Easter Sunday

Acts 10:34 Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another.35 Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all! 37 You know what happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism John preached.38 You know about Jesus of Nazareth, whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit and endowed with power. Jesus traveled around doing good and healing everyone oppressed by the devil because God was with him.39 We are witnesses of everything he did, both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to be seen,41 not by everyone but by us. We are witnesses whom God chose beforehand, who ate and drank with him after God raised him from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

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Beverly: “The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!” Pastors across the country and around the world will greet their congregations on Easter Sunday with this glorious affirmation of God’s greatest work on our behalf. Tradition has it that Saint Augustine of Hippo called every Sunday “a little Easter,” suggesting the significance of the Lord’s Day for the Christian community as we gather to recall God’s saving grace in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. Now, however, we’ve arrived once again at “the BIG Easter,”—or, as liturgical scholar Laurence Hull Stookey puts it, “Every Easter is a great Sunday.” On this “great Sunday,” the day concluding our Lenten journey with Jesus into the wilderness, along the paths of ministry, and through the days of his passion to the morning of the resurrection, we arrive at what is surely the most important liturgical celebration of the year. This is the day, the celebration, which defines us as the Christian community.

My colleague in ministry, Steve Hodges, and I had some conversation about the appointed RCL texts for Easter Sunday. Since Steve planned to preach on the first reading from Acts 10:34-43, our conversation focused on that text. The text is Peter’s sermon to Cornelius, the devout Gentile centurion, and his household. There are a number of powerful claims in Peter’s sermon, including: God’s impartiality toward believers; Christ’s divinely-appointed life and work; the truth of the resurrection as witnessed by the apostles; Christ’s rule and judgment over all; and the responsibility of those who have heard the good news of God’s work in Jesus Christ to testify to its truth.

Juxtaposing our campus Lenten theme of “Who is my neighbor?” with this text, Steve and I saw several connections and homiletical directions that centered on our responsibility as Christ’s modern-day apostles. As those who have been “chosen by God as witnesses” (v. 41) to the world today, our job is to proclaim the great news of this day to our “neighbors” without judgment or partiality. We are called to point to places and ways where Christ’s resurrection continues to break into our desperate lives and world, trusting God to change the minds and hearts of those we encounter.

Steve is going to share a sketch of the sermon he is working on for the “great Sunday” of Easter based on Peter’s sermon in Acts 10.

Steve: “Who are you?” or “Oh! Is that my neighbor?” If we do not say it out loud this morning some of us may ask ourselves such questions. We’ll ask this when we catch sight of the strangers. The reason being is that today is Easter Sunday. As a humorist said, “Easter is the only time it’s good to put all your eggs in one basket.” To this point many flock to our churches on this glorious day each year with hope to get right with God, or at least get right with whoever dragged them to church and now sits beside us on the pew. So this morning we may have a number of reasons to ask, “Who are you?”

Peter stood before a gathering in Caesarea, looked around at the people and may have wondered, “Who are you?” Peter was surrounded by strangers. Peter was invited by Cornelius the Roman centurion to come and share what he had been commanded by the Lord. I find that this may be an extreme version of what we will experience this Easter morning. As Peter looked out over the gathering he was inspired to say what must have grabbed their attention, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality.” (Verse 34) Someone in the gathering just may have responded, “Who are you?” Peter continued.

Peter let loose with the Good News of Jesus Christ, the one appointed by God, who rose from the dead. Peter said to Cornelius and this crowd, “everyone who believes in Christ receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Verse 43). Peter preached to all the people. There seems to have been no hesitation by Peter for the listener’s origin, upbringing, language, social rank, or religious affiliation. With Peter’s words he revealed an inclusiveness of the gospel. From my perspective Peter let it be known that to God it does not matter who you are, for we are all “neighbors” in the kingdom and work of God who raised Jesus from the dead.

This text demands that we step up boldly and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. We’re called to proclaim the message and stand firm in our Christian faith that God shows no partiality to anyone–especially to the people God has set before us this day, for all are welcome to God’s table of grace and to the ministry of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our risen Lord.

Beverly: I think Steve identified well one of the challenges of preaching on Easter Sunday: the variety of worshippers who will be present in our churches. Preachers look out upon and worshippers sit among the faithful, the seeking, the skeptical and everything in between.

Peter’s sermon reminds us that God invites ALL to hear and accept the great news of Christ’s resurrection. Our job as those who have heard and believe is not to judge but to bear witness to the truth of God’s goodness. It is as simple—and as challenging!—as that. And so on this “great Sunday” of Easter, go out into the world among the “neighbors” God has given us, proclaiming—and living—the news that “The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!”

 

Eternal God,

We praise you that your glory has dawned on us,

and brought us into this Day of Resurrection

We rejoice that the grave could not hold your Son,

and that he has conquered death,

risen to rule over all powers of this earth.

We praise you that he summons us into new life,

to follow him with joy and gladness.

By your Spirit, lift us from doubt and despair,

and set our feet in Christ’s holy way,

that our lives may be signs of his life,

and all we have may show forth his love.

Praise, glory, and thanksgiving to you, our God,

forever and ever. Amen. (Book of Common Worship)

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Writers: Steve Hodges (M.Div. 2005) is pastor of Providence Forge Presbyterian Church in Providence Forge, Virginia;

Beverly Zink-Sawyer is the Samuel W. Newell, Jr. Professor of Preaching and Worship.

Hope at the Tomb

I find it fascinating and quite beautiful that in our tradition we spend a week experiencing and remembering the range of emotional responses unto Jesus’ death and resurrection. In one week, we reminisce the joy of waving palms, the shock and shame of betrayal, the grief at the foot of a withering tree in the shape of a cross, and the waiting until the morning of an empty tomb. And yet, so often, there is a moment we long to ignore, a moment we avoid wrestling with because it is so difficult, almost too painful to bear – the tomb.

We re-live the moment all over again, we experience the passion and the pains of the One commissioned to love us even unto the sting of death on a cross. Then silently, we wait until Easter morning to experience the beauty of life made new. A whole day of waiting, lamenting, longing, silence. A day of knowing that our Lord has experienced death’s slumber, a day of preparing the tomb, weeping and wailing, longing for God’s refuge to be made known in the midst of the insurmountable sadness that surrounds the death of Christ.

The gospel of Matthew paints a scene of what this tomb silence might look like. It is written: “when it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb” (Matthew 27:57-61). Three people are accounted for in Matthew’s portrayal of the grief at the tomb. I’d venture to argue that it was only in the presence of one another that these weeping loved ones were able to find any source of comfort. Their savior, their beloved, their redeemer was gone – all they had was one another, a collective stream of tears, a unity in the brokenness. The only hope were the words of testimony, the words inscribed upon the hearts of these tender, hurting believers. It is as if they wrap their grief in the words of the psalm upon which Jesus quotes in Luke’s version of the gospel – Psalm 31 – upon his final breath.

As Jesus is bound and wrapped, so too I picture these figures at the tomb responding with all they have, soft spoken words to bind together grief’s shatters. I picture Joseph carrying Jesus’ body, whispering into the ear of his silent Beloved:

In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me. (Psalm 31:1)

I picture him wrapping Jesus ever so gently in beautiful clean cloth, singing in a broken key:

Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me. (Psalm 31:2)

As Joseph strains all of his energy to roll the stone in front of the tomb, I picture Mary Magdalene and Mary

bracing themselves in order to stand, looking at one another and speaking the only encouragement they knew:

You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, take me out of the net that is hidden for me,

for you are my refuge. (Psalm 31:3-4)

I picture the three making eye contact upon the next verse and stammering through it, remembering the agony and pain of the final breath of Christ:

Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God. (Psalm 31:5)

I picture Joseph silently departing the scene. The women know not how to comfort, only how to grieve. I can hear broken voices trembling as Joseph walks over the hill. I can picture the words of this psalm reigning over the entire community of grieving believers, filling the resounding wounds of hurt, pain, and loss with a voice that connects each believer in Christ’s sacrificial love that transcends even the brokenness of the tomb.

My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors. Let your face shine upon your servant; Save me in your steadfast love. (Psalm 31: 15-16)

I truly believe that the time at the tomb is central to the understanding of the Lord’s goodness. Though we know the continuation and hope that is to come of this season, neither Joseph nor the women knew of such glory. At this scene of grief and longing, all they have are each other. All they have are the weary souls of empathy and understanding. I think this has resounding implications for our lives as disciples and followers of the risen Christ. We too have insurmountable experiences of sadness, grief, and hurt in this life. I believe the walls of this city cry out for God’s love, and I believe the caverns of the deepest places in our hearts long for understanding in the midst of chaos and pain. I venture and continue to believe that we need one another, if only so that when we are at the tombs in our lives, we can look into the eyes of another believer, and if we cannot find God anywhere else, we’d faithfully find God there, loving one another as we were once taught by a commissioned servant who taught us that love is the greatest commandment. Barbara Brown Taylor writes “what we have most in common is not religion but humanity. I learned this from my religion which also teaches me that encountering another human being is as close to God as I may ever get – in the eye-to-eye thing, the person-to-person thing – which is where God’s Beloved has promised to show up” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “An Altar in the World”, 102).

May it be so. In the hurt, pain, frustration, in the tombs of this life, unto the hope everlasting may we find Christ in our love for one another. May we remember that we have been commissioned to love, and in doing so, in our humanity, in our love for the Lord and for one another, we shall find the glory of God’s Beloved.

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Laura is a first level MDiv student at Union in Richmond.

Reflections on Foot Washing: John 13

Every Maundy Thursday the church remembers Jesus’ last supper with his disciples on the night before his death. The most striking thing about the Gospel of John’s version of this story is that it does not feature the institution of the Lord’s Supper. There are no parting words of Jesus over bread and wine — no “do this in remembrance of me.” Instead, a foot washing story, found in no other Gospel, stands in its place. As the story begins, John reminds us that Jesus approaches his cross as an expression of his love for his disciples — indeed, the place where his love for them will find its fullest and most visible expression: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). That love now compels him to prepare his disciples for his departure, with a symbolic act that conveys both the nature of discipleship and the significance of his death:

And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his
hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the
table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured
water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the
towel that was tied around him. (John 13:2-5)

What could such an astounding act possibly mean? What we tend to overlook as we hear this story is that two interpretations of the foot washing are presented: the first asks disciples simply to receive Christ’s act of hospitality; the second, to extend it. Interestingly, the first interpretation has tended to be overlooked, and the second overemphasized, in the church’s appropriation of the  story — maybe because it is far easier to extend hospitality than to receive it! Apparently, what the foot washing means for the church’s understanding of itself “has not really soaked in yet.”1

The first interpretation of the foot washing emerges in the exchange between Jesus and Peter, and conveys the understanding that Jesus has performed this symbolic act as a sign of his love for his disciples and of his own humiliating death in their behalf. Jesus compromises his dignity by removing his clothes (which will only again be removed at the cross) and deigning to wash their feet, like a servant. Foot washing is an act of extraordinary intimacy — and with this profound expression of love in humiliation, performed in anticipation of his death, Jesus draws them into intimate relationship with himself — the same intimate relationship that he enjoys with
God. When Peter protests, insisting that he will not allow it, “Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me'” (v. 8) — which is to say no fellowship, or abiding relationship with me. Thus, Peter, with typical overexuberance, swings in the other direction, saying in effect “since you put it that way, give me a bath!” But Peter still misunderstands, for it is not the washing that is important, but the death which it symbolizes — as Jesus emphasizes when he insists that only the feet need to be washed (v. 10). That death has cleansing power, for the love which draws disciples into intimate relationship with Jesus removes their alienation and estrangement from God.

So this first interpretation of the foot asks of disciples and of the church that we simply receive Jesus’ expression of love, accepting it fully. This is not always easy to do, for as commentator Gail O’Day observes, “The foot washing removes the possibility of distance between Jesus and his followers, and brings them face to face with the love of God for them.”2
The responses of both Peter and Judas indicate that accepting this gesture of love and hospitality is a challenge for
those who follow Jesus.

The second, and far more familiar interpretation of the foot washing asks of disciples and of the church that we follow Christ’s example: “if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you'” (John 13:12-15). Jesus offers himself as a model of humility and service that disciples are to emulate.

However, this second interpretation of the foot washing may well be every bit as challenging as the first if we attend to its implications, for it is much more than a call to “humble service.” Does it not also call Christians to deep intimacy with one another? Commentator Wes Howard Brook notes that foot washing invites us to break through barriers to intimacy, and learn to accept one another as we are, for doesn’t it calls us to reveal a part of ourselves that is usually hidden? Feet, after all, are not always our most attractive feature! Indeed they “are an apt symbol for the reality of ourselves”, for we can do little to change their appearance. We’re stuck with our crooked toes, corns, calluses, and discolored toenails. So, “To invite people to look at, to wash, to care for our feet is to invite them to accept us as we are.”3  Such intimacy entails risk, to be sure, for Jesus called us to such intimacy with him and with each other, fully aware that there are betrayers in our midst. Perhaps John’s story can help us ponder the barriers to intimacy that exist in our experience of Christian community — and how we might foster authentic intimacy with fellow Christians. 

Such intimacy is crucial for our fellowship in Christian community, but also for our mission, for our feet take us into the world in ministry and John is fully aware of the fact that it can be rough out there. It is important to have a caring, intimate community to support us in our sending and returning – our coming and our going as we carry out that mission which is a continuation of Jesus’ own. At the conclusion of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, Jesus’ feet will carry him to a cross, and ours continue to carry us into his church and the world to bear witness to his love. Novelist Frederick Buechner spoke truly when he observed, “Generally speaking, if you want to know who you really are as distinct from who you like to think you are, keep an eye on where your feet take you.”4

1Fred B. Craddock, John, Knox Preaching Guides (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), 101.

2Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), p. 727.

3Wes Howard-Brook, John’s Gospel and the Renewal of the Church (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1997), p. 97.

4Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), p. 27.

 

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Frances Taylor Gench is the Herbert Worth and Annie H. Jackson Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Union.

 

 

Good Friday

John 18:28 Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters.  It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” 30 They answered him, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.” 31 Pilate said to them,“Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” 32 This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die.

33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him,“Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. 39 But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” 40 They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber. (ESV)

The Other Son of the Father

The words of the crowds are in my head with the full body of an imagination founded in cartoons and science fiction.

“Not this man, but Barabas! Give us Barabas!”

I try to place myself in that place, in that crowd, as a follower of Jesus. The hope that perhaps Jesus would be released after all, seeing Pilate bring him forward to the colonnade overlooking the gathered mass. Then the cry, the response. The panic that rises and the shame that couples it. 

There is a part of us that matches the incredulity of the apostles. Why Barabas? Why the robber, or the zealot? Why not the teacher who healed?

For the author of John, the answer has already been written. There is the answer, Quid est veritas? Pilate asks. What is truth? He says. Not to be coy, but to remind the reader that they know the secret. Jesus has already said that there are a select group of people who will hear the truth of Jesus has had to say in this Gospel. The wise reader responds to Pilate’s question, “There! The Truth is right before you!” The one speaking is not only speaking the truth but isTruth.

The literal greek is a word that means “unconcealed.” Jesus has revealed himself, there can be no more doubt. The truth, the living truth, now stands uncovered in his purpose and intent in reconciling the world to God. This is what Jesus asked for in John’s Gethsemane prayer. The words from 17:17 should stand out to us as we read forward in the week leading up to the moment of the passion. Jesus prays, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” God’s Word is Truth, just as God’s word is truth. When Pilate asks this question, the attentive reader answers the question. Yet something remains. If the Word is Truth, then why does the crowd choose the lie?

The fact is that the truth is hard for us as finite human creatures. It’s very possible we aren’t able or ready to deal with truth in all it’s many forms. The truth that our parents are in hospice at the end of their lives is hard. The truth that our spouse has betrayed our trust, or let us down is hard. The truth that our children are locked into a battle with addiction is hard. The truth that the church has wounded us and leaves us in pain instead of healing is hard. We run from truths and in many ways do everything we can to insulate ourselves. Instead of facing the truth, instead of allow God to reveal the true plan in our lives, we try and refuse the sanctification.

There is a wonderful line in the movie, “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance.” (spoilers) As it turns out, the famous man who was supposed to have done the mighty deed reveals that he is in fact a fraud. The newspaper man who has been recording this story the whole time, upon hearing that, rips up his notes, and comments “This is the west sir, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Humanity is the eternal west. We make our habits from “printing” not the truth, but the best story. Often that means the best story about our church, our family, and most of all ourselves. We can feel that the truth is too hard to bear, and so run for the fiction. Give us Barabbas! We cry, over and over. We ask for the other child of God. The human child who requires no trust. We find an odd comfort in the one who is so like us with faults and failures. We reject truth, and attempt to reject Christ.

The character of God is frightening. It is the truth about us as human people who are desperately in need of God’s grace, but blessedly it is also the absolute truth about that Grace. The truth is that we cannot escape our sanctification, The truth is that the prayer from chapter 17 has come to pass.

Even though we cry for Barrabas, even though we seek the comfortable lie, we are not permitted to rest there. Even on a day in which we celebrate the solemnity of the crucifixion, we are prodded and encouraged to go further into the real truth, and even on this day we know from our previous reading in John exactly what that truth is.

We are invited on this day, as we contemplate our inability to call for anyone but Barabbas to take part in the larger and powerful story of truth that is in operation. We are invited to accept our place of failure and need for grace that can urge us forward to a life of faith and expectation for what the coming promise of Easter will hold. And we can be thankful, that our false legend of humanity isn’t the last story to be printed. That instead, the Truth has and will win out, as the lasting story between all of the sons and daughters of God and their Creator of Truth. 

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Christopher is a final level student at Union in Richmond.

Maundy Thursday Reflection

1 Corinthians 11 23 I received a tradition from the Lord, which I also handed on to you: on the night on which he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread. 24 After giving thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this to remember me.” 25 He did the same thing with the cup, after they had eaten, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Every time you drink it, do this to remember me.” 26 Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you broadcast the death of the Lord until he comes.

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Today I stood around the Communion Table with the group gathered for our regular Thursday chapel service on campus.  On our journey to the Eucharist table, we stopped by the Baptismal font to wash each other’s hands.  It was beautiful, but scary.  This week, one of the five-year-olds in our community, Caroline expressed the fear that I think many of us felt.  She didn’t want to walk up to the front to the Baptismal font on her own and she didn’t seem to be a big fan of the idea of anyone washing her hands.  She had hesitations and she voiced them.  I respect her for that.  I also respect the fact that once the hand washing was over, she had no problem rejoining the activities of the gathered body.  She took her place in the circle around the communion table.  She sang with us, she shared the Eucharist with us, and she prayed with us.  

As we recited the Lord’s Prayer (the Presbyterian version, not the Ecumenical one that I have heard this same brilliant child express her issues with…mainly the fact that is not the one she knows by heart), I could hear Caroline’s voice over everyone else’s.  She said the words that she had learned with all the confidence in the world.  She knew the words, she knew where the pauses went and the cadence of this often heard and recited poetry.  It was a tradition that her parents and all of the rest of us adults who love her have handed down to her.  In church, in Sunday School, before meals, at bedtime, she has learned and practiced this tradition.  I wouldn’t be surprised if one day she is overheard teaching this prayer to her stuffed animals or other children in her life.  

Passing on traditions happens in many ways.  It happens when we play, study, work together, and when we gather together to worship and to share fellowship around our traditions and the Lord’s table.  On this Holy Day, we remember how our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ gathered around the table with his disciples.  They were gathered to celebrate a tradition that they had been taught.  They gathered to celebrate the Passover and as they gathered, they shared a meal and a time of fellowship that would become an important moment in the Christian tradition.  

In our lectionary passage from Corinthians, the story of this meal is shared one more time.  We are told about Jesus’ words and actions as he teaches his disciples basic truths God by breaking bread and pouring wine.  Just as Caroline will have her whole life to learn what the words of the songs, prayers, and actions of our church mean to her faith and how she lives her life, we are all reminded in this text to keep the tradition of the Eucharist and by remembering and teaching, to broadcast what we believe and about who and whose we are as children of God.

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Beth Olker is 2nd year MDiv student at Union.  She is a graduate of Presbyterian College and spent a year before beginning seminary as a Young Adult Volunteer in Nashville, Tennessee.

A reflection on Isaiah 49: 1-7

Isaiah 49: 1-7
1 Listen to me, you islands;
    hear this, you distant nations:
Before I was born the Lord called me;
    from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.
2 He made my mouth like a sharpened sword,
    in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me into a polished arrow
    and concealed me in his quiver.
3 He said to me, “You are my servant,
    Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.”
4 But I said, “I have labored in vain;
    I have spent my strength for nothing at all.
Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand,
    and my reward is with my God.”
5 And now the Lord says—
    he who formed me in the womb to be his servant
to bring Jacob back to him
    and gather Israel to himself,
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord
    and my God has been my strength—
6 he says:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
    to restore the tribes of Jacob
    and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
    that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
7 This is what the Lord says—
    the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel—
to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation,
    to the servant of rulers:
“Kings will see you and stand up,
    princes will see and bow down,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
    the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
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Read this again.  “

Kings will see you and stand up, princes will see and bow down, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”  You have been chosen.  As Christians this can inspire a wide variety of reactions: 

In the midst of your own messy sinfulness and brokenness – God chose you.  Awesome, what an honor!  Thank you God! 
In a world filled with injustice, war, and sickness – God chose you.  On second thought, maybe this is a bit intimidating.  Do I really want to be chosen? 
In a world with great need – God chose you.  Really?  Are you sure God?  Me?

In this passage from Isaiah, the servant has no doubt that God has chosen him.  “Before I was born the Lord called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name,” (v. 1).  Despite this certainty, however, the servant still struggles with human doubt.  “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all,” (v. 4).  Does this sense of pointlessness and despair sound familiar?  Many of us have experienced what laboring in vain feels like.  However, the Lord doesn’’t pause to address this concern.  If anything God pushes right through it and gives the servant an even bigger calling.  “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept.  I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth,” (v. 6).  The servant is being called to bring God’s salvation to the entire world.  Wow, that is quite a calling.  It’s big.  It may sound impossible.  But it is also central to God’s plan for creation.  And the real kicker is that each of us have been given this calling as well.  We may be more familiar with it as spoken by Jesus in the Great Commission, to, “go and make disciples of all nations,” (Matthew 28: 19).  Either way you look at it, there’s no escaping – you have been chosen.  

So who is your neighbor in all of this?  Anyone you come across while answering God’s call to bring his salvation to the whole earth.  God wanted the servant in Isaiah to bring salvation to the whole creation because God has a heart that encompasses the entire creation.  Can we say the same thing of our hearts?  This calling and this definition of neighbor may seem too big.  It may seem overwhelming.  You, like the servant, may doubt whether your labor to fulfill this calling means anything.

But do not despair.  God is not concerned with your perceived weaknesses and shortcomings. “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong,” (1 Cor 1: 27).  God knew what God was getting when God called you.  God knows that while we don’t have the capacity to love the world as perfectly as God does, we do have the ability to open our hearts to God and God’s power.  Verse seven of the Isaiah passage reminds us that the servant will succeed because of God and God’s power, not because of his own power.  God’s power created the world.  God’s power emanated from Jesus as he walked on this earth and as he walked toward the cross.  God’s power is at work in us today, giving us strength to love our neighbors and push forward in spreading God’s salvation.  And God’s power will, someday, finally and completely spread God’s salvation to the ends of the earth.

You have been chosen.  Go forth in love.  Alleluia.  Amen.
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Sara Pantazes is a first year ECP student.  She lives with her husband and two sons in Williamsburg.

Monday Reflection

John 12:1-11 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair.And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.  “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”  Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, 11 for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him.

 

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Psalm 36:5-11

5 Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.

6 Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgments are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O LORD.

7 How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.

8 They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.

9 For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.

10 O continue your steadfast love to those who know you, and your salvation to the upright of heart!

11 Do not let the foot of the arrogant tread on me, or the hand of the wicked drive me

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In today’s lectionary readings, we read “Martha served.” John 12:2b The first seventeen chapters in Isaiah 42 is sometimes called “The Servant Song.” In Psalm 36 we read about a servant God who provides shelter in the “shadow of your wings.” A God who provides (serves) an abundant feast and drink. A God who “is the fountain of life.” Jesus came to serve.

Last month, I said an earthly good-bye to a high school friend who lost her battle with cancer. Throughout the whole ordeal, she never lost faith. She posted on Facebook to remind us that she loved the Lord and knew the Lord loved her. She continued her upbeat, positive attitude even when she was weak from chemo and radiation. When she could no longer post, she asked her niece to type while she dictated words of praise. Although she needed our positive words, she continued to minister to us. I believe that is the definition of neighbor; love and cheer and minister to each other. Serve one another.

I am comforted by today’s Psalm. God’s steadfast love is, well, steadfast. I might not understand why certain things happen, but I can be confident in the One whose love is never-ending. Throughout Brenda’s illness, she never gave up and she never stopped believing in the One who creates and loves. She was an inspiration to those who knew her and who read her daily posts. She believed with her whole heart that God would heal her. As her body weakened, she would type “pray for me.” She acknowledged her mortality and the One who loved her unconditionally.  She is now healed. She is not suffering and is at peace. Her baptism is now complete. She is floating in God’s “fountain of life” and knowing Brenda, she is splashing and reveling in that Living Water.

May I be a neighbor to others as Brenda was a ministering neighbor to me.

Please pray with me:

Gracious God, You are our fountain of living water. We know how to be neighborly because you first loved us. We confess we have not loved others as you have loved us. Forgive us, we cry. May each day bring us a gift to serve others. May we keep our eyes and hearts open for these opportunities for there is so much need. In Christ’s name, we pray. Amen

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Sheri Dittman is a Ruling Elder in PC(USA) and an ECP student at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA. She and husband Eric have 4 children. They live in Mission, Texas.