HOLY WEEK ACTIVITIES
Wednesday, March 27th--Pastor's Bible study--6:30 to 7:30 PM--deals with the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Thursday, March 28th – We celebrate our traditional Maundy Thursday service at 7pm. Maundy Thursday is the name given to the Thursday prior to Good Friday when Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples and also washed his disciples’ feet as an act of humility. Maundy Thursday is a special communion service; we also invite you to have your hands washed as you enter the sanctuary which is symbolic of Jesus’ foot washing.
Good Friday, March 29th – The sanctuary will be open from 4 – 7. You will have an opportunity to come for prayer; you are also invited to write down any transgressions or other concerns and nail them to the cross. On Good Friday evening, around 7pm, we will remove the pieces of paper from the cross; place them in a bowl of red liquid, which symbolizes the blood of Christ, to dissolve. We will then gather at the foot of the Cross on the Church grounds and pour out the red liquid.
I Can’t Do This!
Have you ever said that?
I was thinking of how when I was a boy, I kept getting something wrong about being a Christian. (Sometimes I still get it wrong!) Let me tell you what I kept getting wrong: I knew I was a person who fell short of what God made me to be. So sometimes in church or sometimes at night in my bed, I’d ask God to forgive me, and I’d ask Jesus (all over again) to come into me and be my Savior. Now I can just hear someone saying, “Silly Casey! Didn‘t you realize you only had to ask Jesus to come live in you and be your Savior once? ” Well, yes, in theory I knew that, but in practice as a boy I kept doing some truly disobedient and unruly things. I couldn’t seem to help myself.
I can remember in seventh grade I wanted to earn a certain Boy Scout merit badge, but my teacher, Mrs. Todd, had to say I was a good citizen, and she wouldn’t! And she was right! I had trouble sitting still. I had trouble keeping quiet. I got bored. I did not always honor authority. Now a psychotherapist might say I had some good reasons for acting the way I did. My parents were divorced, my father was absent and not at all involved in my life, and I learned quickly and consequently got bored in class. Besides all of that, I was a pretty hyper-active boy at that age. But—and this is important—I didn’t like the way I was acting, and I truly wanted to change! Mrs. Todd and I agreed that if I could be pretty good the last six weeks of school, she’d sign off on her part of the merit badge. I really tried, believe me I tried, but this twelve year-old boy just couldn’t do it! If I’d known about a certain pair of Bible verses, I would have said they described me perfectly: The verses are Romans 7:18-19, and they say: “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing.”
But since I didn’t know about these verses, as a boy I kept thinking that all the times when I had asked Jesus to live in me it must not have “taken,” so I would ask him again! But this was the problem. Even though I had asked Jesus to live in me, I kept trying to do good “in my own strength.” I wasn’t surrendering and letting Jesus-in-me do the good I couldn’t possibly do by myself. I had no idea I needed to do this or how to do it! I wasn’t truly giving up on Casey doing good things and saying, “Jesus you’ll have to do good things in me.” I wasn’t letting the old me die every day and giving Jesus some space to live. I said I had made Jesus Lord, but really I was still trying to run my life. Granted, I was trying to do good things not bad things, but I was trying to do good with all my own strength and my gifts instead of surrendering and relying on the strength of God to do the good I could not do. I see now what a difference it would have made if—even once—I could have awakened in the morning and said, “Lord, I’m not going to be able to keep my agreement with Mrs. Todd today for even five minutes. I need you. I give up on trying to do this, and I turn it over to you.”
I am thankful that fifty years later, I have at least begun to learn this valuable lesson—even though there are far too many moments when I still forget it!
Vertical and Horizontal Church
Jesus gave two great commandments: Love God with all that is in us, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Years ago, I first heard someone say that the shape of a cross can help remind us of this teaching. The vertical part of the cross points up in the air. It reminds us of our relationship with God. The horizontal crossbar of the cross points sideways and reminds us of our relationship to others. It takes both parts to make a real cross.
Recently I read an article about a seminar on the “vertical church.” James MacDonald, a pastor, was doing this seminar at a large Houston church. The person writing the article pointed out that in her view many churches have de-emphasized the vertical--our relationship with God. For that reason, much that happens at these churches can sometimes resemble a “self help” seminar in “being a better you” without very much emphasis on God.
The Vertical Church folks were saying that for this reason they were led to re-emphasize Worship, Prayer, and the Proclamation of God’s Word. All of these are “vertical” activities which focus us on God. I agree with them that this vertical God-dimension is often missing in many contemporary churches. I know that in our church we try hard—with God’s help!- to emphasize these vertical activities. I also agree that a number of churches I hear on TV sometimes seem to be almost exclusively about teaching people how to live-- or even succeed-- better. As important as these may be, our relationship with God is more important, and comes first!
Nevertheless, I know the horizontal dimension of being a Christian—our relationship with other people-- is also essential. The Bible says: “Anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” 1 John 4:20. In other words, loving God without loving people is a false love of God. In spite of that, I do believe that the vertical—loving God-- comes first and takes priority just as a horse comes first and pulls a cart, not the other way around.
Let me explain: When Jesus gave his two great commands, He clearly gave the first one—to love God with all that is in us—first. Similarly in the Ten Commandments, the commandments about our relationship to God (worship only Him, have no idols; don’t take His name in vain; keep a day holy for Him) come before the commands about our duty to others (no stealing, no murder, no bearing false witness, honor your parents, no adultery, no coveting.)
Here’s another way of thinking about it—going back to the image of the wooden cross. The vertical beam of the cross that goes into the ground and then points up to the sky (symbolizing the relationship between God and us) is the one that supports the horizontal beam-not the other way around. The vertical beam will not fall away if the horizontal beam is removed (although it will no longer be a cross!) but if the vertical beam is removed, the horizontal beam falls to the ground. To me this shows what I often see. Some people try to love others without first being filled with God’s love. Others try to love difficult-to-love folks without depending on His help and His Love in doing that. We are to love God first--with everything in us-- and then to love our neighbors as ourselves. Interestingly, when we love God first and then become filled with His love, we have more love left over for the rest of the world than if we had first tried to love people without totally loving God.
A HOLY PILGRIMAGE
Recently I got to make a brief trip to Israel, Galilee, Palestinian territories (Bethlehem), and Jordan. I went not as a tourist but as a pilgrim.
Even though for over three decades I have preached and taught the Bible, there were some things I just didn’t “see” until I was there. For example, Galilee where Jesus grew up is very, very hilly. It reminds me a bit of the North Carolina mountain where I grew up. I enjoyed growing up in the mountains and I am sure Jesus did too.
The Mount of Olives is so close to Jerusalem. Of course I had seen pictures of that, but I had never realized the town of Bethany (where Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived, and where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead) was just on the other side of the Mount of Olives as it begins its downward slope again. It is an Arab town today, and you can’t get there from the Mount of Olives because there is a wall. The Arab town is called Al Azariah which is based on the name “Lazarus”—Lazarus’s town. So even Muslims (the majority Arab population there today) still remember it as the town where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.
Even though we Protestant Christians are often fairly “cerebral” in our faith, to me there is a great mystery about Jerusalem and especially certain sites there. For example the last night I was there, finally there wasn’t a three-hour wait to view the historically-most-accepted site of Jesus’s resurrection-the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—but only a twenty minute wait. Bending over to enter that room which the Church has considered to be the tomb the disciples found empty—and then entering it—I did feel a great sense of awe, mystery, and wonder and simply fell on my knees and actually kissed the stone where his body might have lain.
Earlier in the week, I had seen crowds of devoted Russian Orthodox pilgrims waiting in line three hours to view the sepulchre. In fact one of the things that struck me in Jerusalem was that non- American and non-Western-European Christians seemed to outnumber everyone else. The Russian pilgrims all seemed to have great joy and awe. They live in a country which tried to destroy Christianity and failed. And now since the fall of communism, they are able to travel to Jerusalem, which they had not been able to do for many years. Speaking of the change in Russia, if you go to the probable site where John baptized in Bethany beyond the Jordan (in the country of Jordan) you will see there a large church there which has recently been built with funds from the Russian Federation…..how’s that for a shifting of poles? As I left the holy sepulchre I asked the Greek Orthodox priest standing there to bless me, and I bowed my head, so he traced a huge cross on my bald head.
Speaking of non Western Christians, at the alternate resurrection site (the Garden Tomb), I saw a large group of south Indian pilgrims followed by an equally large group of African Christians. The south Indians, may speaking Malayalam, were everywhere in Jerusalem.
In Wales, influenced by Celtic Christianity, they speak of “thin places.” To them a thin place is one where the barrier between heaven and earth is particularly thin. In my experience, even though Jesus said that in the future, (after the destruction of the temple) Jerusalem wouldn’t be the place to worship him, but it would be possible to worship him anywhere “in spirit and in truth,” STILL I feel there are places where I have particularly felt the presence of God. Jerusalem, Galilee, Bethlehem, and Bethany beyond the Jordan were such places for me.
This column first appeared in the Pearland Reporter News.
In the Book of Acts, Chapter 1, verse 3, we read: “After his suffering, he (Jesus) showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” Many people who are not yet followers of Jesus Christ (as well as some who are) are unaware of this fact-- not only did Jesus appear risen from the dead on Easter Sunday, but he continued making resurrection appearances for a period of forty days after his resurrection. This means that, since we celebrated Easter this year on April 8, perhaps we should be talking about and celebrating subsequent resurrection appearance of our Lord until at least mid May.
In reading the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as the Acts of the Apostles, we see in these five books of the New Testament that the risen Jesus probably appeared on at least ten different occasions. In 1 Corinthians 15, probably written within twenty-five years of Jesus’ resurrection, the Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus appeared to over five-hundred people at one time, and that many of those people were still alive at the time he wrote. (I Corinthians 15:6)
One of the interesting details about many of Jesus’ resurrection appearances is that it is often mentioned that he ate with the disciples and other followers to whom he appeared.
An example of the risen Jesus eating with his followers is found at Luke 24: 36-43: “While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.”
Also in Acts 1: 4 and 5 we read: “On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ "
This account interests me not only because it mentions Jesus eating with his disciples, but also because he promises that he will send the Holy Spirit.
In John 14:26 Jesus had already told his disciples, even before his death and resurrection, that the Holy Spirit (also called the Spirit of Jesus, see Acts 16:7 and Philippians 1:19 ) would be sent and that this Spirit would remind them of everything Jesus had said.
So in a real way, the sending of the Holy Spirit (or Spirit of Jesus) was an additional confirmation of the resurrection of Jesus, and his victory over death, in addition to all his resurrection appearances. Today believers do not have encounters with the risen Jesus in physical, bodily form, but we do have the opportunity to receive and be filled with His Spirit. More about that next time.