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For April 25, 2021

ACTS 4:1-12

THE BACKGROUND

This is a continuation of last week’s story.  Peter and John have healed a man who had been lame since birth.  They attracted a crowd in doing this, so Peter explained to them that it was the power of Jesus’ name that cured the man.

Please note that verses 1-4 are not part of the lectionary. I’ve included them here, to aid in clarity.

THE DETAIL

  • As a result of the healing of the man, and of their preaching in the temple portico, five thousand people accepted Jesus that day.  Then, a large group of representatives of the religious authorities had Peter and John arrested.  They spent the night in jail.  (vv. 1-4)
  • They are brought before the council to be questioned.  It should be noted that this body is the “Who’s Who” of Jewish religious hierarchy.  This is the same body that Jesus went before when he was tried; the time when Peter denied Jesus three times out of fear.  Now, they are questioning Peter and John.  (vv. 5-7)
  • But Peter is a different person.  He now is filled with the Holy Spirit.  He speaks out boldly.  He asks why they’ve been called before the council for performing a good deed.  (vv. 8-9)
  • Peter claims the name of Jesus for being the power to heal the man. (v. 10a)
  • Then, the accused becomes the accuser.  Peter points the finger squarely at them, blaming them for Jesus’ death.  He includes the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead, which would have agitated the Sadducees in the room.  The phrase in quotes is from Psalm 118:22.  This was a verse that was in common use at the time.  Now, Peter applies it to Jesus, and rightly so.  (vv. 10b-11)
  • The key verse, for me, is verse 12.  “There is salvation in no one else…”
  • Peter’s speech continues past today’s selected scripture.  In the end, they tell Peter and John to stop preaching in Jesus’ name.  Peter and John refuse, and they are dismissed from the council.  (Verses 13-22 are not part of the lectionary, but they provide us with the end of the story.)

THE TAKEAWAY

Peter has changed.  He now speaks boldly before those he once feared.  This is the Holy Spirit in action.  This same Holy Spirit is in us.  We can count on the Spirit’s presence to guide our thoughts and words, when we are called to witness for Jesus.  

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Believing in Jesus not only saves us from something (eternal death), it saves us for something.  What is God saving you for?
 

1 JOHN 3:16-24

THE BACKGROUND

We are halfway through our study of the little book of 1 John.  It is a favorite of many famous Christian fathers.  St. Augustine once said “This book is very sweet to every healthy Christian heart… it should constantly be in the mind of God’s holy church.”  John Wesley said “How plain, how full, and how deep a compendium of genuine Christianity!”

John calls us to action.  The beginning of this passage should begin with verse 11b, which states “… we should love one another.”  In fact, this entire book is about love.

THE DETAIL

  • John states that for Christians, love is defined by what Jesus did for us on the cross.  And, since we are Jesus’ disciples here today, we must be like Jesus, willing to lay down our lives for each other in Christian love.  (vv. 16-17)
  • Verse 18 simply states “Let’s do this!”
  • Verse 19a says that when we demonstrate this level of love, we will know that we are “from the truth”.  That we are truly Jesus’ disciples, and children of God.
  • Not only that, but when we demonstrate this level of love-commitment, it reassures and strengthens our faith.  John uses the phrase “our hearts condemn us” to describe the doubt that occasionally arises in our minds.  John is saying that the best thing we can do to overcome these doubts is to love others in our daily actions.  (vv. 19b-22)
  • John wraps it up by reminding us that loving one another is Jesus’ commandment.  And by loving one another, we abide in him and he in us.  (vv. 23-24)

THE TAKEAWAY

I was taught that actions speak louder than words.  It appears that John agrees with that teaching.  We can claim Jesus as our savior, but if we don’t show it in our actions, they are just words.  But, by showing God’s love to others, we strengthen our faith.  We knit the bond of love to our savior a little tighter.  We abide with him.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Think of ways that you can show the love of Jesus to those around you.  Then, get busy!
 

JOHN 10:11-18

THE BACKGROUND

This selection is part of a teaching of Jesus.  It follows the healing of a blind man.  This is a familiar pattern for Jesus:  Perform a miracle to alert those around you that you are not the average man on the street, and then teach them a bit of message you were sent to proclaim.

It is best to read this passage as an allegory.  An allegory is one in which the characters in the story represent real life people.  It is a tricky business to use this extensively when understanding the bible.  Many have gone down weird paths using this technique.  But in this case, Jesus himself instructs us that it is an allegory.  In the verses just ahead of today’s passage, Jesus says “I am the gate”.  (v. 7)

It is also helpful to read Jeremiah 23:1-6.  The bad shepherds in this passage are the bad rulers of Israel and Judah, both the religious and political rulers.  God says that he will appoint new “shepherds” for his people.

THE DETAIL

  • Jesus states that he is the Good Shepherd, the shepherd promised by Jeremiah.  He also tells us that he is ready to lay down his life for the sheep.  (v. 11)
  • The hired hands could be the religious leaders who opposed Jesus’ teaching, and handed him over to the Romans.  The wolf could be either Satan, or the Romans in charge of his crucifixion.  (v. 12)
  • But all that doesn’t matter!  What matters is that Jesus loves us, and knows us.  He is willing to do whatever it takes to show his love for us, including laying down his life for us.  (vv. 13-15)
  • Jesus says that he has “other sheep”, too.  I believe that he was speaking to a Jewish crowd, and that the other sheep are us Gentiles.  This is the good news for you and me!  (v. 16)
  • Jesus tells us that the Father loves him because of this love and willingness to die for us.  That he received this command from the Father. (vv. 17-18)

THE TAKEAWAY

Since we are Jesus’ disciples, we must follow his lead.  We love and care for one another, even to the point of dying for one another.  This is how we demonstrate our conviction to Jesus’ love for us. 

Lately, the emphasis on our spiritual relationship seems to be personal.  Many focus only on what I call a “Me and Jesus” faith relationship.  Being a true disciple of Christ means getting involved—loving others, even those who are out of our comfort zone.  This is not always easy, but it is what we are called to do.  Fortunately, we have the Holy Spirit to help us on our way.  Having a strong “Me and Jesus” relationship is a good thing, but it is not the only thing.  Obeying Jesus’ commandment of loving one another is equally important.

For April 18, 2021

ACTS 3:12-19

THE BACKGROUND

This bible passage is the second half of a fascinating story that begins with verse one of this chapter. On their way to the temple to pray, Peter and John meet a man who was lame since birth.  They heal him in the name of Jesus, and he walks.  The people who were there in the courtyard all rushed up to Peter, John, and the healed man.  Peter explains why and how this happened.  In next week’s reading, they are called before the council and the high priest, just like Jesus was.

THE DETAIL

  • Peter’s speech is similar to the one he gave in Jerusalem at Pentecost (Acts 2).  It is an explanation of Jesus’ life, implication of the Israelites in his death, and a call for their repentance.
  • Peter reminds them of their relationship with God by referencing Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their ancestors.  (v. 13)
  • He calls Jesus the “Holy and Righteous One” and the “Author of Life” in verses 14 & 15. Peter was challenging them to change their view of Jesus. He wasn’t a criminal who was crucified.  He was the Righteous One.  Even more than that, he was the Author of Life.  And you killed him.
  • Peter makes it clear that the man’s healing was not Peter and John’s doing, but that the power came from Jesus alone. (v. 16)
  • Peter tells them that he understands that they acted out of ignorance. (v. 17)
  • Then, he delivers the good news.  It was all part of God’s plan.  (v. 18)
  • Now, they have forgiveness if they repent.  (v. 19)

THE TAKEAWAY

Only a few weeks before, Peter denied Jesus out of fear.  Now, with the help of the Holy Spirit, fear is gone.  We, too, have the Holy Spirit to give us courage and the words to proclaim the Good News to those around us.
 

1 JOHN 3:1-7

THE BAKCGROUND

Today’s reading is a continuation of John’s sermon to his flock. 

Once the God News spread, a wide range of beliefs began to appear.  Their concept of the Trinity was not clearly defined, and opinions were all over the map.  By the time of John’s writing, one group felt that divine knowledge, rather than faith, is what saved us.  Ethics and morality did not matter; it was spiritual knowledge that saved.  As with many of the heresies of the time, these were elements of truth that became twisted in their development.  In the second half of our passage, John explains the folly of their ways.

THE DETAIL

  • Verse one reminds us that we are God’s children.  This is not only because we are His creation, but because we have been baptized into Christ.
  • Verses 2 talks about a process that theologian call “eschatology”.  I call it the “already, but not quite”.  John says that our spiritual development is an ongoing process that will not be complete until Jesus is revealed at his return.  We are works in progress.  It is sort of like a mortgage.  You put some money down, and you start making payments.  If someone asks you if you own your home, you would answer yes, even though you only own it partially.  It is not until the final payment that you fully own your home.  We Christians are like this mortgage.  We will not be complete until Jesus returns.  In the meantime, we are works in progress.
  • Along this journey, we strive to be pure and sinless, just like Jesus.    (v. 3)
  • The last paragraph makes it clear that sin is sin.  Those who walk in the light of Jesus strive to be sinless.  (v. 6) 
  • Righteousness (right actions or doing the right thing) is an integral part of being a Christian. It cannot be separated from living a spiritual life. (v. 7)

 

THE TAKEAWAY

John instructs us to “purify ourselves”.  Of course we fail in this attempt.  But we press on, knowing that we have forgiveness.  We continue to work at purity in our Christian walk. 

Our spirituality, our belief in Jesus as our savior, must shine through in our daily actions.  We are one person, and they cannot be separated. Being God’s children means that we are totally His.  We cannot claim to be His in spirit without demonstrating this in our actions. 

 

LUKE 24:36b-48

THE BACKGROUND

Any time two people witness an event, they will describe it differently.  This is Luke’s version of last week’s gospel reading (John 20:19-31).  I find it interesting to compare the two.  Luke’s gospel has the “The Road to Emmaus” story (vv. 15-35) just prior to today’s reading. 

Another offshoot belief about Jesus was that he was more heavenly, and not very much a real physical being.  It seems weird now, but this was how come Christians perceived Jesus.  Today, some of our denominations have a few strange beliefs and actions.  Are we any different?  But it is thought that Luke might be answering this strange belief in the telling of his story.  More on that in a bit.

THE DETAIL

  • The two disciples (one was Cleopas, the other is not named) have just returned from Emmaus, where Jesus revealed himself to them.  They are telling the apostles what had happened, when suddenly Jesus appears. (v. 36b)
  • They thought they had seen a ghost, and were terrified.  (v. 37)
  • Jesus calms them down, and encourages them to put aside their doubts. A reference to Thomas? (v. 38) 
  • He tells them he’s not a ghost, because he has flesh and bones.  Touch me and understand.  Could this be Luke’s answer to those Christians who thought his human form was only an apparition?  (vv. 39-40)
  • To drive the “it’s really me” point home, he asks for something to eat.  Also, since he is truly human, he was probably hungry, right? (vv. 41-43)
  • Now that they are convinced that it is truly he, Jesus teaches.  As he did on the road to Emmaus, he explains how his life was a fulfillment of scripture.  (vv. 44-45)
  • Then, he gives them an assignment.  They are to get out of these locked rooms and spread the word.  (vv. 46-48)

THE TAKEAWAY

Jesus’ resurrection is sometimes hard to fathom.  It is a challenge to our common sense.  I am thankful that we have these details from the gospel writers to confront our doubts with their experiences.

It must have been difficult for people to try to figure out the whole story of Jesus’ life and teachings, and how he fit into the whole spiritual scheme of things.  Some theories got downright weird.  I am thankful for the creeds.  They clearly define Jesus and his relationship with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

In Luke’s time, spreading the Good News was not easy.  They could be hauled in, and have to appear to court.  This is what happens to Paul and John after the story from Acts.  They could also receive a lot of ridicule and social isolation in doing so.  Things are not so different today.  The social isolation and ridicule are more subtle, but they are definitely still present. 

How can we effectively share this good news with those around us who need it?  It is what the Lord expects of us.

 

For April 11, 2021

ACTS 4:32-45

THE BACKGROUND

Today, we get a glimpse of what it was like to be a Christian in the early years of the church.  This description seems almost fairy tale-like. But if you read chapter 5, it was not a perfect situation.  But let’s focus on the positive for now.

THE DETAIL

  • Verse 32a sets the tone for this whole passage.  “…the whole group… were of one heart and soul…”  My father-in-law tells a joke.  Actually, he tells many of them.  But this joke goes “Do you know how we know that Jesus and the apostles had cars?  The bible tells us that they were in one Accord.”
  • Verse 32b is where it gets very interesting.  We learn that they all pooled their resources.  Verse 34 & 35 explain further that land, houses and possessions were sold, and the proceeds given to the apostles to distribute.  “There was not a needy person among them.”  This sounds more like a hippie commune to me than a Christian church!  But it demonstrates the love and conviction of the church in those early years.  This concept of sharing not only is the enaction of Greek ideals, but also the Hebrew concept of Jubilee.  Details for that are laid down in Deuteronomy 15, the purpose being to achieve a poverty-free society.  Even though our passage states that they were of one heart, there were pockets of resistance to the sharing.  Chapter 5 offers one example of this resistance, and its consequences.
  • There was great energy and power in the early church, with apostles witnessing and sharing Jesus’ teachings.  (v. 33)

THE TAKEAWAY

It takes great conviction for people of faith to share their wealth with others.  It is not natural.  It is interesting to read that this was successful, at least for a time.  What I realize most after reading this passage was their sense of community.  They were one big loving, caring community of faith.  If you needed something, whether it was food, money, or a shoulder, it was there for you.  Jesus’ last commandment was for us to love one another.  These Christians were simply following orders, but doing it enthusiastically. 

These days, our faith walk is often a very individualistic one.  The emphasis today is on Jesus being our own personal savior.  It is more about “me and Jesus” than being a community of believers.  Many modern hymns contain more personal words (me, my, mine) than communal words (us, we, our).  St. Paul speaks of the Body of Christ being a group of individuals who pool their spiritual gifts to form one dynamic, very effective body.

 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Can one Christian be the Body of Christ all by themselves?  Don’t we need our brothers and sisters by our side, forming a strong Body of Christ? Isn’t that what the world needs? Isn’t that what we also need?

 

1 JOHN 1:11-2:2

THE BACKGROUND

This book reads more like a sermon, than a letter.  It does not follow the traditional form of a letter, with an opening greeting and such, as we see in Paul’s letters.  So let’s read this passage like it was one of John’s sermons, which was saved for our edification.  John makes many good points in this passage.

THE DETAIL

  • The very opening verses of this book go straight to the matter.  John is explaining what he and the apostles were doing; they were simply sharing with everyone all that they had witnessed.  They were spreading the Good News.  (vv. 1-3)
  • The second paragraph contrasts walking in light versus darkness.  Living in darkness is living our lives without Jesus as our guide.  We should be living in the true light of his teaching.  Early Christians called this The Way.  When we walk in The Way, the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.  (vv. 5-7)
  • In my church, verses 8-9 are quoted often.  They are used as a preface in the rite of confession and absolution, which we do every week.  These words remind us that we should not try to kid ourselves into thinking that we are perfect, good, and sinless.  We all need Jesus!  (v. 10)
  • John concludes by telling us why he is writing this—so that we will not sin.  But he knows that we will, so he reminds us that Jesus is our advocate; he is our atoning sacrifice, as well as the whole world’s.

THE TAKEAWAY

  • Why did they witness? So that their joy would be complete. (v.4)  It gave them pleasure to share the Good News.  It should also be ours.
  • We like to tell ourselves that everything we do is right and correct.  We never like admitting that we are wrong.  We find excuses for our behavior.  We blame others.  John says that if we do this, then we are liars. (v. 8) We all fall short of God’s expectations. We need to be honest with ourselves.  We need Jesus!

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

When was the last time you admitted to someone that you were wrong?

 

JOHN 20:19-31

THE BACKGROUND

These are the closing lines of the Gospel of John, his conclusion to the gospel story.

THE DETAIL

  • This is Jesus’ first appearance to all the apostles, after his resurrection.  Well, except for Thomas, that is.  Somehow, Jesus infiltrates the room, in spite of the locked doors.  Yet, he is not a ghost, because the apostles are able to touch his wounds.  What an interesting event!  (vv. 19-20)
  • Next, he tells them that they must continue the work that had started.  He then breathes the Holy Spirit on them, to give them the power they need for the task.  (vv. 21-22)
  • He further explains that they have the authority to forgive or withhold forgiveness of sins. (v. 23)
  • Now we hear that Thomas was not present.  When Thomas returns, he doesn’t believe that Jesus was there.  He has to see for himself.  (v. 25)
  • Jesus appears the following week, and Thomas is there.  Jesus does not scold Thomas for being skeptical.  Instead, he is patient and understanding.  “Put your finger here… Do not doubt, but believe.”  Thomas doesn’t even need to touch Jesus, he believes on the spot.  (vv. 26-28)
  • What Jesus says next is more for us for Thomas.  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
  • In verses 30 & 31, John explains why he wrote this all down.  It wasn’t so that we would have a complete biography of Jesus’ life. He wrote down just enough for us to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God…” 

THE TAKEAWAY

Let’s look at Jesus’ reaction to Thomas’ behavior.  Long before this, Jesus told them all that was going to happen.  That he was going to die and be risen from the dead.  Yet, Thomas doesn’t believe.  Jesus had every right to be angry with Thomas.  Instead, he has patience and understanding.  In my times of doubt, I am always comforted by this. I know that my Lord understands, and loves me in spite of my moments of  doubt.

For April 1st & 2nd, 2021

This is a special edition of Weekly Reflections, because this is a special week.  

For those churches that follow the liturgical church year, this week is a busy one.  Last Sunday was Palm Sunday, when we remember Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey. This Thursday evening is Maundy Thursday, and Friday is Good Friday.  There will be at least one church service on each day, plus several church services on Easter Sunday.  Most pastors are exhausted by Easter Sunday afternoon!  We will look at a few of the readings assigned for these days.  But first, a brief word on each of what these days are, and where their weird names come from.

Maundy Thursday is the Thursday before Easter. It is the service where we study what happened at our Lord’s last supper.  The word “Maundy” is a denigration of the Latin work “mandatum”, or command in English.  We’ll talk about the command Jesus gives, when we examine the gospel lesson for Maundy Thursday.  Some churches observe a foot washing at this service.  It is a little strange, but as you may recall,  that’s how Peter felt at the first one, so it’s historical to feel weird.

Good Friday is the day that they crucified Jesus on the cross.  It is definitely NOT a good day for Jesus!  But it is believed that the word “good” is a denigration of the word “God”.  So, originally it was “God’s Friday” in Old English, and somehow over time it became “Good Friday”.  Weird, but that’s the explanation.  This is a solemn, emotional church service.  The altar is stripped as Psalm 22 is read.  (Many believe that Jesus was reciting this psalm during his crucifixion.)  The big church bible is sometimes slammed shut to represent the closing of the tomb. People will exit in silence, and do not socialize.  It is a day of sorrow.

 

MAUNDY THURSDAY

 

JOHN 13:1-17, 31b-35

REFLECTION ONE

In verses 2b through 17, Jesus gets up from the dinner table, mid-meal, and washes his disciples’ feet. Peter, bless his heart, resists. He refuses to have Jesus do this, and for good reason.  It was one of the tasks that was relegated to the household slaves.  And amongst the slaves, it always fell to the lowest in the pecking order.  It was not a popular job!  So, it is understandable that Peter would raise a fuss.  Jesus’ response to his objections are to the point—“Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” (v.8b)  Why does Jesus do this?  Jesus’ time is short.  He has two lessons he wants to leave his disciples with, and this is one.  He goes on to say that they “…ought to wash one another’s feet.”  (v. 14b) He is making it clear that they (and we) are to lovingly and humbly serve one another without pretense and without reservation.  “If you know these things, you ae blessed if you do them.”  (v. 17)  So, here’s that lesson from last Sunday again—it’s about humble obedience and loving service to one another.

REFLECTION TWO

In verse 34, we get our marching orders.  He says that it is a new commandment, that we love one another.  Then, in verse 35, he really turns up the heat—If we’re doing this love thing correctly, it should be clear to bystanders that we’re Christians, simply because there is so much love being shown.

This is not an easy lesson. How many religious wars can you think of?  How many Christian religious arguments come to mind?  We have a lousy track record for obeying this commandment!

I am thinking of a bakery that my wife and I went to a few years ago.  It was a strange setup.  We weren’t sure how you ordered, where you picked it up, and where you paid for it. They had beautiful pastries, and we wanted some.  There were people milling all around, which added to the confusion.  We were lost.  Some kind people recognized our plight, and took us under their wing.  Asked how they could help.  They showed us how to order, and where to pay for it.  They were sweet and kind to us, and we were grateful.  We were in the best Baklava bakery store in Michigan, and they were all Muslims.  We stood out like a sore thumb, but did not feel threatened in any way.  But their lovingkindness was incredible.  It made our Baklava taste even sweeter!  If our Christian love is supposed to be so intense that they can pick us out from these kind people, then how much love must I demonstrate in my daily Christian walk?  I have a lot of work to do!

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

How can we show more love to others?  We can start by being less judgmental and more accepting.  Can we set aside our differences, and look at what we have in common with those around us, rather than how we are different?

 

GOOD FRIDAY

 

ISAIAH 52:13-53:12

I suggest that you read this one on Good Friday, when you want to reflect on the suffering of Jesus. I will not go into the details of the text, or give you a little sermonette.  Instead, I ask that you read this with a pencil or a highlighter. Underline the passages that speak to you.  Pray and reflect on the sacrifice that Jesus made for you and me.  There is great suffering in the body of the text, but it ends in victory and a promise.

 

JOHN 18:1-19:42

This is another long passage, so I will not add to your reading burden by providing comments on it. But, I do want to explain the setting. In the chapters before this passage, Jesus has had the Passover meal with his disciples.  He has given them the new commandment.  Then, he provides them with a long discourse—four chapters! These are his final instructions to those who will continue his work.  This is why John 18:1 begins with “After Jesus had spoken these words…” John is referring to the long discourse that Jesus just gave.

May the Holy Spirit be with you as you read these Good Friday passages. 

For April 4, 2021

EASTER SUNDAY

For the Sundays beginning with Easter and following, the first lesson does not come from the Old Testament; it comes from the book of Acts.  We shift our focus from the old promise to the actions of the apostles, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to spread the Good News.

 

ACTS 10:34-43

THE BACKGROUND

The Holy Spirit has called Peter to go to the house of Cornelius in the city of Philippi. Cornelius is an officer in the Roman army, and a Gentile.  But he is a “god-lover”.  This is what they called non-Jews who worshipped Yahweh, but did not fully convert to all the Jewish practices, namely the dietary laws and circumcision. The Holy Spirit called Peter to bring the Good News to Cornelius’ household.  At this point in time, most of the Christians were Jewish, and kept all the Laws of Moses.

THE DETAIL

  • Peter begins his speech by making a bold statement.  He says that “…God shows no partiality.”  Because of what the Holy Spirit has revealed to him early in this chapter, Peter now knows that Yahweh is not interested in a relationship with His “chosen people”; God loves everyone, showing no partiality to the Jews. (This is very good news to all us Gentiles!)  (v.34)
  • He then says “You [already] know his relationship with the people of Israel, but wait!  There’s more!  Jesus [the] Christ was sent to preach peace.  By the way, Jesus is Lord of all “.  (This is my personal paraphrase of verses 35 & 36.)
  • Peter goes on to concisely explain the life and ministry of Jesus.  (vv. 37-39)
  • He concludes with Jesus’ death and resurrection, adding that he and those who came with him that day were witnesses to all of this.  (vv. 40-41)
  • Now comes the clincher.  Jesus not only commanded them to spread the news.  Jesus is the one ordained by God who will judge us all.  Not only that, everything you know about the prophets—they all testify about him.  (vv. 42-43)
  • The rest of the story, not included here, is that Cornelius and his entire household believed in Jesus, and were baptized that day.  The Holy Spirit came, and caused them all to speak in tongues, just like those at Pentecost.

THE TAKEAWAY

No longer do the Jews have exclusive access to God’s love.  God sent Jesus to gather us all in, even Roman army officers.  He commands us to preach the Good News of Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins.  
 

1 CORINTHIANS 15:1-11

THE BACKGROUND

This reading is really the tip of a huge iceberg.  Chapter 15 is 58 verses long.  After the 11th verse, Paul shifts into a long discussion on the resurrection—its truth and meaning.  Apparently, some believers in Corinth were questioning whether or not the resurrection actually happened.  This would be a wonderful study and basis for a sermon, but who wants to hear 58 verses of the bible read on Easter Sunday?  I do recommend that you at least skim over the entire chapter, if you have time. But let’s focus on what Paul says in these eleven verses.

THE DETAIL

  • In verses 1-4, Paul reminds them what he had previously taught them, that Jesus lived, died, was buried, and rose on the third day.
  • Paul provides a long list of Jesus’ appearances. (vv. 5-8)
  • Paul gets around to humbly including himself in the list in verses 9 & 10.
  • He concludes this section by saying that they all did this for our benefit.  (v. 11)

THE TAKEAWAY

These verses are good for me to read during times of doubt.  It wasn’t just a couple of people making this up—there were many witnesses and many appearances.  We can rest assured that Jesus not only died for our sins, but rose on the third day. He truly is Lord of All!
 

MARK 16:1-8

THE BACKGROUND

For the Jews, the Sabbath begins on Friday evening, and ends on Saturday at sundown.  You are not allowed to do any work on the Sabbath, so completing the burial operations on Jesus’ body had to wait until the first day of the week—Sunday morning.

THE DETAIL

Three women who were close to Jesus are assigned the task of caring for Jesus’ body.  But they had a big surprise waiting for them.  The body was gone!  A young man in a white robe explains that Jesus was raised from the dead, and was no longer there.  The women fled in terror and amazement.

THE TAKEAWAY

Those poor women went to the tomb in grief and left in terror.  It took some time before the apostles believed them.  After all, who ever heard of anyone rising from the dead?

But it is Jesus’ resurrection that is the whole key to his life’s mission.  Without the resurrection, he would have been just another preacher who got on the wrong side of the religious authorities.  But because of the resurrection, we know that Jesus truly is Lord of All.  He his God’s son, come to earth to put the Law in our hearts, set us free from sin, and give us eternal life.  Amen! 

For March 28, 2021

PALM SUNDAY

With Palm Sunday coming up, we have less than two weeks until Easter.  But for now, we have a little Lenten work to do.  Today’s readings all have a common thematic thread—humble obedience.  Let’s jump into these readings, and see how they might speak to us.

 

ISAIAH 50:4-9a

THE BACKGROUND

Most believe that this part of Isaiah was written during Israel’s exile in Babylon, around 550 BC.  They are the third of four song-poems that theologians have called Servant Songs. They describe the experiences of an unnamed servant of the Lord.  Who was this servant?  Some say it was God’s people, in this case Israel.  Some say it describes the prophets.  Christians want to conclude that these words refer to Jesus.  I would like to say yes and no to all three!  But before I do, here are all four song-poems*:

 

 

THE DETAIL

  • The first thing to note that this song is written in the first person (“me” instead of “he”).  It is a personal recounting.  Could this be Isaiah sharing his story?  (v.4)
  • So, the servant’s ears are opened, and He listens to God’s directives.  He obeys, and “did not turn backwards”.  (vv. 4-5)
  • Because of his conviction, he endures pain, suffering, and humiliation.  (v. 6)
  • Yet he is unmoved.  The words “I have set my face like flint…” are striking to me. Have you ever skinned a knee or cut your hand on a sharp rock?  This is determination!  (v. 7)
  • The remaining verses show dignity and resolve in the face of danger.  They seem to me to be like a boxer in a ring with his feet firmly planted.  “Bring it on!” the servant seems to say. (v. 8)
  • And finally, the servant proudly declares that “It is the Lord God who helps me…”  With God on his side, the others don’t stand a chance.

THE TAKEAWAY

So who was this servant?  The Bible doesn’t say!  Let’s look at two or three possibilities.

  • Early Christians were quick to see Jesus in these words.  The suffering described in Songs 3 & 4 is very descriptive of what Jesus endured.  But think about it for a moment.  These words were written over 500 years before Jesus walked the earth.  The people in exile would not have said “that’s Jesus!” Imagine going into a publisher today with a manuscript that does not make sense, and asking for it to be published. “No, it doesn’t make sense now, but it will in 500 years.”  Do you think they’ll publish it?  No.  These songs must have made sense to the people of Isaiah’s day.  These words were preserved for over five centuries before they applied to Jesus.  But they sure do apply to Jesus’ suffering…
  • Perhaps it applied first to God’s people, suffering for their faith in exile. They were in a foreign land which had weird religious beliefs, customs, and language.  The Jews most certainly were outcasts.  They were probably ridiculed, and perhaps at times even suffered physical pain for their faith.  These songs could have provided them with a spiritual strength to stand up to the opposition, and remain faithful.
  • Perhaps Jesus recalled these words during the final days of his time here on earth.  Maybe he also drew strength from these words.
  • Maybe we can also draw strength from these words, whomever they describe.  We are God’s people.  These words are also for us.  They can describe all of us who suffer for being steadfast in our faith to our Lord in the face of adversity.  Yes, I believe that these words were written for all of us.

 

 

*  Table from “Reading the Old Testament”, Bandstra, chapter 10.  Thompson Wadsworth Publishing
 

PHILIPPIANS 2:5-11

THE BACKGROUND

It is believed that this passage is actually the words to a hymn sung in the very early church.  Paul uses these beautiful words to instruct and encourage the church in Philippi.

THE DETAIL

Let’s divide this hymn into three sections.

  • The opening line instructs us to have the “same mind” that Jesus had.  The Greek word used here for “mind” is phronēte, which also means “thinking.**  So one could say that Paul is encouraging us to be so much like Jesus that we actually think like Him. (v. 5)
  • Next comes a very interesting point.  Jesus used to be in heaven with his Father, but he chose to set all that aside and take on human form.  Not only did he do this, he came in the most humble form—a poor carpenter’s son born in a barn.  Worse, he suffered a humiliating death for us.  (vv. 6-8)
  • The song concludes with a hymn of praise.  (vv. 9-11)

THE TAKEAWAY

Jesus gave up everything he had going for him, up there in heaven.  Yet, he obeyed the will of his Father, and became like us.  Not only that, he suffered and died a humiliating death. All this he did because of love. 

We are called to “have the same mind” as Jesus. As his disciples, we are to be like Jesus.  Just as Jesus was a humble servant for his Father, so should we.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Humility and servitude are not valued commodities today, any more than they were in Jesus’ time.  Are we truly prepared to be like Jesus, think like Jesus, and be willing to obediently suffer like Jesus, if called to do so?

 

** For the record, I do not know ancient Greek. This fact was taken from the commentary found for this Sunday, www.workingpreacher.com.

 

MARK 11:1-11

THE BACKGROUND

This is not the primary Gospel lesson for this Palm Sunday; it is the alternate Gospel lesson.  The primary Gospel lesson involves Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and death on the cross. 

THE DETAIL

  • Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem with his disciples in tow.  He sends two of them ahead to get a donkey colt.  The instructions are interesting, and match exactly what happened.  Was this yet another miracle, or something that had been prearranged?  We do not know.  (vv. 1-6)
  • Some put their garments on the beast, and Jesus climbs on.  A crowd forms.  Some throw down their garments into his path, others use palm branches.  They shout praises to Jesus, and say “Hosanna”. (vv. 7-10)
  • After the “parade”, Jesus checks out the temple.  It’s late.  He goes back to Bethany to spend the night.  (v. 11)

THE TAKEAWAY

  • What an odd way to end a passage!  “Party’s over, let’s go back to Bethany.”  Bethany shows up several times in the Gospels.  It is where Lazarus lived with his sisters Mary and Martha. Jesus healed a leper there.  Jesus’ feet were anointed there. Bethany, perhaps Lazarus’ home, must have been a sort of home base for Jesus and his disciples. It was only two miles from Jerusalem, about a 40 minute walk.
  • There are a few words that we use in frequently church, but many do not know their meaning.   Halleluiah is one.  I challenge you to define “glory” to me.  Hosanna is also one of those words.  I don’t think a worship service goes by that I don’t say or sing this word a half a dozen times.  What does it mean?  I looked it up (again!).  The Webster definition means “a cry of acclamation and adoration”.  More important to know is what it meant to the Jews of Jesus’ day.  In Hebrew, it meant “pray, save us!”  They also said “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”  Clearly, they were waiting for a political uprising, and the restoration of the kingdom of Israel.  Jesus did indeed save them, but he gave them something more precious than a political kingdom.
  • Why did Jesus ride on a young donkey?  A triumphant king should make his victorious entry on a war horse.  Jesus had the power and authority to do this.  But Jesus chose this animal, I believe, to demonstrate his humility.  You cannot sit tall and erect, chest puffed out in pride, and do it all atop a baby donkey! 
  • The road to Jerusalem also leads the opposite way.  Going towards Jerusalem meant pain, insult, humility, intense suffering, and death.  Jesus could easily have made a U-turn, and saved his hide.  But he went “uncomplaining forth”, to obey the will of his Father.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Jesus obeys the Father silently and humbly.  Fame and fortune were at his fingertips.  He could have had it all.  But he chose this path out of love for us. 

Putting God first in our lives is not an easy thing. But as Jesus’ disciples, we are called to think like him, and be like him.  Let us keep reminding ourselves of his obedience, and “let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus…”.

 

For March 21, 2021

REFLECTIONS ON THE READINGS

FOR SUNDAY, MARCH 21, 2021

 

PSALM 51

Normally, I don’t discuss the Psalm, but this one is extra special.  It is a beautiful prayer and meditation about our sinful nature, and our relationship with God.  It is a perfect prayer for us during our Lenten journey.  In my Lutheran denomination, we are very cognizant of our sinful nature.  Every worship service begins with a liturgy of confession & forgiveness.  We sort of take a spiritual “bath” prior to worship. We don’t go the “fire and brimstone” route, with lots of guilt being inflicted on the worshipers, but we do recognize our uncanny ability to disobey our Lord at every turn.  Martin Luther liked to say that we Christians are at the same time both sinners and saints.  Also, every Sunday is also supposed to be a “Little Easter”, so we take care to ensure that the Good News of the gospel shines through.  Lent is a time to confront our shortcomings, knowing that God loves us, and has forgiven us through the gift of His son.

I am especially fond of verses 10-12.  In years past, these words were part of a song that was included each week in our worship service.  This song is etched in my heart—it was, and still is, true worship.  Look at those words, and make them yours!

 

JEREMIAH 31:31-34

THE BACKGROUND

This passage is one of those “dual meaning” passages.  Originally, it was written during or just after Babylonian captivity.  It was written over 500 years before the birth of our Lord.  There is certainly no way that they could have heard these words and thought “They’re talking about Jesus!”    It was a message of hope to the captives that a better day was coming.  Since Jesus’ time, however, it has taken on new meaning.  It is quoted in Romans and Hebrews, and hinted at in Matthew, Mark, and John.  We’ll look at both meanings, since they have the same message, especially to us Christians.

THE DETAIL

  • This passage starts out by looking forward to the day of hope and promise.  The Lord will make a new covenant with us.  Other words for “covenant” include charter, treaty, pact, and testament.  (v. 31)
  • The new covenant will not be like the old one.  Jeremiah reminds them that God freed them from captivity in Egypt, and was “their husband”.  He loved and cared for them. (v. 32)
  • The new covenant will be richer than the old one.  No longer will the law be written on stone tablets, but within their hearts.  We will have intimate knowledge of God and God of us.  He will forgive us, and completely forget about our sins. (v. 33)

 

THE TAKEAWAY

  • We divide our bible into two parts—the Old Testament and the New Testament.  The Old Testament was God’s covenant promise with Moses and the people of Israel.  The New Testament is God’s covenant promise sealed by the blood of Jesus on the cross.
  • We live in the in-between times.  Jesus has come.  He has died for our sins, and gone back to heaven.  He will come again to reign on earth.  While we wait for his return, we have a partial fulfilment of this scripture. Jesus has laid out God’s will before us. It can be “written on our hearts”, and is, in part.  But this prophecy will be fully implemented after his return.
  • The New Testament writers quickly recognized Jesus in these last verses.  Through Jesus, our sins are completely forgiven.  We have a fresh start, a renewed relationship with our Lord. 

 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

How does His law and His will get “written on our hearts”?  I think prayer and studying the scriptures is a good start, don’t you?
 

HEBREWS 5:5-10

THE BACKGROUND

The book of Hebrews is one of those books of the bible that I try to avoid.  It is so dense and complicated, that it is easy to get distracted or bored, and move on.  I am thankful that we get to study it now, because it requires me to do the hard work of understanding it.  Unfortunately, we are going to need to learn about a couple of things before we can begin to crack the code on this very precious passage.

Jewish High Priest 

There was only one at a time. Only Levites were allowed to be priests, so the high priest must be from the house of Levy.  He alone was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, and be in God’s presence.  He alone was allowed to make sacrifices for the sins of the people.  He was the people’s only connection with God.

Melchizedek

He was a priest and a king at the time of Abraham.  He is only mentioned in Genesis 14:18-20 and in Psalm 110:4.  Abraham gave offerings to him, in reverence to Yahweh.  By contrast, the Levite line of priests was established at the time of Moses and Aaron, after slavery in Egypt. Since Melchizedek lived well before them, his qualifications to be a priest precluded the requirement to be from the house of Levy.  He was a priest long before the Levites had this job.

THE DETAIL

The writer of Hebrews is writing to the Christian Jews to explain Jesus’ divinity in Jewish terms. 

  • Jesus was not of the house of Levy, he was from the house of Benjamin.  He was not qualified to be a priest, according to the Law of Moses. If you read Psalm 110 through a Christian lens, you might conclude that David is referring to the messiah. Therefore, God states that His son is a priest according to the order of Melchizedek.  He doesn’t have to be a Levite.  This is the point that the author of Hebrews is making; Jesus is fully qualified to be our high priest through the order of Melchizedek.  (vv. 5-6) 
  • Verse 7 calls to mind Jesus’ prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane.

 

THE TAKEAWAY

We do not need the convincing argument that is presented here to know that Jesus is our Lord.  Through Jesus we have direct prayer access to God the Father.  Through Jesus’ obedient suffering on the cross, our sins are forgiven, and we have eternal life!  Hallelujah! 

 

 

JOHN 12:20-33

THE BACKGROUND

At this point in John’s gospel, Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead, and has made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, with palm branches and praises all around. Jesus is drawing large crowds wherever he goes.  In the verse just before our passage, the Pharisees say to one another “Look, the world has gone after him

THE DETAIL

  • The “world” has indeed gone after him.  In this case, some Greeks approach the disciples, and ask to see Jesus.  They relay the request to Jesus.  (vv.20-22)
  • Jesus appears to ignore the request, but does so indirectly at the end.  Instead, he uses this as a teaching moment.  He speaks of the cost of discipleship.  Of putting service to Him above all else, including one’s own life.  (vv. 23-26) The powerful words that attracted my attention are verse 26:  “Whoever serves me must follow me…”, presumable even to death, if necessary.
  • In verse 26 he says “Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life”.  I do not believe we must actually hate our lives.  Jesus is telling us to put God’s plan for our lives above all else, even if it means putting our life at risk. 
  • This passage gets very interesting in the second paragraph.  He is still talking about the cost of doing God’s will.  But now, he speaks about himself, rather than his disciples.  He is “troubled”.  He knows what lies ahead.  But he left his heavenly home to teach, preach, and die for our sins.  He is on a mission, and that mission is about to turn dark.  But he doesn’t bail out of the mission.  He is faithful to his Father’s mission.  He has a job to do. 
  • He final gives those curious Greeks an answer in verse 32.  Sort of.  He says that he will “draw all people to himself”.  The people of Israel considered themselves to be God’s chosen people.  With the coming of the messiah, God choses to include everyone;  even us Gentiles.

THE TAKEAWAY

When Jesus climbed on that donkey to enter Jerusalem, he knew where he was headed.  The road he traveled into Jerusalem also points in the opposite direction; he could have decided to save his life by going in that direction.  In spite of the pain and humiliation he is about to subject himself to, he presses on. He presses on to do his Father’s will, to be God’s ultimate expression of His love for us.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Jesus challenges us to put God’s mission for us above our own plans.  Jesus is setting the bar high.  Are you in?

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