Jesus had been preparing for three years. From the time he was baptized by John in the Jordan he knew what was waiting for him in Jerusalem. That confrontation with Pilate, the cross on Calvary, the grave, Easter – those three days would be the culmination of everything he had done. And he wanted to get to it. “What stress I am under until it is completed!” he told his disciples. Think of a football player lined up on the 40-yard line, waiting for the kickoff of the championship game. Think of a student sitting at her desk ready for the teacher to pass out the final exam. Think of a soldier prepped for battle waiting for the order to advance. That’s how Jesus felt as he made his way toward Jerusalem.
Jesus’ crucifixion would be the cataclysmic moment of all creation. Everything he had taught was in anticipation of what was going to happen once he got to Jerusalem. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Turn the other cheek. Return no one evil for evil. Those weren’t just wise suggestions for living a happy life. They were directions for living in the new creation that would begin on Easter day.
Before that new creation could begin, the old creation had to be uprooted. The old reality where we look out for number one, where we ignore the poor and oppressed, where we get ahead by forcing our will on others, where we are paralyzed by fear of death, that old reality has to be removed to make room for the kingdom of God. It’s like that hedge that was in the parking lot, in front of the church office. It got to be so overgrown and infested with poison ivy that the Facilities and Maintenance Committee took it all out and replaced it with a split rail fence. The old had to go to make room for the new.
Unfortunately, the old creation doesn’t give way as easily as an old hedge. “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Jesus asked his disciples. “No, I tell you, but rather division!”
When is the last time you heard that verse quoted at Christmas? Do you think Mary and Joseph forgot to tell Jesus about those angels who sang “Peace on earth, good will to all,” the night he was born?
Well, Jesus is the Prince of Peace, but his is the peace of life and vibrancy and joy, not the kind of peace that is passive and sullen, not the peace of those who have been defeated and given up hope, not the peace of the graveyard. I suppose that God could have forced his hand and made us all into zombies who blindly and unquestioningly do God’s will, but that’s not what God has done. Jesus’ victory on the cross over sin and death was like the victory on D-Day in 1944 that established the beachhead on Normandy. There was still a lot of struggle before the Third Reich was defeated, but the victory was assured. Jesus invites us to share his struggle against the powers of sin and evil.
That peace doesn’t come without a cost. It’s not cheap. I know I’d like to have it both ways, to have all the glory and peace and goodwill of Christ’s kingdom without the division and the conflict. Being part of the new creation that Jesus begins means we have to leave behind what is old, and sometimes that means leaving behind those who are closest to us. We’ve heard stories of people who were raised in strict fundamentalist Muslim or Hasidic cultures whose families cut them off when they became followers of Jesus. This summer Carol and I visited the tomb of St. Francis in Assisi in Italy. Francis was from a wealthy family and had a promising career as a soldier, but after encountering Jesus he gave away his armor and all of his possessions to follow a life of poverty and service. His father had other plans for him, and was furious. Most of us haven’t been ostracized by our families for following Jesus. Many of us were brought up in the church and following Jesus is what our family expected of us. But that division between the old creation that Jesus uproots and the new creation that he begins shows itself in all kinds of ways.
When someone’s life is torn up by addiction, they won’t find peace until they break off their relationships with their drinking buddies and form new friendships in their 12 step meetings. One reason it’s hard for someone to leave an abusive relationship is that it means breaking away from her abuser, who at one level she still loves.
Today Martin Luther King is revered by people of all political stripes as a hero of reconciliation. But many of us remember that in the 1960s he was denounced as a divider. One of King’s most famous works is “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” King had been arrested for taking part in an unauthorized march against racial segregation. In the wake of all the unrest caused by the civil rights movement, eight of Birmingham’s white Protestant pastors, who were sympathetic with King’s goals of racial harmony, wrote an editorial in the local paper entitled, “A Call for Unity.” They criticized King and the other civil rights leaders for being divisive and urged him to tone things down and wait patiently for the white community to come along rather than causing such division in their community.
King used his time sitting in his jail cell to write a response. He explained that the marches and sit-ins were drawing attention to injustices that had been tolerated for too long. Without the demonstrations, and the freedom riders, and the lunch counter sit-ins, and the other forms of civil disobedience, those injustices would still be hidden. He was exposing those deep divisions so they could be brought into the open and healed.
We had thought those divisions were healed, but in recent years we’ve seen that they’re deeper and more pervasive than many of us thought. Back in 2008 America elected a black president, and people said that we had entered the post-racial society. His election was held up as proof that racism was a thing of the past. Since then, however, white supremacist groups have grown; it’s not Islamic fundamentalists who are terrorizing us now but white nationalists. We’re seeing divisions that we had thought were eradicated coming painfully to the surface. Our divisions are deeper than many of us thought.
Jesus exposes our divisions because he came to upend the old order of things and turn creation upside down. If your main goal in life is to be rich, you’re not going to warm up to the news that kingdom of God belongs to the poor. If you find your self-worth in boasting about how great you are and reveling in the belief that you’re so much better than others, then you don’t want to hear that it’s the meek who will inherit the earth. If you gain power by waging war, it’s not good news to you that blessed are the peacemakers. What is good news to some is bad news to others. If someone is held hostage, then the news that someone has come to set them free is good news for the hostage, but it’s bad news for the hostage taker.
Now, one institution that’s known for its divisions is the church. It’s tempting to think that those divisions are a sign that we’re doing the right thing. Not long ago I preached a sermon about Christian unity and told a story about how a congregation in our area had avoided a divisive conflict when its music director wanted to marry his male partner in the church sanctuary. The pastor didn’t want to do it, so the session worked out a compromise where the associate pastor officiated and everyone was satisfied. After the service a retired pastor spoke to me, thanked me for the sermon, but said that church should not have allowed something to take place that is so clearly against the teachings of the Bible. He reminded me, “Jesus also said he came to bring division.” And I want to thank him for that reminder, because he really got me thinking about all this talk I do about our unity in Christ.
Our challenge is that as human beings with limited understanding of God’s ways, we don’t always know just where that dividing line that Jesus makes lies. A lot of our divisions, rather than being signs that we’re on the right side with God are signs of our brokenness and sinfulness. My friendly critic and I read the Bible differently when it comes to what Jesus thinks about same sex marriage, but I think those are divisions within the body of Christ, not divisions that put one side or the other outside the household of faith.
There are those who would disagree, but I think there are some divisions within the church family that are like the divisions between my parents and me. On the very first election day that I was eligible to vote, I spent the day working the polls for one of the candidates. Meanwhile, my mother was at home making phone calls for his opponent. When our home phone went dead around noon, she was very suspicious of me, but I promise I was innocent. In the years that followed, I don’t think we ever voted for the same candidate, but we still loved each other and enjoyed being together. We were both involved in politics because we loved our country, and we believed that Christians who live in a democracy have a responsibility to make it a better place. We had different ideas about how to do that, but we were still citizens of the same country, followers of the same Lord, and members of the same family.
I think many church divisions are like that. I’ve served two churches that divided in the mid-nineteenth century because one side wanted to glorify God by using an organ in worship and the other side thought the organ is the instrument of the devil. All four of those churches now have organs.
When Jesus said he came to bring division, he was talking about cataclysmic change. He was talking about tearing down the temple and rebuilding it in three days. He was talking about the division between what gives life and what saps the life out of us, between the old way of life that is driven by fear and scarcity and suspicion and the new way of life that is driven by love and generosity and hope. Those who belong to that new creation can welcome those whose skin is a different color from theirs, whose customs differ, whose ancestors came from a different place. That’s what happened last Sunday when the New Generation Hispanic congregation that worships in Fellowship Hall welcomed us to their worship service and gave us a new experience of praising the glory of the Lord. Those who belong to that new creation aren’t afraid to be generous with the poor because they know that in the new creation God provides all we need. Those who live in the new creation forgive those who have done them wrong because they know that holding a grudge and seeking revenge are what you do in the old creation. Those who live in the new creation face their death with courage and hope because they know that the Lord is on the other side of that greatest divide of all, the divide between life and death. He has already crossed over that, and he is there, welcoming them into the heavenly kingdom.
People come to the church for lots of reasons. Some come because they’ve had a great spiritual awakening, others because they know something is missing in their lives and are trying to find it. Some come because of the programs it offers for the kids. Others are here for the music or because they like the people or they want to learn more about the Bible. I’ve known people who’ve come to church because they thought it would be a good place to network and meet people who can help further their career. Some are here because their parents bring them and they don’t have any choice.
But whatever brought you here, if you pay attention you’ll notice that the church isn’t like any other group of people. That’s not just because we worship God and study the Bible and do other things we don’t do elsewhere. You’ll notice that when we’re at our best there’s something different about the way we relate to other people.
Church can be more than you bargained for. It was for Philemon.
Philemon was a wealthy member of the church in Colossae. In those days before church buildings, the church met in his house. Being a well to do landowner of the first century, he owned slaves. The slaves were the ones who got the house ready for church, prepared the food the church members would share, and cleaned up after everyone left. Slaves often joined with masters when they gathered to worship, and they heard how Jesus came to break down walls that divide people. He came with good news for the poor and the slaves that they are as beloved in God’s sight as their masters. They probably heard Paul speak those words he wrote to the Galatians that “there is no longer slave or free… for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
One of Philemon’s slaves named Onesimus took to heart the message of Jesus he heard proclaimed in his master’s house. Onesimus believed all that talk he heard about freedom, and he ran away. Somehow, we don’t know how, he made his way to Paul and assisted the apostle in his work. When Paul was in jail, Onesimus cared for his needs and provided for him. Onesimus became like a son to Paul.
Paul loved Onesimus and valued his help, but he was uncomfortable that Onesimus had run away from his master. And Paul was also uncomfortable that his own relationship with Philemon was hurting because he was harboring his friend’s fugitive slave. So Paul sent Onesimus back to his master with this letter appealing to Philemon to receive Onesimus not as a runaway slave who had broken the law, but to receive him as a brother in Christ. According to the law, Philemon could have punished Onesimus severely. He could have flogged him or even killed him for running away. But Paul reminded Philemon how Christ has transformed all of our relationships, including the relationship between a master and a slave.
In some ways this is a troubling letter. People have criticized Paul because he didn’t ask, even demand, that Philemon set Onesimus and all of his slaves free. Jesus said in his first sermon in Nazareth that he had come to proclaim release to the captives and let the oppressed go free. But White slave owners in the American South before the Civil War pointed to Paul’s letter to Philemon to justify the institution of slavery.
The gospel Paul preached has the seeds that eventually undermined slavery and led Christians to become some of the most ardent abolitionists who fought to do away with it, but for all his wisdom, Paul was still a man of his times. What Paul was asking Philemon to do was radical for the time. He was asking him to receive his escaped slave as a fellow member of Christ’s church and an equal before God.
We have two reminders of that unity that we keep in the front of the sanctuary where we see them every week. The first is the Lord’s table. When we come up to the Lord’s table and partake of the sacrament, we’re side by side with people who may be our best friends or whom we may not even know, but by taking that plate of bread and that cup of juice, we’re making a statement that we’re sinners and we need God’s forgiveness. That’s completely different from what we’re taught to do in most other areas of our life, where we’re taught to put our best foot forward and show how good we are. We’re making a statement for all to see that we can’t do it on our own, that we share our need for God with everyone else who takes communion with us.
The other reminder is the baptismal font. Whenever we baptize someone, we’re welcoming that person into our community of faith as one of us. We promise we’ll teach them what it means to follow Jesus and to give their life to him. Baptism, a person’s entry into this community, doesn’t depend on how much someone has accomplished or how much they know about theology. Our baptism shows us that God loves us before we have done one thing to deserve that love, just as a child’s parents love her before she’s done anything to deserve it.
That bond we have with others in Christ can be jarring, especially when we leave the beauty and comfort of the sanctuary. Between my stints as an interim pastor when we lived in Pittsburgh, Carol and I worshiped at an urban church that has people from many different races and economic classes. It was kind of a stretch for us who were both reared in white suburban congregations and served as pastors in churches like the ones where we grew up. But we liked the idea that when we worshiped there we worshiped with a wide variety of people, a visible reminder of the diversity of Christ’s church.
One evening we went to the movies, and as we were leaving the theater, we passed a man standing by the door begging for money. We generally observe the advice of people who work with the urban poor and don’t give to beggars because that doesn’t get to the root of whatever problems they might have. We give to organizations like the Rescue Mission that set up structures to deal with the underlying issues of poverty and that know enough about the population that they can tell the difference between people who are in genuine need and scam artists.
But after we walked past this beggar, we stopped dead in our tracks. “That’s So and So,” Carol said. “He’s the worship leader at the church’s 8:00 service. How can we walk past him? We go to the same church!”
Most congregations don’t have the kind of diversity of the church in Colossae where slave owners worshiped along with slaves, or even the diversity of that urban congregation where a street beggar leads worship with bank executives and college professors. That’s mainly because of the way housing patterns are these days. It’s still true that 11:00 a.m. Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, both by economic class and by race. But one of the great strengths of the church is the way it can nudge us to live beyond that separation and let Christ join us with people who are very different.
A lot of that happens in partnerships with organizations that work with people whose life circumstances are different from that of many of us. That’s why the mission outreach that Eastminster does is so important, not just to the people who receive your kindness, but to the church. When you share knitted scarves and hats with children in need, you’re reminded of the bonds we have with people who live right here in our community whom we may not encounter. When you support missionaries like Sue Ann Randall, you build those ties with the church around the world.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s vitally important to tend to the bonds here at home. We start to learn how Christ changes the world as we notice how he changes the way we relate to those who worship with us. It’s in our Bible study groups, our Sunday school classes, the friendships we make and nurture here that we find the strength and the love to be able to reach out beyond ourselves to others. We gratefully receive from one another the support and encouragement and love we need to be faithful disciples of Jesus.
Whatever it is that causes us to join the church, once we’re part of it, it changes the way we relate to each other. Sometimes that’s a challenge. You’re not necessarily going to like everybody in the church. You’re not going to have a lot in common with everybody. But church is a place where a slave owner was expected to receive his runaway slave as a brother. Perhaps most challenging of all, it’s a place where we listen to, respect and encourage the people who worship with us week in and week out. It can be more than you bargained for, but when Jesus binds us to himself, he binds us with his church. When Jesus comes into your life, he brings his family with him, so we’re bound together with all kinds of people, whether we like it or not because, after all, it’s not your church or mine. It’s Jesus’ church, and he welcomes whomever he wants – including you and me.
Eugene Peterson tells about an encounter he had early in his ministry at the Presbyterian church in Bel Air, MD. Marilyn was a member of his church, a woman in her mid-twenties, married, starting a career in law. She was getting tests for some ailment the doctors couldn’t diagnose. All the resources of medical science and psychology were at her disposal, so when Peterson visited her, he wasn’t sure what he could do. But he asked her anyway, “Is there anything you want me to do?” Marilyn responded, “Would you teach me to pray?” At that moment she wasn’t looking for a diagnosis, or even necessarily a cure. What she was asking was how to see God in the midst of her pain. She was asking for assurance that God saw her.
When Marilyn prayed, she may well have asked for a cure, maybe even a miracle. Those do happen. But the effectiveness of prayer can’t be judged by quantifiable results, the way a company calculates return on investment or a charity shows donors measurable impact. Like every other human being who has ever lived, Marilyn’s body would one day succumb to illness or accident. Death and disability and disease don’t abide by our standards of fairness, and every person Jesus rescued from death eventually had to face it again.
No, Marilyn wasn’t asking for a super natural formula to recite. She wanted to know the same thing Jesus’ disciples wanted to know when they asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” They wanted to know how to tap into the force that created the universe, how to align with the power of the one who raised the dead.
Jesus taught them what has come to be known as The Lord’s Prayer. Over the years, we’ve filled it in a little and added some extra phrases, but it is our model for how to pray. Its first two lines set the framework for all our prayers: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.” Before we pray for ourselves or for others, we place all our requests in the context of God’s kingdom. The kingdom of God is what Jesus’ ministry is all abaout. According to the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ very first words when he began his public ministry, the words that defined what he had come to do, were, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near…” (Mark 1:15) Jesus began God’s work of restoring all of creation to the way God intends it. The prophet Isaiah described that kingdom as the place where the wolf lies down with the lamb, swords will be beat into plows, where those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength and mount up with wings like eagles. When God raised Jesus from the dead, the power of death and corruption and all the things that keep that kingdom from coming to pass were overcome. Those who follow Jesus are enlisted in his work of fulfilling that kingdom. His resurrection is our assurance that everything we do in his name shows the world that God will prevail. So all our prayers are raised based on that promise and expectation, that God’s kingdom is coming.
In the context of that prayer for God’s kingdom, Jesus lists three things to pray for: our daily bread, forgiveness of sin, and deliverance from temptation. Let’s take a minute and unpack what each of those requests means when we pray them in the context of our prayer that God’s kingdom come.
The first request is “Give us each day our daily bread.” Throughout the gospels, Jesus cautions against storing up too much that will distract us from God’s kingdom. When he sends the disciples out to do his work, he tells them, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” He tells a parable about a man who decides to build a bigger barn to store all his goods, only to die that very night. When a rich man asks him what he needs to do to have eternal life, Jesus tells him to sell all he has and distribute it to the poor. So this prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” is our request that God provide what we need for the day in order to do our part in the work of God’s kingdom. Now, by hard work or luck or maybe even some extra blessing, we may get more than our daily bread, and then we’re faced with the challenge of being good stewards of what we have. But to be a faithful follower of Jesus, all we need to pray for is “our daily bread.”
Not everyone who claims to teach prayer agrees with that. There’s a strand of religion called the prosperity gospel. Some of its proponents you can see on TV, speaking in giant arenas packed with thousands of people. Those who tout the prosperity gospel quote Jesus’ promises without framing them in the context of the kingdom of God. Their message is that if we believe in Jesus and pray persistently, then God is obliged to give us what we ask for. After all, didn’t Jesus say in the passage we just read, “Ask and it will be given to you… for everyone who asks receives…”? What God really intends, so they say, is for you to be prosperous, and the reason you don’t drive a Jaguar or live in a mansion is that you haven’t been praying right. You haven’t been claiming the promises God has in store. And more than likely, you haven’t been sending enough money to the televangelist.
Most of us can see through that kind of chicanery. Ever since Simon Magus tried to buy God’s blessings by paying off Peter and John (Acts 8: 14ff), people have been trying to profit from the gospel. But what about when our prayers are for those things that God couldn’t possibly be against, like healing for those we love. How could a loving God not cure my loved one’s cancer? How can a God of justice allow a mass-murderer to take the lives of innocent people? It’s when those prayers for healing or justice seem to fall on deaf ears, for things that are supposed to be Christlike and Godly, it’s in response to those seemingly unanswered prayers that so many people have given up on God altogether.
Jana Childers, a professor at San Francisco Theological Seminary, tells of a friend who had cancer. Childers and her friends took Jesus’ command seriously and prayed without ceasing for her friend. For all their prayers, her friend didn’t get healed, or enter remission, or get a sign from heaven or a visit from angels. But what her friend did get was God. She was able to let go of this life with joy and gratitude and peace, knowing that not even death could separate her from God’s eternal love and care. In her friend, Childers was able to see the kingdom of God. That’s how her prayer was answered.
Someone was once asked what he got when he prayed. He replied that it was easier for him to say what he lost – anger, worry, resentment, fear.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask. Some of us are reluctant to ask God for specific things like healing or a good job or the right place to live. After all, God has so many important concerns, like keeping the planets aligned or world peace. But that’s taking things to the opposite extreme. Jesus invites us to bring all our needs to God because that’s what we do in our most intimate relationships. The Lord’s Prayer starts by addressing God as Father. A good and loving parent wants to hear even the smallest concerns of his or her child. We tell our spouse or our best friend our wildest dreams and our deepest longings. In prayer God can help us sort out what is small or petty from what is important, and God may help us see that requests we thought were insignificant might be ways that God can carry out the work of the kingdom. Sometimes even if the answer to our requests is no, taking our desires to God can shape those desires into something even better. And at the very least, I’m sure there are times that the things I’ve asked God for have kept God amused.
We’ve talked a lot about that first petition, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and what it means to ask God for specific things. In the second petition, we pray for relationships with God and with others: “Forgive our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” Of course we know that our sins are already forgiven. God’s forgiveness doesn’t depend on us praying this prayer. Our sins were forgiven when Jesus died for us on the cross. What we’re asking is that the same power of forgiveness that has reconciled us with God, in spite of all we’ve done to disappoint God, to reconcile us with others. We symbolize that reconciliation in our worship service when we pass the peace. When we pray as Jesus taught, we bring to God all our relationships and ask that Christ be present in them so we can treat everyone, whether we like them or not, with Christlike love, the way all people will treat each other when God’s kingdom comes.
The third thing we ask in the Lord’s Prayer is “do not bring us to the time of trial.” As we await the kingdom, there are many troubles, toils and snares that confront us. Traditionally, we’ve said, “Lead us not into temptation,” but that sounds like God might us by the hand and plop us down in some situation where we’re tempted to sin. A few weeks ago Pope Francis changed the wording in the Roman Catholic version of the prayer so that it says, “do not let us fall into temptation.” That new wording is true to the original Greek, and it clarifies that we’re asking God to give us the faith and strength we need so we don’t fall into temptation, not that God is setting traps for us.
All the things we ask for in the Lord’s Prayer, our daily bread, forgiveness of sins, and deliverance from temptation, are set in the context of our prayer that God’s kingdom come. After Jesus gives that model for how to pray, he goes on to encourage us to pray consistently and boldly. He ends this teaching on prayer by saying, “If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” It’s God’s Spirit, speaking with our spirits, that makes prayer alive and dynamic, not just words spoken into the air.
After World War I T.E. Lawrence, known as Lawrence of Arabia, brought the chieftains of Arabia with him to the Paris Peace Conference. Those men of the desert were amazed at many things, but what amazed them most was the running water in their hotel rooms. In the desert water is scarce. They knew its value. Here it was at their fingertips, free and endless for just the turning of the tap. When the chieftains prepared to leave Paris, Lawrence found them trying to detach the faucets so they could always have water with them in their dry desert homes. He tried to explain that behind the taps were huge reservoirs. Without that supply the faucets were useless. But the chieftains insisted. They were sure they could disconnect the faucets, taken them with them back to the desert, and they would have water forever.
The power of the Holy Spirit is what makes prayer different from mindfulness. Mindfulness is very popular nowadays. You can learn about it at the Y or download apps to guide you in it. It’s like meditation. You find a quiet place, empty your mind, focus your awareness on the present moment and pay close attention to what you’re feeling and thinking even as you try to empty your mind of all distractions. Those practices are helpful when we pray, but the difference is that in prayer, as we empty our minds of all distractions, we ask the Holy Spirit to fill us. We enter into conversation with God. There are times that we may not feel God’s presence, but we know that whether we’re aware of God or not, God is there.
Prayer taps into
that great reservoir of God’s Spirit that is empowering the work of God’s
kingdom. In prayer we place ourselves and all our concerns in the eternal and
loving hands of God with the plea, “thy will be done, on earth as it is in
heaven.” May it be so.
 Eugene Peterson, The Pastor, referenced in “Forming a People Who Pray,” by Andrew Root, Christian Century, July 3, 2019, p. 23.
 Jana Childers sermon, “A Shameless Path,” www.malankaraworld.com/Library/Prayers.
 Samuel H. Moffett, “Where’s the Power,” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Vol. VI, Number 2, p.66.