Monday, May 26, 2008

“Bearing the Name”

Acts 1:6-14; 1 Peter 4:12-19, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11[1]

There is a curious diversity among Christians these days. If you asked a random sample what it means to “bear the name” of Christ in the world, you would get a wide range of answers. For some, bearing the name means essentially being a good, upstanding member of the community. For others, it’s about adopting a unique culture—you dress a certain way, you talk a certain way, etc., etc. For many, it has meant sacrificing everything and everyone in your life to go overseas and work with a primitive group of people to convert them to Christian faith. For others, it’s a matter of getting out there and promoting certain causes that are associated with social justice and compassion for the needy.

Most Christians would probably point to scripture as the basis for their versions of what it means to bear witness to Christian faith. Interestingly, most of these answers don’t reflect what I would suggest is the central theme of “bearing the name” of Christ in the world: suffering. The Bible plainly shows us over and over again that those who would live in our world as God’s people and bear witness to Christian faith must be prepared to suffer.[2] In fact, it is precisely by our willingness to embrace suffering for the sake of our faith that we “bear the name” of Christ in this world.

Peter calls this “sharing the sufferings of Christ” (1 Peter 4:13). That’s a strange idea. We have been taught that Jesus suffered death on the cross so that our sins might be forgiven. So how is it possible for us to share his sufferings? It seems to me that when the Bible speaks of sharing Christ’s sufferings, it’s talking about how we bear witness to our faith in this world. The Apostle Paul says it this way: “Our bodies show what his death was like, so that his life can also be seen in us” (2 Corinthians 4:10, CEV). What he means by that is that God sustains him in his sufferings, and that becomes a witness to others so that they too may share in the new life in Christ. In other words, our most effective witness is what God does in and through us as we embrace suffering, rather than anything we say or do!

I think that’s the idea behind Peter’s message to the Christians of Asia Minor. He has said this in different ways throughout his letter: they suffered “various trials” so that the character of their faith might shine through (1:6-7); they endured hostility so that their “honorable deeds” and “good conduct” would glorify God (2:12; 3:16); they were bearing witness to Christ by following in his footsteps (2:21). In our text for today, Peter tells them that when they suffer the Spirit of God rests on them (1 Peter 4:14) and that God would be with them through everything they had to suffer and would strengthen them to be able to endure (1 Peter 5:10). It’s that sustaining presence that becomes a powerful witness to others.

As we endure suffering for the sake of Christ, we are “bearing the name,” essentially by being willing to undergo the experience of “sharing the sufferings of Christ.” This becomes a witness for Christ because it provides a golden opportunity for God to display his power in our lives, just as he did when he raised Christ from the dead.[3] This may seem like a strange twist on the “Easter faith” that looks to Christ’s resurrection and the new life he gives us. But if you think about it, what better way to demonstrate that new life than by making each of us walking billboards, bearing the name of Christ to our world, testifying to our “living hope” in spite of what we may have to endure.

We don’t face suffering in the same way Peter’s audience did. They were rejected by friends and family, they had their livelihood stripped from them, they were sometimes beaten and sometimes even killed for their faith. But in another respect, maybe our situation isn’t all that different. The people around them didn’t understand why the Christians didn’t just “go along to get along.” I think that’s probably going to be our greatest area of potential suffering.[4] The decision to follow Christ in our world means that we will inevitably have to “deny ourselves” and “take up our cross”—and that means suffering losses. We face many pressures to conform to “the way things are”—to do what everybody else does, to compromise our principles, to avoid being “different” at all costs! We are constantly tempted to go back to those “futile ways.” But our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ calls us to “march to a different tune”—to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). And as we do so, God’s Spirit within us presents to those around us a powerful testimony to Christ’s new life.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached on 5/4/08 by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 360-61, argues that the church is “apostolic” to the extent that it participates in the mission of Christ and the Apostles, and that “inescapably” entails suffering. He says, “the church is apostolic when it takes up its cross.” See also Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 424: “Words that do not cost anything and deeds that are meant to make us popular have nothing to do with the [apostolic] character of the people of God.”

[3] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 355: “When believers take up their cross, the kingdom of God is manifested to the world.”

[4] See Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 468, where he enumerates potential forms of suffering for Christian faith in the modern world; he defines this as “any form of Christian abstinence, …, if it is a withdrawal, for the sake of faith, from the powers that dominate our world.”

“No Fear”

Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:8-18; John 14:15-21[1]

It seems these days that security is on everyone’s mind. There are whole industries that offer “security” for various aspects of our lives—whether it’s securing our property from burglars, securing our computer data, or even securing our financial information against identity theft! And we look for security in other areas as well—we try to secure our future by building up as much money as possible in a retirement fund (as if any amount of money could ever do that!). We seem to be intent on securing everything we can in our lives.

I think what drives us in this quest for “security” is fear. Fear is what drove the phenomenon of “urban flight” some thirty or forty years ago—the phenomenon that created suburbs as “bedroom communities” for urban centers—another trend that may be reversing itself in light of the rising cost of commuting. I think at least in some cases fear is behind our obsession with driving bigger and bigger vehicles in the (mistaken?) belief that they are safer, even though they take a small fortune in gasoline!

The problem with fear, especially in the context of the Christian faith, is that we begin to look at others not with sympathy, love, a tender heart, and a humble mind, as Peter instructs us (1 Peter 3:8), but with suspicion. And when fear kicks in we tend to go into “survival mode.” Unfortunately, our “survival instincts” at times aren’t very good at discriminating friends from enemies; in “survival mode” we tend to identify anyone and everyone as an “enemy.” What that leads to is hostility rather than sympathy and respect. It’s awfully hard to sympathize with others when we think they may harm us.

We’ve already seen how Peter addresses the sufferings of the Christians in Asia Minor. They suffered for their faith in a wide variety of ways—ranging from ridicule to hatred, and from ostracism to lynching! Rather than going into “survival mode” and responding in kind to those who were attacking them, Peter urged the Christians to respond with kindness and respect (1 Peter 3:16). We’ve already seen what Peter had to say about the assurance that the good news offered them—that their identity and their destiny were secure in God’s gracious hands. But he also pointed out that the good news constituted a call—a call to bear witness to the one who is at work to bring life and love and freedom and peace to all creation; a call to testify to the power of Jesus’ resurrection over death itself; a call to sing the praises of the one who died for us all to bring us new life and then rose again to secure our hope.[2]

In part they were to do that simply by the quality of the new life they were living. That’s why Peter emphasizes how important it is for them to practice humility, to serve with gentleness, and to “do good” regardless of how others treat them. But they were also called to speak out about their faith.[3] I think Peter must have imagined that there would be times when the people around them noticed that they were not repaying “evil for evil or abuse for abuse” but rather responding to hostility with blessing (1 Peter 3:9). And when they did notice, I think he envisioned them asking Christians why they were living in this strange sort of way. That’s when the believers would have the opportunity to tell them about the one who taught us to live in that strange sort of way by his deeds as well as his words.[4]

That certainly doesn’t mean, however, that everyone would respond positively. When the Apostle Paul spoke about his faith in Jesus Christ to one Roman official he said, “You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!” (Acts 26:24). Not long after Peter wrote this letter to the Christians of Asia Minor, Pliny, the Roman Governor of that province, wrote to the Emperor Trajan about the annoying problem he was having with the Christians.[5] He said that they were good enough in their daily lives—in fact, they made model citizens. But some of them would not renounce their faith and offer the required sacrifices to Roman gods to secure the empire’s good fortunes. Apparently, they would patiently explain their faith to him, and he would have them executed if they refused to renounce it! There were in fact cases when the Christians’ witness in word and deed would lead to suffering for the sake of the Kingdom of God, even possibly suffering death.[6]

Suffering for the Kingdom is still with us today. What happens when we may have to face hardships or even hostility because of our Christian faith? Do we go into “survival mode” and protect ourselves at all costs? That’s not the way Peter taught the Christians of Asia Minor to respond. Peter reminded them and us that our true security rests firmly in God’s hands. He reminded them and us that God will one day validate and confirm all that we do in the service of God’s Kingdom.[7] That promise sets us free from all our futile attempts at “securing” our lives. It enables us instead to overcome fear and the hostility it engenders.[8] It enables us instead to respond to those around us—both those who are hostile and those who are friendly—with sympathy, kindness, humility, and respect. And it enables us to “answer anyone who asks you to explain the hope you have in you” (1 Peter 3:15, TEV).

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached on 4/27/08 by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX

[2] See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3: 622: “The Christian becomes and is … the witness of the great Yes which God has spoken to [the world] in total renewal and definitive liberation.”

[3] See David L. Tiede, “An Easter Catechesis: The Lessons of 1 Peter,” Word and World 4/2 (1984): 200; accessed at Archives/4-2_Working/4-2_Tiede.pdf .

[4] Paul Achtemeier, 1 Peter, 223, reminds us that Peter’s instruction “grows out of the heart of the Christian faith”; i.e., Jesus’ life and teaching.

[5]See Pliny, Letters, 10.96-97; .

[6]This combination of assurance and confidence, of witness and suffering are what one scholar calls the “the Gospel of Good Friday and Easter.” The Christian life is not all suffering and hardship without any joy or hope or new life; but it’s also not all joy and hope with no crosses to bear. See Tiede, “Easter Catechesis,” 200. See further Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 467-69.

[7] See J. Ramsey Michaels, 1 Peter, 185, 193; see also Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3:642-43, where he says that Christian suffering takes place “in the light of the Easter revelation” that we are moving toward a new creation; “that future already determines and shapes the present of the Christian in his affliction.”

[8] Philip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God, 71, recounts John Donne’s struggle with his questions about suffering, and that he came to the conclusion that the choice he faced was “to fear God or to fear everything else, to trust God or to trust nothing.”

“God’s Own People”

1 Peter 2:2-10[1]

How do you know who you are? How do you really know who you are? In one sense, our identity is wrapped up in a web of relationships with family and friends, vocation and faith. Part of why I know who I am is because my family told me—meaning they told me the story of our family. I have the privilege of having the Brehm family Bible that belonged to my Great-Great Grandparents Wilhelm and Elisabetha Brehm! That Bible tells me a lot about who I am. It tells me, for example, that my family was fairly devout, because it is inscribed with John 14:25: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” I guess it should come as no surprise that here I am 150 years later standing in front of you holding a Bible and preaching!

A couple of years ago I made an accidental discovery on the internet. I did a search for William and Elizabeth Brehm and I found out that I have a distant “cousin” who maintains a genealogy site for, among others, the Brehm family. What’s more, when I clicked on the link to their name, I found their picture. There they were, William and Elizabeth, staring at me from a black and white photo that must have been taken at least 100 years ago! The first thing I noticed right off was Elizabeth’s face—it was a face I had known and loved much of my life. It was my Grandfather’s face! After a while I also recognized my son in William’s eyes. And then I recognized myself! What an incredibly profound experience it is to reconnect with ancestors you’ve never met, but whom you’ve known all your life!

The question of identity was one that Peter thought to be very important to the Gentile Christians he was addressing. He goes to some effort to help them understand who they were and how to live their lives based on that understanding. We have to remember that Peter’s audience was one that must have felt like they had lost their identity. In leaving behind the way of life they had inherited from their ancestors, they had in effect left themselves without a sense of who they were. What’s more, instead of benefiting from their decision to embrace Christian faith, they were actually suffering because of it. I think Peter wisely knew that they needed to know who they were in order to make sense out of the sufferings they were enduring.[2]

What he does, however, should surprise us. Peter essentially tells these Gentile Christians that they were now a part of God’s chosen people. He uses a fairly elaborate metaphor of a “cornerstone” to say that they who were strangers and aliens in their own land were now a part of God’s “house.” In fact, he almost completely lifts the very words that God used in choosing Israel to establish them as his special people—and then applies them to Gentile Christians (1 Peter 2:9; cf. Exodus 19:6)! Peter above all wants his audience to grasp that they were God’s people. No matter what else happened to them, their identity was secured by God’s mercy (1 Peter 2:10). And they were now heirs of the rich story of God’s redemptive work beginning with Abraham. That not only gave their suffering meaning, it also gave meaning and direction to all of their lives.

I think this is still important today. As Christians, we need to understand who we are, and what that means for how we live our lives. We, too, are the “people of God,” What makes us the “people of God” is not anything unique or special within us, but simply and entirely our relationship with God through Jesus Christ![3] Now, I realize that this is something incredibly mysterious; yet at the same time it is vital to the Christian life. In fact, without it there is no Christian life.

In our confirmation class, we are studying a confession called “Belonging to God” that emphasizes this special relationship that with God. The very first questions ask, “Who are you?” to which the response is “I am a child of God”; and “What does it mean to be a child of God?” to which the answer is “That I belong to God, who loves me.”[4] The central requirement for being part of the “people of God” is to have this kind of relationship with God, to know ourselves to be precious children who belong to the God who loves us.

That can be a challenge for those of us in the post-modern world. It is not something that can be programmed or measured; you cannot draw a schematic diagram of it, nor can you write a software program for it. It is entirely mysterious. Somehow we have to find a way to trust that “the heart of life is good,” that there is someone out there who cares for us, that our lives are heading in the right direction.[5] That’s the hard part!

The easy part having a relationship with God is by practicing the faith together—coming to worship and singing the hymns and praying the prayers and hearing the Scriptures read and preached. And we practice the faith on our own as well. We read the sacred Scriptures for ourselves. We pray the prayers at home, at work, and at school. This is the easy part because as we practice these “sacraments” we experience God’s presence in our lives.[6] Not tangibly, not every time we pray or study, and then often only in a fleeting moment, but we nevertheless do experience God’s presence![7]

That relationship with God, so mysterious yet so profound, makes a difference in the way we live. We can no longer live solely for our own benefit. Those of us who have encountered God in Jesus Christ and have experienced new life through that encounter will from that time onward live in the service of God’s kingdom and God’s justice. That’s what it means to be “God’s own people.”[8]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached on 4/20/08 by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] J. Ramsey Michaels, 1 Peter, 94-95; cf. also B. Witherington III, Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, vol. 2, 100, though he argues that the audience need not have been Gentile.

[3] Donald K. McKim, Introducing the Reformed Faith, 118-122, 124-25; cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.2.340; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences of God, 5, where he defines this in terms of the assurance that “God is for me; I am his child. Christ is beside me; I am his brother.”

[4] Belonging to God: A First Catechism, questions 1-2; cf. also questions 33-38.

[5] See again Moltmann, Experiences of God, 5: “there is someone waiting for me, who will not give me up, who goes ahead of me, who lifts me up, someone to whom I am important.”

[6] H. Berkhof, Christian Faith, 349-52, enumerates 9 “sacraments” that have the effect of bringing individuals into a relationship with God: instruction, baptism, worship, religious discussion, Lord’s Supper, diaconal ministry, church officers, and church order. While he considers these to have a “more constant and institutional character,” he also recognizes that “new instruments regularly emerge.” Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 52, reminds us that this encounter takes place “in the Holy Spirit.” See further ibid., 191, 198, 294-95

[7] Berkhof, Christian Faith, 395, speaks of the “elements of surprise and unpredictability” in the encounter with God through various “sacraments.”

[8] See Book of Confessions 10.3-r; Book of Order, G-3.0101-G-3.0103; G-3.0200; G-3.0300; W-7.6000; cf. also W-7.2000-W-7.5000; see especially W-7.1001. Cf. Belonging to God, questions 16, 23. See further, Moltmann, Church in the Power, 10: “Mission comprehends the whole of the church.” See further ibid., 64-65, 84, 316; and especially 301-302, where he depicts the church’s mission in terms of Christ’s: prophetic, priestly, royal, and messianic.

“The Cost of Discipleship”

Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-11[1]

It seems that from time immemorial people have believed that doing what is right means that God will bless you with prosperity and happiness, and doing wrong means you will suffer. Whole chapters of Deuteronomy are devoted to this. If the children of Israel would obey God, they would be blessed at home and blessed in the field and blessed in the country, etc., etc. But if they disobeyed God, they would be cursed at home and cursed in the field, etc., etc, etc. That principle had a profound influence on a large chunk of the Old Testament, especially the books of history. In fact, 1 and 2 Kings adopt it as the central organizing principle for their chronicle of the kings of Israel and Judah.

That’s why Job’s three friends insisted that the only reason he was suffering was because he must have done something terribly wrong! It had been ingrained in them from childhood that when you do what is right you’re blessed, and when you suffer, you must have done something to deserve it. (Un)Fortunately, that doesn’t quite fit the facts of life. In fact, bad things often do happen to good people! What that means is that it is entirely possible for you to do everything right, to obey God completely, and still have to undergo some kind of suffering![2]

One of the ways that Jesus the Christ overturned the traditional ways of thinking about God was to provide a prime example of a person who did everything right, who completely obeyed God, and who in fact suffered because of it. The world in which we live is one that does not tolerate those who want to obey God.[3] It is a world where those who push their way around do in fact get where they want to go. Those who step on others do in fact climb to the top. Might does make right in our world, and money does far more than talk!

In that kind of system, what happens to the person who insists not only on not stepping on others, but also who insists on making the case that people are not meant to be stepped on?[4] What happens is that the system resists change; it exerts subtle and not-so-subtle pressure on them to “get back in line.” And if someone has the temerity to persist in not “playing by the rules” of this world—perhaps someone like Jesus of Nazareth—those who defend the system may become hostile, and they may even attack. That’s what happened to Jesus. As Peter reminds us (1 Peter 2:23), Jesus was insulted but he remained committed to the way of God’s kingdom. And he suffered for it but he did not strike back at his tormenters.

Perhaps the most difficult thing Peter says about all this is that we who claim to follow Jesus have been called to this kind of life! In fact, Peter says that Jesus suffered in this way to “leave you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21, NIV). Jesus’ death on the cross was the final negation of the age-old assumption that doing what is right in God’s sight means we will prosper. As a matter of fact, doing what is right in God’s sight in the world in which we live means that we can expect to suffer. And that is our calling as Christians.

How could it be different for those of us who follow a Savior who was executed in a most de-humanizing way? Jesus himself told his disciples that his path, the path of obedience to God’s will, the path of seeking God’s kingdom and God’s justice, was going to lead him to death. And he warned them that if they followed him, they would have to be prepared to suffer the losses that would entail.[5]

So if this really is the “cost of discipleship,” why would anyone in their right mind actually choose to follow Jesus as Savior and Lord? One reason is because it is when we are “walking through the valley of the shadow of death” that we experience the presence of God most powerfully. As we follow Christ in suffering for the kingdom of God and God’s justice, we become more assured of God’s love for us than ever before.[6] Another reason is because we know that suffering love has the power to overturn evil and redeem it.[7] As we follow Christ in suffering for God’s purpose in this world, we join in the work of making all things new.[8]

Peter reminds us of a third reason: the cross was not the final chapter of Jesus’ career. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead reveals God’s ultimate endorsement of Jesus’ life. It also shows us that following Jesus’ example of suffering is the “path of rightness” that leads to the refreshing still waters and the green pastures that restore our very souls. As Jesus said, “If you try to keep your life for yourself, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will find true life” (Mark 8:35, NLT).[9]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached on 4/13/08 by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX

[2] In fact, a rabbi named Harold Kushner wrote a book with that very title: When Bad Things Happen to Good People. When faced with the reality of suffering in this world, Rabbi Kushner concludes that bad things happen to good people because that’s just the way it is and God cannot do anything about it. Kushner and his wife endured the painful suffering of losing their young son to a degenerative disease. In the face of such intense suffering, he concluded that he must either give up God’s benevolence or God’s omnipotence. He chose the latter, believing that God loves us and wants the best for us but is basically powerless to do anything about it. While he has been criticized for his theory, no one would criticize his own personal experience of suffering.

[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, “Joy in the Revolution of God,” in The Gospel of Liberation, 119, describes it this way: “that inhuman world in which not God but mammon, not love but anxiety, not freedom but law, not the Son of Man but power and fighting for riches reigns.”

[4] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, “Liberation through Reconciliation,” in The Gospel of Liberation, 82: “Wherever man leaves his humanity and makes for himself proud and doubtful gods of himself and his neighbors, he is inhuman, … . He can no longer love. And, loving only himself, he misuses his experiences, his possessions, and his neighbors … .”

[5] See Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 97: “The whole church lives from Christ’s self-giving and in self-giving for the reconciliation of the world.” See also ibid., 284: “The way of life of the messianic era is stamped by messianic suffering.”

[6] Jürgen Moltmann, “Love and Sorrow,” in The Gospel of Liberation, 77; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences of God, 7-9, where he talks about his own experience of desolation as a prisoner of war as an experience that led him to faith.

[7] Moltmann, “Love and Sorrow,” 74-75; cf. also Moltmann, Church in the Power, 284.

[8] Jürgen Moltmann, “The Transformation of Life,” in The Power of the Powerless, 69-70. He says (p. 69), “Now, no night is so dark that the light of transfiguration does not fall on the person who takes up his cross and seeks the will of God along the path of Jesus.” Cf. also Moltmann, Church in the Power, 355: “When believers take up their cross, the kingdom of God is manifested to the world.” See further Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 204: “Anyone who participates in ‘Christ’s sufferings’” becomes a witness “to the coming truth against the ruling lie, to coming justice and righteousness against the prevailing injustice, and to coming life against the tyranny of death.”

[9] Moltmann, “Transformation,” 70: when we choose the path of self-surrender and obedience, there “the will of God is fulfilled in us and for us and through us” and “there life is transfigured; even in the face of tears and pain and disappointment.”

“Futile Ways”

Acts 2:14, 36-41; 1 Peter 1:13-22; Luke 24:13-35[1]

One of the most important lessons that Easter faith has to offer us is that there is more to life than the incessant obsession with being the “best.” The precious and costly death of Jesus on a cruel Roman cross combined with his surprising and powerful resurrection to new life expose the futile ways of our world. The quest to be the brightest, the most attractive, the richest, and the most successful is empty, isolating, and ultimately robs us of our humanity.[2] The crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ points us to a way of life that is significant, meaningful, and truly fulfilling—the way of giving oneself away for others.[3]

That is the lesson of the 1994 film entitled With Honors.[4] It’s a story about Monty Kessel, a yuppie in the making at Harvard who misplaces the only copy of his senior thesis. When Simon Wilder, a middle-aged homeless man who has been living in the basement of the library finds it, he offers to return it to Monty—but on one condition. Simon promises to give Monty one page of his thesis for every day Monty gives him food and shelter! Reluctantly, Monty agrees. He really has no choice—he’s on a deadline and he’s striving to graduate Harvard “with honors,” the first “feather” in his cap that will surely open the doors to other “achievements.” The problem is that his thesis is nothing more than an elaborate “suck up” to his advisor, a prominent and powerful member of the faculty. Over the course of the school year, something unexpected happens. Simon becomes Monty’s real advisor, forcing Monty to recognize that there is more to life than simply buttering up your professor to get ahead in the game!

You see, after spending his life seeing the world with the Merchant Marines, Simon is dying of asbestos exposure. Understandably he wants to spend his last days with food and shelter. In exchange for a warm bed and the chance to eat every day, Simon does much more than give Monty back his senior thesis. He convinces Monty that no success is worth your soul. As a result, Monty actually changes his thesis, writing a paper that is not only unconventional but one that actually succeeds at impressing the crusty old Harvard professor. Unfortunately, he misses an important deadline and will not be eligible to graduate “with honors.” But Monty learns that there is more to life than achievement, or success, or winning awards, all of which boils down to self-serving.

That’s not a lesson that we tend to learn very easily these days. We still live in a world where the only thing that counts is winning. Getting second place still means losing. “Beauty” is power, and so is money. Our world is completely obsessed with getting ahead by any and every means. It doesn’t matter how many people you have to step on or run over as long as you finish first! And in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that is the message that is handed down to us from our parents. We’re taught from early childhood onward that we only count if we compete, and we’re only significant if we win.

When the Apostle Peter wrote to the early Christians, he reminded them that they too had inherited a way of life that was empty. Although the emptiness of their life may not have consisted of getting ahead at any cost, it was just as empty. Peter describes it as a life spent on “ignorant desires” (1 Peter 1:14), and later specifically names things like “indecency, lust, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and the disgusting worship of idols” (1 Peter 4:3, TEV). As a matter of fact, that sounds like a pretty typically Jewish way of talking about Gentiles, and may have reflected some bias on Peter’s part. [5] But there is ample evidence that the futile ways of the First Century included a life of wanton immorality, reckless wastefulness, and self-indulgent decadence.

But the “living hope” that Peter preaches includes the promise that the sacrificial death of Jesus the Christ sets us all free from our “futile ways.” The fact that God has lavished on us this “costly grace” makes all the difference in the world in the way we live our lives. We can no more go on living simply for our own selfish pursuits any more than Monty Kessel could ever pass another homeless man without thinking about Simon Wilder!

What’s more, the resurrection of Jesus from that horrible death changes not only us but in a very real sense changes everything. Now everything from our former lives has been emptied of meaning, and the only thing that matters in the “new creation” that is taking its place (2 Corinthians 5:17) is “faith expending itself in love” (Galatians 5:6).[6] And in light of the Easter faith that Jesus is alive, the Apostle Paul reminds us that we can “always keep busy working for the Lord” because we know that “everything [we] do for him is worthwhile” (1 Corinthians 15:58, CEV). No more wasting time with futile ways—now we have the chance to live a life that is truly worthwhile, a life of giving ourselves away for others.[7]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached on 4/6/08 by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX

[2] See Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 42, 98.

[3] Cf. Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge, 152-53. He defines this in terms of loving our neighbors as ourselves, where our “neighbor” means “anyone who needs me here and now.” See further 157-70, 274-312 where he characterizes this as being “truly human” and makes some very concrete “suggestions” for what this looks like.

[4] See Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, review of With Honors, accessed at .

[5] See J. R. Michaels, 1 Peter, 64; contrast Ben Witherington III, Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, vol. 2, 106-107, where he argues that Peter’s comments resemble what Paul has to say about the futility of trying to keep the law apart from Christ.

[6] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 337-38. He says, “Human life must be risked if it would be won. … If, however, we are thus to risk expending ourselves, then we need a horizon of expectation which makes the expending meaningful … . The expectation of the promised future of the kingdom of God which is coming to man and the world to set them right and create life, makes us ready to expend ourselves unrestrainedly and unreservedly in love and in the work of the reconciliation of the world with God and his future. … Faith can expend itself in the pain of love, … because it is upheld by the assurance of hope in the resurrection of the dead.”

[7] Cf. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae 25.4: “Christ’s blood reveals to [man] that [his] greatness, and therefore [his] vocation, consists in the sincere gift of self.” See J. Michael Miller, ed., The Encyclicals of John Paul II, 815.

“Everything To Live For”

Acts 2:14, 22-32; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31[1]

Several years ago my oldest son Derek and I visited two canyons in the Southwest. We spent a day at the Grand Canyon with about 12,000 other people. The sight of the canyon was truly impressive; it is one of those places on earth whose grandeur cannot be captured by photography. We also spent a day at Chaco Canyon in Northwestern New Mexico. You may not have heard of it. It is the site of the oldest Native American ruins in the U. S. It’s about 20 miles off the pavement along a bumpy dirt road.

Archaeologists think that Chaco Canyon was first occupied about the year 500 by Native American farmers.[2] By about the year 800 they were building the crescent-shaped pueblos for which the site is famous. The pueblos were built along lines marked out by the sun and the moon, as well as perfect East-West and North-South lines. The discovery of many pre-historic roads that fan out to the surrounding area suggests that Chaco Canyon may have stood at the center of a fairly large and well-developed culture, known today as the Early Puebloan People. They flourished there for another 350 years, until they were forced to leave by an extended drought. Most historians would agree that they founded the Pueblo Cultures that still thrive in the desert Southwest.

If you’ve ever been to the Grand Canyon, you can perfectly understand why so many people go there. But if you visited Chaco Canyon, you’d have to ask yourself why in the world anyone would want to visit, let alone live there. It’s a stark and barren landscape. There’s really nothing much to commend it as a place to build a fairly sophisticated complex of pueblos. We can only speculate at this point, but some have suggested that the unique geographical and astronomical alignment of the canyon may have related to ancient Puebloan religious beliefs.

As Derek and I wandered the ruins of Chaco Canyon that day—with about 12 other people as opposed to 12,000!—I found myself wondering what it was that enabled men and women to do what it took to survive the harsh conditions of that time and place. It’s hard enough to survive what life has to offer in the relative comfort of what we call “civilization.” It’s hard to understand what motivated people to endure the hardships of life in those primitive conditions. What did they have to live for?

If we took the time to study what life was like for the early Christians, we might ask the same question. As Peter says in his letter, they suffered for their faith in a wide variety of ways—ranging from ridicule to hostility, and from ostracism to lynching! In the midst of their hardships, the Apostle Peter reminded them that the Easter faith offered them a “living hope.” Their hope was “alive” because it is a hope that comes from the life of the risen Christ who defeated death. Their hope was alive because it is a hope that comes from the promise of never-ending life in God’s new creation and “brand-new” life here and now through God’s Spirit. Their hope was alive because it is a hope that nothing can quench—not doubt, not hostile enemies, not even martyrdom, which they suffered on occasion. Because of their “living hope,” Peter assured them that they had “everything to live for.”[3]

But there had to have been times when those First-Century Christians asked themselves why they had to suffer so much if all that was true. I think part of the problem is that our faith in the resurrection and our hope of new life simply exceed our grasp. But just because we may not be able to get a handle on them doesn’t mean that our faith and hope are not just as alive today as they were in Peter’s day.[4]

Even though we may not be able to fully grasp our “living hope,” the good news of Easter is that the new life of the risen Christ is something that takes hold of us and changes us forever.[5] That is the basis for our hope and faith—not that we can grasp everything there is to know about God and faith and eternity, but rather that God has grasped us through the living presence of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. The hope of Easter, that new life will one day transform everything and everyone, gives us everything to live for.[6]

And as Peter assured those first Christians doing their best to live their lives in the midst of the struggles of their world, he continues to assure us that the experience of being “grasped” by God is one that cannot be diminished by time, or doubt, or even death. It is an experience that transforms us for good because we are from then on “kept safe by the power of God” (1 Peter 1:5, TEV).

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached on 3/30/08 by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] See the article on “Chaco Culture National Historical Park,” at .

[3] 1 Peter 1:3 (The Message): “Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we’ve been given a brand-new life and have everything to live for.”

[4] Walter Wink, “Resonating With God’s Song,” The Christian Century (March 23, 1994) “The resurrection is not a fact to be believed, but an experience to be shared”

[5] Paul Tillich, “Faith and Uncertainty,” in The New Being, 77: says, “In our uncertainty there is one fixed point of certainty, however we may name it and describe it and explain it. We may not comprehend, but we are comprehended.”

[6] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 85, 88; cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 256; Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences of God, 20, 28

“Sight Unseen”

Isaiah 25:6-9; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18[1]

For most of human history, people believed in an unseen dimension of the world that is just as real as what we can see and hear and taste and touch. In fact, some have believed that dimension to life is more real that the material world around us. And I’m not talking about superstitious primitives—Socrates and Plato, the founders of Western Philosophy, endorsed this view of things. Of course, the scholars turned the unseen dimension of life into something rational, something you can only access through serious intellectual work.

Other people took a spiritual approach—devising rituals for accessing the unseen reality. Why is it that we give more credit to the intellectual insights of philosophers than we do to the spiritual intuition of shamans? Both, in their own ways, were grasping for a handle on this side of human experience that remains persistent but elusive.

Of course, this approach to reality has almost completely disappeared from our cultural “radar.” For over two hundred years philosophers, scientists, historians, and other scholars have been telling us that the only thing “out there” is what we can see, hear, taste, touch, or smell. At this point, they have convinced us any attempt to even talk about a dimension to life that is “unseen” is at best embarrassing, if not complete “non-sense.” In our quest to be free from spiritual institutions that ruled all of life through superstition and dogma, we have robbed ourselves of the wisdom that has been attested since the beginning of time—a wisdom that comes from acknowledging that there truly is more to this life than what we see.

This theme is at the heart of the 2002 film Signs. Yes, I know that the “story” is about how a rural family survives an alien invasion. But like many of M. Night Shyamalan’s films, the point is what happens to the people in the story, not the story itself. Graham Hess is a former Episcopalian minister who left the church and the faith after his wife was killed in a tragic accident. At one point, Graham’s younger brother Merrill looks to him for some answers to the stress and fear he’s feeling. Graham responds by saying that there are two groups of people in the world; those who believe that no matter what happens, someone will be there to watch over them; and those who believe deep down that they are on their own. Though he had once served as a Christian minister, Graham says that he is in the second group.

Here is a man who had been dedicated to the spiritual life, and he has given up his faith and become a convinced skeptic because of the tragic death of his wife. Perhaps the real tragedy is that his grief blinds him to the signs of God’s love all around him. It takes a bizarre “war of the worlds” to bring him to the place where he can see the hidden presence of grace enveloping him and his family. But if he had eyes to see them, the “signs” of that unseen dimension were there—the awe-filled wonder of his children’s birth, the fact that the people all around him are naturally drawn to him for comfort and assurance, the simple beauty of a field of corn. All of which he had taken for granted. [2]

I think that’s something of what the Apostle Paul was trying to tell the Christians of his day. When all you have to go on is what your eyes can see or what you can touch with your hands, then the whole human story points to death as the ultimate reality of this life![3] But what Paul wanted them and us to remember is that God does not operate within the limits of what we can see. And God demonstrated that conclusively by raising Jesus from the dead! And so Paul urges them and us to remember that “your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). That doesn’t mean that our lives here and now don’t matter, because they do. But what it does mean is that we are called to put our trust in something that lies beyond our ability to see and hear and taste and touch. We are called to put our trust in the God and Father who raised our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ from the dead!

The resurrection really is the crucial sign to us all of the reality of God’s grace and love and life. The Christian faith is that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is a sign pointing us to God’s new creation that is coming in the future. It is also a sign pointing us to the fact that the new creation, the kingdom of God, is already working in hidden ways here among us to make everything new.[4] The resurrection is like a promise that points toward a future filled with hope and joy and love and life.[5] It is a promise that, just as God has restored Jesus to life, so also God will restore all creation to life.[6] It is a promise that “I have swallowed up death forever,” and “I will wipe away every tear,” and “I am making everything new.”

[1]© 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached on 3/23/08 by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, Tx.

[2] See the review by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat at http://www.spiritualityand . They comment, “All the spiritual traditions encourage us to ‘see’ the signs all around us that point to the possibilities unfolding in every moment in a meaningful universe.” They continue that we can either live our lives based solely on “what we can reasonably explain and predict”—a life that is ultimately fear-based—or we can open ourselves to the spiritual dimension to life and trust in the providence of that higher power.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 163; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—the Beginning, 93; Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 22-26.

[4] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 26-27, 28, 30, 32-33.J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 98-99, 191.

[5] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 24-25.

[6] Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 223.