Author: Tom Letchworth

Rev. Tom Letchworth, Senior Pastor of Marion United Methodist Church Bro. Tom was ordained an Elder in the Little Rock Conference of the United Methodist Church in 1985. He has served First UMC in Paragould, (2007-2011), St. Paul UMC in Searcy (2002-2007), and First UMC in West Memphis (1995-1998) as senior pastor. He has also served Salem UMC in Benton as pastor (1985-1995), and St. James UMC in Little Rock as associate pastor (1983-1985). As a full-time local pastor in the beginning of his ministry, he served the Morrilton Parish (1980-1981). While attending Perkins School of Theology, he served the Maypearl/Venus charge in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The son of an Air Force chaplain, Bro. Tom has lived all over the world. He received the call to ministry while he was a member of Yucaipa UMC in California, where he started the candidacy process. He was introduced to Arkansas through his seminary internship at Pulaski Heights UMC and thus completed his candidacy requirements with the Little Rock Conference. From 1999 to 2002 he was appointed as a General Evangelist, during which time he added dramatic presentations to his sermons and preached/taught workshops in Missouri, Kentucky, Kansas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee, and Arkansas. He and his wife, Celeste, have written full-length plays published by Lillenas Drama (Nazerene Publishing House): Mysteries With a Message, Volumes I and II; and Meet Me at Luigi’s. They are also the proud “authors” of Sam, a creative writing graduate of the University of Arkansas, and Joe, a music graduate of Asbury University.

Gospel for April 30, 2017

START WITH SCRIPTURE:

Luke 24:13-35

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

The events in Jerusalem are still very fresh.  Jesus had been crucified on The Day of Preparation for the Sabbath. And on this day after the Sabbath strange rumors began to circulate amongst the friends and followers of Jesus that were scarcely believable.  To some, reports of the resurrection must have seemed a kind of cruel psychological denial, the rantings of hysterical, imbalanced women.

Two followers of Jesus were walking from Jerusalem to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles away.  Under normal conditions, it would be about a two-hour walk.  It would seem, as events unfold, that Emmaus was where these two had a home — perhaps they retreated there out of fear of the authorities in Jerusalem.  Or perhaps they simply needed to get away from the confusion and uncertainty that reigned in Jerusalem.

They talked about the events of the past days, perhaps trying to process and understand what had happened.  While they walked, a stranger joins them, going the same direction — west, away from the city.

The stranger asks Cleopas what they’re talking about.  We’re not sure who Cleopas was from the Biblical record.  He is only identified once, here in this passage.  His companion is anonymous.  Some suggest it may have been his wife.  John 19:25 does identify a Clopas whose wife was named Mary. This Mary was one of the women who, according to John’s Gospel, watched as Jesus suffered on the cross.  We can’t be sure of a connection.

The conversation that ensues following the stranger’s question almost seems a little sharp.  Cleopas seems a little rude:

Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things which have happened there in these days?

This leads to the follow-up question, and Cleopas and his companion begin to explain:

They said to him, “The things concerning Jesus, the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people;  and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we were hoping that it was he who would redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Also, certain women of our company amazed us, having arrived early at the tomb;  and when they didn’t find his body, they came saying that they had also seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive.  Some of us went to the tomb, and found it just like the women had said, but they didn’t see him.”

This is a brief synopsis of the facts of the case.

  • Jesus, from Nazareth, was regarded by them as a prophet; they had hoped he might actually be the Messiah.
  • However, his condemnation by the religious authorities and his crucifixion by Roman rulers certainly undermined that hope.
  • Now, there were the incredible stories from some of the women that the tomb was empty; angels assured those women Jesus was alive, but none of the women could affirm they had seen Jesus.
  • Empirical evidence had confirmed this much — some of the disciples went to the tomb and found it empty. But none had seen Jesus themselves.

The stranger in turn is just a little insulting.

He said to them, “Foolish men, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!”

He calls them foolish, faithless and ignorant of their Scriptures!  And he asserts that all of these things that happened were prophesied about the Messiah:

 Didn’t the Christ have to suffer these things and to enter into his glory?

This stranger uses this two-hour walk to great advantage. He teaches them from their own Scriptures — from Moses (the Law) and all the prophets of the Hebrew Bible (which would technically include virtually the rest of the Old Testament) — about the work of the Messiah.  He is, of course, speaking of himself, but they still don’t know his identity.

When they arrive at Emmaus, they invite this stranger to come to their home with them.  This is not so odd as it might seem to some Americans.  Hospitality was and is an important feature of Middle Eastern life then and now. And given the time of day, they may have become concerned for this stranger’s well-being:

They urged him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is almost evening, and the day is almost over.”

What happens next is a remarkable moment of self-disclosure.  Jesus never actually tells the two disciples who he is.  He sits down at table with them.  And though it is not his home, he assumes the role of the host!  He takes the bread and gives thanks over it, rather than the head of the household.

When he breaks the bread, the two disciples immediately recognize him!  And he vanishes!  This reveals two things:

  • The breaking of the bread and giving thanks was a simple act of table fellowship, something that Jesus had done many times with his disciples. However, the events of the Last Supper had given this act a far deeper significance:
    He took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and gave to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19).
    It seems significant that he is recognized in the breaking of the bread.
  • These events also suggest that Jesus has entered a new reality that transcends physical realities. Though he has a body, and can eat and can be touched, he also seems not to be bound by “normal” limitations of time and space.  We see this also in other post-resurrection appearances, when he seems to pass through walls.  John 20:26 tells us that he appears in the room where the disciples are, despite  the fact that the doors are securely locked.

The two disciples confess to one another that they had had the dawning awareness that something special had been happening earlier:

They said to one another, “Weren’t our hearts burning within us, while he spoke to us along the way, and while he opened the Scriptures to us?”

Despite the lateness of the hour, and the dark night — albeit, there was likely a moon — they rose up immediately and returned to Jerusalem.  One wonders if the pace was quicker on the return!

When they find the eleven disciples gathered together, their own experience is corroborated by Jesus’ appearance to others.  They are told:

The Lord is risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!

These various witnesses begin to confirm what is now undeniable fact — Jesus is risen:

 They related the things that happened along the way, and how he was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread.

APPLY:  

All of us experience loss and grief.  We seem to spend our lives saying farewell to people and places and even things that we love.  Sometimes that loss can be shocking, like the crucifixion of a beloved man like Jesus.

Grief requires that we process what has happened.  Therapists tell us that there are even stages in that process that are fairly typical — denial, bargaining, anger, guilt, acceptance.  We may speculate where the two disciples may have been in this process as they talked about the events that had only recently happened in Jerusalem.  But they did seem to be trying to make sense of it all.

And there is the twist.  Their process of grief was turned on its head when Jesus himself showed up!  There had been foreshadowing — rumors that the tomb was empty, angels announcing that Jesus had risen.  But these disciples knew nothing yet of the appearances of Jesus.

So, we find a different set of “stages” in this process that turns grief into faith.

  • First, Jesus walks with us, even if we don’t recognize him. We Methodists call this God’s “prevenient grace” that precedes that moment of assurance that comes with faith.
  • Second, the Scriptures themselves confirm the claims of the coming of Jesus, from Moses and all the prophets. In the hands of a good interpreter of Scripture, we can find types and prophecies of Christ throughout the Old Testament.
  • Third, there is the sense of corporate fellowship represented by the disciple’s invitation that Jesus should come and dwell with them. Jesus breaks the bread and was instantly recognized by them in the breaking of the bread. When we gather as the church, and share the bread of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, don’t we also have the opportunity to recognize him in the breaking of the bread?
  • Fourth, and by no means least important, is what we might call the inward witness. When the disciples finally realize that they’ve been with Jesus, they proclaim:
    Weren’t our hearts burning within us, while he spoke to us along the way, and while he opened the Scriptures to us?
    Isn’t that the personal, inward experience to which many Christians testify when they come to faith in Christ?

John Wesley’s experience seems to be emblematic of this very sense of assurance.  He describes his “breakthrough” one evening at a religious meeting on Aldersgate Street in London:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate-Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed [emphasis mine]. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

All of these — the prevenient presence of Christ in our lives through his Holy Spirit; the proper interpretation and application of the Scriptures; the sharing of the means of grace through the Lord’s Supper in the church family; and the personal inward experience of the heart strangely warmed — contribute to the transformation of doubt into faith, and grief into joy.

RESPOND: 

I really wish I could have taken that walk on the road to Emmaus, and heard Jesus open up the Scriptures:

Beginning from Moses and from all the prophets, he explained to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

I have the feeling that he covered everything they needed to know — as we say sometimes semi-facetiously — from the table of contents at the front to the maps at the end.

I also wish that I could have been with them in the house in Emmaus. I would have reveled in his presence if Jesus had come into my home and broken bread — which is what the experience of faith can be like.

Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847) wrote a hymn that reminds me of this episode in the Gospels.  Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, he invites Jesus to come in:

Abide with me, fast falls the eventide
The darkness deepens Lord, with me abide
When other helpers fail and comforts flee
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.

Lyte had attended the University of Dublin with the intention of studying medicine, but instead became interested in theology and took Holy Orders.  When a good friend and fellow clergyman died unexpectedly, Lyte experienced a spiritual transformation.  After 1818, his preaching and writing became more urgent and spiritual.  He began to write and publish poems and hymns.

The hymn Abide with me was written in 1847.  Only three weeks after its completion, Lyte died of complications from tuberculosis.  His lyrics are poignant:

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away
Change and decay in all around I see
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness
Where is death’s sting?
Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

May this also be my prayer this day:

In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.  Amen.

PHOTOS:
"2 disciples on a journey to Emmaus with Jesus" by Leonard J Matthews is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license 

Epistle for April 30, 2017

Relationship

Relationship is at the very heart of Christianity — the relationship between God and humanity; the relationship between human beings in society; the relationship within the Triune God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

START WITH SCRIPTURE:

1 Peter 1:17-23

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

Relationship is at the very heart of Christianity — the relationship between God and humanity; the relationship between human beings in society; the relationship within the Triune God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Peter certainly seems to have grasped that reality as he walked the dusty roads of Galilee and Judea with his mentor, Jesus.

Peter has learned well that Jesus called on his Father in his own prayers.  And Peter understands that if a person is a follower of Jesus, they too have the great privilege of calling on God as Father.

However, the Christian also quickly learns that there is nothing inherently unique about them simply because of his/her Christian faith.  God is impartial:

who without respect of persons judges according to each man’s work.

This is reminiscent of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, when he emphasizes the ethic of love that his disciples are to follow by pointing out the Father’s character:

I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you,  that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:44-45).

Because of this relationship that the believer has with God as Father, they have a new sense of loyalties, a new citizenship:

pass the time of your living as foreigners here in reverent fear.

Peter will refer to disciples as foreigners and pilgrims in 1 Peter 2:11, and this is a sentiment echoed in Hebrews 11:13.  The relationship of Christians with the present world is tenuous at best, and temporary. Their allegiance is ultimately to God’s Kingdom.

However, there is a twist.  The Father judges each person’s work impartially — and yet it is not by their works or their silver or gold or the useless way of life handed down from the fathers that they are redeemed.  Rather, it is:

 with precious blood, as of a faultless and pure lamb, the blood of Christ.

Peter returns to the language of the Temple, so familiar to the Jews from the Torah, but that also recurs throughout the New Testament.  Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice.  The offerings of human beings are insufficient to atone for sin, as are the useless teachings of legalistic tradition and works-righteousness.

This redemptive work was no accident.  Jesus’ sacrifice was part of the divine plan from the beginning:   

foreknown indeed before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of times for your sake.

What this means for human beings is that through faith in Jesus, their relationship is with the same God who raised his Son from the dead.

And then there is the work of the Spirit that results from this faith:

Seeing you have purified your souls in your obedience to the truth through the Spirit in sincere brotherly affection, love one another from the heart fervently:  having been born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, through the word of God, which lives and remains forever.

The imagery is striking.  By faith the believer is born again into the family of God as God’s children.  The Spirit enables the obedience to the truth which purifies the believer, and gives them this new birth into a new family.  Thus they are to have love for one another as a spiritual family.

APPLY:  

The language of Family is central to the life of the Christian.  There is the interrelation of the Trinity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We are able to call upon God as our Father because of our adoption through faith in God the Son, as confirmed through the witness of the Spirit (cf Romans 8:15-17 and Galatians 4:4-8).

A similar scenario is depicted by the Apostle Peter.  We call on God as Father because of our redemption through the precious blood of Christ, and are born again through the Spirit of God.

And as a consequence of this new birth, we are brothers and sisters of Christ as part of the family of God.

RESPOND: 

We tend to think of the new birth as merely a personal relationship with God.  It is that, but it is also much, much more.  The new birth is the initial work of the Holy Spirit in regenerating us, purifying us, and enabling us to grow in grace.  And this new birth also means that we are part of the family of God, learning how to love one another as we have been loved.

I am reminded of a custom in the American South.  Clergy are frequently referred to as “brother” or “sister.”  I am still “Brother Tom” to former church members many years after I am no longer their pastor.

The truth is, if we take Peter’s words seriously all who are Christians should regard one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Lord, I call on you as Father because of what you have done for me through the Son, and through the purifying rebirth of the Spirit. As I grow closer to you, may I grow closer to my brothers and sisters in your family also. Amen. 

PHOTOS:
fpx032110-06″ by Dennis Hill is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Psalm Reading for April 30, 2017

“Precious in Yahweh’s sight is the death of his saints.”
Psalm 116:15 (World English Bible)

START WITH SCRIPTURE:

Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

This is a Psalm of thanksgiving for Yahweh’s deliverance from death.  The Psalmist declares that he has cried out to Yahweh, and his cries were heard.

The Psalmist asserts that death had nearly gripped him:

The cords of death surrounded me,
the pains of Sheol got a hold of me.
I found trouble and sorrow.

We find here a metaphor for the constraints of death, and an allusion to the underworld.  The cords of death suggest that death was like ropes in which the Psalmist was tied, or perhaps the kind of binding one might find in a prison.

The pains of Sheol are a vague reference to that shadowy, joyless underworld existence of the dead — not quite alive, but nonetheless suffering the pains and trouble and sorrow of a gray existence.

However, the Psalmist finds hope by calling on Yahweh’s name.   We are reminded of the power of words in Hebrew culture, and particularly the very name of Yahweh.  This is the I Am who revealed himself as almighty Creator and Lord to Moses in Exodus 3.  There is power in this name!

The verses that are not included in this lectionary reading for the week, verses 5 to 11, describe the joy of deliverance by the hand of Yahweh:

I was brought low, and he saved me.
Return to your rest, my soul,
for Yahweh has dealt bountifully with you.
For you have delivered my soul from death,
my eyes from tears,
and my feet from falling.
I will walk before Yahweh in the land of the living(verses 6-9).

The Psalmist then asks himself the question,

What will I give to Yahweh for all his benefits toward me?

He answers his own question:

I will take the cup of salvation, and call on Yahweh’s name.
I will pay my vows to Yahweh,
yes, in the presence of all his people.

The cup of salvation is likely a reference to the drink offering prescribed in the Law of Moses:

You shall pour out a drink offering of strong drink to Yahweh in the holy place. The other lamb you shall offer at evening. As the meal offering of the morning, and as its drink offering, you shall offer it, an offering made by fire, of a pleasant aroma to Yahweh (Numbers 28:7-8).

However, there is also the possibility that this is a reference to one of the four cups of wine offered at various points in the Seder Passover meal commemorating the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

The vows to be paid, though, are much more clear — these are the sacrifices required of the Israelites before their God.

But the next sentence seems a bit of a non sequitur, interrupting the vows of the Psalmist toward Yahweh:

Precious in Yahweh’s sight is the death of his saints.

This is an enigmatic statement.  Is the Psalmist saying that Yahweh values his saints so highly that he preserves them from death? Or is he acknowledging the reality of their death, and honoring them for their saintly lives?  Or is the Psalmist suggesting that the sacrificial deaths of the saints are even more precious than the sacrifices of bulls and lambs in the temple.  This seems likely, given the context of this phrase, and may allude to some example of martyrdom that has not been recorded.

This phrase is reminiscent of Psalm 72:14, that does describe oppressive circumstances:

He will redeem their soul from oppression and violence.
Their blood will be precious in his sight.

The Psalmist then returns to his own offerings to Yahweh — that he will be Yahweh’s servant.  Paradoxically, he offers his servitude to Yahweh who has freed him from his chains.  The one who was imprisoned by the cords of death has been liberated, and chooses to serve his God!

The Psalmist reiterates the offerings he makes to Yahweh — the  sacrifice of thanksgiving and the payment of his vows to Yahweh.   And he does so in a highly public way and place, so that all will know his gratitude: 

I will pay my vows to Yahweh,
yes, in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of Yahweh’s house,
in the middle of you, Jerusalem.
Praise Yah!

APPLY:  

Those who have experienced the nearness of death and the depth of serious illness can appreciate the response of the Psalmist.  His deliverance from the cords of death and the pains of Sheol are the source of great joy.

He has to find some concrete way of responding and showing his gratitude, and does so with the fulfillment of his vows made to God.  These may simply be the obligatory sacrifices of temple worship, or they may be vows that were made when the Psalmist was close to death.

The bottom line — we don’t offer our sacrifices of service to God as a means of earning God’s favor and healing.  God is more generous than that, and causes the sun to shine on the evil and the good.  No, we offer our sacrifice of praise and service as a response to what God has already done, and continues to do in our lives.

RESPOND: 

When I was reflecting on this Psalm, just a few weeks after Easter, one line caught my eye:

Precious in Yahweh’s sight is the death of his saints.

On Palm Sunday (April 9, 2017), 47 Coptic Christians were martyred by suicide bombers in two churches in Egypt.  The world recoiled in horror.

But for those who live in the shadow of persecution and death, this was no surprise.  And it was the opportunity for a powerful witness.

At the Eve of Monday Pascha service (held the day after this horrific event), Father Boules George spoke at St. Mark’s Church in Cairo, Egypt, the site of one of the explosions.

Like the phrase precious in the Yahweh’s sight is the death of his saints,  Fr. George’s words are a little surprising.  He begins by thanking their persecutors.  He thanks them for allowing the Coptic Christians to share in the sufferings of Christ, which he calls a great honor.  He thanks them for shortening the journey between this world and heaven for the martyrs. He thanks the persecutors for allowing the Christians to fulfill Christ’s words in Luke 10:3:

 “Behold, I send you out as lambs among wolves.”

He thanks their oppressors for filling the churches with worshipers the day after Palm Sunday — normally, Monday’s services are lightly attended after the big crowds on Palm Sunday.

And then comes the real bombshell. The priest said:

I love you very much. And I want to say one last thing to you: we’re praying for you.

He makes it quite clear that Christians don’t have enemies, because we are commanded to love everyone.  Even those who persecute us.

Perhaps it is a persecuted church, like that of the Coptic Christians and others around the world, who can most fully appreciate the words of the Psalmist:

Precious in Yahweh’s sight is the death of his saints.

Lord, I know that you love all of us, and that your love cost you the cross.  But how precious must be those who offer themselves completely to you, even to the point of death!  I certainly don’t relish the thought of martyrdom, but I do pray that you will enable me to die to sin, that I may be raised to life.  Amen. 

PHOTOS:

"Sunrise at West Virginia National Cemetery" by Jeff Turner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Reading from Acts for April 30, 2017

START WITH SCRIPTURE:

Acts 2:14a, 36-41

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

Peter continues to deliver the first apostolic sermon on the day of Pentecost.  His audience is composed of Jews gathered in Jerusalem for the feast:

You men of Judea, and all you who dwell at Jerusalem….

He pulls no punches.  He accuses his audience of complicity in the crucifixion of Jesus.  This kind of corporate guilt makes sense if we consider that no one in Jerusalem put a stop to the execution of Jesus.  The crowd that gathered at the Praetorium 50 days earlier had been given the opportunity to acquit Jesus, but instead had shouted “crucify him!” (Luke 23:17-20). 

But Peter’s meaning is deeper than that.  In his epistle, written some time after this Pentecost sermon, we can see the maturation of Peter’s thoughts about the atonement.  When he reflects on the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, Peter says of Jesus:

 Who, when he was cursed, didn’t curse back. When he suffered, didn’t threaten, but committed himself to him who judges righteously; who his own self bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live to righteousness; by whose stripes you were healed (1 Peter 2:23-24).

Peter’s accusation has shifted.  No longer is he accusing the citizens of Jerusalem alone of crucifying Jesus — he no longer says you crucified Jesus, but that Jesus bore our sins on the cross. Notice that he includes himself and the disciples as recipients of grace.

His accusations that the Jews in Jerusalem are responsible for the crucifixion is in part a rhetorical device — he is driving home their guilt and their need for repentance.  Note also his quote of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah:

he was pierced for our transgressions.
He was crushed for our iniquities.
The punishment that brought our peace was on him;
and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

Peter is also making clear Jesus’ divine character and messianic mission:

God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.

Lord is a title that is reserved in Jewish language for God alone, as we see in verse 39 when Peter speaks of  the Lord our God.  And Christ,  of course, is the Greek translation of  Messiah.  Jesus is the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The evidence has been overwhelming.  The Jews are cut to the heart and plead for guidance:   

 Brothers, what shall we do?

Interestingly, Peter begins this new ministry in the same way that John the Baptist and Jesus began theirs — by calling for repentance:

Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

We have come full circle. John required the repentance of sin and baptism, and also prophesied that the Messiah was coming who:

will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire,  whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing floor, and will gather the wheat into his barn; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Luke 3:16-17).

Jesus also began his ministry with a call for repentance (Mark 1:15).

The difference now is that the Holy Spirit has come — who not only convicts of sin but also cleanses sin, and empowers the believer.  The events on that day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out, confirmed these promises.

Peter goes on to say that these promises are not only for those who hear his words, but also:

to your children, and to all who are far off, even as many as the Lord our God will call to himself.

The same promise of salvation, offered through repentance, baptism and faith, is available not only to their children, but to people from other lands and nations; and those who are far off may even be inclusive of those who are removed from the original events by years and centuries!

Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, makes it clear that he is only quoting an excerpt from Peter’s sermon.  But he doesn’t neglect to include Peter’s invitation to the crowd:

With many other words he testified, and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation!”

And we would be hard pressed to find an example of a more dramatic response to an  “evangelistic” sermon:

Then those who gladly received his word were baptized. There were added that day about three thousand souls.

This was the first of several “surges” in growth that Luke records in the early church, empowered by the dynamic energy of the Holy Spirit.

APPLY:  

Once again, we see the message and the method of apostolic preaching in the early church.  There is an implied Trinitarian formula here. Jesus is called both Lord and Christ.   And the work of God is made manifest in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins received through the  gift of the Holy Spirit for those who respond to the call of  the Lord our God.

Peter also retells the essential story of Jesus, crucified and raised from the dead.

And he also contextualizes the message, so he speaks directly to the situation of the Jews who are hearing him that day.  For example, he tells them that they are responsible for Jesus’ death through their own sins.

When they are moved to contrition, and ask what they must do, Peter is clear and concise:

Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The message is clear — Christ offers pardon from sin and power over sin through the atoning death of Jesus and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

And Peter also offers them hope for generations to come, and for those who are scattered around the world.  This is not a provincial, parochial, cliquish Gospel — Christ’s message will have a global and intergenerational reach.

RESPOND: 

There has seldom ever been a day of harvest like that of Pentecost when 3,000 were added to the faith!

This was a life-changing message of hope and forgiveness that began to sweep through Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and into the Roman world and the world to the east.

I can’t help but notice one aspect of Peter’s preaching — he doesn’t neglect to make an invitation. Some may think that an evangelist’s invitation to respond to the proclaimed Word is a fairly recent phenomenon.  Peter demonstrates that the invitation to respond to the Word is vital.  He tells his audience exactly what they need to do:

Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Today, the invitation to respond may come in different forms — an invitation to prayer; an invitation to follow Christ; an invitation to some form of mission; an invitation to join the church.  But every sermon must include some invitation that provides the listener the opportunity to respond — even if that response is merely an invitation to think deeply about what they’ve heard.

A wise man once told me that the best preaching gives the thinkers something to think about, the feelers something to feel, and the doers something to do.  And the truth is all of us need to respond to the Gospel!

Lord, you convict us with the reality that you died for our sins. But you also offer us pardon and power over sin.  May our repentance result in changed lives that in turn offer the hope of the Gospel to the lives of others.  Amen. 

PHOTOS:
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Gospel for April 23, 2017

START WITH SCRIPTURE:

John 20:19-31

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

This passage provides a framework for the transition from the very first eyewitnesses to those whose witness will only be with the eyes of faith.

Jesus appears the very evening of his resurrection, when the disciples are huddled together in fear in a locked room.  This seems to illustrate his ability to appear and to disappear at will with this transformed and glorified resurrection body. Nevertheless, he demonstrates that his is a bodily resurrection, and that he is the same Jesus who was crucified as he shows them his scarred hands and side.

He has greeted them with the traditional “Shalom” of the ancient Jewish culture –

 Peace be with you –

However, in this context it certainly has a deeper meaning for these frightened followers.  They greet these words and signs with joy.

Next, there is the Johannine version of a kind of Pentecost, as Jesus commissions them to be sent in his name, and then empowers them for ministry as he breathes the Holy Spirit into them. And to them is entrusted the awesome authority to forgive sins in his name, much as Peter was given that authority in the Synoptic Gospels after his insight that Jesus was the Christ.  The difference of course is that in the Synoptic Gospels, Peter has this realization before the resurrection. (Matthew, Mark and Luke are called Synoptic because they can often be “seen together” with frequent parallels and similarities.)

The disciples immediately begin to fulfill the commission of Jesus.  Some of the disciples reach out to Thomas, who wasn’t present in the Upper Room that evening.  They bear witness to what they have experienced:

We have seen the Lord!

And here is where Thomas (his Aramaic name), aka Didymus (the Greek version of his name) gets his unfortunate nickname: Doubting Thomas.  He cannot believe unless he sees the scars on Jesus’ hands and side for himself.

We don’t really know for sure why Thomas is called “The Twin,” other than the obvious fact that he may have had a twin brother or sister.  Is it an oblique reference to being “double-minded” perhaps?

Nor do we know why he isn’t with the other disciples on that first night.  Is he absent because he is grieving alone?

We do know that Thomas is no coward.  Earlier in Jesus’ ministry, when the sisters of Lazarus summon him to the bedside of their dying brother, Jesus declares he will go to Bethany. The other disciples attempt to deter Jesus, declaring that his enemies seek his life in Judea.  But it is Thomas who says,

Let’s go also, that we may die with him. (John 11:16).

But we also have a foreshadowing of his questioning nature in John 14:1-7.  Jesus has promised his disciples that he will not leave them orphaned, that he is going to prepare a place for them, and that they know the way to the place where he is going.  Thomas, who is empirically minded and prone to thinking in very concrete, literal terms, says:

Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?(John 14:5).

And this question sets up one of the most profound statements in all of scripture.  Jesus answers:

I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.  If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on, you know him, and have seen him (John 14:6-7).

Now, Thomas is singled out for a unique, if dubious, honor.  Jesus appears yet again among the disciples a week after the resurrection.  This time Thomas is among them.  And Jesus offers to show Thomas his hands and his side to provide proof that he is the crucified and risen Lord.  And Jesus commands him:

 Don’t be unbelieving, but believing.

Thomas is among the very first in this post resurrection appearance to acknowledge the divinity of Jesus in his short but powerful declaration of faith:

My Lord and my God!

There seems no doubt to Thomas now that Jesus is not only risen from the dead, but that this event discloses his true nature as God and man.

Jesus gently reproaches Thomas for his lack of faith that required such dramatic proof, and praises those who will not have that luxury:

Blessed are those who have not seen, and have believed.

John adds his own editorial comment – that the purpose of this account in the Gospel is to provide witness to those who have not seen and yet have believed.  He is making it quite clear that this is the purpose of his writing.  He notes that Jesus did many more deeds than he can possibly record, but that the purpose of the Gospel is so that  those who read it:

 may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.

APPLY:  

This account of “doubting Thomas” isn’t meant to cast aspersions on this questioning disciple.  In a sense, Thomas may speak for many in our skeptical age who are seeking proof.

Ultimately, however, the response that brings true blessing is faith that is imparted by the Holy Spirit – the very Holy Spirit that Jesus himself imparts to the disciples and to us.  We are reminded from the Scriptures that the righteous will live by faith, and also that:

Without faith it is impossible to be well pleasing to him, for he who comes to God must believe that he exists, and that he is a rewarder of those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:6).

We don’t believe because we see, we see because we believe.  That is the gift which the Holy Spirit imparts.

RESPOND: 

I identify closely with Thomas, not only as my namesake, but also simply because of my own questions and occasional “dark nights of the soul.”

There are  significant moments  in my own faith development – the traditions I’ve been taught, reinforced by the certainty that existence and creation itself is impossible without  a Mind that brought order to chaos.

In that thought I find the beauty of the Prologue to John 1:1-3:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him. Without him was not anything made that has been made.

And I can rationally draw the conclusion that only something as dramatic as the resurrection could possibly have transformed those craven, cowering disciples into the bold missionaries willing to stand up to the persecutions of the Sanhedrin and the Roman authorities.

But the mystery of faith in the Risen Christ comes only through the experience of an inner witness from the Holy Spirit.  In that sense, like all who have not seen and yet have believed, I account myself among those who are blessed with the gift of faith, knowing that even when my faith is weak, Jesus Christ is strong.

Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!  Though I cannot place my fingers in the scars on your hands, nor my hand in your side, I nevertheless am convinced in my heart that the only thing that explains the existence of hope and meaning and love in my life is your Presence.   Thank you for that life that begins now and continues forever! Amen. 

PHOTOS:
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Epistle for April 23, 2017

START WITH SCRIPTURE:

1 Peter 1:3-9

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

Although Peter never personally wrote a Gospel, and was not as prolific a writer as Paul, the two epistles in his name in the New Testament are extremely valuable. They reveal the doctrine and faith of an Apostle who had actually spent time with Jesus as one of his closest friends and confidants.

Peter is writing this letter to the Christians who have been scattered by persecution and perhaps economic necessity, whom he calls:

the chosen ones who are living as foreigners in the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1 Peter 1:1).

He begins with the praise of God for his great salvation event:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy became our father again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Peter is careful to maintain the distinction between God the Father and God the Son, but also acknowledges that both are divine.  Although the careful formulations of the doctrine of the Trinity are still three centuries away, they are foreshadowed by Peter along with other writers in the New Testament.

For example, it is Jesus who consistently referred to his Father, and who is called my beloved Son in his baptism and at his Transfiguration by God the Father(e.g., Matthew 3:17; Matthew 17).   This is a uniquely intimate title for the Almighty Creator of the universe!

And Peter refers to Jesus as Lord. The word Lord in Greek is Kyrie; and in Hebrew it is Adonai. In ancient Judaism, the most holy name of God in the Hebrew language is Yahweh.  In order to avoid profaning that name, they substituted Adonai, which means Lord.  For Peter, Jesus is no mere rabbi or prophet. He is Lord and he is God!

What is most astonishing is the great news that Peter shares — that because of the resurrection of Jesus, God has become the Father of those who believe!  The Greek phrase in verse 3 actually alludes to those who are born again to a living hope.  As with the Apostle John who also heard Jesus’ teaching, Peter is very familiar with the concept of the new birth.  This new birth is initiated by faith in the resurrected Christ.   Because of God’s great mercy, believers are born again to a living hope, and:

to an incorruptible and undefiled inheritance that doesn’t fade away, reserved in Heaven for you,  who by the power of God are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

Once again, we have that persistent theme of the “now” and the “not yet” that occurs throughout the New Testament.  Believers are guarded through faith now by the power of God, but they are also awaiting the inheritance in Heaven that will not fade, and will be revealed in the last time.  This is the eschatological hope that is never very far away in the New Testament — God’s kingdom is coming!

Peter summons the dispersed Christians to rejoice, but tempers that joy with realism.  He realizes that they are suffering persecution as a minority faith in their far-flung Dispersion, but he makes three important claims about their trials:

  • First, their grief in various trials is temporary — for a little while. This is the same claim that Paul makes in Romans 8:18:
     I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which will be revealed toward us. 
  • Second, he suggests that their sufferings are like the fire that tempers and proves their faith:
    the proof of your faith, which is more precious than gold that perishes even though it is tested by fire…
    Even gold may be destroyed in fire, but the faith that endures the fire is far more valuable, and will not perish.
  • Third, this temporary suffering, which tempers their faith like a refining fire, has a blessed result:
    ….in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

And Peter seems to marvel that though these Christians in the Dispersion never knew Jesus in the flesh as he did, yet they love Jesus; and though they don’t see him, they believe.  The result of this love and faith is salvation:

whom not having known you love; in whom, though now you don’t see him, yet believing, you rejoice greatly with joy unspeakable and full of glory— receiving the result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

APPLY:  

The Scriptures aren’t sugar-coated.  Efforts to remake the Gospel into a recipe for prosperity fail to take it seriously.

The Apostles were realistic about the fallen nature of the world, the hostility of the culture around them, and the sufferings that Christians would endure.  They had heard Jesus tell them these things, and they had witnessed his sufferings.  And they had plenty of personal experience of their own.  And they warned the church that suffering and trials will occur.

But they also offered the real hope that comes from faith in the risen Jesus.  Yes, Jesus suffered the agony of the cross; but that  suffering was overshadowed by his resurrection.

And this is our hope as well.  The now of our existence may have its share of blessings and success, and yes, even prosperity; however, it is also always at risk because of suffering, loss, and in some places in the world, real persecution.  The not yet, is guaranteed not by our achievements or work-ethic or merit, but because of what Jesus Christ has done for us.  This is the source of our hope:

a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an incorruptible and undefiled inheritance that doesn’t fade away, reserved in Heaven for you,  who by the power of God are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

RESPOND: 

On Good Friday, I received a phone call. My friend has cancer, and will have surgery in just a few weeks.

She confessed that her initial reaction was pretty dark.  All the fears came rushing in to her mind.  But her faith in the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ came shining through.  She trusts in the promises revealed in Scripture, and confirmed in her faith.

She isn’t naive.  She believes she will be declared cancer-free.  But if not, she is prepared for the radiation and/or chemotherapy that may be required.  And if that doesn’t work, she is prepared to die — although she joked that her husband wasn’t ready for that.  He wouldn’t have a clue about how to start dating again at his age!

I thought it was appropriate that we were talking about all of this on Good Friday.  The cross of Jesus reminds us that he knows what it is to suffer, that there is nothing  we can endure that he doesn’t understand.  What that means to me is that God has been where we are, no matter what we go through.

We have been given in Christ the proof of our faith:

 which is more precious than gold that perishes even though it is tested by fire,[and] may be found to result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Lord, I thank you for the whole story of the Gospel — not only the sufferings but also the resurrection and the new life.  I know the trials will come; for some of us those trials are already here. But I also trust that you will see us through them.  Thank you! Amen.

PHOTOS:
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Psalm Reading for April 23, 2017

START WITH SCRIPTURE:

Psalm 16

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

This Psalm is called a  Miktam of David.  Unfortunately, the meaning of Miktam is a little elusive.  There are a collection of Psalms that share this inscription — Psalms 56 – 60.  In some translations, miktam is translated To the Chief Musician, as though it provides instructions for how it is to be sung or accompanied.  The Interpreter’s Dictionary  of the Bible suggests that miktam has an ancient Akkadian etymology that means to cover, which would suggest the metaphor of covering sin, or expiation.

In this Psalm, David is asking for God’s protection, and confessing that he has no other source of hope:

My soul, you have said to Yahweh, “You are my Lord.
Apart from you I have no good thing.”

He then draws a stark contrast between the saints in whom David delights and those who offer false worship to false gods:

As for the saints who are in the earth,
they are the excellent ones in whom is all my delight.
Their sorrows shall be multiplied who give gifts to another god.

The next verse provides evidence of a violation of Levitical kosher laws:

Their drink offerings of blood I will not offer,
nor take their names on my lips.

Kosher laws have to do with foods that are prepared according to Jewish law.  Leviticus 17 is quite clear about prohibitions against consuming blood, and the rationale behind it:

Any man of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who live as foreigners among them, who eats any kind of blood, I will set my face against that soul who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that makes atonement by reason of the life. Therefore I have said to the children of Israel, “No person among you may eat blood, nor may any stranger who lives as a foreigner among you eat blood”  (Leviticus 17:10-12).

Because of the life that is in the blood, it is a sacred thing that is offered in the sacrifice of bulls and lambs for the expiation of sins.

When New Testament authors speak of the atoning power of blood, they speak of the blood of Jesus as our sacrifice:

whom God sent to be an atoning sacrifice, through faith in his blood, for a demonstration of his righteousness through the passing over of prior sins, in God’s forbearance (Romans 3:25).

The drinking of the blood of sacrifices at pagan rituals was regarded as an act of great offense to the sacrificial blood offered to God.

David transitions neatly away from the imagery of drinking blood to another metaphor very similar:

Yahweh assigned my portion and my cup.

Yahweh’s cup is far more fulfilling.

David goes on to describe the blessings that Yahweh has offered. These are manifold:

  • You made my lot secure.
     The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places.
    Yes, I have a good inheritance.

    David describes the allotment of land that has been granted — not only to him but to all the Israelites, with land and inheritance.
  • Yahweh provides counsel and
    my heart instructs me in the night seasons.
  • Yahweh provides guidance and strength:
    Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
  • Emotionally and physically God provides happiness and safety:
    Therefore my heart is glad, and my tongue rejoices.
    My body shall also dwell in safety.

The “good life” of Shalom  (peace, security, wholeness) is holistic, involving body, soul and mind.

And then we have a foreshadowing of the promise of eternal life that is revealed in the New Testament:

For you will not leave my soul in Sheol,
neither will you allow your holy one to see corruption.

Sheol is the shadowy place of the dead.  Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology says that:

 Sheol is devoid of love, hate, envy, work, thought, knowledge, and wisdom ( Ecclesiastes 9:6 Ecclesiastes 9:10 ). Descriptions are bleak: There is no light ( Job 10:21-22 ; 17:13 ; Psalms 88:6 Psalms 88:12 ; 143:3 ), no remembrance ( Psalm 6:5 ; 88:12 ; Eccl 9:5 ), no praise of God ( Psalm 6:5 ; 30:9 ; 88:10-12 ; 115:17 ; Isa 38:18 )in fact, no sound at all ( Psalm 94:17 ; 115:17 ). Its inhabitants are weak, trembling shades ( Job 26:5 ; Psalm 88:10-12 ; Isa 14:9-10 ) who can never hope to escape from its gates ( Job 10:21 ; 17:13-16 ; Isa 38:10 ). Sheol is like a ravenous beast that swallows the living without being sated ( Prov 1:12 ; 27:20 ; Isa 5:14 ). Some thought the dead were cut off from God ( Psalm 88:3-5 ; Isa 38:11 ); while others believed that God’s presence reached even to Sheol ( Psalm 139:8 ).

The promise to the holy one, however, is deliverance even from the decaying effects of death.

David completes this Psalm with a triumphant expression of praise and thanksgiving to Yahweh, who provides guidance, eternal pleasures, and best of all, his presence:

You will show me the path of life.
In your presence is fullness of joy.
In your right hand there are pleasures forever more.

APPLY:  

It shouldn’t escape notice that Psalm 16 is quoted by Peter in his famous Pentecost sermon (click here for the SOAR on this week’s lectionary reading from Acts 2:14a, 22-32).  Peter quotes this section, with a slightly different translation of Psalm 16:8-11:

I saw the Lord always before me.
Because he is at my right hand,
I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest in hope,
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
you will not let your holy one see decay.
 You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence (Acts 2:25-28).

The message of Psalm 16 is that the soul that finds its solace and hope in God alone will be secure — protection in this life, the enjoyment of what God apportions out, and even life eternal.

Peter, however, points out that the ultimate gift of life and salvation is secured by Jesus alone.  These words from Psalm 16, he says, can really only apply originally to Jesus.  And because of our faith in Jesus, we also enjoy:

  • a good inheritance.
  • Godly counsel and instruction even in the night seasons, the “dark nights of the soul.”
  • protection from God.
  • a glad heart, a joyful tongue, and a safe body.
  • deliverance from Sheol
  • guidance on the path of life, the presence of God which brings fullness of joy, and  pleasures forever more.

RESPOND: 

John Wesley was an Anglican cleric who preached the Gospel to thousands throughout Britain and Ireland, and founded the United Societies that eventually became the Methodist Church.  He rode by horse when he was young, by carriage as he grew old, and traveled thousands of miles — incurring persecution along the way. In all of it, he was an apostle of grace, love, and, yes, spiritual discipline.

When Wesley was 87 years old, he lay dying.  But some of his last words were these:

The best of all is, God is with us!

These are fitting words for any servant of God, and reflect the words of the Psalmist:

    In your presence is fullness of joy.

Our Lord, we find all of our good and our blessing in you —  security, pleasant places, good inheritance, counsel, gladness, safety, and ultimately eternal life and fullness of joy. Thank you for the goodness of life that you provide, now and forever. Amen. 

PHOTOS:

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