What Did Jesus Really Mean?
Sunday, June 18, 2017, Gathered Worship
by Elizabeth Dede
Today is Father’s Day. So happy Father’s Day to every father. I include in this every father: my biological father; my nephews’ adoptive father; my grandfather; my godfather; my priest. I call them all father. Happy Father’s Day.
So what in the world did Jesus mean when he said, “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven?” (Matt 23:9) He must have meant something other than a literal interpretation of his words. No one would prohibit me from calling my dad father, even though he is a man on earth. Also, there are verses all over the Bible, which use the word father to describe a man on earth: Joseph speaks of a fatherly relationship God gave to him with the king of Egypt (Gen 45:8). Job says, “I was a father to the poor” (Job 29:16). Elisha calls out to Elijah, “My father, my father!” as Elijah is being taken up into heaven.
And it doesn’t work to say that all of that changed with the New Testament. References to earthly fathers are all over the place in the New Testament. Paul regularly talks about Timothy as his son. (1 Tim 1:18; 2 Tim 2:1; Phil 2:22). He called Onesimus his child, and says, “I have become his father.” (Philem 10)
Paul calls himself a father very clearly in his letter to the Corinthians: “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (1 Cor 4:14-15).
So what did Jesus really mean? You have to look at the Bible in its context. Jesus says, “But you are not to be called ‘rabbi,’ for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called ‘masters,’ for you have one master, the Christ.” (Matt 23:8-10) Jesus also prohibits the use of the title teacher, but then he appoints teachers, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. . .teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matt 28:19-20) Paul calls himself a teacher: “For this I was appointed a . . . teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.” (1 Tim 2:7). He reminds us that God calls teachers, “God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers.” ( 1 Cor 12:28)
It simply doesn’t work to take Jesus’ words here literally. Jesus was criticizing Jewish leaders who love “the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places and being called ‘rabbi’ by men.” (Matt 23:6-7) Jesus was exaggerating (an oft-used figure of speech) to show the scribes and Pharisees that they needed to look to God in humility as the source of all authority, fatherhood, and teaching. They, in their pride, saw themselves as the ultimate authorities. Jesus is saying no to that way of thinking.
So Happy Father’s Day to fathers, grandfathers, godfathers, priests, and every other man you would call father on earth.
On Friday, I did a brief devotion on Matthew 5:27-30. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” I humorously said that I found it hard to reflect on these words so early in the morning. I’m a bit too squeamish to talk about plucking out eyeballs and cutting off body parts. If Jesus was being literal then we would all be missing eyes and hands. What did he really mean? He was once again using exaggeration to make a point. Lust is a sin. Adultery is a sin. They are serious sins. They have serious consequences. They destroy relationships here on earth. They ruin our relationship with God. The pain they cause are like plucking out an eye, or cutting off a hand. Jesus really means, “Don’t commit adultery. Don’t lust after each other.”
So what did Jesus really mean in today’s Gospel? “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.” When we take communion, are we really eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus? Should the bread and the wine (or juice for us) be treated with the respect due the body and blood of Jesus?
I watched the movie, “Romero,” with our interns not too long ago. Romero was a priest and archbishop who served the poor in El Salvador during the 1980s at the time of the Death Squads. In one scene in the movie, Romero is in a church that has been taken over by the army. Romero tells the commanding officer that he has no right to be in the church. In response, the commander shoots up the altar, spraying the bread and wine with bullets, and splattering and scattering it all over the floor. Romero drops to his knees, carefully picking up the wafers, the Host. For Romero, that bread was the true body of Jesus. It cannot and should not be blown off the altar by a soldier with a gun. I grew up Lutheran, and my dad is a pastor. That scene has stuck with me each time I have seen the movie. Recently, I asked my dad what Luther would have said about this scene. Without even stopping to ponder his reply, my dad said, “Luther would have said that soldier is damned to hell.” Jesus body and blood are really present in the bread and wine. We dare not think of them just as some symbol.
So what did Jesus really mean? He really meant, “This is my body. This is my blood.” We can look to other places in the Bible. For example, Paul says, “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the Body and Blood of the Lord. . . for anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.” ( 1 Cor 11:27, 29) How is bread and wine (or juice) really Jesus’ body and blood? It’s a mystery that requires faith like the Resurrection, like the Incarnation.
It is a great thing to understand Jesus to really mean “This is my body; this is my blood.” The body and blood are food. They give us strength for our life with the presence of Jesus. They give us a personal relationship with Jesus: we are nourished by his body and blood.
So Happy Father’s Day! Confess your sins, try to live a good and decent life, and hold on to your eyeballs and hands. And take in the Body and Blood of Jesus to give you strength in your relationships with earthly people and with God. Amen.
Jesus Comes Home With Us
Sunday, June 11, 2017, Gathered Worship
by Elizabeth Dede
God gave his only Son that we might have eternal life. So we have the question, What does this mean for us today?
I’ve been reading the “Cotton Patch Evidence,” with our new Intern, Drew, and right now we are in the chapter, “According to Clarence.” The Cotton Patch translations were a way to bring Jesus to us. In the first chapter of John’s gospel we hear that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. For Clarence, when the Word became flesh, Jesus was, in fact, “plain, sweaty, down-to-earth flesh.” God loved us so much that he took on a physical body in Jesus and gave him to us.
Jesus died for us, but he was also raised that we might, too, be raised. So what does the resurrection mean? For Clarence, “the essence of the incarnation and the resurrection. . . was that man has to deal with God in the flesh.” Some of us have wondered what Clarence would think about the cross on the chapel here at Koinonia. “He saw crosses on steeples not as glorious testimony to the humanity of God but as offensive reflection of the church’s persistent deification of Jesus. He once said to a pastor who had just proudly pointed out the modern $10,000 cross atop a new church that he had been cheated on that price. ‘Time was,’ Clarence said, ‘when Christians could get those crosses for free.’” Maybe Clarence would have been OK with ours since it is plain, old wood, most likely recycled from some other project.
Jesus came in “plain, sweaty, down-to-earth flesh,” and then he died a very physical death, with much physical pain and suffering, It was a humiliating death, but Jesus took it on for us that we might have eternal life.
What is the resurrection? “Clarence viewed the resurrection as God’s refusal to stay on the other side of the grave. ‘He raised Jesus, not as an invitation to us to come to heaven when we die, but as a declaration that He himself has now established permanent residence on earth,’ Clarence said. ‘The resurrection places Jesus on this side of the grave, here and now, in the midst of this life. The Good News of the resurrection is not that we shall die and go home with him, but that he is risen and comes home with us, bringing all his hungry, naked, thirsty, sick, prisoner brothers with him.’”
So in eternal life, Jesus will be with us always. Where do we find Jesus now? We see Jesus whenever we are hungry and sit down to eat with each other. We see Jesus in communion when the bread and juice become the body and blood. We see Jesus at Harvest of Hope, the food pantry, when hungry people come simply to get food. We see Jesus in the men in prison who need a bag of clothes. On and on, Jesus is present to us in plain old flesh, here on earth. He was raised that we also might be raised. He is present with us that we might be present with him. And as we know the presence of Jesus we begin to know the Kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven.
Thank you God for your love that was in the beginning with the Word; for your love that became flesh and dwelt among us; for your love that is your only begotten Son that you gave. Help us to believe. Thank you for everlasting life. Amen.
But They Doubted
Sunday, May 28, 17
Lesson on Matthew 28:16-20
By Elizabeth Dede
That little clause, “but they doubted,” is amazing to me. How could they possibly doubt?
We’ve spent seven weeks since Easter hearing stories of Jesus’ appearing to his disciples. He came to them while they were hiding out, miraculously appearing in the room without even knocking on the locked door. Jesus showed himself to the two disciples who walked with him on the road to Emmaus. He came again to the room so that Thomas could see him. He ate fish so that they would believe. But they doubted.
The week after Easter Sunday we read about Thomas. For him only seeing was believing. For most of us, though, we come to believe when we’re told about something, or when we read about it, or when we hear it on the radio, or see it on TV. Thomas had the eyewitness accounts of the disciples, but he refused to believe. When Jesus did appear to Thomas and said to him, “Touch my hand and side,” he gave Thomas tangible proof that he had been raised from the dead. He did that in front of the other disciples, and Thomas cried out, “My Lord and my God.” But they doubted.
In this story, Jesus wasn’t disappointed in their doubting. He seemed to expect it by this time. In fact, rather than upbraid them, Jesus gave them a very important charge. He told them that he had all power, presumably especially to send them out. And the truth about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection would be shared all over the world. That’s some power. I wonder if the disciples doubted then. Apparently they did not, because the Gospel has spread everywhere.
Although Jesus was about to leave the disciples and ascend to be with the Father, he promised again that he would not leave them alone. He told them that he will always be with them. Here again, Jesus promised the ever-present Holy Spirit, who remains even with us.
So, we have received the charge: Go out and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all that Jesus commanded.
The Holy Spirit helps us to love one another and to love God—what Jesus commanded. That is how we will make disciples. We show our love and other people want that for their lives. They come to believe.
So go, therefore to all nations, to all people everywhere, and teach them to love one another. Then we will have peace and justice and freedom. Then wars will cease and all people will have what they need. Then Jesus will be with us always.
Sunday, April 30, 2017
By Elizabeth Dede
Every Sunday here at Koinonia, we hear the familiar words of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus took bread, gave thanks for it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples. This is what Jesus did for the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. And when they saw him take up the bread, heard that blessing, watched him break it, their eyes were suddenly opened, and they recognized Jesus.
So we see the bread taken up, we hear that Jesus offered thanks, the bread is broken, and we each take a piece. We participate in that same meal as the first disciples. We could very well be on the road to Emmaus. Are our eyes opened? Do we recognize Jesus?
If our eyes are opened, who does Jesus look like? At the Open Door Community we had a beautiful piece of art with a poem called “Christ Comes in the Stranger’s Guise.” It was hand written in exquisite calligraphy and had Fritz Eichenberg’s “Christ of the Breadline” at the top.
We often mangled the quote and said, “Christ Comes in a Stranger Guise,” and saw plenty of strange Jesuses there. But here, too, Christ comes in the stranger’s guise. We have lots of opportunities to have our eyes opened.
Sunday Gathered Worship, April 2, 2017
By Elizabeth Dede
This Gospel story is one of my favorites. I have always loved the King James Version when Martha says to Jesus, “Lo, he stinketh.” I once had a cat, whom I named Lazarus, so that I could open the door, say, “Lazarus, come out!” and feel very Christ-like.
I’m especially fond of Martha’s role in this story. In the other Mary and Martha story, Martha works herself into a dither while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and Martha complains about this division of labor, Martha seems to get the bad rap. In this story, Martha is sort of a hero, who makes the declaration that Jesus is the Messiah. She is also shown to be a woman of great faith. I love the reversal in roles here. Martha goes out to meet Jesus, while Mary sits at home. People had come to mourn with them, and from the other story, you would more imagine Martha staying at home to serve all the guests.
In addition, every Sunday School student who had to memorize Bible verses loves this story because it has the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” But it is so good to see the humanity of Jesus in this story. He truly loves Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. He weeps for Mary and Martha at their loss; he weeps with sadness over the death of Lazarus; he weeps for his own loss; he weeps because once again his followers don’t understand. Jesus shows real emotion.
I love this story because doubting Thomas is such a strong character. While the other disciples want to keep Jesus from going to Bethany because his life has been threatened, Thomas says, “Let’s go. I am ready to die with him.” He is not afraid; he’s not cringing, locked away in a room. He is raring to go. I love Thomas. He’s another one who is so truly human.
I laugh every time I read this story over the image of Lazarus coming out of the tomb, all wrapped up in grave cloths. I have this picture in my mind of a living mummy, walking heavily with his arms stretched out. He wants those bands to be loosed. He wants to jump up and down for joy at being alive.
But most of all I love this story for the hope it gives to all of us who read and hear it. There are those in this story who may have been ready to kill Jesus, but after Lazarus is raised, they come to believe. From this story, any of us who have doubted Jesus’ power over death can come to believe as well. We can be comforted by Jesus’ words that are so well known to us: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” With Martha, we can say, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
Sunday Gathered Worship, October 30, 2016
By Elizabeth Dede
Things happen fast in this story.
Jesus plans to pass through Jericho. He’s not going to stop for a sermon, or do some healing. He’s got another destination in mind.
Zaccheus gets wind of Jesus’ trip through town, and because he is small, he runs ahead to climb up in a tree to see the Lord. I remember when I was a little kid, we had a big tree in our backyard, and I could climb up to the top and look all the way across the tops of the houses to the next neighborhood over the highway. It was exciting to be up that high. Now I’m afraid of heights. I get sick just watching movies about mountain climbing. But Zaccheus didn’t have any fear of heights. He ran ahead and climbed up that tree.
I don’t much care for sycamore trees. They’re kind of trashy. They have big leaves, and they’re the last to get their leaves in the spring. In the fall, they are the first to turn brown and drop their big old leaves. They make a mess. But I’m thankful for sycamore trees because we might not have this story without them. What if there hadn’t been a tree for Zaccheus to climb? He would have stood up on his toes, stretching and straining, but he wouldn’t have seen the Lord.
The interns and I did some reading about the South African term Ubuntu, which means I see you, and I am seen by you. This was used after apartheid in the Truth and Reconciliation to help people find the humanity in each other, even after terrible atrocities had been committed.
Zaccheus climbs up in the sycamore tree, and he sees Jesus, but the story doesn’t end there. He is also seen by Jesus. Jesus tells him to come down quickly. The pace of the story is rapid. Zaccheus doesn’t take his time. He quickly comes down. He must have wondered why Jesus singled him out. After all, the only thing that made him unique was how despised he was. He was a tax collector. He must have had a “Who me?” and a “Why me?” moment.
I hope Zaccheus had his house in order because Jesus tells him that he must stay with him. You never know when you might have guests.
And so, off they go to Zaccheus’ house. He is joyful. You can feel his excitement in this story. But as happens in all stories, there are other characters who don’t share the joy. They grumble and complain. You’d think by this time that they would have figured out that Jesus came for people like Zaccheus. He isn’t your everyday, run-of- the-mill preacher.
Zaccheus isn’t afraid, or cowed, by these grouches. He is moved by Jesus’ acceptance of him and seeks reconciliation with all those whom he has wronged. And since he was a tax collector, that was probably a lot of people. It makes you wonder if he had anything left by the time he had paid off all those people. But I don’t think he would have cared. He found the Lord. He had been in a hurry, and he found what made for Justice and Peace in his life.
It seems that perhaps because of Zaccheus’ enthusiasm, Jesus welcomes him into the family. He is no longer the outcast. Salvation comes to him. He is a son of Abraham.
So let us be in a hurry to see Jesus. And as we are welcomed into the family, let us also be in a hurry to seek reconciliation, to make it right, to find peace and joy in our lives.
Gathered Worship, Sunday, October 23, 2016
Reflection on Luke 18:9-14
By Elizabeth Dede
Jesus’ teaching here is a hard one. It seems simple, but who really wants to be humbled?
I looked up the verb in the dictionary. To Humble means to humiliate, to put to shame, to disgrace. We’re not taught to do these things. I guess we’re pretty clear that we shouldn’t exult ourselves either, but to humiliate ourselves? That seems a bit much.
I have a struggle with this because I don’t know how to value myself. Once when I was a kid I told a friend of the family that I went to two schools. One was for gifted kids. My mom was mortified. I guess you could say she was humiliated. She took me aside and told me that I shouldn’t brag about myself that way. Then I was humiliated. I thought I was just telling the simple truth, but apparently I was being proud.
After that experience I had a hard time with being smart. School was easy for me, but that embarrassed me.
So who wants to be humiliated? I say, “Not me.”
Actually, it seems like this is a situation where telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is called for. The tax collector told the truth about himself. He was a sinner. The Pharisee left out that crucial description. He saw himself as perfect. He did all the right things, and he was happy to catalogue that for God.
The tax collector knew that he was far from perfect. He told God about that too, and asked for mercy.
So we all need to rely on God’s mercy, whether we feel like we’re doing the right thing, or whether we are readily aware of our sins.
My sister helped me with this. I struggled all of my life to be perfect. Of course you can’t attain perfection. For Christmas one year she gave me a necklace that spelled perfect, except that the T was crooked.
That’s about the way we all are. God has made us close to perfect, almost like the angels. But we’ve also got a taste of sin—a crooked T.
That’s not something we want to be proud of. Rather we need to acknowledge it, to recognize our need for God’s mercy.
That recognition will be like an invitation to Jesus to enter into our hearts because he ate with tax collectors and sinners.
So let us humble ourselves, not so that we will be ashamed, but so that Jesus will be with us. Amen.
Sunday Gathered Worship Lesson, January 8, 2017
By Elizabeth Dede
When I lived at the Open Door Community in Atlanta, we practiced Liberation Theology, studied the Bible from the point of view of the poor, and saw Jesus in the homeless and imprisoned among us.
One of our favorite stories came from the early days of the Sojourners Community, which Jim Wallis tells: “One of our first activities was to find every verse of scripture about the poor, wealth and poverty, and social justice. We found more than 2,000 texts that we then cut out of an old Bible. We were left with a Bible full of holes, [a hole-ly Bible], which I used to take out with me to preach.”
One evening, Ed Loring and Ron Jackson went to a speaking engagement in Buckhead, a well-to-do neighborhood of Atlanta. They were speaking to a rather wealthy group about seeing Jesus in the poor, when Ron proclaimed, “You won’t find Jesus in Buckhead.” Of course, this disturbed the group. Isn’t Jesus among all of his believers, even those who have access to goods?
In addition, the Open Door, and so many other non-profits, including Koinonia Farm, depend on those very people to survive in this world and to do our ministry.
Nevertheless, we do know of God’s preferential option for the poor. Mary sings it in her song: “He has put down the mighty from their throne and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
However, today’s Gospel lesson helps us to understand that Jesus came for everyone, even the rich. You see, these wise men from afar were not poor. They came with expensive gifts. Traditionally, we call them kings, although they probably weren’t. Also, they were not part of God’s chosen family. They were not the children of Israel, yet this star of wonder appeared to them, and they came to bow down to Jesus.
The invitation is made to everyone—the poor shepherds, the rich kings, even King Herod is told of the baby Jesus.
And so this message also comes to us. We live a blessed life here at Koinonia with more than enough to share. Let us offer our thanks and praise to God for the gift of Jesus. Let us offer our thanks and praise to Jesus for the gift of his salvation that comes to all of us—rich and poor alike. Let us offer our thanks and praise for the gift of life together, full of so many good blessings.
Sunday Gathered Worship, January 15, 2017
Grace to You and Peace
1 Corinthians 1:1-3
By Elizabeth Dede
I grew up a Lutheran pastor’s kid. My dad, who is now 85 years old, is also a Lutheran pastor’s kid. His mom and dad grew up speaking German, so they always went to German church. My dad grew up speaking English, so he always went to English church.
My dad is by far the youngest in his family. His two older brothers were old enough to be his father, and his sister and next brother were gone from home by the time my dad was going to school. So he grew up like an only child, which meant he went to church on his own. In order to make sure that my dad actually went to church, his dad always quizzed him on the sermon at Sunday evening dinner.
My dad followed the same practice with us kids, even though we all went to church together. And we were not allowed to say, “That was a good sermon, Dad.” We had to be prepared to give some examples from the sermon to show that we really were paying attention.
Well, it’s been years now since I heard my dad preach, but I still remember that every sermon began this way, “My dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
So hearing those words, over and over again, makes me wonder, “What do they really mean?”
Grace, I learned as a good Lutheran kid, is what saves us: “By grace you have been saved, and this is not your own doing, but a gift of God, lest anyone should boast.” Grace is that gift from God that we don’t deserve, that we cannot earn. Grace is the vast lovingkindness of God. Grace fills us with hope. The darkness of the world around us is changed into the light of Christ by grace.
Peace is also a word that I heard many times in church growing up. Several times throughout worship, my dad would say, “The peace of the Lord be with you always,” and we would chant back, “And with thy spirit.” Peace is not just the absence of war and violence, it is a state in which all is made whole, where there is justice, where all relationships are reconciled. Here at Koinonia, peace is part of our vision statement: we look for “peace through reconciliation.” So we try to be at peace with all of God’s creation. If we have wronged a person, we go to them to seek forgiveness. If we feel wronged, we go to the person to speak directly to them in love. We try to be at peace with our environment—grazing our cattle on fresh grass, letting our chickens roam, and treating our pecans and fruits and vegetables biologically rather than with chemicals.
“Grace to you and peace.” These are gifts that we have to offer to each other. We hope to live our lives in a way that demonstrates these gifts. We pray that Koinonia is a place full of grace and peace. We ask God that our whole world be filled with grace and peace so that the goodwill promised by the angels will reign here and now.
So, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Amen.
Sunday, September 4, 2016, Reflection on Luke 14:25-33
by Elizabeth Dede
I’m getting tired of these hard teachings from Jesus. Can’t we just have something simple like “Follow me?”
In this Gospel lesson, Jesus tells us to hate our families and to renounce everything that we have. What does he really mean?
I learned this morning at my other church that in the original Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, there were no gradations of love and hate. There were no words to talk about dislike or like. So our little Judah sitting over there couldn’t say, “I don’t like Steve. I love Steve.” There was only love for Steve. Or hate for Steve, but, of course, Judah doesn’t hate Steve. So, perhaps Jesus didn’t really mean that we are supposed to hate our families. Maybe we’re just supposed to love Jesus more. I don’t know how I feel about these language games, though. And how am I, not a Bible scholar, and not knowledgeable in Biblical languages, supposed to know these things as I read the Gospel?
One clue I guess comes from other places in the Gospel. For instance, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me more than these? Feed my lambs.” So there is a qualification to love. We are to love Jesus more than anyone or anything.
Even renouncing all of our possessions is a difficult thing. I find in life in community that it is easier to give things up. All of our needs are provided for. So I don’t have to own my own washer and dryer because the community provides a laundry house. I don’t have to cook my own meals because we eat together. I don’t even have to wash my own dishes all the time because we all share in that work.
But not everyone is called to live in community. So how can people working at a job, living in a house, needing to drive to work renounce everything to follow Jesus? I don’t know. I don’t have a satisfactory answer.
I can only guess that for many Christians, Jesus means that you should keep a light hold on possessions—don’t let them run your life. Be faithful to Jesus. Pray regularly. Worship with others. Serve the poor. It seems to me that it’s a delicate balance. As Henry David Thoreau said, “Simplify! Simplify!” Have only what you need. Be aware of the difference between needs and desires.
And love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.