John 16:16-24 – There Must Be Suffering Before Glory

Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.”

At this, some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” They kept asking, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying.”

Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born, she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So, with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. (New International Version)

“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come with patience and equanimity.”

Carl Jung

An Unpopular Message

Jesus often said things that were neither expected nor wanted. Jesus consistently told his disciples there must be suffering before glory. The disciples either could not or would not hear of it. They didn’t sign up to follow Jesus into suffering! Trying to get people to pay attention to suffering is like trying to get a bunch of Baptists to put their names down on a sign-up sheet at church.

Christ was speaking to his disciples in the Upper Room, the last meal he had with them before his death. When they were called by Jesus three years earlier, the disciples were not expecting all the gibberish about leaving and grieving. To put this in contemporary terms, the disciples’ response was akin to saying, “I only think positive. I don’t listen to things that are negative.”

Suffering, death, and grief were far from the disciples’ expectations of how things would and should shake-out. They had such a hard time understanding what the heck Jesus was saying because his words were out of alignment with their assumptions. Yes, there would be glory and joy. First, however, there must be suffering and grief.

A Real Message

Just as a woman experiences terrible pain in childbirth, then ecstatic joy over seeing her child for the first time, so the Christian’s excruciating pain in this life points to the inevitable joy at the end of that suffering. In the scope of eternity, adversity and pain last only a moment. Glorious joy, however, will be forever.

In talking with his disciples about their disappointment, even depression, about Christ’s words of leaving and grieving, Jesus graciously gave them the gift of joy. Yes, there can be and is joy even in the mourning. Not every story has a happy ending.

I can say, however, that the grandest story of all – Jesus Christ’s suffering and death – has resulted in resurrection and ascension. It will all be complete when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Then, the grand narrative of redemption will realize its conclusion of no more crying, tears, or pain. There will be only unending joy.

For now, however, we still experience heartache along with the great joy of resurrection and new life. It can be confusing, living in the awkward state of simultaneous grief and joy. Yet, keep in mind, the grief is temporary. The despair will not last. Joy, on the other hand, has staying power and will be the permanent state of the believer. It is only the smaller stories which may or may not end well. The big story of redemption already has the ending written – joy without grief.

A Good Message

Christians serve a risen and ascended Lord. Therefore, we need not wait to be happy, and we need not expect everything must go our way. The good news is that there are always fresh opportunities to be happy through asking and receiving. Imagine a Partridge Family sort of bus coming around to all the bus stops of life. Happy times and music arrive around the clock. Chances are the opportunity to be happy has already arrived. Often, it is right in front of us; we just missed the bus because we were daydreaming about a future state of joy.

We are living days of constant change followed by ever new normal. Just as there was no going back to a three-year hiatus of walking with Jesus for the disciples, so we need to embrace new and different ways of life together here on planet earth. We have the gift of joy. Its just a matter of unpacking it.

Now to him who can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Deuteronomy 34:1-7 – Take the Long View

Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land—from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.”

And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak, nor his strength gone. (New International Version)

A signpost stands at a fork in the road.

Pointing in one direction, the sign says “Victory.”

Pointing in another direction, the sign says, “Fulfillment.”

We must pick a direction.

Which one will we choose?

If we choose the path to Victory,

the goal is to win!

We will experience the thrill of competition,

as we rush toward the finish line.

Crowds gather to cheer for us!

And then it’s over.

And everyone goes home.

If we choose the path to Fulfillment,

The journey will be long.

There will be times in which we must watch our step.

There will be times we can stop to enjoy the view.

We keep going.

We keep going.

Crowds gather to join us on the journey.

And when our lives are over,

those who joined us on the path to Fulfillment,

will keep going without us and

inspire others to join them, too.

–Simon Sinek

Fulfillment

It wasn’t all about Moses. The dream and vision of entering the Promised Land didn’t die with Moses. He was just one character, albeit an especially important character, along generations of Israelites who anticipated the fulfillment of God’s promises to the people.

In Christianity, the victory has already been won. In Christ, every good promise of God is and will be fulfilled. Therefore, we can choose fulfillment. We can live into Christ’s victory over sin, death, and hell by choosing to be fulfilled in our Christian lives and our Christian service.

Fulfillment of our godly dreams, good vision, and compassionate ministry requires looking beyond the short term. Long term sustainable thriving in Christian mission and flourishing as a Christian community requires an eternal perspective.

Change

To have the end in mind, a future far ahead of us, demands systemic change. This alternative system will be inspirational, not fear-based. Rather than afraid of what might happen, a long term view is for the next generation – not the next budget crisis due to the next building need.

Maybe because I have been a pastor for so long and know my tenure in each place is only temporary, I know that my vision needs to look further down the road than my own time with a group of people. And a vision of any faith community needs to outlast our own mortal existence. If such a perspective and vision appear as if it will take the energy and will you do not have, then there is no shame in saying so and planning for a good death.

Resilience

The church is resilient. It has lasted two millennia. She has weathered a lot of challenge and adversity.

Metaphors matter. The word pictures we use are important. I choose not to view the church as the first bite of the apple, which I believe is the best bite. Instead, I see the church as a fine cigar. It’s the last puff of a cigar which to me is the best of all. Christ’s Church is far from its last puff. Rather, I’m saying that the best is yet to come.

Perseverance

Your best years are not in the past; they are in the future. And that is exactly what the author of the New Testament book of Hebrews wanted his readers to see. Yes, it is difficult in the present. You might be tired and weary, feeling as if you cannot keep going with this whole church thing. Maybe you’ve even dropped out altogether. So, according to Hebrews, this is what we do:

You must encourage one another each day. And you must keep on while there is still a time that can be called “today.” If you don’t, then sin may fool some of you and make you stubborn. (Hebrews 3:13, CEV)

Since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16, NIV)

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with full assurance of faith…. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess…. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds…. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. (Hebrews 10:22-24, 35-36, NIV)

So then, with endurance, let’s run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up,and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne. Think about the one who endured such opposition from sinners so that you won’t be discouraged, and you won’t give up. (Hebrews 12:1-3, CEB)

So, through Jesus we should never stop offering our sacrifice to God. That sacrifice is our praise, coming from lips that speak his name. And don’t forget to do good and to share what you have with others, because sacrifices like these are very pleasing to God. (Hebrews 13:15-16, ERV)

Community

If we are united in a common cause; choose to collaborate with others; then, even if there is no clear end in sight; we will be on a road of contributing to something bigger than ourselves; something with value that will last well beyond our own lifetimes.

We can anticipate fulfillment.

This is a hard road. It requires counting the cost of discipleship. More important than our doing, is our way of being together, how we are with one another.

For, in the end, relationships bring fulfillment because relationships are the only things we will take with us.

Mark 14:26-31 – Pride Comes Before the Fall

Peter Disowns Jesus by Ethiopian artist Nebiyu Assefa

When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

“You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written:

“‘I will strike the shepherd,
    and the sheep will be scattered.’

But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”

Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not.”

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.”

But Peter insisted emphatically, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the others said the same. (New International Version)

Learning to Trust

I have two sisters-in-law who were lifeguards when they were teenagers. One day I watched one of them handle a group of kids experiencing their first swim lesson. She went to each child and told them to put their ears in the water and their belly buttons in the air while she was holding them up. “When I count to three, you won’t feel my hands underneath you, but they’re there,” she said. Most of the kids frantically jerked their knees toward their chins and flailed their arms. Truth is, almost all people float when they assume a posture of rest. But people who think they will sink don’t keep their posture for long. 

The disciples had a hard time trusting Jesus. They just couldn’t seem to rest and relax with Jesus holding them up. After all, Jesus said and did things they were not expecting him to say and do. Jesus preached the necessity of humility and loving one’s enemies. He focused ministry on the least and the lost. 

Different Agendas

The disciples had not yet really bought into Christ’s kingdom agenda. They kept pulling their knees up, thinking Jesus was going to lead a rebellion against the Romans and put Israel back on the map. Bless their hearts, the disciples mistakenly believed Jesus was there to immediately restore the glory days of Jewish dominance in the land.

Despite Christ’s teaching and ministry, some folks believe God’s agenda ought to be restoring prayer in public schools and The Ten Commandments back in courthouses. But Jesus has a different agenda. Christ goes to the heart of the matter. New life is what he is after. Transformation leads to observance of God’s will so the least and the lost persons among us will be reached. 

Jesus turned the world upside-down by insisting not that people come to the temple but that the temple worshipers go to the people. It was not a popular teaching with the disciples, let alone everyone else. The disciples had greater (or so they thought) ideas about how things ought to go.  

Christ followers might neglect the upside-down teaching ministry of Jesus because we believe ourselves to be good people. We already assume we know what God wants. And we would never betray Jesus, right!?  O, sure, we sin occasionally, but not like murderers and child molesters. Our sins are respectable – a little resentment here, a little prejudice there, or a smidge of gossip just to make sure outsiders know and respect their place.

However, we must first hear the bad news before we can hear the good news. And once we hear the bad news and accept it, we need to receive God’s remedy for it. The disciples Peter and Judas are contrasting figures in grasping Christ’s message and responding to it.

Peter and Judas

Peter and Judas had similar ideas about how the future should look – seeing Israel restored to its previous glorious prominence. Judas was a religious and political Zealot. And Peter had no problem picking up a sword when it seemed the time was ripe for a political rebellion and takeover.

Peter insisted he would never turn on Jesus. Yet, Jesus flat-out told him that would happen. Sure enough, Peter did a big belly flop in the pool of denial by disowning Jesus three times.

Then there was Judas. He caught on quicker than Peter that Jesus wasn’t going to lead a military coup. Talking about wasting time on marginal people who couldn’t help usher-in a glorious revolution was the last straw for him.  After Judas clearly saw Jesus had no intention of fulfilling what he thought should happen, he actively sought an opportunity to betray him.

In fact, none of the disciples wanted to take a step of commitment into the world of suffering as the means of reaching others. They wanted glory, not suffering. But Jesus chose the cup of suffering.

Both Judas and Peter realized, after denying Jesus, they had made a terrible mistake. However, that is where the similarities end. Judas responded to his guilt by completing suicide.  Rather than throw himself upon the mercy of God, Judas handled the guilt himself. It was a refusal of grace.

Peter, instead, wept bitterly. He realized his poverty of spirit. He mourned over his sin. Later, Peter became a genuinely meek person with God’s righteousness taking root within him. Having received grace, Peter became a preacher of truth and grace.

Stubborn Pride

Renewal comes from spiritual transformation. It requires a brutally honest assessment of self and others. “I will never fall” comes from a heart that believes “I’m not so bad.” Our failures of faith stem ultimately from pride and a lack of trust. We keep pulling our knees up because we are too anxious to let the agenda of Jesus control our lives. 

Proud people have little need for prayer because they are self-sufficient. However, humble people pray a lot! They don’t want to fall into temptation and defame the name of the Lord. They pray because apart from Jesus Christ they know they’ll act like a cockeye little dog who thinks he is a big dog. Even Jesus himself felt the need to watch and pray so that he could face his hour of pain and suffering on behalf of humanity.

When Jesus was arrested, Peter followed him at a distance. That describes too much of our own following of Christ. We want to see how everything will shake-out before we commit. Jesus invites us to trust him, to commit, to make and keep promises before we even know what it all means. 

It could be that we need to acknowledge we’ve made a mess of our lives through being stubborn. Perhaps we have willfully held to our own ideas of how things ought to go, for far too long.

If you find yourself in a mess, whether it is of your own making or of somebody else’s, grace is the thing that can handle it. That is, coming to God with honesty and humility. Being willing to rest and relax when Jesus is telling you to. It’s okay to let your knees go down and stick the belly button out – to rest in Jesus.

Give us honest hearts, O God, and send your kindly Spirit to help us confess our sins and bring us the peace of your forgiveness, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Acts 4:1-4 – The Message of Resurrection

La Resurrezione by Italian sculptor Pericle Fazzini (1913-1987)

The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people.They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. They seized Peter and John and, because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day. But many who heard the message believed; so, the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand. (NIV)

There’s nothing quite like upsetting the status quo. And that’s exactly what the apostles Peter and John were doing. Creating trouble, causing a stink, disturbing the peace, and making waves. At least, that’s how the ruling authorities saw the upstart Christians’ activity.

At the heart of the disturbance was the authorities’ deep concern of potential social disorder. After all, the Roman Empire with all its great strength was firmly ensconced in Judea. It was already hard enough trying to maintain Jewish customs and religious practices. Now, these rabblerousers come along with their unorthodox teaching and threaten the very social fabric of Jewish life. No! Get them out of here!

So, off to jail Peter and John went. That’s how the politics of fear typically works. Being afraid of change leads to removing the object of fear. Stuff the apostles in the gulag. Shut and lock the door. Maybe if they are out of sight they will be out of mind to the people.

The rulers were too late. So many people heard the message of Christ’s resurrection that the number of believers in Jesus swelled into the thousands. Well, now, everyone’s really in a pickle! Except the church. Each time the Christians get squelched and silenced, more of them show up. Oh, my, goodness. They’re multiplying like roaches!

It doesn’t help the ruling authorities that these religious bugs continue to interpret their own whippings and jailtime as a positive thing – enjoying the solidarity of suffering with their Lord. Ugh. What’s a decent Sadducee to do?

Turns out nothing can stop resurrection. It cannot be chained, bound, or imprisoned. Once life gets into the hearts of people, there’s no getting it out. The message just takes over and consumes the whole person. Then it spreads to another, like some infectious disease.

Before you know it, the entire social order is off kilter. What a bunch of weirdos. Following a dead guy who they say isn’t dead. Walked right out of the grave, they say. Sheesh. Pull yourselves together. So many unhinged delusional people believing in resurrection!

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

Rob Siltanen

It’s easy for some Christians to be hard on non-Christians, just as it was easy for the ancient Jewish rulers to be hard on others leaving their fold. Sometimes we followers of Jesus forget whence we have come. We can get so upset and worked up in fear. Could be our underwear is too tight. More likely, we take the prideful stance of believing our status quo is best for everyone. So, there’s no listening, paying attention, or teachable spirits.

Peter, John, and the other apostles just went about proclaiming good news with joy. And the gospel spread. Jesus became known first to thousands, then tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions. Today, according to the Pew Research Center, there are 2.5 billion Christians in the world. That’s a lot of people. Christianity has had two thousand years to create their own status quo, some of it good, some of it not so much.

Yet, at the heart of it all, is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from death. It’s a message that still speaks to billions. And it’s a message Christians need to come back to whenever they are fearful of others challenging their hegemony.

All the hopes and expectations of Christians everywhere are realized not in maintaining some Constantinian sort of Christendom but in the resurrection of Jesus Christ the dead. The former does a lot of handwringing over social and cultural issues. The latter has a lot of joy, celebration, and renewal which works itself out in both personal and systemic redemption.

Because the good news of Easter can hardly be contained in a single day’s celebration, it’s message of new life in Christ is like a bright sun of inexhaustible grace to people everywhere – still warming the earth all these centuries later.

The Apostle Peter went on to pen a letter to struggling Christians facing hard circumstances in a world not yet dominated by Christianity, reminding them of the heart of Christian faith:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

1 Peter 1:3-9, NIV

May we come back repeatedly to Christianity’s message so that our faith is strengthened, the church is edified, and the world is blessed. Amen.