Good Sports: Thoughts on the athletics of discipleship.

Good Sports

There is a really great TV show on Apple TV called “Ted Lasso”.

It’s full of entertaining characters with a generally positive message.

I will warn you though, it’s for mature audiences.

It’s not Game of Thrones, but it’s far from The Andy Griffith Show.

The show is about a Division II college football coach from Kansas who is hired by an English Premier League soccer team to be its coach.

Lasso knows very little about soccer.

He admits it.

The team isn’t very good to begin with.

The players are puzzled by him.

The team’s fans are mortified that Lasso has been hired and heap insults on him from the stands and in the streets.

But Lasso isn’t concerned about the fans or winning and losing.

He is concerned about the players on the team.

He says this.

“For me, success is not about the wins and losses. It’s about helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves on and off the field.”

And that’s what he does.

He is mostly successful.

I’m not sure that’s the best attitude for the coach of a professional sports team, but it is what I want to hear from the coach of a youth sports team.

If fact, I did hear that once.

My daughter was on a youth soccer travel team.

The coach had a meeting with all the players and the parents before the first practice.

He started off by saying to the girls that he was glad to be their coach and would do everything he could to make them as good as they could be, to give everyone a chance to play and to help them have fun.

But he also wanted to shine a bit of reality on them and, in particular, the parents.

He told us he had been coaching youth soccer in the South Hills for many years.

He had watched a lot of really talented players grow up, play for their high school teams and then go off to college.

In all those years, with all those really talented players, only one got a scholarship to a Division I school.

One.

None had ever played professionally.

His message?

No one on the team was going to pay for college with a soccer scholarship.

No one on the team was going to make a living playing soccer.

So why should they play?

Several reasons.

Because it was fun.

Because it would keep them active and fit.

Because it would teach them how to work with others as a team.

Because it would make them part of a community – something bigger than themselves – that had a purpose.

Because it would help them to feel what it was like to succeed and what it was like to fail.

Because it would teach them that when they fail or get knocked on their buts, it was not the end of the world.

They could get up and give it another shot.

These were important life lessons that will help them in life generally.

He sounded like Ted Lasso:

[It was] about helping these young kids be the best versions of themselves on and off the field.

That is the main purpose of sports for the vast majority of people, not just kids.

Almost no one turns pro.

But there are things sprots can teach us.

Sports can teach us how to be the best versions of ourselves on and off the field.

And it can teach us a bit about discipleship.

Believe it or not, that is the message we get from Jesus and Paul this morning.

Matthew 28: 16-20

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

1 Corinthians 9: 24-27

24 Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. 25Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. 26So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air27but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

Jesus teaches us that we have a purpose as team church.

Make disciples.

Teach them how to be disciples.

Paul says that is a lot like an athletic competition.

A bit of background on our 1 Corinthians passage.

Paul is finishing up a longer discussion about Christians eating meat that has been offered to idols.

This was a big controversy in Corinth.

Polarizing, even.

Well educated Christians knew that to do so was no big deal.

Those God’s didn’t exist.

Offering food to them meant nothing.

But some less educated Christians thought that eating idol meat was the same as paganism and insulted the one true God.

And that was a big deal to them.

The better educated Christians thought they were better Christians.

They were winning.

Yet, Paul tells them they should not eat idol meat in front of those who think it’s wrong.

Those folks might cave to the peer pressure and eat it, too.

They would feel guilty.

Like they did something awful.

Like they failed God.

Those who caused them to do it would be responsible for that.

Paul says that was sinful.

To prevent that, Paul says that the better educated Christians should exercise self-control.

Set a good example.

If it bothers them that we eat idol meat, we should not eat it in front of them.

Don’t tempt them to violate their beliefs.

No disciple is better than another.

There is no winning.

Which takes us into Paul’s sports metaphor.

Here’s a little background on Paul and sports.

Paul was writing to the Corinthian church.

Corinth was home to a biennial celebration of sports called the Isthmus Games.

Paul would have been in Corinth at least once when the games were going on so he would have known about them.

He likely went and watched.

The events at the games were six individual sports.

Racing, wrestling, jumping, boxing, javelin and discus.

Paul apparently was a fan of racing and boxing.

He observed that sports and discipleship had some things in common.

Now, it might appear at the outset that Paul believes discipleship is a race in which there is only one prize winner.

The better educated over the less educated?

That Christianity is some kind of contest?

That is not what Paul is saying.

Remember, Paul firmly believed that we are not reconciled to God by what we do.

We are settled with God as a gift from God.

There is no winning.

When Paul talks about winning the race, he is contrasting that with God’s gift.

Only one person wins the race, but many still race.

And all those who race get a prize.

Now before anyone says, “That sounds like one of those ‘participation trophies’!” let me assure you it is not.

If we put forth no effort, if we just show up, we might get “disqualified”.

In the Isthmus games, if you just showed up untrained, they would notice, and pull you out of the race.

Just saying you are a disciple is not going to cut it.

All talk and no action isn’t racing.

Just showing up won’t do it.

The “prize” is what you already got – God’s call – and that gets you into the race.

And once you are in the race, you do what you have to do to be the best disciple you can be.

The movie Chariots of Fire explores the difference between striving to win and racing the good race.

British sprinter Harold Abrahams needs to be the fastest to feel successful.

He tells a friend, “If I can’t win, I won’t run.”

Her response is, “If you don’t run, you can’t win.”

Abrahams is like Vince Lombardi and his famous quote, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

So, if you can’t win, there is no point in participating.

And because there is only one winner failure is inevitable.

So, why bother?

Paul disagrees.

Paul looks at the race like Eric Liddell.

Eric Liddell was Church of Scotland missionary and world class sprinter.

When Liddell’s fiancé tells him she is concerned that he puts too much emphasis on sports, rather than preparing for missionary work.

Don’t eat that idol meat!

Liddell says this:

“I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

Liddell’s purpose was to be a missionary and also to use his God given ability to please God.

To run.

Not to win, though he would.

But to use his speed to race.

We have been given a gift.

God’s forgiveness.

We, too, need to use it in the race.

So, Paul is saying that we are settled with God, yet we do have some responsibility.

We need to live as disciples like we mean it.

Being a disciple is running a race.

Run as hard as you can.

Train, practice and put forth maximum effort.

But know you already have the prize that will last forever.

As with a lot of Christian theology, you can see there is a lot of tension here.

A bit of mystery.

God’s forgiveness is free but is not without strings.

Not without responsibility.

We need to be respond.

Which is an action.

Something we do.

If you aren’t or don’t, maybe you get disqualified from the race.

That is why disciples need to be disciplined and purposeful.

That’s all God wants, according to Paul.

Our best effort.

Run the race the way a race is to be run.

And when that is done, the sport is honored.

Be the best disciple you can be.

And when we do that, God is honored.

To do this, need to learn the needed skills.

What skills do we need to learn?

Self-Control.

Discipline.

Intention.

Purpose.

Technique.

Teamwork.

Patience.

How do we learn these things?

Education, training and practice.

These are good lessons.

Life lessons.

These are all good skills.

Life skills.

Each activity we participate in has different specifics, but the general idea is the same.

When we do these things, we become the best versions of ourselves.

Not just in sports.

In life.

The most obvious place we see this happen is on the sports fields or courts.

Education, training and practicing.

Using that education, training and practice in the next game.

I know what this is like.

I take a golf lesson.

I go to the range and hit practice shots.

I do some exercise to train my body.

Then I hit the inks and put all that to use.

And I am a bit better.

And feeling good about the effort.

Maybe feeling God’s presence.

A less obvious place to see this happen is in church.

We need to spend some time developing discipleship skills.

We need to learn, train and practice here, too.

In church, we get some education with Bible study, book study, theology groups, sermons.

We train ourselves with daily prayer and devotions.

We practice our faith in mission and fellowship.

Then we run the race – out there!

We learn what it’s like to succeed.

We learn what it’s like to fail.

We learn that when the world comes crashing down on us, we have God’s call to stay in the race.

And we learn that there are teammates there to lift us up and get us back in the game.

Discipleship is not about wins and losses.

It’s about doing our best to live our lives the way God wants us to live them.

And to become the best versions of ourselves.

Disciples of Jesus.

To Change Lives: Thoughts on the impact of discipleship.

To Change Lives

There is a wise old adage about helping others.

“Give a person a fish and they will eat for a day.

Teach a person to fish and they will eat every day.”

You get the idea.

Your child is hungry and asks for food, so you feed them.

Not long after they are hungry again and ask to be fed again.

So you feed them.

Marylin Tindall had a different approach.

I would tell her I was hungry and she would say, “You know where the kitchen is!”

She wanted me to learn how to fee myself.

But teaching people to feed themselves is hard.

It is a complicated problem that has many challenges.

Just giving them food is just easier.

It is often easier to do something yourself rather than teaching someone to do it for themselves.

It’s still helpful, but the help is short lived.

This is not new.

I remember when I was in middle school.

There was a girl in my class who asked to borrow my math workbook (remember those?) because she could not find hers.

She wanted to copy the homework problems for that evening.

She forgot to give the workbook back at the end of the day which meant I could not do the homework.

The next morning, she gave me back my workbook and I was surprised to see that the answers to the homework problems had been filled in.

My friend told me that her mother did that.

He mother did that for her all the time because she was terrible a math.

It was just easier for her mom to do the homework that teach her how to do it herself.

Marylin and Jim Tindall would never have done that!

They wanted me to learn how to do things.

They wanted me to learn to get all grown up, get a job and support myself and my family.

They weren’t going to giving me fish.

They wanted to teach me how to fish.

What does this have to do with the church?

With us?

If we want to make a difference in the world, we need to teach folks how to fish.

And when we do that we change lives.

We see that in our scripture readings.

Matthew 28: 16-20

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Acts 3: 1-10

3One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. 2And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. 3When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. 4Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’ 5And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. 6But Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’ 7And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. 8Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. 9All the people saw him walking and praising God, 10and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

We are continuing our discussion of what it means to be a “Church on Purpose” this week.

Jesus tells us what that purpose is in his Great Commission.

[M]ake disciples of all nations … and [teach] them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

What is Jesus commanding us to do?

Change people’s lives.

The way Jesus changed ours.

That is the purpose of our church and the purpose of the “CHURCH”.

It is why we are here.

At JMPC, we describe that purpose in our mission statement.

We are here to provide a way for this community and the communities surrounding us to know, glorify and serve God.

How do we know if we have done that?

We need to ask ourselves, “Have we changed people’s lives?”

Have we taught folks how to fish?

How to fish for purpose and dignity and justice?

Is that what disciples do?

Yes, it is.

We see what I am talking about in our Acts passage.

Peter and John have remained in Jerusalem after Pentecost.

They have been going daily to the Temple for prayer with those who became disciples after Pentecost.

That is the church at the moment.

One day, Peter and John are heading into the Temple when they come across a man outside the door who was lame from birth.

He was there begging for money.

Probably to pay the folks who were caring for him.

And were probably the ones who took him there.

What he got him through the day.

He would be back the next day.

He is outside the Temple.

The “lame” in those days were considered outsiders to the Jewish community and were not permitted into the Temple.

That’s one reason why he’s outside the door.

The other is because it’s a prime spot for begging.

Folks heading into the Temple can’t help but see him and because they are heading into “God’s House”, they are a lot more likely to give money than those folks down town.

Whatever he would allow him to survive until the next day.

It was like giving him a daily fish.

On this day, he meets Peter and John.

They don’t have any money to give him, but they stop anyway.

They seem to study him.

They also tell him to study them.

They might want to see that he has their full attention.

They might want him to see that they have his full attention.

He is not an annoyance to be put off with a coin or two.

They might be trying to figure out what this man needed, not to just survive until tomorrow, but to be able to survive into the future.

Teach him how to fish.

[Then] Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’ 

And the man got up and walked.

Actually, he did more than that.

He went into the Temple leaping and praising God.

Why was this guy so excited?

In simple terms, his life had been changed.

He no longer had to survive from day-to-day begging, relying on the generosity of others.

He could take care of himself.

He could fish!

We are told that the Apostles had been doing this sort of thing – signs and wonders – since Pentecost, but this is the first one we see described.

And there is something we need to notice.

Neither Peter nor John tell this man that he must first accept Jesus as his Lord and savior in order to be healed.

Peter’s act is a gift.

Not something the man earned.

The man begs for money and Peter gives him the ability to get it on his own.

In response, the man praises God.

Maybe he has become a disciple.

And as he leaps about the Temple, others notice.

[T]hey were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

Peter then goes on to tell everyone about Jesus the Messiah.

Many of those became disciples.

They presumably began to live the Jesus way.

It changed their lives.

And ultimately, changed the world.

Which was Peter’s and John’s purpose.

That was what Jesus commissioned them to do.

And it’s what Jesus commanded us to do.

Now a word about miracles.

Miracles we see in scripture are not just supernatural good deeds.

They are performed by specific people for specific people for specific purposes.

Jesus performed miracles as a kind of a credential demonstrating that he had power from God and the authority to speak for God.

When Jesus used God’s power to give a miracle to a specific person, he did so principally to teach a lesson to many, but the life of person who received the benefit of the miracle was profoundly changed, too.

But this miracle was performed by Peter.

That means Peter has been given the power to do the same kind of thing Jesus had done.

Which in this case was used to change this man’s life.

With a lesson for many.

That is what Jesus’ disciples are supposed to do, too.

Change lives.

That is what we are supposed to do.

Change lives.

Now, we can’t change people’s lives the way Peter did with this guy.

No one I know has been given the power to work miracles.

No one I know can smack someone on the head and say, “Be changed!” and have them leaping about praising God.

Most times, a person’s life change is not so immediate or obvious.

Sometimes it’s a bit more involved and complicated.

Sometimes it’s hard.

Sometimes it takes time.

Back in the day when I worked downtown, I saw many what we call panhandlers.

These are folks who wander around begging for some change so that they can get something the want.

Maybe food.

Maybe something else.

One fellow I recall would always carry an empty gas can and ask for five dollars so he could get gas for his car.

I don’t think he had a car.

These are the folks like the lame man in our text.

According to an Atlantic Magazine article from 2011, “beggars are likely to spend their money quickly” and so the relief they get for the change in your pocket is brief.

It’s a fish.

The article goes on.

The homeless often need something more than money. They need money and direction. For most homeless people, direction means a job and a roof. A 1999 study from HUD polled homeless people about what they needed most: 42% said help finding a job; 38% said finding housing; 30% said paying rent or utilities; 13% said training or medical care.”

They need to be taught to fish.

That’s a big job.

A bit overwhelming for a church, right?

We can’t teach all those folks how to fish.

We would all probably say, “If that is what we need to do to change lives, I’m out!”

It would be better to say, “I can’t do that, but I can do a little bit.”

We do some of that here.

Here at JMPC, we have sponsored “tables” at Duquesne Presbyterian Church that mentors young people on how to become self-sufficient.

They do the things that HUD poll says most folks need help doing.

Teaching how to fish.

Changing lives.

We sent our youth group to Erie to work and learn with an organization called ServeErie.

One of the things the kids learned was that many homeless people are homeless because they can’t afford to actually buy a home.

Because they just rent, they have no guarantee that they will be able to stay in that place if the rent goes up.

So ServeErie helps these folks buy homes.

And it works.

They stay in those homes longer and the neighborhood environment improves because folks stay there.

There is a program a bit like that here in Pittsburgh called ‘Bridge to Hope’ that is connected to Family Promise.

Teaching them how to fish.

Changing lives.

‘Hello Neighbor’ is an organization that cares for and teaches refugees how to live and thrive in the United States.

There is a local branch here in the South Hills.

Teaching how to fish.

Changing lives.

But the economically poor are not the only folks who need help.

There are also the spiritually poor.

These are the folks who feel cast out for a myriad of reasons from mental health issues to physical health issues to racial issues to gender issues to political issues to whatever else issue might make them feel worthless.

Like the lame man in our text.

They, too, need help.

Not just a pep-talk.

Telling the to “get a job” or “get help” or “count your blessings”, is like giving them a fish.

It might inspire them for a moment (and probably won’t anyway) but it is only momentary.

What we can do is teach them that they have value, dignity, purpose.

We teach them how to be in relationship with us.

Teaching them to fish.

Changing lives.

And when we do our bit for these folks, observers might ask, “Why do you do this?”

We can tell them that we are disciples of Jesus, and do it because we want to imitate him.

Just like Peter did in the Temple when asked about the miracle.

That is what a Church on Purpose can do.

It can teach people how to fish.

It can change lives.

And when lives are changed, bit by bit, the world is changed, too.

That’s what JMPC can do.

That’s what being part of JMPC will teach you to do.

And it will change your life.

To Serve God: Thoughts on what makes us disciples and why.

To Serve God

Raising children either as parent, teacher, or coach is extraordinarily fulfilling but frequently challenging, frustrating and sometimes infuriating.

Lots of conflict.

Usually that conflict starts immediately after you tell the child what they can or cannot do.

Most kids I have encountered know better that to out and out refuse to do what their parents want.

To refuse will bring some form of punishment.

So, the insightful child will take an alternative course and ask, “Why?”

This, too, can be a frustrating, challenging and infuriating response to a parental directive.

Eat your vegetables.

“Why?”

Take a bath.

“Why?”

Brush your teeth.

“Why?”

Go to bed.

“Why?”

Turn off the TV.

“Why?”

Put down your phone.

“Why?”

Do your homework.

“Why?”

This can get tiresome.

What should we do?

We can all become Jim Tindall and just say, “Because I told you so.”

Or my favorite of his expressions, “If you don’t do it, I’ll cloud up and rain all over you!”

I never risked finding out what that meant.

So, I just did what I was told.

To gain favor with mom and dad and to avoid punishment.

But while Jim Tindall managed to keep either of his sons from a life of crime, I think he missed an opportunity to avoid a bit of conflict by not only telling us not only what he expected of my brother and I but also why it was expected.

We see a bit of this in our scripture reading.

Matthew 28: 16-20

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Matthew 25: 31-45

31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

We are continuing our discussion of what it means to be a “Church on Purpose” this week.

Jesus tells us what that purpose is in his Great Commission.

[M]ake disciples of all nations … and [teach] them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

That is the purpose of our church and the purpose of the “CHURCH”.

It is why we are here.

At JMPC, we describe that purpose in our mission statement.

We are here to provide a way for this community and the communities surrounding us to know, glorify and serve God.

We have talked about knowing God and glorifying God over the past two weeks.

So, this week we want to know how to serve God.

What does God tell us to do?

It’s in today’s second text.

Feed the hungry.

Give water to the thirsty.

Clothe the naked.

Care for the sick.

Welcome the stranger.

Visit the prisoner.

Those are God’s expectations of us.

When we do these things, we serve God.

And so, are welcomed into the kingdom.

But is the reverse also true?

If we don’t do those things, we reject God?

And so, aren’t welcomed into the kingdom?

Jesus seems to say just that.

So, we do these things to please God and avoid eternal punishment?

Kind of sounds a bit like Jim Tindall, to me.

“Do these things because I said so and if you don’t Ill cloud up and rain all over you.”

But while Jesus seems to be saying that, he says something else.

He says it in response to the question asked by the people he will in the future judge.

They all ask, “Why?”

And remember, this is Jesus describing the future.

What might be depending on the circumstances.

Like Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

The end is not certain and can be changed.

So here is Jesus saying that those who do these things will be welcomed into the kingdom.

Those who don’t … well … won’t.

Jesus then gives these future folks a voice.

He lets them ask, “Why?”

“Why am I a sheep?”

“Why am I a goat?”

And Jesus gives them an answer.

Because when you did these things, you imitated me.

When you didn’t do these things, you rejected me.

I am reading the book we will meet and talk about on October 24, Christianity After Religion, by Diana Butler Bass.

She reminded me of the days when it was a “thing” for Christians to wear a bracelet with the initials WWJD.

What would Jesus do?

So, in every circumstance, we were to ask that question to decide what we would do.

The problem with that approach to life (and church) is that Jesus did a lot of things, but he did not do enough to cover all the potential situations we might face in life.

What if we are not faced with the hungry, thirsty, naked, stranger, sick or imprisoned?

Does Jesus give us no direction?

Well, happily he does give us direction when he answers the question, “Why?”

Bass puts it this way:

The primary why for any Christian practice is that the action, in some way, imitates Jesus. The meaning of Christian activity is found in being like Jesus and experiencing Jesus’ presence in all that we do.

The New Testament is rife with stories of imitating Jesus – from welcoming strangers to how one prays, from forgiving one another to accepting those who are different, from feeding the hungry to laying down one’s life for one’s friends. Indeed, Jesus’ refrain to his followers is insistent: “Go and do likewise.”

OK then, “Why?”

Bass goes on:

The why for Christians is … deceptively simple: Christians do certain things seelking to imitate Jesus … . This is not a set of rules, a prescribed piety, a list of dos and don’ts … . Rather, imitating Jesus … involves encountering … God … Imitating Jesus … means enacting God’s love for the world by feeding the hungry, comforting the sorrowful, standing for the oppressed, caring for the poor, healing the sick and making peace.

We do these things because Jesus did them.

Jesus did them for the world.

And Jesus wants us to do that, too.

Then we encounter God.

When we do these things, we do them for Jesus.

OK, now is when I summarize all that.

Why do we do these things?

We do these things because it is good for us.

So that is why.

But there is a second thing here we need to talk about.

The distinction between sheep and goats is not based on what they say, but what they do.

We talked about his at staff this week and we were troubled.

None of us are 100% sheep.

Some days we are sheepy.

Some days we are goaty.

We all have genuine concern for those who are hurting, and care about folks who suffer.

And there are so many.

Even Jesus says, “The poor will always be with you.”

We can only do so much.

And, lets face it, we also have a tendency to be a little self-centered at times.

That is where Jesus’ answer to the question, “Why?” is so encouraging.

What makes us sheep is not perfection, it’s purpose.

We are disciples on purpose.

We are the church on purpose.

Our purpose is to teach people to live the way Jesus wants us to live.

And when they do, they will encounter Jesus.

And be given the opportunity to be Jesus’ disciple.

They will live the Jesus way not to curry favor.

Not to avoid punishment.

But to encounter God.

That is what gets us into the Kingdom.

And that is what we try to do here at JMPC.

Do we provide for the material needs of the least of these, as Jesus calls them, wherever we find them?

We do our best.

When we work the SHIM Garden.

When we have fed and sheltered the homeless who have come from Family Promise.

When we have provided building materials and labor for our neighbors in Chiapas, South Carolina, Oklahoma, North Carolina and New Orleans.

When we sent our children to learn about the homeless in Erie.

When we have mentored young people in Duquesne.

When we have funded rehabilitation for addicted mothers at Sojourner House so they can live with their children while getting clean.

When we educated inner city women on prenatal care.

When we rehabbed flood victims here in Bethel Park.

When we sit with the sick to provide company and comfort and food.

That’s just a small sample.

That is what people at JMPC have done.

Do we do this every day?

No, but we are always looking for the “least of these” to offer help.

Why do we do this?

When we touch one of these people in need, we touch Jesus.

And encounter God.

Why do we do this?

To serve God.

Why do we do this.

It’s our purpose.

To Glorify God: Thoughts on loving God and loving neighbor.

To Glorify God

One of my favorite movies, and one which I can watch over and over again, is “The Princess Bride”.

This wonderful movie has a great line that frequently comes to mind when talking to folks about church stuff.

The evil villain Vizzini continuously refers to everything that surprises him as “inconceivable!”

Finally, Inigo Montoya, one of the movie’s heroes, comments to Vizzini, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Why is that such a great line?

Because we all do what Vizzini does from time to time.

We use words that don’t mean what we think they mean.

Particularly in church.

There are two such churchy words we will explore this week.

One is love.

The other is glorify.

What do these words have in common?

They. Believe it or not, are words of purpose.

We are to love God.

We are to love neighbor.

But that might not mean what we think it means.

Let’s hear about it.

Matthew 28: 16-20

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Matthew 22: 34-40

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

We are continuing our discussion of what it means to be a “Church on Purpose” this week.

Without purpose, we, both individual people and organizations, have no real direction and wonder if what we do has any meaning.

We need a principle to guide us.

Thankfully, we in the church have such a purpose.

Jesus tells us what that purpose is in his Great Commission.

[M]ake disciples of all nations … and [teach] them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

That is the purpose of our church and the purpose of the “CHURCH”.

It is why we are here.

It gives us direction.

It gives what we do meaning.

At JMPC, we describe that purpose in our mission statement.

We are here to provide a way for this community and the communities surrounding us to know, glorify and serve God.

Last week we talked about teaching people of all ages how to know God.

Sacraments as illustrations.

The Bible as the Word.

This week we need to talk about how we glorify God.

First, we need to understand what that word – glorify – means.

This is a description I came across this week.

If you “like” someone, you might compliment or praise them.

But “glorifying” goes well beyond that.

When someone is glorified, that person is praised to the highest degree possible.

Worship.

So how do we glorify – worship – God?

Jesus tells us in our second text.

Two ways.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 

And:

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

But let’s talk about that word “love”.

It comes from the Greek word agapeo which has nothing to do with emotions.

Agapeo is a verb.

Agape is about what we do.

Loving God and neighbor are actions, not feelings.

Jesus says these things in answer to a question from a Pharisaic lawyer.

“Hey. Jesus! What is the greatest commandment?”

The lawyer was not talking about which of the Ten Commandments is the greatest.

He was asking about which of the 613 laws that had been derived from those original ten by the Jewish religious leaders was the greatest.

Following these laws was how Israel was to “love” God.

Israel was to put God above all else.

Praised to the highest degree possible.

Worshipped.

Glorified!

That is what Jesus is talking about when he says the first and greatest commandment is:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 

Where does that come from?

It comes from the Shema.

The Shema is a prayer offered by Jews twice daily, morning and evening.

Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

Blessed is His name, whose glorious kingdom is forever and ever.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your might. These words that I command you today shall be upon your heart. Repeat them to your children, and talk about them when you sit in your home, and when you walk in the street; when you lie down, and when you rise up. Hold fast to them as a sign upon your hand, and let them be as reminders before your eyes. Write them on the doorposts of your home and at your gates.

That is how Israel loved God and how we are to love God.

Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin in his book To Be A Jew says this:

…[T]he Shema is not, technically speaking, a prayer. It is a declaration of faith. It is an affirmation of the unity of God that reminds us of our obligations to Him …

This is the Christian view as well.

According to the Donald Hagner’s World Biblical Commentary on Matthew:

Love of God … is to be understood as a matter of reverence, commitment, and obedience. It is at once an acknowledgment of [God’s] identity as Creator and Redeemer and a reflection of that reality in the ordering of our lives.

We revere God in worship.

We commit to God with our dedication.

We obey God by living the Jesus way.

We revere, commit and obey God with all our heart, soul and mind and in any other way we might imagine.

With everything we got, so to speak.

Our relationship to God must be the highest form of devotion we can conceive.

Worship.

That is how to Glorify God.

But Jesus goes a step further.

There is another commandment that is “like” the first.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

What does it mean that these two are “like” each other?

It’s not that they are the same.

It is that they are equal.

What does it mean to love our neighbor as yourself?

First, we need to note that the word agape is used again.

So again, we are not talking about good feelings.

We are talking about good treatment.

How are we to treat our neighbor?

To answer that question, we need to look at where that phrase comes from.

The dreaded Leviticus.

Specifically, Leviticus 19: 18 which says: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

This little phrase, something that has been coined “The Golden Rule”, is a summary of what the author of Leviticus says God requires of us if we are to be “holy”.

Committed to God over all else.

Basically, to be holy, we must be neighborly.

Neighborly, but in a very specific way.

We are to act toward our neighbors the way God acts toward us.

Acting toward them with only their good and wellbeing in mind.

Unmotivated, unmanipulated, unconditional and unlimited.

Here is what the lawyer, and Jesus, would have specifically had in mind:

Leviticus 19: 9-18

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.

You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.

You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling-block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.

You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

So, what does that look like to Jesus?

The same as it looked to Rabbi Hillel, Jewish sage who led the Israelite religious community from 70BC to 10CE.

Jesus would likely have known of Hillel.

Hillel was partly responsible for those 613 commandments found in Torah.

Yet, when Hillel was asked by a man if he could teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel responded:

That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah. The rest is just commentary.

The Golden Rule.

Seems simple.

But it’s not.

It’s not simple because the term “neighbor” does not just include family, those you like and agree with, or even folks from the same tribe.

We see that in Leviticus as well.

While Leviticus does reference to the ways we are to treat “kin”, it also says this later in the passage:

33 When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

We are to love the stranger, too.

Neighbor includes … well … everyone God created.

Even the one’s we don’t like.

That is why Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

God sends rain to them, too.

We are called to do the same.

This is what Jesus is talking about when he says we are to love our neighbor.

When we love our neighbor, we are loving what God created and those who bear God’s image.

It is a way we glorify God.

Jesus ends this brief conversation with a comment that must not be overlooked.

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

This is a powerful phrase.

Jesus says loving God and loving neighbor are so intertwined that you can’t have one without the other.

Some describe the relationship between these two commandments this way

Loving God is the vertical component of one’s faith.

Loving neighbor is the horizontal component.

As the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary puts it:

The great command to love God has as its inseparable counterpart the command to love neighbor. One cannot first love God and then, as a second task, love one’s neighbor. To love God is to love one’s neighbor and vice versa … .

Jesus is saying obeying these two commands are the foundation for living the way God wants us to live.

When we do these things.

When we act these ways.

We revere, commit to, and obey God above all else.

That is worship.

That is how we glorify God.

To Know God: Thoughts on the purpose of the “CHURCH” and our church.

To Know God

Last week was kick-off Sunday.

The Sunday when we start our new program year.

We had a picnic on the day before, a new sermon series, Children’s Church, communion and coffee hour after.

It was a very good day.

But it was also the weekend where we commemorated the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attack.

I have vivid memories of that terrible day.

One of the things I found interesting was that there was a good bit of remembrance type TV and radio programing on what 9/11 was about and how horrible it was.

What concerned me most was the realization that so many people either remembered very little – or nothing at all – of 9/11.

My son was 15.

He knew it was horrible but had a limited understanding of the attack happened that day and few of the details.

My daughter was 9 years old when the attack took place.

She remembers almost nothing about it.

What she knows, she learned in history class and maybe a college course she took on terrorism.

Kids born only a few years after my daughter have no memory of it whatsoever.

They only know what we teach them.

9/11 was a terrible day in American and world history.

It’s something we need to remember.

And more importantly, something we need to teach our kids about.

That’s one reason why there are memorials built.

There is one near us.

The Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, PA.

There we honor the 43 passengers who sacrificed their lives to prevent a group of terrorists from crashing the plane into … well … they did not know what the plane was going to be crashed into.

It was likely the US Capital.

The purpose of that memorial is to remind us of that day and specifically what those people did.

But it is also a place where we can take our children.

They might ask, “What is this all about? What happened to these people?”

And then we can tell them the story.

So that they can do the same for their own kids.

Who can then do the same for their own kids …

And so, the story will never be forgotten.

And so, they might have the courage to do the same, if such a thing happens again.

That’s what our scripture readings are about today.

Matthew 28: 16-20

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Joshua 4: 1-8

4When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua: 2‘Select twelve men from the people, one from each tribe, 3and command them, “Take twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood, carry them over with you, and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.” ’ 4Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites, whom he had appointed, one from each tribe. 5Joshua said to them, ‘Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, one for each of the tribes of the Israelites, 6so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, “What do those stones mean to you?”7then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial for ever.’

8 The Israelites did as Joshua commanded. They took up twelve stones out of the middle of the Jordan, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, as the Lord told Joshua, carried them over with them to the place where they camped, and laid them down there.

Last week we started our series about the Church on Purpose.

We talked about why we – JMPC and the church generally – are here.

What is our purpose here at JMPC?

What is the purpose of the “CHURCH” generally?

We learned that the purpose of both is to make disciples.

Integral to that purpose is to teach these disciples about Jesus and to obey everything Jesus commanded.

To do that we need to introduce folks to Jesus.

Then, when they ask, “What’s this Jesus all about?”, we can tell them the story.

Teach them about his way of life and the requirements for discipleship.

Then they get to know Jesus and so get to know God.

It’s part of our vision statement here at JMPC.

We provide a way for us, and the community surrounding us, to know God.

So that is one of the reasons why we are here.

It’s our purpose.

To teach about God.

So folks can know God.

This has been the purpose of the church since Pentecost.

It has been our purpose since 1965.

And there has been what we call a great cloud of witnesses over the centuries since Pentecost who have passed this knowledge from generation to generation all the way down to us.

And a smaller but no less great cloud of witnesses here at JMPC who have passed this knowledge from generation to generation all the way down to us.

Generation after generation has passed the baton of discipleship and teaching.

So far, the baton has not been dropped.

But the handoff has always faced challenges.

And just like we would not like to answer questions about Flight 93 with, “Well, we don’t know!”, we don’t what to answer questions about Jesus with, “ We, we don’t know!”

Like the baton in the race, we are always one fumble away from the end of the race.

I think each generation has faced challenges similar to those we face in 2021.

How do we pass the baton?

How do we fulfill our part of the continuing purpose?

How do we make disciples and teach them about Jesus?

How this handoff has been done has changed over time.

But it has always kind of looked like our scripture reading from Joshua.

It’s kind of an object lesson.

Here is a bit of context.

Moses has died after leading the Israelites out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and then for 80 years in the wilderness on the way to the promised land.

Joshua now leads the Israelites as they approach that promised place.

To get in, Israel has to cross over the Jordan River.

This is a very big deal.

It was the end of a long and difficult journey.

It was the achievement of God’s purpose for God’s chosen people.

Joshua is told by God to select a person from each of the twelve tribes to get a stone from the middle of the Jordan and pile them up on the other side where the people can see them.

Why does God want this pile of stones?

It’s a memorial.

Like the memorial for Flight 93, the stones are meant to be a teaching opportunity for those who see them.

These stones are an invitation for anyone seeing them to ask, “What do these stones mean?”

Then they can be told the story.

The Exodus, the wilderness, arrival.

And most importantly, that God chose them and was with them the entire way.

So, God tells Joshua to pile up some stones.

“Whenever you look at the stones, you will remember.”

“Your kids will look at the stones and do what kids do.”

“They will see those stones and ask why they are there.”

“You will tell them the story.”

That is how the community memory will get passed down.

That is the purpose of the stones.

That is how the purpose is achieved.

This was nothing new.

The people of Israel have many such things that remind them of what God has done for them and that God is with them.

The Hebrew Scriptures are full of them.

Everything from altars to phylacteries, to prayer shawl tassels, to religious festivals and even the sacrificial system.

They give names to things and places that describe an event they want to remember.

And their kids ask about it.

They tell the stories to the kids, and each other.

In this way, the communal memory of the covenant between God and his people is passed on and not forgotten.

As disciples of Jesus, we also have memorials that remind us of important stories.

Our most important are the sacraments.

Like today’s baptism.

What are the words of institution of this sacrament?

In baptism God claims us, and seals us to show that we belong to God. God frees us from sin and death, uniting us with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection.

By water and the Holy Spirit, we are made members of the church, the body of Christ, and joined to Christ’s ministry of love, peace, and justice.

Baptism is a visual image, a sign, that God marks us as his own.

That God loves us.

That God loves us even though we don’t know it.

It’s something we know about God.

It’s why we come to this room.

And we do this in public so folks, like the children who come in to watch, can ask, “What does that mean?”

And so, we can tell them.

What we are here to do.

To teach.

An object lesson.

To pass the baton.

Our purpose.

Then there is Communion.

What are the words of institution for the Lord’s Supper?

The Lord Jesus, on the night of his arrest, took bread, and after giving thanks to God, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take, eat. This is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me. In the same way he took the cup, saying: This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this in remembrance of me. Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the saving death of the risen Lord, until he comes.

The Lord’s Supper is a visual image, a sign, that Jesus died for the forgiveness of our inability to live the way God wants us to live.

It gives each of us reminder of our reconciliation with God.

That God forgives us.

That God forgives us even though we don’t know it.

It’s something we know about God.

It’s why we come to this room.

And we do this in public so folks, like the children who come in to watch, can ask, “What does that mean?”

And so, we can tell them.

That’s what we are here to do.

To teach.

An object lesson.

To pass the baton.

Our purpose.

These are stories and histories with meaning that are worth remembering and passing along.

There are other object lessons many of us can point to here at JMPC and in the “CHURCH” generally.

The principle one is the Bible.

We show people the Bible and hope they ask, “What do these words mean?”

And on this first day of the new program year, we start to teach, again, what these stories are and pass them on to the next generation.

We have Children’s Church.

We have Confirmation Class.

We have VBS.

We have Kids Club.

We have Youth Group.

For adults, who also need some education as well, we have ABC’s of the Bible.

We have the John Covenant Group.

We have book reviews.

We have Bible studies.

And we are prepared to do whatever anyone needs to learn the stories and be prepared to pass them along.

Why are we here?

What did we come here to do?

That.

If we don’t do it, who will?

When our kids ask why they should go to church, or watch it online, what will we tell them?

That we don’t know?

We need to know the reason.

Our kids are really asking:

“What do these things mean?”

Our answer needs to be:

“Glad you asked.”

To teach us how to know God.

It’s why we come here.

It’s what we came here to do.

It’s the Church on Purpose.

Why are we here? Thoughts on the purpose of the “CHURCH” and our church.

Why Are We Here?

Over the next few weeks, we are going to talk about what it looks like to be a “Church on Purpose”.

We will have 4 themes.

How do we purposely know God?

How do we purposely glorify God?

How do we purposely serve God?

How do we purposely change lives?

How did this series sprout?

A few weeks ago, I had coffee with a long-time member of JMPC.

We talked about many things.

As we talked there was one thing that this member was very concerned about.

“Jeff, what do you think about the future of the church?”

I asked for clarification.

Our church?

Or the “CHURCH”?

The answer was the “CHURCH”!

What is the future of the “CHURCH”?

I offered some ideas about that, and will investigate it further when we read “Christianity After Religion” for our October book review.

But I have had the time to ponder the question a bit more.

One thing I came to realize is that the future of JMPC and the “CHURCH” depend on how we answer one question..

“Why are we here?”

Another way to ask this question is this:

What is our purpose?

What is the purpose of JMPC?

What is the purpose of the “CHURCH”?

Once we understand our purpose, we need to ask the next question.

How do we achieve that purpose?

And finally, what will the church look like as we do that?

To answer these questions, we need to look to scripture.

Matthew 28: 16-20

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Acts 2: 42-47

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

What was the purpose of the church?

19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

How did the early church carry out its purpose?

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

What did that church look like?

43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Do you see the distinctions here?

There is a difference between the why, the how and the what.

The why?

Make disciples.

Change lives and so change the world.

The how?

Gathering in community to learn, have fellowship, eat, and pray.

The what?

A community where people love God and each other.

Over time, the how and the what change.

But the why never does.

And that is critical.

If you have read the book, “Start with Why”, by Simon Sinek, you might see that the “why” question is foundational to the success of a task.

If you have not read it, you can watch his TED Talk where he explains this idea.

He says this:

People like Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and the Wright Brothers had little in common, but they all started with WHY. They realized that people won’t truly buy into a product, service, movement, or idea until they understand the WHY behind it.

He goes on.

And by “why” I don’t mean “to make a profit.” That’s a result. It’s always a result. By “why,” I mean: What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist?

Sinek uses Apple as an example.

Apple does not simply say it makes good computers.

Here’s how Apple actually communicates. “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?”

And Apple changed the world.

What about the wright brothers?

Sinek says this:

Orville and Wilbur were driven by a cause, by a purpose, by a belief. They believed that if they could figure out this flying machine, it’ll change the course of the world.

And they did change the world.

When Sinek talks about Martin Luther King, Jr., he asks why so many folks followed him into the streets and almost certain arrest, injury and death.

King told them his purpose:

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

That was the why.

What they were going to do was going to change the world.

And while many think that the world has not changed enough, there is little doubt that the world has changed.

That was also true of the early church.

Their purpose was to make disciples.

To change lives and change the world.

How they did it was to gather, worship, learn and share.

The early church seems to have been a kind of commune.

That seemed to work well as they gathered more and more disciples every day.

And while these early Christians had a rough time of it for a few centuries, they did what they could to change the world.

And they did.

If we apply that to JMPC we see all three.

Our purpose is to further a movement we call the Great Commission.

Make disciples and teach them about Jesus.

How have we done that?

Let’s look at some history.

John McMillan Presbyterian Church was founded in 1966.

It was planted with the combined efforts of Westminster Presbyterian Church and Bethel Presbyterian Church.

It is a little over a mile from Westminster and Bethel Pres.

Why was there a need for another Presbyterian Church so close to those others?

As realtors like to say – location, location, location.

Bethel Park was growing.

People were moving to the suburbs.

Its population was increasing fast.

Housing developments were springing up everywhere.

A lot of people new to the area looking for churches.

In the 60’s folks wanted their church to be pretty close to where they lived.

So, what better way to offer a faith community to new residents around Clifton Road than to plant a church in their midst.

How we let people know about it was by knocking on doors of those folks in the neighborhood.

That’s why we are here geographically.

But the big “why” was to make disciples in Bethel Park, baptizing them and teaching them about Jesus.

Our purpose was to be a faith community for new residents of Bethel Park.

We were to change lives and change the world, at least around Clifton Road.

And I think we have.

I know that some might look around and say, “Well, it does not necessarily look like it in 2021.”

Attendance seems to be down.

Offerings seem to be down.

But we need to be careful not to define accomplishment of our purpose with “noses and nickels”.

Our purpose remains to make disciples in Bethel Park, baptizing them and teaching them about Jesus.

Changing lives and changing the world, right here.

How we do it and what it looks like in the end is what has changed.

And we need to adapt.

It was that way in the early church.

While their purpose did not change, how they furthered the purpose did.

The communal living changed into a community that shared out of its abundance.

Collections were taken to meet the needs of others.

This was necessary because the church was becoming a multi-location entity.

Each location cared for the people in its location and then shared with other less wealthy communities.

That’s how they shared.

And in doing that, disciples were made in far off places.

Disciples the local communities of faith never even knew about.

It’s the same with us.

Just because folks don’t show up here on Sundays does not mean their lives and the world aren’t changed by our activities here.

I can confidently say that they are.

It just looks different.

But the underlying purpose remains.

Go … and make disciples …, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

That is the “why” we are here.

Our Session is doing something interesting reading.

We are reading an article about JMPC written in Presbyterian News in 1989.

We are also reading the JMPC 2013 Annual Report.

We are also reading the 2013 JMPC Mission Statement that described JMPC to potential pastors looking to become the senior pastor.

That’s the one that attracted my application.

If you want to read them, let me know and I can email them to you.

In our first discussion, some of the longer-term members talked about their fond memories of 1989.

The church was a big part of the young families’ lives.

Central, in fact.

We talked about the underlying reason folks showed up here.

While we didn’t share all things in common, we did have fellowship, worship and most importantly, we cared about and for each other.

And together, we learned to know, glorify and serve God.

In other words, we love God and love each other.

That we can still pursue in 2021.

It just won’t look like 1989.

To do that we need to be a church on purpose.

And when we do that, we will change the world.

The Holy Catholic Church: Thoughts on what it means to believe in that.

Religious but not Spiritual?

If you read my Sunshine piece this week, you know that I like to play golf.

I am not a very good golfer, but I still like to play.

A couple of weeks ago, I played in a golf outing that benefited the Baptist Homes Foundation, a part of Baptist Senior Services where I serve as Board Chair.

The golf outing was at Southpointe Golf Club.

It is a beautiful golf course.

But for my meager skills it is virtually unplayable.

The fairways are narrow, the greens are uneven and fast, the rough is deep and if the ball goes beyond the rough, it will never be seen again.

Many of the holes have blind approaches to the greens.

Most have hazards between the tee box and the fairway and the fairway and the green.

Basically, you must hit the ball accurately in both direction and distance.

I have trouble with both of those.

So, unless the Foundation has their outing there again, I never intend to play that course again.

It’s just too hard.

Golf is hard enough to play, so why would someone design a course that only a select few could play with any hope of success?

Or fun.

Or joy.

I mean, what is the point of it?

Just 18 holes of frustration and lost balls.

Not much fun.

I prefer a more genteel form of golf.

It took me a while to figure it out.

Play easier courses.

Play the gold (senior) tees.

Use mulligans (do-overs for you non golfers).

And most importantly:

Don’t keep score.

Then golf is not “a good walk spoiled” as it has been referred to by many over the years.

It is a chance to get outside, walk around some pretty scenery, hang out with a couple friends, and occasionally get the swing right so you hit a great shot or long put.

Much more fun.

All these things are what bring me back to play again.

What does this have to do with the Apostles’ Creed?

If we take the Creed to be a list of things we must believe in order to be “Christian”, it might look to some to be just too hard.

That’s why we have been talking about the Creed for the last few weeks.

This is particularly true when we affirm our belief in the “holy catholic church”.

A lot of people find that too hard.

What does it mean to believe in that?

What if that is one of the holes on the course that makes Christianity too hard to play?

Well, while we might think it’s too hard, it really isn’t.

And once we understand that, we might keep coming back.

Which brings us to our scripture reading.

Acts 11: 1-18Peter’s Report to the Church at Jerusalem

11Now the apostles and the believers* who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers* criticized him, 3saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 8But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me [by Cornelius] from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.* These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’

We need a bit of background on this passage.

Our text is Peter’s description to the Apostles in Jerusalem of his visit with a fellow named Cornelius.

This is the second time Luke tells this story.

The full story takes all of chapter 10 of Acts.

This second telling takes up the first half of chapter 11.

This must be a very important story!

And it is.

It would be hard to overstate the impact of Peter’s visit with Cornelius on the spread of Christianity.

It resulted in the transformation of a small local Jewish sect into the Christian faith community we see today.

Peter followed the leading of the Holy Spirit and did something profoundly against everything he had been taught as a Jew.

He visited a gentile.

And Cornelius was not just any gentile.

He was a Roman Soldier from Italy.

He was a foreign enemy conqueror.

He had large family and household in what was once Israel.

He had been there for a while and planed on staying for some time.

To Jews, Cornelius was unclean and profane.

But there is a nugget about Cornelius that should not be ignored.

Luke describes him as a God-fearer.

What is a God-fearer?

Today we might call such person a “seeker”.

Or maybe “spiritual but not religious”.

Someone who is looking for an encounter with God.

Not looking for a set of religious tenets.

So, Peter goes to him, says a few words to Cornelius and his household and then … the Holy Spirit lights up their heads with fire.

Just like the Apostles at Pentecost.

Peter didn’t see that coming!

And when Peter sees what the Spirit does, he remembers something Jesus said.

16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’

Cornelius and his household had been touched by the Holy Spirit.

Just like the Apostles at Pentecost!

So, Peter understands for the first time that God sends the Holy Spirit all humanity, not just the Jews.

What does this have to do with the Apostles’ Creed affirmation that we believe in the “holy catholic church”?

We know that the Apostles’ Creed is written in three sections.

Father – creator.

Son – redeemer.

Holy Spirit – sustainer.

Each stanza has a few items in it that describe what we are to believe about that particular subject.

The third section is about the Holy Spirit.

We believe in the Holy Spirit.

And immediately after that, we say we believe in the “holy catholic church”.

This means we believe that the holy catholic church is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Which makes sense because the church was born on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the heads of the disciples.

They spoke in tongues and 3,000 people became disciples that day.

So, that was the church that was “born” on Pentecost.

It was the Apostles and 3,000 new disciples.

Not a building.

The Greek word we translate as “church” is ekklesia.

Ekklesia simply means a gathering of people assembled for a particular purpose.

The purpose of the Christian ekklesia is to worship God.

What do we need to believe about that?

That the Holy Spirit inspires the assembly.

In the context of the Creed, it means an assembly of Christians gathered for worship with the expectation that the Holy Spirit is present and active.

This is one of the ways we commune with God.

That is what the early church thought the Holy Spirit did when the people gathered.

And it added to the ekklesia.

But that thinking did not last.

It seemed the Spirit was pushed to the sidelines of the church.

As Reeves and Chester say in their book, “Why the Reformation Still Matters”:

Where did the Spirit go in late medieval Roman Catholicism? That is no easy question to answer, since for most of the Roman Church the sacramental system and the clergy seemed effectively to replace the Spirit. God’s grace was a blessing accessed through the … seven sacraments … . And the clergy were the ones who turned those taps on and off. With such a hermetically sealed plumbing system for grace, the Spirit was left with nothing to do.

Is that the church we claim to believe in when we recite the Creed?

Well, no.

Sure, we say we believe in the holy catholic ekklesia, but we don’t mean the Roman Catholic Church.

The Greek word we translate as “catholic” is katholikos which means universal or whole.

So, we are actually saying we believe in the universal or whole assembly of Christians.

Why is it holy?

Because that assembly is a product of the Holy Spirit.

So, what does this have to do with our text?

The Holy Spirit gave birth to the universal assembly of disciples of Jesus and is inspired by the actions of the Holy Spirit.

That is what we believe.

3,000 members on Pentecost.

Why did those folks sign up?

They witnessed the actions of the Holy Spirit.

They, themselves, experienced the divine.

They all had an encounter with God.

It was spiritual.

But the spirituality of the event was sidelined pretty quickly.

Because the Apostles were Jews.

And the Jews were a people of the Law.

The Law of Moses.

The Torah.

They took the position that to be a Christian, one must first become a Jew and follow the Law.

They were religious, but not spiritual.

Don’t get me wrong; there is nothing wrong with religious tenets or polity.

Remember, I was the Stated Clerk of Pittsburgh Presbytery and responsible for the interpretation of our Book of Order.

All part of that “religion” thing.

But we have to be careful when we lean too far into religiosity.

When we do that, we tend to push the Holy Spirit to the sideline.

That is the challenge the Apostles had.

They were “religious”.

You want to be part of the assembly of disciples?

Follow the law.

But then something happened that changed all that.

Peter’s baptism of Cornelius.

Entirely a spiritual thing.

Yet, Peter is scolded.

You did what?

You ate with the unclean?

You baptized them?

Then Peter told the story.

About his meeting with Cornelius.

And the fact that the Holy Spirit was who did the baptizing.

The power of the story silenced Peter’s critics.

They stopped scolding Peter and praised God.

They praised God because God turned out to be more merciful than they could ever have imagined.

Even gentiles were welcome.

Why is this important?

It’s important because churches sometimes tend to focus on the religious but not spiritual.

We list tenets of the faith and tell people that they must believe them to be part of the ekklesia.

That is what happened in Rome.

And for some affirming all that becomes really hard.

They want to be spiritual.

And they miss the experience of the divine because they are worrying about what they have to believe.

And maybe they don’t come back.

That was not happening when the ekklesia was growing in the first century.

People were not showing up to be circumcised.

They were showing up to be in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

They were showing up to encounter God!

That is what they found.

We need to find that, too.

So, when we say we believe in the holy catholic church, we are talking about the ekklesia of the Holy Spirit!

A place where we expect to experience the divine and encounter God!

So, what might it look like to have an encounter with God.

Such experiences are different for everyone.

I’ve had a couple.

I would guess many here have, too.

Some have had them right here at JMPC.

It might surprise you.

It might happen in the music.

It might happen in the liturgy.

It might happen in the prayers.

It might even happen in the sermon!

It’s a spiritual thing.

Not a religious thing.

When you become spiritual, not just religious, you will most definitely come back.

Jesus in Hell? Thoughts on why we say Jesus went there in the Apostles’ Creed.

Jesus in Hell?

A couple of weeks ago, I had a bit of a reunion with some college friends, Jim, Bill and Mike.

We have stayed in touch over the years and get together for long walks and talks from time to time.

Mike told us this entertaining story.

When he was in high school, his dad let him use the family car to go out with his friends.

One winter evening Mike took the car went with a bunch of kids to a snow and ice covered grocery store parking lot.

They were there to “bumper surf”.

The idea is that you wear slippery shoes and then hang onto the bumper of a car as it drives over the parking lot snow and ice.

One person holds onto the bumper and then the rest form a sort of conga line as the car does donuts on the parking lot.

The “surfers” slide around like water skiers at the end of a rope.

This is, of course, unsafe.

When a passerby saw what was going on, the police were called

They came and put an end to the fun.

Meanwhile, Mike’s dad was listening to his police scanner at home and heard the report of the call to the parking lot.

The license number of the offending car was announced on the radio.

It was his.

When Mike got home that evening, his dad had two questions.

“Mike, where were you this evening and what were you doing?”

Mike knew immediately that his dad knew exactly where Mike had been and what Mike had been doing.

Busted.

How many of us have similar stories?

Parents want to know where their children have been and what they have been doing.

And unlike Mike’s dad, those questions are asked because parents just don’t know.

This story comes to mind with Jesus, believe it or not.

If you were a disciple, knew that Jesus was crucified, died and buried on Friday, then was alive again on Sunday, wouldn’t you be tempted to ask, “Where were you and what were you doing on Saturday, Jesus?”

It turns out that Peter might have done something like that.

Which brings us to our scripture reading.

1 Peter 3: 18-22

18For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. 21And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

Before I get down to Jesus “descent into hell” I need to say that our scripture passage today is packed with difficult theology that is far from clearly understood.

This passage, and much of 1 Peter needs a lot more time than I have this morning and so will be the subject of our first Bible study this fall.

Today we focus on one particular point that is associated with the Apostles’ Creed.

Do we believe that Jesus descended into hell?

One of the requirements to graduate from seminary is that you have to do what is called “field education”.

For most people this is a yearlong internship at a local church.

I spent mine at Bethany Presbyterian Church over in Bridgeville.

On my first Sunday there, we recited the Apostles’ Creed.

When we got to the Jesus stanza, we said this:

“And in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried, on the third day he rose again from the dead …”

 Wait … what?

Something was missing from the Creed.

We did not say Jesus “descended into hell”.

After church I went up to the pastor and asked about that.

His response was, “Yeah, Jesus doesn’t go to hell at Bethany.”

Wait a minute!

Isn’t that a central tenet of the faith?

It’s part of the Apostles’ Creed!

How can a church just drop that?

Well, it turns out we can, because it isn’t really a tenet of the faith.

There’s virtually no scriptural support for it, and it is a poor translation of the original Greek version of the Creed.

Now would be a good time to review a bit of Apostles’’ Creed history.

Tradition has it that the creed was developed by the Apostles after Pentecost and before they went out on the Great Commission.

Each Apostle added one phrase.

There is no evidence that the Creed was written by the Apostles, though it is based on apostolic traditions handed down through the early church.

Its origins are obscure.

The Creed we recite today seems to have been developed over many years as a Q&A catechism for folks who were seeking baptism.

“Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?”

“I do.”

And so on.

Kind of like the questions we ask parents when we baptize their children.

The earliest evidence of this is in Rome around 200AD.

One question was not asked in those days.

“Do you believe that Jesus descended into hell?”

That was not part of the creed until the 4th Century when a popular tract called the Gospel of Nicodemus was going around.

One part of that tract describes what came to be know as the “harrowing of hell”.

For some reason the author tried to explain where Jesus was and what he was doing on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Briefly, Jesus is said to have descended to hell to deliver the Old Testament patriarchs from imprisonment there.

Is there scriptural support for this?

Not in anything Peter wrote.

Anyway, the Creed reached its final form in the late 6th or early 7th century and was accepted as a sort of official statement of faith in the western churches by the 12th century, though the Methodists and other individual churches reject the phrase “he descended into hell”.

The Apostles’ Creed is not accepted in any of the eastern orthodox churches.

Focusing in on the word “hell” is worth a moment.

The Creed was originally written in Greek.

In Biblical Greek it said Jesus descended to Hades.

This was a place the Jews called Sheol.

It is the place of the dead.

Hades is not the eternal inferno.

It’s a place where the souls of the dead just sort exist in a sort of meaninglessness.

Unfortunately, the Latin word used for Hades was hell, which became confused with the endless inferno.

Jesus’ descent into Hades is something we can believe because we know Jesus died.

So, where was Jesus on Saturday?

Where the dead were, because he was dead.

This is all important, because we would never understand this from 1 Peter.

1 Peter is hard!

Jesus is dead … bodily.

He is alive … spiritually.

What does that mean?

Who are the “spirits in prison”?

That is where things get really confusing.

They were, according to Peter, the ones “who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark …”

So, taken literally, they were the Sons of God who conceived children with the human women in disobedience to God.

Because of that they were wiped out in the flood and their spirits were imprisoned.

Does all this help?

No?

Where is the “prison”?

Peter does not say.

What did Jesus proclaim?

Peter is silent.

What Peter does talk about is the meaning of the crucifixion.

Christ … suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.

This is not limiting to the living.

Particularly when we read what Peter says later in the letter.

1 Peter 4: 6

6For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.

Was Jesus preaching the Gospel to the “spirits in prison”?

Is that what Jesus told Peter?

Who can say?

And what do we make of this?

Here are two interpretations of all this passage from Peter.

The prisoners are the troublemakers from Noah’s time.

They are imprisoned someplace away form God.

Jesus went to them to show them that their disobedience to God and the attempt to the death of all humanity was in fact unsuccessful.

Jesus’ resurrection proved these folks lost that battle.

The other is that Jesus went to the place of the dead to proclaim the Gospel to those who died before Jesus lived and gave them the opportunity to accept Jesus and rise with him to God’s kingdom.

That is what these pictures describe.

Jesus is ascending and taking the patriarchs and all the people out of eternal Sheol.

So, what about the folks who lived and died after Noah and before Jesus?

Did Jesus come for them, too?

And what about the folks who never heard of Jesus?

Peter seems to suggest the answer is that Jesus did come and comes for them, too, though not in our text today.

That is a happy sort of interpretation.

It’s all just supposition.

A mystery.

Alister McGrath says this:

[Jesus’] sufferings on the cross were not pointless or accidental, but the mysterious and wonderful means by which God was working out the salvation of the world.

Maybe that is why we just say Jesus went to hell and leave out all that other stuff because we just don’t know.

So, what do we say we are believing if we say Jesus died, went to the dead, arose on the third day and then ascended into heaven?

I like this:

Here is where we begin to see theology.

Why does God become incarnate?

Because God is love and wants to rescue God’s loved ones.

God descends.

It starts with Jesus’ birth.

Jesus is God.

He is born of Mary.

He is moving further and further from his home.

To those further and further from their creator.

He suffers.

He dies.

He is buried.

Now that he is dead, he must go to where the dead go.

He is moving to where death reigns.

It is as far from God as can be.

Jesus went there.

Why did Jesus go there?

To get those who had died before he came.

Jesus informs the citizens of Hades that this thing called death is no more.

Death is where they are.

Life is where Jesus is.

Then I have an image of Jesus surveying all those there and saying:

“Who wants to come with me?”

Jesus then starts his ascent back to his home and takes them with him.

This makes sense to me if we believe God is love.

If God is love, why would god allow God’s loved ones to be excluded from God eternally.

I believe God would go get them.

That’s what Jesus was doing there.

A rescue.

And in some ways, that Jesus suffered, died, was buried and descended to the dead is why we look on Jesus as a worthy savior.

He knew what it was like to be one of us.

He knew pain.

He knew suffering.

He knew death.

Why is that important?

I would be hard pressed to trust in a savior who could not be sympathetic to me because he had never experienced what I have experienced.

How could such a person understand my circumstances?

And that is important.

Jesus does understand my circumstances.

The one who stands beside us when we are in pain has been in pain.

The one who is present at our death, has himself died.

Jesus has been there and done that.

He did not get a t-shirt, but he did get the scars.

He is the wounded healer.

Psychiatrist Carl Jung first used the term wounded healer in his book: Fundamental Questions of Psychotherapy which was published in 1951.

He believed that disease of the soul could be the best possible form of training for a healer.

Jung held that only a wounded physician could heal effectively.

Jesus is truly that.

He is with us.

He knows us.

Jesus was the divine man who experienced the ultimate distance from God.

An brings us back to God regardless of how far away we might go.

I believe Jesus descended – and rose again.

So can you.

Born or the Virgin Mary: Thoughts on what we believe when we say we believe in the virgin birth of Jesus.

Born of the Virgin Mary

My brother became a grandfather for the second time this week when Mason Andrew D’Adamo was born.

The story of his birth is circulating.

Many days late.

C-Section.

Wailing away as soon as he entered the world.

Beautiful, as all babies are.

It made me think that one of Karen’s and my favorite things to share with our children is their birth stories.

Most often we do that when we are with them on their birthdays.

We would tell the story of Karen’s three days of induction because AJ was two weeks late.

“We thought you would never come out!”

“But you did and we brought you home on our first anniversary!”

But the better story is about Julz.

Julz was early.

We went to a neighbor’s Christmas party, Karen had an eggnog then we went home early.

At around three in the morning, I woke up and saw Karen looking at her watch.

“What’s up?”, I asked.

“I’m timing my contractions.”

“Oh? How far apart are they?”

“Ninety seconds.”

“Oh? Shouldn’t we be at the hospital?”

“Maybe …”

I won’t go into the rest, it is a long story about a quick delivery, and it ends with my comment, “I think she has red hair!”

Every time we tell the stories, the kids are attentive.

They like to hear their birth stories.

They like knowing their roots.

Their origins.

Their identities.

We love to tell the stories, too.

And the details are important.

Which brings us to our scripture reading.

It, too, is a story about a birth that is yet to come.

Luke 1: 26-38

26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

When we recite the Apostles’ Creed, we say we believe that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the virgin Mary.”

This passage from Luke is the source of that creedal statement.

It is the story of the beginning of Mary’s pregnancy.

We have heard it over and over and over.

Every Christmas Eve during Lessons and Carols at least.

For as long as any of us have been able to comprehend this story, the focus has been centered on what follows Gabriel’s announcement that Mary is going to have a baby:

“How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

And Gabriel’s response:

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.

Our interpretation of those words is what we say in the Apostles’ Creed.

Conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary.

The virgin birth.

And when we hear the story read to us, as soon as it starts, our minds jump to that point, and we don’t hear the rest.

But the story has a bit more complexity.

So, let’s listen to the story with fresh attention.

This story is our introduction to Mary in scripture.

Who is she?

We are burdened by theological hindsight.

One author describes our preconceived notions about Mary this way:

[W]e’ve buried her under so many layers of theology, piety, and politics, she’s nearly impossible to excavate. Some of us pray to her. Others ignore her on principle. Some call her a victim of divine coercion. Others, “Theotokos,” the Mother of God. For some, she represents a troubling model of pious femininity — ever sinless, ever virgin, ever mother. For still others, she is child prophet extraordinaire — a young girl who fearlessly announced the arrival of God’s kingdom to earth.

Why pray to her?

She is “full of grace”.

According to Roman Catholic theology, and I am no expert, Mary has grace to give, and we all need it.

So, we ask her for it.

Why ignore her?

That’s kind of what we do in the reformed tradition.

Mary is just a vessel for the Messiah.

Some say she is the victim of divine coercion.

God forces Godself on a young girl for God’s own purposes.

Is Mary the “Mother of God”?

Well, she gave birth to one member of the triune God, right?

Is Mary the eternal virgin?

That s the Roman Catholic point of view, but the Bible says Jesus had brothers and sisters.

Is Mary a prophet?

You bet!

Her call from Gabriel and their conversation looks like a pretty typical prophet call story.

And soon after we get the Magnificat, Mary’s prophetic announcement.

Others simply read this passage with skepticism and believe Luke is using Old Testament like metaphor.

But we are not told any of that here by Luke.

And we certainly don’t hear any of that in the Apostles’ Creed.

Luke’s depiction of Mary is that she was mostly an ordinary young woman who reacts to this visitation in an extraordinary way.

We have before us a brief ordered, factual narrative that cites no source.

Mary herself maybe?

Kind of like a mother recounting her pregnancy.

Maybe this is how she talked about it with Jesus.

“Where do I come from Mom?”

“From God, son.”

So, let’s look at the story for the details that might tell us what we can believe about it.

When the story opens, we are given background by the narrator, Luke.

Mary is a teenaged girl of marriage age who lives in Nazareth and is engaged to a fellow named Joseph.

Her father has arranged for her to be married to Joseph.

The marriage will be consummated when she moves in with Joseph.

That has not happened yet.

Now the action begins.

Mary is occupied in her normal life.

Then enter Gabriel!

We know who he is.

He’s one of God’s Archangels.

Gabriel calls prophets and is the protector of Israel in the Old Testament.

Mary’s reaction to this unexpected and no doubt terrifying visit evolves over the course of the encounter.

At first Mary is afraid.

It is the rare exception in the Bible that on finding oneself in the presence of an angel one is not absolutely terrified!

I have an image that she is cowering behind whatever she can find to cower behind with wide eyes and gaping mouth.

And we know Mary was afraid because the angel tells her not to be.

Then she is mystified.

One writer describes her response this way:

Me? Who am I? Why am I favored? How can the Lord be with me? She knows her place. She knows who she is. And this should not be happening. She’s a teenager, and from the wrong side of the tracks. 

Why does Mary get a visit from Gabriel?

Does God even know she exists?

I have an image of her dropping her chin to her chest, shaking her head – No, no, no …

“I think you have the wrong Mary, Gabriel.”

Then the big reveal!

She’s going to have a son.

Gabriel says the boy will be great, called the son of the Most High, will sit on the throne of David reigning over the hose of David forever!

Mary does not seem to have heard who the boy will be.

She is more concerned about how that is going to happen?

How is it she is going to have a baby?

Then the next big reveal.

This is going to be God’s doing.

Gabriel says this:

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. Elizabeth, too?

There it is.

What exactly does that mean?

The translation might best be put, the Holy Spirit will make this happen!

Mary just needs to agree.

Which brings us to how Mary might have responded.

She is still skeptical!

So, Gabriel offers Elizabeth’s pregnancy as proof.

If Elizabeth can be pregnant, nothing is impossible with God.

Even a virgin birth.

If you want to get an image of what Mary’s reaction might look like, take a look at some annunciation artwork.

Depictions of what people thought it might have been like.

Particularly Sandro Botticelli’s painting, “The Cestello Annunciation”.

In it, Botticelli portrays Mary as withdrawing from Gabriel.

Creating distance between them as if she might flee.

Her hand is out in a “keep your distance from me” gesture.

Mary is looking down, averting her eyes.

Mary’s expression is not particularly joyful.

More ambivalent.

Is Mary telling Gabriel, “I need to think about his.”

Gabriel is on his knee, looking up into Mary’s face, as if trying to get her to look at him.

Is he afraid Mary is about to say no?

Is he begging her to say yes?

How long does this all go on?

Gabriel must be relieved when Mary utters her famous phrase:

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

He departs.

Mary has said all the right words, but then does something interesting.

She runs off to see Elizabeth.

Why would she do that?

Maybe to see if Gabriel was telling the truth?

Is Elizabeth really pregnant?

Mary’s trip to see Elizabeth suggests a certain skepticism and pause before Mary believes it all.

Mary sees that Elizabeth is in fact pregnant and hears Elizabeth cry out that Mary is pregnant, too.

Mary then sings her famous song:

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name.

Mary believes.

Do we?

What does the story of Gabriel and Mary ask us to believe?

Something like this, I think.

Mary was called by God for a particular task.

She was the human being through whom God became incarnate.

She brought the Son into the world from her womb.

At God’s request.

By way of the Holy Spirit.

And Mary agreed to do it.

When we recite the Apostles’ Creed, this is what we claim to believe.

That God became one of us through Mary.

Like the Trinity, how exactly that happened is a mystery.

But there is a meaning beyond how Jesus was conceived.

For God nothing is impossible.

If, like Mary, we believe that nothing is impossible to God, we can believe that we, like her, are the human beings through whom God acts in the world.

We too can give birth to the holy!

Are we willing to let God intrude into our lives and, despite the cost and discomfort, emulate Mary’s “yes” to God with our own “yes”?

Can we as a church respond like Mary?

So here is my image of what that might look like:

Me: “Greetings, favored ones. The Lord is with you and intends to do great things through you.”

Congregation: “How can this be? We are ordinary, everyday people.”

Me: “Yet you have found favor through God, and the Holy Spirit will come upon you, guide you, and work through you to care for this world and people God loves so much. For nothing is impossible with God.

Congregation: “Here we are, servants of the Lord. Let it be with us according to your word.”

So may it be.

Three in One? Thoughts on how we understand the Trinity.

Three in One

One of the most interesting things about going to many sporting events in the United States is that before the event begins, we are asked to stand, remove our hats, and sing the national anthem.

The Star-Spangled Banner.

That tradition is so ingrained in me that whenever I hear the Star-Spangled Banner, I want to cry out, “play ball!” when it ends.

And when someone does not stand, remove their hat and sing, many lay the stink-eye on them and might want to say something like, “What’s your problem?”

And God forbid that the person singing the anthem forgets the words!

They are ridiculed and mocked.

And now recently, there have been a lot of folks, athletes in particular, who “take a knee” during the national anthem in protest of some perceived, and often real, injustice.

They are often derided and scorned by those who believe such a protest is inappropriate.

Then there is the other end of the national anthem spectrum.

Many Americans who win the gold medal at the Olympics literally weep as soon at the Star-Spangled Banner starts to play as the Star-Spangled banner is raised.

We take our national anthem seriously!

And so, most of us do stand, remove our hats, and sing the national anthem whenever we are asked to do so.

And hopefully we remember the words.

But why?

What I find interesting is that our national anthem is about the “Star Spangled-Banner” not the United States of America.

The flag, not the country.

America the Beautiful might be a better anthem, in my opinion.

But most don’t really care about what the anthem is about, because the words of the anthem are not so much a statement of what we believe but are a statement of who we are.

We are Americans!

And that is our national anthem!

We have an anthem of sorts in the church.

Most Sundays in church, we recite an “affirmation of faith”.

It is a statement of what we claim to believe that is central to our faith.

The one we recite most often is the Apostles’ Creed.

The Apostles’ Creed is a brief three stanza declaration of several things we hold to be true.

The first stanza is about God the Father.

The second stanza is about Jesus Christ.

The Third stanza is about the Holy Spirit.

Overall, the entirely of the Creed proclaims our belief in what we refer to as the Trinity.

One God in three persons.

That is a hard sell.

It is a hard sell because we can’t visualize it and don’t really understand it.

But we say we believe it because it declares who we are.

We are Christians.

We believe in the Trinity.

So, where do we find the trinity in scripture?

In fact, the word “trinity” does not even appear in the New Testament anywhere.

So where does it come from?

Let’s have a listen to today’s scripture.

John 15:26 – 16:15

26”When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

16”I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. 2They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. 3And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. 4But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.

7Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. 12“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

If you are scratching your head right now, you are not alone.

At our Wednesday staff meeting, we talked about this passage and there was a good bit of confusion.

It’s hard to understand.

And John is quoting Jesus!

Jesus is talking about God, himself and this “Advocate” who will come only after Jesus leaves.

Can you imagine being one of the disciples when Jesus tells them about this?

They have been following Jesus for three years and have just started to understand that Jesus was sent, not by God, but from God, as a part of God.

Now Jesus is saying that the “Advocate”, the Spirit of God, will be coming next.

And this Advocate or Spirit is also sent not by God, but from God, as part of God.

I have this image of the disciples looking at Jesus with their mouths open in confusion.

We just got used to two and now you tell us there are three?

One God.

Three … what?

Parts, persons, manifestations, presentations?

Christians have been asking those same questions for 2000 years.

The Trinity is one of the great mysteries of our faith.

And mysteries cannot be described, explained or depicted.

At times they are just to be accepted.

As Augustine pointed out back in the 4th century:

If you can comprehend it, it is not God.

 The Trinity is a good mystery.

A mystery that preserves God’s majesty and holiness.

And this is a mystery that goes back to the beginning.

Genesis.

The first 5 verses of the Bible.

The creation.

God. The Word. The Spirit.

All three were there.

We need to know that.

But there is only one God.

God is all three.

How do we explain that?

One of early explanations of the Trinity went this way.

It’s called the Creed of Athanasius and was written in the 5th or 6th century:

[W]e worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity, neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the persons … The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. … And yet there are not three incomprehensibilites, nor three uncreated, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.

Got it?

Good because there will be a quiz.

Many different depictions of the Trinity have been offered over the centuries and most have been labeled heretical.

Meister Eckhart, a 14th century German mystic who described the trinity this way.

God the Father laughed, and the Son came forth. God the Father and the Son laughed together, and the Holy Spirit came forth.

When all three laughed, humanity came forth.

Thus, the universe at its center is a joyful community.

And then there is a modern fanciful depiction the Trinity.

It comes in the book, “The Shack”.

In this short book, William P. Young writes about Mack, someone whose daughter was murdered some time back.

He is drawn to a shack near the site of the murder.

He enters the shack and encounters manifestations of the three persons of the Trinity.

God the Father takes the form of an African American woman who calls herself Elouisa and Papa.

Jesus Christ is a Middle Eastern carpenter.

The Holy Spirit physically manifests as an Asian woman named Sarayu.

Athanasius is now twirling in his grave.

But for some, perhaps many, and certainly for those who have experienced trauma and loss, the Trinity depicted in The Shack might be a spiritual balm.

I like what Oxford theologian Alister McGrath says about the Trinity:

“The doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t invented—it was uncovered. The doctrine of the Trinity…is not some arbitrary and outdated dictate handed down by some confused council—it is the inevitable result of wrestling with the richness and complexity of the Christian experience of God.”

We discover the Trinity by looking at what God has done.

 We first experience God who created the world and continues to do so and whose glory can be seen reflected in the wonder of nature.

We next experience God who saves us from ultimate darkness and death, and whose love is depicted in the cross of Jesus Christ.

Last, we experience God who is present and active in our lives.

These experiences lead to the conclusion that God has revealed his one being in these three unique ways.

Creator.

Redeemer.

Sustainer.

God created us.

Jesus redeemed us.

The Holy Spirit.

These are not different forms of God.

These are different acts of God.

God creates.

God redeems.

God sustains.

Eternally.

So what do we do with all this?

What does it all really mean?

What is it we believe?

Brian McLaren puts it this way:

If …there’s only one God but not three Persons within the one God, then we would expect that the ultimate reality behind the universe could be silence. It could be power. It could be peace. It could be domination. It could be any of those things. But there’s one thing that it could not be. The ultimate reality could not be love. Because for love to exist, there has to be a sharing, and there has to be a communication, and there has to be a self-giving. But if there’s only one, there’s nothing to give the self to.

We believe that for love to exist, it must be in community.

If God is love, God is somehow a community.

And if we are to love the way God loves, we must also be in community.

I think the Trinity we believe in teaches us that because God acts as a community, we, if we are to be his followers, must also act as a community. 

We must worship in community.

We must do mission in community.

We must do fellowship in community.

We must do stewardship in community.

We must do leadership in community.

We must teach and nurture our children in community.

We must get in community and stay in community.

The Trinity asks us, “How can anyone draw closer to God without being in some kind of community?”

I might not understand how God can be three in one, but I am glad God is.

And if God loves us, we are invited into that triune community.

Listen to the story I read this week.

Henri Nouwen, Roman Catholic priest and theologian was depressed for a long time.

As part of his own therapy, he meditated on an icon that depicted the Trinity as three persons sitting around a square table.

One on each side.

His interpretation of the image was that the three stared at each other in a manner where there was no fear, no greed, no anger, no violence, no anxiety, no pain, no suffering, not need for words.

All that was present was love and trust.

The fourth side was empty.

It was where he was.

He felt he was invited to be the fourth at that table, and to participate in the divine community.

That makes me think of the communion table.

Jesus invites us there to join him in the community of the Trinity.

That is what communion is.

We join the triune God at the table in community.