Friday, April 02, 2010

Living Reminders

[This was shared during Maundy Thursday worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, on April 1.]

John 13:1-17, 31-35
In tonight’s Gospel lesson, Jesus prepares His disciples for the events of the next few days and the years beyond.

He knows that it’s time for Him to go to the cross, to be the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world, to die, to rise, and, in time, to leave His disciples as He ascends to heaven. Jesus wants to comfort the disciples and to assure them that however alone they may feel in the coming years, they will never be alone. That’s why later on during this dinner, in a section of John’s Gospel not part of tonight’s lesson, Jesus promises that after He has risen and ascended to heaven, He will send the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, to all believers. As believers in Jesus, we have that same promise today.

But Jesus knows how hard it is for us to believe that He and the Holy Spirit are with us right now. He knows how experiential we human beings are, how physical. We want evidence.

When the chips are down in life, it’s hard to believe in the presence of the Holy Spirit we can’t see. It’s hard to believe in the presence of a risen Jesus we can’t see.

It’s to help us believe that Jesus is risen and that the Spirit is with us that Jesus also gives the disciples a new commandment in our Gospel lesson. It’s our commandment, too. “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus says, “that you love one another.” This commandment, mandatum in the Latin, mandate in modern English, and, it appears, Maundy in the Middle English of long ago, is what gives this day of Maundy Thursday its name.

But how does Jesus' command that we Christians love each other help us to trust in Christ’s promises to be with us and to give us new, eternal life?

Karen, who I've mentioned to you before, was a member of our former congregation in Cincinnati. Karen died at age 37 after a two-year fight with cancer. Her death came at her home at about 2:30 one morning. Her husband called me right after it happened. He was there with his parents and sister-in-law. They were waiting for the funeral home personnel to come and take Karen’s body, he said. I asked if I could come over for a visit and he said, “Of course.” On the way, at about 3:30 in the morning, I stopped by Krispy Kreme for fresh doughnuts. We sat at the kitchen table, eating, waiting, and talking together. “Oh, I just thought of something,” Karen’s husband Tom said. He ran to another part of the house and returned a few moments later with a note from Karen. It turns out that she had written notes to many people, physical reminders of her faith, love, and friendship, and each note an affirmation of her belief that because of the risen Jesus, all who repent and believe in Christ live with God for eternity.

Sometimes, our faith needs to be bolstered by things we can see and touch, usually by the people we can see and touch. Jesus commanded His Church—you and me—to love one another just as He loved and still loves us. Jesus doesn’t do this to lay a new guilt-inducing obligation on us. He does it so that we can be personal reminders of His love and all His promises.

The most dramatic thing Jesus does at the meal recounted in our lesson, of course, is wash the feet of His disciples, a menial servant’s task done by the Maker of the universe. Jesus does this to underscore His new commandment.

After the foot-washing, Jesus tells the disciples, “I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.” Jesus says that you and I are to put skin and life and our very beings into the faith we confess.

Each of us who are part of Christ’s Church are commanded to love our sisters and brothers in Christ so that whenever the faith of that person in the next pew, in the Sunday School class or Bible study, or at the potluck, is challenged or growing faint, your act of Christian love will assure them that Jesus is real, His victory over death and sin is real, His promise to be with us is certain.

A woman Ann and I got to know in our former community joined Friendship not long before we came to Logan. She and her family were going through a lot--so many challenging circumstances at once--and felt the need to connect with God and the Church. They became deeply involved and not long after we moved here, this woman’s husband died. She has written to me several times since to say, “God brought us to the church at the right time. I don’t know what we would have done without it.” The people of the congregation, by their love for her and her family, strengthened her faith in the risen Jesus and helped her to believe in the promises of Christ to be with His people always!

Every person who is part of the Church—including those of us who are part of Saint Matthew—has something in common: We are all ordinary, imperfect, sinful human beings.

For many, this is a disappointment because church people aren’t as perfect or as sinless as they want them to be. When the Church disappoints us—and it does and it will—it’s good for us to take a close look in the mirror. Jesus commands us to love the Church as it really is, filled with people as imperfect, as prone to sin and mistakes, as we are, in as much need of forgiveness, understanding, and charity as we ourselves are.

In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul marvels that “God proves His love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Jesus didn’t wait for the disciples to get clean before He washed their feet. And He didn’t wait for the world to repent before He died for the sins of all. Jesus proved that, as several Old Testament passages remind us, God is gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

This is a good thing for we Christians because every congregation I’ve ever been part of or observed is filled with a cast of characters, including the pastors, who could make up a hit television sitcom or drama. We all have our faults. We are all recovering sinners.

But when we love one another where we’re at, as we are, we remind one another of a love so great that not even Good Friday could kill it off. Love like that transforms those who receive it and those who give it. The love of our fellow Christians makes us want to follow Jesus more closely. It incites us to deeper faith and greater self-sacrifice.

Once, I heard the lay member of a congregation who was asked by his pastor to speak for a few moments one Sunday morning about what that church meant to him. He couldn’t help thinking, this man said, of the scene in the movie, As Good As It Gets, when Jack Nicholson’s character tells Helen Hunt’s, “You make me want to be a better man.” The love of Christ he had experienced in his church, that man said, incited the exact sentiment in him.

In each other’s patient love, we experience the kindness of God and, as Paul reminds us in Romans 2:4, it’s the kindness of God—not harsh judgments, not haranguing sermons, not spiritual tongue-lashings, not perfectly-executed liturgies, but the kindness of God—that leads to repentance, that leads us all back, again and again, to the God we know in Jesus.

And when we in the Church share this kind of love for one another, it has an effect on more than just those within our fellowship.

Pastor Bill White recounted the legend of two old friends who, through the circumstances of history, ended up living in two kingdoms that were hostile to one another. But their friendship endured. One of the men visited the other friend in his country, the king got wind of this foreigner’s presence, and ordered the visitor’s execution. The king was sure that the visitor was a spy.

“Your majesty,” the man begged. “Please give me 30 days to settle my affairs in my homeland. When I return, you can execute me.” Naturally, the king didn’t believe him. “A condemned man will return to his execution after he gains his freedom? Do you think I’m a fool?” That’s when the man’s old friend, stepped forward. “Jail me, your majesty. This is my friend. I trust him. But if he isn’t back in thirty days, you can take my life.” Incredulous, the king went along with the plan.

The thirty days were nearly up, when the accused man, having gotten his affairs in order, returned for his execution. His jailed friend said, “You should let me take your punishment. I’ve prepared myself to die in these thirty days. You can go free and live.” But the accused man said, “It isn’t right that you should take my punishment in my place.” They argued like this for some time. Finally, the king interrupted, “Enough!” He had never seen selfless love before, the king said. “I pardon you both and I ask you a favor: May I become your friend? I would give anything to be like you!” The two men agreed and the three became fast friends.

Some fifty years after the incidents recounted in tonight’s Gospel lesson, one of the disciples whose feet had been washed by Jesus, by then a much older man, wrote a letter to be circulated among churches then experiencing persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire. Faith in a Savior they could not see was hard to maintain in the face of the threats of the Roman Army they saw every day.

But John, the beloved disciple, traditional author of tonight’s Gospel lesson, encouraged those fearful believers to keep loving God, loving their neighbors, and loving one another. In fact, John says the love of Christians for one another verifies the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. Listen to what he says in 1 John 3:14-16:
“We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. We know love by this, that he [Jesus] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
As we prepare to remember the crucifixion of Jesus on Friday and His resurrection on Sunday, let the magnitude of God’s love for you, just as you are, sink deeply into your life.

Then dare to love the Church and all who are part of it as you have been loved. The Bible says that the Church is a living organism and when the faith of one member is built up by love, the faith of the whole Church is built up. And a faithful, loving Church, as you know, is among God’s very best gifts. Amen

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Bit About Jesus' "New Commandment"

In two days, Christians all over the world will celebrate Maundy Thursday. Together, we'll read and hear the account from the Gospel of John about the dinner Jesus had with His disciples on the night of His betrayal and arrest.

In the passage, after washing the feet of His disciples, Jesus says that all His followers--the Church, are to "do as I have done to you." Then, Jesus says, "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another."

The latter verse, in fact, is where it's thought that the name Maundy comes from. It's the Middle English version of the Latin term, mandatum, in modern English, mandate or command.*

But what's new about this commandment? Isn't Jesus' "new commandment" just another way of expressing God’s will for humanity from the beginning, expressed in the two tables of the Ten Commandments and summarized by Jesus as the Great Commandment: to love God completely and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves?

In one way, yes, Jesus’ new commandment is no different from the Great Commandment that God has always given to us. And who could expect otherwise? God is unchanging in His goodness, strength, and will. In Malachi 3:6, God says, “For I the Lord do not change…” And Hebrews 13:8, says of God the Son, “Jesus is Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” The God Who created us out of love and His desire to give that love away, wills that we not only love Him, but also love all the people He loves. And that’s everybody. So, at one level Jesus’ new commandment isn’t very new at all.

Yet, at another level, it is new. Jesus' washing of the disciples' feet was a kind of visible parable for what He meant when He used the term, love.

For Jesus, love is more than compassion or consideration of others, more than respect or regard. When Jesus washed those filthy feet, He did a menial task which all first-century Judea agreed to be beneath someone hailed by many as a teacher (rabbi) or Lord. In this action, Jesus was just beginning to re-image lordship and greatness, ultimately, deity itself.

Of course, Jesus definitively re-imaged love on the cross. There, He lived a love so passionate that it laid aside dignity as the world sees it, to reclaim humanity from sin and death.

This is what Paul is talking about in citing what many scholars believe was a hynm sung by early Christians, when he writes that "though [Jesus] was in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave...He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross." (Philippians 2:6-8)

This is love as Jesus defines it, a love so great that it willingly dies for the beloved, even when the beloved is contemptuous of the lover. Another word for it is passion, which is why we refer to Christ's crucifixion as His passion.

But, wait. It gets even more difficult and countercultural!

Remember that Jesus says to His followers, "You also should do as I have done to you." Jesus' new command is that we are to love with the same reckless disregard for the reactions of others that Jesus displayed. This is what Paul is talking about when he introduces that hymn in Philippians by saying, "Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus..." (Philippians 2:4-5)

Can Jesus be serious? Can Paul?

When Jesus gave His brand of love to the disciples, washing their feet, it didn't change their actions in the ensuing hours. They abandoned, denied, or betrayed Jesus.

And when Jesus offered Himself as the forgiving, eternity-granting Servant King to the Roman and Jewish authorities, they nailed Him to a cross.

And Paul himself, spending his life to spread the good news of Jesus, ended up on the wrong side of Roman "justice," a martyr for the faith.

Why would anybody want to love like that? What exactly is in it for us?

That last question, one we all ask if we're honest, actually has things backwards. Restating it with its implied premise, it might be expressed, "If I love like Jesus loves, what do I get out of it?"

The answer, of course, is that we don't love like Jesus (or, strive in our imperfect, sin-marred human way, to love like Jesus) to get anything out of it. We strive to love like that because we already have been loved like that, because when Jesus died and rose, He opened up new life and eternity to those who believe in Him. As John writes elsewhere in the New Testament, "We love because He [God] first loved us" (1 John 4:19).

We don't love to get anything. We love because through Jesus, we've already got everything--forgiveness, eternity, hope, purpose, love. The game has been won, the A already been given. Because Jesus went through the cross, even death has lost its sting.

Following Jesus doesn't mean we don't suffer in this world. In fact, we may suffer more than non-Christians precisely because we follow Christ. But we feel motivated and empowered to love like Jesus because in Christ, we're freed to love without regard to consequences.

It's fair for anyone reading this to ask me, "Do you love like Jesus? Do you love without regard to consequences? Do you serve selflessly?"

No, I don't love like Jesus. But I pray and hope that by God's grace that I will grow up as a Christian to do so. I ask God to help me obey Jesus' new commandment.

Thank God we're graded on a curve. The curve is called grace, God's charity, and it belongs to all who confess their powerlessness over sin and trust in Jesus Christ to love them into eternity.

With Christ in your life, even when you fail, you can not fail.

*"According to a common theory, the English word Maundy in that name for the day is derived through Middle English, and Old French mandé, from the Latin mandatum, the first word of the phrase "Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos" ("A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you"), the statement by Jesus in the Gospel of John (13:34) by which Jesus explained to the Apostles the significance of his action of washing their feet." (See here.)

Parable of an Unwanted Painting

[This was presented by my friend and colleague, Glen VanderKloot, in his daily email today.]
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

A wealthy man and his son loved to collect rare works of art.
They had everything in their collection, from Picasso to Raphael.
They would often sit together and admire the great works of art.

When the Vietnam conflict broke out, the son went to war.
He was very courageous and died in battle while rescuing
another soldier. The father was notified and grieved deeply
for his only son.

About a month later, just before Christmas,
there was a knock at the door. A young man stood at the
door with a large package in his hands. He said, "Sir, you
don't know me, but I am the soldier for whom your son gave
his life. He saved many lives that day, and he was carrying
me to safety when a bullet struck him in the heart and he died
instantly. He often talked about you, and your love for art."
The young man held out this package. "I know this isn't much.
I'm not really a great artist, but I think your son would have
wanted you to have this."

The father opened the package. It was a portrait of his son,
painted by the young man. He stared in awe at the way the
soldier had captured the personality of his son in the painting.
The father was so drawn to the eyes that his own eyes welled
up with tears. He thanked the young man and offered to pay
him for the picture. "Oh, no sir, I could never repay what your
son did for me. It's a gift."

The father hung the portrait over his mantle. Every time visitors
came to his home he took them to see the portrait of his son
before he showed them any of the other great works he had

The man died a few months later. There was to be a great auction
of his paintings Many influential people gathered, excited over
seeing the great paintings and having an opportunity to purchase
one for their collection.

On the platform sat the painting of the son. The auctioneer pounded
his gavel. "We will start the bidding with this picture of the son.
Who will bid for this picture?" There was silence. Then a voice in
the back of the room shouted, "We want to see the famous
paintings. Skip this one."

But the auctioneer persisted. "Will somebody bid for this painting.
Who will start the bidding? $100? $200?" Another voice yelled
angrily, "We didn't come to see this painting. We came to see the
Van Goghs and Rembrandts. Get on with the real bids" But still
the auctioneer continued. "The son The son Who'll take the son?"
Finally, a voice came from the very back of the room. It was the
longtime gardener of the man and his son. "I'll give $10 for the
painting." Being a poor man, it was all he could afford. "We have
$10, who will bid $20?" "Give it to him for $10. Let's see the masters"
"$10 is the bid, won't someone bid $20?"

The crowd was becoming angry. They didn't want the picture of
the son. They wanted the more worthy investments for their
collections. The auctioneer pounded the gavel. "Going once, twice,
SOLD for $10"

A man sitting on the second row shouted, "Now let's get on with
the collection" The auctioneer laid down his gavel. "I'm sorry, the
auction is over." "What about the paintings?" I am sorry. When I
was called to conduct this auction, I was told of a secret stipulation
in the will. I was not allowed to reveal that stipulation until this
time. Only the painting of the son would be auctioned. Whoever
bought that painting would inherit the entire estate, including the
paintings. The man who took the son gets everything"

God gave His son 2,000 years ago to die on the cross. Much like
the auctioneer, His message today is:

    "The son, the son, who'll take the son?"

Because, you see, whoever takes the Son gets everything.

                author unknown to me

 1 John 5:12 TNIV

Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have
the Son of God does not have life.


Lord, thank you for giving your son to die on the cross
so that I might live.  Help me every day to renew
my faith and commitment to Jesus. Amen


Monday, March 29, 2010

'That You Should Do As I Have'

That's the title of this Maundy Thursday sermon by US Lutheran Pastor Sam Zumwalt. It's presented on the Lutheran site,  Göttinger Predigten im Internet. The sermon was presented five years ago. So, its references to taxes and health care shouldn't be read as related to the specifics to this country's recent debates on health care reform. There is plenty in this sermon to make both conservatives and liberals upset, which is fine. If the truth of Jesus and of the Bible doesn't upset us sometimes, we probably haven't been paying attention. Please, wherever you get offended, if you get offended, keep reading. This is a call to faithful discipleship...and that often makes us uncomfortable.
Lutheran Christians don’t believe that Holy Baptism is an outward sign of an inward action – something one does once you have invited Jesus into your heart. Rather we believe that Holy Baptism is God’s gracious act of choosing us (especially as helpless infants) for Christ’s sake. We believe, teach, and confess that Holy Baptism is the pattern of our lives until we die. Yes, we are only washed one time with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yet we believe, teach, and confess that Holy Baptism is a way of life – daily dying to sin through confessing our need for a Savior and daily being raised to live a new life in the power of the Holy Spirit (given as a free gift in baptism).

Maundy Thursday, the first day of the Triduum (“three days” in Latin), introduces us to shape of this baptized life and the real meaning of discipleship. We are to do as the Lord Jesus does. We are to love as our Master loves. He gives us a new commandment – to give our lives away in humble service even unto death.

Now, needless to say, the inner circle of disciples didn’t get it that night or the next or the next. When Jesus took off his outer cloak and tied a towel around himself and began to wash feet like the lowliest servant, the disciples were taken aback and even repulsed by this kind of deliberate choice. When Jesus was arrested later that night and went without protest, the disciples were terrified and lost heart by this kind of deliberate choice. When Jesus was on trial before the religious leaders and the secular leaders, when he was mocked and beaten, when he was condemned to death, the disciples were in fear for their own lives and disbelieving of this kind of deliberate choice. When Jesus was nailed to the cross, the disciples were grief stricken and utterly disoriented by this kind of deliberate choice.

Only later, after the fact, when they knew the rest of the story, only then would the disciples begin to understand that Holy Baptism is a way of life – the pattern of dying to self and rising to life a new life of humble service in the power of the Holy Spirit. In short, during the original Triduum, the disciples could not be faulted for not knowing what they didn’t know. And to the extent that anyone has not been taught what it means to die and rise with Christ in the washing of Holy Baptism, that person cannot be faulted for not knowing what she or he doesn’t know. Nevertheless, all sin and all die.

But if we know what it means to die and rise with Christ in the washing of Holy Baptism and we do not do it, then we stand with all those that have renounced and abandoned the Christian faith. Abandoning God, we are guilty of apostasy.

The hard truth about us is that we do not fear, love, and trust God above all else. In short, daily we renounce the Lord our God and abandon the Christian faith. Daily we fail to die to ourselves and knowingly commit apostasy. Following the suggestion of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, I call this functional atheism. When we exclude God from whole portions and chapters of our lives, we abandon our God and function as atheists in that area or that period of our lives.

We live in a culture that despises the Christian faith and encourages us to function as atheists. The Lord Jesus’ call to give your lives away in humble service is often mimicked by random acts of kindness like blood drives and collections for world hunger even in churches! But this culture urges and encourages us to “look out for yourself – do what you want, do what makes you happy, do what you feel like doing.”

This culture doesn’t want to be told that prices need to be raised to pay a living wage to everyone. This culture doesn’t want to be told that taxes need to be raised to provide health care to those that don’t have it, to provide an education to all that need it, to take care of those that cannot work and those that no longer can work. This culture doesn’t want to be told that roads, bridges, and sewers are wearing out and need to be replaced and that it’s going to cost money. Instead we love to hear the politicians say “No new taxes!” And we believe we can have everything without any personal cost.

This culture doesn’t want to be told that selfishness breeds selfishness, heartache, and destruction. Instead it celebrates the freedom of the individual. This culture says that whatever you feel like doing is fine within very few limits.

This culture says that if you feel like having consensual sex, go ahead and do it. This culture says that if you feel like living together outside of marriage, go ahead and do it. This culture says that if you feel like abandoning your marriage and your children, go ahead and do it. This culture says that if you feel like aborting a child, go ahead and do it. This culture says that if you feel like all the previous generations are wrong about marriage being for one woman and one man until death parts them, go ahead and do it. This culture says that if you feel like it’s a burden to take care of someone and you feel that it’s time for them to die, go ahead and do it.

The Lord Jesus says to us: “Do as I have done – give your lives away in humble service.” And we answer back: “You have got to be kidding!” After all, the culture we live in is far more appealing than the kingdom the Lord Jesus calls us to inhabit. Autonomous individuals don’t want to be told what to do, and so we keep deconstructing what God has made. Like those that put the Lord Jesus on trial, we declare that the Lord Jesus is a threat to our culture. And He is! He is out to destroy this culture of death. He is out to obliterate its obsession with selfish autonomy. He longs to give us a new life!

Someone once said: Before the truth sets you free, it makes you mad! Well, that’s not quite it. The Lord Jesus is the Truth embodied. In Hs presence, all of us are exposed as selfish, functional atheists that are on the way to the cemetery. Even our random acts of kindness are shown for what they are – magnanimous gestures by self-serving egotists! We do not fear, love, and trust God above all else. Left to ourselves, we abandon God.

Confronted with the Truth – in the presence of Jesus the truth about himself – Simon Peter asked to be washed. Confronted with the Truth – in the presence of Jesus the truth about ourselves – we at began the Lenten season on Ash Wednesday with the words of Psalm 51: “Wash me through and through from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin” (v. 2). We confessed our utter brokenness. We were reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return. The Truth about us is that there is no help or hope to be found within this body of death. No matter how many counselors and false prophets tell us that we should follow our feelings. The Truth is our feelings are the stuff of death.

Baptized into the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, we die to ourselves again and again. If we do not die to ourselves, we function as atheists and abandon God. The liberation provided by the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus is not, as the false prophets say, a freedom to follow my feelings and my experience wherever that leads. The Lord Jesus means freedom from the culture of death – freedom to die to ourselves daily – to go to our graves giving our lives away daily in humble service like Jesus!

We should enter into this Triduum – these three days – with awe and wonder, because we know that the Lord Jesus deliberately chose to do what we gladly run away from. In love that is beyond our imagination and our ability, God in the flesh willingly and without hesitation went the way that we cannot go if we are left to our selfish selves.

That night when the disciples were gathered with him for supper, the Lord Jesus did what every pious Jew does to this day. He took bread and wine and gave the King of the Universe thanks and praise for it. But on that occasion, the Lord Jesus said: “This my body and this my blood given and shed for you.”

His disciples did not know what He was up to, but we baptized Christians know the rest of the story. The Lord Jesus was promising that the life He was about to sacrifice for the sins of the world would be ever after given in bread and wine as we eat and drink, remembering that we were there with Him on the cross. In Holy Baptism, we have already died with Him on Calvary’s tree and now in the Holy Communion He gives us His life as a free gift again and again and again unto eternity.

Left to ourselves, we abandon God and can never love as Christ loves us. But dying to ourselves daily and being filled with that Life and that Love that can never be taken from us, we can give our lives away in humble service just like the One who lives in and through us.

Today, in this place, it seems possible as we look around to see Visible Words and living embodiments of the discipled life. Here we have been called out of the world of unbelief, out of the culture of death. But tonight and tomorrow we go to our trials, to our sufferings, and to our crosses, and the culture of death screams out: “Fools, why would you ever live like that when you can be your own little god?”

The Lord Jesus shows us that the way of eternal life leads through the death of self and, yes, the death of this body with all of its feelings and experience. The Lord Jesus shows us that the way of eternal death is nothing other than a celebration of the autonomous self and the culture of death that is trying to seduce us daily!

“Don’t go to hell with the culture of death! Come, die with me,” says our Lord Jesus, “and you will live forever.”

Saying thank You...

...reminds me of all for which I have to be thankful.

That truth made me really appreciate this piece from today's Our Daily Bread devotion.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Carnival potion sales...

...goes high tech.

How Will You React to Jesus? (Palm Sunday)

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today. Today is Palm Sunday.]

Luke 19:28-40
Ronald Reagan--for you young people, he was our fortieth president and a one-time movie star--had a story he loved to tell. It went like this: “Worried that their son was too optimistic, the parents of a little boy took him to a psychiatrist. Trying to dampen the boy’s spirits, the psychiatrist showed him into a room piled high with nothing but horse manure. Yet instead of displaying distaste, the little boy clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to all fours, and began digging. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ the psychiatrist asked. ‘With all this manure,’ the little boy replied, beaming,’there must be a pony in here somewhere.’”

Of course, a little boy of a different nature might not have been so sure that there was a pony to be found. He may have decided that where there’s manure, there’s always...more manure.

The point is that two people may react to the same events, experiences, or people in completely different ways. And that’s fine. One of the things I’ve learned in life is that we all have different tastes and 99.9% of the time, our diverging views don’t really matter one way or the other.

But at other times, how we react may mean the difference between life and death, even eternal life and death.

Whenever we think of Palm Sunday, I suspect that we conjure up images of palm leaves waving, “Hosannas” being shouted, and vast throngs of people welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem on the Sunday five days before His crucifixion. But if you look at our lesson from the Gospel of Luke today, you find none of those things.

We do see Jesus’ closest followers putting their cloaks on the animal He rides and onto the pathway He takes into Jerusalem. But we have no mention of what Mark calls “leaves from the field.” Or what Matthew describes as “branches from the trees.” In fact, of the four gospels in the New Testament, only John’s mentions “branches of palms.”

In Luke’s telling, Jesus’ disciples cry out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the Name of the Lord! [And, echoing the song of the angels on the night of Jesus’ birth] Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” But not once do we hear the crowds yelling, “Hosanna!,” a word that essentially means “Save now!”

And, as to crowds, our lesson only speaks of “the whole multitude of disciples,” meaning the hundreds of people who were followers of Jesus. But Luke doesn’t mention the thousands more who would have been in Jerusalem preparing to celebrate the Jewish Passover when Jesus arrives in the city.

What are we to make of these differences in the ways the four gospel writers tell the story of that first Palm Sunday? It all boils down, I think, to focus. Each of the gospel writers have different themes on which they focus, different aspects of Jesus’ story and of Christian faith.

And even more particular to today’s lesson, Luke’s account of the first Palm Sunday comes as part of a string of incidents in Jesus’ ministry and the parables he tells that hammer away at a single theme.

We see this theme earlier Luke, chapter 19, where we read of Jesus' encounter with a man named Zacchaeus. You know the story of Zacchaeus, probably. "Zaccheaus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he...”

Jesus was traveling through Zacchaeus' hometown. Being a person of short stature, Zacchaeus climbed into a sycamore tree in order to get a good look at the celebrated preacher from Nazareth. When Jesus saw Zacchaeus, He called him down from his perch, explaining that He intended to visit Zacchaeus' place right then and there. Zacchaeus climbed down out of his tree and welcomed Jesus. The problem, as some of the good people of that town saw it, was that Zacchaeus was a notorious extortionist. But it wasn't to those supposedly good people that Jesus said, "Today salvation has come to this house." It was to Zacchaeus. The difference between Zacchaeus and the good "church people" (or the first century Judean versions of good church people was that he welcomed Jesus, while they rejected or ignored Jesus. (By the way, from the Bible’s perspective, ignoring Jesus is exactly the same as rejecting Jesus.)

Later in the chapter, just before Palm Sunday, Jesus tells a story about a king who left his people for awhile, just as Jesus would do after dying, rising, and ascending to heaven. Some of the king's subjects excitedly welcomed his return. Others didn't want him around.

As we come to his account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, Luke isn’t saying that there weren’t palm leaves, hosannas, or adoring crowds that first Palm Sunday. But, like a filmmaker showing us one or two people in a scene surrounded by thousands of extras, Luke wants to show us something very important, seen in the reactions to Jesus of two relatively small groups of people.

The first group is Jesus’ disciples. You and I know that at this point, just days before Jesus was to die on a cross, the five-hundred or so people who followed Jesus still didn’t get Him.* They thought that Jesus would be the sort of king who would get rid of the Romans, lower the taxes, and be good to God’s people…or at least, good to them according to how they saw things. But to the extent that they were able at the time, before the crucifixion and before Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples hailed Jesus as their king. They laid down their cloaks as an act of deference and respect. They praised God for Jesus and spoke enthusiastically about all the godly miracles Jesus had performed. They welcomed Jesus into their capital city of Jerusalem and into their lives.

Then, there were some Pharisees. The Pharisees, you know, believed that they could earn salvation and forgiveness of sin. They didn’t pay attention to the teaching of the whole Bible that salvation and forgiveness are gifts granted to those who turn from sin and trust in God. Appalled by the display of devotion to Jesus put on by the disciples, they tell Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop!” They rejected Jesus as the king of either Jerusalem or their lives.

Two reactions: Welcoming Jesus. Rejecting Jesus.

Those who reject Jesus reject peace in their hearts, life with God, and eternity.

Those who welcome Him receive peace, life, and eternity.

Jesus can either be the rock on Whom we build our lives or the stone on which we crash and eternally self-destruct. What will we choose to allow Him to be in our lives?

A couple I know told me about something that happened when their young granddaughter burst from her bed room, where she had been reading the Bible. "I get to live forever!" she said. So do all who welcome Jesus into the center of their lives. And even in the rough and rugged times of life, we have the promise of a God Who loves, forgives, and gives us life forever!

When the disciples welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, they had no idea what they were getting into. They didn’t realize that their king would have to die and rise before He could claim His crown. They had no idea that following Him meant turning their backs on their sins, even the ones they enjoyed, so that they could take hold of the forgiveness and new life only Jesus brings.

For some, welcoming Jesus would mean death at the hands of their persecutors. For many, it would mean being rejected by family, friends, and society for trusting in the Savior they had seen dead and risen. But each day for the rest of their lives, they chose to welcome Jesus. For them, accepting the brief and earthly complications associated with following Christ was a small price to pay compared to spending eternity at His side. It still is!

As we prepare to celebrate Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter this week, may we commit ourselves to always welcoming Jesus!

*The risen Jesus revealed Himself only to those who had believed in Him during His earthly ministry.