While We Still Were Sinners

Romans 5.1-11

 

“God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”

William Barclay, the late Scottish New Testament scholar, begins his commentary on this passage of scripture with these words: “Here is one of Paul’s great lyrical passages in which he almost sings the intimate joy of his confidence in God.”

“The intimate joy of his confidence in God.” Faith has done what the works of the Law could never do: it has justified us, it has made us righteous, it has brought us into a right relationship with God. Before Jesus came, no one could really be close to God. Now, we can, and that’s worth boasting about!

Up to this point, in his letter to the church in Rome, Paul has been explaining justification – essentially, salvation by grace through our faith in Christ Jesus. Here, Paul points out the results of justification. That’s why Paul begins chapter 5 with the word “Therefore.” “Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness combined with our faith” … all these other things follow. Through justification, our status with God has changed. Being made righteous by faith, we are now in a right relationship with God.

What does this mean for us? First of all, it means we can have peace of mind. We no longer have any reason to fear God, because now we know just how much God loves us: “God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Instead of running and hiding from God, we can be in a loving relationship with God, because of the gracious act of Christ Jesus. This peace of mind is really a confidence in the faithfulness and goodness of God – a God who will share his glory with us.

All too often people spend their time worrying about what’s going to happen when they die, wondering if they’re really going to be accepted into God’s glory. Probably every pastor has been asked the question, “Will God really give me eternal life?”

Paul would say, “Don’t worry about it. Be at peace with it. Since you are justified, made righteous, by faith, you will share in God’s glory. Justification gives us peace with God.”

Justification also gives us hope. What Christ did enables us to live with hope, in the midst of all the trials and tribulations of life. I mean let’s face it: life is full of suffering. We can’t ignore suffering, we can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist. Instead, Paul says we should “boast,” or as some translations put it, “rejoice” in our suffering, because suffering leads to hope.

I read something a few years ago where verses 3 and 4 here were called the “Family Tree of Suffering.” Suffering, or “trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” In other words, Paul is saying that suffering is necessary for hope. If we never suffer, if we never have trouble, then we cannot possibly understand what it means to have hope. When we are justified by our faith in Christ Jesus, then when we suffer we find the power to endure, the strength to resist the temptation to just give up, the temptation to give in to despair.

Trouble leads to endurance.

Endurance is another word with several translations. I found it translated as fortitude, patience, and perseverance. But it all comes down to the same things: when we are justified, we find the will to keep going.

And in finding that will, that endurance, we also find a strengthening of our character, and a deepening of our trust in God. And in that deeper trust, we find our hope, hope that will not disappoint us. Even in the midst of life’s most difficult trials, we can hang in there because of our hope in God’s promises, our knowledge and assurance that God will be with us, that God will love us and will give us the strength to hold on.

Because as we – the disciples, the followers of Christ – as we seek to do what Christ asked us to do, as we seek to offer Christ to those who don’t want to hear about it, as we seek to fight for a justice that few people seem to care about, as we seek to minister to people who obviously are in need but who don’t really want our help, it’s easy to become discouraged and disheartened.

God knows how we feel, and God cares. And God will come and help us, in our lives, in our ministries. What we do, the actions we take in this world, really do matter. We have that hope. We must keep on following in Christ’s footsteps. God’s love will not fail us. We know this because justification gives us hope.

And that brings us to some of the most amazing words in all the scriptures. Paul illustrates the depth of the love of God by telling us – reminding us, really – that while we were helpless, while we were lost in sin, while we were, for all intents and purposes, enemies of God, Christ died for us.

Did you hear that? While we were lost in sin, Christ died for us! God didn’t wait for us to clean up our act. God went ahead, while we were in the process of fighting against God, God went ahead and sent Christ Jesus to love us. It’s like God just couldn’t contain the great and wonderful love that God has for us any longer. So God let his love loose in Christ Jesus.

Christ died for us in our helplessness, in our sin. As a result, we don’t have to be helpless anymore. We no longer need to live our lives lost in sin, and absent from God. Jesus Christ justifies us. Jesus Christ reconciles us to God. Jesus Christ saves us! What an amazing love! We don’t deserve this kind of love, but that doesn’t matter. God gives his love to us, anyway.

It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. It doesn’t matter who you’ve been. God loves you. It doesn’t even matter what you’re doing with your life right now at this very moment, it doesn’t matter how lost you may be. God still loves you. You matter to God. We all matter to God, and God will do whatever is needed in order to help us, in order to forgive us, in order to bring us into a loving relationship with God.

Don’t say that you can’t give your life to Christ because you’re not worthy. Don’t say that there are too many things wrong with your life. It just doesn’t matter. In God’s eyes, our worthiness is not based on anything that we have done, or even anything that we are doing. Our worthiness is based on the grace of God, given to us through Christ Jesus.

Simply put: God has decided that we are worth loving. How can we refuse that kind of love?

“Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness combined with our faith,” we are now in a loving relationship with God. “God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”

“God so loved the world” – and that includes all of us – “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

God loves us. That’s something to boast and rejoice about! Because our “hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” God loves you. You matter to God.

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Saving, Sending, & Blessing

Luke 24.36-53

 

There was once a little boy who decided to run away from home.  He packed his suitcase with some Twinkies and a six-pack of root beer, and set out on his journey.

About three blocks from his house he came to a park.  There he saw an old woman sitting on a bench.  The boy was thirsty, so he sat on the bench next to the old woman and opened his suitcase.

He was just about to take a drink when he noticed that the old woman looked hungry.  The boy silently held out a Twinkie.  The old woman gratefully accepted, and smiled at the boy.  Her smile was so pretty that the boy wanted to see it again, so he handed her a root beer.  Once again, the old lady smiled at the boy.  He was delighted.

The two of them sat on that bench all afternoon, eating Twinkies, drinking root beer, and smiling, but neither of them ever said a word.

As it began to grow dark, the little boy realized that he really didn’t want to run away from home.  He got up to leave, but before he had gone more than a few steps he turned around, went back to the old woman, and gave her a hug.  She gave him her biggest smile ever.

When the boy got home a few minutes later, his mother was surprised by the look of joy on his face.  “What did you do today that made you so happy?” she asked.

The boy replied, “I had lunch in the park with God!  You know what?  She’s got the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen!”

Meanwhile, the old woman returned to her home, where she lived with her son and his family.  Her son was amazed by the look of peace and contentment on his mother’s face, and so he asked, “Mother, what did you do today that made you so happy?”

She replied, “I had Twinkies and root beer in the park with God!  You know, he’s much younger than I expected.”

“Because they were wondering and questioning in the midst of their happiness, Jesus said to them, ‘Do you have anything to eat?’  They gave him a piece of baked fish.  Taking it, he ate it in front of them.”

It seems to me that, quite often, we are able to experience the presence of the risen Christ best in the sharing of a meal.  Dr. R. Alan Culpepper, of Mercer University in Atlanta, says that “although Jesus may not appear in our midst to eat broiled fish, his presence is tangible in soup kitchens, around the kitchen table, and around the altar table.”

I would add that Christ’s presence is also tangible on a park bench, when two people share some Twinkies and root beer.  We “see” Christ in the sharing of a meal.

The disciples “saw” Jesus when he appeared in their midst.  Jesus showed them his hands and his feet; he had them touch him, so that they could feel his flesh and bones.  But they were still wondering and disbelieving, so Jesus asked for something to eat.  It seems that when all else fails, we are able to recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread – or, in this case, the fish.

Why is it so important that the disciples recognized Jesus?  Because these eyewitness accounts prove that the resurrection is real.  The risen Christ was no phantom, no hallucination.  He was real.  The Jesus who died was in truth the Christ who arose.

And, at one time in history, there were people – real, live people – who could stand up and say, “We saw him.  We touched him.  We ate with him.”  The good news of Jesus Christ isn’t fiction or fantasy.  Christianity is not founded on dreams or wild visions.

The proof of the resurrection rests on the experience of those who were there; the Apostles and the women who went to the tomb.  Jesus Christ did in fact face and conquer death.  Jesus Christ did in fact arise from the grave.

We know it’s true, because nothing else could have changed the lives of the disciples in such dramatic fashion.  Nothing else could have sustained them through the trials and persecutions they experienced.  And nothing else could change our lives and sustain us, today.

The proof of the resurrection rests on the experience of the eyewitnesses, yes, but it also rests in the lives of all the faithful disciples who have lived since then, including those of us still living today.

We know that Christ is risen because Christ lives in us.  We know that the work of Christ’s kingdom still continues to this very day, through us.  Even though Jesus’ physical hands and feet are not longer present, the ministry of the hands and feet of countless disciples around the world bears witness to Christ’s living presence.

So, back to our scripture:  Jesus proves to the disciples that the resurrection is real.  Jesus then opens their minds to the scriptures.  Everything written in the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.

Jesus did his part.  Jesus went to the cross.  All the scriptures point to the cross.  The cross wasn’t forced on God; the cross was a part of God’s plan all along.  The cross is the one place on earth, and the one moment in time, where we see the completeness of God’s eternal love.

Jesus did his part to fulfill the scriptures.  Now it’s up to us to do ours.  “A change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in [Jesus’] name to all nations.”  You see, Jesus didn’t appear to the disciples in order to tell them to stay forever in the upper room.  Jesus appeared in order to send the disciples out into the world, to spread the good news.

“He led them out as far as Bethany, where he lifted his hands and blessed them.”  William Barclay once said that God really only does three things for us.  God saves us, God sends us, and God blesses us.

God saves us.  God is our redeemer.  We manage to get ourselves lost in sin, but through Christ Jesus God offers us redemption and salvation.  Ephesians says, “You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith.”  By his grace, God saves us.

God sends us.  In Matthew, Jesus says, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations.”  In Mark, Jesus says, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news.”  In John, Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  In Acts, Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth.”

And here, in Luke, Jesus says, “A change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in [Jesus’] name to all nations.”  God sends us.

And God blesses us.  Sometimes so much attention is given to the importance of salvation, and to the importance of telling others about salvation, that God’s work in blessing us is overlooked.

God blesses us with life.  God blesses us with family and friends to share life with.  God blesses us through all of God’s creation.  Sometimes it seems as though we have to strain a bit to find God’s blessings, but they’re always there.  It’s our fault, not God’s, when we have trouble finding them.

And, don’t forget, God blesses us with Christ.  All three of God’s actions – saving, sending, and blessing – are centered on Christ Jesus.  Through Christ God saves us; through Christ God sends us; and through Christ God blesses us most of all, because our lives are changed through Christ.

And our response to God’s saving, sending, and blessing should be the same as the disciples’:  “They worshipped [Christ], and returned to Jerusalem overwhelmed with joy.  And they were continuously in the temple praising God.”

The disciples received Jesus’ blessing with great joy.  They worshiped Christ and praised God.  And they began immediately to do what Christ had instructed them to do.  Jesus blessed them, and they turned right around and began passing on that blessing.

Joy, worship, and obedience are the natural by-products of blessing.  Joy, worship, and obedience will always be God’s gift to those whom God has saved, sent, and blessed.

“As he blessed them, [Jesus] left them and was taken up heaven.”  The ascension of Jesus will always remain a mystery.  William Barclay says that Luke’s account of the ascension “attempts to put into words what is beyond words and to describe what is beyond description.”

We know that the ascension was absolutely necessary.  There had to be a definite ending to Jesus’ time on earth.  It’s inconceivable that Jesus could have simply stopped appearing to the disciples without some sore of closure.  So the ascension marked the end of Jesus’ time on earth, and the end of the disciples’ dependence on a flesh and blood teacher.  From that point on, the disciples, and all of us who have come after them, are linked to a Savior who is eternal – forever alive.

Equally, however, the ascension marked a beginning.  Remember, the disciples left the scene, not in sadness, but with joy, because now they knew for certain that they had a master from whom nothing – not even death – could ever separate them.

They knew then – just as we know today – without a doubt that we have a Master, a Savior, a Friend, not only here on earth, but a Master forever, a Savior who is waiting for us at the right hand of God.  A Friend who has saved us, a Friend who sends us, and a Friend who blesses us.

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Who Are We to Hinder God?

Acts 11.1-18

 

“If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

In their classic song, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” The Who sings:  “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”  What the Who are implying is that it doesn’t really matter who is in charge of things – liberal, conservative, fundamentalist, universalist – things are pretty much going to stay the same.

Sometimes I’ll hear people say something like, “I wish we could be like the early church.  If only our church was like the church we read about in the New Testament, everything would be okay.”

Well, you know what?  Our church is just like the early church.  Even after 2,000 years of studying the scriptures; 2,000 years of being led by the Holy Spirit; 2,000 years of changing from old bosses to new bosses, old theologians to new theologians, old preachers to new preachers – even after all of that, things are pretty much the same now as they were in Peter’s day.  Meet the new church, same as the old church.

In the old church, Peter had the audacity to go and preach the gospel to people who were considered, by a lot of people in the church, to be “unclean.”  And Peter got called on the carpet for it.  This despite the fact that, as far back as Abraham, God made it abundantly clear that all the peoples of the earth would receive God’s blessing.  God chose to use Abraham’s descendants as the means of delivering that blessing, but God never implied that the blessing itself was to be limited in any way.

When Jonah tried to keep God from blessing the people of Nineveh, God insisted, and, as is always the case when God insists, God got his way – the Ninevites received God’s blessing.  The prophets Elijah and Elisha each raised a young man from the dead; neither of those young men was Jewish, yet they both received God’s blessing.

There are other stories as well, yet despite this evidence in their own scriptures, the idea persisted among the Jewish people that, because they were God’s “chosen” people, they were the only people God cared about.

And that is such a dangerous trap to fall into.  When we start thinking that we are God’s “chosen,” then it’s not too much of a stretch to start seeing everybody else as “unchosen,” or unclean, profane, an abomination.  We start thinking that everybody who disagrees with us, everybody who wasn’t born where we were born, everybody who doesn’t look like us, talk like us, live like us – we start thinking that God really doesn’t like them.

God chose us, not them.  Therefore, we are better than they are.  We are good.  God likes people like us.  People who aren’t like us are bad; they’re unclean.  God doesn’t like them.

The next thing you know we’re making up names for such people.  They’re liberals, or conservatives, depending on which side you’re on.  They’re Jews, or Catholics, or Muslims.  They’re black, they’re gay, they’re Hispanic, they’re rednecks, they’re elitists.  Often we come up with truly ugly names or labels for “those people.”  Why?  Because we’re better than they are.  We belong to God!

Peter thought the same thing.  Peter was a Jew, a circumcised believer, and Peter honestly thought that only circumcised believers could receive the Holy Spirit.  Peter genuinely believed that only Jews, God’s chosen people, could become disciples of Jesus Christ.

And you know, it’s hard to blame Peter for thinking this way.  That was the way Peter was raised, that’s what Peter was taught – at home, at school, at church.  Day after day Peter was taught, by people who were in positions of authority, that the Jewish people were “chosen,” and that Gentiles – anyone who wasn’t Jewish – were “unclean.”

The fact is, Peter probably never gave the issue much thought.  And, of course, that’s the problem right there:  not giving the issue much thought.  Seems to me that we always get into trouble when we make up our minds about something without really giving it much thought.  Whenever we simply repeat what we’ve heard others say – whether it be our parents, our teachers, our preachers, or someone on Fox News or MSNBC – when we simply parrot the thoughts of others, we’re not using the gift of reason that God gave us.

Now, let me make it clear that children should listen to their parents, and their teachers, because children haven’t yet learned how to use their gift of reason.  That’s part of growing up:  learning to use our minds, learning to think for ourselves.  Until we’ve reached the point of maturity – and some reach it much later than others! – we’re not expected to be responsible for our own thoughts.

But we can’t stay that way forever.  Eventually, whether at the age of 18, or 21, a little younger for some, a little older for others, at some point you have to be responsible for yourself.  You have to use the brain that God gave you.  You can’t just keep on believing everything that someone else tells you, without thinking it out for yourself – because someone else might be wrong.

Peter had been taught since childhood that the Jewish people were the only people who could receive God’s blessings, and even though Peter was able to break with traditional thought in following Jesus, he still clung to the belief that only Jews could be disciples.  Peter had heard it repeated so many times that it never occurred to Peter that God might have other ideas.  And this is where Peter’s thought process was, one afternoon in the town of Joppa.

You see, the story that Peter tells here in chapter 11 is the story found in chapter 10 – the story of a Roman Centurion named Cornelius.  Cornelius lived in the town of Caesarea, while Peter was staying in Joppa.  One day Cornelius had a vision; Cornelius’ vision instructed him to send for a certain man named Peter, in Joppa.

The next day, as Cornelius’ men were approaching Joppa, Peter had a vision of his own – and what a vision it was!  In this vision, God showed Peter a variety of animals which the Jewish people would not eat because their scriptures – our Old Testament – said that these animals were “unclean.”  God told Peter to “kill and eat.”  Peter refused, saying that he had “never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”  But then God said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  Cliff notes version:  In his vision Peter was also told to go with the men from Cornelius, so Peter ended up going to Cornelius’ house in Caesarea, where Peter preached the gospel to Cornelius and his family and friends – all Gentiles.  After Peter finished, all those gathered in the house received the Holy Spirit.  “The Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”  Even those unclean Gentiles!

This surprised Peter as much as anyone, but Peter had the good sense to realize that this was God’s doing.  Peter, after all, had been following God’s initiative, doing what God had sent him to do.  Peter put two and two together – what God said in his vision, plus the Holy Spirit falling upon Cornelius and the other Gentiles – Peter put two and two together and came to the conclusion that the Gentiles weren’t “unclean” after all.

Good old Peter.  For all his stubbornness in other areas, Peter came to the realization that it’s not our place to decide whom God should bless, whom God should save, whom God should call.  It’s not our place, it’s God’s place.  God alone is allowed to make those decisions.

That was good enough for Peter, but meanwhile back at the ranch – or in Jerusalem, anyway – the other leaders of the early church, all Jews, of course, all circumcised believers – the other leaders of the church weren’t too happy with Peter.  Let’s face it, Peter had really pushed the envelope.  In fact, it’s safe to say that, in preaching the gospel to, and the baptizing, a bunch of Gentiles, Peter had torn the envelope wide open.  The folks back in Jerusalem were quick to criticize Peter for his actions.

Meet the new church, same as the old church.

Nothing has changed over the past 2,000 years.  Back then it was:  you have to be circumcised, you have to follow the Jewish purity laws, in order to be a Christian.  Today it’s:  you have to belong to a certain church, you have to be a member of the right groups, you have to believe what certain religious leaders tell you – you have to think like we think, act like we act – or you can’t possibly be a Christian.  Trust me, our United Methodist Church is not immune to such thinking.

It’s like we in the church have learned nothing.  We still try to hinder God.  We still try to tell God who God can and cannot bless.  And, heaven help us, we still criticize anyone who dares to take the gospel to people we don’t approve of – people we consider unclean, people we think of as profane, people we call abominations.

Author Michael Crichton once wrote that “there is too much certainty in the world.”  I believe this is especially true in the church.  It’s one thing to have that “Blessed Assurance” that Jesus loves us; it’s another thing altogether to be absolutely certain that our way is the only way.  We are so certain that we are right, and we can’t wait to tell other people just how wrong they are.

I’m certain that God cannot possibly have called you into the ministry, because you’re a woman.

I’m certain that you can’t join our church unless you learn to speak better English.

I’m certain that you’re too young to be teaching a Sunday School class.

I’m certain that you’re too old to work in Vacation Bible School.

I’m certain that if you invite those people to church, God won’t bless our church any more.

In all these ways, and hundreds more, we try to hinder God.  We try to limit God’s blessings to us, and those like us.  The late baseball executive Branch Rickey is reported to have prayed:  “God bless me and my wife, my son John and his wife; us four and no more.  Amen.”

We are so certain of our own rightness that it never occurs to us that there might be another way, a different way, to come to believe in Christ Jesus, a different way to worship God.  We are so sure that we know best who deserves God’s blessing and who doesn’t, that it never occurs to us that it’s up to God to make that decision.  It never occurs to us that our way might be right, but at the same time those who disagree with us might be right, as well.  God just might be big enough for all of us.

I guess what it comes down to is this:  How do we know?  How do we know what’s right?  How do we know if what we feel is God calling us, or something else?  How do we know it’s God calling us to do something, when everybody around us thinks that what we’re doing is wrong?

I mean, it’s one thing to take Peter’s word for it that he had a vision from God.  The people in Jerusalem did.  After Peter explained everything “they were silenced.  And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”

No, it’s not too difficult to take Peter’s word for it.  But what if I got up here and told you that I had a vision from God – a vision that goes completely against our conventional United Methodist Christian thinking, totally against what you hear from the leadership in the Church?  If I did that, if I did exactly what Peter did, I’d probably be a candidate for a nice, relaxing stay in a mental institution.

And I’m a preacher.  Imagine the reaction if one of you did the same thing!  Would we listen respectfully, and take your word for it that God had called you?  Or would we scoff, and tell you that you’ve completely lost your mind?  I know what I think we’d do.

So, how do we know?  Well, being good Methodists, we have a tool called the Quadrilateral.  John Wesley didn’t actually invent the Quadrilateral, but he tweaked it and made it a part of the Methodist movement.  The Quadrilateral says that God is revealed to us in four ways:  Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience.

Scripture:  the Bible.  Reason:  our God-given ability to think for ourselves.  Tradition:  what has come before us in the Church; what the great thinkers like Wesley, Martin Luther, Thomas A’Kempis, C. S. Lewis and others have thought and written about over the years.  Experience:  the Holy Spirit working in our lives.

Some churches today view the scriptures as the only source of divine revelation.  Sola scriptura in Latin:  scripture alone.  This point of view totally ignores the stories we read right here in the book of Acts – the stories of Peter and Paul and the other first generation Christians.  God didn’t stop Paul on the road to Damascus and tell him to read the scriptures until he understood who Jesus was.  No, God gave Paul an experience – God knocked Paul on his keister and blinded him!

God didn’t tell Peter to read the scriptures about where God promised to bless all the peoples of the earth, about how Jonah was sent to Nineveh, about Elijah and Elisha and Naaman and all the blessings God bestowed upon various Gentiles.  God gave Peter an experience – a vision, followed by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit to a group of Gentiles right before Peter’s eyes.

Now, reading the Bible is important, make no mistake about that.  God is revealed to us by the scriptures.  But God is revealed in other ways, as well.  And, let’s not forget that scripture is only as good as our interpretation of it.

Interpretation comes through reason – we use our brains to interpret the Bible; and interpretation comes through tradition – we pay attention to the way those who have come before us interpreted the Bible; and interpretation comes through experience – we interpret the Bible based on what has happened to us in our own lives.

Back to that story about Paul on the road to Damascus.  Remember, Paul was a Pharisee; he knew the scriptures forwards and backwards and upside down.  But Paul interpreted the scriptures a whole lot differently after his experience on the road to Damascus, didn’t he?

It’s not that Paul discovered new scriptures, it’s that his interpretation changed.  Paul went from devoutly believing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God wanted him to persecute, and execute, Christians, to being the instrument God used to spread the gospel message.  And Peter certainly interpreted the scriptures differently after his experience with Cornelius.

We have to be open to our experiences with the Holy Spirit.  God’s word can be found outside the pages of the Bible.  As we can see in this passage this morning, God’s word often takes the form of a surprising turn of events.  But again, how do we know these experiences are from God?

We have to ask ourselves three key questions:  In what I am doing, is God being glorified?  Can people see God’s Spirit at work?  And last but not least, through what I am doing, are people developing new or closer relationships with God?

If the answer to these questions is “Yes,” then we can rest assured that God is at work in our lives, no matter how radical our words or actions might seem to others.  It doesn’t really matter if what God is calling us to do makes sense to other people, as long as it makes sense to God.

After all, who are we to hinder God?

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I Am the Resurrection & the Life

John 11.20-27

 

The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is one of the most familiar stories in the Bible.  You may recall, since I know you remember every word of every sermon I’ve ever preached, that we’ve looked at this miracle before.  Today I want to focus on this conversation between Jesus and Martha; in fact, more specifically, I want to focus on one thing that Jesus says:  “I am the resurrection and the life.”

But before we focus, we need a little background.  Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, are very dear friends of Jesus.  Yet when word comes to Jesus that Lazarus is very ill, Jesus hesitates.  Instead of setting out immediately, Jesus and the disciples remain where they are for two days.  When they do arrive in Bethany, they find that Lazarus has been dead for four days.

Now, it doesn’t take a math whiz to figure out that if Jesus delayed for two days, and Lazarus died four days before Jesus got there, then even if Jesus had started out for Bethany immediately upon hearing the news about Lazarus, he wouldn’t have arrived before Lazarus passed away.

However, when Jesus does arrive, the first thing Martha says to him is, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”  Of course, Martha is speaking out of her grief, but her words indicate a heartfelt faith in Jesus.  Especially when Martha goes on to say, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”  Well, I could go on and on about Martha, about the depth of her faith in Jesus, but we’ll save that for another time.

“I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  What exactly did Jesus mean when he said those words?  I’m not sure we humans will ever be able to grasp the full meaning of Jesus’ words, but we’ll do the best we can this morning.

One thing is for certain:  Jesus was not talking about physical life and death.  After all, physically speaking, it’s not true that everyone who believes in Jesus will never die.  Christians die, physically, just like everybody else.

No, I think Jesus was talking about the death of sin.  Jesus is telling us, “Even if you are dead in sin, even if, through your sin, you have lost everything that makes life worth living, I can make you alive again.”  We see this, time and time again, in the New Testament.  We see tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners brought back to life – resurrected – by the grace of God found in Christ Jesus.

One of the most dramatic examples occurs when Saul of Tarsus, the most feared persecutor of the early Church, becomes Paul, the Apostle, the chosen instrument of the Lord.  But not all conversions are as dramatic as Paul’s.  Not every sin has to do with persecution.

A person can become so selfish that he or she becomes dead to the needs of others.  We can become so insensitive that we are dead to the feelings of those around us.  We can become so involved in the petty dishonesties and disloyalties of life that we become dead to honor.  We can become so hopeless that we simply pine away and become dead in spirit.

But, no matter how “dead” we might be, Jesus can resurrect us.  Jesus can give us new life.  The history of the past 2,000 years bears witness to the resurrected lives of millions of people – not all of whom are Pauls and Peters and John Wesleys.  Millions of people just like you and me.

Jesus is also talking here about the life to come:  eternal life.  Jesus brings into our lives the certainty, the blessed assurance, that death is not the end.  William Barclay says “we call this world the land of the living; but it would in fact be more correct to call it the land of the dying.”

I had never thought of it that way before, but it’s a fact that from the time we are born, every breath we take brings us that much closer to our physical death.  But through Christ Jesus we know that our journey takes us, not to the sunset of our lives, but to the sunrise.  When we believe in Jesus, we are no longer on our way to death; we are on our way to life!

Okay, but what does it mean to “believe” in Jesus?  It means that we accept Jesus as our Lord, the true Son of God.  It means that we trust Jesus as our Savior, the Redeemer of our sin.  It means that we honor Jesus as God in the flesh.  God, the great “I am,” in the flesh.

And when we do believe in Jesus, then we enter into a new relationship with God.  We become absolutely sure of God’s love for us.  We become convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God is a redeeming God.  When John Wesley had his conversion, in Aldersgate Street in London, he “felt his heart strangely warmed,” and, for the first time in his life, John Wesley felt that wonderful assurance that, as he put it, “Christ had died for my sins, even mine.”

Jesus is also telling us that not only do we enter into a new relationship with God, we enter into a new relationship with life.  When we accept Jesus as our Lord, when we take Jesus’ commandments as our laws, when we realize that Jesus is here with us, to help us live the way he taught us to live, then life itself becomes something new and wonderful.

When we accept Christ’s way as our way, life becomes Life.  We are born again, redeemed, converted, justified – whatever you want to call it, when we believe in Jesus, we are, in fact, resurrected.

We are freed from the fear that is characteristic of life apart from God.  So many people today live their lives in fear.  With Christ we are resurrected from our fear.  We are freed from the frustration that is characteristic of a life of sin.  We are freed from the futility of a life without Christ.

We are raised up – resurrected – from the death of sin, and life becomes rich, life becomes meaningful, life becomes transformed.  We begin living the kind of life that will never die, the life that will take us from this world to the next – a resurrected life, eternal life, with Christ Jesus.

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Fish On the Other Side of the Boat

John 21.1-19

Have you ever tried to explain something to someone, and they just didn’t get it? You know what I mean, like giving directions – go two miles, turn right on Elm Street, and it’s the fourth house on the left, got it? Okay, go two miles, turn left on Elm Street, fourth house on the left, I got it. No, no. Turn right on Elm Street. Okay, go 3 miles, turn right on Elm Street – no, it’s 2 miles. Okay, go 2 miles, turn right on Oak Street, 4th house – Nooooo! Elm Street, turn right on Elm Street. Okay, 2 miles, right on Elm Street, third house on the right.

It’s frustrating, isn’t it? So imagine how Jesus felt. For three years Jesus has been explaining things and explaining things to the disciples, but the disciples always seem to be a step or two behind. They just don’t quite get it.

The disciples have seen all the miracles, they’re heard all the sermons, they’ve been privy to all the teachings, and yet somehow they’ve missed the message. They have been trained and equipped to go and preach the Gospel – but they’re not yet really sure just what the Gospel is.

The disciples just don’t get it. And now, with Jesus gone – as far as they know – they just don’t know what it is that they’re supposed to do. So they go back to fishing. They return, most of them, to their former jobs, as if they’ve been laid off from being disciples. They just don’t get what it is that they’ve been trained and equipped to do.

So Jesus has to explain things to them one more time. And this time they’ve got to get it right. And what does Jesus tell them to do? Fish on the other side of the boat. Jesus tells the disciples that they’ve got to stop following their own instincts, and do what Jesus has told them to do – which is to say, they’ve got to do God’s will for their lives. Jesus says, I didn’t tell you to go back to fishing, I told you to make disciples of all nations. Now, cast your nets on the other side of the boat.

Fish on the other side of the boat. Good advice, for all of us. When we go our own way, when we do the things that make sense to us, without regard to what God wants us to do, when we set our mind, not on divine things but on human things – when we do all that, we fish all night and come up empty.

But when we cast our nets where Jesus tells us to cast our nets, we get an incredible catch. When we actively seek God’s will, and then follow God’s will, no matter how little sense it might make to us – when we follow God’s will for our lives, then we’ll make disciples of Jesus Christ, for the transformation of the world, because people will see the love of Jesus Christ in the things that we do.

And notice this: although the disciples caught an incredible amount of fish, “though there were so many, the net was not torn.” There is room in God’s Church for everybody, regardless of gender, race, nationality – regardless of anything. All people are welcome in the body of Christ, and even when all come – and the Bible tells us that one day all will come – even when all people come, there will be room; the net will not be torn. The kingdom of God is big enough for everybody.

St. Peter, as you all know, is the gatekeeper of heaven. As such, Peter keeps meticulous records whenever anyone enters the pearly gates. In the old days Peter wrote it all down, but now there’s a computerized check-in system. Anyway, ole Peter knows exactly how many people he’s let inside the pearly gates over the years. But one day Noah, having an affinity for counting, decided to take a census in heaven.

Well, when Noah announced the results of his census, Peter was shocked! It seems there were a whole lot more people in heaven than there should have been. Peter immediately launched an investigation, headed by Paul of Tarsus, who had some experience investigating several of heaven’s more prominent residents already.

Soon enough, the investigation turned up disturbing news. A tunnel was found – a tunnel where apparently someone was smuggling people into heaven. In other words, it was an inside job! Someone in heaven was circumventing Peter’s carefully crafted screening process.

A raid was planned for that very night. The heavenly S.W.A.T. team was called out, with Michael, the Archangel – aptly named, I might say – in charge. Peter followed at a distance, a habit he had picked up some years before. The raiding party arrived at the tunnel, and sure enough, someone was just guiding a group of illegal aliens into heaven. Peter quickly stepped to the front, put his hand on the perpetrator’s shoulder, and spun him around.

Only to find himself face to face with … Jesus. We humans try our best to keep certain people out of heaven, but the truth is, the kingdom of God is big enough for everybody. And Jesus is going to let them into heaven, no matter what we say about the matter. Fish on the other side of the boat, Jesus says. Cast your nets, and bring in all that you can catch, regardless of who they are.

Fish on the other side of the boat. Maybe the disciples finally understand. Maybe they’ve finally gotten the message. But Jesus needs to be sure. So Jesus turns to the most outspoken disciple. Jesus turns to Peter.

Now Peter has been on a roller coaster ride emotionally, even more so than the other disciples. It was Peter, after all, who, three times, denied knowing Jesus – denied knowing Jesus even after Jesus had warned him, even after swearing to Jesus that he, Peter, would lay down his life for Jesus.

Peter was undoubtedly despondent after the crucifixion. And then, great news! Jesus has risen from the dead! As the psalmist says, this news turned Peter’s “mourning into dancing.” But, you know, there still had to be some residual guilt. Peter, I’m sure, was still sensitive, still worried about what Jesus was thinking about him.

And now, Jesus turns to Peter, and asks, “Do you love me?” “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” “Feed my lambs.” And again, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” “Tend my sheep.” And a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter is probably near tears by this time. Over and over he has declared his love for Jesus, and yet it seems that Jesus still doesn’t believe him. “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” “Feed my sheep.”

Three times Peter denied Jesus. Now three times Peter is asked to declare his love for Jesus. Do you suppose we need to declare our love for Jesus once for every time we’ve denied him? Might be here a while. Three times Peter declares his love for Jesus, and three times, Peter is given a mission, the mission of all disciples: “Feed my sheep.”

Now, the good news, the great news, in this story is that Peter is redeemed. Peter is restored. The last word on Peter isn’t a word of denial and betrayal. The last word on Peter is a word of love, a word of redemption. I’ve said before that I really like Peter, and the reason I like Peter is because Peter is so much like … me. Peter is so much like all of us. Our story is much the same as Peter’s story.

The path to redemption wasn’t easy for Peter, and it’s not easy for us. Peter’s story isn’t some fairy tale about a saint who lived a pristine life of righteousness. Peter’s story is the story of a sinner. Peter was a disciple who tried really hard, and sometimes Peter got things right, just like we do. But just as often Peter got things wrong, just like we do. Peter suffered from doubts and fears, just like we do. Peter even turned his back on Jesus, just like we sometimes do.

Peter’s story sounds an awful lot like my story. Doesn’t it sound a little bit like your story, too? It’s frightening, really, to look back over my life, examining my words and actions. Yesterday, when I said what I said, did I feed Jesus’ sheep? Or did I, somehow, deny Jesus?

Because you see, Jesus calls us, just as Jesus called Peter. Jesus asks us, on a regular basis, “Do you love me? Feed my sheep.” And again, “Do you love me? Tend my lambs.” And again, and again, and again. Jesus doesn’t stop calling us, because the job Jesus is calling us to do isn’t finished yet.

Fish on the other side of the boat. Jesus is asking us to feed his sheep. We have to understand, just as the disciples had to understand, that encounters with Jesus change lives. When we encountered Jesus, our lives were changed. Now, it’s our job to bring others into the presence of Jesus, so that they might encounter him, so that their lives may be changed.

We have to fish on the other side of the boat. Just as the disciples had to understand that the Gospel message and the Gospel ministry continued beyond Jesus’ earthly life, we must realize that our own Gospel ministry continues once we walk out the doors of this building. If we love Jesus, as we say we love Jesus, then we have to go out there, and feed Jesus’ sheep. And remember, all people are Jesus’ sheep. There are people, in all of our lives, asking for food – both physical and spiritual. Jesus says that we have to feed them.

And Jesus says that if a sinner like Peter can do it, so can we. Conventional wisdom says, “If you’ve been bad, you must be punished, and God cannot use you.” The problem is, conventional wisdom is fishing on the wrong side of the boat. We have to fish on the other side of the boat – the side that says, “If you’ve been bad, God can redeem you and restore you, and God will use you to feed God’s sheep.”

“Do you love me? Feed my sheep.” As we read the scripture this morning, did you notice the very last thing Jesus said to Peter? “Follow me.” Follow me, Jesus says. Do my will. Fish on the other side of the boat.

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The Status is Not Quo

John 4.5-42

 

The story of the woman at the well is one of the richest passages in the Bible.  From beginning to end, this story transforms conventional expectations and challenges us to rethink the status quo.  I could probably break this passage down into smaller chunks, and make 5 or 6 sermons out of it – it’s that deep – but for today I want to do an overview of the entire story.

In this passage, Jesus openly challenges and breaks down two boundaries:  the boundary between “chosen people” and “despised people,” and the boundary between male and female.

Right off the bat, we need to remember the setting of this story.  The fact that this takes place in Samaria doesn’t mean as much to us, today, as it would have meant to John’s original readers.

We remember the parable, in Luke, of the Good Samaritan, where the scandal is that the despised Samaritan is the neighbor to the injured man.  The Samaritan traveler touches the injured man’s wounds as he cares for him, a blatant violation of the restriction against contact between Jews and Samaritans.  Jesus holds up the Good Samaritan as an example of how acts of mercy should be governed by need and compassion, not by the conventions of human society.

The story of the woman at the well offers a similar challenge, but in an even more radical form.  For one thing, this isn’t a parable, a story told by Jesus to illustrate a point; this is real life.  And here it’s not a some unnamed traveler who upsets social conventions, but Jesus himself.

Jesus initiates contact with a Samaritan – bad!  Jesus initiates contact with a woman – bad!  Jesus asks this Samaritan woman to attend to his need:  “Give me a drink.”  Jesus then offers this Samaritan woman the gift of God:  “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.”  And Jesus reveals his identity to this Samaritan woman:  “The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming.’  Jesus said to her, ‘I am he.’”

Jesus treats this Samaritan woman as a full human being, worthy to receive the grace of God.  Jesus doesn’t treat her as a despised enemy, the way Jews treated Samaritans.  Jesus doesn’t treat her as some kind of disease carrier, who could contaminate everyone around her – which is the way all women were often treated at this place and time.  Jesus treats this woman with dignity and respect, and later he treats the Samaritan villagers the same way.

Why is this so important?  Because this preoccupation with separating ourselves into “chosen” and “despised” people isn’t limited to biblical times.  Throughout human history, right up to April 7, 2013, people and nations – and religions – have set up boundaries to “protect” themselves against other groups.

Look at the history of race relations in this country.  We think we’ve come a long way, yet even today, some people are appalled that a black man is President of the United States.  State legislatures around the country are trying to pass Voter I.D. laws – something that we haven’t seen since the turbulent times of the 1950s and 60s.  We seem to be living out the old saying:  those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

The notion of racial purity was the ideological cornerstone of Hitler’s Germany.  Ethnic and religious wars have been waged almost continuously throughout history in the Middle East, not to mention Africa, Asia, and even supposedly civilized Europe:  Serb vs. Croat, Irish Catholics vs. Irish Protestants, and so on.

The root cause of all of these conflicts lies in the same fear that divided Jews and Samaritans:  the fear of contamination, the notion that our side is better than their side, and we don’t want their side “polluting” our side with their ideas, their beliefs, their bloodlines.

Jesus, by treating this Samaritan woman with dignity and respect, calls on all of his disciples, including us, today, to stop living our lives in fear.  Quit worrying about what society says about who is acceptable and who isn’t.  Quit listening to what our so-called “religious authorities” have to say about who is or is not worthy.  The religious authorities of Jesus’ day condemned Samaritans, and considered even Jewish women to be second-class citizens.

Jesus is teaching us to show the same openness to those who are different from us that Jesus showed when he traveled through Samaria.  We – all of us, disciples of Jesus Christ – we are being asked to not only build bridges instead of walls, but also to tear down the walls that have already been built, just as Jesus did.

We need to stop clinging to our old notions of being a privileged people – God bless me, because I’m an American!  We must understand that all people, of all races, all genders, all nationalities, all religions, are children of God.  All people are created in God’s image, and therefore all people are our brothers and sisters in creation.

Jesus tells us that there is no special nation, no special place.  “You will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem … The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”  Not in Jerusalem, not in Mecca, not in America.  In spirit and truth, everywhere.

Jesus not only challenged the notion of “us vs. them,” Jesus challenged the boundaries – the walls – built on the basis of gender.  “Just then the disciples came.  They were astonished that Jesus was speaking with a woman.”  The disciples don’t seem to be nearly as concerned that Jesus is speaking with a Samaritan as they are that Jesus is speaking with a woman.  Part of this may be that the disciples have already learned a thing or two from Jesus.

We are told that the reason Jesus was sitting at the well alone when this woman came up was because the disciples had gone to the city to buy food.  Now, this is the middle of Samaria; that means that the disciples went into Sychar, the nearest city, a Samaritan city, to buy food.  Believe me, before they met Jesus, none of these disciples would have dreamed of buying food in a Samaritan town – they would have starved first.  So already we can see that Jesus is rubbing off on the disciples.

Anyway, back to the whole Jesus talking with a woman thing.  Jesus makes it clear that he will not be a slave to society’s fears and prejudices.  I read something somewhere, I can’t remember who said it, but clearly someone smarter than me, said, “The Messiah comes not just to Israel, but to those Israel despises.  Who do we despise today?  The Messiah comes for them.”

Who do we despise today?  Blacks?  Hispanics?  Muslims?  Gays?  All of the above?  Christ comes for them.

Dr. Gail O’Day, of Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, points out that through the years the character of the woman at the well has been misinterpreted – most probably because she was, in fact, a woman.  Dr. O’Day says that if we could actually read this scripture as if we’ve never heard anything about it in the past, we’d see that Jesus never condemns this woman as a sinner.  What does Jesus actually say?

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”  The woman answered him, “I have no husband.”  Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”

Look at that carefully, then think about our preconceived notions.  Jesus never condemns this woman, he simply points out the facts.  Nowhere is it ever stated that she has been divorced once, much less five times.  Nowhere does it say that the man she is with now is someone else’s husband, nor are we told why he is not her husband.

Dr. O’Day points out that this woman’s situation may be similar to that of Tamar, in the book of Genesis – you remember Tamar, from the story of Judah.  This Samaritan woman may be trapped in a series of Levirate marriages – when a woman’s husband dies without having a son, his nearest relative, usually a brother, is required to marry the widow; hopefully the widow will have a son with the brother, and the son will become the first husband’s heir.

In this case, perhaps the woman has had five “husbands” pass away without any male offspring, and now, just like what happened with Tamar, the last male in the family has refused to marry her.  We don’t know that this is what happened, but it’s at least as plausible an explanation as any other.  As with all scripture, we need to look at what was actually said, not what we think was said.

In fact, not only is the woman at the well never judged by Jesus as a sinner, she is actually lifted up as a model of growing faith.  Throughout this conversation with Jesus, we can see the woman’s faith grow as she comes to the realization that Jesus might actually be the Messiah.

And even more importantly, the woman at the well is shown to be an evangelist – a witness – for Jesus.  She invited her fellow townspeople to come and see Jesus – and they listened to her, another little hint that she may not have been as “evil” as we think.

And again, her successful evangelization of her town busts wide open the myth of the privileged position of men as witnesses and disciples, pastors and evangelists.  Because of the witness of this Samaritan woman, the number of people who believe in Jesus grows.  She did exactly what we are all called to do:  she brought people to Jesus.

Jesus’ actions in this passage of scripture, as he embraces both Samaritans and women, are just one example of the way Jesus challenges the status quo.  By his actions Jesus is showing us – you and me – how human relationships are transformed by his presence.  And both Jesus’ words and actions tell us that the status is not quo – that anything and everything is possible is the new reality that Jesus brings to the world.

Jesus’ words – living water, the hour, food, harvest – Jesus’ words attempt to open the eyes of the woman at the well, and the eyes of Jesus’ disciples, so that they can see what is being offered to them in the here and now, instead of hanging on tightly to the old traditions.  Jesus wants the Samaritan woman to see who is speaking to her at this moment, to see that now is the time of the fulfillment of God’s promises, not some future time or event.

Jesus wants the disciples to see that the harvest is ready now, contrary to popular understandings.  For us today, Jesus wants the same thing.  Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation.  Now is the time to bring others to Jesus.  We’re not called to wait for some so-called Rapture, some future war between the “chosen” and the “despised.”  Jesus is telling us that the End Times are, and always have been, now.  Each one of us faces our own End Times, our own mortality.

God’s salvation is available now, to all who are willing to receive it.  And salvation will be offered on God’s terms, not in some form that those who consider themselves “chosen” have determined.  This is proven by the Samaritan villagers’ acclamation of Jesus as Savior of the world.  The Savior in whom they put their faith did not conform to their prior expectations, nor did he conform to the prior expectations of their Jewish enemies.

The woman at the well, the villagers, and the disciples all received more from Jesus than their societal conventions and assumptions had led them to expect.  We could say that, once again, Jesus transformed ordinary water into wine.  An astounded Samaritan woman became a witness to the gospel; Jesus’ questioning disciples became workers in the harvest; and the despised Samaritans spent two days with the Savior of the world.

This whole story is a story of promise, a story of expectations turned upside down and surpassed.  For us today, our life of faith and discipleship can and will be refreshed and revived by seeing and following Jesus’ vision of reality – not what the world thinks, but what Jesus proves.

Jesus’ words about living water and worship in spirit and truth invite all disciples, everywhere – including you and me, all of us here this morning – Jesus invites us to a new relationship with God, with one another, and with those whom our society, sometimes even our religion, teaches us to despise.  Who do we despise?  Jesus comes for them.  Jesus calls them, and us, to a new relationship formed and transformed by the presence of Christ.

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There’s No Place Like Home

Genesis 1.27, 2.4b-8

Home.

Former baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti once said, “Baseball is about going home, and how hard it is to get there, and how drive is our need.”  How driven is our need to go home.

John Howard Payne wrote,

“To thee I’ll return, overburdened with care;

The heart’s dearest solace will smile on me there;

No more from that cottage again will I roam;

Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.”

There’s no place like home.  Whether it’s Dorothy trying to get back to Kansas, Scarlett dragging herself back to Tara, E. T. making a very long distance phone call, or astronaut Jim Lovell, gazing at earth through the porthole of the damaged Apollo 13 space capsule – all these famous images reflect a basic human longing for a place called … home.

My first year in the ministry I was a student at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa.  On the first day of my Old Testament class the professor walked in, divided us up into teams of 4 or 5, and told us that our assignment was to find, using only our Bibles and some maps, exactly where the Garden of Eden was located.

Well, we pored over our Bibles, dissecting every word in the first three chapters of Genesis.  We looked at ancient maps of the Tirgis and Euphrates river valleys.  By the time the professor called a halt to our research, each team had a favorite spot picked out.

We presented our findings to the class, and then the professor stood in front of us, and told us we were all wrong.  Now, honestly, that didn’t surprise us any.  After all, people had searched for the location of the Garden of Eden for most of recorded history, and we didn’t really expect that we, a bunch of first-year seminarians, were going to find a clue hidden in the Bible that no one else had ever found.

But then the professor did surprise us.  He told us he was going to show us exactly where the Garden of Eden was.  Now, this was going to be interesting.  Everybody in the class perked up.  The professor stood there, looking at us.  Then he reached up and tapped his chest.

“The Garden of Eden is here,” he said.  “The Garden of Eden is inside our hearts, because the Garden of Eden is the place where God lives.”

We can’t find the Garden of Eden on a map for a very simple reason:  The Garden of Eden is not, and never was, a geographical place.  The creation stories in Genesis – and I say “stories” because the first two chapters of Genesis contain two different, contradictory, stories of creation – the creation stories don’t really tell us exact step by step details of how God created things.

The Bible is not, and was never meant to be, a history book, or a science book.  The Bible is not an actual depiction of certain historical events.  The Bible doesn’t try to explain all the details of science and the natural world.

No, what the Bible is, is a truth book.  The Bible is a book about God, and God’s relationship with God’s most beloved creation – the one created in God’s own image.  The Bible tells the truth about this relationship, but not in a scientific or historical way.

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all disagree on who was present at the crucifixion of Jesus.  They all disagree on the words Jesus spoke from the cross.  They all disagree on who discovered the empty tomb.  But that doesn’t mean that three of the four gospels must be wrong.

The gospel writers weren’t writing history.  They weren’t journalists writing a Pulitzer Prize-winning story for a newspaper.  They were writing the truth, as it was revealed to them by God.  God inspired all four gospel writers to write words that would tell the truth about God’s relationship with humankind, through Jesus Christ.  They didn’t all write the same words, but they all wrote the truth.

If the gospels had simply been an historical account of the life and times of Jesus Christ, only one gospel would have been needed.  But each gospel tells the truth in a different way, so that when we read the each gospel we come away with a different part of the truth.

The fact is, the whole truth is more than we humans can handle.  That’s why God gives it to us a little at a time.  We can read the Bible cover to cover 40 times, and on the 41st reading uncover still another piece of the truth, something we never got before.

Oftentimes, the Bible uses stories to illustrate our relationship with God, and that’s what takes place here, in the very beginning of our Bible.  These are stories, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t true.  They’re “truth” stories, inspired by God to teach us what we need to know about the relationship between God and ourselves.

And what the creation stories teach us is that we – you and me, all of us – we were created in God’s own image.  Not physically, obviously.  We were created with a soul, like God’s.  It’s our souls that make us different from every other part of creation.

And here’s the really neat part:  because we were created in God’s own image, with souls, the creation stories teach us that we were created in order to live in the Garden of Eden with God.  That’s where we belong:  with God.  When God created us, God’s intention was for us to live in the Garden of Eden – the place where God lives.

Unfortunately, sin got in the way.  Humans sinned, and the result of that sin is that humans could no longer live with God, because God and sin are incompatible with each other.

But God still wanted us – humans – to live with him in the Garden of Eden.  So God devised a plan.  God sent his Child to live among humans, in order to teach us how we’re supposed to live.  And God sent his Child among us, in order to die on the cross as the ultimate sacrifice for all humanity’s sins.

Because sin requires a sacrifice.  But once Jesus made the sacrifice on the cross, the gift of God’s grace was made available to all humanity, all of us created in God’s image, with a soul.  By fully believing in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as our Lord and Savior, we are able once again to live in the Garden of Eden, with God.  Not a geographical place, but a metaphysical place, a spiritual place.  By fully believing in Jesus, we human beings are able once again to go … home.

And since Jesus not only died, but rose from the grave, defeating the power of death, we are also able to accept the gift of eternal life – again, not physically, but spiritually.  We are able to live in the Garden of Eden – home – with God, forever.

Our home, you see, is with God.  That’s where we were created to be.  That’s where we are meant to be.  That’s where God wants us to be.

Home.  God living in our hearts while we’re still alive.  Our souls living with God even after our physical bodies have passed away.

Home.

With God.

Forever.

 There’s no place like home.

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