The Philadelphia Story

God’s people here in Crafton Heights are reading our way through I Thessalonians.  This week’s reading, I Thessalonians 4:1-12, contains some pretty explicit advice on how to behave.  Here’s a take on why it’s easier to figure out what to do when we are sure of who we are…

Grandpa's Stories, Georg Johann Christian Urlaub (1846-1914)

Grandpa’s Stories, Georg Johann Christian Urlaub (1846-1914)

Think for a moment about the stories of your family.  What are the tales that are told over and over again, and why are they told?  It seems to me that a part of why we continue to point towards particular events or stories is because we need to be told, or reminded who we are.  For instance, here are stories that I was told as I grew up:

The blizzard came through western New York and closed everything.  Snow was piled so high that roads were closed.  The phones were down.  And yet my grandpa Shutt walked three and a half miles one way up the hill to take a pound of coffee to his sister and her husband.  He wasn’t worried about them, he said.  He wasn’t checking in on them.  He was simply thinking that with the state of emergency and all they might be getting low on coffee.

One Easter we went to stay with my grandma and grandpa, and he shocked me by announcing that he wasn’t going to church.  When asked why, he said, “I have a great seat in that building 50 weeks a year.  There are a lot of people who only come out on Christmas and Easter.  It seems fair that I should give up my prime spot to someone who only comes twice a year.  I’ll be there next week.”

Right before he died, my grandfather gave me a set of books: The Best of the World’s Classics, containing ten volumes of the world’s great learning.  He told me that he’d had to stop schooling after the 4th grade and had never really left home, but as long as he read, there wasn’t any place he couldn’t go and nothing he couldn’t learn.

Why was I told those stories?  What did my family need me to know about myself?  That I am a part of a group that cares for each other, that values every day acts of faith and obedience, and that knows that learning does not only take place in schoolrooms.  We tell our stories so that we know and remember who we are, don’t we?

So far, Paul has done a lot of work in his brief letter to the Christians in Thessalonica.  He has reminded them about stories that tell them who they are – they are faithful servants from a variety of backgrounds who have been chosen by God for service in the world.  He has reminded them about who he and Timothy and Sylvanus are: apostles – people who have been sent to be examples of the love of Jesus in the world.  Paul has reminded them that the Thessalonians and Paul’s group have been forged together as a family of faith – one that shares deep and intimate bonds of love and affection.  And he has reminded them that God is using the Christians in Thessalonica to bear witness to the love and grace that is found in Jesus Christ – a witness that is pointing to truth for the first time on the continent of Europe and that is encouraging the church in faraway places like Jerusalem and Antioch.

That, says Paul, is who we are.  Do you remember who you are?  Once they can see and claim that identity, then Paul shifts his line of thinking to what they should do.  I Thessalonians 4 is the first real ethical instruction of the letter – and I would suggest that it comes here because what we do is grounded in who we are.  When you know who you are, you have a clue as to what you should do.  In I Thessalonians, Paul reminds his friends that they are brothers and sisters in long-term relationship.  In the strength of that relationship, then, Paul dares to speak to them about how they should live.

perapatienOur passage today starts and ends with an important word: in both verses 1 and 12 we see the word peripatein – the Greek word that means “walk” or “live”.  This is a passage that tells the believers that their faith in Jesus Christ is more than a set of ideas, it contains an imperative for right living as well.  And for Paul, writing to the believers in Thessalonica two thousand years ago, the hallmark of what it meant to live well was to live a life that was marked by faithfulness and integrity in the intimate relationships of life.

This is a passage that has some very confusing and very interesting translation issues.  If we were to look in the pew bibles, verse 4 would read as follows: “that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor…”

4-4And as you heard a few moments ago, the NIV and other more current translations read: “ that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable…”

That seems like a big leap!  The literal translation is, “that each of you should know of himself a vessel in a way that is holy and honorable…”

Earlier translations read the word “vessel” and saw that there were some sort of property rights involved, and so assumed that the “vessel” was the wife that you would possess.  However, better translations indicate that the vessel that we are each most likely to possess is the body that God has give to us.  In other places, Paul speaks of his own body like a “tent” or a “vessel”, so why not here, too?  If that’s the case, then, the point is not that the measure of my faithfulness is the way I control my wife; the measure of my faithfulness is the way that I control myself.

I want to say that again, because I think it’s pretty darn important.  One important measure of my maturity in Jesus Christ is my willingness to exercise a measure of self-control in regards to the choices I make about what I do with my body.

The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo (1511)

The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo (1511)

Why does this matter?  Well, to start at the beginning, how did I get here, according to the Bible?  I was created.  I was given a self that is comprised of body, mind, and spirit.  And when I was given that self, what else was I given?  According to Genesis, I was given a job.  Remember when God put the man in the Garden and told him to take care of it?

The physical plane matters to God. Humanity, in our present form of body, mind, and spirit, is a whole that relates to the Creator and the creation in ways that are supposed to reflect the intentions of the creator.  If I go around treating my body, or this world, as if it’s not important or somehow disconnected with the rest of the universe, then I am failing to honor God for who God is.

And let’s pay attention to what this passage is not saying.  Nowhere does it say that if we live in a measure of purity or self-control, God will like us any better.  There are no bonus points in heaven for acting a little better than the person sitting next to you.  No, we act with self-control and discipline because we want to please God.  Because it is right.

The truth of the Christian life is that no one is free to do whatever we feel like doing at the moment.  Such utter and absolute freedom is a Divine attribute.  We are not God.  God is God.  We are created to live lives of holiness and honor that point to God.

Now I understand how it’s a lot easier to think about this in the negative. Christians read passages like this and say, “See!  It’s right there in the Good Book.  God doesn’t want you sleeping around, or chewing tobacco, or getting drunk.  Nope, God doesn’t like any of that stuff, so straighten up and fly right, Mister.”

The problem with that is that it sets a low bar and a negative expectation.  We were not created to avoid wrong; we were not created so that we could try hard to do a little better tomorrow.  We were created so that we could honor God.

And how do we do that?  How do we live positively?  It’s right there in verses 9-12.  The way in which we respond to God’s gift of life is to love and care for one another.  Paul closes this section on “right living” with a call for “brotherly love.”  The Greek word is philadelphios.  The best way to live, he says, is with an eye towards and a care of one another that is rooted in self-care, self-respect, hard work and gracious behavior.  I know that when you hear “Philadelphia”, you think of self-care, self-respect, hard work, and gracious behavior, right?

I think this is why Paul chooses to use human sexuality as a focus for right living.  Remember, Paul is writing from Corinth.  Perhaps the defining characteristic of this town was its focus on sexual pleasure.  A Greek traveler wrote this about that town:

The temple of Aphrodite was once so rich that it had acquired more than a thousand prostitutes, donated by both men and women to the service of the goddess. And because of them, the city used to be jam-packed and became wealthy. The ship-captains would spend fortunes there, and so the proverb says: “The voyage to Corinth isn’t for just any man.”[1]

For people in that place at that time, worship of a goddess (Aphrodite) was wrapped up in sexual behavior.  Paul says that what we do with our bodies does matter.  When I decide to do what I want, when I want, where I want, and with whom I want – in any area of my life – then the focus is on me, my rights, and my desires.  And that kind of living makes sense in a closed universe where there is no greater good, no larger story in which I see myself.

But what if we are called to live the philadelphia story?  What if I realize that if all I focus in on is me, and what makes me happy and what I want, then that negates the idea that you are valuable, that you have needs and hopes and fears and wishes too?  What if I realize that while I may want all kinds of things, none of those things may be best for me?  That what I want, in fact, could wind up diminishing you or leading to pain for someone else?

Our story, Paul says, is one of interconnectedness and interdependence. We are all given gifts of life and possibility by the Lord.  The way that we respond to those gifts is not by going out there and grabbing all that we can, treating other people as either objects to fulfill my desire or impediments to it.  The way that we say “thank you” for the gifts that we have received is by living with humility and grace, with honesty and service.  With love.

What would this community look like if we committed to living this way for the next six months?  If the church of Jesus Christ acted like this, I believe that we would see more joy and more celebration than we ever have before.  The dull grey routine of religious monotony would be replaced by a celebration of the gifts that God has showered upon us.  Paul is not telling us to be holy because God is angry at us wants to limit our fun.  Paul is telling us to be holy because that’s the way that we were created and when we live into our design like that, good things will happen.

Listen again to what Paul says here, this time in a translation by Eugene Peterson:

One final word, friends. We ask you—urge is more like it—that you keep on doing what we told you to do to please God, not in a dogged religious plod, but in a living, spirited dance. You know the guidelines we laid out for you from the Master Jesus. God wants you to live a pure life.

dancing 3Keep yourselves from sexual promiscuity.

Learn to appreciate and give dignity to your body, not abusing it, as is so common among those who know nothing of God.

Don’t run roughshod over the concerns of your brothers and sisters. Their concerns are God’s concerns, and he will take care of them. We’ve warned you about this before. God hasn’t invited us into a disorderly, unkempt life but into something holy and beautiful—as beautiful on the inside as the outside.

If you disregard this advice, you’re not offending your neighbors; you’re rejecting God, who is making you a gift of his Holy Spirit.

Regarding life together and getting along with each other, you don’t need me to tell you what to do. You’re God-taught in these matters. Just love one another! You’re already good at it; your friends all over the province of Macedonia are the evidence. Keep it up; get better and better at it.

Stay calm; mind your own business; do your own job. You’ve heard all this from us before, but a reminder never hurts. We want you living in a way that will command the respect of outsiders, not lying around sponging off your friends.

That, my friends, is your story.  That is our story.  May we be blessed to live into it and share it with those who are yet to come.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1] Strabo, a geographer, is quoted at http://thesmartset.com/article/article11210701.aspx

Friendship With A Purpose

In these post – Easter days, the saints at Crafton Heights are spending time studying the first letter of Paul to his friends in Thessalonica.  So far as we know, it’s the first written record of a response to the resurrection.  Our text for April 21, 2013 was I Thessalonians 2:17-3:13

Not long ago, I spent a considerable amount of time with a man who was in a profound crisis.  This man had just experienced a spectacular “fail” in his personal life…and it had become public.  He made a bad decision – actually, an entire series of bad decisions – that wound up causing great pain, disruption to himself, to people he loved, family, etc.  When his shame and his pain were great, he called and asked to meet with me.

LonelinessAs we sat at lunch, I asked him, “How did you get here?  What happened in your life that made this seem to be a good idea?  Surely you did not want this outcome, I can see.”
He thought about it for a while and said,  “Dave, it was a long road.  I didn’t know what I was doing at first, but before long, I could see it coming.  It was like a train wreck – it seemed inevitable.  I couldn’t see any way out – and so I kept on doing what I wanted to do even though I knew that it would blow up.”

I didn’t know this person well, but I knew that he had two jobs.  The one he worked alone – which meant that he spent a lot of time essentially unaccountable to anyone (as long as he turned in his reports on time and that sort of thing).   At the other, however, he saw the same three or four guys with great frequency.  They spent hours in the same room every single week.  And, I learned, this was not only at work, but it involved some personal time, too.  When I learned of these men, I asked him, “What about those four guys?  They are with you all the time.  Didn’t they see it coming?”

He shrugged.  “I guess so.  I mean, nobody said anything to me about it.  The truth is, Dave, we don’t talk.  I mean, we work together and hang out and all, but we’re not really friends.”

I pressed him on this one a little, and said, “OK, then, who ARE your friends?”

He was silent for a few moments, and then he looked at me and said simply, “You are, Dave.”

Houston, we have a problem.  A guy you have lunch with 2 or 3 times a year qualifies as a  “friend”?  Don’t get me wrong – I’m a great guy.  And there are several people that I see a couple or three times a year that I would say are my “friends”.  But none of those people are my only friends.  I am not counting on any of those people to have a meaningful impact on my daily life.  If the closest thing that you have to a friend is a bucket of wings with me twice a year, you have a problem.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “We take care of our health, we lay up money, we make our roof tight, and our clothing sufficient, but who provides wisely that he shall not be wanting in the best of all property – friends?”

I thought of that when I read today’s reading from I Thessalonians.  We see here, as we have throughout this series, Paul’s deep passion for the Gospel, for Christ, and for the church.  He is, at his core, committed to helping this institution get grounded and solidified.

We have also noted Paul’s deep passion, respect, and love for a group of men that includes Timothy and Silvanus (the other authors of this letter) as well as Titus, Barnabas, and other leaders in the church.

Last week, we took apart chapter two, and noted his heartfelt love for the people of Thessalonica.  Do you remember the array of language that he employed to discuss the depths of his bonds with the church there?  He couldn’t mix his metaphors fast enough to get at the depths of intimacy that he sought with them – in various points, he was a baby, a mother, a father, a brother, and an orphan… It’s easy to see here the depths of his love for this community.

Today we see how that sense of connection works its way out in their lives and relationships.  Remember, Paul had left Thessalonica after having been beaten by an angry mob which then, in fact, pursued him into the next town over.  From there, he eventually made his way to Athens and then Corinth – but as it says in verse one of chapter three, he couldn’t take it any longer.  The sense of isolation was too great, and so he sent Timothy back up to at least see how things were going and to bring his greetings to them.

Timothy, as you heard, brings great news, which creates an explosion of joy from Paul.  He then closes this section of the letter with a prayer for their reunion so that their faith might be deepened.

He is not eager to see them so that they can synch their iPods, or get caught up on the big game, or compare pictures of their grandkids. None of those things are bad – but that’s not why he wants to get together.  He wants to be together because he believes that somehow, he and the leaders of the church in Thessalonica make each other better people and more faithful followers of Christ.

Beloved, friendship is a spiritual issue.  Who you let into your life, and how, has a great effect on the way that life plays itself out.

And if friendship is a spiritual issue, then it would follow that loneliness is a spiritual problem.  In fact, Genesis 2:18 describes the first man walking around the earth and God says, “This is not good”.  In the Genesis narrative, sin and rebellion – evil – has not yet entered the world.  But the fact that the man is lonely is not good.

Detail from Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam" on the Sistine Chapel in Rome

Detail from Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” on the Sistine Chapel in Rome

I have a theological basis for what I’m saying.  If I asked you how we were made, I hope that sooner or later someone would get around to saying that humanity is created in the image of God – that something of who and how God is is central to who and how we are.

You know that God exists in community of three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  To be God is, by definition, to be in relationship.

It would seem to me, then, logical to say that a part of what it means for us to be humans is to confess that we exist in community.  We were created for relationship.

Yeah, I get it Dave.  Look, don’t worry about me.  I have lots of friends…

Do you?  I’m not talking about

  • Facebook friends – the kind of friend I’m talking about is someone that a) you know and b) you care about and c) you respect.
  • People who come over and watch the game with you, or who will go fishing with you
  • Not beer-drinking, adventure chasing, adrenaline junkies.

true_friendshipAnd it would seem that we are obsessed with friendship in our culture.  How can I justify spending an entire sermon on something that we talk about so much?  You can’t get away from idea of friendship!  Just turn on your computer and look what shows up – All kinds of photos and sayings and quotes about friendship.  Usually cute kids or animals involved, or a lot of nostalgia about the kinds of friends we used to have.  We use kids and animals when we talk about friendship because we think, somehow, that friendship is childish.
friendship_quote_graphic_c2Having said all that, I would submit that many people today have few, if any, real friends.  We don’t know how to talk with someone about meaningful issues and observations without either a) thinking that there is a romantic relationship blooming or b) choosing sides in a current political or sports debate.

Interesting to note that the church today spends so much time exalting marriage, lifting it up, praising it…despite the fact that our founder, Jesus, never married; the most influential 1st century advocate for faith, Paul, actually recommended against it – yet both of these men spent substantial time developing, pursuing, growing intentional relationships with friends (Jesus and the 12, Paul and Timothy, Titus, Silas, Barnabas…).  Real and intimate friendship was crucial to the life of the early church.

Saints Sergius and Bacchus (Seventh Century Mural)

Saints Sergius and Bacchus
(Seventh Century Mural)

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, there is a ceremony called adelphopoiesis, which is literally translated as “brother-making.”  In much of the church’s story, friendship plays a prominent role – and there is a precedent for intentional friendships to be blessed by the community.  The church believed that it was important for people to be connected intimately and honestly with each other.  Again, when I say “intimate”, please do not think of sexuality.  There are some revisionist historians who have confused this rite with same-sex marriage.  We can talk about same-sex marriage if you like, but not now – because that’s not the meaning behind the practice of adelphopoiesis.

And when I talk about the idea of intentional friendship, please know that it is not my intention to denigrate marriage – I like my wife.  I love my wife.  But she is not my only friend.

In fact, I sometimes wonder about the ways that the death of a spouse affects us.  I see people who have been brought to the brink of such deep and profound grief.  Could it be because in some cases, that means that we have lost our only friend in the world?

Do you have friends?

If you were suddenly home-bound, unable to get out, who would come to see you?  Who would come twice?

If you had something gnawing at you, to whom would you turn to for advice/input/support?

If you were in the situation I described at the beginning of this message, who would call you out before the fail went viral, and prevent you from engaging in such self-destructive behavior?

Who do you spend time with that knows you, that loves you, and that helps you to be a better person?

You know, of course, that this is hard work.  This kind of relationship takes energy, intentionality, discipline, risk.  It’s a lot easier to just hang around and watch the game, to be honest.

Yet this kind of friendship is what we were made for.

To return to Ralph Waldo Emerson, he also said “The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, not the kindly smile, nor the joy of companionship; it is the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when you discover that someone else believes in you and is willing to trust you with a friendship.”

So I have some homework for you this week.  I wonder if you can be intentional with at least one other person.  I am asking you to check in with that person.

–      ask about that person’s “real self”

–      share your real self with the other

–      don’t just spend time, or share stuff; spend and share your being with another

Ask about the possibility of being friends, or about the state of your relationship.

We are charged with helping each other grow.  How are we doing on this?  In what ways are we engaging and equipping each other to do the things for which God created us?

Left-Handed Living

The saints at the Crafton Heights U.P. Church are continuing to study Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica as we seek to understand how the earliest Christians responded to the news of Jesus’ resurrection.  The text for April 14 was I Thessalonians 2:1-16. One of the key components of our worship was teh Children’s Sermon, which included viewing a rendition of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. You can view that link below.

This is not a news flash to anyone who has known me for more than fifteen minutes, but I love children.  Just about the best part of any day for me is when I have special time with a young person.

One day I was caring for a child and as a part of the day’s activities, I read her The Giving Tree.  At the close of our day together, when I reported to mom all the things we’d done, she scolded me when she heard about my literary selection.  The woman said, “I appreciate your willingness to care for and your love for my daughter, but I would be grateful if, from here on, you would not teach her to sacrifice herself or that it’s ok to bend herself to the whim of every other person who walks past.  If you teach my daughter anything, Dave, I would appreciate it if you would tell her to stand up for herself, to be proud, to change the world on her own terms.  Do not, please, teach her how to be a self-emptying, self-denying passive person.”

Wow.  To say “I didn’t see that coming” would be an understatement.  I was totally caught off guard by that comment – I’d never read that book that way at all.  I had (and have) always seen it as a story of love that gives itself in gentleness and tenderness.  I have seen the tree as Christ-like in her willingness to care for and shelter the beloved, even at cost to herself.

Paul Preaching to the GentilesMural in St. Paul’s Church, Tranquillity, CA (20th c.)

Paul Preaching to the Gentiles   Mural in St. Paul’s Church, Tranquillity, CA (20th c.)

I thought of that story this week as I continued our study of I Thessalonians.  In chapter 2, Paul reminds his friends about the way that they met – how he had come to them after being ridden out of town on a rail by the citizens of Philippi.  In spite of the beating and the jailing that Paul and his companions had received in that northern city, they were given the courage to speak the truth of God to the people of Thessalonica.

Did you notice how Paul rehearsed the story of their relationship?  He begins with a series of disarming statements – he lays out everything that was not happening when he arrived in Thessalonica to preach the Gospel.  He did not tell stories; there were no lies.  He and his colleagues were not there in order to be liked or to win the admiration of the locals, and he did not seek personal financial profit from the deal.  There were no demands from Paul or the others.

After explicitly stating the list of things that never occurred, Paul then goes on to say what did happen.

First, the team worked night and day. When they weren’t preaching or teaching, they were earning their own living so as not to further impoverish the people of Thessalonica.  And whereas in ancient times it was perfectly acceptable for a philosopher to charge his students a fee for the enlightenment he offered, Paul goes to great lengths to say that he and Timothy and Sylvanus gave the truth away to the people they met.  They treated the folks in Thessalonica right, and they gave not only the truth of the Gospel, but themselves.

That’s what they did.  Did you notice how they did it?  This chapter is soaked through with the language of relationships.  Last week I mentioned the frequency with which Paul referred to the Thessalonians as “brothers” (or “brothers and sisters”).  Perhaps you noticed that he used that expression three times in this reading.  But it’s more than that.  In verse 7, he says that he and his colleagues were “gentle”.  If you look at the footnotes in your bible, you’ll see that the oldest versions of the text indicate that the word Paul used was “infants”.  In the original Greek, there’s only one letter differentiating the word for “infant” from the word for “gentle”.

I prefer the older reading, and I prefer it because it fits in with the progression that Paul is establishing.  First, he says that they came to Thessalonica as “babes in the woods” – that is, as helpless, dependent, and inoffensive people.  Next, he says that they were as devoted as a nurse caring for her own children.  In Paul’s day, it was not uncommon for a parent to hire a woman to serve as a wet nurse for an infant.  And while there is, of course, a certain bond that exists between a woman and the child whom she nurses, the connection is far deeper, and far more intimate, between the woman and her own flesh and blood.

Then Paul interrupts himself to call them his brothers and sisters, and indicates that he behaved like a father to them – calling, nurturing, caring, and guiding the Thessalonians.  Later in this chapter, in verse 17, he indicates that when he was compelled to be absent from the Thessalonian Christians, he felt like an orphan.

Do you see the depth of relationship that he is trying to describe here?  Paul says that his connection with the believers in Thessalonica was intimate.  I want to explore this further by noting that all of these relationships are relationships which have some power component – but we need to see that in every case, that power is a power that is yielded, rather than seized.

An infant is powerless before its parents – totally dependent.  And while a nursing mother has power over her child, in this context, the mom is seen as giving up her self – giving her sleep, her calories, her substance – for her child.  The imagery of the father that Paul employs is that of one who urges and encourages and pleads.  This is not some “king of the castle” who comes in and lays down the law.

Martin Luther, one of the great teachers of the church, made a helpful distinction between “right-handed power” and “left-handed power”.  Right-handed power relies on enforcement of rules and imposition of one’s will.  The police officer who stops you from speeding, the fork you use to eat your spaghetti, the mother who drags her toddler by the hand across the busy street – these are all fine examples of the ways that straight-line, direct power is useful in allowing us to get things done in the world.

But right-handed power can never inspire or redeem or create.  At best, it limits injustice or abuse; at worst, it destroys.  When we want to respect, nurture, strengthen, and encourage, we need left-handed power.  When we want to inspire and motivate and love, we need power that gives itself.  Power that is made known in forgiving or in suffering.  Martin Luther King Jr. referenced this kind of power when he said to his tormentors, “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you…”[1]  Dr. King knew, and Martin Luther knew, and Paul knew, that the cross of Jesus Christ is the left hand of God’s power – and Paul wants to make sure that the people of Thessalonica know that he is unwilling to act as a typical religious leader and impose his will on them – he is among them as one who serves, who suffers, who gives, and who shares.[2]

A mural in Berea depicting Paul's preaching.  Note the diverse nature of his audience: a Jew, a Greek scholar, a woman, a slave, a sick man.

A mural in Berea depicting Paul’s preaching. Note the diverse nature of his audience: a Jew, a Greek scholar, a woman, a slave, a sick man.

What did Paul do?  He lived among the people of Thessalonica, working hard to impart the truth of Christ’s reconciling love.  How did he do it? By modeling that love in the midst of relationships based on vulnerability and trust.  And now, WHY did he do it? So that the people who God loved in Thessalonica would know the life-changing love of God in Christ, that they might be strengthened to make better choices in their own lives, and that they might become imitators of that love and grace in the lives of others.

Ask yourself, now: what are the implications of that kind of life, of those kinds of relationship, of that kind of reconciliation, for the 21st century?

Can we not see here that a significant part of what it means to live as a Christ-follower in 2013 is that we are called to be gentle and to be flexible and to be yielding and to be generous?

What would our families, our church, our community, and our city look like if we all adopted this manner of living – if we faced each other in humility and gentleness; if we sought to listen to, encourage, and forgive each other?

I’m pretty sure that there would be less talk radio.  Facebook would look different.  Sales of games like Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, and Grand Theft Auto would probably drop.  I think that we’d find the world to be a safer, less violent place.

And right now, I know that there are dozens of voices screaming in dozens of heads, “I can’t take this any more!  What a load of naïve, idealistic, simplistic hooey!”

Years ago I was accosted by a neighbor who knew that I was a follower of Jesus.  She came up to me and poked me in the chest and said, “I know you think that you’re a good person because you’re Christian.  You probably know that I think you’re foolish.  Do you know why?  I’ll tell you why.  What’s the main message of the New Testament?”  I stammered out something about loving God and loving our neighbor and she jabbed me again and said, “You are wrong.  The entire New Testament teaches one thing: if you are a good person, if you go around loving your neighbor and forgiving your enemies and giving yourself to others, well, then, don’t be surprised when they crucify you.”

And she is right, of course.  Jesus, Paul, and all of the Christ-followers in the New Testament put themselves, with great regularity, in positions where other people could pound on them with seeming importunity.

Yet they also used the moral authority that their suffering gave to them as a means of inviting and calling others to walk more closely with God.

Listen to me: Pastor Dave is not telling you that if your life is miserable, you are supposed to roll over and take it.

If you are in a relationship where a man is laying his hands on you, God does not want you to let him go on beating you.

If your girlfriend or your daughter is using all your money to buy drugs, God does not want you to go out and get a second job so that there’s more money in the house.

If your son has wrecked three of your cars, God does not want you to feel guilty about giving that boy a bus pass.

Paul, and God through Paul, is inviting us to join him in urging and encouraging and pleading with others so that they will live a life worthy of God, who is calling them into his Kingdom (v. 12, my paraphrase).

I am saying that our calling is to show and live the grace of Jesus Christ, and that can mean that sometimes we place ourselves in positions where we can and will get hurt.  But you need to know that God is not calling you to live in a place where your humanity, your personhood is threatened by someone else, and where you are constantly used or misused as an object by someone else.  To put it another way, God wants you to live in relationships where you are free to give of yourself, not in bondage where other people are chiseling away at who you are.

So if I babysit your kids, I may read them The Giving Tree.  Because I love that story and even more, I love the story behind that story.  I love it the way that Shel Silverstein tells it, the way that Paul told it, the way that Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Nelson Mandela told it.  And I love it the way that I have heard it through my wife, and through my friends who have loved me when I have been at my worst; through so many in this community, and in the church here, and in the church in Malawi.

We have been blessed with an unconditional, generous, reconciling love.  What else can I do but seek to live that way in return?  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1] A Christmas Sermon for Peace on Dec 24, 1967

[2] For a more thorough exploration of this, I heartily recommend Robert Capon’s The Parables of the Kingdom, which devotes an entire section to the paradox of power in the life of Christ.

Hold Fast

Last week, we celebrated the resurrection of Christ.  On this, the first Sunday of Eastertide, we began an exploration of the ways that the first believers lived their way into the Good News.  In doing so, we considered I Thessalonians 1:1-10.

If you were to order the books of the New Testament according to the date on which they were written, you wouldn’t start with Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.  You wouldn’t start with one of those big impressive epistles that lay out so neatly what it means to believe in Christ and how we come to saving faith in his name.

Nope, if you wanted to lay out the books of the New Testament in order, you’d start with a little note from the Apostle Paul to the Christians in the town of Thessalonica.  Last week, we celebrated the resurrection.  This is the first written record we have of the ways that people in the first century responded to the news that Jesus had risen from the dead, and it dates from about 51 AD.  For the next few weeks, we’re going to be spending some time reading other people’s mail – looking at this letter in the hopes that we can grow in our understanding of the faith by considering the example of our earliest brothers and sisters.

Did you ever have one of those days when nobody notices anything that you do right, and when things start to go poorly for you, it seems like nobody cares?  The Apostle Paul was having one of those years.

Paul, as you might remember, was not one of the original followers of Jesus.  In fact, he was out to kill Christians in the days just following Jesus’ resurrection.  He had a vision of the risen Christ, however, that changed his life and he began preaching like nobody’s business.  Everyone he met, from peasants to kings, heard about the amazing power and grace of Jesus.  And if you read the New Testament, you’ll see that he got pretty good at it…but it started rough.  Here’s what happened to Paul right before he wrote this little booklet of I Thessalonians.

Paul's journey from Troas (in Turkey) across the Aegean to Macedonia and Greece.

Paul’s journey from Troas (in Turkey) across the Aegean to Macedonia and Greece.

First, he was over in Asia – a part of what we call Turkey now.  He had a vision to go over to preach in Macedonia and Greece in Europe.  So he made the journey across the Aegean Sea and wound up in Philippi.  He was beaten and arrested and eventually escorted out of town.  So he headed south a few miles and found himself in Thessalonica, the capital and largest city of the region of Macedonia.  It sat squarely on the highway called the Via Egnatia, a road that connected Rome to the important seaports that lined the Aegean.  Thessalonica was a thriving town that had a population of close to a hundred thousand, including a sizable number of Jews.

I took this photo of the Via Egnatia in 2008.  The road is used by pedestrians to this day.

I took this photo of the Via Egnatia in 2008. The road is used by pedestrians to this day.

Paul was received well by the community, but after a few weeks, he had managed to alienate some significant leaders in the Jewish community, and when he tried to preach they incited a mob to turn against him.  He was hustled out of town and went a little further south to Berea.  He picked up where he left off, until some of the Thessalonians heard where he was and they sent a mob off to rough him up a bit.  His friends Silas and Timothy figured that he needed to get out of town, and so they shipped him down to Athens and told him to stay out of trouble.

Right.

He started preaching in Athens, but became “deeply distressed” by the lack of belief and the number of people who simply scoffed at his appeal.  He left Athens and made his way to Corinth, where he was so disheartened that he was only able to preach with what he called “weakness and fear and much trembling”.  That is hardly a description of the bombastic sort that he is often made out to be!  But when you stop to think about it, for a period of some months, he had been beaten down, figuratively and literally, in every place.  He was sure that God had called him to come over to Europe, but he had seen nothing but difficulty.

A mural in Berea depicting Paul's preaching.  Note the diverse nature of his audience: a Jew, a Greek scholar, a woman, a slave, a sick man.

A mural in Berea depicting Paul’s preaching. Note the diverse nature of his audience: a Jew, a Greek scholar, a woman, a slave, a sick man.

After a few weeks in Corinth, he had a visit from Timothy, who brought news from the Christians in Thessalonica.  Now, remember, the last time Paul saw Thessalonica, he was being dragged out of town by the police.  The last people he saw from Thessalonica were the tough guys who came down to Berea to make sure that he forgot where Thessalonica was.  So what is Timothy’s report going to say?

Maybe the word from Thessalonica is, “You know, Paul, this is great!  Since we began to follow in the Way of Christ, all our problems are gone!  The Romans – turns out they’re not such bad guys.  Those religious people that tried to kill you? They came to the pot luck last night.  Things down at the salt mine are better, we have more money than ever before, our children are better behaved – the Lord is really just blessing our socks off.  Thanks for telling us about Jesus, Paul….”

Nope.  That’s most definitely NOT what Timothy said.

Here’s what he did say – that the believers in Thessalonica can see God at work.  It’s tough going, they say, but they knew that going into it – they’d seen as much in Paul, as a matter of fact.  There is some persecution, there are some significant challenges – but they are carrying on.  The bottom line, they say, is that they are a changed people – NOT because they hit the cosmic lottery or because God has sent them amazing prosperity as a reward for believing the right things about him – they are a changed people because Christ has become real to and among them.

What has happened in the lives of these men and women from Thessalonica is that there has been a complete turnaround.  The God of the Bible – in fact, the Bible itself – was unknown to them.  Verse 9 tells us that the Thessalonians “turned to God from idols” – in other words, it’s not as if they were Jews who knew and accepted the truth of the Old Testament and then saw Jesus as its fulfillment.  No, they had been totally outsiders to the faith, and now have come to know Jesus as Lord and Savior.

How significant was the change in their lives?  Well, consider this.  In verse 4, Paul uses a little word to describe the believers in Thessalonica: he calls them “brothers.”  In fact, if someone with a lot of time on his hands, say, some preacher in the midst of the “slow week” after Easter…if someone like that was to go through the first and second letters to the Thessalonians, he would discover that Paul uses that word – “brothers” – twenty four times­ in these five pages. That’s more often than Paul uses the word “brothers” anywhere else, with the exception of 1 Corinthians, which is nearly three times as long.

Paul Preaching to the Gentiles, Mural in St. Paul’s Church, Tranquillity, CA (20th c.)

Paul Preaching to the Gentiles , Mural in St. Paul’s Church, Tranquillity, CA (20th c.)

Do you see? Paul is simply overwhelmed.  Paul, this proud old Pharisee with an stellar education and an outstanding lineage, is writing to a group of former pagans and slaves and intellectuals and merchants – those whom he used to see as adversaries or contemptible and unclean…and he can’t stop calling them “brother” or “sister”.  What happened here?  What would change a relationship like that?

The power of Christ revealed in suffering. They were not changed from Paul’s tormentors or adversaries to Paul’s brothers because they hit the lottery.  They were transformed by sharing in the hard times.

How do you act when things get tough?  What does struggling reveal about your character?  In some way, isn’t it the difficult times that make us who we are?

Just think for a moment about a time in your life when you felt as if you grew somehow.  A time when you knew that somehow, you had become a better person.  I would imagine that more often than not, that has been a time rooted in challenge or difficulty – you faced something frightening or daunting, you worked through it, and you came out on the other side better equipped to live the life that God has for you.

When I say that the Bible talks about “faith, hope, and love,” what do you think of?  “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three. And the greatest of these is love.” (I Cor. 13:13)  That’s from the “Wedding Hall of Fame,” right?  We know faith, hope, and love!  We get a little teary just thinking about them.

But look at how Paul speaks to those three in this letter – the letter that was, need I remind you, written prior to I Corinthians.  He remembers their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope.”  These three qualities are not little presents that we find under the tree at Christmas or even in the box of cards at a wedding…in fact, they are not, in this sense, things that we possess at all.  Instead, they are disciplines that we seek to practice.  They are qualities in which we seek to be active.

The Thessalonians were transformed, not because God came and sprinkled a little Jesus Joy on top of them and made everything all better, but because they had learned, from Paul, that it’s possible to stick things out and to see the power of resurrection in the every day trials of life.  And they were able to see this power, says Paul, because they practiced it.  They sought to become better at being people of faith; they sought to grow in their ability to be people who loved; they sought to improve the quality and quantity of their hope.

C.S. Lewis, who wrote The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, in addition to dozens of other stories and works of theology, got it right when he said this:

Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone you will presently come to love him.[1]

We are now in the season of Eastertide – the six weeks following the resurrection where the church not only rejoices in the truth of Christ’s rising from the grave, but actually decide to live as if that resurrection mattered in our own lives.  It is important for us to remember that faith is not a waiting game wherein we watch the blessings pile up because God is just so crazy about us.  The life of faith, the life of resurrection is shown in how we deal with each challenge, each day, and each other.

If we get this right – if we acquire this work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope – then we, too get to be “brothers and sisters”.  We, too, experience a change that comes from becoming the people that God intended us to be. And when we become “brothers and sisters”, then, just as it happened in that little town in Macedonia, God’s name is praised.  And when that happens, then the world really changes.

It started with an empty tomb, and we celebrated that last week.  Today, I need to know, where are the struggles that you face, and whether you think that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is able to deal with the challenges in your life…and whether you will choose to grow in the practices of faith, love, and hope to the end that the resurrection power of God is not confined to a Palestinian cemetery 2000 years ago, but is unleashed in our neighborhood today.

May God bless us as we move into this joyous season of Eastertide, and may he be with us in our challenges and in the ways in which we respond.  Amen.


[1] From Mere Christianity.

Something Fishy

Easter Worship 2013 continued at Crafton Heights as we kept on reading through Luke 24 – the story of Jesus’ appearances on the first Easter.  Check out The God Who Pursues Us for the beginning of this worship.

Ok, I am not making this up.  Because, really, if I was making it up, it would be a better story.  But it’s useful for my purposes now.

Five or eight years ago, I was by myself at a restaurant in some western city – one of those indiscriminate Applebees/TGI Friday’s places that is sort of half-bar, half-restaurant.  There were a lot of TV’s, I remember that.  As I’m sitting there contemplating my next day’s travel, I notice a couple of guys across the room who are looking at me and clearly talking about me.

Fouts1This kind of wierds me out, and so I am feeling to make sure my hair isn’t standing up, or that I don’t have some huge stain on my shirt or something.  Nope, I’m clean.  After a few moments, these fellows come over to my table, carrying a camera, a menu, and a pen.  One of them asks for my autograph.  I stammered a bit, totally caught off guard, and the other one says, “Look, Mr. Fouts, we don’t want to interrupt your dinner, but we’re huge Chargers fans.  Would a picture be out of line?”

Fouts2And then I get it.  Five or six times in my life, someone has confused me with Dan Fouts, the 6’3”, ruggedly handsome Hall of Fame quarterback for the San Diego Chargers from 1973 – 1987.  While the first time I understood how easy it would be for them to confuse my own stunning physique with that of a professional athlete, mostly I wonder, “Do all white guys with beards look alike to you, or what?”

When I explained to the gents at the bar that I was only a pastor from Pittsburgh, and their need for my autograph and a snapshot evaporated rather quickly.  It was a simple case of mistaken identity.

Jesus Appears to the Disciples After the Resurrection (Imre Morocz, 2009)

Jesus Appears to the Disciples After the Resurrection (Imre Morocz, 2009)

As I read through the texts that describe the first Easter, I wonder if that’s a part of what was going on.  Our reading for today, which carries on from the one we considered at the earlier service, begins with a gathering of Jesus’ followers.  Cleopas and his friend have just raced back from Emmaus with the news that they shared the road with Jesus.  Peter has declared that he’s seen Jesus.  The women have told their story – the Lord is risen!

But others, it would appear, are not so sure.  They look at their friends and they say, “Look, Pete, it’s been a long weekend.  You need some rest.  Maybe you saw some other bearded guy wearing a long white robe…”

As this conversation is going on, “Jesus himself stood among them.”  And note, beloved, what happens in the room.  The people in this room, many of whom have just claimed to have seen Jesus earlier in the day, are simply terrified.

Why? Because they thought that they were seeing a ghost.  Everything about their reaction indicates that they believed that they were encountering the dead.  They believe that they have been brought into the presence of someone, or something, from another time.  They do not understand what they are seeing – it can only be a spirit from another world.

Jesus, however, does everything he can to insist that they are seeing a living, resurrected body.  They are not in the presence of a reanimated corpse – a body, like their friend Lazarus, that once was dead but then had been resuscitated, only to await the grave a second time.  Jesus goes to great pains to explain to them that they are in the presence of a bodily expression of the Divine being.  The One who stands before them is a living being – a being composed of body, mind, and spirit.  An integrated representation of God the Son, in their living room.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio (1601)

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio (1601)

And while they stand there, looking at him with their jaws on the floor, he says, “Look, it’s me!  Prove it to yourselves.  Handle me.  For crying out loud, give me a sandwich!”

Let me point out, particularly for those who were here for the earlier service, how different this is from his conversation on the road to Emmaus.  When he was walking along with Cleopas and the other earlier on that Easter morning, wasn’t he talking with them about the possibility, and perhaps the necessity of the resurrection as essentially an idea?  Didn’t he use the scriptures and the story of his own life to get them to see that part of what God had in mind was the concept that the Messiah would suffer and die and be raised?

But here in that locked room, it’s not an idea, a concept, or a theory…It’s HIM!  Jesus!  The real deal!  The one who has walked with them and eaten with them and taught them and served them…  Jesus pulls off a “show and tell” lesson to convince his friends that it is really he who has been resurrected.

Allow me to point out two reasons why this is so significant.[1] First, everybody in Jesus’ day – and many, many people in our own, have this notion that at the core of human existence is something called a “soul” that is immortal.  This line of thought is essentially that there is some sort of indestructible form of human existence that is installed in a body when a baby is born and lives on in a place called “heaven” when that person dies – unless the soul is recycled, or reincarnated, into another shell.  When we think about that very long, we see that fundamentally such a view devalues the physical creation.

But how often have you – or have I – fallen into that?  How many times have you walked by a body in a casket and said, “Oh, that’s not old Jim.  Jim is up in heaven now, doing whatever Jim liked to do best on earth.”  As if that body in front of you didn’t contain some Jim-ness.  We sometimes act as if the “soul”, whatever that is, is all that God’s really interested in, and the body is just an unfortunate piece of baggage that the soul has to lug around for six or eight decades.

Friends, there is something fishy about a gospel that proclaims that the body doesn’t matter; there is something that is not right about a gospel that says, “Well, you may not like it now, but it’ll get better.  Bye and bye, there will be pie in the sky…”

Jesus’ insistence that it was HIM who had been raised – a bodily resurrection – smacks that kind of theology in the face.  It shows us that God values creation, and that physicality and matter are important to Him.  God’s future for creation, as shown in Jesus, is not a bunch of spirits hovering around in some undefinable netherworld filled with harp music.  Jesus was the first, but you are included. We will be next.  His invitation for his followers to feel his wounds and to watch him eat lunch is a plea for them to realize that He is who he is – a whole person with a body (although a body that has been transformed by resurrection), a mind, and a spirit.

The second reason that Jesus is so intent on ensuring that his friends know that it is really him is to ensure that they make a vivid connection between the dead Jesus and the risen Christ.  “Look at my wounds!  Do you remember that scar? It’s me!”  The Jesus who died is in fact the Lord who was risen.

So?  Why is that so important?

So if the Jesus who died is in the past, and the Christ who has risen belongs to the present, then we are free to leave buried with Jesus all the things he taught us about honoring the poor, caring for the sick, or suffering for others. If the Jesus we knew and followed is dead and therefore belongs to the past, then there is no imperative for us to engage life in this world.

There is something really fishy about a gospel that is only concerned with the so-called “spiritual life”.  When a person wants to know whether I believe that their soul will make it to heaven, I want to scream that they’re missing half the story.

christ-sending-his-apostles-02The resurrection is God’s declaration that THIS matters.  The three years that Jesus spent healing people, feeding people, caring for the lost, the last, the least, the little, and the dead – they were not some sort of “opening act” for the “real” spiritual message that he was getting ready to give us.  In many ways, they were the message – the message that God, in Jesus the Christ, opens up a whole new way of living in which the blind see, the lame walk, the poor have good news preached to them, and God’s favor is poured out on all nations.  The resurrection is the indication that this way of living is so powerful that nothing – not even death – can quench it!

That way of living began in Jesus, but now, according to Jesus, “You are witnesses of these things.”  We are not spectators.  We have a voice.

Listen: your life is not some sort of preparation period for eternal harp lessons.  You are not here wasting a lot of time doing things that don’t matter (like working, having kids, cutting the grass, baking bread) until that day when your number gets called and you get to die and then your soul can finally get in on the good stuff.

No, you and I are called now – today – to participate in the eternal.  To share in the life that Jesus lived and that he gave to his followers.  Are we limited in this?  Of course we are!  There is sin in the world.  There are fractures.  There is brokenness.

But none of those things are eternal.  None of those things can pass the resurrection test.

But Jesus did.  Love will.  Justice will.  Peace will.  You will.

Let us live that way – as if we are participating in the eternal life of God in Christ, right now – body, mind, and spirit!  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1]   I am indebted to Fred Craddock in his Interpretation commentary on Luke for much of this insight.

The God Who Pursues Us

As Easter broke, the folks at Heights continued our exploration of the meals in scripture that have formed us.  We began our day by remembering the time we walked to Emmaus and encountered a stranger along the road – who became known in the breaking of the bread.  You can read about it in Luke 24:13-35

Some of you know that my wife, Sharon, and I have known each other nearly all our lives.  We met in the playroom at church when we were three years old.  Later, our parents bought homes around the corner from each other.

It might not surprise you to know that when I was a teen, I spent a lot of time at 2641 Majestic Dr. – her house, not mine.  Many afternoons and evenings would find me over there, trolling.  You see, there was usually more food at her place.  And to an adolescent male, it was much better food, too.  I mean, her uncle owned a Pepsi bottling plant!  I wasn’t even allowed to drink soda pop at home, but over at 2641?  Oh, yeah.  Cans of it.  Bottles.

And, of course, Sharon was there.

My experience, I don’t think, is unique.  I would suspect that many of us know someone who always manages to show up for a visit just around dinner time – someone who seems to have a knack for finding our food and enjoying it.

This morning, I’d like to talk about the reverse – the time when the host chased us down and gave us something to eat that we weren’t sure we even wanted, at least at first.

"Emmaus" (Janet Brooks-Gerloff, 1992)

“Emmaus” (Janet Brooks-Gerloff, 1992)

You’ve heard the story from Luke.  In the aftermath of Jesus’ arrest and execution, some of his friends can’t seem to get away fast enough.  They have had enough of violence and death, and so as soon as it’s light on the Sabbath, they’re on their way out of the city.

It’s not an impossible walk, but it’s not an easy one.  The trip from Jerusalem to Emmaus is about the same as walking from Crafton Heights to Robinson Towne Center.  And while Cleopas and his friend are not eager to stay in Jerusalem, they are evidently not in a hurry to arrive in Emmaus.  The walk is drawn out and characterized by a sense of moping and grief.  Other pedestrians were passing them by – but one caught up with them and then slowed to their pace and asked what it was that had them so preoccupied.

And you can sense the despair and the hopelessness in their bearing as they stop – Luke says that they “stood still” – and search for the right words.  They tell this stranger that the world has, for all intents and purposes, ended.  There was a man, but now he’s gone.  He was amazing, but now he’s dead.  They speak about hope as something in the past tense: we had hoped…but we are hopeless now.  Oh, there are some folks who are talking, but to be honest it’s only the women.  Nobody has seen him.

Nobody has seen him, say the men who are looking right at him.  But they have not yet seen him either.

And you know what happens – this stranger joins them on the slow walk.  He helps them to see the revealed purposes of God in scripture.  In fact, this could be the best Bible study of all time…and we don’t even have any notes from it.

We see that they arrive at the village and he continues along the road, only to have them beg him to stay.  Actually, those of you who were here last week and who remember the parable of the Wedding Banquet might recall that the master of the feast sent his servants out to the roads and the highways and “compelled” people to come in.  That same word is repeated here – the travelers “constrain” the stranger to join them.  We need to have people with us.

”Supper at Emmaus" (Rembrandt, 1628)

”Supper at Emmaus” (Rembrandt, 1628)

And so they bring the guest into the home, and as they sit to break the fast, he takes the bread, and blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them.  Take, bless, break, give.  Something clicks in their minds, and they think, “Wait, we’ve seen this before.  Take, bless, break, give…this is what happened when the Master fed the 5,000.  This is what happened when we were with the 4,000.  This is what Jesus did in the Upper Room a couple of days ago…This is…could it be…It’s him!”  They knew!

And what happens next is a complete reversal of their day.  What had been a long, slow, hopeless trudge into isolation and anonymity suddenly becomes a joyous sprint back to Jerusalem, where they can share with the entire community the good news of God’s having found them on the road!

There is, of course, a great deal that could be said about this passage and its application to our lives.  Those of you who have been in worship for the past couple of months know that we’ve been reading about meals that have helped to shape us as God’s people.  As I have considered what this resurrection day feast means to us, the truth that seems to rise to the top is this: Jesus did not give up on the disciples, and he did not force them to be something other than themselves.

This is what I mean by that: that on this day of resurrection, Jesus entered into the place where the disciples were.  He followed them into grief and hopelessness, and he did not rush them through that.  He showed them who he was, and in doing that, he restored them to themselves; he restored them to the larger community; and of course he restored them to a relationship with him.

jesus_Road_To_Emmaus002To be honest, the disciples were not only willing to give up on Jesus – they had given up on him.  And even when they had decided that no matter how much they would have liked to have hope, or how good it would have felt to be able to believe, Cleopas and his friend finally said, “No, that’s just stupid. Jesus is not who we thought he was. I’m not going to risk anything else.  I give up.  I can’t believe this any more.  It can’t be true.”

And what did Jesus do then?  He pursued them.

If you were here on Christmas Eve, you might have heard me use the word “incarnation”.  That’s the theological term that Christians use when we talk about the fact that in Jesus of Nazareth, God became a human.  In that one man, we saw all of God and all of humanity.  God was incarnate in Jesus, and in that, God was fully present with us.

And here on the road to Emmaus, the theoretical doctrine of incarnation is lived out beautifully.  The crucified and risen Christ met, walked with, cried with, taught, encouraged, ate with, and restored a couple of men who had given up all hope and decided that the God in whom they thought that they believed wasn’t really God after all.  And Jesus pursued them and opened himself – opened God’s self – to them, and they could see him for who he was.

Nobody has asked me this in a long time, but there is outlandishly long and very difficult to read poem that has both haunted and comforted me for a long time.  So, I’ll tell you: it’s entitled “The Hound of Heaven.”[1]  It was written by a man named Francis Thompson, who became addicted to opium as a young adult. He spent years living in the streets, until one day he was “discovered” by a young couple who invited him into their home. His long years of poverty and addiction robbed him of much of his health, and he died from tuberculosis at age 47.  He was an important influence on writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien.

In the poem, he tells the story of a young man who wandered through life seeking pleasure in nature, or in sexuality, or in friendship, or in riches.  At every turn, he discovers that the object of his desire is unavailable, or unattainable, or unworthy.  As his story unfolds, he is increasingly aware of footsteps behind him – a Presence that seems always at his back and that he compares to an enormous hound.  By the end of his story, he is spent and wearied and broken and he discovers that his pursuer is in fact the Lord, who says, “Now, you see!  I am in all of those things, and they would not have broken you so had you looked for them in me first.”

Listen: today is the day of resurrection.  The day when we claim that death is, in fact, dead.  That life reigns.  More than that, it is the day when I get to remind you of the amazingly good news that Jesus the Christ has never stopped looking for you.  The message of Thompson’s poem and the message of the story from Emmaus is the same: when you stop chasing the wrong things, the right things have a chance to catch you.

I know that there are people in this room who are feeling tired, or worn out.  You may even have identified with Cleopas and the other disciple when I labeled them “hopeless.”  You may know how Thompson felt when he said that he collapsed in a heap, unable to find some next great thing and unable to run from that presence which had pursued him for years.

If you know what this is like, beloved, then slow down.  Turn around.  The biblical word for that is “repent” – it means “face a different direction”.  The message of the first Easter is as timely now as it was 2000 years ago: know that love, that life, that Jesus, is still looking.  Looking for you.

Thanks be to God!  Amen.


Click on the link below and invest 8 minutes of your life listening to Richard Burton reading Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven.”