Sunday, March 29, 2015

Following Jesus: Into Jerusalem

(A sermon based on Mark 11:1-11 for Palm Sunday 2015)

We are Christians; that means that we are followers of Jesus Christ. So during this Holy Week let’s follow Jesus through his last week on Earth and in so following let’s see what we can learn about what it means to follow him. To paraphrase the question he asked James and John when they asked to be seated at his right hand and his left in his kingdom, “Are we able to drink the cup that he drank?” Are we able—are we willing—to follow in his way?

There’s goes Jesus riding into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Let’s follow him.

We should note right off that Jesus went to Jerusalem intentionally and purposefully. He was not dragged to that city in which he knew his life would be in danger; he went there on purpose. No one forced him to enter the place where the forces who wanted him gone were gathered; he went there voluntarily. He knew what going there would cost him and he went anyway.

Have we counted the cost of discipleship? Have we taken a good hard look at what it means to follow Jesus wherever he goes and to serve him wherever we go?

When Mark first tells us that Jesus and the disciples were on their way to Jerusalem, he also tells us that Jesus told the Twelve what was coming: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (10:33-34).

Implied in his words was an invitation to his disciples: “So come along with me!” Implied in his words is an invitation from Jesus to us: “Come along with me!”

In the story of the raising of Lazarus in John 11, when Jesus tells the disciples that it’s time to go to where the deceased Lazarus lies, Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). Nobody says that when Jesus says it’s time to go to Jerusalem, but they could have. And we should.

“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

To go to Jerusalem with Jesus is to die with Jesus.

To go to Jerusalem with Jesus is to give up your life with, to, and for Jesus.

To follow Jesus is to die with Jesus; it is to give up your life with, to, and for Jesus.

Such following means to choose the narrow way over the broad way, to choose the hard way over the easy way, to choose the selfless way over the selfish way, to choose the generous way over the greedy way, to choose the dangerous way over the cautious way, and to choose God’s way over the world’s way.

And so the King of the Universe, the Lord of Creation, the Messiah of Israel, and the Savior of the world rode into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey. As Dom Crossan and the late Marcus Borg pointed out [The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem (New York: HarperOne, 2006), pp. 2-5], at about the same time the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate would have led his own procession into Jerusalem with flags flying, with trumpets blaring, and with soldiers marching; his arrival was ostentatious and impressive. Jesus, though, was hailed as King by a motley crew of commoners and outcasts.

Jesus fulfilled the expectations of Israel in unexpected ways. He came in the true power of God—in the power of humility, of love, of service, and of sacrifice. He had tried to tell his disciples how it would be but they did not get it until after his resurrection.

Now here we are 2000 years after his resurrection but we still have a hard time getting it.

But it is still true—“the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” And it is still true—if we are to be his disciples, we must take up our cross daily and follow him. And what the 20th century theologian and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer said is still true: “When Christ summons you, he bids you come and die.”

Jesus is our King; we are his subjects. Our King says to us, “Come follow me to Jerusalem with full acceptance of what that means—that you are willing to give up your self-centered, self-serving, self-protecting ways in order to love God with all you are and to love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus is my King; I am his subject. Will I follow him?

Where will my King and I go? How will my King and I serve? How will my King and I give ourselves up for God’s sake and for others’ sake?

Where will your King and you go? How will your King and you serve? How will your King and you give yourselves up for God’s sake and for others’ sake?

Will We Be Strong People?

(A sermon based on Ephesians 3:14-17 for the Fifth Sunday in Lent preached on March 22, 2015)

As Paul prayed for the Ephesian Christians while away from them, so I will be praying for you when I am away from you. I’ll be praying the same kind of prayers that I’ve been praying for you while I have been here with you.

I pray that you will know God. I pray that you will know God as fully as you possibly can know God. I pray that you will know God deeply and personally. I pray that you will experience all of the benefits that come from knowing God.

What can keep you from knowing God? Oh, lots of things can.

Failing to think about God can keep you from knowing God. Too many of us are “practical atheists”; we say we believe God exists but live as if we don’t really think that God exists—or at least as if we don’t remember that God exists. Such behavior can take many forms but I have in mind a failure to consider God in all of our attitudes, our motives, and our actions. We can’t really know God if we don’t keep God constantly in mind.

Substituting activity for relationship can keep your from knowing God. We have a busy and active church and that is good but we don’t want to let busyness and activity—even in service to the church—become the totality of our life with God because such a life has shallow roots. When we have shallow roots we will eventually find ourselves withering up and dying.

Forgetting to pay attention to your life can keep you from knowing God. We get so busy with the things of life that we sometimes fail to notice what is really going on in our life. It is so important that we take regular soundings of our spirit to see how deep or shallow we are running—otherwise we will not know when we are at risk of getting lost in open waters or of running aground in shallow water. It is vital that we pay attention to the state of our life because it is only in our life that we can know God.

I pray that none of these things—nor any other things—will get in the way of you knowing God.

I pray that you will know God. I pray that you will know God as fully as you possibly can know God. I pray that you will know God deeply and personally. I pray that you will experience all of the benefits that come from knowing God.

I pray that you will know God in God’s fullness. Notice that Paul said that he prayed to the Father that the Ephesians would be strengthened through the Spirit and that Christ would dwell in their hearts. So Paul prayed that God in God’s fullness—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—would be known in the lives of the Ephesians.

Let’s be amazed at the grace of God that causes God to come to us so that we can know God. We are talking about the Creator and Sustainer of all that is; we are talking about the Sovereign of the universe. And that Creator, Sustainer, and Sovereign knows us and wants to be known by us. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life!” What a privilege we have to know God in God’s fullness!

I pray that you will be blessed “according to the riches of (God’s) glory.” God has all the resources of the universe—and them some—available; it is out of that unimaginable abundance that God wants to bless us. Be careful, though, how you think about this. Paul does not pray that the Ephesian church will be the biggest, richest, most prominent, most influential organization in town.

No, Paul is very specific in his prayer. He prays that the Ephesians would be strengthened in their inner being through the Holy Spirit. I pray the same for you and I hope you will pray the same thing for yourselves. Imagine—we can have the strength of God because we have the Spirit of God. God comes to dwell in us through the Holy Spirit; what could make us stronger than having God’s Spirit in us?

Notice, though, where this strength is known: in our inner being. It is known down deep where we are who we really are; it is experienced in our innermost self. It is necessary, then, that we know ourselves, that we know who we really are in our spirit, so that we can know the strength of God in the ways we really need it. In our innermost being masks don’t matter, appearances don’t matter, and reputation doesn’t matter. All that matters is who we really are and how God touches us as we really are.

So again we see that we need to tend to our spirit; we need to tend to our innermost self through prayer, through reflection, and through repentance so that we will encounter God with more openness and so that we will receive God’s strength with more awareness. And we need that strength if we are going to be the kind of people and if we are going to be the kind of church that live out God’s way in the world and in our relationships with each other.

Paul also prays that Christ would dwell in the hearts of the Ephesians through faith. He is talking about the ongoing indwelling of Christ in their hearts, which is another way of saying their “inner being.” I pray that you will grow to trust in God more and more so that you may know the presence of Christ more and more.

What can you do to build your trust in God? You can pray. You can worship. You can pay attention. You can give your life over to God daily. You can in every moment commit to follow Christ more. You can always remember and never forget that Christ is with you, that Christ is in you, and that Christ is among you.

As you do all of that, your lives will be more and more “rooted and grounded in love”; your lives will be based more and more on the love of God that is seen most fully in Jesus Christ and that is present in us as the body of Christ. (I’ll have much more to say about that on the Sunday after Easter.)

Please remember that I will be praying for you. I pray that you will know God. I pray that you will know God as fully as you possibly can know God. I pray that you will know God deeply and personally. I pray that you will experience all of the benefits that come from knowing God …