Poor Thomas. âDoubting Thomas.â Thatâs all anyone remembers about him. Hardly ever do we hear anyone mention that Thomas went on to evangelize the Parthians, and Persians, and carried the Christian faith to the coast of India, which to this day boasts a native population who call themselves the âChristians of St. Thomas.â Hardly ever do we hear how Thomas became a martyr, being speared to death for his bold and uncompromising witness to Christ. This later history of Thomas lets us know something not only about the man, but about the anatomy of doubt.
Doubt is not necessarily a bad thing. Doubt is often the path to greater certainty. There is a healthy kind of doubt: a skepticism that wants to check things out. When the internet first began to gain popularity, initially through email, there was an explosion of rumors and urban legends. Nefarious no-goodniks, we were told, were putting infected hypodermic needles in the ball pit at McDonaldâs, or under gas pump handles. Congress was considering a bill to ban religious broadcasting from the airwaves. (This one was a revival of a petition circulated in the 70s, blaming atheist leader Madalyn Murray OâHair. No such bill has ever existed.) For every email we forwarded, weâd receive a nickel from Bill Gates, or the Taco Bell Dog would come dance across our computer screen. This exploitation of our collective gullibility led to the creation of many fact-checking sites and to a healthy suspicion, on the part of many of us, to any âfactsâ we receive via forwarded emails or posts on social media. Thomas was this kind of doubter. He did not dismiss the resurrection out of hand. He said, âI need more information. I need to check the facts. I need to see for myself.â And instead of dismissing Thomasâs doubts, Jesus graciously accommodates them, giving Thomas exactly what he needs. And this leads to an even stronger faith for Thomas. When Thomas does see the wounds in Jesusâ hands and in Jesusâ side, he delivers one of the most explicit declarations of Christâs divinity in all of scripture, crying out, âMy Lord and my God!â Jesus accepts these titles, accepts this worship, as true and right. Jesus is Lord, and Jesus is God.
Some grow up in a closed environment in terms of faith. Everything is just so, and questioning is not encouraged. I saw many such people in college. I went to a Christian college, but one that prized inquiry, prized the kind of skepticism that says, âI need more information.â Some of my friends, who had grown up in more rigid situations, were not prepared to hear, at a Christian college, theories that questioned whether Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament, or that noted the differences in the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2, or the similarities between the story of Noah and the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic. For some of them, it was the end of their faith. They had been brought up to follow unquestioningly. They had never been given the freedom to question or the tools with which to deal with questions. For others, however, the process of questioning led them to a deeper, more grounded faith. They now not only knew what they believed, but they understood why they believed it and could defend it. That is the story of Thomas. Honest skepticism, honest doubt, leads to deeper faith, which then leads to worship.
There is, however, another kind of doubt. It is a disbelief that clothes itself in religious garb and surrounds itself with pious words. The scribes and the Pharisees of Jesusâ day were doubters: they did not believe in Christ, much less recognize their need for Christ. But unlike Thomas, whose doubt was open to answers, their doubt was settled, confirmed, ossified, entrenched. They busied themselves with the minutiae of their religious institutions, and they prided themselves on their knowledge of those minutiae. Even when confronted with evidence of Christâs divinity, their doubt only grew. After Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, for example, those who opposed Jesus sought all the more to put him to death. âDonât confuse me with the facts,â they seemed to say. Jesus, referring to these religiously-garbed doubters, says, âYou blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! Woe to you, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean. You are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.â
The Thomas kind of doubter and the Pharisee kind of doubter are exact opposites. The heart of the Thomas doubter seeks God yet needs some outside help, some further information. And for this kind of doubter, Christ provides whatever is needed. If the prayer of your heart is, âLord, I believe: help my unbelief!â God is always pleased to answer that prayer. God is a rewarder of those who seek him. The Pharisee kind of doubter, on the other hand, believes that having everything in order on the outside is all that is necessary, while God says that what is on the inside is death. To these, Jesus says, âFirst clean the inside of the cup.â In other words, stop focusing on externals and focus on your own heart!
We come to the Lordâs Table. As we say each time, our Savior invites those who trust in him to share the feast he has prepared. That doesnât mean only those with a perfect, doubt-free faith may come. It means those whose hearts are open to Christ may come, even with their questions and doubts. If you are thinking, âI donât deserve to come to the Tableâ or âIâm not worthy to come to the table,â then youâre exactly who needs to come to the Table. The heart thatâs open to God, the thankful heart, the heart that longs to worship, is ready to participate in the Great Thanksgiving, the Eucharist. If you are not here to worship God, if your heart is not thankful but instead thankless and critical, closed to Godâs grace, how can you come to the Table? How can you proclaim the merits of a Christ whom you deny?
If you come in pride, donât. But if you come in faith, come. Donât wait until your faith is 100% perfect. In the words of the old hymn, âIf you tarry âtil youâre better, you will never come at all.â Bring your imperfect faith, with its questions and doubts, to the only one who can answer those questions and dispel those doubts, the one who says, âBlessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.â My Lord and my God! I believe. Help my unbelief.
It seems that the Presbyterian Church in America, one of the most conservative Presbyterian denominations, has defeated a change to its Directory for Worship that would have prohibited the practice of intinction. I find this a little surprising, given the PCA’s founding as a denomination dedicated to biblical inerrancy. After all, in instituting the Lord’s Supper, Jesus took the cup of wine and said, “All of you, drink of it,” not “All of you, dip of it.”
Before I continue, allow me to clarify two things:
1. The denomination in which I am a minister, the Presbyterian Church (USA), does allow intinction, and it is practiced rather widely. I, however, am not personally in favor of the practice, for reasons which will be explained here.
2. Neither the PCA nor the PC(USA) practices actual intinction: instead, what we are talking about is a kind of “self-intinction” where the communicant takes the wafer and dips it in the chalice for himself or herself. True intinction involves the celebrant dipping the wafer in the chalice and placing it on the communicant’s tongue. “Self-intinction” is prohibited in the Roman Catholic Church, as well as in many Anglican dioceses and in Orthodox churches.
I don’t think intinction is a good idea for a number of reasons:
1. It strikes me as being somewhere between eccentric and rebellious. Let me explain: imagine you are a guest at our home for a Passover Seder. Toward the end of the Seder, the children search for the hidden Afikomen (a piece of matzo that was wrapped in a white cloth and hidden away earlier). The child who finds it brings it to me. I unwrap it, take it in my hands, and say the traditional blessing for the bread: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” I then break off approximately olive-sized pieces of this piece of matzo, giving a piece to each person around the table, and I tell everyone to eat it. All the guests take their piece of the Afikomen and eat it, except you. You instead push yours aside. After eating the Afikomen, we say the Barech (grace after meals). Then I pick up the cup of wine, which is the Third Cup or the Cup of Blessing, and I say the traditional blessing for the wine: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.” I then ask everyone to drink the contents of their cups of wine while reclining to the left. Everyone around the table does so, except you. Instead of drinking your wine, you take the piece of the Afikomen that you didn’t eat when everyone else did, and you dip it in your cup and eat the now wine-coated piece of matzo.
Now, did you participate in the Tzafun (the eating of the Afikomen)? No. Did you participate in the drinking of the Third Cup of Wine, the Cup of Blessing? No. You did your own thing. Why? A more charitable reading of your actions would be that you are just a little “out there.” On the other hand, maybe you’re just a rebel and aren’t going to let anyone tell you what to do, even in the context of something like a Seder.
Now, Jesus took the matzo and said “Eat it,” Â then after the meal he took the Cup of Blessing and said “All of you, drink it.” Christians throughout the centuries, and all around the world, have done just that: they’ve eaten the bread and they’ve drunk the wine. Then someone decided–why?–to dip the bread in the wine, which is not really following either one of the instructions of the Host of this meal. He says to eat it, and we don’t. He says to drink the wine, and instead we take the bread that we didn’t eat when he said to eat it, dip it in the wine, and then eat the wine-coated bread, which is not the same as eating the bread and then drinking the wine. Why? Just to be different?
2. Those who are practicing intinction may be doing so in an effort to provide the symbolism of the common cup while at the same time trying to mollify the more squeamish in their midst who wouldn’t want to drink from a common cup. Mission not accomplished: self-intinction is the most unhygienic means of distributing Communion: more so than drinking from the common cup. I Corinthians 10 puts more emphasis one one loaf than one cup, anyway: “Because there is one loaf, we, many as we are, are one body, for it is one loaf of which we all partake.” Churches that practice self-intinction rarely, if ever, use a single loaf of bread: they use wafers, which are every bit as individualistic as the “wee cuppees” which they deem inferior to the common cup. Furthermore, those wafers are barely recognizable as bread.
3. If the trend of self-intinction comes from a desire for greater catholicity; i.e., if there is an idea out there that “the Episcopalians and Catholics do it this way,” they don’t, as has already been noted. There are some Catholic parishes where communicants do this and the priests don’t stop them, but it is against church law. Some Episcopal bishops allow intinction but for the most part in the Anglican Communion it is either disallowed or at least discouraged.
4. If there is a desire that people come forward for Communion rather than passing the bread and wine among the congregation (as is the practice of most Presbyterian congregations), why not just drink from the common cup? That is a question I have been asking ever since I heard people in the PCA talking about this. Why not just drink from the common cup? If it’s the “ick” factor, as I mentioned above, self-intinction is less hygienic than drinking from the common cup, not more hygienic. If someone has a real problem with the common cup, they can commune in one kind (bread only). Or you can use the individual cups. Back to the Seder: everyone has his or her own cup of wine as a part of the place setting: when we say we all drink of the First Cup, or the Second Cup, etc., that does not mean that we literally must share a single cup. “Join me for a drink” doesn’t mean we have to share a glass. Individual cups do not necessarily have to take away from our oneness in sharing in the wine.
Theologically, practically, symbolically, logistically, hygienically, liturgically: I cannot think of a good reason for PCA churches adopting intinction. And again, it is surprising that a denomination which requires its ministers and elders to confess a belief in biblical inerrancy would embrace a practice which doesn’t seem to me to square with an inerrantist view.
(Edited from an article I originally posted in 2009.)
A few years ago, American Family Radio (a fundamentalist Christian radio network based in Tupelo, MS) published its ânaughty and niceâ list of stores that they deemed âChristian-friendlyâ or âChristian-hostile.âÂ Top of their list of âChristian-friendlyâ businesses:Â Wal-Mart.Â I guess things like paying a living wage, providing health care, ethical supply-chain practices, etc., donât figure into AFRâs criteria.Â So what did they base this decision on?Â (Wait for it . . . ) Whether or not stores say âMerry Christmasâ between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day (the âshopping seasonâ) orÂ if they say âHappy Holidaysâ instead.Â Those who say âMerry Christmasâ get on the âniceâ list, while those who say âHappy Holidaysâ get on the ânaughtyâ list. Whatever.
1) No one âneedsâ to say âMerry Christmasâ during the âshopping seasonâ because it emphatically is not the Christmas season.Â It just isnât.Â Look it up.Â Now, if I see someone at this time of year and I donât know if I will see them again before Christmas, I am very likely to say, âIf I donât see you before Christmas, have a Merry Christmas!âÂ But getting all hot under the collar because a cashier doesnât say âMerry Christmasâ when it isnât the Christmas season makes no sense. Â The Christmas season beginsânot endsâon Christmas Eve and runs through Epiphany:Â January 6.
2) While it emphatically is not the Christmas season right now, it is indeed the âholiday seasonâ if we remember that the word âholidayâ simply means âholy day.âÂ There are plenty of holy days during the Advent and Christmas seasons. Â St. Nicholasâ is December 6.Â St. Lucyâs Day is December 13.Â Of course there is Christmas on December 25, but there are also the 12 Days of Christmas (December 25 â January 5), and that period includes St. Stephenâs Day (December 26), St. John (December 27), Holy Innocents (December 28), and Holy Name of Jesus (January 1).Â Then thereâs Epiphany on January 6.Â Add to that the civil holiday of Thanksgiving that has already passed, as well as the civil New Year’s Day (January 1), and youâll see that it truly is a holiday season, and that âHappy Holidaysâ is most appropriate.Â Then consider that other faiths have their own holy days during this time of year:Â Chanukah, Islamic New Year, and many others.Â Christ calls us to live in charity with everyone, not only the people who are exactly like us.Â Good Christians are good neighbors, and that includes neighbors who are a different religion from you. And if we’re upset that many people celebrate “the holidays” as simply a secular gift-getting time and do not use that time to honor the Lord Jesus Christ, forcing them to use a particular greeting, or shaming them into doing so, will do nothing to bring them to faith in Christ.
So, as a Christian, let me say, âHappy Holidays!â
This coming Sunday is Christ the King Sunday, also known as Reign of Christ Sunday. It is the final Sunday in the Church Year.
All our hymns and scriptures will focus this Sunday on the theme of Christ’s gracious reign over us and over creation. Matthew Bridges’ panoramic text that begins with the words “Crown him with many crowns” (often sung to DIADEMATA) captures the glory and splendor of this feast. The first line comes from the Book of Revelation, Chapter 19, verse 12: “His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems.”
It stands to reason: a King of this magnitude, whose birthday is celebrated with an annual twelve-day feast* (Christmas), and whose decisive victory in battle is celebrated with a fifty-day feast (Easter), would not just have one crown on his head. He would be crowned with many diadems.
Sadly, Bridges’ panoramic text is often conflated with stanzas from a different hymn by a completely different author (Godfrey Thring). Here is Bridges’ glorious original:
Crown him with many crowns,
The Lamb upon his throne;
Hark, how the heav’nly anthemÂ drowns
All music but its own:
Awake, my soul, and sing
Of him who died for thee,
And hail him as thy matchless King
Through all eternity.
Crown him the Virgin’s Son,
The God Incarnate born,
Whose arm those crimson trophiesÂ won
Which now his brow adorn:
Fruit of the mystic Rose,
As of that Rose the Stem;
The Root whence mercy ever flows,
The Babe of Bethlehem.
Crown him the Lord of love!
Behold his hands and side,
Those wounds, yet visible above,
In beauty glorified:
No angel in the sky
Can fully bear that sight,
But downward bends his burning eye
At mysteries so bright.
Crown him the Lord of peace,
Whose power a sceptre sways
From pole to pole, that wars mayÂ cease,
Absorbed in prayer and praise:
His reign shall know no end,
And round his piercĂ¨d feet
Fair flow’rs of Paradise extend
Their fragrance ever sweet.
Crown him the Lord of years,
The Potentate of time,
Creator of the rolling spheres,
Glassed in a sea of light,
Where everlasting waves
Reflect his throne–the Infinite
Who lives–and loves–and saves.
Crown Him the Lord of heav’n,
One with the Father known,
And the blest Spirit through himÂ giv’n
From yonder triune throne:
All hail, Redeemer, hail!
For thou hast died for me!
Thy praise shall never, never fail
*If you refer to 26 December as “the day after Christmas” rather than the Second Day of Christmas or say “Christmas is over” anytime before 6 January, I will have to hurt you. You only get one day to celebrate your birthday every year: Jesus gets twelve!
Many years ago, Dr. Douglas F. Kelly, one of my seminary professors and a great man of God (to whose scholarship and Christian example I am forever indebted), wrote an article entitled âNo âChurch Yearâ for Presbyteriansâ which has been widely read and reprinted over the years. Often, when I talk about the Church Year, someone will bring up Dr. Kellyâs article and ask me about it. I have long disagreed with his views in that article, obviously, but have done so rather sheepishly: âWell, I think it is possible to celebrate the Church Year and still be a Presbyterian.â Over time, however, I have come to a somewhat different understanding. Now, I no longer think it is merely permissible for Reformed/Presbyterian types to celebrate the Church Year: I think that Reformed persons (and all others) ought to be celebrating the Church Year! In brief, hereâs why: [Read more →]
(Originally preached on 5/20/2012 at First-Trinity Presbyterian Church; Laurel, Mississippi.)
Today is Ascension Sunday. The Ascension is a monumental event in redemptive history. Our Scripture readings, hymns, and prayers so far have explored that theme. Christ reigns forever as King of kings and Lord of lords. Thatâs important. Itâs good for us to celebrate the great events in the story of redemption, because our faith is rooted in the mighty acts of God in history.
However, itâs also good for us to be reminded why we do what we do, and so I have decided to undertake a series of messages this summer entitled âWhy do we do that?â Weâll look at the different aspects of what we do when we come together. We still have Pentecost ahead of us next week and Trinity Sunday the week after that, and we will give those days their due, but the week after that weâll take up this series on worship. However, since we have a baptism today, I want to give you a part of that series a few weeks in advance. I think we need very much to know why we baptize.
We live in a culture in which we are a minority in terms of baptism. Not just the amount of water we use, but the timing of baptism. Most of the Christians we know here in the South believe that baptism must be by immersion, and that baptism may only take place after a person has made a personal profession of faith. A quick aside: this is not the case worldwide. A full 90% of Christians worldwide practice infant baptism, which includes more than 60% of Protestants worldwide who practice infant baptism. But here in the Bible belt, it feels like weâre in the minority. I imagine many, if not most, of you, have been told at some point that you havenât been âreally baptizedâif you werenât immersed and/or if you were baptized as an infant or a young child.Â My purpose in saying this is not to run down other Christians, but to bring out, positively, why we baptize as we do and to answer the question, what is baptism?
1. First, baptism is a washing. The word âbaptizeâ means âto wash.â Youâve probably before that the Greek word for baptize means to immerse in water, and itâs true that the modern Greek word baptizo does carry that meaning. But in New Testament times and today words have both literal and figurative connotations. This word baptize, for example, is used in the New Testament to describe the ceremonial washing of cups and bowls, but also of tables and dining couches! There was no way those things could be immersed in water. Instead, they dipped a hyssop branch in water and sprinkled the items to cleanse them ritually. Futhermore, we read in Acts 2 that Peter and the other apostles baptized over 3,000 people in one day on the day of Pentecost. It would have been physically and logistically impossible for them to have immersed that many people in one day. No, baptize does not have to mean immerse. It may, but it doesnât have to. Baptize means to wash. We may baptize by sprinkling, by pouring, or by immersing. Biblically, it doesnât matter: what matters is that we do it.
2. It matters because of the second point: baptism was instituted by Christ. Right before Jesusâ Ascension, he commanded the Apostles to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is one of the two Sacraments instituted by Christ. The other one is the Sacrament of the Lordâs Supper. In commanding baptism, Jesus wasnât exactly instituting something new, but rather, just as he did in reinventing the Passover meal as the Lordâs Supper, Jesus took the sign and seal of the covenant from the Old Testament and renewed it for the Church. St. Paul tells us in Colossians 2 that, in baptism, we receive the same sign and seal of the covenant that God had commanded to Abraham back in Genesis 17. That covenant sign was commanded to be given to all infant boys in Abrahamâs line when they turned eight days old. But St. Paul tells us that in Christ there is no male or female, and so we have a covenant sign and seal now that is for both boys and girls: baptism. The outward sign has changed from circumcision to baptism, but the meaning of it has remained constant. It is still our entrance into the covenant community. It is still the sign and seal of the covenant of grace. And we are still commanded, as Abraham was, to apply that sign and seal to our children.
3. That brings us to the third point: baptism is for us and our children. If someone comes to faith in Christ and they did not grow up in church, had never been baptized before, then absolutely weâd baptize them as an adult, or as a teen, or at whatever age they came to faith. But the children of believers, born into the church, are to receive the sacrament of baptism as children. Why? Again, because this is still the sign and seal of the covenant of grace just as surely as circumcision was in the Old Testament. I know youâve heard differently. Maybe from members of your family. Maybe from kids at school, or from friends at work. Youâve heard that we Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Methodistsâthat 90% of Christians worldwide–donât âreallyâ baptize because we baptize infants and children. Baptism is baptism, whether the person receiving baptism is an adult, an infant, or anywhere in between. The early church understood this. There was no debate in the early church as to whether or not it was proper for infants to receive baptism, because the early Christians understood that baptism is the New Testament renewal of circumcision. The only debate in the early church was over whether baptism must be performed on the eighth day of life–the day God commanded the covenant sign to be administered in Genesis–or if parents could wait until the nearest Sunday for their babyâs baptism. Incidentally, this is why many baptismal fonts, including our own, were built in the shape of an octagon. They are eight-sided to remind us of the eighth day. God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, so the eighth day represents the first day of a new creation. Remember that Jesus rose on the first day of the week, which is also the eighth day.
4. Finally, baptism is Christâs sacrament. It does not depend on the worthiness of the person receiving it, or of the person administering it. It is a Sacrament of the Covenant of Grace, and it reveals to us Godâs grace: his undeserved favor. If we can do something to earn or deserve grace, then it isnât grace: it becomes a work that earns Godâs favor. People often object to the baptism of infants and young children, saying, âItâs not fair. That child has no choice in the matter.â I say, what better picture of divine grace could there be? Our salvation is not because of our own righteousness, cleverness, or ingenuity. âFor by grace are you saved, through faith, and this is not from yourselves. It is the gift of God. Not by works, so that no one may boast.â It is not our doing in any sense. Salvation is 100% of Christ the Lord. Baptism is a picture of the grace of God, showered on us, poured out on us, by Jesus Christ. It depicts the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon us and the washing of sins that comes only by the work of Christ–his death and resurrection. St. Peter has this to say about the grace of God in baptism: âIn the days of Noah a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves youânot as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.â Peter makes the bold statement that baptism now saves. But notice it is not the washing with the water that saves: it is the work of Christ that saves. This passage is mysterious. It tells us that somehow, Godâs Holy Spirit is pleased to unite himself with this washing to bring new life and to put us into the Body of Christ. We cannot tie Godâs hands and force him to bring this about at the moment of baptism, but he has promised âI will be your God, and the God of your children after you, for the generations to come.â He says, âThe promise is to you, and to your children,â so we must take him at his word. We cannot understand how Godâs Holy Spirit can unite himself to the waters of baptism. Itâs a mystery. Thatâs why we call it the Sacrament of baptism. The word sacrament means mystery. It is not ours to understand these mysteries. After all, if we could understand them, they wouldnât be mysteries. Instead, it is ours to claim the promises of God, to rest on those promises by faith, and to act in obedience to those promises.
In obedience to Godâs command to apply the sign and seal of the covenant of grace, and trusting in the promise of God who says, âI will establish my covenant between me and you and your children after you,â Christian parents bring their children to the font. The catechism says, âBaptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, signifies and seals our ingrafting into Christ, our partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lordâs.â Beloved, let us never make any apologies for covenant baptism. Let us celebrate it. Let us proclaim it, for it declares to us the amazing grace and faithfulness of our covenant-making, covenant-keeping God, to us and to our children. In the name of God. Amen.
It must be human nature to mark the midway point of things. When Iâm reading a book, I notice when I get to the middle. Do you do that, too? I even look at the last page and divide the number by two so Iâll know when Iâve reached the mid-point of the book. (And no, I donât read the last page to see how it ends. Spoilers!) In school, the mid-point of the school year was Christmas break: that glorious two-week oasis full of lights, music, presents, and Crock-Pots full of tiny smoked sausages swimming in barbecue sauce. In the church, weâre no different: we mark the mid-point of our seasons. The midpoint of Advent is Gaudete Sunday, when purple is exchanged for pink and the theme is decidedly more upbeat. The same goes for the middle Sunday of Lent, known as Laetare Sunday. Today is the midpoint of Easter: Sunday number four of a Seven-Sunday feast. And we mark that midpoint by highlighting one of the most prominent images of our God in all of Scripture: that of a Shepherd. This midpoint Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, or simply Shepherd Sunday.
When we ponder this image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, our minds naturally go to some of the works of art that weâve seen over the years. Chief among them is a painting by Bernhard Plockhorst. Now, you may not be familiar with that name, but you are familiar with the painting, or at least with reproductions of it. Itâs the one that depicts Jesus with shepherdâs crook in hand, among a flock of sheep, carrying a tiny lamb in his arms. It calls to mind the parable Jesus once told of the shepherd who left ninety-nine sheep to go and search for one missing sheep. When he found that one sheep, he placed it on his shoulders and brought it home with great rejoicing. That powerful is burned into our minds because of that painting, but since we did not read that passage today, weâll focus instead on three themes that arise from our Gospel reading.
I. The Good Shepherd is God. John is not a biographer. John has selected his material very carefully to make his point. He tells us so at the end of the Gospel: âJesus said and did many things that are not included in this book, but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life through his name.â Of all the miracles of Jesus, John picks only seven, and he calls them not miracles, but signs: signs that point us to Jesusâ divinity. In the same manner, he chooses seven sayings of Jesus. Each of these seven sayings begins with the words âI Am,â a phrase that, to the Hebraic mind, is firmly connected with the God of the Hebrew scriptures. When Moses encountered the burning bush and was told to go talk to Pharaoh, Moses asked God, âWhom shall I say sent me?â And God replied. âI Am that I Am.â Tell them âI Amâ has sent you to them. When Jesus told the leaders of his day, âBefore Abraham was, I am,â they tried to kill him, because they understood what he was saying. He was deliberately using âI Amâ to equate himself with the one who spoke from the burning bush.Â And he does this seven other times in Johnâs Gospel.Â âI am the bread of life.â âI am the light of the world.â âI am the door (or the gate).â âI am the resurrection and the life.â âI am the way, and the truth, and the life.â âI am the true vine.â And this saying: âI am the Good Shepherd.â In each case, Jesus is telling his listeners that he is the One who was, and who is, and who is to come. He is proclaiming his deity, and at the same time showing us an aspect of that Deity. He is the God who nourishes our souls as the bread of life, the God who provides safe passage and protection as the door, who is the way, truth, and life, who sustains us as the vine sustains the branches, and now, who shepherds us.
II. A shepherd must be present with the sheep. It is impossible for a shepherd to herd sheep long distance. Shepherding is not a job you can phone in. If the shepherd isnât right there with the sheep, you can bet a sheep dog will be right there with them, staring them down, even nipping at them if they wonât go the right way.
When Jesus was here on earth, we are told that he looked on the crowds and had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he shepherded them. He healed the sick. He gave food to the hungry. He reached out to those whom society, even religion, shunned. He was a kind and gentle shepherd. But what about now? Can we still say âThe Lord is my shepherd?â Can we say, âEven though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with meâ? Thomas asked Jesus this question when Jesus told the disciples, in the Upper Room, that he was going away. Jesus answered: âI will ask the Father, and he will give you another Comforter, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, who will be in you.Â I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 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 am going away, and I am coming to you.â Now, how does that work? âI am going away, and I am coming to youâ? Jesus says that through the presence of the Comforter, that is the Holy Spirit, whom the Father would send, Jesusâand the Father–would come to Jesusâ disciples. This is our ten-dollar word this morning: perichoresis, which means mutual indwelling. Where one person of the Trinity is, the other Persons are also, and what one is involved in doing, the others are involved in doing. So, Jesus ascended into heaven: we rehearse that event every week in the Creed. But, because God has sent the Holy Spirit, and because the Holy Spirit is in us and with us all the time, then Jesus too is with us, through the Holy Spirit. Jesus is our Shepherd. He is present with us, as a shepherd must be.
III. The shepherd is a sheep. When I entitled this sermon âShepherd and Sheep,â you probably thought it was a âJesus and meâ kind of thing, or at least a âJesus and usâ kind of thing. Jesus is the shepherd and we are the sheep. We are the flock. Well, thatâs true, we are, but thatâs not what I had in mind. I mentioned that painting by Plockhorst earlier of the Good Shepherd, but thereâs another work of art you may not have seen. Itâs a relief in the rotunda of a church in Rome called the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere. The most striking mosaic to me is in the apse of the church. There are twelve sheep: six on each side, looking toward a center point. There are many such mosaics in churches of this period, and typically the sheep are looking at a figure of Jesus, who is standing amid them. But in this case, the twelve sheep are looking at another sheep, who is standing in their midst. The sheep in the center is wearing a halo or crown. The Good Shepherd, you see, is the King of kings, but heâs also a sheep. His compassion toward us extended so far that he didnât just become our shepherd: he became a sheep like us. As the Nicene Creed says, âWho for us and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate.â The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The creator became a creature. The immortal God became mortal. The shepherd became a sheep. And we, who are the flock of that shepherd, are called to live out the same kind of love and compassion that caused his incarnation. We are called to be present with those who are suffering. Not just to say, âGo your way: be warmed and filled,â but to be present with one another in our joys and in our sorrows. Too often, Iâm afraid our concept of worshipâand of of being church in general–is vertical at the expense of any horizontal dimension. We want an âI-thouâ encounter with God without encountering one another. Yet we worship a shepherd who became a sheep. He came and lived where we live, as one of us! We exchanged the peace last Sunday, and I know there was some trepidation about that. It is something that was foreign to Presbyterian worship before the 1970s, but it wasnât invented in the 70s. It goes back to the first-century church, and itâs one way to demonstrate our commitment to live with one another as one body: to care for one another. To incarnate the love and compassion of our shepherd among one another. Even when we celebrate the Lordâs Supper, which should be, St. Paul tells us, a reminder that we are one Body in Christ, we make it instead a time for somber, solitary introspection, instead of the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, a feast that we share as one body with the risen, living Christ. Yes, we ought to exalt God, ascribing to God the glory due his name, but at the same time we need to emulate the shepherd who became a sheep.
The Hebrew scriptures, in Psalm 23, Isaiah 40, Ezekiel 34, and many other places, tell us that God is our shepherd. The Gospel tells us that Jesus, our Good Shepherd, is God. Jesus, our Good Shepherd, is always present with us, his sheep, through the Holy Spirit, whom the Father sent to be with us forever. And the Good Shepherd demonstrated his love for us by becoming a sheep like us. As the flock under his care, let us follow where he leads. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We had to move. I had lost my job: more precisely: I had been removed from it, and at the same time, my wife and children found that most of their friends had been taken away from them. (You may read more about that chapter here.) We had to go. I had to find another job, and I didn’t have long to do it.
I did find another job, and we knew we needed to leave, but leaving was hard. We were not in the place emotionally to move on: we were just moving away, and pretty much against our will at that. For me, it was a necessity: if we stayed, there would be no food on the table and no roof over our heads. For the children, it was leaving behind friends, schools, piano lessons, violin lessons, dance lessons, and summer camp (none of which they’ve ever been able to do since, because we couldn’t afford it anymore). It meant leaving the place where they were born and the only home they’d ever known. We tried to keep things as “normal” as possible for them until the very last. As a matter of fact, we could not bear to pack up their playthings, to the point that when moving day came, their playroom had not even been packed at all, and we ended up leaving everything as it was, with toys all over the floor. We came back a couple of weeks later (a friend of mine had bought our house to make it easier on us to move and gave us some time to do any last-minute things before he resold it) and packed the playroom, but even then we just threw things in boxes and got out of there. It was too painful to stay for long, or to take the time to go through their things.
When we arrived here, we rented a mini-storage unit for those things and some other things we didn’t have a place for (our rental house here has no attic and no closet space to speak of). For seven years we’ve paid rent on that mini-storage unit. The other day, we borrowed a pickup truck and went to the storage unit to clean it out. It was very hard going through some of those boxes, mainly because of the playroom items. They were reminders of my children’s lives before they were so abruptly uprooted. Some of those things I know they would have enjoyed after we moved, and others I know their younger siblings would have enjoyed discovering. But we had not been ready to move on: we were just being forced to move away. Looking into those boxes was almost like looking at someone else’s life: the life our children had before we had to move away was so different. If we had simply moved on from that place, I’m sure I’d look back on it fondly. As it is, I look back on it and grieve that it was ripped away from us, and from them. I grieve for what they had to leave behind, through no fault of their own.
This time, we’re not moving away: we’re moving on. Yes, we will miss many people here. We’ve made some dear friends over these seven years. Some have moved on themselves, but others are still here and are sad that we are going. We are sad that we won’t see them anymore. But we’re moving on. We’ve sorted through the baggage–literally–from the last move, and we’re moving on. We took many things to a local mission to donate, many others to the dumpster, and some things back home (including some long-lost favorites among our LPs, which we are determined to convert to audio files!). Today, we took down the now-rusty swing set in the back yard and discarded it. The youngest shed a few tears as he saw me take it down, but his older brother (7) comforted him by saying, “Maybe we’ll get a better one at the new house” to which the youngest replied, “Yeah, I want a TIRE swing, Papa!” We’ve thrown away lots of magazines and worn or torn clothes, and we’ve donated outgrown clothes, toys, bikes, etc. There is still more to do. I spent a good portion of the evening matching dust jackets to children’s books and sorting the books by type. I don’t want this move to be a “throw stuff in boxes” affair, because we’re not being “run out of town” this time: we’re just moving on.
Moving is a huge pain, no matter what. But when you’re moving on instead of having to move away, it’s a different kind of pain. I wish, seven years ago, I had been able to think of our move as moving on instead of moving away, but I couldn’t. The pain was too much: the hurt was too deep. I know that this has colored my experience here, and I am sorrowful for that. I am grateful for those who tried to understand and who were very patient with me as I tried–as we all tried–to heal. We have, I think, for the most part. And we’re getting ready to move on.
It has been one week since my oldest (in terms of duration of the friendship, not in terms of HIS age) and bestest (see above for duration of the friendship) friend (apart from my wife), Mark, texted me to tell me that Whitney Houston had passed away. I do not know this for sure, but I suspect I am the first person he texted, or possibly the second, after his sister, Christy. He knew I would want to know.
Since then, the airwaves have been full of tributes to Whitney Houston. My younger children have no idea who she was, and my older ones are asking what anyone younger than I am asking: “What’s the deal with Whitney Houston?” That’s because they know her only as a slightly unhinged personality from reality TV, or as a punchline to a Saturday Night Live skit. They only know the post-Bobby-Brown, post-drugs, post-”crack-is-whack” Whitney. And that’s a shame.
I wasn’t what you’d call a rabid Whitney Houston fan. In fact, I have never owned any of her recordings, on LP, CD, or any other format. I did see her live, though: it was during her 1987 “Moment of Truth” tour. She sang to a packed-out BJCC Coliseum. And yes, she sang: she did not lip-sync. And every song was in a different arrangement from her albums. Her own arrangements. No auto-tune. Whitney Houston was the real deal. Sure, she showed her Gospel roots by throwing in some melismas, but never to the extent that they obscured the melody: certainly nothing like the hundreds of Whitney wannabes we’ve been subjected to over the years on American Idol, The X-Factor, etc. Whitney’s voice, before her lifestyle choices took their toll on it, was incredibly rich, incredibly powerful, and incredibly moving. When I saw her perform, she had just turned 24: I had just turned 20.
To anyone who had a pulse in the mid ’80s to early ’90s, Whitney Houston’s music was a part of the soundtrack of everyday life. Everyone, whether they wanted to admit it or not, liked Whitney Houston. My DAD liked Whitney Houston: my Dixie-Gospel-Caravan-loving Dad liked Whitney Houston. I remember him singing along to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” every time it came on the radio or TV, which, if you know my Dad, is saying something. I worked at Musicland in Brookwood Village during the Christmas break of 1987, and we sold a dizzying number of copies of her sophomore LP, “Whitney.” I remember in particular one mom and her 9- or 10-year-old daughter who came in, asking for the new Whitney Houston album. I showed them where it was and handed them a copy. The mom asked, “Does this have ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ on it?” I assured her it did. Wanting to make absolutely sure, they flipped the album over and looked at the track listing. When they saw the song listed on the album cover, they looked at each other, smiled, and then I don’t know who squealed louder: the mom or her little girl. I smiled too. Whitney Houston had that effect on people.
From her song “One Moment in Time” for the 1988 Olympics to her rendition of the National Anthem in 1991 (during the Gulf War), her position as America’s musical sweetheart was sealed. I think part of the “deal” with Whitney Houston–the fact that people are talking about her death so much–is not only that she was “our” age (although that does make it strange), and not even only because of the place her music had in everyone’s everyday lives during that time, but because of what she became later. She lost her voice, both figuratively and literally. We see her as she was in her youth, in her prime, and then we see where she was when she died, and how she died, and we wonder “What if?”
Illegal drugs ruined her life, but a legal one–nicotine (particularly cigarettes)–ruined her voice, just as they ruined the voice of her older cousin, Dionne Warwick. She lost her range, her power, her sense of pitch, and the ability to sustain all but the shortest notes. According to reports, her dependence on cigarettes came after she got off the illegal drugs:Â one addiction replaced another.
In the last couple of years, Whitney Houston was talking about Jesus a lot more. Some reports have indicated that in the last few days of her life, she stated that she thought her time was short. Perhaps we’ll know more soon. Perhaps we never will. But I hope that the Gospel she sang about as a child in a New Jersey Baptist church became, at some point, more than just words to a song. I hope she did find her way home.