God in Art: A Revealing Walk

In one of the resurrection stories, Jesus appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, walking unrecognized with them. The story is found in Luke 24:13-35. This depiction by an unknown Flemish painter around 1600 is dependent on pilgrim clothing and imagery familiar to the artist, but it does capture an important theme. The world is a busy place, full of distractions, and as we wander through it we can miss the Savior even as He walks with us. Be sure to zoom in on the tiny details. There’s more going on in this painting that you initially will see.

Seeing the Dawn

By Chuck Griffin

Today is a special day. First and foremost, it is the third Sunday in this wonderful season of Easter.

The lectionary gospel reading for today is actually my favorite Bible story. Found in John 21:1-19, I will be preaching on it this morning, as will many of my colleagues, I am sure.

It is a story of redemption and renewal, and it also is a reminder that as we follow Jesus Christ, we may encounter hard times. Christ meets us where we are, however, and bathed in His power, we build on each other’s works until that day when we stand before our Savior.

If you are reading this before worship and you’re not sure whether you’re going, get up and go. Immerse yourself in what you should be offered today and then offer yourselves back to the Lord.

Oh, and by the way, as of today, the Global Methodist Church is now an official denomination. We do not yet know how many hoops we must jump through to get there, but I know a lot of us are ready to get jumping.

We will figure it out, and as we do so, let’s cling tightly to the peace the resurrected Christ offers us.

Psalm 118: Meditation 1

Psalm 118 (NRSV)

By Chuck Griffin

During this first week of Easter, John Grimm and I want to focus on Psalm 118. Please be sure to take time to read this psalm.

I find these prophetic words beautiful and uplifting, and I must not be alone, as portions of this psalm have inspired prayers, hymns and even modern songs.

The story of Easter provides the “how” to the psalmist’s declaration that the Lord’s “steadfast love endures forever!” It’s a cry that moves among the tribes and priests of Israel and on through time through Jesus, our high priest who imparts this love generation after generation.

As we are told in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” What an enduring love! And all we have to do is believe it to receive it.

The psalmist also shows us how we can use distress in this life as motivation to call upon the one who loves us so. It helps to already know God, of course; it’s painful to be in distress while also groping for truth about God. But even then, we may hear with greater clarity God’s call on our lives and move toward truth.

Life is a process of learning where the real refuge is. We waste our time turning to princes and presidents, in those who spring up like a flower and wither away (Job 14:1-2).

We find refuge in one who is mysteriously fully human and fully divine, the Christ who suffered and died for us, and now lives forever, inviting us along!

Dear Lord, help us in this Easter season to embrace you as our Savior and guide for life. Amen.

Resurrection Day!

John 20:1-18 (New Testament for Everyone)

On the first day of the week, very early, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb while it was still dark.

She saw that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb. So she ran off, and went to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, the one Jesus loved.

‘They’ve taken the master out of the tomb!’ she said. ‘We don’t know where they’ve put him!’

So Peter and the other disciple set off and went to the tomb. Both of them ran together. The other disciple ran faster than Peter, and got to the tomb first. He stooped down and saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. Then Simon Peter came up, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the napkin that had been around his head, not lying with the other cloths, but folded up in a place by itself.

Then the other disciple, who had arrived first at the tomb, went into the tomb as well. He saw, and he believed. They did not yet know, you see, that the Bible had said he must rise again from the dead.

Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood outside the tomb, crying. As she wept, she stooped down to look into the tomb. There she saw two angels, clothed in white, one at the head and one at the feet of where Jesus’ body had been lying.

‘Woman,’ they said to her, ‘why are you crying?’

‘They’ve taken away my master,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know where they’ve put him!’

As she said this she turned round, and saw Jesus standing there. She didn’t know it was Jesus.

‘Woman,’ Jesus said to her, ‘why are you crying? Who are you looking for?’

She guessed he must be the gardener.

‘Sir,’ she said, ‘if you’ve carried him off somewhere, tell me where you’ve put him, and I will take him away.’

‘Mary!’ said Jesus.

She turned and spoke in Aramaic.

‘Rabbouni!’ she said (which means ‘Teacher’).

‘Don’t cling to me,’ said Jesus. ‘I haven’t yet gone up to the father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I’m going up to my father and your father – to my God and your God.” ’

Mary Magdalene went and told the disciples, ‘I’ve seen the master!’ and that he had said these things to her.

Repairs Underway

“Ruth in Boaz’s Field,” Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1828.

By Chuck Griffin

In this season of Lent, we spend a lot of time considering spiritual brokenness. That can lead to a basic question: How can a good, loving God leave this world in its broken condition?

The Bible actually works hard to answer that question. First, there’s the understanding that the brokenness is not what God desires. It is a result of sin, rebellion against God.

We also see, however, that God is in the process of repairing the damage, and he often uses what is broken to make repairs. I’m reminded of a man I met who made very good knives and other tools out of worn-out files.

As an example from “The Book of Judges,” take the story of Jepthah, found in chapter 11. His mother was a prostitute, causing his half-brothers to chase him away from his father’s lands to keep him from claiming any inheritance.

Jepthah did what many disenfranchised people do: He became a rebel, organizing a powerful guerrilla operation. But when God’s people came under attack, Jepthah used his forces to rescue them. The brokenness in his life actually positioned him to do God’s work.

Or look to the story in “The Book of Ruth.” Here, the widow Naomi lost both of her sons, leaving her in a precarious, life-threatening position. She was a Hebrew woman in a foreign country where she and her husband had moved, Moab.

She tried to send her childless Moabite daughters-in-law away to find husbands for themselves, but one of them, Ruth, refused. Instead, they journeyed back to Naomi’s homeland, where Ruth won the love of a man who ensured both she and Naomi would have a future.

In fact, what seems to be a simple story proves to be critically important to the story of Israel and the salvation of the world. When we see this story in the context of the Bible as a whole, we realize it’s about much more than the love between a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law or the love between a lonely man and a needy woman.

Ultimately, Ruth and her new husband, Boaz, had sons, one of whom was a direct ancestor of King David. And that of course means they also are listed in the genealogy of Jesus Christ, who saves the world from sin.

When we see such stories in the Bible, we’re called to ask ourselves how God might be working through the brokenness around us today. We’re encouraged to understand that God sees the pain and says, “That’s terrible, but I’ll use it to my advantage.”

And of course, we’re also reminded that pain and suffering are not eternal. If God is working to repair the world, then an end to brokenness lies somewhere in our future.

Dear Lord, as we are confronted with our own brokenness, may we also be granted a glimpse of how you will transform it to your glory. Amen.

Recognizing the Resurrection

By Chuck Griffin

Once again, I so need Easter. I remember saying something along those lines last year and rejoicing in Easter’s arrival, and I’m doubling down this year.

It’s easy to let the world distract us from our core beliefs. Fear often is the driver behind the distractions. Fear for our health, fear for our financial futures, fear that our lives, or even our churches, won’t be exactly the way we’ve spent years imagining them. So we spend our time working, saving and planning, hoping to manipulate circumstances as best we can. What little time we have to spare we devote to “recreation,” except we seldom spend that time actually re-creating our frantic selves.

The resurrection is the cure. The resurrected Jesus was able to say “fear not” repeatedly for a reason.

Blessedly, April arrives tomorrow, and Easter Sunday is April 17, starting a season of celebration built around the resurrection. Here’s a basic challenge for us all: Let’s once again recognize the resurrection as a very real and powerful event, one that changes everything else.

Try this each morning until we reach April 17. When you first arise, say out loud, “Easter is coming, and I have hope.”

Not all in church have fully absorbed the reality of the resurrection. In a prior appointment, I once had a woman enter my office to tell me she and her husband were resigning their memberships. Naturally, I asked why.

“It’s because of the way you preach about the resurrection,” she said. I pressed further, and she went on to say that they saw the resurrection as a sort of fable (my word, not hers), one designed to help people understand they have hope. “You talk about it as if it really happened!”

All I could say was, “Well, yeah! Christ’s resurrection is the foundation for what we believe. If Jesus Christ didn’t defeat death and come out of the tomb remade, our faith is meaningless.” Paul said as much in 1 Corinthians 15:14.

They didn’t stay in that local church, but a sound definition of the resurrection remained, and people who joined after the couple’s departure said they appreciated clear words about this key event impacting our lives.

This year, let’s recommit ourselves to a solid understanding of the transformative power of a very real resurrection. Now, I’m not saying we should rush early into Easter. First, we need to experience the remainder of Lent, Holy Week, and especially Good Friday, so we appreciate the sacrifice that makes Christ’s resurrection, and our own, possible.

Let’s be sure, however, that we all play a part in making Easter 2022 very real and very glorious, celebrating like a people full of hope and eternal life.

Lord, lead us through the dark and somber days remaining in Lent, and show us the great light of Easter.

From There

Philippians 3:17-20

By John Grimm

“I am not good enough to be in heaven.” 

Did that sound humble?  For that is the truth.  Admitting that I need a savior to come from heaven is a humbling statement.  It is to admit that I have been an enemy of Jesus, an enemy of God! When we turn from our belly (which has become our god), and escape our shame (which we used to brag about), we also turn to heaven (before, our minds were focused on what is below our feet). 

Turning to heaven is to turn where Jesus Christ is located now.  We humble ourselves because we were not focused on his glory.  Now that we have turned to heaven, we see that Jesus transforms us!  As we continue to look to Jesus, he works so that we match up to his glorious body.  Jesus does this work in us.

Jesus came the first time to die for our sins.  Jesus will come the second time on this planet so that we may be fitted to live with him for all time.  Between Jesus’ first and second arrivals on Earth, we decide.  We choose either to humble ourselves or to not humble ourselves.  The apostle Paul and numerous other Christians have given us examples to live.  What will be our decision?

Father Almighty, we are getting to the point in which we know we need a savior.  We are sinners.  As we find healthy Christians in our midst, may we see how to stop living as enemies of the cross.  Prepare us for Jesus’ second arrival on earth.  Allow Jesus to use his power so we may match up with his glorious body when he returns.  In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray.  Amen.

Eyes Open

A detail from Fedor Bronnikov’s “Lazarus at the Rich Man’s Home,” painted in 1886.

A Parable of Jesus, from Luke 16:19-31 (NRSV)

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

“The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

“He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

“He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

By Chuck Griffin

Having heard the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, you may be having trouble seeing yourself in the story. That’s understandable. Lottery jackpot billboards aside, most of us don’t seriously imagine a life of great wealth and constant feasting. I suspect our basic psychological makeup also makes it difficult for us to imagine having fallen so low in life that we could end up lying in the street with festering sores, stray dogs the only creatures who seem to notice us.

And yet, I find this parable to be almost universally applicable.

Certainly, the lesson is taught through extremes of wealth and poverty. But at the same time, it’s not really about the dangers of wealth, nor does it somehow invest poverty with a kind of holiness. Instead, Jesus gives us a lesson for the heart.

Notice something about both men in the first of the parable. They simply are described in their respective states. There’s no evidence they interact; at no point does poor Lazarus actually ask the rich man for anything, and at no point is the rich man portrayed as having rejected Lazarus directly. They simply are in proximity to each other.

The parable points out the danger of a terrible sin, a sin we seldom talk about. It is the sin of self-absorption, of being unable to see a need that is before us. It is the sin of unsearching eyes; it is the sin of walking past someone and not caring.

We tend to think, “It is what I do that could send me to hell, to an eternity separated from God.” Jesus is telling us something very different—there is tremendous danger in what we fail to do.

The extremes of wealth and poverty are in the story for a basic reason. They make clear the rich man has no excuse for his failure to act. With such wealth, he could have easily cared for the poor man who had wandered into his circle of influence. The rich man would not have missed what Lazarus required for restored health and a decent standard of living.

The rich man is not condemned for failing to care for all poor people, just for failing to help the one at his gate. I’m reminded of the story of the thousands of starfish washed ashore on a beach, gasping and dying. A little girl walked the ocean’s edge, throwing starfish into the ocean.

A man came along and said, “Little girl, there’s no way you can save all those starfish!”

“You’re right,” she replied, throwing another one in the ocean. “But I saved that one.”

The rich man could have at least said of Lazarus, “I saved that one.”

Some may protest this interpretation by pointing out how we are saved by faith, not works, and on that point, I would agree. We can do nothing without the grace of God at work in us, and we receive God’s saving grace through a belief in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.

Jesus intertwines faith and action in his teachings, however, presenting them as the rope that pulls us from the pit. This parable has much in common with Jesus’ teaching about the final judgment in Matthew 25:31-46, where he sorts the judged to his left and right—to damnation or eternal joy—based on how they treated the stranger, the poor, the sick and the imprisoned.

The lesson is the same in both accounts: Our actions best reveal whether our hearts rest near the bosom of Christ.

This teaching is good news! We are actually being invited to participate in God’s restorative work in the world. All we have to do is pray that the Christ who saves us also makes us intentional about seeing the brokenness around us.

I once worked in a nonprofit relief organization with a woman who required a family to allow her to make a home visit before they could receive any significant aid. I asked her one day why she did that—I could tell some of the families felt they were being scrutinized or even judged.

She laughed, telling me that yes, some of them probably felt that way, but the home visits let her see the needs the families weren’t revealing. Even the poorest people in rural Upper East Tennessee are generally a proud bunch, and often the problem was getting them to ask for all the help our little nonprofit could provide.

When I understood what she was doing, I admired her approach. She was actively searching for need so she could see it and address it.

The end of the parable emphasizes the overall point. The rich man’s last request is that Lazarus be sent to his presumably rich brothers as a warning about the danger of their hard-heartedness. Abraham makes it clear that these lessons about compassion have already been delivered by Moses and prophets, and that men who failed to hear those ancient words would continue in their deafness “even if someone rises from the dead.”

And there again is the great danger of unseeing self-absorption. When we fall into it, we miss God entirely. In God’s greatest work in this world, Christ rose from the dead, but self-absorption can leave us blind to even this great miracle.

Lord, make us alert. Show us the broken people in this world and how we can play some small part in undoing their suffering. Amen.

Endings and Beginnings

Mark 13:32-37 (NLT)

“However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows. And since you don’t know when that time will come, be on guard! Stay alert!

“The coming of the Son of Man can be illustrated by the story of a man going on a long trip. When he left home, he gave each of his slaves instructions about the work they were to do, and he told the gatekeeper to watch for his return. You, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know when the master of the household will return—in the evening, at midnight, before dawn, or at daybreak. Don’t let him find you sleeping when he arrives without warning. I say to you what I say to everyone: Watch for him!”

By Chuck Griffin

Here at the end of another year, today’s gospel reading from the daily lectionary gives us words from Jesus about the end of creation as we know it. I sometimes feel I want to avoid such texts.

The subject is complicated for a 20-minute sermon, and more so for a devotion that might run 700 words. When I have a group of people who really want to study what theologians call “eschatology,” I prefer the reading time and lessons to stretch over several weeks in a small group or Sunday school setting.

The concept also has been muddied to the extreme, particularly in American religion, by people with some strange ideas about how to read the Bible. The most troubling of these authors and preachers fail to heed Christ’s words that begin our reading today.

A lot of these charlatans not only want to predict the timing of the end and tell us exactly what must happen on earth before Christ returns, they also want to sell us books explaining their theories. If they are sure the end is near, why don’t they live their convictions, going deep in debt to print their books and give them away? Why do they feel they need the money?

But the end of our Christian story is important, so let’s consider the matter, at least a little. If you want to consider it more deeply in a different setting, I’m always glad to help.

Are we living in the end times? Yes, we are. We have been since Christ ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit arrived to guide the church.

Jesus warned us that all sorts of terrible things would be happening around us: “wars and rumors of wars,” natural disasters, famines, pandemics and so on. Such events were happening even as he spoke.

From a global perspective, they have continued to happen nonstop, but they do not represent the end; as Jesus said, they are merely the “birth pangs” of what is to come. Evil was defeated by the cross, but evil will continue to snap and bite, to try to take as many of us down with it as possible, until Christ destroys evil forever.

Many of the earliest hearers of Jesus’ words lived long enough to think the world was coming to an end. In the year 70, the Romans burned and razed everything on top of the Temple Mount in response to a Jewish rebellion. The historian Josephus claimed that 1.1 million people were killed in this destruction.

There have been other times people have been convinced the end must be near. In fact, I would assert there has been no definable period in history where someone didn’t think, “This must be the end of everything.”

Just imagine being in the midst of the Black Death, when plague killed anywhere from one-third to one-half of Europe’s population in the 14th century.

Or think of the 20th century, when two world wars left people with the sense that everything was crumbling around them. Those wars gave us nuclear bombs and were followed by a Cold War during which it seemed most of us might die at the push of a few buttons.

It’s depressing stuff to think about. And maybe that’s why I want to be careful when talking about the end times. We don’t want to get so lost in the sad and scary stuff that we miss the true message Christ is trying to give us. His return is good news; it is the end of suffering, with ungodliness and death destroyed forever.

I want all of us to live with a sense of joyful immediacy. Let’s live as if we are going to see Christ with our next breath! When we live this way, evil cannot really touch us, not even if it takes our lives. Even if we are killed, we are sheltered with Christ, destined to return with him on that great day.

In Christ, what we call the end is merely a new beginning.

Lord, help us to live with a sense of your immediate presence. Amen.

Bride and Groom

Revelation 21:1-6

By Chuck Griffin

Revelation’s author—and the Holy Spirit, I suppose—must drive rigid English teachers crazy with the use of mixed metaphors. Life in the full presence of God is described as both a marriage and a beautiful city (the city at one point is clothed as a bride), and each metaphor reveals something special about God’s relationship with humanity.

Let’s explore the idea of the “new Jerusalem” adorned as a bride for her husband. This metaphor is one of the major reasons Revelation is so appropriate as the closing book of Christian Scripture. Throughout the Bible, there has been a thought running along like a thread from nearly front cover to back. It is the idea of God as the spurned husband and humanity as the unfaithful wife.

In the beginning of our Bible story, it is clear God wanted to be fully present with his creation. When God discovered Adam and Eve’s first act of disobedience, he had gone for a stroll in Paradise in the cool of the day, looking for the people he made. Their sin caused a terrible separation. Rather than a close companion, our maker by his very nature was forced to become distant, while at the same time beginning the plan to overcome sin and restore what once was.

The prophets in particular picked up on the image of God as spurned husband. Jeremiah did. Hosea certainly did, at God’s command taking a prostitute as an unfaithful wife to symbolize Israel’s unfaithfulness.

But in the end, bride and groom will be restored. The Holy Spirit works within the church, healing its members and restoring them through faith in Christ. The bride is being adorned and dressed as we gather in worship and live out the church’s mission.

The metaphor also says much about the value of earthly marriage. When I take couples through premarital counseling, I make a point of reminding them that the union they are about to enter symbolizes the great work Christ is doing.

The husband represents God; the wife stands for the church. And to keep the husband from getting a big head, thinking this metaphor somehow puts him in a position of power, I remind him of Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

In a culture where marriage is less and less valued—we are so much more about instant gratification and so much less about commitment—we need again to emphasize the symbolic value of marriage. If I could add a third sacrament to our Methodist practice, it would be marriage. Perhaps we would better understand how we participate in God’s grand scheme for creation when taking our vows before God.

Lord, help us to live faithfully, anticipating the day when you dwell among us and all is set right. Amen.