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A Little Caesars restaurant in Fargo, North Dakota is capturing hearts and feeding the hungry with a new policy they posted with a sign in their window.
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I haven’t posted many words of wisdom from the beloved (and should be saint) Henri Nouwen, my favorite Belgian priest. He left this world in 1996, but left also a treasure trove of thoughtful, healing, and meditative words for us to remember him by. He also, in his own quest to live Christ-like, struggled to live those words in real life. I get that. I too struggle to achieve what I set out to do. But I have come to realize, thanks to saints like Nouwen that it’s in the struggle that I am working closest with God. Every step forward is moving me forward. Likewise every word I utter ought to move me - and those around me - forward.
Nouwen writes, “In Jesus, no division existed between his words and his actions, between what he said and what he did. Jesus’ words were his action, his words were events. They not only spoke about changes, cures, new life, but they actually created them. In this sense, Jesus is truly the Word made flesh; in that Word all is created and by that Word all is re-created. Saintliness means living without division between word and action. If I would truly live in my own life the word I am speaking, my spoken words would become actions, and miracles would happen whenever I open my mouth.”
Today we are going to look at two other brothers, named James and John. Like little kids asking for something they know their parents won't give them, the two work up a scheme to get something from Jesus that seemed a bit unscrupulous to the other disciples.
We find our final question in a story from Mark 10:35-45
This is an important turning point in Mark’s gospel. It’s the third time Jesus has revealed that he’ll be rejected and suffer at the hands of his own people. As Jesus begins his final journey to Jerusalem, we have to ask ourselves if we have what it takes to follow him. Like we learned last week, that entails denying ourself, taking up our cross, and doing what Jesus does – no matter the cost.
There are a few questions in this one passage. It would have been nice had Jesus stopped after asking, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they could have given the usual answers, make me see again, help me walk, or heal our friend. Heck, they could have asked him to make more wine for their party, or multiply the chicken nuggets so everyone could have seconds.
But instead the boys asked to sit next to Jesus in Heaven – the seat of power in any kingdom. The others get mad at James and John for their audacity. But not Jesus. He loves them and tolerates them, and entertains their desire with a follow up question…“Are you able to drink from my cup or share my baptism?”
Let’s think about that for a moment. “Are you able?”
To be willing is one thing. But to be able is a whole other level of commitment. I am willing to be a Christian, but am I able to be Christlike in all areas of my life? I’m willing to love people, but am I able to love all people the way Jesus did?
As he moves closer to his passion, Jesus needs to know if his disciples are faithfully committed to continuing his ministry. So he asks, “Are you able?” Three little words that should give us pause.
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I admitted last week that of all the 300 plus questions Jesus asks, this is my least favorite because it makes me doubt my commitment to my faith; especially my faith in God’s ability to work through me. If I’m being truthful and honest, I put off asking this particular question because it requires me to be vulnerable and raw. It exposes my weakness and means I have to admit, “I don’t know.” I don’t know if I am able...and that scares me.
When Jesus asked the question the boys answered without giving it a second thought. “We are able.” I wish I could be that quick, or confident, to give a thumbs up to Jesus like James and John did. It makes me wonder if these two disciples even hear what Jesus is saying? Do they understand the risk of what is at stake?
When I look at my own fears and anxieties, and the shame I have for not fully living up to my abilities, my guess is they actually do know what Jesus is asking of them and that’s why they give such a definitive answer.
James and John have been traveling with Jesus for some time now. They’ve heard what he’s said, and seen how people react. They know what Jesus is asking them to do, and what they will face in order to be faithful to his mission. Their request isn’t that unreasonable, given what’s in store for them.
If I were in their shoes, I’d want to sit next to Jesus too. Not because I want power or prestige, but because being close to Christ is the safest place to be when the world around you falls apart.
It seems the disciples are finally able to see who Jesus is, and what that means to the world and their mission. If they’re going to do what he does, then they need to be as close to God as possible. And so do we. Jesus is the way to having that close relationship with God.
When Jesus asks the boys, “are you able,” he wasn’t trying to trick them or make them look bad. Instead he was inviting them to participate in the Kingdom of God. The way they are able to participate is by becoming a servant. Whoever wants to be first must be a slave. Christ came to serve people, not to be served by them—to give away his life so others can live. The seat of power isn’t in what you get but what you give.
To participate in God’s kingdom, I don’t think we need to be able...any more than we need to be worthy, or good enough. God knows our hearts. And God is more than able to do things whether we have any abilities or not.
So perhaps it’s not about being able, but being willing to be close to Jesus – to go where he goes and do what he does.
So let me ask you: Are you willing to lend a hand to someone who has gone out of their way to harm you? Are you willing to stay up all night with a friend to reconcile a mistake or a misunderstanding?
Are you willing to stand up for a kid at school who is getting bullied, or befriend someone who’s alone, even if they are not like you?
Are you willing to let your guard down, to be vulnerable, or admit that you’re not always in control of your life, or you don’t always have the right answer?
Are you willing to be the presence of Christ in the world knowing God is willing and able to give you the strength and power you need to overcome whatever the world throws at you?
Are you willing to see and do what Jesus does, so that others can enjoy the benefits of God’s redemptive love and grace as you have received through Christ?
Jesus is asking the boys if they are able, but he’s challenging their willingness to commit. Jesus is challenging us to, to put our faith on the front line and to live countercultural to the ways of the world – to give up our power, to become weak and vulnerable in order to find who we really are... beloved children of God.
If we are willing to open our hearts and follow the way of Christ, then we are able to be the antidote to a world that uses its power to dominate the weak. If we are willing to follow Christ in both good times and tough times, we will be able to be bridge builders where others have made walls.
Again, this church’s vision is to Love God, Love Others, and Serve Both. There are many ways to do this. And we invite you to join us in this mission. You might think you’re not able to do it, but as long as you are willing, God is able to empower you with the same spirit given to Christ.
If you are willing to follow Christ, God is able to work with you and through you to make possible what the world has said is impossible.
If you are willing to receive God’s love that comes to us through Christ...then you too will be able to give all of who you are, for the sake of seeking justice, loving neighbors and forgiving all debts. You will be able, because God is able to do anything and all things. One needs to look no further than the life, death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus the Christ to see what God is capable of doing.
We are able. But are we willing to commit? To say “Yes, Lord, I am.”
If you are willing, then you are able to have the faith to do all that you are called to do, in the name of the one who gave his life for the ransom of all.
Bartlett, David. L., Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Year B. Vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. p. 189-91.
Some material was taken from a previous sermon first published on October 18, 2015.
What does it mean to be nonviolent? Coming from the Hindu/Sanskrit word ahimsa, nonviolence was defined long ago as “causing no harm, no injury, no violence to any living creature.”
But Mohandas Gandhi insisted that it means much more than that. He said nonviolence was the active, unconditional love toward others, the persistent pursuit of truth, the radical forgiveness toward those who hurt us, the steadfast resistance to every form of evil, and even the loving willingness to accept suffering in the struggle for justice without the desire for retaliation. . . .
Another way to understand nonviolence is to set it within the context of our identity. Practicing nonviolence means claiming our fundamental identity as the beloved [children] of the God of peace. . . .
This is what Jesus taught: “Blessed are the peacemakers; they shall be called the sons and daughters of God [Matthew 5:9]. . . . Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors, then you shall be sons and daughters of the God who makes [the] sun rise on the good and the bad, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust” [Matthew 5:44-45]. In the context of his visionary nonviolence—radical peacemaking and love for enemies—Jesus speaks of being who we already are. He talks about our true identities as if they propel us to be people of loving nonviolence. . . .
Living nonviolence requires daily meditation, contemplation, study, concentration, and mindfulness. Just as mindlessness leads to violence, steady mindfulness and conscious awareness of our true identities lead to nonviolence and peace. . . . The social, economic, and political implications of this practice are astounding: if we are [children] of a loving Creator, then every human being is our [sibling], and we can never hurt anyone on earth ever again, much less be silent in the face of war, starvation, racism, sexism, nuclear weapons, systemic injustice and environmental destruction. . . .
Gandhi said Jesus practiced perfect nonviolence. If that’s true, then how . . . did he embody creative nonviolence so well? The answer can be found at the beginning of his story, at his baptism. . . . Jesus hears a voice say, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” Unlike most of us, Jesus accepts this announcement of God’s love for him. He claims his true identity as the beloved son of the God of peace. From then on, he knows who he is. He’s faithful to this identity until the moment he dies. From the desert to the cross, he is faithful to who he is. He becomes who he is, and lives up to who he is, and so he acts publicly like God’s beloved.
John Dear, The Nonviolent Life (Pace e Bene Press: 2013), 15-16, 17, 19, 20.
Before I read his book I thought the cost of discipleship was leaving a good salary, having to learn ancient Hebrew, and tripling my intake of caffeine. But the further I go in my spiritual journey, the more I have realized... to truly follow Christ, you must be willing to die so you can be resurrected – you must live a life in balance between dying to your old self and embracing a new, resurrected self.
Which takes us to our question found at the end of Matthew 16:24-26.
Jesus asks two really big questions that have taken me years to grasp. What will it profit me if I gain the whole world but forfeit my life? Or what will I give in return for my life? It seems Jesus is asking a rhetorical question to make a startling point. “If you want to save your life, prepare to lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake…you’ll find it.”
So let me ask you this: What are you going to do with your life? Will you live it by the world’s standards, perusing your own self interest? Or how God wants us to live, in self-giving communities of love?
I believe Jesus is calling us to embrace a resurrection life, but in order to do so...something has to give. Jesus knows this is going to be difficult to live out, muchless understand. Luckily, he provides us with a three-step method to get us going.
Jesus, like the Buddha, calls us to renounce the ego, to abandon it for something greater than ourselves. This is means every day your ego will have to die a little death so you can be born anew to live a resurrected life. This death, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. A seed must die to create a new plant. This is what Jesus demonstrated on the cross. Through death comes new life.
Step Two…Take up the Cross.
Now one could say this is the big, contextual idea of Christianity. A vivid metaphor for self-denial, that invites us to participate in the fullness of life, and without the fear of death. Which seems ironic given the fact that the cross was one of Rome’s most brutal weapons.
The soldiers told anyone who dare to rebel against Caesar to “pick up you cross.” It was common for a convicted criminal to strap the horizontal wood beam onto his back and lug it to the place he would be killed. Along the way he’d be subject to humiliation, ridicule, and shame before finally enduring an agonizing death that could take hours, or even days to complete.
Peter understood the cross to be a symbol of great suffering and shame. Which is why, in the previous verses when Jesus tells him what he is about to go through, Peter steps up to protect his teacher. And he was rebuked. His ego thought he could save Jesus. Jesus had a cross to bear. And so do we.
We don’t save people. God does. But we can show them how to be reborn.
Living a resurrected life means making the work of Jesus our top priority. But you can’t do this when your old self is getting in the way. You have to let it die so you can live a new life in imitation of the One who leads the way.
Step Three: Following Jesus.
Like the other two, this verb is in present tense. This means a constant, mindful, daily effort. To follow Jesus means we have to make the daily decision to devote our hearts, hands, thoughts, and lips to doing God’s will. Living a resurrected life means constantly asking yourself, “Am I doing what I want, or what God wants me to do?” Am I loving others as God loves me, or forgiving as I have been forgiven, helping as I want to be helped?
As Bonhoeffer taught, God’s grace doesn’t come cheap. Cheap grace is like what we talked about last week...when Jesus asked why do you call me Lord but not do what I tell you to do. In contrast, Jesus showed us that grace is costly because it costs us our lives if we want to find true life. It calls us to see what Jesus does and then do it, even if the world rejects you or kills you in the process.
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Why is this important?
Jesus asked, “What good is all the stuff in the world if you forfeit your life?” God has given you life, so what are you going to do with it? Your will? Or God’s?
God wants our total allegiance and commitment. Worldly possessions or suffering shouldn’t be a deterrent for giving God what God wants. Sooner or later, earthly things will fade away. But spiritual things resurrect into bigger and better things. If a person rejects God’s will to becomes the richest, most powerful person on earth, that person will have lost the only part of his or her self that lasts forever. The soul.
Jeffery Epstein, the multimillionaire who recently committed suicide in jail, is a perfect example of someone who had it all – money, mansions, and material wealth. By living his life by his terms, his ego drove him to do some horrific things to other human beings. At the end of the day all he accumulated in life could not save him from himself.
As Micheal Huffington wrote, “Everything we think we own is only being loaned to us until we die. And on our deathbed, at the moment of death, no one but God can save our souls.”
If we focus all our attention on the successes of this world… what will it do for us after this life has passed? If we feed our physical desires yet starve our spiritual well-being, what will we really gain?
As God’s beloved children, we are called to embrace a resurrected life above all other life. Jesus is not giving us a prosperity gospel, where God desires to shower you in material wealth. He gives us a costly one – one that makes you spiritually rich as you deepen your relationship with God.
You can have the latest and greatest cell phone, one that can do amazing things and keep you entertained for hours on end. But its joy and fulfillment will only last until a new, faster, smarter and sexier phone comes along. What the world offers us, will only last so long. Our souls will last an eternity.
We can’t ignore the health of our souls any more than the health of our bodies. Just as our physical lives need to be nourished, so to does the spiritual. And that nourishment is love…God’s love for us and our love for one another. God is love – the ultimate source of nourishment for our souls. The cross is a perfect reminder of how far God will go to love us. Out of his great love for us, Jesus paid the ultimate price for our souls.
By his death and resurrection, Jesus has given us new life, with a new meaning and purpose. And today he’s asking us what are we going to do with it, now that we have received it? God invites us to participate in love…to see and do what Jesus does, so that others can learn and teach the will of God.
As Bonhoeffer reminds us, sacrificial love is never cheap. It comes with a cost. More often than not, that cost is your life. Giving up of your old selfish, ego-centered life for one of self-denial, cross-bearing, faithful following of the One who draws us back into the heart of God, the epicenter of love and life everlasting.
Once you take God’s grace and love into your heart, once you claim the name of Christ, there’s no going back. But that’s the price I’m willing to pay to be with the One who loves me, no matter what.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. (New York: MacMillan, 1939).
Huffington, Micheal. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/michael_huffington_505117
Rohr, Richard. Immortal Diamond. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013).
Today I’d like to share a message written by Margaret Manning Shull on the topic of being “fully alive.” I am sharing it because when I read this piece I kept asking myself, “Am I feeing alive, fully and completely? Or am I just going through the motions?” Manning doesn’t answer my question for me but she does offer a few great perspectives that help us see who we are through God’s lens and from the perspective of Jesus - the hero of this blog site. I hope that you will read her words, and the words of those she quotes, with an open heart and meditate on whatever feelings arise in you.
“The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”
I first read this quote by Irenaeus of Lyons while still a graduate student. In my early rendering of this evocative statement, I imagined people at play in a field of flowers, the sun shining brightly. Everyone is happy and smiling, laughing even, as they dance and play in the fields of the Lord. As I pictured it in my mind’s eye, the human person fully alive was a person alive to possibility, never-ending opportunities, and always happy. How could it be otherwise with God’s glory as the enlivening force?
One author suggests the same in his commentary on Irenaeus’ statement:
“God’s intentions towards me might be better than I’d thought. His happiness and my happiness are tied together? My coming fully alive is what He’s committed to? That’s the offer of Christianity? Wow! I mean, it would make no small difference if we knew–and I mean really knew–that down-deep-in-your-toes kind of knowing that no one and nothing can talk you out of–if we knew that our lives and God’s glory were bound together. Things would start looking up. It would feel promising…the offer is life.”(1)
Despite my romantic imagination and the author’s exuberant interpretation, I am often perplexed as to just what “fully alive” looks like for many people in our world. How would this read to women in the Congo, for example, whose lives are torn apart by tribal war and violence against their own bodies? What would this mean to an acquaintance of mine who is a young father recently diagnosed with lymphoma? What about those who are depressed? Or who live with profound disabilities?
If feeling alive is only that God is happy when we are happy, then perhaps God is quite sad. Surely God’s glory is much larger than human happiness, isn’t it? Certainly, happiness is a gift and a blessing of the human experience, and for many it is there in abundance. Yet, are those who have reason for sorrow—those who do not find themselves amidst fields of flowers or bounty, those who have to work to find goodness—are they beyond the reflection of God’s glory?
The reality is that Irenaeus’ oft-used and oft-interpreted statement had a specific, apologetic context that was not really about human happiness. Irenaeus lived during a time when gnostic sects were trying to deny the real flesh and blood reality of Jesus. In their alternative view, only the spirit was redeemed, and the body should be ignored at best, or indulged at worst, since nothing regarding the body mattered.
As a result, they denied the full humanity of Jesus. He could not have died a physical death on the cross, since he was merely an enlightened spirit, or some form of lesser deity. And he was certainly not one who would enter into the created world to take on the messy nature of life.(2)
When Irenaeus describes the glory of God as the human being fully alive he is correcting this aberrant and heretical notion that Jesus was not fully human. Irenaeus countered that in fact, the glory of God so inhabited this man from Nazareth that he was fully alive to all of what it meant to be human.
Jesus experienced hunger, thirst, weariness, frustration, sorrow, and despair—and he experienced the joy and beauty that came from complete dependence on God. To be fully alive, as one sees in the life of Jesus, includes all human experience—the joys as well as the sorrows.
We see that Jesus is fully alive in the Christian tradition of Holy Week. For Christians, that journey includes Good Friday and Holy Saturday just as surely as it includes Easter morning. As Jesus experienced the miraculous new life of resurrection on Easter morning, he first experienced the sorrow of rejection, betrayal, and the physical brutality of crucifixion and death. Jesus lived the depths of the human experience as one of us.
Irenaeus’ continues his thought by saying: “[T]he life of man is the vision of God. If the revelation of God through creation already brings life to all living beings on the earth, how much more will the manifestation of the Father by the Word bring life to those who see God.”(3)
Human beings are fully alive as they find life in this One who in his human life reveals both the eternal God and the vision of God for fully alive human beings. Certainly, our lives include events and seasons that we wish were not part of the fully alive human experience. But perhaps those who seek true life might recognize these appointments with both death and resurrection as an entryway into a deeper understanding of the human experience.
And as that door is opened, we can be ushered into the deep and abiding fellowship of the Divine Community—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—not phantom spirits, not distant deities, but intimates to all that it means to be human.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the writing and speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
Manning Shull, Margaret. Slice of Infinity devotional. August 13, 2019.
(1) John Eldridge, Waking the Dead(Nashville: Thomas-Nelson Publishers, 2003), 12.
(2) Cyril Richardson ed., Early Christian Fathers (New York: Collier Books, 1970), 345.
(3) Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, (IV, 20, 7).
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"...how he went about doing good..."