Thinking Toward Sunday – May 1 – John 5:1-9 – Part 3

One More Thought

As I’m starting to draft the sermon, I had this thought: Jesus appears and disappears.


In John 4, Jesus is in Samaria, in the north, where he has a conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well that astonishes his disciples and leads to a kind of healing for her. The disciples explicitly do not say to her, “What do you want?”

Then Jesus goes to Galilee, where he heals the son of a Royal official. It’s not clear whether the official is a Jew or a Gentile but he certainly is not the sort of supporter we’ve seen around Jesus.

Finally, he goes down to Jerusalem for an unnamed festival, where he has the encounter at the Pool of Bethesda with the paralytic.


After the healing, Jesus disappears into the crowd; the healed man doesn’t know who he is and has a controversy with some Jews. This same pattern is found in the story of the man born blind healed by Jesus at John 9.

Jesus finds the man in the temple, the man testifies subsequently about the healing and Jesus and the sabbath violation becomes part of the reason for Jesus’ arrest.

Thinking Toward Sunday – May 1, 2016 – Part 2

Time to go back to the questions I had when I first read this passage.

What jumps out at me is that on his day off—it’s the sabbath of a festival after all!-Jesus is visiting a pool where a bunch of sick people gather.What would that look like? Smell like? Feel like?

Imagining the Pool at Bethesda

Bathing for us is a private experience; in the ancient world, it was not. Roman social life centered on baths, they were the Starbucks of their time. Jews also ritualized bathing. Jewish women were (and still are) required to undergo a ritual bath monthly called a mikvah. Jewish meals include a prayer and ritual for hand washing. Again, note the difference from our practice: when I was growing up, my mother would say to my brothers and I, “Go wash your hands” before dinner. Last weekend at a seder, there was a moment where we all got up from the table, went to a sink one after the other and poured water over our hands and offered a prayer. Some healing required a ritual washing to make it complete. So washing and healing are intimately connected and take place in a social context.

With this background, we can go on to imagine the pool at Bethesda. It’s located in an area of Jerusalem near where sheep where brought into the city so there again, like last week’s passage, we have to imagine it as overlaid with the smell of sheep. The pool has been excavated and is trapezoidal, about 20 feet by 300 feet with a central partition. There are columns all around the edges and along the partition and stairways at the corners to descend into the pool.

I suspect the pool would have been crowded. Imagine the buzz of conversation and also people begging for help. This is the last chance for many. It is a hospital ward, it is a place you go when everything has failed. The implication of the man in the story is that others have friends and family there with them as well, so if we looked around, I imagine we would see groups of concerned people with many of those who are ill. So there are people groaning in pain; there are people praying, people encouraging, people just talking. Crows always make an opportunity for people to sell things, so I imagine stands with food for sale and patent medicines.


A key piece of the background here is that it’s the sabbath. The rules for sabbath keeping are strict and detailed. No work can be one and work can be defined as almost every activity in daily life. Healing that is not dealing with an emergency is prohibited. Clearly a part of the focus for John is that this healing violates the sabbath rules. By healing this man, Jesus implicitly proclaims himself Lord of the Sabbath.

Why pick out this particular guy?

There is no clue in the passage why this particular man is chosen. It’s important to point out that the hearings told in the Gospels are representative, not exhaustive. The gospel writers acknowledge they don’t tell the whole story. The healings described are meant as signs of the character and nature of Jesus.

A summary of all (31) individual healing by Jesus can be found here. It’s clear that John reports significantly fewer of these events (Mark 15, Matthew 16, Luke 18, John 5). Although strictly speaking, this healing story occurs only in John, it seems to have connections with a story in the synoptic tradition as noted in the previous post (A healing of a paralytic is recorded at Mark 2:1-12. Parallels are at Matthew 9:1-8 and Luke 5:17-26.)

The Dialogue

The dialogue is short and exists in a chiastic structure

  1. Jesus: Do you want to be made well?
  2. Paralytic: Answers that he has no one to put him in the pool and others get ahead.
  3. Jesus: Rise/Take up your mat/Walk

The issue raised by the man connects to the understanding of the way the pool operates. Apparently, the pool occasionally was spontaneously disturbed and bubbled. It was thought at such times that an angel was invisibly stirring the pool and the first person to get in after this would be healed. So if the crowd as a whole is quietly passing the day, we should imagine that when the pool is disturbed, there is a sudden rush to get in the water. Friends and family put their sick person in the pool; the man here is on his own and has no one to help him.

Generally, such a structure points to the middle term. So in thinking about this passage, it’s important to focus there. When we do, the man’s answer reveals two issues: he is alone, others push ahead of him. In preaching this, I find in the past I’ve often run past the man’s reply as an excuse but thinking about it today, I find it asks questions about our understanding of how healing takes place. How important is the helping community? What’s the role of desire of “rationed healing”?

If John is telling a story from an existing tradition linked to the idea of forgiving sins, why has he changed it to focus on sabbath?

I’m not sure he has. It may be that between the formulation of the original story and John, the important question is not the connection of sin and sickness but the controversies over Jesus. In the subsequent encounter with the man, the issue does become sin when the man is told to go and sin no more.

Why does Jesus slip away and return secretly?

John uniquely records the following healing stories.
John 4:46-54 – Healing of a Royal official’s son
John 5:1-15 – The healing of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda (this story)
John 9:1-54 – Healing of a blind man
John 11:29-57 – Healing of Lazarus

The healing of Lazarus seems to represent a different genre; there the healed person is actually resurrected, named, and has a previous relationship with the healed.

In the first case, the Royal official leaves before the healing is announced. In the healing of the man born blind, Jesus has the same pattern of leaving and then secretly contacting him. Here again, Jesus leaves. In both the story of the healing of the man born blind from birth and here, there is a controversy with Jewish authorities intervening between the healing and the reconnection of Jesus.

Preaching the Passage

Connecting from our setting

We are a small, fairly liberal church, rationalist in orientation. I suspect many are uncomfortable with the tradition of miraculous healing. We go to doctors and hospitals, not evangelists and revivals. So at first glance, I suspect there will be a reluctance to confront this part of Jesus’ ministry. Yet we need to hear it: one of the most consistent testimonies about Jesus is that he went about healing.

Listening to the passage

We need to hear about healing especially because I’ve become more and more aware recently that one of the big motivators for people visiting our church is a longing for the healing of long term hurts. Some of these are physical, many are spiritual or emotional. One man recently came to our church for the first time and was so overcome that he simply wept all the way through the service. Another recently took a moment to offer a testimony of how he had gone through a year of personal struggle over a court case none of us knew about and that the congregation was key to him hanging on.

Points to lift up

We need to hear Jesus’ question because it’s what we need to ask about every person who comes to worship here: “What do you want me to do for you?” What assumptions do we make about the answer to this question? How can we ask it in worship, how can we ask it in other ways?

I’m also intrigued by Jesus’ question because it involves the issue of desire. Buddhists locate the origin of dis-ease in desire.

We need to hear the reply and ask: what does healing mean and what are the barriers to healing?

We need to hear Jesus’ reply because healing is more than just getting well: it also involves picking up your mattress and may involve the person in new struggles.

My sermon on this is entitled, What Do You Want?.

Thinking Toward Sunday – May 1 – Part 1

Sunday, May 1, 2016 is the Sixth Sunday in the season of Easter; this is year C

You can find the texts for this Sunday by clicking here

The focus this Sunday will be on John, 5:1-9, in which Jesus cures a paralytic. It’s a short narrative, so I give the full text here.
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

5:2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes.5:3 In these lay many invalids–blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5:5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years.
5:6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”
5:7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”
5:8 Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.


A healing of a paralytic is recorded at Mark 2:1-12. Parallels are at Matthew 9:1-8 and Luke 5:17-26. In all three cases, the focus is not on healing but on forgiveness and controversy. Mark’s version has a paralytic lowered through the roof because of the crowd and Jesus is moved by the faith of those who are helping the paralytic (“moved by their faith”). He says, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” Opponents there question his ability to forgive sins; he asks which is easier, to heal or to forgive, heals the man, and everyone glorifies God. Luke generally follows Mark. Matthew doesn’t have the detail about the roof but generally follows Mark in other respects. The Jesus Seminar suggests the source of the story is Mark but that the John version may have a separate healing behind it as well.


This story is part of group of stories about signs. Immediately before it, Jesus returns to Galilee and reforms a healing connected the conversion of water into wine. This story finds him back in Jerusalem at the time of a “feast”. There’s some disagreement whether this is the festival of Tabernacles or Passover while still other commentators identify it with Pentecost. All three were occasions for going up to Jerusalem. John only describes it as a sabbath.

Beyond the reading, in Verses 10-15, the focus becomes the violation of sabbath. It is against the rules to move a mattress from one place to another. Jesus, we’re told, slips away and the man can’t identify him. Later, Jesus returns secretly to the man and connects the healing to a remission of sin, telling him to sin no more. This suggests some connection to the Synoptic tradition, where the focus of the healing is forgiveness of sins.


      Verses 1-3 Setting of story: Jerusalem, in the district of Bethsaida, near the sheep gate, at a pool thought to provide healing, on a sabbath and feast day.
      Verses 4-9 Healing of the Paralytic
      Verse 4a-6 Situation of the Paralytic: sick 38 years, Jesus knows he has been sick a long time
      Verse 6-8 Dialogue
      Verse 6b Jesus: Do you want to be cured?
      Verse 7 Anser: Sir, I haven’t anybody to plug me into the pool once the water has been stirred up….
      Verse 8: Jesus: Stand up / pick up your mat / walk around
      Verse 9 Situation of the paralytic: immediately cured, picks up his mat, begins to walk

Passage Notes

      Sheep Pool There is some textual confusion about whether this pool is named for the sheep gate near the temple while others identify it with the Pool of Bethesda. Either way, it’s in the northeast part of the temple where sheep are brought for sacrificeThe pool described has been discovered and excavated in Jerusalem. It was trapezoidal, 165-220 feet wide by 315 feet long, divided by a central partition. There were colonnades can four sides and on the partition. Stairways in the corners permitted descent into the pool.[per Anchor Bible Gospel of John/Brown, pp. 206-07]
      Early manuscripts and writers believed an angel occasionally came and stirred the waters, leading to healing.

Questions and Thoughts

  1. What jumps out at me is that on his day off—it’s the sabbath of a festival after all!-Jesus is visiting a pool where a bunch of sick people gather.What would that look like? Smell like? Feel like?
  2. Why pick out this particular guy?
  3. When Jesus asks if he wants to be healed, the man doesn’t answer directly yes or no. Instead, he offers an excuse about why he hasn’t been healed.
  4. If John is telling a story from an existing tradition linked to the idea of forgiving sins, why has he changed it?
  5. Why is the sabbath part important?
  6. Why does Jesus slip away and return secretly?

Breaking the Rules

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fifth Sunday in Easter • April 24, 2016 • Copyright 2016 All Rights Reserved

You can hear the sermon being preached by clicking hereArguing God’s Rules

It’s a while after Jesus left his followers to practice what he preached on their own. Most of them were gathered up in Jerusalem but the authorities there stoned one of them and arrested others and it forced them to scatter a bit. Peter has been down in Joppa, a sea port town, but he got a strange summons to go back to his home in Caesarea Philippi. It came from a Roman centurion, a lieutenant in the occupying army and it involved traveling with the messengers he sent, Gentiles, something no good Jew of the time would do on his own. Along the way he has a strange, troubling dream. He was hungry when he went to bed and in the dream a huge sheet is let down from heaven full of animals of all kinds. “Slaughter and eat”, he hears a heavenly voice say. It’s a buffet, apparently.

Now Peter is a good Jew. He knows the rules for good Jews, the kosher rules. Those rules are ancient and they prescribe that certain animals may not be eaten. Furthermore, even the ones you can eat must be slaughtered in the presence of rabbi according to another set of rules. These animals aren’t kosher and Peter isn’t authorized to do kosher slaughtering, so when God tells him to go ahead and eat, he’s horrified. He’s not falling for that; he tells God in so many words that he’s not that kind of guy, he’s a good guy, a rule abiding guy, and he’s not about to violate those rules now. I love this, don’t you? Imagine telling God off for not being religious. Yeah: I love this part. Peter actually tells God off for not being Godly enough.

Now, I’ve had my own arguments with God, and there are a lot of others in the Bible, and one thing I can tell you: no one wins an argument with God. Try it yourself. So the heavenly voice says this: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter doesn’t seem to get the point at first, does he ever? do we? So it happens three times. Three times God has to make the point that it’s God that determines what’s Godly, not Peter. Finally he gets it, presumably gets a snack, wakes up, goes on the journey where he meets up with Cornelius.

I don’t know that I can say strongly enough how awful this is. It’s just not done: good Jews do not go to the home of a Gentile, especially a Roman, most especially a Roman officer. But there he is and it turns out the summons was because of a heavenly visitation, an angel, who told Cornelius to send for Peter. My guess is that Cornelius wasn’t any happier about the whole thing than Peter; he has his own set of rules and how would it look, inviting a Jewish peasant preacher and friend of a recently crucified guy to his home? But he’s done it and when Peter gets there, he tells them about Jesus, how he preached and healed, how he was crucified, how he rose, how he sent the Holy Spirit and suddenly the whole group there feels that Spirit there, gets filled with it, which I assume means they miraculously know how to sing, “Every time I feel the Spirit, moving in my heart, I will pray,” or “Do Lord” or something and there’s a party and everyone has that camp feeling. I guess they all join hands and sing kumbayah and Peter goes back to Jerusalem to face the music.

Confronting the Rules in Church

Because back there, the Christians in the church, all of whom are good Jews, have heard what he’s done and they’re horrified. The text says, “[They] criticized him.” Every pastor knows what this means: it’s when the people in a church start whispering about you and the Deacons get frosty and the chair sends you an email that says “People have been talking about some of your recent decisions and actions and we’re going to have a meeting to discuss this on Thursday night.” You see, Peter has broken the rules, lots of rules. I know what those Jerusalem Christians are thinking. They’re like the woman in the old declining church I served once who said to me “Pastor, I hope you will bring people into our church but I hope they will be our sort of people.” I knew what she meant. She meant people who knew how to sit in pews quietly, read the bulletin, use the hymnal to sing “Our God Our Help in Ages Past”. I’ve been to the meeting Peter’s going to because I remember when people who came into the centuries old Congregational Church crossed themselves and when some were noisy and some were children and some wanted different music. Peter was right when he argued with God: Peter knew the rules. It’s God that doesn’t seem to care about them.

The reason is that God has a purpose. Right from creation, God’s been creating a humanity fit to live with. This takes some doing even among us. From our start, God intended to make us fit companions. There have been a couple of false starts but then God starts with Abraham to bless the whole world. This is where God is going: all people are children of God and it’s time to act like it. Not even the rules we think make us Godly are as important as God’s purpose.

No one’s getting left behind. The whole story of the church is about breaking the rules that make the walls that keep us apart. What makes people mad about Jesus? He eats with sinners. What makes church people mad about Peter? He eats with Gentiles. The church is still struggling with this Gentile/Jew divisions when Acts is written but it has exploded around the Mediterranean world because on the whole, it decided early on to embrace these Gentiles even though they didn’t know who to use the hymnal or follow the liturgy. What was important?—that they were children of God and had the same gift of the Spirit as the people in the church. In other words, the church people figured out they were just as much children of God as they were.

Now this story about Cornelius and the others gets called a conversion story. Often when it’s preached, the emphasis is on how we should go talk to people we don’t know and tell them about Jesus and get them to come to church with us in our church, sit in our pews, sing our songs. It is a conversion story, of course; but who’s the convert? I think the real conversion here is the church. It’s the moment when they are converted from their rules to the reality of Jesus. For Jesus hates walls and whenever we make one, he always turns out to be on the other side. Who needs conversion? We do. Just like the song says, “It’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”


Our whole history witnesses to this rule breaking, this wall breaking. Congregationalists started out literally putting a wall called a fence in front of the communion table to emphasize it was too holy for just anyone; only covenanted members seen to be really good at following rules could come to the table. We got rid of the fence. Congregationalists used to think you had to be male to be a Pastor. In 1854, Antoinette Brown was the first woman ordained as a Congregationalist. More recently, we’ve had a long argument about fully, openly including gay and lesbian folks. When I read about Peter being criticized for eating with Gentiles, I can’t help thinking about the tense meetings I had early on when I preached that God was breaking this wall down. Some of us are there; some churches are a bit behind on this one. But it’s where we’re all going.

But that’s not our problem here. No, we’re fine with that one and it’s time for us to ask: what other walls are waiting to be torn down here? What rules are we invisibly upholding that keep people out, keep people from fully feeling the embrace of Jesus? Our purpose statement says we’re about building a diverse community; diversity requires doing what the early Christians did, listening to the Spirit instead of our rulebook.

This is indeed a conversion story, but the conversion at its heart isn’t Cornelius; it’s us, or more particularly people a lot like us, church folks. The conversion is this: they stop thinking it’s their church, their rules, their comfort, that’s important and realize the church doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to Jesus; the church isn’t inspired by us, it’s a vessel for the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit goes where it will, not where we’re comfortable. If we listen, if we’re faithful, we will move along to where God is going. Where is that? Why where God was going all along: to the place where there are no walls, no rules, just the love of God and the embrace of Jesus and the fellowship of knowing each other, every single one, as brothers and sisters in the love of God.

Thinking Toward Sunday April 24: Part 3

With the background clear, we can encounter Acts 11:1-18 directly.

The Structure of the Passage

The narrative exists as a chiastic structure with Peter’s vision at the center.

  1. The Judean (Jerusalem) circumcised believers (Jews) hear about Gentile converts and criticize Peter
  2. Arrival of the Caesarean (Gentile) messengers/decision to go with them
  3. If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
  4. Holy Spirit falls on the Gentiles at Cornelius house
  5. The Judean circumcised believers are silenced


Jesus is criticized for eating with sinners at Mark 2:13-17, Matthew 9:11, Luke 15:2. Now the church is remembering from the perspective of about 85 CE, on the moment when its original boundaries were broken and Gentiles accepted. The issue is not settled here; a later Council discussed at Acts 15 will formalize this decision (the Council took place in 50 CE, so 15-20 years after the end of Jesus’ ministry).

The text raises at least two questions for us.

  1. What is the authority for decisions about boundaries in churches?
  2. Are we living out the good news with respect to boundaries?


Christian dialogue often refers to canonical Biblical passages but the amazing testimony of this story is that the Bible may not hold the right answer. After all, in his vision, Peter correctly references the Torah regarding permissible foods; the response is that even Biblical provision falls before God’s intention.

If we can’t rely, as a Calvinist would say on “sola scripture” (scripture alone), what authority will we turn toward for decisions? The passage doesn’t answer but it does seem to have some indications. One is the validation of the evident presence of the Holy Spirit. A second is found in Peter’s address to Cornelius’ household where he references “the testimony of the prophets”. Exegesis and Spiritual presence seem to be guides. It’s left to us to discern these.

What boundaries?

We can discern in the history of our own tradition as Congregationalists successive boundary breaking moments. Membership in a Congregational Church in New England generally required an extensive profession of faith and implied property ownership. By the end of the 17th century, women and non-property owners were accepted and the Great Awakening included the founding of many new churches by members who were far more democratic that predecessors. In 1854, Antoinette Brown was ordained after a long struggle, the first woman ordained in the US. The abolitionist movement broke boundaries of race. More recently, many churches have broken boundaries about sexual identity.

Yet its easy to see socio-economic-racial boundaries in our churches. How can we become more diverse?

Once when I was a new pastor of a declining church, a long time leader in the church said to me, “I hope you can bring new people into the church but I hope they will be our sort of people.” I think the issue of boundaries is about moving from focusing on our sort of people to God’s sort of people.

Thinking Toward Sunday: Part 2 The Conversion of Cornelius

The whole of Acts 11:1-18 concerns the reaction of the church at Jerusalem to the conversion of Cornelius so it makes sense to go back and look at this story, beginning at Acts 10:1 .

God Fearers

Cornelius is described as a God fearer and a centurion of the Italian Cohort. John Dominic Crossan has called attention to the importance of the God fearers in the early church. This describes Gentiles who participated in synagogue worship and followed kosher rules. Many of the Roman troops in Judea were raised from local levies; the remark that it’s an Italian cohort may distinguish it as troops from Rome itself. Cornelius is in Caesarea, the area where Jesus began and Peter’s home. He has an angelic visitation commanding him to send to Joppa, a considerable distance, for Peter. The distance is emphasized by the two day journey it takes Peter to get to Cornelius.

Was God Mistaken?

We can only speculate on the fear that a visit from a Roman centurion would cause to a leader of a church being persecuted, whose Lord had been crucified by Romans. Still, Peter goes and along the way has an inspired dream. The dream is the shocking repudiation of the kosher rules. These specify a variety of foods as being ritually unclean and describe a process for slaughtering those that are acceptable. Both are rejected in the dream, where Peter is presented with food and told to slaughter and eat. Peter himself argues against the repudiation of the rules, saying, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The reply is simple: don’t contradict God!


When Peter arrives at the home of Cornelius, he himself points out that simply visiting the home (so reminiscent of Jesus’ visit to the homes of sinners), it is a violation of Jewish practice. He announces this principle: “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”

The content of Peter’s preaching is this: (Acts 10:38ff)

First Principle

  1. God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power
  2. [Jesus] went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil
  3. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem.

Second Principle

  1. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree
  2. but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear
  3. not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.

Third Principle

  1. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify
  2. he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.
  3. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

Notice the emphasis on the role of the witnesses. Jesus’ ministry is validated by the witnesses. Parenthetic note: no mention of the Galilean ministry, which seems strange since Peter himself is a Galilean. The crucifixion/resurrection is raised as a second principle, also validated by the witnesses. Note the important point that these are specified as those who ate and drank with the risen Lord, not just those who saw him; this contrasts with Paul whose experience of the Risen Lord is visual/auditory only.

In discussing the present and future, the role of the future moves to the front and becomes to understand Jesus is the Lord who judges all and dispenses forgiveness.

The result is that Cornelius’ household is visited by the Holy Spirit and converted.

Thinking Toward Sunday for April 24 – Part 1 – Context

This is an experiment: I’m posting some notes toward the sermon on Sunday and inviting your response. Let me know if this is useful, interesting, or if it’s better to simply post the final sermon.

Fifth Sunday in Easter – Year C – Click for texts

I’m focusing on the Acts text in which the church begins to move beyond it’s beginning.


One of the questions Acts seeks to answer is how the few followers of Jesus moved beyond their origins to become vital, thriving church congregations. There are a number of conversion stories in Acts.

  1. Acts 8:4-40 An Ethiopian eunuch and is baptized by Philip
  2. Acts 9:1-19 Saul sets out to persecute Christians at Damascus but is struck blind by a vision of the resurrected Lord, taken to the city where he heals and converts
  3. Acts 10:1-48 Peter with Cornelius

These can easily be found by copying and pasting the citations here.

These stories have in common that the person converted is unlikely and in two cases outside boundary. Torah clearly prohibits eunuchs from worship; Cornelius is a Gentile. Saul is an observant Jew but is marked as one of these unlikely convert by the fact that his intention is to persecute the church at Damascus.

The stories also are marked by repeated instances of divine intervention.
The Ethiopian’s conversion is initiated by an action of the Holy Spirit pushing Philip and Philip is also snatched away at the end of the story.Paul’s conversion is accompanied by an appearance of the Risen Lord, which Paul will make a foundation of his claim to apostleship. It also involves a repeated command to Ananias who is the agent of Paul’s conversion.

A second factor that unites these stories: all of three include a reluctance by the Christian to undertake the conversion. This isn’t as clear in the Philip story; there we have a trace in the Ethiopian’s question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Ananias has a vision of the Lord to which he initially replies in effect here am I, send me but when the mission is explained, he says no and it requires a further word from the Lord to move Ananias along.

Peter’s conversion of Cornelius, which is the occasion for the Acts reading, will be the subject of tomorrow’s post. Share your comments below. Think off this as a weekly Bible study.

All We Like Sheep

First Congregational Church of Albany

You can listen to the church being preached by clicking here

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • Copyright 2016 All Rights Reserved

Fourth Sunday in Easter/C • April 17, 2016

It’s a cold day in Jerusalem, like some of the ones we’ve had recently. The city’s up on a mountain; winds blow like a knife there. Jesus and his friends and some others are gathered in a portico alongside the temple. Maybe they just wanted out of the wind; maybe it’s their regular place. It’s Hanukah: the feast of the dedication. The story is that after Antiochus Epiphanies desecrated the temple, a great messianic figure rose named Judas Maccabeus. He defeated the Greeks and rededicated the temple . Only a small amount of oil was available but the oil burned for eight days. So there they are in this festival season, in the cold, with that great story certainly present in everyone’s mind and some are asking Jesus, “Are you the Messiah? Tell us now!” This is his reply: my sheep know me. His sheep: that’s you, that’s me.

The Good Shepherd

The image of a good shepherd is all over the Bible. The Hebrews started out as herdsmen, people who moved with herds of sheep from one grazing ground to another. Long before they went down into Egypt where they became slaves, they were a people shepherding sheep, following them, shearing them, living off of them. Just like us, when they imagined God, they imagined someone like themselves except better, so the patriarch Israel, when he blesses his son Joseph, describes God as, “The God before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day…” [Gen. 48:15]. David is a shepherd and his first victory comes using a shepherd’s weapons: a sling and a few stones. The image of a shepherd became the ideal image of a good ruler and of course in Psalm 23 as we read earlier, the Psalmist himself calls God a shepherd. Later, Isaiah will describe God’s care this way:

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
 he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep. [Isaiah 48:11]

Jeremiah and Ezekiel condemn the rulers of Israel by describing them as bad shepherds.

So when Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd”, he is brought up one of the most powerful images these people know. It’s like talking about the Pilgrims here or the Founding Fathers and Mothers or Cowboys. All cultures have these pictures, these models. For this people, for this time, it is a good shepherd. Now people who oppose him and perhaps some who are just wondering ask: “Are you the messiah?” They’re trying to understand him. He says this mysterious thing: his sheep know him. Do you? Do you know him? It’s a good question because if Jesus is the shepherd—we are the sheep.

The Sheep

I don’t know much about sheep; I grew up around dairy cows but sheep are a mystery to me. So I asked friends who had more experience, “What are sheep like?” What is Jesus implying about us?The most common comment was: stinky. One of them said, “They are big. And heavy. And smelly. And loud.” When Jacquelyn lived in Spain, she remembers being awakened early in the morning…by the smell. The sheep would arrive shortly after, with bells tinkling and dogs barking and shepherds after who made sort of barking noises at them too. Sheep do, as Jesus says, know their shepherd’s voice. In fact, they will even learn the sound of their shepherd’s truck, according to one friend who replied. And they need the shepherd. They have a tendency to wander off and they need to be sheared. Sheep that aren’t sheared become a host for various pests. So in the very act of giving up their wool, the sheep is being served as well, helped, healed. All these comments are from people who know far more about sheep than I do.

Sheep can be difficult to manage. Perhaps that’s why centuries ago, people taught dogs to do it for them. This is what one of my friends had to say about his personal encounter with a sheep.

Early in my ministry, I had the brilliant idea of introducing live sheep into our annual Christmas Eve pageant. I imagined fluffy peaceful creatures that would make the pageant “come alive.” I located a small farm in a rural part of town and inquired of the availability of the sheep. The farmer said that he and his family would be away on Christmas Eve, but I would be welcome to come by the farm and borrow a sheep or two if I would return them after the pageant was over.
So, decked out in my best suit, I arrived at the farm, climbed over the stone wall surrounded the pasture, and managed to corral one of the sheep (who did not want to be corralled).   I wrestled the critter into the back seat of my small car.  I was covered with oily dirt by then (the natural state of sheep)and was dismayed that the animal didn’t know car behavior.  In trying desperately to escape, it wailed and made a mess of the basket (think urine and feces).
There was no way THIS sheep was going to be allowed into the church for the pageant.   I had to keep it in my garage and invite any of the children who wanted to see the Christmas sheep to walk across the street to the parsonage garage, but even then I was terrified it would bolt out the door and be lost in the night.
Eventually I gave up, covered my car’s back seat with a plastic tarp and delivered the sheep back to its pasture.  
I learned my lesson.   I also learned that when the Psalmist compares people to sheep, it isn’t a compliment.

That’s us. We’re the sheep. And, at least according to Timothy, it’s not a compliment.

Are you the Messiah?”

“Are you the Messiah?” That’s the question Jesus is answering and the people asking want a quick answer so they can go back to warm homes, have a glass of wine, have servants or slaves wash their feet and have light the Hanukkah candles. Their whole program is to be perfect, follow the rules, do what they’ve done before but do it better and they figure the Messiah will be the best of them, a powerful leader who will rise to the top. They’d like to rise with him. But they’re asking Jesus and Jesus is a shepherd. He’s not looking for rich donors: he’s speaking to sheep, gathering his sheep, and his sheep are stinky. They don’t have anyone to wash their feet, they don’t have homes to go to in many cases. Most powerful people don’t even see them; they’re invisible. But Jesus sees them and they hear him, that’s why the crowds gather everywhere he goes. Jesus sees them and he looks at them like a shepherd. That means he cares for them. When his disciples urge him to send a crowd of his sheep off on their own to find food, he turns to them and says, “You give them something to eat.” The most common complaint about Jesus in his own time is that he eats with sinners. He does, just like a shepherd sits down with his sheep for lunch. They know him; he cares for them.

Jesus sees his sheep; his sheep hear him. He sees them the way a shepherd sees sheep. That is, he expects them to produce. No one herds sheep for the fun of it; you herd sheep, care for sheep, towards the day they will be sheared, the day they will produce the wool others will use to keep warm. In fact, according to one person who wrote to me, if sheep aren’t sheared, parasites burrow into their skin and they get sick. So the sheep have a purpose; the shepherd cares for them so they can achieve their purpose.

All we like sheep…

I titled this sermon, “All we like sheep…” because if, like me, you grew up in certain traditions, you can hardly help saying the next few words from the prayer it begins: “All we like sheep have gone astray.” Jesus isn’t here to enjoy the richness of the successful: he’s here to gather up the straying sheep. That’s me. That’s you. That’s us.

Whenever we think we’ve gotten ahead, whenever we think we are above, or beyond, he’s there to gather us, remind us: all we like sheep have gone astray. And when we know that, when we hear his voice, then we don’t need to ask if he’s the Messiah, we don’t need to ask who he is at all: we hear his voice, we know he is our shepherd. We know because we know that having gone astray, he can lead us back to the green pastures mentioned in Psalm 23.

The Sheep go home

We read Psalm 23 at Bill Ferber’s funeral on Friday. I think it’s been read at almost every funeral I’ve ever attended. I understand how someone like Bill who was a church member and a Christian most of his life would want that read. What’s interesting is that people who know nothing else about faith, who have almost no church experience, also know it. It seems no matter who we are, no matter where we’ve been, what we’ve done, we all want to come home to this vision.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.

Where are you going? Where are we going? All we like sheep have gone astray. But if we listen for the shepherd’s voice, surely we will hear it; if we follow it, we will get where he means to take us.

Never Mind

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – Copyright 2016 All rights reserved

Third Sunday in Easter/C • April 10, 2016

Click here for an audio version of this sermon being preached

Isn’t it amazing how life can change in a moment? I used to be the kind of person who would carefully plan all the stages of a trip. I had my airline reservation printed, hotel, car, each of them laid in a folder in consecutive order. I got annoyed when planes were delayed; I got angry if my car or room wasn’t ready. But when Jacquelyn became a flight attendant and I started flying space available, I was introduced to traveling without any assurance. I had to learn that even though I had a plan, things could change, the world could say “Never mind” to my plan. Of course, there are many times, may circumstances where we go along as if our lives were on rails like a train. Then something happens and suddenly it’s as if someone said “never mind” to our whole plan, our whole life, and we’re starting over.

Life After the Cross – Never Mind

It must have been like that for the disciples. For a few years, they’ve been following Jesus through the villages of Galilee, up and down the roads, then on to Jerusalem and its crowds. All along he was there; all along, they thought something great was going to happen. They saw him heal; they heard him preach. They’d been present at amazing, miraculous events.

Surely they knew what the prophets had said; one day God would send someone who would be a Messiah, who would lead a great movement to renew Israel. They must have known their history, how God inspired Moses to lead their ancestors out of Egypt, how Joshua led them to claim the promised land, how David created a kingdom among God’s people, how that kingdom though fallen had risen again and then been recaptured by Judas Maccabeus.

So the idea of someone who would stand at the head of a great movement, a military movement, was in their collective memory; it was the frame they put around Jesus. We get bits and pieces of this expectation. When Jesus asks who they think he is, Peter responds, “the Messiah”. But when he connects that to a cross, they argue with him. They themselves are found arguing about who is going to be first in his kingdom, a moment he uses to teach them servanthood. So even if they didn’t know exactly what to expect, they must have expected something great, something victorious.
Now it’s as if God said, “Never mind.” Jesus is gone, dead, buried, and even though they’ve heard the tomb is empty, even though Peter himself saw the empty tomb, every story about this time after Easter suggests they didn’t believe Jesus had risen. So many things can happen: perhaps someone stole the body, perhaps the burial wasn’t done properly. All those stories were floated later. Who cares, really? Empty tombs don’t inspire; nothing doesn’t get you something. It’s easier to just believe God said “Never mind”, one more dream dying, one more dream shattered, one more never mind in a life of never minds.

Back to the Old Plan

So they do what people often do when a life plan ends. They go back where they were before it all began. They’ve gone back to Galilee, back to where it all started. They’ve gone back to what they used to do: fishing. How long have they been doing that? Doesn’t time seem to stop sometimes when your whole plan, your whole life, has run into one big “Never mind?” But it doesn’t seem to be working; they go out fishing and don’t catch a single thing. Have they lost the touch? Bad luck? Who knows? It seems the new plan, to go back to the old plan, is getting a big never mind as well.

It’s just then, when they come back to shore, hungry, depressed, quiet the way you are when everything has failed that they meet this guy on the beach. Who is he? No one knows. He calls them children. That may seem kind but actually since the word for children and slave is about the same it may have come across as strange. Maybe it sounded like he was recognizing how hard they worked. Next thing, he’s giving directions and somehow they feel compelled to do what he says: “Cast the net on the right side.” Is it just that nothing else has worked so why not or something mysteriously compelling about him? All we know is that as the net fills up and one of them recognizes something in the man on the beach. “It is the Lord!” he says and Peter—Peter who always rushes in, whether it’s the right thing or not—Peter can’t help jumping in and wading ashore.

Once there, they discovered everything they need is already set: bread, grilled fish. I love the note that says that the net didn’t break. That detail makes this story for me: who else but someone who’s spent hours mending nets would think of it? So there they are: on the beach with the Lord, eating breakfast. Some have said that just as there was a Last Supper, this is the First Breakfast.

On the Beach

So there they are: in some ways it must have seemed like all their fears, all their grief has just received in its turn a great Never Mind. But then, when they’ve all had breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside and asks him this question: do you love me? What did Peter think? Last week I talked about the song, Tradition! from the musical Fiddler on the Roof. There’s another song in the same show when Tevye, the father, is discussing a daughter’s impending marriage with his wife Golde. He says, “She loves him”, and then he asks Golde, “Do you love me?” She rolls her eyes and says,

For years, I’ve washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked your cow
After years, why talk about love right now?
But Tevye persists: do you love me? And Golde thinks,
Do I love him?
For years, I’ve lived with him
Fought with him
Starved with him
For years, my bed is his
If that’s not love, what is?

At the end, she says she does love him—and that it doesn’t change a thing.

Do You Love Me?

“Do you love me?” It’s a question we all ask, one we all need answered. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks Peter. Remember Peter? Brash Peter, one moment proclaiming Jesus is the messiah, the next arguing so violently with him that Jesus calls him a devil. One moment proclaiming his ultimate loyalty; the next sitting in a courtyard denying he ever knew Jesus. “I never met the man!” Peter says. I wonder if, when Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” Peter was thinking of that moment. I wonder if he was remembering how Jesus said he would deny him three times before dawn and Peter said “never” and then indeed, not once, but just as Jesus said, three times, denied him, betrayed him. “Do you love me?” How do you come back from that guilt? How do you come back from that moment? Do you apologize? Do you grovel? What do you say?
“Do you love me?” Jesus asks. the first time, Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Like a married spouse yelling, “love ya” as they walk out the door, the unthinking response: “Do you love me” sure, Jesus, whatever. Jesus responds: tend my lambs. And he asks a second time, a deeper time: “Do you love me?” I think that’s when Peter must have realized the pretense was over; I think that must have been when Peter’s front began to crumble, when the moment of betrayal came back to haunt him.

“Feed my sheep”, Jesus says. And then, I imagine Jesus looking right into his eyes, knowing as he always knew, what was behind Peter’s eyes, knowing and yet asking once again, “Do you love me?” and when Peter, perhaps crumbling now, says yes; once again, Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” This is the moment Peter became an apostle. This is the moment when Jesus came to him and said: “Never mind!” All those misunderstandings along the way? Never mind! Go feed my sheep. Those times you denied me? Never mind! Go feed my sheep. The fact that you went back to your old life? Never mind! I’m giving you a new life and a new mission: feed my sheep.

Now, I imagine most of us have at least one story about a time we thought we were on the way, pursuing a plan, on a mission and suddenly something happened that said, “Never mind!” and suddenly we were sitting there like a person who just slipped on a patch of ice and fell down. So perhaps you know how Peter felt. And today, this day, this very day,

Never mind: feed my sheep

Jesus is speaking to us just as he did with Peter and the others. Whatever we think about our future as a church, whatever plan we have, Jesus has this to say: “Never mind—feed my sheep”. How? He doesn’t say; he leaves that for us to figure out, just as he does with Peter. What he seems to have in mind is in that confusing little bit at the end about being bound and taken where Peter doesn’t want to go. Certainly he knows that despite all our plans, we are going to have to live when the plans fall apart. Life is full of never minds. In the midst of them, just this counts: how we answer the question Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” and whether we are every day doing something, everything, to feed his sheep.


Chris Is Risen

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – Copyright 2016 All Rights Reserved

Second Sunday in Easter • April 3, 2016

Chris Is Risen – Click Here to listen to this sermon Easter 2C – April 3, 2016

Anything Special?

For years I’ve been asking kids at Children’s Time, “Did anything special happen this week?” The responses never cease to amaze me—both the ones I get and the ones I don’t. Years ago, for example, one of the active families in our church spent three weeks touring the west. They visited the Grand Canyon and many national parks. It was the trip of a lifetime. On their return, I asked Katie, their six year old daughter, if she had seen anything special in the last week. Now Katie was a bit shy and seldom said much at Children’s Time; I thought for once she’d have lots to contribute. But she scrunched her nose for a moment and then said, “Not really.” Even from my perch on the chancel steps I could see her parents weren’t pleased but no amount of prompting could shake Katie: nothing had impressed her. Are you like Katie? I know I am at times, I confess it. Every day God gets up early and puts on an amazing creation. But I know there are days, sometimes whole weeks, when I just pass it by without a thought, like Katie.

What did you see this week?

What did you see this week? All of the scripture readings this week revolve around the act of seeing the power of God. They offer a series of snapshots of Easter visions. The first is the disciples gathered after the resurrection. The shocking memory preserved in the gospels is that the disciples didn’t believe the first reports of the empty tomb. They couldn’t imagine Jesus was up and moving still, that the ultimate bounds of human life had been broken. So here they are, meeting in a locked room, voices hushed, afraid the same thing will happen to them. There, in the midst of them, the risen Christ appears. Even then, they don’t believe; the story says he has to show them his hands and feet—they need to see his wounds. Some still don’t believe; they have to touch. This is how we go forward in church, a bit at a time: we don’t all get the vision at the same time, we don’t all see the same thing and sometimes when we do, we need convincing.

Snapshot: The disciples on trial

The second snapshot is from a few weeks later. Some of the disciples have started telling people what happened and preaching in Jesus’ name. The same council that arrested him arrests them and thinks to scare them. But how do you scare people who have seen a man back from the grave? Isn’t it interesting to see what the disciples say? They don’t quote a creed; they just report what they’ve seen:

The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. 31God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32And we are witnesses to these things,
John 19:30ff

The Council has them flogged; but at the end, clearly it’s the Council that’s scared. The Council puts them out because one leader, Gamaliel, warns the council members they could end up opposing God, as indeed they have. The disciples don’t just offer Jesus: they offer a view of him located in the tradition of Torah, of scripture.
The third snapshot comes from the end of time. John has a vision of what the end of creation will look like and he describes it this way,

Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. 8“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. [Revelation 1:7f]

The clouds are just scenery, like the mountains in a John Wayne movie or Manhattan in one of Woody Allen’s. These people don’t drive, let alone fly, and the clouds are there to make the hearers imagine someone more powerful, higher, than anything they have ever seen. The one who was raised is raised so high that we see him in the clouds. And the power of his coming overwhelms even those who thought to oppose him.
What have you seen? These are all snapshots, reports of what someone has seen. Jesus up and around, Jesus getting his disciples , simple men, to stand up to the powers of their city, Jesus coming in clouds of power.

These are not ideas; none of the reporters offers a philosophy about Jesus. This is the family album and these are people showing the family pictures. When we look out at the world, when we look around, there is a great tendency to answer the question, “What do Christians think?” More and more, I am convinced Christian life has more to do with seeing than thinking—and then telling people what you saw.

Show Me Your Resurrection

We live in a culture that seems to have adopted Kurt Vonnegut’s phrase as its response to evil. “So it goes”. What else can we say? A Buddhist monk posed this question to Christians: “Show me your resurrection.” When I look for the power of irresistible, eternal life, when I search for Christ, I see people, people who touch his light and lift it. Written on the wall of a cellar in Cologne where Jews were hidden these words were written: “I believe in the sun even when it is not shining. I believe in love even when I do not feel it. I believe in God even when God is silent.” If God is silent, maybe the silence is there so we can speak up, so we can tell what we’ve seen.

Chris is risen

Like a lot of churches, we put an Easter banner on the front this year. It just takes a few minutes to order these things but you do have to proof read them. That’s a lesson someone got powerfully wrong this year; John sent me a funny picture of a white Easter banner that said in big, bold, red letter CHRIS IS RISEN: not Christ, which was surely intended, but Chris. So I laughed about this, somewhat ruefully because over the years I’ve made many proofreading mistakes. And then I thought about it and this was my question: who’s Chris? Was I wrong, was I being short sighted? Did Chris rise just like the sign said? And what about us: surely Easter is meant to be more than a nice day with special music and pretty flowers; surely it is meant to remind us we are called to rise with Christ. What if we put your name where Chris is: Jim is risen, Eva is risen, Deb, Amy, Ken, and so on.

The disciples didn’t debate; they didn’t write a systematic theology. They told what they’d seen, they lived from the love of Christ and were raised by it to new lives, lives they told about and shared with such power that soon the little group of 11 or so was growing so fast it couldn’t be contained any more than the tomb could contain Jesus. Like Jesus, they shared their wounds; like Jesus, they shared their faith in the ultimate power of God whether seen or not at that moment. Like Jesus, they lived the resurrection.

Try it out: maybe the sign printer knew something important. Chris is risen: so are we. Show it, tell it, this week.