Tag Archives: spirituality

Two Commands: Simple but Challenging

Most people, whether they are Christian or not, are aware of what we often refer to as the “Greatest Commands.” These are the two commands of loving God and loving neighbor. They sound so simple and in fact, they are pretty simple. However, these two great commands are also very challenging and sometimes it seems like our assumed familiarity with these commands obscures the challenge. So allow me to poke, prod, and really go all preacher on us for a few minutes.

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Years ago I was traveling through Illinois down the very boring stretch of Interstate 57 and after sever cups of coffee, nature was calling. So trying to make the most of my stop, I pulled into a Cracker Barrel restaurant thinking I would get a bite to eat while also stopping to use the restroom. Now I’ve ate at a many of Cracker Barrel restaurants in my lifetime and the men’s room is always to the left and the women’s to the right. So with nature really desperately calling, I glanced up as I entered the restroom to my left and saw the sign that said “Men” on it. 

So I entered into the restroom and seeing as how desperately nature was calling, I just saw a stall and opened the door so that I could take care of business. However, it was in the middle of taking care of business that it dawned on me, “Rex, why aren’t there any urinals in this restroom?” That was about the moment when beads of sweat began forming on my forehead as I heard the sound of a couple of women entering this restroom. Apparently my ability to read and interpret a simple sign such as the gender of a restroom was not as accurate as I assumed.

Now let me share a more important point with you: I suspect that for many people, including myself, these two great commands of loving God and loving neighbor have become so familiar that we glance at them, assume we know what Jesus is saying. However, could it be that our assumption is a little off… perhaps a lot?

In Matthew 22, the occasion is a rather dubious question. The Pharisees and Sadducees have already tried entrapping Jesus with questions about paying taxes to Ceasar and the resurrection of the dead, so now they send in a lawyer to literally ask which commandment in the Torah is most important. However, Jesus answers correctly by quoting the Shēma from Deuteronomy 6 saying in v. 37, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind.” This was the correct answer because obeying Torah was all about loving God.

“Jesus becomes our interpretive lens for how we understand the teachings of the law and in fact, the teachings of all scripture, and how we love both God and neighbor.”

Yet this is where everything gets interesting because Jesus didn’t stop with the Shēma. Instead he continues to answer the question with two other points. In v. 39 Jesus quotes from Leviticus 19 to say that there is a second great command, “You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.” So now loving God is impossible without loving our neighbors and likewise, when we love our neighbors we are loving God. Obeying both commands happens by doing the teachings of the Law and Prophets. This is why Jesus says in v. 40 “All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

That seems strait-forward except that there is a twist here. Jesus has taken the role of a prophet calling people to repentance with the promised hope of coming salvation. In doing so, Jesus comes as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets which mentioned during his sermon preached on a mountain in Galilee (cf. Matt 5:17). So not only is Jesus disclosing the interpretive lens through which he understands the Law and the Prophets, Jesus is also living is the embodiment of the Law and the Prophets. Now Jesus becomes our interpretive lens for how we understand the teachings of the law and in fact, the teachings of all scripture, and how we love both God and neighbor.

But I’m not sure all Christians like this. We gather around the Lord’s Table in sanctuaries for worship where we confess through song and prayer that Jesus is Lord and hear the word of God proclaimed to us through scripture and sermon but does that transcend the way we live. Do our beliefs and values really become Christ-like?

Less than a hundred years ago there were Christians living in America that defended the racist and discriminatory practices against Blacks in this nation. Every person, Christian or not, can look back on this awful history and see just how badly these Christians failed in living the great commands. But today, in the name of what is supposedly good and politically beneficial, there are Christians who will defend unjust practices against people seeking to migrate into this nation from other countries… practices that have now rendered great harm by separating children from their parents in immigration detention facilities. This happens despite what scripture has to teach us about treating “foreigners and aliens”, despite what scripture teaches us about showing mercy, and despite how Jesus treated the Samaritans and Gentiles (enemies of the Israelites). This happens despite the fact that Jesus tells us we are to love God by loving our neighbors as ourselves.

So I wonder if a hundred years from now, a generation of Christians will look on this generation and wonder how our generation could so badly miss the most simple teaching of Jesus just we wonder about those Christians in the 1950’s during Jim Crow? The good news though is that just as there were Christians during the twentieth century that defended racism, there were Christians knew such racism was wrong and that loving God and loving neighbor by following Jesus meant loving Black people as themselves. For that reason I am also confident that there are plenty of Christians who understand the denial of justice and mercy towards foreigners is wrong and that loving God and loving neighbor by following Jesus means loving all foreigners as ourselves.

May we have the moral courage to hear and obey Jesus when says, “You must love the Lord your God with all your hear, with all your being, and with all your mind… You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

Discipleship: Jesus Calls… …We Follow

Discipleship Series Pic “When Christ calls a man, he bid him come and die,” wrote the German theologian, pastor, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his influential classic The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer understood perhaps more so than many contemporary Christians that following Jesus may call for our death — martyrdom — as a witness of Jesus. For his own commitment in following Jesus led him to lead what became known as the Confessing Church which became a movement resisting Nazi power, which ended for Bonhoeffer on the gallows at Flossenbürg Concentration Camp on April 9, 1945 at the young age of thirty-nine.

This coming Sunday, August 5th, I am starting a new and fairly short, four week, message series for the Newark Church of Christ on the subject of discipleship. While we will likely never be called to suffer any physical persecution, much less death, for following Jesus here in America (or at least anytime soon), we are nonetheless called to follow Jesus and this call is always counter-cultural. Discipleship is a life of living-sacrifice and obedience unto Jesus whom we confess as Lord. As I wrote in a Wineskins article back in 2013, Discipleship or following Jesus is about “learning to living in the way of Jesus.”

In this message series on discipleship, my aims to help the church (re)imagine the sort of kingdom vision Jesus is calling us to follow him in living, and broadly what that requires of us. In doing so, this series will cover four passages of scripture, one from each Gospel, beginning with Luke 4:14-30 followed by Mark1:14-20, Matthew 22:34-40, and John 13:1-18. Also, if you are someone who enjoys reading then here are two book recommendations that deal with the subject of discipleship.

  1. Scot McKnight, One Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010. A very practical book, the author explores how following Jesus and living the kingdom life relates to relevant life issues such as love, peace, and church, and even sex and vocation. This is a book that I have given to students graduating from high school or already in college because it deals with challenges and question everyone faces in adult life.
  2. Lee C. Camp, Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008. Though still accessible reading, Camp offers a primer on what it means to be a Christian. The book serves as a counter vision to the easy pop-Christianity that has so easily co-opted American idealism, going back to scriptures and the cross-shaped vision Jesus calls people to follow him in living.

Surprise Justice: Mercy, Not Sacrifice

We live in a society that is severely lacking in the ability to show much mercy, if any at all. I won’t spend time trying to defend or explain it. I’m just sharing this observation up front because as a pastor, this is what I come with as I enter the text of Genesis 4:1-16.*

Surprise Justice PictureYou likely know the story of Cain and Abel. It’s the first recorded account of murder in the Bible. Cain becomes jealous of his brother Abel, who presented a more acceptable offering to the Lord, so Cain took his brother out.

Literally, Cain took his brother out. He murdered his very own brother and the way the text reads, it appears to be a very calculated and cold-blooded killing. But this is exactly where the story becomes real interesting. You see, after the Lord confronts Cain with his brother’s murder, the Lord notifies Cain that he has come under a curse. For Cain’s part, he believes this curse will end in other people (whoever those people are) hunting him down and killing him. That’s understandable because that’s how people often pursue justice… an eye for an eye and a pound of flesh for a pound of flesh.

But justice in the form of blood for blood is not how this story goes. Cain is still cursed and he will have to live with that fact, brought about by his own evil deed, for the rest of his life. Nobody is ever going to trust him anymore (who would?), so he’ll live his life as a wanderer without any place to call home. But the Lord will not allow anyone to avenge Abel’s death by killing Cain. Instead the text tells us in v. 15, “…The Lord put a sign on Cain so that no one who found him would assault him.”

With this sign or mark placed on Cain, the text introduces to a surprising form of justice. The sign expresses both guilt and mercy for Cain (Brueggemann, Genesis, p. 60). In other words, justice here means that Cain is still guilty which comes with consequences of not have a place to call home anymore. However, justice doesn’t mean Cain’s guilt requires vengeance either. Instead, with this sign, the Lord is extending mercy to Cain. This sign of justice includes mercy. In fact, throughout the Old Testaement justice, often closely tied with righteousness, isn’t just a forensic concept concerned with legal proceedings but is associated with kindness that is expressed in showing mercy (Weinfeld, Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East, pp. 35-36). So in this story, the Lord is not only showing mercy to Cain but also serving notice that he expects others to show such mercy too.

This means we must thing about what it means to show mercy. So consider Exodus 34:6 says, “The Lord! The Lord! a God who is compassionate and merciful, very patient, full of great loyalty and faithfulness” (cf. Num 14:18; Ps 103:7-14; Jer 32:18). This confession of faith was repeated throughout the Old Testament because it was fundamental to Israel’s core understanding of who the Lord is and how he deals with people. The Lord is a merciful God and deals with people in merciful ways. In fact, even the Law of Moses was a way of ensuring that Israel lived a righteous life that expressed mercy. Of course, like any law, application takes wisdom and some people didn’t get this. The Pharisees focused on keeping the letter or the law to the neglect of showing mercy and so, when they encountered Jesus settings aside the law in deference to mercy, they questioned Jesus. So Jesus responded in Matthew 9:13, quoting the prophet Hosea, saying “Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice…”

Do we understand how important showing mercy is?

As I suggested earlier, we seem to live in a culture that severely lacks in the ability to show mercy and sadly, this sometimes includes Christians too. Now I’ll explain some more because people seem more preoccupied with upholding law and national boarders than showing mercy to foreigners and undocumented immigrants — even though scripture is full of passages calling for mercy upon such people. I don’t know what the answer is to illegal immigration in America and as a pastor, it’s not my job to have that answer but I do know that people are called to show mercy. Yet the rhetoric I so often encounter lacks any imagination for what it means to show mercy. And for Christians, this is the antithesis of who Jesus is and the life he has called us to live as his followers. Or are Christians still interested in following Jesus?

So Christians… Mercy is not a political issue for us to debate, it is a God-ordained virtue for us who follow Jesus to learn and live as an example of what the kingdom of God is like. When Jesus comes again, we will not be judged on whether we follow CNN, FOX, and MSNBC News and whether we support the President of the United States and other elected officials. But we will be judged on whether we have followed Jesus and Jesus went about showing mercy, even to the point of suffering death on the cross. That is the game-changer. us then, learning to be merciful means we must start with God’s word embodied in the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, and guided by the Holy Spirit in the community of other followers of Jesus where we can discern together what it means to show mercy and not sacrifice.


* You might also be interested in listening to the sermon podcast of the message I preached on Genesis 4:1-16 called Surprise Justice, which can be accused on the website of the Newark Church of Christ.

Free Falling: The Slavery of Self

July 4, 2018 is coming soon. Two weeks from today America will celebrate another Independence Day with parades, backyard barbecues, fireworks, and so much more. This is the festive holiday in which Americans celebrate one of her most cherished values, freedom.

Free Falling PictureFreedom as Americans understand, is a “We the people” thing that embraces democracy and individual rights. In other words, America regards freedom as the ability of each person to think, speak, and act without restraint so long as such expression neither harms nor violates the freedom of another individual. So every person is individually autonomous and decides for themselves the sort of life they wish to live.

I’m not sure where this idea of freedom originates but we find it thoroughly embedded within modernism. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant defined freedom as, “…the alone unoriginated [sic] birthrite of man, and belongs to him by force of his humanity; and is independence on the will and co-action of every other in so far as this consists with every other person’s freedom” (The Metaphysics of Ethics). Freedom then, according to Kant, is the right of self-rule for every individual by virtue of their birth. In other words, freedom is a part of the created order of life. Among America such freedom is also understood as a truth that all people have posses by virtue of their creation. As stated in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

While freedom from the tyranny of oppressive rulers is a good thing and something I do appreciate, there is a problem for Christians with how freedom is understood in America. To put it bluntly, nowhere in the Bible is this understanding of freedom found. That won’t stop some people from misusing the Bible by proof-texting a passage of scripture from here or there, to make it affirm the American idea of freedom. Nevertheless, freedom as it is generally understood in America is not a part of the Bible. Those that try making it so offer one more example of how people co-opt the Bible to a later developed worldview. The Bible has a different view of what freedom entails but understanding that requires going back to the beginning Genesis and the original sin.

“The original and continuous sin is taking possession of the power to decide for ourselves what is good and evil or right and wrong. Yet neither Israel nor anyone else, including us red-blooded Americans, were ever created to live independent of God’s rule.”

You might recall how after placing the man and woman in the garden, God gave them permission to eat of any tree except the one tree known as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:15-17). So although much permission was given as to how these two people would utilize there abilities in taking care of the garden, they never were given total liberty. They were prohibited from acquiring the power to determine for themselves what is good and evil. However, the desire for having that knowledge and the freedom it appears to offer, rather than relying upon God, is too much to resist. So in comes the the serpent saying to the woman “God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). The text goes on telling us how the woman saw how good the tree would be — even for the purpose of gaining wisdom. So she eats from it and gives some to the man to eat as well.

And there it is… Verse 7 says “Then they both saw clearly…” They got what they wanted but at what cost?

Since I read the Genesis creation narrative as a text offered to Israel during her exile, the story is more than just about the origin of sin. The sin here is the sin that Israel continued making and it’s the sin that we continue making as well. The original and continuous sin is taking possession of the power to decide for ourselves what is good and evil or right and wrong. Yet neither Israel nor anyone else, including us red-blooded Americans, were ever created to live independent of God’s rule. As people created in the image and likeness of God, we were made to live dependent upon our Creator and that dependence means listening and obeying his word.

What America considers to be freedom is the first form of slavery. You see, once we take the power of knowing good and evil so that we can determine for ourselves what is right and wrong, freedom becomes a good we never can fully acquire. There is always another obstacle in the way… another war to fight, an appeal to make before the Supreme Court, and some more money spent chasing “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” So freedom has become the pursuit of removing anything that hinders or restrains us from living as we have determined for ourselves. This pursuit itself then becomes the object of desire (Highfield, God, Freedom, & Human Dignity, 103-104) which makes it an idol we serve, making us slaves to the grind.

But for those of us, like me, who love freedom, there is some good news. Jesus once said to his followers, “You are my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:31-32). So if it is freedom we want, then know that it is Jesus who gives us the opportunity to be free again. This opportunity isn’t a path where we can say whatever we want, live however we like, chasing after life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Instead, Jesus gives us the opportunity to live life as God created us to live, free from the tyranny and slavery of our autonomous selves. With this opportunity we gain the freedom to truly live as humans by recognizing Jesus as Lord so that God may rule over us again. That’s why Jesus says that we’ll know the truth that sets us free if we remain faithful to his teaching. True freedom is living in submission to King Jesus, as his servants, by remaining faithful to his teaching so that God’s will is done in our lives as it is in heaven.

Life Together: The Life God Created Us to Live

In Confessions, Saint Augustine mentions how some people ask the question, “What was God doing before he made the heavens and earth?” He answers by basically saying that God was preparing hell for people who ask such questions. I appreciate Augustine’s humorous response because like the question of whether God can build a rock so big that he can’t move it, such questions are irrelevant and ridiculous. Good theology reflects instead upon God’s revelation of himself to us and how is at work among us. Such theological reflection allows us to also understand how we are called to serve as participants in the mission of God.

Life Together PictureIn reflecting on God and his work, we gain insight into the life for which we have been created and are being redeemed to live as followers of Jesus Christ.* So when we come to the Genesis creation narrative, we discover that the heavens and earth are the cosmic temple in which God dwells as the king (Wenham, Rethinking Genesis 1-11, 16; Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, 83-84). Yet God is at work doing even more.

Genesis one reminds us that what God has created is good. So we must reject any ideas of platonic dualism in which physical creation is something bad that we need to overcome or escape. Instead, we happily find ourselves among creation and here is our first hint as to why… “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and everything crawling on the ground” (Gen 1:28). So among the garden, God is cultivating a life that is sustainable and enjoyable for all of creation and we are to participate with God in the cultivation of this life.

“The Genesis creation narrative imagines us as part of God’s community participating with God in the continued cultivation of his community.”

Chapter two of Genesis offers another portrayal of God creating that expands further on this life that God has created us to live. First, we are told in vv. 15-17, “The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it. The Lord God commanded the human, ‘Eat your fill from all of the garden’s trees; but don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day you eat from it, you will die!'” Walter Bruegemann identifies three characteristics of the life God envisions here vocation, permission, and prohibition (Genesis, p. 46). In other words, God has created us to work and gives us much freedom to use our abilities but God also places some restrictions. Secondly, the male is alone and in need of a suitable “helper” (vv. 18, 20) who will become “one” (v. 24) as they multiply in offspring. The idea of a “helper” does not imply any sense of inferiority since elsewhere in scripture the Hebrew word ‘êzer is used to describe God as a helper of Israel and the Bible is not ascribing an inferior status to God. The point is that God has created us to live in community with others.

So God is at work creating an enduring community that continues growing and developing. The Genesis creation narrative imagines us as part of God’s community participating with God in the continued cultivation of his community. Absent here are any notions of the individuality and autonomy that says we can live life apart from the help of God and each other. But do we understand what that means?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter…” (Life Together, p. 27) In other words, if we love our vision of community more than we love the community then we destroy the community we actually live among. That seems very important because if we’re honest, I think sometimes we are more interested in our vision of community rather than listening to God. That is, we don’t mind the work it takes to cultivate community and we certainly love the idea of freedom but we treat the notion of having any restrictions on our freedom as an insult to our human dignity. Yet, we seem better at destroying the community of God’s creation than cultivating a life that is sustainable and enjoyable for all of God’s creation. So maybe it’s time that we start listening to God again as to how we should care for his creation rather than playing God by determining for ourselves what is right and wrong.

As a pastor, I believe in Jesus and I believe that it is ultimately God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus where we learn how to live as God’s true community. It is Jesus who teaches us how to love the community… Love God, love our neighbors, and even our enemies. Is that what we want? And if so, are we going to listen to Jesus? Or are we more in love with our own vision of community than joining with God in cultivating the life Jesus gave his life for?


* You might also be interested in listening to the sermon podcast of the message I preached on Genesis 2:15-25 called Life Together, which can be accused on the website of the Newark Church of Christ.

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The Imago Dei: It’s Who We Are

Someone once said, “If you want to change the world, tell a different story.” That’s because storytelling is a very formative means of shaping our imaginations for how we live. In fact, Robert McKee says, “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world.” So if you want people to see the world differently and live differently, then the need to hear a different story.

Imago DeiA different story is what the Genesis Creation Narrative offers us.* In a world where ideas and objects are idolized as gods, the Genesis story of creation reminds us that there is only one God who has created humanity in his image and likeness. The point of the story is not to offer us a scientific account of how creation came about within history. Though we may have many questions about the scientific origins of human life within the history of time, forcing the text to answer all these questions — an issue that was never an issue among the Ancient Near-Eastern context — only obscures us from the real question of who we are as God’s creation and what this means for how we should live.

Ultimately, the vision for understanding our existence centers on our creation in the divine image. As Genesis 1:26-27 says, “The God said, ‘Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.’ God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them” (CEB).

“Our value as human beings comes from God who has made us all equally in his image and likeness.”

Genesis chapter one, which vv. 26-27 occurs within, portrays a cosmic temple scene in which God dwells among his creation as a king (Wenham, Rethinking Genesis 1-11, 16; Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, 83-84). This temple imagery has implications for our own creation in the image of God, as it means we are the royal subjects of God the king who by nature possess wealth and prestige. So even though the recent royal wedding of Meghan Markle to Prince Harry locates royalty within a certain bloodline, the truth is that every person by virtue of their created nature possesses royalty. So just as God has given us the responsibility of serving as stewards of his creation, we serve as his royal priests with the vocational task of ensuring that life flourishes as God intends.

To this end, we must become more discerning about how God created us to live life. Currently, we live in a world that often assigns human value based on external factors… wealth, athleticism, intelligence, race and ethnicity, and certainly sexuality. Such external values are nothing but lies! Our value as human beings comes from God who has made us all equally in his image and likeness.

There are many implications of possessing the divine image that need our attention. I’ll just briefly mention two.

  1. Sexuality. The value of both men and women is not determined by sexual willingness and performance, the physical shapes and abilities of their bodies, or by their specific genders. Both men and women are equally bear the divine image, the image and likeness that gives them an equal value of immeasurable wealth.
  2. Discrimination. The value of people are not determined by the color of their skin, their ethnic and national origin, social-economic status, or religious and political beliefs. All people are born bearing the divine image and so there is never any place nor time when racism and discrimination is acceptable.

So rather than seeing people as sexual objects to overcome for our own perverse satisfactions or viewing people as unequals whom we can oppress for our own gain, we must learn to love all people as subjects — human beings — made in the image of God. We must also learn to see ourselves as people made in the image and likeness of God. This is the beginning point for living the life God has created us to live. And when we learn to regard all people, including ourselves, as people who bear the divine image, then we’ll learn to start seeing people as Jesus sees people and do for people as Jesus does for people.


* You might also be interested in listening to the sermon podcast of the message I preached on Genesis 1:1, 26-31 called Imago Dei, which can be accused on the website of the Newark Church of Christ.

A Memorial Message For a Child

I recently spoke at the memorial service for a young man who was murdered. I did not know the man and only recently had come to know his mother, who asked me to speak. Undertaking the pastoral role of peaking at any memorial service, where family and friends are understandably upset, if enough of a challenge. However, when the deceased person is a child and was a victim of a violent crime, there challenge seems even greater. My role is never to judge but to comfort. How does a pastor do that and speak not only to the hope God extends in Jesus Christ but also to the desire for justice?

I have included the manuscript of the message I shared at the memorial service. However, I have changed the names of all people and locations as well as the dates in order to protect the privacy of the actual family. I am sharing this manuscript for whatever help it offer to others, especially those called to serve in similar circumstances.


Image result for in loving memory

John Smith, Jr., passed away on January 8, 2018 in Massachusetts. John was born in Atlanta, Georgia on July 10, 1987 to his mother, Juanita Bowen, and father, John Smith, Sr. John is survived by his mother, Juanita, and his step-father, Michael Bowen, his sisters, Janice Rice and Tina Smith, his brother Alex Smith, and his auntie, Debora Stone. He was proceeded in death by his father, John Smith, Sr.

Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.” Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.” – John 11:38-44, CEB

Several days ago I sat down with John’s mother Juanita and asked her to tell me about her son. She described her son John as someone who loved to have a good time, teasing and laughing. And like any good son, that also meant teasing and laughing with his mother. But Juanita also noted how she could always count on John to help her with the little, the often thankless jobs like carrying in the groceries or just pausing to open the door for another person. I don’t know about you but where I’m from that’s what we call a “gentleman.” 

More importantly though, Juanita recalled how her son John was always “very loving and very hugging.” That sounds like a wonderful son to have.

But that’s also part of why the passing of John is so difficult, especially for his mother and his step-father. As parents, we never expect to bury our children. They’re supposed to bury us. And so no matter the age, when a child passes away there is a grief and pain that words cannot fully describe. 

Of course, this child, John is more than just a son. He’s also a brother, a nephew, and a friend to others. And to lose a brother, nephew, and friend at the young age of just thirty-two is a difficult burden to bear. 

I am also aware that John’s death was not because of an accident or illness but because someone else took his life from him in a criminal act. And so, we’re here today because a terrible injustice has occurred, an injustice committed not just against John but also against his mother and step-father… and against his brothers and sisters as well as his auntie… and even against his friends.

But I am here speaking today as one who believes in Jesus Christ. My conviction that Jesus is the Lord and Savior also means I have some convictions about the way the world works and the path of history the world will follow. What I’m getting at has to do with redemption and the need for justice and mercy along the way. 

A few minutes ago we heard a passage of scripture that recounted the time when Jesus raised a young man named Lazarus from death. Lazarus had been sick and by the time Jesus showed up, he had died from his illness. So Jesus raised him as a sign that God is at work in our world, redeeming life and will in fact bring an end to the curse of death we all face. 

So Jesus said, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” (Jn 11:40). It’s a question and it invites us to ask if we do believe. Because if we do believe then we have hope for redemption from all the grief and pain in life, including death. And if we do believe then we are right to also want justice just as God desires justice. So we do desire for the government, whom God has ordained as a lawful authority, to hold accountable those responsible for taking John’s life.

But if we believe in Jesus, we also must be people who show mercy. I’m not sure what that always looks like and it seems rather difficult to think about showing mercy to people who have acted unjustly towards us. But I also know that evil wins when our righteous anger and protest of injustice becomes hatred and vengeance. God wins when we remain steadfast in love, extending mercy just as God has shown us mercy.

All of this doesn’t make the death of John or anyone else, for that matter, any easier. To Juanita and Michael as well as to the rest of John’s family and friends, I am truly sorry that John has passed away. As a parent myself who has had a son pass away, I know that there isn’t any “getting over” such a loss. The grief and pain of losing someone you love is a terrible thing. 

What we have is hope… hope which springs from our belief in Jesus Christ, our Lord. According to the passage of scripture we read earlier, when Jesus shouted for Lazarus to come out of the grave, he did so. And one day the proclamation that God has made in his Son, Jesus Christ, and particularly through his death and resurrection, means that the grave of death is not eternal. Instead we are offered the promise of eternal life with Jesus Christ, our Lord and that is our hope.