Monday, March 28, 2016

Christ the First Fruits

I can’t be the only one to detect a hint of friendly rivalry in this morning’s Gospel reading.  The whole thing begins with a desperate footrace between Peter and another disciple—the “disciple whom Jesus loved” we are told—the one usually identified as John, the author of the gospel. Here is where the rivalry becomes apparent for he includes the detail, “but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first!” Just in case you were wondering who was faster! It seems a little unfair for John to rib Peter so, after all John was certainly the much younger of the two! Maybe I am reading into the text, but it always makes me chuckle.

Perhaps there is a more spiritual meaning in this race, however. The great Scottish preacher, Samuel Rutherford, ruminating on this text once said, 

“Among the children of God all of them have not a like speed. Some of them get a sight of Christ before others. But whoever they be that have the life of God in them, and so are running on towards Him, they shall, either first or last, meet with Him without doubt.”

Maybe it was the love of Christ that put the extra wind at John’s back and maybe it was the sense of guilt for his own denial of Christ that weighed Peter down.
Neither of them as yet understood the scriptures that Jesus must rise from the dead, but mark the different temperaments of the two disciples. Some believers have a simple faith. They believe and receive the gospel with joy without needing to understand or to ask, “Why?” Others are more cautious and hesitant. They are the more critical and analytical sort. They need to investigate and understand the implications of a thing before they allow themselves to accept it.

 John may have reached the tomb first, but he stopped there, dumbfounded at the door. Peter, with his characteristic boldness, charged ahead needing to understand.  He puzzles over the details of the scene, how the head covering is folded in a place apart. It is easy to imagine the questions swirling in Peter’s brain. Could it be that Jesus actually rose? What would that even mean?  John, however, sees and believes.  

Which type are you? For my own part, I’m a Peter. I need to understand why. Which is why I am thankful for Saint Paul, who in our Epistle reading does more than just announce that Jesus is risen; he takes us into the theology of the thing. He addresses some of the questions that Jesus’ resurrection raises. As modern westerners, you probably have questions about how the resurrection can be justified scientifically, but Paul’s questions are different. As a rabbi he already believes in the resurrection of the dead, but this is highly irregular. The resurrection is supposed to be something that happens to all the righteous at the end of the world, but here one man, the messiah, has been raised right in the middle of history. No one expected that. How can we make sense of this according to God’s law, the Holy Scriptures?

If you were here on Thursday night for our Maundy Thursday service, you will remember just a few days before these events Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples. At that meal he identified himself with the Passover sacrifice and made the startling claim that he was the lamb whose blood would save the people from their sins. That first Easter Sunday was the first Sunday after the Passover which according to Jewish custom is kept as the Feast of the First Fruits. God’s law required that the first fruits of every harvest be offered to him, whether plant or animal. On the Feast of the First Fruits the offering would be brought to the temple where the priest would present it before the altar with a burnt offering producing a pleasing aroma to be accepted by the Lord. This was called the wave offering. So what does any of this have to do with Jesus’ resurrection?

Saint Paul calls Jesus, “the first fruits of those who have died.” He is the wave offering of the great harvest of souls in the resurrection of the dead, the first glimpse of the new creation, of the long promised redemption of the world.

 He is like that lonely crocus that pokes its head up from the ground in the middle of March in the midst of snow flurries or like that robin that suddenly appears in your back yard.  They are a promise that spring is coming! It will soon be here! Likewise Jesus burst fourth from his tomb in the midst of our dying world oppressed by the long winter of sin. His resurrection is a promise of a new creation.

Elsewhere Jesus is called the “firstborn from the dead.” He is the first among many brothers and sisters. Where he goes we will follow.  There is a sequence of events as Paul describes, Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to him, and then the final consummation where all creation will be made new. This was the testimony of Holy Scripture that Peter and John did not yet understand.

Later that morning, when our risen Lord first appeared to Mary, in her grief, she did not yet recognize him, but thought he was the gardener. She was of course mistaken, but in another sense Jesus really is a gardener. He is a gardener in the sense that Adam was a gardener when he was made a steward of God’s creation in the Garden of Eden.  Jesus is the steward of a new and better creation. He is a new Adam, a fresh start for the human race.  Paul writes, “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”

Brothers and sisters, let us have the same thirst to know and understand these things that Peter had. Let us not be hindered by the weight of our guilt but go with him into the empty tomb to see for ourselves the new creation. But than like John, let us see and believe, and like Mary go and tell the world, “I have seen the Lord! He is Risen!”

Friday, March 25, 2016

He Was Wounded for Our Transgressions

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

John 18:1-19:42


It was a day of great sorrow, of heartbreak, and confusion.  At about three o’clock in the afternoon, the scourged and bleeding body of our Lord hung in agony upon a Roman cross to which he was cruelly nailed. On top of his, in mock honor, was crown of thorns. The blood from his scalp flowed down his face and marred his visage. He, the only true innocent, hung between thieves and murders and the crowds called out insults.
It is a scene that pierces our hearts, not least because we love him and name him our savior and king. Who was responsible for this horrific act? Why was a man full of such love and compassion, a man of such evident virtue, treated so shamefully? Why did he have to die?

Jesus was hailed by the prophet John the Baptist as, “the lamb who takes away the sins of the world.” Jesus also spoke of his own death as a kind of paschal sacrifice and himself in terms of the lamb whose blood turned back the wrath of God on the day of Passover. Indeed, the Church, especially here in the west, has often spoken of Jesus’ death as being for the forgiveness of sins. We have spoken of Jesus’ death as a kind of substitute—much like the lamb—offered in our place. Jesus—it is said—suffered the death that was the penalty for our sinful rebellion against the Father. Scripture itself seems to suggest as much. For instance in the words of the prophet Isaiah, 

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.

We might also look at the words of Saint Paul in his letter to the Galatians,

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us”

But if Christ is a sacrificial offering for the forgiveness of sin, to whom is such a gruesome payment being made? To God? To put the question bluntly, “Was it God who demanded this horror? Did God kill Jesus?”   This idea is troubling to many and is thought to be morally reprehensible to others. One vocal critic of Christianity has even called the cross, “divine child abuse.” How could any loving Father demand the horrible death of his son? Why couldn’t God just forgive us? Surely he is not some primitive pagan deity that can only be propitiated with blood sacrifice! 
Not all theologies attempting to explain the meaning of Jesus’ death—the  atonement as it is called—think about the cross in terms of punishment for the sins of the world or a legal transaction between God and Man.
The Medeval theologian Abelard wrote,

“How cruel and wicked is seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything, or that it should in any way please him that an innocent man should be slain—still less that God should consider the death of his Son so agreeable that by it he should be reconciled to the world!”

He speaks of Jesus death, not so much as appeasing God, but as a moral influence on sinners. Jesus’ death reveals to us the depth of human evil and our hearts are changed as we contemplate the depth of God’s love for us despite our rebellion. Still others have spoken of Jesus’ cross and resurrection as a conquering of death on our behalf or as rescuing us from the power of Satan. There are any of number of other ways we can describe the meaning of Jesus’ death as well.  All of these models of atonement reveal something of its truth. They are like different windows into a multifaceted reality. 
Nevertheless, I believe we must come to terms with what the scriptures say about how Jesus bares the punishment for our sins on the cross as our substitute or representative. The doctrine, however, has been badly misunderstood, and is often presented in a very problematic manner.
 Sometimes Jesus is made to look like a third party that comes between us and a wrathful God, like an older brother who takes the beating his naughty little brothers deserved.  This makes the father look monstrous, besides it is hardly just for God to punish the innocent for the sake of the guilty. More fundamentally it ignores the fact that Jesus and the Father are one God. Jesus is as fully God as the Father is. He is as much the offended party as he is the one who suffers the consequences. It is God himself who suffers for us on the cross.

Let me offer an analogy that may be helpful. Here at Christ Church we cherish our beautiful sanctuary, but imagine if it was defaced by vandals. Our windows broken, statues shattered, and paintings spray painted over. Wouldn’t we be justly outraged?

Now imagine those same vandals brought to justice. Even if, by a supernatural act of grace, we were somehow able to offer forgiveness to these vandals for their disgraceful actions, someone would still need to pay to repair what was damaged would they not? Even if the cost was far beyond what the guilty party could ever afford, even if in our mercy we decided not to exact payment from them, the damage could simply not be allowed to remain. It would be an affront to the community, and offense to God’s glory, and we could never rest until it was fixed. In reality there is insurance for such things, but the point is the payment would fall on someone, if not the guilty, if not the insurance company, or some other benefactor, than on us the offended.

Now our sin, the human rebellion against our righteous creator and God, is an offense of an infinitely greater magnitude. It has resulted in a debt to the justice of God so great no creature could ever hope to pay it, and yet the damage cannot be ignored. The goodness and beauty of the world has been defaced by it, and God’s justice and his glory mocked. An offense against infinite goodness must surely have infinite consequences. If God were to fail to act against such travesty he would be neither good nor just, and yet he is as endlessly merciful as he is holy and just.

 Astonishingly God has offered forgiveness to such vile offenders. He has chosen to withhold his righteous judgment from us, and accept the payment for sin himself. He himself became a curse for us in the body of his humiliation and the holy judgment and wrath against sin was laid upon his own shoulders. The crucifixion is the revelation of God’s wounded heart of love towards us. In it God accepted the loss of his glory and honor and absorbed the tremendous consequence of our sin. Forgiveness is not easy. It is painful and costly. And yet through this act of mercy, grace, and love God restored what was ruined by our sin. He himself set right was we destroyed and vandalized. The horrible result of our rebellion was reversed through his resurrection. 
And so this day of sorrow, this day of horrors, can also be called “Good Friday.” On this day the goodness of God was vindicated and mercy was shown to sinners.

Christ Our Passover

In the spring of each year both Christians and Jews respectively celebrate the foundational events of both of their faiths. For Jews it is the Passover and Christians Easter. At Easter, as you know, we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ. On Passover, Jews remember the Exodus of their people out of slavery in Egypt.  The two festivals often fall close to one another, although it so happens this year that Easter is rather early and Passover rather late this year.  We will celebrate Easter this coming Sunday on March 27th  but Passover won’t begin until April 22nd. The proximity of the two festivals to one another is not coincidental. There is a historical and theological relation to one another. In fact in many places in the world Easter is called Pascha which is Greek for Passover.

On the night before the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ—the night we commemorate today on Maundy Thursday—he gathered with his disciples in the upper room to celebrate the Passover feast with them. As observant Jews this was their custom. 

The meal commemorates the meal that their ancestors ate in Egypt when God sent his destroying angel to strike down the first born of every house in the land. The Jews who kept this feast were passed over, they were spared the awful plague, and ultimately delivered from slavery. God commanded his people to keep this feast until the end of the age, and the scriptures give instruction for how it is to be observed. Let’s go over the basic liturgy as described in our reading from Exodus.

First, an unblemished male lamb a year old was to be chosen from the flock of each household. The lamb was to be male because it was to be a kind of substitute for the first born son, but also because the male lambs were considered of more value. This was to be a costly sacrifice. The people were to offer their best and most healthy, not the crippled or the lame. 

Second, the lamb was to be taken and sacrificed. At the time of the Exodus, any head of the household could offer the sacrifice on behalf of his family but later in the history of Israel this privilege was preserved for the house of Levi, the priests, after the majority of the other tribes lost their right when they worshiped the Golden Calf. In Jesus’ day, the lambs had to be sacrificed in the Temple and eaten in the city of Jerusalem and so the holy city was brimming with pilgrims during the feast. Not only were the lambs sacrificed, they were also erected on skewers of wood, you might even say they were crucified. Justin Maytr in his dialogue with the rabbi Trypho writes,

“The Lamb, which is roasted, is roasted and dressed up in the form of a cross. For one spit is transfixed right through from the lower parts up to the head, and one across the back, to which are attached the legs of the lamb.”

 The third step in the Passover liturgy was to spread the blood of the lamb. In the Exodus story the blood was spread on the door post. When the angel saw the blood on the door posts he would pass by the house and the people would be sparred through the blood of the lamb. In Jesus’ day the blood of the lambs would be poured out on the altar by the priests.

Finally, the fourth step in the Passover liturgy was to eat the lamb. This is the meal that families gather together to observe. The sacrifice was not completed at the slaughter of the lamb, but by a kind of communion by which the people shared in the sacrifice by feasting on its body. The Passover is meant to be more than just a remembrance, it is an actual participation in the events of the original exodus so that those who keep it can say not just that “our fathers were delivered”, but “we were delivered.” 

So was this what Jesus was doing with his disciples in the upper room? Yes and no. Jesus was not just celebrating the Passover, he was inaugurating a new exodus and proclaiming a new Passover sacrifice. There were similarities, but there were also differences. For instance there is no reference to a lamb in the gospel descriptions of their meal. There may have been one present, but the emphasis is shifted away from it. Instead when Jesus explains the meaning of the unleavened bread, as it was the hosts’ duty to do, he took it and said, “This is my body.” When he took the cup of wine he told them, “This is my blood.” In doing so, he was proclaiming himself to be the Passover lamb, the sacrifice that would deliver them from sin and lead them out of bondage.

The original Passover celebrated the exodus from Egypt lead by God’s anointed prophet Moses, but Moses foretold of another  greater prophet and deliverer yet to come, a messiah who would come at the end of the age to deliver God’s people. Because of this, the Passover became a night of vigil for the coming of the messiah and the salvation he would bring.

In the upper room Jesus was saying, “Now is the end of the age. I am he. The long promised messiah, and salvation will come through me. I will be offered as a sacrifice, lifted high on a cross like the Passover lambs, my blood poured out for the redemption of the world. In order to share in that redemption you must eat my flesh and drink my blood.”

Just as God commanded the people to keep the Passover as a perpetual remembrance of their deliverance from Egypt, so Jesus commands his people to celebrate the Eucharist with bread and whine as a remembrance of his death until he comes again. Just as the people of Israel shared in the exodus through the Passover meal, the Church shares is Jesus’ death through the Eucharistic feast. As Saint Paul writes, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”

Brothers and sisters, Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast! 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

What Does a King Look Like?

Luke 22:14-23:56

What does a king look like? One of the images of royalty most deeply embedded in the psyche of the western world is of the Roman Emperor, Caesar, wrapped in a fine scarlet robe, a royal scepter in his hand, and wearing a laurel crown upon his brow. 
 This is the likeness, impressed on a coin, Jesus would have been referring to when he said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”  The imagery actually goes back to ancient Greece and the Olympian god Apollo. The victors of the Olympic games were crowned with laurel in his honor. It is a sign of victory but also divinity.

At one time Rome was a republic, a system of checks and balances similar to our own meant to assure no one had absolute power, but Julius Caesar seized power through his military prowess and was honored like a god. It is frighteningly easy for a free people to hand their nation over into the hands of a narcissistic demagogue!

 Julius’ pretensions at divinity got him assassinated, but after a long and bloody struggle his adopted son Octavian took the throne. He proclaimed himself ‘Augustus’ which means ‘worthy of honor’ and ‘majestic.’ If Julius Caesar was divine, he proclaimed, he was ‘the son of god.’ This is the very loaded political significance such a title would have held in Jesus’ day.

Augustus Caesar also took the title of  Pontifex Maximus or “high priest”, firmly joining religion to his own royal authority. This was the good news, or the gospel, that Augustus Caesar, the son of god, was Lord and all the world would be united under him. All of the thousand year history of Rome had reached its climax in him and through his rule a new age of peace, prosperity, and righteousness was inaugurated.

Sound familiar? It should, because all of this grand royal symbolism is used by Christians too, not in connection with Caesar, but with a humble Jewish carpenter from Galilee named Jesus. Here is the one true son of God. All of the long history of Israel has reached its climax in him and through his gracious rule all things are made new. He is majestic and worthy of honor, the high priest of a new covenant between God and man. This is the gospel, that Jesus Christ is Lord! 

He doesn’t much look like a king though. He doesn’t ride into Jerusalem like a conquering hero, proud, imperious, on the back of some majestic white steed, but humbly and meekly riding on a donkey. His royalty and divinity is hidden behind the veil of his humiliation, but the eyes of faith recognize him and shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

When Jesus came riding into Jerusalem on a donkey there is no doubt that the crowd would have been reminded of the celebrated rebel Judas Maccabaeus who, 200 years before, was hailed in Jerusalem in a similar fashion after defeating Israel’s pagan oppressors and cleansing the temple. The crowds expected Jesus to be a great warrior like Maccabaeus who would drive out the pagan oppressors with violence.

Jesus would  turn upside down every expectation the people have not only of what a king looks like, but of what true power and victory look like.  The enemy that Jesus is coming to defeat is larger than even the mighty Roman Empire and the salvation he comes to bring is deeper and more universal than national liberation.  

Jesus is coming to rescue not only the nation of Israel, but all humanity from the power of sin and death and to reconcile them to God.  Mysteriously, the means of this victory will not be through the violent death of Israel’s enemies, but his own bloody crucifixion.

Today, our joyful Palm Sunday procession has turned from celebration to betrayal and horror. Once the crowd realizes that Jesus has no intention of being the king they want, their cries of “Hosanna” are changed to cries of “Crucify Him!” The crowd chooses the violent revolutionary Jesus Barabbas over Jesus Christ. When presented with their one true king they cry, “We have no king but Caesar!”

In the events of Holy Week we see represented for us the perennial tendency of the human heart—originating with our parents in the garden—to trade the truth of God for a lie, God’s way for our way, freedom for slavery, the gospel for law, and life for death. We reject God as our king and instead give ourselves over to the tyranny of idols who enslave and oppress us.
The good news is that our sinfulness and rejection of God’s Kingdom aren’t the only things represented in the events of Holy Week. We also see represented the radical and transforming, one-way-love of God in sending Jesus Christ to rescue us from sin and death.  As the scriptures teach us in Romans 5:8, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners Christ died for us.”

Even in the face of our rebellion God gives us his son Jesus Christ to be our king. The account of Jesus’ passion over and over again points us to the startling fact that God declared the very one who was rejected and crucified to be the king of glory! Jesus was wrapped in a scarlet robe, given a hollow reed as a royal scepter, and crowned not with laurel but with thorns. His persecutors mockingly bowed before him and paid him homage.
 In the ancient Roman ritual of coronation, Caesar was similarly garbed, acclaimed by his guard as Lord, and led through the streets to a high hill followed by a sacrificial bull. Jesus too was led through the streets to a high hill. He could not carry his own cross so it was given to Simon of Cyrene who carried it for him. Jesus followed behind in the place of the sacrifice.

Despite the protest of the religious leaders, even the sign nailed above him on the cross read “King of the Jews.” An early Christian commentator named Chromatius writes, “These things were done to mock Jesus. But now we know these things happened through a heavenly mystery.”  The events of Jesus’ passion are a kind of ironic coronation. Jesus is the king enthroned upon the cross! What looks like humiliation and defeat, to the eyes of faith, is glory and victory. Jesus shows us strength in weakness, power in gentleness, and that God’s love is stronger than all the world’s hate. This is what a true king looks like.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Poor Will Always Be With Us?

John 12:1-8

Philippians 3:4b-14

Can we eliminate poverty? More than fifty years ago President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty. It is certainly a noble cause, but how is it going? We live in one of the most prosperous nations in the world and yet poverty, hunger, and homelessness are still a reality for millions of Americans. The situation in poorer nations is of course far worse. Certainly we cannot remain indifferent and yet some people throw a wet blanket on the whole idea. Another former president of this country once declared, “We fought a war on poverty and poverty won.” This leads some to ask, “Is the war on poverty even a battle worth fighting? In the words of today's gospel, didn't Jesus say, you will always have the poor with you?”

The novelist Kurt Vonnegut—who described himself as a Christ-worshipping agnostic (the best kind of agnostic by the way)—was  once invited to speak at St. Clement's Episcopal Church in New York City. He chose as his subject this particular gospel story. The text of his sermon is published in his book of essays entitled “Palm Sunday.” In it he recounted his youth growing up in Indiana,

“Whenever anybody out that way began to worry a lot about the poor people when I was young, some eminently respectable Hoosier, possibly an uncle or an aunt, would say that Jesus Himself had given up on doing much about the poor. He or she would paraphrase John 12, verse 8: "The poor people are hopeless. We'll always be stuck with them." The general company was then free to say that the poor were hopeless because they were so lazy or dumb, that they drank too much and had too many children and kept coal in the bathtub, and so on. Somebody was likely to quote Kim Hubbard, the Hoosier humorist, who said that he knew a man who was so poor that he owned 22 dogs. And so on. If those Hoosiers were still alive, which they are not, I would tell them now that Jesus was only joking, and the He was not even thinking much about the poor.” (Read the rest of the sermon here)

What did Vonnegut mean by saying Jesus was only joking? It gets a bit lost in translation he said, but Jesus was actually ribbing Judas with a bit of sarcasm. Judas was putting on airs and acting self righteous when he said the expensive perfume that Mary poured on Jesus' feet should have been sold and the money given to the poor. After all, as John adds, Judas was all the while stealing from the Treasury. Jesus shot back with a sarcastic remark that is perhaps better translated,

"Judas, don't worry about it. There will still be plenty of poor people left long after I'm gone." Vonnegut, himself a gifted humorist, commends Jesus for his biting wit and says, “This is about what Mark Twain or Abraham Lincoln would have said under similar circumstances.”

So is that it? Was Jesus really just having a bit of fun at Judas' expense? There are a few points to be made that I hope will clarify what Jesus actually meant.

First, Jesus' comment about the poor always being with us needs to be read in conjunction with what he says next, “but you will not always have me.” Jesus is predicting his own betrayal and death, a fact of particular relevance to Judas! Mary is anointing him in preparation of his burial. He is making a comparison. God had put it in Mary's heart to perform this kindness for him now because this may be her last chance to thank him for all that he has done for her. It is a matter of urgency. It is similar to sending aid to a region recently ravaged by a flood. Does that mean that other valuable causes are unimportant? Of course not. This situation is immediate and grave, but we don't forget about the ongoing problem of poverty.

Second, Jesus is actually quoting scripture on the importance of giving to the poor. The words he quotes are from Deuteronomy 15:11, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” Far from being indifferent to the plight of the poor, God commands to give generously to alleviate their need. But is this just about charity? What about addressing the deeper systemic problem of economic injustice?

If you read the rest of Deuteronomy 15 you will find that God does indeed care about economic justice and commanded his people to take measures to eradicate the presence of poverty among them. God commanded that a percentage of the wealth of each house hold be given to provide for the foreigners, the fatherless, widows and other poor in their midst. He forbade the wicked practice of usury, or charging interest on loans. He also commanded that the end of every seven years all debts should be canceled.  In verse seven he directly contradicts the wet blanket attitude that says that poverty is inevitable social reality that we simply need to accept. He says, “there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the  Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.” So when God says, “there will always be poor in the land” it is actually an indictment on the people for failing to be faithful to his commandments. 

This leads me to the third point, Jesus' words are an indictment of Judas' hypocrisy. Kurt Vonnegut may have had a point about Jesus ribbing Judas. Whats he saying? Jesus is employing the common Jewish practice of alluding to a larger scripture by quoting a part of it. He is reminding Judas about Deuteronomy 15 and challenging him his own lack of generosity. Isn't it ironic how we can be full of zeal for compassion to the poor in the abstract, and yet be so ungenerous to those specific individuals in need that God has placed before us? God commands us to be open hearted and generous to those in need and this is exactly how Mary has acted to Jesus. She has gone above and beyond in following the call to generosity. The expensive jar of perfume probably represented all her savings, and yet she extravagantly pours it out on Jesus. This is an act of sacrificial love and gratitude. It mirrors the sacrifice that Jesus himself will make in pouring out his very life blood for our sake.

 In his miserliness, Judas can only see Mary's extravagant giving as waste. His reference to the poor is little more than posturing. He fails to recognize what our Epistle reading calls, “the surpassing value of Christ.”  The world will always disparage such sacrificial devotion to Christ as waste. They will tell us it is foolishness to ignore the pleasures and rewards of the present for the world to come. The world lives only for what can be seen, but the Christian lives for what is unseen. Therefore we do not cling to material things.

Paul writes, “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him...”

Mary sees all that she has as a fair price in order that she might honor Christ. In contrast Judas saw thirty pieces of silver as a fair price for his loyalty and the life of his Lord. What did he hope to achieve by his thievery and betrayal? What good is it to gain the whole world but loose your soul?
Jesus has taught us, what we do for the poor among us we do for him. If Jesus has been so extravagantly generous to us in laying down his very life for our sake, should we not give sacrificially for the sake of those in need? Be openhanded toward your fellow sinners who are poor and needy in your land. What is given for his sake is never waste.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

How to be a Faithful Elder Brother

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Sigmund Freud wrote, “a child’s position in the sequence of brothers and sisters is of very great significance for the course of his later life.” Our family system and where we fall within that system as males or females, first, last or middle born, has a profound impact on how we perceive ourselves and relate to others outside of the family. A person’s birth order can often reveal a lot about their personality and temperament. Each position comes with its own set of advantages and challenges.

Austrian psychologist Walter Toman studied thousands of typical families and in his book Family Constellation attempted to catalog the common characteristics of those in similar birth and gender positions. For instance he writes that the eldest of brothers often has pronounced leadership qualities, is often very successful at what he does, can be quite meticulous in his person and possessions, and has very high standards not only for himself but others. His tendency is to be conservative and respectful of authority.

The youngest of brothers by contrast often has a rebellious streak. He is often a mystic or romantic, headstrong, capricious, unpredictable, and impulsive. He rarely plans ahead but instead lives for the moment and his immediate desires. He is used to receiving things and tends to squander his money and be careless with possessions.

None of this is an exact science of course. As the youngest of brothers for instance I of course don’t fit the description at all! Well...perhaps there is more truth to it than I care to admit.  

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells a story about two brothers in these two types are very much on display. The story is commonly referred to as the parable of the prodigal son. The one referred to in the title is the youngest son who impatiently demands his inheritance from his father and squanders it all with reckless living. In fact the term prodigal means extravagant and wasteful. Pastor Tim Keller has pointed out that the youngest son is not the only prodigal in the story. The father too seems extravagant and even wasteful in his generosity and forgiveness to his youngest son. You have perhaps often heard this story told as a parable about the amazing and abundant grace of our heavenly father towards sinners. Tim Keller explores the extravagance of God in this respect in his wonderful book “TheProdigal God.” If you are intrigued by what I am about to say, I recommend you read the book. Much of the interpretation I offer is gleaned from its pages.

I am not however going to focus on the father this morning, but on the elder brother in the story. Jesus originally told this story to a group of pharisees who were offended by the way he welcomed tax collectors and sinners. They were the elder brothers, the responsible ones, who were meticulous in everything they did, and kept all the rules. They were offended because Jesus seemed to give special treatment to the irresponsible and immoral losers who did nothing to earn God’s favor. As the good, religious, church going people, shouldn’t they be the ones to get the first place with God?

Jesus’ story isn’t one about a good and a bad brother. Both have wounded their father, both are sinners, but in different ways. The younger brother’s sin is more obvious. He was greedy, he was lustful, he was a drunk, and incredibly disrespectful to his family. The elder brother’s sin is less obvious but in someways more insidious more difficult to root out. He was proud, self-righteous, he had contempt for his brother, and although he did things the “proper” way, his sense of entitlement to his father’s wealth was every bit of presumptuous.

The story reveals to us the heart of a truly godly father, but what about the elder brother? The elder brother in the story serves as an anti-type for the true and godly brother rather than its example. What can we say, based on this story, about what it means to be a true brother or a true sister to our brothers and sisters who have gone astray?

First, a true brother knows that he is his brother’s keeper. When they wander far from home and go astray he goes out looking for them to bring them home. Jesus told not one parable but three to the grumbling pharisees. For the sake of brevity, our lectionary omits the beginning two. First the Parable of the Lost Sheep in which the shepherd leaves the 99 to seek the one who was had wandered off. The second is the story where the woman sweeps her whole house to find her lost coin and rejoices to find it. Both stories are about someone who seeks the lost, but who seeks prodigal? Instead of going after his brother to talk some sense into him, the elder brother stays home and fumes.

Second, a true brother rejoices to see his brother restored. A true brother wants to see his brother lively righteously and joyfully. The true elder brother shares in his father’s love for all his children.  In the story of the lost sheep and the lost coin, there is a call to rejoice at what has been lost and found. In the story of the prodigal there is the same invitation, but with one difference. When the younger brother returns, the elder refuses to join in the rejoicing at his restoration despite his father’s pleading. He cares more about himself and his own inheritance than his brother.

Perhaps you can relate to his anger. The younger brother has already squandered his inheritance. The remaining assets are all by right the inheritance of the elder brother, but of course the father isn’t dead yet. The elder brother has been faithful all these long years believing that one day all the father has will be his. For the father to restore the youngest, it must be done at the expense of the elder son. It doesn’t seem quite fair does it? That fine robe, the golden ring, the big party, and fatted calf all come out of what the brother believes to be his rightful inheritance.

Which brings us to the third and most difficult characteristic of a true brother. A true brother sacrifices all for the sake of his brother. He is as prodigal in his love and generosity to him as the father. He puts the needs of his brother before his own. Forgiveness is never easy or without cost. It requires great sacrifice. Where can we find a brother who loves us like that?

Jesus Christ, the first born of all creation and the true Son of our gracious Father is our true and faithful elder brother. When we had wandered far from our fathers house and squandered our inheritance, he came looking for us to bring us home. He rejoices with his father at each sinner who repents and turns to him. He willingly accepted the sacrifice necessary to restore us. He bore in his own body on the cross the terrible consequences of our rebellion. He was his joy to do so out of his great love for us. He is as prodigal in his mercy towards us as his father. You might even say that Jesus is the prodigal son. If we have a brother who has loved us like this how then should we love our brothers and sisters?