Jesus transforms our familiar places

Sermon Notes for 041016
Title: Jesus transforms our familiar places
Text: John 21:1-19     Also: Acts 9:1-6

Jesus meets us where we are, as we are, but does not leave us or the place unchanged.
When we encounter the resurrected Christ, we will be transformed, if we don’t run away.

The notes below are prepared in advance in a process of reflection on the text.
They do not represent a manuscript of the sermon.

Listen to the sermon audio here.


Jesus transforms our familiar places.

Where do you go, in reality or in your imagination, when you feel lost and don’t know where to turn? What are your safe places, your happy places, your sanctuaries? Where do you feel most comfortable, most at home?

For the earliest disciples, one of these places was on the water, in their fishing boats. Here they knew what to do – so well they didn’t even have to think about it. You know how it feels to get into that zone where muscle memory takes over and your subconscious can guide you while your conscious mind takes a break from everything? This is what happens when we drive down the highway and realize we don’t remember the last 10 miles. Often it is engaging in some kind of physical activity – gardening, yard or house work, a hobby like playing an instrument, painting, wood working. So there is a physical location, and often an activity of some kind. And there are the relationships that exist (or not) in these places and activities. The people you know, with whom you work or play, with whom you share memory, story, history.

When we don’t know where else to go, we go there. How often do people journey back to their childhood homes, in person, in memory, and in dream, to rehearse, recall, and relive formative moments? “Perhaps,” we think, “the people, places and activities that formed me once will re-form me now that I’m feeling dis-integrated.”

Encounters with Jesus, and with the God we encounter through him, can be disorienting. They can dis-integrate our self-understanding and the values that provide a foundation for our lives. The messages around and within us say to build walls and separate good from bad. God says all that I have made are good. We are taught to distinguish friend from enemy – to love the one and hate the other. God says to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us. We behave as though we can, should, or must perform with righteousness and perfection so that God will love us. God says that we are beloved because God made us, and that any good actions flow from within us out of this reservoir of knowing we are loved.


And our world tells us Y.O.L.O.  – You Only Live Once! Get everything you can here and now, because this is all that counts. God tells us that death does not win, that life and love are bigger than death. We live in fear. And the Risen Jesus invites us to live in hope and faith instead.

Disorienting, indeed.

And so we go fishing, because we don’t really know what else to do. We stay busy, doing what we know, what is comfortable and feels concrete and solid.

And today’s story tells us this is absolutely OK, because Jesus will come and find us there.

It also says that Jesus will not just leave us alone. Jesus will transform us, and our familiar places.

The 4 resurrection encounters between Jesus and the disciples occur in familiar places. First Jesus appears to Mary Magdelene among the tombs where they had laid Jesus’ body. Mary thus becomes the “Apostle to the Apostles”. Next Jesus appears behind locked doors in an unspecified but familiar home (perhaps the home of the Upper Room in Jerusalem). Then eight days later Jesus appears to them there again, this time with Thomas present. And the final story takes place in Galillee, at the Sea of Tiberias where Jesus first met Simon, Andrew, James and John at their fishing boats and called them to follow him and become “fishers of men.”

All three locations were places of comfort, places of history with Jesus and with one another. They were the places that these disciples might be reminded of their previous encounters with Jesus and the way things used to be.

What are those places for you? Where might you go to remember the way things used to be? What places represent and remind you of your previous encounters with Jesus? Perhaps it is a church campground. Or your childhood church home, or your grandparents’ house, or even here, in this very space. When you arrive in those places, in this place, are you transported to an earlier time and suddenly surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses? Do you see, hear, smell and touch the familiar and have your faith undergirded and your heart comforted during times of distress because of the great heritage and legacy that enfolds you?

IF so, then you understand what the apostles were doing. They were going back to what they knew. Even after they encounter the risen Jesus twice, these guys still don’t really know what to do with themselves, so they, perhaps in stereotypical guy fashion, go fishing.

Let’s pause for another moment and consider this.

These are people who have journeyed with Jesus for three years. He has been in their homes. They have heard and believed his teaching. He has given them power over forces of darkness – power to support healing and transformation in the lives of their neighbors. They witnessed his crucifixion, saw his body laid in the tomb, and now have met him, touched him, eaten with him risen from the dead. And they go fishing. Granted, many a true angler will say that few places bring them closer to God than on the water, focused and attuned to the rhythms of nature. Be that as it may, I don’t think this is what’s going on here.

They have yet to capture (or be captured by…) a vision for their future life and ministry together. And in the absence of a new vision, they just keep doing what they’ve always done. In their previous relationship with Jesus, they were accustomed to him leading the action, and then delegating specific assignments to them. “OK, Peter, I want you to go north, while James and John go south.”

They lacked not only the vision, but the power and the organization to carry out the vision. They had not as yet received the Great Commission about which we read in Matthew 28. They do not understand themselves to be empowered to take initiative in bringing the kingdom of God about which Jesus preached so frequently and for which he taught them to pray. They are still relying on Jesus to initiate and guide all of the work. The Holy Spirit’s anointing, though mentioned by Jesus in John 20:22, has not yet fully come upon them.

In some ways we may be like these disciples just a few weeks after Easter. We have had experiences of Jesus. He has taught us and led us, but we are not sure how to take the initiative. We lack the confidence to forge ahead, trusting that God’s power of resurrection and transformation will be available when we need it. We have celebrated, rejoiced, and worshiped the risen Christ, and now we so easily slip back into our old familiar places, with their activities and relationships still intact.

But the good news and the bad news is that Jesus transforms our familiar places, and the activities and relationships we know there. Jesus does not leave us alone once we have given our lives to him. He makes these old places new, and in the process seeks to make us new.

Perhaps we are like the disciples in another way. We return to the old and familiar, but things don’t work for us the same way anymore. Now that we have encountered the Risen Christ, we simply aren’t able to go back to the way things used to be. We are different, and we now recognize that the world is different, even if we don’t quite know what to do about it. We cast our nets like usual, but catch nothing. Jesus has ruined us for the old ways of being and doing. They no longer satisfy as they once did. The familiar places are transformed, because we are transformed.

And now what? I wish there were three simple steps we could take that would put things back in order. We won’t go back to how things were. The past is gone, never to return. What we do have is practices that can put us in a better posture to receive what God has for us next.

  • Keep showing up. That sounds simple because it is simple. As we saw earlier, it is ok and good and right to return to those familiar places, just don’t expect things to be as they once were. Which brings us to practice #2.
  • Open your heart and mind to something new, or to doing the old things in new ways. If we keep expecting the old ways to work, we will continue to be disappointed. Jesus calls us to something new. He proclaims, “I make all things new!”
  • Do some new things, even if they don’t seem to make sense, or even seem silly. This story represents the second time in the gospels that these professional fishermen had worked all night but caught nothing. Along comes Jesus, who is not a fisherman, and tells them, “Try casting your net on the other side.” Try the opposite of what you’ve been doing. Try it upside down or backwards. Risk failure. Risk looking foolish.

We find ourselves on familiar ground, doing familiar things, but not getting the results we need or want. We look around and realize that though we may not know fully how to walk forward into the future, we cannot go back to the past. That is at times unsettling and even scary, which is why we return to the familiar places. The risen Christ will meet us there. He will meet us here, and he transform our familiar places, and us along with them, so that we can work together to usher in God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, right here in our own communities.

The Blessing in Christ’s Triumph

Christ humbled himself and was exalted by God.
Jesus’ triumph came not by his own strength,
but through weakness and frailty and death.
Likewise, in our weakness God’s strength is revealed.

Object Lesson: Follow The Leader

Text: Philippians 2:5-11  Also: Isaiah 50:4-9a

The Blessing in Christ’s Triumph”

What successes, what triumphs, does God ask of us and promise us?

We have read the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (John 12:12-16; Mark 11:1-11). Though the scripture texts do not use the phrase, the church has come to call this event in Jesus’ life “The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.” We have also heard Paul urge us to have the same mind as Christ Jesus (Phil 2:5-11), an invitation to weakness, submission, humility (and perhaps even humiliation?). So just what kind of triumph is this? In what way is Jesus victorious in this event, and in the things that follow? And finally, what would it mean for us to do likewise, to have “the mind of Christ”?

He does not “win” anything or “overcome” anything visible.

There are no external measures of “success” to be applied.

Of course we know by faith that Jesus triumphs over sin and death on Easter Sunday morning. In Philippians 2 Paul makes clear that the victory was not won by Jesus, but by the Father, who raised him and exalted him. There IS a victory, a triumph over sin and death, but do they really belong to Jesus? This victory is accomplished THROUGH him, but not BY him. But perhaps that is what we are talking about after all. If so, what is there from which we may learn and which we can emulate?

I wonder if Jesus’ triumph is not much more human and direct than that? Recall how in Mark 8 Peter is affirmed when he proclaims that Jesus is the Christ, and almost immediately chastised when Peter suggests that Jesus should not suffer and die? (Mark 8:27-38) Jesus then proceeds to tell the disciples and the crowd that if they want to be his disciples, they must: “…deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (v34). Again, it is at first difficult to see the triumph in this.

The triumph, I think is in Jesus (and our) willingness to set aside the normative definitions of success, effectiveness, victory. Jesus certainly knows how earthly kings are made, History is replete with the stories and Jesus has witnessed it enough times in his own life. Kings are made by seizing and holding power through any means necessary. Kings hold power over others by fear and coercion and violence. Some believed that God would counter this system with even greater divine power that overwhelms, so they clung viciously to their earthly kingdoms. “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Mt 11:12).

In response, Jesus did not take up weapons of war. Jesus did not gather the wealth of the world for his campaign and control. Jesus adopted the symbols of the coming Messiah – entering from the Mount of Olives (Zechariah 14:4) humble and riding on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9). All Israel expected that the Messiah would come in power, that somehow the reference to the donkey was perhaps some kind of ruse to distract and confuse the occupying force, lulling them into complacency till he should wield his great sword and cut off their heads.

Would it surprise us to learn that Jesus himself wanted to follow such a path, that Jesus wanted to be the warrior king with battle ax, mace, sword and bow with fiery arrows? If he was fully human, as our faith suggests, and tempted in every way that we are, as the writer of Hebrews indicates, then this very thought welled up within him. (Heb 4:15) We see something of this in his cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple. (Mark 11:12-25) Jesus is certainly filled with a righteous anger that bursts forth.

Perhaps Jesus’ triumph this day is in not calling down all the powers of heaven and casting the mountain of Jerusalem into the sea, as he tells the disciples they can do by faith through prayer. Jesus triumph is in not exercising the power he has. It is in resisting violence as a solution. It is in resisting (again) the invitation to exaltation.

Jesus faced these same temptations in the wilderness after his baptism. Mark does not enumerate them, but we learn from Matthew and Luke the nature of their severity, their seduction, and Jesus’ triumph. (Mt 4; Lk 4) Something in Jesus must have been drawn toward power and glory, or these would not have been temptations. It could not have been said that Jesus was “tested”. So Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is the moment when glory and power are his for the taking. It would have launched his political career. Instead he seizes it as the opportunity to demonstrate the way of God’s kingdom: The last shall be first and the first, last. The way to true LIFE is through death. The way up is by first going down. “God’s grace is sufficient for us, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9)

The triumph? Jesus triumphed over his own inner desire to receive what was being offered to him – a false and temporary reward. Jesus had been steadily cultivating and practicing this Way. He fasted and prayed and studied and worshipped. He allowed himself to be tested in small ways, continually building up his own resilience, training his spiritual muscles to respond in the right way when the time came.

He was also wise and strategic. He understood that arriving in this way would stir the energy and enthusiasm of those who longed for something different, even if they did not like his methods. As this zeal swelled, it would reach a crescendo. It would not be the Mount of Olives torn in two, but the veil that separated people from God. Jesus understood that to accomplish his goal, to see the Spirit of God let loose, death conquered and the church birthed, Jesus would have to resist all the earthly wisdom that suggested he should seize control. Only because Jesus triumphed in these clearly human ways was God’s plan to triumph in divine ways made possible.

Similarly for us, God still chooses to work in and through frail humanity to accomplish divine purposes of redemption and reconciliation. It makes no earthly sense, but Paul is right. If we want to be successful in God’s eyes, and in the work of God’s kingdom, this will only come through our own humility and vulnerability. This does not mean meekness – there is nothing meek in Jesus’ cleansing the temple. It does mean that power is not ours to hold, but only to exercise on behalf of others. We stand with others when they are attacked, but do not defend ourselves when they attack Christ at work in us.

What does the mind of Christ look like in us, on the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry? It means that we say no to opportunities to gain or wield power for our own benefit, or power over others even for the greater good. We do not advance the Love of God in the world by dominating or excluding others. We do it by loving them, which means seeking their good along with our own, and believing that God will honor our sacrifice and fill our weakness with power.

** Sermon preparation reflections for 032915

Some cultural references…

Limitierte Triumph Bonneville Tridays-Edition

Triumph Bonneville

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Triumph TR2

Triumph - 2010 - Diamond Collection (Limited Edition) 10 CD


Experiencing resurrection hope in times of struggle

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Believing in the resurrection seems easier on a beautiful Spring morning, when children and flowers are newly clothed in bright colors and fresh pastels. Less so when we are facing struggles and an uncertain future. The Christian community, with the help and encouragement of our consumer culture, wants to focus on Easter, and forget about the week of struggle that preceded it. In the Jewish story of the Exodus from Egypt, it is easy to focus on the moment of rescue, and then the final entry into the land of promise flowing with sweet blessings – and ignore the suffering and struggle that accompanied the departure and the journey from where they were to where they ultimately would rest.

Life is not all fresh flowers, laughing children, and abundant prosperity. I read an interesting observation recently – that dependency is our natural state. We begin and end life that way – unable to fully care for ourselves. We are all in some way “dis-abled”. The notion of being independent, autonomous, all self-sufficient persons is a myth and aberration, fleeting and ephemeral. This is not to suggest that life is bleak and hopeless. That too is a myth – the idea that dependency equals deficiency; that we are somehow less if we need others. In the life and ministry of Jesus we see one who makes himself vulnerable. Paul says is Philippians 2:5-11 that Jesus “emptied himself.” The Greek word for this is kenosis. In Christ God chose to experience the fullness of human limitation, and thereby blessed it as holy. Whether or not God NEEDED human help, God chose to enlist and even rely upon the help, support and agency of humans, who were and are limited. We are at one time marvelously able some ways, and dis-able in others. God entered fully into this dis-abled state. God knows the road we walk, because in Jesus he has walked it with us.

There is some comfort in knowing we are not alone in our struggle. Yet this does not end or even ease our struggle. The fact that you are also sick with the flu does not lessen my symptoms. In fact, if we share life together, things become more difficult if we are both down at the same time. Ideally when one is weak, another is strong, so that we can adequately share one another’s burdens and joys.

The book Tuesday’s With Morrie by Mitch Album offers a wonderfully poignant illustration of this idea. In this story Morrie, a retired professor living (dying from?) with ALS tells Mitch, his former student turned reluctant biographer, about his own transition back to dependency. Morrie reached a point in his disease process where he could no longer perform the tasks of personal hygiene and self-care – in other words he could no longer wipe his own bottom, clearly not a condition from which he would recover. Rather than fight the humiliation and shame that often accompany this situation, Morrie chose to interpret his experience as one in which he was receiving tender, loving and compassionate care as he had in the first years of life. Think about this. Many people long for intimacy and are starved for human touch. Here Morrie is forced to receive both under less than ideal circumstances. By grace his is able to shift his attitude and thinking to humility rather than humiliation. What needs to happen in us to experience that same freedom and release from pretension?

In Morrie we see both emotional and physical struggle. He makes a mental shift that helps him receive care with a new attitude and emotional experience. But does this lessen his physical distress? Perhaps not. Yet many scientists and psychologists have demonstrated a connection between the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical experiences of being human. A positive attitude actually does ease our experience of pain, and a discouraged countenance will reduce our tolerance to hardship.

As someone who proclaims hope in the resurrection, I want to believe that suffering does not have the last word in our lives. We want to think and believe that things will get better. But sometimes they don’t. So what do we do with our hope in the resurrection and its power in our lives when things go from bad to worse? The cancer patient and his family pray and hope for treatment to work and to hear the words “remission” or “cure”. The cardiac patient and her family likewise hope for a full recovery from surgery and return to a vibrant and active lifestyle. This is our hope and prayer. Yet we know that none of us gets out alive. We will all die someday, from something. Our hope is not to avoid dying so much as to live a long and full life, and to avoid prolonged suffering. We want 70 or 80 years or more, and then we want to go quietly in our sleep, not being a burden to others. According to the Centers for Disease Control three fourths of the US population will die following a prolonged illness or injury. The vast majority of us will not “go gently into that good night“.

When we have this conversation in a hospital or long-term care setting, we are not saying anything new. One might even ask at this moment, “Where is the word of hope?” Yes, that is precisely the point. At Easter of all times we want to hear, believe and proclaim a word of hope. Let me suggest several things that can help us experience and share resurrection HOPE even in times of struggle:

  1. Honesty: Be honest about what we are experiencing. We cannot find true hope until we honestly face our real struggles, fears and even despair. This is not easy, but it is essential.
  2. Openness: Share our awareness. You can do this by writing in a journal or letter. You can talk with a trusted friend, confessor, or professional. We need to BOTH feel/think it and externalize it somehow.

When we do these two things, we begin to get a handle on our struggle, and gain some power over our fear and despair. This is why many spiritual traditions call for confession – naming the struggle is a form of personal agency and gives us mental, emotional, spiritual and even physical power in it. In AA this is revealed in the 4th & 5th steps. We may discover that things are not as bleak as we first believed, and that we are not alone.

  1. Projection: Identify and name positive outcomes – project them into the future. Remember how Morrie reframed his experience from shame to blessing. Consider how a funeral may become a time of when people give and receive forgiveness, mercy and grace to heal old wounds. The Apostle Paul presumes to use pregnancy and the birthing process as a metaphor for struggle followed by blessing. The struggle is real, but so is the potential for positive and life-giving future. What inspiration can be found in those who face illness and death with courage, integrity and even joy?
  2. Expectation: Anticipate the good that can and will come. As we read in Hebrews 12:2 “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” This theme recurs in scripture, particularly regarding the experience of Jesus and his role as our example.

It may help us to also remember that no one believed in the resurrection until they personally experienced the risen Jesus. The Apostles and disciples had been repeatedly told, along with the rulers of the people and the crowds. It is hard to experience resurrection hope during our times of struggle, hard even to hope and believe. One great blessing of walking this road is that we are then in a position to offer real hope to others because of what we have seen and known. Everyone’s experience is unique, and yet we can draw strength and hope from each other. We proclaim the Easter resurrection of Jesus each year both to remind ourselves, and to tell the world, that we might all live in hope. (Acts 2:22-28; Psalm 16) There is always room for HOPE.

To explore these ideas further, please contact me: cell: 214-288-1663; email:

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May you live a Synchronous Life of integrity, vitality and harmony.

Pentecost – the gift of the Spirit and its meanings

The resurrection Spirit dwells within us. This is the power from on high that Jesus had promised would come from the Father (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8). Jesus had previously bestowed power to the 12 (Luke 9) and later the 70 (Luke 10), the same power that he had demonstrated in Nazareth (Luke 4).

The Spirit in Luke: As he writes Acts Luke says “the Holy Spirit came UPON them…” (Acts 1:8; 10:44; 11:15; 19:6). Indeed, scripture talks about being “baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8; Acts 1:5; Acts 11:16) and baptism is an external image. A parallel metaphor used by Paul is to “put on Christ” (Romans 13:14) and in Galatians he even links the two ideas – baptism and being clothed in Christ (Gal 3:27). The phrase “in Christ” appears over 90 times in the New Testament, primarily in Paul’s letters. So the Holy Spirit we can envision washing over us, covering us and saturating us as the waters of baptism – an all-consuming experience whether one is immersed or has the waters poured over. We can thus consider that the Spirit is BOTH on us and in us. These are not different realities but different viewpoints of the same reality. The phrase “filled with the Holy Spirit” is less about the ongoing presence of God’s Spirit within us than descriptive of a momentary experience of inspiration and empowerment to speak and act according to God’s direction. This, again, is a phrase unique to Luke in his gospel and acts (John Luke 1:15; Elizabeth Luke 1:41;Zechariah Luke 1:67; the disciples Acts 2:4; Peter Acts 4:8 NRS; Stephen Acts 7:55 NRS; Paul Acts 13:9 NRS).

The Spirit in Paul and beyond: Paul further says this to the church in Ephesus: 16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:17-19). And the New Testament also includes the notion of being “in the spirit” which again seems to be a reference to being overwhelmed by a sense of God’s immediate presence while in prayer, worship, or other spiritual discipline or experience (Paul Acts 19:21; believers pray Ephesians 6:18 & worship Philippians 3:3; John Revelation 1:10) Paul states clearly the connection when he says, “you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” (Romans 8:9). Our faith tells us that this God dwelt fully in Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:1-14; Colossians 1:19). And further that this God dwells in us through the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2).

Notice the fluidity of these images – Christ dwelling in us, us dwelling in Christ. God’s fullness in us, us in God. The Spirit in us and on us, while we are in the Spirit. All of this, I conclude, demonstrates God’s refusal for us to codify or neatly systematize the divine and holy. Rather, we are invited into the complexity of this dynamic experience that is a convergence of multiple seemingly incongruous realities. It is, as has been said elsewhere, another example of the “already-not yet” of the Kingdom of God. Any box in which we attempt to contain God simply fails. And this failure is a gift of immeasurable grace – for who would want to worship a God containable by humanity? Rather, God is the all-consuming above, below, beside, before, behind, within, without, past, present, future, beginning and end of human experience. As temporal and flesh-bound creatures, we have a limited and finite experience of the limitless and infinite God.

The Spirit (Ruach) of God moved over the surface of the waters when God began to create. It was also the breath of life (ruach chayyim) which God breathed into Adam (Genesis 2:7) and into all the other living creatures (7:15). There is again a fluidity in our theological understanding between the Spirit/Breath of God and that life-giving spirit/breath from God given to humanity and all other living creatures. In Job, Elihu speaks of the breath and the spirit, and uses the two words interchangeably between that of God and that of man, and indicates that they are the source of wisdom, and that should God choose to withdraw them, we would cease to exist: 32:8 But truly it is the spirit in a mortal, the breath of the Almighty, that makes for understanding….34: 14 If he should take back his spirit to himself, and gather to himself his breath, 15 all flesh would perish together, and all mortals return to dust.

The Spirit in All Creatures – So, we can comfortably say that all living creatures share the gift of a spirit/breath from God. This truth humbles us from triumphalism of misreading Psalm 8, or from misinterpreting God’s covenant as one of domination over, rather than a caretaking and stewarding dominion over our non-human fellow living creatures who share the God-given spirit/breath (ruach chayyim).

So, with that background, what is it that happens at Pentecost?

What does this giving of the Spirit mean that is distinct from all these other instances? Let me suggest at least a partial answer. The giving of the Spirit to the Church at Pentecost seems to have several simultaneous meanings.

A Continuation of the Ministry of Jesus – The Holy Spirit continues that empowering work for ministry demonstrated in the Gospels, particularly Luke 9 & 10, wherein Jesus commissions the 12 Apostles and then the 70 Disciples for evangelistic work that included healing and exorcism – i.e. a continuation of his work proclaimed in Luk 4 (quoting Isaiah 60) empowered by the Spirit of the Lord (i.e. the Holy Spirit) – 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Good news to those who lack sufficient resources to sustain life
Freedom to those who are bound
New vision to the blind
Freedom to the oppressed
The Jubilee Year – a reordering of the economic, social & political world

A New Relationality – An expression of God’s connection to humanity through a peculiar people – a work that began with Abraham and Sarah. This connection was for the purpose of blessing humanity – not for the primary purpose of blessing the chosen people. In order for the work of Jesus to continue, his presence needs to continue, but not through the physicality of his Nazarene body but through His Body, the Church. Therefore the Spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism is the same Spirit that descended on the Church at Pentecost, creating and confirming the unique role of the church as the continuation of the incarnation – enabling both the divine presence WITH the church and the divine presence THROUGH the church IN the world.

A Renewing Force – Because this is the life-giving resurrection Spirit, the Spirit which raised Christ from the dead will also give NEW life to our bodies – i.e. not victory over the entropy common to natural things, but over the spiritual self-destructive narcissism unique to humans. So though “the outward self is perishing, the inward self is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16).

A Down payment on Eternity – The Spirit is a “first installment, a down-payment” from God to us on the promise of everlasting life and the redemption of our whole self – body, mind, spirit & soul, and with us all of creation (2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:14; Romans 8:19). As we are being made new (sanctified, re-born, re-created) in this life, a process which will see its fulfillment in the life to come, so too will all of this creation experience the same renewal – as John described in the received Revelation (21:1). The presence and work of the Holy Spirit is our assurance that God is not through with us and that the final consummation of all things means restoration and renewal with God dwelling here among us in fullness and glory.

Pentecost expresses God’s desire to be with us, to bless us and work with us to bless others.

We Are Beloved: It enables us to hear with Jesus the words of God at our baptism “You are my beloved child, with whom I am very pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

We Are Called: It enables us to say with Jesus the words from Isaiah 60: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me a proclaimer of Good news.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Kingdom Power: Pentecost is the initiating of the church, a continuation of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, for which we pray, and thus for which we work. It is our call to action in the world, among each other and among our neighbors – it is both our empowerment and our ordination to Christian Ministry.

Life is like a film career…A Tribute to Theresa Neifert

(Note: We lost a friend this last week. The following was written as I was reflecting on my conversations with her and her journey. It is offered here in hopes that it may be of help to her family and friends, and to others who are on a similar journey.)

One way of thinking about a life is like a series of films by one actress. Someone whose career has spanned decades will be known by distinctly different generations as an entirely different person. One of Theresa’s favorite movies, as you’ve heard, is Mamma Mia. She loved the song “I Have A Dream” from that film, and we can almost hear Theresa’s voice singing hope for herself and for us in its words. For now, though, think about this whole span of a lifetime, a career of different film productions with different casts in different locations. There’s the early years – a child star in all her innocence and beauty, surrounded by a big, loving, Italian family on two continents. Initially she was little more than a prop, a foil to the stories of others, but in time her own story started to take shape. We’ve heard references to some of those scenes.

Then, as a child star begins to age, she doesn’t have that ‘cute’ cache anymore and has to find a way to transition to more mature roles. Sometimes that transition is smooth, other times not. Occasionally an actor will take a role in a film that she produces herself, one that is a terrible flop at the box office and costs more to make than it brings in, but which yields some wonderful non-monetary benefits, like wonderful lifelong relationships that are formed on set. Often actors will even string together a series of these films – attempts to recreate their career and their identity. Sometimes it takes decades – Robert Downy Jr. is a good example of that, I think. He certainly seems to have found his stride with the Ironman and Sherlock Holmes characters, though he struggled with personal problems for many years that cost him and others a great deal of sorrow and pain. Kids today probably don’t know anything of that history, and don’t care – they love him for who they know him to be today, and couldn’t imagine him as the frail and troubled character in Less than Zero.

Meryl Streep‘s career spans nearly 40 years and a diversity that swings from the heavy darkness of Nazi Germany and its aftermath to the touching effervescent light of Greece as Donna in Mamma Mia. Along the way she played Julia Child, Margaret Thatcher, and Miranda Priestly. If one had seen only one of these films, they would have gotten a very narrow and particular perspective on who she was.

That’s a long setup to get to give us this notion of how to view Theresa’s life. I marvel at the diversity of worlds that this one woman seems to bring together. Over the span of her life she has had some wonderful adventures and some heartbreaking struggles. Along the way she’s picked up deeply rewarding relationships, including her parents, sisters and brother, four children, her husband Jeff, and so many of you. Some of you played major roles in the adventure films, and others in the darker stories, but all of us were rewarded by being cast alongside her.

One of the conversations that Theresa and I had recently was about some of those films in the middle period – there were some very difficult years. It’s a hard thing to reconcile, because those years also gave her beautiful and amazing children who she wouldn’t trade for anything. Part of the work she had to do in these last few weeks was come to terms with all of that, to receive the gifts of those years and forgive herself for the mistakes made and sorrow caused.

Another conversation we had revolved around this final film role. Everyone cast in a story about cancer hopes and anticipates initially that it will maybe be a dark comedy with a happy surprise ending. But Theresa’s role follows Susan Sarandon in Stepmom, or Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias – there are certainly some laughs along the way, but this is no comedy. But even in those films, there is something for us to learn, we are drawn to them because they are so raw, so real. They help prepare us for times like this – sort of like method acting in reverse – experiencing the theatrical roles vicariously helps us to think about how to live this reality.

We may wish for a final role that is bright and cheerful and uplifting, one that will have folks leaving the theatre laughing, smiling, talking. Some actors talk about wanting their later roles to not tax them so much – it should be more fun than work. That certainly hasn’t been Theresa’s experience these last two years. It’s been a very difficult production, one that cost her everything. But you know what, she gave it everything too. She held nothing back, as far as I can tell, from her family and friends, or ultimately from herself and her God. Paul talks about being poured out, and I think of Theresa when I hear those words. “Leave it all on the set,” that’s what they say. We can tell when an actor doesn’t really seem to be present in the role – they’re not believable. We had none of that from Theresa. She would sweep the awards season, from Cannes, to the Golden Globes, and then the Oscar. Along the way she’d pick up a SAG and even a Moon Man from MTV for her courageous and edgy presence in her final role.

The SAG statue is interesting; the face has no mouth, and the figure holds the comedy and tragedy masks. How often in this final role was there an experience of voicelessness – with the Drs, with family, with God? At times variously a lack of permission to speak, a lack of courage to speak, or a lack of words to speak. It is nice in moments to be able to hold up the mask as if to say, “I really can’t talk right now, so please let this tell you what I’m thinking and feeling. Thank you for caring.” Our word “personality” comes from the Greek (prosopa) or Latin (persona) for those theatrical masks. We talk about ‘putting on a brave face’ or ‘putting on a happy face.’ I know Theresa got tired of being identified as the sick person – as though that defined her person and her reality – and thus defined all her relationships and the people around her. “Let’s talk about anything but me,” she’d say, “Tell me about what’s going on with you.” That was natural for Theresa, as she loved to hear about others and was gracious with her listening ear, but I suspect she had to be far more intentional during her illness to not have the focus be on her all the time. And yet, that can be taken too far also, can’t it. It’s important to be fully present in the role, and to take our monologues and those moments when we should be the center of attention and not let others “steal our scene.” As Iris (Kate Winslet) says in the movie The Holiday, “You’re supposed to be the leading lady in your own life, for God’s sake!” And Theresa certainly was.