Acts 20:17-38 – A Ministry of Tears

Paul sent a message for the church leaders at Ephesus to come and meet with him. When they got there, he said:

You know everything I did during the time I was with you when I first came to Asia. Some of the Jews plotted against me and caused me a lot of sorrow and trouble. But I served the Lord and was humble. When I preached in public or taught in your homes, I didn’t hold back from telling anything that would help you. I told Jews and Gentiles to turn to God and have faith in our Lord Jesus.

I don’t know what will happen to me in Jerusalem, but I must obey God’s Spirit and go there.In every city I visit, I am told by the Holy Spirit that I will be put in jail and will be in trouble in Jerusalem. But I don’t care what happens to me, as long as I finish the work that the Lord Jesus gave me to do. And that work is to tell the good news about God’s great kindness.

I have gone from place to place, preaching to you about God’s kingdom, but now I know that none of you will ever see me again. I tell you today that I am no longer responsible for any of you! I have told you everything God wants you to know. Look after yourselves and everyone the Holy Spirit has placed in your care. Be like shepherds to God’s church. It is the flock that he bought with the blood of his own Son.

I know that after I am gone, others will come like fierce wolves to attack you. Some of your own people will tell lies to win over the Lord’s followers. Be on your guard! Remember how day and night for three years I kept warning you with tears in my eyes.

I now place you in God’s care. Remember the message about his great kindness! This message can help you and give you what belongs to you as God’s people. I have never wanted anyone’s money or clothes. You know how I have worked with my own hands to make a living for myself and my friends. By everything I did, I showed how you should work to help everyone who is weak. Remember that our Lord Jesus said, “More blessings come from giving than from receiving.”

After Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. Everyone cried and hugged and kissed him. They were especially sad because Paul had told them, “You will never see me again.” (Contemporary English Version)

“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”

Washington Irving

Apparently, real men do cry. 

When the manly Apostle Paul was headed for Jerusalem, he stopped in Ephesus on his way. Paul preached for hours to the church he had established there, and everyone understood this just might the last time they all saw each other. Paul remembered he had served the Lord among them and admonished each person with tears in his eyes. 

And when Paul departed from Ephesus for the last time, there were a great many tears both with him and the congregation.

Paul was faithful to declare all the will of God to the church. Whatever the people needed, he worked diligently to spiritually support them. The Ephesian church needed a good cry, a sort of emotional baptism to help cleanse and prepare them for life apart from their beloved founder.

So, Paul, never one to be afraid of his emotions, allowed his own tears to flow freely. Those tears were not ancillary to his ministry; they were an integral part of it.

One of the unfortunate philosophical hangovers of the Enlightenment project, with its sheer intellectual rationalism, is that over the past several centuries, we in the West have tended to view ourselves as brains on a stick. 

The thinking goes that if we clearly and objectively educate people, provide them the correct information, teach them sound doctrine and right behavior, that they will have everything they need and do the right thing. 

When you get to heaven, try telling that to Paul, and see where it gets you.

Any Christian tradition which excludes the vital element of emotions is a truncated spirituality. Even more, I would argue it is downright heretical. If we are devoted to emulating and following our Lord, then just as he wept, we will weep, too.

People everywhere desperately need some tears in order to connect with Jesus Christ. 

Perhaps we all need a good old fashioned cry today.

Weep over lost persons locked in a prison of guilt and shame who need deliverance and new life.  

Shed some tears over believers floundering in their faith, mistakenly believing they must keep a stiff upper lip and eschew their grief and sadness.

Bawl and let your eyes be red in missing those friends and mentors who have died in faith, leaving a massive spiritual hole in our hearts.

And cry over a broken world that has not experienced the grace of God. Indeed, slow down enough to feel the pain, sit with your emotions, and find the mercy of God.

Gracious God, you have created us all in your image and likeness. Help us so to connect with your own emotional constellation that none of us will be stifled in faith but will go on to maturity in Christ with your whole church. Amen.

Matthew 5:4 – Blessed are Those Who Mourn

“Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.” (NIV)

Throughout most of human history, there have been groups of people, typically women, who occupy a special role within their respective societies. Sometimes paid professionally, and many times not, these folks had an important function – so important was this vocation that a unique skill set was needed to support an entire community of people.

What is that role, that function? To be a mourner.

In Scotland and Ireland, they were referred to as “keeners.” Keening is mourning, and keeners were employed to help others grieve and lament the death of a loved one. Through their emotional wailing, family members could feel as though someone was putting a voice to their grief. It was also considered a way to honor the dead and share their accomplishments. 

The keen is a bygone practice, along with many of the funeral practices of other cultures. With the advent of modern institutional funeral homes, beginning in the nineteenth century, there has been more and more distance to the raw feeling and emotion of death. Keening was a tradition which included songs of lament, at least one of them being composed specifically for the occasion.

For millennia, cultures have recognized and affirmed the need for and importance of wailing and crying and deep grief to have its say.

Jesus believed mourning to be significant enough to include it, right off the bat, in his Sermon on the Mount. Authentic disciples of Jesus Christ mourn.

Mourning, in the Beatitudes, is the emotional response to spiritual bankruptcy. To be a spiritual mourner is to weep and wail over sin… loudly! It is to see that sin in all its foulness and degradation is terrible and destroys relationships. Because of this, we experience personal grief over both the world’s sin and ours.

The Christian disciple, the true follower of Jesus, knows death is coming, and must be faced. God is coming and will be known by all as either Savior or Judge. Sin is present all around us, even in us, and it is unspeakably ugly and black in the light of God’s holiness. Eternity is real, and every living human being is rushing toward it.

The alternatives of eternity are inexorably coming – life or death, forgiveness or condemnation, heaven or hell. These are all realities which will not go away. The person who lives in the light of them, and rightly assesses self and the world, cannot help but mourn.

They mourn for the sins of their nation and neighborhood. They mourn over the erosion of the very concept of truth. The keener mourns over the greed, the cynicism, and the lack of integrity all around. Indeed, the Christian mourner mourns that there are so few keeners expressing the biblical mandate to mourn.

I wonder if sin causes us to weep, even to wail. I am curious if the presence of sin in the world and within ourselves keeps us awake at night, or not.

If individuals can only locate sin out there somewhere and are never close enough to see lost souls entrenched in sin, needing a Savior, then they must come back to the first Beatitude of knowing their spiritual poverty and wrestle with putting pride in its place and fully embracing a humble spirit.

Those who do not mourn have a hard heart because mourners are sensitive to sin.

“But I’m not really a person who cries.” Perhaps you ought to explore why that is so. It could be that a thick callous has developed over the heart. The telltale signs of this are being comfortable with watching violence and having no problem with uttering violent speech.

Many Christians pray for revival; it will not occur apart from the way of the spiritual beggar who mourns over the violence, oppression, bigotry, arrogance, and injustice of the world. 

If there is to be any transformation of heart, it will come through seeing myself for who I am and seeing the sins of this world for what they are.  Without this, there is no hungering and thirsting for righteousness, no mercy, no purity, and no peace in the world or the church. 

Jesus told a parable to illustrate true righteousness versus self-righteousness, saying:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14, NIV)

Jesus says the mourner, the keener, will be comforted; she will find the remedy to alleviate guilt and shame in her own life through Jesus, as well as the answer to the ills of the world, in Christ.

We do not need lots of money, a high position, a particular gender, or even be a faithful practicing religious person to be a mourner. Anyone can be one. And this is the door by which we enter the kingdom of God.

Almighty and most merciful Father, we have sinned and strayed from your ways like lost sheep…. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done…. We acknowledge with great sorrow our great and many sins which we, from time to time, have committed by thought, word and deed, against your divine majesty…. O Lord, have mercy upon us.

Spare all who confess their faults and truly repent; according to your promises declared in Christ Jesus our Lord. We are cut to the heart and are sorry for our wrongs; remembering them now grieves us…. Forgive all our past wrongdoing; be merciful to us now in the present; and extend your kindness to us in the future, through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and forever. Amen.

*Above painting by Hyatt Moore

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.

Matthew 5:1-12 – The Beatitudes of Jesus

Sermon-on-the-Mount
A Bengali depiction of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said: 

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, 
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
Blessed are those who mourn, 
    for they will be comforted. 
Blessed are the meek, 
    for they will inherit the earth. 
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, 
    for they will be filled. 
Blessed are the merciful, 
    for they will be shown mercy. 
Blessed are the pure in heart, 
    for they will see God. 
Blessed are the peacemakers, 
    for they will be called children of God. 
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, 
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (NIV) 

Just as God’s Law was given on a mountain (The Ten Commandments) so the law was restated on a mountain by Jesus (Sermon on the Mount). I believe that arguably one of the most important and impacting portions of Holy Scripture are the Beatitudes of Jesus, which serve as the foundation to all of Christ’s teaching. These Beatitudes are not simply a random collection of pithy phrases from Jesus on what constitutes approval from God. They intentionally build upon each other and describe true righteousness.  

Blessed are the poor in spirit.   

This Beatitude is the spiritual base to the Christian life.  Most of the original crowd listening to Jesus thought they were on the outside of the kingdom, on the margins of true religion. Instead, Jesus told them they have a place as poor and pitiable people. To be “poor in spirit” means one is a spiritual beggar who recognizes they have nothing to offer God. It is seeing oneself, one’s sin, and one’s life as spiritually bankrupt apart from God. Beggars have no ability to strike deals; they have nothing to leverage with; and, realize they deserve nothing. Beggars do one thing continually: they beg. The proud person would never be caught begging for anything. Yet, the humble spiritual beggar constantly prays because they need God! They discern that without God there is no hope. The kingdom of heaven belongs to the penitent and not the proud. 

Blessed are those who mourn. 

This is the emotional response of acknowledging one’s spiritual poverty.  Grief and lament have a central place in Christian theology and life. To avoid it, work around it, or short-circuit its process is to refuse Christ because there is no righteousness apart from mourning over sin. Crying, weeping, and even intense tears are important and necessary. To experience personal grief over one’s sins and the sins of the church and the world is a Beatitude of Jesus. You neither need position, power, privilege, nor pedigree to be a mourner. All can mourn. This is the door by which we enter the kingdom of God. 

Blessed are the meek. 

A meek spirit is the result of realizing our poverty of spirit and practicing grief and lament. At the heart of what it means to be meek is a spirit of non-retaliation. When we are flat on our backs before God, there is no place to look but up. Thus, there is no ability to look down on others. To be meek is to be broken before God. A meek person takes personal responsibility for their attitudes and actions. The meek have no need to retaliate, even when egregiously wronged, because they fully entrust themselves to God alone who judges the living and the dead. Ironically, brokenness is the path to righteous wholeness. 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. 

Only those who know their poverty of spirit, personally grieve over sin, and are truly humble/meek end up longing for righteousness. This is much more than just desire; this is the recognition that without God I will not make it. I cannot be righteous without Jesus. Simply put, righteousness is a right relationship with God and others. That is what happens when a person is meek. Such a person knows she cannot make things right by herself; she needs help, specifically, God’s help. If we ever have the thought that we can live most days of our lives without God, we do not yet know true righteousness. People who understand their great need for Jesus are easy to spot. They crave and devour God’s Word as their daily food; and they cannot stop blabbering on about Jesus. 

Sermon on the Mount
A fresco of the Sermon on the Mount on the northern wall of the Sistine Chapel.

There are three practices of living that arise from being filled with God’s righteousness.  They are the next three Beatitudes of mercy, purity, and peacemaking. These cannot be conjured up by our own will. They organically grow within us and are freely expressed because of what God is doing in our lives. You cannot force them any more than you can force a stalk of corn to grow on your terms. Instead, you work with the unforced rhythms of God’s grace and allow his righteousness to take root in you. Below the soil the activity of spiritual poverty, mourning, and humility takes place. Then, when the plant breaks the soil and flowers, it produces mercy, purity, and peace-making. 

Blessed are the merciful.  

Mercy begins with a disposition of the heart that seeks to be generous. Mercy is a loving response to someone or a group of people in misery. We accept them and help them because we ourselves have been there. Mercy looks for ways to come alongside others and help, rather than pile expectations and burdens on others without mentoring them in the ways of God. 

Blessed are the pure in heart. 

Purity also results from true righteousness. A stalk of corn might look good, but if you shuck it and it is filled with worms, it isn’t going to be worth much. Legalistic righteousness is concerned to look good, is obsessed with performance, perfection, and possessions. Conversely, the righteousness of God fills our hungry hearts and makes us pure and holy, set apart for his use. 

Blessed are the peacemakers.  

Peacemakers are people who find themselves caught in the middle and want to live righteously with the mercy and purity that God has provided for them. Peace is only realized through peacemakers. It seems we all desire peace, yet, peacemakers are hard to come by. It’s a tough gig. Peacemakers exist through being characterized by the earlier Beatitudes. To achieve peace, one must first be at peace with God and self – which is why we need the cross of Jesus Christ. 

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness.  

When a person lives in this righteousness as presented by Jesus, there will be persecution. Folks who are offended by even slight criticisms are usually the ones who are privileged and in power. They have not yet learned the ways of Jesus. Pettiness is nothing more than a sign of unrighteousness. Yoking up with Jesus, following him, and living into his words and ways has always been risky and dangerous. The Beatitudes of Jesus are not characteristics that lead to power, prestige, or possessions, but likely just the opposite. 

The former Pope Benedict XVI, explained Christ’s Beatitudes this way: “The Beatitudes, spoken with the community of Jesus’ disciples in view, are paradoxes – the standards of the world are turned upside down as soon as things are seen in their right perspective, which is to say, in terms of God’s values, so different from those of the world. It is precisely those who are poor in worldly terms, those thought of as lost souls, who are truly fortunate ones, the blessed, who have every reason to rejoice and exult in their suffering. The Beatitudes are promises resplendent with the new image of the world and humanity inaugurated by Jesus.” 

Those who are in Jesus Christ become living beatitudes, walking, talking blessings to the world.  Those who live with Jesus in his kingdom have a destiny to be witnesses to another subversive, yet wonderful, way of life, where the last are first and the greatest are the least. 

O Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me. 

O Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me. 

O Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, grant me your peace.