Joy Over at the Lost and Found Department

Sermon delivered on Sunday, September 15, 2013, Trinity 16C, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you would like to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 4:11–12, 22–28; Psalm 14.1-7; 1 Timothy 1.12-17; Luke 15.1-10.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

How can we reconcile our OT lesson with our epistle and gospel lessons this morning? Which God are we talking about? The God who pronounces fearsome judgment on his people through his prophet or the God about whom Jesus and Paul speak? This is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.

The root of the problem is found in our psalm lesson. We humans have become hopelessly corrupted by our sin to the point where we can no longer fix ourselves. As we saw last week, our sin and rebellion against God resulted in God’s curse upon us and his good creation (Genesis 3.1-19). This is why God called his people Israel into existence—to bring God’s healing love to his sin-sick world (cf. Genesis 12.1-3) and this is where our OT lesson comes into play. God’s people Israel had fallen hopelessly into idolatry, which had led to all kinds of corrupt practices on their part. Whenever folks chase after false gods, it always leads to bizarre and corrupt practices that ultimately dehumanize them and destroy God’s image in them. Don’t believe me? Take a look at what’s going on in our country and world today and note that Judeo-Christian values and practices are being increasingly dismantled and discredited in favor of new “enlightened” ones. In Israel’s case, God’s called-out (holy) people had failed to love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with their God and apparently they had passed the point of no return where God saw in their hearts that there was no hope for repentance.

And this would force God to finally bring judgment on his proud, arrogant, and stubborn people. As Proverbs 1.7 reminds us, the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord. But here God tells his prophet that his people are foolish and because they do not follow God’s ways, all kinds of evil is given the opportunity to be unleashed. It seems that human sin and rebellion against God lead to darkness and chaos, the very dismantling of God’s good creation itself (cf. Genesis 1.2 where the Spirit of God broods over the darkness and formless void to bring order and goodness out of chaos). How can God possibly use his people Israel to bring God’s blessings to the nations when they propagate evil instead of good? And just as the evil and innocent alike are caught up in fierce storms or nuclear fallout, so will the innocent have to suffer along with the wicked when God’s final judgment on his people comes because evil has become so pervasive and has affected everyone, not just a select few. This is not about a vindictive God. This is what evil inevitably does when left unchecked. This is why God must oppose evil and finally act to rid his good creation of it.

But even in the midst of God’s terrible judgment we find a ray of hope. Judgment will be thorough but God will relent from totally destroying his people. As God tells his prophet Hosea, “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” From this we can see clearly that while God surely judges sin and evil, God does not give up on his creation or the people he calls to help in reclaiming his good creation and creatures (that would include us) from the terrible effects of sin and evil.

This helps us understand what we see in our gospel and epistle lessons this morning. God has no desire to destroy his image-bearing creatures (cf. Ezekiel 18.32). He created us to have a relationship with him, after all. In the parables of the lost sheep and coin, we note that Jesus told them in response to the gatekeepers of proper religion of Jesus’ day. They were grumbling over the fact that Jesus had the audacity (and probably in their minds was foolish enough) to consort with folks they considered to be lowlifes, outcasts, and sinners. We know the type. We avoid them like the plague all the time. Atheists, addicts, people we see who are hooked on porn, folks who listen to music and engage in lifestyles we detest, gamers, geeks, folks who have more tattoos and piercings on their bodies than not (insert your favorite group to avoid here). Jesus’ opponents rebuked him in effect for not being a good Jew but Jesus would have none of it and as a result we have some of the most treasured parables in all of Scripture.

Despite the human condition the psalmist laments over in our psalm lesson, despite God’s sorrow and anger toward his people’s steadfast foolishness in seeking after unreal gods that caused them to go astray and helped unleash all kinds of fresh evil and chaos on God’s good creation and his image-bearing creatures, here we see Jesus, the very embodiment of God, correcting the foolish ones of his day. He simultaneously reminds them that every human being is greatly loved by God and that it is hard to be a blessing to others by steadfastly avoiding and judging them out of a sense of haughty self-righteousness. This is no way to bring God’s saving and healing love and forgiveness to those who need it the most (that would be all of us). This is why Jesus hung out with the outcasts of his day, not to condone their sin that would dehumanize them and inevitably bring upon them God’s holy and righteous judgment (how loving is that?), but rather to call them to repentance so that they could receive God’s mercy and forgiveness that God so passionately wants each of us to experience so that we can be healed and equipped to be his kingdom builders.

And how do we know of God’s passion for us in this matter? Because as the parables of the lost sheep and coin suggest, it is God who pursues us relentlessly, not the other way around. We note in the parable of the lost sheep that the shepherd doesn’t go after the sheep who is the wooliest or the cutest or that bleats and acts in ways that capture the shepherd’s heart. The shepherd pursues the sheep because it is lost. There is no qualification except its disqualification. The sheep doesn’t display good sense. There is no structure to its life or obedience to the shepherd. No, the shepherd searches for the lost sheep out of sheer love for the sheep and completes his task with sheer joy in finding it. Did you catch the reversal in heaven when the lost sheep and coin are found? Instead of producing the mourning and darkness we see in our OT lesson, Jesus tells us that when the lost sheep and coin are found there is rejoicing in heaven over them and that the heavenly host sing for joy! Are we paying attention, St. Augustine’s, both as people who are lost sheep from time to time, perhaps more often than not, and as those whom God calls to bring his healing love to others?

And if we are having a hard time wrapping our minds around this kind of wondrous love, grace, and mercy, we must remember that God practiced what he preaches. As Jesus, God suffered and died for us to spare us from the awful consequences of his holy and just wrath on human sin. The cross serves as a living enactment of the parables of the lost sheep and coin. God takes the initiative and seeks us out so that we might have life and have it abundantly.

Of course, our parables are not telling us that God simply accepts everyone as they stand. The sheep and the coin are found, after all. Sinners must repent. God can forgive every sin under the sun (except the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit). But God cannot forgive those who might desire his forgiveness but who want to remain in their sin. To allow this would mean that God accommodates and approves of evil, the very thing that is the antithesis of real love. And sadly, there are those who would refuse to allow the shepherd to bring them home. But that is not what these parables are about. They are about the God of this universe who loves his image-bearing creatures so much that he seeks us out to deliver us from the ravages of evil, sin, and death and there is nothing we can ever do to earn God’s love and salvation.

Paul, of course, was the living embodiment of our parables as he talks about the effects of his encounter with Jesus in our epistle lesson. We note several things of interest. First, we see that while repentance is necessary to receive God’s forgiveness and mercy, it does not preclude God from searching us out in the first place. Paul did not repent of his wicked pursuit of Jesus’ people until after he encountered Jesus. True to his parable, Jesus sought out Paul because he was, well, lost. And Paul gives us the impression that he didn’t even know he was lost!

Second, and related to this last point, we notice that despite Paul’s great training in the Scriptures and Jewish tradition, he acted foolishly in a way Jeremiah surely would have understood. Paul thought he was acting wisely in persecuting the Church. But after his encounter with Jesus, Paul realized just how foolish he actually had been. This reminds us that knowledge of Scripture, while vitally important, is no guarantee that we will act in faithful obedience to our Lord Jesus. The only way we are ever going to know the mind and heart of God is to keep our eyes firmly on Jesus. Doing so, in part, reminds us that while doctrine is important, in the final analysis the most important thing is the quality of our relationship with God. And like any other relationship, the quality of our relationship with God will depend on how well we know God. If we do not keep our eyes on Jesus there is no way we can ever hope to know God fully. And if we do not know God fully (at least as fully as we can), we can never hope to obey God fully.

Last, we note why Jesus claimed Paul on the road to Damascus—to make Paul an example to others, i.e., to make him an apostle to the Gentiles, to equip him in the power of the Spirit to embody the love of Jesus to others that Paul experienced so powerfully so that they too would have the chance to know the one true living God and be forever changed by him. This reminds us why we are saved. We aren’t saved so that we get to go to heaven when we die. We are saved so that God can use us as kingdom builders to help bring God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. To be certain, God brings in the kingdom and Jesus’ death and resurrection are the foundations of the kingdom. But God calls us as followers of Jesus to imitate our Lord in his self-giving love and in his suffering and death so that we can have the privilege of being builders for the kingdom by embodying God’s gracious love that we have received to others.

Here then is Good News for our broken hearts and spirits. Who among us has never wondered if we were really lovable in God’s sight? Who among us, if we are in any way sensitive to the Spirit’s promptings, has never despaired over how God could possibly forgive us, given our sins and waywardness? Who among us has never wondered if the bad things that happen in our life is not God punishing us? But the parables of the lost sheep and coin remind us in very powerful ways not to despair or succumb to hopelessness, despite who we can be or what happens to us at times. God our Creator made us for relationship with him and has done all that is necessary on the cross of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to seek us out when we were lost, even when we might not have known we were lost! As Paul reminds us in Romans 8.31-39, there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. God has done this, not because we are deserving or worthy of his love, but because he loves us and wants us to live life the way God intends us to live so that he can use us to bring his healing love to the nations, thus helping restore God’s good but fallen creation.

To whom is God calling you to reach out? Are you one of Jesus’ lost sheep? If you are, dare to believe that the audacious and scandalous love Jesus has for you is far greater than your sins and brokenness or the power of evil. Let your Lord put you on his shoulders and carry you back to the flock so that you can be restored to him and know that there is great rejoicing in heaven over you as he does. Over you! Ponder this until it finally sinks in. Then after you have allowed Jesus to save (heal) you in the power of the Spirit, share his scandalous love with others, the very love of God himself, knowing that this will produce even more rejoicing in heaven and on earth. In doing so, you will demonstrate to all concerned that you really do know what it means to have Good News, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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What the Cross Accomplished (2)

We are celebrating the feast of the cross which drove away darkness and brought in the light. As we keep this feast, we are lifted up with the crucified Christ, leaving behind us earth and sin so that we may gain the things above, So great and outstanding a possession is the cross that whoever wins it has won a treasure. Rightly could I call this treasure the fairest of all fair things and the costliest, in fact as well as in name, for on it and through it and for its sake the riches of salvation that had been lost were restored to us.

Had there been no cross, Christ could not have been crucified. Had there been no cross, life itself could not have been nailed to the tree. And if life had not been nailed to it, there would be no streams of immortality pouring from Christ’s side, blood and water for the world’s cleansing. The bond of our sin would not be canceled, we should not have obtained our freedom, we should not have enjoyed the fruit of the tree of life and the gates of paradise would not stand open. Had there been no cross, death would not have been trodden underfoot, nor hell despoiled.

Therefore, the cross is something wonderfully great and honorable. It is great because through the cross the many noble acts of Christ found their consummation–very many indeed, for both his miracles and his sufferings were fully rewarded with victory. The cross is honorable because it is both the sign of God’s suffering and the trophy of his victory. It stands for his suffering because on it he freely suffered unto death. But it is also his trophy because it was the means by which the devil was wounded and death conquered; the barred gates of hell were smashed, and the cross became the one common salvation of the whole world. The cross is called Christ’s glory; it is saluted as his triumph. We recognize it as the cup he longed to drink and the climax of the sufferings he endured for our sake.

–Andrew of Crete, Bishop and Hymnographer, d. 740, Oration 10 for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

What the Cross Accomplished

How precious the gift of the cross, how splendid to contemplate! In the cross there is no mingling of good and evil, as in the tree of paradise: it is wholly beautiful to behold and good to taste. The fruit of this tree is not death but life, not darkness but light. This tree does not cast us out of paradise, but opens the way for our return.

This was the tree on which Christ, like a king on a chariot, destroyed the devil, the lord of death, and freed the human race from tyranny [of sin]. This was the tree upon which the Lord, like a brave warrior wounded in hands, feet and side, healed the wounds of sin that the evil serpent had inflicted on our nature. A tree [in the Garden of Eden] once caused our death, but now a tree brings life. Once deceived by a tree, we have now repelled the cunning serpent by a tree. “at an astonishing transformation! That death should become life, that decay should become immortality, that shame should become glory! Well might the holy Apostle [Paul] exclaim: “Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world!” The supreme wisdom that flowered on the cross has shown the folly of worldly wisdom’s pride. The knowledge of all good, which is the fruit of the cross, has cut away the shoots of wickedness.

By the cross death was slain and Adam was restored to life. The cross is the glory of all the apostles, the crown of the martyrs, the sanctification of the saints. By the cross we put on Christ and cast aside our former self. By the cross we, the sheep of Christ, have been gathered into one flock, destined for the sheepfolds of heaven.

–Theodore of Studios, d. 826, Oration for the Adoration of the Cross

Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

During the reign of Constantine, first Roman Emperor to profess the Christian faith, his mother Helena went to Israel and there undertook to find the places especially significant to Christians. (She was helped in this by the fact that in their destructions around 135, the Romans had built pagan shrines over many of these sites.) Having located, close together, what she believed to be the sites of the Crucifixion and of the Burial (at locations that modern archaeologists think may be correct), she then had built over them the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was dedicated on 14 September 335. It has become a day for recognizing the Cross (in a festal atmosphere that would be inappropriate on Good Friday) as a symbol of triumph, as a sign of Christ’s victory over death, and a reminder of His promise, “And when I am lifted up, I will draw all men unto me.” (John 12:32)

Read and relish it all.

A Prayer for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting.  Amen.

History of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

From here.

exaltation of the holy crossAfter the death and resurrection of Christ, both the Jewish and Roman authorities in Jerusalem made efforts to obscure the Holy Sepulchre, Christ’s tomb in the garden near the site of His crucifixion. The earth had been mounded up over the site, and pagan temples had been built on top of it. The Cross on which Christ had died had been hidden (tradition said) by the Jewish authorities somewhere in the vicinity.

According to tradition, first mentioned by Saint Cyril of Jerusalem in 348, Saint Helena, nearing the end of her life, decided under divine inspiration to travel to Jerusalem in 326 to excavate the Holy Sepulchre and attempt to locate the True Cross. A Jew by the name of Judas, aware of the tradition concerning the hiding of the Cross, led those excavating the Holy Sepulchre to the spot in which it was hidden.

Three crosses were found on the spot. According to one tradition, the inscription Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum (“Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”) remained attached to the True Cross. According to a more common tradition, however, the inscription was missing, and Saint Helena and Saint Macarius, the bishop of Jerusalem, assuming that one was the True Cross and the other two belonged to the thieves crucified alongside Christ, devised an experiment to determine which was the True Cross.

In one version of the latter tradition, the three crosses were taken to a woman who was near death; when she touched the True Cross, she was healed. In another, the body of a dead man was brought to the place where the three crosses were found, and laid upon each cross. The True Cross restored the dead man to life.

In celebration of the discovery of the Holy Cross, Constantine ordered the construction of churches at the site of the Holy Sepulchre and on Mount Calvary. Those churches were dedicated on September 13 and 14, 335, and shortly thereafter the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross began to be celebrated on the latter date. The feast slowly spread from Jerusalem to other churches, until, by the year 720, the celebration was universal.

In the early seventh century, the Persians conquered Jerusalem, and the Persian king Khosrau II captured the True Cross and took it back to Persia. After Khosrau’s defeat by Emperor Heraclius II, Khosrau’s own son had him assassinated in 628 and returned the True Cross to Heraclius. In 629, Heraclius, having initially taken the True Cross to Constantinople, decided to restore it to Jerusalem. Tradition says that he carried the Cross on his own back, but when he attempted to enter the church on Mount Calvary, a strange force stopped him. Patriarch Zacharias of Jerusalem, seeing the emperor struggling, advised him to take off his royal robes and crown and to dress in a penitential robe instead. As soon as Heraclius took Zacharias’ advice, he was able to carry the True Cross into the church.

For some centuries, a second feast, the Invention of the Cross, was celebrated on May 3 in the Roman and Gallican churches, following a tradition that marked that date as the day on which Saint Helena discovered the True Cross. In Jerusalem, however, the finding of the Cross was celebrated from the beginning on September 14.

CT: N.T. Wright Wants to Save the Best Worship Songs

I’m reading his book right now. So far so good. See what you think.

How can the Psalms transform us?

Within the Jewish and Christian traditions, you get your worldview sorted out by worship. The Psalms are provided to guide that worship. When we continually pray and sing the Psalms, our worldview will actually reconfigure according to their values, theology, and modes of expression.

It’s not that the Psalter give us “Five Rules for Constructing Your Worldview.” But it does embody the worldview that is to shape the people of God. And somebody who is regularly exposed to certain media forms (like a sequence of films, or a radio talk show with a particular bias) will begin seeing the world through those ideas and values, at least to some degree.

Read it all.

Columbus Dispatch: Grand Jury Indicts Man Who Confessed to Killing on YouTube

George Breitmayer III, Cordle’s Columbus lawyer, said his client will plead guilty to the charge, potentially accepting an eight and one-half year prison sentence, in fulfilling the “ sincere” promise made in his video.

cordle-620“Any of the naysayers out there, they are going to find out … he didn’t do this (video) for any other purpose but to raise awareness about drunken driving and get some closure for the victim’s family,” Breitmayer said this morning.

Aggravated vehicular homicide is a second-degree felony carrying two to eight and one-half years in prison.

I touched on this in yesterday’s sermon. Of course there will be no closure for the victim’s family, even if Cordle were to be executed. Punishment of the offender, while necessary, does not typically provide closure for victims or their families. Only the family’s ability to forgive Cordle will accomplish the closure they doubtless seek. Given what needs to be forgiven here, this will obviously be a very difficult thing for them to do. Pray that the Spirit enables the family with the needed grace and power to forgive so that they can get their lives back.

Whose Vessel Do You Choose to Be?

Sermon delivered on Sunday, September 8, 2013, Trinity 15C, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you prefer to listen to an audio podcast of the sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 18.1-11; Psalm 139.1-5, 12-18; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14.25-33.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

In this morning’s lessons we are confronted with the mystery of how God’s sovereignty interacts with human free will. At first blush it is hard to find a common theme in our readings. What does Jeremiah’s enacted prophecy of the potter and the clay have to do with Jesus’ stern warnings to us about following him or Paul’s letter to Philemon in which he tackles the thorny issue of what to do with a runaway slave who is returning to his master? But a closer look reveals what our sovereign God is doing to rescue us and his world from the corruption of evil, sin, and death, and how we as God’s people might cooperate with God in this great endeavor.

In our OT lesson, God speaks to his prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah is to watch a potter working his clay and God intends for Jeremiah to use what he sees to instruct God’s people. The message is straightforward enough. God is the potter and God’s people Israel are the clay. But the clay is not shaping up in a way that is pleasing to the potter so that the potter is threatening to rework the clay into an entirely new vessel. We wonder what this could mean, especially as we start applying the potter’s warning to ourselves and our own lives. After all, who among us has lived entirely faithfully to God? Are we reading yet another passage about sinners in the hands of an angry God that tends to produce knots in the stomach of sensitive souls and cause the scoffer to scoff even louder about God being capricious and unjust?

Well yes and no. To be certain, God is expressing his displeasure with his people Israel and this is where we need to pay attention and remember that the biblical narrative is the story of how God is rescuing his world and us from evil, sin, and death. We must remember that God created everything good and then created humans in his image to be wise rulers over God’s good creation. But we didn’t quite get that memo and our rebellion against God’s good intentions for us and his creation made a splendid mess of things (Genesis 1.1-3.24). We are still living with the consequences of our sin and rebellion today.

So God called his people Israel to bring his healing love to his world. But as the OT makes quite clear, Israel turned out to be part of the problem instead of the solution. They simply failed to be the people God called them to be and this is where our OT lesson comes into play. God called his people Israel to be merciful, to act justly, and to walk humbly with the God who called them into existence. But Israel steadfastly refused to do so. This surely grieved God to the very depths of his heart and as often happens with humans, God’s grief over his people’s stubbornness and rebellion was sometimes expressed as anger. Anyone who has dealt with a stubborn or obstinate friend or family member knows exactly what I’m talking about. Now we see God warning his people Israel through his prophet and we can almost hear God pleading with his people, imploring them to turn away from their stubborn, rebellious, and self-centered ways, and start acting like God’s image-bearers before it is too late. Otherwise, God will have no choice but to rework the clay and do something new and wonderful with it.

Here we see God asserting his sovereign power as Creator over his creatures. We might not fully understand God’s ways and we are certainly free to challenge and even rebel against God’s plan to use humans to help heal and restore his good but fallen creation. But in the final analysis God’s rescue plan will go forward, despite what we do (or refuse to do), precisely because God is the sovereign Creator. To be certain, God gives us free will and allows us to freely choose how we will live our lives. But what will we do with that freedom? Will we choose to live fundamentally in opposition to God or in cooperation with him? This is the choice God is laying out to his people and this is the choice each of us must make today as God’s people in Jesus. This is the mystery of God’s sovereignty and human freedom and to help us better understand how each interacts with the other (although we’ll never understand the dynamics fully), we need to keep in mind why God called his people into existence—to help the kingdom come on earth as in heaven. That was God’s call to his people Israel and it continues to be God’s call to Israel reconstituted around Jesus today, i.e., to us.

So how does this fit in with our epistle and gospel lessons this morning? In our gospel lesson, Jesus confronts us with some startling warnings. What does he mean that we must hate our family members if we are to follow him? So much for the 5th commandment (honor your father and mother)! To understand this “hard saying” of Jesus we must again look at both its immediate and long-term contexts in which it was spoken. First, we must remember that Jesus said these things on the road to Jerusalem where he was going to die to atone for the sins of Israel and the whole world. We’ll return to this in a minute but for now we simply note that Jesus’ followers didn’t really understand what he was doing or why he would go to Jerusalem to suffer and die (cf. Mark 10.32a). Just as many people before Jesus did not understand God’s call to them to be his people, neither did many of Jesus’ followers understand his call to them to be his followers. Many of us still don’t understand today.

To help us make sense of this misunderstanding we must remember what were the expectations of Jesus’ contemporaries. We know that God’s warning through Jeremiah to do a new thing and rework his people came true. The kingdom of Israel was sacked and destroyed in the 7th century BC and the kingdom of Judah along with the city of Jerusalem and its Temple—the very place where God lived among his people Israel—was sacked and destroyed in the 6th century BC and its people sent into exile. But true to God’s promises, God did not entirely abandon his people. A remnant returned home to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple but God’s presence and glory never returned to the Temple as promised. As we can imagine, this caused great consternation among God’s people. Why hadn’t God returned to live among his people as promised? Using dates from the book of the prophet Daniel, some of Jesus’ contemporaries had calculated that God would return in their day and consequently  messianic expectations were rampant. When God’s Messiah appeared so would God’s glory return to live among his people.

Many folks, of course, believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah. But what did people generally expect the Messiah to do? Two things: To cleanse the Temple and defeat Israel’s enemies, in this case the Roman occupiers. So in today’s lesson we see Jesus telling his would-be followers what it would take to follow him. He tells them in typical cryptic fashion (a prophet cannot die outside of Jerusalem, after all!) that he is the Messiah but not the Messiah they expect. He would indeed go and pronounce judgment on the Temple. And he would wage war, but against the real enemy, against the dark powers, not the Romans. However, he would not wage war using conventional weaponry. To use the weapons of the dark powers would mean they had already defeated him. Instead, he would go to Jerusalem and give his own life for the forgiveness of sins, thereby bringing healing and reconciliation between God and humans and between humans themselves, and to defeat the dark forces of evil (Romans 5.10-11; 2 Corinthians 5.18-20; Ephesians 2.11-22; Colossians 1.19-23, 2.13-15). This helps us understand why perhaps he told the parables about the builder and king to the crowd (notice the echoes of messianic expectations here pertaining to judging the Temple and defeating God’s enemies that his followers would surely have heard).

And now we see Jesus warning his followers that anyone who wanted to follow him must be committed to the same course as he took. They were not to wage war in the conventional sense against the wrong enemy but rather against the real enemy through self-sacrificial love and service to others as he had done and was about to do supremely on the cross. Carrying one’s cross was not a metaphor in Jesus’ day. It was a brutal reality and following Jesus meant that some of those listening might be called to the same fate as Jesus—death on a cross.

This helps us better understand Jesus’ talk about hating one’s family. According to the idiom of the day, his listeners would have heard Jesus say that they must love him more than even their own family because there would surely be many in Israel who did not understand how Jesus would save Israel and therefore strongly oppose him (cf. Mark 3.21). In effect, Jesus was telling the crowd that if they believed he was the Messiah they would have to make some very difficult choices because following him would be no easy thing to do. This is why anyone who follows Jesus had better stop and count the cost first. Are we listening, St. Augustine’s?

Here is also where we see the link between the gospel lesson and our OT lesson. Low and behold in Jesus and his followers, Jeremiah’s prediction was coming true. God was indeed keeping his promise on a grand scale to put the clay back on the wheel and rework it into a new vessel. But it wasn’t what God’s people expected or even wanted, then or now, and consequently following Jesus would be costly because there would be fierce opposition from all sides. Are we listening, St. Augustine’s?

We see a practical outworking of God’s reshaped vessels bringing God’s healing love to the world in today’s epistle lesson where we see Paul imitating his Lord and acting as a reconciler between a runaway slave and his estranged owner. Just as Jesus stretched out his arms on the cross to bridge the gap between God and humans and among humans, so we see Paul offering to pay the debt for Onesimus so that he could be reconciled and restored to Philemon. We don’t see Paul barking out orders or making judgmental pronouncements. We see him appeal to a Christian to do the costly thing and be reconciled with a man who ran away from him and probably also stole from him. Of course, our natural human inclination (not to mention the law of that day), would be to punish the offender, and severely. But here we see Paul appealing to Philemon on the basis of Christ’s sacrificial love for the world, a real love that seeks the best interests of both parties, and Paul expects both Philemon and Onesimus to do the costly thing and imitate Jesus.

Acting as a reconciler—whether it is between us and another person or acting in the role Paul did with Philemon and Onesimus—is one of the hardest things we can ever do as Christians because to be reconciled to someone means we have to put aside the hurt or offense the other has inflicted on us and that is never an easy thing for us to do. Being reconciled to someone doesn’t mean we ignore the hurt that the other has inflicted on us. Instead, we fully acknowledge the hurt and then choose to not let it control us. This is how God dealt with our sin and rebellion and the resulting alienation between humans and God. And God calls us to do likewise in our own lives. Are we willing to put aside our anger and animosity toward those who offend us? Are we willing to risk being called weaklings and wimps (or worse)? Are we willing to “butt into” someone else’s business we care about and play the role of reconciler, even when the parties might tell us to butt out? These are questions we must fully ponder and ultimately answer because this is God’s will for us in Jesus—to be peacemakers and reconcilers.

Like the people of Israel in Jeremiah’s day, we can question God’s sanity and purposes and choose to rebel against them, futile as that is (even if it makes us feel better temporarily). But like it or not, this is God’s sovereign plan to use his people in Jesus the Messiah to help bring in the kingdom on earth as in heaven. Are we willing to use the freedom God gives us to cooperate with God’s plan of salvation or will we oppose it? Either way, it is going to be terribly costly to us and we must stop and count the cost before we embark on a particular course of action. Will we choose to follow Jesus and be reconciled to God while facing fierce opposition in this world but gaining eternal life? Or will we choose to escape suffering and persecution for Jesus’ sake only to find ourselves permanently separated from the Source and Author of all life? Being one of Jesus’ people is costly. But because God is in charge and has reconciled us to himself in and through Jesus, and equips us with his Spirit so that we are gradually turned into bona-fide builders of the kingdom who choose reconciliation over enmity, it also means we have Good News, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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