Eating with Jesus: Only Once a Week?

September 8, 2017

We pray for daily bread, and we eat daily meals. Yet, some restrict the Lord’s Supper—the meal where we eat at the table of the Lord—to only and exclusively the first day of the week, Sunday. This restriction is a rather unique dimension of Churches of Christ. Is eating with Jesus (Matthew 26:29) restricted to only Sunday?

I think this exclusive approach is misguided. I will offer a few brief reasons. I have no intent to fully air the point here but only offer another approach, which I regard as more rooted in the story of God.

  1. Jesus himself instituted this meal as a continuation of and fulfillment of Israel’s Passover. When Jesus instituted it, it was not on a Sunday but most likely on a Thursday (though some say Wednesday). It seems rather strange that we can only do what Jesus did on Thursday when it is Sunday.
  2. The Passover celebration itself extended beyond a single day. It involved a whole week of feasting at the table of God. The Feast of the Unleavened Bread was a daily meal with God from Sabbath to Sabbath (Leviticus 23:6-8). Israel ate their feast daily throughout a whole week of celebration. It was not limited to a single day. Israel, which is renewed in the church, knew ate with God during whole weeks of celebrations.
  3. Israel ate with God regularly, even daily, throughout its history through its sacrificial system. For example, the “fellowship” (well-being or peace offerings), whether as thanksgiving offerings or vow offerings, were offered regularly, sometimes daily (Leviticus 3 & 7). Whenever anyone had a thanksgiving to offer or a vow to make, they offered a fellowship offering, which involved eating with God at the table. They were also part of the weeklong celebrations of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Feast of Tabernacles, and Feast of Pentecost (Harvest) as daily meals with God in the community of faith. When talking about the Lord’s table, Paul advised the church to “consider the people of Israel” (1 Corinthians 10:18).
  4. On the day of Pentecost when God poured out the Spirit upon the church for the renewal of Israel (as Joel 2 promised), they continued in the apostle’s teaching and in fellowship, particularly in the breaking of bread and prayers (Acts 2:42). The Jerusalem church broke bread daily (Acts 2:46); it was not simply a weekly event nor only for Sunday.
  5. When Paul guides the church in Corinth in how to eat with God at the Lord’s table in 1 Corinthians 11, he does not specify any particular time but simply says “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:26). He does not say, “as often as you do this every Sunday.” His language is “whenever you do this…” (the same meaning as the only other time this language appears in Revelation 11:6).
  6. When we break bread at the table of the Lord, we eat with Jesus who hosts the table, and we commune with the Father through the Son in the Spirit. Eating with God is a grand privilege, and there is nothing inappropriate with eating a daily meal with God.

Some restrict eating with God to Sunday because they read Acts 20:7-12 as an exclusive example that prescribes a weekly breaking of bread.

  1. On one hand, I strongly favor weekly communion. The intersection of the first day of the week, breaking bread (eating with Jesus), and the resurrection is a significant one. The first day of the week is the day of our deliverance because it is the day God raised Jesus from the dead by the Spirit. The same reason the church gathers every first day of the week is the same reason it should want to eat with Jesus every first day of the week. Eating with the living Jesus who hosts the table of the Lord is a celebration of the resurrection, and if that is so, why omit the divine ordinance God has given to the church to celebrate it when we gather on the first day of every week?
  2. On the other hand, the fact that the early church ate with Jesus every first day of the week does not mean this is the only day the church can eat with Jesus. Indeed, the Jerusalem church ate with Jesus every day (Acts 2:46).
  3. The prescriptive and restrictive use of Acts 20:7 assumes (a) the church did this every Sunday [which is not stated], (b) that action excludes any other time [this assumes that what it does not include it must exclude], (c) there are no other texts that indicate other times as well as Sunday [though Acts 2:46, in the same book of the Bible, notes another time], (d) implies a command to eat only and every first day of the week [though no such command appears anywhere in the New Testament], and (e) a hermeneutic that since Jesus commanded us to eat the Lord’s Supper Scripture must tell us exactly when to do so [thus dictating what Scripture must tell us, and if it must tell us, then we will find it].
  4. Acts 20:7 is descriptive rather than prescriptive; it is not a law. It describes what the church in Troas did but not necessarily what it had to do. It provides a good model which has theological import (the coordination of the first day of the week, resurrection, and breaking bread just like Luke 24), but it does not exclude other times when we might eat with Jesus.

The church participates in the story of Israel. Just as Israel, from its opening day assembly in Exodus 24:9-11 (“day of assembly in Deut 9:10), ate with God weekly and daily, so the church may also eat with Jesus weekly and daily.

One of my great joys is to eat with Jesus in the company of my students, home guests, and assemblies. I think we should eat with Jesus at least every week, and I enjoy it more often than that.

 


On Reading Philemon

September 7, 2017

Philemon is a brief letter with only 335 words in the Greek text, and it appears in the New Testament without any specific context. Philemon and Onesimus, the main characters in the letter’s story, are unknown elsewhere in the New Testament. Many, if not most of the details, are lost to us as readers to whom this letter appears as a stranger walking out of the fog.

But we are not totally lost.

The letter arises out of a community that confesses Jesus of Nazareth as Israel’s Messiah. This lies at the letter’s core; it is its fundamental narrative. The letter does not defend or develop this confession in terms of its content, but it assumes it, builds on it, and calls others to live within it.

That world is centered on Jesus the Messiah, who is Lord.

  • “prisoner of Jesus Christ” (v. 1)
  • “grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3)
  • “for (into, toward) Christ” (v. 6)
  • “in Christ” (v. 8).
  • “prisoner of Jesus Christ” (v. 9)
  • “in the Lord” (v. 16)
  • “in the Lord” (v. 20)
  • “in Christ” (v. 20)
  • “fellow prisoner in Christ” (v. 23)
  • “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 25).

This is a world where believers belong to Jesus, suffering as prisoners for the sake of the Messiah (3x); where believers live “in the Messiah/Lord” (4x); where grace and peace are gifts of God and Jesus the Messiah (2x); and where everything one does is oriented toward (eis) the Messiah.

The Christian narrative sees the world through the Messiah. It sees the world through grace (v. 3, 25), peace (v. 3), and love (v. 2, 4, 7, 9, 16) from which flow joy (v. 7) and encouragement (v. 7, 9) as the hearts (guts; v. 7, 12, 20) of believers are refreshed within the family of God. In this world, fellow believers are family—brothers, sisters, and children (1, 2, 7, 10, 16, 20). They are co-workers (v. 2, 24) and partners (v. 6, 17) who welcome each other (v. 17). This community is rooted in the gospel (v. 13); it is what the gospel produces. It is the fruit of the Spirit.

Whatever the exact issue or concern Paul addresses in this letter, he does so out of a narrative world centered on his conviction that Jesus is Lord, Israel’s Messiah. The God of Israel has poured out grace upon Israel, renewed peace, and saturated Israel with love.

Paul addresses a community grounded in that work of God. Paul includes the gathered people of God (ecclesia) that meets in Philemon’s (?) house among his addressees. He also sends greetings from other believers who are known to that community. Stretching from Paul’s community to Philemon’s, Paul assumes a shared life (koinonia, v. 7) rooted in familial love, mutuality, and faith.

Paul (and Timothy!) writes from a community to a community about a situation between two believers (Philemon and Onesimus). The church overhears Paul’s requests. Paul attends to the situation—whatever it is—in the context of the whole church. What may have been strictly personal becomes public because Paul assumes that the nature of the Messianic community in Christ involves the whole community when facing this particular issue (whatever it is).

Philemon, then, must respond—not as an isolated individual—but as a person who lives in the Messiah’s community; he must respond as a member of the family.

The gospel drives this; indeed, the gospel demands this (“obedience,” v. 21).

Consequently, when we read this brief letter, we enter a world that assumes a narrative about how the world is different because Jesus is Lord. And the letter says something about what a difference that makes.

The letter to Philemon is a window into the relationality and mutuality of the early Christian church, and the letter evinces what values ground that life together.


Out of the Mouth (Matthew 15:10-28)

August 23, 2017

Lesson preached at All Saints Church of Christ, Nashville, TN, on August 20, 2017 by Taylor Bonner.

Εκ του στόματος

A few years ago I was reliving my high school football glory days on the intramural flag football fields at Lubbock Christian University. This was one of my favorite events to participate in with my social club! There were crowds of fans, about ten people, who would huddle together in the blistering Lubbock wind to come watch the social clubs play. We had just finished a game one night and I was talking with one of my good friends. I do not remember what we were talking about, but I do remember that during the course of this conversation I made a vulgar joke. I do not remember what the joke was about, but what I do remember, quite plainly, was my friend calling me out. I remember my friend asking “Why did you say that?” I did not know why I said it, but I was more taken aback by the fact that I had been called out for saying something that was hurtful and wrong. I apologized to him, told him that he was entirely correct, and walked away feeling convicted. To this day I still remember him calling me out, afterwards telling me that he thinks a lot of me and has the utmost respect for me, and that it was this respect and love that caused him to confront me in the first place.

Did my friend love me in this moment? I believe my friend knew the importance of critically analyzing what comes out of our mouths, and how what comes out of our mouths reflect the nature of our hearts. To put a different way, our voices which animate and give life to our words, are signposts to who we really are. Do not get me wrong actions are important, and it is because of this that I often question the dichotomy we sometimes erect between words and actions, as if speaking or not speaking cannot be seen as an action? Jesus knew this all too well. Jesus knew the action of speech is an indicator of the content of our character.

In Matthew 15:10-20 we find Jesus fleshing this idea out. He says, “It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles him.” In verse 18 and following, after Peter asks Jesus to elaborate because of Peter’s confusion, Jesus explains that the heart is the origin for that which comes out of the mouth. What comes out of the mouth, can say a lot about what is occurring in one’s innermost being. Jesus does not view speech and action as a dichotomy, I believe Jesus sees the two as intertwined, because someone can “do” the right actions; the Pharisees could observe the proper dietary restrictions and ritual cleansing that must occur prior to eating. How do they speak of others, though? How do they witness to others? Are their words burdensome to the oppressed? Jesus is concerned with the heart, who we really are.

It is indeed interesting that right after this passage we encounter the story of the Canaanite/Syro-Phoenician woman with a demon possessed daughter. A story in which I believe Jesus’ prior comments about speech come heavily into play. The identification of this woman as a gentile should not be overlooked and might provide some insight into why Jesus seemingly appears to be so callous. The identification of this woman as a Canaanite would immediately set Matthew’s Jewish audience on edge. This very specific identification would recall, for this Jewish audience, their history and story. Within this story they would remember the tremendous amount of conflict they had with the Canaanites. This group of people were viewed more or less as dogs; looked down upon because they weren’t “fully human”, they were the ones who tried to stand in direct opposition between Yahweh and his chosen people. I believe what we have here in Matthew 15:21-28 is an issue of race, an issue between Jew and Gentile. In this story we have an inferior Canaanite woman who is approaching the Son of David. Yet what comes out of this woman’s mouth is surely shocking. This gentile woman says, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David…” This woman has referred to Jesus as her Lord and the Son of David, a direct identification of his royal lineage. This is hardly something a Canaanite woman juxtaposed with the Kingdom of God should have said, and yet it came out of her mouth.

Almost immediately the disciples enter into the scene. These are the disciples of the Son of David, the living Messiah! These are the ones who were with Jesus in Matthew 8 witnessing Jesus’ affirmation that the Centurion’s faith was greater than anyone he has found in Israel! What will these disciples of Jesus Christ say to this woman whose daughter is experiencing a demonic event?! They came to Jesus and implored him, “Send her away for she keeps shouting at us.” Then Jesus does something incredible, he momentarily adopts the racism of his disciples in order to allow the woman to rhetorically dismantle that very racism. I must make this clear, I am not saying Jesus is racist! What I am saying is that Jesus is bringing out the racism the disciples are operating under. Much like a wound that requires the infection to be brought forth and then cleansed, Jesus himself is exposing the infectious modus operandi of the disciples. What is particularly interesting about this story is that though Jesus brings to light this racist ideology, he will allow the gentile woman to cleanse it. It will not be Jesus who teaches the disciples in this episode; rather, it will be the crying, begging, inferior “dog” right across from them. Jesus says, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel!” I can see the disciples nodding their heads in agreement saying, “This is our Messiah. We are the chosen people, this is our inheritance, the promises of God are for us alone, go back to where you came from!” The woman begs “Lord, help me!” Jesus responds, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs.” The necks of the disciples are suffering from whiplash at this point from nodding so furiously in agreement! “Yes Jesus! We are the children, she is the dog, the promises of God revealed, embodied, and actualized by you are for us alone!” Then this “inferior” woman stops the vehement nodding of heads and says, “Yes Lord, but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from the master’s table.” Even the so called dogs are rightful partakers of the kingdom of God and the promises contained therein. This woman has demonstrated that the Kingdom of God is not determined by geographic location or racial prejudices. This woman has correctly identified what the Kingdom of God and this Messiah are all about. I can picture Jesus smiling when he says, “O woman, your faith is indeed great…” What came out of her mouth? What came out of the disciple’s mouths? How did the disciples respond to this woman? What does this indicate about their hearts? Just as the woman challenged the disciple’s response to her demonic event, a response born out of racism, I believe this woman can challenge us today in our response to demonic events.

Church, our nation experienced a demonic event a little over a week ago. In response to this event we had many things coming out of our mouths. I read and heard of many pastors calling out this event for what it was, hate-filled, domestic terrorism, and a demonstration of the erroneous and devastating belief that some are better than others. Yet I also heard and read of many other things coming from the mouths of disciples. This past week I heard preachers speak of waiting, to allow time for growth to occur and work towards preparing the ground to become ripe for the harvest, as if the most bountiful yield any farmer has ever seen did not at first begin with the difficult but necessary work of plowing and tilling the hard and unprepared soil of potentiality.

I have heard it said, “be like Jesus”, as if Jesus himself did not carry harsh words and critiques towards the oppressive and burdensome religiosity of the Pharisees.

I have heard it said that we must continue to love, as if love is the antithesis of speaking out against those who are striving to strip others of not only their humanity, but also their divine right to daughtership and sonship.

These are not only wrong because they are full of fallacies, but they are wrong because they all advocate for Christians to wait. In regards to the events of last week, there can be no delay in response from the church, there must not be passivity in our voice when it comes to racism and white supremacy. If we wait, if we are passive, and if we do not raise our voice against the evils we witnessed, then we have proclaimed quite loudly who we truly are. If, in response to this event, our sermons sound more like the sermons of white pastors during the Civil Rights era advocating for passivity and waiting for a more opportune time to take action, then we, too, side with the oppressor.

So did my friend love me when he directly called me out for my vulgar joke? Did my friend love me even though I walked away feeling convicted and ashamed. Did my friend love me when he chose to say something then and there, instead of waiting for a more opportune time? My friend loved me more in that moment than anyone else who had chosen to listen to this joke and say nothing.

I have witnessed a teaching that is growing in the church. A teaching that either explicitly or implicitly identifies love as the absence of confrontation. I do not know where this teaching came from, but it certainly did not originate from the very confrontational Jesus of Nazareth revealed in the scriptures, nor did it derive from the early history of the church and its direct confrontation with many of the social norms and policies of the Roman Empire. The problem with this philosophy of love is that if you are able to define love as that space in which confrontation does not occur, love becomes incredibly safe. When love becomes incredibly safe, we as the church and disciples within the body of Christ are able to hide under a self-constructed safety net of pseudo-love. And isn’t it quite interesting whenever we speak of “love” it just so happens, it’s a curious thing really, to by chance coincide with what is politically, theologically, and financially safest for our congregations at the current moment? Love is not safe, love is not in the business of self-preservation and complacency. Christian love is a dagger cutting through our natural instincts to protect ourselves and an outright challenge towards our timidity in risking ourselves for others. And what we love, how we love, and how we respond to what is happening in our country and the domestic terrorism instigated by white supremacists will show others the contents of our hearts and with whom we really identify. So who are we Church, what are the contents of our hearts? What will we say to these events and the events that unfortunately seem as if they are bound to follow? Will we be passive, or will we love? Will we wait, or will we love? Will we be silent, or will we love? For to do nothing, to say nothing, to call for waiting instead of action is to look into the eyes of the incarnate Christ and say to him “you were wrong.” What will we say? What will come out of our mouths?

 


Romans 5:1-5 — Boasting in Suffering

August 3, 2017

This is the link to my recent lesson on Romans 5:1-5 at Lipscomb University’s “Summer Celebration.” What does it mean to boast in our sufferings, and what does suffering produce in our lives?

Suffering has meaning; suffering has purpose…because we know suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.

Without peace, afflictions will destroy us; but, with peace, afflictions will form us.


Suffrage, Women, and Creation

July 6, 2017

In 1917, only a mere one hundred years ago after fifty years of suffrage in the state of New York, women voted in state elections.

In 1874, D. G. Porter, a minister within the American Restoration Movement, wrote an article entitled “Republican Government and the Suffrage of Women” (“Christian Quarterly” [October 1874] 489-90) in which he concluded that women do not have the right to vote “unless, indeed, it is proposed to proceed upon what seems the absurdest of all principles; namely, subordination at home and in the Church, but independence and equality abroad. We call this proposition absurd, because it would seem that if woman can be equal to man in authority anywhere, it must be at home and in the Church; and that her equality here, if indeed that ought to be her position, must be the foundation of her equality in external affairs.”
According to the argument, 1 Timothy 2:12 forbids women to have authority over men because this is the order God instituted in creation. If this order is rooted in creation, it is universal. It cannot apply simply to the home or church, but it must apply to society as a whole. Consequently, women do not have the right to exercise the authority of voting or have authority over men in any situation in human culture.
This was a common argument in the late nineteenth century, and we can see something similar in some of the most respected leaders among Churches of Christ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
James A. Harding wrote in 1903 (“The Way” [5 March]):
Paul lays down the general law under which he makes the special legislation concerning women speaking in church…it is wrong for her so to usurp authority anywhere…the same principles that prevent her from teaching in the church, prevail in the schoolroom or anywhere else; it is a question of women usurping authority over men and becoming leaders of them.”
David Lipscomb also wrote:
For women to enter the work of public speaking or of leadership in the affairs of this world is to cut them off from childbearing (Gospel Advocate [3 July 1913], 635)
Woman’s work in life is to bear and train children. No higher, holier, more sacred work has ever been committed to human beings. This is her chiefest work in life. If there were not a passage of scripture on the subject except to indicate this, it would forbid her engaging in any work incompatible with this. Public speaking in any of the callings of life that demand a constant strain on the mind, a constant anxiety and care in reference to the public affairs of church or state, an excitement of the ambitions for place and power, not only destroy her taste for and cause her to neglect the home and family duties, the duties of wife and mother, but such a strain on the mind destroys the ability for childbearing (Questions Answered, 739).
R. C . Bell (The Way, 1903, 776):
woman is not permitted to exercise dominion over man in any calling of life. When a woman gets her diploma to practice medicine, every Bible student knows that she is violating God’s holy law. When a woman secures a license to practice law, she is guilty of the same offense. When a woman mounts the lecture platform or steps into the pulpit or the public school room, she is disobeying God’s law and disobeying the promptings of her inner nature. When God gives his reason for woman’s subjection and quietness, he covers the whole ground and forbids her to work in any public capacity…She is not fitted to do anything publicly….Every public woman—lawyer, doctor, lecturer, preacher, teacher, clerk, sales girl and all—would then step from their post of public work into their father’s or husband’s home, where most of them prefer to be, and where God puts them….You are now no longer a public slave, but a companion and home-maker for man; you are now in the only place where your womanly influence has full play and power
History enlightens us.

Embracing Creation

April 27, 2017

The Ray Evans Seminar, an annual event at the Alameda Church of Christ in Norman, Oklahoma, was held March 31-April 2, 2017.

The general topic was Embracing Creation, which is also the title of the book I co-authored with Bobby Valentine and Mark Wilson. The book is available here.

I gave six presentations as well as conducted a question and answer session.  You can download audio or video to your ITunes or listen online here.  You will need to scroll down to the appropriate date (March 31-April 2, 2017).

These are the titles of the presentations:

  1.  A Cathedral of Praise:  God, Creation, and Humanity.
  2.  The Joy of Creation: The Testimony of the Psalms.
  3.  Jesus: The Agent of Creation and New Creation.
  4.  The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth: The New Heaven and New Earth
  5.  Question and Answer Session
  6.  Creation and New Creation in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
  7.  Why “Go to Church?”- Joining Heaven and Earth in the Praise of God

I provided this meager handout for the first four sessions.


Alexander Campbell’s Relationship to Protestantism

April 19, 2017

The following is three paragraphs from a paper which I have just placed on my Academic page.

The paper is entitled “The Unfinished Business of the Protestant Reformation: Alexander Campbell’s Relationship to Protestantism.”  It was delivered on April 8, 2017 at the Stone-Campbell Journal Conference held at Johnson University. You may read the full paper here.

“The function of the “restoration of the ancient order,” therefore, was not the restoration of Christianity as if Christianity itself had not existed for the 1000 years prior to 1809 (or 1804). Rather, it was a reformation through restoration which adjusted the present order so that it might more faithfully practice the ancient order, that is, to practice Christianity the way the apostles and their converts did.

But if this has no creedal function as a test of communion, what is accomplished by an exposition of the ancient order? Campbell answered that question in the series’s first article. “A restoration of the ancient order of things,” he wrote, “is all that is necessary to the happiness and usefulness of Christians.” The ancient order is a means to the comfort and practical vitality of a Christian community, which is a kind of perfecting or sanctifying of the community. This is communal sanctification rather than foundational Christian identity. The restored order functions as a means of grace that enables believers to more fully experience their faith in community, actualizes the visible unity of the church as congregations conform to it, and tends toward the conversion of the world. A united church—in both faith (evangelical core) and practice (ecclesial forms according to the ancient order)—is equipped for mission, which is the primary task of the church.

In other words, Campbell’s project for the restoration of the ancient order as well as the ancient gospel is an agenda within “Evangelical Protestantism” rather than in opposition to it. Campbell never intended his ancient order to become a particular version of Protestantism around which a sect would emerge. That is the very thing Campbell adamantly opposed as sects were built upon what is unique. Rather, the ancient order practiced Christianity minus the particularities of modern Protestantism without unchristianizing Protestants.”

 


Holy Saturday, Graves, and the Abundant Life

April 14, 2017

Every life visit graves, and every life ends with a grave.

Where is the abundant life when we are standing beside a grave?

I imagine that question passed through the minds of the disciples as they hid behind locked doors after Jesus died. From their vantage point, “Good Friday” was not good. It squashed their dreams and dashed their hopes. The abundant life ended with the death of Jesus.

The disciples had invested everything in Jesus. They left everything and followed him. They thought he was the Redeemer of Israel, the Messiah. Hope filled their lives, and they had some amazing experiences filled with joy and expectation. The abundant life was theirs, but now it had disappeared; it had evaporated before their eyes in a matter of hours.

Holy Saturday is the day we sit with the disciples in their fear, grief, and disillusionment. We sit with them because those days are also part of our lives. We don’t live on a mountain peak of praise and joy every day. Some days we have to face pain, hurt, and even death.

To skip Holy Saturday minimizes death and the world’s pain. To rush from Friday to Sunday fails to hear the victims, hurts, and the dark realities present in the world. We must listen, and we must weep with those who weep. We must weep for our own hurt as well as the hurts of others.

Jesus suffered with us in death, and his death reminds us that death is part of life. Suffering comes before glory; death comes before resurrection.

Abundant life faces life’s challenges, acknowledges the reality of suffering, and follows Jesus through suffering into life.

The abundant life does not avoid or escape suffering. On the contrary, it endures it, and the abundant life triumphs over it. Like Jesus, we must first suffer and then enter into glory. Only those who have suffered or suffered with others know authentic life.

Let us sit with the disciples this day; let us sit with the hopeless, the weary, the hurting, and the victims. Let us await the dawn of Easter with them.


Dry Bones Live (Ezekiel 37:1-14)

April 3, 2017

GUEST POST:  This is a homily delivered by Mackenzie Steele at All Saints Church of Christ on April 2, 2017.  Thanks, Mackenzie!

******

There are two realities present in the season of Lent: One, I am a broken person dependent upon God for redemption. Two, the world is a broken place, created for good and dependent on God through the work of the Spirit to return to that intended good. In the first, I am defined by my sinful nature; indeed I view myself entirely bad and in need of the grace of God each day. This may be true, and I would not discount the need for this reminder through the season of Lent. But, as a recovering fundamentalist, being defined by my sinfulness creates a legalism that I find unhealthy in my relationship with God. Which leads me to the second reality of Lent: the world is indeed a broken place, where the story of God has been replaced by stories of consumerism and greed and a false sense of happiness and security. Although it was created for good, it has fallen prey to brokenness. This is the world in which the church finds itself. In both of these realities, Lent is understood as the recognition of sinfulness and brokenness in preparation for the glorious celebration of Easter.

So I have found myself in tension this week in preparing for today because the texts from the Lectionary this week, as we have heard them already, are resurrection texts. The turn towards resurrection life, although typically reserved for Easter Sunday, is a necessary reality this afternoon. It would be impossible to read Ezekiel 37 and not hear the beautiful language of new life coming up from the dust. The desperate nature of Lent is important, but I think it can be heard in this resurrection text as much as anywhere else.

In my initial reading of this text, it was easy to focus on myself as the dry bones, the broken person in need of God’s redemption. And for the purposes of Lent, this is one good reading of this passage. However, I would suggest that we focus on that second reality of Lent as I mentioned before: we are resurrection people, who live in a broken world in desperate need of God’s promise of resurrection life from Spirit-empowered people. So we look forward to the second coming of Jesus, in which all things are made new. And we wait in the season of Lent, recognizing our dependence on God as new-creation people to partner with God for the sake of the world.

I would like to read this passage again, and allow you to imaginatively experience this text in light of this truth: the world is the valley God has placed the redeemed church within. God desires for the church to speak new breath into the world as Ezekiel does for the bones. Allow yourself to enter the scene of this text: a valley full of dry bones, lying in wait for the mighty work of the Spirit through Ezekiel. Let me read this again as you enter into your imagination, recognizing that our imaginations are animated by the Spirit who is at work in all things:

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry.

Imagine this scene. Take in the sights, smells, sounds. Allow yourself to enter into this moment as Ezekiel did, with the hand of the Lord resting upon you.

And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

Imagine how you would react to this request. What thoughts go through your head? What emotions do you feel? How is your body responding to this command from God?

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them.

Can you hear the surprised tone? Everything had happened exactly as God had commanded. And yet, the actual life hadn’t been breathed into the bodies yet.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.

Recognize the power of this moment. Life was returned to the death of the valley. We were allowed to partner with God in the act of making things new. God chose us to be vessels for his power, and the display of his power created a reality within us that we didn’t know existed. God answers his own question that he poses to us. “Can these bones live?” Yes, and they will be a sign of the power of God for the rest of the world to see. More than that, the embodied experience of making new life is a reality that we now carry; we have confidence that we can partner with God in redeeming creation again.

Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”

The Lord promises to meet us in our graves and pull us out. God meets us in our humanity, in our frailty, and gives us the Spirit of life. By this we know that he is God. And by this we desire for others to know that he is God.

We are partners with God for the sake of the world. We have been called to breathe the Spirit of life into the death of the world, where pain and suffering and brokenness reign and where hope seems lost. We the church are called to live lives animated by the Spirit, experienced in our own resurrection from the dead in our baptism into new life. Just like Ezekiel, we have been given the power of an embodied experience of new life. Just think of the moment when you surrendered your life to Jesus. That lived experience of dying to ourselves and being raised into the resurrection of Jesus is the foundation upon which we recognize the power of God in our lives and in the world. Think of the other aspects of assembled worship:

We sing songs that remind us who we are and who we worship, and that transformation of identity shapes the ways we think and speak during our week. We give of ourselves financially, and that creates a discipline of generosity that we practice in more ways than monetarily throughout our week. We listen to the word of God proclaimed, and this grounds our knowledge in Scripture as a participatory narrative for our week. We take communion, participating in the sacrifice and power of God as a sending into the world, that we may live as children of God redeemed by Jesus and empowered by the Spirit.

In our gathering, we breathe in the life of community and we are reminded of our sending out into the world. These are the experiences through which we are trained to worship God in our week, and in our worship we are aware of the presence of God at work and our calling to partner with God for the redemption of all things. In this we place our hope, even as we recognize the brokenness of the world. This is the tension we live in, particularly in the season of Lent. And this is what makes our celebration of Easter that much more important: in Easter, we celebrate our resurrection in the present and the hope of the resurrection to come for all of creation.

May we the church, who claim resurrection power through the Spirit at work within us, partner with God to breathe life into the valley of the dry bones around us, and hope in eager expectation for the fullness of resurrection life in the Kingdom to come. Amen.


Nicodemus (John 3:1-17)

March 23, 2017

GUEST POST:  Becky Frazier delivered this sermon at the All Saints Church of Christ on March 12, 2017. Becky is an M.Div. student at Lipscomb University.  Thanks for sharing, Becky!

*************

In this passage, we meet a man by the name of Nicodemus; he’s a Pharisee, and a well-respected leader, possibly even a member of the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus is a good Jew. He’s very well read, and knows the scriptures backward and forward. And he’s likely heard some of the inflammatory things that Jesus has said and seen the miraculous works that he has done.

So he comes to talk to Jesus, and John tells us that he does this at night. Most scholars will agree that he’s coming under cover of darkness so no one, specifically his Pharisee friends, will catch him talking to Jesus. He addresses him: Rabbi- Teacher- a sign of respect, saying “we know that you are from God, because we’ve seen the signs you do.”

Jesus’s response to this is “Truly I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Nicodemus is confused; after all, he hadn’t asked what he needed to do to see the Kingdom of God. He hadn’t asked anything at all. Really, he had just come in and said a respectful hello when Jesus responds with this statement about being born again. Though it might seem like Jesus is abruptly changing the subject, I don’t think he is. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

Nicodemus asks “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answers, “Truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”  Jesus tell Nicodemus, “Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

But despite Jesus’s admonishment not to be, Nicodemus is surprised and says incredulously “How can this be?!”

In other places, Jesus tells his followers and the crowds that the Kingdom of God is like salt, or light, or leaven, but here, Jesus tells Nicodemus, you can’t even SEE the Kingdom of God until you take a step back and come at this from a different angle, until you see if from above.

It’s important to understand that the phrase that we translate as “born again” actually has a dual meaning in the original Greek. It could mean born again or it could also mean born from above. Nicodemus, the great scholar that he is, choses the most basic meaning of this phrase “born again” and doesn’t consider the possibility of a deeper, more spiritual understanding of being “born from above”.

You can see why he would be so oblivious. After all, he’s a prominent Jewish teacher. The text refers to him as THE Teacher of Israel: Well-read, highly knowledgeable, respected in the community. He has all of the right letters after his name, went to the best school, attends synagogue every week. He doesn’t even need to be born again physically. He’s a Jew. He was born right to begin with. He was born into the covenant community, into God’s chosen people.

Even today, the term “born-again Christian” refers to someone who has a great conversion story. Someone who left behind a life of drugs, or alcohol, or another type of addiction. Someone who was sexually immoral. Someone who was on a self-destructive path but has now come to know Jesus and turned their life around. But Nicodemus is exactly the kind of person that does NOT need to be born again and he knows it.

So, back to my earlier point, when Nicodemus comes to Jesus and says, “Rabbi, we can see that you are a teacher come from God”, and then abruptly Jesus tells him that he needs to be born again, to be born from above, Jesus is not introducing a new subject to their conversation. What he’s saying is, Nicodemus, you don’t need another teacher. You don’t need another book to read or another idea to discuss and develop. Nicodemus, you don’t need more education, you need a savior.

Jesus references a scene from the old testament where poisonous snakes are sent to the Israelites who are wandering in the desert. Moses petitions God to save the Israelites from this terror and so he made a bronze snake on a staff and anyone who had been bitten just needed to look at the snake and the poison would vanish and the victim would live. Jesus is comparing himself to that snake, and foreshadows his own death on the cross. Jesus knew that Nicodemus needed to be saved from the poison that was spreading inside him, but this poison didn’t look like a life of sin and debauchery. It looked like a life of strict conservative religion that had lost the plot somewhere along the way.

In the words of Tim Keller, Jesus isn’t calling Nicodemus to morality and religion. He’s challenging the established morality and religion. He’s reminding him that God loves all of his creation and has always been trying to move us closer and closer into relationship with him. Verse 16 is probably one of the most well-known verses in the entire bible: children in Sunday school memorize it, athletes write it on their faces, it’s on bumper stickers on our cars: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, and whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.”

You see, Nicodemus’s, like his other Pharisee friends, had been guilty of trying to put the Spirit into a box, to contain it and give it structure and pass judgement on who was allowed to have it. Jesus says, “No, the Spirit is like the wind, which blows wherever it chooses.” If you try to close all of the doors and windows to keep in the wind, it’s just going to end up musty and airless in the room while the breeze dances with the trees outside. The same is true when we try to box in the Spirit and put rules around it, and keep it for ourselves.

Many of the Jews, like Nicodemus, had forgotten that their entire purpose, the whole reason that they were God’s chosen people to begin with was to be a blessing to the world, as we saw from the reading in Genesis earlier. But they had gotten so focused on being special that their navel-gazing kept them from this holy work. I think I may identify a bit too much with Nicodemus here. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been guilty of thinking that “those people” need a rebirth, need salvation, but not me. I grew up a Christian. I read the Bible. I’ve never done anything too bad. I’m going to school to be a preacher and I’ve done a lot of reading about God. I wonder how many times I’ve hindered the work of the Kingdom by thinking that the Spirit couldn’t possibly work in that way, or in that place, or in those people.

It seems that Nicodemus ended up having his re-birth after all. We hear of him again briefly, twice more in the book of John. In one case, he was standing up to the Pharisees who were trying to arrest Jesus. And, after Jesus’s death, we see him one last time, bringing oils and spices to prepare Jesus’s body for burial. His re-birth from above came when he truly saw Jesus and what he had come to do.

This week, as we see signs of spring and rebirth all around us, I hope that you will be challenged by Nicodemus to see what areas in your life need a rebirth from above. Maybe it’s in how you view other people. Maybe it’s in how you view your call, your part in the work of the kingdom. And maybe it’s in how you view God and what he can and is doing among us to bring about reconciliation and redemption to the whole world. Birth isn’t easy. It’s long and painful and scary and just when it’s over, the task of nurturing that new life is just as long and painful and scary, but when the end result is that we are finally able to see the Kingdom of God, we know that it was all worth it in the end.