Saturday, March 17, 2018

How Far Can Christ Reach?

John 12:20-33
Lent 5
March 18, 2018
William G. Carter

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say - ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

We continue the road to the cross. That is our journey for the season of Lent. The scripture texts that have accompanied us remind us it is an unusual journey. The world regards the cross as foolish and weak, but we say it’s the power and wisdom of God. Somehow in the capital execution of a first-century Jewish peasant, sin is cancelled. The gulf between heaven and earth is bridged.

Today we have one more unusual word, this time from the mouth of Jesus himself: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” And the writer makes sure we understand what he is saying, “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”

John understands the cross in light of the resurrection and ascension. Good Friday and Easter are one long weekend, and all of it marks the journey by which Jesus returns to heaven. Jesus comes down from the Father, speaking the truth and doing many signs. The cross is how he begins his return. He is “lifted up,” says John – lifted up on the cross, lifted up from the grave, lifted up into heaven. This is the way that this Gospel writer talks. He speaks of the cross as Jesus’ “glory,” at a time he calls his “hour.”

And most curious is this: the cross will draw all people to Jesus. Not a selected few, but all people. Not only the obvious ones, the ones who trust and believe and say the right words, but “all people.”

John Calvin, the closest thing we have to a Presbyterian founder, says Jesus got it wrong. Or at least, that the Jesus who spoke to us last week in chapter 3 is at odds with the Jesus who speaks today in chapter 12. You see, Calvin is stuck on the phrase “whosoever believes in me shall not perish but have eternal life” (3:16), and true enough, that’s in the book.

But here Jesus says, “all people.” And it really does say “all people.”

The context is a rare moment in Jerusalem when some Greeks are drawn to Jesus. It is Passover week. Jesus has just dismounted his Palm Sunday donkey. Some strangers went to Philip, Philip went to Andrew, and the two of them went to Jesus. They said, “Some Greeks are looking for you.” We don’t know who they are. Were they Jews from out of town who spoke the Greek language? Were they Gentiles from somewhere else who wondered what the fuss was about? We don’t know.

We do know that by the time this story got written down, around 90 AD, John’s church was full of all kinds of people who were drawn to the Christ. Tradition puts John in the Turkish city of Ephesus, a major center for Jews and Gentiles, Turks and Greeks, centurions and slaves, business owners and single parents, widows and refugees – and it’s a good bet a smattering of them all were in John’s church.

Perhaps he saw in the diversity of his congregation a sign of what God wants for the world: a church that draws all kinds of people. Imagine that! As Jesus said, “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.”

In the Gospel of John, Jesus has said this kind of thing before. In chapter 10, the Good Shepherd says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).

Again, he doesn’t declare who those outsiders are. Maybe they are Greeks, maybe they are Jews, maybe they are somebody else. The Gospel of John keeps this open, so must we. We cannot restrict what Jesus himself does not specify.

Seven years ago, a Christian preacher named Rob Bell wrote a Christian book that made a lot of Christian people angry. In fact, the book was so controversial it made the cover story on Time magazine. Bell’s book is called Love Wins. The title is the point of the book, that the love of God is powerful that will win over everything. That’s a pleasant and hopeful thought, and you might even encounter it when you read the Bible.

But it set off a firestorm, especially among those who were so sure they were going to get into heaven and others were not. In fact, they knew who those others were; they had lists of other religions, other beliefs, other behaviors that they were certain would exclude those people from the glory that they themselves were entitled to receive. It became a tempest in a little Christian teapot.

All Rob Bell said is, “God can forgive anybody or anything,” and that’s what set off the righteous indignation. Furious articles were published in Christianity Today. Counter arguments were printed in red ink. Bell was denounced as a heretic. His publishing company was protested. His speaking engagements were cancelled. Even the enormous church he served in western Michigan lost three thousand members, and he was pressured to step down -- all because he said, “love wins.”[1]  

He was asked a hundred times, “But aren’t all those other people going to hell?” And his answer: “That decision is above my pay grade. God is the only One who can judge, and the God I know in Jesus Christ is a God of mercy, forgiveness, and steadfast love.”

It raises the question that is the sermon title: how far can Christ reach? With his arms outstretched on the cross, how far can he reach? Jesus says, “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.”

Take note it is Jesus who is lifted up. It is Jesus who is central. It is Jesus who draws all the people, and Jesus through whom all people will pass. “No one is going to come to the Father,” he says, “unless they pass through me” (14:6). That’s not exclusive, but inclusive. He is the tunnel, he is the conduit. Or as he says in chapter ten, he is “the gate” (10:9) through which all the varied flocks will pass. They don’t pass through the Presbyterian gate, or the Baptist gate, or the Catholic gate – they pass through Jesus.

In fact, lambs in another flock may have lived their entire lives as Buddhists, Hindus, or none of the above. That may be all they know. Perhaps their only exposure to Christians is the hateful and divisive words they have heard some Christians speak on the evening news. And when they pass through, they discover Jesus is so much more gracious than some of the people who claim to represent him. 

Or there might be in lambs in another flock, and these would be the people who burned out on the church. Maybe they tried it years ago and it sputtered out of fuel. Or they prayed for help and life didn’t immediately improve. Or they got stuck in a committee meeting and couldn’t get out. Or they grew beyond a third grade Sunday School faith and nobody wanted to hear their questions, doubts, or fears.

Maybe they felt excluded by the rest of the mob, wanted to be accepted, and everywhere they turned, the door was locked. Imagine the outcasts and the lost sheep being drawn to Jesus, to the real Jesus – not the dashboard Jesus or a cartoon caricature, but to the One who says at the end of our chapter, “I came not to judge the world but to save the world” (12:47). Imagine a love that deep, a mercy that wide!

I like a line from the Second Vatican Council: “Since Christ died for all, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every [person] the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery.”[2]  

In the language of the Gospel of John, I believe this is what it means when he says, “I will draw all people to myself.” The Gospel promise is all will come to him, and Christ is free to do with them as he wishes. All will pass through him. That is what is inevitable for every one of us.

Our deepest hope is in the words of a favorite Christmas carol, originally written for children: “And our eyes at last shall see Him / through His own redeeming love / for that Child so dear and gentle / is our Lord in heaven above.”[3]

So, let’s not miss it. Let’s never be so high and mighty that we miss it. Those whose “eyes at last shall see Him,” shall see Jesus only through the eyes of humility. It won’t be through their strength or their power or their correctness on matters spiritual or otherwise. They will see him in their moment of need and the hunger of their hearts.

If Jesus comes to draw all people to himself and save them, it is in the universality of our need. We see this when we see our need for Someone in heaven greater than ourselves, but Someone who knows what it is to be human like you and me.  

Perhaps that’s why, when Jesus speaks of glory, he speaks of emptying. That is the paradox of the Christian life. Tucked in the middle of this passage about the universal attraction of the cross, Jesus speaks of the “grain that falls into the ground,” and the central of setting ourselves aside and following him.

This is what it takes to see Jesus, to really see him. He has “emptied” himself by coming down from heaven to us in complete vulnerability.[4] So he sets the pattern for those who follow him, and for all who will sooner or later see him. The cross-shaped life is not about getting what we want or determining it for others. It is about emptying ourselves into the love of God and the love of our neighbors. It is to set aside all the vain things that charm us most and serve like Christ, who gave up the throne in heaven to come down here and to give his life to the world.

Jesus says, “Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit.” Jesus says this about himself; he is the grain of wheat. He says it too as an invitation for us, to set aside all our presumption and to welcome his embrace.

So how far can Christ reach? Can he reach the halfway heretic? The part-time believer? The wayward sinner? Can he reach the person who is excluded? The one riddled with guilt? Those with weak knees and broken hearts? Yes, of course he can.

But here’s what I want to know: can he reach you?

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] A good summary is found in the New Yorker article, “The Hell Raiser,” by Kelefa Sanneh. Read it at
[2] Quoted in F. Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012) 219.
[3] Cecil F. Alexander, “Once in Royal David’s City,” stanza 5
[4] Philippians 2:7

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Be Lifted Up

John 3:14-21
Numbers 21:4-9
Lent 4
March 11, 2018
William G. Carter

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

It is always risky to pick a single verse out of scripture. But if we are going to do it, John 3:16 is a pretty good verse.

Football evangelists paint the verse on large posters and hold them up in the end zone during football games, gaining it the title of “the End Zone verse.” The hope is that during a touchdown or extra point, someone will see that verse, look it up, and be instantly converted. That may be a superficial approach to evangelism, but I could never deny the Holy Spirit such an opportunity.

And John 3:16 is an excellent verse. Not only is it a pretty good summary of the entire Gospel of John, it points beyond itself to the whole stretch of God's saving story for all humanity.

God has a mission for this planet and its people. It is to offer the gift of life, which is so much more than respiration and brain activity; it is the “life of eternity.” That is the sense of the phrase zoe aionion, literally “life of eternity.” Jesus is sent to Earth as the mission of his Father, and the life they share in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit is now offered as a gift for all Humanity.

The gift is given yet must be received. The best way to receive the gift is by trusting it, by holding it in your heart and mind as the ultimate truth that the Triune God wishes all creatures to remain in the abundance of eternal fellowship. Not only do we live in the presence of the Trinity when we die, we live on through Christ and with Christ forever more. This life begins in the moment when we trust this gift to be true; from that moment, the Life goes on forever.

According to John, this is why God sends Jesus to the Earth, to the rebellious entity that John calls “the world.”

John 3:16 is a summary of what John wants to tell us about the Gospel. It’s glorious, it’s generous. We dare not make smaller, or reduce it to a “me-and-Jesus” relationship. John says, “everyone who believes.” The promise is for the whole “world.”

And he’s summarizing the whole Christ event, not singling out a moment of it. That’s important to remember, because to hear some well-intentioned Christians summarize the summary, they declare that John 3:16 is all about the cross.

Now wait a second. Did you hear anybody mention the cross in that verse? Let’s say it again: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Hmm…the verse doesn’t mention the cross at all. It talks about life, not death. It talks about the whole mission of God, and not merely a single event on a Friday afternoon.

To hear John tell the story of Jesus, it was always about life. “All things came into being through him…and what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” This was his work from the beginning, says John. From the very beginning.

In this Gospel, Jesus gives life to the living. To the confused Pharisee, to the outcast woman of a different race, to the crippled man unable to climb into the miracle pool, Jesus cuts through the fog of religiosity and declares that God is alive. And his abundant gift of life is so effusive that he gives it to those threatened by death, first to a royal official’s son who is dying of a fever, and then most dramatically to his beloved friend Lazarus already in the tomb.

This is what it looks like when heaven invades the earth. Jesus says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (10:10)

To listen to John tell it, the problem is the world that God loves does not love God in return. “He came to his own,” says the Gospel, “and they would not receive him.” They shrugged him off, pushed him away. The people who purported to love God the most, namely the religious professionals, were obsessed with rules and regulations. The ceremonies that once were so full of power and transcendence has lost their juice.

So, they said things like, “You can’t heal somebody on the wrong day of the week.” Or “give us a sign to show you come from God” while he gave one sign after another. “Surely we see, don’t we?” and they didn’t perceive much at all.

Maybe you never noticed that John 3:16 goes on for a while. In verse 17, God is not interested in condemning the world. The mission of Jesus is to give life, to save life, to connect our time-bound mortal lives with the life of eternity.

But here’s the big crisis, says John: light has come into the darkness. That’s the good news and that’s the problem. Light has come - - and the darkness says, “Turn out the lights!” If the lights have come on, we will see what the darkness has been hiding.

Fred Craddock says the human situation before Jesus arrives is like hanging out in a darkened room with no windows. Since the lights are out, you don’t see that the floor is covered with cockroaches. Oh, once in a while you might step on one and hear a crunch, but you try to get it out of your mind. Occasionally one may crawl up your leg, but you can’t see it, so you shake it off.

And then, when the lights come on, you see quite clearly what you’ve been living with. It’s going to have to be addressed. The light has come.

Like the family that must confront a terrible smothered secret that everybody had been trying so hard to cover up. It’s painful. Nobody wants to mention it. Everybody avoids it. And the secret gets out, and suddenly everybody is really afraid because we are going to have to deal what we have worked so hard to avoid. Light comes into darkness. That’s a crisis. Jesus calls it a crisis, even though his mission is to bring the whole world into the light and life of God.

So that brings us back to the cross. We know God loves the world, that God sends Jesus to bring life into the world, and that the world resists this love and life. In the deep magic of the Gospel, the “death” of Jesus becomes the way to life. It is the paradox at the heart of all things, a mystery that takes a while to trust and settle in.

When John speaks of the cross in his Gospel, he uses a strange phrase to push through the paradox. He puts the phrase on the lips of Jesus: “When I am lifted up.” Four times in this Gospel, Jesus speaks of being “lifted up.” In case we miss what he’s talking about, he says in chapter 12, “This was to refer to the kind of death Jesus would die.” He will be “lifted up” on a cross.

And to tie it together, we step back a couple of verses to John 3:14-15. The Gospel writer John refers to a really strange story from the Hebrew archives. It’s that story from the 21st chapter of the book of Numbers, an obscure and out of the way story. Nobody would ever have thought of it ever again, except that John says it is a way of understanding the mystery of the cross. The old story goes like this:

Moses was leading the people through forty years in the desert, and the people grumbled. The journey was taking longer than they wanted. It was stop and go and stop some more. The people had limited resources – all they had was sand for their sandwiches. So they grumbled. And they complained. And they bickered, and they blamed. It got ugly. Very ugly.

Suddenly some poisonous snakes appeared, and they started to bite. It seemed inevitable, in a way: there was poison in the air, so along come the poisonous snakes. Moses said, “God, what do I do?”

God gave some very strange advice: make a bronze snake, put it on a pole, and raise it up high. When the people look up at the symbol of their poison, the poison will be lifted away.

So… John refers to the story here in chapter three, and pauses, as if to say, “Do you get it?” No, not really.
He tries to make it clear: “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (3:14-15)

This is John’s view of the power of what happens on the cross. The poison of an angry, rebellious world is what puts Jesus on the cross. But when he is lifted up, God takes the poison away from those who are looking at the one who is lifted up.

Or as John the Baptist declares the first time he lays eyes on Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” The sin is taken away. Forgiven away. Released and dismissed away – as long as we let go of it, and as long as we lift our eyes to Jesus.

In the briefest of words, this is how the death of Jesus opens us to the “life of eternity.” Think of what the life of God’s eternity must be like: there are no more grudges, no more grabbing, no more grievances, no more mutually inflicted pain. In a nutshell, there will be no more sin, just the glory of God and eternity. And we can live that way now, if we let go of the poison and look up to Jesus.  

Once again, the End Zone Verse is lifted up: “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son…” The whole Gospel is held in that single verse. God sends light into darkness. God sends life into a world preoccupied with death. And when his Son is lifted up on a cross to die, once again God offers light and life and the opportunity once again to begin anew, to let go the destructive impulses, and to trust there is light.

The eternal life of God is for us and for all. All we must do is trust that. Let go of the poison, look up to Jesus. 

Thank God.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Kindred Companions, in memory of the Rev. Virginia Miner

Psalm 133
John 15:12-17
A Song of Ascents.
1             How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
2             It is like the precious oil on the head,
               running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron,
               running down over the collar of his robes.
3             It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion.
               For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

This sermon is one that Virginia Miner had heard some years ago - and was requested by her to be shared at her memorial service. It has been revised gently, and was preached at her funeral on March 4, 2018 in Scranton, PA.

How good it is. “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” Once in a while, it’s comforting to have a Bible passage that you immediately understand. There aren’t a lot of difficult words to look up in the dictionary. No mind-numbing theological concepts to pin down. This psalm proclaims it is a beautiful thing when people get along.

The poet offers two ancient illustrations to tickle the senses. When people live in peace, what is it like? It is like the oil of an abundant blessing, spilling all over your cheeks and dribbling into your beard. Ever the feminist, I'm sure Virginia would have rolled the eyes at that one.

So what is it like? How shall we describe it when everybody gets along? It’s like the morning dew falling on the mountains, watering the thirsty soil, and dribbling down to fill the stream. We don’t ask for the dew; it falls from heaven like a gift – just like the oil of that blessing. And that’s how it feels to find that there are people in your life who have been given to you as a gift.

That’s the heart of what the Psalmist sings. It doesn’t matter if you translate the first verse literally; in Hebrew, it reads, “How pleasing is the dwelling of siblings together.” Or you can generalize and expand it; as Stephen Mitchell translates the thought: “How wonderful it is to live in harmony with all people.”[1] Either way the meaning is clear: it is a holy gift to have companions. It is a blessing from God to have people who share your life. It is good and pleasant to have sisters, brothers, friends, living together in peace. How good it is.

So, for a few minutes, I want you to think of a face. Who is the first person that comes to mind, when you think of good and pleasant company?

In one of his books, writer Frederick Buechner describes his first real friend:

Like me, he was kind of oddball – plump and not very tall then with braces on his teeth and glasses that kept slipping down the short bridge of his nose and a rather sarcastic, sophisticated way of speaking that tended to put people off – and for that reason, as well as for the reason that he was a good deal brighter than most of us, including me, boys tended to make his life miserable. But it was Jimmy who became my first great friend, and it was through coming to know him that I discovered that perhaps I was not, as I had always suspected, alone in the universe and the only one of my kind. He was another who saw the world enough as I saw it to make me believe that maybe it was the way the world actually was.[2]

How good it is, to have a friend like that – somebody who sees the same world that you see. Can you see a face? Can you see the face of some kindred soul?

Sometimes we discover them out of shared interests or experience. We didn’t choose these people, but suddenly we discover they are there. C.S. Lewis says friendship happens when two or more people discover they have something in common. Up until that point, each of them believes she or he is alone, bearing some unique treasure or burden. Then comes the discovery, says Lewis, and friendship begins when one of them says, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”[3]

How good it is to discover we are not alone! That we are never alone. That even if we talk to ourselves and live by ourselves, we are always part of a larger company. Surely that’s what the Psalmist is singing about.

And it resonates with the Last Supper promises of Jesus. He calls us "friends" and invites us to love and lay down our lives for one another. That’s the promise the Psalmist is claiming. If you love God, if you honor God, if you move as a lifelong pilgrim toward God, you can look around and see people that God has appointed to join you on the journey. They will enrich your spirit and enlarge your world, and they are a blessing that may surprise you. Can you see a face? Can you think of a name?

I think of Virginia. As far as I can remember, we met thirty-seven years ago. It was a presbytery meeting in the western Catskill Mountains. I was there to testify that I had heard God calling me toward ministry. About a hundred people sat on hard wooden pews and listened to my story. God’s voice had spoken in a whisper, and I did what I could to amplify what I had heard.

The church people were either bemused or astonished enough to allow me to explore all of this further. But from the vantage point of decades of Christian experience, the most important moment was when a thin lady with brown hair and glasses sauntered up and introduced herself. She was a couple years older than me. She was already a student at the seminary to which I planned to apply. And she said she was serving as an intern in a church not far from where I grew up; if I had any questions about what lay ahead, I could ask. We smiled quietly at one another, stood awkwardly for another minute, and that was that.

Little did I know that God would keep putting her in my life for the next thirty-seven years. I finished college, was accepted at the seminary, and began to study. One day at the beginning of my senior year, Virginia reappeared. The two year internship was over, and she was returning with the great wisdom of parish life, which she would apply to her remaining academic studies. This continued to be a theme for our friendship; whenever one of us read a book or got a half-cocked idea, the other one of us was there to yank the hot air balloon back down to earth. If the truth be told, she was usually the one yanking the chain.

We had a lot in common: both of us were first-born children, always assuming others were lining up behind us. Both of us were raised by smart parents in small towns who pushed us to reach beyond our upbringings. Both of us grew up in Sunday Schools and sanctuaries, and both of our families were the last to leave coffee hour in our churches. Both of us believed that, even though congregations have the potential to drive us crazy, they really are the focal points for living out the Christian life.  For us, “solitary Christian” is a contradiction in terms.

It was a strange and wonderful friendship that we have shared. It wasn't constant or invasive. There have been occasional gaps. Yet we were seatmates in airplanes and automobiles, logging thousands of miles in travel to church meetings and groups. Sometimes we talked the whole way, and sometimes we were mute for long stretches - - either way we put in a lot of miles.

As with any good friendship, we endured one another’s suffering – she journeyed through breast cancer, while I am a divorce survivor. We gasped at one other’s pain, but neither of us ever intruded or hovered. Each of us emerged through the necessary therapies. We wept, laughed, and even yelled at one another. We shared struggles, rolled our eyeballs at our foibles, offered the occasional corrective word, and mutually agreed on how much we would suffer fools. At the heart of it all was a profound mutual respect.

At points, we have found ourselves under one another’s leadership. When I was elected to the board of a national conference center, they asked, "Do you know any female clergy with a passion for justice and peace issues?" Well, who else but Virginia? She resisted and said, “I’m getting chemotherapy,” to which I retorted, “I will hold the bucket.” It stopped her short and she agreed to serve, which she did with distinction.

When I asked her church’s organist to marry me, we naturally asked Virginia to conduct the wedding, although that meant I had to endure her premarital counseling and grant her the creative control over the marriage service.

Of course, I had my way to get even. One Sunday when I was on vacation, I sneaked onto her organ bench and improvised a jazz prelude. And then I sat with a cup of coffee and tried to read a book during her sermon; dang, if she didn’t keep interrupting me with her good words!

Here’s the thing: neither of us ever to be so close. Early on, we might have voted one another, “Least Likely to Ever Be My Friend.” She had plenty of occasions to vote me off the island - - but God kept us in a friendship which grew for nearly forty years. I almost can’t imagine living my Christian faith without her companionship, except that I’m sure I will continue to hear her voice. How good it is…

“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”

I know what the Psalmist is singing about, don’t you? There are people that God puts into our lives as a sheer gift. Their presence is a deep blessing. They enrich us. They call our attention to matters otherwise neglected. They raise our sights toward visions too great for our imagination.

And they make clear two truths about the Christian life. First, that our faith in Jesus is not a bunch of abstract ideas but a reality that is always embodied: the Word takes flesh in our commitments, in the ways we spend our time, money, and talents. And second, our life-in-Christ is best lived out in the company of friends. They are witnesses to what is true and eternal.

Virginia and I shared a favorite novel, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. The one thing I did that she never forgave is that I skipped ahead to read the ending, which, if you read the book, is a really good ending. (What can I say? I got bored.)

But it’s the beginning of the book that I hold in my heart. That’s where the narrator says,

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew . . . but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany… I skip a Sunday service now and then; I make no claims to be especially pious; I have a church rummage faith – the kind that needs patching up every weekend. What faith I have I owe to Owen Meany, a boy I grew up with. It is Owen who made me a believer.[4]

How good it is to have a kindred companion like that! Can you think of a face? Can you find the margin of your worship bulletin and write down a name? No matter what happens, hold on to that name. That person has revealed Christ to you.

Do you know what I’m going to write? “I am a Christian because of Virginia Miner.” How about you?

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Stephen Mitchell, A Book of Psalms: Selected and Adapted from the Hebrew (New York: HarperCollins, Publishers, 1993) 73.
[2] Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1982) 70.
[3] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1960) 96.
[4] John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany (New York: Ballantine Books, 1990) 3.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Foolish Wisdom, Weak Power

1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Lent 3
March 4, 2018
William G. Carter

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Years ago, a church in New England observed its 300th anniversary. The well-starched congregation set about to celebrate in fine style. They scheduled special speakers, had a big party, and, as you might expect, dug into their own history.

It’s amazing what you can discover when you poke around in your own archives. According to the local historian of that church, the sanctuary had extensive repairs in the year 1831. When the building was shored up, they added a steeple with a bell. Then something extraordinary happened. The historian writes: “When the steeple was added, one agile Lyman Woodard stood on his head in the belfry with his feet toward heaven.”

These days, nobody knows who Lyman Woodard was. There are no other stories about him, no other reports of curious behavior. All that exists is that he stood on his head. The act was counter to New England prudence and practicality. It was a crazy, goofy thing to do. And it was curious enough to be written down in perpetuity for the local church’s archives.

But for anybody who has really received the Christian faith, it wasn’t curious at all. There’s something about our faith that seems upside down.

In the history books of Israel, there are accounts of the younger son being chosen before the older brother. Or the last brother in line, the little one, selected to rule over the others. Or, in the words of the prophet Micah, “From you, O little town of Bethlehem, insignificant and almost forgotten, will come the Messiah.”

When Jesus arrives, he continues the upside-down nature of faith. In his stories as in his teachings, the last becomes first and the first is last. The weak are strong, and the powerful are removed from their thrones.  

And as the apostle Paul reflects to the early Christian believers, the wisdom of God looks like foolishness to the world. The weakness of Christ is our strength.

He’s speaking specifically of the cross. Paul is aware the power of the cross is completely upside down to the average person who doesn’t know anything else about it.

I’m not sure what the people of Corinth knew about crucifixion. The only crucifixions that I’ve heard about were in ancient Israel. The Roman Empire executed those who were deemed troublemakers in the most brutal and public way. They rounded up the thieves, the abusers, and the insurrectionists. After roughing them up in broad daylight, they nailed them to wood and hung them by the highways. The message was clear: “Don’t let this happen to you.” The empire thought they needed to do that in Israel.

In the Greek city of Corinth, across the Mediterranean Sea, we don’t know how many troublemakers ended up on crosses. Corinth was a wealthy city, a seaport for global commerce, a crossroads for ideas. It was cosmopolitan enough to generally synch with the rest of the empire.

And here comes Paul, speaking of Jesus as the savior of the world. What was the evidence of his power? What strength did he reveal? Paul says, “He was put to death on a tree.” It’s upside down.

Jesus doesn’t come from the planet Krypton, strong and mighty, with incredible powers. He was a first century woodcutter. He blended in so thoroughly that his own brothers thought he lost his mind when he began to preach and heal (Mark 3). It’s true that he got his orders from somewhere else, but arguably any other Jew could have gotten the same orders if they paid attention to their own Bible.

What distinguishes Jesus, especially for Paul, is his death. He believes in the resurrection, too; he has encountered the Risen Christ. Yet when Paul speaks of death and resurrection, he frequently condenses the whole three-day Christian Passover by saying, “We preach Christ crucified.” That, for him and for us, is the power of God.

It’s worth pondering: how is this power? How is the cross the power of God?

Maybe it only makes sense when you’re standing on your head. Christians profess Jesus is the Savior of the world, that he is the Son of God. But he wasn’t born in a big city. His Nazareth parents were so poor they couldn’t afford a lamb when they took him to the temple to be circumcised; in fact, they had a purchase a couple of birds as an alternative. One of the first potential followers of Jesus made fun of his hometown. And he died young, very young, in the most shameful way in his culture.

If he was indeed the Son of God, then he intentionally had to hold back on his power. He couldn’t show it all at once, not to mere mortals, at least, because it would have blown all the circuits and burned out the fuse box. Like God speaking to Moses, “If you were to see me face to face, you would be incinerated.”

So, Christ holds back. Elsewhere Paul says, Jesus “emptied himself,” that he chose to be a servant, that he gave himself for the life of the world, that he did not come to intimidate or compel, but to invite, to converse, to develop a relationship with us over time. If we were to see who he is, all at once, it would be too much.

But we see enough of who he is, it awakens us to the true shape of grace.

Let me say it straight: we killed the Son of God, and God didn’t kill us. That’s the heart of the Good News; everything else is commentary. We crucified Jesus and he didn’t strike back. He came back, but he didn’t strike back. That teaches us that justice is not about retaliation. Some might choose revenge; but God refrains…in mercy.

Now there are some people who look at the cross and come up with elaborate theories about what happened in God’s heart and mind. I’ll simply say there has always been a lot of speculation, as if a preacher could know the heart and mind of God.

For instance: some might declare how God is furious at the world because of all its sin. So, God demands payment for trespassing on God’s holy turf. And seeing as no mere mortal could pay for all the world’s sin, God sends his own Son to be the scapegoat, to bear the punishment that we deserve – just like an Old Testament sacrificial lamb. Jesus takes our place, and he gets what we deserve, and that after Jesus is killed, God is happy again. And if you grew up chewing on the book of Leviticus, I suppose you might come to that conclusion.

But let me point out the obvious: that we are the ones who put Jesus on the cross. People just like us schemed, maneuvered, condemned, and took up the hammer and nails.

Some speculate the cross was God’s will, that it happened because God wanted it to happen, or God allowed it to happen, or something like that. True enough, the cross of the Christ was the inevitable clash between heaven and earth. But this the heart of the Gospel: heaven decided not to punish earth for our sin of sins.

Salvation comes, but not from an angry God who balances the cosmic books by killing off his own Son. Salvation comes from a God of mercy who chooses to forgive the worst thing we could ever do. This God decides punishment is not the way to win over a consistently clueless human race. This God sends Jesus back (with scars) to preach peace between enemies, to proclaim a wider inclusion of who actually belongs to God, and to invite those who trust the Good News to advance this mercy as the primary act of divine justice.

The cross reveals the deep wisdom that God is not interested in obliteration. God’s heart is all about search and rescue. This is the shape of grace. And it’s best understood by those who need the grace.

Remember the stories of Jesus. Over and over, who are the ones who come to him? The little ones, like the children and those who become children all over again. Who else approaches him? The hurting ones, those with weary bones and broken hearts. Or the ones who are so weak that their friends must open a hole in the roof and lower them down. And don’t forget those who are possessed by evil and wish to be free. They come, they see Jesus, they find release.

Conversely, who are the ones who miss out on Jesus? The list includes those who think they’re in charge of the world, or the powerful and the well-connected, or the experts in religion who have God figured out and therefore dismissed… and don’t forget that one poor man who was so rich and had so many possessions that he just can’t unhook from all he has to travel with Jesus.

Here is the larger truth: God shows divine favor most clearly, not when we are strong, not when we are wise, but when we have the greatest need. The wisdom that the world dismisses as foolishness is found in the first and greatest Beatitude: “blessed are the poor in spirit.” Notice who it says: not the rich and famous, not the tall and suave, not the strong and self-assured – but those who actually need God. They are the ones who discover that God is on the cross – and that God is also with them, in the ongoing work of saving them and the world.

I have reached an age where I have begun burying some of my friends. One of them will be remembered this afternoon at a funeral downtown. Of all the words of tribute offered in her memory, one of the elders of her church said it best: “Virginia led us without ever raising her voice.” She never needed to shout or dominate to invite people to walk in God’s way. How humble, how Christ-like!

But I think of another preacher, Julie Ruth Harley. She was serving a church in suburban Chicago when she was diagnosed with ALS, that fearsome disease that eventually took her life. The final sermon she preached was on Christmas Eve. She spoke from a wheelchair, and she was thinking about Jesus. Listen:

What are we to make of this God, who comes to us, swaddled and helpless, lying in a manger? Isn’t this the last place we would expect to find God? I’ve thought about God in a new way during the last several weeks since I learned I have ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. My body is rapidly regressing, and I am beginning to take on the characteristics of a small child.

Why does God choose vulnerability rather than strength? Why does God choose dependence rather than autonomy? Why does God choose to come as a child who cannot walk or talk? I have come to the conclusion that the Word becomes flesh in a body like mine, which is so weak it must be rolled to this church in a wheelchair.

I thought I was glorifying God when I was at the height of my physical powers – competing in a triathlon or hiking up a mountain. But perhaps the message of Christmas is that God is glorified just as fully when I allow others to take care of me.[1]

Do you hear the mercy? She didn’t have to be strong, because she is saved by a Savior who is stronger than her. And the evidence of that Savior’s strength was in his vulnerability.

This is a deep mystery. The Savior of the World would be the One on the cross. Does that make any sense to you? I hope so. And if not, you may need to stand on your head.