Friday, April 6, 2012

A New Command - Maundy Thursday Sermon

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Tonight it is Maundy Thursday. Tonight we remember the events that took place the very night before and the day of our master’s crucifixion. That night our master and his disciples celebrated the Passover,
remembering themselves how the blood of lambs had spared the firstborn of Israel in Egypt, and how God led them through the waters out of slavery and into a new life as a new people with new laws and new commands. Tonight, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, remembering, as commanded by our master, how his body and his blood, the blood of the lamb of God, was given to take away the sin, not only of Israel, but of the world. We remember that Jesus, by the power of His Spirit, leads us through the waters of baptism, out of slavery to sin and into a new life as a new people with a new command. We gather together tonight, not only to remember the events of Holy Week, but also to hear the words of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Word who was, is, and ever shall be. We listen to His words the night before his death and His words on the cross. Let’s look together at our primary passage for tonight, John 13:31-35.

When he was gone, Jesus said, "Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once. "My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come. "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

Jesus begins, with this passage, what is commonly called his “farewell discourse.” Jesus is having an intimate gathering, a passover dinner, with his disciples and, knowing what the events of tomorrow, Good Friday, will bring, he prepares them as much as he can for that day of suffering and beyond. Some take special note of the first phrase “When he was gone”. Who was gone? Who had just left the feast? Judas Iscariot, the one who went to betray Jesus and set into motion the events of that evening and following day. Just moments before, in verse 27, the bible says “Satan entered into him [Judas]. ‘What you are about to do, do quickly,’ Jesus told him.” So Judas leaves and Jesus, knowing where Judas was headed, to betray him to the authorities, takes a moment to comfort his disciples, to say farewell, and to teach them. He describes in verses 31 and 32 what is about to happen in a great summary of the events of the cross and resurrection. Jesus uses the messianic title for himself, Son of Man, and talks about how God is going to be glorified. Jesus will be obedient and suffer the penalty of death and suffering that belongs to us, to humanity, the rebellious children of God, thus meeting the requirements of justice. The cross which looks like shame and defeat is in actuality a moment of victory, where God is glorified because the salvation of the world will be wrought through the cross. Yet also our passage says: “God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.” Jesus doesn’t separate the cross from his own glorification but rather combines the two. The glory of the cross and the glory of the resurrection are inseparable. The Cross tomorrow on Good Friday, and the Resurrection on Sunday are united as phases of a single redemptive event by which the purpose of God is completed and his righteousness vindicated. Having described that redemptive event, of the glory of the Father and of the Son, Jesus takes a moment of tenderness with his disciples.

He calls them “my children” in verse 33. Now, in the Passover meal setting, the leader of the meal was usually the father as this was usually a familial setting. The father, or the leader, was the one who explained the significance of the Passover. Thus, appropriately Jesus, refers to his disciples as his children as he explains the new significance in his own death as the Passover lamb. Knowing that he must go to the cross and eventually to the right hand of God the Father in heaven, he explains, “where I am going you cannot come. “ Then, in the final two verses of our passage, Jesus gives them a new commandment.

This is, by the way, where most historians and scholars believe that we get the name for Maundy Thursday. Most agree that the word Maundy comes from the Latin mandatum, which we get many words in our own language like mandate, demand, and command. Command Thursday, or Mandate Thursday doesn’t really ring as well in our ears, so we’ve stuck with Maundy Thursday, but really we do remember tonight that as Jesus prepared his disciples for the events of the cross and the resurrection, as he spoke to them as children, he said a “new command I give you.” As Jesus describes himself leaving he says this is how people will know you. This is how, even though I’m gone, people will see me. The disciple, like the Master, reveals the Father. Jesus says in the next chapter, if you still have your bibles open, please keep them open, in verse 14:4 “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus revealed who the Father was, who God was, when people encountered Jesus, they encountered His Father in heaven. So also, when people encounter the disciples of Jesus they should encounter their Master, the Christ, and encounter God. Even though Jesus is gone physically, the new mandate, the new command given on Mandatum Thursday, Maundy Thursday, was intended to continue the mission of the incarnate God. He said “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Many secular historians have noted that one of, if not the reason for the ability of the Christian movement to not only survive but flourish in the pagan Roman empire was the genuine love exemplified by the early Christian community. One historian, E.R. Dodd, again not Christian, writes that “Love of one’s neighbor is not an exclusively Christian virtue, but in our period [from 2nd century AD to Emperor Constantine] the Christians appear to have practiced it more effectively than any other group.” We find that the early church took their new mandate, their new commandment, received on Maundy Thursday night very seriously. They became a new people, freed from the slavery of sin by the blood of the lamb, and they loved one another.
This love of one another and for neighbor is what changed the world. Tertullian, a church father from this time wrote of what the Romans said about the Christians, “See, they say, how they love one another…how they are ready even to die for one another.” It wasn’t a particular theological position that they took, it wasn’t by economic force, and it wasn’t by political power that the world responded. The world responded when it looked upon the disciples of Jesus Christ and saw an incomprehensible love. A new love. They saw, in the love of the disciples, that Jesus Christ had won.

Now, as history went on eventually the emperor of the Roman empire, Constantine, declared that Christianity would be the official Roman religion and in doing so, the requirements, the essentials of the faith, the Maundy Thursday command to love all became watered down. As the Christian faith became a cultural Christianity, and tied to the political state, some of the distinctiveness, such as this unique historical expression of love, became more difficult to detect. We call this era, Christendom, combining the words Christian and kingdom, Christendom, and it basically refers to any situation where you have a place or a people where the dominant culture is Christian. This creates a unique situation of cultural Christianity and a unique group of people, those who choose to be Christian not because of love or the spirit but because it benefits them culturally. Interestingly enough, historically we find ourselves entering into a post-Christendom time in the United States. With a rise in secularism, atheism, agnosticism, and post modern spirituality, followers of Christ are rapidly finding themselves in the same situation as the early church in the pagan Roman empire before Constantine. We not only remember tonight the words of Maundy Thursday, the new command to love, but we listen ourselves. We recognize that if the church is to point people to Christ, is to point people to the one, true and living God, then we must love one another, not just with feeling, but with action. We will not change our Rome through political force, through economic power, or by theological debate, but through loving one another as Jesus loved us. “By this all will know that we are His disciples.” Now, clearly as our passage says love one another Jesus is speaking about the love within the community that is the church, but also clear throughout His teachings and the experience of the early church is that this love that exists within the church is meant to overflow and spread to our neighbors, even our enemies. I read an article recently about an atheist in Texas named Patrick Greene.
Patrick is an atheistic activist who has a history of bringing lawsuits for the public display of Christian imagery, like a nativity scene in front of a courthouse at Christmas. He ended up dropping that particular lawsuit because he found out that he had a detached retina and might lose his sight. His family couldn’t afford the operation and certainly couldn’t afford the lawsuit or investment of time against the Christians. Now you might think that this is a good moment to thank God, that God acted in a way to prevent this atheist, this anti-God person from removing expressions of faith in that community. A local church, responded differently than that, and actually reached out to this man and helped him financially. Patrick was surprised, he said “My wife and I had never had a Christian do anything nice for us.” Let’s stop for a second here and realize how sad this is, that in a community surrounded by churches and Christians, Christians who are to be known by their love for one another, for their neighbors, and for their enemies, this atheist had never had a Christian do anything nice for them. That statement reflects the sad case that is the reality of many Christian communities. Patrick goes on “These people are acting like what the Bible says a Christian does.” Patrick the atheist was so affected by the love demonstrated by these Christians that he’s been sharing this story with the media and is considering even writing a book entitled the real Christians of Henderson County , Texas. A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

This is the command that Jesus gives his disciples as he prepares them the night before. Yet we read later that he doesn’t leave them alone. Jesus says in our passage “where I’m going you cannot come.” Later in chapter 14, verse 15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth…You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” Jesus leaves. He eventually goes not only to the cross, but ascends to heaven. Those who remain, receive another Helper, the Holy Spirit. This Spirit of God indwells us and grants us the power by which to love not only one another, but our neighbors and our enemies. This command that Jesus gives on Maundy Thursday is a “new” command. It’s new in the sense that the love of God has been mediated in a radically new way, and the sharing in that divine love, through Christ and His Spirit, now becomes possible in a manner and to a degree unlike anything the world had seen up to this point. The command to love becomes new, it becomes fresh, even though it comes from the Old Testament. I pray that tonight, it would become new and fresh for us as we experience the Spirit of God together. Tonight we finish our journey of forgiveness. If you’ve been with us at all this last month then you know we have been on a journey for the last 40 days as we’ve explored the various aspects of forgiveness, like Forgiving God and Forgiving When You Can't Forget. This Easter Sunday is a new day and a new series Recognizing Resurrection Here & Now. Tonight we will write on our bookmarks anything that we need to forgive, or be forgiven for, any failures to love as we have been loved, anything we need to let go in order to be reconciled with each other and with God. In just a moment we will physically enact the events of the Last Supper by the sharing in communion, so later we will physically enact a moment of forgiving, letting go and nail that bookmark to the cross.
In doing so, tonight we proclaim to God that we want to remove any barriers in our relationships. In doing so, tonight we accept the promises of Jesus to receive another Helper, to be with us forever, who dwells with us and in us, granting us the power to be true disciples of Jesus, following his Maundy Thursday command, a new command, a fresh command, to love one another and by this all will know we are His disciples.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Forgiving God - A Sermon

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Today we conclude our sermon series on Cross off Forgiveness. So far we’ve talked about forgiving ourselves, our family members, fellow church members, our co-workers and neighbors, but today we examine forgiving God. Now I actually physically shutter when I hear that phrase “I forgive God”, it must be the inner theologian within me who screams God doesn’t need forgiveness! Now of course we know that really God doesn’t need to be let go of any sin that He’s committed against us. God is perfect, He is Holy, holy, holy, and without sin. There is, theologically speaking, no need to talk about our need to forgive God, rather it us who needs forgiveness as we have rebelled against Him. Yet, many of us may need to go through a process with God that resembles forgiveness, again, not because God has sinned or needs to be pardoned, but because, whether we recognize it or not, we treat Him as though He has wronged us. A better way to describe what it means to forgive God is to say we need to reach reconciliation with God. Remembering the excellent sermon given on forgiving family members, we know that the goal of forgiveness is reconciliation, of returning to a full orbed relationship and as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:20 “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” The word forgiveness, in its most root and fundamental form means to “let go.” When we think this way, we realize there is indeed often so much we need to forgive, to let go in order to be reconciled with God. Usually these barriers have to do with an evil or a suffering beyond our control. If someone writes something unpleasant on a comment card I don’t usually blame God, but sometimes catastrophic, uncontrollable events like natural disasters, or disease, or children born with defects or not all. When we’re left with no explanation we tend to blame God. I knew of someone in a previous church who was working in her backyard when suddenly a tree branch above her snapped and fell onto her back breaking it. She was in intense pain. Now she was an elder in the church, one who knew God well, and yet she became angry and despondent at why God would allow such a freak accident to cripple her. We respond sometimes to God with resentment for what’s happened in our life, with anger, not able to grasp why a good God would allow such things, and why this is happening to us of all people in particular. We have to forgive, or more theologically correct, we have to let go of our RAGE, our Resentment, our Anger, our inability to Grasp all of God and our Egos. These are barriers to our relationship, our reconciliation with God.
There is an overlap in these barriers we examine today. The first two relate more to our emotion and the last two relate more to our theology. We begin with emotion, as we should begin when we find ourselves in situations of suffering. I don’t know if you’ve tried, but when approaching someone in a deep state of suffering, theological assertions are not the best approach. Rather, we enter into the moment, as Jesus did at the tomb of Lazarus, and we weep with those who weep. We don’t hide our emotions and feelings but rather we wrestle them and with God. In order to be reconciled to God we have to let go of resentment and wrestle with God. There’s an episode of The Simpsons, that some of you may have seen, where the character Lisa is trying to tell her mother Marge how she feels. Marge’s response, though hyperbolically exaggerated is sometimes the response we have towards our feelings about God.
She says to Lisa: “Well, it doesn't matter how you feel inside, you know. It's what shows up on the surface that counts. That's what my mother taught me. Take all your bad feelings and push them down. All the way down, past your knees, until you're almost walking on them. And then you'll fit in, and you'll be invited to parties and boys will like you, and happiness will follow.” God, doesn’t want us to push our feelings down until we’re almost walking on them. God wants you to come to him with all your heartaches, even if you think he caused them, even if you blame Him. In all good relationships, we must go to the one that’s hurt us and tell them. If we don’t get honest with God when he’s hurt us, that chasm between him and us will only grow. That resentment takes root and we find ourselves all the further off track without Him. In order to break this barrier between God and ourselves, and find true open relationship with Him, we need to forgive, “let go” of our resentment and wrestle with God. If we look in the bible, especially in the psalms, we see that it’s “ok” to wrestle with how we feel toward God. Psalm 22:1-8 says “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? Oh my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest…All who see me mock me…” David is wrestling with the fact that he feels abandoned by God. Bringing how we feel to God, rather than letting it fester as resentment, will allow for a closer relationship with Him. Bring it to Him, He can take it. Genesis 32:24-28 presents a more literal version of wrestling with God: “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man.
Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak." But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." The man asked him, "What is your name?" "Jacob," he answered. Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome." In the wrestling match, initiated by God, Jacob loses his physical strength and prevails only through prayer, asking for blessing. God breaks his hip, and he is left clinging to God to realize the blessing. When we bring our deep seated feelings to him, and wrestle with Him, we find a way to forgive, to “let go” so that we can rely more on Him and be reconciled.

Another emotional barrier to reconciliation with God is anger. In order to be reconciled to God we have to let go of anger and forgive God. I actually use the word forgive here, because when we feel anger, we have two options forgiveness or vengeance. One time when I was holding our daughter Sophia in the mall, she was about a year old, she rested her head on my shoulder and I thought awwww how cute. Then suddenly I was in intense pain, I was angry as I realized that Sophia was biting my shoulder as hard as she could! I admit, in not the best parenting moment, I questioned whether I should bite her back! I ended up getting over my insane idea pretty quickly and rather than biting her back, getting even, I let it go, I forgave her, as much as a baby needs to be forgiven.
Last Sunday Michael mentioned how about 6 years ago the Amish community demonstrated forgiveness when a man named Charles Roberts killed young Amish girls and then himself. What we didn’t hear last Sunday was why Roberts did what he did. Some of the survivors testify that Roberts, before firing, said to the Amish children “I’m angry at God and I need to punish some Christian girls to get even with Him.” Unknown to most of us, one of Robert’s children, a daughter, had died at birth, an event he believed God could have stopped, yet didn’t. Anger is an immediate emotion that we feel like can only be quenched when we exact vengeance. There is, however, another way to quell the heat of anger. We can respond in forgiveness. Forgiveness is refusing to take vengeance, to lash out. Rather than trying to “get even” with God as Roberts did, we have the option to forgive God. Indeed scientific studies have shown that forgiveness, regardless of the state of the offending party, leads to healthier relationships, less stress and anxiety, and a variety of other beneficial health effects. God, objectively and theologically, doesn’t need to be forgiven, but for our own health and relationships we need to forgive, let go of holding God accountable. When we forgive, when we let go of our anger, we lift a heavy burden off our shoulders, we remove an obstacle and barrier in our lives, and become free in our relationships with each other and with God.

The next two barriers, again, are more theological in nature as they have to do with coming to a true understanding of who God is and who we are. The third barrier to reconciliation with God is the false belief that we can understand everything about God and His plans for creation and us. If you ever meet a preacher who says they know every answer about God then run. God is bigger than our boxes. In order to be reconciled to God we have to forgive, to let go of grasping all of God and “get it” that God is Good. We think that if we just knew WHY we’d be ok, but really if we just know He is good we’ll be ok. When we struggle with anger and resentment, we do so because we want to know why? Why is this happening to me, we want to know all the details. One of the things that I did, when we found at the first ultrasound that out that our daughter Sophia had a major heart defect and might not make it to birth, was to try to understand as completely as possible what was going on. The doctors said upfront that there was no reason, environmental or genetic, that this should have happened to our daughter, but it still helped me to make diagrams and charts of the various defects in her heart. Knowing the details, the reasons both proximal and distant, seems to be built into us. We want to know why and when we don’t get an answer we tend to lay the blame at God. We can forgive, “let go” when we stop trying to grasp all of God, knowing everything He knows and His eternal plan, and rather grasp this one aspect of His character. When we get it, that God is good, when we really get that, then even though we wrestle and that’s ok, we can, like Jacob, move from wrestling to clinging on to God. Just in case you don’t believe me, Psalm 145:9 says “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made” and Exodus 34:6 says "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” I told this story in the 40 days of forgiveness devotionals for this week, and once at our Wednesday morning prayer time in the Oasis, so I apologize if you’ve heard it, but a professor from seminary told me about the difficulties he had with raising a son with a genetic disorder. His son, while appearing to be a grown man in his twenties, had the mind and coordination of a small child. One day they went on a bike ride together. Because his son wasn’t able to keep his balance alone, they rode a tandem bike (a two-person bike)
so that his son could ride in the front and feel independence while the father maintained the balance in the back of the bike. One day as they came around a bend they went through a sandy patch. The bike swayed heavily from side to side but the father managed to keep the balance. When he was able to stop the bike, his son looked back at him, not fully understanding what had happened, seething with anger, and said “Don’t ever do that to me again!” When we realize that there is so much that we don’t know, (like this man’s son), so much that is beyond our comprehension, when we stop trying to grasp all of God and really get it that God is good, and our true loving Father then we can forgive, “let go” and find ourselves in a closer and more trusting relationship with Him.

The final barrier is similar to the last and this barrier to reconciliation with God is our selves. We have to “let go” of ego and accept our existence. We have to come to an acceptance that we are creation and God is Creator.
We exist, because God created us and there is an immeasurable gap between ourselves and God though we often like to put ourselves on equal terms. We need to let go of the feeling like God owes us some sort of explanation. If you want to read in the bible about suffering, read in the Old Testament the book of Job. That guy has it rough for sure. The way the book ends, after all the wrestling and struggling that Job has with the various evils that befall him, is that God comes to Job and He says “Dress for action like man”, it literally reads “gird your loins” because I am going to question you. The whole book, Job has been questioning God, Why? Why is this happening, I’m righteous. Now at the end of the book, God questions Job and in a series of questions that illustrate the vast difference between our Creator and ourselves as creation, Job is silenced. He is silenced because He recognizes who God is and he lets go any ego he might have had in thinking he could question God. The Westminster Shorter Catechism starts with the question: What is the chief end of man? The answer given, is that the chief end of man, or the chief purpose of our existence, is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. When we let go of ourselves, our egos, and accept our existence and purpose to bring God glory, even if it involves suffering and not understanding everything, that we are the creation and He is the Creator, then we can forgive, “let go” of another barrier to being reconciled with God.
Finally, in this mystery of suffering we turn to the one who wrestled rather than resenting, one who knew and trusted in God’s goodness and plan, and the one who let go of ego, despite immense suffering, the one who conquered our rage: Jesus Christ. Jesus on the cross cried, quoting Psalm 22 that we looked at earlier, “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” He asks why? Jesus says the night before “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me” (Luke 22:42) speaking of His crucifixion. Jesus wrestles and prays with the suffering he has to endure, he was “in aguish…and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:44) Jesus was one who let go of resentment and anger as he wrestled with his suffering. He certainly let go of any ego, humbling himself as a servant in obedience to the point of death on a cross. While in the moment it seems as though all is lost as Jesus cries “My God, My God WHY have you forsaken me?” Yet we know this is a moment, as our lives are but a moment. If we continue to read the psalm that Jesus quotes we read that the same one who said WHY also later says: “Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him, but has listened to his cry for help.” We know that God did hear Jesus, even though He proceeded to go through unimaginable suffering. This suffering became the path to which Jesus was glorified, his name above all names, as he was resurrected and eventually ascended to the right hand of the Father in heaven. In doing all this He provided a path, a way, for reconciliation for us with God. We need only forgive, let go of our resentment, anger, grasping, and ego, our rage as enemies of God, in order to receive full and eternal life with God the Father. We recognize today, Palm Sunday, that as Jesus entered the city and the people cried out “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13), that they weren’t proved wrong on Good Friday as Jesus died on a cross. His suffering led to the glory of God and our full reconciliation with Him through Jesus Christ our king. Friends, I “implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Let go and forgive God.