The Three Word Pentecost Sermon (1 Corinthians 12:3-13)

Photo by Emre Can Acer on

Pentecost is Pentecost. There are tongues of fire. The Holy Spirit is no longer a transient visitor. Jesus’ promise appears to be finally fulfilled. As with our yearly Christmas texts and Easter texts, Acts 2:1-21 comes right on schedule. Unlike the disciples, no matter how often we proclaim ourselves to be a Pentecost people; we are never taken by surprise. We know what we’re getting on Pentecost morning. Peter and the eleven are mistaken for a group of bumbling, drunken Galilean fishermen, who play a little fast and loose with a Joel quote from the Septuagint, and end up speaking something that sounds like Latin to the Romans, Greek to the Cretans, and Arabic to the Arabians. That’s Pentecost for Methodists. No surprises. No windows are broken, no tongues of fire are seen, and none of us will be confused for drunken fishermen. Pentecost, like every other Sunday, will be an orderly affair with red paraments, red flowers on the altar, and who knows, I might even wear a red stole. Our Pentecost will be nothing like the first Pentecost, and that, my friends, will be our loss. If we need anything, we need some of the unstructured spirit-driven informality.

Paul also writes at length about the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in his first letter to the church at Corinth. Unlike the day of Pentecost, where the crowd only assumed Peter was high on hooch, people showed up to the Eucharist drunk in Corinth (1 Corinthians 11: 20-22). Paul wanted to refocus the Corinthians’ attention on the Holy Spirit, not the consumable, alcoholic spirits. He segues from talking about people being carried out of church because they’re too drunk to walk to make this statement: “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” He’s about to launch into an extended discussion as to how the spirit equips people with different gifts for ministry. Paul wants everyone to know we’re all not gifted to play quarterback. Somebody has to be the water boy, someone is the coach, while others are on the sidelines drawing up plays or cheering on the team. Everyone has a unique role to play as defined by the spirit. We get that part. That may be the easiest part of any of Paul’s letters to grasp. We’ve known this idea since we were kids in little league. I’m more interested in that first sentence; we cannot proclaim Jesus as Lord except by the Holy Spirit. What does he mean?

We can say, “Jesus is Lord” as easily as we make any offhand comment about anything or anyone. We can say it three times fast, repeat it like a mantra or prayer, shout it out loud, or whisper it under our breath. Paul seems to indicate this confession of faith means little unless it’s done in the right spirit, with the right focus, and directed toward the right priority. That’s where the gift of the Holy Spirit comes in. Unlike the flash-bang Hollywood special effects we read about in Acts 2, Paul paints a more subdued but equally important image of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12. The Spirit is that which gives our confession meaning, direction, and priority. Without the Spirit, “Jesus is Lord” are three words. On Pentecost the Holy Spirit does more than enliven our worship. The Spirit points us where, when, how, and with whom to serve. With the Spirit, we are directed outward from our safe spaces toward sometimes uncomfortable places of service, helped to prioritize how, when, and where to build the kingdom of God on Earth and create meaning in a world that thrives on meaninglessness. Our sermon need not be long. We only need three words but we must have the Holy Spirit to connect God’s vision with God’s people.

–Richard Bryant

Jet-Pack Jesus – Ascension Day Reflections

Photo by SpaceX on

Christianity is the only major world religion built around creeds and statements of faith. We require a litmus test before you can join the club. Think about that for a moment. God’s grace is free and open to everyone as long as you can agree with our belief paragraph.

We stand alone with our creedal tradition. How did we get this way?

In the early 4th century, when Christianity was legalized, and the Roman Empire’s official religion, the church’s bishops (under Constantine’s guidance) felt the need to standardize the hodgepodge of creeds into a formal statement of faith. Every local congregation from Jerusalem to Antioch and Alexandria to Ephesus used slightly different versions of declarations and statements of faith. This presented a problem for the early church. When trying to stomp out heresies, such as Arianism and the like, variations in belief are often where the seeds of heterodoxy were planted. One way to get ahead of the heretical curve would be for the bishops to issue a definitive statement of faith, a creed, to define what all churches must profess to be considered orthodox and in good standing with the bishops in Constantinople and Rome.

The Apostles’ Creed descends from a creed used by the early church in Rome, unknown to the Greek church in the east. It probably originated about the same time as the first Nicene Council in 325. However, the Creed of Constantinople, which we now call the Nicene Creed, became the church’s official version in 381 CE. For those of you counting, it took the church three hundred and fifty-eight years to summarize its fundamental theological and Christological beliefs about Jesus into one paragraph. Change comes slowly around these parts. No one who wrote that paragraph knew Jesus, saw Jesus, lived with Jesus, or had any more personal contact with Jesus than we do. Those who wrote the creeds barely had what we would call a New Testament today.

Remember, the men who called themselves Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote their stories of Jesus thirty to sixty years after his death. Memories fade, especially in parts of the world where the average lifespan of an adult male in first-century Palestine was 37. The gospel writers authored stories based on memory, myth, history, tradition, and lore. It’s on these sources that three hundred-plus years later, the creed writers tried to distill the essential parts of Christian belief into a single paragraph. What a monumental task! Given the historical and theological contradictions in the New Testament text, one starts to wonder whether those who compiled the creed are asking us to believe in the right things. For instance, should they have included the greatest commandment over the ascension?

There are two accounts of the Ascension in the four gospels, which are wildly different. In Matthew’s version (often referred to as the Great Commission) 28:16-20, Jesus’ disciples are instructed to meet him on a mountain in Galilee on Easter Sunday, the day of resurrection. He gives them authority to baptize and make disciples of all nations. And with that, the resurrected Jesus vanished from the stage of human history. Mark and John lack Ascension stories, so we go to Luke.

Luke’s first version is (24:50-53) immediately following the Emmaus Road encounter. Again, on the day of resurrection, near Bethany (close to Jerusalem, not Galilee), Jesus offers a final blessing to the disciples he’s encountered. As he’s blessing them, he’s taken up to heaven. Let me emphasize; Luke says this is on the day of resurrection.

Luke’s second account, in Acts 1:3, we’re told that Jesus stayed with the disciples for 40 days with them in Jerusalem (eating with them and instructing them to wait on the baptism of the Holy Spirit). Then, after 40 days, they went outside the city (1:9), and “he was taken up before their eyes, and a cloud him from their sight.”

Which ascension are we supposed to believe in? Luke couldn’t even get his own story straight. If you’re going to lie, at least be consistent. We put something in the creed that the one author who wrote about it twice couldn’t get it right. Red flags anyone?

To understand what we’re assenting to when we recite, we must understand what and how the first century understood concepts like death, resurrection, and dying and rising Gods. Of all the crazy things we do and say each week, asking people to profess belief in a jet-pack Jesus who lifted off and flew back into heaven is the one that bothers me most. I’m not sure anyone in the first century literally believed Jesus up and flew away. People who grew up in an environment saturated with gods and goddesses had a more refined sense of metaphor and myth. I’m with Rudolf Bultmann here.

I don’t believe in a flying Jesus, a rocket man. I don’t think Luke did either. Yet, here we are in the 21st century, talking about jet-pack Jesus as one of the things we’ve got to believe in to be Christian. And this Sunday, Ascension Sunday, we’ll do it again because that’s just what you do.  

–Richard Bryant

Now What? – Psalm 23

Photo by Ekrulila on

I’m fond of William Shakespeare. I quote him often. I think he’s the greatest master of the English language. So, if we think he’s boring, I don’t think we hear him correctly. He took an unwieldy English language and turned it into art. He made it funny, multi-dimensional, and come alive. He made it rhyme in ways that are incredibly difficult to do. Have you ever tried to write in iambic pentameter? It is challenging.
Moreover, he invented new ways of communicating. He took the “play,” something the Greeks perfected, trimmed it down, and made them exciting and watchable.  In this process he created the soliloquy. Do you remember the soliloquy from English class?

It’s a speech, a talk that a single character gives to let you know what’s on their mind. It’s kind of an inner monologue combined with a speech. The audience and a character hiding off stage secretly listen to the character giving the soliloquy. I’ll give you two quick examples, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. 

Juliet and Romeo are starting to fall in love. They met at a masked ball. Romeo wants to express his love. So he goes and hides under her balcony. She gives her soliloquy. He pops up and says, “I’m right here.”

Hamlet is a much darker play. Neither, however, have a happy ending. His daddy (the king is dead) and his uncle has married his mother. He’s an unhappy kid anyway but this makes things worse. In Act 3, scene 1, he’s walking around holding a skull asking, “To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings of outrageous fortune.”

The first time you see it, it’s incredibly moving. Then, whether they are in period clothes or a more modern production, you pick up on Hamlet’s angst and anger. But after the third or fourth time, it starts to get old. You want him to get on with the story. The redneck in me starts to come out. I want to shout at the stage, “Get on with it. Now what?” Stop moping about with the skull and make a decision. You know your uncle did it.

That’s how I feel when I read Psalm 23. It is a soliloquy of sorts. We know it as well as we know these tiny pieces of Shakespeare. We want it sung, read, and printed at our funeral. It’s published and hung on our walls. It’s on Bible bookmarks. We quote this scripture. But what do we do about it? Is our knowledge only superficial and ephemeral? After the 1000th time saying it, repeating it, and looking at it, what will we do about it? Now what? The Lord is your shepherd. Now what? What are you going to do about it? So what? How is that going to change how you live your life? How will these comforting words push you out of your comfort zone?

  1. It is one thing to say the Lord is your shepherd. But how do you live as if the Lord is your shepherd? We say the Lord is our shepherd. Often, we lead ourselves around the pasture because we think we know better than the man with the staff. We want to go here. We want to go there. Is the theme of your life being shepherded by God? I’m not saying being a sheep. Are you willing to be shepherded?
  2. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. Now what? Are you willing to be led by God? Are you ready to be led anywhere and everywhere by God? Humans are inclined to lead themselves into conflict, violence, arguments, and trouble. Are we willing to be led by God into places of restoration, stillness, and healing? Are we willing to admit that we have problems that need to be healed? Are we willing to accept that we are broken, and without times of restoration, we will fall apart? Without consenting to be led, we will die in the pasture? Are we willing to be led or die of thirst? Or do we think we know better?
  3. He leads me through the right paths for his name’s sake. Now what? Are we willing to be led by his name and not our name? Are we willing to be identified by the name of Christ and not our family name and have our identities subsumed entirely and totally by that of the shepherd, Jesus of Nazareth?  The right path is a path that is a path that centered on the identity, purpose, and passion of Jesus Christ-not us. We are at our best selves when our names and paths are aligned with the path and name of Jesus. Where do we find this? We go back to the Beatitudes.
  4. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil. Now what? Are we going to let fear control us or let faith guide us? Are we going to talk faith or walk faith? It’s easy to fear evil when we’re trying to lead the shepherd when we’re trying to go first. When we think we’re in charge. However, if the shepherd leads, fear diminishes exponentially. It’s not that our worries are non-existent or life is perfect, but we can function, despite our fears.
  5.  You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. Now what? Your force me to recognize the humanity in my adversaries. You force me to face my fears and my foes. You move me to a place where I can consider making peace. A shared meal is the best place to find reconciliation, forgiveness, love, justice, grace, and mercy. If you want to reconcile with an enemy, share a meal. Now what? God provides. God provides for everyone. God provides opportunities for healing between you and your enemies. Notice they aren’t God’s enemies. They are my (your enemies). That’s now, what. That’s putting it into practice.  That’s an unimaginable blessing. You might even say your cup is running over.
  6. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. Now what? Does that mean everything is going to work out fine? No, far from it. It means if we let God go first if we consent to be led, there will be an order, a purpose to our lives that would not be there otherwise.  What kind of person do you want to be? What is your purpose in life? Are goodness and life central answers to both of those questions? Are you able to say: I want to BE a good person? I want to BE a person of mercy.  How does that happen? We stop giving orders to the shepherd. We stop giving lip service to the Psalm and give life service to the actions behind the words of the Psalm.  We take the next step, the now what step.
  7. This is what, I believe, the second half of the sixth verse means, if we take the next step, we will dwell (live) with God for the duration of our lives. We find purpose and meaning. God will be at the center, and we can align our “who we want to be” and our “now what’s” outward from there. Being led by the shepherd becomes who we are; being shepherded is our way of life. 

So how do you make the 23rd Psalm you can live today, not just something they’ll read at your funeral? Give this a try. Embrace this 23rd Psalm as a way of life, not a comfort blanket. You are not a sheep. Sheep are dumb. You are made in the image of God. Remember these points:

  • I am willing to be shepherded
  • I will be open to life’s abundance. I will reject scarcity.
  • I will acknowledge my need to be restored, that I am broken and need healing.
  • I realize fear is a choice, I am not abandoned, and God precedes me.
  • I accept that God wants me to restore relationships with my enemies. Therefore, eat with your friends, and share table fellowship with your enemies. Break bread together.

I will order my life with a God-centered purpose, a central meaning, and a life theme, which will be God. This will help us determine who we want to be and should be, inspire others, create a legacy, and deal with adversity. Life will not be perfect, but it will have meaning. 

Some This and That on John 3:16

The week’s lectionary passage takes us to the familiar home of John 3:1-17. It’s hard to resist the homiletical allure of preaching John 3:16, yet like the perennial texts we face at Christmas and Easter, is there anything new to be said about these most well-known verses of the four gospels?

If there’s anything about this passage that I find unavoidable, it’s the emphasis on God’s love. “For God so loved the world,” Jesus says to Nicodemus. Unfortunately, we often gloss over those words and read them as a prologue to the more important, “that he gave us his only begotten son.” They are the key to understanding verses 16 and 17, perhaps the whole pericope.

I don’t want to move on so quickly because we might miss something about the relationship between love and creation. Secondly, with this gift of love and creation comes a great responsibility that goes far beyond “belief” in the son who was sent “to us.” To understand our role in our relationship with God, we need verse 17. If we believe in the son who was gifted to us, we are accepting the terms of the gift, that the gift came not to condemn and further the same love of humanity that prompted the gift in the first place. That’s why the pericope doesn’t stop with verse 16.

Other religious traditions, particularly in the ancient world, show God (or gods) engaging in brutal and violent creation stories. In the ancient Sumerian religion, the goddess Tiamat was ripped in half to create sea and sky. We know of the traditional tales of the Greco-Roman pantheon that showed the gods’ contempt for each other and human beings. Gods in the ancient world hated people. Yet, in Genesis, we’re told humans were created as a little less than angels. In these familiar words from John, the early Christian community is reminded that the God of Israel loves the world. God does not hate humanity. We are not God’s playthings. God does not treat us like chess pieces on a board, moving us around according to a plan only God knows. God loves us. We are God’s partners and friends. Isn’t it wonderful to be loved by God?

God loves us. God gives us a son because he loves us. Because God loves us and gives us a son, he says it’s out of a desire not to condemn humanity but to love humanity. What is keeping us from getting the point? God loves us. Why can’t we love others unconditionally as God does? Why can’t we love others without condemning and judging? Doesn’t believing in God’s son make this kind of unconditional love possible? I believe it does. God created us out of love, not hate. Shouldn’t this free us from hate? How can we claim to love God’s son if we have hate in our hearts? If hate is in our hearts, the John 3:16 process stops, and the love God first shared in giving us Jesus stops with us. If love is there, we keep passing John 3:16 on, and that creative “For God so loved the world” process never ends.

–Richard Bryant

Transfiguration or Transformation (Matthew 17:1-9)

Photo by Lio Voo on

What does it mean to be transfigured? That’s part of being human. We want to describe the indescribable. It is the word Matthew chooses for double duty: to describe an indescribable experience and to capture the importance of this theological moment on the mountain. Transfiguration is a two-way process, especially in this text. Jesus is transformed, and the disciples are transformed by what they witness. Everyone is changed by what happens on the mountain in one way or another. No one will ever be the same. Jesus is different; his purpose is set wholly toward the events that will lead to his death. The three disciples now see Jesus, no pun intended, in a different light. It’s more than they comprehend. They can’t grasp the whole picture but realize there is so much more to Jesus than they ever thought possible. They can’t put it into words. As the passage says, Jesus doesn’t even want them to try. Keep this quiet, he says. It’s more than most people can bear on a good day. Jesus indicates that the meaning of the transfiguration (what occurred on that mountain) won’t be fully understood until after the events of Easter.

So where do we plug in? Are we playing a semantics game? If we return to my first question, what’s the difference between transfiguration and transformation? Why does the Bible use the word transfiguration? How do we, on one end of the transfiguration process, understand what happens when we come to terms with who Jesus is, what he’s all about, and what’s expected of us when we’re let in on the big plan? How does that change us and our level of commitment to the team?

First of all, transformation is transfiguration light. Transformation is more of a surface-level change. You can transform by simply getting a haircut and changing clothes. Transformation is ephemeral. Transformation might involve learning a new language. Finally, transformations are more temporary or can be undone. Transformations, in short, are not permanent.

Transfigurations, on the other hand, indicate systemic change. When you alter something at a root level, you are transfigured. If you’ve been transfigured, it is not easily undone, redone, or able to return to whatever status quo you inhabited before the transfiguration. Transfiguration is not surface-level change. Instead of a haircut and a shoe shine, you are working on your heart and soul. Fundamentally, your perspective and identity are altered, and you come away looking at the world in a different light. So this is not an exercise in semantic hair-splitting. Transfiguration is a big deal for all involved. Jesus wants us with him to see what he sees, to be on the same page that he’s on, as up to speed as he is, and understand as much as we can know about God’s plan for humanity. In short, Jesus wants us to be transfigured by his actions.

Jesus places us in the most critical place and time of our lives. We’re not aware of it, but this is it. This is the most important moment in our lives. Up to this point in our lives (what happens in Holy Week will be more important, but up until now, this is it), nothing we’ve done matches this moment. This is the highlight of our lives. Jesus has placed us in a position and place to have our lives transfigured by God in a way we’ve never thought possible. Short of being resurrected from the dead like Lazarus (or Jesus), we’re about to be a part of the next best thing. We don’t know this, of course. We’re blindly following Jesus up the mountain and doing what he says. Here’s where the rubber meets the road:

Do we trust Jesus enough to follow him up the mountain? (Jesus, you want me to go up a mountain? I’m out of shape. Can’t you get transfigured somewhere accessible, where it’s flat and requires less physical exertion and spiritual commitment from me?)

Do we want to be transfigured? As I said a moment ago, that’s a serious, systemic, profound change. We probably like how we are and are comfortable with our lifestyles and expectations for the world around us. We are set in our ways and like things the way they are. Being transfigured sounds frightening. We heard one of the passages throw around the words “fear and trembling” a moment ago. Isn’t it our instinct to say, “No, thank you, Jesus, I’m cool just as I am? I’ll reserve the right to be transformed on my time and schedule. But I’ll treat being transfigured like I treat a colonoscopy. Something I would rather not do, and I’ll schedule later.”

Jesus is in no mood to negotiate. We didn’t even realize this was a negotiation. Jesus says, “You want to be transfigured. You need to be transfigured. You’re going up the mountain. Grab your climbing sandals; this isn’t optional.”

“But I need to go by the outdoor store and pick up hiking boots, a new Columbia jacket, a backpack, and a fancy sleeping bag,” we say. Jesus says, “Nope.”  “We go as we are with our sandals and robes. Trust me.”

This is one of the reasons I remain optimistic about the future of the United Methodist Church. Transfiguration, change, hope, and everything being worked out, in the end, do not depend on us. So Jesus tells these three disciples. If Jesus makes a promise, Jesus keeps his word. Jesus will ensure you get home if he takes you on a trip. If Jesus takes you up the mountain, you will come back alive. We may be climbing up the mountain now, and I trust Jesus is changing us in ways I may not understand now, but he will bring us back down in one piece. Jesus has never let me down yet.

Everyone wants to take their mountain-top experience home. The three disciples wished to hold onto the experience. They knew it was special. If you’ve ever been that close to God, one of those thin moments where heaven and earth come so close you can feel the presence of God, you know how they felt.

What could they do? These were practical, hard-working men. Let’s build these guys a shelter. We’re up on a mountain, it’s the middle of the night, and we’re all going to need something to sleep in. It makes sense, right? You can see the logic of their thinking. However, God is not a noun (a person, place, or thing in the conventional sense.) You can’t hold onto God the way you grab your Bible. It works the other way around. God holds on to you. Our greatest spiritual frustrations come from trying to hold on to God, tame God, and make God fit into boxes (shelters) of our creations. Sometimes we do this out of the best intentions, and sometimes because we’re control freaks. But this is not how God works. God holds on to us. We can’t grab the intangible cosmic reality and the reality at the heart of the cosmos and start giving God orders. We are the ones who fall on our knees and pray, “Here I am, Lord, send me.”

When we understand this, we realize what it means to be transfigured by Jesus Christ.

–Richard Bryant

You’ve Got To Meet This Guy John 1:29-42

Photo by Antony Trivet on

Have you ever been so excited that you can’t wait to tell someone else about a new thing you’ve discovered? Maybe it is a new restaurant, a dish at this restaurant, hearing a new band, a song by this band, a particular vineyard, and a unique grape they use to make a new pinot noir. It could be any of those things or something else. Whatever it is, you’ve been turned on. Now everyone you meet, from family to friends, has to hear about your trip to this restaurant, how good this one particular dish was, how the chef combined flavors in a unique way that created a virtual nuclear explosion of taste on your pallet unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before, the dish was plated like a Salvador Dali painting, and before this person does anything else, they have to make a reservation and go with you to this restaurant at their next available moment. You want to be there with them to see the look on their face when they are served an appetizer of lemon caviar on raw oysters with mignonettes followed by pressure-cooked vegetables, roasted fillet, potato confit, beef just, and bone marrow. Then you want to say, “See, I told you, wasn’t this the best thing you’ve ever eaten!”

That’s what this passage is about, that kind of encounter. Instead of some innovative gastronomy, the one thing you’ve become so incredibly excited to share with the world is a person whose name is Jesus of Nazareth. We’ve all been that excited about something in our lives. It may have been the last time you bought a new truck or car. Perhaps it was the place you stayed on your previous fishing trip. You’ve felt the energy and enthusiasm of an event or an encounter. You know what it is like to be unable to keep good news bottled up and to yourself. So here’s my first question this morning. Have you ever felt that way about Jesus? In your entire life, have you ever been so excited about your relationship with Jesus that you couldn’t shut up about Jesus and had to say, “I’ve got to tell someone else about Jesus?” We tell people about the new bigger engine in our trucks or how we got a new roof on our church. We tell people about where we went on vacation, how we had a great time, and how they ought to go there and enjoy it in the same way we did. Think of all the heartfelt and exciting recommendations you give day after day. When was the last time you said to someone, “Oh my God, you have got to meet this guy Jesus; he changed my life! Let’s go now or at your first free moment; I’ve got to see your face when you talk to him.”

People used to put bumper stickers or license plates on cars saying, “Follow me to church,” but those are not the same. I can’t tell you the last time a bumper sticker changed my life. I’ve never voted for anyone or changed my opinion about anything because of a bumper sticker. With my bifocals, I can’t read bumper stickers or vanity plates. I can, however, respond to conversations. Come and see; we hear the disciples saying. Come and see; I know what it means. When was the last time we spoke to someone, “Come and see?” When was the last time you wanted to see Jesus? Do you want to have a face-to-face encounter with Jesus? Are we afraid of how the conversation might go? Some of us might be worried about what he wants to talk about. We’re comfortable talking to him in prayer. Come and see opens the door to the possibility of him talking back. Yes! Amen! That’s where our Christianity and our faith start to get exciting.

When the disciple found Jesus, what did they see? What did they see in him? That’s the question that has fascinated me most about this passage. They heed the call to “come and see” Jesus. I wonder about their first impressions of the man who was destined to save the world, this humble rabbi, identified by John as a “teacher” in their eyes; what did Jesus look like (physically), and who did he seem to be (spiritually)? These are meaningful questions because whatever they saw was necessary (and substantial) enough to cause them to drop everything, become his students, follow him, and start telling more people to come and see the carpenter-turned-teacher from Nazareth.  
So how did he appear? I picture him exuding kindness, approachability, and love. You know those people. Whether by genetics or life experience, some people carry a countenance that disarms critics, invites conversation, and welcomes questions. Regardless of whatever charisma their words or spirit may convey, their body language and gestures include others in their world. I believe the gospels offer this image of Jesus.

A man who readily held children and brought lepers into his life was open to everyone who was all too willing to reject anyone who defied religious norms and traditions. Here was God in the world, something these people had yet to fully comprehend, not existing above or beyond creation but entirely within the world. This wasn’t magic, smoke, and mirrors. Jesus was flesh and blood. Simon, Andrew, and John weren’t following a ghost, a spirit, or the appearance of a man. Something about this man was different, they might not have been able to put their finger on it at that moment, but they knew it when they saw it, so they went. They came, they saw, and they believed. It’s worked the same way ever since. He spurs something in us that makes us want to be better than we are at the current moment and tell others about this experience of kindles, love, and acceptance. We’ve never known something that could only come from God because God knows people don’t treat each other this way.

The other question this passage raises is this: “What does Jesus see in us?” I hope he sees potential. We’re a motley crew, we modern-day Galilean fishermen. Just look at us. Despite our differences in age, genetics, skills, diversity of opinions, and taste in basketball teams and music Jesus looks at us and still sees possibilities. Jesus looks at us unlike anyone else, except maybe your Mama and Daddy look (or looked) at you. You are worth being loved no matter what. Nothing you can do or say would drive me away, separate me from you, or make me turn my back on you. He looks so hard at you that he almost says, “I’d die for you.” Paul put it this way; there’s nothing that can separate us from the love of God. In Romans, Paul writes, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I believe Jesus sees love in us.

As I’ve said on many occasions, the gospel writers make a big deal of Jesus knowing people’s names. Jesus is not a “hey you, worship me” kind of God. We’re not just numbers on a divine spreadsheet of followers. When we use the phrase “personal relationship,” we mean a personal relationship and all it entails. He walks with me, talks with me, and chucks me on the chin while the car defrosts in the morning. Yet so often, that person is one-sided; we know him. We phrase it this way: we know Jesus. We’ve met him. We’ve let him into our lives. That’s how we talk. Our language places us as the ones choosing to allow us entrance or access to the most vital areas of our existence, our souls. We accept salvation. Not to make too fine of a theological point, but Methodists believe that Jesus saved us all on the cross, and what happens down the road is that we realize that Jesus is already in here, and we didn’t know it. We don’t need to let him in; he’s been here the whole time. There was never a time Jesus wasn’t in our lives; we just weren’t aware that he was there. So when Jesus sees us, he sees people already on his team; we don’t know we’re on the bench and about to be put into the game.  

You may pick up a nickname when someone gets to know you. Sometimes we get nicknames during childhood that stick our entire lives. I’m sure you all know a Bubba in their 50s or 60’s that’s been Bubba since they were in the third grade. Here I’m talking about real nicknames that friends give each other because they reflect a person’s personality. People who don’t know each other well don’t give each other nicknames. Generic nicknames like hoss,  chief, sport and big guy don’t count. I’m talking about real nicknames. This is what Jesus does to the disciples, specifically Peter, in this passage. Jesus says, “I’m going to call you Cephas.” Jesus says, “I’m going to call you Rocky, Rocky Johnson. Cephas/Peter means Rock, and he was the son of John. That’s Peter’s name, Rock Johnson. Not only did Jesus know his name, but he felt so comfortable and familiar with him to give him a nickname immediately. What do you think your Jesus nickname might be? Think about it this week; email me and let me know.

Get excited about Jesus! Someone brought you here to come and see. Could you tell someone else to come and see? Jesus is already at work in people’s lives, waiting to hear about this next big thing that we can’t keep to ourselves any longer, this Jesus, this carpenter, the teacher from Nazareth. He sees us and knows in ways no one else ever will. Whom will you tell?

–Richard Bryant

Advent 2: It Was Never Easy Being Johnny – Matthew 3:1-12

The road to Graceland goes through Tupelo, Mississippi.

The road to Bethlehem goes through John the Baptizer.

It must have been hard to be John the Baptizer. I don’t mean the odd diet and living in the harsh desert environment. John chose to be an ascetic. He willingly embraced the Hebrew prophetic lifestyle. I am saying that it was hard to be related to Jesus of Nazareth. Can you imagine living in the shadow of the person who defined how civilization came to define history? Before him, time was measured in one manner. After his birth, we changed how years were counted. How easy was it to relate to Jesus in your family, especially if you had even the faintest understanding of his role?

Mark’s gospel tells readers that Jesus had brothers and sisters. Imagine the unique qualities of those relationships. What did you know or not know of your brother’s humanity or his divinity? These questions fascinated the early church. The infancy gospels, noncanonical works telling stories of Jesus’ childhood and family, tried to fill in the gaps surrounding Jesus’ missing childhood years. They are weird and read more like science fiction than the accepted miracle stories of Jesus walking on water or feeding multitudes.

What’s notable about Mark’s account (3:31-35) is that his mother, brothers, sisters, and broader family are worried about Jesus. They know he’s coming off as crazy. Some of those in Nazareth didn’t take kindly to the son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter making grand theological arguments. To claim to be able to heal and even hint at a messianic identity put his life (and their family’s) in danger. Besides, wasn’t his cousin John the real religious one in the family? Didn’t he leave home, live alone in the wilderness, and pursue God with a small group of devoted followers? John was the guy, the prophet in the family, right? Jesus worked in the shop and made speeches in the synagogue. John, the man they hadn’t seen in years, the distant cousin, the black sheep, he’s the one with real religious potential.   

Yes, it was never easy being John the Baptizer. You knew you were destined for big things. God had given you a message on par with the most critical and socially challenging prophets in the Hebrew Bible. People heard your words and responded accordingly. The rich were uncomfortable. The poor listened to you, and it was unmistakable; God was on their side and would not let them down. You preached a need for a fresh start when everyone else was comfortable with a miserable, dirty, rotten status quo. You lived with such integrity and ferocity that some people came to believe that you, John, a poor boy from Galilee, might be the one to free Israel in the manner of Moses or Joshua. John knew he was a prophet and prophet alone. Someone else from Galilee would come and, like Elijah and Elisha, take his mantle and continue his work after his death. Because prophets do not live long, especially those who make rich people angry, hold a mirror up to reality, and ask the world to practice what they preach.

John was human, like all of us. John has no claim to divinity. He was an eccentric yet effective preacher. He said all the right things, did everything he was supposed to do, and would never see how Jesus would take his vision to a place he never imagined. John’s life was no rose garden and should not be idealized. Yes, it was never easy for John the Baptizer. Like a country music singer (think Jimmie Rogers or the Carter Family) from the mid-1950s who led to people like Elvis and Johnny Cash (whom only a few die-hard fans remember), he lived hard, died harder, and wrote songs that people would sing forever. Without John the Baptizer, we might not know Jesus. We need him because I believe you can’t have one without the other. We need John to see Jesus and Jesus to hear John.

–Richard Bryant

Increase Our Faith (and other stories from the Road) Luke 17


It is the second stage of Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem. Jesus tells the disciples of an easily ignored idea in scripture: forgiveness is endless, and causing someone else to sin is about as bad as it gets. Forgive those who’ve wronged you and repented into a seven-time seven multiple of infinite forgiveness; that’s a mind-blowing proposition. Consider the implications; we are to forgive others as God forgives us. (Lord’s Prayer, anyone?)

How can one not cause others to sin if we’ve decided (contrary to Jesus’ teaching) that grace and forgiveness will end with us? How is “sin” not the inevitable next step if you’re going to play God (at the micro-level) and decide whose repentance is worthy of acceptance? Causing others to sin is part and parcel of living in a world where we ration forgiveness and carry grudges from now until the time we die. Jesus’ point seems to be this: if you want a sin strategy, we need a forgiveness plan. Forgiveness takes on many names, “repair, restoration, healing,” and so on. However, you can’t spell forgiveness without love. I know there’s no “l.” I dare you though, to do it any other way.

Out of this critical conversation, the disciples pose a question only the disciples of Jesus Christ could ask, “Increase our faith!” It’s not even a question; it’s an imperative demand like a child having a tantrum. (The Greek is downright ugly.) You want Jesus to increase your faith? Does Jesus utter a secret “faith” phrase? How does one “increase” an abstract quality unique to any given individual? Have you thought this through?

Faith comes by lived experience with the resurrected Christ, not by someone waving a magic wand and turning us into more faithful Christians. Would that kind of Christianity even be fun?  (Remind me again how faith grew on the road to Emmaus? Was it by scripture study and breaking bread? Did Jesus push the secret faith button to make them believe?)

Faith is intensely personal. However, if our faith only grows from external sources, how committed are we? Once the music fads change, we lose the wristbands, and the fashionable Christian t-shirts no longer fit; where is our faith? Maybe we weren’t that faithful in the first place. We might have been religious. Were we faithful?

Our faith grows, over time. We don’t make imperative tantrums to demand Jesus give us our way. Instead, faith is lived and practiced every day in a relationship with Jesus. Faith is a together proposition. It always has been.

Faith needs forgiveness. Faithful people forgive people. If we want more faith, be more forgiving. Oh, but that’s hard. It involves loving our enemies, being uncomfortable, and living by the Beatitudes. As we see in Luke 17, we’d prefer to tell Jesus what we demand, stomp our feet, and wait on him to say the magic words. Let me know how that goes.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Tangible Things Jesus Does (Luke 13:10-17)

We don’t have to invent or infer Jesus’ actions.  There’s no need to guess or ask, “What would Jesus do?”  We know.  Read the gospels.  The New Testament offers specific examples of Jesus’ behavior, beliefs, and deeds.  For example, there is little mystery as to Jesus’ attitudes toward the poor, elderly, or the sick.  If one wants to follow Jesus, read and contextualize his words for our day and time.

In this week’s gospel passage we see several different areas that are regularly emphasized in Jesus’ life and ministry.

  1.  Jesus teaches in the synagogue.  Contextually, this means he’s in the church or a worship experience.  Jesus goes to synagogue, participates, leads, and is active in worship.  Presence is important.  Sharing in Psalms, scripture, and community matter.  Jesus is modeling best practice.  He doesn’t find God on the Sea of Galilee. He goes to a worship space.  We can learn something from Jesus.  He’s our role model.
  2. The woman he heals is also in the common worship space.  We’re not told (as we are in other instances) that she’s there to be healed.  She’s simply present (despite her pain and infirmity) in the worshiping community.   It’s important to draw near to God.  The healing is an outgrowth of the worship.
  3. All time is holy.  Jesus is attacked for healing the woman on the sabbath.  Humanity’s concept of linear time is opposed to the divine idea of circular time (kairos vs. chronos time).  We forget that God works in the moment.  All time is Gods.  Jesus reminds the synagogue staff: human need (i.e. people in pain) outweighs any rules we think we are trying to enforce on God’s behalf.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Luke 12:49-56 A First Look At A Tough Read

Luke 12:49-56 is a challenging passage to read, let alone preach. Anything that begins with Jesus talking about “casting fire” on the Earth is enough to make me slow down. Honestly, it’s different, and instead of keeping it arms-length and moving on, let’s go in for a closer look.

Why does Jesus seem so abrupt in Luke 12? I’m not sure he’s abrupt as much as he’s frustrated. Jesus knows his time on Earth is short, and from just reading the text, Jesus says he is under stress. He’s getting closer to Jerusalem, Passover, and the inevitable clash between what he represents and the religious authorities. There is so much on his mind. At this stage in his ministry, I believe Jesus is hoping for a broader sense of engagement with his teachings. He wants the crowds (Luke indicates at the beginning of the chapter that thousands are following Jesus) and the disciples to understand his message. Every preacher wants the people to plug in and “get it”.  From Jesus’ perspective, it doesn’t appear that those in the crowd have fully understood the confrontational aspects and possibly divisive nature of his ministry. By the time we get to verse 49, Jesus comes right out and says what he means. There are no parables or stories. If we follow Jesus, the implications could lead to division in our families or households. These verses do not mean Jesus is coming to divide families from each other.  Nor is Jesus’ goal to foster war. The Prince of Peace is the Prince of Peace. Humanity will know peace because Christ knew violence on the cross. Everything in this passage is ultimately pointing us to the Cross. Do we understand what’s about to happen to Jesus or not? Can we read the signs? Do we get what’s about to occur?  Have we considered the implications of what Christ’s death and resurrection will mean for humanity?

Jesus reinforces what we’ve known since we joined the church. Following Jesus calls each of us to make a choice, sometimes hard choices. It is never easy to be a full-time disciple of Jesus Christ. Walking in Jesus’ footsteps is demanding. Jesus’ lifestyle and teachings conflict with the dominant values of our society. It’s easier to go along, get along, and accept the world as we’ve inherited it. Jesus says, “as is” isn’t good enough, even in our families. Our belief in the triune God sets us apart and reveals differences between ourselves and those we are closest too. In those moments, we trust the love of God to heal the brokenness between us and bring us back together.

Richard Lowell Bryant