Overwhelmed by Reality

Mark 9:1-9 (NRSV)

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

If we’re going to understand this story called the “transfiguration,” we first have to acknowledge that we do not see reality in full.

We like to trust our eyes, but you don’t have to be a religious person at all to understand there is more to the universe than meets the eye. Just ask any amateur astronomer. Many of our best discoveries have come because we built instruments capable of seeing wavelengths beyond the visible light our eyes can process.

We also see differently from other animals in creation. For example, biologists say birds and bees can see ultraviolet light, while we cannot.

Our inability to see in full is a common theme of the Bible, too. For example, in 2 Kings, chapter 6, the prophet Elisha appeared to be surrounded by an enemy king trying to capture him. His servant, alarmed, pointed out the approaching enemy.

Elisha prayed his servant’s eyes be opened, and voilà, the servant suddenly could see God’s horses and chariots of fire ringing the mountains around them. The enemy king’s soldiers proved to be no problem for them.

From birth, sin obscures our ability to see reality in full. Paul, writing in 2 Corinthians 4, said Satan, acting as ruler of this world, “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

Even for believers, a full grasp of reality is difficult. In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul also wrote: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

As believers, however, we also are being drawn into deeper understandings of reality. In our transfiguration story from Mark, we are invited into a moment where the veil is briefly lifted and three broken human beings who also happen to be disciples are allowed to see Jesus Christ in full.

Not that they know how to process what they’re seeing. Jesus’ clothes are whiter than white, whiter than anything in those Tide commercials that ran during the Super Bowl. Peter, not knowing what to do, starts talking, seeming to babble through the greatest vision he has ever witnessed.

Funny thing is, Peter is partially grasping the situation. His desire to build what sounds like a camp is rooted in the Jewish belief of the day, the idea that when God comes to dwell with his people, they return to a nomadic existence, God’s presence being all they really need for survival.

Peter’s response was essentially right; you’ll note there were no stinging words from Jesus to put Peter in his place. It simply was too early to sit down and dwell in God’s glory. There was work to be done. There is work to be done.

Let me teach you a word you may not have heard before. Peter believed he was experiencing the parousia, the full and complete presence of God among us, what we sometimes call the Second Coming of Christ. In the parousia, everything will be as it was meant to be. God’s reality and glory will no longer be filtered and dimmed for us.

There were and are steps to get there, though. This is why Jesus told his three key disciples to say nothing about what they had seen until after the resurrection. Jesus had not even gone to the cross yet, and certainly his death was necessary to pay for our sins.

Christ’s resurrection would serve as proof the cross had worked, that death is defeated. That first Easter morning brought us a step closer to glorious parousia—we are but one step away now, even though it has seemed like a very long step to take.

Just before the transfiguration, Jesus had been laying out all the steps. He warned the disciples he must die and rise from the dead, a concept they could not grasp at the time. They wanted the glorious presence without the necessary work of salvation Jesus was willing to undertake. They had forgotten the price of sin.

He also mentioned his followers would have to take up their own crosses as they came to believe in the work he would do on the cross. Some of his disciples, Peter included, would do so literally, crucified as leaders of the early church. According to church tradition, Peter asked to be crucified upside down, saying he was unworthy to die in exactly the same manner as his Lord and Savior.

As Jesus’ followers, we are all called to follow our own particular Via Dolorosa, the sometimes difficult, painful path that joins us to Christ. Some of you already know what it means to surrender certain aspects of your life to the greater glory of God, seeking the growth of the kingdom in the hearts of people around you.

As you have these cross-bearing experiences, never forget that we move toward a glorious presence we cannot even begin to understand in full. I say this from time to time, and it’s worth saying again: Imagine the greatest experience your mind can concoct, and then understand your imagination has fallen far, far short of what you, as a follower of Christ, will actually enjoy when fully in the presence of God.

Years after the transfiguration experience, Peter wrote about it in a letter, what we now call 2 Peter. He focused not on what he saw, but what he heard, the voice from heaven declaring once again that Jesus is the Son of God, the same declaration we imitate as we tell others about living a life in Christ.

“So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed,” Peter wrote. “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

Amen; may we work with our hearts attuned to God’s glory.

Tough Words

Luke 9:51-62

Tolerance is a catchword these days. Lord knows, we need tolerance. It is not all we need, but it is a good place to start.

Regarding the first part of today’s verses, Scottish theologian William Barclay asserts, “There is no passage in which Jesus so directly teaches the duty of tolerance as this.”

While passing through Samaria, the disciples wanted permission to deliver some tough words. The Samaritans in a particular village had refused to show Jesus and his followers any hospitality—not surprising when you consider how the two groups had been at odds for centuries. In short, the Jews considered the Samaritans half-breeds, the descendants of Jews who had mixed with invaders. Usually Jews avoided Samaria entirely. I suppose the Samaritans saw the Jews as a little uppity.

Feeling disrespected, James and John wanted Jesus to empower them to imitate Elijah, calling down fire from heaven, this time on a village of people rather than an altar. (They also likely had God’s ancient air strike on sinful Sodom and Gomorrah in mind.) We’re told Jesus rebuked the disciples, a “Let it go, already” coming directly from God’s Son.

His tolerant attitude was rooted in the somber task ahead of him. We are told Jesus had “set his face” toward Jerusalem. The point is so important it is repeated. This is Luke artfully saying Jesus was now certain his ministry was taking him toward torture and death on a cross. There was no other way out of sin and death for humanity.

Jesus was about to do a new thing. It would bring life, not death, for everyone, redemption free for the taking. And on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus would not have his redemptive ministry punctuated by a violent act.

The tolerance Jesus demonstrated marks the starting point for how we deal with others, particularly when others have opinions radically different from our own. Tolerance is the basis of civilization. We cannot have a truly modern society until people say, “We may disagree, but we’re not going to destroy each other.”

It is obvious people are struggling with this idea in many places now. Radical Islam is the most extreme example, built on the idea, “Disagree with me and die.” I’m reminded of ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s terrorist puppet: “Silence! I kill you!” The psychology of Dunham’s routine is pretty obvious: We’re nervously laughing at the very behavior that could destroy modern culture, hoping if we ridicule it, no one will want to behave that way.

Jesus was teaching the same lesson we learn in Luminary’s church-based karate class: If you can walk away, walk away. Words and ideas should not lead to violence. Jesus’ tolerance of the rude Samaritans and of sinners in general was a big shift in theology, an expanded understanding of God’s will.

Tolerance is something anyone in the world can learn. And for Christians, there’s an additional twist, some extra behaviors we must incorporate. In case you haven’t picked up on it in Scripture, we’re supposed to be helping grow the kingdom. Ephesians 1:22 tells us the church is now Christ’s body, “the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

To make the world a different place, we have to be a different people. This is where some tension arises in our lives as Christians. It’s easy to say, “Let’s all be tolerant,” sing “Kumbaya” and head for the house. Today’s text takes us further, though.

We’re told that as Jesus continued along the road, some would-be followers approached him. Finally, Jesus offered tough words, just not the kind the disciples had first sought permission to use.

His responses had a basic theme. Following Christ is going to be difficult. It may cost you home and family, assuming home and family prove to be in conflict with God’s kingdom. And there is truth to be told, the kind of truth people are not always ready to hear. Proclamations are calls to change! Again, people may kill you when they don’t like your ideas. The Jewish leaders killed Jesus because he was an ideological and political threat.

Regardless of the dangers, we are called to be holy examples in an unholy world, drawing people toward what is godly. Understanding God’s will requires much study and prayer. If you believe the Bible, then you from the earliest chapters have to believe our minds and bodies are too broken to fully grasp God’s will on our own. What feels right may be very wrong, simply because our minds and souls are a little fractured.We need guidance, from God’s written word and God’s Holy Spirit.

Intertwining tolerance and holiness can seem strange at first. Our instincts tell us they do not go together, but Christ made it clear they do. Using them together, we help the kingdom grow.

The featured image is the Monument of Tolerance in Jerusalem. Photo by Avishai Teicher, 2009, used with permission via Wikimedia Commons.

The James Series: Be Healed

James 5:13-20

All these lessons from James in the past weeks about how to live—even how to think—come together in a special way at the end of his letter. It is easy to stereotype a giver of solemn advice like James as dour, but we see here he is a man full of hope, one who trusts fully in the healing power of a committed relationship with God.

Are any among you suffering? Well of course some of you are. In any group, there are always some who suffer, for so many different reasons.

James begins with simple advice: Pray. Keep doing what you have been doing as a follower of Christ. Stay immersed in the connection you already have.

There is a flip side to suffering, though, and James never wants us to forget this. There are good times, too, those times when all is well, when joy prevails, when all seems right with the world. We find such times in moments involving babies and brides and other big, happy events; we find them in the simplest of moments, too, for example, sipping a cup of coffee in the quiet of the early morning on a back porch.

And in the cheerful times, his advice is pretty much the same: Pray. He specifically says “sing songs of praise,” but such a sound is nothing but a prayer from the joyful, lifted up in the manner easiest for cheery souls.

With this encouragement to constant prayer in mind, James asks, “Are any among you sick?” Suffering and sickness go hand in hand, don’t they? And he’s not specific about what he means by “sick.” In modern times, we know we can suffer from all sorts of sickness.

There is physical illness, of course. We can be mentally or emotionally ill, too; as spiritual people, we also know we can be spiritually ill. Our relationships can be quite sick, too. And of course, these can all overlap or intertwine—for example, mental or spiritual problems can lead to physical problems or relational problems.

I don’t know if James had all of these illnesses exactly in mind, but I know Christian communities have seen healing in all of these areas, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t pursue such healing, too.

Our starting point is always spiritual healing. It is always available, always guaranteed as we open ourselves to God through faith in Christ’s work. When we seek miracles—direct intervention by God in situations that seem otherwise hopeless—we have to first let God heal our relationships with him through our belief in Christ’s work on the cross.

Spiritual healing also is the greatest healing. It is permanent. It grants us eternity. All other forms of healing simply are signs that God is breaking into this sinful world and making his presence known.

Those other forms of healing are wonderful to receive, however. And as a church, we do see such healing occur. Bodies are restored, minds find peace and calm, and emotions become manageable. Even relationships are healed when people at odds for one reason or another mutually submit to God’s presence.


It is hard to capture in words what happened during our service of healing Sunday. Oddly enough, the crowd was smaller than average, but we spent an unusual amount of time at the prayer rail, asking for God’s intervention in all the kinds of brokenness mentioned above. May God continue to work in all of these situations daily, and may we all have the strength to tell others of the healing we see.

The James Series: Single Minded

James 3:13-4:8

The image of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, each whispering what to do, is a trope you see repeatedly in cartoons, advertising and comedy. It also is an external picture of a very real internal battle we each face every day.

James calls us to take this battle very seriously, moving toward a place where the devil finally flees. So, how do we move toward that place of peace, the life where the Holy Spirit whispers wisdom to our spirits and is heard without interference?

The first step will be obvious to many in the room, but it bears repeating because inevitably, at least a few people here will be struggling with that step. James is describing this battle between good and evil from a Christian perspective, declaring Christ as Lord and Savior and emphasizing that God works among us now.

It is a truth we all have accepted or are called to accept. The day we accept it, we say we believe there is something going on more real than what we see in this world, and we commit ourselves to being a part of that greater thing. Specifically, we commit ourselves to participating in the great mystery of what God is doing in this broken, sin-stained world through Christ’s sacrifice.

This idea goes right along with our broad church vision, that we will one day see the world conformed to Jesus Christ. The will of God will be fully expressed in creation, with every part of creation behaving in every situation as God would have it behave.

It is a big idea to absorb. The world is in front of us, immediately affecting us at all times. To accept the work of Christ is to say we’re going to ignore what is obvious and choose to pursue what we cannot immediately see.

Once we’ve made that leap of faith—once we’ve chosen to call ourselves Christian and really own the vision—the battle between God’s goodness and the evil within us is on. That most immediate expression of God, the Holy Spirit, begins to work inside of us, contending with the world for our very souls.

God is going to win, of course, so long as we allow God to win. God’s desire for us to be free beings is the only impediment to swift victory; he lets us choose to keep him out, but will rush in wherever we let him. The more we let God work, the more complete the victory within us becomes.

And in all of this, we actually begin to experience this other world Christ represents, this greater reality that before was so hard to see.

James lays out a simple plan so we can better allow God to go to work in us. He says:

  1. Submit to God. That’s fairly simple to understand. Know who you are relative to God. Know that God knows better. A lot of people find this hard to actually do, however. Their pride is so intense that they cannot imagine submitting to anything.
  2. Resist the Devil. Don’t panic; you don’t have to do this alone. You could never win on your own, anyway. But God calls you to participate in the fight against evil, knowing God is with you throughout, strengthening you for the task. Along these lines, James tells us to draw near to God and he will draw near to you. I’m reminded of the story of the prodigal son, of how the father rushes toward his battered boy when he sees him at a distance, the boy returning home along the road.
  3. Cleanse your hands, sinners. I see this as a call to put right the wrong we have done, at least as much as humanly possible. Again, we have to trust God to make the ultimate, great fixes to the universe, but he wants us to involve ourselves in the process.
  4. Purify your hearts, you double-minded. It’s a restatement of what we’ve been talking about throughout this sermon. Stop letting this world pull you away from Christ. Stop reserving places in your emotions or your intellect for ideas or impulses that are not of God.

As God is more and more present in every aspect of our lives—as we become single-minded—the devil will flee. What is unholy cannot stand a strong dose of what is aligned with God.

Next week, we’ll draw on the elements in this exhortation as we hold a service of healing, believing we can see God’s dawning kingdom as undeniably present among us.

The James Series: Surprisingly Equal

James 2:1-17

I’ll begin by using the end of this text to remind us of last week’s major point. James talks a lot about works, but grace precedes works. We are saved by our faith in the work of the cross, not by any work we do. Works are a sign of our faith.

Earlier in our text, James is discouraging partiality, the showing of favoritism based on who is wealthy and who is not. More positively, we might say he is encouraging equality.

We don’t know exactly why James felt the need to offer this warning, but it seems obvious his audience or audiences were struggling with the idea that poor people were as worthy of a place in the congregation as rich people. It is not surprising early Christians would have struggled with notions of equality. Rigid class distinctions were the norm; the idea that God or any god could care equally for rich and poor was radical.

And James went even further, speaking of the poor as if God actually has a preference for them. “Has not God chosen the the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him,” he asked rhetorically.

In other words, the poor have something special to offer us, a closer connection to God, one rooted, we can presume, in their deep day-to-day dependence on God. Jesus spent a lot of time talking about the tremendous value of people the world treats as worthless.

When I think of the value of the poor, the gems hidden among them, I think of one encounter I had as a young journalist in Atlanta. Sadly, it was not a Christian encounter, an opportunity for witness; I simply was too immature spiritually for the events to have gone there.

It happened while I volunteered with a program for student journalists who produced an independent paper for distribution among high schoolers. I was assigned to mentor 16-year-old Lamesha, who lived with her two-year-old daughter and mother in public housing.

I was paired with Lamesha primarily because I had a child about the same age, and could use the car seat already installed in my Plymouth Acclaim to transport the two to the program’s newsroom or training events.

Lamesha, despite all her difficult circumstances, proved to be an incredibly gifted writer. I still remember vividly one first-person piece she wrote about a drive-by shooting that happened in front of her apartment when she was younger, a shooting that left a boy dead on the sidewalk. She captured the facts, emotions and impact on her world with skills far beyond her age and training. I had high hopes for her, imagining her in college and on into the world of great writers.

And then I went to pick her up one day, and she was gone. I knocked on the door, and there was no answer; I peered through the window, and the apartment looked vacant. I finally found a neighbor who was home.

“They just packed up and moved last night,” she said. She didn’t know why. She didn’t know where. I still don’t know what happened. I pray the skills God had put in Lamesha continued to develop somewhere. I fear the instability of her life squashed them.

That is just a story about what poverty costs society in general. In Christian community, James is telling us, we also lose much when we fail to recognize the value of the faithful poor among us. They are God’s new chosen people. And while we want to help them lift themselves out of poverty, there is much to learn from the faithful Christian poor.

For example, the faithful poor know what it means to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” in a sincere way. It is hard to pray it and mean it when your primary concern is to replace the slightly molded bread with a new loaf on the way home from work.

As they talk about their daily dependence on God, the Christian poor also serve as a corrective for those of us who begin to think our wealth, power or perceived security is a result of our own doing. The only other true corrective I know for that problem is when illness suddenly enters our lives.

Every person has value in a community of faith. Every person. I would like to think the church will learn this lesson so well one day that the Lameshas of the world will no longer be at risk of falling through the cracks.

The James Series: Just Do It

James 1:17-27

We are launching into a five-week sermon series on the book of James. I have done versions of this series twice before at other churches. Even on the third try, I go into this effort with just a little fear.

Here’s the basic problem: We’re going to spend a lot of time hearing from James about how to behave. The danger is that you will process all of this as a lesson in what you have to do to get into heaven.

Please do not hear this series that way. In fact, this first sermon mostly is about how not to hear the other sermons.

We are saved by grace and grace alone. In other words, when Jesus Christ went to the cross and died for our sins, he gave us a gift, the gift of eternity. All we have to do to gain eternity is believe and accept the gift.

When we begin talking about Christian behavior, we’re always talking about it as a proper response to grace. God acts first, loving us and saving us, and we respond joyously and thankfully. That response often is delivered in the form of righteous living and good works.

The author of James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. He also likely was the brother of Jesus, coming to a belief in Jesus as the Christ after the resurrection. His one letter that made it into the Christian canon has long been controversial; some church leaders—the 16th century Protestant reformer Martin Luther, for example—wondered if it should be in the Bible at all, concerned that its emphasis on works caused too much confusion in a grace-based religion.

I personally don’t find James’ words as confusing as Luther found them. I find them challenging, but they don’t trouble me. We simply have to keep events in their proper order.

Consider this:

The vine precedes the grapes. In John 15:5, Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Our faith in Christ makes us his branches, but there is no point to being his branches in this metaphor unless we bear fruit, the good works that demonstrate the presence of the kingdom.

Doesn’t a new life in Christ imply new ways of acting? James is telling us that if our new life in Christ doesn’t result in new ways of thinking and relating to others, then we may be mistaken about our relationship with Christ. This seems to go along with Jesus’ words about the judgment in Matthew 25:31-46. Yes, we are saved because of our belief in Christ’s work on the cross to defeat sin, but our behaviors seem to be a prime indicator of how strongly we hold that belief.

For years, Nike has used the trademarked phrase, “Just Do It.” To me, it references that need for athletes to reach down inside themselves and find the willpower to make themselves what they want to be.

The Christian twist on the phrase would be that God reached down in us and put something new there when we accepted Jesus as Savior. The good works we do actually are part of the gift of salvation. If we trust that truth—if we let God work in us—the change can be astonishing.

The next few weeks will be about seeing what change is possible, trusting that even miraculous healing of the body and soul can occur.

Action!: Wholeness for All, Now

James 5:7-20

As I was preparing for this Sunday, I had flood-damaged Buffalo Mountain Camp, and how Cassidy UMC can raise money to help, in mind. So, as you can see, I made a little camp scene in the sanctuary to remind us of the situation.

I ran into one problem, however. When I went to set up the tent, I discovered that the tent poles were not in the tent bag. A tent without poles is pretty useless. It is basically a puddle of polyester.

Often, we think of tension as a bad thing. Tension can be a good thing, however. Like a tent, our lives can be shaped by certain kinds of tension. The tension may even be what makes our lives livable.

During our series on James, we’ve been learning a lot about having faith in Jesus Christ, and then acting accordingly, trusting God’s power to help us. I’ve talked about the need to have a faith that shows fruit in terms of Spirit-driven works. I’ve also preached on the importance of how we speak to one another, and our need to keep our heads as much as possible in the present, that place where we can engage directly with God. Melissa brought us a wonderful personal testimony last Sunday, talking about how we find joy in the midst of turmoil.

In all of those ideas, there is tension, mostly the tension between what is broken and what is holy. At the end of his letter, James reminds us of the tension that exists in the universe right now, a tension Jesus Christ created by dying on the cross and then showing through the resurrection that sin and death have been beaten.

In other words, the world broken by sin is still broken, but healing has begun, and healing will come in full. “Strengthen your hearts,” James tells us, “for the coming of the Lord is near.”

A quick Greek lesson: the word we translate as “the coming” is parousia, and it’s one of those meaning-packed words that can be a little hard to translate in full. It’s about more than just arrival; it implies a full, complete presence that changes everything.

In the context of Christ’s return, we know it means all things will be set right. What troubles you will be undone in a way that it will never trouble you again. I don’t care what it is—the death of a loved one, abuse you may have experienced, or tragedy  that has scarred your life—the pain will go away. It is a moment that begins eternity, and it is a moment we all should crave, assuming we understand it as Christians should.

While not a Christian movie, the current film “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” has a character who lives by a philosophy that any Christian who understands parousia could embrace. “Everything will be all right in the end. So if it’s not all right, it’s not the end,” he says.

Implicit is a desire to move beyond where you are toward the end, which is the best place to be. Or maybe I should quote Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

James was speaking to an early Christian audience that was for the most part oppressed. Accepting Christ impacted their ability to find work, to worship as the Jews most of them continued to be, and to remain in relationship with their families. Sometimes, their beliefs cost them their lives. These people clearly craved Christ’s return—they wanted things to be all right, quickly.

Being separated from the earth-trodding Christ and his resurrection by nearly 2,000 years, we sometimes fail to have the early church’s sense that Christ could return at any moment, despite our theological need to hold on to the concept. (Just because Christ’s return hasn’t happened doesn’t change the fact that Christ could return at any time.) So we miss the tension of having to practice patience while at the same time living as if Christ truly is “standing at the doors.”

In the 13th verse, James takes this concept of parousia and turns it into practical advice about living. In many ways, he returns to some themes we covered when talking about living in the present a couple of weeks ago. If you’re suffering, pray—prayer is how we engage directly with God.

If you’re cheerful, sing songs of praise. Again, engage with God in the present moment, acknowledging that while Christ is coming in full at any moment, God also is present with us now via the Holy Spirit. And if you’re sick—well, that’s where we receive some particularly detailed advice.

Here, James’ advice is rooted in the communal nature of our faith. He tells us to seek healing in ways that require a group of Christians. We seek prayers from mature Christians around us; we receive anointing with oil as a symbol of the Holy Spirit’s presence, a presence that binds us all to the body of Christ.

And perhaps most interestingly (and strangely to Western culture) he ties confession of sin to healing, making a link between our spiritual health and our physical health. Churches with active small groups, where people can be intimate with each other and share details of their lives in confidence, generally function better than churches without such small groups for a reason. A biblical cycle of confession, repentance and forgiveness cleanses the communal body and clears a path for God’s grace to grow church members in holiness.

In this context, James closes with one last type of action we should consider. We not only receive healing, we pursue people in need of healing, particularly if they have been part of the body of Christ but have fallen into sin. This recommendation is along the lines of Christ’s Great Commission. We are more than passive recipients of grace. We carry grace to others, too.

Yes, Christ has yet to return, but we are to live as if he has, reminding others that wholeness is available now. James offers Christians a way of thinking that is both comforting and empowering.