As most of you know, about a month ago I had some back issues, which landed me in an ambulance on the way to Unity. It was humbling, to say the least, to be unable to rise out of bed and start a new day. It was, if nothing else, a good reminder for me of how quickly blessings can become invisible to us. Many of us are fiercely independent; it was hard to be cared for again like a child. This week, however, that is the goal: identify as Children of God.
As a father with three little people, it was a strange thing for me to have so much time to myself. Illness or injuries have a strange way of reminding us of lessons learned long ago. Not by my design, I was living out the advice of this week’s psalm: “When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent. Offer right sacrifices and put your trust in the LORD” (Ps. 4:4-5). While I was in some serious back pain, I did toss some broken questions in my mind. Many of these questions are the same thoughts I’ve had for nearly thirty years. These questions, over the years, have become one: Am I enough?
Do you have those kinds of boomerang thoughts? They are often deep-burning questions that we pray away only to see them returning and taking dead aim on us again the next moment. This reminds me how easy it is to fall into holding patterns of things that keep us in bondage. 1 John 3:7 advises: “Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.” Our job is to live, today, like Jesus is alive–to celebrate how stories from long ago do more than parallel against our lives–they shape our lives! We are the tax collectors, the blind, and the bruised. We are the pharisees and the people in the crowd clamoring for justice.
As the disciples were gathered in that room hiding twenty centuries ago, I’m sure they would remind us that righteousness is not easy. We know that. And yet, just like those leaders of the earliest church, we are called to “offer right sacrifices.” To me, this means we need to believe Jesus is with us even in the most difficult of moments: feeling immobilized, feeling forgotten, feeling unloved. Henri Nouwen points out that:
“There are two extremes to avoid: being completely absorbed in your pain and being distracted by so many things that you stay far from the wound you want to heal.”
My experience at the hospital was a divinely mandated retreat, which begs me to ask you: Have you spent much quality time with God lately? Is your spiritual life ready for a check up? Is your spirituality on autopilot running on your laurels of past experiences?
Disciples Need Reminders
This week’s gospel passage, Luke 24:36-48, gleans more richness with a proper contrast to another passage in John’s gospel. Both passages are important in establishing that Jesus came and appeared to the disciples multiple times after his death and resurrection. Why? Why did the people who knew him best need multiple reminders of their callings in Christ? And more directly, if the disciples who witnessed miracles and heard Jesus speak needed reminders, how much more do we need those affirmations from Jesus too?
John 21 offers a glimpse of Jesus returning to find Peter and others back at work fishing; daily life seems like it has resumed. In contrast, however, this week’s gospel in Luke is characterized by a mood of oppressive fear. Whether we are on the sea feeling “free” or stuck in small room, Jesus will appear to those who are afraid they are not enough. The disciples are locked inside a room, both literally and metaphorically. In the immediacy of the death of Jesus, their hearts were “locked” and they could not reenter the world.
In Luke 24, today’s gospel, when Jesus utters the most benign words imaginable–“Peace be with you”–we see a display of just how distraught and flighty the disciples are. Lost in all the theological commotion of Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and the devil is the very real aftermath that these ordinary men who had lived and learned beside Jesus were now faced with the enormous task of reconstructing their identities as his followers because each one–including Peter, Thomas, and James–had abandoned their teacher and ran away out of fear when the Roman guards appeared in the garden. The fact that these early church leaders were so discouraged is something that is not given proper attention. Hindsight is 20/20, and while the disciples were constructing their Scriptural bearings and piecing together the narrative of events, it is clear that the disciples, just like us today, need Jesus to appear to us in small, private encounters.
In Acts 3:12-19, we have to admire Peter’s brashness. He is not eloquent in any way. His message of repentance for his fellow Israelite is essentially a finger in the proverbial chest; ten times Peter makes a directed statement toward a collective “you,” which indicates Israel’s failure to recognize and his obligation to witness to the life and death of Jesus. “But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:14-15). Then, as if remembering he was speaking publically or perhaps as he was getting the look from John or one of the others, Peter attempts to diffuse the situation: “And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as also did your rulers” (Acts 3:17). Reading this passage, I see Peter’s lack of aires as the reason why Jesus felt so confidently that Peter could become the rock of the church. Sometimes, the truth needs no decoration. Sometimes, Jesus speaks to us in firm words that are nothing like a “whisper.”
“Beloved, we are God’s children now” (I John 3:2). John’s designation of this understanding of our relationship to God is not something he prescribed himself, but rather the very core of Jesus’ proximity to God. Just look at the addressee of the LORD’s Prayer for proof of that. “You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5).
John’s gospel, too, presents a portrait of the childlike awe necessary to encounter God. In John 21, Jesus again appears to Peter and several other disciples while they have resumed to the rhythm of life–their work as fishermen. John’s Gospel (21:5-7) states:
Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
5 He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”
“No,” they answered.
6 He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.
7 Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water.
This passage, in conjunction with the Lukan passage in the room, shows that the disciples, just like us, are prone to miss the LORD when he is right before us. Instead of seeing the LORD Jesus right on the shore, the disciples do not know it is him until he speaks to them. His words unlock the very anxiety and lack of identity that each disciple so desperately needed. And his words can unlock our conflicts, too!
Again, further contrast can be formed from John 21:12-13:
12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord.13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.
You see, this week I’ve been thinking about that phrase “Children of God.” This term is deceptively simple but deep enough for contemplation in the little pockets of time when my children let us have a moment to sip coffee, breathe slowly, or just look out the window for a moment. John implores us to consider ourselves as such: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” (1 Jn. 3:1).
Living Like Children of God
There’s a lot of deeply theological topics we could hash out in detail in this week’s readings: there’s salvific themes, conversations about the nature of sin, and revelations about how we are related to the LORD Almighty. This week, however, I’m sharing the advice I first chanced upon from Fred Rogers, who, a seminarian himself, shared: “I feel so strongly that deep and simple is so much more important than shallow and complex.”
Bob Faw, a reporter for NBC, during the report about Fred Rogers’ passing, once remarked: “The real Mister Rogers never preached, [never] even mentioned God [on his show.] … “He never had to.”
As any viewer of Mister Rogers Neighborhood could tell you, Fred Rogers lived out the words made famous by Saint Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.”
Many Christians have a special date, which they call their “Saved” date. It marks the day when they turned over their lives to Christ. One of the blessings of my life–I mean one of the five most special moments–occured when Natasha and I were preparing to welcome Mae into the world. Natasha was on bed rest at the end of her pregnancy and we rented a small duplex in Batavia with two bed rooms. Since she slept on the couch mostly at that point, I’d often wake up and go check on Jaina, who was usually sleeping in a small, white toddler bed.
On this particular morning, I found her praying. A small beam of light pierced its way through her curtains. It fell on the floor as a perfect square of light. Jaina had taken a small pink chair and placed it right where the beam lay. I found her on her knees talking to Jesus, giving him her heart. It was beautiful. It is the picture of what I’ve thought about this week preparing this message.
Children don’t need words or verdant vocabularies to know God. We, like Peter, don’t have to be eloquent speakers. All the talking that we’ll ever do that matters to Jesus is done with our hearts.
So what will you say this week? Will your heart speak of the Gospel that Jesus is alive and active in the world? If we are still and approach God as a child, I am confident that our divinity, that being Jesus Christ in us, has the ability to become the tree or treasure from the parables. Our lives will infinitely become safe harbors or sources of comfort for others.
Let the childlike joy of knowing Jesus cover all the wounds where our doubt and discouragement lay in wait like those boomerang thoughts. Amen.