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Monday, April 18, 2016

Love Songs

God’s grace, peace and mercy be with you. … My focus is the Gospel of John where we read, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”[1]
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, the psalmist wrote, “I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”[2] Now that our feet are within your gates, we rejoice to hear your Word. As we listen, may your Spirit enlighten our minds and move our hearts to love deeply as Jesus loved. This we pray to you, Most Holy Trinity. Amen.
Love songs. We have favorite love songs. If you were young in the 50’s, perhaps you favor Elvis’ Love Me Tender or Sam Cooke’s You Send Me. If you grew up in the 60’s, you remember Herb Alpert’s This Guy’s in Love with You, Sonny & Cher’s I Got You Babe and The Beatles’ And I Love Her.
My favorite is Barry White’s You’re My First, My Last, My Everything. Others prefer Celine Dion’s My Heart will Go On or Bette Midler’s The Rose.[3]
What do silly love songs have to do with my sermon? Love songs touch our culture, our Gospel and our lives.
First, our culture. Songs unify people, move us to action, and help us express emotions. Certain songs become anthems for particular generations, and during a national crisis, certain songs become especially appropriate. Songs express widely shared values that define a group’s identity and solidarity. Lyrics express judgments and conflicts about lifestyles, values and appearances.
Historians use lyrics to understand the culture and consciousness of the people who sang and listened to them. Lyrics give important clues about what people thought and felt, their daily struggles, and their dreams about the future.
This led me to ask, “What did the first Christians sing?” Of course, the earliest Christians chanted Hebrew Scriptures: Psalms and ancient canticles like Miriam’s Song.[4] Paul and Luke included songs in their writings. Regularly, we sing Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis.
Evidence of songs outside of Scripture is scant. The ancient Greeks sang and still sing Phos Hilaron or Hail Gladdening Light. Alongside of it, early Christians sang Oxyrhynchus, a hymn that invoked silence for the praise of the Holy Trinity.
While a sermon is not an exhaustive lesson on the history or social importance of love songs and hymns devoted to human and divine persons, viewing our Gospel on this canvas enriches our understanding and appreciation of Jesus’ words. If lyrics give clues about what people thought and felt, their daily struggles, and their dreams about the future, then we can understand Jesus’ words to his friends as God’s love song for humanity.
Our Hymn of the Day, Charles Wesley’s most famous Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, begs the Son to enter our hearts, the Spirit to set our hearts free that we might ceaselessly praise the Father and take our place in heaven lost in wonder, love and praise. In short, the song is Wesley’s prayer that we fulfill Christ’s command to love.
Wesley’s love song expresses our daily struggles and dreams. We long to love one another as Jesus loved, but daily we struggle. Because we struggle, we rely upon the Holy Spirit. Alone, we fail to love. Through the Spirit, we love. When the Spirit’s love fills my heart, I can love as Christ loved. Only then, can my life and love affect our culture. And so, folks, we move from culture to Gospel.
Unlike the Synoptics, where Jesus reiterated commands from Deuteronomy and Leviticus to love God and neighbor,[5] John’s Jesus did not command his disciples to love God. Rather, he requested they love him and his commandments; and that if they did, the Father would love them.[6]
You see, the Father sent Jesus into the world to make the Father known. Therefore, John is a story not about the Son, but primarily the Son’s story about his Father.
What did Jesus make known about his Father? That he is love. How did Jesus make known that the Father is love? Through his words and deeds, and climactically, through his Paschal Mystery, that is, his suffering and death on the cross, his resurrection from the dead and his ascension to the Father.
John recorded three years of Jesus’ words and deeds through twelve chapters. He then slowed the pace to record the last hours of Jesus’ life in chapters 13 through 17. In the final hours of Jesus’ life, his major focus was making known the love of God. Here, Jesus issued his love command. His disciples were no longer servants but friends, and he chose them that they might love one another as he has loved them.[7]
To speak of God’s love is to speak of God’s glory. God’s glory is his visible, tangible presence to Israel and the world, his saving intervention in the exodus.[8]
Pharisees and scribes rejected Jesus because they loved the glory that came from people more than the glory that came from God.[9] They loved relationships with and recognition from people more than God’s glory, that is, God’s saving intervention in Jesus, the new exodus.
God’s glory shined forth from the cross. The crucified Jesus was the exalted Jesus, but Jesus’ glorification did not take place on the cross. On the cross, we see only part of the process of Jesus’ glorification.
From the cross, Jesus glorified the Father, and the Father glorified him through the entire paschal event – death, resurrection and ascension – before he achieved the glory that was his before the world was made.[10] From the cross, Jesus created a new family, a new community of love. At the cross, Father and Son poured the Spirit upon this new community.
In his final appearance to his disciples, Jesus gave them a mission to continue his presence in the world during his absence.[11] Despite their ignorance, failure, betrayal and denial, Jesus commanded his disciples to imitate him, and love one another as he loved them, so that the world might recognize them as his disciples.[12]
After he achieved all that was necessary through the paschal event, the Father glorified Jesus as he did before the world began; and his disciples, now showered with the Holy Spirit, made God known to the world.
Though absent from this new community, Jesus gifted it not only with the Spirit, but also with Baptism and Eucharist. Through these sacraments and God’s Word, the disciples continued their association with Jesus. Just as Jesus’ association with the Father determined his life, the disciples’ association with Jesus through Word, Sacrament and Church determined theirs.
The world recognized the disciples when they made known to the world that the Father sent Jesus to give love and life to the world.[13] The disciples were responsible for continuing that revealing mission. Moreover, as time passed, this community of love made new disciples through Word and Sacrament.
Today, as readers of John’s Gospel, we are missionaries. We love one another as Jesus loved as a sign to the world, not just to our community. Our mutual love generates knowledge of Jesus’ love for us. As he gave himself unconditionally for us, we give ourselves unconditionally to others, and in this way make Jesus known.[14]
The Gospel’s love song gives important clues about the first Christians’ daily struggles and dreams about the future. What does their love song have to do with our lives?
As Christians today, what are our daily struggles? What are our dreams about the future? What does Jesus’ love song about His Father have to do with our lives? Hence, my final point.
If you search the web with my questions, your screen populates with sites directing you to the rapture, internet evangelism, abortion, death, evolution and more.
Therefore, I turned away from the internet and to family and friends. First, my brother and sister-in-law.
Their daily struggles? Sometimes human frustrations overshadow my vision of God and his love. For instance, actions by loved ones are different from what I expect. Therefore, irritation, frustration and shadows cloud my thoughts, my actions and reactions at the time. After time, those disappear and the vision of God and his love returns.
Their dreams about the future? To be a better Christian. To avoid the petty, to love life and all it has. To follow God's word closer. To, one day, be in heaven with God, my brother and those who preceded me. To see a better relationship with those close to us and to heal old wounds.
What does Jesus’ love song about His Father have to do with their life? It tells us that our love for one another is what brings us closer to God and to see his love in one another. It also reminded us of the wedding at Cana where the old wine was gone and the new wine brought much delight to the wedding feast. It was a complete surprise to the groom, bride & guests. So it is to those who discover God's love. It also reminded us of the comparison of new wine in old wine skins. How the old gives way to the new commandments - in particular loving one another.
Answering these three questions, my friend Peg from Pennsylvania wrote, seeking the Lord is a daily struggle. It is hard to hear the whispers above the noise. Of course, my dream is eternal life! In the meantime, I try to live a life of justice, mercy, and humility. It is a big challenge to love others. My life is about striving for that ideal. I am not there yet!
My cousin, Wanda in San Diego said this about her daily struggles.
Possibly trying to please others, sometimes not in my best interests, i.e., trying to avoid conflict. Some interactions may leave [me] ruminating of how better it could have been handled.
Her dreams about the future? To live a long and happy life with [my husband] Tim. And for my children, to have a successful life, a loving spouse and a long happy life.
Jesus’ love song about His Father has this to do with her life. I have always tried to follow this advice, and tried to teach my children as well. “Treat others how you would like others to treat you, no matter how they may be.” A bit of love and kindness goes a long way.
Finally, my friend, Wendell of Oklahoma listed his daily struggles. Pride, anger, gluttony, avarice, lust, envy, sloth, unforgiveness, uncaring, meaness, nastiness, swearing, unkindness, drunkenness, hypocrisy, smugness, judgementalism, self-righteousness, lying, cheating, stealing, murder, adultery, prejudice - and many more. These are the sins I confess in my daily prayers, and I know the list is not complete.
Wendell’s dreams about the future are these. Heaven, and finally being the perfect man [God] wanted me to be. Worshipping and praising Him for eternity. Spending time with all the brothers and sisters in Heaven.
Regarding Jesus’ love song about His Father, Wendell wrote this. The obedience and love that Jesus demonstrated toward his Father is the best example of perfect obedience to the Father, and perfect love towards my brothers and sisters. I want to emulate these things. Jesus tells us that if we do these things the lost will gravitate towards Him, and we will be obeying the Heavenly Father and helping to bring souls to Him. The ultimate two birds with one stone.
Friends, in closing, ponder these questions. What are your daily struggles? What are your dreams about the future? What does Jesus’ love song about His Father have to do with your life?
Ponder them this evening, this summer and daily for the rest of your lives. Ponder and pray, and I pray that when you do the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keeps your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[1] 13:34-35
[2] Psalm 122
[4] Exodus 15
[5] See Deuteronomy 6:4-5; Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 19:16ff; Mark 10:17ff; Luke 10:25ff.
[6] Francis J. Moloney, SDB, Love in the Gospel of John: An Exegetical, Theological, and Literary Study. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic (2013), 2.
[7] Moloney, 103
[8] Moloney, 53
[9] John 12:43
[10] Moloney, 96.
[11] Moloney, 169.
[12] Moloney, 117.
[13] Moloney, 176.
[14] 206f

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Maundy, Meal, Mission

God’s grace, peace and mercy be with you. … My focus is the Gospel of Luke. … Let us pray. Heavenly Father, the psalmist wrote, “I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”[1] Now that our feet are within your gates, we rejoice to hear your Word. As we listen, may your Spirit enlighten our minds and move our hearts to love deeply as Jesus loved. This we pray to you, Most Holy Trinity. Amen.
Today, we observe Maundy Thursday. Our Gospel portrays the Last Supper. And when we leave here, we commence a mission. Three words for three points: Maundy, meal and mission.
First, Maundy. Growing up, we referred to this day as Holy Thursday. As boys, my brothers and I decorated Easter eggs. Under mom’s direction, we dipped hardboiled eggs into cups of PAAS© dyes. In the evening, we rode with dad to seven different churches, an ancient Roman custom.
Today has deep spiritual meaning for Christians in different denominations and cultures. Christians in India celebrate a statewide public holiday. In the Philippines, businesses close, and television and radio stations go off-air. Certain German states declare a holiday for public employees. In other countries, churches silence bells. Here, we will strip the altar and chancel to prepare for Good Friday.
We call today Maundy Thursday. Maundy from the Latin word mandatum meaning commandment. Mandatum refers to Jesus’ words from John’s Gospel: “Mandatum novum do vobis.”[2] In English: “A new commandment I give you.”[3] In today’s Gospel from Luke, we follow the Lord’s command to eat His Body and drink His Blood under the form of bread and wine. We observe and celebrate what occurred during the Last Supper. Hence, we move from Maundy to meal, my second point.
Jesus’ journey continues from Galilee’s villages to Jerusalem’s Temple.[4] Here, Jesus, who set his face towards Jerusalem, prepared to journey to God through the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension – the Paschal Mystery.
The account begins with two complementary units, which introduce the Last Supper. The first unit, verses 1-6, calls attention to the approaching feast of Passover, and focuses on the efforts of the chief priests, scribes and Judas to betray Jesus. Within the context of the Last Supper, Judas’ betrayal stood as a warning to future Christians.
Betrayal, persecution and internal struggles surface in the Christian community, manifesting Satan, the ultimate opponent of Jesus and the Church. While Luke outlined the plans and preparations of Satan and Jesus’ enemies, they were not alone in preparing for the feast. Jesus firmly controlled the events and commissioned Peter and John to prepare the Supper.
God firmly controlled the day’s events. God revealed His providence in His unfolding plan of salvation. Note that Luke wrote, “Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed.”[5] For Luke, the paschal lamb symbolized Jesus, and its sacrifice symbolized the necessity of His passion. The sacrifice of the lamb prepared those who shared in Jesus’ sacrificial meal to understand the nature of their own persecutions.
Luke showed how the Twelve joined Jesus in this meal so that Luke’s readers could ask themselves if their attitude and commitment reflected Christ’s. Only in this way could Christians confront their enemies and the power of darkness that permeated the hour of Jesus. For when his betrayer and enemies appeared to seize him, Jesus said, “When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.”[6]
The Last Supper was Jesus’ most significant meal for it was the only meal where Jesus identified the bread and wine as his very body and blood, and directed his disciples to repeat.[7]
Subsequent generations participating in the Lord’s Supper recognized that they benefited from Jesus’ broken bread and poured out wine.[8] When the power of darkness seemed to have its hour, Christians participating in this meal would recognize the firm control and open hospitality of a loving and saving God.
Today, Christians participating in this meal recognize the firm control and open hospitality of a loving and saving God. Hence, I move from meal to mission.
In some churches, a phrase above the doors reads, “You are now entering mission territory.” We derive mission from the Latin mittere. It means to send or dispatch.[9] The oldest dismissal in worship is the phrase, “Ite, missa est.”
Our dismissal comes after the pastor says, “The body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen and preserve you in body and soul to life everlasting. Depart in peace.” Our custom, however, is to wait until after the final hymn. We exit the doors and enter mission territory.
As missionaries, we meet opportunities and enemies. Opportunities to share the Gospel and enemies opposed to it. We have opportunities to evangelize unbelievers and other believers, families and friends, colleagues, co-workers and the world. We have opportunities to share the Good News to Moslem and Buddhist, atheist and agnostic, the nondenominational and the nones. That’s the good news about sharing the Good News.
The bad news is that the Gospel has enemies. Its enemies are no longer Pharisees and Sadducees, stiff-necked scribes and ruthless rulers. Today, some Christians believe our enemies are Biblical inerrancy or syncretism, anti-intellectualism or apathy.[10] True, but St. Paul and Martin Luther concluded: The Gospel’s list of enemies includes me. To illustrate that point, allow me to reminisce once more.
In addition to coloring eggs and visiting churches on this day, another memory from 50 years ago is Cartoonist Walt Kelly’s comic strip, Pogo. Kelly combined sophisticated wit, slapstick comedy, poetry, puns and lushly detailed artwork.[11]
The most famous Pogo quote was "We have met the enemy and he is us." More than any line Kelly wrote, this summed up his attitude towards our foibles and human condition. "We have met the enemy and he is us."
On Maundy Thursday Pogo’s line reminds us that our mission to evangelize the world may seem insurmountable, but Luke’s Gospel reminds us that God is still in control.
As missionaries, we will encounter enemies and opponents of the Gospel, and often times, like Peter rebuking Jesus, we recognize that the greatest enemy of the Gospel is not Biblical inerrancy or syncretism, anti-intellectualism or apathy. Rather, there are times when I am the greatest enemy because I tell Jesus I will do it my way.
Folks, God’s enemies will not be defeated through bullets, borders or the ballot box, but through the power of Christ – the power of Christ’s Body and His Blood broken open and poured out for us at the Lord’s Supper is enough to defeat Satan, sin, death, the world and our selfish, sinful selves.
To cite Dr. Luther, the means of God’s grace suffice. Christ Body and Blood in the Lord’s Supper sufficed for the original Twelve and the Church of Luke. Today, the Sacrament suffices for us. We have no need of bullets or border security. We need only Christ’s Body and Blood.[12]
Friends, when the power of darkness seems to have its hour, when the power of darkness permeates the hour, recognize the firm control and open hospitality of a loving and saving God. Recognize that Christ’s Body and Blood broken apart and poured out at the Last Supper and on the Cross suffice for your salvation and for your mission work. With that, confront the Gospel’s opponents. For when you do, the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[1] Psalm 122
[2] John 13:34
[4] Eugene LaVerdiere, Luke. Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, Inc. (1986), 250ff.
[5] Luke 22:7
[6] Luke 22:53
[7] Arthur A Just, Luke 9:51-24:53. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House (1997), 829ff.
[8] Brendan Byrne, The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press (2000), 173.