Tuesday, March 24, 2015

March 22, 2015 The Journey To Easter: To Believe Or Not to Believe, That Is the Question

What do you see in this image –
The image is from the famous Rorschach test, which is a test administered by psychiatrists to determine certain characteristics and personality traits of a patient.  There aren’t any “answers” to the test, but it reveals the way in which people “project” their beliefs onto the pictures.

Beliefs are important, because they become the lens through which we see every facet of life.  This morning, as we continue our series of messages The Journey To Easter, we come to a passage in John’s gospel that is what I would call a spiritual Rorschach test.  It’s a passage where John tells us that Jesus had performed many miracles but despite the miracles, there were still some who would not believe in him.  John is careful to point out that the people who would not believe in Jesus did not hear of the miracles by second-hand information; John says those miracles were performed in their presence, but still they would not believe in him.  How is it that some reacted to the miracles with belief, while others reacted with non-belief?

The question of belief is, I think, the great question of life.  No one can dodge the question of belief in God.  Everyone is confronted by that question – to believe or not to believe, and in our modern era, it seems as though the gulf between belief and non-belief grows ever wider. 

Hear the story as John tells it –

37 Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him.
38 This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet:
“Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
39 For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere:
40 “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them.”
41 Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.
42 Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue;
43 for they loved human praise more than praise from God.
44 Then Jesus cried out, “Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me.
45 The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me.
46 I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.
47 “If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.

This morning, our topic is To Believe Or Not To Believe, That Is the Question.  As Jesus was drawing very near to the final days of his ministry, there is this widening gulf between him and those who would not believe in him, similar to the way in which today there seems to be a widening gap between belief and unbelief. 

In considering this passage today, I want to ask three questions, the first of which is –

1.  Why do we believe what we believe?
I’m a fan of science fiction.  Last fall I went to see the movie Interstellar, which looked really interesting to me.  I was disappointed in the movie, but it had me thinking for weeks after about the universe and its unimaginable size and scope.  Though I didn’t find the movie to be very good, it did a good job in presenting the incomprehensible scale of the universe.  In thinking about the universe, it really puts into perspective how little we know.  Though we live in an age of unbelievable technology and amazing discovery, how much do we know about the universe and the principles by which it operates?  A millionth of a percent?  A billionth of a percent?  A billion trillion of a millionth of a percent?  Whatever we know, it is such an incredibly small amount of all the knowledge that exists in the universe (and that may be knowledge only of one universe.  There could be other universes of which we have absolutely no knowledge).  As that is true, it seems incredibly shortsighted, to me, to say there is enough knowledge to disprove the existence of God, and indeed, to claim that kind of knowledge seems to me very arrogant.

Why do we believe what we believe?  As I’ve said before, it is inaccurate to say that seeing is believing; the truth is that believing is seeing.  What we already believe, will determine what we see.  If a person holds to a scientific, materialistic, reductionist view of things, that is, if they believe you can only believe in what you see, then you won’t believe there is anything beyond the physical, which would rule out the existence of God.  What we believe dictates what we see, and in the view of scientific materialism, it is a very limited view.

But faith reorients what we believe so that we are then able to see in a different manner.  As we are in the midst of March Madness, allow me to use a basketball analogy.  How do we know when a referee makes a bad call?  I mean, really, how do we know?  Is it always obvious?  I believe we see the call according to what we already believe.  The truth is, when a referee makes a call he is viewed as wise and perceptive by half the crowd and as an incompetent idiot by the other half.  And the view that each fan has of the referee’s call is based upon what they already believe, not the particular actions or ruling of the referee.  The perception of each fan is colored by their loyalty to a team and whether or not the referee makes a call that is either for or against their team.  Just follow along on Facebook during a game or sit with a group of fans and you’ll see what I mean.  I walked through a hospital waiting room yesterday during the UK game, just in time to hear the room erupt with protests of he traveled!  In a parallel universe, located in Cincinnati, I imagine they were saying the complete opposite.  This is how we react; we see things a particular way because of what we believe.

I appreciate when someone tells me they enjoyed one of my sermons or one of my Sentinel columns, but I also understand what it often means – it means they agree with what I have to say.  “Like” becomes a synonym for “agree,” and we all want our beliefs to be reinforced.  That is one of the reasons we come to church, and it is one of the primary reasons why people leave church or change churches – because their beliefs are not given enough affirmation.  Jesus certainly did not affirm the beliefs of the religious establishment, and that is why they decided he must be put to death.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with wanting our beliefs affirmed.  One of the reasons we feel uneasy with our rapidly changing world is the fear that our beliefs are being marginalized in a modern world.  We begin to feel out-of-step with things, and that is a difficult place to live.

But faith reorients our thinking, it moves us beyond the erroneous beliefs we hold so we will be able to understand truth, which leads to our next question –

2.  What Is Truth?
What is truth? Pilate asked Jesus.  That is an incredibly important question.  Who determines what is true?

Science claims to tell us what is true about our world and the universe, but can they really get down to what constitutes truth?  I don’t think so.  Science can tell us some of the facts about the way in which our universe operates, at least in our tiny little corner of the universe.  Who knows; physics may operate differently in another part of the universe, or in another universe all together.  Just because something is true in our part of creation doesn’t guarantee it is true in all of creation.

Can science tell us the purpose of creation, and of life?  No, because science only deals with those things we can observe, that we can see and touch and measure.  Science can’t get to that purpose, or discover it, or measure it.  That is the domain of faith.  According to some scientists, the universe is the result of random events, and if that is true, there is no inherent purpose or meaning.  Though one might believe there is a purpose and meaning in a random universe, there is not.

We are more than flesh and blood creatures; we are the handiwork of God and possess a soul.  You can’t take a soul and measure it in a test tube in a laboratory.  Faith reminds us there is something greater than what can be learned in a science experiment. 

Faith also reminds us that truth is anchored in something that is eternal and unchanging.  If the universe is random, there are no truths, beyond some basic scientific facts.  The only truths in a random universe are things such as the speed of light, which may not be constant everywhere in the unvierse; the amount of time in a day, which can vary as light is dispersed at greater distances in the universe; so even the constants of physics and science are not unalterable truths.  But faith links us to the eternal – to God – so the truths of love, compassion, and grace are not true just when a society says they are; they are always true.

Faith makes the claim that we are anchored in eternal, unchanging truths, one of which is love.  Love is not the result of a random act of nature, love is a creation of God, which leads us to our third question –

3.  How Can We Know God?
The primary question is, does God exist?  In terms of this question, our beliefs don’t matter.  That is, God exists whether or not I believe in him.  Reality is reality; God exists or not independently of our beliefs, although our beliefs are important because they have consequences.

In terms of evidence, there are several strong evidences, I believe, for the existence of God, but ultimately I think there is one great proof, and it is love.  If the universe is random, if there is nothing behind it but happenstance, then love is nothing more than the firing of neurons in our brain and the release of chemicals that make us feel good.  In that scenario, love is noting more than a trick of the brain, or a neurological activity.  But does anyone really believe that is all that constitutes love?  No, no even the strongest unbeliever.

Love is something more than just activity in our brains, love is more than the firing of neurological activity, and more than the release of brain chemicals; love is the proof that there is something transcendent in life and about life; it points to something greater and deeper.  It points, I believe, to God.
But how do we know the details about God?  We are people of revelation, that is, we believe God reveals truth to us.  One of the ways God reveals truth to us is through Scripture, but if you are speaking with a skeptic they will most likely reject any argument that is based from Scripture.  Is there, then, a more effective proof?  Yes.  Allow me to offer another metaphor, this time in the form of this novel that I’m holding.  Imagine you are one of the characters in this book.  How would you know anything about the author?  How would you know anything about the world beyond the one that exists in this book?  Could you even conceive that an author exists or have the capacity to comprehend an author or a world outside of the book?  You might think where did I come from?  I must have come from somewhere, so someone put me here.  Even recognizing that, however, the two realms – one within the book and one without – remain very distant and distinct from one another.  But imagine if the author puts himself into the book, into the story.  Literally, into the story.  That is exactly what God did.  In theological terms, we call it the Incarnation.  In everyday language, we call it Jesus.

The gulf between belief and unbelief may seem to be quite large, and in one sense, perhaps it is.  On the surface, at least, people believe or they don’t.  But we are all God’s children, and God loves each of his children – believers or not – and if he does, then so must we.  If God entered into this world, into the story of his own creation, to demonstrate his live, then so must we enter the story of the lives of others.

Monday, March 16, 2015

March 15, 2015 The Road to Easter: The Defining Moment

Last week we began a new series of messages, The Journey to Easter.  This week we’re turning to John’s gospel, to a chapter that contains one of the most well-known events from the ministry of Jesus – the raising of Lazarus.  While that event is incredibly important, there is another, often-overlooked event that takes place early in chapter 11, and it concerns the disciple Thomas.  Listen to what John records in that passage –

Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.
(This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.)
So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.”
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days,
and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”
Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light.
10 It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”
11 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
12 His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead,
15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Did you catch the final verse, verse 16?  Listen again to those words – Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
We are talking today about defining moments.

Never define yourself – or someone else – by failure.
In one of my previous churches, one of our youth group members was a very good basketball player.  In his senior year his school was playing in the final of the regional championship, with the winning team advancing to the state tournament.  There were two or three seconds left on the clock and his team was trailing by a single point, and he stepped to the free throw line with two shots.  It was a classic set up, and I’m sure he felt quite a bit of pressure.  Make a single shot and they would go to overtime; make both shots and he would be the hero who sent them on to the state tournament.  The first shot clanged off the rim, but there was still a chance to tie the game.  He took his time before taking the second shot, working, I imagine, to shut out the noise of the fans and to calm himself.  He bounced the ball a few times, spun it around in his hands, and took the shot.  Once again, the shot clanged off the rim and fell short.  I can still remember watching him fall to the floor with a look of agony on his face.  I imagine there are people who still remind him of that game, and any time he goes to a class reunion it may be discussed.  Though he went to college on a basketball scholarship and spent years coaching, it’s still a moment that probably stays in his mind.

As John opens chapter 11 of his gospel, Jesus had begun his journey to Jerusalem and to the final stage of his ministry.  As Jesus and his disciples drew near to Jerusalem, they stopped in the village of Bethany, only two miles away from the great city.  Bethany was the home of Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus, who had died.  We are very familiar with the fact that Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, but many are not as familiar with the context.

When Jesus announced that he would travel to Bethany, there was a palpable sense of alarm among his disciples.  Being so close to Jerusalem, they feared, would place them in danger.  They reminded Jesus that it was only a short time before that an attempt had been made upon his life in that region, so they were astounded that he would want to return. 

But Thomas stood apart from the others in terms of his response.  While the other disciples expressed fear and counseled for caution, Thomas speaks up and declares let us also go, that we may die with him.  Curiously, John does not describe the response of the other disciples, but in the very next verse Jesus and his disciples have arrived in Bethany. 

How many of you know about Thomas’ moment of doubt?  All of us, I assume, know the story of Thomas, after the resurrection, declaring that unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it (John 20:25), but how many are familiar with this moment when Thomas said let us also go, that we may die with him? 

Here’s a question worth some serious thought – why is it that Thomas is remembered for his moment of doubt, but not his moment of courage and commitment?  For centuries, the defining moment in the life of Thomas has been labeled as his expression of doubt, but I believe this verse tells us of a true defining moment in his life.  It’s a very telling view into humanity that Thomas would be defined by his moment of doubt rather than his moment of courage.

Never define your life – or the life of another – by a failure.  Jesus doesn’t.  Where others saw a corrupt tax collector in Matthew, Jesus saw one who could be counted among his closest followers (Luke 5:27-32).  People looked upon another tax collector – Zaccheus – as one who defrauded others, but Jesus saw something different (Luke 19:1-10).  When Mary annointed Jesus shortly before the crucifixion some saw it as a wasteful act and criticized her, but Jesus saw it as an act of love and said that wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, that also which this woman has done shall be spoken of in memory of her (Mark 14:9).

People will seek to limit you and diminish you by making a failure the defining point of our life – don’t allow them to do so!  Jesus won’t do that, so why allow anyone else?

Challenge one another.
Does anyone like to work out alone?  Aren’t some exercise machines awful?  But aren’t you glad to share the pain and misery?  Some things are better when other people are involved.  If you go to the Family Activity Center to exercise you have discovered you do better working out when others are around, don’t you?  I used to run in a lot of 5K and 10K races, and to keep motivated I ran with a friend, and it pushed me to try harder.

It’s great to have people who will be encouragers to us, but sometimes we need a challenge as well, don’t we?  Sometimes we need that encouraging word, telling us we’re going to be okay, but other times we need someone to give us a challenge and say pull yourself together!  Get out of the chair and go and do something for someone else!  You have a lot to offer; go and offer it!  You’re blessed; go and be a blessing!

I love the boldness of Thomas in verse 16.  Notice that he didn’t say I’m going with Jesus and I’m willing to die with him.  You all do whatever you want, but I’m going.  No, he says, Let us also go, that we may die with him.  Nice of Thomas to volunteer the lives of the others, wasn’t it?  The others could have responded to Thomas by asking who are you to speak for us and who are you to volunteer our lives?  But they didn’t, because the next verse finds them in Bethany with Jesus and then on to Jerusalem as well.  Sometimes a situation needs that one person who will speak up and challenge others, as Thomas did.

Sometimes we need an encouraging word, but other times we next a push and a challenge.  I love this church and I’m grateful to be here.  I think we are doing a lot of good work and good ministry, and I will offer encouraging words for doing so well, especially because I know so many people are stretching themselves and working so hard.  But there are times when we might say that’s good enough.  That’s adequate.  Sometimes we need to lay down a challenge to one another.

What will be your defining moment?
The defining moment for Thomas’ life, I would argue, is not when he expressed doubt, but when he expressed his courage, so the next time you are tempted to refer to doubting Thomas – don’t!  Call him brave Thomas or courageous Thomas – anything but doubting Thomas!

What will be the defining moment of your life?  Will it be a failure that someone wants to pin to you forever?  Or will it be the moment you realized that God does not define you by your failure but by your possibility?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

March 8, 2015 The Road to Easter: Reading the Fine Print

As we are fast-approaching Easter, I will be focusing on the theme of The Journey to Easter for the next five Sundays.  Each week we will study some of the events that take place as Jesus draws close to Jerusalem, the crucifixion, and the resurrection.  Some of them will be very familiar, and some, perhaps, less so.

This week’s Scripture passage is probably not one we generally associate with the Easter story, but it is an important preface to the final stage of the ministry of Jesus, and before this passage we see where he was butting heads with the religious leaders.  This is what we might call the “fine print” of Jesus’ teaching, and it is very important fine print.

25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said:
26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.
27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?
29 For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you,
30 saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’
31 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?
32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.
33 In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
34 “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?
35 It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out.  “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

Do we have any “fine print” readers here this morning?  We’ve all received mailings that promise great deals, espcially at Christmas, where a flyer might advertise a computer or large screen TV for an outrageously low price, but in the fine print it will say only one per store, or includes no monitor, hard drive, software or anything you actually need to make a computer work.  I especially like the car commercials, that advertise a car for $99 a month and no money down.  But the announcer at the end goes through the disclaimers so fast that you can’t hear them say, offer applies only to people who are filthy rich and make a down payment of $30,000.

Have you ever read the fine print in a privacy policy?  You haven’t, have you?  When you set up your accounts online you just click “Accept” without actually reading all that legal-ese langauge, and when they come in the mail you probably toss them straight into the trash. 

You might want to start reading them.  Several weeks ago, a news story revealed that Samsung electronics had a section in their privacy policy that indicated their TVs might be spying on people (http://www.forbes.com/sites/davelewis/2015/02/10/is-your-tv-spying-on-you/).

Our Scripture passage for this morning is one we might call the fine print of the gospel.  It’s very easy to focus on the Scriptural passages of comfort, encouragement, and beauty.  This is not one of those passages.  It is a tough and difficult passage, reminding us that life – and faith – can be very difficult.  Jesus was never one to underestimate either the difficulty of life or the difficulty of faith.  At this point in his ministry Jesus was drawing large crowds, and he seems to come to a point where he wants people to understand that there is an element of faith that is very challenging.  In these verses he is careful to present the plain truth to his followers.  Truth is not always easy to hear, but we can be grateful that Jesus did not “sugar coat” the facts about life and faith.

Jesus is talking about building a life of faith that will stand the test of time and the test of any challenge, so how does a person build the kind of faith to last, and to stand the test of time?

By Building a Strong Foundation.
In front of our house, on our small farm, was a field extending a couple hundred yards to the road.  About half the length of that field, just on the other side of the property line, was the foundation of a never-completed house.  As kids, we liked to play around that foundation, which had the block walls in place and the openings for doors and windows.  It was a great fort for our pretend adventures.  The foundation, obviously, had been there a long time, as there were trees growing in the middle of it and also out of the mounds of dirt that had long ago been piled up in order to level the ground.  Many times over the years I wondered about that foundation.  Why was it never completed?  Did they run out of money?  Did they move?  No one in our neighborhood that I asked seemed to have any idea.  It was a visible reminder of the words of Jesus, that anyone building a tower must first calculate the cost so they can determine whether or not they have the finances to complete the project.

Building a foundation of faith is a lot like building a house.  You have to have a good foundation if it is going to last across the years.  Building that foundation takes work, it takes sweat and effort.  It is much more than just memorizing a few rules and regulations that allow a person to give a “correct” theological answer.  If you can’t build an adequate foundation, it is impossible to build a strong building.

I believe there should be disclaimers on some things, such as a marriage certificate, saying sometimes things will be difficult.  There should be a disclaimer on faith as well.  Perhaps that is what Jesus does in this passage – he is providing a disclaimer.  He is saying it will be difficult to follow him.  He certainly could have added that it can be dangerous to be his follower as well.  Reading through the book of Acts we certainly see the danger that befell the apostles.  Every one of the twelve, with the exception of John, was martyred for their faith.  Reading through the book of Acts things become dangerous for the church in general.  We read of the apostles being imprisoned, and of the first Christian martyr of record, Stephen.  As we progress through the book of Acts we read of the looming trial of Paul, in Rome, where he was eventually martyred for his faith.  The early centuries of the church is filled with periods of persecution of the followers of Jesus.  It continues today.  In parts of our world it remains very dangerous to be a follower of Jesus, and some estimate that more people are martyred for their faith in the 21st century than any other period in the history of the church.  China, where the church is booming, is cracking down in increasingly harsh ways as a way to inhibit the growth of the church.  The government of China – officially atheistic – has tried to stop the church but is unable to do so.  In about twenty years China will have more Christians than any other country, in spite of persecution.  The followers of Jesus in such areas are well aware of the dangers of being a follower of Jesus.  We are blessed – so blessed – that we are not persecuted for our faith.  I know that some people say Christians are persecuted in our country but we have no idea what persecution really looks like, certainly when compared to the parts of our world where being a follower of Jesus can put one at risk of death.

Jesus wanted people to carefully consider the implications of faith to their lives, and what it meant to follow him.  What would they do when they discovered it might bring difficulty upon them?  What would they do when they discovered he was not interested in becoming a political messiah?  What would they do when they discovered they would not receive everything they wanted and their lives are not magically made simpler and easier?

This is similar to the 3rd or 4th date, when people begin to consider is this “the” person?  Can I spend my life with them?  Can I pledge my life to this person?  Or is it merely infatuation.  Love and infatuation are very different.  There were probably some people who were merely infatuated with Jesus.

Be Remaining Faithful, Even When Life and Faith Are Tough.
My MacBook is now six years old.  Last fall, I went into the Apple store to ask a question about fixing a problem and they referred to it as “vintage.”  Vintage?  At the time it was less than six years old, so what does that make me?  Ancient?  I don’t mean to pick on a business, but Apple is the world’s most valuable company and they will certainly not be harmed by my critique.  I don’t like dealing with their stores.  When I walk into an Apple store to ask for help, they imply that I’m old.  I asked them a very basic question, looking to fix something, and they kept telling me that I should just bring my computer in for them to take a look.  I finally realized they were implying that I was too old to understand how to fix it myself.

But here is the reality – companies don’t want their products to last very long.  Are you familiar with the concept of “planned obsolescence”? Planned obsolescence is the idea that manufacturers “plan” for their products to last for a shorter period of time so they can sell more products.  Imagine a care that lasts fifty years, an appliance that lasts sixty years, and clothing that not only lasted, but stayed in style, for several generations.  If products last a long time, sales decline.  When Tanya and I married, her parents gave us a washer and dryer set, and they lasted almost twenty-five years.  The next set lasted only five or six.  Our third set, that we just purchased, will hopefully last longer. 

We live in an era of disposability and impermanence, and in a disposable, impermanent society, everything is in danger of becoming merely temporary and disposable.  The question that lurks behind this passage, does anything last?  And, sadly, we learn by experience that not everything does last, and I’m not talking about products, but much deeper and more important things, such as relationships.  Even love, sadly, can become temporary.  Not every relationship survives.  Not every friendship survives.  Not every marriage survives.  Not every person’s faith survives.

What lasts?  Jesus talks about building a faith that lasts, and moving beyond the temporariness of so much of life.  There are, certainly, a lot of fads that capture our imagination, and these influence our attitudes just the same as so many of the other temporary and impermanent things of life.  If you are around my age, you may remember “Pet Rocks.”  Where else, but in American, can someone get rich by selling us what we can pick up for free in our backyards.  But even in the spiritual realm we can get caught up in fads.  Remember the WWJD bracelets from not too many years ago?  It was quite a big fad.  What Would Jesus Do?  Well, for starters, he probably wouldn’t get caught up in a fad.
Build a strong spiritual foundation to your life.

Embrace Love.
In this passage, Jesus is not telling us we need to hate our families.  Those first verses can be a bit of a jolt, because the language sounds so strong – If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple that they are sometimes misunderstood.  The language Jesus uses in those verses is his way of framing the deepest kind of love we can imagine.  It is the deepest, greatest love of all – the love we call agape, which is the divine love of God.  This is the love to which we aspire, and compared to the often stumbling, limited human love, the love of God, by way of comparison, makes all other loves seem very slight indeed.  It is a divine love that lifts us above the pettiness, the conflicts, and the struggles of life.  It is a love that allows us to love the unlovable and forgive the unforgiveable.  It is the love that enables someone to sacrifice for another – even to the point of laying down their life, as did Jesus.  It is extremely challenging, yes, but this is the love to which we are called.

When I was in college, a friend of mine spent a summer working in Eastern Europe.  This was the late 70s, when the Soviet Union still dominated that part of the world and the Berlin Wall divided Germany.  He worked with some house churches that met in secret because of the persecution in that part of the world.  When he returned to school in the fall he told us some amazing stories.  One story was about a young man who wanted to join a church.  The church met in the attic of a home, and worshipped in secret.  On an evening when my friend met with them, the young man expressed his desire to live a life of faith and to join their small fellowship.  What do we do when someone wants to make a profession of faith and join a church?  We gladly receive them and celebrate their decision.  My friend told us of how this group responded, which was very different from our experience.  Instead of receiving him with joy and celebrating his decision, they placed him in the midst of their small circle and asked if he was sure that he wanted to take such a step.  Did he understand that he might lose his job because of his decision?  Did he understand that his family might turn their backs on him?  It was as if they were trying to talk him out of his decision.  But this was a group that could understand the words of Jesus in today’s passage.  They had not only read the small print; they understood the reality of the small print.

Don’t ever underestimate the reality of hatred and evil in this world.  We hear of it ever day and sometimes we experience it.  Hatred and evil has, and always will, push back against love, especially God’s love.  It is not always easy to be a follower of Jesus, and in some parts of our world, it is difficult and very dangerous.  We must pray for our brothers and sisters who live in such difficult circumstances, and we must be certain and build a foundation for our faith that will see us through until the end.