Who is Jesus?

At one point in Jesus’ ministry he asks the disciples who people were saying he was.  “They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’” Jesus came back at them and asked, “But what about you?  Who do you say I am?”

Peter steps forward and says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus commends Peter, saying, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.”  (Mt. 16:13-20)

We may not appreciate how astounding Peter’s declaration was.  The Jewish people had been waiting for centuries for the coming of the Messiah.  For almost a millennium the prophets of Israel had been predicting the coming of a Messiah, the “Anointed One.”  The Jewish people had built up high expectations who this Messiah would be and what he would do in terms of delivering Israel from its enemies.  Some unknown itinerate preacher from a remote location like Nazareth would hardly meet their expectations.

It is clear from Jesus’ initial response that the disciples’ first answer was not satisfactory.  They couldn’t get by with mouthing what other people were saying, even though that is how Jesus posed the question.  He wanted to hear what they thought and believed.

As Jesus did with the disciples, so he does with us in asking, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?”

Are we just going along with what others say, with what our parents and the church said about Jesus when we were growing up, or have we truly digested what others say and what scripture says, and have decided for ourselves in our words and actions that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God?

This decision is not without its cost or sacrifice, for Jesus shortly thereafter tells the disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)  Believing that Jesus is the Son of God and following him means following his teaching, his example of sacrifice and God’s will for our lives.

Yesterday we celebrated a day to remember the hundreds of thousands of men and women in our armed forces who have sacrificed their lives so that the rest of us might continue to live in the freedom of this nation’s founding principles of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

May the daily actions of the rest of us who claim Jesus as Son of the living God, also reflect a sacrifice in the love of God and the people in our lives.  

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  (Isaiah 9:6)

 

How Should We Love?

In Jesus’ last discourse with the disciples, he says, “I give you a new commandment: love one another.  As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” (John 13:34; repeated at John 15:12)

St. Augustine asks how is this a new commandment and is it not contained in the old law? “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)  Augustine answers his own question.  Jesus is setting a new standard.  We are to love by more than how we love ourselves, a love motivated by self-interest. Rather, we are to love in the same way Jesus loved his disciples and us.

How did Jesus love his disciples and how does he love us?

  • He called each of them personally, as he does us.
  • He taught them by his word and example, as we are taught by Scripture and the Holy Spirit.
  • He prayed for them, as he intercedes for us with the Father.
  • He who was God, humbled himself to become one of us, and laid down his life for all of us.

Let me offer a story of how this can play out in real life.

John was a county prosecutor in Minnesota. In one of his early cases he was surprised to look across the counsel table and see a former high school friend, Jim, as the defendant.  Over the next twenty-six years, Jim would be prosecuted many times for theft-related crimes to support a chemical dependency.

In subsequent cases, when John saw Jim in court he told him that he was praying for him.  At first, Jim would say, “John, don’t waste your time,” but then he would come to appreciate that someone was caring about him.

In a final case, Jim was again caught with a large cache of stolen goods, pleaded guilty, and was on his way back to prison.  While awaiting sentencing, Jim learned that he was terminally ill with sclerosis of the liver.  His lawyer persuaded the court to let him die in hospice outside of prison.  Jim also asked his lawyer to request that John pray for him.

Over the next six months, John did more than just pray for him.  He visited Jim two to four times a week.  They would reminisce about growing up together and talking about their favorite baseball teams and players.  They also read the Bible together.  That fall, Jim repented of his sins and surrendered his life to Jesus Christ.  He died in late November.

John observed, “Over those last six months, I frequently called Jim ‘brother’ because we were brothers in Christ.  Jim loved reading and praying the psalms, and they have new meaning to me now.  God used Jim to teach me about acceptance of suffering and perseverance, and he showed me that it is never too late to say yes to the Lord, no matter what we have done in the past.”

John concludes, “Because God answers prayers, Jim said ‘yes’ to Christ before he died, and I know he is in paradise today – just like another thief who died on a cross next to Jesus 2000 years ago.”

John laid down his life for Jim with his time and support, and patiently guided him to Christ.

“Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Cor. 13:4-7)

Grateful Hearts

IMG_0126 Andrew's graduation“I will praise God all my life; I will sing praise to God as long as I live.”  Psalm 146:2

This past weekend we were blessed to attend the college graduation of our first grandson, Andrew.  What a blessing it has been to see him grow from birth to the fine young man he has become today!

On such an occasion, many memories flood the zone — from carrying him on my forearm as a baby to wrestling with him when he was three or four.   When he was 10, he flew from Raleigh, NC to Washington by himself to visit us.  He was so talkative when got off the plane, describing every detail of his trip.  We toured Washington’s many sites and got to witness from the Senate gallery a roll call vote involving over ninety senators, while I tried to offer a small civics lesson.  A couple of summers ago, we welcomed him again at the Capitol, but this time as he joined other members from his college fraternity to cycle from San Francisco to Washington over period of two months to raise awareness and financial support for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

God is the author and creator of the family.  He has blessed us with five children and thirteen grandchildren.  Four of our children are now raising Christian families of their own.  Our fifth child has a disability and continues to live with us.  We are so grateful to be a part of God’s plan for his creation and life.

Life is, of course, full of many challenges and over the years we see both ups and downs.  Yet, to see your own children move through childhood into the roles of being parents themselves and seeing them extend God’s plan for creation through their children adds to the blessing.

The Book of Proverbs says, “Children’s children are a crown to the aged.” (PV 17:6)  My wife and I do not care much about crowns, but we are grateful for the family God has given us and the roles of Mom and Dad, and Grammy and Pop Pop that he has accorded us to serve him in his plan for creation.   

Recognizing God’s Presence

“It’s the Lord!”  These are the words of the apostle John, recognizing Jesus standing on shore after he had directed the disciples to cast their net on the right side of the boat, resulting in the catch of 153 large fish. John 21:1-14)

This was the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection in John’s gospel, but they failed to recognize him.  They had gone fishing the night before, and when Jesus called out to them from shore asking if they had caught anything, they did not recognize him.  Only after they caught a large amount of fish did John recognize that it was Jesus.

A similar thing happened to others to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection.  Mary Magdalene did not recognize Jesus outside his tomb until he said her name, “Mary.”  (John 20:16)  The two disciples on the road to Emmaus did not recognize Jesus who walked with them for quite some time until he later broke bread with them. (Luke 24:31)

Like the disciples and Mary Magdalene, how often do we fail to recognize the Lord’s presence in the circumstances of our lives? 

The unexplained recovery from a serious illness; a friend who comes to our aid in a time of serious need; a thought that comes out of the blue which solves an agonizing dilemma; the unexpected forgiveness from a family member we have offended; an answer to prayer for something we thought would never happen; the narrow escape from a serious accident — all of these may be examples of God’s love, care and presence to us.

A few years ago my son, Steve, son-in-law, Greg, and I were boating down the Atlantic Intercostal Waterway.  On the second day we ran into gale force winds on the Chesapeake Bay on our way to Norfolk, Virginia.  The winds were coming out of the northeast generating waves of five to six feet or more.  The Coast Guard had posted two flags which meant that the winds were blowing at 39 to 54 mph.  Because we were heading south and the winds were coming at us from our stern, it was more difficult to control the steerage of the boat.

We of course put on our life jackets.  I asked Steve to go down into the cabin for additional ballast, and Greg to stay with me on the fly bridge to keep watch of our location on the GPS.  The skies were quite overcast and visibility to shore and the markers designating the channel were marginal.  There weren’t any safe inlets along this portion of the Bay to go for cover, and it would have been too dangerous to turn toward shore with the winds and waves then hitting us broadside.

Never having experienced these conditions before, I found myself learning how to control the boat as we proceeded.  The key was not pulling back on the throttle as the boat accelerated down the front side of a wave in order to avoid the boat turning sideways and capsizing.  This almost happened to us early on.  It took us over four hours to reach Norfolk which was not that far.  I was never so happy to see the outlines of an aircraft carrier through the haze at the Norfolk Naval Base.

Because I was so concentrated on maintaining control of the boat over the entire period, I never even remembered to pray for God’s protection.  But looking back and reflecting on all that happened and our safe arrival at the day’s destination, I can say, “It was the Lord!”

boat mancation 2014-61 (2)

[Steve, son-in-law Ralph who joined us on the return trip home, yours truly and Greg.]

Being a Witness for Jesus

“You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:48) These are the words of Jesus to the disciples after appearing to them following his resurrection.  After showing them his hands and feet, eating a piece of broiled fish and demonstrating that he was indeed physically alive, he opened their minds to understand all that was written about him in the Scriptures.  He then instructed them to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name.

While very few of us will ever be preachers, we can still be a witness to Jesus in how we conduct ourselves and live our lives.  Sometimes we may have an opportunity to witness with words, but most of the time we demonstrate our belief and faith in Jesus with our conduct – treating people with respect and kindness, being honest and acting with integrity, and being open to care for others as the need arises.

In fact, if our witness is comprised of only words before we establish our standing or credibility with our conduct, the words may have little effect and even accomplish the opposite of our intended purpose. 

We once had an administrative assistant in the legal department of the company where I worked who liked to talk a lot about Jesus and her church.  While she may have thought she was being a witness for Jesus, her job performance in assisting three attorneys with their administrative needs was lacking. When I attempted to review her performance with her and mentioned that she was not serving her assigned attorneys well, she interrupted me to declare, “I serve no one but God.”  Because of her poor performance, we eventually had to terminate her employment.  The irony was that contrary to her declaration, she was not serving God well either.

There are times, however, when Jesus expects us to witness to his presence in our lives, particularly with family and friends with whom we have an established relationship.  They should know that our Christian faith is important to us and that we strive to live by that faith. 

After experiencing the presence of Jesus in a renewed way, I shared my experience with a colleague I had worked with for several years.  He in turn shared it with one of our senior executives who I knew but would not likely have ever had the opportunity to share directly with him.  As a result my witness was able to go beyond what I was able to do myself.  God loves to multiply our witness.

A few years later this same colleague was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.  He called me one day and asked if I would come to his office because he had something he wanted to tell me.  He was very distraught and worried not only about his cancer, but also about his family and how he was feeling guilty because he had let his work take too much of his time away from his wife and two daughters.  We talked.  I listened, and offered to pray with him.  We prayed that God would bless him with a special peace and give him an opportunity to draw closer to his wife and daughters during his time remaining.  He died a few months later.

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

Encountering the Risen Jesus

“I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18)

These were the words of Mary Magdalene to Jesus’ disciples after she encountered the risen Jesus outside the tomb where he had been placed two days earlier.  At first she did not recognize Jesus, thinking him to be the gardener.  Not until he said her name, “Mary,” did she realize it was Jesus.

She cried out “Teacher!” and apparently tried to hug him, for he said, “’Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father.  Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:17)

As we read these verses from John’s gospel, it is easy to gloss over how surprising and shocking this encounter had to be for Mary Magdalene.  She had no doubt witnessed the crowd shouting “Crucify him! Crucify him.”   She may have seen the Roman soldiers nail Jesus to the cross.  John’s Gospel reports that she was present at the foot of the cross with Mary, the mother of Jesus, as they watched him die.

Now Jesus was alive in the flesh, no longer dead!  She touched him.  He spoke to her.  He said her name with the same distinct manner as before.  He gave her a message to take to the disciples.  It may be hard for us to imagine the emotions she must have felt – going from total sadness and despair to utter and unbelievable joy in a single moment – a moment indelibly fixed in her memory and lasting forever.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we too, may encounter the risen Jesus.  It may not have the same physical character as Mary Magdalene’s experience, but it can have the same spiritual, emotional and life-giving character.   

I volunteer in a Catholic outreach to a local jail ministry.  This past weekend, several women inmates made posters on what Easter meant to them.  While I wasn’t present, the priest who celebrated the mass with the women shared some of the posters they had made.  One of the posters showed a cross with a big red heart in the middle with a caption, “God is love.”

In another poster a brilliant yellow sun was shining over the mountains with two blossoming cherry trees on either side with the caption, “I’m Forgiven.”   It appears that both of these women have had an encounter with the risen Jesus to be able to express what Easter and the resurrection of Jesus Christ means to them.

Many years ago I was at a healing mass and the priest celebrating the mass asked us to kneel down, close our eyes and imagine that we were all alone with Jesus.  He instructed us to give to Jesus whatever need we might have.  I did as the priest suggested and asked Jesus if he would take something that was distracting me from my relationship with God and my wife and family.  He did!  The encounter was very real to me.  Forty years later, I can still describe every detail – where we stood, the surroundings, how Jesus looked to me, the love and joy I experienced when I realized he was answering my request.  It was a watershed moment.  All my priorities began to change.

The risen Jesus is available for all of us to encounter, particularly when we feel most alienated from him.  He says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me.”  (Rev. 3:20)

He Wept Bitterly

maxresdefault“And he went outside and wept bitterly. (Matthew 26:75)

We all know the story.  Jesus and the disciples are gathered together to celebrate the Passover meal.    Jesus predicts that that very night all of the disciples will fall away on account of him.

Peter protests that he will never fall away and then proclaims, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”  Then Jesus answered, “I tell you Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.” (Luke 22:33-34)

Later Jesus is arrested and taken to the house of the High Priest.  Peter “follows at a distance” and warms himself by a fire in the courtyard.  He is recognized as being one of the disciples, but he denies that he knows Jesus, not once, but three times.  Luke reports that just as Peter was making the third denial, the rooster crowed and “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.”  Then Peter, remembering the word the Lord had spoken, went outside and wept bitterly. (Luke 22:61-62)

We can only imagine the extreme remorse and shame Peter must have felt.  In spite of all his prideful bluster about how he would never fall away and go to jail or even to death with Jesus, he was intimidated by a servant girl and two others and denied three times that he ever knew Jesus.

Lest we become even slightly judgmental of Peter, we must stop and call to mind all of the times that our conduct has denied Jesus or his presence in us.  The examples are numerous and varied -– anger, unforgiveness, and resentment; self-indulgence, drunkenness and sexual immorality; failures of integrity in deceit and gossip; failures of kindness, mercy and love; and sloth, laziness and apathy; to name only a few.

St. Paul says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)

I can certainly recall examples in my life that encompass several of these categories.  While I have repented of these occasions and accept God’s forgiveness and mercy, I still regret them and have remorse for some of them.  The good news is that God says, “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34)  God not only forgives, but he forgets.  His data base on our sins is wiped clean every time we repent.  What a glorious promise this is for us!

As we proceed through this Holy Week and commemorate the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ with his terrible suffering and death, let us praise and thank God for his plan for reconciliation and salvation.  By God’s immeasurable love for us, he became one of us in all aspects of our human existence, was willing to suffer and die for us, and gives us the promise of life forever with him through the power of his resurrection.

“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)