Sunday, April 20, 2003

Jesus' Mandate to Love
Maundy Thursday
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

[Shared with the people of Friendship Church, April 17, 2003]

Karl Barth is considered one of the giants of Christian faith in the twentieth century. He was a world-renowned theologian in a time when the words of theologians were covered by the mainstream media. Once, Barth came to America for a lecture tour. A reporter from The New York Times was on hand to cover his appearance and to interview the great man. Barth wrote volumes of theological works, books that would take even the most learned person a long time to wade through. The reporter asked Barth, “In all of your work, sir, what are you trying to say?” Barth thought about if for awhile and then answered, “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.”

As some of you know, that’s one of my favorite stories, because it gets at the essence of the Good News of Jesus Christ. “While we were still sinners,” the New Testament book of Romans says, “Christ died for us.” He did that because of His love for us. God knew that death was the rightful consequence of sin. He was horrified by the notion that He might lose us all forever. So, God made an incredible decision. He decided to become one of us, lead a sinless life, and then make an offering of Himself. He became the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world. Anybody who will simply come to God, confessing their sin and receiving Jesus as their Lord, becomes a beneficiary of the love God gives through Jesus. “Jesus loves me” is absolutely true and the cross is proof of it. The Good News on which this congregation and this building is built is love, the love of God.

But Maundy Thursday stands as a reminder to us all. The love that we followers of Jesus talk about isn’t just about God’s love for us. The word Maundy comes from a Latin word that means “mandate” or “command.” On the Thursday before Jesus was murdered, He celebrated the ancient Jewish meal of Passover with His closest followers. There, He also instituted a new dinner. We call it Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, or from a Greek word meaning thanksgiving, we may call it the Eucharist. But Jesus did something else in that quiet room with the twelve: He gave them a mandate, a new command.

As was often true of Jesus though, He didn’t give that new commandment without first giving them a stunning illustration of it. Like you, maybe, a few weeks ago, I was amazed to watch by satellite from Baghdad, the pictures of Iraqis and US Marines as, together they brought down a large statue of Saddam Hussein. Even more amazing was the image of dozens of Iraqis jumping onto the toppled statue, stomping it with their feet and banging it with their shoes. These Iraqis were showing contempt for a man they regarded as a monstrous dictator.

Like the Iraqis of today, when God came into the world as a human being, He did so as a member of a Semitic race. The Judeans of Jesus’ day, also like the Iraqis of our day, regarded the foot as the filthiest portion of the human anatomy. In first century Judea where Jesus lived, it was common whenever a guest had traveled dusty roads by foot, that a servant would wash the feet of the traveler before dinner was served. But as Jesus prepared to give His disciples the mandate to love as He loved them, He did something that no self-respecting Lord or teacher would ever do, something that only a slave would do. Jesus stripped off His only garment, wrapped a towel around His waist, and began to wash the disciples’ dirty feet.

Simon Peter—the man we call simply Peter—was appalled. “Lord,” he tells Jesus, “You are never going to wash my feet. I won’t hear of it. It’s beneath the Savior of the world.” (It’s funny how Peter was always trying to teach Jesus the “right” way to be the Savior, as though he knew better than Jesus!) But Jesus tells Peter, “If you don’t let Me serve you in this way, you really don’t have anything to do with Me.” On hearing that, Peter, always impetuous, says, “Lord, not just my feet then, but also my hands and my head.”

After Jesus finished cleaning each foot, even the feet of the man He knew would soon betray Him and turn Him over to the authorities who would kill Him, Jesus took His place at the head of the table and said:

“Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet...I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The love of Jesus isn’t a pretty ornament that you pull out and gaze at. Jesus’ love is like a million pulsating nuclear power plants living inside of us. Jesus’ love is meant to power us in loving and serving others just as Jesus has loved and served us.

Jesus’ Maundy Thursday mandate is that we dare not horde His love; it’s meant to be passed on. When I was a boy, I remember an assembly at our elementary school at which we welcomed a local TV show host, a sort of prototype of Bill Nye, the Science Guy. His name was Mr. Perkins. At one point in the assembly, Mr. Perkins had a large group of us stand holding hands in a circle around the perimeter of the multipurpose room. One person in the front laid the palm of his hand against the surface of a large metal ball that was connected to a small, hand-cranked electric generator. Mr. Perkins began cranking the generator and within seconds, everyone of us felt a small but noticeable jolt. Mr. Perkins explained that each of us had acted as conductors of electricity. We felt it and so did the person we touched next to us.

Jesus is saying that for the follower of Jesus, it isn’t good enough to be the passive recipients of His love. And there are some people, stuck in a perpetual spiritual adolescence whose entire thinking about Christ and the Church is composed of the question, “What’s in it for me?” For people like that, Christian faith is nothing but a selfish pursuit of goose bumps and jolts. They engage in constant hopping from one experience or church to another because the “high” they got before wore off. But Jesus says that if we want to keep His love alive in our lives, we need to move from being mere consumers of His love and become reproducers of His love. We need to love the imperfect people with whom we go to church and the imperfect people in our world, just like He loves us in spite of our imperfections.

Facing certain death, Jesus still served His unworthy disciples. He could do that because the love He knew the Father had for Him gave Him confidence to keep on loving in spite of His circumstances. Jesus wants us to live and love and serve with the same confidence! A few days ago, I was having a conversation on the fly with one of my neighbors. For some time now, I’ve been praying for him and his wife, people I really like a lot. I decided that now was the time. So, in my head, I said another quick prayer and I invited this guy and his wife to worship with us this coming Sunday. Without a second’s hesitation, he said, “Yes.” Soon, I was in my car heading for dinner with friends. But I tell you, that felt so good! Jesus had made a connection of love with my neighbor. By taking the risk of passing Jesus’ love onto someone else, I could feel Jesus stoking the fires of my faith and making it grow. Our faith in Christ always grows when we give it away!

In the few days before Easter, God may give you and me opportunities to make such a connection. We can invite people who need Jesus in their lives to be with us for Easter worship. And in a few weeks, you’ll have new opportunities to serve our neighbors in Jesus’ Name through our renewed outreach program under Carol Barrett’s leadership.

You and I can sing with confidence that, “Jesus loves me” and that’s an awesome and life-transforming thing. But when we show others through our loving, serving, giving, and living that Jesus loves them, that’s when you and are most alive!

[The Karl Barth story, one of my favorites, was retold in a recent message by Pastor Mike Foss. I appreciate the reminder.]
Shocked by God's Powerful Reach
Easter Sunday
April 20, 2003
Mark 16:1-8

[Message shared with the people of Friendship Church]

Back in the day when doctors made house calls, a dying man expressed fear of death to his doctor. This man couldn’t shake his feelings even though he, like his doctor, was a Christian. The doctor heard his patient out, not sure exactly what to say. Just then a whining and scratching was heard at the door. When the doctor opened it, in bounded his dog, who had been waiting outside for its master. While the dog wagged his tail happily, the doctor sensed an opportunity to comfort his patient. “My dog has never been in this room. So, he had no way of knowing what it’s like. But he knew that I was in here and that was good enough for him. In the same way, in spite of our fears, we can look forward to heaven. I don’t know a lot about it. But I know that Jesus is there. And that’s good enough for me!”

On this Easter Sunday morning, I can tell you that there are many mysteries about this life and the one beyond the grave. There are things we don’t know and that we won’t know until after we die, like what things look like on the other side of death. But all who entrust their lives to Jesus Christ can face life and death without fear. Jesus, the One Who died and then rose again, is waiting for us!

In the Bible, there are four major accounts of the first Easter Sunday. They come in the four first books of the New Testament, books we call gospels. Our Bible lesson today is the account given in the book written by a man named Mark. Mark, as many of you know, uses an almost breathless, journalistic style in telling about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. If you’ve ever seen the CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, you have a pretty good idea of Mark’s manner of writing. Like Wolf as he gives the news, Mark barely comes up for air. He moves rapidly from scene to scene in Jesus’ ministry, with little explanation. Mark seems to do this in order to challenge us to draw our own conclusions.

In His account of Jesus’ resurrection, Mark uses just eight verses! That’s a pretty sparse narration of the most stunning event in all human history. In fact, in the original Greek in which the lesson was written, the final verse is so breathlessly rendered that it’s an incomplete sentence. Many Bible scholars in fact, think that Mark ended his entire book with this dangling sentence, that someone else added twenty-two verses just to tidy things up.

Be that as it may, our Bible lesson for this morning ends with three women who had gone to Jesus’ tomb to anoint His body terrified into silence by what they were told in the tomb. They couldn’t fathom the notion that the Savior they had watched die and helped to bury was alive again. Mark says:

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Mark’s ending forces us into the same position those women were in when they first heard that Jesus had been raised and looked at His empty tomb. We must choose whether we believe or not. The other three Gospel writers in the New Testament— Matthew, Luke, and John—make it clear what choice the women make. They run to the other disciples and tell them that Jesus has risen from the dead. Several of them actually see Jesus. (Ultimately more than 500 of Jesus’ first followers would see Him after He rose from the dead.) But I think that Mark is right in telling us that in those first moments after being told of Jesus’ resurrection, the women were terrified. They needed to decide whether the God we know in Jesus Christ is powerful enough to retrieve life and then reach us even after going through death on a cross! They needed to decide whether they could trust that after they died, Jesus would be waiting for them. Have you let God reach you through the risen Jesus? Do you believe in the good news of Easter? Do you trust Jesus Christ with your life? Those are questions that the resurrection of Jesus forces us all to answer.

She always believed in God; it was just that when she joined the faculty at Stanford University, she was so busy traveling that she didn't attend church regularly. She was a specialist in international affairs, diplomacy. So she often found herself in another time zone, not just out of town. One Sunday, she was in the Lucky's Supermarket near her home, among the spices, when an African-American man walked up to her and said he was buying some things for his church picnic. Then he asked her, a perfect stranger, "Do you play piano by any chance?" She said that she did. They were looking for someone to play the piano at church. It was a little African-American Church, a Baptist church right in the center of Palo Alto. So she started playing for that church, and that brought her back regularly to worship.

She says that she doesn't play gospel music well; she plays Brahms. And disconcertingly, in Black Baptist churches, ministers will just start a song and the musicians will pick it up. She had no idea how to play like that. So she called her mother and said, "Mother, they just start. How am I supposed to do this?" Her mother laughed and said, "Honey, play in C. People will figure out how to join in."

Condoleeza Rice, President Bush’s national security advisor, tells this story because when all of this happened in her life and she found herself playing piano on Sunday mornings, she thought to herself, "My goodness, God has a long reach. All the way into the Lucky's Supermarket on a Sunday morning."

Easter tells us that God has a long reach. He can immerse Himself in death and still pull out life, for Himself and for all who follow Him. That came as a shock to the three women who had gone to anoint His lifeless body on the first Easter Sunday. Easter has become old hat to us, I’m afraid. I wish that we could recover some of the shock the women felt as they fled Jesus’ empty tomb. Jesus rose from the dead and He’s reaching out to you and me again today to give us life. And that is still stunning, life-changing news if you let yourself really think about it!

As many of you know, during my time in seminary, my life was blessed by my connection with a professor and mentor named Bruce Schein. Not long after I graduated, Pastor Schein’s health began to deteriorate, the result of Parkinson’s Disease. Before dying about two years later, he had been clinically dead and revived several times. After one such siege, I met him for the last time. He looked emaciated, could barely walk, and his hands trembled constantly. But there was a radiant smile on his face. I can still hear his words almost as if he were speaking them to me right now. “Mr. Daniels,” he said, “I have been to the throne room. It was beautiful.” And then he added, with a wink, “I put in a good word for you.”

None of us knows for certain what lies on the other side of death. But Jesus rose from the dead to give all with faith in Him a beautiful eternity. Easter tells us that the risen Jesus is reaching out for us even now and that if we let Him have us, He will never let us go! That’s shocking news, mysterious news, that forces us to draw our own conclusions and make our own choices. Will we be stunned into following Jesus now and in eternity? Or will we go on with our lives as though nothing has happened? The choice is ours.

[The notion of Jesus reaching out to us comes from a message by Pastor Mike Foss. He also shares the story of Condoleeza Rice, which comes from the April, 2003 issue of Homiletics magazine. A different version of the story of the dog and his doctor was shared by Pastor Glen VanderKloot in his e-mailed devotional, OnLine with Faith. However, the version I cite is taken from Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, edited by Michael P.Green.]