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Sunday, August 27, 2017

“Friends, Haven’t You Any Fish?”

 A sermon based upon John 21: 1-14
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
13th Sunday After Pentecost, September 3rd, 2017,    (Series:  Questions Jesus Asked  #11)

Charlie Lyne wanted to solve one of few remaining ‘ungoogleable’ mysteries.   He made a 14 minute documentary for the British Guardian News to discover whether or not people had something ‘fishy’ in their family history.

Charlie got this idea from his friend, Casper Salmon, whose grandmother once invited all the people to come together at her place, if they lived on her Welsh island and had names related to some sort of Fish.  They would also be given the type of fish of their last names.   Some of the people who showed up had names like Mr. Salmon, Mr. Whiting, Mrs Crab, Mr. Mullet, Miss Bass, and many more; the Herrings, the Trouts, and the Anchovies, etc.   His grandmother got the phone book out and called up all the people on the Island with “fishy” last names. 

Taking his grandmother’s cue, Charlie decided to do a brief documentary to try and sort out the truth behind this ‘fish story’.   What he discovered is that all these folks with fishy last names where to come together as part of a large publicity stunt to advertise the grand opening for the Anglesey Sea Zoo Aquarium, which was the only Aquarium in England dedicated just British species fish.   In a day before Internet, 24 hour news,  or Facebook, the “Fish Story” made a big enough “splash” to get the word out.   And the Aquarium is still operational today.

Today, the question of Jesus we are considering is also a “Fish Story” of sorts.  It’s part of a story containing two very important questions asked by the resurrected Jesus.   Both of these stories form the epilogue to the gospel of John.  They bring the beautifully written, very personal, intimate gospel to its conclusion, but are much more than after thoughts.  These two stories contain the two important ‘mission’ and ‘ministry’ questions the church of Jesus Christ could be asked to answer.   The first one, which we consider today is: “Friend, haven’t you any fish?”.

This ‘fish story’ starts with the number one, biblical fisherman, Simon Peter.   What is most unusual, or perhaps very usual, depending upon your perspective is what Peter does after encountering Jesus having been raised from the dead.  He goes fishing. 

Now, if you’re fishermen, you probably wouldn’t find this ‘strange’ at all.   Most fishermen will tell you that fishing is how they best handle stress and/or relax.  Perhaps this is what Peter is doing.  Perhaps he’s going fishing to clear his mind and process all of the very ‘heavy’ happenings that have been going on in Jerusalem the last three years.   Peter is going to the beach, that is ‘The Sea of Galilee,’ to take a break from it all.  Or maybe, we Peter is going back work.  After all, he was by trade, a fisherman.

But can go back to life ‘as usual’ after you have personally encountered the risen Christ?  You do have to make a living, but how different might life seem after you have had a life-changing and life-challenging experience that still makes your legs weak, your head spin, or your heart skip a beat?   I can imagine entertaining a once ‘dead man’ could be an experience just like that.  You would need a few ‘vacation days’ away just to ask and try to answer for yourself: “Just what does this mean?”

One of the major problems of our times is that people take ‘vacations’ that are not actually vacations.  They go away and return home even more tired than when they left.  That same Guardian Newspaper who sponsored the ‘Fish Story’ ran an article a few years back, entitled “The Exhaustion Epidemic”.  It says that today we generally have more money, better health, and better jobs, but our lives are becoming more complicated and more stressed than ever before.  We live at a ‘breakneck pace that seems to never sleep.’  How long will our advances in health hold out?

 In his book The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler wrote that human civilization has gone through three major cataclysmic shifts – and he thinks we're currently in the change from an industrial culture to a globalized one - and each wave we go through has been associated with some kind of ill health.  The stress and exhaustion doctors see in patients now are similar to those known to middle-class England at the beginning of the Industrialization in the 18th century. (

Besides seeing the beginnings of declines in physical health, a society that is always in a hurry to do everything, know everything and have everything, brings increased emotional pain due to the loss of a spiritual life.  When we lose the ability to slow down, be quiet and reflect, and yes, even worship, we soon see increased personal, relational, societal, and spiritual problems too.   Mark Taylor, writing in the “Chronicle of Higher Education” quotes the Verizon commercial which says: “Welcome to a world where speed is everything” or the Hitachi Computer add which says, “Speed is God, and time is the devil.”   In “real” time, life speeds up until time itself seems to disappear---fast is never fast enough, everything has to been done now, instantly….Speed is the measure of success.”   But what is always lost, as everything speeds up is time itself; time for family, time for friends, time for children or time with elderly parents, and yes, of course, time for God.

Ironically is was just a few years ago, with the emergence of personal computers and other digital devices, during the last 1960’s and 70’s, that many were predicting a new age, in which people would be drawn together in a ‘global village” where they were be freed from the burdens of work and would have ample leisure time to build community, solve social problems, and pursue greater interests.  In 1956, Richard Nixon predicted a 4-day work week, and a decade later, a Senate subcommittee heard testimonies predicting that by the years 2000, Americans would only be working about 14 hours a week.   (

What happened?  Well, what happened is that we used all that speed to go after more; more experiences, more knowledge, more entertainment, and more stuff.  And what did we get?  We got more boredom, less wisdom, less fulfilment, and too much stuff with no room left for much of anything else except what we want in the moment.   “Today’s young people are not merely distracted, the internet and video games are actually re-wiring their brains,” Taylor writes.   It won’t be long until we will have new diseases, new disorders and new medicines, including much more Ritalen to try and slow down our children’s brains so they can focus and think.   Did you see the news flash recently saying that an alarming number of young men seemed to have stopped looking for work so they can give their full attention to video games?  I guess they are all planning living off a nation that goes to war where they have skills to win the game (

The world is not the only one who is filled with a lot of busyness that’s is not always healthy.  We in the church can also get so busy doing the good we want to do, that we forget to do the good we need to be doing.   Might it be a good thing, in our time, just like Peter does in the gospel story, to stop to focus and figure things out.   Peter makes by taking time.   He goes on a retreat---not just to fish for the sake of fishing, but to fish for figuring out what life means now and what he and the disciples of Jesus are supposed to do next.   Peter has to figure things out, because after meeting the risen Jesus, everything has changed. 

Perhaps the most important learning Peter does on his ‘fishing trip’ is that he learns that by himself, even with all his skills, he can fish all night and still catch ‘nothing.’   Peter is a very experienced fisherman, but what he is learning here is not about fish, but about his own life’s mission and purpose.   And the mission that Jesus has called him into is a mission that he will not be able to accomplish in his own strength, or based on his skills alone.   The mission Jesus has called Peter and all the disciples to is a mission to ‘fish for people’.  This is a mission that will be impossible, in their own strength.   This is a mission they will have to pause and learn to be the most important thing they will ever be called to do with their lives.

“Friend, have you caught any fish?”  This question would have never come out now, without Peter’s own failure; both on the boat and in the city, where Peter denied Jesus three times.  Even his failure was grooming Peter to answer the right question that pointed him back on mission to follow the one who called him. 

Perhaps today, in this busy, hurried, distracted and world, with our fast paced lives, we too need to hear Christ’s question to everything we are doing at church, and in our own personal lives at Christ-followers:  Have we caught any fish?   The call of the gospel to ‘fish for people’ has not changed, will never change.   In fact, the need for being an evangelistic church on an evangelistic mission may be more important now, than it has ever been before.   And it is our own failure to reach people, to catch people, to win people or even to influence people--even though we may be trying just as hard as Peter was---might help us renew and revitalize the most basic of all tasks the church has been called to do: Fish for People.

If we do take time to consider what it might mean to be ‘fishers for people’, we also need to learn, like Peter did, that there is a wrong side of the boat to fish from and there is a right side.  And the right side of the boat to fish from is the side that Jesus determines, not the side or way we determine on our own.   This might be the most important lesson Peter learned on his whole trip; not how to fish, but HOW NOT TO FISH---that is, based only on his own efforts, his own habits, his own understanding, or only with his own skills.  What finally brought Peter success was when became willing to listen to a voice that was not his own.

Perhaps this is the greatest lesson in evangelism for all time, then and now.  I don’t think there is ever really an exact ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ method of fishing for people, as long as the method includes actually listening to people and hearing their problems, their hurts, their hungers, and their needs.  The gospel can never be reduced to something we say, until it is first something we see, hear and feel.  When we are fishing for people, in ways that really catches people’s attention, the church must remain open, willing, and flexible enough to hear, listen and obey the voice that leads you to move out of your own ways, habits, comfort zones and established forms.

It is often said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over, that isn’t working and expecting different results.  That may be one way to describe, but insanity in evangelism, or fishing for people, is doing things which seeing who is right in front of you and needs you to really listen.  Recently I read of a newspaper reporter who was doing a report about a Mental institution that had just opened in his community.   The director was telling the reporter about the mental ‘test’ they gave to interview possible new clients.  This test would show how mentally alert the candidate was or wasn’t.  The director explained how they would take candidate into a room, show them a bath tub full of water and then give them the choice of a teaspoon, a teacup, or a bucket to empty the tub full of water.   “You would use the bucket,” right?  The reporter answered.   “Um, the director said, “No, you should pull the plug on the drain.  Exactly, which bed do you want, the one at the window, or near the wall?”

That’s a funny story, but it points to the church’s failure to see what’s right in front of us.  It’s insane to speak the gospel, until we listen to the need of the person we are talking to.   What will work, in reaching people today, may not yet be fully known to us, but it will certainly never be known if we don’t listen and learn the voice of the stranger.  We learn in the end that the voice of the stranger is the risen Jesus.   The gospel says that the voice of the needy stranger, the least of these, is always Jesus.

Whose voice we listen to, whether ours or theirs, determines which side of the boat we fish and how much we catch.    This is proved true over and over again.  Years ago, a young preacher in California got my attention when he spoke of the typical person he wanted his new church to reach in the community.   He got together with church leaders, wrote down all the needs, characteristics, realities of the people outside the church (not needs of those on the inside), and proceeded to plan their ministry based on the people they wanted reach and be their church; not based on the people who were already in the church.   Several of the people on the committee said that he shouldn’t do that.  They wanted the church to meet their own needs, first; not the needs of the community needs.  Those people ended up leaving the church.  When the majority of the church made the decision to listen to the voice and needs of their ‘stranger’, “Saddleback Sam” and they proceeded to build the church around him and her, the church grew into what today one of the largest churches in American, called Saddleback Church.   Rick Warren is the pastor and attributes the growth of this church to learning to listen to other voices besides their own.

Now, I’m not saying we need to be like Saddleback, nor grow as large.  What I am saying is that this is the same kind of lesson Jesus was teaching Simon Peter (and the church) on his fishing trip.  If you really want to catch fish, the kind of fish God has called us to catch, then you have to be willing to admit your failure, change your tactics, and most of all, you have to listen to another voice besides your own.  When you listen to their voice---the voice of lost sheep, the lost son—and the ‘least of these’, then you are listening and hearing voice of the risen Christ.  And when you listen to Christ as the stranger, you are doing what the church was originally put here for.  “The church is the only institution in this world established for people who are not yet members.” If the church in still not running rescue missions, it has ceased to be the church that Christ called into being. 

But catching fish is not the end goal.  Eating the fish is.   That’s why in the final scene we have the ‘stranger’ on the beach, cooking fish for breakfast on a open, charcoal fire.  The smell must have been wonderful for a fisherman to smell; who was himself hungry after hauling in such a big catch of 153 fish.  A lot of people have wondered what the number of ‘153’ represents.  The best answer I’ve ever heard or read, is that the 153 fish represents 153 fish.  It was such a large, big catch at one time, that should have, but didn’t break the net that the disciples had to count each and every one.

We too, must remember, when we answer the voice of Jesus to ‘go fishing’, that each and every person, or ‘fish’ we catch matters.  Even though we want to catch more fish; it’s always because of the fish who need to be caught; rather than the bigness or smallness of the catch itself.  Every person matters.  Every need matters.  Every way we share our faith matters.  Every moment matters.  Each way we try to fish counts and each fish we meet counts.  That’s why numbers matters; not because of the numbers, but because of the people whom God loves; and we must love and reach out to, because God love them and us to.

It is not accident that at the center of every church are two pieces of furniture; the pulpit and the table.  The pulpit is where the truth is told; and the truth that matters most is that Jesus wants everyone, people from every race, nation, tribe and even religion, to be at the table.  Make no mistake the picture of Jesus cooking breakfast for the disciples is the example for the disciples to be preparing the meal of love, grace, and mercy for the world.   

I verbally shared this at one church, but now I’m writing it down and sharing it with both church.  Back in July, the Baptist State Paper, known at the Biblical Recorder, had a great article written by its editor, Alan Blume.  After telling how the Southern Baptist Convention continues to grow in the number of churches, he also shares statistics about how our churches continue to decline in baptisms.   We are doing well at starting churches, he says, but we are not doing well at reaching people.  As he comes to the close of his article, he suggests that part of our problem may be that, up to now, we’ve done too much ‘judging’ sinners, instead of following Jesus’ example to be ‘a friend of sinners’, as he was called, by those who did not approve. (

How do you and I become friends with sinners?  Well, you certainly don’t expect the preacher to catch them.  “Church, you need to start fishing from another side of the boat.” In a much more biblical way, you could invite those unchurched, strangers ‘strangers’ to come to your house and share a meal, Blum says.  You could actually try to become their friend around the dinner table.

Wow!  Who would have ever thought of something as simple as that?  Listen, really listen; not just to be, but to the voice, you will learn:   “Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, "Who are you?" because they knew it was the Lord. (Jn. 21:12 NRS).  When you make your table, the table of the Lord and you share, it’s amazing how, when, and where Jesus shows up.   Amen. 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

“Who Do People Say I Am?”

A sermon based upon Mark 8: 27-30
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
12th Sunday After Pentecost, August 27th, 2017,    (Series:  Questions Jesus Asked  #10)

Everybody has an opinion when they answer questions like:  “What do you think the weather will be today?” “What do you think should be done about North Korea?”  “Do you think religion makes sense in today’s world?”  “Should the government be in the health care business?”  

This spring and summer there has been a highly publicized court case in England to decide the fate of the terminally ill infant named Charlie Gard.  In April, the courts decided that little “Charlie” had no chance of recovery and should be placed in palliative care.  Charlie’s parents refused to settle for the court’s decision.  They mustered popular opinion to raise money for experimental treatment, even gaining the attention of the Pope and our America President.  “The government should not decide the fate of our child,” the parents said.  Those parents worked fearlessly to gain the attention of the world and to get popular opinion on their side.  They even caused the British courts to take a second look at their own decision. ( 

In matters like this, and many others, we all have our opinions.  Sometimes our opinions agree with courts and governments, but others times they don’t.   Our country, with its emphasis on democracy and freedom, invites popular opinions and our government often makes decisions based on what people think.  Other countries, like England, rely more heavily upon expert opinions, but they are still opinions.   Even the expert opinions can prove to be wrong. 

When Jesus passed through Caesarea Philippi, a large Gentile town, far off the beaten path for most Jews, he asked his own disciples about people’s opinion about him:  “Who do people say that I am?”

We must understand that Jesus’ own ego was NOT driving this question.  Jesus was not doing opinion polls.  This was a ministry question, preparing his disciples for their future mission into the world.  This Gentile town, far away from “hot” Jewish politics, was just the right spot.  It was a on the edge of the world beyond Jerusalem.

The answer the disciples gave reflects much of the popular opinions surrounding the ministry of Jesus at that time: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets" (Mk. 8:28 NIV).  In the minds of the common people, these were all great, good men.  John the Baptizer fearlessly spoke truth to power, so did Elijah and other prophets.  Whoever Jesus is, popular opinion is saying that he is in the same category as one of these great preaching prophets.   

Today, in our world still, opinions about are many.   Most every religion and most of the world would agree that Jesus was a great prophet and teacher.    Tons of books are still being written about him.  Theologies are still constructed around him.   Christianity is still the largest religion in the world, at 2.2 Billion adherents.    If you were doing a study of him, you might suggest that Jesus was great, Jesus was good, and that many still claim that Jesus was God; although Jesus never actually called himself any of these.  In fact, when someone addressed Jesus as ‘good teacher’ his immediate response was ‘Why do you call me good, there is no one good but God’ (Mk 10:18).  Here, as shocking as it might seem, Jesus refuses to be called ‘good’ or ‘God’.  

In regard to greatness, Jesus himself said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).  This statement came right after Jesus scolded his disciples who wanted greatness ‘like the Gentiles do’ (Mk 10: 42-44).   In addition to the gospel story, the Greeks and the Romans (and the Jews too for that matter) had long lists of requirements for human ‘greatness’, but Jesus would not have made any of their lists.  In other words, Jesus was not a great military leader like Alexander the Great, nor was he some kind of mythical Greek hero like Hercules, killing monsters with his bare hands.  And even in the most conservative of terms, wrote John Ortberg, Jesus would not have made any ‘most likely to succeed’ list, then or now.

Even in the biblical record itself, we need to recognize that Jesus was executed as a common criminal.  Both professional and popular opinions went against him in the end.   Whatever you or I think about him today, Jesus was not “good” or “great” in any conventional way.   And in regard to being “God,” in the gospels at least, Jesus preferred to call himself “son of man,” meaning ‘human one’.  Even after Peter confesses Jesus as “the Christ” or Messiah, Jesus warns his disciples ‘not to tell no anyone about him’ (v. 30).

Perhaps Jesus wanted to keep his identity secret because he wanted to make it known on his own terms.   What we do know is that because of the very low-profile Jesus took, the question about him remains a living, open and very personal question, rather than a closed, dead or impersonal answer.   No one can answer this question for you or for me.   Each of us has to answer for ourselves: “Who do YOU say that I am?”   It’s a question that remains forever ‘close to our hearts’.

When it comes to considering this about Jesus, not just from Jesus, we can’t rely upon popular opinions or professional opinions.  Mere opinion or easy answers can’t save anyone.  The apparent clumsiness and ambiguities of the gospel records themselves do not allow easy, simple, or final conclusions to ever be made.  The gospels neither give complete historical details about him, nor do they give us any kind indisputable facts or deductions.   What the gospels do give us, is an invitation to faith, which is to answer for ourselves who Jesus is.  As Tom Wright has rightly said, even the people who didn’t like Jesus, talked about him.  Others could not rest easy until they did everything they could to get rid of him.  Whatever you decide, Jesus is, as Wright says, the ‘kind of person who demands our attention’.

Many years ago, the Oxford professor, C.S. Lewis, informed the English speaking scholarly world how the question about Jesus ‘demanded’ his own attention.  Lewis wrote: “[My aim] is to prevent anyone from saying the really foolish thing people say about Him, such as “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.”  That is the sort of thing that we must not say.  A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic— on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg— or else he would be the Devil of Hell.   You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit on Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call him Lord and God”  (From Mere Christianity, p. 55-56).

While we can appreciate the astounding evangelical logic of C.S. Lewis, most people don’t come to decide who Jesus is based on pure logic.  Most folks either accept what their parents taught them, or make decisions about Jesus during a time of great personal crisis.  It’s not because they feel like they have a choice to make, but because they feel they have no other choice to make, but to make a very desperate, life-impacting decision about Jesus.   Many decide for Jesus like the Philippian Jailer, right after the earthquake broke down bars and walls, freeing the prisoners he was responsible for and putting his own life in jeopardy.  In the book of Acts we overhear him pleading with Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved” (Acts 16:30)?   The need for someone to trust and find hope in, is not voluntary, but it’s mandatory for saving one’s life.

This is exactly how the now 91 year-old Jurgen Moltmann, described his own personal decision to ‘believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and be saved’ (Acts 16:31).   Even though Moltmann has been one of the most highly respected theologians in the world today, he came to make his own decision about Jesus based not upon logical argument, but based upon the most personal terms of great anguish and quiet desperation.  In the Preface of one of simplest books, Jesus Christ for Today’s World, he wrote: “Who is Christ for me? I don't want to evade this personal question through generalities, so I will begin with a personal memory.  In 1945 I was imprisoned in a wretched prisoner-of-war war camp in Belgium.  The German Reich had collapsed.  German civilization had been destroyed through Auschwitz. My home town Hamburg lay in ruins; and in my own self things looked no different. I felt abandoned by God and human beings, and the hopes of my youth died. I couldn't see any future ahead of me.

In this situation an American chaplain put a Bible into my hands, and I began to read it. First of all the psalms of lament in the Old Testament: “I have fallen dumb and have to eat up my suffering within myself” (was Luther's forceful translation) '. . . I am a stranger as all my fathers were' (Psalm 39).   Then, after that, I was drawn to the story of the passion of the cross, and when I came to Jesus' death cry I knew: this is the one who understands you and is beside you when everyone else abandons you. 'My God, why have you forsaken me?' That was my cry for God too. I began to understand the suffering, … God-forsaken Jesus, because I felt that he understood me.

….I grasped that this Jesus is the divine Brother in our distress.  He brings hope to the prisoners and the abandoned.  He is the one who delivers us from the guilt that weighs us down and robs us of every kind of future. And I became possessed by a hope when in human terms there was little enough to hope for.  I summoned up the courage to live, at a point when one would perhaps willingly have put an end to it all.   

This early companionship with Jesus, my brother in suffering and the liberator from guilt, has never left me.  Christ for me is the crucified Jesus.  In the public and private conflicts of my life I came to understand (His) presence.  (From Jurgen Moltmann. Jesus Christ for Today's World (Kindle Locations 37-48). Kindle Edition).

When I consider his personal testimony, I can’t help but recall the day Jesus became ‘personal’ for me.   I was about nine years old in the third grade.  We had just moved out of town into the country, where I had to start attending a new school.  We were still attending a small town church, and on this particular spring Sunday, my Junior-grade, Sunday School teacher, Bud Taylor, presented the gospel to me in the most personal way.   As I recall, he basically said that he loved us and Jesus loved us, and that he didn’t want us to ‘go to Hell’, so we needed to receive Jesus as our personal savior.”

Since everything else in my life was falling apart at that time, the last thing I needed was to go to Hell.  So, I prayed to receive Jesus in Sunday School class that day.   Mr. Taylor told those of us who made decisions that we needed to tell our parents.  I was waiting on my Father when he came out of his own class and I told him.  But instead of accepting everything at face-value, my Father told me to go down the hall to Pastor Brackett’s office and inform him.  I didn’t want to do that, but I still didn’t want to go to hell either, so I decided the pastor couldn’t be that bad.   Rev. Brackett went over the basics of gospel to make sure I understood, and then told me I had to come up front, after the service, during the invitation, and make it everything public.  I didn’t want to do that either, but again I figured that even standing in front of a church couldn’t be as bad as going to hell, so I did.   Later, I was baptized in the cold spring waters of Snow Creek.  When I went under that 50 degree, almost mountain water, it took my breath away so bad, that at least to a nine year old, it did feel like hell all frozen over.  But shortly after I caught my breath again, I was O.K.   

But, as I look back now, it wasn’t the first decision that I made for Jesus as a nine year old, or the cold water baptism that has made the biggest difference.  It is been the many decisions I’ve made for Jesus after that.  It has been the life I’ve lived ‘in Christ’, as the apostle Paul named it.   After Paul came to believe in Jesus, he said he came to be ‘crucified with Christ’, saying, I live, but I really don’t live, ‘but Christ lives in me.  And the life I live now, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me’  (Gal. 2:20).   Did you hear that: “The life I live now?”  It is the life we live for Jesus that makes our answer about Jesus more than just another opinion.

Since believing Jesus is living Jesus, what happened after Peter’s Great Confession is even more important than Peter’s confession itself.   After Peter named Jesus ‘the Christ’ (Messiah), Jesus began to give a whole different meaning to the word ‘Messiah’.  To most people then, including the disciples, Messiah meant someone who would come to change the world.  But to Jesus, the Messiah could not change the world, but a suffering Messiah could call people to change within themselves.   Peter objected to this whole idea of suffering, holding on to his opinion, so Jesus rebuked him in the strongest terms.

But it is what comes after Jesus’ rebuke of Peter that still challenges us, even after we have acknowledged Jesus as our own ‘personal’ savior.   After silencing Peter, Jesus turned to the crowds to make one of the most overlooked clarifications of what it means to believe in Jesus: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me (Mk. 8:34-35 NIV).  For Jesus, to be our savior, he must be also become our lord in that we must make him ‘personal’ by taking up (our) cross and following him.”  Taking up a ‘cross’ is a scary thought.  Recently, in a TV movie, I watched and listened as a Muslim woman was being criticized by a Christian woman for wearing a Burka:“It makes you look like you’re either a terrorist or you’ve got something to hide,” the Christian remarked.  The Muslim woman responded, “Well, at least I don’t wear a symbol of human torture around my neck like you do.”  (As Heard in the BBC series, The Tunnel, First Season, 2016).

When Jesus said we must ‘take up our cross’, he said ‘OUR cross’, not ‘HIS cross’.   Taking up ‘our cross’ can mean many things, including suffering or making sacrifices for the sake of doing good.  However we answer Jesus’ question: Who do you say that I am”, it must mean that we put our ‘life’ into the confession of faith we have in him.  We can’t save our life by saving it, or by ‘being saved’, but we only save our life by entrusting ourselves to God, losing ourselves for the gospel as we put our lives into it. 

I got a good idea what this meant when on the news, I watched a man drive a car sideways on only two wheels, while a woman was doing a headstand off a chair balanced on the car’s roof.  When the news reporter asked the man how long he could drive a car like that, he answered, “I can drive for about 4 laps around the track, and then the tires wear out.”  It was then that I became much more impressed by the woman on the roof, than the man driving the car on two wheels.   He was only driving a trick car, but she ‘put her life into it’. 

Now, of course, that was a circus trick, but following Jesus is not about playing tricks or playful antics.   When Jesus asked, “Who do you say I Am”, he was not asking for a show, an opinion or even a mere confession of your faith.   Jesus was asking the  kind question that will remain forever ‘close to the heart’.   Your answer, my answer, and even confession or profession of faith, means nothing and is only another opinion, unless we put our lives into it.  Amen.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

“What Then Does This Text Mean?

A sermon based upon Luke 20: 1-8; 17-19
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
10th Sunday After Pentecost, August 13, 2017,    (Series:  Questions Jesus Asked  #8 of 12)

My mother was a seamstress.  What that means is that she sewed clothes for people.  It was something she learned from her mother, and when she retired from the cotton mill, she decided to make her money sewing for women in the community.  I especially loved it when she made cheerleading uniforms for my high school and the cheerleaders had to come to my home and try them on.

I never learned a much about sewing, but I did come across a wise saying, which comes from sewing and says: “Those who sew must first tie a knot.”  Unless you want to re-stitch that button or re-hem those pants often, you must first anchor it with a knot.  Of course, the wisdom here is more than just about sewing.  The adage also relates to life.  If you want your life to hold together, without coming unraveled with ever crisis that comes, you’d better have a ‘knot’ or an ‘anchor’ that will help you keep your bearings as an unwavering constant in your life (*This idea, and the flow of this message comes from Daniel Day's, If Jesus Isn’t the Answer…: He Sure Asks the Right Questions! (Kindle Location 831). Smyth & Helwys Publishing. Kindle Edition).  

For most of us that ‘knot’ has been given to us from our parents, from church, from school, or from other close relatives or other formative connections in our lives.  This is where we learned what was right and wrong, sacred or taboo.  This is where we learned to trust what was real and to figure out what isn’t.  

But at some point in our lives, these certainties and confidence have been shaken.  To keep our analogy going, we learn that other people ‘tie their knots’ very differently, or tie them ‘at different places’.  We come to realize that people out there, beyond our own tribe or family, don’t understand life the same way we have.  This can cause us to question the  ‘authority’ of some of our own upbringing and conceptions.   We wonder if we have been right to build our lives on the ‘knots’ or ‘anchors’ we were given.

Several years ago, the owner of a Concrete company in Boone, was looking after the house that my family and I were living in while on furlough from our mission work.  One day, while we were trying to get the furnace going, he was telling me about a young girl who was going off to college.  He said that her mother had come to him with great concern about whether or not she would keep her faith while away at college.  He said, “I told her that depends.  If you allowed your daughter to develop her own faith, and you didn’t force it on her, then you’ve probably nothing to worry about.  It’s her faith.   But if she only has your faith, and not her own, then I’d be real worried too.”

That was not a very professional way to approach it, but he got the point across.  Life and faith is not just about passing down knowledge, but its also about making choices.  Daily we have to make decisions about what matters, what we should or shouldn’t do, what kind of faith we have, and whether we will trust in anything at all.  If we want to have an anchor, or ‘tie a knot’ that holds together, then we must decide which voice, which teaching, or even which viewpoint we will choose to build our lives upon. Life means making a choice: You cannot, not choose.

When we lived in Germany, our own cultural and even religious choices were sometimes tested and tried.  Once, my chair of deacons in my German church recommend a campground for our family.  We wanted to experience camping in Europe, so we bought a tent and headed out.  We arrived late, quickly set up the tent and went to bed.  Early the next morning, my daughter wanted to go swimming.  We were the first ones there, but it wasn’t long until others came.  The arrived much like we did, but then everything changed.  They all went swimming with no close on whatsoever.  My German Baptist friend had no idea we didn’t also swim that way.
Now, that was literally untying a really big knot for us.  We didn’t go there again, and we never got use to this European norm.  What they called natural, we called nudity.

My point is that every culture, even Christian groups, have their own specific ways of choosing which knot will be tied tightly and which one knot will be tied loosely.  Those  German Baptists had some very specific knots they tied tightly, which we didn’t.  If you didn’t attend church for a couple of Sundays, you could be thrown out permanently.  Also, if you didn’t bring your hymnbook to church with your and you didn’t sing, or at least try to, then your faith would be questioned.  Music was how the ‘redeemed of the Lord said so’.  The point I’m making is that even within the Christian faith, not just in Germany, but in Brazil, or other countries, Christians make choices about what is most important, and what is less important.

In our text today, Jesus revealed that one tightly tied ‘knot’ that anchored his own religious upbringing, and his people, was Scripture.  Every faithful Jew believed that God had given written texts to help guide the people in making good choices and giving right shape to their ethical and religious life.  Thus, questions like “What did Moses command” (Mark 10:13), “What is written in the Law?” (Luke 10:26),  or as in our text, “What then does this text mean?” (Luke 20: 17), were very important questions for faithful people in Jesus’ day.  The way people made right choices was well established and clearly guided by God through sacred, written, texts.

That’s how it was for them, but for us not so much, and it’s also much less clear.  As Dan Day has rightly said, “For many people today its not so obvious, that Moses’ words or any ancient religious text for that matter’, could have ‘anything applicable’ to say to us.  It is bizarre, even to some of us, that what ‘was written on parchment by people living in tents, with no electricity (an no internet) living 3,000 years ago, could have anything relevant to say, let alone be authoritative.”  

Of course, Jesus, and many of us too, don't think Moses, or the Prophets, spoke only for themselves, but we actually believe, that God was speaking through them, and still can speak to us through these ancient words.  Jesus believed this too, and this is why the question, “What did Moses Command” was one of the most important than could ever have been asked in his time.  But what about our time?  What do these ancient words from ancient texts really mean for us, and for our world?  Is there anything here that really matters, and why should we still care?  

Recently, I got the Fall schedule for the local Community College in the mail.  I searched all through that paper, through all the many planned classes.   They had classes on Gardening, Agriculture, Horticulture, and even Viticulture.   They had classes on Law Enforcement, Nursing,  Firemen training, and other forms of community service.  They also trained for skills for working on Small Engines and other Mechanical fields; as well, as pastimes, like painting, music, yoga, and many others.  But no where in that magazine did they advertise any kind of course in how to read, interpret, or understand the Bible.  I know they must teach some introduction to religion course, because a friend of mine teaches it, but it wasn’t important enough to list, even in the middle of the buckle of the Bible Belt.  Can you image how less important it is elsewhere, if not here, where?

When in our text today, it tells us that “Jesus looked directly at them and asked, “What then is the meaning of this text… or as others translate, ‘of that which is written’,  it implied that most everyone in the culture, even without have access to a written copy of the Scriptures, knew the text Jesus was referring to.   Even though only a few had access to written texts, they still knew.  Scripture was at the heart of their daily culture, their weekly worship and their intentional upbringing.  In other words, when Jesus asked, “What Did Moses Command?”or “What did this text mean?” It meant something. 

But what exactly this text, or any text from Moses, from the Prophets, or from Psalms meant to people was never automatic, without some effort to understand.   The people had to constantly hear Scripture quoted and learn ways to interpret them.  The meaning in these ancient texts, even to them, had to be read, discussed, and filtered through an their own interpretive filters for processing.  In other words, to answer Jesus’ question, “What does this mean?” meant that you had to do your homework.  There was ‘gold’ to be mined, but you still had to mine it.

When you study how Jesus treated and interpreted Scripture, you can find a two-fold approach.  One, Jesus reverences Scripture highly, memorized it, quotes it, and uses it as an final, anchoring word, a bedrock.  A clear example is when Jesus quotes Scripture, and literally, ‘throws the book’ at the devil who is tempting him while he is in the wilderness (Matt. 4).  Jesus uses Scripture, as we should, to tie a unbreakable knot, to anchor our lives against those forces that can tempt and destroy us.

But strangely enough, even with the high view of Scripture which Jesus had, there are other times that Jesus appears to loosen the knot of Scripture, disregarding certain laws, regulations, and rules which were clearly, concretely, and most obviously written.  An most obvious one of these was how Jesus completely untied the knot about Kosher laws.  In one single statement, Jesus wipes a page from Bible, in one single statement.  If you recall, Leviticus 11 has all kinds of Kosher rules about what kinds of food are to be considered clean, and which are to be considered unclean.  Jesus show complete disregard for this entire part Moses’ law, declaring, “It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth defiles (Matt. 15:11). 

In the most important words Jesus ever spoke, a collection put together in what we call ‘The Sermon on the Mount”, clearly states that ‘he did not come to abolish Scripture, but to fulfill it’ (Matt 5:21), yet Jesus clearly offers his own interpretation, which lessens some parts of Scripture, while expanding upon, even going beyond other parts.   Now, before you think you can do this own your own, anyway you wish, you’d better remember and realize that YOU ARE, OF COURSE, NOT JESUS.   And as Jesus explained, he was not trying to abolish or negate Scripture, but he interpreted Scripture in ways that helped people build upon it, and even to ‘do greater works’, which led to ‘higher’ or ‘better’ ways of living, than were imagined in the Law.

When we read Scripture, taking it seriously, but not always literally, we can also see Paul, Peter, and the church following Jesus into areas of thinking, worshiping, and believing that were never given in Scripture, and going against some things that had been clearly written.   Just as Jesus challenged his followers to go beyond Scripture’s ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth, and to ‘love their enemies’,  Peter was challenged by the Spirit to go beyond Scripture to ‘kill and eat’ non Kosher foods, so he could welcome a believing Gentile into the faith.  Paul also went beyond established procedures when he called himself an ‘apostle’ and took the gospel straight into the Gentile world, ignoring strict rules about circumcision, teaching that the priority of the Bible is grace, not law.  Sabbath, Kosher, Circumcision, were knots that had been tied tightly, but were eventually loosed, and some completely untied, so that God’s love could be poured out to all.   We could go on, and on, but perhaps you get the point.  Perhaps you are getting the point so well, that you feel a little toward me, like they did toward Jesus, when he reinterpreted things.  But what you need to know, is that even when Jesus reinterpreted the Bible, it was still being reverenced, but constantly being reinterpreted, and fulfilled, as Jesus put it, so that love, grace and mercy, dominated its primary theme, long before the first word was ever printed on a printing press.

Sometimes I still see a old Bumper sticker which says, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it for me!”   While I can appreciate their enthusiasm for the Bible, what I learn from Jesus’ question put to these ‘teachers of the law’, is that God can still do new things.  As long as one sheep is still lost, nothing is settled.  As long as hate is still the norm, love needs to provide the breakthrough, not what has been said in the past. 

If we want to seriously anchor our lives in the Scriptures, in ways that makes sense, saves us, our children, and our children’s children, while making real difference in our world today, we are going to have to not only to quote Scripture, but we also need to learn how to interpret it wisely, faithfully, but also lovingly, and redemptively as well.   Isn’t this what Jesus meant when he scolded the Scribes and Pharisees, saying “Woe, to you hypocrites, for you pay your tithe…but have omitted the weightier (most important) matters of the law, judgement, mercy and faith; these ought to be done too, without neglecting either” (Matt. 23:23).  Isn’t this exactly the most important issue Jesus’ question raises for us.  How do we interpret and reinterpret Scripture, without neglecting any part of what ‘ought to be done’, especially since we are not Jesus, nor are we experts in the law?

Well, we need to say that being an ‘expert’ in the law, didn’t help them, nor does in guarantee any success at what matters most about Scripture.  Of course, there are some very basic, good, rules of Biblical interpretation that pastors, professors, and scholars learn in school, but this in no way means we will ‘get it right’, by getting to ‘what matters most’.  Right interpretation of Scripture means that we must consider needs, community, and wrestle with the text like Jacob wrestled with the angel at Jabbok.  Questions of right and wrong, and authority can never be reduced to saying words or mere rehashing them, no matter how ‘holy’ they are or seem.  Sometimes we can take Scripture at ‘face value’, but other times we need ‘fresh interpretations’. The hard work many refuse to do is to listen to the Spirit and to others too, so that we can have the wisdom to know the difference.

The need to do the hard work of ‘listening’ and ‘learning’ from God and others, is why we can’t always take the Bible literally so we CAN take it seriously.  Rachel Held Evans spent a year, as a woman, taking the Bible literally, following all the rules, commands, and customs, just as they were literally written.  She writes that this was one of the most difficult, painful, educational, and thoughtful years she had ever lived.  She also discovered that taking the Bible literally was impossible to maintain in real life.  I’m just glad she didn’t have a child that disobeyed her at the time, for she would have been instructed to literally stone her child to death.

Also, when you only take the Bible literally, but not seriously, you can make the Bible say most anything you want it to say.   I know most people think of it in an opposite way.  But when take it literally, but not seriously, you can use the Bible to get away with murder, literally.   This is exactly what King Henry the VIII did, when he ‘tied the knot’ in the Bible for his own purposes.  After his brother Arthur died, King Henry had to get the pope to allow him to marry his dead brother’s wife, Catherine.  When his marriage to Catherine still did not grant him a male heir, Henry used the text from Leviticus 20:21, which said, “If a man takes his brother’s wife in marriage, it is unclean, and they shall be childless.”  According to the Bible, so reasoned King Henry’s literalistic logic, she was a curse on his kingdom, so she had to go, that is die, like so many others.  Biology today tells us the whole problem was with Henry, not his wives.

Still today, people do all kinds of ‘shenanigans’ with the text, to prove their point, or argue the truth they want to hear or believe.  What strict literalism has done is divide Christians and split churches over fights that keep God on the sidelines of our churches, and out of our lives.  Could there be another way? The good news is that there is, and has always been a better way to find the meaning in a text without battling over for for a book.  John tells us that in Jesus, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Or as Peter answered when many were leaving Jesus in the dust,  “To whom shall we go, for you have the words of eternal life.”    Or once more, as Jesus himself said, “You search the Scriptures because you think in them you have eternal life: It is they that testify about me (John 5:39).

Years ago, when some Southern Baptists were having battles over the Bible, some argued for a more literal, inerrant form of belief in the Bible, and others argued for a more serious, sincere form of belief in the truth in the Bible.  For most of the church, and the world, it was mere semantics---just arguments about words.  But this discussion became more than words, when one side gain political power and took “Jesus” out of it’s Confession of Faith, which named Him as the ‘criterion’ by which the Bible is to be interpreted’.  For without Jesus,  you can interpret the Bible any way you wish.

As I saw it then, and still see it now, Jesus is the key to interpreting the Bible, and the living Christ still leads us to discover that the greatest truth of the Bible is about God’s love.   Even that great text where Jesus says,  “I am the way, truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father, except through me” (John 14:6), becomes a word to love, rescue, and include people, not a word to hate, negate or exclude people.  Jesus is the truth, the way, and life, and the only way to the Father because Jesus is God, and God is love.  And since God is love, God did not come establish more religion, but to guide all religions to find true faith---as James, said, ‘pure religion that is undefiled is to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unspoiled from the world.” This way of love: love for neighbor and love for God, is still the only right ‘way’ Scripture is to be interpreted.   Amen.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

“Do You Want to Get Well?”

 A sermon based upon John 5: 1-15
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
9th Sunday After Pentecost, August 6th, 2017,    (Series:  Questions Jesus Asked  #7)

 Who likes to go to the doctor?  Raise your hand.  Just as I thought, I didn’t think I’d get a very good show of hands. 

Still, we all know, whether we like it or not, that good medical care along with eating wisely and daily exercise, are all necessities for maintaining good health.  We know this, but still it can be hard to do.   Perhaps you heard about the follow who was more than a little overweight.   He told the doctor he was exercising daily, but the doctor refused to believe it. So, the the fellow listed all the the exercises he did every day: jump to conclusions, climb the walls, drag my heels, push my luck, make mountains out of molehills, bend over backward, run around in circles, put my foot in my mouth, go over the edge, and beat around the bush (Readers Digest Online).

A short time ago, I made a visit to the doctor myself.  It was not a routine visit.  I had an unexplained elevation in blood pressure along with dizziness which caused me to feel like I was going to pass out while pulling weeds from my garden. 

So, when the nurse and physician came in, they started bombarding me with all kinds of questions:  “Why did you come in?”  “What symptoms did you have?”  “Are they still going on?”  “Has this ever happened before?”  “Did you eat anything different?”  Questions, Questions!  They were full of many questions.  It made me remember what one of my doctor-skeptical relatives once said, when the doctor asked him, “What’s going on with you?”  He answered very smartly, “I don’t know, you tell me. That’s what I came to ask you.

For those who are a little smarter than my smarty-pants relative, we all know that asking questions is an essential part of making a proper diagnosis.   Doctors are not gods, and even more so, we rightly describe them as ‘practicing medicine’ because even medical science is not an exact science.  Illness and good health depend on many different factors, and even though there are some general rules to disease and wellness, every ‘case’ is different because people and their bodies are different.  

In the healing arts, and it is as much arts as it is science, there is just no such thing as ‘one size’ or ‘one case’ exactly ‘fits all’.  This is why there are so many warnings on medicine labels.  It's also why after you see or hear a new medicine being advertised on TV, right after you hear about everything this new drug might do for you, they also have to warn you what it might do to you.  This is also why you have to fill out so much personal and medical history when you visit a new doctor.  To help you, they not only need to know about what’s wrong with you, they also need to have some way of getting to know who you are.

What we know about Jesus, is that he was not only a “master teacher”, but he also conducted a healing ministry and is called ‘a great physician’.  And like any other physician, and even more so, Jesus most always approached the afflicted person with questions---different questions.   When Jesus approached the mentally ill man, possessed with demons, his first question was “What is Your Name?”   On another occasion, Jesus asked a blind man,  after he removed his bandages and applied a ointment of spittle and mud, “What do you see?”   When another Blind man cried out for Jesus to ‘stop and have mercy on him’,  Jesus ironically asked, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Just like those doctors to have to ask many questions in order to get a proper diagnosis, Jesus asked them too.

Think again about that demon possessed man who was living in the graveyard and continually cutting himself.   The very first question Jesus asked him was: “What is Your Name?”  How many of us have entered the emergency room and had to answer too many questions and fill out all those forms before a doctor would see us?  It’s frustrating at times, but in most cases it’s very necessary.  It was also necessary for Jesus to ask this mentally and spiritually confused person about his identity.  How that man answered, “My name is Legion, because we are many”, told Jesus and us as much about his spiritual condition, as it did his physical one.  Any good doctor will remind you, that a good treatment that promotes healing always starts with asking the right questions, and also not rushing to quick answers.

During my seminary training, I worked as a Chaplin in a major teaching hospital.  This short three months gave me a much broader pastoral experience than I could have ever gained in church-based ministry.  Sometimes I even got to rub shoulders with some very talented and busy physicians, some who were glad I was working with their patients, others who didn’t care, and still others who were willing to learn.  In one situation, I was called by a doctor who told me he had unanswered questions about why one of his patients would not respond to normal medical treatment.  It should have been routine to watch this man begin to get well from the medicines and therapy, but he didn’t.

After reading the charts with nurses reports, the wise physician, who knew nothing about spiritual matters, noticed that this fellow appeared depressed without any clinical reason.  Remembering that he was trained to ask for chaplains, as a frontline approach to signs of emotional or relational stress, he called me to ask if I’d make a visit.  I did, and I didn’t just make one, but many visits and found this man to be depressed, not for physical reasons, but for spiritual reasons, which we were able to talk and pray through quite extensively.  As several weeks went by, the doctor noticed that his patient’s physical condition started to respond to treatment and condition improved.  One day, when he saw me passing in the hallway, he stopped me and reported the favorable result, even though he couldn’t explain why or how?   His willingness to ask questions, beyond his own knowledge was as important to the healing, as my own training was to learn how to ask spiritual questions, without giving or suggesting easy answers.

This question Jesus asked in our text for today, “Do you want to get well,” sounds very strange.  But when you consider the answer the paralyzed man gave him, it makes a lot more sense.

 Jesus had just found this man lying near a unique pool of water where all kinds of ‘disabled’ people were always gathered around.  Especially on this special occasion,  many crippled and diseased people were seen waiting around the pool, until ‘the water is stirred’.  The stirring waters, perhaps had very natural causes, but were believed to have been moved by angels, or some other positive, spiritual forces.   For them, at least  this was a therapeutic whirlpool with healing properties.

What was most revealing about this crippled man’s response, was exactly why Jesus asked him such a strange-sounding-question.   The man, no doubt, had someone to bring him to the pool called “Bethesda”where many other blind, lame, and paralyzed were already gathered.  But the man answers Jesus’ question, not with an affirmative answer, but with an excuse.   He answers that ‘when the water is stirred’ he has ‘no one to help him.’  This must mean that he has no one to help him quickly get into the pool before the movement stops.  He can get to the pool, but he couldn’t get into the water.

I once had a aunt that I loved dearly.  She had never been married.  My grandmother, her mother died when I was two years old.  Her father, my grandfather, died when I was six.  Because my aunt still lived on the farm, my parents would visit every other Sunday during my childhood.  One Sunday we would visit my still living grandmother, my Father’s mother in North Iredell.  The other Sunday, we would visit my aunt, my mother’s older sister who lived a few miles west of Statesville.

I loved how rustically, and independently my aunt lived.  She didn’t have a bathroom.  She didn’t have running water, except in the kitchen.   She also didn’t have central heating; only a wood stove extending from the fireplace in the living area.   In the wintertime, I loved fetching wood from the woodshed.  I also loved feeding the chickens and slopping the hogs, as well as pulling fresh cherries from cherry trees, picking apples or pears in season.   It was one of my favorite places to be.

I loved it so much, that once, as a child, I decided I wanted to spend the night with my aunt.  I almost made, until she started telling me how bad she felt, how her back or head was hurting her.  I’m sure she made have had some real health problems from time to time.  But the real issue was that she was lonely.   She liked to complain a lot.  I noticed it, even as a kid.  When she started into a ‘fit of complaining’, as mom called, I couldn’t take it anymore and I had my aunt call my parents to come and get me.

Again, I’m sure my aunt had some real health problems from time to time, as we all do.  But it seemed that every time the doctors helped her, she quickly developed something else to complain about.  She even once ordered a prayer cloth from healing evangelists Oral Roberts.  When I suggested, with tongue in cheek to my aunt that it must not worked, my mother stepped on my toe, which signaled me to keep my big mouth shut.  Did my aunt really want to get well?   It seemed to me, that at least sometimes, she didn’t.  She really wanted to keep reminding us how lonely she was.

Perhaps the reason Jesus opened with the question: “Do you want to get well” is because, for this fellow, as for us too at times, the sickness can seem easier than the cure.  Sometimes its easier to give up.   Sometimes the treatment is overwhelming.   Sometimes we get so wrapped up in blaming somebody else, we forget how to take responsibility for ourselves and our own actions.   Coach John Wooden used to tell his UCLA basketball players, on their way to become men, not just athletes: “Nobody is really defeated until they start blaming somebody else.”   So, he said,  “Try to fix the problem, don’t lay the blame.”  Losers can blame, winners never do.  I can’t ever remember a winning team saying, “Well, it’s their fault that we won!” 

This man is not helping his situation by laying blame, but as the story unfolds, I love how Jesus didn’t say a single thing negative to this man up front.  What he does offer him is healing without any up-front requirements at all.  Without another word, Jesus turns to him and commands:  “Get Up!  Pick up your mat and walk!”   This is one of the stronger, double commands, Jesus ever gives, and he gives it to a crippled man.   It is not a command to insult him, but it is a command to challenge the limits that has gotten into his mind and heart, as well as, to challenge his physical situation.  In directly, Jesus is saying: Stop blaming anyone and ‘get up’ and you can walk!

One of my smart school mates, Robert Setzer Jr., comments in his own sermon on this text, that ‘the measure of Jesus’ greatness is that sometimes (I’d say often), he bets on a loser.’  He continues, (I’m paraphrasing) that many of us, he and me included, would still be lying beside our own pools of desperation, paralyzed with blame, fear or self-defeat, drained of all our spiritual strength and emotional resources, had not Jesus’ love and challenging words of grace not come to us.  Many you’ve been there, like I have and most have, when unexpected sickness comes, with depressing diagnosis comes, when you lost your job, when you lost a loved one, or when others let you down.  It’s easy to get lock into to laying blame---even blaming yourself.  But Jesus will not let you lay there for long.  He says to me, like he said to this cripple, and he says to any of us when life cripples leaves us paralyzed with hurt: “Get Up!”  Stop blaming them!  Stop blaming yourself!  Stop blaming me!  Just get up and you will be on the way to healing and hope. (Based on Encounters with the Living Christ, Robert B. Setzer Jr., Judson Press, 1999, pp 58-59).  

If you are the one lying around, blaming yourself or others for your problems and your pains, would you let Jesus challenge you today?  Would you let him challenge you with a friend to walk beside you, with a church family who not only talked about grace, but makes it happen.  Would you let Jesus challenge you with a word from Scripture that could leap off the page and find a lodging place in your heart?   Would you hold your head up just long enough to look into his eyes or reach out, and feel the touch of grace in his hand? 

An old legend tells of hiker who lost his way and fell into some quicksand.  Confucius found the man in this predicament and offered him a word of wisdom: “If I were you I’d stay away from places like this?  Buddha also saw his plight and said, “Let the plight of this one be a lesson that you should not repeat such folly!”  Mohammad came by speaking with great resolve: “Alas, this must be the will of Allah for an infidel.”  But then, finally Jesus came up to the man, reach down his hand, saying “Brother, take me by the hand and I will pull you out.”

Isn’t this the gospel?  Isn’t this the good news of Jesus Christ, that not only does not leave us in our dying or hurting place, but offers us a way to live and to heal.  And this is we know we need a savior, and we know that we can’t save ourselves, when life has fallen in around us, and there’s no one left to blame, and in no way will Jesus leave us there, but offers us a way, when there is no way, and someone, when there is no one.     
Just like Jesus skipped the big party in Jerusalem and went around to the places of hurt and pain to find someone to save, Jesus can find us too, no matter where we are lying, and no matter how all alone we might feel.

Still, just like the ‘stirring waters’ can’t really heal except perhaps psychologically, or as auto-suggestion, the grace of God in Jesus Christ is no magic nor miracle cure either, unless it has our own active participation. This is why Jesus later locates the once crippled man in the temple and reminds him: You’d better ‘stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” (v.14).  

Does it sound like ‘your Jesus’ or ‘my Jesus’ or ‘the real Jesus’ to show up at church, after you and I have been saved, healed, or made whole, and then to find us, look us straight in the eyes and directly say in no uncertain terms: “You’d better stop sinning, or something worse, worse than even being paralyzed or being lost, might happen to you.”   Do you think Jesus is threatening this fellow?   Do you think Jesus would be threatening us?  Or could this be a sober, realistic, friendly reminder that, as Bonhoeffer once said, “Grace is free, but it’s not cheap!”  

Do you see why Jesus said this to the man.  Ever since he was healed, he still hasn’t gotten out of the old pattern of placing blame.  When religious leaders started asking him why he is carrying his mat on the Sabbath, instead of describing how he was healed, he blames ‘the man who made him well’ for commanding him ‘to take up his mat and to walk’ (v.11).  But when question further, he did not know who ‘this man’ was because Jesus had quickly ‘slipped away into the crowd’.  But when the man came into the temple, perhaps to give thanks, Jesus sees him, and challenges him ‘to stop sinning’ or ‘something worse could happen’. Right after than, falling into his habit again, the man went to the religious leaders who wanted to kill Jesus and squealed on him saying, ‘it was Jesus who made him well’ (v.15).

What happened to his man after this?  We can only assume, as my school mate Bob Setzer writes, “This is one man whom even Jesus couldn’t cure.”  Yes, you heard right.  Like the Rich Young Ruler who went away sorrowful.   Like the Rich man in Jesus’ parable who went to the Hell of unending torment.  And even like Judas, whom John later will say ‘was a devil’ for betraying Jesus, and died only to ‘go to his own place’, here is one of the few people Jesus healed, but didn’t cure.   Perhaps it was the same for those nine lepers, who didn’t return to thank Jesus too.  We don’t know.  But what we do know is that Jesus not only didn’t cure everybody, he couldn’t cure everybody, because some did not want to be cured.  They wanted to stay the way they were, or to go back to the same old unhealthy patterns and irresistible habits.  The wanted their own way, or it was the highway, as we say.  What they didn’t get, was the endurance of the saints, who are those will are not only saved by grace, but have been changed and transformed by that grace, and will be saved, because they will endure to the end.
So, hearing Jesus’ warning of grace,  can you really understand his question?  Do you really want to get well?  Or is this just the same, o same o? 

I conclude with a story, I also owe to Dr. Setzer, about a great surgeon, who was about to perform plastic surgeon on a young boy who had lost his arm in an accident.   When the surgeon came in to question the young man, he looked at him, and asked, “Now, would you tell me about your handicap?” The young fellow look the famous doctor with a look of surprise, and then with fire in his eyes answered, “Sir, I don’t have a handicap.  I just don’t have a right hand.”

Now, that’s the kind of healing that is more than skin deep.  It points us straight to the deeper, spiritual, and more personal kind of healing, that Jesus came to give.  Do you want this kind of healing?   Do you really want to get well?  You can, but you must ‘get up’ and ‘you must walk’ it, and not just ‘talk it’.  Amen.