Wednesday, May 10, 2017

More Than A Memory

More than a Memory
1 Corinthians 11:23-26[1]
It seems that a lot of what we call religion involves remembering. We rehearse events that took place long ago. In fact, all of the major religions of the world look to the distant past. They recall founding events that took place centuries ago. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But I think when our faith is built entirely on the memory of times past, I think it can lead many to think of religion as something that is at best old-fashioned and at worst irrelevant. It certainly doesn’t hold any meaning or value for their lives right here and right now. They may have the attitude of “that’s nice, but what have you done for me lately?”
The fact of the matter is that our worship this evening is precisely about something that took place long ago. One of the founding events of our faith is the “Last Supper” Jesus shared with his disciples just before dying on the cross. And it’s true that Jesus commanded us to repeat that meal “in remembrance of me.” The purpose of the meal was to turn the bread and the wine into a very tangible way for us to remember his death on the cross for us all. And so it is appropriate that we recall that original meal this evening in our worship.
In our lesson from the Apostle Paul, we see how important it is to observe the Lord’s Supper “in remembrance” of what Jesus did. Paul recounts the words of Jesus at the Last Supper as something that had “received from the Lord” and was therefore “handing on” to others. St. Paul can use this language when he’s referring to some kind of direct revelation. But I don’t think that’s what he’s talking about here. In this context, Paul is saying that he “received” this from the Lord because it was Jesus who spoke these words in the first place. As we think about our sharing of the Lord’s Supper, we’re talking about an event that actually happened.
But what we do tonight is about more than just a memory of what happened at the original Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples. Paul points to this elsewhere in the letter to the Corinthians when he asks them “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). I think that’s why he calls it the “Lord’s Supper,” not the “Last Supper” (1 Cor. 11:21).  For him, there was more going on than simply remembering when they celebrated the Lord’s Supper. Christ was with them in a special way. And so we believe that every time we share the Lord’s Supper, Christ is present with us as well.
Unfortunately, Christ’s presence with us in the Lord’s Supper been a point of disagreement and division in the church. One of the most significant differences between the Christian churches around the world who are sharing this supper tonight has to do with how they understand the faith that Christ is present with us. Some insist that the bread and the wine are actually transformed into the body and blood of Christ. From that point of view, Christ is literally present in the bread and the cup. On the other side of the spectrum, some believe that the bread and the cup are “mere” symbols that represent Jesus’ death on the cross. Otherwise, they are just bread and juice. As with many theological disputes, it can seem like they’re straining a gnat and swallowing a camel, as Jesus once said.
Importance of the Lord’s Supper is that Christ is truly present with us. We may not be able to explain how that happens to everyone’s satisfaction. There is a sense in which it is a mystery. In the original understanding of the sacraments, there was a significant sense in which they were viewed as mysteries. If you think about it, it’s reasonable to hold onto this idea whenever we talk about the sacraments. After all, we believe they are visible means by which we experience God’s grace in our lives. Why would we think that we could ever fully understand or explain how that happens?
This mystery of God working in our lives right here and right now is an important part of the way the Lord’s Supper serves as more than a memory for us. As Christ is truly present with us in this celebration, God is working to continually renew and sustain us in our faith and service. For that reason, the Lord’s Supper is all about what God has “done for us lately.” Because God in Christ is present with us, right here and right now, our sharing of this meal is more than a memory.
Remembering is an important aspect of our faith. We remember events that took place long ago because we believe that God was acting in history to redeem the human family. We all have our own memories of faith experiences that we cherish as well—Christmas eve services, Thanksgiving meals, Baptisms, Confirmations. Those memories are a big part of what it means for us to continue to believe. But our faith has to be more than a memory if it’s going to make a difference in our lives today. We need a sense that God is working in our lives right here and right now—whether we understand it or not, whether we are even fully aware of it or not! That’s why we celebrate the sacrament of “Communion.” By sharing the Lord’s Supper we are sharing an experience of “communion” or fellowship with the living Lord Jesus Christ, who is truly present with us. Of course Christ is present with us always. But in our observance of the Lord’s Supper, he is present with us in a special way: to renew and sustain our faith here and now. While our sharing of the Lord’s Supper is certainly not less than a memory, because we look back on an actual meal that took place long ago, because Christ is with us here and now, it is also more than a memory.



[1] © 2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/13/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Betraying Jesus

Betraying Jesus
Matthew 26: 26:20-25, 31-35[1]
I think most of us like to see ourselves as basically trustworthy people. We like to think that when we say we’ll do something, we do it. Being reliable is part of being good and honest, and I think most of us at least attempt to be that kind of person. Of course, we all fall short. We promise more than we can deliver. We let certain details slip amidst the barrage of information that comes our way each day. The more we have on our plate, the easier it can be to forget to follow through on something we promised to do. That doesn’t make us dishonest, it just makes us human.
But there are also times when we say things that we really don’t have any intention of carrying out. We may or may not be fully aware of it, and we probably would rather not have to admit it—especially to ourselves. It’s difficult and painful to face the truth that all of us at times can betray the trust that has been given to us. It is even more difficult and painful to face the fact that all of us at times have betrayed a trust. I would say, in our defense, that I doubt most of us normally set out to do so. But the hard reality is that being human means that we don’t always live up to the commitments we make. Not in the way we’d like to think we do. We all fall short at times.
Our Gospel lesson for this morning is a difficult passage to understand. How could it be that one of Jesus’ disciples—one of the ones he hand-picked to share the task of proclaiming the Good News of God’s kingdom of peace, justice, and freedom—would actually betray him? It seems monstrous. In fact, I think one of the reasons why we reserve the harshest punishments for those we deem to be “traitors” is because we want to keep betrayal far away from us. If we can shun traitors like Edward Snowden or Benedict Arnold or Judas Iscariot, then we can all feel better about ourselves. It’s a way to bolster our not-so-secure faith in our own integrity.[2]
But there’s an interesting detail in the scene at the Last Supper depicted in Matthew’s Gospel. When Jesus announces to the Twelve, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me” (Matt. 26:21), we assume he’s referring solely to Judas Iscariot. After all, Matthew’s Gospel tells the story of Judas agreeing to betray Jesus to the religious leaders just before this passage. And yet, there’s something interesting tucked away in the solemn interaction between Jesus and Judas. Matthew tells us that “they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’ (Matt. 26:22). Of course, we could read that as a simple declaration of innocence on the part of the others. I think that’s the way we have traditionally read this passage. The other disciples were shocked and protested their innocence.
But I think there’s another way to read it. I think the reason why they responded to the shock that one of them would betray him by asking a question is because none of them were entirely secure in their devotion to him.[3] They had followed him, and had seen and done some amazing things. But all of the Gospels make it clear that before the cross and resurrection, even Jesus’ closest followers failed to understand him fully. And I think the fact that each of the disciples, not just Judas, responded to Jesus by asking, “Surely not I, Lord?” reveals their own doubts about their commitment to him.
I think this reading is confirmed after the Last Supper when Jesus says plainly to the whole group, “You will all become deserters because of me this night” (Matt. 26:31). Jesus knew what they all feared: the tension between Jesus and the religious authorities was reaching a breaking point, and when the time came, he would face his death on the cross alone, abandoned by those who had been his closest companions. I think the possibility of his arrest must have crossed their minds, and they all questioned their ability to stand with Jesus at that fateful hour.
Of course, as usual in Matthew’s gospel, it is Peter who steps forward and represents the disciples’ failure to grasp what was really going on. Thinking that this was the time when Jesus was going to ascend to the throne of David and take his rightful place as the Messiah, Peter speaks for the others and insists, “I will never desert you” (Matt. 26:33). In fact, he goes beyond that and pledges that “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Matt. 26: 35). And Matthew adds, “So said all the disciples”! But the subsequent events told a different story: Peter emphatically denied even knowing Jesus. And in Matthew’s Gospel, not one of the disciples were anywhere near the cross while Jesus was drinking the cup he chose to take for us all. Every one of them betrayed him in their own way in the end.
The thought that we might betray anyone is painful enough to bear. But the idea that we might betray Jesus is truly a bitter pill to swallow. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that, like Peter and the rest of the disciples, we have all played the part of Judas. We have all failed as disciples of Jesus at some time.[4] But I don’t think that means we are beyond hope. Even though Judas never returned to Jesus, the others did, and they were forgiven and restored and commissioned to carry on with the work to which they had been called.[5] We all face the decision whether to follow Jesus—not just one time, but daily and sometimes several times throughout the day. I think the lesson for us today is that even though we may at times betray Jesus, we can come back to him and find grace, and forgiveness, and restoration that we may return to the path of following him.





[1] © 2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/9/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Craig Barnes, “The Judas Chromosome,” The Christian Century (Feb 27, 2002):21: “Could it be that the real reason we show betrayers so little compassion is that we're afraid there is some Judas chromosome within all of us? We hate the thought that we too are capable of betraying trust.”
[3] Cf. Barnes, “Judas Chromosome,” 21: “When Jesus claimed that one of the Twelve would betray him, the anxiety within all of their souls rushed to the surface. ‘Surely not I, Lord?’ They might as well have said, ‘I’ve been worried about that, but I thought I had it under control.’”
[4] Cf. Barnes, “Judas Chromosome,” 21: “One of the messages of Holy Week is that sooner or later every disciple will betray Jesus. We will betray him in the workplace when it will cost too much to think like a Christian, and in our homes when the anger is so great that we hurt those who trust us, and in the sacred commitments we make that we simply cannot keep. We will betray Jesus by our indifference to the poor, by our refusal to turn the other cheek to our enemies, and by the deaf ears we turn to heaven’s call to live for higher purposes.”
[5] Cf. Barnes, “Judas Chromosome,” 21: “In the gospel according to Judas there is no forgiveness, there is just sin and the futile effort to make things right on your own. In the gospel of Jesus, there is always grace that can create a new ending to our lives. All we have to do is turn to him.”

Eyes to See

Eyes to See
John 9:1-41[1]
We all have “filters” through which we process what goes on around us. Those “filters” come from our perspectives on life and our convictions and assumptions about truth. It’s the way we make sense out of the many and varied experiences and pieces of information that come our way every day. In some respects, it’s simply the way our brains work. But at times, we take our “filters” too seriously. We assume that they are “truth” with a capital “T,” and that anyone who disagrees with us is wrong. When that happens, our “filters” become “blinders.”
Blinders have a useful purpose: they prevent animals from being distracted or spooked by what’s going on around them. But when it comes to people, blinders rarely turn out to be positive. Especially when it comes to matters of faith. When we assume that our convictions are the absolute truth, then we have no choice but to judge those who have a different perspective to be “wrong.” In the history of the church, this has often played out in terms of branding persons as “heretics,” shunning them, and even executing them for their different beliefs.
I think our Gospel lesson for today is a story about how our convictions can become “blinders” that prevent us from seeing what is obvious.  In this story, the religious authorities are blinded to what is the obvious truth, something they should be able to see plainly.  The episode is about Jesus’ encounter with a man who had been born blind. Part of what makes this story ironic, however, is that while the Gospel continually speaks of him as “the man who had formerly been blind,” the religious authorities go to great lengths to try to discredit this obvious truth. As it turns out, they are the ones who are blinded because of their assumptions.
The first blinder in the story is that anyone who suffers tragedy must have brought it on themselves by some grievous sin.  Jesus’ own disciples voice this belief, asking, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2).  Their question reflected a view as old as the story of Job that if you do what is right you will be blessed by God, but if you do what is wrong you will be punished.  But Jesus explodes the myth.  I like the way The Message translates Jesus’ response: “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do” (John 9:3, Message).  Jesus says that tragedy in our world is an opportunity for us to demonstrate “the works of God” (John 9:4): kindness and compassion!
The next blinder has to do with the fact that Jesus heals “the man who had formerly been blind” on the Sabbath day.  Because Jesus dared exercise God’s mercy by healing this man, the religious authorities believed he had “broken” the Sabbath and therefore assumed he was a “sinner.”  Some of them put it this way: “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath” (John 9:16).  Since Jesus didn’t follow their meticulous rules about keeping the Sabbath holy, in their eyes he must have been a sinner. Ironically, it is “the man who had formerly been blind” who exposes their blindness.  The religious authorities keep trying to find a way to avoid the obvious conclusion that he had been born blind and Jesus had restored his sight.  And this unlearned, very like unkempt man, simply says to them, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25). The irony is that sometimes it takes someone we consider beneath us to make us aware of the ways in which we let our assumptions keep us from seeing what is obvious.
That’s one of the great dangers when we let our convictions and assumptions about faith and life harden so that they turn into “blinders.” As Jesus often chided the religious leaders of that day, those kinds of prejudices often keep us from seeing what is truly important. When our faith and our assumptions lead us to brand another person as a “sinner,” it seems to me that we have overstepped the bounds of our human limitations. Surely when it comes to labeling who’s a sinner and who’s not, we should heed the humility that reminds us that it’s not for us to say! 
I think that is what the whole story is about.  When we let our convictions and assumptions lead us to hate another person, we’ve missed the point. We’ve closed our eyes to the fact that Jesus himself said that the highest expression of our faith is to love God and love others. At the end of the story, Jesus says “I came into the world …, so that those who have never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing will be exposed as blind” (John 9:39, The Message).  This story is about exposing how our assumptions and convictions can make us completely blind to the grace and mercy and compassion of God. 
But I don’t think Jesus intended this story to stop there. I think the point of the story is to make us take a hard look at the “blinders” we may be wearing. I think it’s meant to challenge us to consider the ways in which we may have allowed our convictions and assumptions to harden enough to make us shun or even hate others. The fact that we all tend to do this is something that we’d rather not have to face. It’s humbling, to say the least. But that’s what the season of Lent is for: a time to humble ourselves and admit, at least to ourselves, the ways in which we have been blinded. When we do that, it can be like the scales falling off St. Paul’s eyes on the road to Damascus. When we recognize the “blinders” we’ve been wearing, we can take them off so that we have eyes to see the “works of God” all around us!



[1] © 2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/26/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Costly Grace

Costly Grace
Romans 5:1-11[1]
I think we are a people for whom God’s grace doesn’t make much sense. I mean, think about it: the whole idea is that God loves us just because he chooses to do so no matter what we do or don’t do to deserve it. That’s not something we “get” very easily. We’re wired to understand things like working hard to get somewhere in life; if anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing right; and you don’t just get handed whatever you want on a silver platter. But the idea that God—especially God—would grace us with his love simply because he chooses to do so is something of a stretch for most of us.
In our world, we’re much more comfortable with the idea that “God helps those who help themselves.”[2] I think many people view the Christian faith from this perspective—as if it were some kind of barter system, where we exchange going to church and helping the less fortunate and giving our income so that God will give us eternal life in paradise. It is the idea that we have to earn whatever we hope to receive from God’s hand in the end. And in fact, that idea has actually been endorsed at times by church leaders because it can be an effective way to motivate the flock. The fact that it turns salvation into an elaborate “pay-to-play” transaction doesn’t seem to matter to those who take that approach.
In contrast to that line of thinking, in our lesson from the Letter to the Romans for today, the Apostle Paul speaks about a God who offers peace, hope, and life to us all.  Not because of anything we could possibly do to deserve it, but simply because God chooses to do so. It’s an act of grace. It’s purely a gift. And as difficult as it may be for us to comprehend, that means there’s nothing we can ever do to deserve it. I think that makes a lot of us uncomfortable, because we prefer to be in control of our destiny. Although I don’t know why we would think we could control our eternal destiny!
But in fact, Paul says that God pours out his grace for us precisely when we are in no position to do anything to earn it for ourselves. He says that God sent his Son to die for us when we were helpless and even antagonistic toward God.  As Gene Peterson translates Romans 5:6 in The Message, “Christ arrives right on time to make this happen. He didn't, and doesn't, wait for us to get ready.”  Paul says that at just the right time, Christ died for the sinners and the ungodly—and in Paul’s mind that includes us all!  He doesn’t talk this way to browbeat us for our fallen condition, but to bring us to the place where we can accept the gift of peace and hope and life that God offers us all. 
But that’s really the question: how do we accept the gift of the amazing grace that God is offers us through Jesus the Christ? If it’s simply a gift that we can never deserve or earn, then it might make sense to think that we can just sit back and let God do his thing. But the fact of the matter is that’s not how it works either. Both extremes miss the point—we cannot earn it, but neither can we just sit back and act like we are entitled to it. That’s what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”!  By that he meant grace that doesn’t really have a lasting effect on our lives.[3]
By contrast, when grace really grabs us it changes us for good. The word that the Scriptures use for that is repentance. The Scriptures call us all to repent; that is, we have to come to the point where we can acknowledge our faults in order to accept the gift of the grace that God offers us. It might seem like a contradiction to say that there’s nothing we can ever do to deserve or earn it, but that we have to come to the place where we admit our failings in order to receive it. And yet, various recovery programs have taught us that the only way to start the journey toward healing is to recognize that we have a problem.  I think the same thing holds true for God’s grace. It really doesn’t make much of an impact on us that God loves us so freely until we realize that we need it. God’s grace becomes something life-changing when we fully grasp that we cannot live without it.
I think a big part of what St. Paul was getting at is that we cannot “save” ourselves. That might seem obvious, but I think there are a wide variety of ways in which we go around trying to “save” ourselves. What St. Paul knows is that repentance and faith go hand in hand—you can’t have one without the other. We can’t really come to the place where we put our faith in Jesus as our savior until we realize that we are simply unable to save ourselves. That’s a hard thing for many of us to admit to ourselves. No amount of effort, no amount of service, no amount of giving will suffice. Our only way to find the peace and joy and new life that God offers us is by recognizing that we need it, and that we can’t do anything on our own to get it. 
The season of Lent is a time for us to come to terms with who we are—we are all in need of the gift of grace and new life that God offers us through Jesus Christ. But it’s also a time to recognize that grace is “costly” as Bonhoeffer said it.[4] And St. Paul makes it clear how much it cost to make it possible for us to have access to this grace: it cost Jesus his life. It cost God the life of his own son. I think that pretty much takes care of any notion that we can somehow deserve or earn God’s grace. That’s another reason for the season of Lent. It’s a time for us to get past the pride that keeps us from acknowledging our need, so that we can accept the gift of God’s costly grace.




[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/19/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] This phrase entered our society through Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” It is not a quote from the Bible, despite what many think!
[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4 (2001), 43-44: “Cheap grace is means grace as bargain-basement goods, cut-rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort, cut-rate sacrament; … Cheap grace is grace without a price, without costs. … Cheap grace means justification of sin but not of the sinner. Because grace alone does everything, everything can stay in its old ways. … So the Christian need not follow Christ, since the Christian is comforted by [cheap] grace! … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Christ.” This edition of Bonhoeffer’s classic work is vastly superior to the previous English translation, The Cost of Discipleship. In some cases the older version actually renders the German of Bonhoeffer’s Nachfolge into English in direct contraction to the German original! For example, on page 44 of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer speaks ironically about “Cheap Grace” leading the Christian to try to do something exceptional, and as a result “there is no difference between Christian life and worldly life.” In The Cost of Discipleship, 44, the same statement is rendered to say that it is imperative for the Christian “to distinguish his life from the life of the world,” and the motivation is so that the world will believe in “the free gift of grace” (“billige Gnade,” which is correctly rendered “cheap grace” in the newer version). There are many such examples of this reversal of meaning in Cost of Discipleship.
[4] Cf. Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 45: Costly grace “is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live. It is costly, because it condemns sin; it is grace, because it justifies the sinner. Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s Son… and because nothing can be cheap to us that was costly to God. Above all, it is grace because the life of God’s Son was not too costly for God to give in order to make us live.”