Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Recently I noticed a church sign while I was driving in Richardson that said “Parking for Christian World.” I chuckled because it made me think of a theme park. Like the episode of The Simpsons from my youth, when Ned Flanders has a vision of creating a Christian theme park where the big ride is just being trapped in a cart while an animatronic King David reads all 150 psalms to you, and where the candy is made out of carob and it’s aggressively wholesome and miserable.
I don’t know anything about this church and I should say I have nothing bad to say about what they do. As far as I could tell, it is a church and not an amusement park. But the specific choice of “Christian World” is an interesting one because if you went back to the first two or three centuries of the Church, and even after that, the phrase “Christian world” would have been a contradiction in terms, like “jumbo shrimp.” The Scriptures and the tradition of the church have a very suspicious view of what we call “the world.” In baptism, Christians renounced “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” as the three great powers that defied God. In John’s Gospel and letters, “the world” is something Jesus overcomes. The “ruler of this world” is, in John’s story, the Devil, and Jesus defeats him on the cross. By giving the appearance of the world’s victory, Jesus in fact robs the world and the devil of their power.
Today in our reading we hear this in a different way: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”
This is a very strange thing for John to say, so I’m going to take a few minutes to talk about what we mean when we say “the world,” and what it means for our faith to conquer it.
When people heard or read these words nineteen hundred years ago, they had different reactions. Some people said that this means the world of created, physical things is bad. The human body is bad. Or at least, these things weigh us down and draw us away from God, who is not in the world but is far above it. So the less you concern yourself with created reality--say by eating, drinking, sleeping, having children, having a normal job, all the things involved in creation--the more you escape the world and move toward God.
This is an oversimplification. And a spoiler alert here: these people were by and large wrong.
Other people heard this and said that the world of created, physical things is not bad. God created it all, just like God created our physical bodies. These things are good. So when John talks about “the world,” he’s not talking about...stuff. He’s talking about what you might call a veil of illusion that has been draped over creation. Take something as simple as water, since he mentions water in today’s passage. Water is obviously good. It is necessary to life. But our overuse of water is bad. Our abuse of water by polluting it is bad. Our instinctive belief that we can simply do whatever we want to the water all living things depend on is bad. Our assumption that we are simply entitled to something that God has given us as a precious and fragile gift and blessing is bad.
All of those bad things are what we call “the world.” Creation is good and has always been good. “The world” is a corruption imposed on that good creation. But it is a very thorough corruption. It is a very convincing illusion. And it involves all of us in one way or another.
This is why Christians have historically been suspicious of things like ambition--seeking power or wealth in “the world.” This is why we’ve been suspicious of vanity--seeking the approval and regard of “the world.” We should be striving for the treasure in heaven that moth does not consume and rust does not corrode; we should be seeking the beauty of holiness and the accomplishment of love and service toward our neighbor, regardless of whether anyone gives us credit for it.
But “the world” is resilient. So, historically, Christians gave ourselves an out from the rather dreary obligation to resist the world. What if we could make “the world” Christian? What if we could, perhaps, be put in charge of this whole system of illusion and power? Then we’d fix it, right? Can’t we be rich and powerful for Jesus? Can’t we look our best and get ahead for Jesus? Not of course for our own aggrandizement, for our own grubby interests, but for the sake of God? Can’t we just...beat the world at its own game? Then we could have a “Christian world,” so to say.
And I honestly get where this comes from. Culture and entertainment can seem so hostile to human dignity so we’ll create a “Christian” version of everything. Family life is so challenging so we’ll create a “Christian” model of family that excludes everything we don’t like. Politics is an endless give-and-take with all kinds of people and we’re sick of it so we’ll try to make sure that only our friends are ever in power, and only our interests get considered.
There are a lot of problems with all of this, and if we had a few hours I could cover them all. But for now, I just want to focus on this: the Christian attempt to take over the world and turn it to our own purposes is just a form of surrender. It is just a sophisticated way of giving up. The pastor who holds himself out as an example of success is not saying that Jesus will bless your finances for the sake of his kingdom. He’s just saying that the world is right about how important wealth is and God is wrong. The man who displays his wife (and in these cases it’s always a wife) as an example of perfect, attractive Christian womanhood is not saying that God will bless a faithful man with a perfect wife, he’s saying that the world is correct to value women by their appearance and to insist that woman exist to serve and build up men. The preacher or politician who tells us that we can have Jesus without having to acknowledge or think about the deeply rooted patterns of inequality that we are a part of--all that preacher or politician is saying to us is that the world is right about who’s in charge and who’s not, the world is right about who eats and who goes hungry, and God is wrong about all those things.
John tells us something different: that everything born of God conquers the world, and that our faith itself is a victory over the world. We live in the midst of the world, we live entangled in the world. But it does not rule us. It does not tell us who matters and who doesn’t. It does not determine who should eat and who should go hungry without anyone’s conscience being troubled. It does not tell us what matters and why. It does not weigh your soul and your body and your bank account and or citizenship or that of your neighbor and find them good or find them wanting. Creation is not the subject of our illusions. It is not the subject of our willpower or designs or projects. It’s the subject of God’s power. And that power is grace and life and restoration far beyond anything the world has taught us to ask or imagine. Both for ourselves and our neighbor. And I want you to imagine the most unsympathetic, vicious neighbor. That’s what our faith shows us: the terrible and beautiful power of the one who comes by the water and the blood--not by the water only, but by the water and the blood; not by the divine power only but by the divine power and the human suffering--to sweep away every illusion and every unjust hierarchy and to give us ourselves, and each other, and the whole creation again as a gift. As a pure and free gift.
And now, today, in this time of our exile we may not get beyond longing and hoping for this gift. We may only see it here, in Christ come down to the altar, and in words of pardon and assurance spoken from outside of us; or in the momentary grace of sharing a blessing bag with our friends from Mount Olive; or in the persistence of prayers that do not seem to be answered. But even that is a victory. What we hear today in the word’s of John’s letter and in the words of our Gospel, is that we have to think differently about who and what seems to be exalted and celebrated and who seems to be dismissed and excluded. And to know that God’s favor does not follow the paths in which the world tries to channel it. All these gestures that we hope add up to a picture of God’s kingdom may just be flashes of God’s lightning that burst through the world’s veil. But even that is a victory. See it, grasp it, and cherish it. Because unlike the false assurances and deceptive happiness of the world, it comes from God. Amen.
Sisters and brothers grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
A few years ago when Kerry and I were visiting a friend in London, I noticed a peculiar art installation along the escalator at the Notting Hill Gate underground station. Where the ads would normally be, there were these really grotesque and colorful pictures with advertisement-style script on them. But they said:
"Oh Mother. It's that time of day.
When I realise I'm an animal.
I'm a salivating, spasming,
piece of meat,
I'm a downloaded egg.
A gibbering omelet”
This is apparently what the London transportation authority thought people needed to see on their daily commute. Every day I’d read this on our way to our from an outing in a great and vibrant city with a rich history and it made me so sad. It summed up for me a widespread attitude of disgust at the human body.
And it made me wonder if estrangement from our physical being and all its oddities and complications and indignities and inelegance is behind a lot of modern behaviors and attitudes. We are always reshaping ourselves, hiding ourselves or revealing ourselves, trying to force ourselves to be different. Even dreaming of uploading human consciousness to the cloud so that it can continue free of all the follicles and pimples and itching and decay and death.
There is a terrible lack of self-acceptance in our culture that can come out as hostility to our own bodies.
This is what I tell myself. Then, last Sunday, when I got up for church, my back just wouldn’t work.
This was not the first time my back has caused me problems. But it had never been so bad on a Sunday. I suppose I took this as divine providence. God will afflict me with the troubles of middle age, but never in a way that interferes with the worship of the church.
So I found myself explaining to the day’s altar guild volunteer that I was sitting in child’s pose on the floor of the study to loosen up my back enough to get through church.
It’s easy for me to urge comfort in our bodies because the world is in many ways designed for the comfort of bodies like mine:
Not too old or too young
Not suffering from a disability
And all it takes is some badly timed breakdown to have me saying “oh just make it stop. Give me a titanium spine and a gore-tex heart and upload my memories to the cloud and let’s be done with all this mess.”
So what does this have to do with today’s Gospel?
Today we hear a rather different take on Jesus’s appearance to all his disciples than the story we heard from John’s Gospel last week. Last week, Thomas was absent from Jesus’s appearance and he does not believe his friends. In this week’s story, Thomas is not mentioned. But some of the disciples do not believe their eyes.
Or rather, they don’t know what their eyes are showing them. Is this a ghost? A ghost would normally be a hostile entity in this world, so that’s a frightening possibility. Is this an imposter or a group hallucination? How can Jesus demonstrate that it is really him, and that he is not just a vision or a spirit? He shows them his wounds. And he eats a piece of fish.
That is to say: he bears the marks of his suffering, and he still participates in that most animal and physical action, eating a meal.
Now as Jesus has been resurrected, never to die again, his wounds are signs of triumph and glory. And he eats not because he is faint with hunger but out of fellowship. The body of Jesus has been raised up and glorified. But he hasn’t been uploaded to the cloud. He hasn’t become a disembodied spirit. He is still flesh and blood.
In this simple gesture of asking for and eating a piece of fish, we see how different Jesus is from the fantasies not just of his world but of our world too.
We like superheroes, who are not all-powerful but who transcend human limits. They get punched and kicked and hurled into alternate dimensions and come through just fine. Not a hair out of place, no wounds on their hands and side, no break for a piece of fish. Not long ago we were fascinated by vampires, who are not dead but not really alive either, not eating anything except blood and having no pulse, no processes of life going on within them. Zombies frighten us because they show us bodies without souls, decaying and chaotic, devoid of any reason or love. All of these stories--and look, I don’t much care for superhero movies but I watched almost all of True Blood so I’m not excluding myself from this--all of these stories suggest to me that we are not at peace with our own humanity and the embarrassing limitations and needs of our soft, sweaty, phlegmy bodies. We fear decay and suffering.
But Jesus is not a superhero or a vampire or a zombie. It’s very important that he can be wounded. In fact it’s very important that he is wounded. It’s very important that his wounds endure beyond his resurrection. And it’s important that he eats with his friends.
Back in the first millennium of the church there was a debate about the humanity of Christ. And it was resolved with this principle: whatever is not assumed is not redeemed. Which just means that any aspect of human nature that Jesus lacked could not be redeemed by the grace of his incarnation. If he didn’t have a human mind, a human will, a human body, these things could not be redeemed. This is why it was so important that Jesus was understood to be fully human as well as fully divine. He does not shed our humanity where it is difficult or painful or inconvenient. That would be no savior at all. Instead, he embraces the fullness of human nature, right down to our pimply faces, our odorous glands, and our creaky backs.
Now I will be the first to admit that I don’t really want to think about this. I hate accepting my limitations. All dang week I’ve had to spend thirty minutes every day doing stretching exercises to keep my back functioning or loosen up after going running. I’ve had to sit down when I’d normally expect to be able to stand, take a break when I would normally want to keep going and it’s stupid and I hate it. And I wish I’d started doing it years ago.
I want to be doing other things. I want to be doing my job and shaping the world. But Jesus embraced our humanity. So we should embrace our own humanity too.
I’m going to say that again: Jesus embraced our humanity, and our human bodies in every detail. So we should embrace our humanity, and our human bodies, too. We have a duty of care toward ourselves that it is very easy to ignore. That our religion sometimes encourages us to ignore. We have a duty of honesty toward ourselves.
This does not mean that we have a religious duty to become extremely health conscious. It does not mean that we have a religious hall pass to endlessly indulge ourselves and seek comfort. But we are offered the grace to accept ourselves and look after ourselves, even as we know we are obligated to accept and look after our neighbor.
And I know that, just like me, some of y’all have put some of these things off. You have looked the other way when something in your life has been flashing you a warning sign at you. And I want to encourage all of us in this week ahead to do something out of care, to address some need that we have not wanted to face directly. Because Jesus is the one who already bore our full humanity and accepts it and embraces it, lifts it up and redeems us. And gives us the strength to care for our own frail humanity, as well as that of all our neighbors. Amen.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Sisters and brothers grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last night at the Easter Vigil, as I sat at the back edge of the courtyard in the gathering dusk, I noticed a junebug stuck on its back. It was flailing around, trying desperately to right itself. I’m not much of a bug enthusiast but I was struck by the pathos of this little animal, straining and straining to get out of its predicament. One solitary being in a silent universe, trying desperately to turn itself out of danger.
At the Easter Vigil we hear the stories of God’s saving actions from the beginning to the exile of Israel in Babylon. We heard about God’s free and loving creation of light and life, calling it good; Noah and his family surviving through the Flood; God delivering Israel at the Red Sea; the prophet Isaiah’s word of food and drink, life and salvation freely offered to all; the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, a multitude of dead whose bones are picked clean, being knitted together and breathed back to life; and finally the great story of the three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who refuse to serve the idol of the wicked king Nebuchadnezzar and survive the terrible punishment of being thrown into a fiery furnace.
These stories (and the other six we chose not to read last night) show us, from a sort of God’s-eye view, what we call the history of salvation. But from the ground’s-eye view, from the perspective of people in the middle of these events, they are stories of the struggle of life against death. The battle of the little junebug to right itself and carry on. It is a remarkable thing that we humans share these stories and pass them hand to hand, life to life, generation to generation, along with our very lives.
We share with all life a stubborn will to prevail. Unique among all life, we hand on those things that endure past our own deaths. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are wonderfully rescued from the fire by God. But they are still mortal, and they died a human death a long, long time ago. Their story speaks to us in two ways: to our human eyes, the three men are a witness to courage in the face of death and persecution. To the eyes of faith, their story is a foretaste of God’s final triumph over all death.
That is one difference between ourselves and the junebugs. If the bugs produced epic poetry or tragedy or streaming television, the story of the one who was flipped on her back while the giant creatures spoke and moved around her in a pattern she could not perceive or decode would perhaps be recorded and added to the great store of bug lore and wisdom, an attempt to make sense of this huge and hostile world in which they move.
Perhaps, in the scheme of things, our own attempts to make meaning of life’s chaos are no more significant.
The other difference between us and the junebugs is that we are capable of resignation. We struggle to survive, but we can also cease from struggle. This is not the surrender of despair, like the Israelites at the Red Sea who complain bitterly to Moses that they could just as well have died in Egypt. But when God asks Ezekiel the prophet if the dry bones choking the valley can live, the prophet says only “Lord, you are the one who knows.” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego do not try to escape or survive; they don’t lie or dissemble; they don’t make a break for it while the king is in the midst of one of his pompous speeches. They simply say “cast us into the fire if you wish, O king. God will save us or not. But living or dead, we will not bow to your idol. So put that in your furnace and smoke it.”
It is out of resignation that Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb early in the morning. She knows how this story ends. She will anoint the body of her teacher and lord. She will pay the respects to the dead that her religion and culture have given her to pay. She is not a fool and not delusional. This will be another story with two meanings: to human eyes, it will show forth her courage and devotion in defiance of the great evil that has crushed Jesus’ life; and to the eyes of faith, with the benefit of hindsight, when this story is told and retold, it will become part of the history with the flood and the Red Sea and the fiery furnace, in which God shows God’s faithfulness even past the point of death.
And she is so grounded in reality, so perfectly reasonable in her grief and devotion, that she cannot recognize Jesus when he appears to her. It takes her a moment, and the sound of her own name, to see something else.
And in a moment, the eyes of her faith and the eyes of her human reality become one.
In a moment, the story of her own devotion and the story of God’s salvation become one.
In a moment, she sees that Hell has been robbed of its prize, that the grave has been burst asunder, that the power of personal cowardice and collective evil that killed her lord has been broken and lies in ruins at his Hell-crushing feet.
“Tell the others that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, my God and yours.”
Mary has entered a new age. Mary woke up that morning as one link in the great human chain of endurance. But she witnesses a very different triumph. It is a triumph not just for one, but for all. It is the plundering not just of one tomb but of all the tombs of God’s saints. It is not just an escape from the flood, the pharaoh, or the furnace. It is the defeat of death itself.
The struggle for her, and for us, is to hold on to this victory in the midst of a world that has not yet grasped its own redemption, in the flood of days that have no obvious order or meaning and in which we move now forward and now back. The vigil last night was accompanied not just by visiting junebugs but by passing traffic, loud music, and the bustle of life that will not pause for death and resurrection. As we’ve opened the windows and worshiped outside in this season, we hear the world rushing in. Our world. We have stepped out of that world for a moment, but it flows on around us. And to me, at least, it has made our hour together each week, at the cross and at the empty tomb of the altar, at the power of God’s law and the promise of God’s Gospel, even more precious. It is Jesus’s world, right now on the other side of those windows. It is our world, It is Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s world. It is the junebug’s world.
And in the middle of it, there was a tomb that could not hold its dead. There was a grieving woman whose tears turned to awe and joy. There was sin that could not prevail. And above it there is a God whose final word is not struggle and death but life and salvation.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!
When the Italian painter known as Caravaggio took it upon himself to depict St. Peter denying Jesus on the night of his arrest, he painted him turned slightly away from the woman interrogating him, with his hands pointed inward. You can look this painting up on your phone if you want--do yourself a favor, I won’t mind. Just Google “Denial of St. Peter Met Museum” and you’ll find it. You’ll see on the face of the apostle all the emotions he must have been feeling: fear, sorrow, and a hint of shame. He looks sincere but miserable. As if, perhaps, he even wants his lie to be the truth. As if he wishes he had made another choice those years before on the seaside when he was invited to fish for people. As if he wishes he had been in Jerusalem by coincidence, just another bystander to another gruesome death of the Roman era. As if he is saying, “Not me,” and almost meaning it.
And this is Peter, the Rock, who gets his name from Jesus himself because he speaks up under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and names Jesus Son of God and Messiah. You, Simon, are the Rock, Jesus tells him. On you, the Rock, I will build my church, and Hell itself will not stand against this church’s onslaught.
Tonight, under questioning, at the edge of the scene, the Rock crumbles. Whether Jesus did not meet his expectations of the Messiah, or whether Peter did not live up to his own hopes for himself of bravery and loyalty, Peter fails. Denial of those we know and love is a hard sin because it is a denial of ourselves. “It’s not me. You’ve got the wrong guy,” Peter says. But it was him. And he is denying himself.
Good Friday is the eternal trial of an inconstant and wavering human nature placed side by side with the constant and unwavering love of God.
In the reading from the Prophet Isaiah today, we hear God’s servant shown forth as one who “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”
The servant was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; “and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.”
This one who is despised and rejected, who must be turned from in horror, turns out to be God’s own servant. Far from being cursed and outcast by God, the servant turns out to be the one who is carrying the sins of all, bearing the burdens, even pleading for those who taunt and abuse him. You will see the Servant, says the prophet. You will most definitely see him. But you will not like him. You will not cleave to him. You will look away and pretend you don’t know him.
This is a powerful human instinct. We are animals who are fine-tuned to recognize danger. We have a keen eye for who is winning and who is losing. We know when to flee the scene, when to hide, when to pretend we have nothing to do with all this mess. That’s all Peter is doing. That’s all the rest of the disciples are doing as they see the winds change and run for cover. “Not me!” Get out, get safe, make arrangements to live and fight another day.
But we can only do this to each other at a high cost. As soon as the cock crows, Peter weeps. The terrible weight of his disloyalty crashes down on him in an instant. A minute ago he would have run away long before if he could have. Now, if he could, he would take back those denials. He would own his love and bear the cost. So he weeps as his broken heart flutters back to its Lord. That moment, Lord, is not me.
It is the same man who denies and who weeps. That’s discipleship in a nutshell. We change, we hide, we flee, we weep with tears of repentance. We hide our face from God and then run back.
And this is why salvation is not won by ourselves, for ourselves. If we could bear our own sins and the flutter of our hearts, we would have to. There would be no alternative. There would be no grace and no mercy. Peter’s denial would be final. He had come to the critical moment, he had failed, and that failure would haunt the rest of his life, if he had to be responsible for his own salvation. I would have been a door he walked through and that locked behind him, never to open again.
But Peter does not bear his own sins. You and I do not bear our own sins. Jesus does. Peter can now say, and know, “it was not me who saved my soul.” If it depended on Peter the Rock, or James or John the Beloved or you or me, all would be lost. But it wasn’t Peter or James or John or you or me. It was Jesus.
This abandoned and betrayed and denied and forsaken and accursed Jesus bears his own cross all the way to the end because no one else can save their own souls. No one else can rest secure in God’s love. No one else can ever say of anything, “It is finished.” No one else can show perfect loyalty to those who hate and abandon and abuse him. The world turns away in horror and he loves us all the more. The world spits and kicks and just goes about its business and each wound of malice or neglect opens into an infinite ocean of love. It wasn’t me. It was him. It was Jesus. Jesus who loved me despite all, who bore my sins and infirmities, and who prayed for Peter, and you, and me, even when we did not know him.
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Way back in the 1990s, when I was just starting college, I was introduced to a rather obscure singer whose name I won’t bother you with. I didn’t get much into his music but one song stuck in my head ever after I heard it, the way a song sometimes does. It was called “Jerusalem,” and it was based on the phenomenon called the Jerusalem Syndrome. Some visitors to the Holy Land, mostly non-religious men in their 20s, have a psychotic episode and believe that they are figures from the Bible, that they are Christ returned to earth or another messianic figure. And the song starts with the lines that stuck in my head: “When I tell you that I love you, don’t test my love / Just accept my love / Don’t test my love / Cause maybe I don’t love you all that much.”
These words stuck with me because it’s such a different sentiment than the way popular culture usually depicts love. Love does not, in fact, in this song, conquer all. Love can’t accomplish everything. Love can bring you to Jerusalem but it cannot keep you from having a psychotic episode and wandering into the desert at your peril. And we should not want to put our love to the test, because it might fail if we do.
Today we come to the end of the story of Jesus’ life. And we have come to the last petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
This is a moment where our 17th-century translation of the Lord’s Prayer can be misleading. We might think of “temptation” as an urge that we want to resist: eating food we shouldn’t eat or spending money we shouldn’t spend or giving in to some kind of compulsion. And that’s an important part of it. Most of us know more than we let on about the situations in which we are liable to be tempted, and how to avoid them.
But the Biblical word here is bigger. Today, it might make more sense if we translated it as “testing” or “trial.” Do not bring us to the time of testing. Or more simply, Do not put us to the test. Do not test our faith and our love, God, because we don’t know if we trust and love you enough to endure. “Pray that you do not come to the time of trial,” Jesus tells his friends as he prays in the garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest.
And indeed, in today’s Gospel, everyone does come to the time of testing, and almost everyone does fail. Judas betrays Jesus. Peter denies him. Most of the rest of the male disciples flee. The religious leaders yield to their fear of Jesus. The Roman authorities put him to a cruel and unjust death. The agitated crowd at the Roman headquarters calls for his death. And the great majority of the city simply went on with their lives, probably trying not to think too much about the brutal actions of the Roman garrison in their midst.
Humanity does not endure this particular test. As we so often do not endure the test of being brave or loyal in the face of a system that can simply destroy a life with no more thought than a horse swatting away a fly.
It is a terrible thing to find the limits of our love, our faith, our hope, or our courage. We don’t know in advance what those limits are. We can speculate. But until we come to the moment of truth, we do not know. And we can, and should, always be training to expand those limits. And in a way that’s what church and the life of faith is all about: practice for our lives to be put to the test in ways we cannot anticipate. Learning to love God and our neighbor more selflessly; learning to trust God more simply; to hold our faith and to do what is required of us more bravely, even at a cost to ourselves. But most people have a limit. For most people, there is a test that we will fail.
And so we ask God, do not put us to a test that we may not endure. Accept the faith and love we have. Within this prayer is, I think, another prayer: give us only those tests we can endure, and which will strengthen us.
Because there is, of course, the second part of this petition: deliver us from evil. This line could also be translated as “deliver us from the evil one.” Do not bring us to the time of testing, O God, but instead deliver us from the evil one.
This part of the prayer has, in a way, already been answered. Because for all of the human failure we see today, one man endured. And God endured. The voice of temptation that has haunted humanity from that moment at the tree in the garden down to today did not prevail against the one human whose life carried all of us. The one person whose endurance and whose victory incorporated all of us. The one who represents humanity to God, and who represents God to humanity, was faithful until the end even to those who abandoned and spat upon him. In today’s story, Jesus comes to this time of trial and he does not falter. The evil one does not prevail. And so at the end of all our failing, after the limits of all our love, there is Jesus. He is the one who conquers, and he is the one who brings us, small as our love may be, into his victory. Amen.
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
As we spend a few moments today on this petition of the Lord’s prayer, I encourage you to think of a time when you have needed forgiveness from another person (we’re going to leave God to one side for the moment). And I want you to think about a time you have been asked to extend forgiveness to another person.
What did it feel like to need forgiveness?
What did it feel like to extend forgiveness?
What did you gain by being forgiven?
What did you give up by extending forgiveness to another?
Forgiveness is a difficult and emotionally heavy topic, which is interesting when you consider that everyone trespasses against others, all the time, and everyone is trespassed against by others, all the time. We all need to be forgiven and to forgive, whether you think about this in a religious framework or not. This is a human problem. It is not especially dependent on what you think about God.
But that process of forgiveness takes us to very vulnerable places in our lives. It brings us to places where we are emotionally exposed. So what are we even talking about? What are we asking for when we say “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”?
Forgiveness in the Scriptures starts with a specific loss or wound. It can be an injury to body or welfare. It can be a loss of reputation or honor in the community, such as slander or false witness. It can be a loss of relationship, a violation of the mutual requirements of family or between Israel and God. But it is always a specific harm.
And this harm produces a claim to retaliation or recompense. The Bible is very thorough on this. For a certain kind of harm, you make a certain appropriate restitution, which may be collected from you. The famous passage specifying an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life is a principle that limits the right of retaliation. “Only and eye for an eye.” If your neighbor, by malice or negligence, causes your eye to be put out, you can do the same to him. You can’t murder him.
The trespass creates a debt. Which is why in some versions of the Lord’s Prayer, today’s line is “forgive us our debts.”
So forgiveness means, first, that you release your claim to restitution, retaliation, or payment of a debt.
I have the right to collect something from you--literal or figurative payback. And instead I forgive you. And this is extremely intuitive if you’ve raised children. Their sense of justice depends on the ability to collect on a wrong done to them. This is a very human thing. So the Scriptures places some limits on this.
So in this prayer we are asking God to release us from the obligation to give satisfaction for our sins. We are asking God to give up his claim to compensation for the damage we do to our relationship with God. And in this prayer we connect God’s forgiveness with our own: Forgive us our trespasses, release our debts, eve as we forgive those who trespass against us.
This is hard, because as a society we don’t have a very clear idea of what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is not simply indulgence, where we decide to let someone get away with something. It’s not looking the other way, where we just try to hide the truth from ourselves. It’s not living and letting live, cutting some slack, or giving anyone a break. It’s not tolerating or approving any behavior. Forgiveness is none of those things.
So maybe because we don’t have a clear idea of what forgiveness is or what it is for, as a society we tend toward unlimited punishment. Someone may be convicted of a crime and serve their penalty, but the fact of a criminal record becomes a permanent punishment, inhibiting their ability to get jobs and housing. We allow debt to accumulate without limit. A payday loan can accumulate interest and fees so that the debt may be paid over and over without ever being reduced. We even impose severe and unlimited penalties for saying inappropriate things on social media years in the past, in ways that have nothing to do with getting people to act better. And a lot of this comes from the fear that someone will get away with something. That someone will not pay enough. So to be on the safe side, better to make the punishment unending.
That is a very difficult world in which to understand forgiveness. To embrace or extend forgiveness. It’s a difficult world in which to even conceive of a God who wants to forgive, who wants to be asked to mend relationships, to release the claims of justice in favor of the work of mercy.
That’s why it’s important to remember that forgiveness starts with dropping a claim. It doesn’t require you to like someone or even to stop being angry at them. It certainly does not require you to put up with any toxic or dangerous behavior. It does not require you to be a doormat. And in my work I’ve seen people struggle with the feeling that they are not able to forgive someone because they are not able to feel a certain way toward the person who has wronged them. But forgiveness doesn’t require any of that. It just requires opening your hand to release your legitimate demand for satisfaction. The apology may never be coming. The check may never be in the mail. The exposure of the wrong may never happen in the way we want it to. But we are all dependent on that same mercy.
And so it’s very powerful that we pray this prayer every day, and that we ask God for forgiveness even as we commit ourselves to forgiving others. It is hard to leave ourselves open to forgiveness--to say, in effect, I cannot pay, I cannot do what justice requires in this situation. I cannot restore your eye, or your brother’s life, or your health. I long to be restored and I wish this breach in our relationship to be repaired. And it is hard to hear these things, and to give that forgiveness in our turn. But here as in every other part of the prayer, here as in every other part of God’s promises, we participate in God’s economy of grace. God who longs always and only to give, and who would never take, even where justice permits it.
Today as we continue our Lenten series on the Lord’s prayer, I’m going to spend a few minutes on one line that stands alone: “Give us this day our daily bread.”
This is a simple, direct, and unconditional request that we make of God every time we pray this prayer. “Daily bread” is a lovely phrase. There is something very powerful about focusing on what we need now.
If you are anything like me, this can be a challenge. Tomorrow is like a magnet for our hopes and our worries. For me, I admit, it’s more about the worries. Today might be fine, but what risks does tomorrow hold? What processes are going on right now that will create problems later?
Home ownership, I’ve learned, has opened vast new opportunities for worrying about tomorrow. But it can be anything: finances, family, the future of our job or our industry, the future of our community or our society or the world, the ongoing loss of participation in religious communities. And worry can be a rational response to an uncertain future.
So if we are fortunate enough to have today’s needs met, and to have no worry about where our next meal is coming from, it’s tempting to think ahead. We need to think ahead, to some extent, if that option is open to us.
But when we pray, we pray for today’s needs. Give us this day our daily bread. Bread for today. Not bread for tomorrow, not a stable bread supply chain, not a bread annuity for life, but today’s bread.
Now it bears mentioning that for many people today, and for most people in human history, today’s bread is the big challenge and the big worry. “How will I feed myself or my children today?” is a terrible worry to have. It makes planning impossible. People who do not have a roof over their head or secure access to food, people displaced by loss of affordable housing or made refugees by war or natural disaster are all living in today’s need.
And so it’s very important that Jesus directs everyone’s attention to the needs of today. There are two time scales that matter in the preaching of Jesus: right now and eternity. The long term is not important to him. “Which of you by worrying can add a day to his or her life?” he asks, rhetorically. “Consider the lilies of the field, which do not toil or spin. But even Solomon himself is not arrayed in glory like theirs.”
This is the context for Jesus’s instruction to pray this way. Pray deeply into now; do not let your prayers be colonized by tomorrow’s worries.
For my part, I cannot say this prayer enough. God, give me today’s needs. Today’s work. Today’s blessings. Let me not be tempted to imagine I have control over tomorrow.
And it reminds me that I have the means to be the answer to this prayer for those who truly do worry about today’s needs. What we do not need today we are free to give to those who lack.
So we hear in these words to pray for now, today, what we need in this moment. But what do we mean by “bread”? Assuming, of course, that this is not to be understood strictly literally as a daily ration of carbohydrate-rich yeast and wheat loaves.
Here I love the answer Martin Luther gives in his Small Catechism (this is on page 1164 of your red hymnals if you want to read it yourself):
What then does daily bread mean? Everything included in the necessities and nourishment for our bodies, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright members of the household, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.
It’s a great list. And the idea is that “daily bread” includes not just what we need to exist, to survive. It includes the things we need for a good human life. Not luxuries, not excess, but the things we need to experience our full humanity--including the love of friends and family and neighbors, the dignity of good government, the blessing of good health.
So here is our prayer: Give us this day our daily bread. Help us to not worry about tomorrow. Help us to receive and to share today’s bread as a gift from you. And give us what we need, right now in this moment, to be fully human. Amen.
Dear Christ Lutheran Church family,
This week will mark a year since our first online services and the beginning of our attempts to continue the life of the church safely during the pandemic. We give thanks to God for the creativity, grace, and goodwill shown by our people over the course of that year. Today we're writing to update the congregation on our current situation and next steps. Please read, share, and be in touch with any questions or comments.
Where we are:
How we're adapting:
What we plan to do in the coming months:
As always, your continuing faithfulness and charitable spirit has made these steps easier to take, and our addition of in-person worship options easier to preserve, than they might have been. We remember to give thanks at all times, and to rejoice at the work of God among us even now.
Yours in Christ,
Pastor Ben Dueholm, on behalf of the Re-Opening Task Force:
Connie Uhri, Council President
Ginger Hagens, Council Vice President
Sharon Karol, Council Secretary
David Marshall, Treasurer,
Greg Nelson, Financial Secretary
Dr. Hando Nahkur, Director of Music Ministry
Dr. Tina Tonti
Joanne Osterland, Director of Christ Lutheran Presch
Last week we talked about the introduction and first petition of the Lord's Prayer: "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name." This week I want to talk about the following two petitions: "Thy Kingdom come; thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven."
These two petitions are distinct but related. We pray for God's kingdom to come to and among us, and for this to come about or be made known by God's will being done on Earth even as it already is done in Heaven. What is the coming of God's kingdom and the doing of God's will? We'll get to that in a minute.
But first I'm going to digress for a moment to talk about everyone's favorite topic: grammar. The Greek of the New Testament has verbs that change their mood or mode by changing their spelling, rather than by adding extra words. English speakers have to go through more work to use our verbs in all the moods available to us: You go to the store (indicative, stating information); you would go to the store if you could (conditional, stating an if-then scenario); I prefer that you go to the store rather than me (subjunctive, stating an open possibility or desire); go to the store please (imperative, stating a command or direction).
English used to be a little more flexible than it is now, and when our traditional version of the Lord's Prayer was translated, you could do a lot of this just with the order of words. "Thy kingdom come" could mean "that your kingdom might come--we'd like that" (subjunctive) or "Come now, kingdom" (imperative). We don't really use our language this way much anymore outside of church. In prayer, it's easy to fall back on a softer way of saying this. "May your kingdom come; may your will be done." But the original Greek version is in the imperative mood: "Come, Kingdom! Be done, thy will!" or maybe "Make your kingdom come and make your will to be done."
For Luther, the coming of God's kingdom means "whenever our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that through the Holy Spirit's grace we believe God's holy word and live godly lives here in time and hereafter in eternity."
And God's will being done means "whenever God breaks and hinders every evil scheme and will--as are present in the will of the devil, the world, and our flesh--that would not allow us to hallow God's name and would prevent the coming of his kingdom...."
I would prefer to expand on that, so that we see God's kingdom and will being made real to us not just in our own faith and in our own behavior but in the flourishing of human well-being around us, and the sanctification of the world through our actions and prayers.
When I wrote about prayer in my book Sacred Signposts a few years ago, I dwelt on these early Christian prayers and what they may have meant to those praying:
I’m still not sure what effect these people intended when they assembled for their work. When they prayed “Thy kingdom come” or “May grace come and may this world pass away,” were these words meant to hasten the completion of the Messianic age, shouts to nudge the wicked world’s mountain slope toward an avalanche? Or were those words a way of transporting themselves to that end, to the kingdom, to begin to dwell there as a present reality even in the midst of a not-fully-redeemed world, however long the fullness tarried in coming? Does prayer change the world’s timeline, or shift the course of an illness? Or does prayer change us?
Whatever we mean when we say these words, or whatever we imagine their effect is, they express an important longing for a redeemed world and for redeemed selves. The 7th century theologian Maximus the Confessor says this about "thy will be done":
Our reason should therefore be moved to seek God, the force of desire should struggle to possess him and that of anger to hold on to him, or rather, to speak more properly, the whole mind should tend to God, stretched out as a sinew by the temper of anger, and burning with longing for the highest reaches of desire. Thus indeed we will be found to be giving God worship in every way in imitation of the angels in heaven, and we shall exhibit on earth the same manner of life as the angels in having as they do the mind totally moved in the direction of nothing less than God
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
For the rest of this season of Lent, I’m going to mostly let the readings speak for themselves and instead spend some time on the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer is a part of daily public worship in the church and it is a fixture of home devotions as well. Along with the Ten Commandments and the Creed, it is part of what we call the Catechism, that is the basic instructions for people coming into the faith. It can be learned by heart from a young age and relied upon over and over again, as often as you need it. God never gets tired of hearing these words. If you do not pray this prayer every day, I encourage you to start right away. It’s part of my morning devotions every day, and it’s the prayer I say with my children at bedtime. And it’s a prayer at hand any time I need to pray but can’t think of what to ask for or how.
We call it the Lord’s Prayer because it is given to us directly by Jesus. It appears in Matthew’s and Luke’s account of the Gospel. In Matthew, it appears in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says not to pray by heaping up empty words. In Luke, Jesus offers it when he is asked “Lord, teach us how to pray.” And it also appears in an ancient Christian text called the Didache, or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. This source may be older than some of the books of the New Testament. And in the Didache, the prayer appears with no reference to Jesus teaching it. It is simply presented as the way Christians should pray. Our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters call it the Our Father, from its first words.
So this prayer is exemplary. It sums up in a few words what prayer is supposed to be for us. Jesus famously tells his followers not to heap up words in vain, but to pray simply, directly, and even in secret.
So let’s hear the first petition of the prayer: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
The first thing to note here is that Jesus tells us to address God as Father. In the history and theology of the Church, “Father” becomes identified with God’s role as wrathful judge. But in the Gospels, this term is meant to encourage us to approach God with confidence and love rather than dread. “Which of you, if your child asks for bread, would give him a stone?” Jesus asks, saying that God is still more willing to give us what we need.
And this takes away a common barrier to prayer: the belief that we are somehow not worthy or rightly prepared to ask God for anything good. “We allow ourselves to be impeded and deterred by such thoughts as these,” Martin Luther wrote. ““I am not holy enough or worthy enough; if I were as righteous and holy as St. Peter or St. Paul, then I would pray.” Away with such thoughts! The very commandment that applied to St. Paul applies also to me.” Our prayers are holy and acceptable if they are earnest, not if we ourselves have become holy enough for God to listen to. While I can tolerate all kinds of irreverence, to this day I find the idea of praying ironically or without meaning it to be very frightening. Our earnestness vouches for our prayer.
It can be hard to expect good things from God. I know how useless prayer can feel. But if we imagine God as a loving parent who wants to be asked for good things, simply and honestly, we don’t need to feel any inhibition.
The second thing to note in these words is that we ask that God’s name be hallowed. We might say instead “may your name be holy.” This is Jesus speaking in a traditional Jewish manner, in which God is only ever mentioned with a blessing.
And of course, God’s name is already holy: YHWH, I am what I am. It is a name powerful in itself, so powerful that in pious Jewish tradition it is not written or spoken except on the most solemn occasions. We cannot actually make God’s name any more holy than it already is.
But we pray “hallowed be thy name” so that God’s name may be made and kept holy among us and for us. This is a way of saying “God, make your name holy and precious and sacred to me and to the world.” We do this when we call on God for our needs, when we use God’s name to bless, when we honor God in our words and actions. And we fail to do this when we neglect to call on God, when we use God’s name to curse or deceive, and when we fail to honor God in our words and actions.
And this is part of the power of this prayer. This is why this first bit is so important. We may have no spiritual feeling. We may wake up and go through our day and go to bed without any sense that we are part of an eternal, divine economy with the source of all creation. We may not even be in the mood to ask God for anything we need. We may be embarrassed that we need it. But we can always offer this prayer up to God. It is there for you, all the time, whenever you need it. God, allow me to speak to you as I would to a loving father or mother. God, may I keep your name holy today. May it, and you, be precious to me above all the things you have made. In this, the prayer contains its own answer. Amen.
God's Work. Our hands.