Judas the Healer

Today we see Jesus sending out the apostles to spread their wings and try a little ministry on their own.

He “summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.”

That’s pretty important work, and pretty advanced work for a group of people who much of the time seem to not just have trouble understanding Jesus’ teaching, but often behave according to the exact opposite of what he’s trying to convey.

But Jesus, in a spectacular instance of the risk-taking behavior he so often displays, trusts them with significant power and authority.

And what drew my eye as I read it this time was the last name on the list. “These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.”

Judas.

Jesus sends Judas out with power over unclean spirits and the ability to cure every disease and sickness.

Judas who will betray him, as Matthew takes pains to remind us.

It seems unwise at best to send out a man that Jesus must at least have an inkling or maybe even full knowledge of his tendency to judgmentalism (“This money should have been used for the poor!” in response to a generous woman’s loving anointing of Jesus feet in Matthew 26), greed (“He was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it,” according to John), and of course the betrayal itself, Jesus’ life for thirty pieces of silver.

What kind of person is this to entrust with divine power?

But Jesus does.

What do we make of this?

Well, first, let’s ask what happens. Are the disciples successful in what Jesus has asked them to do?

Matthew doesn’t tell us, but Luke quotes a group of disciples returning from being sent out to minister, writing that they “returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’”

It seems likely that if Judas had not been successful, one or more of the gospel writers would have certainly wanted to rub it in and gleefully point it out, so we’re left with the assumption that Judas completed the good works of casting out demons and liberating people from illness and possession.

We most often only think of “Judas the Betrayer,” but here, right in the text, we have “Judas the Missionary” and “Judas the Healer.” Fascinating! Continue reading

Loving Kids Creates Loving Kids

“Out of the mouths of infants and children your majesty is praised above the heavens,” or so our Psalm for today says.

Sometimes that seems very true, especially when your five-year-old asks an endearingly insightful question about God.

Sometimes that seems less true, such as when the kids are having a screaming fight in the back seat of the car or a meltdown in the grocery aisle.

There’s less majesty in that moment and more a feeling of, “Having kids–whose idea was this?”

Do you think God ever asks the same question about us?

Creating humanity—having kids—whose idea was this?

It’s certainly possible.

God knows we’ve caused God enough heartache over the years that God could hardly be blamed for rethinking the decision to become a parent.

But what we observe from our scriptures today is that God wants for us what we want for our own children: a safe, happy, nurturing environment for us to grow up in and reach our full potential.

Today we have the story of creation in Genesis, and we observe the dedicated care and attention God puts into creating the world in which we will live.

Bear in mind that this is the Almighty God, who presumably could snap God’s fingers and poof! There are galaxies within galaxies.

But no—God takes time.

God takes six whole days, and of course we understand now that those six days were also millennia of stars and planets cooling and single celled organisms developing into more complex organisms, the long walk toward life of which we are the ultimate beneficiaries.

God does not rush the home that God is creating for us.

What else do we want for our own children as we create their environment? Continue reading

Less Fire, More Bubbles

Have you ever watched a toddler try to master blowing bubbles for the first time?

Entranced by the beautiful floating globes her parent has produced, she dips the wand in the bubble solution, brings it to her face, purses her lips…and blows an almighty explosion of air that achieves nothing but a spray of soap.

Pouty lips and even sometimes a frustrated chucking of the wand to the ground often follow.

She has learned that you have to blow hard to blow out the candle on top of the birthday cake. Why is it different when you blow bubbles?

Violent wind and gentle wind—both are manifestations of the Holy Spirit.

But in the Church, especially on Pentecost, we have often erred on placing too much emphasis on the violent wind in the Book of Acts, sometimes forgetting entirely the tenderness and gentleness of Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit on the disciples in the Gospel of John.

Jesus does not impart the Holy Spirit to the disciples with the force of a hurricane.

It is as small and as simple as breathing out, a gentle, patient descent of the Holy Spirit, as gentle and patient as the breath necessary to blow bubbles.

We are often as astute as toddlers trying to blow bubbles in our approach to being in relationship to the Holy Spirit.

We’ve all had (or at least wished we’ve had) the loud, bright Holy Spirit experiences, the moments in worship and in life when God’s presence is forceful, awakening, invigorating, when we can practically feel the tongues of fire descending on our heads.

But the experiences of being breathed on by Jesus—those can pass us by entirely unless we’re deliberately developing the spiritual discipline of being on watch for them.

Perhaps the reason we only want to remember the descent of the Holy Spirit in Acts is because we only want to identify with the disciples in Acts. Continue reading

92% Foolishness and 8% Wisdom

Okay, folks, we’ve got some tough scriptures this week, so we’re going to have to go deep into a symbolic interpretation to find some application for our spiritual lives.

At least, that’s the way I feel. You may count Acts 1 and John 17 among your favorite scriptures in the Bible, in which case, please share with me what you take away from them.

Because for me, Jesus in John 17 is borderline incomprehensible, and I, much to my shame, feel myself glaze over about halfway through this passage.

And verses 6-14 of Acts 1 just strike me as this blend of the awkward and the supernatural, and I’m just really not sure what I’m supposed to take away from it.

But never let it be said that we shy from mining our scriptures to their depths, so let’s dig in.

Honestly, maybe it’s a blessing that we’re confused by this scene in Acts of Jesus ascending to heaven, because I think that actually really puts us right in the shoes of the disciples.

Think about how they must be feeling at this moment.

Jesus, in an earth shatteringly unexpected turn of events, arose from the dead forty days ago.

Six weeks is in no way long enough to adjust to reality breaking apart like that, and they’re probably still stumbling around in a daze.

Maybe they’ve just really started to accept that Jesus is back, that their beloved friend who died a torturous death is alive and with them again.

The guilt and pain and panic that consumed them on Good Friday have finally started to ebb away.

They’re tentatively starting to rely on having him with them again, alive and breathing, his heart beating and his eyes shining with gentle love.

Now, seemingly out of the blue, they see him lifted on a cloud to heaven.

Why is he leaving them? He just returned! How could he do this to them?

How could he do this to us? Continue reading

Questioning Evangelism

Today we grapple with the knowledge that God is both the problem and the solution, the search and the treasure, the hunger and the sustenance that lie at our very core.

It is God for whom we long most deeply, God whom we sometimes find it so difficult to feel and perceive, and it is God who is the endpoint of all our journeys, in this life and the next.

Remember the algebraic equations that made your 5th hour class a living hell all the way through eighth grade?

They all had some incomprehensible string of letters and numbers followed by the dreaded phrase: “Solve for x.”

God is the x hiding in the string of letters and numbers and the x in the final worked out solution.

But we are forever thinking we have reached the solution only to discover it leads to another question. Continue reading

What Is Martyrdom, Really?

The gospel that we read today will be most familiar to many of us as “the funeral text” because that is how we most often have heard it.

I would say that for close to 80% of the funerals I have done as a priest, the family has chosen this gospel for the service. There is clearly something deeply comforting in it.

It is often called for shorthand “the many mansions” text for the older language translation of Jesus saying, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.”

What we notice this week is that someone does die in our assigned texts. We have the martyrdom of Stephen in our lesson from Acts.

What if we considered this gospel as the reading for Stephen’s funeral?

How would that affect our understanding of it?

And how would it affect our memories of the loved ones we have buried with these words echoing through the worship space?

Stephen is important because he is the first person who really follows Jesus all the way to the end of the story.

He followed Jesus in life, and he ends up following Jesus into death, persecuted and killed by people who cannot bear the searing and life-changing truth of the gospel message.

For most of Christianity we have settled for worshipping Jesus rather than following him.

That is quite possibly because following Jesus can and does have rather dire consequences, as Stephen finds out.

Our other tendency is to glorify literal martyrs such as Stephen, and there certainly is much to admire in people who are able to give up their physical bodies to die for Christ.

But it can become an outsourcing of the necessary death that we must undergo in our own lives, before we physically die, if we truly wish to follow Jesus into resurrection.

What does it really mean to be a martyr?

And is it a calling we all share, or the province only of the rarefied saints like Stephen? Continue reading

“I Am The Gate,” But You’re Not Going to Like It

They say you preach the sermon you most need to hear, and today I’m definitely writing from a place where I need to hear a good word.

Every week I talk with two colleagues about the lectionary texts and we brainstorm sermon ideas together. We had a good conversation and came away with a solid direction on how to work with John’s gospel this week.

My week turned out to be busier and crazier than I anticipated, and it’s only now, on Friday afternoon, that I’m getting to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be.

And by today, rather than the confident theologian I was a few days ago, I’m finding that I’m the one who needs to receive a message of grace and hope.

A former parish of mine had some tough news this week, and along with being very sad for them, it brought up all my emotional unfinished business around my time there.

I honestly thought I had laid a great deal of that to rest, but life has a sneaky way of reminding you of your feet of clay any time you start to really get comfortable and secure.

So let’s go to the text together and ask to be taught, to be healed, to be loved.

What we notice first is that of all the Good Shepherd Sunday texts (years A, B, and C) this gospel is by far the most abstract.

Jesus clearly has something he wants to communicate to us, but his layers of symbolism are so dense that it’s difficult to understand what he means beyond the obvious.

In fact, John even tells us outright that this one is going to take some drilling down: “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”

Traditionally this text has often been used as a means of exclusion.

Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.”

People have used this saying to enforce false boundaries to shore up their own power, labeling as the proverbial “thieves and bandits” anyone who is “unorthodox,” whether that means you have the “wrong” gender, sexuality, race, doctrine, belief, politics, liturgy, etc.

“Not everyone is going to get saved,” is the message the powerful have sometimes taken out of this text.

“Jesus doesn’t love everyone,” is the subliminal but far more honest attitude underlying the pious concern for being “correct.”

Today I find myself reflecting on a time when I was enforcing boundaries in the way I thought was right, and some other people were challenging those boundaries in a way they thought was right.

We ended up calling each other “un-Christian” and our relationship broke apart.

We each insisted we were the rightful gatekeeper and the other was the enemy, the thief and bandit.

The result was disastrous, and I know we all carry our wounds from those days even yet.

What I think I realize more consciously now is that the farther we are driven into anger, fear and woundedness, the harder it is to see any shades of subtlety. Continue reading

Seven Miles From Jerusalem, Chased Down By Jesus

As you all remember, the Road to Damascus is the story of when the Apostle Paul had a vision of Jesus and was so overcome by the glory that he was knocked off his horse and went blind.

The Road to Damascus moment is an incredibly vivid and immediate experience of God that instantly changes your life forever.

Many people in the Bible have Road to Damascus moments besides just Paul. Moses sees the burning bush. Isaiah is taken into God’s throne room. The shepherds tending their flocks by night are overwhelmed by the heavenly host of angels.

Each of these is a life-changing experience of God that floods the senses and sets one’s soul ablaze with the Holy Spirit.

But we aren’t studying the Road to Damascus moment in our Gospel lesson today.

We’re given the Road to Emmaus.

The Road to Emmaus is the polar opposite of the Road to Damascus.

The Road to Damascus is marked by suddenness, awe, intensity and clarity.

The Road to Emmaus is shadowed by fear, uncertainty, grief and delay, and the final, healing understanding comes only in the aftermath. Continue reading

A Week Late to the Resurrection: Wounded, Stubborn, Alive

Today, the first Sunday after Easter, is traditionally known as Low Sunday.

That’s a tremendously unflattering nickname for us as the Church.

Last week we presented the triumph of the church year.

We announced to the world the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: Jesus died and rose again to new life for love of us.

And the result is that the next Sunday is the lowest attendance of the whole church year, all the way across Christendom.

Ouch.

Was it something we said?

It may well have been. Continue reading

Easter Day: Back to Galilee

“He is risen! Alleluia! Now get back to work!”

That seems to be the message from the angel in the Gospel of Matthew text that we read today.

There are a great many shocking things happening in this story—an angel, an earthquake, the guards collapsing comatose in fear and astonishment.

But the angel has a very straightforward and pragmatic message along with the stunning news that Jesus has been raised from the dead. “Return to Galilee.”

What does that mean?

Well, we have a choice as to what it means.

It means, first of all, to return to where it all began.

Galilee was where the disciples lived when Jesus called them.

It is where Jesus began his ministry.

The reality is that the disciples have to return to Galilee no matter what. But they have a choice as to what it means for them.

Are they returning to Galilee because Jesus’ life and ministry ended with his death?

Will they give up and go home?

Will they leave this part of their lives behind them and go back to normal, responsible family and community life?

If they disavow Jesus, they could probably get their old jobs back.

They could pick up their fishing nets, embittered, cynical, and angry at Jesus, who promised them everything and then got himself killed, but secure and comfortable in the old, familiar ways.

Or they could accept and experience the Resurrection. Continue reading

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