By Bill Hattendorf
“Do not be afraid, little flock,” the lesson starts out. Fear not. We have heard these words before in Luke’s gospel.
They’re the words that the angel Gabriel spoke to aged Zechariah, when he announces that a son will be born to him and wife Elizabeth, they who had waited so long for a child. “Fear not.”
These are the words that Gabriel speaks to a trembling teenage girl when he brings the message that she will carry Jesus in her womb.
They are the words spoken by the angel of the Lord in the shepherds’ field, “Do not be afraid … I bring you good • news of great joy for all the people.”
They are the words that Jesus uses to summon his first disciples after they haul in a boatful of fish. Peter and Andrew promptly leave their nets and follow him.
These are the words that herald miraculous births, joyful news, and calls to loving action.
So why does Jesus use them now? The news that he proclaims will no doubt raise some anxiety. His message is not easy. As the words of angels cause those in their presence to tremble, so too, does the cost of discipleship.
Jesus goes on to instruct his followers. Sell your possessions, he says, and give alms. Strive for the eternal, not for the things of earth which do not endure. This is hard news for a group of Christians in the first century (who weren’t known as Christians yet, of course), many of whom probably struggled just to get by.
I’ve got to think that the radical message that we find in Luke’s gospel, a vision of a new reign where the powerful are cast down and the lowly lifted up, likely did not have much appeal among the upper classes of society. It was fearsome news, indeed, that the order of things, our structures of power, would be turned on their heads.
I think this passage should really end a verse later. Those verses immediately after today’s lesson are not included in the Sunday lectionary. After our reading about giving all one has to the poor and about being on the watch for Christ’s unexpected return, we may well want to echo Peter’s question that comes in verse 41: He says, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?” (Or, Do we have to pay attention now?”)
In terms of family background, my mom’s Scottish McLeod family was part Methodist and part Episcopal. My dad’s parents of German background were Lutheran.
Naturally, I was baptized Lutheran, confirmed Methodist, but always knew in my heart I was an Episcopalian. With such church cross-cultures growing up, I’ve sometimes found it particularly challenging to remember which Chistmas carols or which verses belong where. But I do remember singing a hymn with the Lutherans that was:
“Have no fear, little flock, Have no fear, little flock, For the Father has chosen to give you the Kingdom Have no fear, little flock.”
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Our reading today tells us that all that is worth having, God has already given, and gladly so. It brings God joy to share with us the eternal reign of heaven. And that should be our starting point. Treasure that, Jesus says.
The phrase “Do not be afraid” is the hallmark of good news throughout Scripture and it occurs multiple times in Luke's story of Jesus as well. (It is also what God says in today's first reading in Isaiah.) This “Do not be afraid,” is the rhetorical prelude to the announcement of God's mighty and saving deeds. And it’s the starting point and anchor for everything else in this passage. It is God's good pleasure – God's intention, plan, and delight – to give you the kingdom! If this is true, then disciples can, indeed, resist the seduction of wealth, not fall prey to constant anxiety about worldly needs, share what they have with others, and wait expectantly, even eagerly, for the heavenly kingdom.
The watchfulness that Jesus commands, I think, is not an anxious anticipation of the end of the world – but rather an eager expectation of God's consummation of history. What Jesus is commending is faith – faith that frees us to be generous; faith that enables us to leave anxiety behind; faith that creates confidence in us about a future secured not by human endeavor or achievement but by God alone. And todays’s second lesson was pretty much all about faith too.
Jesus does not simply hold out faith as a model and goal, much less as a standard by which to judge us. Rather, Jesus creates faith by announcing a promise: Like a parent loves one’s children deeply and desperately and wants all good things for them, so also is it God's good pleasure to give God's children the kingdom.
Promises create a shared expectation about the future and bind together the giver and receiver of the promise in that shared anticipation. Promises create relationship. Promises create hope. Promises CREATE faith. All of our instruction about the Christian life – whether about prayer, money, watchfulness, care of neighbor, and more – are therefore anchored in the gospel promise that it is, indeed, God's good pleasure to give us the kingdom. Remembering – indeed, exalting in – this promise enables us not only to have faith, but to answer Peter's question: is Jesus saying this to us or to everyone? — Yes!
The faith that is shared by Abraham and Sarah, by those first disciples of Jesus, by the little flock of Christians to whom Luke’s gospel speaks, is a faith that calls us to be dressed for action, speaking out on the issues of our day. It is a faith that calls us to be politically active, fiscally generous, and compassionate in every area of our life as we journey together toward the promised land. Christ calls us to respond gratefully, with love that risks, love that gives, love that answers, love that never stops hoping for the beauty of heaven, and never stops seeking to show that beauty here on earth.
While “Have No Fear. Little Flock” has not really stayed with me over the years, another song that relates to todays lesson, I think, has: It’s a Curtis Mayfield song from the 1960s that echoes the spirituals style in the African-American tradition. Mayfield titled his song “People Get Ready.” I bet you know it. The lines speak of faith:
People get ready, There's a train a comin'.
You don't need no baggage, you just get on board.
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin'.
You don't need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.
People get ready for the train to Jordan,
Picking up passengers from coast to coast.
Faith is the key Open the doors and board them,
There’s room for all Amongst the loved the most.
“All you need is faith,” Curtis Mayfield assures us.
That is where it starts, isn’t it?
The certainty of God’s favor, revealed, lived, died, raised, and ascended in Jesus.
It is only after this promise that we can imagine any kind of concept of what our treasure might be.
What is the power behind life?
Having faith makes it possible to be prepared for and
become an actual participant in God’s kingdom.
Only with faith, we are able to hear its sweet song.
Bill Hattendorf, Lay Preacher
Prelude: An aside before we start with the biblical lessons at hand: Tomorrow is Memorial Day. We don’t say Happy Memorial Day, because it honors the dead who gave their lives for their country. Come November, you can say Happy Veteran’s Day to all the living veterans who served.
Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day, as a day to decorate the graves of the fallen veterans. Observance started in remembrance of those who died in the Civil war, known in some Southern circles as the “War Between the States,” or the “Recent Unpleasantness.” Those who sacrificed their lives in the service of our nation in any war were added after their wars, and since 9/11, there has been more mention of those who died in the line of duty in emergency services.
I’ve been fortunate, not losing anyone in my recent ancestry, although every generation has served in some war up through Vietnam. My great-grandfather, John Pender McLeod, served in Gettysburg and elsewhere, belonged to a Vermont Regiment he joined in Brattleboro.
Tonight I will be up in Keene, New Hampshire, on the town square, helping fellow veterans light candles that we put out in red Solo cups all around the square, more than two thousand of them. (cleaning up whatever is left at dawn.) Each candle represents someone who died in the service of his or her country, mostly from New England, but some from beyond as well. We read the name of each person as we take the flame out to a place in the square. One of the candles will represent Fred Hopson, my best buddy in the Army: we trained side by side through Basic and Advanced training, sat next to each other on the plane to Vietnam, served in country together, but he was killed during the Cambodian campaign. I still miss him, and I will honor him and others this Memorial Day who gave their last full measure for God and Country.
Now on to today’s lessons:
Just prior to the beginning of today’s first reading from Acts, Paul and his companions seem to be at a loss for where to go next with the preaching of the gospel. They stumble around the region running into one barrier after another, blocked, we’re told, by the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of Jesus. In today’s reading from Acts, Paul receives a vision in the night, a vision requiring interpretation; requiring a community of faith. The early church faced a tough question as it worked to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission – the spread of the Gospel to all the world.
Some evangelists in the early church understood this Great Commissionas a call to require Gentiles to convert to Judaism, specifically through circumcision – a move that caused many to reject the Gospel. The Council of Jerusalem was called to consider the question, and in the end, this Council of apostles and elders decided that Christ had sent them not to convert the world to Judaism as such, but to bring salvation and the forgiveness of sins to all people, where they were and as whom they were. They were required to transfigure their hearts, not their physical appearance in any way, and accept Christ not as the messiah of the Hebrews but as the savior of the whole world. The invitation is to share the divine Trinitarian life, as it’s
imagined in our second reading today from Revelation 21.
In today’s Gospel of John, it is the last evening that Jesus spends with the disciples before his death. Here, Jesus tries to show them two elements of reality that are difficult to hold
together: he is going away, yet he will not leave them orphaned.
Jesus says, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me / because I live, you also will live.”
The disciples have questions, of course, like: “How is it
that you’ll reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” maybe expectating Jesus to reveal secrets.
But Jesus isn’t interested in hiding knowledge from anyone. While the world will not see him any longer, it will see his followers. To keep the word of Jesus means to keep his commandments. It is to wash one another's feet, to love one another. As the disciples keep the word of Jesus, they will be a community characterized by mutual regard, love and service.
Throughout Jesus’ farewell message, he makes it clear that followers love him by serving others. Jesus' love language here is “acts of service.” Although we might distinguish between loving Jesus and keeping his word, and imagine that we can do one but not the other, Jesus doesn’t recognize that distinction. The clause here in John is a condition of fact: “Those who love me will keep my word” ... Love for Jesus is love in action.
Whether the disciples know it or not, to live that kind of love, they will need the constant presence of God in their midst. Jesus offers that presence with three different promises.
First, he says of himself and the Father about those who love him: “We will come and make our home with them.” From the first chapter of this gospel, we’re told that prior to anyone's love for Jesus, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” It’s saying that no one would be able to love Jesus if the Father had not first loved the world enough to send his Son into it.
The “cohabitation” that Jesus speaks of is not a reward for good behavior. It is simply a statement of where God likes to spend time. It hearkens back to the first chapter of the gospel as well as forward to the future imagined in Revelation where it says: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” So Jesus speaks of the home that the Father will make with those who love him. He promises the guidance of the Holy Spirit as his followers remember him.
Second, Jesus announces the advent of the Spirit among the believers. During the time between his leave-taking and life in the new Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit “will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” The Holy Spirit was to guide the disciples and the church about their experiences of Jesus, and it guides us as we seek to let our love for him show up in the ways we relate to others. The Spirit helps all of us disciples understand Jesus and his word and to love Jesus by keeping his word on behalf of the world.
Finally, Jesus gives his own peace to those he is about to leave. The gospel of John includes no mention of peace until Jesus speaks it here, on the eve of his death. He describes the peace he offers as his own and says that he gives it “not as the world gives.” He will offer it again and again as he appears to the disciples after the resurrection. While he doesn’t describe the peace he offers, from his words here in John, we may conclude that his peace offers the disciples both comfort for troubled hearts and courage in the midst of fear. Throughout the events of his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, as well as in the resurrection, Jesus will embody the peace he offers here.
So why tell the disciples all this now? Recall the disciple’s question: “How is it that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” It tells us that there are three ways those who love Jesus will continue to see and know him after he goes away:
• In the home that the Father and the Son make with them,
• In the work of the Spirit to call to mind what Jesus taught, and
• In their ongoing experience of peace that comes from him and not from the world.
Jesus tells them ahead of time so that they may believe.
As the events of the immediate – and distant – future unfold, Jesus' followers will be able to trust that God – the One who loved them enough to send the Son – still loves them and still seeks to dwell with them. They will know they are not orphaned.
Maybe the most profound moment in this passage – and probably the most familiar – comes in verse 27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Peace is a commodity we sorely need in our world and is absent for far too many. But into this talk about his upcoming absence, Jesus reassures the disciples, who were fearful about his
departure, that they won’t be left alone, and he bestows peace on them.
He doesn’t just gently wish them peaceful lives – he gives them peace. This is not a wish. This is a gift. It is a gift of
profound importance at this moment in that journey of Jesus and the disciples. Surely he could foresee the turmoil they’d face when he was gone, and he does all he can to prepare them for the next part of the journey. Peace is such an important element of John’s gospel. And, like love, peace is a mark of true
discipleship that is required of disciples – both then and now.
This is not a passive peace. It is an active working toward peace in multiple situations. This Spirit and peace will propel the disciples and the church into active discipleship and mission. It is with the presence of this peace, given by God in Jesus, which enables the disciples and us to live lives of faithfulness.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid,” he said. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.”
In recent weeks we’ve been shocked, again, by the latest mass shooting (this time in New Zealand); we see the stunned people in the midwest losing everything in historic flooding. We get nightly reports on the horrors of war – wherever it is this week. A refugee crisis seems to be a constant somewhere. It’s not unlike the old Kingston Trio song about “They’re rioting in Africa, they’re starving in Spain …” On top of all that, many of us suffer tragedies on a more personal level.
It seems quite natural for us to ask then, “Why?” Why did this have to happen to this person? Perhaps the victim was a good, loving person. Meanwhile we hear of scoundrels who live in relative happiness and prosperity. We question God’s goodness and fairness. Sometimes we might even doubt His existence. It’s the classic philosophic problem of evil: How can an all-good and all-powerful God allow good people to suffer and wicked people to prosper?
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus gives us some answers to these difficult questions.
In the context of the Gospel of Luke, in the chapter just before this, Jesus used an illustration of a man who is going to be dragged into court with a losing lawsuit against him. If he is smart, Jesus says, he will quickly settle with his opponent before it’s too late. His point being that we all have a debt of sin toward God. If we are aware of our situation, we will be quick to get right with God before we come into judgment.
Now in today’s Gospel, Luke reports, “on the same occasion,” people reported to Jesus about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. The idea of Pilate's mingling the Galileans own blood with their offerings must have meant a massacre of Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem. We don’t know the why, but it corresponds with other historical writings about Pilate's brutality. And the verse does offer an ominous characterization of the Roman governor in advance of his appearance in Jesus' trial.
Then Jesus brings up another tragedy from their recent history, “the tower of Si-lo-am,” apparently a tower in the wall around Jerusalem that must have collapsed without warning and crushed 18 hapless Jerusalemites.
Jesus comments on these news stories of his time. It almost seems a little like gossiping. Just as in our time, narratives of destruction and distress capture the attention. As always, Jesus is telling us not just to look out but is asking us to look in; He is concerned not just with what is going on in our heads but wants us to look at what is happening in our hearts and ask how God is opening us to compassion, prompting us to repentance and leading us to new life.
I think Jesus figured he was speaking here to people who probably didn’t apply much spiritual truth to themselves. From His reply, we can also guess that these men were smugly thinking that those who suffered such tragedies were deserving of God’s judgment, whereas the fact that they had been spared such tragedies meant that they were pleasing to God.
Jewish belief held that whatever evil befell a person was a punishment for sin. So the more a person had to suffer, the greater their sinning must be!
But Jesus rejects this simplistic notion and corrects the view by showing that we all are sinners worthy of God’s judgment. Twice here He drives it home asking whether those who suffered were greater sinners? “I tell you, no,” He says, “but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
In emphasizing repentance, I think, Jesus means a turning around toward God and one’s neighbor.
Then Jesus tells this parable about the fig tree that underscores the point: If you don’t repent, you will soon face God’s judgment.
This short parable about a tree speaks of imminent judgment. We’re reminded of the Advent lessons about John the Baptist as Luke uses similar images earlier in his third chapter: “Even now,” Luke quotes the Baptizer, “the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
These tree parables tend to reinforce ideas in the first half of today’s lesson. Here a cultivated yet unproductive tree may continue to live even without bearing fruit, only because it has been granted additional time to do what it is supposed to do. Unless it begins to bear fruit (used here as an image of repentance), the result will be its just and swift destruction.
Like Jesus' earlier words responding to recent tragedies, the parable warns against false reassurance. Just because you have not been cut down, don’t presume that you are bearing fruit.
The tone of the parable emphasizes that patience and mercy temporarily keep judgment at bay. The role of the gardener offers a crucial picture of this patience and mercy. The tree has not been left to its own devices. Everything possible is being done to get it to act as it should. Correspondingly, God does not leave people to their own resources but encourages their repentance.
It would be tempting to talk about allegorical interpretations of this parable – identifying the vineyard owner as God, the gardener as Jesus, and the tree as … whomever we wish would hurry up and repent – but I don’t know that that’s such a good idea – I think that strips the parable of its power and maybe produces some confusion.
Nowhere else in the books of the Luke author does the writer imply that Jesus tries to pacify that Old Testament God who is too eager to clean house.
Instead, I think part of the parable's power comes through the suspense it generates. Will fruit emerge in time to thwart the ax? How will this season of second chances play itself out? How do the gardener's efforts make the tree's existence a state of grace and opportunity? (Tune in next Sunday when we bring you more Days of Our Lives!)
So, rather than asking the question “Why?” with regard to suffering, perhaps we should ask the question, “What?” What does this tragedy teach me? I think Jesus’ answer is: Tragedies should teach us that since death and judgment are imminent, we need to be ready through true repentance.
You know, Jesus could have used this occasion to jump into a critique of Pilate’s cruel ways, but He’d have missed the spiritual opportunity.
He could have plunged into a philosophical discussion of the problem of evil, but His listeners would have gone away unchanged.
Instead, Jesus took this general topic and homed in on the consciences of those who had raised the subject. He applies it to them twice, and then He further drives it home with the parable.
Jesus seizes on these two calamities that were probably subjects of recent conversation around the local watering hole – one an instance of state-sanctioned terror, one a random accident. It’s tempting to compare these events with happenings in our time like nightclub fires and ferry sinkings and earthquakes and mass shootings from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Charleston or New Zealand.
Any of these tragedies saw people snuffed out with little warning and mostly no clearly apparent reason. These events lead the rest of us to feel how precarious our existence is. Jesus implies that the victims did nothing wrong, nothing that caused their demise. Life is just as chancy as it can be nasty and short.
Although these events might allow Jesus an opportunity to defend God against charges of mismanaging the universe, he does not go that route. He only implies that we mustn’t equate tragedy with divine punishment. Sin doesn’t make atrocities come. They just come, no matter what some televangelists say or whom they might blame.
What life's fragility does do, Jesus says, is give it urgency. Jesus turns attention away from disasters, victims, and "why?" questions to talk to those of us who so far have survived the hazards of the universe and of human society. We shouldn’t mistake our good fortune as evidence of God’s special blessing.
When Jesus says, twice here, that unless you repent you will perish like those others did, he does not promise that the godless will be struck by an asteroid. He refers to death in the sense of the destruction of one's soul. He emphasizes the suddenness with which this death comes.
Just as the victims of Pilate or the tower or more recent tragedies did not enjoy the luxury of choosing the time of their demise, likewise the unrepentant will suddenly find they have delayed too long and lost themselves.
Is Jesus exploiting tragedy here to score theological points? Yeah, I think so – to make a point – He certainly capitalizes on recent horrors to stress the suddenness of death and the unpredictability of life. In today’s world we’re used to the fear mongering that politicians and others whip up after many a natural and unnatural disaster.)
But notice the approach that Jesus takes is along a slightly different path. He doesn’t promise freedom from calamity, but urges his audience against false self-assurances. If fragilness of life demands speed, demands urgency, that urgency shows that life itself has carved out an opportunity for us to jump on God's
graciousness, as the parable suggests.
So what are we to take away from this lesson?
I think probably we should each examine our own lives and look for fruit. There’s the fruit of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5, or the fruit of John 4:36 that you store up for eternal life. Or as John 15 reminds us that it is not possible to bear fruit apart from the Branch, Jesus, for apart from Him we do nothing.
There are many types of fruit that could be examined: the fruit of giving, praying, righteousness, forgiveness, tithing, discipling, leading others to Christ, missionary support, etc. Each is different, but in a sense, each is from the same tree, the same Lord.
Each of us is different with different gifts and fruit (I’ll refrain from likening us to fruit salad), but we are all of the same body.
Let’s use what God has given us for His glory, to bear fruit, and to further His Kingdom.
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