The politics of the election are starting to really heat up. What this means in practice, is that the name of Jesus is getting tossed about by those claiming to have the “correct” defining statement of his identity. Some claim to have the special insight as to which political party Jesus is present and where he is absent. Political mudslinging tries to label the opposition as against God or hurting God. Yes, politics is heating up and Jesus is being dragged into the middle of it to serve our purposes.
So the reading from Matthew is fitting for these days. Jesus asked the disciples what others were saying about him. The response was John the Baptist or a prophet. Then Jesus personalized the question to what the disciples had to say. Peter announced, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus didn’t praise Peter for coming up with the answer but the Father for revealing this to Peter. The reading ends with Jesus giving strict orders for this revelation to be kept quiet which seems strange. Why? Peter had the correct title but there was much more for him and the other disciples to learn. You see, Jesus’ question wasn’t a test to get the answers right. This was about allegiance to Jesus.
Caesarea Philippi was a town that was near a cave which housed a spring feeding the Jordan River. The cave had also served as a place where the Greek god, Pan had been worshipped. Herod had built a temple to honor Caesar Augustus there. At the time Matthew was written, Roman soldiers had destroyed the great temple in Jerusalem. Caesarea Philippi was now the administrative center for Philip the tetrarch (Herod’s son). This was a reality not ignored by Matthew’s readers. So when Jesus asked about what was being said of him, he was really asking about allegiance…which God do you worship…what leaders do you revere…to what political power do you surrender your allegiance.
Peter had the right answer but not the understanding of what his response meant for life. If your allegiance is to Jesus, then you do the things he did. Jesus set people free as he announced the coming of the kingdom of heaven. He set people free from their illness. He celebrated with those despised “sinners.” He received the outcast and unwanted. He was and continues to be the way death’s power is destroyed.
Peter and the disciples had still much to learn about Jesus and following him. The church today still struggles in the same way. Jesus gave the amazing job description that is concerned with setting people free for the kingdom of heaven. What we do will either set people free or keep them in bondage. In following Jesus are we keeping people in bondage to ideology, race, division, fear, hatred, poverty, sickness? Or, are we working for people to be set free for the kingdom of heaven?
Another election is drawing near, meaning those seeking office are tripping over each other in the race to say who Jesus is to serve their purposes. Jesus is asking who we say he is to serve his purposes for the kingdom of heaven. Who do we worship…who will we give honor and praise…what power will we in the end serve? The difference is as big as freedom and bondage. How will we live out our answer to Jesus’ question?
At a time when….
….the cases of Covid-19 (100,000 +) have made the USA the hot spot of the outbreak for the world and continue to rise while medical professionals cry out for supplies and equipment, comes the push to get back to normal for Easter and protect the economy…
….the elderly are considered expendable and should be willing to sacrifice their life for the economy (not a whole lot of support on this from the elderly or those who love their parents and grandparents)….
….the pandemic is declared to be God’s judgment…
….we need to hear a word filled with hope comes the reading for this Sunday from the Gospel of John. While the above only support death, continued suffering and portray a God of wrath instead of grace, the reading from John tells of Jesus’ presence as the source of life.
Mary and Martha send a message to Jesus that their brother, Lazarus was seriously ill. Even though Jesus was only about two miles away, he delayed a couple days before coming to them. When Jesus arrived, emotions were raw because he came too late. Lazarus had been dead for four days to be exact which was significant. It was considered possible for the soul to return to the body in three days but this was four days. Lazarus was dead. Jesus wept with the mourners possibly overcome with their emotion…perhaps seeing the pain of death inflicted…perhaps knowing that the opposition was already seeking ways to get him killed. The taint of death was unmistakable. Then Jesus said these amazing words, “”I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
The Gospel of John begins telling about the Word which was God and was with God from the very beginning. The Word which called creation into existence. Jesus is that Word now standing at the entrance of the tomb calling for Lazarus to come out. Lazarus came out still wrapped in his burial linens. Jesus commanded the linens of death to be removed and for Lazarus to be set free.
These days much of life is in crisis. We worry about economic well being. We worry about getting sick. We worry about our loved ones getting sick. The voices that minimize the risks to others and which tell of sacrificing life to another god (economy) are not voices speaking of life. They are the voices of politics and power that have the taint of death. Only one can stand at the door of the tomb and can call for the remnants of death to be removed from us and that is Jesus.
These days look to the one who is ‘the resurrection and the life.’ Listen to Jesus’ call to remove death’s covering. Care for your neighbor and do what brings them life. Remember that the Word which gave us life is the same Jesus who died on the cross and rose from the dead. He is still present calling for us to come out of the ways of death and be set free.
Truth. Does anybody know what truth is these days? Is truth a simple collection of facts? Is truth what I accept from my personal filters – what is true for me may not be true for you. Everyday we are subjected to information that ranges from spin to direct lies. “Fake News” is the accusation against what I consider to be reality. So is truth really nothing more than my personal take on reality or can truth be found that turns out to be liberating?
This coming Sunday many churches will be celebrating the Reformation led by Martin Luther challenging the abuses of the Catholic church in that day. Set free from those abuses have we abandoned them only to take on a different bondage? If so, then we haven’t come to know the truth that enables us to be free.
Jesus was having a debate that was concerned with identity. Some of the Jewish folk in the crowd were listening to his teaching and starting to believe that he just might be the Messiah. Jesus said that if they continued in his teaching they would be his disciples (learners) and come to know the truth, the truth that will set them free. They protested that they were descendants of Abraham and were never slaves to anyone. Apparently they had forgotten about their ancestors slavery in Egypt and the Roman soldiers currently having a powerful grip on them now. They were starting to believe but their bondage was tied to their identity as children of Abraham. The desire to kill Jesus proved that their bondage was to a way that Abraham would have never supported. Their perceived identity was false.
Jesus said that whoever sins is a slave to sin. Sin is more than doing bad things. Sin is rebellion against God. The bad things we do are symptoms of that rebellion. So what is the truth that sets us free from our slavery? The truth is not a set of doctrine. It is not tradition. Truth is not grabbing select Bible verses that support our political philosophy. It is not nationalism. Truth is not repeating memorized lines. It is not longing for an idealized past. The truth that sets us free is a person. Jesus is that truth.
If we take the time to listen to the things Jesus taught. If we observe his compassion for the sick and the outcast and the poor. If we take notice of how he forgave and showed mercy. If we understand his rejection of the world’s take on power for fidelity to the kingdom of God. If we begin to notice these things then what opens up to us is holy and Divine. If we take these things into our being, then we come to know the One who is truth. Jesus sets us free. The result is that freedom in this world of slavery no longer is an obscure concept but a gift from God.
What is the Sabbath for? The word really means rest. So how are we to rest on the Sabbath (what we know as Sunday)? A day for sleeping in. Play a round of golf. A relaxing morning with coffee cup in hand. Watch the ball game. Attend a church service. Eat brunch at a favorite restaurant. A day to refrain from working. What is the Sabbath for? In the Ten Commandments we are told to ‘remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.’ Once more, what is the Sabbath for? The reading from Luke has Jesus giving a whole new spin on the Sabbath.
A spirit has left a woman crippled for the past eighteen years leaving her bent over and and unable to stand up straight. Jesus releases her from the infirmity. Set free, she stands up for the first time in eighteen years and praises God. Jesus was in trouble with the leader of the synagogue because this was the Sabbath. Why? The Sabbath was for rest and not for work. Jesus could have done the healing on a different day instead of violating the Sabbath’s command. However, Jesus called the leader and all on their hypocrisy. On the Sabbath, animals are led to water to be freed from their thirst and this is work. Shouldn’t she, a daughter of Abraham, be set free from Satan’s bondage? Now we are getting to Jesus’ point on the Sabbath.
Deuteronomy 5 directly connects observing the Sabbath to liberation from slavery in Egypt. The Sabbath was for liberating all from slave, servant, immigrant to animal from labor so they may find rest as God found rest from the work of creation on the seventh day. Jesus was living this out as he set the woman free and now fully free she could worship and give praise to God.
We are like this woman. A spirit seems to have crippled us. We are unable to fully observe the Sabbath. How? We are crippled by our refusal to recognize our pollution, waste and damage to God’s amazing creation. We are crippled by our prejudice and hate. We are crippled by our economics that reward only a few. We are crippled by our demand for power over others. We are all crippled and under bondage unable to fully praise the One who is our maker.
So how do we observe the Sabbath? Repentance is a good start. A repentance from the ways we keep those who also share in the image of God and the rest of creation under bondage. A repentance that admits we are in bondage to a spirit that keeps us all from being fully human and fully able to worship God. As Jesus was pointing out, the Sabbath is for all to know the liberation that allows all creation to be fully alive to sing the praises of God. This is what the Sabbath is for.
The day of Pentecost has come as the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples. The day is often called the birthday of the church. One thing for sure it is the dread of lay readers trying to pronounce the likes of Cappadocia, Elamites and Phrygia. The day is a strange one with a violent wind and tongues of fire on the heads of the disciples. The God-fearing Jews heard the witness of the disciples in their native language (outreach to the Gentiles will come later). The reaction was bewilderment and some considering the disciples to be drunk at 9:00 a.m. While alcohol may loosen the tongue, it doesn’t give command of another language. This shows the Spirit was given for the purpose to give witness to the mighty things God had done. Namely, raising Jesus from the dead.
The Holy Spirit was the gift given for the benefit of the church to do the work God has called it to do through Christ. Yet, as always, we work to limit the Spirit to our own prejudices and power structures. Peter quoted the prophet Joel to respond to the bewilderment of the people present. In the last days, God will pour the Spirit upon sons, daughters, young, old, men and women. Nobody gets left out! Imagine how much the church has lost out by restricting the witness of women. How many children have walked away because their voice was not allowed to develop and be shared?
The Holy Spirit was the gift given for the benefit of the church. Yet we praise the gifts of some and not others. We use the gifts as a measurement of who is most empowered or blessed the most by God. We get so enamored with the gifts that we forget to use them. The gifts need to used for the purpose given by the Spirit.
The people present were bewildered by what was going on. We should be too! There was God setting people free by cutting through the boundaries of sex and age. There was God refusing to be held under the power of tyranny as the crucified Jesus was raised from the dead. This news was bewildering to the people. The mighty acts of God was running counter cultural to all they understood. This was God setting his people and all of creation free.
So we celebrate Pentecost as the same Spirit is upon us to declare the mighty acts of God. The message is still the same of God cutting through the boundaries of age and sex and race for people to be free. The message is still the same of how God refuses to allow the powers at hand to have final control as Jesus was raised from the dead. The message is still the same but the language is bewildering because it is so different from what we are used to hearing. God is here and setting us free. This is what the Spirit is guiding us to do. This is a Holy voice.