God Doesn’t Need Your Religion – Love Is All That Matters

Preacher: Micah Bales
Scripture Readings: Ruth 1:1-18; Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34

“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Jesus spent all of his ministry preaching the arrival of the reign of God. All of his words and actions revealed the presence of God’s power, love, and justice. The sick are healed, the dead are raised, and good news is preached to the poor. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus begins his ministry with these words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” The kingdom of God has drawn near.

“You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Jesus says this to one of the scribes. One of the Pharisees. A member of a group that Jesus criticizes a lot. The scribes and Pharisees, middle-class people who could read the Torah and write dense legal theories about how to follow it correctly.

Jesus fought so often with the scribes and the Pharisees not because he was so different, but because he had so much in common. In fact, if you were going to categorize Jesus in terms of the ideological camps of his day, you could be forgiven for numbering him among the Pharisees.

Just like the Pharisees, Jesus had an extremely high regard for scripture. In fact, just before our gospel reading this morning, Jesus had been publicly debating with the Sadducees – a highly conservative, priestly party that denied the resurrection of the dead. When Jesus rebukes them, he does so on the basis of two things: the Torah – the written testimony about God – and the power of God himself.

He says to the Sadducees, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?”

Unlike the Sadducees, Jesus didn’t accuse the Pharisees of being ignorant of the Bible. Jesus was with the Pharisees in his respect for the scriptures. They had that in common. Where Jesus parted ways with the Pharisees was their lack of responsiveness to the power of God. The God who inspired the scriptures is far beyond, far greater than the scriptures. God won’t be held hostage to human legal theories derived from the Bible. Just as Jesus is lord of the sabbath, the Holy Spirit is lord of scripture.

This is really important. We get lost whenever we forget this. Because, if history has taught us anything, it’s that our sacred texts are almost infinitely malleable. European Christians have used the Bible to justify the crusades, manifest destiny, and slavery. We’ve also used it to build the theological basis of the civil rights movement, anti-slavery societies, and nonviolent action for peace.

This may sound scandalous to some, but there is no “clear meaning of scripture.” Our fallen natural minds simply can’t comprehend the love of God, regardless of what is written down in a book. We’re not qualified interpreters. We’ll twist those holy words to justify our worst impulses. We’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again.

The scriptures, of themselves, can’t save us. Without the Holy Spirit to guide us in our reading, we are utterly blind and lost. In fact, as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, in the absence of the Spirit, the words of scripture can become death to us. Without the power of God, the scriptures can be used as a dangerous weapon. The good news is that, guided by God’s love and wisdom, the scriptures can be a force for healing and liberation.

So when Jesus rails against the Pharisees he’s not railing against their respect for scripture, or the intense study they devote to understanding it. When Jesus gets into his Epic Rap Battles of History with the Pharisees, it’s not about the letter – it’s about the Spirit. It’s about the power of God to move mountains, change the rules, and scandalize us by valuing mercy more than correct religious practice.

Our scripture readings this morning are all about this dynamic power of God to change structures, relationships, and all the moralistic rules that hold us back from being truly moral beings. From Jesus’ dynamic and radical teaching from the Torah, the wisdom of the Book of Hebrews, and in the story of Ruth and Naomi, we hear of how God transcends and upsets all our expectations about what holiness should look like.

In these stories, we discover a God who cares more about love than about rules, more about justice than correctness. We encounter a God who we can trust, because he doesn’t think in the same categories we do. God won’t be boxed in by our limited minds and legalistic straight jackets. And if we’re willing to listen and pay attention, he will free us from our slavery to rules and forms. He’ll bring us into the real life and substance of the gospel.

This gospel of liberation is available in the most unlikely times and places; it emerges in the lives of the most unlikely of people. Ruth was a person like that. A person who lived on the margins in every way. She was a widow in an age where, for a woman, who your husband was determined everything. She was childless in a time when childbearing was the measure of a woman. And from the perspective of the Jewish people, she was an outsider. A Moabite. A descendent of Lot’s incestuous affair with his daughters. As a Moabite, Ruth was unclean and unfit to enter the congregation of Israel.

And let’s be realistic. Even if Ruth were a Jew, she’s married into the most marginal family she could have picked. Naomi and her boys fled famine in Bethlehem, selling their land and abandoning their heritage in Hebrew society. These were not fancy people. These were people living on the edge.

As if things couldn’t get any worse for this family, Naomi’s husband dies, leaving her alone with her two young sons – who are apparently both very unhealthy, probably from living as poorly-fed refugees for most of their lives. Somehow, these two manage to take wives from the local Moabite people – Orpah and Ruth. Despite this bit of good luck, things don’t end well for Mahlon and Chilion. Not too long after they get married, they both die, leaving Naomi alone with her two widowed daughters-in-law.

Naomi had lost everything. She was probably in her forties – too old to expect to find a new husband, as her childbearing years were soon to be behind her. The only shred of hope she had left was to head back to her homeland of Israel and see if she could beg for food there. Word on the street was that the famine had ended and there was enough grain to go around. For Naomi, it was time to go home.

As she began to make her way back to Bethlehem (which was maybe 50 or 60 miles from Moab), Naomi released her two daughters-in-law from any responsibility they might feel towards her. Naomi knew that she was headed back into a very hard situation in the land of Israel – poverty and begging. As an older, childless woman, she didn’t have much hope of integrating back into Hebrew society. Orpah and Ruth, at least, had their youth. Naomi urged them to stay in their homeland – to return to their mothers’ houses and seek out husbands who could provide for them economically and give them the chance to bear children.

Orpah weeps at the thought of leaving Naomi to face their cold and dangerous world all by herself. But she sees the wisdom in Naomi’s decision. After a tearful farewell, Orpah returns to her mother’s house and to her people.

Ruth is a different story. Ruth stubbornly refuses to leave Naomi’s side, no matter how much Naomi tries to convince her. “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth isn’t interested. She says,

Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!

This is a remarkable scene. One of the most beautiful and memorable passages in all of scripture. These words could be wedding vows, couldn’t they? But they’re not. They’re the words of a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law. People who have probably only known each other for a couple of years at most. Ruth is ready to sacrifice everything to stand with Naomi, to abandon her people, land, and gods, and to adopt Naomi as her true family and the Lord of Israel as her true God. All of this, even as Naomi’s situation looks impossible. This commitment may very well cost Ruth her future.

This is unnatural – supernatural – love. This is love that breaks the rules. This is covenantal love that defies the divisions between people, that flies in the face of danger, poverty, and death, to show solidarity and commitment to another. This is love that breaks the written rules of Hebrew tradition in order to demonstrate the life, power, and spirit of the God of Israel.

The love and courage of Ruth is remarkable in every way. As a poor, widowed, foreign woman, she reveals the character of God in her commitment to Naomi. And as we will eventually see by the end of the story, she becomes the great-grandmother of King David, and an ancestor to Jesus himself. From the story of Ruth, we learn that God uses the stone that is rejected – the widow, the orphan, the poor, the foreigner – as the cornerstone of the kingdom of God.

“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

We human beings like to make things complicated. With all our texts and translations. Our rituals and rules. Our notions of who’s in and who’s out. We like to feel in control.

But that’s not what the gospel is about. The good news of Jesus – the good news from A to Z, from creation to the Red Sea to the cross to the end of time – that good news is very simple, and utterly challenging. When the scribe asks Jesus “which commandment is the first of all,” here’s what Jesus says:

“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Love God. Love him with everything that is within you. Love him with your whole body, your whole mind, all the passion that is within you – love him. And love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.

OK, got it!

We like to make things complicated, so that we can make them easy. But reality is simple, and much, much harder. Love God with everything we are, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Our immigrant neighbor. Our gay neighbor. Our Muslim, atheist, Republican neighbor. Love them as we love ourselves. Love God, and love even our enemies, with everything we’ve got. There is no command greater than this.

Religion tends to be about how to follow the rules correctly. How to feel justified, and know that we are on the right path. That’s the kind of religion that Israel had in the Temple. Through their sacrifices and burnt offerings, they sought to be at peace with God. But how did the scribe respond to Jesus?

“You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ — this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

God doesn’t need our sacrifices. God has already provided us with the ultimate sacrifice – his son Jesus. And as the author of Hebrews tells us, Jesus himself is present forever as our high priest, offering intercession for us in the heavenly realms. It is written, “[Jesus] entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.”

That is our sacrifice: Love. The Love who was nailed to a cross for our sakes. The Love who intercedes for us and offers us peace – with God, with one another, even with our enemies.

Love God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love neighbor as much as we love ourselves. There is no greater commandment than this.

Let us walk in the footsteps of Ruth, who risked everything to become a living expression of the love of God. Let us demonstrate the faith and courage of the scribe, who – despite all his religious and scholarly training – was open to the radical truth of the gospel – beyond rules and rituals. Let the Spirit of love, life, and power enter into us, so that our God-loving, enemy-blessing lives may become the fulfillment of the law.

Are You Salty Enough to Overcome this Age of Darkness?

Preacher: Micah Bales

Scripture Readings: Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

I never knew how attached I was to the United States of America until I saw it being destroyed.

I’ve always been critical of this and all empires. Every empire of this world stand under God’s judgment, and as the most powerful empire the world has ever known, the United States of America most certainly stands judged by God.

America has a lot of blood on its hands. The rulers of this land have done what empires always do. The United States is founded on exploitation, slavery, and genocide. It is a society built on patriarchy, racism, and economic injustice. Like all empires, the United States is a social and political order founded on fear and violence.

But that’s not all the United States of America is. This country is a continent. A society that contains multitudes – every kind of diversity you can imagine. It’s a nation of more than 300 million women, children, and men. People of all ages, ethnicities, national origins, and languages. America is our home. It’s where we live. Where we raise our children. Care for our neighbors. Worship our God.

For those of us gathered in this building this morning, America is where we are called to be the church – a community of disciples that reflects the character and will of God on earth. The life and struggles of this American empire is the context in which we are given the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. To share his love.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to be aliens and sojourners in this and every human empire. This world is not our home. We are to be a colony of heaven in the midst of an evil and violent age. This demands a certain degree of separation from the mindset and logic of empire.

Yet this call to separation and distinctiveness is not borne out of a sense of self-righteousness. Like every calling that comes from God, this one is rooted in deep love for the world. It is because God truly loves the people of the United States of America that we are called to come out of this empire, to be separate, to turn around and think and live differently.

As the people of God, we are called to be salt and light in the midst of this flavorless darkness. We are called to seek the good of the city and nation in which we have been placed by God. We are to be patterns and examples. A new society – the empire of heaven – being birthed in the midst of the old, dying ways of this world. Like Abraham, we are called to come out of all that is familiar and comfortable so that we can be a blessing. We are to be a blessing to the world, even when that world hates and slanders and abuses us.

There’s a lot of hatred, slander, and abuse these days. There always has been, of course – but now more than ever, it’s out in the open. It’s impossible to ignore any longer. All the ugly things about the American empire – the racism, the greed, the violence, the misogyny – it’s all gushing to the surface now. The veneer of order and civility – the norms and expectations that we once took for granted – are being swept away.

We live in the age of late capitalism, an age of growing barbarism. It’s an age that our grandparents or great-grandparents would have recognized from their youth in the 1930s. We live in an age of fear and twilight. The sun is setting on the social order that we knew, and all the night creatures are slithering out of their burrows.

We are living in times that demand a savior. These are days that preachers like me have been warning us about for generations. Days when our faith will be put to the test. Days when all the deeds of darkness will be brought out into the light. Days when we will have no alternative but to make a choice – clearly and definitively – between the empires of this world and the empire of our God.

These are days when people who seemed good and respectable will reveal themselves to be moral cowards, accomplices to evil, and violent tormenters. And then there will be others, some who we never paid much attention to before, who will be revealed as the fearless and loving children of God.

In days like these, we may be surprised by which group it is we ourselves fall into. These are days of testing for those of us who would be saints. These are days that call for patient endurance. We must wake up, and stay awake.

In these days, we should expect and welcome miracles. That which is hidden will at last be revealed.

The false church – the church of empire, the church of greed, misogyny, racism, and domination – is already revealed. This is the false prophet that we read about in the Book of Revelation. The fake religion that sells its soul for a seat at Empire’s table. We know all about this kind of religion – prosperity gospel and cheap grace that has bankrupted the church’s moral influence and put a stumbling block before millions who might otherwise turn to Jesus and be healed. Jesus says in our reading this morning that it would be better for false teachers like these to have a millstone hung around their neck and be thrown into the ocean.

But we know the darkness. I want to talk you this morning about miracles. Miracles of hope.

The greatest miracle of all will be the revealing of the true church of Jesus Christ in the midst of this empire.

It won’t be who most of us expect. This moral and spiritual revival won’t find its epicenter in echoing cathedrals or mega-church stadiums. It will come from the margins. It will come from those who have been crushed and humbled. It will come from those who have been abandoned and neglected by this empire, and by those who choose to turn away from our privilege and align ourselves with God’s poor.

It our gospel reading this morning, Jesus is clear with us that we don’t get to choose who God uses for his miracles. The Holy Spirit is wholly sovereign. She moves where she will. She chooses who she will. She breathes life into the body of Christ; all we can do is open our mouths and pray to receive this breath and new birth.

In these times of darkness and violence, we don’t get to choose who our friends are. There are no human rulers in the kingdom of God – only King Jesus and the spirit of love and wisdom that he sends us. This spirit is raising up a new generation of disciples. Young and old, male and female, poor – and yes, perhaps even rich. The Spirit of God is gathering a people to endure and bring light in these dark times. Will we be part of this people?

It is time for the disciples of Jesus to be revealed. It is time for the elders to prophesy in the camp. Whether or not you showed up for the meeting, you’ve been called. The Spirit will find you.

What God tells us in the dark, we must say it in the light. What you hear in whispers, proclaim it from the rooftops! In the words of the Amos, “The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?”

It’s a time for prophecy – yes, indeed. But it’s not a time for grand-standing. It’s not a time for pious and exciting words that make us feel better about ourselves but which fail to heal the sick, bind up the wounded, and liberate the oppressed. It is time for us to become prophets of love – demonstrating in our own lives what the empire of heaven looks like – a world beyond domination, hatred, and fear.

To be this kind of prophet may mean that some of us will get quieter. I know I’ve been getting quieter. I’ve been saying less. Writing less. Making less of my own thoughts and seeking to open myself more to God’s thoughts. In times like these, maybe talkers like me need to focus on speaking less and loving more. Practical deeds of mercy and justice.

That’s what we get out of our reading from James this morning: A vision of the church as a place of healing, reconciliation, and transformation.

Are any among us suffering? We should pray. Are we cheerful? We should sing songs of praise. Are some sick? Let the elders of the church anoint them with oil so that we may be healed. Confess your sins to one another. Pray for one another. God will bring healing.

The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Are we becoming people of prayer? Are we willing to slow down, to take time for all the people and situations that call for prayer? As this dying society moves faster and faster, are we choosing to live in God’s eternal now?

The miraculous church of Jesus Christ is marked by the acts of care and accountability that James talks about. Now, more than ever, we must have the courage to watch over one another. Because many of us are wandering from the truth. Many of us are losing our relationship with Jesus and his spirit as we are sucked into the vortex of the news cycle. Many of us need a friend’s hand on our shoulder, calling us back. That’s what the church of Jesus looks like according to James.

The church of James, the church of Jesus, the empire of God is a place of healing and reconciliation. It is a community where real courage and sacrifice become possible precisely because we know that we can count on the friends of God to act like friends to one another.

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus tells us in the most graphic terms possible that we will have to give up everything to follow him. If your eye is causing you to lose sight of what is real, tear it out. If your hand or foot is causing you to side with the empire of this world rather than the empire of God, cut it off! Better to enter into the empire of God blind or lame than to stick around and go down with this sinking ship!

This sounds impossible to the ears of those who do not know the true church of Jesus Christ. Without the fellowship of disciples that James describes, who in their right mind would follow a man who tells us to chop off hands, eyes, and feet?

But the church of Jesus is a place of healing and reconciliation. It’s a place where wounds are bound up and made whole. It’s a place where we don’t have to be afraid to be blind or lame – because ours is a God who makes the wounded whole and restores sight to the blind. The empire of God is a community where real healing is possible, where the supposed “wholeness” that is offered to us by this world looks like a cruel joke.

As friends of Jesus, we die to be resurrected. We are defeated, only to discover that death is swallowed up in victory.

Hear this:

Be not afraid.

Remember this:

It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the empire. He has promised us everything! No matter what it may cost us, God is faithful, and his way is worth it.

Only, have salt within yourselves and be at peace with one another.

More Than We Can Ask or Imagine (or, There Will Be Leftovers)

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture Readings: 2 Kings 4:42-44; John 6:1-15; Ephesians 3:14-21

I ate a lot of leftovers this past week, while Nate was away at National Youth Conference. These leftovers were not, however, a sign of desperation or scarcity; they were a sign of abundant love. I had three types of leftovers. The first was a batch of smoked hamburgers that Nate made right before he left—where he showed love by cooking for me as a celebration/date night. The second was a frozen sweet potato and quinoa stew made by my neighbor. She had brought it by for us shortly after we came home from the hospital with Ayuba, just as many of you church folks cooked or provided gift certificates for us to ease our transition into parenthood. We ate a ton and then froze a container, which I utilized this past week. The third batch of leftovers was a gift from Faith K. this week, which she froze from a big pot of stew made for her family. She delivered this to me during my week of single-parenting a newborn. Faith knew that I would need both company (that she and Francis provided) and help feeding myself as I feed my tiny human. A week full of leftovers was a week where I felt held and cared for, even though it was a difficult and exhausting week. These leftovers meant love and community in abundance.

In two scriptures that we read today, leftovers are an act of God. We see people bringing small offerings to a prophet and to Jesus to be used by them. In both circumstances, God takes the small gifts and multiplies them beyond imagination. And there are leftovers.

Our third passage is from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. I think that all three passages can speak to our community’s present state here at Washington City Church of the Brethren. We see that what we offer to God—however small it may be—can be used mightily, illustrating God’s Kingdom of abundance. We see that our offerings, generosity, service, and sacrifice can accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.  

There Will Be Leftovers

Our first passage involves the prophet Elisha. Elisha was the protégé of the prophet Elijah. Yup, their names sound the same in English. Eljiah’s name means “My God is Yahweh” while Elisha’s name translates as “My God is salvation.” In 2 Kings 2, the two prophets are traveling. They both know that Elijah’s time on earth is almost up and that Yahweh will come for Elijah. As such, Elisha will not leave Elijah’s side. Elisha asks for a double-portion of Elijah’s spirit to carry on the prophetic ministry and the elder prophet says, “That’s a hard thing to ask. But if you see me when I’m taken up, then it is granted to you.” A few moments later, chariots and horses of fire whisk Elijah away in a whirlwind, leaving only his cloak behind. Elisha sees all of this, tears his own clothes in mourning, and takes up the cloak (or mantle) of Elijah. (This is where the phrase “take up the mantle,” meaning role or responsibility, comes from).

Fast forward a few chapters and a few miracles later to our passage, when a man brings an offering to Elisha. The man brings “twenty loaves of barley bread baked from the first ripe grain, along with some new heads of grain” (2 Kings 4:42). The Israelites were commanded to give to God from the “first fruits” or first harvest. Tithes and offerings in the Mosaic Law were typically agricultural produce and these often went to sustain the priesthood and prophets. As such, it wasn’t an abnormal thing to bring loaves of bread to a religious worker. Someone brought me bread this week – but it’s just because I have a newborn, not because I’m a pastor and she grew the grain.

Elisha instructs the man, “Give these breads to the people and let them eat.” Elisha’s servant is dumbfounded: “how can 100 people eat from these little breads?” A commentary explains that these are not the beautiful big loaves that we are likely picturing. They are small and flat breads, more like pitas, probably. Twenty pitas are not enough for 100 people. But Elisha ignores this and says, “Give it to the people. They’re going to eat and there will be leftovers.” The bread then gets passed around. The 100-person group eats heartily and, just as the prophet predicted, there are leftovers.

In our gospel passage, we meet Jesus and the disciples in Galilee. Jesus crosses the lake and the crowds follow, since he is healing the sick. Jesus and his disciples head up a mountainside and they sit down. Scores of people are around them, waiting to see Jesus teach and preach and heal. Jesus looks at the crowd and asks Philip, one of his disciples, “Where can we get enough bread to feed these people?” Philip is incredulous – Jesus is the person who has said the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. He doesn’t really go buy groceries, either. They rely on the hospitality of others and have little money… buying bread for thousands of people? Philips replies that the question is unthinkable and says, “Bread for these people would take more than half a year’s wages—200 days’ worth (200 denarii)!” Philip can’t even think about where to get the bread. He’s in sticker shock over how much money it would cost.

Another disciple, named Andrew, comes forward and tries to be as helpful as he can: “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” Jesus responds by saying, “Sit everyone down.” All 5000 men and also likely many women and children. Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks for it, and distributes it to those who are seated, giving them as much as they want. He does the same thing with the fish. When everyone has eaten their fill, Jesus instructs the disciples, “Gather the up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” They do as Jesus asked instructs and they fill up twelve baskets with the leftover barley loaf pieces. In the Kingdom of God, there will be leftovers.

This sign (and many other miracles of Jesus) reference and echo the miracles of the prophets of old, like Elisha, and surpass them. Elisha fed 100, while Jesus feeds thousands. The crowds recognize that God is at work in Jesus, even if they generally miss the point of his messages. V. 15 says that Jesus withdraws, knowing that the crowds would try to make him king by force. This isn’t the type of response that Jesus is looking for.

While these passages speak to both who Elisha and Jesus were, they also provide a message for us. Some pita breads and some fish can go a long way in the Kingdom of God. Sisters and brothers, what we offer to God—however small it may be—can be used mightily, illustrating God’s Kingdom of abundance and wholeness.

More than you can ask or imagine

Our passage in Ephesians is one of superlatives. It’s kind of like Paul is gushing about what God does—not that that is a bad thing. Paul uses one big run-on sentence in the Greek and prays for the early church. He thanks God and prays that they would, out of God’s glorious riches,” be strengthened in their inner beings with Holy Spirit power. Paul prays that they would be strengthened and, concurrently, be rooted and grounded in love. He prays that not only would they be rooted and grounded in love, but also that they would have the power (emphasizing power again) to comprehend, with all the sisters and brothers, the magnitude and pervasiveness of Jesus’ love. The breadth, the length, the height, and the depth—to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. And to be filled with all the fullness of God. As if all that isn’t a beautiful and moving enough prayer, Paul’s benediction closes giving God the glory, “to him who by the power [power again] at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20). This phrasing stands out for me and has for the past few years. The power of God is at work within us and through us and can accomplish more than we could ask or imagine… abundantly far more than we could ask or imagine.

This passage in Ephesians is one of my favorite because it reminds me that the Creator of the Universe is at work. The One who raised Jesus from the dead is at work. We can offer what we have, even if it isn’t much, and trust that God can do abundantly more than what we ask or imagine. It reminds me to hope and trust in the One who is bigger than both all my fears and my hopes.

Little Congregation, Big Things

What we offer to God—however small it may be—can be used mightily, illustrating God’s Kingdom of abundance. Our offering, generosity, service, and sacrifice can accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.  As you all know, we’re a small church. Despite our smallness, we were able to run the Brethren Nutrition Program, our soup kitchen lunch ministry. I remember some BNP guests saying with an incredulous, “Some of these big churches don’t do anything but you all are small, and you can put this on!” With BNP, we offered what we had and that offering was joined by volunteer labor, generous helpings of donated vegetables and bread from Eastern Market area vendors, and the gathering up of fragments from restaurants in Northern Virginia (the Oakton Church of the Brethren’s food reclamation efforts). We offered what we had and God provided, blessed, and multiplied what we gave.

We’re still in our post-BNP discernment and we’re examining how we can faithfully and effectively witness to Jesus’ way of reconciliation and love. We’ve been asking, “How can we serve our neighbors? How can we reach out? How do we invite? How do we build upon the gifts and strengths that we have within our church community?” These questions have not yet been answered; they’re an ongoing dialectic and discernment.

The two disciples in our gospel passage illustrate two different ways of responding to Jesus’ call on our lives and our community. Philip couldn’t wrap his head around Jesus’ request to brainstorm food for 5000. Philip shut down that conversation—there’s no way we can pay for that. Andrew, on the other hand, didn’t understand what Jesus was going to do but he still scrounged up the meagre resources he could find.

Are we Philip or are we Andrew? How do we perceive the opportunity to transform our ministry? Do we shut down and end the conversation? Perhaps we think about the ministry of this church and the task of outreach and caring for our community as overwhelming. That’s too big for us. We could never do that. How much money would it cost? How are we going to find the people to run it? We don’t know where to start…

Or, do we see an opportunity to give even what little we can scrounge up and trust that Jesus can use it? Well, I have interest in books. I have love for gardening. You know how to fix bicycles. You play music. Etc. etc. What are our gifts and strengths as a church? What do our individual people bring as assets and potential strengths to our ministries? What are our interests, skills, talents, and resources that we can offer? What are our community’s needs?

We are called to make disciples, to invite people into this Jesus-led journey of radical love, nonviolence, hospitality, mercy, and peace. The Andrew approach would be to look at what we already have to offer to Jesus. What are the resources that you can scrounge up? What talent, gifts, and interests do you already have, resources that we can use to build up this church and its ministry to the world around us? I invite you to commit to regular prayer with me about our ministry, for God to reveal what we have to offer, what we can give for God to bless and multiply—so that there will be leftovers, beyond what we ask or imagine.

What little we offer to God can be used mightily, illustrating God’s Kingdom of abundance. Our offering, generosity, service, and sacrifice can accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.  AMEN

In this Age of Darkness, We Need the Prophets

Preacher: Micah Bales

Scripture Readings: Psalm 24, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29

Who are the prophets? The prophets are those on whom God has sent his Holy Spirit.

This is the same Spirit that hovered over creation. The Spirit that breathed life into the first man and woman, creating us in the image of God. This is the Spirit that came upon Moses, giving him power to speak the word of the Lord to Pharaoh and to guide the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. The Holy Spirit fell on the seventy elders, whom God appointed to assist Moses, and they prophesied.

They prophesied. What does it mean to prophesy? Prophecy means speaking the words of God, just like Moses did. It means revealing that which is hidden, pointing people to the truth that the brokenness of this world has hidden from us. The truth that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus is a God of love and a God of justice. And that neither his love nor his justice will sleep forever.

Wherever the Holy Spirit moves, there is prophecy. This is the characteristic mark of the Spirit’s presence in the world: When we experience the presence of God in our heart, minds, and spirits.

When the Spirit shows up, we feel the love that God has for each of us, and the anger that God has at those things which hurt and destroy his beloved children. The Spirit comes to teach us who God is, and to inspire us to speak the message and demonstrate the character of our loving, righteous God.

This is Holy Ghost experience has always been the formative experience of the prophets. From Moses and his seventy elders, to Elijah and Elisha. From John the Baptist to Jesus. From George Fox and Alexander Mack to Martin Luther King, Jr and William Barber II. The Holy Spirit raises up men and women to speak the words our world needs to hear. Words that speak the very will of God. Whether or not the world is ready to listen.

As we see in our gospel reading for today, the world often isn’t willing to hear. It’s not an accident that John the Baptist ends up dead – beheaded by Herod at the request of his wife and daughter. It’s not an accident when terrible things happen those who speak the words of God, because fallen humanity is always killing the prophets.

Why would anyone want to be a prophet? Most of the prophets don’t. We see throughout the pages of the Bible, and throughout the history of the church, that prophets usually question their calling. Because being a prophet is often a death sentence. Friendship with God means enmity with the world. Speaking the truth means exposing the comfortable lies that this world cloaks itself in. Declaring God’s love for the needy, the outsider, the foreigner, the poor, means bumping up against the interests of the powerful insiders who are well-positioned to use violence to maintain the status quo.

In our gospel reading this morning, the story of Herod and John the Baptist is a quintessential telling of the relationship between God’s prophets and the powerful people who would prefer not to have the system disrupted by prophetic speech and action.

John the Baptist was acknowledged by everyone as a prophet. Even Herod knew that John was a “righteous and holy man.” So, despite all the reasons that he might want to permanently silence John by killing him, Herod held off. He locked John away in prison, but he hesitated to raise his hand against God’s prophet.

Herod’s hesitation might have been the result of simple political calculation – after all, John was a very popular man, and killing him might be more trouble than it was worth. Who wants to create a martyr? But the Mark gives us reasons to believe that Herod’s hesitation to murder John went deeper than mere political expediency.

The truth is powerful. It has an effect, even over those who are very wicked like Herod was. And John was a holy man, a prophet of God – clothed in righteousness and speaking the truth with the easy sincerity and fearlessness of a God-surrendered man. John was probably the only person that Herod encountered on a regular basis who wasn’t afraid.

Herod had the power of life and death over his subjects, and so most people were scurrying around, trying to please Herod. John wasn’t impressed. John lived in the life and power of the Spirit of God. He knew the truth, and the truth had set him free. John wasn’t afraid of Herod, because he had a life in God that transcended the threat of death that Herod could hold over him.

John and Herod had this really weird relationship. Herod had John locked up in prison. And you’d think that Herod would simply want John to disappear. To stop saying disruptive things about the immoral way that Herod was conducting himself. Yet Herod couldn’t get enough of John. He kept telling the jailers to bring John up out of the prison. Herod met with John regularly. Mark says, “he liked to listen to him,” even though when John spoke, Herod “was greatly perplexed.”

Herod could hear the truth in the words of the prophet. He could sense the presence of the Spirit in John’s life. Part of him wanted to silence this prophetic voice forever, but another part couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. He knew the truth when he heard it, even if he didn’t have the moral courage to surrender himself to the love and justice of God.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, Herod was a weak man, and a foolish man. He couldn’t quite bring himself to kill John, despite the fact that his wife Herodias was demanding that he put John to death. But in our reading this morning, he’s thoughtless enough to make an oath, in front of many guests, that he will give his daughter anything she asks for.

When she comes back and asks for John the Baptist’s head on a platter, Herod is shocked. He didn’t even consider that the girl might consult with her mother and come back with such a request. But because he’s so afraid to lose face in front of his guests, he agrees. Herod dispatches guards to the prison, and they slaughter John, this holy man of God. They butcher the presence of the Holy Spirit in Israel. They desecrate the sanctuary of God to satisfy the whims of an insecure dictator and his family. Herod knows what’s happening. He knows who John is. But he goes ahead anyway. He fears men more than God.

The way of the prophets often leads to death. Jesus himself stood squarely in the prophetic tradition. He identified himself with the mantle of Elijah and Elisha. He stood in that Holy Ghost tradition. The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, anointing him to proclaim good news to the poor. The Spirit sent Jesus to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Jesus stood in the tradition of the prophets. And like the prophets of old, like his cousin John the Baptist, he faced terrible repression and violence. Like John, he ultimately surrendered his life speaking truth to power, pouring out his life as an offering to God in love.

We live in a time of great darkness. It occurred to me as I was preparing this sermon that Herod doesn’t seem so unusual anymore. I used to consider Herod to be particularly monstrous, a truly evil character. And he was. He was an evil man. Yet today in our own national politics and throughout the world, we see men and women who are selling their souls for power built on falsehood, hatred, violence, and oppression. Today we witness evil that makes Herod look almost sympathetic. After all, Herod felt bad when he slaughtered John the Baptist. He regretted it.

But the Herod I know isn’t the one who cringed over his own murder of John. The Herod I’m more familiar with is Herod the Great – the father of the king Herod we read about in today’s scripture. King Herod the Great is the one who slaughtered the boy children in the vicinity of Nazareth. That’s the Herod I know, the one I’m seeing coming to power in the world today. He’s the one who doesn’t hesitate to destroy families for political gain. The one who forces the family of Jesus to flee and become refugees in a foreign land. The one who is praised by the religious authorities for rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, even as he assaults the very word of God in the streets of Bethlehem.

This is the world of Jesus and John. A world where prophets are nailed to the cross and beheaded. A world where children are stolen from their parents and locked in prisons. A world where those in power prefer lies to any truth that threatens their dominance and control.

We live in a time of darkness, domination, and violence. Just like John and Jesus under Herod and Pilate. Just like Moses under Pharaoh. Just like the early church, whom God blessed and covered with the presence of the Holy Spirit. Living in our own time of darkness, we’ve been visited by this same Spirit.

As Paul says in our reading from Ephesians this morning, we have been marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit. We are called to be God’s prophets in this time and place. In this present darkness that can feel as palpable as a clinging fog. God has marked and sealed us with the Holy Spirit so that we can speak the dangerous truth of God’s love and justice. The truth that the creator of this world stands with the immigrant, the poor, the marginalized.

Today is the eighth Sunday after Pentecost, and so maybe we need reminding. At Pentecost, God sent the Holy Spirit to each and every one of us who has decided to follow Jesus. Along with Jesus, we have been called and anointed to be prophets of the living God, the creator of the cosmos. We have been filled by the Holy Spirit, to speak the very words of God into a world that is so hungry for the truth and love that only God can provide.

We live in a time of darkness. And in times like these we are often tempted to despair. Yet it is in times such as these that the witness of the prophets is most needed. This is our time. This is our season. This is the moment that God calls us into active service, to speak his word of truth and love. To the powerful, as a rebuke and a challenge. To the powerless as a message of comfort and through tangible acts of solidarity. God has called us to be as prophets, even if we have to walk the path of suffering, just as John and Jesus did. This is what is means to be friends of Jesus. We walk in his footsteps, and accept his mission of love, justice, and reconciliation.

I would like to invite us to enter into a time of open worship, in which we can invite the Holy Spirit to be especially present with us. Spirit of God, we need your guidance. We are blind and lost without you. We need your love. We need your truth. And most of all, Lord, we need you to show us how to be faithful servants in sharing this love and truth with the world around us.

We live in dark times. But Jesus Christ has given us the light. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. We are the light of the world. Holy Spirit, come and show us how to shine, and how much we must endure for the precious name of Jesus.

This is a Wilderness Road

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture Readings: Acts 8:26-40, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

Yesterday morning, somewhere between 5:30 and 6, I made the connection that my sermon was titled “This is a wilderness road” and that I would spend the day before preaching it running on trails. Though the race was not a surprise (it took some wherewithal to leave the house at 2:45am and begin hours of running at 5) I had not made the connection—which was, it turns out, only superficial, until I was running through heavily muddied trails by light of a rather dim headlamp (Jenn, we should make a note to buy new headlamps). Whereas the wilderness road in Acts was actually wilderness, mine was a trail full of people not far from a city and staffed with aid stations and medics in cause of injury. Whereas Philip was sent to the wilderness with a mission by the Spirit of the Lord, I was there for reasons personal and perhaps unexplainable. Philip’s going to the wilderness is thought to have contributed to the beginnings of the church in Ethiopia which has produced, among other things, magnificent religious art (some of which is displayed this morning), my going mostly led to a feeling of accomplishment and severe soreness this morning. So, there is no connection between my wilderness road and the one in Acts except that my wandering thoughts noted early yesterday morning

In the Gospel of John (chapter 17), in the last hours before his crucifixion, we hear Jesus praying for the unity of his people. He knows that the coming crisis will stretch and push them and so he prays. Since he prays in the hearing of his disciples it is also a sort of pep talk and exhortation. At yesterday’s there was now prayer but there was a pep talk of sorts. Dean Karnazas, a well know ultra-marathoner, gave us some words to motivate but also included things like—the trails are really muddy and here the mud is slick like ice—which is more concerning than encouraging. When Jesus does the pray/pep talk/warn act it is for unity. It is not unity because unity is nice but because unity demonstrates the truth of their message. Unity demonstrates the truth of their message. In Jesus’s words “so that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17:21).

The witness, the possibility that what these crazy disciples say about Jesus might be true is based on their unity (not their seamless arguments, dazzling sermons, or their social media presence) —they must be united in a profound way. The shorter booklet of 1 John carries on this concern. Throughout the writing we can see hints that all is not well. In 2:18 in an exclamation that could have been penned by our own Micah we read—”Children, it is the last hour! A you have heard that the antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come.” Verse 26, “I write these things to you concerning those who would deceive you.” And just before our passage, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

A commentator writes, “The once-unified congregation began to tear apart from within. Threats that were once external now were found within the ranks of the fellowship itself…The community was splitting, harsh words were being exchanged, and the vocabulary once reserved in the Forth Gospel for those in ‘the world’ now was being aimed at fellow Christians. (Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments, 589)” Throughout this text John holds two major themes—right thinking about Jesus and right living in light of this. [“John returns to two major subjects repeatedly as he writes: christology and ethical behavior…The secessionists had embraced an aberrant form of christology that led them to make wrong judgments about Christian living” (590).]

John demonstrates an intense concern that right belief and right living are of utmost importance. It is not merely doing the right thing, NOR is it just declaring belief in the right thing.

The spirits must be tested and the test is love. The teachings and actions must be tested—the test is love.

7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

This verse tempts us to make it into a formulaàGod=Love and to Love=Knowing God.

9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.

The initiating action of love was from God. We learn of God’s love through God’s action, we demonstrate our connection to God through our own acting in love. In fact, the invisible divine is made visible through our love for one another. The invisible divine is made visible through our love for one another.

11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

There should be a direct causal link between God’s love for us and our love for one another. We have been loved by God, how can we do anything else but love one another?!

“his love is perfected in us.” Made perfect? Presumably God’s love is perfect love but if God’s love is to be lived then our participation in this love adds something to it—or at least manifests it concretely in the world. It is made complete

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

There now seems to be a second test of our “abiding” in God. That is, the reception of the Spirit. Which sounds like it should be good empirical or measurable results. If not empirical then at least a matter of philosophical defining or perhaps in writing a definition for a dictionary—which seems definitive. I have been learning, however, that even the dictionary is a complicated thing. In Word by Word lexicographer Kory Stamper describes in often humorous detail the work of a dictionary writer and editor. It turns out that the process of editing or writing a dictionary is about documenting and describing how a word is used rather than prescribing how it should be used. The two requirements to be hired are a degree in some subject (a range of disciplines is good since an economics major has different vocab than a biology-she notes a strong representation of medievalist majors.) and to be a native English speaker.

The later of these is due to SprachgefulleI, the feel of the language that comes with it being your first language—sometimes something just doesn’t feel right and then the editor knows to dig deeper. The offices contain accumulated scraps of uses of words which are filed and considered in this process. She tells of the, at times extensive revision process in which senses are considered and while talking shop at a dinner party she amazed the academics by proclaiming that she had spent a full month revising the word “take.” After describing, what to most of us would be an excruciating and unimaginable process a co-diner, with dramatic pause notes having worked 9 months on editing “run.” (Stamper, 148).

Defining or measuring the presence of the Spirit may indeed be a difficult test. The Spirit presence may also be difficult.

Our passage in Acts gives a picture of the Spirit’s activity. The disciple Philip is getting on with the work of Jesus. There are healings, preachings, and rapid expansion of the church. In chapter 7 Stephen testifies, it says, “filled with the Holy Spirit , he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God….but they [the mob] covered their ears, and with a loud shout rushed together against him.” While killing him, Saul stood by watching and approving. The Spirit that it seems that we thought we wanted to display…is hardly a ticket to a life of ease. The Spirit might just get you killed. Saul then goes about and severely persecuted the church. This Spirit filledness—leads to actions—which leads to persecution—which in verse 1 of chapter 8 leads to a scattering.

Though scattered this didn’t stop them. Vs 4 reads “Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.” Philip was one of them and went to Samaria. Now, Samaria might sound familiar. Remember Jesus and the parable? The Good Samaritan? The general consensus was not with Jesus and the “goodness” (potential or innate) of a Samaritan. Samaria was a place of enemies. The place that was outside of okay. None-the-less, the good news is preached and received, the Apostles come down to verify (it did, of course, stretch credulity), and the Holy Spirit power came upon them. Philip was rockin’ it—major successes, rapid church growth in a new locale. And then…and then the “angel of the Lord” said, go to another place—and abandoned place—a deserted place. In case the reader doesn’t know that the road from Jerusalem to Gaza is such a place the writer notes parenthetically that “(This is a wilderness road).” Rather than be where the action is, go over there. After providing commentary and then baptism to the Ethiopian Eunuch the “Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away…Philip found himself at Azotus….

All of this, then, becomes an expression of verse 13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

A writer asks “who is the protagonist is in this story?” (Willimon, Interpretation, 71). The angel of the Lord and demands and then the spirit of the Lord instantly transports Philip elsewhere once the meeting, explanation of the scripture and baptism are finished.

Meanwhile, returning back from the Spirit excursion to the dusty and desolate lands….

14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

Here we have the right belief—the confession, proclamation, assertion that “Jesus is the Son of God.” There are some of us that may “skew ethical”—not that we are necessarily particularly ethical but that we have reacted to Christians who assert that it is all a matter of belief—the notion that you should check the correct dogmatic box and you’re set—For those of us who skew ethical in our emphasis, this verse chastens us. It challenges us. (I wouldn’t necessarily say rebukes us). This confession is not simply in the vein of “actions speak louder than words” but seems linguistic. It is content bearing—it IS connected to practical ramifications BUT can, in some way, be spoken. [The Brethren are non-creedal—which doesn’t mean we don’t believe anything but rather that we don’t think it is summed up in a tweet or so.]

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.

Abides, abides, abides—When I see the same word show up I wonder—my biblical language major brain dings. Since there are not one for one translations of words the same word in an English translation doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the same original word. This happened when reading the 1 John 4 and John 15 passages. Though the word “abide” shows up many times and in both. The John 15 passage uses a much different metaphor to illustrate abiding. Remaining with or in or connected to.

15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears  no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes[a] to make it bear more fruit….4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing….8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

God is love,

       Remain in God.

Nobody’s Perfect. Is it Possible to Be Like Jesus?

Preacher: Micah Bales

Scripture Readings: Acts 3:12-19, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36b-48

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

We are the children of God.

I know that for a lot of us today, this phrase, “children of God,” has been cheapened. It’s been universalized to refer to practically everyone. It’s become a way of saying that every person is worthy of respect, dignity, and fair treatment.

And I agree with that way of looking at the world. Every single human being has inherent value. As followers of Jesus, we are called to love everyone – especially our enemies, the people that the world has taught us to hate.

But when the author of John’s first epistle writes that we are the children of God, he’s talking about something distinct. For John, sonship and daughtership in the kingdom of God is not a matter of universal human dignity. It is not inherent to us that we are the children of God. For John, it is a very particular, contingent, and radical claim.

When we read John’s gospel and John’s letter, it’s clear that he’s not writing out of a community that sees the world as a benign, loving, and healthy place. John’s community is one that has has seen the evil of the world – the imperial rulers, the religious authorities and false teachers, and the everyday selfishness of ordinary people. They’ve seen the darkness of the world.

But they’ve also seen the light.

The Johannine community has seen the light of God in the face of Jesus. It is a community that testifies to the resurrection – not just with words, but with transformed lives. This is a community that can say, “we have seen Jesus, and we know him. Because of him we have moved from death into life. Because we are his friends, we have been called out of this world of darkness and hate. We have been adopted as sons and daughters of God. We are becoming like Jesus.”

John and his community knew from personal experience that sonship and daughtership is not our natural state. The original followers of Jesus failed miserably. They abandoned Jesus when he came to his time of trial. The disciples – especially the men disciples – ran and hid while Jesus was being tortured and tried as a criminal. Peter – who at that time was apparently the bravest of the Twelve and followed Jesus to the house of the High Priest – denied Jesus three times before dawn. The early Christian community knew what darkness looked like, because they themselves had been moral failures.

The resurrection changed all that. The return of Jesus on the third day, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the continuing presence of the risen Jesus throughout the months and years that followed – this guidance and power allowed the weak and fallible disciples to become the children of God.

John’s community knew Jesus. They had seen him and touched him with their hands. They experienced the resurrection, the living body of Jesus in their everyday life. And God gave them authority: To live in life, power, and boldness. To share the good news of the kingdom, inviting others to become children of God. And to speak into the darkness and confusion of this present world, even when doing so made them sound crazy.

The early church was not afraid to call out evil. They were not afraid to name the fact that we are not, by default, children of God. Living as we do in this fallen, rebellious, and confused world, only the grace of our Lord Jesus can rescue us, can transform us from being children of hate, violence, greed, and self-centeredness. Because of the resurrection, because of the love and hope that we know in Jesus, we can become the children of God. We can become like Jesus.

A lot of people misunderstand this. A lot of Christians miss the point here. So often we’re taught to imagine that the gospel is about Jesus dying on the cross so that we don’t have to face the consequences of our sin – our greed, our aggression, our brokenness. According to this version of the gospel, Jesus conquered darkness so that we don’t have to. Thanks to his sacrifice, all we have to do is believe certain doctrines about Jesus and we will be saved. In heaven, after we die.

But that sad gospel is a pale imitation of the truth. It’s a Wonder Bread parody of the whole wheat gospel that John and his early Christian community knew. This fallen world, and its version of Christianity, teaches that our faith is about damage control. Christianity becomes about avoiding punishment for our misdeeds rather than being reborn for justice.

But the real gospel is radical – it gets to the root of things. The true gospel message is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus. It promises us – not through words, but through hope in action, that we can be transformed. Our lives can change.

We can become the children of God, the children of the light – sons and daughters, reborn in the image of Jesus. All of the old dividing lines are broken down – between men and women, citizen and foreigner, rich and poor, black and white. Even between God and us. The radical, incredible, scandalous message of the gospel is that we can become like Jesus. Through the power of the resurrection, we can become sons and daughters of God.

So what does that mean? Concretely, what does it mean for us to become sons and daughters of God – brothers and sisters to Jesus? Well, right here in 1 John 3, he tells us how we can distinguish between the children of this world and the children of the light.

Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that [Jesus] was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.

Have you experienced the resurrection presence of Jesus? Is he teaching you? Have you surrendered yourself, to be brought out of rebellion and lawlessness, hatred and fear? Have you allowed the Holy Spirit to draw you into a new life, one where you do the deeds of righteousness and become holy, just as our brother Jesus is holy?

There’s some hesitation here. I know I have some hesitation. Holy? Me?

On the one hand, we’re right to hesitate. Who am I to think so highly of myself? Sure, the writers of the New Testament refers to all the believers as “the saints” – the holy ones – but it feels like a big leap to apply that to myself. I know how far short I fall on a daily basis. I’ve got a long way to go, and I don’t know how I’m ever going to get there. It seems a little premature to start saying I’ve made it. Who here can say they are like Jesus? I know I can’t.

The earliest Christians must have known this experience, too. The first generation of disciples knew so much failure – even after the resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The saints made mistakes. They fought with one another and a level of church drama that makes our modern-day disagreements look like softball. The early church was a hot mess.

But they were also the children of God. The brothers and sisters of Jesus. The saints.

For John and his community, the line between the children of God and the children of this world was clear. The children of this world live in darkness and rebellion. The children of God follow Jesus and do what is right.

Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

Who here is righteous? Let me see some hands!

OK, that’s fair. In one sense, none of us should raise our hands. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

That’s one way of looking at it. And it’s true. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

But there’s another way of looking at sin and righteousness. The first way – the Paul’s letter to the Romans way – looks at our nature in terms of our past failures. But John’s way is to look at the saving power of Jesus, the resurrection that transforms us into a new creation. Rather than looking down at our sin, John says, “look up at the holiness of Jesus. He is present to heal you, transform you. He is your salvation.”

Little children, children of the light, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous. And through the resurrection, through Jesus with us, we have received power and authority to do what is right.

This isn’t about perfectionism in the world’s sense of perfection. We don’t have to be the world’s greatest student, or worker, or parent, or anything else. We don’t have to always be cheerful or be an inspiration to those around us. We just need to do what is right.

Do you do what is right? Do you follow the light of God in your heart? When God shows you that something is wrong, do you stop doing it? When he calls you into action, do you follow? Do you love the Lord with all your mind, heart, soul, and strength? Do you love your neighbor as yourself?

Do you do what is right? Not perfectly, not with superhuman powers – but humbly and simply, even if no one notices?

Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous. We are children of the light. We are brothers and sisters of Jesus. We are salt and light in this dark and flavorless world. We are righteous when we do what is right. It’s a high bar, but with Jesus as our present teacher, guide, and friend, we can be faithful. We can do what is right, we can follow as God leads us.

In Jesus, God became like us. He became a human being. He had a mother. He wept for friends who had died. He suffered humiliation and death. And God vindicated Jesus. God proclaimed him righteous by raising Jesus from the dead, and now we can become righteous like he is. Simply, humbly, following in the footsteps of our brother and our Lord.

Little children, we are the sons and daughters of God. We are salt and light. We are the saints, the righteous ones that God has called out of the darkness to bless and heal the world.

Jesus asks the disciples, and he asks us: “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” Look at his hands and his feet. Look at Jesus. See that he is here with us.

We are the children of the light, the sons and daughters of God. “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.”

NO CROSS, NO CROWN

When I first read through the scripture readings for this Sunday, it wasn’t immediately clear to me how our gospel reading relates to the passage from Genesis. The story of Abraham and Sarah seems to be all about God bestowing unconditional blessing and abundance on two old people who had no hope at all for the future of their family.

The story of how God promised to make Abraham the father of many nations is one that, at first glance, seems very human and not supernatural at all. All of us want to leave a legacy. No one wants to see their name die out, to be forgotten by future generations. On its face, the story of Abraham and Sarah seems like a case of divine wish-fulfillment – a very human story with very human motivations. I can relate to it instantly.

On the other hand, there’s this story about Jesus and his hard-core insistence on embracing torture and death. In our gospel reading from Mark, Jesus rebukes Peter in front of all the other disciples. He says Peter’s mind is set on human things, rather than on the things of God. Jesus calls Peter “Satan” for his suggestion that Jesus should avoid the cross.

Peter and the other disciples didn’t believe in the cross. They didn’t believe in the path of self-emptying and dying to ego that Jesus was teaching them. Such things are incomprehensible to the human mind. Every one of us can understand a story about God granting new life, vitality, and progeny to an old man and his wife. Is it miraculous for an old woman to bear a child? Absolutely. Does it challenge our conception of the good life? Of who God is and should be? Probably not.

We want a God who guarantees our own survival and prosperity. We want a God who makes us fathers and mothers of many nations. Successful careers, happy families, public acclaim, and personal prosperity. We want the God of the good life, a God who promises joy, not suffering. We want the triumphant and generous God of Abraham and Sarah, not the whipped and crucified God that Jesus introduces us to.

But there is only one God. The God of the promise is the same God who endures the cross and invites us to walk in his way of self-abandonment. The God who provides us with a hope and a future is the same one who asks us to suffer for truth.

What is the relationship between these two faces of God? How do we reconcile the apocalyptic, bone-shaking God of Golgotha with the reassuring, sustaining God of the Promised Land?

For the apostle Paul, the answer is clear: It’s the resurrection. In our reading this morning from his letter to the Romans, Paul draws a clear line between the promise that God gave to Abraham and God’s act of raising Jesus from the dead.

Believe it or not, I find it easy to forget about the resurrection. I don’t know why, but I guess I’m a little more captivated by the fire and brimstone. When Jesus issues his challenge to the disciples, warning them about the suffering and persecution that he and his followers will face, that challenge seems like everything to me.

But the cross is not the end of Jesus’ story. The end of all the challenges that we face as friends of Jesus is not the grave, but victory. The message of Jesus one of life, truth, peace, and joy. As I mentioned in my last sermon, the very word “gospel” comes from the Greek term for a victory announcement. It is very good news.

From Genesis to Revelation, we discover a God who heals, guides, and protects us. God’s character doesn’t change. God was not first generous to Abraham and then hard-hearted towards Jesus. God demands the same thing from each one of us. He calls us into a kind of faith that brings us into conflict with the world as it is. And this same faith promises unconditional joy, growth, and wholeness as we choose to follow Jesus.

In our passage from Romans this morning, Paul teaches that God’s promise to Abraham wasn’t based on following a legal code. It wasn’t based on genetics, either. God promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations – not just his own biological descendants, but all those who share in his faith. It is Abraham’s faith made this promise from God possible. It is the righteous living that comes from faith that allows those who live in the spirit of Abraham to inherit the world.

I said that sometimes it’s easy for me to forget the resurrection in the midst of Jesus’ suffering. In the same way, I tend to ignore how much challenge and suffering Abraham and Sarah endured to receive God’s promise and blessing. Abraham and Sarah left home and family, wandering to an unknown land in the west. They did this on nothing more than a promise from God, that Abraham would be made into a great nation, and become a blessing to the whole world. Abraham and Sarah took an enormous risk based on a promise from a still, small voice that whispered in the night. Abraham and Sarah ventured out into the unknown. They took a leap of faith.

It all could have gone so badly. But God was faithful to Abraham and Sarah. Even when times were hard and they were on the run – even when Abraham got scared and did things like try to pass Sarah off as his sister! – God didn’t waver in preserving their lives and their marriage.

God was just as faithful to Jesus and his friends. Jesus suffered beatings, imprisonment, torture, and death on a cross – but on the third day, God raised him from the dead and glorified him. The faith of Abraham, the faith of Jesus, this faith has the power to birth children from the barren elderly and to raise the dead to life.

Before the resurrection, Peter and the other disciples simply couldn’t fathom how powerful this kind of trust could be. They couldn’t imagine how the path of pain and darkness could ever lead into the light. But after the resurrection of Jesus, the friends and followers of Jesus were filled with boldness, joy, and power. The apostles, who before the resurrection had been so clueless and frightened, found courage to share the good news throughout the world. They accepted the many challenges and hardships that came with this ministry. All but one is believed to have been murdered for their faithful witness.

In a world without the resurrection, this would seem a great tragedy. Why throw your life away when you could lead a safe and comfortable existence? But the faith of Abraham and Jesus teaches us a new way of living. Through the resurrection, we are rooted in the power of God, who is not constrained – even by death – in the ways that he blesses us.

We all have access to this resurrection power. Those of us gathered here this morning have been touched by his salvation. In large ways and small, we have experienced many spiritual baptisms into his death. We know darkness and suffering, the kind that requires trust to endure. We know the power of Jesus, through his Holy Spirit, which can raise us into new life.

We experience God’s call to yield ourselves, to embrace the challenges of righteous living. It’s a kind of life that draws us out from the mainstream culture and into the vibrant and risky counter-culture that is the kingdom of God. We know from experience and from the testimony of scripture that God calls us to take great risks. Through his resurrection power, God can overcome any adversity.

The world doesn’t understand this. Our own human minds can’t comprehend it. That is why Jesus rebuked Peter. He just couldn’t believe that Jesus was serious about submitting himself to death on the cross rather than leading a violent revolution to overthrow the Roman oppressors. Peter was only able to conceive of victory in the world’s terms. But in Jesus, God has revealed another way of conquering the world: with love, restoring wholeness and peace to the creation.

Most days, we’re just like Peter. We’re not capable of understanding God’s way of conquering love until we receive the faith of Abraham. We have to set our mind on the things of God, not on the human fears that hold us back from faithfulness.

There’s good reason for our fear. It’s rational to be afraid. Because God is calling us to a way of life that seems to threaten our very existence. As followers of Jesus, we’re called to surrender our wealth, our comfort, even our lives, to bless our neighbors and show love to our enemies. As the Lord Jesus tells us in our reading this morning:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Jesus asks us, What does it profit you to gain the whole world – of comfort, wealth, status, and acceptance by worldly authorities? What does it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your life? What can you give in exchange for your life?

Only the God of Abraham, the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, holds that kind of power. The power of life. Our God will defend you and bless you in the presence of enemies. He will walk with you through the pain and darkness. He will give you victory through the cross of Jesus.

Through faith, Abraham was able to see this. Now, through the resurrection, we can, too. God is the master of life and death. We can trust him, even when his word is totally out of sync with the wisdom of the world around us.

What are the areas of your life where God is inviting you to embrace the faith of Abraham? What are the challenges that seem insurmountable? What is the death that you’re afraid of? What does it mean for you to live in the power of the resurrection?