Sermon 5 Easter Yr C

5 Easter Yr C, 2/05/2010

Jn 13:35

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“By this everyone will know”

A young Jew and an old Jew are riding on a bus in Jerusalem.
The young Jew asks, “Excuse me, sir, what time is it?” The old Jew doesn’t answer.
“Excuse me, sir,” the young Jew asks again, “what time is it?” The old Jew still doesn’t answer.

 

The old Jew says, “Son, the next stop is the last on this route. I don’t know you, so you must be a stranger. If I answer you now, according to Jewish tradition, I must invite you to my home. You’re handsome and I have a beautiful daughter. You will both fall in love and you’ll want to get married. And tell me, why would I want a son-in-law who can’t even afford a watch?”1

Speaking of love, or falling in love, we are all familiar with the old adage, “Love makes the world go round.” And, many of us, perhaps all of us do believe that to be true, because we are the recipients of love. The best books, poems, movies, and songs extol the virtues of love. Human beings who have influenced us the most in life have likely been loving people. As one of my favourite bands that I grew up with, the Beatles used to sing, “All you need is love,” and that really is true. We know that people who have been loved are most likely going to love others. We also know of folks who have been deprived of love and, tragically, many of them turn out to suffer from various kinds of addictions or become criminals.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is in the upper room, Judas has just left to betray him and Peter is shortly going to deny him three times. Yet, Jesus speaks with his disciples in a most intimate way. He is preparing them for his impending death. In John’s Gospel this time of preparation becomes a farewell conversation with his disciples. Now he gives them a new commandment that they are to love one another as he has loved them. Then he goes on to say: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Did you hear that? Jesus says not just a select few; not a tiny elite; no, rather, everyone will know that the disciples follow Jesus if they love one another. I think, over the centuries, a lot of Christians have not taken these words of Jesus seriously enough—for, sad to say, Christians have been rather poor at loving one another, let alone everyone else. Far too much time, energy and resources have been wasted by Christians fighting with, rather than loving one another. And that is tragic, because it has likely turned a lot of folks away from Christianity. Instead of seeing Christ’s presence and love shining through his followers; folks have seen hurtful prejudices, inner fighting and divisions, and worse yet, hatred and wars in the name of Christ and Christianity. Christians, it is true, are not perfect, they are sinners, just like non-Christians. Followers of Jesus have failed to love as Jesus loved and therefore not everyone knows that they are Jesus’ disciples.

Yet, by the sheer grace of God; along with the workings of the Holy Spirit through God’s Word and the Sacraments; Christians have been able to love one another; they have, in fact, and still do, love as Jesus has loved. Yes, Christians have loved one another as Jesus loves because that is why the Christian faith has survived for over two-thousand years. The love of countless Christians has touched the hearts, minds and lives of millions of people, and continues to do so today. Listen to the following story, which illustrates how love made a difference to someone outside the Church:

Bill came around the church often. Whenever he saw a car parked in the lot, he would come tentatively through the door. Bill was homeless and as far as we could tell, had no family. We were all he had.

It was strange. At first congregation members were leery of this shabbily dressed man who showed up at painting bees, yard cleanup bees, and even the odd potluck. But over time, Bill came to be thought of as one of us.

When Bill was asked one day why he chose this particular church out of all the other churches in the downtown area, what he said shocked yet pleased the members: “Because you are the most loving bunch I have ever seen.”2

Yes, Jesus was right; everyone will know that we are his disciples if we are less shy about sharing his love with one another. Recently I attended a dinner at a favourite Chinese restaurant with members of my former congregation, Grace Lutheran, which now has disbanded. However, several members still wished to meet once a month by sharing a meal together at restaurants. The dinner was well attended, and it occurred to me that we were a rather lively group as we chatted and laughed with one another. If anyone was observing us, I would say that our love for one another was present and quite active. The friendly smiles and laughter; attentive listening; hospitable tone of voice; and enthusiastic conversations all communicated to everyone who was observing us our love for one another. Some members of our group are grandparents, and they were joyfully speaking of their time together with grandchildren over Easter. A retired chemistry teacher told us about his move into a new residence, where he is quite content. A couple of other retired chaps spoke of their woodworking projects; one is planning to build a boat. Concerns were shared about the health of others and prayers for them promised. And we even engaged in an interesting theological conversation on the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Now and then, someone would humour us, and joyous laughter would fill the room. Our love and sharing together with each other was real and contagious for those who had the eyes to see. I know I departed from that dinner meeting encouraged and loved; having communed with Jesus himself through the communion/community of sinner-saints.

If Jesus wants everyone to know that we his followers are his disciples by everyone observing how we love one another; then why are we more like spies monopolizing the greatest secret known to humankind than we are advertising experts communicating with every means possible the Best Message Of All Time so that everyone knows? So go ahead and share the love with everyone! Christ’s love for you has set you free to do precisely that!

We cannot know from the outside how much water is in a big tank or boiler. However, somewhere on the tank there is usually a tiny glass gauge, and by the amount of water in that gauge we can tell how full the boiler is. If the boiler is empty, the gauge is empty too.

Love for other people is a kind of gauge of our spiritual life. We cannot tell how much a person loves God, nor should we attempt to judge others. But if a person says, “How do I know how much I love God?” the gauge that may give the answer is, “How much do you love your neighbour?”3 “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Amen.

1 Cited from: Harry Leichter’s Jewish Humor website: < http://www.haruth.com/jhumor/&gt;.

2 Cited from: Emphasis Online.

3 Cited from: Albert P. Stauderman, Let Me Illustrate: Stories and Quotations for Christian Communicators (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1983), p. 172.  

 

 
 

 

 

Sermon 4 Easter Yr C

4 Easter Yr C, 25/04/2010

Ps 23:1

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“I shall not want”

During a Sunday School lesson, the teacher asked if anyone in the class could recite the twenty-third Psalm. One little girl enthusiastically raised her hand, stood up and began to recite: “The Lord is my Shepherd. That’s all I want!” Then she sat down.1 The little girl was profoundly wise and correct, there is a causal relationship between God who is like a good shepherd and not wanting. In fact, the sense of the Hebrew could justify the verse to be translated: “Because the LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Among both Jews and Christians, the twenty-third Psalm is still the best-loved passage of the Bible. Although the twenty-third Psalm was not likely written for the occasion of a funeral—nonetheless, both Jews and Christians often read, sing or recite the words of this Psalm at funerals. When the words of this Psalm are spoken at funerals, I’ve witnessed an almost instant comforting and peaceful effect that it has on the mourners. Almost everyone finds consolation in picturing God as a loving shepherd. In the Bible, several passages refer to God as a shepherd caring for his people. Jesus also speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd. As a living sign of how popular this image of God as a shepherd is; all we need to do is observe the names of churches. Many churches are named Good Shepherd, or Shepherd of the Hills, or Shepherd of the Valley. Such names remind us of the importance of this image of the LORD as our Shepherd. So, yes, we can say because the LORD is my shepherd I shall not want.

What do the words “I shall not want” mean? Well, the word “want” here does not give us unlimited rights to wanting anything and everything that our hearts and minds desire. No! The word “want” does not promote values like “shop till you drop,” or “more is never enough.” No, the word does not give us the right to engage in unbridled greed—even though that is how many may choose to interpret it.

Reflecting on this verse of the Psalm, Dr. Ben Witherington III tells the following story:

I once had a parishioner who was developmentally disabled. He was a sweet and very spiritual man in his mid-forties. He was always reading his Bible, and he especially loved Psalm 23. But he was puzzled. He came to me and asked, “Dr. Ben, it says that the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. But why does it say I shall not want? I want him, Dr. Ben—I need him.” I was deeply touched by this simple question and the faith that stood behind it. I explained: “Ralph, it means that because God is your shepherd, you will lack nothing essential.” He smiled broadly and said, “I just knew it couldn’t mean I wasn’t supposed to want him.”2

You, I, and everyone wants—or, more correctly, needs—God. I think that we can misunderstand this verse of the Psalm when we confuse our wants with our needs. Our wants are those things that we desire over and above our needs. We can live without having what we want. We cannot however live without our basic needs being met. You, I, everyone have the basic needs of food, clothing and shelter, for example. We cannot live or survive without these basic needs. The psalmist is speaking of these basic needs, plus what I would call the ultimate basic need of being in a trusting relationship with our God.

I shall not lack anything. I shall not have any other yearnings or desires that fall outside the gifts of God. What God gives will be enough for me. This is a statement of enormous confidence in the generosity of God, the one who knows what we need and gives well beyond all that we ask or think. But notice at the same time that this phrase, “I shall not want,” is a decision made against the greed and lust and satiation and aggressive ambition of a consumer society. Our consumer society is driven by the notion that we always must want one more thing, and we are entitled to it, and we will have it no matter what.

And now comes this…invitation: I will refocus my desire. I will not entertain all those other lusts and greeds and yearnings that keep me busy and make me selfish and cause me not to notice my neighbour. Here, I suggest, is a…project for all of us who are competent and affluent and driven and anxious and greedy. Faith in this God requires a refocus of all our desires, because most of our wants are contrived and imagined and phony. This Lord will be Lord of our wants and our needs, and we need much less when we are clear about the wonder and goodness of God. No substitutes allowed or required.3

I don’t know if you have noticed it or not, but compared with ten or twenty years ago, television commercials today are played a lot more often. Back years ago I would say a valid way of describing T.V. would have been: “We interrupt our program for a brief message from our sponsors.” Today, I would say it is the other way round: “We interrupt our commercials for a brief message from our program.” Recently this hit home to me when I was watching a movie. I know the movie at the theatre would have run for two to two-and-one-half hours at the most. On this particular channel the movie ran for four hours! I couldn’t believe how often and how long the commercials were during the movie. In fact, I would say that half the movie time was actually commercials. What is the purpose of these commercials? Well, the top priority of commercials is to get you the T.V. viewer to want to buy whatever the commercial is selling. Then, after that want is created within you, to convince you that your only option is to go out and buy the product.

The fact that there are so many commercials in our mass media, and that the commercials are getting longer, and obviously more expensive to make, is an indication that the freedom you have today is only geared towards the freedom to be a consumer and purchase products. The world out there would have you believe that your image of yourself is based on what you choose to buy, which is based on the advertisements that created the want within you to motivate you to go out and buy their product. So your identity in the world then is not based on who you are in God’s eyes, but who you are in the eyes of other consumers and the stuff that you possess. Your possessions define your identity.

In contrast, as Christians, your identity is based on who you are in relation to your Creator, Saviour, and Sanctifier; the LORD your Shepherd—who has made you in his own image. Because he is your Shepherd he cares for you. He provides for all of your needs. He protects you from danger and harm. He preserves your life now, and provides you with eternal life in the future. So rather than living by the mottos of: “shop till you drop” or “you are what you buy” or “more is never enough;” I suggest that as Christians trusting in the LORD our Shepherd, we live by the mottos of “live more simply that others might simply live,” and “less is more,” and “I am my neighbour’s keeper,” and “there is enough wealth in this world for everyone to be rich,” and “in God’s eyes we are all equals,” and “in God’s eyes we are all precious treasures.” Yes, “because the LORD is my shepherd I shall not want; I have everything I need; today, tomorrow and forever!” Hallelujah! Amen!

1 Cited from: Maurice Berquist, DAVID’S SONG (Warner Press, Inc., 1988), pp. 8-9, found at <http://www.epulpit.net/070429.htm&gt;.

2 Cited from: Ben Witherington III, “The Supervising Shepherd and the Heavenly Host,” in: Incandescence: Light Shed through the Word (Grand Rapids, MI & Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), pp. 156-157.

3 Cited from: Walter Brueggemann, “Trusting in the Water-Food-Oil Supply” in: The Threat Of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness edited by Charles L. Campbell, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), p. 92.

 

 

Sermon 3 Easter Yr C

3 Easter Yr C, 18/04/2010

Rev 5:11-14

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Hymns of Praise throughout the universe”

When Martin Luther King spoke before the Lincoln Memorial and gave his immortal “I Have a Dream,” speech, it was a rather dark, perilous time for the civil rights movement in America. Things were not going well. The march was meant to infuse new life into the movement, to give new energy so the warriors might fight on, despite the obstacles.

   How do you do that? King gave the assembled throng a vision. He spoke to them of a dream, a dream of a world in which all would be treated as children of God.

   Was this only wishful thinking, fanciful speech, and nothing more? No. His speech rendered a world breaking in, present, yet not totally available. He gave people a dream to keep them moving, a song to sing in the present darkness, a song which spoke of the inbreaking light.

   That’s the way we are. We need to know the final act. We need some song to sing that keeps us marching.

   In a way, that’s what the songs and symbols of Revelation do for us. They remind us, as we go about our daily lives, of the victory of Easter, the way that God defeated death, and continues to defeat death.1

   In today’s second lesson, John of Patmos shares what he sees and hears in a vision. The vision starts off with seeing and hearing a massive heavenly choir consisting of angels surrounding God’s throne, along with the living creatures and the elders. He says they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice. WOW! What a feast for John’s eyes to see and ears to hear. Can you imagine that?! The shapes and sizes and colours of that massive heavenly choir must have been astounding. And then there are all of those voices singing in a hymn of praise to the exalted Christ, the Lamb of God who has been raised from the dead and now ascended into heaven. I wonder what that heavenly choir sounded like. For those of you who have heard this world’s best choirs singing this passage of Revelation from Handel’s Messiah; you might have a foretaste of what you shall hear from the heavenly choir. WOW! I think we’ll all have goose bumps and feel so full of joy and wonder beyond description. Yes, what a beautiful, holy sound that heavenly choir must have made as they praised the exalted Lamb of God.

   John obviously was filled with such inspiration from this vision that he writes it down and shares it with the persecuted Christians in the Roman Empire. As I reflect on John’s details here, I see two important messages for those early Christians and for us today.

   John tells us that those gathered around God’s throne were diverse and numerous. That is encouraging for people who face persecutions. Heaven, contrary to some folks, is not a small, over-crowded place for only a group of elitists. No! Rather, heaven is a spacious place where there shall be room enough beyond our imaginings. Heaven also shall consist of a variety of beings–here John mentions angels, the living creatures and the elders. That, too, is an encouraging detail. I think we’d all grow very bored very quickly if heaven consisted of everyone being exactly the same. No! Rather, heaven consists of an amazing variety of beings–we’ll have no time to get bored with one another.

Another detail John gives us here is that the beings are busy. They are a massive heavenly choir; singing their hearts out; worshipping the victorious Christ the Lamb. Here I cannot help but think of my late, best friend who has gone to his eternal reward. I wonder what he’s doing now. He used to tell me that he hoped heaven didn’t mean sitting on a cloud all day every day, wearing wings and playing a harp. He said he’d get terribly bored with that very fast! 🙂 Yes, I wonder what he’s doing now–perhaps he’s singing in that heavenly choir. For the persecuted Church, John’s vision of this massive heavenly choir has to be a message of hope–reminding them of better times ahead, filled with joy and celebration; in the presence of Christ the Lamb.

   Turning now to the actual hymn of praise that the heavenly choir is singing, John mentions seven attributes of the exalted Lamb of God–power, wealth, wisdom, might, honour, glory and blessing. John, writing in his symbolic underground language, is fond of the number seven, as we’ve learned before. John sees the number seven as a symbol of completion and wholeness. Seven is an all-inclusive number in reference to God and the Church. Another characteristic of John’s writing in Revelation is his numerous references–either directly or indirectly–to the Hebrew Bible. In this particular hymn of praise sung by the heavenly choir, John may have David’s great thanksgiving to God in mind found in I Chronicles 29:10-12. Listen to the words of that passage now, and see if you can recognize similarities with the heavenly choir’s hymn of praise: Then David blessed the LORD in the presence of all the assembly; David said: “Blessed are you, O LORD, the God of our ancestor Israel, forever and ever. Yours, O LORD, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honour come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all.” As you can see, there are some similar attributes here ascribed to God as in the passage from Revelation. So John likely was a Jewish Christian, well versed in the Hebrew Bible, seeing continuity between passages from it and what he is writing to the persecuted Church in his day.

   Continuing with John’s vision, the music, the worship and the choir grows even larger, becomes ever more diverse and loud. Now John hears a universal hymn of praise to God the Creator and the Lamb. The choir this time consists of every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them singing. WOW! The universe now explodes into what must have been a beautiful, holy, deafening hymn of praise, worshipping God and the Lamb.

I like to discover stories about hymn writers and their hymns. Here is one of those stories: Horatio Spafford was a lawyer in Chicago. When Mrs. O’Leary’s cow overturned the lantern the night of October 8, 1871, the great fire that resulted destroyed Spafford’s home and business. Worse yet, the Spaffords’ only son, a six-year-old, was killed.

These disasters put a heavy strain on the family. Mrs. Spafford became so nervous and run-down that her doctor recommended a vacation, so the family laid plans to sail for Europe in November of 1873.

As the date approached, Horatio realized he was too busy to leave with his family. He sent his wife and four daughters on ahead, planning to catch up with them later.

On November 22, the ship carrying the five Spafford women sank beneath the waves of the north Atlantic. Nearly everyone on board died. On December 1, Mrs. Spafford sent a telegram to Horatio from Cardiff, Wales. It said, “Saved alone!”

How much more would one couple have to suffer? Where was God in all of this? Horatio left immediately to join his wife. As he crossed the Atlantic, he asked the captain to show him where the other ship had gone down. When they came to the spot, Horatio stood at the rail, looking out at the cruel gray sea. Did he cry out to God in pain? Probably so. Did he feel cheated by life? Undoubtedly. Did he turn away from God, saying God had let him down? He could have. But he didn’t, because in those moments he wrote these words:

When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say, “It is well, it is well with my soul.” Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, let this blest assurance control; that Christ has regarded my helpless estate, and has shed his own blood for my soul. O Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back as a scroll; the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend; even so, it is well with my soul.2

   I don’t think it is an accident that this passage from Revelation has inspired the Christian Church even to this day. In our Holy Communion worship services, the liturgical Hymn of Praise consists of this passage–in my tradition; see Lutheran Book of Worship and Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Some critics of liturgy say it encourages too much meaningless learning by rote. I would challenge that critique and say that the liturgy lends itself to inspiring worship precisely because it is the Word of God set to music. The sung Word of God is powerful; it creates within us an atmosphere, a mood of awe and wonder-filled worship of our Triune God. The familiarity of liturgical worship brings comfort to countless faithful worshippers around the globe every Sunday–reminding them in the sung Word of God of God’s faithfulness and promises in the midst of a troubled and suffering world. The sung Word of God in liturgy and in hymnody connects us with our Triune God in a spirit of adoration and gratitude. In this sense true worship, in spirit and in truth is our spiritual oxygen–we cannot live without it. We, along with John’s four living creatures say, “Amen!” And fall down and worship–for as another biblical passage has it: “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” And let the whole creation cry: “Amen!”    

1 Cited from: Wm. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 26 No. 2, Year C, April, May, June 1998 (Inver Grove Heights, MN: Logos Productions Inc.), pp. 20-21.

2 Cited from: Emphasis: A Preaching Journal For The Parish Pastor, Vol. 40, No. 2, March, April, May, 2010 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc.), p. 59.

 

Holocaust Remembrance Day 2010

Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today, April 11, 2010, is designated as Holocaust Remembrance Day or in the Hebrew, Yom HaShoah. On this solemn day, we remember the six million Jews who perished during the Second World War. Indifference to evil allows it to flourish. Today we remember that evil still exists in this world and that each one of us is called upon to resist it with God’s help.

The following prayers are taken from here.

Let us pray for God’s ancient people, the Jews, the first to hear his word – for greater understanding between Christian and Jew for the removal of our blindness and bitterness of heart that God will grant us grace to be faithful to his covenant and to grow in the love of his name. (From the Intercessions for Good Friday: Lent, Holy Week and Easter Services and Prayers, as commended by the House of Bishops of the General Synod of the Church of England)

Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill, but also those of ill will. Do not remember all the sufferings they have inflicted upon us; remember the fruits we bear, thanks to this suffering – our comradeship, our loyalty, our humanity, courage, generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this. And when they come to judgement, let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness. (A prayer found on a scrap of paper beside the body of a girl who died at Ravensbruck)) God, you created us all in your own likeness. We thank you for the wonderful diversity of races and cultures in your world. Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellow feeling and understanding; show us your presence in those most different from us, so that in all our relationships, both by what we have in common and by things in which we differ, we may come to know you more fully in your creation; for you are Father, Son and Holy Spirit for ever. Amen

(Prayers said on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the death of Anne Frank: Reproduced with kind permission of the Anne Frank Educational Trust and the Council of Christians and Jews

Judge eternal, bringer of justice, hear the cry of those who suffer under the lash of heartless political oppression; those who languish in prisons and labour camps, untried or falsely condemned; those whose bodies are shattered, or whose minds are unhinged by torture or deprivation. Meet them in their anguish and despair, and kindle in them the light of hope, that they may find rest in your love, healing I your compassion and faith in your mercy. In the name of him who suffered, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

In addition to these prayers, I encourage readers to attend Holocaust Remembrance Day Services in your community if there is one organized and to watch the special program on Anne Frank televised on KSPS (PBS) tonight at eight o’clock.

 

 

Sermon 2 Easter Yr C

2 Easter Yr C, 11/04/2010

Rev 1:4-8

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“Hope in times of persecution”

When life is full of one trouble after another, what do you need the most? If our government changed their policy from allowing religious freedom to a hostile one of persecuting Christianity—what message would be most appreciated in such circumstances? Well, in our second lesson today, the writer of Revelation, John, in exile on the Island of Patmos, is writing to the Christians in the Roman province of Asia. John was likely writing sometime in the 80s or 90s A.D. when Domitian was the Roman Emperor. Domitian insisted on his subjects worshipping him as lord and god. If Christians refused, they would be persecuted and killed.

John’s message is a little strange. Why? Because it is in the form of a letter, yet it is also, in part, a vision or dream or series of visions and dreams that John was given. The dreams and visions are full of symbols and written in symbolic language. John likely wrote it as an underground code language so that the Christians would receive it and understand it without the Revelation being censored or destroyed by the hostile Roman government. John wrote this apocalyptic literature to encourage the Christians in Asia and give them a message of hope in times of persecution. Even though they suffered under Caesar’s power, John said that they worshipped Christ who was more powerful than Caesar. The slavery and persecution of Caesar could not destroy them. Inside the persecuted Christians were free and could live freely under the power of Christ working in and through them.

People who believe that the powers of oppression have been defeated by the victory that Christ won in the resurrection can indeed live as free people. In his book Engaging the Powers, Walter Wink tells how members of the Solidarity movement claimed freedom even under Communist oppression in Poland:
Solidarity in Poland proved that Jesus’ nonviolent way could be lived even under circumstances of Communist oppression and martial law. People said to one another, in effect, “Start doing the things that you think should be done, and start being what you think society should become. Do you believe in freedom of speech? Then speak freely. Do you love the truth? Then tell it. Do you believe in an open society? Then act in the open. Do you believe in a decent and humane society? Then behave decently and humanely.” This behaviour actually caught on, leading to “an epidemic of freedom in a closed society.” By acting as if Poland were already free, Solidarity created a free country. The “as if” ceased to be pretense and became actuality. Within ten years, Solidarity had taken over the government.1

So, too, in the persecuted Church of the first century, the ancient Christians believed and lived “as if” ceased to be pretense and became actuality. The early Christians defied Caesar’s vainglorious lordship and divinity. Listen to the subversive language of John—making superior claims of Christ’s Lordship and Divinity.

John speaks of Christ as “the faithful witness.” In the Greek, the word for witness can also be translated as martyr. So John is referring, in a slightly veiled fashion, to Christ’s death on the Cross. Jesus was “faithful” in that he knew he was going to his most despised death on the Cross—having predicted it at least three times on his way to Jerusalem. If you’re like most folks, you would rather avoid such a cruel and indignant death if you were given the opportunity to do so. Not Jesus. Rather, he was “faithful,” willing and ready—insofar as anyone can humanly be ready—to face his suffering and death. John says Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s will led to him being a witness and/or martyr. The irony and economy of God is such that it reverses everything we, in our human nature value. Jesus was a witness, a martyr because of his faithful, innocent suffering and death. He was a witness to countless others down through the centuries who also would face untold sufferings and cruel deaths. Jesus’ death on the Cross continues to give strength and courage to those who suffer and die today due to injustices and the evil abuse of power. His death on the Cross also provides hope to the hopeless; those whom the world today could and does care less about; the forgotten ones living under oppressive regimes; the lost children and youth who are forced into military and sexual slavery, and drug addiction by evil predators, thugs and bullies. Jesus’ death on the Cross was also, and especially, for the least of these his brothers and sisters.

John goes on to make the claim that Jesus is “the first-born of the dead.” In this claim, John is referring to Christ’s resurrection and the hope that those who follow him shall also be resurrected from the dead. As the “first-born” he is the privileged and honoured One who conquered the powers of sin, death and evil by God raising him from the dead. The apostle Paul says that one of the inheritances of our baptism is that we too shall share in Christ’s death and resurrection. So, again, in response to this inheritance, we are free to live “as if” there is a resurrection in every death that we die. We die in countless ways as we journey through this life. However, death does not have the last word; Christ’s resurrection power transforms our deaths into new, resurrection life because he is the first-born of the dead. Moreover, as the first-born of the dead, he has, as we learn in John fourteen, gone ahead of us to prepare a place for us; waiting with open arms to welcome us into his resurrection presence. We have a foretaste of that already through the Church, the Word and the Sacraments, along with the communion/community of sinner-saints—delighting in each other’s company; you, me, and folks of every tribe and nation.

Another claim that John makes for Christ is that he is “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” In making this claim for Christ, John is saying that the exalted Christ is the highest authority over all other earthly authorities. The exalted Christ in heaven is King of kings and Lord of lords as a consequence of his all-sufficient victory over sin, death and the powers of evil. Reference to Christ being first-born and ruler of the kings of the earth is most likely based on Psalm 89:27, where we read: “I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” A close study of Revelation shows that John knew the Hebrew Bible thoroughly and quotes from it often, either implicitly or explicitly. This verse from Psalm 89 was interpreted by the Jewish rabbis to be a reference to the Messiah. So here John is saying that Jesus is the Messiah and he rules from heaven over the kings of the earth. Such a claim, once again, of course, is a challenge to the lordship and divinity of the Roman Emperor.

Continuing with the passage, John then moves from highlighting the claims of Christ’s Lordship and Divinity to describing what Christ has done for us. In Lutheran tradition, we are fond of saying to know Christ is to know and receive his benefits.

John says that Christ loves us. His love is perfect love. He is not a fickle, “fair-weather” lover—only in times of joy and success. No. His love is an everlasting love—it is always there for us. He loves us at our worst, at our best and every time between the two extremes. His love is an unconditional love. He does not say, ‘I’ll love you only if you do this or that and fulfill thus and so conditions. No. He loves us without placing any conditions on us. He says, ‘I love you because I love you, without conditions.

Another benefit John says that Christ does for us is he has “freed us from our sins by his blood.” In the Hebrew Bible, God told the Israelites to place the blood of a lamb on their doors; that blood would be seen by the angel of death who would then pass over that door and everyone in the house would be saved from death. Christ for us Christians is our Passover Lamb. His shed blood has atoned for our sins. Just as the Passover for the Israelites saved them from death and brought them freedom from Egyptian slavery; so Christ our Passover Lamb and his shed blood saves us and has freed us from slavery to our sins. We are now freed to love and serve God and neighbour thanks to Christ’s sacrificial death on the Cross.

Yet another benefit Christ has given us John says is that he has “made us a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.” That is a quotation of Exodus 19:6: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.” Jesus has done two things for us.

He has given us royalty. Through him we may become the true sons (and daughters) of God; and, if we are sons (and daughters) of the King of kings, we are of lineage than which there can be none more royal.

He made us priests. The point is this. Under the old way, only the priest had the right of access to God. In the vision of the great days to come Isaiah said: “You shall be called the priests of the Lord” (Isaiah 61:6). In that day every one of the people would be a priest and have access to God. That is what John means; because of what Jesus Christ did access to the presence of God is now open to every (person).2 So for folks living under persecution, such benefits would be most uplifting and motivate them to live life to its fullest with courage and commitment to Christ, their risen Lord and Saviour. May it also be true for us today. Amen.  

1 Cited from: Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), p. 265.

2 Cited from: Wm. Barclay, The Revelation of John: Volume 1 Chapters 1-5 (Burlington, ON: Welch Publishing Co., Inc., 1976), p. 35.

Sermon Easter Day Yr C

Easter Day Yr C, 4/04/2010

Lk 24:1-12

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“An idle tale or Gospel Truth?”

You have likely heard or even witnessed stories where reality is stranger than fiction. After hearing or witnessing such stories, we might give our heads a shake and say: “This is too good to be true!”

I recently visited the Ripley’s Believe It or Not website. Here’s a couple of stories that claim to be true and real, yet seem stranger than fiction.

Violinist plays during brain surgery: Roger Frisch, a solo violinist from Minnesota suffered from a tremor in his hand, impairing his ability to play the violin.  Doctors performed an “awake” surgery where they used an experimental deep brain stimulation technique.  Keeping the patient awake during surgery allows the Doctors to interact with the patient, to make sure they are hitting the right part of the brain. This isn’t a new concept.  Back in 2008 Eddie Adcock had brain surgery to control a tremor in his hand.  Doctors had Eddie play the banjo while they performed the same deep brain stimulation. You can actually click on videos of these surgeries to see them.

Here’s another one from Ripley’s: A car got trapped under a truck. This is amazing!  A large truck didn’t realize there was a car wedged sideways in front of the truck’s front wheels.  A video, taken by a motorist, captured the truck as it continued to drive at high speeds down a highway in West Yorkshire, England. The female driver of the car was thankfully uninjured.1  

Yes, sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, too good to be true, yet it is true. Take, for example, today’s gospel. On that first Easter Day long ago, the women, in accordance with Jewish burial customs, came back to Jesus’ tomb expecting to see his dead body inside and to perform their last burial duties with their spices. After all, dead people are dead in a graveyard, aren’t they? I know, if I go to a cemetery, I expect that the dead bodies will still be in their graves. Dead people stay dead, don’t we all believe that? So far I’ve never seen a dead person come back to life. The women on that first Easter morning arrived at Jesus’ grave expecting to see his dead body lying there inside.

However, that is not what they saw! Rather, they saw an empty grave. Jesus’ body was gone. Where could it be? No sooner had they started to feel anxious about this than two men arrive to tell them that they should not be looking for the living among the dead. Jesus was no longer dead, he was alive—just as he had predicted to them before he had died. Now they remembered his prediction and, believing this surprising Good News, went back to tell the eleven apostles and all the other followers of Jesus. These women, in a man’s world, were the first preachers of Christ’s resurrection.

Luke goes on to tell us the response of the apostles when they heard the women’s Easter Sermon. Here’s how Luke describes their doubt and scepticism: “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” A couple of other translations employ the word “nonsense,” instead of “an idle tale.” According to Dr Wm. Barclay: The word used is one employed by Greek medical writers to describe the babbling of a fevered and insane mind.2 In other words, the truth to them seemed stranger than fiction, it was too good to be true. The poor women had lost touch with reality. Were they out of their minds? We know that dead folks in cemeteries stay dead—such news had to be unbelievable, an impossibility.

In the patriarchal society at that time, one also wonders if the scepticism and doubt of those who heard the Easter Good News was because the information was coming from women. Too many people failed to take women seriously for far too long. Back then, according to Jewish law, they were not allowed to be legal witnesses. Even today, many men sadly fail to take women seriously and listen to them. Mary Lynch tells the following story:

I remember one time in particular when I took my car to the mechanic. I described the problems clearly and accurately. The mechanic half-listened to me. The whole time he kept looking past me toward the entrance. When my father approached, the mechanic turned from me, walked over to my father and asked what was the problem with the car. Now my father had never even driven my car. My parents were visiting from out of state. My father had simply offered to drive over in order to drive me home when I left my car there. When my father explained that he knew nothing about my car, the mechanic reluctantly listened to me while I again explained why I was bringing my car to him.3 So, yes, it is quite possible that because the news of Christ’s resurrection was coming from these women the audience failed to hear and believe them.

The radical nature of the women’s message makes it difficult to believe. Even today, I suggest that we too have trouble believing the Easter message. Such a surprising truth of the resurrected Jesus is opposed to what we know and experience in the natural world, is it not? Well, I would answer by saying yes and no. Yes in that I personally have never, as I said earlier, seen a dead person resurrected back to life. Yet, I would answer no to the question because of what I see happen around me in the natural world every year. The cycles of nature show me that death is transformed into new life. Every year the flowers, the grass, and the leaves on the trees come back to life in the spring. Is this just a coincidence that can be scientifically explained or is this the creative work of God who designed creation this way as a parable pointing to the spiritual truth of Jesus’ resurrection and eventually ours?

As I ponder Luke’s story of the women on that first Easter morning, what stands out for me is that even though the women did not see Jesus at the grave, they heard the message that he was raised from the dead, believed the message, then went to proclaim it to the eleven apostles and the other followers of Jesus. We too have not seen the risen Jesus, yet what we have is the story, and, by God’s grace, we too believe the story—even though we cannot prove it. We trust in the original witnesses of the resurrection. Their witness survived the centuries and is passed on to us today. I believe it is quite instructive that in all four gospel stories of Christ’s resurrection the writers all agree on the important facts. All four gospels tell us that the stone was rolled away and that the tomb was empty, Jesus was not inside. And moreover, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, the women all receive the message that Jesus had been raised from the dead. And in John, the risen Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene. For all four gospel stories to agree on these most important facts—even though they differ on other details—is enough evidence for me to believe that this too good to be true story really is true. I cannot personally prove it, yet I trust that the original eye-witnesses of Christ’s resurrection are telling the truth. Is it an idle tale or is it Gospel Truth? I leave you with the following words of theologian Karl Barth, who once said the gospel: “is not a natural therefore but a miraculous nevertheless.” Amen. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

1 Cited from: <http://www.ripleys.com/&gt;.

2 Cited from: Wm. Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (Burlington, ON: G.R. Welch Co. Ltd., 1975), p. 292.

3 Cited from: Emphasis, Vol. 24, No. 6, March-April 1995 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co. Inc.), p. 59.

A Prayer for Good Friday in Holy Week

Father forgive us by James B. Janknegt

A Prayer for Good Friday in Holy Week

Jesus, Crucified God, on this holiest of days, words fail to express adequately the pain and agony of the human race and the whole of creation, which you bore on the Cross. Yet, with our imperfect, finite words we come into your presence with deep sorrow for the evil that we have done and continue to do daily without even realising the full extent of our thoughts, words and actions, which crucify you anew. We crucify you anew as we complacently allow the weakest and most vulnerable of peoples around the globe to be imprisoned, tortured and murdered. We crucify you anew, when we, like Cain say, “Am I my brother’s or sister’s keeper?” We crucify you anew, with our apathy towards two-thirds of the world’s peoples who live each day without having their basic needs of adequate food, clothing and shelter met. We crucify you anew by allowing greed to be a virtue instead of a vice in order to reward billionaires by robbing ordinary people. We crucify you anew as we remain silent in the face of a growing antisemitism in many nations of the world; as well as in the media and among those in positions of leadership in governments and organisations like the United Nations. We crucify you anew by favouring short-term economic gain over long-term economic and environmental sustainability. We crucify you anew whenever CEOs of companies and Presidents of universities are rewarded with exorbitant salaries while rank and file employees’ salaries are frozen and students live in poverty because of greedy hikes in their tuition fees. We crucify you anew by abandoning our youth and seniors when they need us the most. Jesus, Cross-bearing Saviour, have mercy upon us. Jesus, Suffering Servant, have mercy upon us. Jesus, Lamb of God, have mercy upon us. As we read in Luke 23:34, you do have mercy upon us. You prayed for every sinner precisely at the moment that humankind employed their worst evil against you and were farthest away from you by nailing you to a Cross. Your words from the Cross, as you hung there suffering beyond comprehension and dying were words of sheer grace, love and forgiveness: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” That is why this Friday is called Good! Thank you Jesus for all that you have done for me, all of humankind, and the entire universe on the Cross. For your love’s sake, we pray.