Tag Archives: community

John 14:15-21, 1 Peter 3:13-22, Acts 17:22-31 “Words of Hope”

John 14:15-21, 1 Peter 3:13-22, Acts 17:22-31  “Words of Hope”

Caitlin Trussell – May 25, 2014

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
18I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

[See 1 Peter and Acts readings at end sermon]

 

My husband Rob has spent quite a bit of his life on the seat of a mountain bike.  In his early days, this included riding like the wind through tree-lined gullies in Nebraska as only a 10 year old with his 10 year old buddies can do.  During his brief California stint, where he met me, this included riding trail in the Santa Monica Mountains that sit between Van Nuys and Malibu.  And now, which I should be clear to say includes the last 23 years, there are few greater joys for Rob than careening around on the trails that wind throughout the Rockies and their foothills.  The last year and a half have been no exception.  In fact, the ante has gone up at our house where we now speak all things Leadville – as in the Leadville 100.  100 miles of trail at 10,000 feet above sea level just waiting to be ridden in the middle of August.  Conversation regularly includes things like dressing in light weight layers for any kind of weather, the total elevation gain of training rides that get progressively longer as August looms, and the nutrition that will sustain those few who actually make it those 100 miles.  There are a lot of moving parts in getting ready and maintaining readiness.

Because readying for Leadville is a constant hum in our home, it’s no surprise that what jumped from the pages this week is the readiness preached to us out of First Peter as we are told to, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”  And it’s no surprise that this text is paired with St. Paul hanging out with the Athenians.  He talks with them about their unnamed God.  And he lives his readiness for talking about the hope of Christ in himself.

You can likely imagine that I come into contact with a few people in any given week.  Something about running into a pastor seems to spark a certain kind of conversation.  A conversation in which I am privileged, and I truly mean privileged, to hear the deep confusion, frustration, and opinions from people about spirituality in general and Christianity in particular.

In these conversations, there is a quote that regularly bubbles up.  A quote popularly, and likely incorrectly, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.  It goes like this, “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”  When someone says this out loud in a group, the general reaction typically includes soft smiles and nods as if the meaning is well-understood.  Sometimes I’ll dig deeper with the person who offers this quote. Sometimes I find that this person has been beaten up by the words of a Bible-bearing Christian or two.  In First Peter terms, this Christian was ready to give “an accounting” of the hope in them.  However this Christian did not seem to be ready to do it with the “gentleness and reverence” also encouraged in First Peter.  And sometimes I find that this person quoting this quote struggled to find their own words to talk about gospel, the good news of Jesus, and has given up trying.  Given up trying to find words and given up on finding a community where words can be practiced with “gentleness and reverence.”

The 14th Chapter of John may help us press pause in the ironic debate about whether or not to use words.  The reading starts in verse 15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” The only commandment mentioned in whole book of John bookends our verses today.  In Chapter 13 Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another…Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”[1]

And in Chapter 15, Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you…No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends…You are my friends if you do what I command you.”[2]  Jesus words are part of several chapters that are pretty much filled with only words of Jesus.  Next time you hear that quote about preaching the gospel without words, consider that we tend to hear this as a choice; as either action OR words.  Or we tend to hear that actions are superior to words.  This is a false choice.  Jesus encourages us to love in action AND words.

My friends, words are part of this life of faith – words for us to hear and words for us to say.  It’s easy for us to get lost in our own inadequacy about which words to use.  And it’s easy to get lost in our insecurity about what using these words might mean.  It’s so easy to get lost that we also forget about the Advocate who is given to us, the Advocate who is in us.  Jesus says to the disciples and to us, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever…I will not leave you orphaned.”[3]

This Advocate is infused into us by Christ through water and word at baptism; by Christ through bread, wine, and word at the table; and by Christ through us, through people and word in the community of Christ.  Faith is infused into us through these things and people and words – faith that is practiced here in readiness to be exercised in the world.  Practicing starts in baptism, in the Lord’s Supper, and in conversation with each other.

In conversation we practice using words that describe the hope that is in us.  These conversations happen in groups and 1-on-1.  They happen spontaneously and they happen when we plan a coffee with another Christian for just such a purpose.  Sometimes these conversations start with a question about what it means to say the words of the Apostle’s Creed out loud.  Other times the conversations wonder about what Jesus on the cross means in the face of illness. And still other times the conversation struggles to find a place for words about Jesus in a world of too many words.  The bottom line is that the Advocate gives us this community to find the words to use.  In part because other people need the hope into which we’ve been drawn.    “…be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”

I dipped a toe back into Christianity almost twenty years ago.  My own frustrating efforts to find words were met by Christians in a Lutheran church.  Christians who held space for my questions and my religious scars with “gentleness and reverence.”  I desperately needed to hear words and to use them.  First to understand that the gospel, the good news of God in Christ Jesus, is for me.  And then to be ready to talk about the hope given by Christ in me.   And I desperately needed a place and group of people in which to practice these words.

The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, gives us just such a place and just such a people.  We are given to each other as church to hear a word of good news and to find words to confess that good news.  And we are given to a desperate world, inspired by the Advocate to live and to talk about the hope of Jesus Christ, the one who came for you, for us, and for the sake of the world.

 

1 Peter 3:13-22 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.
18For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you — not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

 

Acts 17:22-31 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him — though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For ‘In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’
29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”



[1] John 13:34

[2] John 15:12-14

[3] John 14:16 and 18a.

Luke 2:22-40 “Simeon, Spirit, Stay Tuned…”

Luke 2:22-40 “Simeon, Spirit, Stay Tuned…”

February 2, 2014 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

Luke 2:22-40  When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

 

Mary and Joseph are on the move again.  The first time – travel-worn and likely in the early stages labor, they made their way to Bethlehem to be counted in the census.[1]  In our story today, they are parents of only 40 days.  And they are also faithful Jews.  So they take a very, very long walk to Jerusalem, more specifically to the Temple, with their first-born son.  It’s time for Mary’s purification and for Jesus’ presentation to the Lord.

Joseph and Mary have been busy with details – from the earthy to the civic to the religious.[2]  They move into the temple cradling this child as carefully and as proudly as Julius Thomas carrying the ball into the end zone.[3] (Bet you though I couldn’t sneak in a Super Bowl reference…)

As they move into the Temple, what happens?  Simeon, having waited his whole life for this moment and guided by Holy Spirit, swoops into the Temple and scoops up the baby.   The parents likely didn’t know Simeon.  The story tells us that he was a man in Jerusalem, righteous and devout – a member of the congregation but not its designated clergy.  This was the man who swooped in, “took [Jesus] in his arms and praised God.”[4]

Simeon is fascinating.  A long-time member of the parish, he is guided by the Holy Spirit into the temple that day and starts talking about God’s salvation in Jesus.[5]  Simeon’s song sounded a certain way because of the congregation in which he was formed.  Throughout the centuries since Simeon, the personal and congregational witness of God’s whole church looks thousands of different ways – from home churches to prison congregations to cathedrals and everything in between.

In the face of such diversity between churches we are tempted to set up ideal notions of church.  Whether it’s high-church or low-church or big church or small church or rock-band church or liturgically traditional church, we all seem to have opinions one way or another about which is better.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his short, wonderful book Life Together, reminds us that ideal Christian communities do not exist but that Christ-centered ones do.[6]  Most of God’s churches are simply groups of people, very often relative strangers to each other, who are guided by the Holy Spirit and suddenly find Jesus in their arms.

Finding Jesus in their arms, in light of Simeon’s song, can sound like a lovely, soft metaphor.  Simeon’s joy, and the new life of the Christ-child, can be the unbearable lightness of being that resonates for some of us.  But in the midst of his joy, Simeon speaks challenging words too – “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”[7]

Simeon then tells Mary, “and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”  The metaphor of finding Jesus in our arms is not such a soft one in light of those words.  Finding Jesus in their arms in light of those words is more like Michelanglo’s Pieta sculpture of Mary holding the crucified Jesus – grief-stricken and shocked.

This is a complex metaphor to be sure, but what does it mean in this place, here in the congregation of Augustana with these people – some whom you may know and likely many that you do not.  Having been called among you as a pastor one year ago today, I’d like to share a little about what I see.

Augustana’s 135 year history is a bit of a rarity this far west of the Mississippi.  Some of you sitting in the pews have a generational history here that includes parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, being baptized, confirmed, married, and buried here.  And some of you relocated to Denver years ago, discovered Augustana, and have been members for years.  There is a rich regard for the history of this congregation as a place where community has been forged by the work of many of you over time, through the power of the Spirit.  This is the hard-won kind of community that builds over time.  The kind of community that naturally includes both friendships and truces, joys and disappointment, plenty and want…because, of course, there are people involved.

And many of you have been guided into this congregational community more recently.  Some of you come to heal – to sit quietly and be consoled by the sacraments of communion and baptism as well as scripture and song while Christ and his body, the church, create space for you to heal over time.  Some of you come ready to connect, roll up your sleeves and revel in doing the work of congregational and community ministry.  And some of you come dubiously, wondering what everyone seems so excited about when there is so much to believe and disbelieve in the church and outside of it.

Whatever shape we show up in and for however much time we’ve been here, we are much like Simeon.  All of us are guided by the Spirit to be together in this particular way on this particular day of church; made new again today as Jesus is handed into our arms and waiting to see what happens next.

Simeon’s song of praise as well as his words to Mary emphasize that is it the Spirit who’s in charge of what happens next.  It is the Spirit who gifts each one of us for particular work in God’s world that also includes the church.  This is good news.    So stay tuned…

Today, February 2nd, is formally called Presentation of Our Lord.  This is a day every year when the church celebrates Jesus’ moment with Simeon and Anna in the Temple and bursts into praise.  The Prophet Anna’s words are not given to us in our story today.  In a few moments we’ll sing a song of praise.  Lending our voices to Anna, we sing praise to God for the redemption of all, through the power of the Spirit in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

[Congregation sings the hymn, “How Great Thou Art”]

 



[1] Luke 2:1-7

[2] Joy J. Moore. A Working Preacher commentary on Luke 2:22-40, January 1, 2012. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1180

[3] I couldn’t resist.  It IS Super Bowl Sunday in Broncos country after all.  This is a nod toward my now not-so-secret dream to guest commentate with Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth.

[4] Luke 2:28

[5] Luke 2:27, 30

[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community (New York: Harper Collins, 1954), 26-27.

[7] Luke 2:34-35

John 20:19-31 “Doubt in Community”

John 20:19-31 “Doubt in Community”

April 7, 2013 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20  After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  21  Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  22  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  23  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  24  But Thomas (who was called the Twin  ), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”  28  Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  30  Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  31  But these are written so that you may come to believe  that Jesus is the Messiah,  the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

Very, very few people have been able see and touch the wounds of the Risen Christ as he is standing in the living room.  So, for those very few people, I celebrate what faith must look like and feel like beyond the shadow of a doubt.  There are a few more people who have told me that they have never struggled with their faith in Jesus – it just has simply always been there for them and remains with them as pure gift.  I have to imagine that this group is more widely represented in churches around the world than the first group.  Again, I celebrate the fullness of their faith with them and am grateful for the ways in which those people of great faith have impacted my own faith.

Then there’s a third group of people for whom the Gospel of John was expressly written.  Check out verse 31 again, it says that, “these [signs] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  If the number of people in the pews of the church around the world is any indication, this is by far the largest group.  While conversations and theories abound as to why this is so, the Gospel of John presumes this is so.  There are people who believe and there are people who don’t.  Just as there are today.

At Luther Seminary, I took a course called ‘Jesus the Savior and the Triune God.’  Our first reading assignment was a named Doubt: A Parable.[1]  As a class, we had a lively discussion about doubt and its place in conversations about faith.  The various opinions about whether doubt or skepticism should be part of faith conversations are missing the point.  The reality is that most conversations about Christian faith in the western world are fraught with questions and skepticism pretty much since about the 17th century and the Enlightenment.

Many of the conversations people have with me about their own faith are on the very topic of doubt – as if faith and doubt are mutually exclusive, as if faith cannot exist while doubt exists or vice versa.  But they aren’t mutually exclusive, they are connected.  It’s right here that I need to give a shout-out to something called a dialectic.   A dialectic is when you take two ideas that seem in complete opposition to other but yet they are connected.  Today, the dialectic in this sermon is faith and doubt.  One of Martin Luther’s favorite dialectics is Law and Gospel.  Rather than saying that one cannot exist while the other does, a dialectic connection acknowledges their coexistence and allows the tension between them to reveal meaning.

In the Gospel reading for today, Thomas is on the outside of faith looking in at the disciples who have seen the risen Christ.   I wonder if he’s listening to all of that excited faith-filled testimony of the rest of the group and feeling left out, feeling frustrated that he missed out and wondering if he could ever trust as they seem to trust, could ever be comforted as they seem to be comforted.  Or maybe it’s something else entirely.  Maybe Thomas thinks the disciples have truly lost it.  The trauma of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion was simply too much and they were under the power of some kind of group delusion.

Regardless of his motive and tone, we can learn from Thomas.  Not only does he own his skepticism, he talks freely about it with his friends, his community.  He struggles, wondering about the truth of the risen Christ, and the people who know him best make space and hold his doubt.  That first day in the locked house, Jesus appears to the disciples but not to Thomas and when Thomas shows up later that same day he makes his big speech about what it would take for him to believe.  Then we are told that it’s a week later, the disciples are still in the house and Thomas is still with them.  He is still with them!  He responded to the disciples with skepticism but he is still there in the house…with the disciples.

So, yes, we can learn from Thomas.  But I think today we also learn from those disciples, those disciples who hold the space for Thomas even as they hold to their witness of the resurrected Jesus.  They are true to the story as they received it without ridding their group of one who stands resolutely against what they say they saw.

A few weeks ago in the Gospel of John class, I asked everyone to break into twos or threes and talk about something that they had heard or learned.  Two people from the same pair then shared their thoughts with the larger group.  I asked them if they agreed with each other or did they agree to disagree because at that moment it was unclear.  The conversation moved on without an answer but then a hand from the pair went up after they chatted a bit more and realized that they were, indeed, in disagreement on a particular point.  Their capacity to discuss and hold this disagreement is a powerful example to us all.

When I begin teaching a class, one of the things that I like to say is that, “Jesus is Jesus; what we say about Jesus, sing about Jesus or construct about Jesus is not Jesus.”  It is so tempting, so unbearably tempting, to hold up what we say about Jesus and slip into believing that whatever it is that we say is actually Jesus.  Listen to Thomas again.  He says, “My Lord and my God.”  This claim and confession of “My Lord and My God” is the starting point.  And in saying this with Thomas, we are freed into the conversations about Jesus that deepen our faith and expand our witness of Jesus in the here and now by the power of the Spirit.

Thomas is not an example of meek acceptance of the status quo.   He stands in the middle of that house and makes a demand – a demand that allows for the possibility of faith.  And who is able to respond to Thomas’ request?  It is the risen Christ Himself.  As Thomas stands in the presence of his friends who faithfully witness to the risen Christ, it is Christ who yields to Thomas’ demand.

The story of Thomas gets at some of the most daunting dimensions of faith because it’s clear that faith is not self-generated, nor can we generate it in others.  Faith can only be generated by God in Jesus through the Spirit working through the witness that people hear.[2]  As readers of the Gospel, we are the ones who have not seen the risen Christ, we receive only the witness about Jesus.  This means that seeing is not a precondition for faith as it was for Thomas but rather “faith is evoked by words from and about Jesus…through the work of the Spirit in whom the risen Christ is present and active.”[3]

By the work of the Spirit, the risen Christ is revealing his wounds and birthing faith.  He holds out his wounded hand as he challenges us to a new reality through the scriptures.  He turns and offers love from His side as He forgives, strengthens and renews the Body of Christ, His church, to make space for faithful testimony as well as doubt.  He immerses with us into the waters of baptism as He washes through our sin and brokenness to reveal the power of His resurrecting grace.  Christ beckons us through His meal as His wounded and resurrected presence offers love and forgiveness unknown except through Him.

May God grant that you be born out of Christ’s wounded side,

and be drawn to faith in Him.

 

 



[1] John Patrick Stanley, Doubt: A Parable (2005).

[2] Craig R. Koester, Class lecture, NT3211 “The Gospel and Epistles of John” (St. Paul, MN: Luther Seminary), December 18, 2010.

[3] Craig R. Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 73.