The New Testament is about Jesus. Knowing Jesus as Paul would be the first to say is the only important thing. But Jesus is perfect. Jesus is a plumb line, a measuring rod. When you look at Jesus he is true man. The struggle around Jesus is all about how people react to this truth. Paul though is a character all about struggle. Because he is THE Apostle I think we miss just how great were Paul’s struggles. Not only against those opposed to the gospel, but also against himself. It pulses in his writings. And if we read carefully, Luke shows us as well. Paul is The Apostle because he shows us the living faith which includes a need for the gospel and a growth in Christ.
This sermon examines Paul’s struggles around the start of the 2nd missionary journey. Struggles with individuals, struggles with the Spirit, and struggles with self. Paul finds his way to faithfulness in his response to the vision to come and his actions. And he hears the invitation, “come and stay”. The sermon invites us to ponder for ourselves, what are our invitations to faithfulness.
Technically next Sunday is Rogate (if you listen to the sermon you’ll find out), but the calendar got a little scrambled and the texts this week fit the old liturgical practice better. The selected text is sometimes called Gentile Pentecost, but what I’ve portrayed it as here is how the living and active Word – Jesus Christ – precedes us and calls us to be an active part of the Kingdom.
Occasionally you give a sermon that you know is going to be challenging, or is just not going to connect with some. That is the fact of being an every Sunday preacher. If you don’t that means you are never stretching any of your listeners. And worse you might not be stretching yourself. This is one of those sermons. I like this one. I also know this is one of the types that many preachers would stay away from. The only thing I would add is that we live in a technological society, and locally we have a national-class STEM school. That should be engaged.
Honestly what I wish I had was another 5 – 10 minutes. The set up, which is overly long as it stands, tees up two things that are both present in the text and are important for our Christian lives. A modern reality around AI asks questions both on our divisions and how they are created and about personhood. As I was writing I intended to bring both of those. But the personhood argument is left as something of a stub. It is there. Hopefully it will give you something to ponder.
The text is the conversion of Saul/Paul on the Damascus Road. I took the first text because of something that happened with the confirmands. When I mentioned “The Damascus Road” they had no idea what I meant. I also took it because we most often concentrate on what I think is one part of the Damascus Road experience, and that the lesser part. We focus on the dramatic turn, Saul going from “threats and murder” to preaching the gospel. And that change of action is important. The gospel does lead to good works. But there is a second part which should be the first. And it is the second part that puts all of us on the Damascus Road. We all were agents of the powers that be. Whether we met Jesus on the Road quite a ways down it before he turned us around, or if we met Jesus as an infant in a baptismal font, we all have changed Lords. This sermon ponder what I see as our cultural denial of the ability to change, how that hardens, and how the gospel gives us the contrary hope.
Thomas and his doubt usually get pride of place today, but in the text Jesus repeats on phrase three times. And when Jesus repeats something it is usually worth paying attention to what that is. In this case it is peace, or more specifically “Peace be with You”. The Lord desires that his disciples have peace. The question is what does he mean by peace.
This sermon ponders on what type of peace the Lord brings. How that peace differs from what the world calls peace. And how that peace comes to reside in us and the life that it gives us. The resurrection peace of Christ be with you.
If you haven’t watched The Magicians, you should. It is one of of the best shows on TV. It works on a very simplistic level (I mean c’mon, just look at that cast), but while having the facade of every really bad show kept alive by tweens and their mothers, it has an almost fathomless depth. This article gets as some of that. But one part of this past season was very likely the theological problem of our age.
The character who was probably the main character (which is actually a question in the series), has a monologue that stands at the climax of the season in which he asks, “Shouldn’t loving the idea of Fillory be enough?”
The simple answer is no. But I think that article, and most of the comments I’ve seen, get it slightly wrong. They want to talk about love. But that is not the searing heat of that question. For all of our faults, we know love when it is given. We may hate it, but we know it. The cross of that question is “the idea”.
We all carry around with us the idea of perfection, or the idea of escape (Fillory in that series), or simply “THE IDEA”. That idea could even be our idea of the church or our idea of God or Jesus. And we want credit for loving our idea. Shouldn’t that be enough?
And the answer is no. Because that idea is just ourselves, and not even ourselves, but some picture perfect presentation of ourselves.
Jesus loved sinners.
If you are loving the idea, kill the idea. The only thing that is enough is loving the reality.
The scriptures are rather silent about today. The Nicene creed goes from “he suffered and was buried” to “and on the third day he rose”. Notice how the Nicene creed even skips the flat declaration of Good Friday, he died. The apostles creed though states he “was crucified, died and was buried”. The east, the seat of the Nicene Creed, dealt with what we would call Nestorian sensitivities. The west, the seat of the Apostles Creed, was clearer. That apostles creed continues with the line “he descended into hell”. It is a line that has baffled moderns for a long time. A bafflement that I think stems from an obscuring to the scriptural teaching. Not a loss, but a shift of emphasis. The creedal hope is resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. The obscuring is something like: my eternal soul goes to be with Jesus. Going to be with Jesus is true, and it is comforting, but it obscures the real hope. Our hope is that in Christ we will attain the resurrection of the dead and life in the age to come. The descent into hell, only really attested to scripturally in 1 Peter 3:18-20, is for a single purpose.
Like I often say about Pentecost, Easter did something. It actually did many things, but I’m focusing on one thing here. What Peter writes as Christ “proclaiming to the spirits in prison”, the artists have a very clear image of. My favorite hymn capturing is the verse from Hark the Glad Sound. He comes the prisoners to release/In Satan’s bondage held/The gates of brass before him burst/the iron fetters yield. (Hark the Glad Sound LSB349). But visually the iconographers have it. I’ve placed a few around this post. This is the harrowing of hell. The psalmist would talk of “going down to the pit”. The word that usually stands behind that is sheol. And it is one of those difficult to translate words because our conceptual framework has shifted. The KJV often just translated it as hell. Except for the pagan undertones you might say underworld or abode of shades. Before Good Friday and Easter that flaming sword keeping us out of Paradise was there. We were in bondage to the spirits of this dark realm. What the descent into hell means is that victory parade of the faithful souls out of sheol to be with Christ has started. Adam and Noah and Abraham and Jacob and David and Sarah and Ruth and Leah and Rahab and you get the picture. In fact look at this picture and you see the crown on the one soul. That is not the “crown of life” which would simply be the nimbus or the halo, but the representation of David, freed by his Royal Son.
The is the harrowing of hell, a term I think that needs to come back into everyday usage. If we talk of a harrowing, it is an escape, a jailbreak by divine means, from situations that we get ourselves into and can’t get out of. When we confess that he descended into hell, we confess that Christ has come to our lowest point and brought us out. That lowest point is death to sin. Appropriately Peter continues in that next verse (1 Peter 3:21-22) to talk about baptism. Baptism is our harrowing. Every remembrance of our baptism (confession & absolution, confirmation, awakenings through life) are a harrowing. We have been harrowed out of the chains we often put ourselves in. This last painting I think gets at the core of this victory parade. That carved out tomb was deeper than we can imagine. But Christ has knocked in the doors. Satan is beaten to the side, and the saints marched out from the tomb with Christ. We too will rest in that tomb. But unlike those in former days, we rest with Christ. And we rest in the certain hope of a resurrection like his. A Harrowing is a victory parade. It goes past Calvary and the grave, but like going to Jerusalem it is uphill all the way singing the Halleluiahs.
The liturgy for Good Friday that we follow is called the Tenebrae service, which is the service of darkness. There are different ways it can be arranged. A traditional one of the seven words from the cross. We have in the past followed something like the final stations of the cross. This year, looking at Luke whose year it is, we arranged it as a triptych. The above is my hack attempt at that.
The meditations look at what fails us, and then what hope is available in each scene. In the Garden of Gethsemane, it is personal failures. Failures of friends and associates and even the temptation of the self of our human nature. The hope is that prayer is always there. And God answers prayer. Maybe not how we would like, but he walks with us through the trials. The trials themselves are the failure of our institutions. Knowing our personal failures we invest our hope in groups. These too fail us, at exactly the time we need them. The hope is that while we often run from the truth, God brings the Truth out, even when we don’t like it. And it is the Truth that wins. And that points to the center panel, the crucifixion. There we find our real hope.
Maundy Thursday is the night the Christians remember the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Liturgically we celebrate it, and then the altar is stripped. The service does not really end, no “Now Let Us Depart in Peace”, no benediction, no closing hymn. It continues with Good Friday. If follows to the garden and the trial and the cross and the grave. It finishes on Easter Morning.
The meal is a Passover meal, it is also as it is called a “last supper”. It is a reading of the last testament of Jesus. And what Jesus grants us is himself. He gives us his righteousness. He gives us unity with God. And he does this by giving us his body and blood with the bread and wine. This sermon is a reflection on that great miracle.