Saturday, June 18, 2016

"Jesus said, 'I Am the Light of the World'"

            This Sunday, June 19th, we continue our sermon series focused on the “I am…” sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John.  Although each of these messages will be original reflections and written by the preacher at Christ United Methodist Church, they will be partially informed by the study of the “I am…” sayings in Rob Fuquay’s study series, The God We Can Know (Nashville:  Upper Room Books, 2014).  (A listing of all the “I am…” sayings and the dates we will explore each of these sayings in appended to the end of this blog.)  This Sunday we will examine Jesus’ claim to be the “light of the world,” which appears in John 8:12:
          John 8: 12“Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
            As with last week’s “I am the Bread of Life” saying, it is very important to understand the context of Jesus’ saying, “I am the light of the world.”  Jesus makes this claim, while attending the celebration of Feast of the Sukkot (or, “Booths”) at the Temple in Jerusalem.  This is a very important religious holy day within the Jewish faith.  Along with the feasts of Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (Pentecost), Sukkot is one of three “pilgrimage” holy days, in which the Jewish faithful who lived outside of Jerusalem were encouraged to journey to Jerusalem to celebrate this holy day at the Temple.
            The Sukkot was a holy day of celebration and gratitude to God for the fall harvest.  But, it was more.  During this festival, the faithful remembered with gratitude how God had not abandoned them in the Sinai wilderness, following their miraculous escape from Egyptian slavery.  As part of the celebration, each family would build a “booth,” or temporary dwelling in which they lived for the seven days of the Sukkot festival.  Sleeping and eating in the temporary booth reminded the faithful that their forefathers lived in similar dwellings during their 40-year pilgrimage in the harsh, desert wilderness, before entering the Promised Land.  Living outdoors in the temporary booths also underscored God’s gracious provision for their forefathers.
            Light is a powerful image within both the Jewish and Christian faith traditions.  In the first Creation story contained in Genesis 1, Light is God’s first creative act, before anything else.  In the story of Israel’s escape from Egypt, God uses a burning bush to capture Moses’ attention and then to recruit him to lead his people out of Egypt (Exodus 3:1 – 4:17).  During their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness, the Israelites are guided by a pillar of fire at night (Exodus 13: 21-22).  In Proverbs 8:22, light is depicted as Wisdom.  And, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is described as the Light:  “In him [Jesus] was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:  4-5).
            So, light is a central metaphor for Divine guidance.  The Festival of Sukkot was a very joyous holiday.  According to Biblical scholars, on the opening night of the Feast, four large lampstands were lighted in the Temple’s “Court of the Women.”  After the lampstands had been lit, people would sing and dance, holding their own torches, providing even more light.  This evening became known as the night of the “Grand Illumination” because the entire city of Jerusalem was brightly illuminated by the lampstands and torches.
            It was in the context of the “Grand Illumination” that Jesus makes his claim, “I am the light of the world.”  Again, as with the first saying—“I am the Bread of Life”—so also Jesus’ claim must be interpreted within the broader context of the salvation history of the earlier Hebrews.  While they were wandering in the desert wilderness, God provided the early Hebrews with a pillar of light to guide them at night.  Now, God provides the eternal light of Jesus Christ, God’s own Son and our Redeemer, to guide us as we journey through life and as we seek to be faithful followers of Christ.
Come, join us this Sunday, June 19th, at Christ United Methodist Church, as we continue our study of the “I am…” sayings of Jesus, exploring what it means to be guided by Jesus as the “Light of the World.”  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings.  This week, I will continue to offer my short-term study of these “I am…” sayings, between the two worship services at 9:45.  We will use Rob Fuquay’s The God We Can Know as our resource.
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.
Schedule of “I am…” sayings
June 26th – “I am the Good Shepherd” (Beth Menhusen preaching)
July 10th – “Knowing the Great ‘I Am’”
July 17th – “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”
July 24th – “I am the Resurrection and the Life” (8:30 service only)
July 31st –“I am the True Vine” (Pastor Bob Neben preaching)

Saturday, June 11, 2016

“Jesus said, ‘I am the Bread of Life’”

            This Sunday, June 12th, we begin a new sermon series focused on the “I am…” sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John.  Although each of these messages will be original reflections and writing by the preacher at Christ United Methodist Church, they will be partially informed by the study of the “I am…” sayings in Rob Fuquay’s study series, The God We Can Know (Nashville:  Upper Room Books, 2014).  And, I will use Rev. Fuquay’s study series for a summer Bible study class at 9:45 on Sunday mornings.  (A listing of the sermon topics for the remainder of June is listed at the end of this blog.)
            In each of his “I am…” sayings, Christ uses metaphorical language to illuminate his understanding of himself as the Divine Messiah.  In our first exploration this week, we will be focusing on Christ’s claim that he is the bread of life.  This metaphor occurs in John 6: 35, "Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’” 
            In order to fully understand and appreciate this saying, we will need to look at the context in which it appears in John, Chapter 6.  Much of Chapter 6 is devoted to a dialogue between Jesus and the people who have come to hear him teach.  They ask Jesus what sign he can produce to prove that he is truly the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of God.  They say, “‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?  Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven”’”  (John 6:  30-31).
            With the manna from heaven, Jesus’ interlocutors are referring to the early Israelites’ forty years of wandering in the wilderness, before God leads them out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land, flowing—metaphorically—with milk and honey.  The Bible describes this manna as “a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground,” which appears each morning as the dew is rising up off the ground.  The Israelites could prepare it by baking it or boiling it.  And, it was described as “like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafer made with honey” (see Exodus 16).  The Israelites subsisted on the manna during their forty years in the wilderness.
            In his discussion, Jesus observes that God gave manna to those wandering in the desert to sustain them.  Then he continues:  “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”  (John 6:33)  When asked for this bread, Jesus replies that he is the bread of life.
            But, the discussion is not over.  Jesus’ discussion partners then criticize Jesus and complain that he has claimed to be the bread that comes down from heaven.  Some of their hostility is rooted in the fact that they have known Jesus since he was a boy.  Since they already know Jesus, they are skeptical that he is truly the long-awaited Messiah. 
            In response to their criticism, Jesus reiterates that he is the bread of life.  Then, he continues:  “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they [eventually] died [from old age].  This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever…” (John 6:  49-51a). 
Here, Jesus uses bread as a metaphor to describe his self-understanding as the Messiah.  Over history, bread has been a basic food staple for many different people, living in different contexts and eating different types of bread.  In this metaphor, Jesus take this ordinary, everyday food staple and uses it to describe what we humans can know and understand about who God is.  God loves us and offers humans his Son as a divine bread from heaven.  This divine bread nourishes those who put their faith in Jesus, so that we can have eternal life and live forever.
But, Jesus is not finished.  He continues, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:  51b).  This final comment simultaneously baffles and enrages the Jews who are talking with Christ.  They ask, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
At this point, it is imperative to recognize that Jesus has pivoted the focus of his dialogue.  He is no longer engaging with inquisitive Jews and Gentiles who have come to hear his teachings and check out what miraculous signs he might perform.  Instead, he is really talking to his disciples and other followers, even though he answers the objections raised by his inquisitors.  Furthermore, Jesus extends the metaphor of the “bread of life” to describe the Sacrament of Holy Communion—or, Eucharist. 
Jesus responds:  “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.  …Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I abide in them.  Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”  (John 6:  53-54, 56-57)
This is a profound and poignant passage.  The Sacrament of Holy Communion becomes a channel through which we receive spiritual nourishment and grow in our relationship with the Divine.  In keeping with the metaphor of Jesus as the “bread of life,” when we receive the sacrament of bread and the fruit of the vine, we consume the heavenly bread which sustains us spiritually and prepares us to receive eternal life.
I deeply appreciate the way Biblical scholar Gail R. O’Day interprets this passage:  “Participation in the eucharist draws the believer into a relationship with Jesus.  At the heart of v. 56 is the verb “to abide”.  This verb expresses the interrelationship of Jesus and the believer that is the source of the believer’s life.  Yet the interrelationship of Jesus and the believer is actually an extension of the interrelationship of God and Jesus (6:57).”[1]
Of course, it is important to acknowledge that Protestants and Catholics disagree on our interpretation of what Jesus means, when he says that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood.  Whereas Catholics have historically interpreted Jesus literally, believing that when we receive the Sacrament we are receiving Jesus’ actual flesh and blood, as perceived through the eyes of faith. 
Protestants, meanwhile, interpret Jesus as speaking figuratively of his flesh and blood, although all Christians recognize the profound Presence of Christ in the celebration of his heavenly meal.  For United Methodists, Christ is intimately and lovingly present in the celebration of Holy Communion, and this sacrament does indeed provide spiritual nourishment—the bread of life—as we grow in our faith and as our spiritual journey draws us closer and closer to the Divine.
In my reflections during the proclamation on Sunday, I will suggest that in our understanding of the Sacrament we need to face the past and the future, simultaneously.  We look back to the institution of the Lord’s Supper and to Jesus’ supreme act of love, when he died on the Cross.  At the same time, we should also look forward to the future, to the end of times, when we will share this meal with Christ himself.  In the interim, sharing in the Sacrament of The Lord's Supper, provides a literal spiritual nourishment and draws us closer in our relationship with Jesus Christ.
Come, join us this Sunday, June 12th, at Christ United Methodist Church, as we begin our study of the “I am…” sayings of Jesus.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings.  Beginning this week, I will offer a short-term study of these “I am…” sayings  between the two worship services at 9:45.  We will use Rob Fuquay’s The God We Can Know as our resource.
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.
Schedule of “I am…” sayings for June
June 19th – “I am the Light of the World” (8:30 service only)
June 26th – “I am the Good Shepherd” (Beth Menhusen preaching)

[1] Gail R. O’Day, Commentary on the Gospel of John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 9, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

"New Creation"

Where is Heaven?  What will we be like, when we are Resurrected as Christ was on Easter?

            For the past six weeks, we have been exploring the question, “How are we to live as a Resurrection People in this interim period?  By “interim period,” I mean that long period of time between Jesus’ Resurrection on Easter morning and the parousia, or end-time, when God’s Kingdom will be fully established.  On the one hand, Christians believe that Christ’s Resurrection was a cosmic tipping point in God’s plan of love and reconciliation for the universe.  And yet, on the other hand, we live in a time where God’s Reign is far from fully established. 
During this exploration, we have examined the attitudes, life-style, and practices of a Resurrection People.  We began by seeing that God intends for us to be filled with attitudes of hope and joy.  Then, we explored how God calls us to live in a community of faith, where we are safe, loved, and supported. 
When we turned to the practices of a Resurrection People, I suggested that God invites us into a special relationship, in which we are called to be “created co-creators,” or junior partners, in the divine work of fully establishing God’s Reign, here on Earth.  Faithful Discipleship is not a “spectator sport.”  Instead, we are invited to join in this divine work of “Kingdom building,” which is a great privilege and also a serious responsibility.  For the past two weeks, we have explored two key practices of a Resurrection People:  justice and compassion. 
In this final week thinking about how we are to live as a Resurrection People, we need to focus on the end-game, as it were.  That is, we need to explore our beliefs and understanding of what the Kingdom of God—that is, Heaven—will look like, when it is fully established.  As it turns out, what we believe may have some important implications for our practices in this interim time.
Although resurrection and eternal life are pivotal in the Christian arc of beliefs about salvation, there is a remarkable dichotomy of perspectives on what resurrection and eternal life actually are.  For the purposes of our reflections, I will label these two competing views dualist and monist.  The key difference between the two perspectives is their understanding of what constitutes the human soul.
The Dualist View.  At a basic level, the Dualist theory holds that as human persons, we are dually comprised of two different quantities.  On the one hand, we have a physical body for this life in the physical, material world.  On the other hand, we also have a spiritual self, which is our true essence and who we really are.  At death, our spiritual soul leaves our dead physical body and it is through this spiritual soul that we experience the resurrection.  
This theory is supported by scripture.  For instance, the Apostle Paul writes, “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (2 Corinthians 5:1).[i]
This understanding of the soul as immaterial and strictly spiritual provides the basis for a view of heaven as also equally immaterial and spiritual.  Similarly, there are some scriptural passages which can be interpreted as providing a foundation for this theory.  For instance, when Jesus is preparing the disciples for his crucifixion and death, he says:  “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there  you may be also.” (John 14:2-3)  For many Christians, this passage seems to imply that Heaven is some spiritual place, located far away from the physical Earth of our current existence.
The Monist View.  This alternative theory holds that the soul is integrally part of a person’s physical body.  This view sees my soul as inseparable from my body and who I am as a person.  Thus, according to this view, the soul cannot simply detach from the physical body at death, in the same way that a space probe may detach from the mother ship in space travel.  This perspective would seem to require that the resurrection be a physical resurrection of the whole body.  As with dualism, so also the monist position can be grounded in scripture.  Most biblical scholars see 1 Corinthians 15: 42-58 as a strong basis for monism. 
If our resurrection is a physical, bodily resurrection in which we are redeemed as New Creatures through God’s love and power, then heaven itself could be viewed as physical Earth, redeemed and renewed as a New Creation through God’s creative work.  Revelation 21: 1-7 provides strong foundation for this perspective, especially verses 1-3:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” 
Rather than going up to heaven when we die, this scripture depicts heaven coming down to Earth itself, which has been re-created as a New Creation.
Based purely on anecdotal evidence from ministering to people over thirty years as a pastor, I believe that most American Christians embrace the first, dualist theory of the human soul and Heaven.  There are good arguments for this position and, as we have seen, a scriptural case may be made in support of this view.  Of course, I may be wrong on this point.  Nonetheless, in my sermon on Sunday, June 5th, I will claim that contrary to popular opinion, the second, monist theory is actually a better understanding of the resurrection and heaven.[ii]
There are several reasons why I find the monist theory more persuasive: 
1.      I believe that the scriptural evidence and theology supporting the monist theory is stronger, even though I acknowledge that some passages of scripture seem to support dualism. 
2.      The monist perspective is more consistent with the biblical account of Christ’s Resurrection.  The biblical accounts clearly depict a physical resurrection in which Jesus allows Thomas to place his finger in the holes in his hands and side which occurred during the crucifixion (John 20:  24-29).  Likewise, after the resurrection, Jesus eats with his followers (see Luke 24: 28-31 and John 21:  9-15).

3.      I find that the monist perspective fits better with my overarching view of God’s relationship with Creation. 
This third point raises crucial implications for the practices which God calls us as Resurrection People to perform, as we seek to establish God’s Reign.  If as a Resurrection People, we are waiting for the end-time, when God’s Reign will be fully established and we will become part of a New Creation, physically here on Earth.  If, as Revelation claims, Heaven will be here on planet Earth—and, God will dwell here on Earth (Revelation 21:3), then stewardship and care for the Earth are integral components of our call to serve God as junior partners in establishing God’s Reign here on Earth.  Care for Creation, along with justice and compassion, become the core practices of what it means to be a Resurrection People.
Come, join us this Sunday, June 5th, at Christ United Methodist Church, as we explore the end-time, when God’s Reign will be fully established and we will become New Creatures, resurrected through the love and power of God, who creates. Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] It should be noted that some biblical scholars and theologians argue that it is a mistake to interpret this passage as assuming a dualistic intellectual framework.  These scholars argue that when read in context, the Apostle Paul is not assuming dualism, but rather arguing that through Christ we become part of the New Creation.  Representative of this perspective is N. T. Wright, who has written, “In the famous passage [2 Corinthians] 4.16—5.10 we find the contrast between the outer person and the inner person, the exo anthropos and the eso anthropos, but this does not denote a Hellenistic dualism of body and soul. The whole discussion is framed in terms of the new covenant in which, though the Messiah’s people will share his suffering and death, God will bring about that new creation, a new physical creation, as always promised.”  N. T. Wright, “Mind, Spirit, Soul and Body: All for One and One for All, Reflections on Paul’s Anthropology in his Complex Contexts,” paper given at the Society of Christian Philosophers Regional Meeting, Fordham University, Fordham, NY, 18 March 2011.  Accessed online at, 3 June 2016.
[ii] Recently, several important books by biblical scholars, theologians, and pastors have taken the second, monist position.  See N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, Rob Bell, Love Wins, Howard Snyder and Joel Scandrett, Salvation Means Creation Healed, and Robert John Russell, “Resurrection of the body, eschatology, and cosmology,” in Cosmology:  From Alpha to Omega by Robert John Russell.