Father’s Day

Some years ago, I was asked to say the blessing before the meal at our high school reunion. A classmate later thanked me for not calling God, “Father.”

That was during the height of a movement to make the Bible more gender neutral. Some translations changed “brothers” to “brothers and sisters,” for example. “Son” became “child.” Male pronouns were changed to gender neutral ones. Some suggested that instead of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” we should say, “Mother, Daughter, and Womb.”

But Jesus called God “Father.”

He taught us to pray, “Our Father….”

And only God gets to name God.

In John 7, Jesus’ own brothers didn’t understand him. They knew he could do miracles, but they didn’t really understand why. So, they tried to get him to be a public figure like they expected, like the “world” expected.

There’s another push going on the in the “world” right now with respect to pronouns. The “world” says you get to pick your own. This may bring Jesus followers into more conflict with the “world.”

Now, it isn’t always productive for Jesus followers to do battle over the latest cultural trend. I often begin prayers by saying, “Gracious and Loving God….” We need to remember that patriarchal structures still hold people back. Historically, a biblical stance against divorce often trapped women in harmful relationships. Human fathers can fail us, and sadly, they often do.

But at their best, fathers provide for us, protect us, love, and care for us.

The best earthly fathers point to the way to the one, true Heavenly Father.

The Heavenly Father points to how earthly fathers should live.

When we fail to appreciate God as Father, we can miss out on the great blessing of the intimate, loving relationship God wants to have with us.

This Father’s Day we ought to remember that Jesus’ name for God was “Father.”

Right-sized church

Not long ago, Gallup reported that church membership in the US is at 47%, the lowest ever, down over 20 points since the turn of the century. The number was 73% when Gallup first conducted the survey in 1937 and had remained constant until the 1990s.

What’s the right size for a church?

John 6 began with the story of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5000, but by the end of the chapter, the crowds had deserted. Only the disciples remained, and Jesus asked them, “Do you want to go away too?” Big crowds would again greet Jesus, but for the moment, it looked like total church membership was somewhere around 12.

But there was no record of Jesus begging anyone to stay.

In fact, the opposite is true. Jesus had just told the crowd that his followers had to “eat his flesh and drink his blood.”

It was if he was daring them to stay. And he said things like this all the time.

There was the issue of the cross, his, and the ones his followers would be challenged to “pick up daily.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, (Matthew 7:21-23) he warned, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

When he sent out the disciples (Matthew 10:22) he told them that, “All men will hate you because of me.”

Jesus surely hoped that the church would be filled, but with people who understood the cost of being a disciple.

It seems that Jesus had a different understanding of church size than we do.

More real

In CS Lewis’ classic book, The Great Divorce, people in hell are given a chance to take a bus ride to the outskirts of heaven. As the travelers get off the bus, they’re surprised to find that the blades of grass are like iron.

But it wasn’t that the grass was different in heaven, grass was still grass.

It was the people who were different. They discovered that, all along, they’d been wispy, ghost-like, shadows of their true selves. They were given a second chance to cast off whatever sin had held them back in life and continue their journey. In heaven, they would become their truest and best selves.

In the popular imagination, heaven is a place where people float on clouds, a place where people are less real.

But in Lewis’ imagination, heaven is where we become more real.

The pandemic exposed how wispy we are. We became more fearful, more prone to conspiracy theories.

Jesus Christ was born into the world a real person. You could see him, hold him, smell him. You could feel the scratch of his beard on your cheek when he kissed you.

He changed the name of his friend Simon to “Peter,” saying “On this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”

Jesus gave us the church to get real.

We only become people of substance through Jesus Christ.

I am

Jesus had fed the 5000. It was probably more like 15,000 or 20,000 if you counted women and children.

John 6 tells how Jesus came walking to the disciples who were struggling to row across the lake in a storm. Walking, not struggling, against the wind and waves.

When the disciples saw him, they were terrified.

But it was what he said next that really scared them.

“It is I; don’t be afraid.”

It sounds comforting, but I wonder. What Jesus literally said, was, “I am; don’t fear.” In trying to give us smooth sounding English, the translators glossed over the staggering claim Jesus was making about himself.

“I am” was the name God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush. “I am” is how the almighty and eternal God chose to identify himself.

“I am” without beginning and without end.

“I am” means that everything that exists or ever will exist has its beginning in God. All life and truth, energy and power, are derived from “I am.”

We live in a time when people say something is true “if it works for you.” We’re encouraged to “find ourselves.” We insist on defining ourselves based things like feelings, gender, occupation, wealth and more.

If Jesus is the Lord over nature, the one whom wind and waves obey, you have to allow him to be Lord of your life. All of it. You can’t pick and choose the parts of his teaching that you’ll follow and ignore the rest. You can’t tame “I am.” He won’t settle for being your helper.

It turns out there was another miracle within the miracle of Jesus walking on the water. John 6 says that when Jesus got into the boat with the disciples, “immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.” In an instant, they’d cross the remaining miles of lake.

“I am” is our destination.

God’s healing power

Fifteen months ago, as I prayed about what the Christian response to the pandemic ought to be, my thoughts went to a book by sociologist Rodney Stark: The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries. From a historical perspective, there was nothing inevitable about the rise of Christianity. As Stark pointed out, paganism had been a vital part of the Greco-Roman world for centuries, and therefore “must have had the capacity to fulfill basic religious impulses.”

But then the plagues struck.

Stark said, “In a sense paganism did indeed ‘topple over dead’ or at least acquire it’s fatal illness during these epidemics.”

Why?

From the beginning of the Jesus movement, Christian values of love and charity had translated into social services and community solidarity.

When disasters struck, Christians were better able to cope.

As the pagans fled the cities, Christians went in.

They provided food and basic provisions for the sick, even for the pagans, even at the cost of their own lives. It turned out that just seeing to the basic needs of people dramatically increased the survival rate. When the crisis subsided, pagans wondered why the Christians had stayed.

Of course they had stayed because they had experienced the selfless love of Jesus Christ and the power of the resurrection.

So if the response of the early church was to go into the city, how does that inform the Christian response in our time?

By 2020, we knew more about how viruses spread, though not nearly as much as we needed to know. The faithful response of 2020 was still to see to basic human needs, but also to limit our exposure in order to limit the spread of the virus.

In 2020, part of the faithful response meant staying away instead of going in.

But what about today, now that vaccines are available?

The faithful response today is not dying, but living. It’s about going into a clinic and getting a shot.

But now it seems that the folks most reluctant to get the shot are evangelical Christians.

Friends, for every objection you have to getting the shot, I can name five more. I agree with you on most of them.

The collective response to the pandemic reflects our nature as fallen human beings. Our government wasn’t ready for the pandemic. Officials have been inconsistent, reluctant to admit mistakes, and sometimes flat wrong. Some said vaccines would take years to develop and might never come. Some probably should be prosecuted.

But it was fallen people like that that the early Christians died to save.

Today, God is working a miracle through his fallen creatures. Through vaccines, God’s healing power is once more going out into the world.

But first it has to go into our arms.

Almost nothing

I miss talking to my father-in-law, Lonnie.

Lonnie could fix anything, and if there was anything he loved more than fixing things, it was helping you fix them. He devoted much of his retirement to serving churches and going on mission trips to help others fix things.

I would call Lonnie when I’d get stuck with something I was working on. Say, I was trying to replace a starter motor on an old car, and there was a bolt that I couldn’t get the wrench around.

“Did you pray about it?” Lonnie would ask.

Of course I hadn’t.

Outside of the resurrection, the only miracle mentioned in all four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, is the feeding of the 5000. In the Gospel of John, Jesus asked for Philip’s advice on what to do.

Philip had nothing.

Then Andrew spoke up. Andrew had found a boy with five small barley loaves and two fish. Think dinner rolls and sardines.

Almost nothing.

But with Jesus it was enough.

In his first miracle, Jesus involved some servants by telling them to fill some stone jars with water before turning the water into wine.

His last miracle in John 21 involved the disciples in a miraculous catch. “Bring some of the fish you caught,” he told them. But Jesus didn’t need their fish. He already had breakfast cooking. And wasn’t he the one who caught the fish?

There is a line in the great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” which goes, “We will not fear for God has willed his truth to triumph through us.”

Jesus doesn’t need us to do the miracle, but he chooses to work his power through us.

I wonder. Maybe my father-in-law was so good at fixing things because he was always aware of God’s presence, always willing to be the channel of God’s power.

What is more amazing, that Jesus can do miracles?

Or that Jesus chooses to perform his miracles through us, even if we bring almost nothing?

With Jesus, “almost nothing” can be quite enough.

Lord of scripture

“You shouldn’t believe me,” Jesus said, “If I just make claims about myself.”

Now that sounds odd. Doesn’t the Gospel of John claim that Jesus is the “Word” spoken at creation? The “Word become flesh?”

How can Jesus not be credible?

But it turns out that Jesus always has others backing him up, always making his claims real to our hearts and minds.

There’s the Holy Spirit, who is always speaking, supernaturally, on Jesus’ behalf.

There were prophets, like John the Baptist.

And then there’s scripture.

Jesus makes the most amazing claims about scripture: Every word in the Bible points to him. He is the one who inspired the human authors through the millennia. That’s why he said, “Not one word, not one letter, not the least stroke of a pen,” would ever disappear from scripture.

But we often don’t read it that way. We pick out the verses we like and quote them, preach on them. We pick out verses which support our positions and use them against people we disagree with.

Before we do that, we should listen to what the Spirit is saying to our hearts.

Jesus is Lord, even of scripture.

Conversation starter

Want to start a conversation?

Ask someone if they’ve gotten the vaccine. 

People who would never speak about politics, race, or religion don’t hesitate to tell you what they think about getting a shot.

And for the most part, people have been willing to listen.

The pandemic is a global problem, but the solution is intensely personal: Baring a part of your body so a stranger behind a mask can inject you with a substance labeled “For use under Emergency Use Authorization.”

The creation of not one, but three vaccines in less than a year might just go down as one of humankind’s greatest achievements.

But taking the shot requires deep trust.

Think of all the things that have to happen before the vaccine gets to you. Years of research, experiments, trials, approvals, manufacturing, logistics, storage, and more. All that has to go just right for the vaccine to be safe and effective. 

It all seems like a miracle to me. Jana and I were pleased to get shots as soon as we could.

And faithful Christians can also choose not to.

Long ago, God sent his one and only Son from the perfect safety of heaven into the chaos of the world to bring the cure for what is ultimately wrong with us.

The cure for sin meant way more that rolling up his sleeve and getting stuck with a needle. It meant getting stripped naked and nailed to a cross.

Shouldn’t that humble us all to the dust?

Shouldn’t that help us to listen to each other? Just doing that would be a miracle too.

Whether we choose to get the shot or not.

Do you want to get well?

Jesus had gone to Jerusalem for a festival, but instead of going to the temple, or going to celebrate with his friends, he’d gone to a place where vast numbers of people with disabilities—the blind, the lame, and the paralyzed—hung out. There was a pool there whose waters, some believed, had healing properties. Jesus found a man lying there who’d been an invalid for 38 years. 

“Do you want to get well?” Jesus asked.

What Jesus said next set off a chain of events that culminated with the crucifixion.

“Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.”

Jesus was ushering in his new creation. But instead of being overjoyed, the people were disturbed. The healing had taken place on the Sabbath, and even worse, Jesus had told the man to pick up his mat. Observant Jew wouldn’t carry anything on the Sabbath.

Now, God himself had commanded the Jews to observe the Sabbath. Jesus could have come back the next day; what’s one more day when you’ve been disabled for 38 years? Instead, he deliberately provoked the controversy.

Why?

Jesus was out to deal with a kind of disability that was even more devastating than being blind, lame, or paralyzed:

The legalism of those who appear healthy.

Seven Stanzas at Easter

American novelist, the late John Updike, was greatly influenced in his writing by his Catholic faith. He wrote this poem while he was still in his twenties.

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.