Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Holy Week Morning Devotional: Dying Seeds

John 12:12-26

20 Now eamong those who went up to worship at the feast were some fGreeks. 21 So these came to gPhilip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told hAndrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 And Jesus answered them, i“The hour has come jfor the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, kunless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 lWhoever loves his life loses it, and mwhoever nhates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves me, he must ofollow me; and pwhere I am, there will my servant be also. qIf anyone serves me, rthe Father will honor him.[1]

Dying Seeds

This is not an easy passage to pull apart. At a session meeting last week, we spent a great deal of time on it. It's confusing. You have to die to live? Dead seeds bear fruit? This is a classic example of Jesus saying things that are so out there, we are still struggling with it 2000+ years later. 

Think about what happens when a seed falls into the ground.  It sits for a short while, then it suddenly bursts open! Before long, there is nothing left of the seed, but rather a plant has grown because the seed was willing to explode and become something completely different. A seed that doesn't fall into the ground and lose itself becomes hard and useless. 

There is who we think we are (seeds) and there is who we are (plants). We can't know who we truly are until we have fallen into the ground, willing to explode - to allow who we used to be to be shattered so that something new and beautiful can grow. And we can only grow up into plants with Jesus. 

Don't get stuck on being a seed. Don't cling to your seed-ness so tightly that you stay a seed forever, because you'll eventually grow hard and shriveled and will no longer be able to grow. Being a fruit-bearing plant is the real life intended for us. As we watch the trees bud and the new plants spring forth from the ground in Spring, let them be reminders to us of the new life we have in Jesus if we are only willing to fall into the ground with him. 

e [1 Kgs. 8:41–43; Acts 8:27]
f Acts 17:4; [Mark 7:26]; See ch. 7:35
g ch. 1:44
h See Mark 13:3
i ch. 17:1; [ver. 27; ch. 13:31, 32; Mark 14:41]; See ch. 2:4
j ver. 16
k 1 Cor. 15:36
l See Matt. 10:39
m [ch. 11:25]
n See Luke 14:26
o ch. 8:12; 21:18
p ch. 14:3; 17:24; [2 Cor. 5:8; 1 Thess. 4:17]
q [ch. 14:21, 23; 16:27]
r 1 Sam. 2:30; Ps. 91:15
[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Jn 12:20–27). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Holy Week Morning Devotional: Hindsight is 20:20

John 12:9-19

When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus4 was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, owhom he had raised from the dead. 10 pSo the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 because qon account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.
The Triumphal Entry
12 The next day rthe large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of spalm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, t“Hosanna! Blessed is uhe who comes in the name of the Lord, even vthe King of Israel!” 14 And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written,
15    w“Fear not, daughter of Zion;
       behold, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
16 xHis disciples did not understand these things at first, but ywhen Jesus was glorified, then zthey remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him. 17 aThe crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. 18 The reason why the crowd went to meet him bwas that they heard he had done this sign. 19 So the Pharisees said to one another, c“You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, dthe world has gone after him.” [1]

Hindsight is 20:20

Yesterday, I preached about the irony of Palm Sunday. The Sunday lectionary passage was Mark's account of the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. This morning's daily lectionary passage is the account of the same story from the gospel of John. In Mark, the Gospel writer doesn't say much about what the crowd does next and he doesn't say much about what's going on in the disciples' heads either. But John - who is more deeply theological - gives us a little bit of reflection in retrospect. 

In verse 16 of the passage we just read, John says, "His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him." The disciples didn't get what was going on during what we now refer to as "the Passion." Jesus had been clueing them in all along, but they just weren't understanding it. John tells us that the did finally get it. It wasn't until the very final piece of the puzzle - the glorification of Jesus - was put into place that they understood. 

It's important for us to remember the shadow on the palms through holy week. Palm Sunday isn't the end of Lent. It's the beginning of Holy Week, and there are some dark nights in Holy Week. We need to keep looking forward without getting stuck on just the days that we like or are comfortable with. On the other hand, neither can we forget the past. It is often upon reflection later on that we can see what God was actually working in those inexplicable moments in our lives. Holy Week isn't just the path leading up to Easter, it's the culmination of everything that had happened throughout Jesus' life and arguably in human history. 

Being stuck on today isn't healthy. We have to remember that God will continue to move in the future in ways we won't always understand and we have to remember that God has moved in the past in ways that weren't clear at the time. We have to remember that God's movement today is founded on God's movement yesterday and forms the foundation for God's movement tomorrow. 

This week offers us a chance to reflect on the whole thread. It pulls together all the pieces of Jesus' life for us in a way that we can reflect on the meaning and the importance of it. Let this week be a time of reflection on what God is doing, has done, and will do.

4 Greek he
o ch. 11:44
p [Luke 16:31]
q ver. 18; ch. 11:45
r For ver. 12–15, see Matt. 21:4–9; Mark 11:7–10; Luke 19:35–38
s [Rev. 7:9]
t Ps. 118:25, 26
u [ch. 5:43]
v See ch. 1:49
w Cited from Zech. 9:9
x [ch. 13:7]; See Mark 9:32
y ver. 23; See ch. 7:39
z ch. 2:22
a [Luke 19:37]
b ver. 9–11
c ch. 11:47
d [ch. 3:26]
[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Jn 12:9–19). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Shadow on the Palms: Mark 11:1-11

Sunday, March 29, 2015 | Lent
Palm Sunday
Sixth Sunday in Lent
Year B

The full manuscript can be found after the break. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Written on Our Hearts: Psalm 51:1-12, Jeremiah 31:31-34

Sunday, March 22, 2015 | Lent
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Year B

Friday, March 20, 2015

Ask the Pastor: What is communion for and who is allowed to participate in it?

It's been a crazy month or so for me. I apologize that I have taken so long to get to a new "Ask the Pastor" question. This is one that's been sitting in my list for a while now, too. It's been asked in several different forms by congregants, friends, and family recently, so it's definitely a popular question. This just starts to scratch the surface of Communion, and I encourage you to comment with further questions that this might bring up for you and/or with totally unrelated questions you've always wanted to know about God, church, Presbyterians (I have some Missionary Alliance friends who are fascinated by Presbyterians), salvation, heaven, the Bible, whatever. Most of the questions on my list have come from my congregation - which I love, because that means that I get to hang out with an awesome congregation who is really taking this stuff seriously and engaging in life with God - but some come from friends and family as well. 

Today's Ask the Pastor question is:

What is communion for and who is allowed to participate in it?
            Communion is a sacrament that has many varied definitions and even slightly different logistical forms in many varied traditions. Some churches dip pieces of bread in one big cup (Intinction) and others pass out small cups and little pieces of bread or wafers. It also goes by different names: Communion, Eucharist, and the Lords Supper. Very simply, the word “communion” means fellowship. Eucharist means “giving thanks.” “The Lord’s Supper” is a reminder that this sacrament is modeled after the Last Supper that Jesus ate with his disciples before his death.
            When I wrote a bit about baptism, I defined a sacrament as a “sign and seal” of the grace that God gives us. That is true of communion too. In the reformed tradition, these are the only two sacraments. Some traditions have more sacraments and include things like marriage and ordination in the sacraments. The Roman Catholic Church has seven sacraments. Some traditions don’t adhere to the doctrine of sacraments at all. For those traditions (Baptists and most non-denominational churches, for example) that don’t consider anything a “sacrament,” communion is simply a time to remember the Last Supper and Jesus’ sacrifice.
            Communion is fellowship. In the reformed tradition, we believe that in Communion, we are lifted up to God in a way and that Jesus is truly present in the moment. This is a holy time of fellowship with God and with one another. In all of our worship, but most especially noted during the sacraments, we are joined by the saints of all ages. This means that as we celebrate communion, we celebrate with Christians, not just from around the world, but from across the span of time. There is something about the moment that beings us closer to God and strengthens our ties to one another.
            Communion is thanksgiving. While we believe that something more happens in Communion than simple remembrance, it is still a time to give thanks to God for Jesus’ sacrifice. “Do this in remembrance of me.” We are participating in something that Jesus did her on earth and told us to never forget. We thank God for the grace given to us.
            There is nothing magical about Communion. We do not believe in our tradition that the bread and wine (or Welch’s) literally transform into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. But we do believe that Jesus Christ is actually there in the moment with us. We believe that there is something holy about that moment that can’t be experienced any other way.
            There are many different opinions on how often we should celebrate communion in our churches. I tend to think we should celebrate it as often as possible. At my church, we celebrate on the first Sunday of every month, as well as on holy days such as Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Pentecost. At the time of the Reformation (that’s when the protestant church came to be after Marth Luther started speaking out against certain Catholic Church practices), the Roman Catholic churches were celebrating Communion quite rarely. Sometimes, the only celebrated it once or twice a year. John Calvin – founder of Presbtyerianism  - thought the church should be celebrating Communion every single Sunday. It’s ironic that things have no flip flopped to where Catholic churches generally celebrate Communion every week and many Protestants are even hesitant to celebrate as frequently as once a month because they don’t want to risk “being too Catholic.” I believe that we should embrace our Reformation roots and the idea of celebration and fellowship centered on God’s grace and we should celebrate Communion as often as possible.
            Just as with the debate about frequency, there is a great deal of variance in regards to who should be allowed to participate in the sacrament of Communion and how necessary it is. First and foremost: Communion is not salvific – you aren’t saved by it. The work of salvation has already been done. There is no amount of “stuff” we can do in this life to save ourselves from the mess we are. That said, there is something holy and fortifying in Communion and in that moment we are truly brought closer to God. This is an important part of the Christian life. We are called to participate in the life of the church – including sacraments – in order to grow closer to God and to one another. We aren’t meant to be Christians from the sideline not bothering to grow. If you happen to miss Communion because you were sick, your salvation isn’t in jeopardy. God’s not keep attendance records. But you do miss something important – something edifying.
            Some churches allow anyone to take communion. Some only allow members of their church or denomination take communion. In our tradition, we allow any baptized believer of any tradition to participate in communion with us. As long as a person is baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, they are welcomed warmly into the fellowship of Communion with us. And there’s no paperwork or proof of baptism required because while we have theological reasons for requiring baptism before Communion, we also remember that nobody’s going to get struck by heavenly lightening if they “do it wrong.”
            This does open up the question of children participating in Communion. Again, this depends on the tradition, and even on the individual church a bit. Every church I’ve been to in the Presbyterian tradition has taken the stance that if a child is old enough to articulate at some level what’s going on at Communion, they are old enough to participate. For some kids, this might be as young as 3 or 4. My kids were all in the ballpark of 3 when they were old enough to “get it.” Obviously, they can’t write a theological statement on the meaning of Communion at that age, but they can certainly say something as basic as “We remember Jesus’ Last Supper and spend time with God.” At my church, children are not just welcomed, but are encouraged to participate in Communion.
            If you’re not sure where your church falls on some of these issues, I encourage you to talk to your pastor about it. Most pastors love when their congregation members come to them with questions like this. It means that you’re listening and paying attention and that you’re engaged in the life of the church. I personally find answering questions like this to be one of my very favorite parts of being a pastor. I love the conversations that unfold from these questions.

            And, as always, if you’re in the area and don’t have a church home, come join us! We meet every Sunday at 11 am at 900 Elizabeth Street, McKeesport, PA 15133. If you’re self-conscious about showing up and feeling like the conspicuous new person, pop in on Easter. I can guarantee there will be lots of people there we don’t generally see at church and you’ll blend right in. And even on a normal Sunday, we don’t ever call out new people or visitors from the pulpit or anything embarrassing like that. You’ll probably get a few friendly people saying hi and introducing themselves, but that’s the worst of it. I promise that EVERYONE is welcome in our church. We won’t turn you away because of what you’re wearing, where you live, how much you can afford to put in the offering place, who you’re with, etc. Come as you are to worship.