GCI Equipper

One Body, One Voice

Imagine the body of Christ all speaking the same thing at the same time. What a powerful message that would bring to the world.

My daughter, son-in-law and grandbabies attend a local church that is only a few miles from their home. My daughter often asks me what my sermon is about and 8 times out of 10 it is the same scripture and similar topic being presented at her congregation. She finds this fascinating; I find it affirming. This is the work of the Holy Spirit and the beauty of using—dare I say it—the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

Have I lost you yet? Stay with me, please. Some find the idea of using the RCL as akin to cheating, or worse, not following the lead of the Holy Spirit. I used to be one of those. I used to believe my job was to evaluate and pray about the needs of the local congregation and build my sermons off the topics I believed the Holy Spirit was giving me. I preached this way for several years until it was pointed out to me some of the possible pitfalls with topical preaching. While there may be legitimate needs for topical preaching from time to time—and it works well in a small group study—the practice can lead to the following problems:

  • There is a tendency to use Scripture to prove a point, rather than to interpret a verse within its full context. This can easily lead to proof-texting—finding verses to “prove” the point you are making. Even if your topic is needful and your point is valid, unless we use the verse in context, we are misusing it.
  • It tends to show personal bias—the personal focus of the pastor is more evident than the centrality of Christ.
  • It’s easier to avoid “difficult” topics or passages of Scripture.
  • It can easily lead to a stunted understanding of the whole plan of God or the centrality of Christ.
  • It’s easy to neglect using the full testimony of Scripture. For instance, I know of some who rarely, if ever, preach from the Old Testament. (A way to avoid this is to have the Old Testament passages read out loud during the worship service.

Neglecting the inspiration of the Holy Spirit?

One of the arguments I used to raise against using the RCL was that it stymied the Holy Spirit. I laugh at myself now at how foolish I was. I used to write my sermons out word for word—it was my way of preparation. I never read the sermon, but my notes kept me on point. When I mentioned this to a fellow pastor, he told me he believed writing the sermon out like I did kept me from allowing the Holy Spirit to inspire me while preaching. Let’s ask a few rhetorical questions:

  • Does the Holy Spirit inspire us only while we are preaching?
  • Is it possible the Holy Spirit can inspire during both the preparation and delivery of a message—even if they are days, weeks, months or years apart?
  • Is it possible the Holy Spirit can inspire other writers to produce a sermon outline that any pastor or speaker can give on any given Sunday?
  • Is it possible that the Holy Spirit can inspire people to write things (like letters to various churches) that are timeless?
  • If this is true, is it possible that the Holy Spirit can inspire the development of the RCL enabling churches all over the world to use the same texts on the same weekend? How cool would that be if the Holy Spirit could do that?

Ok, sarcasm aside, I believe the point is made. GCI is one part of the body of Christ, and all the parts of the body fit together make up the whole. When we are joined to the body, we are more effective in presenting a unified message of communion to the world, and we are more in step with our participation with Jesus, who is the center of the center. Using the RCL is just one way of building that unity.

Other benefits to using the RCL

  • While GCI Equipper provides a sermon—usually from the Gospel passage—there are four different scriptures each week to choose from.
  • It provides a holistic (some might say systematic) way of taking you and your congregation through the Bible in a three-year plan.
  • It provides you with theological insight as you delve into four different passages each week.
  • It prevents pastors from nurturing a form of spiritual superiority.
  • It is built on the season of the Christian year and provides themes for each week that coincide with the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. It keeps reminding us Jesus is at the center of all we do and preach.
  • By using an RCL sermon in Equipper, you may spend less time on sermon preparation and more time focusing on elements of the Love, Faith, and Hope avenues. You will have more time to reach out into your community, to train your leaders, to become the healthiest expression of church you can be.
  • It provides a framework for children’s classes, youth classes, small group studies. https://sermons4kids.com/ This encourages family interaction.
  • It provides connections to church history and to the larger body of Christ.
  • By sharing each week’s theme in advance, members can be reading and studying the same passages as the pastor.

GCI does not require pastors to preach from the RCL, but we strongly encourage our pastors to follow it and preach from it the bulk of the time. Each RCL sermon in Equipper has the theme of the week. We encourage you to put the next week’s theme in the bulletin (make sure you label it “Next Week’s Sermon Theme” or something similar) or send it out on email. Even if you preach from one of the other passages, you can edit the theme accordingly. This gives study material to members and better prepares them for each week’s message.

If you still aren’t convinced, allow me to challenge you to try it for six months. That’s what I did. At the end of the six months I was absolutely convinced this was the way to move forward. And, as mentioned in the introduction, affirmation occurred as I found I was preaching the same passages as other parts of the body. Just imagine all the congregations of GCI preaching the same themes each week. Talk about being in communion. Some will find that fascinating; most of us will find it affirming.

Anticipating more communion in GCI,

Rick Shallenberger

The Journey of Reorientation

Like a great waterwheel, the liturgical (Christian calendar) year goes on relentlessly irrigating our soul, softening the ground of our hearts, nourishing the soil of our lives until the seed of the word of God begins to grow in us, comes to fruit in us, ripens us in the spiritual journey of a lifetime. —Joan Chittister, as quoted by Steve Bell in Pilgrim Year: Lent (Novalis 2018)

By Bill Hall, National Director, Canada

I’ve been following the liturgical calendar and the Revised Common Lectionary for almost 20 years. Yet, at times I’ve been selective in the actual seasons that I preached. Christmas, Holy Week, and Pentecost have been easy for me to preach on an annual basis. But I have always struggled to deal with the 40-day pre-Easter period that the Revised Common Lectionary covers.

Maybe it was due to the fact that the biblical passages for that time of year hit close to home for me personally. Many of the selected passages deal with our human condition and the reason we need a Savior.

Quite frankly, I don’t like to preach about sin. It could be my aversion to slipping into promoting a form of legalism, as a way of avoiding sin. There also seems to be a lot of baggage associated with this 40-day Easter Preparation season. I’ve often heard of people giving up this or that during this time. To me it sounded like a form of Medieval penance.

But last year, I decided to tackle a couple of sermons that dealt with the RCL passages for this season. Surprisingly, rather than be a burden, they were liberating. One passage for this season was Luke 13:1-8, which talks about the killing of the Galilean innocents by Pilate and those killed in the fall of the tower in Siloam.

In this story told by Jesus, he repeats two times, “I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (verses 3, 5). It should be obvious to Christians that repentance is foundational to our walk with Jesus, but it takes on a special meaning as we figuratively journey with Jesus on his way to the cross.

Taking extra time for introspection, of our human condition without the grace of the Triune God, can be pretty humbling, and yet I believe necessary. I had to acknowledge my need to live a life of repentance.

That sermon on the need for repentance spoke to me. As did my concluding scriptures:

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. (Galatians 5:16-18, ESV)

The Easter Preparation season can provide a great time to reflect on our human reality.

In the Lent booklet of his Pilgrim Year Series, Steve Bell uses the analogy of earthly seasons and the movement from winter to spring to describe our spiritual journey:

But it is hard for us fallen creatures to appreciate how far we have deviated from the fullness of life and love and their ultimate object—God himself. We are accustomed to our winter; our retreat from life. We have so invested in its continuance—with our petty attachments and disordered loves—that we resist the winter thaw, tragically fearing the greening of spring to be loss, or a death rather than a release from it. Such is the nature of our sinful disorientation.

Our reorientation takes some time and leads us to focusing on the source of our faith, hope and love—Jesus Christ. It reminds us who we are in him and who he is in us.

The GCI Worship Calendar focuses on the Easter Preparation season to devote to this work of reorientation. The season points to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his prayer for Jerusalem, the Last Supper and Good Friday. It all leads to the reality that he is the fulfillment of all things. He is the source of our forgiveness; he is the redeemer; he is the advocate; he is the Savior of humanity. This reorientation then leads to the celebration of the resurrection, where we realize Jesus came to bring us into relationship with Father, Son and Spirit for eternity.

Easter Preparation reorientation helps us realize Jesus is the center of the center and we are able to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2 ESV).

May the soil of your life feel the thaw of your reorientation that Easter Preparation can bring.

Easter Preparation Season

The Easter Preparation season is a time of preparing ourselves to receive from God a fresh and joyous grace.

By Rick Shallenberger, Equipper Editor and US Regional Director

Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness before beginning his ministry. Many in the orthodox Christian world keep 40 days of Lent and focus on penance. But was Jesus’ focus on penance, or something else during his time in the wilderness?

The text most used for this season is Luke 4.

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. (Luke 4:1-2)

Following this passage is the story of the three temptations the devil placed before Jesus. Jesus responded to each temptation by quoting scripture. The passage ends with the enemy leaving “until an opportune time.” In other words, the devil had failed miserably in tempting Jesus.

I don’t see Jesus in a state of penance here. In fact, other than being hungry, I don’t see Jesus in a state of any weakness. In fact, the passage starts out by acknowledging that Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit. But I suggest that’s not all the preparation Jesus had during this time. The passage gives us a clue to what I’m referring to.

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.”

What happened at the Jordan? Note the previous chapter:

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

Jesus entered the wilderness full of the Holy Spirit and fully affirmed. In other words, he went to the wilderness in full confidence of who he was—the beloved Son. I submit Jesus went to the wilderness to spend time with his Father and to prepare for the ministry he was about to commence, to discern the path he was to take; and during that time the devil attempted to temp him. Notice how Luke continues:

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. (Luke 4:14)

Jesus is still in the power of the Spirit when he returns from the wilderness and begins preaching. After 40 days of spending time with his Father and the Spirit, preparing for the journey he must take, Jesus begins his ministry. He came out of the wilderness afresh with his purpose and filled with joyous grace knowing he was never alone. He also came out of that wilderness journey with the confidence that he could make the journey to Jerusalem and fulfill his mission on the cross.

A sojourn and a journey

We are all on a journey with Jesus—we are never alone, but we are participating with him in his ministry. Admittedly, sometimes we try to do things our own way, believing we’ve got the best idea. This Easter Preparation season encourages us to focus on who we are—the beloved of God—and what he has called us to do—join him in his work of bringing many children to glory. The season reminds us it’s about Jesus and how he includes us—working in and through us. It reminds us that Jesus is the center of the center.

It’s a good time to examine our personal lives in terms of mission and ministry. Am I participating with God, or am I doing my own thing? One of the temptations we face is believing it’s about our effort, our faithfulness, our devotion. If I can just do more, study harder, love more, reach more people. If only I could….

This season reminds us to spend time with God and ask him to make his will known. It is a time of discerning his purpose for us and his way. As we do this, we reflect on how God has moved in our lives and changed us; how forgiveness has impacted us, how being affirmed and being loved has motivated us. We are reflecting on ourselves (our baptism, our calling to ministry, our worship). Yet we don’t want to let self get in the way of this reflection. Our baptism is about surrendering our lives to him; ministry is about participation (more reliance) with him; worship is placing our full trust and devotion to him. In other words, this preparation time is focused on going deeper in relationship with our personal God who came to us.

Bobby Gross, in his book, Living the Christian Year, says this season reminds us that as Jesus reflected on his baptism and affirmation from the Father, we also focus on and reaffirm our own baptismal promises—”to renounce Satan and all evil powers and sinful desires, to trust in the grace of Christ as our Savior, and to follow him as our Lord” (p. 128).

In the wilderness Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, and living in the affirmation of being a beloved Son, said no to the enemy and to temptation and said yes to the Father. We follow this example. The Easter Preparation season is a time of reflecting on who we are in Christ and reminds us we have been called to live in relationship with Father, Son and Spirit. This enables us to say no to the enemy and to temptation and say yes to the Father. This enables us to approach Holy Week with fresh and joyous grace.

Easter Invite Church Hack

Easter is a joyous celebration of the new life we have in Christ! Easter Sunday is the most attended church service every year. It is also a great opportunity to invite those who don’t normally attend to visit your church. Download and customize this month’s Church Hack, and encourage your members to invite their friends and neighbors to experience Christ’s love for them and for the whole world.
#GCIchurchhacksEaster Hack

Is There a Best Version of the Bible?

 

Dr. Gary Deddo, Grace Communion Seminary President, addresses the topic: What is the best version of the Bible to use?

That question is asked often, and it is a good one. First, we have available in English an astonishing range of options to choose from—and growing. Second, there are different ways of translating and also specific aims of particular translations. Even if all were equally helpful in some way, no one could consult even most of them.

For more on this topic, see Gary’s article on the Grace Communion Seminary website.

With a Little Help from Our Friends

By Randy Bloom, US Regional Director

Years ago, faced with the challenge of leading major change in the congregations I pastored, I took the opportunity to visit some non-GCI churches. Initially, I was simply accepting invitations from pastor friends I made in a local ministerial association. Right away it occurred to me that accepting their invitations was more than responding to their warm gestures of Christian fellowship, but I had opportunity to learn a great deal. It was easier back then as my congregations were still meeting on Saturday. My new friends pastored churches of a wide range of worship styles, all within the circle of orthodox Christianity. It is a major understatement to say the experiences I had were eye-opening. I learned a great deal from them, and I am eternally grateful for the experience.

We have always had worship services in GCI, even if we didn’t call them that. We gathered to honor God, sing, pray, hear a sermon and fellowship. All the basic “ingredients” for a worship service. But there was much we had to learn and needed to change for our worship to be Christ-centered, theologically sound and, well, more worshipful.

Over the years we in GCI have learned a great deal about what worship is and how to facilitate worship in our gatherings. We have come a long way. But growth and learning are not static. We continue to learn and grow. At least we should. While we have made some wonderful changes in how we craft our worship services, we have sometimes continued with certain practices that are still an admixture of what we used to do, or which are outdated or not culturally relevant to the neighborhoods where we meet. In some cases, what used to work well has now become old hat, perhaps ineffective and even dull.

We can keep things fresh and relevant by continually learning about how to develop inspiring worship services. We can do this by reading and attending conferences or workshops. And I still think it is highly beneficial to visit healthy, inspiring non-GCI worship services to gain some insights into developing worship services that have a transformational impact on people. As a regional director and church consultant, I still urge pastors to visit non-GCI churches.

As you (pastors and Hope avenue coordinators) go, here are some things to watch for:

  • What is the arrival like? This includes parking, greeters, signage, etc.
  • How do they welcome guests? Arrive a bit early to get a good feel for this.
  • How is information about the church made available?
  • Do they start and end on time?
  • What do they do or don’t do during the worship service?
  • How does their order of service flow? Are there interruptions that disrupt the worship experience? (Keep in mind that people have different definitions of “worshipful.” So some, loud music is an interruption. To others, the sermon is the interruption,)
  • What kind of songs do they sing? (This will depend on their overall worship style.)
  • How long does the worship service last?
  • What happens after the worship service? Stick around. Ask questions.

I need to acknowledge several things. First, churches with healthy, inspiring worship services need to be identified. This should not be difficult. You can ask people in your community who you know where they attend church. Second, don’t visit megachurches. Try to find smaller churches to visit. Large churches will seem overwhelming. Smaller churches will have a group dynamic closer to what we experience in GCI.

Next, I recommend scheduling a couple Sundays for visits during the year. This will enable you to experience a variety of worship settings and styles. Pastors, I hope your congregation isn’t so pastorally dependent that you can’t do this. If you have more than one worship leader, they can take turns making a visit. If you are a very small church, with only one speaker and one worship leader, you could alter the format of your Sunday gathering for one week in order to give you an opportunity to make a visit. Go in pairs so you get different perspectives (and it will help you feel more secure). It can be done.

You may be concerned about walking into a scenario with which you are not familiar or comfortable. It’s OK if you do. A couple times I inadvertently walked into services with styles of worship with which I was uncomfortable. My general practice on visits is to sit in the back so I can get an overview of things. But also so I can quietly exit early, if need be, without disturbing anything. I have done this. And survived.

I still enjoy visiting a non-GCI worship service on occasion. I still learn from these experiences, enabling me to help some of the congregations I work with. I hope you will give it a try. GCI has benefitted greatly from our relationships and experiences with our family and friends in other parts of the body of Jesus Christ. By the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the wisdom and discernment he gives us, I still believe we can continue to learn and grow with a little help from our friends.

RCL Resource for Children’s Church

By Pam Morgan, GCI Operations Coordinator

There are many resources for children’s ministry, but few coincide with the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). I have been using Sermons4kids for our children’s ministry in Grace Communion Hickory.  It has a lot of options and does follow the RCL.  You can sign up on their website and they will send you the lessons weekly.  They also have a children’s bulletin that you can download and print that is great for kids to have and work on before they go to children’s church.

I use their free resources and I supplement them with videos that my husband Mat found at Saddleback.  Kids love the videos and they are great to reinforce the story with a visual.

I put together our children’s church schedule quarterly using their site and downloading the lessons and resources.  The best part is: it is free!

Here is the link for their website – https://sermons4kids.com/

Here is the link to subscribe to their weekly sermon – https://sermons4kids.com/subscribe_2.htm

The email comes on late Sunday/Monday

Here is the link to one of the videos I have used – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uYLHqdSO9OY

Sermon for April 5, 2020

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 2019 | Put Down Your Sword Greg Williams “And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” Matthew 26:51-54 (ESV) This is a strange aside in the story of Jesus’ arrest. As the gospel writers describe it, there are literally hundreds of soldiers who’ve descended on four guys in a garden in the dark. Then one of them, Peter of course, decides to try to defend himself. What a preposterous picture, a fisherman with a sword against a detachment of professional Roman soldiers. It’s a painfully vivid picture of our reactionary eye-for-an-eye squabbles as human beings. You have a grudge against me, so I answer in kind; you cut me off, so I tailgate you! On and on we go in the cycle of offense-and-revenge, tit-for-tat. And yet Jesus says, “Stop.” Peter—put down your sword. STOP the cycle, stop the insane merry-go-round. This small conversation is a microcosm of the big picture. Jesus is in the midst of giving himself, to take the punishment for sin—and all the grudges, squabbles, and eye-for-eye that goes along with it—onto Himself. Total forgiveness to all. We can only imagine. Have you ever forgiven until it hurts? Our natural reaction when shoved is to shove back. It’s deeply ingrained in our psyche, even in our physical reflexes. It can be uncomfortable, even painful to stop ourselves from retaliating. We have to give up our “rights” in that moment, the revenge we “deserve” in our own minds. We have to put down the sword. By every right, God could have wiped humanity out and started over. We chose sin and polluted his perfect world. But God’s plan was never to take his revenge on us. He took that hurt into himself in Jesus. Instead of cutting off an ear, he let himself be cut and beaten and finally killed. He forgave us until it hurt him. He took the pain and violence of that sin into himself in Christ, so much so that it killed him. As John the Baptist proclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” May we join Jesus in stopping the cycle of revenge by putting down our swords; choosing to forgive as Christ has forgiven us. I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Isaiah 50:4-9 • Psalm 31:9-16 • Philippians 2:5-11 • Matthew 26:14-27:66

The theme for this week is emptying ourselves as Jesus did. In Isaiah 50, we hear the song of the suffering servant who trusted in God’s plan even though he was being mistreated by humanity. In Psalm 31, the poet talks about trusting in God even though he appeared to all his neighbors to be losing and defeated. In Philippians 2, Paul tells us to take the same humble mindset of Jesus, who, even though he was God in the flesh, emptied himself of his rights and power. Our sermon, Jesus, Friend of Losers, is based on Matthew 26. These passages tell the story of the King who embraced life by dying and whose crown was made of thorns.

Jesus, Friend of Losers

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:12 ESV)

Is it strange to start our discussion of the Passion narrative, the story of Jesus’ suffering and death, with a verse from Hebrews? Maybe. But this verse sets up for us one of the deepest realities about Jesus, and one that comes to full fruition in this passage.

In the world of drug recovery, they have a word for people who have learned about recovery and those who’ve been through it themselves. Those who’ve been through the torture and deliverance of addiction often become the most effective sponsors for others. They’ve been there. Those who’ve just learned about recovery from school and a certification program are given the less-than-flattering title “textbook junkie.”

Jesus is no textbook junkie. He’s one who was tempted in every way as we are and experienced some of the worst of the human condition. Think about it:

  • Born into a beleaguered minority in an occupied country
  • Son of a teenage mother, rumored to be illegitimate
  • Considered a bad influence by the upstanding taxpayers of the community
  • Born on the rough side of a depressed part of town
  • Led a movement of people who didn’t understand him and eventually fell asleep and left him alone on the worst night of his life

Jesus is no textbook junkie. He understands what it means not only to be tempted like we are, but to live a life that most of us haven’t had to live. Then he died a death that none of us will ever have to endure.

Our passage for this week, from Matthew 26 and 27, tells the complete story of Jesus’ last meal, betrayal, arrest and crucifixion. Throughout the story, until it’s turned to a deafening pitch, we see someone who experiences the most painful and universal feeling of being a human: to lose. To lose—to be betrayed by your closest inner circle, to yell prayers into the empty night, to look like a complete failure.

We have a romanticized view, understandably, of these events in the life of Christ. We think of him as the misunderstood hero who kept to his vision despite all odds. But in the moment, at the time, Jesus looked like someone we’ve all been in life: the loser. The loser with his world crashing around his ears. The loser pleading with his friends just to stay awake with him for a little while. The loser whose life’s work is mocked and derided by the crowd. The loser crying out on the cross.

Let’s look through this night, the last night of Jesus’ life, to see how he embraces this loser status. He becomes the high priest who knows not only what temptation feels like, but also what loss, betrayal and perceived failure feel like—no textbook junkie here. This is the climax of Jesus’ ministry—what he’s been talking about through his whole ministry.

Until these very last moments, even after his resurrection, his inner circle is looking for his show of military power as he kicks Rome out of Israel at last. But in his passion, Jesus embraces the ultimate fruit of humanity’s failure: death that came by sin. He experiences our pain, our alienation, and weakness—his throne is an instrument of torture and his crown is made of thorns. His highest moment is his lowest moment.

Let’s walk through the passage and see what God will show us.

Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him. (Matt. 26:14-16 ESV).

The betrayal of a friend. Think of that part of the movie where we know something the main character doesn’t know—we see their enemy sneaking up or the main character’s spouse leaving to cheat. There’s a reason that device shows up so often in movies and books—we can all identify with it. Jesus knew what has coming, but his disciples did not.

The thirty pieces of silver they counted out for Judas wasn’t as much as people thought. Historians differ about the value of a piece of silver, but most estimates say the silver would be worth between $200 and $3500 today. Not a lot of money to betray someone over to death.

Knowing the amount in today’s terms reframes this a bit and makes it even more pathetic. The established powers want this irritating character Jesus taken care of. Maybe this isn’t the first time they’ve “gotten rid” of a political problem like him. They pay a weakling a so-so sum of money to get the ball rolling.

This isn’t a dramatic moment involving epic battles and famous kings—this is a seedy, back-alley exchange that brings out the worst of the people involved.

And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” (Matt. 26:37-38)

Have you ever been in this scenario? When you’re scared and feeling exposed and you ask a friend just to sit there with you. When you just want someone to hold your hand or put an arm around you—no words needed, just someone else’s presence.

Asking for this kind of presence is pretty humbling. You have to admit that you’re fearful, that you don’t want to be alone. We see Jesus going through this—something we can all identify with at the end of the day. Don’t leave me; just stay here with me, I don’t want to be by myself.

And they fell asleep on him. He didn’t ask for much—not military defense, not money, not some great words of wisdom. He just asked for someone to be there in the night with him. And they failed him.

Jesus knows what this utterly human feeling is like. When a spouse left you in an empty house. When you got laid off and carried the cardboard box to your car in front of everyone. When a trusted friend didn’t answer that late-night call. He understands this, he’s been there.

And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matt. 26:51-53)

Peter does his thing here. Peter is known for shooting first and asking questions later (if at all). John says that a “band” of soldiers came for them. Peter, out of sheer emotion, makes his move.

It’s already absurd to have a band of soldiers come down on four guys in a garden. Then one of the guys tries to defend himself.

But then Jesus does what, by the world’s standards, makes him a loser. He says, stop! No more! No more violence—no more eye-for-an-eye! It ends tonight! Peter, put down your sword.

In our world, the winner is the most powerful, the most fearless, the one who demolishes his enemies. Here Jesus stops this cycle, just as he’s about to stop the whole thing with his life. He will not take up revenge—he will lay himself down.

Skip ahead in the story. Skip ahead to see Jesus standing silent before his accusers as they lie about him again and again. Skip ahead to the whips and the purple robe and the mocking. To where Jesus holds back when he could defend himself, when he could demolish those hurting him.

Look back through Jesus’ life for a moment and you’ll find he does most of his best work with losers. His friends are all fringe people who have been left behind by society: prostitutes, smarmy sell-out tax collectors, terrorists and petty thieves.

He touches the lepers and defends adulterers caught in the act. Why is Jesus not only the friend of sinners but the friend of losers? He comes first to those whose only qualification is their need. As he shared earlier, he was willing to leave the 99 to find that one who wandered off. At other times perhaps he is willing to leave the one to find the 99—ignoring the one percent of society to seek the rest.

The longest one-on-one conversation we have recorded by Jesus was with the woman at the well—a discarded person with a checkered past trying her best to hide from the world. No one was watching; she had no political connections he could leverage.

And here he is, more than any other time, joining their number. Here he is at his most powerless, giving up control, letting himself be crushed by the merciless gears of society.

The saddest moment is not his death, but just a little before.

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew 27:45-46

And that is the final breaking. That’s when Jesus fully expresses the human experience—the feeling of being abandoned by God. There’s nothing worse, and nothing more universal.

When we see another mass shooting on TV, when a young person in perfect health dies in an accident, when a baby is born sick, when the categories of good and evil and cause and effect have exploded and there’s no logic to be found, we ask: Why have you forsaken us?

Jesus has now been to the depths of the human condition. He’s looking at it all from down here with us. Did Jesus fully explain how the trinity works at that moment? How God could seemingly abandon God?

No, he didn’t hold a theological lecture in that moment—he cried out what was on his heart. He was a Jewish man who knew these scriptures up and down. He had grown up reciting, reading and singing them throughout the year. He’d expressed joy and pain through these scriptures.

Now he expresses the deepest pain through those words: abandonment, forsaken. Where are you?! Jesus is no textbook junkie. He knows it, he’s been there. He knows the kind of pain that causes people to think, just as the Psalmist did long before, that God was ignoring them.

The resurrection is coming, don’t worry. The temptation this week is to start talking about that right away. But let’s pause right here.

The last line of our reading for this week says:

So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard. Matthew 27:66 ESV

Maybe it’s Good Friday in your life right now. Maybe you feel like they’ve sealed the stone and secured the tomb. Part of the message of Christ’s life is that you’re not alone in that darkness. You’re not the first one to go through it.

Jesus came all the way down into our darkness. He never left the project, he never pulled out and scrapped the whole thing. In Christ, God told us the human experiment is worth it. Jesus, friend of losers, experienced humanity all the way through. From the minor annoyances of friends who don’t get it, to the darkness of feeling like God had abandoned him.

Jesus wept, says the shortest verse in the English Bible. He triumphed for us, he saved us, he wooed us, he ransomed us, but he also paused in the middle of it all and cried with us. This is what Passion week is about. Read the story again as you go through the week. Ask yourself, do I see how much he loves me? Do I see how much he loves others? Do I see Jesus?

 

 


Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life: Peter, Put Down Your Sword Watch video or read Matthew 26:51-54
  • Why do you think Peter did that? He was facing a large number of heavily armed soldiers and he chooses to pull out a blade. What was he thinking? Was he thinking?
  • Has it ever been painful or uncomfortable at first for you to forgive someone (no need to share detailed stories here). Was it ultimately liberating for you?
From the Sermon Jesus, Friend of Losers
  • Have you ever experienced being the “loser”? Been picked last for teams as a kid? Laughed milk out of your nose at the lunch table? {looking for funny stories here of a universal childhood experience}
  • Jesus often hung out with losers, and even embraced the role of loser in the end (before the triumph of the resurrection). What can we learn from a rightful Lord taking on the loser role? If you’ve ever been that loser before, did you learn anything? Did it bring you closer to who God wants you to be?
  • The 30 pieces of silver that Judas took to betray Jesus ended up being about $4,000 in today’s money – a paltry sum that brings a deeper air of sadness and emptiness to this betrayal. Jesus was betrayed in a grimy back-alley deal. What does that tell us about how much he loves us? That he would descend to these depths?
  • Jesus screamed: My God, my God why have you forsaken me? just before he died. He knows what it means to be human, including the feeling of being abandoned by God. Is it comforting to know that he’s been in this kind of darkness?
  • Shortly after the cry of abandonment, Jesus said, Father, “into your hands I commit my spirit.” He had predicted his crucifixion three times, and his resurrection, too. In the Garden of Gethsemane he knew what he was getting into, and he did it anyway, because he chose to do his Father’s will. Before the cry of dereliction, and after it, Jesus expressed confidence in what God would do for him. If he felt abandoned, how long did this feeling last? Did he really feel abandoned, or was he quoting Psalm 22:1 on behalf of all humanity? Was he really tempted in every respect just as we are?
Quote to ponder: “Only after a guilty verdict can there be a pardon.” ~M. Scott Peck

Sermon for April 10, 2020 – Good Friday (This can also be used for Maundy Thursday)

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 • Psalm 22:1-21 • Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9 • John 18:1-19:42

This week’s theme is The Passion. One suggestion is simply to read the passages from a modern translation with a bit of discussion and a prayer after each reading. Isaiah shares the prophecies about Jesus’ sacrifice. Psalm 22 is the Psalm Jesus quotes and is about God’s deliverance. Hebrew talks about Jesus being our High Priest, and the two chapters in John share Jesus’ arrest, trial, death and burial. The service below can be done with a meal, with snacks or just on it’s own. It is a candle service.

Good Friday

Suggestion: This service works best with 16 people or more. With a smaller group, members may need to read more than one passage. The congregation gathers around tables arranged in a large U with the communion table located in the open end. The communion table has a place setting for one, the Christ candle, as well as the communion elements. The fare is simple—homemade soups, vegetable trays, breads. It is evening, and the lights are somewhat dimmed. On the tables around the room are yet fifteen unlit candles, each having a couple of numbered verse references (one for lighting the candle and one for blowing the candle out) and matches. The meal begins with a prayer, conversation and fellowship.

Part way through the meal the room is hushed as the Christ candle is lit by the pastor, then one by one, the Scriptures of Christ’s last week are read, and the candles are lit. Then the pastor gives a brief meditation on the “Mandate of love” – Jesus’s command to his disciples to love one another.

Communion is observed simply—a hymn sung, the elements shared. Then the room lights dimmed way down, the readers begin again—the events of Jesus’ passion—with the conclusion of each reading, a candle extinguished. (You may need a small light or cell phone light to aid in the reading during this section.) After the last reading, the Christ candle is extinguished. The room is plunged into darkness. Silence, then a prayer of confession—a single candle lit in the hope of the resurrection.

The clean-up is one of hushed voices and quickly done—the congregation scattering till Sunday morning and the celebration of Easter.

Welcome to all!

Today, we are having a special candle service that I hope you find inspiring and thought provoking. We are going to read a number of scriptures with little commentary as we think through the final days of our Lord’s life on this earth.

This is not a funeral gathering because we know the end is actually the beginning. However, it is a somber time because we realize why Jesus came, why he gave up his equality, why he went to the cross, why he died – to save us.

All was done because of his amazing love for us.

Opening Prayer

So why do we call this “Good Friday?” There are three theories:

  1. Because it refers to Jesus’ victory over death and sin and led to the Resurrection—the very pinnacle of Christian celebrations.
  2. The word “Good” derives from God—so it is “God’s Friday.” This used to be in an old edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia, but there is no real basis for this.
  3. The word “good” is the word “Holy.” This agrees with other languages that refer to the day as “Sorrowful Friday,” “Sacred Friday” or “Passion Friday.” The day is Holy because the Holy One went to the cross in his love for us.

On this day, Jesus, the light of the world, willingly entered completely into our darkness by becoming our sin and taking on the penalty of sin—death. He did this so that we could live in the Light.

We will read 15 passages of Scripture and then light a candle after each reading. Let’s pause for a few moments between each reading to think about the events.

Please be quiet and attentive as the readings begin.

(Light the Christ Candle)

  1. Matthew 21:1-11, The Triumphal Entry

When they neared Jerusalem, Jesus sent two disciples to a village telling them they would find a donkey with her colt. “Untie her and bring them to me,” he said. “If anyone asks what you’re doing, say, ‘The Master needs them!’”

The disciples went and did exactly what Jesus told them to do. They led the donkey and colt out, laid some of their clothes on them, and Jesus mounted. Nearly all the people in the crowd threw their garments down on the road while others cut branches from the trees and threw them down as a welcome mat. Crowds went ahead and crowds followed, all of them calling out, “Hosanna to David’s son!” “Blessed is he who comes in God’s name!” “Hosanna in highest heaven!” (Light candle.)

  1. Matthew 21:12-17 Cleansing the Temple

Jesus went straight to the Temple and threw out everyone who had set up shop, buying and selling. He kicked over the tables of loan sharks and the stalls of dove menrchants. He said: “It is written: My house was designated a house of prayer; but you have made it a hangout for thieves.”

When the religious leaders saw what he was doing, and heard all the children running and shouting through the Temple, “Hosanna to David’s Son!” they were up in arms and took him to task. “Do you hear what these children are saying?”

Jesus said, “Yes, I hear them. And haven’t you read in God’s Word, ‘From the mouths of children and babies I’ll furnish a place of praise’?” (Light candle.)

  1. Mark 11:12-14, 19-25 Jesus curses the fig tree

As they left Bethany the next day, Jesus was hungry. He came to a fig tree in full leaf, but without fruit. He addressed the tree: “No one is going to eat fruit from you again—ever!” And his disciples overheard him.

In the morning they saw the fig tree, shriveled to a dry stick. Peter, remembering what had happened the previous day, said to him, “Rabbi, look—the fig tree you cursed is shriveled up!”

Jesus was matter-of-fact: “Embrace this God-life. Really embrace it, and nothing will be too much for you. This mountain, for instance: Just say, ‘Go jump in the lake’—and it’s as good as done. That’s why I urge you to pray for absolutely everything, ranging from small to large. Include everything as you embrace this God-life, and you’ll get God’s everything. (Light candle.)

  1. Mark 11:27-33   Jesus’ authority questioned

When they were back in Jerusalem and were walking through the Temple, the high priests, religious scholars, and leaders came up and demanded, “Show us your credentials. Who authorized you to speak and act like this?”

Jesus responded, “First answer my question and then I’ll present my credentials. About the baptism of John—who authorized it: heaven or humans? Tell me.”

They were on the spot, and knew it. “If we say ‘heaven,’ he’ll ask us why we didn’t believe John; if we say ‘humans,’ we’ll be up against it with the people because they all hold John up as a prophet.” They conceded. “We don’t know,” they said.

Jesus replied, “Then I won’t answer your question either.” (Light candle.)

  1. Luke 20:9-18 Parable of the tenants

Jesus told another story: “A man planted a vineyard and handed it over to farmhands as he went on a long trip. After some time he sent a servant back to collect the profits, but the farmhands beat him up and sent him off empty-handed. The man sent another servant. That one they beat black-and-blue, and sent him back. He tried a third time, again the servant was beaten and sent back.

Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘I’ll send my beloved son. They’re bound to respect my son.’

“But when the farmhands saw him coming, they quickly put their heads together. ‘This is our chance—this is the heir! Let’s kill him and have it all to ourselves.’ They killed him and threw him over the fence.

“What do you think the owner of the vineyard will do?   He’ll come and clean house. Then he’ll assign the care of the vineyard to others.” (Light candle.)

  1. Luke 21:5-19 Sign of the End

One day people were standing around talking about the Temple, remarking how beautiful it was when Jesus said, “The time is coming when every stone in that building will end up in a heap of rubble.”

They asked him, “Teacher, when is this going to happen?

“Watch out for the doomsday deceivers,” he said. “Many leaders are going to show up with forged identities claiming, ‘I’m the One,’ or, ‘The end is near.’ Don’t fall for any of that. When you hear of wars and uprisings, keep your head and don’t panic. This is routine history and no sign of the end.”

“Nation will fight nation and ruler fight ruler, over and over. Huge earthquakes will occur in various places. There will be famines. You’ll think at times that the very sky is falling.

“You’ll even be turned in by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends. Some of you will be killed. There’s no telling who will hate you because of me. Even so, every detail of your body and soul—even the hairs of your head!—is in my care; nothing of you will be lost. (Light candle.)

  1. John 12:20-36 Greeks come, predictions made

There were some Greeks in town who had come up to worship at the Feast. They approached Philip and said: “Sir, we want to see Jesus. Can you help us?”

Philip went and told Andrew. Andrew and Philip together told Jesus who said, “The time time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over.

This is why I came in the first place. I’ll say, ‘Father, put your glory on display.'”

A voice came out of the sky: “I have glorified it, and I’ll glorify it again.”

Jesus said, “The voice didn’t come for me but for you. I, as I am lifted up from the earth, will attract everyone to me and gather them around me.” He put it this way to show how he was going to be put to death. (Light candle.)

  1. Matthew 26:1-13 Anointing

When Jesus was at Bethany, a guest of Simon the Leper, a woman came up to him as he was eating dinner and anointed him with a bottle of very expensive perfume. When the disciples saw what was happening, they were furious. “That’s criminal! This could have been sold for a lot and the money handed out to the poor.”

When Jesus realized what was going on, he intervened. “Why are you giving this woman a hard time? She has just done something wonderfully significant for me. You will have the poor with you every day for the rest of your lives, but not me. When she poured this perfume on my body, what she really did was anoint me for burial. You can be sure that wherever in the whole world the Message is preached, what she has just done is going to be remembered and admired.” (Light candle.)

  1. Matthew 26:14-16 Betrayal

That is when one of the Twelve, the one named Judas Iscariot, went to the cabal of high priests and said, “What will you give me if I hand him over to you?” They settled on thirty silver pieces. He began looking for just the right moment to hand him over. (Light candle.)

  1. Luke 22:7-14 Preparation

The Day of Unleavened Bread came, the day the Passover lamb was butchered. Jesus sent Peter and John off, saying, “Go prepare the Passover for us so we can eat it together.”

They said, “Where do you want us to do this?”

He said, “Keep your eyes open as you enter the city. A man carrying a water jug will meet you. Follow him home. Then speak with the owner of the house: The Teacher wants to know, ‘Where is the guest room where I can eat the Passover meal with my disciples?’ He will show you a spacious second-story room, swept and ready. Prepare the meal there.”

They left, found everything just as he told them, and prepared the Passover meal.

When it was time, he sat down, all the apostles with him, and said, “You’ve no idea how much I have looked forward to eating this Passover meal with you before I enter my time of suffering. It’s the last one I’ll eat until we all eat it together in the kingdom of God.” (Light candle.)

  1. John 13:2-17 Washing feet

Just before the Passover Feast, Jesus knew that the time had come to leave this world to go to the Father. He knew that the Father had put him in complete charge of everything, that he came from God and was on his way back to God. So he got up from the supper table, set aside his robe, and put on an apron. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the feet of the disciples, drying them with his apron.

After he had finished washing their feet, he took his robe, put it back on, and went back to his place at the table.

Then he said, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You address me as ‘Teacher’ and ‘Master,’ and rightly so. That is what I am. So if I, the Master and Teacher, washed your feet, you must now wash each other’s feet. I’ve laid down a pattern for you. What I’ve done, you do. I’m only pointing out the obvious. A servant is not ranked above his master; an employee doesn’t give orders to the employer. If you understand what I’m telling you, act like it—and live a blessed life. (Light candle.)

  1. John 13:18-30 Predicts betrayal

I’m not including all of you in this. I know precisely whom I’ve selected, so as not to interfere with the fulfillment of this Scripture:

The one who ate bread at my table… Turned on his heel against me.

“I’m telling you all this ahead of time so that when it happens you will believe that I am who I say I am. Make sure you get this right: Receiving someone I send is the same as receiving me, just as receiving me is the same as receiving the One who sent me.”

After he said these things, Jesus became visibly upset, and then he told them why. “One of you is going to betray me.”

Jesus turned to Judas and said, “What you must do, do quickly.”

Judas left. It was night. (Light candle.)

  1. John 13:31-38 Predicts Peters denial

When he had left, Jesus said, “Children, I am with you for only a short time longer. You are going to look high and low for me. But just as I told the Jews, I’m telling you: ‘Where I go, you are not able to come.’

Simon Peter asked, “Master, just where are you going?”

Jesus answered, “You can’t now follow me where I’m going. You will follow later.”

“Master,” said Peter, “why can’t I follow now? I’ll lay down my life for you!”

“Really? You’ll lay down your life for me? The truth is that before the rooster crows, you’ll deny me three times.” (Light candle.)

  1. John 14:1-6; 16-21 Comfort

“Don’t let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live. And you already know the road I’m taking.”

Thomas said, “Master, we have no idea where you’re going. How do you expect us to know the way?”

Jesus said, “I am the Way, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him. You’ve even seen him!” (Light candle.)

  1. Luke 22:15-17 Passover

Again, Jesus said: “You’ve no idea how much I have looked forward to eating this Passover meal with you before I enter my time of suffering. It’s the last one I’ll eat until we all eat it together in the kingdom of God.”

Taking the cup, he blessed it, then said, “Take this and pass it among you. As for me, I’ll not drink wine again until the kingdom of God arrives.” (Light candle.)

Celebration of the Lord’s Supper

Congregation recites The Lord’s Prayer

Exhortation – The New Command – John 13:34-35

Part 2: Passion of the Lord Jesus Christ

  1. Matthew 26:30-35 Jesus’ warning

They sang a hymn and went directly to Mount Olives. Then Jesus told them, “Before the night’s over, you’re going to fall to pieces because of what happens to me.

Peter broke in, “Even if everyone else falls to pieces on account of you, I won’t.”

“Don’t be so sure,” Jesus said. “This very night, before the rooster crows up the dawn, you will deny me three times.”

Peter protested, “Even if I had to die with you, I would never deny you.” All the others said the same thing. (Blow out candle.)

  1. Matthew 26:36–46 Gethsemane

Then Jesus went with them to a garden called Gethsemane and told his disciples, “Stay here while I go over there and pray.” Taking along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he plunged into an agonizing sorrow and said: “This sorrow is crushing my life out. Stay here and keep vigil with me.”

Going a little ahead, he fell on his face, praying, “My Father, if there is any way, get me out of this. But please, not what I want. You, what do you want?”

When he came back to his disciples, he found them sound asleep. He then left them a second time, and then a third time, again praying: “My Father, if there is no other way than this, drinking this cup to the dregs, I’m ready. Do it your way.”

When he came back the last time, he said, “My time is up, the Son of Man is about to be handed over to the hands of sinners. Get up! Let’s get going! My betrayer is here.” (Blow out candle.)

  1. Matthew 26:47–56 Arrested

The words were barely out of his mouth when Judas (the one from the Twelve) showed up, and with him a gang from the high priests and religious leaders brandishing swords and clubs. He went straight to Jesus, greeted him, “How are you, Rabbi?” and kissed him.

Then they came on him—grabbed him and roughed him up. One of those with Jesus pulled his sword and, taking a swing at the Chief Priest’s servant, cut off his ear.

Jesus said, “Put your sword back where it belongs. Don’t you realize that I am able right now to call to my Father, and twelve companies—more, if I want them—of fighting angels would be here, battle-ready? But if I did that, how would the Scriptures come true that say this is the way it has to be?”

Then all the disciples cut and ran. (Blow out candle.)

  1. John 18:15–27 Peter’s denial

Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. That other disciple was known to the Chief Priest, and so he went in with Jesus to the Chief Priest’s courtyard. Peter had to stay outside. Then the other disciple went out, spoke to the doorkeeper, and got Peter in.

The young woman who was the doorkeeper said to Peter, “Aren’t you one of this man’s disciples?”

He said, “No, I’m not.”

The servants and police had made a fire because of the cold and were huddled there warming themselves. Peter stood with them, trying to get warm. The others there said to him, “Aren’t you one of his disciples?”

He denied it, “Not me.”

One of the Chief Priest’s servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, said, “Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?”

Again, Peter denied it. Just then a rooster crowed. (Blow out candle.)

  1. Luke 22:63-71 Beaten and condemned

The men in charge of Jesus began poking fun at him, slapping him around. They put a blindfold on him and taunted, “Who hit you that time?”

When it was morning, the religious leaders of the people and the high priests and scholars all got together and brought him before their High Council. They said, “Are you the Messiah?”

He answered, “If I said yes, you wouldn’t believe me. If I asked what you meant by your question, you wouldn’t answer me. So here’s what I have to say: From here on the Son of Man takes his place at God’s right hand, the place of power.”

They all said, “So you admit your claim to be the Son of God?”

“You’re the ones who keep saying it,” he said.

But they had made up their minds, “Why do we need any more evidence? We’ve all heard him as good as say it himself.” (Blow out candle.)

  1. John 18:28-38 Pilate

They led Jesus to the Roman governor’s palace. Pilate came out to them and spoke. “What charge do you bring against this man?”

They said, “If he hadn’t been doing something evil, do you think we’d be here bothering you?”

Pilate said, “You take him. Judge him by your law.”

The Jews said, “We’re not allowed to kill anyone.”

Pilate went back into the palace and called for Jesus. He said, “Are you the ‘King of the Jews’?”

Jesus answered, “You tell me. Because I am King, I was born and entered the world so that I could witness to the truth. Everyone who cares for truth, who has any feeling for the truth, recognizes my voice.”

Pilate said, “What is truth?”

Then he went back out to the Jews and told them, “I find nothing wrong in this man. It’s your custom that I pardon one prisoner at Passover. Do you want me to pardon the ‘King of the Jews’?” (Blow out candle.)

  1. Luke 23:5-21 Herod

But they were vehement. “He’s stirring up unrest among the people with his teaching, disturbing the peace everywhere, starting in Galilee and now all through Judea. He’s a dangerous man, endangering the peace.”

When Pilate heard that, he asked, “So, he’s a Galilean?” And he sent Jesus to Herod.

Herod was delighted when Jesus showed up. He had wanted for a long time to see him and hoped to see Jesus do something spectacular. He peppered him with questions. Jesus didn’t answer—not one word. But the high priests and religion scholars were right there, saying their piece, strident and shrill in their accusations.

Mightily offended, Herod turned on Jesus. His soldiers joined in, taunting and jeering. Then they dressed him up in an elaborate king costume and sent him back to Pilate.

Pilate called in the high priests, rulers, and the others and said, “You brought this man to me as a disturber of the peace. I examined him in front of all of you and found there was nothing to your charge. And neither did Herod, for he has sent him back here with a clean bill of health. It’s clear that he’s done nothing wrong, let alone anything deserving death. I’m going to warn him to watch his step and let him go.”

At that, the crowd went wild: “Kill him! Give us Barabbas!” (Barabbas had been thrown in prison for starting a riot in the city and for murder.) Pilate still wanted to let Jesus go, and so spoke out again.

But they kept shouting back, “Crucify! Crucify him!” (Blow out candle.)

  1. John 19:1–17 Crown of Thorns

So Pilate took Jesus and had him whipped. The soldiers, having braided a crown from thorns, set it on his head, threw a purple robe over him, and approached him with, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Then they greeted him with slaps in the face.

Pilate went back out again and said to them, “I present him to you, but I want you to know that I do not find him guilty of any crime.” Just then Jesus came out wearing the thorn crown and purple robe.

When the high priests and police saw him, they shouted in a frenzy, “Crucify! Crucify!”

Pilate told them, “You take him. You crucify him. I find nothing wrong with him.”

The Jews answered, “We have a law, and by that law he must die because he claimed to be the Son of God.”

When Pilate heard this, he became even more scared. He went back into the palace and said to Jesus, “Where did you come from?”

Jesus gave no answer.

Pilate said, “You won’t talk? Don’t you know that I have the authority to pardon you, and the authority to—crucify you?”

Jesus said, “You haven’t a shred of authority over me except what has been given you from heaven. That’s why the one who betrayed me to you has committed a far greater fault.”

Pilate caved in to the crowds demand and turned Jesus over to be crucified. (Blow out candle.)

  1. Luke 23:26-37 Crucified on Calvary

As they led him off, they made Simon, a man from Cyrene who happened to be coming in from the countryside, carry the cross behind Jesus. A huge crowd of people followed, along with women weeping and carrying on.

Two others, both criminals, were taken along with him for execution.

When they got to the place called Skull Hill, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right, the other on his left.

Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Dividing up his clothes, they threw dice for them. The people stood there staring at Jesus, and the ringleaders made faces, taunting, “He saved others. Let’s see him save himself! The Messiah of God—ha! The Chosen—ha!”

The soldiers also came up and poked fun at him, making a game of it. They toasted him with sour wine: “So you’re King of the Jews! Save yourself!” (Blow out candle.)

  1. John 19:19–22 “King of the Jews”

Pilate wrote a sign and had it placed on the cross. It read:

Jesus the Nazarene

the king of the Jews.

Many of the Jews read the sign because the place where Jesus was crucified was right next to the city. It was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. The Jewish high priests objected. “Don’t write,” they said to Pilate, “‘The King of the Jews.’ Make it, ‘This man said, ‘I am the King of the Jews.'” (Blow out candle.)

  1. Luke 23:39–43 Two Thieves

One of the criminals hanging alongside cursed him: “Some Messiah you are! Save yourself! Save us!”

But the other one made him shut up: “Have you no fear of God? You’re getting the same as him. We deserve this, but not him—he did nothing to deserve this.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you enter your kingdom.”

He said, “Don’t worry, I will. Today you will join me in paradise.” (Blow out candle.)

  1. John 19:23–27 Divided Garments

When they crucified him, the Roman soldiers took his clothes and divided them up four ways, to each soldier a fourth. But his robe was seamless, a single piece of weaving, so they said to each other, “Let’s not tear it up. Let’s throw dice to see who gets it.” This confirmed the Scripture that said, “They divided up my clothes among them and threw dice for my coat.” (The soldiers validated the Scriptures!)

While the soldiers were looking after themselves, Jesus’ mother, his aunt, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene stood at the foot of the cross. Jesus saw his mother and the disciple he loved standing near her. He said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that moment the disciple accepted her as his own mother. (Blow out candle.)

  1. Matthew 27:45–48 Jesus quotes the Psalm

From noon to three, the whole earth was dark. Around mid-afternoon Jesus groaned out of the depths, crying loudly, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

Some bystanders who heard him said, “He’s calling for Elijah.” One of them ran and got a sponge soaked in sour wine and lifted it on a stick so he could drink. The others joked, “Don’t be in such a hurry. Let’s see if Elijah comes and saves him.” (Blow out candle.)

  1. Luke 23:45b-48 Into God’s hands

The Temple curtain split right down the middle. Jesus called loudly, “Father, I place my life in your hands!” Then he breathed his last.

When the captain there saw what happened, he honored God: “This man was innocent! A good man, and innocent!”

All who had come around as spectators to watch the show, when they saw what actually happened, were overcome with grief and headed home. Those who knew Jesus well, along with the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a respectful distance and kept vigil. (Blow out candle.)

  1. John 19:28-37 It is finished

Jesus, seeing that everything had been completed so that the Scripture record might also be complete, then said, “I’m thirsty.”

A jug of sour wine was standing by. Someone put a sponge soaked with the wine on a javelin and lifted it to his mouth. After he took the wine, Jesus said, “It’s done . . . complete.” Bowing his head, he offered up his spirit.

Then the Jews, since it was the day of Sabbath preparation, and so the bodies wouldn’t stay on the crosses over the Sabbath (it was a high holy day that year), petitioned Pilate that their legs be broken to speed death, and the bodies taken down. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first man crucified with Jesus, and then the other. When they got to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead, so they didn’t break his legs. One of the soldiers stabbed him in the side with his spear. Blood and water gushed out.

The eyewitness to these things has presented an accurate report. He saw it himself and is telling the truth so that you, also, will believe.

These things that happened confirmed the Scripture, “Not a bone in his body was broken,” and the other Scripture that reads, “They will stare at the one they pierced.” (Blow out candle.)

Christ’s Candle extinguished

Silent Prayers

Mark 10:33 – 34 (light one Candle)

Back on the road, they set out for Jerusalem. Jesus had a head start on them, and they were following, puzzled and not just a little afraid. He took the Twelve and began again to go over what to expect next. “Listen to me carefully. We’re on our way up to Jerusalem. When we get there, the Son of Man will be betrayed to the religious leaders and scholars. They will sentence him to death. Then they will hand him over to the Romans, who will mock and spit on him, give him the third degree, and kill him. After three days he will rise alive.”

Prayer of dismissal

Sermon for April 12, 2020 Easter

Acts 10:34-43 • Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 • Colossians 3:1-4 • John 20:1-18

This week’s theme is Raised to New Life. In Jeremiah we see the everlasting love and faithfulness of God calling Israel to himself to be his people. Psalm 118 is read anew in light of the resurrection, where a new day of rejoicing is made. Peter preaches in Acts the gospel proclamation and Paul writes to the Colossians of their new life hidden in the risen Christ. The sermon from John 20 tells the Easter story by walking with Mary Magdalene along her journey of the resurrection, where Jesus lifts her into new life with the Father.

The Journey of Resurrection

Have Psalm 118:24 read at the beginning of the worship service, and then have someone read John 20:1-18 just prior to the sermon.

Happy Easter! Let us begin with the verse read at the beginning of today’s celebration service. Psalm 118:24 says “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Easter is no doubt the high day in the cycle of Christian worship. It is the center of the Christian calendar with Christmas, Epiphany and Lent leading up to it and then Ascension Sunday, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday flowing out from it. But it is not this specific day of celebration that has brought us together this morning. It is the one that this day celebrates who has gathered us to himself in his name: Jesus the Christ. For what we see on Easter morning is that the Lord is alive and among us. He is still calling us to himself and meeting us where we are. Even today, the Lord is lifting us into his resurrection life. Alister McGrath provides a fitting intro for our Easter message today:

“The resurrection of Jesus is a sign of God’s purpose and power to restore his creation to its full stature and integrity…. In the aftermath of Gethsemane, we catch the fragrance of Eden…. The resurrection is like the first day of a new creation.” (Alister McGrath, What Was God Doing on the Cross?, 51-52)

So, Jesus is leading us today in our celebration. In his leading he brings us further into the new creation he has inaugurated through his life, death and resurrection. He’s not leading us to a potential possibility or in an idealistic pursuit. Rather, he is leading from the sure ground of his own resurrection. Potentiality has become reality. Ideal has become real, and myth gives way to fact. Our response is to believe and live out of the hope found in Jesus. After all, Easter is a real celebration.

Today, we can have our faith renewed by the story of Easter found in John 20. But we don’t get far in the story before we must pause for consideration.

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…” (John 20:1 NRSV)

As we gather in the budding warmth of spring anticipating longer daylight and blooming life all around, we are also mindful of a darkness that stretches across all creation. Although we celebrate the risen Jesus today, we do so while it is “still dark.” Like those first disciples who discovered the empty tomb, we too are just beginning to see the signs of a new creation. The darkness can dampen the celebration, but it does not change the reality of what we celebrate. The Light of the World has risen. Just as longer shadows are found when the sun rises early in the morning, so does the shadow of death appear when we first believe. The way John tells the story of Easter lets us know that faith in Jesus is a journey and a progression. Although the story begins after the fact of Jesus being raised, the disciples struggle to see and believe in this reality. Aren’t you glad John tells the story like this? We are called to believe “while it is still dark.” There are days where we can barely make out any light at all, days when our journey feels more like walking to the tomb where life has been taken away rather than walking with the Lord. But none-the-less, Jesus has risen.

Although “it was still dark,” we find that Mary Magdalene was able to see the first sign that something had changed:

…the stone had been removed from the tomb.

Perhaps we are so familiar with this story we forget how difficult it is to discern initial signs of change. Have you noticed how easy we may resist change even when it’s a good change? Change presents us with one of our greatest fears—a loss of control. So, here is Mary, stumbling upon a change that, in hindsight, we know to be a very good thing. The stone has been rolled away. But for Mary in this story, all she sees is an empty tomb. Her response is to run back to Simon Peter and some unnamed disciple to report her alarming discovery:

They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him. (verse 2 NRSV)

Notice she is afraid on two fronts.

First, she fears some unidentified “They” have taken the Lord. “They” could be the Roman authorities or perhaps the religious rulers. Or maybe just grave robbers. Whoever “they” are, they have taken what little was left for Mary to hold on to. For Mary, Jesus was her everything. He was the one who restored her and the one who raised Lazarus back from the dead. How can she go on without Jesus to call on? But now death had taken him from her. But at least she has his tomb to visit. At least she can come here to lean on the stone. As long as the stone is in place, at least nothing more can be taken from her. Does Mary’s fear of the “they” echo in our lives? Do we live in fear that “they”—whoever they are and wherever they come from—will rob us of what we so dearly cling to? If we can somehow barricade all that we hold dear behind some immovable stone, we can maintain control.

Mary’s second fear is fear of the unknown. She does “not know where they have laid him.” Jesus is no longer where she expected to find him. This will be a major adjustment for us as we come to believe Jesus is risen. It means Jesus is alive and free to roam as he pleases. You can’t control him or put him in a box. Certainly not a box made for death. Our journey with Jesus will be on his terms, not ours. This is a walk of faith, not a walk where we are in control, trusting our own leading.

If you are a Mary Poppins fan, you probably saw the film, “Mary Poppins Returns.” It seems Mary Magdalene could have written the lyrics to one of the songs in this sequel. It’s a song called “A Conversation,” sung by Michael, the left-behind widower who lost his beloved wife Kate. Michael is in a dusty attic rummaging around old memories. Read the lyrics and see if you can hear Mary Magdalene’s fears in this one-sided conversation.

Maybe that was the question Mary and we have of Jesus: “Where’d you go?” We may prefer the predictability of Jesus staying put. But he is risen and afoot. For Mary, this question is not settled yet. She will raise it again with some angels and then with Jesus himself. Three times Mary voices concern that Jesus has been taken away to a place she doesn’t know.

But first, John records Peter’s and an unnamed disciple’s response to hearing Mary’s discovery.

Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. (verse 3 NRSV)

We probably don’t need to make too much of the foot race that seemed to take place between these two disciples. But we can see it as a picture of the different pace to belief we may experience. Sometimes we take the lead and sometimes we follow. But let’s take a look at the unnamed disciple today. We are told that he is “the one whom Jesus loved.” Who is this unnamed disciple? Some say it may have been Lazarus who was raised by Jesus and referred to as the one that Jesus loved. More commonly, people see the beloved disciple as John, the author of this Gospel. Maybe he is hiding his identity so as not to distract from Peter, who has a central place in the narrative. Or, maybe it is someone else. But for today it’s you—you are the beloved disciple. Today in this story Mary is running to you with the claim that the stone has been rolled away. John wants you to know that you are loved by Jesus, just as he knows he is, and he is inviting you to look into the tomb with Peter. What will you see?

The disciples saw a startling sight. Peter went in:

He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. (verses :6-7 NRSV)

This is not the work of grave robbers. If someone wanted to take the body, why would they leave behind his wrappings, neatly put away? This is what the disciples saw, and we are told the other disciple “saw and believed.” However, their belief still seems to be lacking:

For as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. (verse 9 NRSV)

The result is, they “returned to their homes.” They know something big has changed, but they have not yet understood the scriptures in light of that change. Often when we experience changes, even very good ones, it will take time for those changes to have full effect. Until we understand the truth, we will often just return home to what we know. The scriptures move us forward, more deeply into the changes God has brought about.

Now we return to Mary who must have returned with the other two disciples.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb. (verse 11 NRSV)

Notice, she never actually enters the tomb. Can you feel the pain Mary had to push through to look into the tomb? Mary had to face her loss, as painful as that was for her. She had to come to a place where she would let go of her desire to be in control. When she looked in that tomb, she opened herself up to know the truth. This was a moment of vulnerability and courage. It will be painful for us to revisit tombs that Jesus has vacated, especially if we don’t know where he has gone. Because wherever he has gone, he has taken our losses with him. We will have to choose to trust him with our empty tombs. This painful step in Mary’s journey fills her tear-soaked eyes with an incredible sight.

She saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” (verses 12-13 NRSV)

They know something she doesn’t. The darkness is lifting, and they know it’s Easter. This is a day of joy, not tears. Her answer reveals that she is still fearful of what is unfolding before her.

“They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” (verse 13 NRSV)

This is the second time she has said these words.

Before we get to the third time, let’s take a moment to drink in the picture Mary saw. Two angels, in white. One at either side of where Jesus once laid. This is an interesting description of what Mary saw as she peered into the tomb. John has already introduced the Garden motif in his Gospel, and he will bring it into this story in just a moment. So, is it possible that this scene can remind us of two other angels who were standing guard between two sides of one entrance? John is not explicit, but since it’s a story, we can explore a little.

After the fall, God placed angels with a flaming sword to guard the entrance back into the Garden (Gen. 3:24). Sin had created a barrier into God’s presence that no one could cross. Now we have an image of two angels, not with flaming swords, but at least dressed in white. They seemed to be on guard once again, only this time guarding what was once the death of Jesus. Mary has been concerned about where Jesus was laid. But right before her is evidence that he is not laying around at all. It seems that anyone looking to enter God’s presence by coming to tombs will be turned away. The entrance into God’s presence has stood up and walked out of the tomb. It’s not up to us to find our way back into the Garden. Jesus, the Door, the Way, is on the move finding us. Even death has been turned on its hinges to swing open into new life.

After she stated her concern for the second time, she “turned around…” Remember, Mary did not enter the tomb. So, at this moment she is standing outside the tomb but has turned her back on it. She knows there is nothing for her in the tomb. This is progress. In her turning she finds herself face to face with Jesus. But we also find that “she did not know that it was Jesus.”

At this point you may be wanting to jump into the story and grab Mary to tell her, “Wake up, girl. It’s Jesus standing right here in front of you. Open your eyes.” But Jesus knows how to bring us around. He is God’s Word that opens our eyes. He starts with the same question the angels had asked but adds one of his own.

“Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” (verse 15 NRSV)

These two questions go together. Jesus is connecting Mary’s tears to her longing for him. Our tears tell us there is more, leading us to look further. With each loss, we come to know we are made to belong. Mary is almost home, but she must state her concern one last time. Only this time it is stated to Jesus himself, except she thinks she is talking to the “gardener.”

John is clever here in his story telling. For in fact, she is talking to the Gardener, only he’s not the gardener who keeps up burial places. He is the Gardener walking in the cool of the day, bringing God’s presence back to his lost children. He comes to Mary first, and she responds with:

“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” (verse 15 NRSV)

Now Mary wonders if the man before her is responsible for her grief. We may wonder the same when we don’t recognize Jesus for who he is. She has been concerned that someone has taken him away. Now she is offering to do the same. If she can take Jesus’ body away, then she can regain control of her loss. She can find another tomb to lay him in. We may find ourselves doing the same. In our grief we want to find Jesus right where we put him. Have you ever laid Jesus in a tomb you think you can control? Maybe we lay Jesus in an unhealthy relationship. Or perhaps he lays in an incessant pursuit for money. For some, he may even be laid to rest at the bottom of a bottle. But try as we may, Jesus has risen and is not to be found lying in empty tombs.

At this point you may wonder if Mary will ever get it. She is standing face to face with Jesus, speaking to him and still does not recognize him. She still sees him as being taken away and laid somewhere she doesn’t know. If you could jump into the story you probably would have a million things you could say to her. You may want to remind her of the rolled away stone and the empty tomb and try to convince her that this is proof that Jesus is alive. Maybe you would want to dismantle all the arguments that Jesus didn’t rise on Easter morning. Surely if we use our words convincingly with irrefutable logic, we can get Mary to see the truth of the resurrection. Many books have been written filled with words of logical, ironclad arguments aimed at convincing others that Jesus has indeed risen.

But maybe we should simply hold back and let Jesus speak. After all, he is the Word of God. This Word has the power to speak the entire cosmos into existence. And here in this story we get to hear the words he chooses to say to Mary to open her eyes. He uses only one. “Mary.” This was probably the last thing Mary expected to hear from the “gardener.” Perhaps, it’s the last thing you expect to hear this morning. Perhaps you were expecting to hear proof upon proof that Jesus has risen and therefore you should believe. Maybe you were expecting a cascade of words aimed at telling you where you can find Jesus, sending you back on a frantic search. Or maybe you weren’t expecting any words at all. At least not for you. But Jesus speaks the only word that no one can dismiss as spoken personally to them: your name. That’s what we see in the story. Jesus restores all that Mary has lost by speaking her name. And her words of response are recorded as well:

She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). (verse 16 NRSV)

Notice the journey Jesus has Mary on. He begins by addressing her politely with “Woman,” which she responds in kind with the respective address of “Sir.” But Jesus knows she is not grieving over the loss of cordial and considerate relationships. Her tears run much deeper than that. So he addresses her by name, “Mary.” She responds by addressing him according to their personal connection. “Teacher.” Jesus has restored their relationship. But her journey is not complete. Jesus needs to bring her to one more step in their relationship.

He is going to give her a deeper name. He says to her:

“Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (verse 17 NRSV)

Do you see what Jesus has done?

First, he tells her that she cannot control their relationship. “Do not hold on to me…” Jesus is not to be a possession. We don’t keep him secure in a tomb. Jesus is not our little pet on a leash that we allow in the house occasionally. He is risen and he is Lord. We must trust and obey him in the relationship. He is free and will not be contained by our attempts to hold on to him. Jesus is not done with bringing us into the fullness of his restored creation. We cannot hold him down to our expectations. He will not let us settle for less than the full perfection of his resurrected life that culminates with his ascension back to the Father.

Second, Jesus has moved Mary’s relationship with him beyond how she related to him during his earthly ministry. She is now to relate to him as her brother. Her real name still awaits her. But it’s a name that is given to her by Jesus’ heavenly Father. Her relationship is now to be one where Jesus’ Father is hers. She is being made into a child of God. How does she respond to her new identity as a child of God? She obeys by going back to her “brothers,” as a sister in Christ, to tell them she has “seen the Lord.” And because of her obedience, we have this story to read on Easter morning.

Sisters and brothers, may God lift you today higher into the glorious hope of our risen Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen!


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • How did the story of Paco in the Speaking of Life video make you feel about the Father’s word of forgiveness in Jesus? Can you relate to Paco? Can you also relate to Paco’s father?
  • The sermon drew attention to the fact that “it was still dark” on Easter morning. Does this detail in the story help you relate our Easter celebration when so much darkness exists in our world? Discuss!
  • Mary Magdalene struggled to adjust to the changes she was encountering at the empty tomb. Can you identify with Mary’s struggle to adjust to change, even when the changes are good ones?
  • Mary was afraid that “they” had taken the Lord away. In what ways do we fear the nameless “they” and what they can take away from us?
  • Can you identify with Mary’s fear of the unknown as she did “not know where they had laid him?”
  • In what ways do we try to control out of fear of changes and the unknown? Can you think of times you fought changes that were good for you or times that you wanted to keep the status quo even when it was bad?
  • Discuss how Mary’s experience on Easter morning was a journey of faith. Can you recount how the Lord has led you in your journey to grow your faith in him?
  • How might the resurrection of Jesus challenge our desire to be in control? In what ways do we try to “hold on to Jesus” instead of trusting his work in us?

Sermon for April 19, 2020

No longer must we suffer from an empty life where we feel cut off from God and from each other. Jesus created the connection which revealed God’s heart for all humanity.

Psalm 16:1-9 • Acts 2:14a, 22-32 • 1 Peter 1:3-9 • John 20:19-31

The theme this week is witnessing resurrection. In Acts 2, Peter witnesses to the resurrection, telling the people that their story has been re-written and the interpretation is here at last. In Psalm 16, the poet speaks about always having hope in God’s vindication (resurrection) before him no matter what’s going on. In 1 Peter 1, the apostle encourages the community that their resurrection reality can’t be touched or tarnished by human hands but is secure in God’s hands. Finally, our sermon, “Blessed Are Those Who Doubt,” is based on John 20. Thomas the great doubter becomes the great witness and theologian as he declares Jesus to be “My Lord and my God.”

Blessed Are Those Who Doubt

The phrase “doubting Thomas” has been used for centuries. Every time someone doesn’t see the big picture or believe the ends can come together, we might sneer and call them a “doubting Thomas.”

Except by name, Thomas shows up only in the Gospel of John. He has a couple of one-liners, and then one famous scene that gave him his nickname. Let’s look today at who he might have been, what he may have been like as a person, at his later ministry and finally his death for the cause of Christ.

All of the disciples’ lives were transformed. Matthew went from a user and a perceived traitor to a great champion and a servant. Peter went from a loose-cannon hothead to a dependable and strong leader of the church. Jude went from the paranoid worrywart to the fierce guardian of the gospel.

One theme we see through all of them is that God is the fire that burns but does not consume. Jesus doesn’t demolish the traits and personalities of those he interacts with—he redeems them. He makes brashness into courage; he makes paranoia into wisdom; he makes passivity into present-ness and quiet strength. The forge of a gospel-infused life burns away the impurities to make them pure, with integrity throughout.

One theme we see through all of them is that God is the fire that burns but does not consume. Jesus doesn’t demolish the traits and personalities of those he interacts with—he redeems them. He makes brashness into courage; he makes paranoia into wisdom; he makes passivity into present-ness and quiet strength. The forge of a gospel-infused life burns away the impurities to make them pure, with integrity throughout.

One famous example is the British theologian and thinker C.S. Lewis – a very fitting person for today’s sermon. He lived in England in the first half of the 20th century as part of the well-educated upper class. In his part of society, it was a time of intellectually arrogant atheism in which philosophers thought they had discovered the truth about the human situation and were finally freeing all of us from the shackles of religion and faith. Lewis was part of this until, through his independent research (and, as he knew later, the leading of the Holy Spirit), he thought his way into becoming a Christian. He came to a crisis of faith in his atheism and realized he couldn’t deny the claims of Christ.

But God never called him away from the halls of academia; Lewis remained a professor at Oxford until he died. God used his rigorous mind and academic training, which had written off Christianity altogether, to instead defend the faith. Lewis wrote some of the most important books of theology that have been published in the last hundred years and brought untold numbers to Christ.

God doesn’t want to demolish us; he wants to redeem us. There are other faiths in the world that believe that everything you are is evil and that God wants to wipe it all out before he can come into your life. Some people meditate their personalities into oblivion or set up so many rules that they can’t even move without making God mad somehow. But Jesus isn’t about that. We don’t see him destroy the men and women he chose to be his inner circle. We see him correct them and reform them, but we also see him cherish and celebrate them.

So, Thomas is one of Jesus’ apostles. Later tradition says that he was an architect, and that may be true. He seems to have a systematic mind, putting some things together and complaining when things don’t quite fit together. But what he’s known for most famously is doubt.

Doubt has a strange reputation in the Christian world. It’s a bit like bad breath. Everyone’s had it, it’s not an uncommon occurrence. But nobody wants to talk about it, and nobody wants to be around it. And when one does encounter it—from the co-worker who corners you in your cubicle or that guy who’s been eating all the garlic bread at the party—it seems like you’ve never encountered it before! Surely MY breath has never been that bad. Surely if that person would just brush their teeth or use a breath mint or have some consideration for others, it would be taken care of!

Doubt is similar. If we have a question about certain parts of our faith, we hide it. We’re embarrassed by it. We wonder: is doubt sinful? We’ve been told over and over by preachers that if we just had enough faith, our doubt would all disappear. Everyone else seems to be on board, so let’s put those party-pooper questions away for the moment, get with the program! Surely no one will notice my bad breath, I’ll just put my hand over my mouth when I talk!

Doubt is NOT sin. Doubt is as much sin as sneezing or blinking in the sunlight. It’s a reaction, it’s part of the way God made you. Doubt is a protective, it’s a cleansing agent for your mind.

Part of the reason Hitler was successful was because he taught people not to doubt. He didn’t give them answers—he gave them slogans and fervor. People turned their brains off and put these slogans in where the questions should have been. And we all know the result. Doubt is made to protect us from such things, to call our brains to wake up to what’s coming our way.

It can go too far, though. Doubt seems to be the mantra of our age. It is a time of dogmatic cynicism. A time of not believing in anything. Our automatic reflex is to doubt. Just look at the movies. Many times, if there is a pastor or other spiritual leader in a movie, you just have to wait a little to find out that he/she is secretly stealing money or sleeping with their secretary. The “good” character is often a farce, often a fake.

We live in a world in which a handshake doesn’t mean anything anymore—you need an army of lawyers to make and enforce any kind of agreement. Instead of any sort of community of belief, everyone picks out their own worldview because they don’t trust anyone anymore. Doubt is the default setting in our culture.

This cynical place is where Thomas seems to be by the end of Gospel of John. He’s followed the wild ride of Jesus’ career and seen him die. Jesus looks like all the other “messiahs” that came through town, upset the wrong apple cart, and ended up dead or skipped town. Thomas is over it, and not about to let himself get fooled again.

Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:24-29 ESV)

Thomas uses some very strong language here. If you look at the original Greek, he basically says: Unless I can ram my hand into the wounds themselves, I’m not interested. None of these old pictures where Thomas is timidly touching Jesus. He says unless I jam my hand into the wounds, then you can all go jump in a lake.

For the doubter, Jesus makes a special trip. We’ve seen Jesus take compassion on the physically sick and broken and rejected, we’ve seen him take compassion on the morally corrupt and sinful, and we now see him take compassion on one of the great doubters in history.

“My Lord and my God!” the great doubter, the great questioner, the great mistruster—makes the greatest theological statement in all of the Gospels: My Lord and my God. Jesus isn’t another great teacher or another great prophet—he is God himself. Jesus chooses to let this conclusion be made by the outlier, the doubter, the scoffer. The cynic becomes the great believer—the great theologian. This is grace, this is the gospel.

I’m so thankful that my brother Thomas is included in the story of the gospel. I’m so thankful that someone who is asking the questions, even when the party is in full swing, is included here.

Thomas is there on the beach when Jesus reinstates Peter in the next chapter, and that’s the last we see him in Scripture. Historical records tell us Thomas moved to India and shared the gospel there.

The story that picks up from there is a little strange but seems to fit the Thomas we know in Scripture. Keep in mind that early church history outside the Bible is fuzzy, to say the least. These stories aren’t nearly as reliable as the Bible, and no doubt we won’t know the whole truth until we talk it over with Thomas in person someday. The following is something you can use, or just move to the three points at the end of the sermon.

The story is that Thomas stayed in Jerusalem for a while after Jesus ascended. People speculate that he was still thinking through his beliefs at the time, still uncertain what he believed. As the story goes, Jesus came to him in a dream one night. Jesus told Thomas that Thomas was going to India, to which Thomas replied, “Anywhere but there, please!” India was the edge of the known world at the time—it was a mysterious world that no one ever seemed to return from. Jesus told him that he was going and that he would pose as an architect while preaching the gospel.

One story is that Thomas was invited by a king to design a palace for him. The king gathered the money to build it and put Thomas in charge, then left the country on a long journey. Thomas promptly gave all the money to the poor. When the king returned, Thomas told him that he had built him a palace—in heaven! The king threw him in the dungeon and was going to execute him. Then the king’s brother had a near-death experience in which he went to heaven and saw the palace built in heaven for the king with these gifts to the poor.

He told the king, who then freed Thomas and became a Christian. Thomas continued to preach the gospel further into the mysterious territory. At one point, he led another king’s wife to the Lord. That king was unhappy with his queen’s new life and influence, so he imprisoned Thomas.

He eventually had Thomas executed. He tried a few times, but every time the Holy Spirit did miracles to stop the execution. The time came for Thomas, though, and he was stabbed through with spears many times. The story goes that he lived through that somehow and dragged himself to a cave where he finally entered glory.

The great cynic became the unstoppable, nearly un-killable believer.

So, what can we learn from our brother Thomas?

  • Blessed are those who doubt—Thomas is like the patron saint of doubters. He asks the questions many of us would have asked in this case—I don’t believe it unless I see it. Doubt is something God gave us to protect us and teach us wisdom. Doubt is NOT sin, immaturity, or even lack of faith—it is a natural part of being human.
  • Doubt is a teacher, not a master—as I’ve said, we live in a time when people no longer believe blindly—they doubt blindly. The slogan these days is to question everything, and never make any conclusion, never have any faith. [side note: this isn’t a position anyone lives with consistently, no matter how much they think they do. We still trust in technology, government, money, etc., and in ourselves, which is the biggest joke of all.] There comes a time when we need to question our own cynicism, push through our own doubts to see the faith beneath. Let doubt teach us, but not be the only voice.
  • Faithful Thomas—Thomas went from the great doubter to the great believer. No other apostle went as far as he did. He had a nice life when he won the king over at first, and yet still went on into dangerous territory. Even when they attempted to execute him, he was still the un-killable man of strength God made him to be. The symbol of weakness and fear became the pillar of strength and heroism.

The complex and thoroughly human disciples like Thomas were the raw materials Jesus shaped into foundation of the church we all stand on today. What will he shape us into?


Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life: The Patron Saint of Doubters - Watch video to start and/or read John 20:19-31
  • Have you ever struggled with doubt in your faith? Has that doubting season taught you anything?
  • We live in an age of dogmatic, unquestioning doubt. Why is it so seemingly easy to mistrust everything and everyone? What are the pitfalls of this perspective?
From the Sermon: Blessed Are Those Who Doubt
  • Share a story of beliefs you had as a child that you grew out of or stopped believing. (i.e. Santa Claus, flat earth, the elf who turns the light off when you close the fridge). Are these embarrassing or funny? How did you stop believing them?
  • Doubt has an odd reputation in the Christian world. It’s like bad breath – everyone’s had it, no one likes to admit or talk about it. Why is doubt treated this way in the church?
  • Do you identify with Thomas in this story? Do you understand why he would have misgivings?
  • How has God helped you lay some of your doubts to rest? What is the difference between doubting and simply not believing that God has your best interest in mind? In other words, how do we distinguish between doubt and unbelief?
  • Thomas the doubter became Thomas the great believer. He spoke the climax of Gospel theology in 20:28 and then went on to take the gospel message off the ends of the known earth. Why did the great doubter become the great believer?
Quote to ponder: “A man may be haunted with doubts and only grow thereby in faith. Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood.” ~George Macdonald, Scottish theologian

Sermon for April 26, 2020

Acts 2:14a, 36-41 • Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19 • I Peter 1:17-23 • Luke 24:13-35

The theme for this week is abundant life begins with changing the way we think. In Acts 2, Peter encourages everyone to change the way they think, and the psalmist in Psalm 116 shows how being caught in and released from a negative mindset looks. In I Peter 1, we are reminded that Jesus has ransomed us from old, negative ways of thinking. Our sermon outline this week focuses on Luke 24, where we see how the stories we tell ourselves about God can make us blind to who he is.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Luke 24:13-35

Start with an example of a misconception you had about God. Or ask the members to share misconceptions about God—theirs or those they have heard.

A lot of times, people tell themselves stories about God that aren’t true. We often hear—and perhaps utter—why statements about God. Why did God allow this to happen? Why didn’t he heal that person? Why won’t he help me get a job? Why is he punishing me? Why is he hiding from me? Why won’t he answer my prayer? Why won’t he intervene? Why won’t Jesus just return and end all this mess?

Most of us have had certain expectations for how we believe God should act, and these are often reflected in how we talk about God, and even how we talk to God. This is not new: we might remember how Sarah assumed that when God said she would have a child, that child would have to come through another woman because Sarah’s body was too old (she thought). Or how about the story of Samuel, who went to the house of Jesse to anoint the next king. He assumed that God would choose the tallest and best-looking son of Jesse, but God didn’t fall in line with that story.

Jesus also encountered people who had expectations about him, and about the Messiah and what the Messiah would do. Many hoped he would throw off the Roman oppression and become Israel’s champion and king. They thought he was that kind of king. After the crucifixion, many of those followers were grief-stricken and lost. Their hopes for a free Israel had been killed right along with Jesus. They were still believing their own stories about Jesus. Let’s read Luke 24:13-35 about a few of them who were traveling after Jesus’s crucifixion to a village outside Jerusalem called Emmaus:

[read Luke 24:13-35]

Notice in verse 21, the travelers say, “we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” They had expectations or stories they were telling themselves about Jesus and his purpose. Look at verses 15-16, where it says, “As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.” What kept them from recognizing him? The implication here is that it was an external cause that kept them from recognizing him. But he was also the last one they expected to meet on that road. After all, he was dead, and though his body was missing, they fully saw their plans for release from Roman rule also dead and buried. They could not see what Jesus’ real mission was.

You can’t blame these disciples for being disappointed that Jesus didn’t live up to their expectations. Under Roman oppression, they faced heavy taxation, starvation, and cruelty. They wanted deliverance from their suffering. And so do we. We often make up stories where we say or think that Christians shouldn’t suffer, or worse yet, that suffering is God punishing people for sins. Notice how stories like these distort people’s view of God and keep them afraid or feeling separate and alone.

Application:

  • Be aware of the stories you hear about God or how God views you that just aren’t true. We all have a voice in our heads that talks constantly. What is this voice saying to you? Is it saying you’re worthless, no good, or a failure? Does the voice tell you God is mad at you, that he does not love you, or that you aren’t good enough for his forgiveness and grace? Do the lies tell you God doesn’t hear or answer your prayers? These are lies that are not from the Holy Spirit. The two disciples walking to Emmaus had convinced themselves they were in the midst of a great crisis. Their hope had just been killed. Jesus took the time to show them through the Scriptures that their version of God’s story wasn’t accurate and God’s plan was being fulfilled.
  • Trust that God’s story will be accomplished—in the world and in you. Just because we don’t understand all the reasons something happens—or doesn’t happen the way we desire—this doesn’t mean God’s purpose isn’t being worked out. Just because God doesn’t answer a prayer the way we desire doesn’t mean he isn’t answering the prayer. We trust that he hears, and he answers. Remember the biblical examples shared earlier and notice how easy it is for us to think small. God’s plans for us often are much different than how we imagine them to be.
  • When you start telling stories about God, stop and remind yourself about God’s fundamental nature: love. One way to make sure we aren’t getting caught up in harmful stories or expectations about God is to remind ourselves that God is always loving, accepting, and present with us. We know this to be true, and any story we might conjure up that diminishes these traits is probably not true, and it definitely is not helpful.

Recognizing our tendency to tell ourselves stories about ourselves, each other, and God can help us break free of this habit. Telling ourselves stories keeps us from seeing what is real and true, just as it did for those disciples on the road to Emmaus. By reminding ourselves of what we know to be true about God, we can break free of harmful stories, expectations, and assumptions and live in the loving grace that God has always intended.


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Have you ever made an assumption or told yourself a story about someone or about a situation that turned out to be completely untrue? If so, please share what happened and how you felt.
  • How does reminding ourselves about God’s fundamental nature help us break free of stories? How does the truth of who God is “ground us” in reality so that we can let go of what isn’t true?
  • If we have been “ransomed” from a negative mindset, one that feels separated from God, does this mean we no longer struggle with negative thoughts? What do you think 1 Peter 1:18 means when it says that we are “ransomed from the empty life [we] inherited from our ancestors”?
  • If we are no longer captives to an empty way of living, what does the life of a person freed from an empty way of living look like?