In 2006, members of JMPC went on our first mission trip to Chiapas, Mexico. Chiapas is in the south of the country, most of it highlands and mountains. It was once the home of the Mayan civilization. We were pretty excited because we were going to build some church structures and run a week long VBS for the village kids. We were told to prepare a little biography of ourselves as a group and as individuals that we would say to the people of the village in Spanish. That made us think that learning a bit of Spanish might be of benefit to us as we lived and worked with the village people for the week we would be there. So some of the group spent time on their Spanish. Others brought Spanish Bibles, so we could tell Bible stories to the kids. But when we got there, we found out that few, if any, of the village people actually spoke Spanish. They spoke Tzeltal, an ancient Mayan dialect. So our Spanish phrases and Bibles were of little use to us. When I preached, I had to have two translators. One to translate my English into Spanish and then the Spanish into Tzeltal. It was … frustrating. But we were not the first to have these kinds of problems. There are stories about how one missionary had to learn a tribal language, create a written form of it, teach the written form of it to the tribe, and then translate the Bible into that language. That did not happen in a week-long mission trip. It took decades. Have you ever tried to communicate with someone whose language you did not know? It might be because the other person speaks an ancient language or because the other person is simply from a different generation or culture. If we want to communicate with such folks, what do we do? Come and hear about it this Sunday when Pastor Jeff preaches “Speaking in Tongues – Talking to Other Cultures” based on 1 Corinthians 9: 19-23. We will look forward to seeing you … and hopefully communicating with you.
Acts 8: 26-39
26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) 27So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.29Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ 31He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’
34The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.
When I was practicing law, I represented doctors who were sued for medical malpractice.
Often my clients were sued for not obtaining “informed consent” from a patient before performing a medical procedure on that patient.
What is informed consent?
It goes like this.
A doctor is not allowed to perform an invasive procedure on a patient until the doctor has told the patient what the procedure is, its risks and potential complications, as well as any alternative treatments and their risks and potential complications, and also the risks and potential complications of doing nothing at all.
Then the patient decides if the patient will have the procedure.
But here is the problem.
When the doctor tells the patient all this, does the patient have any idea what the doctor is actually saying?
Here is what Mikkael A. Sekeres, M.D. and Timothy D. Gilligan, M.D. said in a New York Times OP/ED piece about a typical informed consent conversation.
Us: Blah blah blah.
You, as the patient, nod, and look like you’re paying close attention.
Us: Did you understand everything we said?
Us: Any questions?
… A fundamental challenge with this process is that it is often unrealistic to think that you actually could be fully informed of what you’re about to undergo.
… If your doctor says that you’ll end up with a “simple iliac ileal conduit” or a “urostomy,” [you should] feel free to say “I don’t understand those words. Can you explain what that means?”
You see, the problem is we can’t understand the doctors because we are not doctors.
We don’t understand the jargon.
And our doctors are not often trained to put what they are telling us in laymen’s terms.
So we don’t understand what they are saying (which we are afraid to admit), but they think we do.
Which is why Sekeres and Gilligan recommend you ask for the doctors to tell you what the words they are using mean.
Make sure you understand before you commit.
This problem is not limited to doctors.
It happens whenever someone uses jargon to explain something to someone unfamiliar with the language.
The Ethiopian had this problem in our scripture reading.
Isaiah wrote something, but the Ethiopian had no idea what it meant.
That is why Philip had to explain it to the Ethiopian.
As disciples of Jesus, if we are called to talk about what the Bible says, we had better know what we are talking about.
But if we are going to do what Philip did, we better know not just what the Bible says, but what it means, right?
But that is not always the case.
When I was in Vietnam this past Monday, I was part of a group who were to talk to a group of church leaders about how to understand the Bible.
Most of the church leaders in this community were not trained in Biblical interpretation and for the most part only knew a few Bible memes.
Proof texts we call them.
Individual verses used as scriptural rules without explanation or context.
So I asked them what they told people about what being a Christian meant.
They all looked in their Bibles and found a verse from Mark.
We are to love God and love our neighbor.
Then I asked them what that meant.
What does it mean to love God?
To them it meant going to worship on Sunday.
What does it mean to love neighbor?
To them it meant to tell them about Jesus.
When I asked if there was anything else, one man said that we are to give to the poor.
Most did not understand what their words, taken from the Bible, meant.
So how could they teach?
So I took them to Matthew 25: 31- 46 and told them about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming the strangers, visiting the prisoners, caring for the sick.
I told them that each of those acts demonstrates a love for Jesus and a love for neighbor.
That is what it means to love God and neighbor.
It put Jesus’ words in context.
And so the concepts of loving God and loving neighbor were easier to understand and explain.
The problem is that a two-hour lesson on just that is not enough.
They need education.
And there is not a lot of hope they will get it.
So their house churches are not growing.
Certainly not thriving.
All this made me start to wonder if this might be a problem in the church in the USA.
Do we have the same lack of Biblical understanding as these Vietnamese church leaders?
If you were to tell someone what is required to be a disciple of Jesus, what would you say?
What Bible verse would you use and how would you explain what it meant?
Should be easy, right?
Peter Gomes, the late Chaplain at Harvard University said this in his book, The Good Book.
“The Bible says what it means and means what it says.” This is a popular defense of the authority of scripture, and it is as dangerous and wrong as it is simple and memorable. … We can certainly say that the Bible says what it means, but that presupposes that we know what it says, and, as well, that we understand what it means when it says it.
This is a very good point.
Which takes me back to the first week in Vietnam.
I was teaching Bible School students and recent graduates what it means to be “Presbyterian”.
Part of those lessons were about the reformation and the impact it had on how scripture is interpreted.
It is not a simple task.
Until the Reformation, scripture was interpreted exclusively by the church hierarchy – popes and bishops sitting in councils.
Why was interpretation of the Bible so carefully guarded?
Because it was the Word of God.
Its interpretation had immense consequences.
The interpreter could manipulate those consequences, claiming it was God’s will.
Entire populations of Christians could be controlled.
That was even one of the themes in the movie Book of Eli.
Set in a post apocalyptic United States, all books have been lost and very few people can read.
The evil “Carnegie” wants to get his hands on a Bible.
Carnegie explains it to one of his henchmen in this way:
IT’S NOT A … BOOK! IT’S A WEAPON. A weapon aimed right at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate. It will give us control of them. If we want to rule more than one small … town, we have to have it. People will come from all over, they’ll do exactly what I tell ’em if the words are from the book. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. All we need is that book.
Because of such attitudes the reformers thought it important to put the Bible into the hands of the common people.
They could read the text for themselves and challenge the people who were trying to use it merely to exercise power over them.
But with individual interpretation comes the danger of anarchy.
If anyone could interpret scripture, there might be as many interpretations as there are people.
Each person thinking their particular interpretation is correct.
Not recognizing the possibility that they are all wrong.
Gomes, and many others, says such a situation is dangerous business.
He puts it this way:
… [M]eaning is determined by what the reader takes out of the text, and this meaning the reader attributes to the author. Thus, what the reader thinks is there becomes not merely the reader’s opinion, but the will of God, with all the moral consequences that that implies.
What the reader brings to the text in the form of cultural and personal ideology is always an issue.
I think we need to recognize that we need to be just as inspired in our reading just as the writers needed inspiration in their writing.
And we need to take it seriously.
As Gomes says, “[D]iscerning what God, in the Bible, means for us to hear and to do is a matter of life and death, [so] we must approach interpretation of scripture as we do our own salvation, working it out in fear and trembling.”
So how do we know when we are on the right track?
That brings us back to what it means to be Presbyterian.
It works like this.
We gather in councils, Sessions, Presbyteries, Synods, General Assemblies, and answer questions.
Questions like this:
“What does the church think of this?”
Then we pray and as for the Holy Spirit to give us discernment and incite.
Then we consult the Bible.
What does it say?
What does it mean?
What are its characters?
What are the issues?
Then read the words.
They should make some sense.
They should be consistent with the context of the story.
They we debate.
Then we vote.
Do we get it right?
If we do it might be just by accident.
But we make a decision and know that even if we are wrong, God forgives us because we are trying to do God’s will.
So how do we know if we got it right?
What is the ultimate test?
Look at the fruit.
Let me give you an example.
Before 1955, a woman was not permitted to become a Minster of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church.
In those days, the General Assembly met every year.
In 1930, as I understand it, the General Assembly was asked this question:
Should women be ordained as Minsters of Word and Sacrament?
The GA answered, no.
The same question was brought up 24 more times in consecutive GAs.
23 times the answer was again, no.
Then in 1955, the answer was, yes!
We kept voting on it because we wanted to be sure we were right.
Look at the fruit.
Have women in ministry benefited the church?
Have women in ministry moved the church forward?
Have women in ministry helped the church to thrive?
So we must have been right.
But to get to that point, we had to understand the Bible.
We had to know what it means.
And we still need to.
Which is why we all need to study the Bible.
And we need to do it in the way we do at GA.
Reading the Bible from cover to cover in 1994 with a community of folks at church changed my thinking on many things.
It changed my life.
It ultimately brought me here.
That is why we have Bible studies is important here at JMPC.
We have three such opportunities here currently.
ABCs of the Bible meets Sunday mornings.
Brown Bag Bible study meets every first and third Wednesday.
The John Covenant Group meets on Wednesday mornings.
But we need to have more.
Sermons are a good way to hear about the Bible, but 20 minutes every Sunday is not enough.
We need to read this book and apply it to our lives.
And we need to understand what it means.
And how to put it into practice in our lives.
We need to be Bible students.
Are you in a Bible study?
It will change your life.
The movie The Princess Bride is perhaps the most watched move ever, or so I hear. I know I have seen it many, many times and still laugh out loud. There is one particular character who stands out. His name is Vizzini. He is the corrupt villain who at one point tries to kill “the man in black” who is the Dread Pirate Robert. The Dread Pirate Robert is climbing up a cliff on a rope. Vizzini cuts the rope to kill the Dread Pirate Robert, but he now clings to a rock. Vizzini shouts: “He didn’t fall?! Inconceivable!” Inconceivable is a word that Vizzini uses constantly and inappropriately. Inigo Montoya, Vizzini’s cohort remarks to Vizzini’s exclamation this way: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” I love that brief exchange. “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” On a recent trip to South East Asia, I discovered that there are many Christians in the world who “Keep using the Word, but I don’t think it means what they think it means.” It occurred to me that maybe we in the United States have a similar problem. We cite the Bible for a variety of propositions, yet we don’t always put those citations into the context in which they appear. When we do that, it might not mean what we think it means. What is to be done? Come and hear about it when Pastor Jeff preaches “What does it mean?” based on Acts 8: 26-39. Come and hear about it at 8:30 an 11 at John McMillan Presbyterian Church. We will look forward to seeing you!
1 Corinthians 15: 1-11
15Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.
3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.11Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
Randy Bush is the Pastor at ELPC and wrote an op-ed piece today that starts out this way:
Easter sermons are harder to write than Christmas sermons. Whatever else might be said on Dec. 25, there is something universal about the birth of a child to which everyone can relate. But Easter involves an event without precedent. Its narrative is about a tomb discovered to be empty and a resurrection from the dead proclaimed by a group of religious believers.
This is not a new problem.
Easter has always been a challenge for people.
Wolfhart Pannenberg, was a 20th Century German theologian who made this observation:
“The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: First, it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live.”
I want to take a look at that statement today.
Let’s begin with this.
Easter is on April 1 this year.
As we all know, if we hear something outrageous on April first, and believe it, we are at risk for being called April Fools.
But there is less and less risk of such things in 2018.
No one is ready to believe anything, it seems.
We live in a world where the most common response to any bit of information we don’t like is “fake news”!
But there are also folks who are ready to believe even the strangest things.
Listen to this.
On August 25, 1835, the New York Sun, a “penny paper” catering to working class New Yorkers, published the first of six articles about Sir John Herschel, a famous astronomer of the day.
It was reported that Herschel had found evidence of life forms on the moon.
Unicorns, two-legged beavers and furry, winged humanoids the Sun called “moon-bats”.
The articles were a sensation!
People bought up every edition of the Sun just to hear about the moon-bats.
Of course, the entire series was a hoax – literally “fake news”.
Despite this, the Sun’s circulation increased to such an extent it became the most popular newspaper in New York.
And now here is another story about extra-terrestrial news.
Seth Shostak is an American astronomer and currently Senior Astronomer for the SETI Institute.
You know, SETI – Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence.
Made famous by Carl Sagan’s book “Contact” and the movie of the same name starring Jodie Foster.
Read the book, watch the movie.
They are both excellent and raise interesting questions about faith and belief.
Shostak has spent a good portion of his life trying to find intelligent life – out there!
And he had one experience in 1997 when he thought they did.
There was a signal from “out there” that was not random.
Meaning it was likely caused by some form of intelligence.
The SETI team ultimately found out that the signal was interference from a satellite signal that was bouncing around the SETI antennae.
The folks at SETI were profoundly disappointed, needless to say, but they are still listening, 20 years later.
Shostak was recently interviewed and made an interesting comment.
He said this:
Suppose sometime in the next few dozen years we pick up a faint line that tells us we have some cosmic company. What is the effect? What’s the consequence?
And the answer absolutely is we don’t know the answer. We don’t know what that’s going to do, not in the long term, and not even very much in the short term.
Who knows how such a discovery will impact us?
What I find funny about this event is Shostak’s initial response when he thought that “ET”, as he put it, had been found.
What I did feel was very nervous because I thought, you know, this is going to wreck up my whole week. I’ve got dinners planned and, you know, meetings and so forth, and now suddenly we found E.T.
Finding out that intelligent alien life exists was going to ruin his plans for the week.
Maybe for the rest of his life?
Because this is what I think.
Finding ET will change the way we look at the universe.
It might change the way we live.
What does any of this have to do with Easter?
Well, we’ve heard about moon-bats and messages from supposed extra-terrestrials.
Now let’s hear the Easter story:
There was a man named Jesus who lived about 2000 years ago.
He was an itinerant preacher of something called the Good News.
That Good News was that God’s Kingdom was near.
And that people could be part of it if they lived the way Jesus told them to live.
Love God and love each other and care for those who could not take care of themselves.
And once in the Kingdom, they would live there eternally.
While this might seem like a very good message, the Romans and Jewish religious leaders were threatened by it.
They had Jesus killed.
They crucified him.
Jesus knew it was inevitable.
In fact, he predicted it.
But he also predicted he would not stay dead.
After he was crucified, some friends of his took him down from the cross and put him in a tomb and left.
The Romans posted guards at the tomb to make sure no one could steal the body and then claim Jesus was alive.
An abducted body would be the only explanation if Jesus’ body turned up missing, right?
Because dead people don’t come back to life, right?
The order of life did not work that way.
We are born.
We live for a few years.
And we stay dead.
But Jesus did not stay dead.
Remember what Mark reported?
Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to the tomb.
The stone had been rolled back.
They entered the tomb and saw a young man in a white robe.
He said to them, “Jesus is not here. He has been raised.”
Wait … what?
But he was dead!
He had been crucified, struck with a spear, and sealed in a tomb.
He couldn’t be alive again.
The whole thing was inconceivable.
He was alive!
If the women at the tomb had texted the event back to Peter and the disciples, they might have used – OMG, OMG, OMG!
He is risen!
If true, this is something – world changing!
These stories raise those same two important questions Pannenberg raises.
First, did this unusual event really happen?
Is this about moon-bats or resurrection?
Second, if this unusual event did happen, how does it affect the way we live?
Does it screw up our week or does it change our lives?
Let’s talk about the first question.
To put it in 2018 terms, is this fake news?
Did Jesus really return from the dead?
According to Paul, indeed he did.
Paul’s testimony about the resurrection in today’s text, was written two decades before Mark’s Gospel!
Paul was reporting this and writing it down long before Mark.
And what does Paul say?
That Jesus was crucified, died and was buried.
That Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day.
That Jesus appeared to Peter, the twelve, more than 500 others, most of whom were still alive and so could verify what Paul was saying.
That Jesus appeared to his brother James, who had thought Jesus crazy.
And then to Paul, himself.
The post resurrection appearances reported by Paul were recent historical fact!
They could be confirmed by talking to something like 500 people.
But this is the 21st Century.
This event happened over 2000 years ago.
Is that all we got?
Is there anything else?
Listen to these words from Pinchas Lapide a Jewish scholar of the New Testament.
“I accept the resurrection of Easter Sunday not as an invention of the community of disciples, but as a historical event….”
In his book The Resurrection of Jesus he says:
“…as a faithful Jew, I cannot explain a historical development which … has carried the central message of Israel from Jerusalem into the world of the nations, as the result of blind happenstance, or human error, or a materialistic determinism….. The experience of the resurrection as the foundation act of the church which has carried the whole Western world must belong to God’s plan of salvation.”
Lapide says that we have no other way to “explain the fact that the hillbillies from Galilee who, for the very real reason of the crucifixion of their master, were saddened to death, were changed within a short period of time into a jubilant community of believers.”
Jesus died virtually alone on the cross.
All his disciples deserted him.
Then, within a year, there were thousands of disciples.
The Good News swept over the ancient Middle East during the lives of the disciples.
Within two hundred years after that, it was the Roman religion.
A bunch of frightened Galilean hicks, as the Judeans would call them, changed the world.
And were willing to die for it.
Something happened that empowered them to do that.
Their testimony was that they saw the resurrected Jesus.
This event started the greatest spiritual movement the world has ever known.
Other than a resurrected Jesus, there is nothing else that can account for that.
Those who witnessed the risen Jesus could not go back.
They had to remain in this new reality of a resurrected Jesus.
And so do we.
Which brings us to the next question.
What does it mean for us?
How does it affect the way we live?
That is what Paul tells us in today’s text.
[T]he good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you ….
[T]hat Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures …
Our sins are forgiven through Jesus’ death on the cross.
On that we can stand.
On that we are saved.
Jesus promised, “because I live, you shall live also” is true.
And we can be certain that the promise has been kept because the promiser, Jesus, had the power and authority to bring himself back to life.
Which means we are reconciled to God.
And are citizens of God’s Kingdom.
This is a life changer.
The resurrection has to become the meaning – the purpose – of our lives.
To carry on what Jesus started.
The reconciliation of the world.
Loving and caring about and for each other.
Feeding the hungry.
Giving water to the thirsty.
Clothing the naked.
Welcoming the stranger.
Caring for the sick.
Visiting the prisoners.
Loving each other.
And like Shostak, we might not know exactly how it changes our lives, but there is no doubt it does.
It changes our lives forever.
We are not April Fools!
This is not “fake news”.
This is the Good News!
Happy Resurrection Day!