Archive for March, 2012

“We preach Christ crucified”

March 31, 2012

I’m sure I’m not the only preacher who is filled with apprehension every Easter season as we approach Passion Week, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Every year I think, “What can I say that I haven’t said before? What new insights can I glean from these scriptures? What if I’m unoriginal (by which I mean boring)?” As one preacher friend said to me once: “When it comes to Easter, there is no ‘big reveal,'” by which he meant, nothing we say is going to surprise anyone.

Well, I’m putting those thoughts out of my mind. If you come to Vinebranch tomorrow or next week, or perhaps just read or watch my sermons on this blog, I’m telling you right now: I’m going to be unoriginal. I’m going to repeat myself. I’m going to offer no new insights.

The old insights are just fine, thank you very much. I’m reminded of that exuberant southern gospel song, “Victory in Jesus.” The opening line goes: “I heard an old, old story/ How a Savior came from glory/ How he gave his life on Calvary/ To save a wretch like me.”

I can’t improve much upon that old, old story. I’m not going to stress about it. St. Paul’s words are appropriate here:

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I didn’t come preaching God’s secrets to you like I was an expert in speech or wisdom. I had made up my mind not to think about anything while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and to preach him as crucified. [1 Corinthians 2:1-2 CEB]

If it’s good enough for Paul, it’s good enough for me.

The meaning of the cross

March 30, 2012

The following comes from Thomas Oden’s systematic theology, Classic Christianity[†].

A flood of impressions and images collide and meld in the portrayal of the rugged power and meaning of the cross. In a burst of ecstasy, many of these are amassed in a single passage by John of Damascus. In Jesus’ death,

death has been brought low, the sin of our first parent destroyed, hell plundered, resurrection bestowed, the power given us to scorn the things of this world and even death itself, the road back to the former blessedness made smooth, the gates of paradise opened, our nature seated at the right hand of God, and we made children and heirs of God. By the cross all things have been set aright…. It is a raising up for those who lie fallen, a support for those who stand, a staff for the infirm, a crook for the shepherded, a guide for the wandering, a perfecting of the advanced, salvation for the soul and body, an averter of all evils, a cause of all good things, a destruction of sin, a plant of the resurrection, and a tree of eternal life (John of Damascus, OF 4.11).

And the people of God said…

[†] Thomas Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York: HarperOne, 1992), 402.

Sermon for 03-25-12: “God’s Passion, Part 2: Caiaphas and Peter”

March 29, 2012

Statue of Peter depicting his denial of Jesus.

Peter’s tragic moment of failure in the courtyard of the high priest Caiaphas is not usually regarded as an inspiration to us Christians. But in this sermon, I say that there is something from Peter’s example that we can apply to our lives: Just as it was obvious to the high priest’s servant and bystanders that Peter was a follower of Jesus, so it should be obvious to people in our lives.

Let’s let our words, actions, and character—the way we live our lives—give away the fact that we are Christ’s followers.

Sermon Text: Mark 14:53-72

The following is my original manuscript.

I was born in 1970 at the Grady Hospital to a woman from Virginia named Linda, who is here this morning. I was adopted into a family from the Deep South. My Mom grew up about 20 miles north of here, when that was the country, my Dad grew up near Lake Hartwell in rural South Carolina. I say this in order to establish my credentials as a true southerner. This sometimes surprises people who wonder about my lack of a southern accent.

My parents had southern accents. My parents’ extended families had even stronger accents. In fact, a few years ago, I caught a rerun of that old country variety show, Hee Haw, which my family watched faithfully every Saturday night at 7:00. And I saw that comedian Junior Samples, who actually grew up near my mom in Forsyth County. Junior Samples was that large man who wore overalls and talked real slow. But I heard him on this ancient rerun of Hee Haw, and I heard that deep southern drawl, and I thought, “These are my people.” I was transported back in time… transported back to Grandma’s house… and family gatherings with aunts and uncles and cousins and neighbors, all of whom sounded a little like Junior Samples.

I miss hearing that accent now. It’s fading with each generation. But when I was a kid, I wanted nothing to do with it. See, I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, and none of my friends or my friends’ parents spoke with strong southern accents. None of my friends had to watch Hee Haw on Saturday nights. In fact, the father of my best friend was English, which was the coolest and most exotic accent I had heard. Plus I loved Paul McCartney and Wings at a very early age, so I wanted to sound like that. But since I couldn’t sound like that, I at least didn’t want to sound like my parents’ families. I’m not proud that I was ashamed of that accent, but I was. I didn’t want to be perceived as a hick from the sticks. I was very self-conscious of being different. I wanted to blend in.

As Peter warmed himself by the fire, in the courtyard outside of the high priest’s house, he wanted to blend in. But you know what gave him away? His accent. That’s how the group in in verse 70 knew he was from Galilee. In fact, the accent of someone from Galilee, versus someone from Jerusalem, might have been as different as a Boston accent is from a southern accent. Read the rest of this entry »

Adam Hamilton on penal substitution

March 29, 2012

"Gordon's Calvary": A proposed Protestant site for the crucifixion. If you squint your eyes, it does look a bit like a skull.

Adam Hamilton writes at length about penal substitution (what he calls substitutionary atonement) in 24 Hours That Changed the World. For my fellow Methodists who get all squishy on the topic, you might appreciate that another, rather more famous and influential United Methodist also endorses penal substitution as one important way of understanding the cross.

Some have dismissed the substitutionary theory of Atonement as simplistic or even confusing, but for many it is the clearest way to understand what Jesus intended to happen as a result of his death on the cross. In the trial before Pontius Pilate we get a glimpse of the this idea—one concrete example of a larger idea. For here at the lithostrotos [another name for the Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem] Jesus took the place of a “notorious criminal” named Barabbas, who was himself awaiting death. Barabbas, a convicted criminal was set free; and Jesus, an innocent man, was crucified in his place.[1]

The substitutionary theory of the Atonement, which we touched on before, can be summarized in this way: Every one of us has sinned, and in our sin we have been alienated from God. Justice calls for punishment for the collective weight of that sin; the Bible says that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) and eternal separation from God. But God, who loves us like parents love their children, does not desire us to be eternally separated. God wishes us to receive grace. An ordinary person could not die for all humankind; but Jesus, being God in the flesh, could die for the sins of the entire world. He paid a price he did not owe, giving us a gift of grace we did not deserve. This is what we see in Barabbas walking away free from the prison and Jesus hanging on a cross.[2]

Hamilton also puts his finger on the very reason I’ve recently become outspoken on the issue: sin—and, frankly, my own sense of it within myself. A commentator on this blog once told me that being so self-conscious about my own sinfulness was surely not good for my self-esteem (or something like that). Sorry… I am a sinner. But thank God I’ve been redeemed by the blood of Jesus! Or course I believe that Jesus died in my place and took the punishment that my sins deserved! He needed to!

Does that make me “Baptist” (as if that label would offend me)? What does that make the pastor of the world’s largest United Methodist church?

Stepping off soapbox… Hamilton continues:

Some of us feel that sin does not require sacrifice or atonement. But there are moments when the idea of Christ’s death being for us comes into focus, moments when we have done something so awful and our shame is so great that we know there is no way we can save ourselves. It is in those moments when we find ourselves drawn to the cross and the understanding that Christ suffered for us. We look at the cross and realize that a price was already paid for us.[3]

[1] Adam Hamilton, 24 Hours That Changed the World (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009), 66.

[2] Ibid., 67.

[3] Ibid., 68.

My recent adventures in learning to care more

March 28, 2012

I’ve written before about my Lenten resolution to stop worrying about the appearance of being a caring person and focus instead on being a caring person. I spoke with a clergy friend this morning who knew exactly what I meant—even as he said something that seemed to contradict what I wrote.

He said, “I’ve found that there’s no difference between appearing to care and actually caring.” And I said, “That’s exactly right!

Here’s what I mean: We pastors don’t have the luxury of reserving pastoral care for times when we feel like providing it. My parishioner didn’t check my schedule before he went to the hospital for that emergency appendectomy, and the fact that I had planned on spending Sunday afternoon napping is irrelevant. Likewise, death is always inconvenient. It never waits, for example, for me to finish writing my sermon. It doesn’t even respect my vacation schedule! Unlike Emily Dickinson, we pastors have to stop for death. It’s part of our job.

So sometimes, for the sake of appearances and to ensure that we’ll continue to have a job, we have to appear to care, even when we don’t—or at least not enough to want to interrupt whatever else we have going on.

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter whether we want to or not, at least in my experience. When I do it anyway, despite my feelings, I find that I do end up caring—a great deal. It doesn’t feel like I’m simply going through the motions anymore.

If these words are applicable to Christians in general, and not just us professional caregivers, I would say this: Disregard your feelings, your schedule, your other commitments, and take the time and effort to care.  I know it’s often inconvenient. But see what happens.

Following up on Sunday’s sermon

March 27, 2012

When Jesus is put on trial by the high priest, Caiaphas, and his ruling council, the Sanhedrin, in Mark 14:53-65, Mark notes that many witnesses brought trumped-up charges against Jesus. Nevertheless, none of the witnesses agreed about what Jesus did wrong.

One charge, at least, was nearly true. As verse 58 indicates, some witnesses misheard or misinterpreted Jesus’ words (not found in Mark but in John 2:19): “Destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.” The witnesses reported that Jesus said that he would destroy the temple and raise it up in three days. (Oh, the days before video!) Still, Mark says, even these testimonies didn’t agree about what Jesus said.

According to Deuteronomy 19:15, the Sanhedrin shouldn’t have been able to convict on this basis.

Finally, Caiaphas asks, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus replies, “I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” And with that, Caiaphas believes that he has what he needs. Jesus, he says, has blasphemed.

From what I’ve read, it wasn’t blasphemous for Jesus to claim to be the Messiah (which is what “Christ” means). Jesus would be mistaken or deluded, his critics would say, but he wouldn’t be guilty of blasphemy.

In his book 24 Hours That Changed the World, Adam Hamilton asserts that Jesus’ first sentence tipped Caiaphas off: “I am.” Here, Hamilton says, Jesus was identifying himself with God’s name as given to Moses in Exodus 3:14. Many other commentators have made this connection. It’s an intriguing possibility, but it feels like a stretch to me. Would Caiaphas have heard that allusion in Jesus’ answer? Isn’t “I am” a straightforward answer to Caiaphas’s question?

In scholarly circles, it’s routine to dismiss the idea that Jesus claimed to be God in any sort of direct way. And technically that’s true, I guess. When Jesus agreed with Caiaphas, for example, that he was “Son of the Blessed One” (a circumlocution for God), he wasn’t exactly saying he was the Second Person of the Trinity, fully God and fully human, as later theology would develop the concept. Or at least Caiaphas wouldn’t have heard it that way: to him, “Son of God” was a claim to Davidic royalty, not divinity.

Whatever. Let’s not miss the importance of this blasphemy charge. Caiaphas and the assembly clearly heard something in Jesus’ answer in v. 62 that was blasphemous. They believed Jesus was claiming something for himself—a uniquely intimate relationship with God—that no human being ought to claim for himself. That may not be a direct claim that Jesus was God, but it was close enough for the council to convict Jesus of blasphemy.

Here’s a question: Why did the high priest and the council turn Jesus over to the Romans? I’ve heard it said that only the Romans could execute someone, but that’s not true: In Acts 7, the Sanhedrin kills Stephen without any trouble. Why didn’t they do the same with Jesus? Why was it important for Rome to execute him for sedition rather than have the Sanhedrin execute him for blasphemy?

Did they not want blood on their hands in case Jesus’ followers rose up against them?

I honestly don’t know the answer. Do you? I’m not saying there isn’t a good answer, I just don’t know what it is. So help me out if you can!

Yesterday’s video: the house of Caiaphas

March 26, 2012

Statue of Peter depicting his denial of Jesus.

We showed the following video yesterday in Vinebranch. It features photos and video from the site of the house of Caiaphas, where Jesus was taken after he was arrested. As the video shows, Jesus was likely lowered down into a dark dungeon prison for several hours before he was taken to the Romans on Good Friday. Last week’s video, from the Garden of Gethsemane, is here.

Why believe in the resurrection: a worthwhile sermon series topic?

March 23, 2012

An actual rolling stone for covering a tomb. It's wheel-shaped, and it fits in a groove in front of the tomb's entrance. At the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem.

So I was driving by the First Baptist church that resides next door to our First United Methodist church a couple of days ago, and I saw a banner for their upcoming Easter sermon entitled “Evidence of the Resurrection.” It caught my eye, and I thought, “I want to go to that!” Unfortunately, I have to work that Sunday morning.

I kid.

But… I really would like to hear that sermon. And I wonder if other people would like to hear that sermon, too. It isn’t fair, in my opinion, that we, the church, don’t often talk about evidence for the central historical claim of our faith—that we don’t give people reasons to believe. If we don’t, who will?

I understand that reasons by themselves can’t convert someone or sustain someone who’s already converted. But isn’t Christian faith regularly under attack in our pop culture? Doesn’t every Easter season feature, for example, a provocative new cover story in Newsweek calling into question Christ’s resurrection? Isn’t there always someone claiming that this or that scientific or archaeological discovery makes the Christian faith obsolete?

Doesn’t it feel like we believers are outnumbered sometimes?

Don’t misunderstand. We’re most assuredly not outnumbered. We have the answers to defend our faith. But are we equipped to do so? Shouldn’t we be?

Unlike our Baptist friends next door, I don’t think I could do it in one sermon. It feels like a two-parter to me. And I wouldn’t do it on Easter Sunday. On Easter, I’d rather talk about the meaning of the resurrection, not the reasons for believing it. But maybe immediately following that?

Seriously, what do you think? I’ve devised this handy poll to facilitate your response. Don’t make fun of me. It’s my first time making a poll.

Sermon for 03-18-12: “God’s Passion, Part 1: In the Garden”

March 22, 2012

This sermon is the first of a three-part series on the last hours of Jesus’ life before the cross. We begin our series in the Garden of Gethsemane in Mark 14:32-52. This sermon examines the difficulty of praying Jesus’ prayer, “Not what I want, but what you want,” both for Jesus and for us.

Sermon Text: Mark 14:32-52

The following is my original manuscript.

I grew up thinking of my dad as someone who was always tough, always strong. In fact, when I was kid I remember thinking that Dad’s arms were as thick as tree trunks. He was like Popeye without the anchor tattoos on his forearms. He was in the Air Force, anyway, not the Navy. Even today, I look at myself in the mirror and think [flex muscles], “Nope. I don’t look nearly as strong as he did.” If I were ever taunted on the playground about whose dad was tougher and “my dad could beat your dad up”… Well, I knew the answer. I knew that my dad could beat anyone else’s dad up. No contest.

This is in part why it was shocking to my 10-year-old mind when my dad’s mother, “Granny,” died. Because I saw Dad cry for the first time. That was so weird to me. I mean, I cried all the time back then. But Dad never cried. At least until then. Read the rest of this entry »

“Mine to avenge”

March 20, 2012

This hasn’t been a good week for my favorite contemporary radio show, This American Life. On Sunday, they ran an episode-length retraction of a recent story about Foxconn, Apple Computer’s Chinese manufacturing partner.

Good for them, I say, and no hard feelings here: Ira Glass and Co. still rule the airwaves when it comes to exploiting radio’s unique strengths to tell a good story. One story from last week’s episode, “Slow to React,” (re-broadcast from 2011) was one of the best I’ve heard in a long time.

The story, “When I Grow Up,” is a journalist’s unflinching, first-person account of a murder he planned to commit. The journalist, David Holthouse, begins: “This time last year I was plotting to kill a man. This time last year I had a gun and a silencer and a plan.” The prospective murder victim, it turns out, raped Holthouse 25 years earlier, when Holthouse was seven and the rapist was 15. (“Molester,” Holthouse believes, is too gentle a term for what this person did.) His parents were good friends and neighbors of the teenager’s parents.

Holthouse never told anyone about the rape—naturally, the rapist threatened to kill him if he did. So he grew up feeling both ashamed and guilty. Did his silence enable his rapist to claim more victims? Holthouse knew the research: he likely wasn’t the only one. Not by a long shot. Meanwhile, the man, Holthouse learned, was never arrested for other crimes. He was now a husband with children and stepchildren of his own.

Holthouse wanted to do something to right the wrong, but not at the expense of having other people find out what happened to him. He didn’t want to be perceived as “damaged goods”—someone who couldn’t be trusted around kids. (He had made a blood oath with himself, he said, to commit suicide if he ever felt the impulse to molest children.) And he didn’t want his parents to blame themselves.

For whatever reason, he decided that murder was his best option. He formulated a plan, and he believed he would get away with it. He was only saved from carrying it out when his mother found his childhood diary. She read an entry, a few years after the fact, in which he described the incident. Now the news was out. After being confronted by Holthouse’s parents, the man confessed that he had done what Holthouse described in his diary. Obviously, the statute of limitations had run out a long time ago.

Eventually, Holthouse arranged a meeting, in public, with the man, who begged forgiveness. He told him he had wanted to apologize for years; that the incident had weighed on his conscience; and that he hoped—best case—that Holthouse had somehow forgotten about it. He assured Holthouse, repeatedly, that he was the only victim.

Holthouse said, “All the experts say he was almost certainly lying. But then, all the experts also say that it was extremely unusual for him to admit his crime to me, let alone his wife and parents. And he did at least make an admission to his parents. I checked.” Listen to the story and decide for yourself—or, like me, remain undecided.

Regardless, the story bears witness to the power of forgiveness—or as close to forgiveness as someone in Holthouse’s position should be expected to come. What’s clear is that this meeting between abuser and victim enabled the victim to let go of the hatred that had enslaved him for 25 years.

Holthouse explains that while he didn’t grow up in a religious home (is he religious now?), he thought of Paul’s words from Romans 12:19 (which Holthouse quotes from the NIV): “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.'”

I can’t think of a more appropriate scripture. Can you?

I’ve talked a lot recently on this blog and in sermons about God’s wrath, as well as our modern squeamishness toward the concept. But isn’t it clear in this case that God’s wrath is a good thing? That the kind of forgiveness that someone like Holthouse can extend to his rapist is underwritten by God’s wrath? That only God can ensure that justice is fully and finally done?

I don’t want this kind of sin to go unpunished. Do you? And, of course, I’m well aware that I have my own sins to worry about. All I can say is, “Thank you, Jesus, for forgiving me.” But the forgiveness that comes through the cross isn’t a matter of getting off scot-free. All of us, even those of us who are Christians, will will one day own up to each and every sin. This is the meaning of Final Judgment. Even though it won’t mean hell, I can’t imagine that it won’t be painful.

What do you think?