Authenticity.

Colossians 1:3-8; 3:9-11

Paul Thanks God for the Colossians

In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit.

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11 In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, enslaved and free, but Christ is all and in all!

As we mentioned last week, today we are starting a sermon series for the month of July on the amazing work that our elemental leadership did.  In that work, we came up with a vision of building relationships through the neighborhood, partnerships, and other faith communities.  We also came up with values that are important to our church, these five values are what I’m preaching on for the next 5 Sundays, the month of July.  Those values are:  authenticity, partnerships, diversity, spiritual gifts, and leadership.

The first value is “authenticity”.  Being authentic according to the definition is this:  “the quality of being authentic” and “Put simply, authenticity means you’re true to your own personality, values, and spirit, regardless of the pressure that you’re under to act otherwise. You’re honest with yourself and with others, and you take responsibility for your mistakes.”

What it doesn’t mean is simply “saying it like it is”.  That’s often said by different people when they are trying to defend their opinions.  Being authentic though is deeper, it’s being real with yourself, asking the hard questions, doing the work of letting the Spirit of God that resides deep within each of us to emerge and to allow our true selves to emerge.  

Sometimes that can be very counter cultural.  Just look at Jesus, Jesus came to present what it means to be authentically human, made in God’s image.  That humanity challenged the dehumanizing systems of his day…and continues to challenge the systems we live in today.  That challenge got him killed as it threatened the status quo.

Yet, it also gave birth to the movement that we call the church, calling us to live towards a deep sense of faith, love, hospitality, oneness with all peoples, renewal, and a deep sense that all things and all people are connected and we should get on with loving ourselves and others.

I have met folks like that throughout my life:

My friend Jay Borck who always listened, believed in me in my twenties.  He won so many people over with his authentic, oftentimes quiet, charisma.  You knew he was there for you and you wanted to be there for him.  And, he never judged you.  

My friend Ron Thomas who was my roommate when I lived in Atlanta.  He was pretty conservative in his theology, but always showed a willingness to listen and to have empathy.  He put up with a lot having me as a roommate, but his heart was and is so pure, even as he continues to ask questions in life.  

Sean Gladding is a friend that many of you have met and have now become friends with.  He has been there for me these past several years, listening, never judging, allowing me to be vulnerable even as he is vulnerable with me.  Every time I think of Sean or I’m with him, I feel a deep sense of soul connection.

And then there’s also Dr. Scott Hagley.  Scott has been a friend for several years.  He’s also the one who encouraged me to pursue my doctorate at Pittsburgh Seminary.  He’s in charge of the program I’m in, my doctoral project and thesis first reader, my faculty advisor, and a close friend and confidante.  All along the way he’s been able to simply be himself in all of those roles, his true self, and consequently, it has been a great learning experience.  More than what I could have hoped.  And, I’ve been there for him.

Paul in his letter to Colossians is saying some similar things.  He loves the folks in this church, they have a collective authenticity and he is simply sharing that with them.  He is thankful for them and is giving testimony to their authenticity that is producing fruit.  He even singles out Epaphras, a Colossian, who lived out his humanity with authenticity.  

So, friends, again, we are called to live in authenticity with one another, and with ourselves.  The marks an authentic life:  vulnerability, listening, faith, kindness, connectedness, being real and with, empathy, and loving well.  And, I think that our church is growing tremendously in authenticity as I see those characteristics in each of you individually and collectively, and I thank God for it!

How do we get to deeper authenticity?  Self focus, awareness…and as Mary Lasoncsyk said last week, prayer.  Prayer can clear us up, open us up, to becoming who we want to be…not prayers simply asking for this or that, but sitting in quiet, with ourselves.  John O’Donohue, the great Irish writer, philosopher, poet says this:

“Prayer makes a clearance.  It this liberation of God from our hungers, needs, and images.  Prayer allows God to be God.  And prayer also allows our secret selves to be themselves.  This is a recommendation that Meister Eckhart makes again and again:  be who you are.  This is one of the great spiritual duties.  It touches the crux of our identity.  So many of us are so dragged away from the identity that we are, we are dragged to all kinds of externality.  We are chasing the wind and missing ourself.  A great spiritual axiom is:  sit down, slow down, and to try to be who you are.  If a person could be who they were, they would retain an inner coherence, regardless of the turbulence around them.”

Friends, tomorrow is the 4th of July, a day of freedom…may we become free to be our truest selves as made in the expansive image of God connected to ourselves and one another, in communion if you will, through the power of God’s Presence in us and around us.  

Legions.

Luke 8:26-39

Jesus restores a demon-possessed man

26 They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes,[a] which is across the lake from Galilee. 27 When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. 

28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, ‘What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!’ 29 For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.

30 Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’

‘Legion,’ he replied, because many demons had gone into him. 31 And they begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.

32 A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs, and he gave them permission.

33 When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34 When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, 35 and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid.

 36 Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. 37 Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left.

38 The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 ‘Return home and tell how much God has done for you.’ So the man went away and told all over the town how much Jesus had done for him.

When I was a cross country coach, I often tell runners that they have voices that they can listen to when they run. 

When the race or practice gets hard, or it’s snowing and cold, or hot and humid, they may hear voices in their head that say you can’t do this, you aren’t tough enough, you could quit, or go home, sit on the coach in air conditioning, or play video games. Or, they can learn to listen to the voices that tell them that they can do this, that it is worth the work and even the pain at times, that it is producing character, that they can overcome. We call this the “moment of truth”, when you listen to the good voices that will push you through and don’t give in to the voices that leave you in a state that keeps you in a place and not growing. 

Jesus encounters a man who’s been inflicted with thousands of voices that have actually taken control of his life. 

He had so many voices, or personal demons, that when Jesus asked him his name, he said that his name was “legion” meaning “many”, even thousands. I’m not sure how one gets into this state, but it’s safe to say that this man was affected to the point of madness, so much so that his community shunned him and even chained him up. 

Yet, Jesus goes up to him, has compassion on him. It’s also interesting to note that this man was not part of Jesus’ faith or lifestyle. The region where Jesus found this man was a Gentile region and Gentiles were non-believers. It was a foreign land, yet Jesus and his disciples felt compelled to travel there, outside of their comfort zone. 

When Jesus confronts the man, the man has lost his mind, his sense of identity so much, that he doesn’t personally answer, but the demons give voice to Jesus…they know that Jesus is the Son of God…when darkness is confronted, it knows it can’t hide from the light, and it knows that it cannot overcome light. I believe that Jesus was so perfectly human, so aware of himself as God’s son, as the representation of God to humanity and humanity to God, that the darkness was revealed in this possessed man so openly that it could not help but to retreat. 

It’s also important to realize that this man wanted to be healed. As conflicted as he was, as possessed as he was, he knew that he needed to change. It seems like Jesus’ power was best on display when others found within themselves a sense of agency. In other words, Jesus was a co-healer. 

The demons plead with Jesus to be sent into a herd of pigs. Which, is another indicator that Jesus is in a foreign country as pigs were considered unclean by Jewish custom. So, Jesus sends them into the pigs and the pigs go mad and drive themselves off of a cliff. 

This man regains his sense of self, his dignity and senses, and is restored into community. But, the townsfolk are afraid of Jesus, they don’t know how to respond to this amazing act of love and power over the darkness of the possessed man’s life. Or, maybe they are afraid that this Jesus and his presence will cost them more economically, as the herd of pigs was an economic loss. Faced with fear, economic instability, and the presence of a change agent like Jesus, they plead for Jesus to leave. Which, Jesus does. As he’s leaving, the formerly possessed man asks to go with Jesus, yet Jesus tells him to stay, to find his voice more clearly now that all of the other voices are gone, and to love his neighbors and proclaim to them what God has done. 

We don’t know this man’s name, it’s not in this passage, and we don’t know what happens. But, my bet is that this region saw and experienced this Jesus and continued to see evidence of this man’s growth and release from what enslaved him. 

The power of a changed life can change the world!

I know that’s true in my life, your life, and our lives together. What voices are we listening to? What fears do we have that prevent us from following Jesus or keeps us away from walking with Jesus? How do we ask Jesus to leave us alone when faced with change in our lives, even if we know we need it or we see others’ lives changed through their awareness of God, self, and others through Jesus? 

What would it take for us to let go of the voices that keep us enslaved to the way we’ve always done things or lived…voices that are keeping us from living the way that we’ve always wanted to live and growing in new ways as humans made in God’s image, infused with God’s dynamic spirit that moves us towards the kind of lives that bring adventure, meaning, purpose, and growth? 

A few years ago, I had coffee with my good friend Peter Block as I often do…even just a few weeks ago.  Peter is a voice that I love to listen to…he speaks into my life and allows me to speak into his. We are in community together, we practice “church” if you will in many ways. As we were talking, he began to encourage me, as he does so often. One of the things that he spoke into my life this week was reminding me that I have a powerful voice and finding that voice consistently is good work…it’s good work for all of us. Not only finding our particular voice, but how it fits into community and being in a community that can find its collective voice. That voice can shape mountains, experience and share love. Voice is powerful when there is no agenda other than seeing relationships and community restored or created. 

God’s voice, God’s word, brought forth creation.
God’s voice or God’s word, became flesh and gave us Jesus. 

God’s voice, God’s word, is carried to us through the flow of God’s spirit all around us, in us, through us, to us. 

I have not given out homework much lately, but here’s homework this week, take inventory daily. Listen to yourself, others, and the messages being sent to you through social media, news media, or whatever. What voices are you hearing or listening to. Write them down. Then ask yourself, where are you hearing God’s voice. 

Are we willing to listen to God’s voice as it pushes through all of the other voices in our lives, leading us to freedom and reminding us that we have a powerful voice, that we are loved, that we are made for each other and to be a part of a community together proclaiming to each other God’s love? Not petty issues or pride or insecurities that keep us away from each other, but living together listening to God’s voice emerge within us and through us together? May it be so! 

Name.

New Testament Readings  

John 14:8-17

Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 

11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

The Promise of the Holy Spirit

15 ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

John 14:25-27

25 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

This week, in the common lectionary, we are still working in the last discourse that Jesus gave after the Last Supper and before he went to the cross…and the importance of the Spirit of God, the very presence of God, that continues to reveal to us the relational nature of God… 

Jesus is encouraging the disciples even as Phillip is asking to see the Father.  Jesus goes on to remind him, and the others, AGAIN, that he is one with the father.  And, that even if the relationship is sometimes unseen, Jesus reminds them of all of the things they have done, and that God has done through him.  And, that he believes in them and that they will do even greater things.  

I can somewhat relate to this when my grandfather died. We were really close, he believed in me. It’s been 15-20 years since he died, but I still feel his presence. There’s something more.  And my grandfather believed through his belief in me, that I would do great things in my life.  I feel that sometimes with my own kids…it’s pretty wild.  There is a connection that is still there with my grandpa, and with others, and with you…that connection is still felt with Jesus as well.  

Now, this presence pales in comparison to what I’ve experienced with Jesus, similar, but with Jesus it’s even more present within my body, within my friendships, and within the space between us. Teilhard calls this the cosmic Christ, that Christ not only lived and walked the earth, but is with us, everywhere with everyone and everything, right now. 

Notice that Jesus doesn’t say that there won’t be any problems in this passage…that life would be perfect and everything is going to be OK. No, he simply promises that he won’t leave us, that he’ll be with us in the midst of life’s throes. 

I spend a lot of time checking in with folks who are going through some hard times. Maybe they are sick, or have had a break in a relationship, or are struggling with various issues. I can’t, with integrity, say that their situations will work out, I don’t know. But, I can say that they are not alone, that there is a Presence, a sense of God’s love all around them and I pray for awareness of God’s Presence. I believe that the greatest gift and struggle that we have as Jesus followers, as humans, is the work of becoming of self, others, and God aware. Of moving past our small egos and moving into a global ego, a sense of deep connection with ourselves, others, and God’s movement and shaping. 

We are not alone in this work, God is with us, reminding us that we can see God…often in the small things.  And to “abide” in God.  Abide is a great word.  It means to remain, to live, to be present with what is happening.  

Jesus gives the pronouncement that he won’t be able to be seen by the world, but his followers will see him as they abide in him through his Presence, the Spirit of God. That’s an interesting thought. We’ve prayed for eyes to see and ears to hear God’s movement in our world. I strongly believe that all of humanity is being shaped and formed by God’s movement, that God is with all of us in the most intimate way. God is closer than the air we breathe. Yet, we don’t often recognize God, or sometimes we even deny that God could even exist. The idea of a loving God can scare us. Love transforms, it changes us. Yet, we are comfortable with what we think we know. 

Jesus goes on to say that because he lives, because he loved and continues to love, we will all someday see that we find our being in community, in relationship with God. 

This concept of being “in” relationship with God and with others starts with an understanding that God’s very nature is communal relationship. You can go through all sorts of head knowledge of God, but if we go deep within ourselves, whether we are extroverts or introverts, we are wired for relationship. Science affirms this concept, at the very root of how we are formed, with atoms, protons, neutrons, quarks, etc., there is an understanding that energy is created for atoms to form through attraction, through relationship. 

Our understanding of God as three in one, as Trinity, gives witness to relationships. God as father, son, holy spirit are so close that they are one. The outcome of their energy together is creating, saving, and sustaining relationship based on love. It is not static, it is dynamic. 

This love moves us, gives us energy. We are drawn to it like an atom is drawn together to form something. As a seminary professor at Fuller once told me, we can say no to God, but what if God says no to our no? There is a flow that is creating and shaping us, and that flow is relational, and it is marked by love. We can go on resisting it, or we can obey that desire to love and let it reveal itself to us. 

This love may move us towards a personal understanding of God’s love for us, but it also moves us eventually in an evolutionary way towards an understanding that God’s love is for everyone and is not so small minded or ego-centric on just us, but all of us. 

As we begin to allow God’s love to pour into us and through us to others, we begin to understand that we are connected to an expansive God. We begin to see faith as not being right, not living in a black and white world, but understanding that living in mystery and curiosity, living in a willingness to let go of our control, our vision, and letting God expand our horizons and understanding of the global Christ project by being locally rooted in community, we begin to experience a deepening of ourselves, a joy in things unseen but lived out. 

God’s Spirit is called Advocate, God advocates for us. God has made God’s home with us, and is in our corner. Not in our corner to meet our selfish needs, but to say to us that we are not alone, that God sees a better “us” and is calling us into growth through awareness. This Advocate, this Presence, God’s Spirit, is a counselor for us, reminds us of God’s story with us, and goes with us. 

God’s Spirit is a gift, but just like any gift, we need to open it, see it, experience it. A good place to start is to work towards authentic community with others, to honor them, to work towards awareness by slowing down and taking time each day to reflect, pray, journal. By unplugging and going on a retreat to a quiet place. 

As we do that, we will begin to see that God is in us, and we find our being in God. This being will move us in ways we don’t always expect. Look at the early disciples that are describe in Acts. They experience the Spirit, it’s like a flame that’s burning, uncontrollable, yet warms them and moves them to change the world. They moved out of their closed doors, they were not afraid, and they found peace in trusting that God’s Spirit was with them and leading them.  May it be so for us. 

Unity.

John 17:20-26

20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Sermon:

Our gospel lesson this morning is one of my favorite passages.  I preached on it when I was going before the Presbytery for my examination before ordination in the PCUSA.  

The day before, I went rock climbing with one of my best friends, Mike Zimmer, whom many of you have met and who’s family we’ve prayed for in the past.  I wanted to go climbing, partly to relax and take my mind off of the thought of preaching before a couple hundred folks at Presbytery and then having them ask me questions, but also to ask Mike his take on this passage.

Mike is a great thinker, he doesn’t identify as a churchgoer or particularly religious, but he understands God’s Spirit and desire for humanity to be together better than most.  In between hanging off of 60 foot cliffs, some where I wasn’t feeling so close to Mike as he was taking me on some crazy climbs, but we also had great moments of deep sharing and questioning.  

At the Presbytery examination, I went into it with a confidence of the my friend’s encouragement and “with-you-in-life” presence.  Mike even came.  

It went well.  The presentation made sense, a couple of questions were asked, then the Presbytery voted unanimously to ordain me as a minister.  Honestly, a similar experience was when I was approved for dual standing with the UCC.  There was a sense of oneness in that moment. 

Now, granted, I’ve been in the presbytery for a while, and now the UCC for several years as well, and I have had great friendships in both over the years, it goest to show that God works through all sorts of folks and different bodies.  Those folks and those bodies often don’t seem to be unified, but at certain moments, you sense a togetherness that gives witness to a deeper relational reality at work.

There was a similar sense of that oneness in our meeting last Saturday with the elemental church leadership team here at Fleming Road UCC.  A cross section of our church membership, all with with different thoughts and opinions, yet there was a sense of oneness and of mutual presence with each other.  

Jesus in this passage is getting ready to go to the cross, he is praying not only for his disciples, but for all of those who will come after him.  Jesus has been glorified by his humanity, which is God’s glory, God’s making us in God’s image.  Jesus is the truest human and we share in Jesus’ humanity.  

Jesus is also praying that our humanity, our glory has been given to us by Jesus.   A key part of this glory is also Jesus’ demonstration of true humanity in how he loves other and models sacrificial love.  Jesus is saying that he, and the humanity that he represents, our best versions of ourselves, came out of love before creation came into existence, that he is the expression of all that God intends for humanity in our actions, attitudes and self/others/God awareness.   It’s also important to know that God’s glory is wrapped up in our own glory as humanity…when we are being fully aware of our ourselves, others, and the divine touch that brings us together, God is glorified!

Now, we cannot do that on our own.  We need God and each other.  We are called to unity with one another, not conformity, but a deeper bond.  Jesus’ bond with the father as demonstrated in this passage is so tight, they are one.  We are called to be one and called to enter into the glory of God’s intent for us by recognizing our true humanity through Jesus abiding or living within each of us.  That common identity draws us out of ourselves, out of our self-focus with a small “s” and growth as persons.  It also reminds us that our unity is a mark of what it means to be the church…our unity, our witness to a deeper bond in our humanity, our desire for growth out of love, will show the world that there is a different force at work that is more powerful than control, fear, or violence.  

Jesus goes on in his prayer to remind us that this love will always be with us, that Jesus does not give up on us.  That Jesus is always with us, living in us, working on us, whether we recognize it or not.

I cannot fully understand this unity, and I know it’s much deeper than anything I can do on my own.  Yet, as a parent and as a friend, I can catch glimpses of it sometimes.  God is described as a righteous father.  We get wrapped up in this term a lot, is God male or female..well, God is both and also neither.  In scripture, God is both referred to in the feminine and in the masculine.  God transcends gender even as God identifies in both genders.  God is found in all things, in all people.  This is more a term of relationship, of connectedness.  God is also saying that the love of a father, or of a parent, can run deep.  The term father even is an attempt by the early Jews to denote a deep sense of relationship. 

We know that righteousness is a relational term, it means more than dotting I’s or cross t’s, or following the letter of the law.  It means being a true friend, of working together, creating together, journeying together and honoring one another.   

Another word for this oneness is simply communion. In this world where we have a dearth of leadership, even anti-leaders if you will, folks in position of power who want to divide for political gain rather than unite for the gain of humanity.  But, not so with us.  As Jesus Followers, we are called towards peace, towards unity, and towards being in authentic community with one another and to bring reconciliation to the world.  Yet, it can also be a deep relationship that transcends hardships and shows a deep sense of commitment and even trust.

As Jesus Followers, we are called to be a witness to one another out of this deep sense of friendship, of relationships.  As a church that can be our legacy for folks, even as we move towards a deeper and new place as a church.  Relationships matter, and as they are defined by love, they can shape and form us in beautiful ways.

And that is good news!

Great.

John 14:23-29

23 Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words, and the word that you hear is not mine but is from the Father who sent me.

25 “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 

28 You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 29 And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur you may believe.

Love.  We talked about that last week didn’t we?  We also talked about God’s love that resides within and without, all around us…how we are called to love and how hard it is to do that.  I know this past week, there were several times I could point out that I simply wasn’t living into love very well…especially as I was packing three cars of stuff from Oxford to Cincinnati after my daughter’s graduation from college and need to move home until she moves to Nashville!  

In my journal and in my daily readings and meditations, I am reminded that love is always there though…and that I do have access to it as I practice presence with myself and others.  

Our passage this morning is in response to Judas by Jesus.  Judas (not Judas Iscariot..different Judas) is wanting to know why Jesus has revealed himself to the disciples, and not to the rest of the world.

Jesus responds by saying that love is the key.  And, it starts with loving yourself.  We’ve talked about what it means to live in Christ, to live as your “true self”, to be present with yourself that leads to presence with others.  Loving others starts with loving yourself.  That’s not being selfish, it’s knowing that love resides in you…that it’s often found in the darkness and the suffering we experience because that causes a break within us for love to emerge.  It’s also realizing that love, true self, presence are all terms for the Divine, for God.  And God sees God’s self in all of us, each of us!  That is communion friends!  And, eventually, it does lead to peace.  We want to be at peace with the love that resides within and without.  As that love emerges, as we embrace and cultivate it, a deeper peace does arise within us.  

We oftentimes try to deny that love, but God doesn’t.  God remains faithful because God is an intimate indwelling in humanity and God cannot deny God’s self in us…2 Timothy 2:13 says this:

if we are faithless, God remains faithful—
God cannot deny himself.

Jesus goes on to say that we have the Divine Presence, the very spirit or soul of God given to us.   

In Greek, the word is Pneuma, in Hebrew, its ruach.  It means, wind, spirit, breath.  It’s Presence.  We’ve said this before, but this Spirit, wind, breath of God is everywhere.  It sustains life, it carries life, it reveals the work of God through creating life, and through the work of Jesus of saving life and redeeming it.

A few years ago, I walked into Ludllow Wines where my friend Mike is the owner.  On this day, we had a most wonderful conversation.   In that conversation, I found out that he’s Greek Orthodox.  We also talked a bit about the beauty of that language.  The greek word for “advocate” in this morning’s passage in John is beautiful.  Greek words often have many different meanings.  The word for advocate in Greek is “paraclete”.  It means to come alongside, to help, to counsel.  We are co-creating the experience of love for self and neighbor with God.  

Jesus knew that death was approaching.  Jesus also hoped and understood that death needed to happen before resurrection.  It’s a mystery, in theology, we often call it the Paschal mystery.  God died on Good Friday.  All was lost.  God had to experience everything we do, the violence, being humiliated and betrayed…as well as being the humiliator and the betrayer.  God had to experience loss and death.  

When all is lost, when nothing is certain.  That’s when faith comes alive, real.  We don’t understand it, but somehow resurrection happened.  And, not as we have been told in Sunday school most of our lives.  It is a wounded resurrection.  A Jesus, and a God, a universe, that has changed by being wounded.  The scars are still there, yet healed and given new meaning.  

2000 years later, we don’t always have faith.  Even as we see it written out scripture.  Jesus also knew that we would need to stay connected to each other and to him.  That’s the way the Spirit works, it comes alongside, it advocates for us, it helps us to see things about ourselves, others, and God that may not make sense at times, but always seems to work out for the good eventually.  It also reminds us that we are not alone, that the very power of God, the deep love of God that is radically inclusive of all of us in this room and outside these doors and windows, presides within us and all around us.

This spirit, as we cultivate our awareness of God and ourselves emboldens us and gives us confidence as it did the disciples.  Even when all is lost, love still wins.  

This passage reminds us that Jesus and God are one, and that God is one with us, in all things, in all of life.  In that oneness, Jesus says the Father is greater.  Well, end the Trinity, in that oneness, the Father would say Jesus is also great, and that, we, humans, in our mutual love and suffering and joy…our communion, we are great as well.  It’s that glory thing….God’s glory is humanity being fully alive, and together as one.   I’ll end with the lyrics of this song by Bono, lead singer of U2 that sums it up:

One love
One blood
One life
You got to do what you should
One life
With each other
Sisters
Brothers
One life
But we’re not the same
We get to 
Carry each other
Carry each other
One…life

One

Love.

John 13:31-35

The New Commandment

31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 

33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Nothing you can know that isn’t known
Nothing you can see that isn’t shown
Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be
It’s easy

All you need is love
All you need is love
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need

The Beatles sang this back in the 60’s.  We all know it, yet it’s hard for us to understand it.  Love is a word that gets thrown around a lot.  But, at its core, it’s a relational term.  I believe it is embodied fully in Jesus’ actions and attitudes with each of us.

What does Jesus’ love look like?  Oftentimes I’m asked at weddings to read the “love chapter” found in 1 Corinthians 13.  It has beautiful poetry, but it’s not about love between two persons…no one can love that way except for God.  It’s a chapter describing perfect love, sit back, close your eyes, soak in some of these words as if God is speaking directly to you:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Wow.  And, this is what Jesus is saying to us.  Live, or abide, remain in my love.  As my spiritual director reminds me, it is abiding love with us..Jesus isn’t going anywhere, as a matter of fact, Jesus is present with us in this room, right now, and is chasing after us…won’t give up on us.

Jesus was and is present with each of us.  It’s hard, I know, but when we begin to move towards understanding ourselves, asking the really hard questions and confronting the things in our lives that prevent us from experiencing the abundant life that we talked about last week, in knowing who we are and who God, we can begin to truly be present with ourselves, others, and God.  We begin to experience love.  

A couple of years ago, on my birthday during a COVID surge, I gathered with close friends from all over the world for a birthday celebration on Zoom.  It was fun, and then it got serious…one of them asked me what I wanted out of life, I simply said “presence”.  Apparently they wanted something more tangible in their minds…I’ve since realized how important presence really is…it allows me to love myself, others, and to grow in God’s love flowing in and all around me.  

One of the places I go to practice “presence” is the Abbey of Gethsemani as many of you know.  We’ve mentioned this before, but the monks there pray for three things every day:  stability, conversion, and obedience.  Jesus, in this morning’s passage commands us to love God.  An act of obedience is to love, and to love well.  As we do that, we begin to understand deeply that Jesus is truly our friend and that leads to other friendships.

Friendship means a lot to me.  As your pastor, I have made a commitment in my vows to be your friend, to love you.  And, in your vows when you called me here, you committed to be my friend, and to love me. 

As I practice friendship, sometimes in beautifully messy ways!  I find that our friendships leads towards common aims.  Many of my friends in this city and around the world are all working towards seeing goodness happen in communities.  And we are asl well, as our church is partnering with others for that goodness, out of love, like we did with Cincy4Ukraine, with Tikkun Farm, with Valley Interfaith…we are being a place of generosity and momentum towards others and each other.  

Sometimes we may think that we’d like to simply shirk away from friendship, from being present.  Yet, Jesus reminds us that God’s glory is wrapped up in our glory, in our being fully alive.  And that Jesus is in that process with us…there are times when we have to realize that our view of Jesus changes, we don’t recognize him sometimes as he says in this passage today.  

Friends, a practical takeaway from what I’m sharing is this…YOU are loved, God is present with you, cultivate that understanding, and know that God desires for the best for you…and for this church.

I think that’s why I’m so confident about Fleming Road UCC.  We will move towards a great story…we are on the crusp of amazing personal and corporate growth as a church, and as persons!  Believe it…accept it.  Receive this love and bear fruit!

And, remember these words:

All you need is love (All together, now!)
All you need is love (Everybody!)
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need
Love is all you need (Love is all you need)

Jesus embodies this love, Jesus is here, present with you through his spirit the Holy Spirit, that connects all of us and all of this…and ultimately keeps us firmly in the Presence of Jesus even as Jesus is present with us.

May we love one another and our neighbors (which means everyone) well!  And, as we do, as Jesus reminds us this morning, the world around us will know that we are truly Jesus followers!

Voice.

John 10:10-18

10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 

14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

When I was in England in February, I stayed with our close friends, the Kenny’s.  They are great people, many of you have met their daughter, Georgia, who lived with us for about a year or so.  We first met Georgia and her family several years ago when our kids were quite young.  We bonded on a trip to England at a fundraiser for Oasis.  After that night, we spent the next several days together and have tried to visit one another and keep in contact via Zoom.  

On that trip several years ago, through a wild chain of events, our family ended up staying for several days at an English manor house on the Penshurst Estate outside of Tonbridge, UK.  It was an amazing mansion overlooking an even much more expansive mansion/castle, the estate of the Sidney family since 1552.  

Side note:  the Kenny’s have since bought their own English manor house and castle…Embleton Tower.

At Penshurst, and Embleton, there are tons of sheep, all over the UK as you’d imagine…but, at Penshurst, 

like four fields of sheep between our manor house and the estate house below…and Georgia, and her siblings Hannah and Phoebe, and our kids, McKenzie and Brennan, spent the better part of a day and night running through those fields trying to catch a sheep.  They were not successful.

However, during the day, we’d notice someone opening up a gate from one field to the other, and those sheep would follow his voice.

I tell you this because our passages this morning are about sheeps and shepherds.  I read once that you cannot very easily approach sheep…they are sheepish if you will.  They aren’t easy to heard either, unless you are their shepherd.  Shepherds, especially in Jesus’ time, spent a lot of time with sheep.  Shepherds had a way of gathering sheep, by simply calling them out.  Sheep will follow the shepherd because they recognize the shepherd’s voice.  They trust that voice.

In this passage, we are sheep, you and I together.  It’s obviously a metaphor, but much like the beauty of the landscape at Penshurst, we are live together in a beautiful world.  We also produce a lot of smelly and messiness.  Our kids found that out pretty quickly.  Our relationships with each other are filled with craziness at times, we don’t always follow or lead each other well.  There are dangers around us, and sometimes there are other forces out there, thieves such as depression, loneliness, selfishness, pride, or addictions, or folks not being the best version of themselves, or fully understanding themselves or others that come in the middle of darkness as it says in John 10:10 that kill and destroy the lives that we were called to live.

Yet, Jesus tells us that he has come to give us life.  When we slow down, or get caught up in recognition of good things around us and the origin of that goodness, we can recognize the voice of the true shepherd, the voice of Jesus who has entered in the fields of our lives, who walks with us and towards us…walking through the messiness to call us towards new fields, new adventures.  

We often recognize the voice of Jesus through others.  Maybe we literally hear words from Jesus through others such as a speaker, or maybe even a preacher.  Or maybe we recognize the voice of God through something we read, or a song we hear.  Maybe it’s listening to our neighbors. Or, maybe it’s seeing someone else practice charity through actions or giving themselves away.

We know it when we see it and hear it though, especially as we train our eyes and ears to see and recognize the true shepherd and the voice of that shepherd.

Friends, we have said it before, we are living in a new place with church.  The old forms simply don’t work anymore.  The world is crying out for us, the church, to be an example of goodness, of the good shepherd, to be reflections of Jesus’ actions and to reflect and amplify the voice of the Shepherd who is calling us towards him, towards abundant life, towards being one flock.  This shepherd has laid down his life for us, yet in doing so, has overcome all of the messiness in our lives and is creating something new and beautiful as he leads us into new fields, filled with beauty and relationship.

So, let’s listen to the voice of the Shepherd, let’s love each other well, and let’s play in the fields of our neighborhoods, and the world and be the diverse, yet unified flock God’s marked us out to be…we can do this, we can believe in each other as my grandfather did with me and God does with us, trusting each other, loving each other, and changing the world in the process.

Conversion.

John 21:1-19

Jesus Appears to Seven Disciples

21 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Jesus and Peter

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Acts 9:1-10

The Conversion of Saul

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”

I grew up fishing with my dad.  I have to admit, I wasn’t good at it and didn’t particularly enjoy it.  I think it was because it was something my dad loved, and really wanted me to love it…but, I just didn’t.  It seems like a lot of times growing up, I had passions for some things like adventures in hiking mountains or sports, where as my dad had other passions such as fishing, carpentry, and people watching.

As I grew older, I had some deep friendships with folks who were great fisherman.  I began to realize that fishing can be a fun exercise.  It’s peaceful, strategic, and there is an art to it.  I have been amazed at some of my friends with a gift for fishing.  They simply know where to put their lines in the water, and the patience and talent to lure fish onto their hooks!

There was a gradual change within me towards fishing…a conversion if you will!

Our gospel lesson this morning finds the disciples after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  They are near the Sea of Tiberius, they have heard rumors about Jesus’ resurrection, Peter has even seen evidence as have others, but the new reality is still sinking in.  They have been living under a perception of what faith meant, they had put their hopes and dreams in a visible earthly kingdom, and the Jesus that they followed…well, even though he may have risen, the images of him being crucified, and their shame in deserting Jesus was almost too much for them to process.

So, what do they do.  They go fishing.  They grew up around it, it gave them fellowship, a source of income, and they were good at it.  

The fished all night.  They knew the right places, they had the right technique, they had the correct bait to attract fish, yet, they caught nothing.  All night, nothing.  

The next morning, they see this guy on the beach yelling something to them.  It’s interesting that our text says “children”.  Some texts use the word friends, but children could apply.  They had not reached a point of change or growth in their understanding.  Their faith was still maturing.  But, I also like friends.  Both work here.  Calling the disciples children wasn’t saying anything about their character, I think it was a term of endearment, as well as a desire for growth.

What else does Jesus tell them?  Throw your nets on the other side!  I’m sure they are thinking, how would that help?  We know these waters, we know how to fish…moving our nets a few feel won’t do anything.  Yet, they had fished all night with no results.  They were doing what they always did which got them something in times past, but nothing on this day.

So, they take a risk, trusted this guy on the beach, and throw their nets on the other side.  What did they have to lose?  And, what happens?  We all know, they caught more fish than they could pull in!  153 to be exact!  Now, here’s a think about biblical numbers, this says nothing about goals.  I used to be on staff at a church that said we wanted to go out and “net 50” new families in the church during a fall.  It didn’t happen, nor was that biblical.  We can read too much into numbers, but essentially it a reporting of something that happens out of obedience and deep, loving, honoring and unashamed relationships.

We see that happening here in this gospel lesson.  When Peter realizes that its Jesus, when his eyes are opened to his friend, he puts on his clothes and jumps into the sea to swim to Jesus.  Now, I’m not sure of the custom at that time about fishing without clothes, and I’ve read a lot of commentaries on this passage, and I’m still not sure on why you’d put on clothes to swim even…yet, that’s in the passage…and it shows Peter being Peter, impulsive and passionate…and a leader that others would follow.  

Which they do, they get to shore and Jesus invites them to cook breakfast together.  He doesn’t hand them the food, they pull in their haul, start a fire, and cook together.  

After breakfast, they have this wonderfully awkward and hard dialogue.  Jesus asking Peter 3x if he loves Jesus.  I believe that Jesus is restoring Peter.  Peter denied him 3x on the night before he was crucified, so he asks Jesus 3x.  It must’ve been somewhat hard for Peter as evidenced in the passage.  Yet, he eventually catches on, and Jesus gives him the charge to build up the church.

Friends, this passage can speak to us in our personal lives and in lives together as Fleming Road UCC.  There may be things that we’ve done for a long time in our lives that simply are not working anymore, we need a fresh perspective, a resurrection even, maybe we need to put our nets somewhere else, maybe even right outside our church doors.  We certainly need to slow down, and listen to the voice of God calling us to jump out of whatever boat we are in and swim towards this Jesus who continues to beckon us towards deeper relationship with him, ourselves, and others.  

As we do this, we will find ourselves in the midst of conversion.  Conversion is a lifelong process.  The Benedictine monks that I hang out with when I go to the Abbey of Gethsemani, get it, they pray for Stability, Obedience, and Conversion daily.  

I believe in this process of change and growth.  One of our other scripture lessons this morning is the story of Paul’s conversion.  It was dramatic, on the road to Damascus, a blinding light, and the voice of Jesus.  It was also dramatic when you consider that Paul persecuted Christians, killed them, separated families, instilled fear in the early church.  Yet, love penetrates even the most darkest of places when we come before the light of God’s presence and hear the voice of Jesus calling us towards the other side of the boat, out of what we’ve become used to, and into the wide open spaces of God’s expansive love.

This church, our lives, we are in the midst of conversion.  All of us, myself included, are moving towards new chapters in our lives.  That is good news for me, for us, and for all of those around us.  

Next.

John 20:19-31

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin[a]), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe[b] that Jesus is the Messiah,[c] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

I’m sure we have all heard the expression that something beautiful or scary or amazing to see can “take our breath away”.  We have probably also experienced moments in our lives when we’ve attempted something like riding a roller coaster at King’s Island, or jumping into a cold lake, or maybe experiencing the birth of a child where it “took our breath away”.

Perhaps we have also had moments in our lives filled with fear or anxiety, times where we feel like our breath has been taken away.

Or maybe we are like the writer of this song, Anna Nalick, “Breathe (2 AM)” that says:  

There’s a light at each end of this tunnel,
You shout ’cause you’re just as far in as you’ll ever be out
And these mistakes you’ve made, you’ll just make them again

Breathe, just breathe

We maybe feel trapped in situations that we feel like we can’t get out of on our own.  We feel caught and out of breath and in need of a “light at the end of a tunnel” or maybe out lives are like being underwater and we need to get to the surface for some air, to breathe.  We get caught in these moments and wonder “what’s next?”  And, can we handle what’s next?

Our text this morning has a lot to do with moments like this, moments in our lives when we need to breathe, breathing that brings life, and not just any life, but life as it was meant to be lived.

Right after Jesus’ death on a Roman cross and resurrection from the dead.  Jesus appears to his disciples.  I’m sure they were overwhelmed, in shock, and wondering what was going to happen next.  

They were locked in a room, afraid of the same folks who had just crucified Jesus and fearful that they would be after them as well.  They were wondering if there was a light at the end of the tunnel of fear that they were experiencing, the uncertainty was overwhelming, not sure what to think about what’s going to happen next.  The room was shut, and probably the lives of those disciples were in a state of being shut down from fear. There was probably a war of emotions going on within them.

Into this room, this state of anxiety, Jesus appears and has the greeting “Peace to you”.    The word “peace” in this context is a common word, but in this context, it meant the world to the disciples.  They needed peace.   

They had to be overwhelmed in seeing Jesus, but Jesus’ physical presence was also comforting.  Our passage this morning says that they rejoiced and they were strengthened by having seen the Lord.  

Jesus gives a charge to those disciples, an imperative command.  Just as the Father had sent Jesus to the world, Jesus was now sending the disciples out from behind shut doors into a crazy world desperate for hope.  A world full of fear, full of conflict…a world desperately in need of peace.  

Then, something happens, Jesus breathed on them.  This word “breathe” in this passage is the same word used in Genesis 2:7 where God breathes life into humanity, giving us life.  Jesus is in effect saying that he is the Son of God, God in the flesh, giving life to the disciples.  Jesus was not only bringing peace to the disciples, but breathing life into them.  The verse goes on to say that Jesus gives another imperative, to receive the Holy Spirit.  Jesus was breathing the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, God’s presence on to the disciples.  The Holy Spirit, God’s Spirit, the unifying power of God would bring the disciples together, giving them confidence and power to be who God created them to be.  

In verse 24 of this passage, we see that one of the 12 disciples, Thomas, wasn’t around to see Jesus the first time he appeared in that room.  8 days later though, they are hanging out and Jesus appears.  It’s interesting to note that these same disciples who had just been blessed by Jesus showing up and breathing on them are scared and locked up in that room again!  Yet, Jesus breaks through the walls again…gives them a peace blessing and then addresses Thomas.  Thomas wants more tangible evidence, so Jesus gives it to them.  Jesus doesn’t want to shame Thomas, this passage isn’t here to give reference to Thomas’ unbelief, but it’s here to give hope to those who haven’t seen.  The writer of this passage is giving a direct address to those reading in verse 31 that these things have been written for you…for us.

Friends, we may be living in fear, in anxiety.  We may have just witnessed Jesus’ very resurrection in our lives…we may even have lived our lives in expectation of God’s faithfulness to us.  Yet, here’s Jesus…appearing before us, walking through any barriers that we may be hiding behind.  Calling us out of the four walls we’ve enclosed ourselves in…giving us himself, breathing new life into us, and calling us towards the next thing…a full life with him!   Thomas and the rest of the disciples were living in fear, in disappointment.  They were tired.  Yet Jesus came to them, and comes to us…he invites us to know his scars, to touch the pain that has been inflicted upon him…to believe that he has overcome all things, even death, and so can we as we are Christ’s body!  

Look In.

John 20:1-18

The Resurrection of Jesus

20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. 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. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and 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. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said 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.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Friends, here we are…Easter morning.  My morning started early!  It was dark…pitch dark.  Of course, it didn’t really start until I was able to get some coffee and a nice hot shower!  As a kid, I remember Easter morning always starting in the dark.  I couldn’t wait for it, it was kind of like Christmas “lite”, but with bunnies and candy…so, I was up, in the dark…looking for my Easter basket…and, yes, I loved the chocolate bunnies!!

Since then, life has happened.  I’m 54.  I’ve had some ups and downs.  And, I’m sure we all have. We’ve experienced loss, disappointment, expectations dashed.  When we get in touch with those moments of disorientation, we can have a notion, or an inkling, of what those early disciples were going through.  Their lives had been filled with so much, they met Jesus, they fell in love with him.  Even in this gospel narrative of John, we hear the phrase, the “disciple that Jesus loved”.  Now, scholars say that could be referencing John, or another disciple who’s writing this text, or it could mean all of humanity, or a reference to Judaism and Gentiles…those inside and those outside.  Either way, the disciples that morning, Mary Magdalene being the most prominent, had just seen their best friend, their rabbi, someone who’s words and actions drew them in, someone who they had projected their hopes and dreams on, humiliated and violently killed on a cross by a religious structure in bed with the state.  All because of love that asked us to be better humans, to include everyone in community, in authentic friendship across social barriers.

Jesus’ death was more than physical pain, that moment on the cross, Jesus was lost…resurrection was not on his mind. He cried out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me”. Many of us today have been disoriented by so much happening in our culture with the war in Ukraine, the pandemic, political partisanship, the collapsing of so many institutions, including the church, and then adding in our own personal issues. We have felt lost, wondering where God is in all of this, if God has forsaken us.  

Yet, if we believe that God and humanity are together in Jesus, then God through the cross, is telling us that God, the Divine, is in the struggle with us…all of the struggle, embracing all of our lives, and the lives of those around the world.    

We find ourselves here we are on Easter morning. What do we say to each other on this morning?  What phrase? Christ has risen! Christ has risen indeed! Jesus’ love for us, Jesus’ promise of a full life filled with purpose and presence could not be kept in a grave. 

Mary Magdalene was a true disciple and friend of Jesus…one of only two disciples that did not desert Jesus, goes and finds the tomb empty! She runs to tell the other disciples, they go to the tomb and find it as she said…and, I love this passage as a runner, John, who is at least credited with writing our gospel lesson this morning, makes it clear that he’s faster than Peter!  

These disciples ran to the tomb in the dark.  We come to Easter morning in the dark.  Maybe running around aimlessly in the dark even. It is important to note this, because Easter comes to us in the dark, it does not come alive in triumphant statements from this pulpit, from the liturgy or music of the moment…those things remind us of when Easter does come…it’s when we are disoriented or lost.  When we look at the casket of a loved one who has died.  When we sit with a church member who’s just gone through surgery and doesn’t know what’s going to happen next.  When we walk with a neighbor who’s daughter is going through a destructive relationship.   A friend who’s thinking about ending their lives.  When we hear of someone on a ventilator, fighting for their lives.  Or when we hear the voice of a loved one in the middle of a war zone wondering if they, or someone they know will make it through the day.

In those moments, when we are lost, when we see the empty tomb and wonder where God is…those are the moments when Easter becomes real.  Maybe like Mary, we run to friends, friends we’ve shared life with to look into to our lives or situations in life to get a different perspective.  Often, we find that they are just as disoriented, just as lost. But, they are there for us.  Friends, in this world where church is declining in attendance across the world, I believe it is more important than ever to remember that the church can be a great source of deep friendship and community, a gathering of people committed to leaning into the throes of life together…it’s more than what we do on a Sunday morning, or at any event.  It is a way of sharing life together.

In these moments of being in the dark when the impossible becomes possible, when, like Mary, we hear a voice that we don’t recognize at first call our names.  It may take a bit to hear deeply, but then we hear God calling us from deep inside and outside of us and we are awakened to a new reality, that God is with us as we look into the tombs of our lives in the midst of the darkness to find a deeper illumination, a light, a love that connects us to our suffering and the suffering of the world, and also gives us the hope that resurrection, growth, promise, and, yes, new life, springing up within us.  

Jesus models this kind of life, new life, filled with a love and calls us from the cross and the empty tomb to truly love everyone, including ourselves…which is often the hardest person to love, ourselves.  Yet, God says that if we want to change the world, we have to enter the suffering of the world, and that we have to start by entering our own suffering and to start with changing our own worlds.  We have to stay with that suffering before we get to the change, the growth. 

Mary does just that, she’s overcome by grief…yet she stays…she is weeping, struggling, in the dark. Yet, she stays at the tomb, letting things unfold…when she finally hears this gardener and sees that he is Jesus,  then, the joy of Easter possibility, Easter imagination, Easter reality rises up within her! 

What happens next? Well, the story gets out, the new reality sets in, people begin to see Jesus and to experience new things. Life as we know it is never the same, and it becomes filled with imagination, new possibilities, strength, confidence in the face of incredible odds. Something begins to form in these early believers that moves them to change the world, starting with their own awareness. 

I said at the beginning this morning that growing up I thought of Easter as Christmas “lite”.  As I grew and as life has come at me and as I’ve leaned into it, I have come to see Easter, as the early Jesus followers did, that Easter has so much to teach me…it’s more than candy and easter bunnies, it is leaning into the darkness and finding new birth, new beginnings…it is knowing that death is necessary, but not the final answer in my story, in God’s story, in your story.  We are all in the process of being reborn and becoming the persons that we have always wanted to be…especially in times of loss…God is always doing a new thing with us and in us.  Let us live towards that sense of awareness like Mary did.  

Christ has risen! 

Here this quote from M. Shawn Copeland:

If we, who would be his disciples, recall the night before Jesus died, we are led to a table, from a table to a garden, from a garden to a courtyard, from a courtyard to a hill, from a hill to a grave, from a grave to life. The table holds the self-gift of his very flesh and blood; the garden is watered by his tears and blood; and the cross holds him, even as the One whom he knows and loves lifts him up from the grave to release him into the surprise of hope and life.