Last Sunday after Epiphany(C): The Mystery of the Transfiguration

Last Sunday after Epiphany(C): The Mystery of the Transfiguration

Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a)

By: Colin Cushman

I’ve never been a big fan of this passage, so when I got this passage to write on, I wasn’t thrilled. However, as a preacher, that’s part of the game; that’s what we sign up for. The lectionary serves up these stories to us, whether we like them or not. And so, preachers are forced to take them up and wrestle with them, even if we would rather not. And this is a good thing, as it forces us out of your comfort zone and makes us work through that which we would not do so otherwise. Personally, I’ve never understood the story of the Transfiguration. Some people get a lot of richness and depth out of it, but I never have.

One of the things I dislike is that this passage encourages theologians to wax philosophical. This is especially prominent when you read ancient Christian commentaries. For example, Gregory Palamas (1296–1357) finds in this passage a metaphysical rumination about God’s “essence” versus God’s “energies.”[1] I’ve never particularly liked philosophy and when I hear this breed of interpretation, my eyes just glaze over. Plus, I can only imagine that philosophical exactitude was really only a preoccupation of social elites. I can’t imagine that the average ancient manual laborer was sitting around trying to figure out what the difference is between essences and energies (or even what they are in the first place). Maybe that’s why I’ve never been wild about this passage.

When we focus on the philosophical level of the story while skipping the literary level, we miss something important. After all, the literary level is how most of the listeners through the ages would have understood the story. When we look at this particular story through a literary lens, we see that it is chock-full of all sorts of allusions, cross-references, and symbolism to sink our teeth into.

For example, take two of the most evocative symbols in the story: mountains and clouds. First of all, mountains evoked a sense of connection to the divine throughout almost all of the ancient world. In a universe where the prevailing thought was that the Divine was located in the heavens above, a mountain was an axis mundi[2] that bridged heaven and earth: in ascending the mountain, we get closer to God, both physically and spiritually. That’s why in the Bible, we see important revelations happen on mountains. The most notable example is Moses receiving the Law on Mount Sinai. Through its many details, that story connects altitude with nearness to God. Or take another example: Elijah. When he was being hunted and panicking that he would be executed, he took refuge upon that very same Mount Sinai.[3] While there, he communed with God, who renewed him and sent him back on a mission. And if that’s not enough, Elijah also makes two additional appearances earlier in today’s gospel: (1) the disciples discuss him amongst themselves, and (2) the crowds suspect that John the Baptist is Elijah come back to life.

Note, too, that these two figures—Moses and Elijah—are the very same figures who also appear at the Transfiguration. Interpreters have offered myriad interpretations of this fact, some more compelling than others. Moses and Elijah might represent the Law and the Prophets, the two components of the Hebrew Scriptures. Or, both Moses and Elijah had become eschatological figures and were believed to be coming back at the Day of the Lord, when God dramatically steps into history and sets things right. Or, since Moses and Elijah are the most important characters in the Hebrew Scriptures, this places Jesus among esteemed company.

When Jesus stands alongside these two giants of the faith, it evokes a number of important theological themes. Jesus is worthy of being included among the holiest of past figures. Jesus isn’t breaking from the religious tradition of the past; rather, he stands squarely within it. Jesus is an eschatological figure concerned with setting the world right. These two figures have a lot of symbolism wrapped up just in their being present at the event.

The second evocative symbol, the cloud, appears toward the end of the story, where it completely engulfs the disciples. If in the ancient mind, mountains are the bridge between the heavens and the earth, the clouds surely are Heaven itself. In the Hebrew Bible, clouds stand in for God’s immediate presence and power. While the Israelites were in the wilderness, when a cloud rested on the tabernacle, they knew God was there. Then when that same cloud left the camp, they followed that cloud to a new location. Hundreds of years later, the cloud of God’s presence streamed into the Temple at its dedication—comically making it so that the priests couldn’t do their jobs! Thus, when the disciples in our story find themselves surrounded by a cloud, they understand themselves to be encountering God in an intimate and all-encompassing fashion.

Along with these two symbols, the Transfiguration story weaves in strands from other parts of the gospel narrative. It both echoes the (narrative) past and foreshadows the future. First, it clearly hearkens back to Jesus’ baptism, which kicked off his ministry. In fact, Jesus’ baptism and the Transfiguration are the only two times in the gospel that God (the narrative character) speaks. On both occasions, God affirms Jesus’ mission and his identity as God’s son who is specially set apart. But whereas the baptism proclamation ends with the affirmation “in you, I find happiness,” the transfiguration ends instead with a directive reinforcing Jesus’ authority over the disciples: “Listen to him!”

The story of the Transfiguration also calls forth the impending story of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. In both narratives, Jesus retreats from the public scene at a crucial inflection point in the narrative. He takes the same three disciples with him to pray—Peter, James, and John. And in both stories, the disciples can hardly stay awake while Jesus is busy talking with God. They are partially privy to the private yet momentous events taking place between Jesus and God.

*    *    *

I still do not fully understand why people love this passage so much. Maybe for some, this passage not only holds together the gospel narrative but also integrates the various parts of the Bible, weaving them into an integrated whole. Maybe it’s because it clearly confirms Christ’s divinity. I don’t know. In the end, it’s still not my favorite story. Maybe I’m still just bugged by the fact that I don’t get it. So I think I’m going to stick with my cop-out answer: this passage is a mystery and we can never know what all it means.

[1] https://oca.org/fs/sermons/sermon-on-the-transfiguration

[2]  An axis mundi is a feature common in many world belief systems that there are geographical “centers” around which the cosmos spin, and which feature vertical features, such as trees or mountains, that allow for travel between the earth and the higher and lower worlds.

[3] Mount Horeb, as it is called in the Elijah story, is an alternative name used by some ancient authors for Mount Sinai.

 

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Colin Cushman

Colin Cushman is a pastor in the United Methodist Church serving two small churches in the Seattle area. He lives north of Seattle with his wife, his newborn daughter, and his dog. He loves reading, mountain biking, playing music, and bird photography.

7th Sunday after Epiphany: Hard Holiness

7th Sunday after Epiphany: Hard Holiness

Luke 6:27-38

By: The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff

I got into a fight once.

I was in 4th or 5th grade and a classmate and his friends had been picking on me for months. They would make cruel and untrue comments about me, both behind my back and to my face. They would steal small items when the teacher wasn’t looking, and they would tell the teacher I had done something wrong even when I hadn’t, just so I would get in trouble. There was one classmate in particular who always instigated, and our mutual hostility grew throughout the year.

As I look back at the fight decades later, I can’t remember what finally set me off. I remember being in the gym and hearing him make yet another cruel comment about me,  and I remember the months of anger and frustration that finally exploded as I tackled him.  I remember how furious my gym teacher was when he pulled me off. There isn’t anyone in my life now who I would call my enemy (thankfully), but years ago if someone had asked me, I would have ranted about this student and all the hatred and animosity I felt towards him, and I would have seen the idea of trying to love him as laughably naive.

This is the hardest part of being a Christian; that we are to extend love to everyone, even if they are abusive or work to sabotage us. It’s a lesson that goes against every aspect of American culture that tells us whenever we’re hit, we need to hit right back twice as hard. The hardest part of being a Christian is that, just as rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, we are to extend God’s love freely to all.

I want to be clear that loving an enemy is not the same as condoning their actions and it is not about letting a pattern of abuse continue. A person in an abusive relationship may forgive and love their abuser but that doesn’t mean they should stay married.  Someone who lost their life savings may learn to forgive and love Bernie Madoff, but they still shouldn’t trust him with their investments. Actions have consequences and offering an offender forgiveness and love is not the same as empowering them to do it again. Love is the double-edged sword that requires us to call out and fight injustice while still recognizing and loving perpetrators as fellow children of the Most High God.

In the Revised Common Lectionary, this Gospel from Luke is paired with Genesis 45:3-11; when Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers and forgives them. It is a perfect complement to Luke 6:27-38 because if anyone had a right to bear a grudge, it’s Joseph who was betrayed and sold into slavery by his brothers. Joseph, whose life gets hijacked and whose father spends years mourning a death that never happened. Joseph had every right to be furious and we almost expect him to enslave his brothers as the consequence of reaping what they sow. Yet when they are reconnected Joseph feeds them and ensures their survival. In a reversal of fortune Joseph now has authority over them and while he confronts them with the wrong they did he is also aware of God’s activity in his life, and because of Joseph’s forgiveness a family that was once broken apart by jealousy and sin is reconciled and gather around a table to share a meal. It’s a moment that mirrors the Eucharistic feast when we are all to put aside grudges and grievances and greet each other with a sign of peace before breaking bread together at the table of God.

Loving someone who doesn’t deserve it is hard to do, but if love and mercy were only given to those who deserve it, then we would all be lost. The sacrificial grace of God’s love is extended to everyone like rain that falls on both the just and the unjust alike. By the death of Christ on the cross we have already been judged by God and even though all are unworthy and none of us deserve it, we receive God’s mercy. We have all sinned against each other by what we have done and by what we have left undone, but unworthy as we receive the grace of God’s love. Like the servant whose great debt is forgiven by the master, shouldn’t we follow the example of God and forgive the lesser debts we have against each other? When our day comes and we stand face to face with God, we will all petition for the mercy of God. We have been forgiven much and, as hard as it is, we must extend forgiveness to each other.

People are difficult and loving difficult people is even more difficult. It requires a kind of determination and tenacity to care about people when you don’t want to, or when they don’t deserve it. So why do it?

We do it because it’s not about them. While we are alive on this earth, we have an opportunity to work with God and craft our souls to be formed into the holiest versions of ourselves we can be. In the world yet to come we aren’t going to be concerned about the promotion we didn’t get, the alcoholic mother who ruined our financial future, the stalker that got us fired or whatever else it is. We can’t control other people’s actions towards us, but we can control our own. The ability to control ourselves, the refusal of letting someone else dictate our emotional response, allows us to enter deeper into the heart of a God who acts in all people. We have to love our enemies because love is our only option and the only way for us to grow closer to God. Aside from loving our enemies we could feel hatred or indifference towards them, but hate is an acid that destroys its container and indifference is a callous that becomes numb to the holy. We have to love because love is the only weapon we have. Resilient and tenacious love is an immeasurable power that creates a barrier against bitterness and cynicism and is the antibody to hatred and indifference. We don’t love because someone they’re likeable, we love them because they are a child of God.  Loving our enemies requires overcoming pride even when we’re in the right. It means having the faith and confidence that one day we all stand before the throne of God and all wrongs will be made right, the ones that have been inflicted on us and the ones we’ve inflicted on others, knowingly or not.

It’s not easy but it’s good, and it’s not simple but it is holy.

 

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The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff

The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff earned a Master of Divinity from Episcopal Divinity School and currently serves as Assistant Priest at St. Philip’s Church, Southport, North Carolina. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with his wife and two dogs and spends his free time on the beach, reading, or playing chess (poorly).

6th Sunday after Epiphany: It’s Not All About You!

6th Sunday after Epiphany: It’s Not All About You!

Luke 6:17-26

By: Dr. Emily Kahm

It’s not all about you!

This is a tricky message to incorporate at any time of one’s life, but perhaps especially so after the consumerist marathon that is the Christmas season, which gives way to the self-improvement hype of the New Year—not that these seasons are irredeemably bad! Consumerism is often just the language we know how to employ when we try to show others that we care about them. Self-improvement is often the way we acknowledge that it is worth being good to ourselves. But still: It’s not all about you.

This is the refrain that my spouse and I often use when discussing frustrations with people in our field who don’t seem to “get it.” He’s in campus ministry and works with other great ministers, but still runs into folks who seem to use a ministry platform to promote their own favorite spiritual practices and dismiss those who advocate for a variety of ways of reaching students. I teach college-level Religion, and while my fellow Religion professors are fantastic, I still occasionally run into peers who seem to resent the fact that college students aren’t immediately thrilled by the topic of their introductory courses, or don’t laud their innovative assignments. We always seem to end discussions about these colleagues with the phrase, “It’s not all about you!” Ministry and teaching are about serving the needs of those who are in front of you, and that means a certain de-centering of self. If you go into these fields with ego, you’ll quickly be disenchanted.

I’ve written on the Beatitudes before for this blog, but I had previously been assigned the Matthew version—those recitations are longer and more detailed, and they don’t include the significant “Woe to you” section at the end. This is one reason I appreciate having more than one Gospel to relate what Jesus said—so much is the same, but I find the tone drastically different. Instead of comfort, we get challenge. Instead of blessing apparently everyone, Jesus makes it clear that he is fully subverting the status quo—the happy and well-fed and well-regarded and well-off will not remain so. Perhaps they should not remain so when so many around them are suffering.

I find myself wondering if Jesus switched gears during this sermon because he saw too many disciples and would-be followers latching onto the blessings, not really getting that they might not number among the “poor” with whom Jesus is especially concerned. This is a common human tendency: we look up when we think about our power and influence, comparing ourselves to those who obviously have more. I distinctly remember thinking during my senior year of college that it seemed like everybody was going to grad school and that my nearly-complete bachelor’s degree was effectively insignificant. That changed the day I got called in for jury duty. Out of 76 randomly chosen people in my county, I was one of exactly 2 who had any college education at all. Who’s the blessed one, again?

It’s also tempting to downplay our own successes and blessings, I think, because doing so exempts us from helping those who have less. I might have a house and be able to pay all my utilities each month, but all that student loan debt! In my introductory class, I ask my students to seriously consider whether they would give up their own comforts in order to ensure another person would have enough to survive. Most respond with uncertainty – they’re not used to thinking of themselves as “rich” to begin with, so the idea that they could or should give up something they think of as normal (air conditioning? Internet? A personal computer?) so that another person could have clean water is a strange proposition. They’re much more comfortable arguing why those two things are unrelated than they are with admitting that there are some things they’d refuse to go without. Jesus makes no excuses for those who have plenty; their fortunes will change. Better if they embrace a call to poverty, to mourning alongside the hurting, to sharing what they have with those who have not, than to wait for the Kingdom of God to reverse their luck.

So as we ride out the season of self-interest, let’s allow Jesus to tell us that it’s not about us—that  we should be looking down rather than up when we compare our blessings—and be honest about what we are really able to share from our abundance.

 

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Dr. Emily Kahm

Dr. Emily Kahm is a Teaching Fellow in Religion at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. She and her spouse, Chris, welcomed their first child, Xavier, into the world in late September of 2018.

5th Sunday after Epiphany: Saying “Yes!”

5th Sunday after Epiphany: Saying “Yes!”

Luke 5:1-11

By: The Rev. Kim Sorrells

This story, and its parallel versions in Mathew and Mark, is a familiar one for many of us who have grown up in or around the church. The readily available imagery of fishing and catching lends itself nicely to children’s stories and Vacation Bible School themes. For me, growing up in an evangelical setting this story was often used a charge to go out and “save souls,” or convert people to Christianity. While there is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to share something meaningful with others around you, to reduce the mission of Christ to focusing on individuals misses out on the transformation of the world and ultimately falls short of the fullness of Christ’s mission.

This story is about the calling of the first disciples not only to become followers of Jesus, but to be able to continue to carry out his mission of bringing about the Kin-dom of God on earth as it is in Heaven. As Arland J. Hultgren says, “Jesus has come into the world to reveal God and to redeem the cosmos. But he is known to us only through the witness of his apostles.” It is fitting then, he says, that the church read this story during the season after Epiphany—a time when we celebrate the manifestation of God in Christ and in turn contemplate our involvement in his mission in the world.”[1] Christ, the manifestation of God’s love and justice among us, has come to bring about the kin-dom of God’s peace and justice on earth as it is in heaven and show us the way of this work. In this way, the calling of the disciples is less about saving individual souls and more about building a movement to continue to build the kin-dom of God.

When I worked in faith-based political organizing, we spent a great deal of time talking about and working on “building the movement.” To create change, to bring about a more just society, we needed people to understand and believe in the cause we were working on, and then we needed them to also go tell their friends. In a way, it sounds almost like those “pyramid schemes” we hear about—I go recruit 5 people, who in turn do the same. Yet the reality is, this is how change happens on a larger scale. This is how we share the ways of peace and justice: by casting out our nets and catching people. Building a movement; a movement that builds God’s kin-dom of God on earth, takes ordinary everyday people deciding to get up and follow Jesus in his way of justice and peace, and to bring in others with them.

While Jesus is the main character, this passage is just as much about Simon and the others as they recognize Christ as a manifestation of God and make the choice to follow him in God’s mission. Like other call stories in the Bible, we first see hesitation from Simon. He is hesitant to let down the nets, but does as he is asked, calling Jesus “master.” However, as they haul in an abundance of fish, a miraculous portion, Simon recognizes that this man is more than a teacher. Here, his language shifts—calling Christ “Lord” as he falls to his knees in awe. Still resistant, this time from a sense of unworthiness, but as Christ calls to him to follow, he does. I imagine as he recognizes Christ’s nature he is compelled to follow, even as daunting as it might seem.

The call to be a disciple of Jesus is no less “all in” for believers today than it was for Simon and the first disciples. Certainly, the circumstances have changed, but the call is the same: to go forth and further the mission of God’s kin-dom on earth, catching people and building the movement. I imagine that for many of us, the call feels daunting. Maybe we too are hesitant and feel unworthy. Maybe sometimes the task feels too big. And yet, when we catch a glimpse of Christ among us, recognizing God in the midst of our lives, we are reminded that we are not alone in this journey. Rather, we are compelled to follow and empowered by Christ with us. Like those first disciples, Christ is at work in and among our everyday ordinary lives and among ordinary people. We need not have all the answers or have It all together.  Rather, all that is required is simply to say “yes” and follow.

As you sit with this text and what it says to our communities of faith, perhaps it’s worth asking where it is we see the movements of Christ among us, cultivating God’s Kin-dom on earth? Where is it that Christ is calling us to join into that movement and how is it that we might continue to call others into this movement with us? Maybe these questions don’t yet have clear answers. We need not know it all, we simply must be willing to say “Yes” and join in the movement.

[1] Hultgren, Arland J. (2010, February 7). Commentary on Luke 5:1-11. Retrieved from http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=506

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The Rev. Kim Sorrells

The Rev. Kim Sorrells is an Ordained Minister in the United Church of Christ, with an interest in Spiritual Practices and Justice work. Kim is also bi-vocational and spends their “day job” working for Atlanta Pride as the Programs and Partnerships Manager.

4th Sunday after Epiphany: How Not to Deliver Your First Sermon

4th Sunday after Epiphany: How Not to Deliver Your First Sermon

Luke 4:21-30

By: The Rev. Andrew Chappell

 

In June of 2017, at the age of 27, I was commissioned as a pastor in the United Methodist Church. As it goes in the Methodist itinerant system, I was then appointed to a church. The church to which I was appointed (as associate pastor) happens to be a church that my father pastored and that my family attended from 1994-2001. You can imagine the mixture of feelings I had about that appointment, but most of all, I was elated to be given the opportunity to go home and minister to a congregation that had a hand in raising me.

My first Sunday there, I recognized so many faces. So many of the people in the congregation that morning had an enormous impact on my faith at an early age. A great deal of the sermon I preached that morning looked at the simplicity of the task Christ has given us. At the end of the sermon, I focused on thanking Northbrook for loving me at an early age and into my teens, and for showing me what it looked like to be a part of a loving, gracious community that loves people and most of all Jesus.

I am now halfway through my second year at this church. To serve a community that was so instrumental in my growth as a person and believer has been a joy. The honeymoon continues to this day, and I hope it never ends.

Our Scripture, Luke 4:21-30, finds Jesus in a similar situation. However, his honeymoon ends quickly. Jesus has come home to Nazareth; to his home-synagogue, and he is surrounded by people that raised him in both stature and faith. He preaches his first sermon, and Luke tells us that after claiming to fulfill the prophecy from Isaiah, the congregation is impressed and even proud, looking at one another and saying, “That’s Joseph’s son isn’t it?”

Unfortunately, the pride is short-lived. At this point, our parallel stories of preaching to our hometown crowds diverge as Jesus essentially tells them that the prophecy which he has fulfilled today—that he will be the one “…to bring good news to the poor…proclaim release to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind,” and freedom to the oppressed—does not have a whole lot to do with them (4:18-19). In fact, it has a great deal more to do with the Gentiles and, using examples from 1 Kings 17 and 2 Kings 5, Jesus demonstrates that, historically, this has been a long time coming.

Luke’s Gospel and its sequel (the Acts of the Apostles) paint a portrait of Jesus that cares for the underprivileged, the sick, blind, lame, widows, the poor, AND the Gentiles. Jesus is not just the Savior of the Jews. Jesus is the Savior of humanity! The Gospel of Luke inaugurates Jesus as the Savior of Jews AND Gentiles, and the Acts of the Apostles shows that same good news going viral, into all the world, to everyone!

Just 2 chapters before this, Simeon takes baby Jesus into his arms and proclaims that this child is indeed both a light for the Jews AND the Gentiles. Afterwards, he looks at Mary and acknowledges that this child will also be the cause of much division and heartache. And in Luke 4, we see the first fruits of that division. The message of salvation, of God’s grace for ALL is a hard truth to swallow, specifically for the insiders. The evidence? Jesus’ own home synagogue tries to kill him for such a message!

Nevertheless, Jesus’ message to the Gentiles and to the marginalized and to the world is so important that he has to begin his ministry with this universal message. His first sermon cannot leave it out. It has to be in the forefront.

As you ponder this passage, think about a few things:

  • What is something that, if preached, would cause your congregation to lose their minds in intense anger?
  • Who are the people your congregation intentionally or unintentionally leaves out? Why?
  • Why is an inclusive message so difficult for some to grasp?

Jesus has called us to preach hard truths; to reach out to those on the outside. That may very well cause division. May God be with you as you carry the inclusive and difficult message of Jesus. May God be with you when you bring the Gospel to those you know and those you don’t know, your hometown and out-of-town crowds. May God move you in the direction of spiritual growth. And may you always look to Jesus Christ, who continually shows us what it means to be human, what it means to be a disciple, and what is means to love.

Andrew
The Rev. Andrew Chappell

The Rev. Andrew Chappell has been in ministry since 2008 and currently serves as the Associate Pastor of Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. Andrew has degrees in Religious Studies and Telecommunications from the University of Georgia, and an M.Div. from Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Andrew loves listening to records, watching Seinfeld, and beignets from Roux on Canton.

 

3rd Sunday after Epiphany: Is God With Us?

3rd Sunday after Epiphany: Is God With Us?

Luke 4:14-21

By: The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

Too often we sanitize Jesus’ ministry and today’s reading is one of the ways that we as preachers get ourselves stuck sanitizing or sanding down rough scriptural edges for our congregations. If we limit ourselves only to these eight verses, we miss the power and danger of the Holy Spirit.

Look at where this text sits. Jesus has been baptized (the gospel lesson from Baptism of our Lord), driven out into the wilderness (a text we won’t read ‘til Lent 1), and come back filled with the power of the Spirit. He begins to teach in the synagogue and was “praised by everyone.” He is handed the Scroll of Isaiah and begins to read Isaiah 4:17. He concludes, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Everyone is amazed, and if we leave it there, the Holy Spirit works and everyone is #bff #blessed.

The problem is, that’s not the Jesus we get. He comes out of the desert after being tempted and gets right to work. Luke doesn’t tell us how long it is before Jesus arrives in Nazareth, but the gospel relates the events in near Markan breathlessness. Jesus goes from the desert to the synagogue fast. So here is a dusty, emaciated, threadbare son of a local craftsman showing up to read from the prophet Isaiah about how God is going to look out for the poor, oppressed, captive, and blind. The people might have just been amazed and praised Jesus because they were surprised he was standing, let alone reading scripture.

As preachers we have to be honest about the Holy Spirit. This isn’t a safe Spirit. The Spirit is poured out on Jesus in baptism and then DRIVES HIM INTO THE WILDERNESS TO BE TEMPTED BY THE DEVIL. The Spirit sees Jesus through the wilderness, and Jesus returns filled with the power of the Spirit. Jesus takes this power and preaches, and people are amazed and praise him. Until after v 21, when Jesus interprets some more scripture, AND THE PEOPLE RUN HIM OUT OF TOWN. The Holy Spirit should come with a disclaimer.

Now the thing about Spirit-filled ministry is that Jesus is doing it when they are praising him, and he is doing it when he is being run out of town (or driven into the wilderness). It is neither good nor bad, safe nor dangerous. The Spirit will lead where the Spirit needs and wants to lead.

So, how do we break this down for our congregations? What metric can we use to ensure we are doing the work of the Holy Spirit? What compass is there? Sometimes we are run out of town for not doing the work of the Spirit, and sometimes we are run out for being offensive insensitive jerks. Sometimes we are accepted by communities because we are accommodating, uncritical, and unchallenging and sometimes we are accepted because we speak of the hope and promise of Jesus Christ.

“The Great Thanksgiving for Advent” quotes the Magnificat saying, “You fill the hungry with good things, and the rich you send away empty.” Every Advent I am surprised, thrilled, and scared of these words as I stand at the Table and offer them to God and the congregation. Mary speaks to our fears nicely. We want for God to choose us, and over and over again God sides with the oppressed, the poor, the captive, the hurting, and the lost.

This is a terrifying word because it means that God may not choose us. It is scary that the good news might be for someone else and not for me, us, or you. We spend so much time in Christmas parsing the meaning of the incarnation. The Word became Flesh and dwells among usLove came down at Christmas….To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, Christ the Lord… Glory to the newborn king, God and Sinners reconciled… veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate Deity. In the season of Christmas and Epiphany we move beyond the reality of the incarnation and dig into the “why” of incarnation. Why did Christ come in flesh? To save us from sin certainly, but also to speak into the reality of the world. To speak the words of the prophets in favor of the poor, oppressed, captive, and the hurting.

The metric we then use to determine if we are doing the work of God is “Am I where God is?” Are we with the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, and the thirsty? Are we with God and God’s people when no one else is, when no one else wants to be, when everyone else tells us not to be? Maybe (as hard as this might be for us to stomach as Americans), God isn’t with us. Maybe God is with the people Jesus reads about in Isaiah.

If we as the Church are to claim the authority to act as the Body of Christ, we must be with Christ. Where can your congregation be with Christ in your community? Who can you be with that Christ is “bringing good news” “release” and “freedom” to? God is with us. God is with you. Christ cleanses us of our sin, offers us transformation, righteousness, and holiness. Can we fully grasp that holiness if we stand apart from the favored ones of God?

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The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord (& Child)

The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord grew up in Florida and is a lifelong United Methodist. He’s a graduate of Candler School of Theology. His focus is on preaching, pastoral care, and exploring the spiritual practices that connect us to God. He enjoys running, hiking, and backyard gardening. Jonathan is married to Keri, who is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Jon and Keri welcomed their first child in July 2018, they also have a dog and some bees. Jonathan is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church and serves Yadkinville United Methodist Church in Yadkinville, North Carolina.

Baptism of Our Lord: Worthy of Our Calling

Baptism of Our Lord: Worthy of Our Calling

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

By: The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

 

In the Lectionary text for this week, John declares that he baptizes with water but one more powerful than he is coming who will “baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (v16)” and he will use “his winnowing fork… to clean his threshing floor (v17).” The Lectionary then moves to the baptism of Jesus, which is different than the story found in the other synoptics. In Luke, Jesus is baptized alongside others and we do not get the details of the baptism, but are instead told that after he is baptized he prays, and that the Holy Spirit came upon “in bodily form like a dove.” (v22)

Luke does not tell us why Jesus goes to be baptized, and he does not tell us that it is John who does the baptizing, and so we use the scripture surrounding the text to help us understand why it is that Jesus is baptized. After all, for three chapters, Luke has been telling us that Jesus is the Promised One, born without sin. John baptizes as a result of repentance and calls on others to move from their sinful ways and care for those who are in need. One way to read these texts together is to continue reading into Jesus’ genealogy. Upon baptism the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus and a voice from heaven declares “You are my Son, whom I dearly love (v22).” In this baptism Jesus is claimed as God’s child, Jesus’ genealogy is recited, and he begins his ministry.

Through baptism, we are initiated into Christ’s church, the family of God, we are made part of God’s mighty acts of salvation, and we are given new birth through the water and Holy Spirit. In the United Methodist tradition baptism occurring at infancy is common and so the vows of baptism are taken by the parents/guardians/ family on behalf of the child, with the hope that the child will later take on the vows themselves. Two of the vows are:

“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world,
and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves[1]?”

In baptism Jesus is initiated into the family of God and claimed by God as God’s beloved child. In baptism Jesus accepts his ministry, accepts that he is the one John has been teaching about, and claims his identity as the savior that Zechariah and Mary have both prophesied. But baptism is not just about initiation or claiming God as your God. In baptism we also acknowledge the need to be in community with one another, and to resist wickedness and work towards a world where justice and equality reign. And this, we do not do on our own.

Perhaps that is why Jesus goes along with all the others for baptism not merely to show solidarity with humanity as they seek to repent of their individual sins, but because he knew the need to acknowledge and repent for the corporate sin that all of humanity is part of, merely by being human. In all things we as humans do exist within a structure that is unfortunately flawed and often overtly sinful. In sharing our humanity Jesus needed to name that through his genealogy of imperfect people like David and Abraham, he too is aware of the structures of sin.

We live in a time where it feels like resisting injustice and oppression is a full-time job. Nearly every news report shares another instance of inequality and abuse of a people group or the denial of justice by those who are powerful. I cannot help but think of those who are currently at our border literally wading through the waters of the Rio Grande hoping for freedom and protection for themselves and their children. Or the religious minorities in China and Myanmar who are being routinely killed because of their faith and ethnicity. In our cities, people of color are far more likely to experience homelessness or incarceration than whites. Our planet is injured by our collective refusal to be caregivers of the earth instead of plunderers of God’s good creation.

As we preach on this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, remembering the vows we take or have taken upon ourselves for our children who cannot speak for themselves is a remarkable way to call our congregations back into focus after the holidays. The work of repentance is not finished; we have work to do. Take this week to call your congregation into actions of repentance, into actions that are worthy of our calling as God’s children.

 

[1] “The United Methodist Book of Worship.” Nashville, Tenn. United Methodist Publishing House, 1992.

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The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles is a Methodist Minister in Atlanta, Georgia. She attended Converse College, a liberal arts women’s college, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts in English and Religion. Following college, AnnaKate attended Emory University’s Candler School of Theology where she earned her Master of Divinity. She also attended Cambridge University where she wrote her thesis on John Wesley and the Holy Club. She is currently a Doctor of Ministry candidate at Candler School of Theology. She enjoys traveling and eating tacos.