The centerpiece of the painting, and of our spiritual lives, is his crucifixion, though we might like to glide past it to something more cheery.  But the painting of his saving death is not a depiction of him alone. To his left is John the Baptist, holding the Old Testament prophecy and pointing with a great finger toward the cross.  On the other side is Mary embraced by John, as the dying Jesus himself commanded, with Mary Magdalene near them mourning her sin and his death to forgive it.  As an aside, I cannot think of a better meditation for your Lent then an extended gaze on this picture every day. The reason is that it depicts what the Church really is.  Jesus the summation of hope and waiting on the one hand, Jesus creating the Church from the blood and water flowing from his side on the other, the community of welcome and gratitude that results.  The death of Jesus is a surprise, but upon reflection it is the fulfillment of God’s promises.  We as Church are, on the one hand, pointing toward his dying side, and gathered from it, on the other.  There must then be characters, and a story, of which Jesus, dying and raised, is the centerpiece.

So what does all this have to do with the Gospel for this Sunday, the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus, since it took place before the final journey to Jerusalem and the cross? The answer is everything.  First of all, Moses and Elijah appear. They represent the Old Testament witness, the law and the prophets. They are pointing to Jesus, just as John the Baptist had earlier- they are likewise two great fingers pointing to him. In fact, in the Gospel of Luke we learn that they are discussing his ‘exodus,’ his journey across, using a work that links the crossing from death to life here, with the one Moses himself described in the Book by that name. While we do not meet Mary, we do meet the disciples, who want a place to dwell with Jesus, as in the booths in the wilderness also in Exodus. And they will have a place to dwell together with him, but not there and not yet, but on the far side of the events to come. Finally you will remember that at the end of the vision glorious, we hear that they saw ‘’Jesus alone.’ He is the centerpiece here too, not yet crucified, though he is determinedly walking toward his coming death.

When the disciples see Jesus alone, and get back on the disciples’ road with him, Moses and Elijah disappear. It is on this that I want to focus with the moments remaining.  Remember how John the Baptist says in the Gospel of John, ‘I must decrease that He (namely Jesus) might increase.’ Decreasing, we might say receding? What does that mean? Isn’t it the opposite of leadership, of bold discipleship, of standing up for Jesus? Well, we are for all of that, but we are leading people toward…Jesus, not ourselves…we are to encourage discipleship, not of ourselves but the Lord, and we are to make our witness, but as Paul says in II Corinthians, not of ourselves but of Jesus, and ourselves as servants for his sake.

To lead by receding, to grow stronger in decreasing. This is a mystery to the world, which knows mostly victory and defeat. But what we are describing lies yet deeper at the heart of the doctrine of God himself, the Son exalting His Father in prayer, the Spirit raising the Son from death for the right hand of the Father, the Father stepping back as his own Son suffers and is alienated, the Spirit demurring and yet descending so that the Father can say that the Son is beloved. The disciples are on the way to Jerusalem, where they will fail at what we describe, full of bravado until they run away. But after the resurrection, they will be given to understand, to prevail as they surrender, to learn to love the sheep as they surrender their care into the hands of the Lord they follow.

You and I are about to embark once more on the path of learning anew to be a disciple, on the road of Lent.  At the heart of that education is witness, neither accomplishment, nor despair, not control not fatalism, but witness. And the form of witness is receding before this ascent. Though they did indeed fade away, Moses and  Elijah appeared for a time, the right time, in order to point, and then they were gone, but the one to whom they pointed was not gone. And the disciples appeared, eventually, to witness, as did Mary and John and Mary Magdalene. And in doing only this, with a single heart, by grace alone, they came to shine like stars, and light up a way to give way, which is to stand up as they recede and so to witness. May the divine education in this art continue in these your servants, whom we confirm in your name, and in us, Lord, Amen.    

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Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.