Saint Andrew United Methodist Church

1528 Church Road

Toms River NJ 08755

Hope Wins Over Despair

Posted by on Monday, April 16, 2018 @ 8:51 PM

Have you ever felt hopeless and despairing?

At its worst, having no hope for the future is frighteningly debilitating. It robs people of their sense of self-worth. It robs people of their drive to succeed. It robs people of their will to live. It instigates drug and alcohol abuse. It instigates self-neglect, or worse, self-destructive behavior. It instigates an unraveling of supportive relationships.

After Jesus was crucified…   his followers were crushed mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. They were afraid of what might happen to them. They were grieving the loss of their friend and rabbi. And, on top of it all…   the future that they thought looked so bright (the coming Kingdom of God, freedom from Roman oppression, Jesus as the Messiah and King) seemed broken and utterly lost.

Then…   they get some news…

The first Good News that they get is that the women couldn’t find the body in the tomb.

Think about that for a moment…   not from the vantage point of we who know how the Easter story ends…   but from the perspective of these despairing disciples. Before Jesus appeared to anyone…   The only GOOD news is that the tomb was empty. It seems like a desperate stretch. Any number of things could result in an empty tomb: a theft of the body, or mistakenly going to the wrong tomb are two things. That he was alive!? Very difficult to believe.

This is exactly the condition in which we find two of Jesus’ disciples as they travel to Emmaus on Easter night:

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven milesfrom Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

This is a long passage of Scripture with lots of things to reflect upon. I would like to simply focus on how the hopelessness and despair of these disciples robs them of their ability to perceive and recognize Jesus present with them. It robs them of the wherewithal to interpret and trust the Scriptures. It instigates them to leave the rest of the disciples (as Passover ends) and, presumably, go back to whatever they were doing before… in isolation, without hope for a future, without success, without a will to continue.

It’s only when their journey comes to an end, and they extend themselves beyond their hopelessness and despair in order to offer hospitality to this ‘stranger’, that Jesus is reveled in the meal they share together.

He was there the whole time…   present with them, journeying with them. 

The promise of the Scriptures was there the whole time…   bearing witness to the truth.

They couldn’t see it because their hopelessness and despair had robbed them. But, in the act of extending hospitality and sharing a meal…   Jesus reveals himself in the breaking of the bread. Then, the blindness is broken and they recognized Jesus. And, they could see in hindsight that he was there the whole time.

And this is so for all of us who put our faith in the Risen Jesus. Even though we may endure seasons of hopelessness and despair. Even though we may feel spiritually blind and without the presence of Jesus. He is there.

So, let’s continue to open the Scriptures and invite Jesus to open our hearts. Let’s continue to gather together and share the wondrous story of his resurrection. Let’s continue to extend hospitality, act generously, and break bread together.

And, let's trust that Jesus will continue break down our blindness and reveal himself to us, set our hearts on fire, and inspire us for the journey and mission ahead.

Pastor Erik

Faith Wins Over Doubt

Posted by on Monday, April 9, 2018 @ 7:05 PM

Is SEEING believing…   as the old adage goes? And, if physical, tangible, experience like seeing defines what is possible to believe…   what is faith? How about this…   does BELIEVING change the way we see?

Tough philosophical questions this week that, when probed, can really mess with our common understanding of what faith is, what believing means, and what role ‘seeing’ (aka physical, tangible, experience) plays in it all.

Because it’s such a well-known story in the Bible…   and features such a well-known disciple (doubting Thomas). Let’s look at the Scripture first:

Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:24-29)

Jesus had appeared in resurrected form to the disciples but Thomas wasn’t there. When they told him about it, he says, “unless I see and touch…   I will not believe”. On the surface this looks like a classic case. Thomas is in a condition of doubting…   and he claims that only a physical, tangible, experience can clear up his doubt and verify the truth.

Jesus, seemingly directly addressing Thomas, appears again and provides this physical, tangible, proof while repeating the very words Thomas used, “put your finger here and see my hands, reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe”. Is this the climax of the story? Is this the most important point: Jesus appeared miraculously to a doubting Thomas and convinced Thomas with physical, tangible experience that indeed Jesus had been raised? I don’t think so.

First, those words “Do not doubt but believe”, in the Greek, actually mean “do not be faithless but believe”. That may not seem like a big difference, but it does have an impact on the way we should understand what is really going on in these passages.

Being faithless and being doubtful (or doubt-filled) are different. Doubt acknowledges that we are not the first or final authority, we are not the first and final control. Doubt means that we are leaving space for what is not understood, not comprehended, not comfortably accepted. When I say “I doubt”, I am saying I’m pretty sure I know, but I’m leaving the possibility open that some further experience might change my mind. I’m leaving the possibility I might not have it all figured out. When I say “I do not believe” (i.e. I am faithless or have no faith in the matter), that is much stronger. When I am faithless, it is a kind of arrogance. I am convinced that my knowledge and my authority on the matter is settled. I am convinced that I can control how and when and what I will believe and what I will not believe. I’m not leaving the possibility open to have my mind changed by some further experience.

Jesus does make an appearance, specifically to confront Thomas in exactly the way Thomas arrogantly and faithlessly challenged, but this is not the teaching point. If it were, we would expect Jesus to do the same for all of us whom, deep down inside, arrogantly require the same satisfaction and proof. But no, his appearance here is in service to a more foundational teaching point. Jesus goes on to say, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” In other words…   seeing may be believing but that’s not going to be enough…   it is more important to let your believing…   your faith…   lead the way.

In its fullness…   faith does not grow out of our own arrogant, scientific, facts-oriented deduction of our physical, tangible, experience that eliminates ‘doubt’. Instead, faith grows out of engaging the mysteries of life, holding out the possibility that the ultimate truths are so much bigger than we can fully grasp and analyze. It embraces doubt…   but is not controlled by it!

This is good news because we all regularly experience doubt in relation to our lives of faith. It’s necessary because God’s full reality: love, grace, plan, purpose, presence cannot ever be confined and defined by our limited capacity for understanding. The kind of ‘seeing’ that Jesus encourages is the kind that sees and embraces the outworking of God’s presence and promise in all things even while in the midst of doubt.

Courage Wins Over Fear

Posted by on Tuesday, April 3, 2018 @ 10:30 AM

When something bad happens its like a bomb goes off in our lives. Everything is blown out of place, broken, and out-of-sorts, and we are left trying to pick through the pieces. All forward progress stops, and we go into survival mode. Hopes and dreams may be buried, left behind, or put on the back-burner.

The fear and grief that descends upon us when bad things happen can leave us feeling lost, adrift, and without hope. If we are not careful…   this can permanently undermine our joy, our success, our opportunities, and our life’s purpose.

I’m a Star Wars geek, so I’ll use an illustration from the original 1977 Star Wars movie (known as episode 4 ‘A New Hope’). Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader are engaged in a lightsaber battle in which it is clear that Vader has the upper-hand. As he gloats in his anticipated victory, Obi Wan ominously warns Vader, “if you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine”. The warning goes unheeded and Darth Vader kills Obi Wan with huge stroke of the lightsaber.

Young Luke Skywalker witnesses the tragedy…   and is devastated by it. What will he do now that is friend and mentor is gone? How will he learn the ways of the force? How will he succeed in fighting the evil Empire? All hope seems lost for Luke. But, as it turns out, Obi Wan is not dead and gone. He has, in fact, become one with the force. Now, Obi Wan is now able to be powerfully present and active in Luke’s life everywhere all the time; guiding him, teaching him, even empowering him to reach the fullness of his success and purpose.

After Jesus is crucified…   there’s this same sense of tragedy and devastation among his disciples and friends. What will they do now that their friend and mentor is gone? How will they live the ways of God? How will they succeed in declaring the Kingdom of God’s victory over the world? It’s like a bomb went off in their lives…   everything is broken, out-of-sorts, and fear and grief have settled in over everything. Then…   Jesus appears to empower, guide and teach:

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  (John 20:19-22)

No…   Jesus didn’t become ‘one with the force’ like Obi Wan…   its even better than that! In his resurrection victory, he comes with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Far from an impersonal, universal ‘force’, the Holy Spirit is the personal presence of God in all places at all times, given specifically to guide, teach, and empower those who have put their faith in Jesus.

Jesus assures them with the promise of a divine peace and power great enough, and enduring enough, to overcome their fear and grief. And, he sets their sights once again on their future success, opportunity, and life purpose…   “as the Father sends me, so I am sending you”.

We have the very same assurance and promise in the Holy Spirit that those first disciples were given as they cowered behind locked doors in fear for their lives.

Whatever bomb has gone (or might go) off in our lives.

No matter how much everything is blown out of place, broken, and out-of-sorts.

When we are left trying to pick through the pieces and all forward progress seems stopped.

When our hopes and dreams seem buried, left behind, or put on the back-burner.

Jesus is there saying “peace be with you”. The Holy Spirit is there breathing into us, replacing fear and doubt with hope and courage for a future with joy, opportunity, success, and victory.

 

Pastor Erik

The End of the World

Posted by on Monday, March 26, 2018 @ 9:20 AM

Holy Week

Prayer of the Week

(pray this prayer each day this week)

Lord God Almighty,

The prophets through the ages said you would come. They said we should be watchful, ready, obedient, and willing to submit to you when you did come. As Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey the people cried out Hosanna, which means SAVE NOW. They saw, in him, your promised messiah. Within days, the people realized he was not what they expected. The religious leaders hated him because he challenges their ways. The Romans hated him because he was a threat. Although Jesus came in perfect love and justice, he was hated and unjustly executed. How could everyone get it so wrong? This week, help me not to make the same mistake in my life. Show me that salvation means submitting myself in faith, hope, and love to Jesus. As I pray out HOSANNA, enter my life and lead me to overcome my doubt and fear so I may live the life you promised the faithful. In Jesus name I pray. Amen

 

 

Read Psalm 118 & John 12:12-15

Holy Week: Questions for Reflection

 

What happens when perfect justice and perfect injustice clash? We find out when Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey and fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy: “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey”. At first, he is received with much celebration, but when his ways of perfect justice and mercy are misunderstood as weakness, heresy, and rebellion…   the world reacts with perfect injustice: false testimony, imprisonment, harsh interrogation, torture, and wrongful execution.

Adoring people were shouting Hosanna (Save Now!) in the streets at Jesus’ coming. How could something so good end so badly? Why do you think that Jesus’ ways represent perfect justice?

Have you ever misunderstood God? How did you react? Did you resist and reject? Or, did you humble yourself and submit? Why do you think the ways of the world represent perfect injustice?

Is this the end of the story? It certainly seems like it. Jesus is killed despite his love, his healing, his teaching, and his promises. What did he say would happen after his death?

 

Action for the Week

READ THE STORY prayerfully and deeply through the week. Matthew 26 & 27; Mark 14 & 15; Luke 22 & 23; John 18 & 19 all tell the story. Save the next chapters for Easter morning Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20. He is Risen!

 

Pastor Erik

Extravagant Justice

Posted by on Monday, March 19, 2018 @ 9:10 AM

5th Week of Lent

Prayer of the Week

(pray this prayer each day this week. Adapted from Psalm 108)

 

Merciful God,

I exalt you with all that I am. I do not forget how you have been kind to me…  forgiven me…   healed me…   redeemed me…  and crowned me with your love and mercy. Such extravagance! You are slow to anger and you abound with steadfast love. You don’t treat me as I deserve but instead treat me with kindness and generosity. You promise me your enduring love and presence. You ask for me commitment to your will and your ways. Even though I am imperfect…   even though my life passes quickly…   your perfection and eternal life and love and rule and reign establish you as Lord over all creation. I am blessed to be yours. I exalt you with all that I am. This week, help to simply, but deeply and powerfully, remember your love and grace and how you have dealt kindly with me. Rekindle the fire of my heart to exalt you in all I do and commit my life to your will and ways. In Jesus name I pray. Amen

 

Read Matthew 20:1-16

Week 5: Questions for Reflection

Human nature is funny sometimes. Often it seems that we don’t get concerned enough when a fellow human being is suffering oppression and injustice and being treated unfairly. But, on the other hand…   we seem to get all too concerned when we feel someone is being treated better than we are…   even when the treatment is an underserved and gracious gift! We may grumble to ourselves “well, why didn’t I get such a nice gift”. That’s the case in the parable of the vineyard workers. Jesus tells of a landowner who pays the same fair wage to all the workers…   even the ones that show up at the end of the workday. Instead of being thankful for a fair day’s wage…   the all-day workers became mad at the landowner’s generosity. Yet another example of God’s unmerited favor for the least and the last.

How much does it bother you when someone else is treated with injustice? Enough to move you to action? How?

How much does it bother you when someone else is treated with extravagant generosity? Does it make you resentful?

Are you grateful? Do you rejoice in how God has been extravagantly generous to you? In what ways can you ‘count your blessings’?

 

Action for the Week

Practice gratitude. Remember daily (even hourly) the blessings that God has showered upon your life. Let that sense of gratitude control your mood this week.

 

Pastor Erik

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