When it comes to disciples mentioned often in the New Testament and in our preaching, it is our dear friend Peter. I think on some level most of us can identify with Peter. Too often he is remembered as the disciple who denied Jesus three times or the disciple who after seeing the transfiguration declares that they should build three altars right on the spot, an idea which Luke a few years later decided to make fun of him for.
But in today’s lectionary reading, John 6:60-71, Peter makes good. John 6 contains Jesus’ highly offensive teaching that to be saved one must eat his body and drink his blood – a teaching that offends many who are listening and causes other to say, “This teaching is difficult.” However, after much of the crowd as left and only the 12 disciples remain Jesus asks them, “are you going to leave too?” Then Peter replies with a simply beautiful statement:
“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God”
May the church of Jesus Christ never forget that Peter was right – it is Jesus Christ alone who offers the church life.
If I had to choose my favorite passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans it would be the lectionary reading for today: Romans 12:9-21.
In it, Paul lays out the ethical guidelines for living the Christian life in light of his discussion in the first 12 Chapters. In the first part of this chapter Paul writes that we as followers of Jesus Christ should be renewed by the transforming of our minds. Paul’s admonitions in this part of the chapter are in some way the guidelines for ethical living that he Paul presents that should result from the renewing and transforming of our minds.
My favorite are his comments about violence:
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and no not curse” (v. 14)
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil” (v. 17)
“Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written “It is mind to avenge, I will repay” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If you enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head”. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
These aren’t my favorite verses because I’m a strict pacifist – I am not. I agree with Barth that there are certain “limiting cases” in which the command of God to war/violence. However, those are the “limiting” or extreme cases.
In our day to day lives, both Paul and Jesus teach us that rather than overcoming our enemies through power and revenge, to overcome them with love. Why? Because, love disarms. If someone has an intense hatred for us and we respond in hatred back, it merely intensifies the situation and makes it worse. Whereas if someone has an intense hatred for us and we respond to that person in loving concern, it can often disarm the situation and make it considerably harder for the other person to maintain that hatred for us.
So sometimes I sit down to write my devotional reflections and something really jumps out at me. Other times, like tonight, there’s nothing. It’s not that the texts for today are tough texts, there’s just not one that jumps out.
So, my recommendation to anyone reading this is go take a look at the readings for today (Wednesday).
One of things that the all the major Christian communions more of less agree upon is the sacramental of baptism. As Paul writes in Romans 6:
“We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life”
Paul reminds us that baptism is the sign and seal our dying with Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. As a human brother, Jesus is the one who represents us and we are called to share in his life. Our baptism is in part the sign and seal of our sharing in Christ’s death according to Paul.
“If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.” (Romans 6:5-10, TNIV)
Paul then tells us that this dying with Christ was for a purpose. Just as we share in his death, so too we might experience his resurrection – not only in a spiritual sense in this life, but in a very literal sense at the general resurrection.
In my Church and Sacraments class this past fall was the first time I ever really was forced to take a serious look at the doctrine of the resurrection as a future eschatalogical event. As I discovered, the general resurrection (discussed extensively in 1 Corinthians 15) will be a future event in which all people will be raised physically in “spiritual bodies”.
What good is the resurrection? Very simple – death does not have the final answer. As Christians we believe that bodily death, while universal, is not the last chapter of a persons’ life. We affirm that all will be raised to stand before Jesus Christ – the Lord of the Universe. The hope for Christians is that even in the midst of a tragic death is that death does not have the last say in a persons’ life, regardless of how tragic the death might have been.
One passage of scripture has always troubled me at a deep level (well, there are a couple that do that actually). But Numbers 20 is one of them. We find Moses still putting up with all the people’s whining becasue this time they’re without water. So he and Aaron go in and ask God what to do, and the Lord instructs Moses to speak to the rock and water will flow out of it. But instead of following this instruction, Moses hits the rock and the water comes out. And then the troubling verse:
“Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them” (Numbers 20:12).
If you want to talk about a reminder to pastors to be faithful through honoring God this is it.
Psalms of lament have a special spot in my heart. It’s not that they have ever been especially import in my own devotional life, but I have seen the power that teaching the lament Psalms can have in people’s lives, especially in the lives of youth.
Today’s lectionary reading features Psalm 80, which is a classic lament Psalm:
“Restore us , O God: make your face to shine upon us…” (v. 3)
“How long, Lord God Almighty, will your anger smolder against the prayers of your people? You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have made them drink tears by the bowlful. You have made us an object of derision to our neighbors, our enemies mock us” (v. 4-6)
“You have transplanted a vine from Egypt; you drove out the natios and planted it” (v. 8)
“Why have you broken down its walls so that all who pass by pick it grapes?” (v. 12)
“Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself. Then we will not turn away from you; revive us, and we will call on your name.” (v. 17-18)
The Psalmist here spares God no mercy in his critique, as he charges God with having forgotten and forsaken his people. This Psalmist even recalls to God all that God has done for Israel and asks “Why if you have done all this have you now abandoned us?”
Why have these Psalms been so powerful for me in youth ministry? Freedom. Too often we and therefore our youth have a “spy in the sky” image of God – a God that is distant, and detached, looking down at the world with disapproval, and punishing bad people and rewarding good ones. To many of us, the words of the lament Psalms seem at best impious, and at worse downright blasphemy. Yet, they had an important role to play in the liturgical life of the nation of Israel based on their presence in the book of Psalms.
What I have observed on a few occassions in the incredible freedom and empowerment youth felt when I introduced them to the lament Psalms. Suddenly, they could really tell God exactly how they felt they had been treated and knew that they were not the first to do so. Suddenly their faith became a real relationship in which they could express their honest and heartful displeasure with God.
What is interesting about today’s pairing is that it is paired with Romans 5.
” Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:1-5, TNIV)
I actually used this text during one of the first sermons I ever preached the summer I was interning in Montrose, CO. Paul’s take on suffering would seem to question to lament tradition. While the lament tradition would seem to extol the virtues of telling God how it is, Paul encourages us to glory in our sufferings because ultimately they produce hope. What an interesting word – hope. More on that latter…
The key to understand how to balance Psalm 80 (and the rest of the lament Psalms) with Romans 5 is to recognize that different people are at different points in their lives. I know people who when faced with suffering immediately are ready to talk about taking joy in them, while others never get to that point and need the lament Psalms to keep their faith alive in times of trouble. The good news is that both Psalm 80 and Romans 5 are in the bible. As a pastor, it is my job to discern whether the Lord is telling me to encourage the person to lament, or pointing them to take glory in their sufferings and hope.