Those Who Are Turning to God
Lent II; February 28, 2021
Some folks no doubt could come up with a more clever approach, but here’s my plan: to retell the story, filling in background information that may help you with it, add a bit more from the chapter that we didn’t read, and suggest a conclusion applicable to us, nearly two thousand years later.
Last week we talked about Acts chapter ten, when Peter had a vision in which God taught him that just because the old rules said that certain people were excluded, God could override those rules. After all, they came from God, so God could change them. Peter baptized the Roman centurion Cornelius and his family and friends, even though they were Gentiles. The next big step was taken at the city of Syrian Antioch, where preachers from Cyprus and Cyrene brought a number of Gentiles to faith in Jesus. The Christians at Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas on a preaching mission to Galatia, where they also brought many Gentiles to faith in Jesus. The Gospel was spreading in the Empire and many were worshiping the God of the Jews without becoming Jews.
Maybe I need to explain the word “Gentile.” It simply means someone who is not a Jew. It is not uncommon for a group to have a word that means, simply, “everybody else.” In ancient Greece, they figured there were two groups of people: Greeks and barbarians. “Barbarian” comes from the sound Greek-speaking people said everyone else made: “bar-bar-bar…” You were Greek or you were barbarian. And so with Jew: you are a Jew or you are a Gentile. At least the word doesn’t feel like an insult.
In the Book of Genesis (chapter 17), the Lord God told Abraham that he was to wear in his own body the sign that he belonged to God: he was to be circumcised. And God added that every male born into his family and every male among his servants was to be circumcised. On a boy’s eighth day, he is to be circumcised to show that he belongs to the people of God. Since Jewish people have perhaps the greatest store of humor of any group in the world, this has led to some wonderful jokes. A rabbi who performs ritual circumcisions is called a mohel; a tourist visiting in Jerusalem needed her watch repaired, and she stopped at a shop with clocks and watches in the window. She went in and asked the man inside if he could fix her watch; he said, “No; I’m a mohel.” She asked, “Then why do you have all these clocks and watches in the window?” He replied, “Nu; so what should I have in the window?”
Anyway, God told Abraham that this sign of the covenant, circumcision, was the sign forever and that any male not circumcised was to be cut off from the people. God didn’t say, “This is the sign until I change my mind;” God said, “This is the sign forever.” So some helpful folks from Jerusalem went to Antioch and told the believers there, “Unless you are circumcised, you cannot be saved.” Paul got up on his hind legs and contested with them, and so the Christians sent Paul and Barnabas, and a few others, to Jerusalem for guidance from the Apostles and the Elders of the Mother Church.
Luke summarized what must have been quite a debate. You have the conservatives – called here “the party of the Pharisees” – arguing that “forever” means “forever” and that the criteria for salvation are quite clear and explicit. The men must be circumcised; it says so here in the Book. Then the Apostle Peter got up and reminded them of what we read here in church last Sunday, what God had shown him. He pointed out that God had given the Holy Spirit to Cornelius and his household and none of them had been circumcised; did God make a mistake? Besides, the Law of Moses has become such a burden for us, why should we force the Gentiles to keep it too?
To be sure, Jews I have known who are careful about keeping the Law of Moses do not seem to find it a burden; they accept it as a mark of identity. It shows who they are and to whom they belong. But let’s forgive Peter for going a bit further than necessary to make his point. After him, Paul and Barnabas told about the spread of the Gospel in Galatia and of the amazing things Christians were doing there and in Antioch because of the work of the Holy Spirit.
After carefully listening to everyone, the Bishop James, brother of Jesus, got up and gave his decision. He quoted the Books of Amos (9:11-12) and Isaiah (45:21) as support for the actions of Peter and said, “Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God.” We will not demand that they be circumcised. We will not insist that they keep the Law of Moses. He added, though, that they would ask a few things of them with respect to eating habits, with a clear purpose in mind. If the Gentiles would refrain from those few things, then there is nothing to prevent strictly observant Jews from having table fellowship with them. The point of those few rules is for the sake of the others. And Christians are always willing to sacrifice a few pleasures for the sake of table fellowship with each other.
The rest of the story is follow-up. They did write the letter James proposed, and it was beautifully written: “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” Do you see what they’re doing there? They are saying that the decision that Gentile Christians, baptized in Jesus, do not have to be circumcised and do not have to keep the Law of Moses is a decision direct from the Holy Spirit, not from them, but they agree with it. The Apostles and Elders of Jerusalem are happy that the Holy Spirit has led this way; they do not begrudge the Gentiles their welcome.
The followers of Jesus who have kept all these rules faithfully, and who will continue to keep them, said straight out that they are happy that the Holy Spirit is not requiring Gentiles to keep them too. Have you ever said, “I had to do it, so you have to do it too”? That was not their attitude in Jerusalem; their attitude was to rejoice in the ongoing work of God. They also said that the folks who had gone there earlier and upset them had done so without authorization, and they added the part about some essential rules for the sake of table fellowship.
Paul and Barnabas, who were trusted by the people of Antioch, were sent, along with two representatives of the Elders of Jerusalem: Silas and Judas Barsabbas. And the people of Antioch rejoiced at the decision and at the message. And you and I may rejoice too, because it meant two great things. One simple thing it meant is that there was no hindrance to the spread of the Gospel: Gentiles could become followers of Jesus without having to become Jews first, so the Gospel spread quietly and steadily throughout the Empire. And the other great thing it meant is there is no distinction between men and women in the fellowship of Christ. Our sign is not circumcision; our sign is Baptism, which is the same sign for everyone.
Now, one more note about follow-up before I suggest something to us. Although the Apostles and Elders came to this conclusion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, not everyone accepted it. Later on some preachers went out from Jerusalem and started bothering Gentile Christians, quoting Scripture and telling them that unless they were circumcised they could not be saved. It isn’t a new phenomenon: the Church decides something, but people think they’re smarter than the Church and try to undermine it. And it isn’t only conservatives who do that. Yes, I’ve been told by conservatives that unless I’m baptized by immersion I cannot be saved, and that unless I speak in tongues I cannot be saved. But I’ve also been told by more liberal folks that the Apostles’ Creed is optional; one minister said she found it boring and so refused to use it at baptism, even though our Constitution explicitly requires it. Someone is always smarter than the collective wisdom of the Church.
Anyway, this chapter gives us good guidance on deciding whom and what to believe. Please don’t ever give in to the “anything goes” way of thinking, that what we believe doesn’t matter. One of the reasons our planet may not be able to sustain human life in the foreseeable future is because so many people don’t believe reality. What we believe matters deeply. And Acts Chapter 15 suggests some guidelines:
+ Let those who are in the position of moral and spiritual leadership decide and trust their judgment, even if you don’t want to.
+ And those who are making the decision should be sure to: listen carefully to all the voices involved, not just the echo-chamber of those who agree with them; pay attention to the real experience of people (such as Peter, Paul, and Barnabas) as a sign of what God is doing in the world; and pay attention to the witness of Scripture, even if it may point in a different direction from where it had pointed before.
Sometimes the Holy Spirit can be explicit, as the Spirit was with Peter on the rooftop and in the house of Cornelius (Acts 10), but more often the Holy Spirit will lead when the Apostles and Elders get together prayerfully, listen to Scripture and listen to each other. And now you have had your first lesson in the way Presbyterians make decisions.
I hope, finally, that we do not lose sight of who benefited from this decision: those who were turning to God. Isn’t that our key concern? To welcome those who are turning to God? We’re not concerned with making things easy on ourselves or doing something just because we like it. After all, we may not like it, at least at first. But to welcome those who are turning to God? It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to trouble those who are turning to God.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
We have these prayers this week:
Lord, in your mercy: hear our prayers.
Our Wednesday evening group will meet Feb. 24 at 7:00 pm (Central) to talk about the last week’s readings.
They are Leviticus 10-24; Psalms 22, 23, & 24; and Acts 8-12.
Join us at https://zoom.us/j/95171009442?pwd=a2QrN0l0LzVTMWdueFFpOUJ3WnNpQT09
Meeting ID: 951 7100 9442
What to Make of This?
Lent I; February 21, 2021
Peter wondered what to make of the vision (v. 7); we may wonder too. You should hear the rest of the story in order to think about what to make of it. In the part we read to you, Cornelius had a vision which led him to send to Joppa for Peter. And Peter had a vision which would make him ready to go to Cornelius. Although Peter’s vision seemed to be about food – that no longer should he call any food unclean – he quickly realized that it wasn’t about food; it was about people.
Observant Jews of the first century did not go into the homes of Gentiles and certainly did not eat with them. God had given them rules about how to behave and what to eat, rules that identified them as separate, as the people of God. And they were careful not to do anything that might infringe on those rules. You and I may have rules for ourselves about what we eat for health reasons, and perhaps you are keeping a Lent discipline that involves food. Imagine, for example, that you are following the Catholic practice of not eating meat on Fridays during Lent. In order to make sure you don’t accidentally break your rule, you won’t even go into a restaurant that serves meat. I’m not recommending this; I’m trying to help you understand the attitude. You go beyond what the rule requires in order to make it easier to keep the rule. As we used to say in WW: “If you don’t have it, you can’t eat it.” So you don’t go into a place where you might accidentally break your rule. So Jews of the time didn’t go into the homes of Gentiles.
Peter realized that the vision wasn’t about food, but was about people, and so when the men came to take him to Cornelius, he went. And he took some others with him. They went into Cornelius’ home and asked him, “Why did you send for me?” Cornelius told Peter about his vision, and so Peter began to speak. “Now I get it: God does not prefer some people over others. God will welcome all who fear God and do what is right. Now let me tell you about Jesus. Jesus went about doing good, healing people, freeing those oppressed by the devil. The authorities put him to death on a cross, but God raised him on the third day. Then he ate and drank with many of us and commanded us to tell others that Jesus is the one God has appointed to judge the living and the dead. Everyone who believes in him will have their sins forgiven.”
Peter may have intended to say more, but just then God interrupted him. The Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and all the friends and family that he had gathered in his home; they all began to speak in tongues and to praise God, just as Peter and the others did on Pentecost. So Peter said to his companions, “Well; God has certainly welcomed them. We may as well baptize them.” And so they did; Cornelius, all his household, and many friends were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And Peter stayed at his house for several days.
Now, you and I can hardly imagine what a shock this was. Jesus was a Jew and he said repeatedly that had not come to change anything about the Jewish law. All the first followers of Jesus were Jews and they carefully observed all the rules. After one vision Peter’s entire attitude is changed. And when God shows Peter clearly that God gives the Holy Spirit even to those considered unqualified, Peter becomes an advocate for welcoming into the family of Jesus people they would not even have eaten with a week earlier. From outcast to sibling in Christ in one week: that’s a shock.
It doesn’t seem so shocking to you and me, because most of us are Gentiles by ancestry. And at least in this Church, we’re not much given to rules anyway. The easiest thing for me to do would be to point the finger at other groups. There are groups of Christians who still think that God has rules about who belongs and who doesn’t; Peter’s vision wasn’t about people, but about food. No food is unclean, but people who aren’t baptized according to the proper formula, or LGBTQIA+ people, or women, or some other group that isn’t “us” are still unclean.
But since we like to think of ourselves as enlightened, we’re not going to exclude anybody, I need to ask us what we are to make of this story.
Have you ever heard yourself say of some person or some group, “Well, they’re not really Christians”? What leads you to say that? I am at least tempted to think that of people who seem to put more trust in their assault weapons than they do in Jesus, people who belong to white nationalist movements, people who aren’t, well, “woke.” Peter’s vision suggests to me that I can say that they are wrong, that they are misguided, that they have misunderstood reality; but I cannot say they do not belong to the people of God. Only God gets to say that; you and I don’t. Anyone who professes Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is my sibling in Christ, even if I would rather not eat and drink with them.
No, I’m not suggesting anything of that nature about Cornelius; please don’t misunderstand. Cornelius is a good guy, for a Roman; he prays, he seeks God, he is generous to people. His only fault is that he’s a Gentile. And so I think folks who really need to take this to heart are those who exclude people because of race or language or national origin. Maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t think that’s our problem as a congregation, so I’m searching for an application for us. And so the first thing I make of this story is that we too need to ask the question, “Whom would we like to exclude?” and then be honest with our answer and our need to repent.
Another thing I am inclined to make of this story is that accepting one another doesn’t mean that no one has anything to learn. Peter didn’t start his speech by saying, “Well, I see God has accepted you, so you’re fine just as you are. I have nothing to say to you.” No; he taught Cornelius and his family and friends about Jesus. Why did Cornelius ask Peter to stay on for a few days? To play cards? Maybe they did play a few hands, but the main reason he asked him to stay, no doubt, was to tell them more about Jesus. Peter had spent three years with Jesus; he had plenty of stories to tell. And Cornelius had a lot to learn.
I have been so pleased to hear many of you keeping the Year of the Bible talk about the things you are encountering by doing this reading. You are reading stories you had never heard before (the story of Judah and Tamar is not going to show up in a Sunday School book) and you are discovering the sweep of the story as things relate to one another. Even more exciting are the insights that I hear at our Wednesday evening discussions; those who participate in such learning are like Cornelius: eager to know more.
A final comment is that I don’t think it was an accident that God chose Peter to be the vehicle of this revelation about Jews and Gentiles. Peter was the leader of them all; Peter was the one Jesus called “the Rock;” Peter could be something of a blockhead. God turned Peter around, which (as you’ll see when you read chapter 11 on Tuesday) began to turn the Church around. Peter didn’t have to work hard to figure this out; Peter didn’t have to make it happen. Peter simply needed to be ready to respond to the work of God.
That’s the attitude I hope that you and I have about our life in Jesus. When a new possibility is before us, I hope that we don’t say, “Well, that’s not our thing.” I hope that we don’t say, “God doesn’t like those people; I knew that since Sunday School.” I hope that we consider that God may be doing something and inviting us to be part of it, inviting us even to be leaders of it. For the most part, I think we have done well during the last eleven months, responding to the challenges and to the new possibilities before us. But there may be places where we have said, “I’m not going there” and moments we have neglected the possibility to do something new, even something as radical as having fellowship in Jesus with a Gentile.
Figuratively speaking, of course. Until Dr. Fauci tells us that we’ve reached herd immunity, we’re still not going into each other’s homes, still not eating and drinking together. How much I miss it! Even in the present circumstances, though, there are moments when we may hear the voice from Heaven say, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” What will we make of it?
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
What Stephen Saw
Ash Wednesday; February 17, 2021
Today’s New Testament reading in the Year of the Bible is the story of our first martyr, Stephen the Deacon. Yesterday we read that Stephen was falsely accused of saying that Jesus would destroy the Temple and of promoting the abandonment of all their Jewish traditions. Chapter seven is mostly a speech by Stephen, after he was arrested and placed before the Sanhedrin. The High Priest asked him if the things people were accusing him of were true. How would you reply if someone accused you falsely and you were asked, “Are these things so?” I would probably deny it and try to get across the truth about myself. Stephen replied by talking about Jewish history.
He reminded them of Abraham, of Joseph and his brothers, and then he got to Moses. When he told the story of Moses, he made the point that the Lord had appointed Moses, but the people rejected him. Moses led the people; the people rebelled against him. Moses said God would raise up another prophet like him, but the people didn’t listen. Moses constructed a tent for the worship of God, but Solomon built a temple. Yet the Lord God made the heavens and the earth, and doesn’t live in a temple. So Stephen carefully built the case that the Temple in Jerusalem wasn’t nearly so important as the priests thought and that God’s people were in the habit of rejecting and opposing whoever God sent to them to lead them.
Which brings us to our reading this evening. Stephen was accused of several things, but he did not respond to those accusations. Instead he accused the Sanhedrin of neglecting their duty to the word of God: the Lord God had sent the Prophet Moses promised – Jesus, whom Stephen calls “the Righteous One” – and they had Jesus put to death.
That isn’t what set them off. Stephen’s words about their unfaithfulness must have stung, but what enraged them to the point of killing him was his vision. He saw Jesus standing by the throne of God. That was more than they could take; they killed him.
Let’s pause for a moment and ask why they killed him. Well, looked at rationally, solely as a legal matter, stoning to death is the prescribed punishment for blasphemy (Leviticus 24:13-23). When Jesus was in front of the Sanhedrin – only several months, probably, before Stephen was before the same group – Jesus said that the day would come when they would see him at the right hand of God, and for saying that he was convicted of blasphemy (Mark 14:62-64). Now Stephen claims to see what Jesus foretold, and so he too is guilty of blasphemy. And so they stoned him to death.
But no, they didn’t start stoning him after a careful, judicial process and a soberly delivered verdict. They shouted, covered their ears to protect them from what Stephen had to say, and dragged him out of the city to stone him to death. This isn’t punishment for a crime; this is pure rage. This is rage that overruns the Capitol building in hopes of hanging the Speaker of the House and the Vice President. This is rage that screams insults and lets fists fly. These wise, sober spiritual leaders were filled with rage at what Stephen saw.
If Stephen truly saw what he claimed to see – the Son of Man at the right hand of God – then these wise, sober religious leaders were wrong. They were dead wrong when they ordered the death of Jesus. They didn’t simply get rid of an upstart troublemaker; they betrayed and murdered the Righteous One. So the solution? Kill the one who says we were wrong.
I have two hopes for you and me this evening as we begin our Lent together. One of them is that we will be wiser than the members of the Sanhedrin. It is all too common and ordinary to shout down or even kill the one who points out that we may have done wrong. We’re seeing it here in Nebraska: Senator Sasse says that President Trump did wrong; therefore Senator Sasse must be punished. You may have done that to a friend or family member. Someone tells you that you were wrong about something, and so you cut them out of your life. When someone points the finger, as Stephen pointed the finger at the Sanhedrin, they may be pointing out something we need to pay attention to. That’s what Christians do during Lent; we try to pay attention to those shadowy corners of our lives. We try to be wise. So my hope is that during this Lent if something comes to your attention or to mine from our reading of Scripture, from the news, from talking with a friend or family member, that we will not cover our ears and shout and stone to death – even figuratively – the one who points it out. Let’s keep our ears open
My other hope is that we will keep our eyes open to the possibility of seeing what Stephen saw: “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” Perhaps you too will have such a vision. More likely you will see the glory of Jesus as you read the Bible. Or perhaps you will see him in preaching, or in a song, or even get a hint of him in the sunrise as dawn continues to creep earlier in the day. We are beginning our pilgrimage of Lent, which will take us to an upper room for supper and the Cross of our redemption and the empty tomb from which bursts our new life. Stephen saw this, even though his accusers tried to shout him down. I pray you and I will see this too.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Witnesses to These Things
Transfiguration; February 14, 2021
I bet that if I took a poll I would find that more of you are disappointed that I’m not preaching about Valentine’s Day than are disappointed that I’m not preaching about the Transfiguration. Well, be at peace: I will talk about St. Valentine today. The Communion prayer will draw from the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. So there; we have our bases covered.
Those of us following the Year of the Bible are reading Acts 5 today, which has that wonderful, terrible story about Ananias and Sapphira. I’ve always wanted to preach a stewardship sermon about them, and here I am skipping my chance to do so in order to focus instead of the confrontation between the Apostles and the Sanhedrin. You have the established spiritual authority – the Sanhedrin – facing off with this upstart claim to spiritual authority – Peter and the other Apostles – and you can see who comes off looking better. Then again, the book is called the Acts of the Apostles, not the Acts of the Sanhedrin.
No one on the Sanhedrin dares deny that they were the ones who decided that Jesus needed to be crucified; let’s give them that much credit. If they were modern American politicians they would probably simply call it “fake news.” They did condemn Jesus; but they don’t want the Apostles turning the people against them by promulgating the story that they had in fact crucified God’s Messiah. They figured Jesus was a fake, so before the Apostles could cause too much unrest in Jerusalem, they ordered them to stop saying all these things. And to that Peter replied, speaking for all of the Apostles, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. You crucified Jesus, but God raised him from the dead. And we are witnesses to these things.”
Peter was in the courtyard outside the building where the Sanhedrin met; he knew they had condemned Jesus. And Peter was one of the first of the men to see the empty tomb, after the women brought them the news. Peter saw the risen Christ by the lakeside, in the upper room; he ate and drank with him, as did all the other apostles. According to the Apostle Paul, about 500 folks all told saw the risen Christ (I Corinthians 15:6) and knew that he was, therefore, truly God’s Messiah. Rabbi Gamaliel, who is esteemed in Jewish tradition as one of their greatest teachers, advised the Sanhedrin not to fight it too hard. If it’s fake, it will die out on its own.
Since you and I are living in an age in which it is hard to know whom to trust – we seem to choose our source of news, for example, based on our political preferences, which strikes me as completely bizarre – I want to pause and ask us why we trust these so-called apostles. Why do we believe this strange story of a crucified carpenter being God’s Messiah? Why do we take the word of a bunch of unemployed fishermen?
I hope you don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say; I’m simply trying to be intellectually honest. I, at least, don’t take their word simply because it’s in the Bible and the Bible is the word of God. That is circular reasoning. Here are some reasons I take their word for it.
One is that they backed up their witness with their lives. If you want to, you can claim that the “signs and wonders” that Luke writes about are exaggerated, but you cannot seriously claim that the persecution they withstood because of their witness was exaggerated. As we continue to read Acts this month and the first part of March we will see more of it: the apostles said they were witnesses to the Crucified and Risen Messiah and they maintained they were telling the truth, even through imprisonment, beating, trial, and in some cases death. You don’t give your life for a fraud. They were convinced they had seen the risen Lord Jesus, not just one of them but many of them claimed it, and not just one time but many times. And “they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah” (v. 42).
So here’s where I’ll talk about St. Valentine. I will combine stories that may be about two different men and treat them as one, since the historical truth is lost in the shadows. Valentine was a Christian priest in the town of Terni, about sixty miles from Rome, during a time of severe persecution of Christians. Valentine had the reputation of a healer; when he would pray for the sick, they were known to recover. So a wealthy Roman named Cratan asked Father Valentine to come to his home to pray for his son, who was terribly ill. The priest came, prayed for and cared for the boy, who recovered; Cratan and his household were baptized as followers of Jesus.
Word of this came to the Emperor, who had Valentine arrested. Valentine told the monarch about Jesus, and the Emperor was very moved, but nonetheless had the priest convicted of the crime of being a Christian and he was sentenced to death. While in prison, waiting for his execution, he learned that one of the officers had a daughter who had lost her sight; Valentine prayed for her and she regained her sight, so that officer and his family became Christians.
On February 14, 269 Valentine was taken outside the city to a spot beside the road and was executed by beheading. He was buried there. About eighty years later, the Bishop of Rome, Pope Julius I, ordered the building of a church over the spot where Valentine was buried and declared that henceforth February 14 would be St. Valentine’s Day.
What does that have to do with romantic love? Nothing. The reason we observe Valentine’s Day as we do is that in the Middle Ages people said that birds began looking for their mates in the middle of February. Days were marked by what saint is remembered on that day, so St. Valentine’s Day became associated with lovers. I tell you the story so you know about the Christian priest who is behind the day, but also so you have another witness to these things to remember: a man who loved Jesus and was a witness to these things to the day of his death.
The ability to compel someone to accept something by threatening them with a sword or a gun or with torture is not a reason to believe it. But the willingness of someone to hold to a belief even through persecution, imprisonment, and death is a strong reason to take it seriously. That lends credibility to the witness of the apostles. But there is something else: it makes sense of everything else.
Rabbi Gamaliel warned the Sanhedrin not to put too much effort into destroying faith in Jesus; if it isn’t real, it will die out, he said. It didn’t die out. True, lots of people have abandoned Christianity, perhaps because of what we have done to it, especially in this country. But those who have known Jesus do not abandon Jesus. People continue to put our trust in Jesus, continue to rely on him for salvation, for guidance, for hope and he continues to come through for us. You know that I am something of a science geek, and among science-and-faith nerds today is Evolution Sunday. The theory of evolution by natural selection is a good example of science explaining how things happen; it is an elegant, simple explanation of the means of diversity of life. Likewise, general relativity and quantum mechanics are good explanations of physical phenomena; plate tectonics are a good explanation of the source of earthquakes and volcanoes and such. The sciences are a magnificent source for understanding how our world works.
But they do not tell us what it’s about. The sciences do not try to tell us what it’s about. Evolution tells me how life changes and emerges; it does not tell me what life is for. I need to look elsewhere for an answer to that question, and the life, witness, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah is an elegant, love-filled explanation of what our life is for. Evolution tells me how life happens; Jesus tells me what life is about.
Let me plant that idea in your head and you consider what to do with it. You can listen to the high priest tell you to ignore it, not to speak in that name. You can listen to Rabbi Gamaliel and leave it alone, let it die a quiet death or, perhaps, grow quietly in your head and heart. Or you can listen to Peter and to Mary Magdalene and to Mary the Mother of Jesus and to James the brother of Jesus and to Paul of Tarsus and to Hildegarde of Bingen and to Martin Luther King, Jr. and to St. Valentine, who every day in the temple and at home did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. They are witnesses to these things.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Our Hope and Calling
Epiphany V; February 7, 2021
I frankly am uncertain where to start for you today. What I feel compelled to say to you about Matthew 28 comes from reading the text and deciding that the translation is misleading. Yet I have tended to be critical of preachers who do too much explanation during the sermon; generally I think we should give you the results of our work, without forcing you to endure the process of the work as well. But I think I will start by inviting us all to stand on that hilltop with the Eleven, while pausing from time to time at the dining room table where I did most of my work on this sermon.
We’ve heard the news from the Marys; they say that they’ve seen the Lord, but all we have is their word for it. But on that word we’ve made the trip back to Galilee, to this hill, where we’re standing and waiting for Jesus. If he really is going to appear. We don’t doubt that they saw something, they had a vision of some sort and that the vision is worth making the trip for. But resurrected? People have had visions of the dead. King Saul, desperate for some assurance, got a medium to conjure up the spirit of the prophet Samuel. We saw Lazarus come out of the tomb, still wrapped in his shroud. But neither of those is resurrection. Resurrection is the beginning of new life, the start of a new creation, God’s remaking of the whole universe into something redeemed and new. Is that really what the women saw? A resurrected Jesus?
Here we are, on this hilltop on a brisk Spring morning, shivering a little and huddling for warmth and encouragement. Sometimes we just need to be close to each other for the warmth of each other’s bodies and for the reassurance that we’re not alone on this hilltop. Then we see him; his coming is as sudden as lightning and as gentle as opening a door. We all fall at his feet, but some of us are uncertain of what we are seeing. Is this a vision? A ghost? A reanimated corpse? Or the new creation?
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” says the familiar voice. We know what else we will need for reassurance that this is a resurrected Jesus, a new creation: we will need to eat and drink with him, just as we used to, and catch the glint in his eye that tells us that God is here, God is remaking the creation, God is making all things new. And that assurance will come. Dinner with him, walks with him, the chance to feel his touch again and know that it is not only the familiar Jesus but somehow someone radically new: a glimpse of what we will be, what the grass on this hilltop and the birds flying overhead will be. A glimpse of what the entire creation will be, when God is done with it.
Thinking about those birds flying over us as we stand on the hilltop with Jesus has taken me back to the dining room table where I did most of my work this week. I look out the window at the lagoon and watch the birds landing on the water, ducking their heads underneath searching for fish, then surfacing and looking about at their companions. There’s a beautiful heron standing on the opposite edge of the lagoon, looking around and enjoying the morning sun. I’m thinking about what I just read in Matthew 28: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (New Revised Standard Version)
I’ve been hearing those words all my life. We Christians have traditionally called them the “Great Commission,” and quoted them as what Jesus commits us to doing in the world. They have motivated evangelism and mission and outreach, as well they should. But I’m dissatisfied; I get out my Greek New Testament and take a look. And decide that I don’t like the translation. Here I am, one preacher against a whole tradition of translation! And as much as I dislike preachers showing off their Greek scholarship, the only way I can think of to put this Great Commission into perspective is to invite you to look over my shoulder at the words Matthew wrote in Greek and tell you what I think they mean.
The main verb in that sentence is not “go,” but “disciple.” I guess we don’t usually think of “disciple” as a verb, so we translate it as “make disciples,” but then we have to get clumsy with what follows. Well, knowing my own limitations, here’s the way I would translate what Jesus says: “So when you go out, disciple all ethnicities, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to keep everything I have commanded you.” I think these small changes matter, because they have made me realize three things.
The first thing is that the emphasis is on teaching. A “disciple” is a learner, someone who listens to a teacher and is trying to learn something from that teacher. The teacher may be a living person or someone you know only through books. I have often thought of myself as a disciple of Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish philosopher, poet, and novelist whose picture hangs in my study. His work has influenced the way I think about God, about life, about good and evil. He died more than twenty years before I was born, but I did get to meet his daughter in 1976. I think of myself as his disciple. So the main thing Jesus tells us there on that hilltop is to teach, to disciple people, to bring them into the circle of those who are learning from Jesus. Yes, I chose my words carefully: not learning “about” Jesus, but learning “from” Jesus. He is the source of all that we learn.
Learning can be slow and sometimes clumsy. Birds don’t need to be taught to fly, but it can be amusing to watch how they do it. As I look out the dining room window, I see one of the birds – what is it? Is it a species of duck unfamiliar to me? Or another sort of water bird? – one of the birds decides to take off and it rises slowly from the water, skimming the surface of the entire length of the lagoon, rising into the air only a moment before it would have hit the small bridge for golf carts. It makes me wonder how many bridges I have run into or nearly stumbled over in my attempts to take off with Jesus.
Our calling is to disciple, to teach, to bring people into the circle of those who are learning from Jesus. And the second thing I realize is that we are to teach people to “keep everything that I have commanded you.” I suppose the word “obey” is okay, except that it feels wrong in context. Jesus is raised from the dead, the new creation is beginning to be shaped from the old creation; I don’t hear Jesus telling us to make a list of rules and tell people to obey them. After all, what sort of things has Jesus been commanding us? Simply a new list of rules? Or a new way of living?
In a warlike world Jesus has shown us the new creation is peace. In a vengeful world, Jesus has shown us the new creation is forgiveness. In a diseased and despairing world, Jesus has shown us the new creation is hope. In a greedy, self-seeking world, Jesus has shown us the new creation is service. In a bitter, partisan world, Jesus has shown us the new creation is love.
The rules that you and I decide to keep are in service to the sort of people we choose to be, the kind of life we choose to live. Our calling is not merely to teach commandments; our calling is to disciple people into Jesus’ way of life. No wonder some of us, shivering on that hilltop, are feeling doubtful. When he sent us out to heal the sick and cast out demons, that was easy compared to this. We can devote the rest of our lives to the project of discipling people into Jesus’ way of life and maybe have relative success with a handful. We may, if we’re blessed, succeed with our own children, but even that isn’t guaranteed. It’s easier to heal the sick, to cast out demons, to teach a new set of rules than to disciple people into a way of life.
And for the third thing that I realize I have to take you back to the dining room table so you can look at my Greek New Testament with me. When nearly every translation says “all nations,” as in “make disciples of all nations,” the word is “ethne.” It means “nation” in the sense of “identity group,” such as “the Irish” or “the Xhosa.” It doesn’t mean nation in the sense of “United States of America” or “Argentina.” It means “the Vietnamese,” not the nation-state of Vietnam. “Ethne” is the source of our English word “ethnic” and “ethnicity.” So our Great Commission is to disciple all ethnicities into Jesus’ way of life.
Here is where that is taking me: you and I are living in an era in which the mission field doesn’t begin across the ocean, but begins outside our front door, and sometimes even in our own living rooms. So I think the ethnicity that we are called to disciple, the ethnicity that needs to learn Jesus’ way of life, is White people in the United States. I know that not all of you who hear this are White, but hear what I say to my fellow Whites. We White people have learned the world’s ways very well, the ways of power and prestige and progress, but we have not learned Jesus’ ways, the ways of service and forgiveness and love. The healing of our nation-state will begin as we, the community of Jesus, disciple all ethnicities into Jesus’ way of life, beginning with the White people who have dominated our land since its birth. That will be hard, and it isn’t made easier by simply saying that it would be good for everyone to do so.
Jesus’ way of life is a hard sell, learning it is a struggle and discipling others into it is a challenge. I think that is why we have tended to take the easy way out. We either try to get laws passed that enforce the rules that we think will serve Jesus – whether it is something as simple as prohibiting shopping on Sunday or as complex as abolishing abortion – or we try to scare people into following Jesus by convincing them that they will burn in hell if they don’t. Force and fear: those are the world’s ways; those are not the ways of the new creation.
So what do we have, concretely, to offer people as we disciple them into the ways of Jesus, into the new creation? We have our answer right next to us as we stand huddled, shivering on the hilltop. We have the community of faith. As flawed as we are, as difficult as we can be, we do have each other. And we remember Jesus’ promise that whenever two or three of us are together, he is there with us. We don’t need to scare hell out of people or get the government to make people behave the way we think they should, we need to invite them into a community of people who rely on Jesus and are learning together to live in the new creation. That is why he tells us to baptize them: we are not merely to get them to do certain things, but to initiate them into the community of the new creation. That is who we are, that is what we are: we are the community of the new creation. Whenever two or three of us are together in the name of Jesus, there he is with us, discipling us, teaching us, remaking the creation through us.
So as we go and disciple all ethnicities, as long as we stay together we can live in Jesus’ promise: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Here are my remarks from the congregational meeting January 31:
I would like to say a few things to summarize the annual reports, about the year past and the state of Presbyterian Church of the Master right now. I read the reports and am grateful to those who wrote them for their thoroughness and clarity; remember that if you have questions about any of them to please contact the writer. They all identify themselves, but you can always ask me or Andy Cook whom to contact.
You don’t need me to tell you that it’s been a challenging year. We needed to pivot quickly last March when the pandemic forced a sudden shut-down of nearly everything. Elders, deacons, committees, and staff all were forced to change the way we do nearly everything. One decision I made was to keep the office open, so that the people of the Church could still come to the building when they needed to. Whether anything else was able to function normally or not, your office volunteers and staff have continued to keep the office open.
I am grateful to and admire those who have found ways to continue to minister despite the pandemic. Here are a few highlights:
• The Mission Committee pivoted from doing as much hands-on to emphasizing financial support. Yet Manda McLaughlin has weekly posted the needs for Siena Francis House in our Facebook Family & Friends Group so we can continue to be a people that does mission.
• Sunday School and adult education moved to Zoom format
• Outreach gave tangible support to AA, health care workers, and a church family
• A new Benevolence Fund was created which has already provided support to our members
• The Deacons rebounded and changed the way they provide meals to Rainbow House and supported compassionate connections between members of the church
• The Building & Grounds Committee, with its Aesthetics Subcommittee, has continued to improve the appearance and functionality of the facility. When you return, you will see new furniture, bulletin boards, a beautiful stained glass window, and other improvements.
• Personnel Committee used online resources to meet, support our staff, and especially to hire Joey Ann Knoell as Children’s Music Director and Becky Widhalm as Church Administrator.
But I want to emphasize especially what Worship and Technology have done. When we were able, we held worship outdoors in the Courtyard. Since March we have webcast worship via YouTube and have built a following not only among our church members but from New York to Ohio and California. Because the Technology Committee installed webcasting equipment, we are doing evangelism that we had not imagined a year ago. They have not only installed it, but operate it weekly; without them I would be standing up front talking to an empty room and without your being able to participate at all. A conservative estimate is that we are now reaching at least half again, if not twice as many, people as we were when we were meeting in the sanctuary and doing nothing else. In addition, the Technology Committee has improved the WiFi throughout the building and has purchased and installed new monitors in the Sanctuary. I am eager for you to return and experience all this for yourselves.
I should also highlight for you that we have done well financially. Although we forecast a budget deficit, we actually ended the year with a surplus. That was partly due to reduced expenses during the year, but largely due to your continuing commitment to your church. In addition to strong regular contributions, not included in ordinary income are a grant from the State of Nebraska for healthy worshiping spaces and a Paycheck Protection Program loan which has been forgiven. These are listed as special grant receipts and have helped to maintain our program at the level it has been.
As far as we can tell, about 90 of you are participating in the Year of the Bible. That and increased frequency of the Lord’s Supper will help our spiritual life. When we are able to begin worshiping together in person, we will have stronger spiritual resources to bring.
When will that be? We do not know, of course. As the positivity rate in Douglas County continues to decrease, I foresee at least a partial reopening before too long. However, Dr. Krampe and I are making plans for a virtual Holy Week experience, in the possibility that we’ll still be apart at Easter. Dr. Fauci has predicted the likelihood of herd immunity in the United States by late summer or early fall. If we cannot be together in the Sanctuary soon, we will certainly resume outdoor services when the temperature gets up to sweater weather.
For now, thank you for attending today’s meeting; thank you for your commitment to Jesus Christ and His Church; and thank you for seeking Christ every day, everywhere, and in everyone.