Lost and Found

Read John 20:1-18

He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” (John 20:15)

“The resurrection completes the inauguration of God’s kingdom. . . . It is the decisive event demonstrating that God’s kingdom really has been launched on earth as it is in heaven. The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it.” — N. T. Wright

When Mary Magdalene first saw the empty tomb, her heart sank. The one man who believed in her; the one who had helped her believe, the one she had trusted, now was humiliated even beyond death. 

Mary cries. With her tears, she no doubt recalls the time she had spent with Jesus. The way in which he had received her. He respected her, like no man had done before. To so many others, she was a common prostitute, but to Jesus, she was a child of God. He could see in her the desire for change, the thirst for a new life and he helped her along this path.

Now he was gone. But not for good.

Easter Sunday, 1987. I was driving around aimlessly. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a woman, scarf tied around her head, carrying a large bag. She didn’t know where she was going. I didn’t know where to take her. We were both lost. 

I took her to a downtown church,still smelling of exhaust with the woman in tattered clothes beside me. When we got inside I could feel the stares on us. An elderly gentleman in fine Easter attire ushered us to a quiet space, sat down with us over coffee. You could see the tension slowly lifting from the woman’s face as she began to feel welcomed. He was able to help her find her way home.

I walked out of church that day in tears. I, too, had found my way home. I found Christ not confined to a tomb. I found Christ living in the community of faith, ready to embrace me into his family.

Riding the Waves

Read Matthew 14.22-36

We all know about fear. All of us have been afraid at some point in our lives. Some have been taught to hide their fear, to deny it. Others are quick to talk about their fears, and desperately search for someone to tell them things will be okay.

One writer says this about fear:

Fear controls much of what we do. Fear about financial security prompts career choices or constricts our reactions to the needs of others. Fear for our relationships moves some of us to cling and others to flee. Fear that our labor will amount to nothing produces and obsession that robs vocation of its pleasure.

All of us have fear. All become afraid. The question is “What do we do with our fears?”

I like what Peter does with his fear. He calls out to the vague image in the distance. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” When he gets afraid, Peter talks with Jesus. He calls out. He doesn’t try to hide it or run from it. He takes the risk of facing it.

More than this, when he hears an answer to his question, “Come,” he goes. He steps out of the boat and onto the waters. He takes a risk. If he would have thought about it, it may have occurred to him, “Hey, maybe this isn’t Jesus, but some kook who has it in for me. I could step out of this boat and sink like a lead balloon.” This doesn’t occur to him. Jesus says, “Come,and he goes.

But even Peter has his challenges. A strong wind sweeps in and blows him off balance. He begins to sink and cries out, “Lord, save me.” His faith was strong enough to step out on the waters, but his fear didn’t go away and when a strong wind comes, he loses his focus.

When Peter is safe in Jesus’ arms, Jesus asks him “Why did you doubt?” Together, they step back into the boat and the winds cease.

All of us have fears. Even the closest disciples of Jesus. Even those who had first-hand contact with Jesus struggled with doubts, questions, misunderstandings and most of all, fear.

Peter’s fear is not removed after this incident. He will fear again and again and again. When he fears, though, he knows whose name to call on and whose hands will catch him. We also will fear again and again. The faith granted to us does not banish fear. No amount of pleading, moralizing, or scolding ourselves will make our fear go away. Faith does, however, teach us whose name to call and who waits to calm us. Our faith knows who has power over the deep waters and ultimately conquers our fears.

Peter shows us what it means to take risks in faith. Christians, like everyone else, must learn to live with uncertainties in life.  How will I make ends me? Who can I turn to as I grow older? What should I do to best parent my children? We live with uncertainties in life and still we believe that if we step out in faith, God will be there in Christ to catch us when we fall. We don’t have to stand still and wait for our fears to go away. They never do. Only when we step out in faith, when we exercise what little faith we have, that we discover the strength to live in uncertain times. The more we step out in faith, the more we are able to deal with what comes.

The little faith we have may not seem like much compared to the forces of doubt, of skepticism, of fear. When tragedy strikes, we could just throw in the towel, roll over and go back to sleep, hide in fear. But the promise of God is that our little faith, working together with the little faith of others and empowered by the Spirit, can move mountains, it can latch on to a menacing barge and force it upstream, safely to shore.

Faith doesn’t overcome fear, but helps us live with it. Faith gives us the strength to do things we never thought we could do, to walk where we thought we’d never walk. “Come,” says Jesus.

How Do Christians Deal With Conflict?

Read Acts 15.1-29

How do Christians deal with conflict? This is a difficult question, partly because we aren’t used to thinking faith and conflict together. We think of our faith in terms of peace and joy, of praise and gladness. When we begin to experience conflict, we assume that there must be a lack of faith on our part, or someone else’s. 

People look to the church as a sanctuary from the conflict of the world, a safe place to feel loved and accepted by God and each other and when conflict erupts in the church, it is like a lightening bolt that comes from a clear blue sky. Yet, there is conflict in the church. There always has been and there always will be until God sees fit to in the end to bring us together in a lasting peace. For now, the question is not, how do we avoid or prevent conflict, but how do we as Christians deal with conflict.

The Book of Acts provides us with a record of how early Christians dealt with conflict. One of the big debates in the early Church was over what the requirements were to be a Christian. Many believed that since Jesus himself was a Jew and since his teaching upheld the traditions of his ancestors, that in order to follow him- to be a Christian- one must also become a Jew and adhere to Jewish custom.

Paul saw things differently. In his work with the Gentiles, Paul and Barnabas witnessed how God was working miracles in the lives of people; bringing healing, changing lives, helping people turn their lives away from sin to God. These Gentiles were not Jews, were not even familiar with Jewish customs, and yet they were being filled with God’s Spirit and doing great things for the work of Christ’s church.

Paul believed you did not have to first become a Jew to be a Christian, but the God in Christ could convict people regardless of their background and lead them in faithfulness without their being circumcised. Paul argued that the Jewish standard of circumcision was an obstacle for Gentiles receiving God’s grace.

People within the church were offended by Paul’s openness and a group from the Jerusalem congregation went out into Gentile territory to try to convince the Gentiles to receive circumcision. Conflict erupted between this group and the group represented by Paul and Barnabas. Acts records how this conflict is dealt with and in this way provides a model for how we as Christians might deal with the conflicts we face. The final decision was that Gentiles need not be circumcised, but need to respect Jewish traditions. Basically, it was decided that Gentiles need not become Jews to be Christians, but must live as respectful foreigners in Jewish territory.

Even more important than the decision reached was the process used to reach the decision. There are many important elements of this process that can help us deal with conflict today. I want to focus on three. The Concerns, the Consultation, and the Consensus.

First, the concerns. Notice how the concerns from all parties are expressed and listened to in an effort to understand the nature of the conflict. The leaders don’t just take Paul and Barnabas word as gospel truth, but listen to those with a different perspective, persons of opposing viewpoints. There are always many concerns that surround any given conflict, and to approach one and not the others might widen the gap.

Secondly, the consultation. Not only did the affected persons consult with the leaders of the church, but the leaders themselves consulted Scripture. Throughout the process, but specifically after the concerns are voiced, the leadership seeks the counsel of Scripture. James quotes the prophets in Acts 15.13-18 and applies it to the situation faced. This is an essential part of dealing with any conflict — to seek the guidance of Scripture. James does not simply quote something from the Bible to prove his point, but seeks the counsel of Scripture that God’s guidance may be found.

Finally, consensus is reached. Once a solution is discovered, there is a temptation to act quickly, to get the conflict over sooner. The wisdom of the council gathered at Jerusalem that day knew enough to work first to arrive at consensus, to help everyone see the value in the decision before it was carried out. This could not have been done had not all the concerns been listened to and addressed, had not the Scriptures been consulted. Consensus is not arrived at quickly. We are only able to discover what we can agree on after we recognize our differences.

How do Christians deal with conflict? In Acts, the process involved hearing the concerns, consulting the Scriptures, and arriving at consensus. This process may seem tedious and burdensome. I’m sure there were those in the early Church who wanted quick results and were frustrated at the deliberate nature of the process. Why can’t we just act, just do something and let the chips fall where they may?

The reason why is that too often when we act quickly, we act alone. God is active in our conflicts and yet we may fail to recognize this when we seek easy solutions. Through prayer, both on our own and within the church, we can seek God’s guidance even for the most difficult conflicts. God is concerned and willing to work with us through our conflicts that we might move toward harmony in the church and in our world.

Spiritual Gifts

Read 1 Corinthians 12.1-11

Each of us is born with a special talent, a spiritual gift that God gives us so we can help build up the body of Christ, the church. Often, however, spiritual gifts go unrecognized. We fail as a body and as individuals to tap into this source of strength, of energy, and fall short of being all we can be. As we look into this text in 1 Corinthians, ask yourselves, what is my spiritual gift and how can I use this for the good of the body, Christ’s church.

As we read in 1 Corinthians, we see there is conflict in the Corinthian church. Everybody knows it. Everybody can feel it. Some more than others. Some want to get to the root of the conflict. Others are convinced they know what the problem is. Still others are pulling away from the community, not sure what to think about the conflict.

The Apostle Paul knows what the trouble is. Some people in the Corinthian church are beginning to believe they are more religious, more spiritual than others. There is growing division between those whose faith is dynamic, witnessed in such things as speaking in tongues and prophesying and those whose faith is more subtle, less visible. Blame is being tossed back and forth. “If only you would be less self-righteous” says one group. “If only you would take faith more seriously.” say the others.

Paul knows what the trouble is, or what the source of the conflict is and yet he proposes no easy solution.

This is the way things are, says Paul. It’s not that God is more present with someone who prays louder or who looks more religious; it is that God’s Spirit leads us to put our faith to use in different way; God’s Spirit gives us different gifts. If we view this as the problem, then we are heading for trouble. We might try to root out those we find to be “less religious,” who don’t share the same gifts as us, whose faith looks different from ours.

At times we’ve taken the route and the results have been painful divisions in the church.

In the Corinthian church, the believers became so concerned about being “spiritually correct” that they failed to notice the value of spiritual gifts other than their own. Those with gifts of wisdom and knowledge looked down on those who prophesied. Each gift became considered an end in itself rather than a means to a faith greater than any one person could hold.

The litmus test, or the standard, for true faith is not whether we share the same gifts, but whether the gifts we bring build up the body. Paul makes this clear in verse 7, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” This is the key. We may want to test the spirits, the gifts people claim to have. The best way to do this is to look around and see if these gifts are being used for the common good. Are these gifts building up or tearing down the body?

Have you figured out what your spiritual gift might be? It’s not easy, particularly as you look at the list Paul provides. Outside of wisdom and knowledge, and maybe faith and healing, the other gifts seem removed from us. Working of miracles. Prophesy. Speaking in tongues.

Understand that these were simply ways that the Corinthian believers lived out and expressed their faith in their time. This list is by no means complete. We might add to this list things offered today for the good of Christ’s body, the church. There are those with a gift of teaching, or learning who help us all to be better students of God’s word and will for our lives. There are those with the gift of prayer who remember others in time of need. There are those with a gift for listening who can provide comfort and encouragement. There are those who are gifted with their hands who are able to do repairs and provide a place for us to worship. There are those who are gifted to know what needs to be done and to do it for the good of the body.

What is your spiritual gift? Think about it, pray about it. Sometimes we lose sight of what we’ve been given as we struggle to make ends meet. As one writer puts it, “We lose sight of our natural gifts and cling more to our acquired skills.” Because we have to make a living and we fear failure, we learn to spend a lot of energy covering over our weaknesses rather than building on our strengths. We lose sight of some of what we most care for, some things we’re best at, because our time is filled with obligations and commitments.

Sometimes our spiritual gift is so simple we fail to recognize it or appreciate it, either in others or in ourselves.

What a blessing when God’s gifts are put to use!

One Faith, Under God

Read Ephesians 4.1-16

There is a picture in my high school yearbook of our graduating senior class. We are all seated on the floor of the gym. The picture was taken from high up in the bleachers, with a wide angle lens. From the distance you can make out the outline of the number 82. Our bodies positioned together to form a large single image. If you could step into the photograph, however, you might find something else.

You might see the look of eager anticipation on the faces of the basketball players, preparing for the big tournament that night. You could notice the look of relief on the face of the student who had just gotten her final test back and would be graduating with straight A’s. In the back corner you might notice the tired look on someone’s face. Someone who had lost his parents in a car accident, who had been up late working at a body shop to earn his keep. If you looked real hard you could also see the anxious look of a young woman who found out last week she was pregnant, now plunged into a world of adult decisions.

You could see this if you step into the photograph. As it is, you can only make out the number 82, our identities held together in the scope of the camera’s eye.

The letter to the Ephesians speaks of unity. Unity is more than just an abstract concept, but a tangible expression of God’s Spirit living within and among us. The unity spoken of here is more than just the unity of a small band of folks who look and think and act alike. This unity in Christ breaks through the barriers we create out of our differences, leading us to a larger unity with all creation. This unity in Christ makes it possible for all to become fellow heirs, member of the same body, sharers in the promises of God.

Ephesians is a very upbeat letter. Unlike other letters in the Bible that seem written to respond to a particular conflict or struggle, Ephesians lays out some of the basics, the foundations of the Christian faith that are just as true now as they were then. These basics would have been familiar to the readers of this letter, many of the ideas being found in other letters of Paul. In Ephesians, however, these ideas and images are woven together that future generations might know the gospel even as Paul proclaimed it in his time, that the good news might give shape to their lives in faith.

Among these basics is the idea of unity. The early Christian church faced pressures to split apart. Varying groups and individuals within the faith community focused on different aspects of the faith, vied for power, and clung to competing loyalties. Many difficult questions were raised, “Do you have to first become a Jew to be a Christian?” “How do we care for the needs of our own and still reach out to others?” “Who among the apostles are we to listen to?”

It is important to remember that unity does not mean uniformity. We are not a body of members who all look and think and act alike. This is not our calling. This is made clear in the passage that immediately follows in Ephesians which talks about the diversity of gifts given to God’s people for the good of the body. Thank God we are not all eyes or noses, as it says elsewhere in the Bible, for “where would be the hearings?” Unity is not sameness, but persons with different gifts working together for the common good of the body.

Unity is easier to see from a distance, but it does not so much impact us on a personal level. The good news is that God is not only watch us from a distance. In Christ, God has become intimately involved in our experience. Involved in the messiness of our lives. Not just watching from a distance, where troubles and worries seem insignificant, but bound to our hearts, within our relationships where we might experience new hope in the midst of despair. Light in the middle of darkness.

Getting Into the Spirit

Read Philippians 4.4-13

Paul talks about rejoicing in his letter to the Philippians. We know that as Paul writes this letter, he is nearing the end of his life. His journeys in the faith are coming to an end. He is looking back over his career and offering a word of encouragement to a church, a community of faith, he cares about a great deal. The church at Philippi was the first church established by Paul on European soil. It is here that the Christian church is likely to live or die, to grow or diminish. Paul is writing to them from prison, awaiting trial.

Now wait a minute. Imagine this. Paul, sitting in a prison cell, not sure what his fate will be, persecuted for his faith, jotting down a letter that says, “Rejoice.” It seems odd. I could understand one that read, “Get me out of here.” Or “I was framed, “but Paul writes “rejoice. Rejoice in the Lord always.”

Paul is writing to encourage the church which may well face some of the same challenges he has faced in his missionary journeys. It is likely that they will go through a period where people become hostile toward the church, that they will be isolated from friends and family in the community. The cost of being a Christian, of professing their faith is likely to increase and he is trying to prepare them for this.

Being a Christian means facing persecution in some form.  How can we prepare for these challenges? Paul says, “Rejoice.” The first step toward holding onto what you’ve got in the faith is to rejoice. Before we begin any program or develop any strategy, we must first rejoice. Rejoice. Celebrate. Singing and shouting and generally being glad to be alive. Rejoicing is remembering to praise God for the good things in life and doing it from your heart, with your heart, with your whole self.

Rejoicing can be a loud and vibrant activity. It may also be a more silent appreciation, giving thanks with a smile or a glint in your eye. One mistake many Christians make is to feel obligated to put on a happy face and try to make joy happen.  For some external expressions of joy come naturally. Others rejoice in quieter ways.

 The rejoicing that we do is not something that is removed from hardship and struggle, but goes on right in the middle of it. Some might believe that faith in Christ needs to be a neat gift-wrapped package with a bow on it, but we know as Christians, Christ was born a poor child born in the dirt and the mess of a manger. The beauty and meaningfulness of Christ’s birth,  his Incarnation, comes to us in the simple, earthy moments that are real, not in the glitter and glamour. Our rejoicing takes place where there is not only joy but sorrow, not only peace but worry, not only pleasure, but pain.

Rejoicing is not just something you feel, but something you do with what you feel. Rejoicing is something that’s done even when you’re short of breath, when you can’t carry a tune or speak a word, but you know that all you are and have is a gift from God. It’s not a big glorious production, but a heartfelt moment of thanks.

Often we view our troubles and concerns as threats to our serenity, something that robs us of joy. Yet it is only by honestly expressing our deepest longing to God in prayer that we can come to delight in the One who delights in us.

Rejoice in the Lord always. It is our biggest defense against when the world teaches us to be without hope.  It is our greatest hope that carries us through each day and helps us to hold onto what is good. Through Jesus Christ, who makes all things possible, even rejoicing in our suffering.

Evangelism: The Basics

Acts 2.37-47

Once there were two neighborhoods which had gardens.

One of the neighborhoods had a beautiful garden, full of flowers and vegetables. The residents could often be seen tending the garden. They put a great deal of time into the garden and took great delight in their work.

The other neighborhood’s residents were not so content with their garden. It always seemed to be full of weeds. The flowers were never bright or beautiful enough. The vegetables were always too dry or else insects had gotten to them. The residents of this neighborhood would often look at the other folk’s garden and say, “If only our garden could look like that.”

One day the folks who were unhappy with their garden had a neighborhood meeting. “Let’s do something about the garden,” said one person. “Yes,” said another, “Let’s fix that garden up.” A committee was formed to come up with methods to rehabilitate the garden. They produced several plans.

The first plan involved building a large podium next to the garden upon which was mounted a huge megaphone. The residents of the neighborhood took turns on the podium talking into the megaphone, saying things like, “Grow!” and “You’re a great garden!” and “Some day you will be a big, beautiful, and bountiful garden!” After eleven days of talking to the garden day and night, the people saw that this was ineffective and gave up.

The second plan called for the placement of billboards on each side of the garden with wonderful paintings of beautiful gardens. This also failed.

The final plan consisted of a compact disc player set up nearby the garden. A special recording was made of selections from the masters of classical music which included subliminal messages to encourage the growth of the garden. Subtlety proved no more effective than the megaphone.

The people were distraught. They had tried everything. Everything had failed. At long last their frustration overcame their pride and they elected a delegation to go to the neighborhood with the beautiful garden and ask them what their secret was.

“What is your secret?” they asked.

“Well,” came the reply, “I don’t know as it’s much of a secret. A little water, a little fertilizer, a little loving care. Pretty much just basic gardening stuff that anyone with a garden would do. And of course God provides the sunlight.”

There are no secrets to evangelism. As we read in the account of the earliest Christians, they simply go about the basics of ministry, listening to the teaching, caring for each other, praying, and breaking the bread. These are the basics. They don’t, in themselves, produce growth. God does this. We are called not to produce growth, but to remain faithful followers of Christ, reaching out to those in need, meeting the needs of those among us. Breaking the bread.

Let’s consider here the breaking of bread.

We have come a long way from the weekly Agape feasts (essentially a full-blown pot-luck) to the meager tiny square of bread and meager cup that doesn’t even hold a swallow. The early Christians gathered in homes for large feasts that included the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Though we enact the celebration in much the same way, in many ways, we have replaced the feast with a sermon and we do it in the context of worship in our church home. I’m not sure how this evolved, but it must have been a preacher’s decision, because I can’t imagine a congregation that would want more preaching and less eating.

The breaking of the bread was a primary aspect of the faith of the early Church. Connected with the feast, the celebration not only brought to mind the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, but the presence of the Christ’s Spirit in the believing community. We have come to refer to this celebration as “Communion.” In the breaking of the bread, the drinking of the fruit of the vine, we are in communion with Christ through the Holy Spirit. Likewise, as we share the cup and the loaf, we commune with each other as the body of Christ.

The fellowship of believers is closely connected with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. As we commune with one another, we become aware of needs to be met, of the pains, the joys, of those with whom we share. Meeting these needs, and sharing in the joys, physical and spiritual, is an act of evangelism. When we devote ourselves to fellowship with one another in the breaking of bread, sharing the cup, and experiencing the joy of communion with one another and with God, we are being who we are called to be, faithful followers of Christ.

Celebrating the Lord’s Supper, we are tending to the garden of faith. God provides the elements. God provides the meaning and the sacrifice which bring new life in Christ. We are not called to be more than we can be, to be something other than what we are that we might be more attractive to others. Instead, we are called to be faithful. To the teaching of the Scriptures. To fellowship with one another. To prayer individually and in community. To the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the fruit of the vine. In this, we are tending to the garden of faith. May God help us grow.