The Inevitable End (a sermon)

O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.

Psalm 30 (NRSV)

Do you want to live forever?

The question may seem obvious in a Christian congregation. For many people, the prospect of “eternal life” is the centrally motivating doctrine of the faith. The essence of the faith is often thought to be John 3:16, “for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Christian evangelists often ask, “what would happen if you died tonight” as a way to motivate acceptance of Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Death is frightening. All of us would like to avoid it. And if there’s a club we can belong to that will give us a get-out-of-death-free card, sign us up!

The truth is, we’re all scared to death… of death. And if there’s anything that can free us from our eventual fate, most of us would take it, even if we haven’t thought through all the implications of what everlasting life would actually be like. At the very least, we want to be freed of the pain of losing the ones we love.

Over the past 100 years, as human society has exponentially gained scientific knowledge about life, the world, and our place in it, interest in less-spiritual methods of preserving life have become more common. Almost since his death in 1966, a rumor has persisted that Walt Disney had his body frozen—cryogenically persevered—in hopes that some day, human civilization will be able to put the breath of life back into dead bodies.

In Walt Disney’s case, the rumors are false. But the idea lives on that eventually, with the continuation of scientific advancement, we will someday have the power to bring back the dead. At the very least, the idea has emptied the change purses of some of the world’s richest people. An estimated 400 people have had their bodies preserved in the hopes that science—and their wealth—can save them.

Beyond simply preserving people’s bodies in freezers, proponents of Radical Life Extension argue that aging and death is like any disease. And like any disease, the scientific hope is to find and manufacture a cure. Imagine how many billions of dollars there are to be made by pharmaceutical companies if they were able to add 10, 20, 100 years to the human lifespan.

It may seem far fetched to think that science would be able to unlock the key of aging and give human beings a seemingly limitless natural lifespan. Proponents of radical life extension point to the dramatic increase in life expectancy during the scientific age. Just a hundred years ago, the world average life expectancy was only 32 years. Those who made it to age 15 could only expect to live to around age 50. Sure, there were people who made it into their 80s, but it was far from the norm. Today the world average life expectancy hovers around 73 years old. Who is to say, life extension advocates argue, that future scientific advances can’t continue the progression upward.

Of course, there are other things limiting the lifespan not only of individual human beings, but of our entire planet. Far in the distant future, in about 5 billion years, our sun will run out of hydrogen and die. That’s assuming our civilization makes it through the changes our own planet will endure during that time and adapt to changing temperatures.

That’s why many people with vaults full of money are placing their hope in escaping the constraints of our planet. Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2001 in the hopes of eventually placing a human space outpost on Mars, with the hopes that humanity will someday inhabit far-off planets among the stars of the sky.

Human beings and their lifespans are finite. Earth, it’s resources, and lifespan, is finite. Naturally, people with seemingly limitless wealth and resources will do everything it takes to transcend those limits.

Given enough resources, we human beings will do anything to stay alive.

Let’s be honest, the prospect of “life extension” is for the rich and famous. It’s for the people who have such a sense of self-importance that they think the world couldn’t live without them. It’s for the people who, if they were given one more day to live, would spend it at work on the thing only they were capable of doing.

Even still, many of us will do everything we can to avoid aging and death in little ways. Television ads promise products that will make you look 10 years younger with over-the-counter treatments and plastic surgeons suggest that ageless beauty is possible. And when the angel of death does knock on our door, we’re likely to drain bank accounts for the potential of a couple more days or weeks.

In our estimation, human mortality is an enemy to be avoided at all costs. And so, even though it’s never explicitly stated in the text, most Christians assume that the Garden of Eden was so perfect that nothing in it would have ever died. But where would the nutrients for dirt come from without the compost of dead plants. Was the circle of life originally intended to be a straight line? Where would we be without the generations that have come before us? If our ancestors had lived forever, what need would there be for us?

Isn’t life’s fragility, it’s precarity, it’s limits of time part of what makes it precious?

“So you say that death is inevitable,” life extension advocates say, “but when would you like to die?”

As long as one has something to look forward to, as long as there is still future life in view, the answer would probably always be “never.” Wouldn’t it be cool to live to see your great-great-grandchildren be born?

When faced with the prospect of the “end,” of our lives or our planets, we are understandably filled with fear.

But the Christian story is not one of death-avoidance at all. It isn’t about having the personal key to get out of death. The Christian story is about death and resurrection.

The smart and the wealthy of our world would love to follow someone who would never enter the grave. The person who discovers the scientific key to immortality would have worshipers around the world and consumers lining up around the block. They’d be the biggest thing since, well, Jesus.

The Gospel isn’t a message for the wise and powerful. “The message of the cross is foolishness,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians. Who would want to follow a savior who was brutally murdered. The savior we follow isn’t one who has the key to death-avoidance. In fact, the Gospels tell us that Jesus cried out in the garden of prayer for God to “take this cup [of death] from me.” With anguish, he cried out, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus could have ascended to heaven prior to his death instead of dying. God could have spared him that suffering. Jesus could have gone straight to heaven without death like Enoch and Elijah who were spared the fate of all humanity. But what would this have done for we who will die?

Jesus died for a reason. Yes, Jesus died as the sacrifice to end all sacrifices for our sins. Jesus died because we humans preferred darkness to the light. But more than that, Jesus died because all of us will die too. And only a God who knows the depth of our experience can truly redeem and save all of it.

Yes, God send his Son that we would not perish in Sin, that death would not be the end for us. But God never promises to free us from the natural condition of death. It is so important for us to understand this in the shadow of the cross and in the light of the resurrection.

God’s promise is not to provide an escape plan from death, but to be with us through it all.

Psalm 23 assures us that in the valley of the shadow of death, God is with us.

Psalm 90 petitions God to “teach us to number our days, that we may grow in wisdom.”

Ecclesiastes teaches us that “there is a time and a season for everything under the sun, a time for birth and a time for death.”

A couple years ago, a developer came out with a phone app called “WeCroak.” About three times a day, “WeCroak” will remind users that they will die with quotes from notable depressives throughout history. This morning, “WeCroak” gave me a dose of bittersweet encouragement with a quote from Emily Dickinson, “Dying is a wild night and a new road.”

Since being welcomed into the life of a 4-year-old though, I don’t need an app to remind me of my mortality. While people over 40 think of me as a young guy, Gracelyn sees it fit to confidently (and with a smile on her face) proclaim to her mother and I that “you’re going to die.”

She did this just yesterday, for the first time, with no idea that this would be the topic of my sermon today.

Yes, Gracelyn. I am going to die. So will all of us.

Thank God, the time has not yet come when my heart will stop and not even a deep freeze at -130 degrees Fahrenheit can save this body. But in a different, no less real sense, I have died already.

See, when I was two months old, a pastor and family friend baptized me in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He proclaimed with Paul in Romans 6 that “if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. Since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.” So it is with each of us.

Since we have been united with him in a death like his, we are also united with him in the life of the resurrection.

Like Lazarus, who John 11 tells us was dead long enough that he began to stink, some of us know what it is to face death in a very real way and then to be raised up again.

If you’ve been stuck in the mire of addiction, you know what it is to be dead in a situation you cannot control or gain any handle over. While it does take immense power of will, those who have been there will tell you that recovery starts with an utter admission of powerlessness.

“We are powerless over our addictions, we need a power greater than us to restore us to life.”

If you’ve been surrounded by the endless night of depression, the dread of anxiety, and the confusion of being untethered from reality, you know this too. There is nothing inside of us that can free us from the prison of being trapped in mental illness. We need someone to unbind us and to untangle our thoughts. We often need medication to get to a point where recovery is possible.

Something is broken in us that must be addressed from the outside. No matter how many “self-help” books are published, we need something from outside of us to resurrect us from death.

This is what the proponents of radical life extension do not understand. Human beings are incapable of saving themselves. Death is an inevitable force from which we cannot escape, even if we gain a few more years of life. After all, what good is living longer if we still live under the fear of death and the judgment of sin?

Our bodies are frail and built for frailty. What hope is there?

Revelation 5:9 tells us what we should know if we’ve been hanging out in church for any length of time. Christ alone has the key to abundant life. Christ alone has the power of resurrection. Christ alone has entered the place of the dead itself and freed those it kept captive.

This resurrection, unlike the striving and dedication of those who work day and night to prolong life by one iota, is pure gift.

The only hope we have is to die to ourselves before we ourselves die; to be raised to life before we are mere dust in the wind.

Walker Percy, in his mock self-help book “Lost in the Cosmos,” argues pointedly that taking death seriously is the key to a life of abundance. He describes what it is like to have believed oneself to have already died and then have life granted as a gift. One who is formerly dead, he says, “opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn’t have to.”

What a freedom, what a gift—to live as one who has already died and been brought back from death. Why would we hold onto fear, resentment, pride, and guilt when we have been ushered through the brink of life and death by Jesus Christ our Lord.

A saying that has been falsely attributed to Martin Luther states, “if I knew the world was ending tomorrow, I would plant a tree.” Similarly, a Jewish proverb teaches that “if you have a sapling in your hand and they tell you that the Messiah has arrived, first plant the sapling and then go out to greet him.”

No matter where the thought comes from, I think the notion of planting a tree right before one’s end, or the end of the world, speaks to what life in the resurrection of Jesus is like.

The inevitable matter of death holds no power anymore. The power of Jesus Christ and His resurrection is what matters here.

We are given the chance, not to avoid death at all costs, but to instead live in the resurrected life now. To live in the reality that sin and death’s power has been taken away. The sinner has been given a second chance and the dead have carried on their praises. The dry bones have once again been filled with the breath of life. The debtor now lives in the freedom of having their entire burden erased.

What would that kind of life look like? How would you live, knowing you had already died?

John tells us that after the resurrection, Jesus met his disciples and went fishing—catching a bountiful harvest of 153 fish cooked fresh over a charcoal fire. Sounds like heaven to me.

May you today taste and see a glimpse of the resurrection. May the life of Jesus fill your body. May the gift of new life lighten your step and ease your load.

Rejoice! Jesus is the resurrection and the life.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Blinded by Grace

This sermon was delivered on April 3, 2019 at the Burgettstown Presbyterian Church for a community Lenten Service with the McDonald Area Ministerium. I am sharing it again now to participate in the ongoing discussion in Christian circles over the deconstruction movement. Were it not for Jesus deconstructing Paul’s faith, the greatest evangelist of Christian history would not have known the Grace of Jesus himself, let alone told others about it. I have found it helpful to read the New Testament account of Christian history after the ascension through this lens: Christians are the religious insiders of our day, as were Saul and his Jewish brothers of theirs. If we open our eyes to what Jesus is doing now through the Spirit, we might find that God is leading us into re-formation and a re-orientation toward those who are “outside” our circle.

Acts 9:1–22

We have no doubt heard this story before. It is one of the most dramatic accounts of God’s work in the Scriptures. Saul the persecutor of the early Christians becomes an apostle, missionary, and church planter who brings the good news of God’s Grace to those who did not know of God’s love. He becomes known, not by his Hebrew name, but by his Greek name, Paul.

Since this is a familiar story, we already know what to think about Saul before his conversion. He is the enemy. He is complicit in the killing of the first Christian martyr. We imagine his conversion as a 180-degree turn from pure evil to faithful service.

But let’s give pre-Damascus Saul some credit. Saul was a devout and faithful believer in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was part of God’s chosen people. His family brought him to synagogue every week. His family was named on the synagogue memorial plaques, honoring those who had been part of its construction. He had a deep, rich heritage of faith.

From birth, Saul heard the story of creation and knew it was God who made everything that exists. He heard of God’s promise to Abraham and the miraculous way that promise was fulfilled. Saul knew that his people were once slaves in Egypt, but their loving God had set them free and given them new life in a land of promise.

Saul knew how God could be accessed. He faithfully studied the Scriptures to draw closer to God and even studied under one of the greatest teachers of his generation. He prayed every day. He confessed his sins and atoned for them. Saul worked diligently with his hands, making tents, and faithfully gave his tithe to God. He even gave from his gross income and not just his take-home pay, just to make sure he was doing all that God required. If there was a divine commandment to follow, he obeyed it to the letter.

Saul did everything God asked of him and more. When he heard of those who were blaspheming the name of God, he knew something had to be done. Saul wanted to defend the faith. How dare someone claim to be the Son of God! Idolatry was a sin of the highest order, deserving of capital punishment.

We might label Saul a murderer prior to his conversion, but that’s not exactly fair. He wasn’t going around lawlessly killing people. Saul, Acts tells us, was rounding up those who were, by the law, idolaters. Saul was a man zealous for law and order. He found those who had committed capital offenses and bound them in prison so they would not pollute the body of believers with their heresies.

This capital offense Saul was so zealous to prosecute was the worship of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and King of the Universe. Saul knew who God was and it wasn’t anyone who had been publicly executed on a tree.

There was no possibility that Saul could save himself from this condition. You know why? Because Saul knew he was doing what was right in God’s eyes. He didn’t need saving. He couldn’t see his own blindness. Saul had no idea there was a veil over his eyes preventing him from seeing the new thing God was doing. There was no possibility in his mind that he could be wrong about God. The Scriptures confirmed to him that his zealous defense of the faith was a righteous cause.

Nothing other than a direct revelation to the contrary could change Saul’s mind.

A glorious light had entered the world and Saul had no way of seeing it. He wasn’t in the right place at the right time. He wasn’t one of the twelve who had been called to be disciples of the rabbi Jesus. He wasn’t one of the three who walked with Jesus up the Mountain of Transfiguration and saw the glory of God revealed in Jesus’ face. He hadn’t heard that it was God’s plan for this Jesus to die a shameful death at the hand of his own people so God’s mercy could be known through suffering. Surely those Saul threw into prison said something about a “resurrection” and new life through the crucified one, but in his mind they were just the babblings of the deceived. People do not rise from the dead, at least not until the consummation of all things. Saul knew this for sure. Dead people stay dead.

As he writes in 2 Corinthians, after his encounter on the Damascus road, the good news is “veiled to those who are perishing.” The extent of God’s grace is a scandal to the religious, the power of resurrection is nonsense to the skeptic, and the cross is outright foolishness to anyone who really considers its meaning.

Saul’s vision was fine, he thought. It took an encounter with the living God for him to realize that everything he knew was wrong. Ok, maybe not everything. Just the most important thing. 

Saul was going along, zealously looking for Christians to arrest on his way to Damascus, when a light from heaven flashed around him.

The sign is unmistakable. Since the beginning, God has been associated with light. In the beginning, God speaks and there is light. To Moses, God appears in a firey bush that won’t burn up. As the Israelites were led out of Egypt, God appeared in a pillar of fire to guide them by night. On Mount Sinai, the brightness of God was so powerful that the face of Moses shone with God’s glory.

A blinding light can mean only one thing—the presence of the living God.

Saul knows this. What a privilege to encounter the living God! Could this be Saul’s reward for his zealous defense of the faith?

But then, God asks a curious thing: “Saul, why do you persecute me?”

In Saul’s mind, nothing could be further from the truth. Saul is a righteous man, a devoted defender of the faith. He is only doing what is right, what the law requires of him. Saul is confused. This cannot be the same God he has known since his youth… or is it?

The voice, the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob says—“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

The veil has been lifted. Saul can see clearly for the first time in his life. And as a result, he’s rendered blind. Don’t you love the irony? Saul’s eyes are open, but he has been blinded by the glory of God, the glory of the one who was crucified.

For three days, Saul is without sight. Three days—the length of time between the suffering and death of Jesus and his resurrection. The time that is needed for Saul to die to himself and be raised with Christ into new life.

And it is through the waters of baptism that Saul is raised to a new life through his new brother in Christ. Ananias is initially scared. Saul is his enemy. He knows what Saul can do to him. But Ananias lays his hands on Saul and says, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

All of this would have been ludicrous to Saul just three days earlier. He was so certain of his faith, convinced that God was pleased with his campaign of law and order.

But because of this encounter, the veil was lifted. Saul saw the glory of God and that glory looked like Jesus.

Saul later tells the church in Philippi that he had every reason to be confident in his status in his old life—he was circumcised according to the law, a member of God’s people, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee trained in the law, a zealous defender of the faith, blameless even in his rightousness.

Saul had done everything right. And yet, he comes to regard this pedigree, knowledge, status, and righteousness as rubbish. It’s all smelly garbage in comparison to Jesus, the one who blinded him along the road, the one who called him to suffer for the sake of his name.

Saul spends the rest of his life as Paul—relying not on the heritage of his Hebrew name, but putting his life on the line to proclaim God’s transforming grace to the Gentiles who had known nothing of God’s love.

Once the veil is lifted and we encounter the glory of Jesus, there’s no turning back. Everything else is dull in comparison. Our own righteousness is meaningless. It is only Jesus and his grace that counts for anything.


My guess is that none of us have a conversion story as powerful as Paul’s. But we may be able to identify with him prior to his conversion.

Most of us, since we are here in church on a Wednesday night, are “exceedingly religious in every way.” We have some reasons to boast in our righteousness. We are taking this Lent seriously, preparing ourselves for Holy Week and the story we’ve all heard time and time again. We’ve given our lives to Jesus—over and over again. We serve at every opportunity.

And yet—our eyes may very well be dulled to the glory of this good news, the scandal of the cross, the power of the resurrection.

We know Jesus, and yet our faith can be just as motivated as Saul’s was at keeping the right people out. Our zealous religiosity can be a veil that keeps us from seeing the Good News that God saves all sorts of people whom we would rather keep at bay.

Are we blinded by a veil that keeps us from seeing the extent of God’s good news for the world? Are there people whom we, like Saul, would rather see condemned than saved by the free grace of God? We might not want to throw them in prison, but we sure don’t want them in worship next to us. 

When Jesus encounters the Pharisees—Saul’s type and ours—in John 9, he declares, ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’

“Some of the Pharisees responded, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

We are church people! We’ve been worshipping Jesus all our lives. We might be tempted to say to Jesus “We see! We know all there is to know. We have done all you asked of us.”

The season of Lent is a time for us to humble ourselves enough to say, “we do not see.” The power of this good news is often veiled even to us. 

Like Saul, we might go through life convinced of our own righteousness. We take pride in our religious pedigree. We thank God that we are not like the publicans and sinners. 

That is why we confess our sins—to open our eyes to the transforming power of knowing that we are yet forgiven, to see that it is only Christ and him crucified that really matters in the end. 

Thinking that our vision is fine, that we see things perfectly, that our supposed righteousness means anything, is the surest sign that we need God’s transforming grace. 

Look at what that transforming power did for Saul. Knocked off his feet, blinded by glory, transformed by God’s grace—he told everyone who would listen that they were children of God, that Jesus died their death, that Jesus had power to bring them into new life.

Paul ushered others into the glory of the light. He extended God’s grace to more and more people that they too might know God’s power. And ultimately, he laid down his life for the sake of this all-inclusive Gospel.

If the grace of God can lift the veil from Saul’s eyes, then surely God can open our eyes to the glory of the good news. If Jesus can save Saul, then who else can be saved by the glory of this gospel?

Our Lord has the power to make enemies into brothers and sisters. Jesus has the power to restore our sight—to show us the way of Grace for those who we have written off, and perhaps even harmed.

Only our God can knock us off our feet and commission us to see the true transformative nature of life in Jesus. Yes, our God even has the power to transform and convert us.

Open our eyes, Lord, that we might see, glimpses of truth you have for us. Blind us with the glory of your gospel. Show us who you have called us to reach with your mercy and love. Open our eyes, illumine your church, Spirit divine! Amen.

What Does a Christian Look Like? (a sermon)

This sermon was delivered to Paris Presbyterian Church, where I serve on staff, on February 27, 2022, Transfiguration Sunday.

Luke 9:28–36

Today as we end the season of the revelation of who Jesus is (called Epiphany) and prepare to enter the season of repentance and preparation (called Lent), we stand next to Peter, James, and John (the top 25% of all disciples) on the Mount of Transfiguration. 

We have heard in Rev. Tina’s preaching the message of Jesus’ sermon to the crowds gathered on the plains at the bottom of the mountain. Now we ascend the great mountain of God to witness the greatest unveiling yet in the Gospel story. 

On the mountain of Transfiguration, this place of prayer where God has spoken clearly to God’s people for generations, we see Jesus displaying the full glory of God.

On this mountain, the glowing face of Jesus recalls the face of Moses, which shone with God’s glory as he talked with God “face-to-face, as one speaks with a friend” (Exodus 33:11). And the dazzling white clothes of Jesus call to mind both God’s glory on Mt. Sinai and the future resurrected appearance of our savior. 

Here we stand between God’s revelation to Moses on Mt. Sinai and Jesus’ resurrection and enthronement as King of the Universe. Notice what details Luke finds it important to convey to us. We are told nothing about the appearance of the mountain, for example. Luke tells us instead about what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah look like. Go back and look at the clues in verses 29 and 31.

Jesus’ face changed. His clothes became dazzling white. Moses and Elijah “appeared in glory.”

The question I want us to investigate this morning is this: “What do Peter, John, and James look like?” Is their appearance fixed, or will it change? And the question is bigger than just the upper-crust of the apostles. “What does a Christian look like?”

It’s a question you may not have considered before. Christians, you might say, don’t have an appearance (aside from, perhaps, their fondness for identifying bumper stickers on their car). Perhaps you could identify better what a Christian doesn’t look like. We make assumptions every day when we see people who look different than us that they couldn’t possibly be a Christian because of how they’re dressed, for example.

We may also have a better time identifying the faithful of other religious traditions than we would distinguishing the likeness of a Christian.

This, for example is a picture of… (His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism).

And this is… (an orthodox Jewish rabbi, the late Rabbi Hager from NYC).

This picture is from… (the Muslim Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, led by Imam Abdul Aziz Suraqah).

And these are Hindu worshipers in Penn Hills, celebrating the Diwali Festival of Lights.

Of course, such identifications are often based more in prejudice than understanding. Many of the garments of other faiths are the traditions of the religious leadership (like the pulpit robes of the Presbyterian tradition, for example) or worship expression. We would have a harder time identifying a Buddhist on the street, for example. And lest we convince ourselves that all Christians look like we do, this is a picture from Cornerstone Church in Ross Township where Angela and Edisa lift their praises to God, having immigrated to Pittsburgh from the African nation of Burundi.

Okay, so we can’t identify Christians based on clothing or skin tone, that much should be clear. We know that Christians can be of any race, of any age, and from any nation (and the same is true of other religious traditions). 

We could look at hundreds of different pictures of people whose appearance is as different as can be, and they could all be Christians: from believers in Japan to Kenya to Poland to Mexico. The people who follow the glory of God as made visible in God’s only begotten Son Jesus Christ are from every tribe and nation of the world.

So, what does a Christian look like?

When we read and study the Gospel writers’ account of the Transfiguration and hear of how Jesus of Nazareth shone with the Glory of God, we often emphasize the uniqueness of Jesus. After all, how many bright, shiny, glowing people do you know? Do you ever look at the face of a friend and feel like you’re staring right into a flashlight? Probably not.

Jesus is, after all, a unique and distinct person of the Trinity. There is only one begotten Son of God. We profess this to be true when we recite together the Apostles’ Creed. “I believe in God the Father…Jesus Christ God’s only Son…and the Holy Spirit” who unites us together as The Church.

But the Transfiguration is not a wholly unique thing to Jesus. Transfiguration––a holy change of appearance––is not something that only happens to Jesus. Remember who else appears on the mountain with him?

The Transfiguration

“Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking” of his Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension.

In case it wasn’t clear to you in Sunday school, Moses and Elijah are not God. They were born of a human mother and father in the same way we were. They talked with God as if talking to a friend, but they were not present in the beginning with God. Their life had a start date, and it was way after God created the Heavens and the Earth.

Moses and Elijah were not God, and yet their faces shone with the Glory of God because their experience of God’s presence had changed them. God’s Glory made them more than who they had been. It caused their faces to radiate the brightness of Almighty God.

Like the moon, Moses and Elijah have no source of light within themselves. Yet, their entire being reflects the Glory of God.

This incident on the Mount of Transfiguration shows us, at the least, what the greatest prophets of Israel look like. Moses and Elijah glowed like the moon, reflecting the  brightness of God’s image. They captured the original created intent of humanity: to bear the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

What about the rest of us? We’re definitely not Jesus, the King of the Universe and Savior of the World. And we’re nowhere close to the rank of God’s greatest prophets–not even Peter, James, and John would be given that “status.”

What, then, does a Christian look like? Your average, everyday child of God?

Luke 9 isn’t the last time in the Gospel writer’s great 2 volume story that we see faces glowing with the glory of God, though the next time it happens we easily miss it.

Turn over to the other half of Luke’s story of redemption to Acts 6:15. Here we read about a Christian named Stephen. 

Stephen wasn’t important enough to have appeared in the story before now. He wasn’t one of the twelve. He’s not mentioned specifically as being in the crowds around Jesus, but he may have heard Jesus teach before his crucifixion. We are left to assume that Stephen was one of the multitudes of people that became Christians soon after the Holy Spirit fell upon the church.

We are told that Stephen was an eager volunteer in the early church. He didn’t wait to be asked to do something––when there was a need, he let the leaders know that he was available.

In Acts 6:5, Stephen is chosen to be the first deacon, the cohort of servant-leaders who would make ensure that the Gentile widows would not be neglected in the daily distribution of food. They ran the first Church food pantry and meals on wheels program.

Luke tells us that Stephen was “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” so we might assume that there was something special and unique about Stephen. Perhaps Stephen would become a great leader and hold, not just a position of service, but one of authority as well.

But Stephen really has nothing that we ourselves lack. Stephen has faith and the Holy Spirit, both of which are gifts given from God to every single Christian. Stephen represents each and every one of us, when we make ourselves open to God’s Spirit.

Jacopo and Domenico Tintoretto, Martyrdom of St. Stephen the Protomartyr, 1594

If you’ve turned to Acts 6:15 you will already know where this is going. Stephen is arrested by the religious establishment for declaring Jesus-the-Crucified-One to be worthy of worship. As the religious lawyers called their witnesses against Stephen, Luke tells us “they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”

Lowly Stephen, chief among servants, has a face “like the face of an angel.” What does that mean? It means Stephen’s face reflected the brightness of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. It means the whole religious council saw Stephen before them in the same was as Peter, James, and John had seen Moses and Elijah.

This is what a Christian looks like. A Christian looks like St. Stephen, first martyr of the faith whose face shone with the Glory of God.

I don’t know about you, but my face isn’t always reflecting God’s Glory. It’s often reflecting something closer to fatigue, frustration, pride, or even anger.

What, then, makes the face of a Christian shine with the Glory of God?

The answer is in what we see in Stephen’s heart. As he is being interrogated and put on trial for a capital crime, Stephen gives a plain and honest account of his faith in the tradition of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob all the way to the revelation of Jesus.

And as Stephen breathed his last, his final recorded words are this: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Sound familiar? These are also some of the last words of Jesus––“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

This is why a Christian shines bright like a full Moon on a clear night: forgiveness.

I have one final image to show you. This is the February 1997 booking photo of Kelly Gissendaner at the Gwinnett County Georgia Sheriff’s Office.

Kelly had a rocky family history, to say the least. She was born to a poor family, abused by countless men in her adolescence, and bore a child at 18 after being assaulted 9 months earlier. Her first marriage lasted six months. Two years later, she was married again, to Douglas Gissendaner.

The marriage was off and on. They were divorced in 1993, but remarried two years later. Imagine, what was their support system like? Who was there for Kelly and for Douglas?

Kelly entered into an affair with Gregory Owen, with whom she conspired to have him kill her husband, Douglas. In her depraved mind, it was the only way out, so that she could have what she wanted.

At 30, Douglas Gissendaner’s life was over. Kelly would be sentenced to death and placed on death row for 17 years before her execution in 2015.

What does a Christian look like? That image may be how Kelly Gissendaner is remembered by the world and I don’t imagine any would venture to say that is the face of a Christian.

But for the Grace of God…

While incarcerated in Metro State Prison, and then Arrendale State Prison, Kelly professed faith in Jesus Christ. She had gone to church before. Her and Doug had gone at the beginning of their second marriage. But this was different.

Kelly didn’t know how long she had to live, but she knew there was time to change.

In 2010, Kelly enrolled in a theology certificate program run by the Divinity School at Emory University. She read about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose Christian faith led him to prison in a failed plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. She read the writing of Archbishop Rowan Williams, who wrote on what it meant to be a Christian. She even developed a friendship with the theologian Jürgen Moltmann, who was a soldier in the German Army in World War II. Moltmann had surrendered to the British army and was confined as a prisoner of war, where he was given a pocket New Testament by an American chaplain.

Like St. Stephen, Kelly Gissendaner appeared before the council. Her clemency application to the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles was supported by many of her guards in prison, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, and Congressman Bob Barr.

Her sentence was carried out on September 20, 2015. Her last recorded words were this, “Tell the Gissendaner family, I am so sorry. That amazing man lost his life because of me; and if I could take it back, if this would change it, I would have done it a long time ago. But it’s not. And I just hope they find peace, and I hope they find some happiness. God bless you.”

Forgiveness changed Kelly Gissendaner’s life. Her testimony has changed countless others. 

As Anne Lamott has written, “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a better past.”

Because of the transforming––and even transfiguring–– forgiveness of Jesus Christ, our Christian sister Kelly Gissendaner has a life with Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus, her story is not ultimately determined by the mark of sin, but by the brightness of the image of God.

Forgiveness is giving up the pain of the past for the sure and confident hope of future glory.

This is what the Transfiguration means––for sister Kelly Gissendaner, for you, for me. That is what a Christian looks like.

I offer this to you in the name of God Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tough Love (a sermon)

This sermon was written and preached in May 2017 for a Homiletics course at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. An adapted version of this sermon was delivered at Eldersville UMC on May 14, 2017, the Fifth Sunday of Easter.

Hosea 11

Do you remember the moment when you felt God’s love for the first time? Many of us grew up in the church and have been nurtured in this loving environment for our whole lives, but even still, there was likely a moment when we realized the weight of our sin and the power of God’s grace. I remember when I experienced the power of God’s grace and love for the first time. I was twelve years old and I had been sent off to summer camp by my parents at a place called Wesley Woods. For the first time, I began to read the Scriptures for myself and learned about my faith through Bible studies with my counselors and conversations with my friends. Then, about halfway through the week, we gathered for worship and I felt the presence of God in a way I hadn’t experienced before. I heard about what God had done for me through Jesus Christ and began to know of God’s love and mercy. After worship, we had a time of prayer—an extended altar call of sorts—and I prayed that Jesus Christ would take away my sins and guide my steps for the rest of my life. I became a child of God—part of God’s family. Though I’ve been through many trials and joys in my faith journey since then, that moment is still special for me because it was the beginning of my spiritual history.

All of us have a spiritual history, and if we think back, we can see all the ways that God was present in our lives. Likely, many of us can remember that first experience of God’s grace. But our story of faith is not just an individual story. The words of our Lord through the prophet Hosea remind us today that we are part of a bigger story of faith, extending back thousands of years to a singular event that changed the world: Israel’s exodus from Egypt. God, the loving parent of Israel and all of us, reminds the people, “when you were a child, I loved you and called you out of Egypt.”

If you could only turn to one text in the Old Testament to show how much God loved his people, the story of the Exodus would be that text. Sure, God had appeared to Abraham and promised a multitude of descendants and blessings, and he certainly provided, but at the end of Genesis and the beginning of the book of Exodus there was trouble. Joseph, who had a good relationship with the Egyptians, had died and a new king had come to rule in Egypt who did not know Joseph and his family. This new king was determined to oppress the Israelites so that they would not pose a threat to his rule. Yet, God had not forgotten his promise. The God who is merciful and gracious, and abounding in steadfast love, saw the plight of our ancestors of the faith and called Moses to lead them out of Egypt. Nothing could be more merciful than this.

The first verse of Hosea 11 brings all this to mind for us, but verse 2 reminds us that God’s children quickly turned from his guidance. You remember, as Moses went up the holy mountain to receive the law from God, the people grew tired of waiting and asked Aaron to build them a golden calf to worship. Yet, Hosea reminds us, God continued to show mercy. God taught Israel how to walk on their own, leading them through the wilderness even when they wanted to turn back. God healed them and led them with cords of kindness and bands of love. God bent down to them and fed them with manna and quail. God’s mercy was steadfast. The more God’s children turned from him, the more he showed them mercy.

We all know about this mercy of God in our own lives. We know that God didn’t just save us from our sins and leave us alone. Since that first moment of faith, we made mistakes and started going the wrong way, but God continued to show us love and mercy! After all, we are here today in the presence of our God to worship and remember what God has done for us. We have gotten far more grace and mercy than we deserved.

Yet, mercy is not the only way that God shows love to his children. In God’s words of self-revelation in Exodus 34, we hear not only that our Lord is “merciful and gracious” but also that God “will by no means clear the guilty.” So, in the message of Hosea, there is a quick turn in verse 5 from the reminder of how God has shown mercy to a declarative statement of impending judgment: “They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because my people have refused to return to me.”

A quick glance through the book of Hosea tells us why this harsh judgment has come. Israel has called out to other gods, trusting in themselves and forgetting their identity as God’s people. They have sought protection through alliances with the king of Assyria and the king of Egypt rather than trusting in their God. Since God’s people no longer see God as their loving parent, they will no longer be called God’s children. God has shown them a bit of tough love, causing pain for both the parent and the children. Had they remembered God’s law, they would have been safe and secure. Instead, they have turned to call on others who have no power to raise them up. As a result, they are going “back to Egypt.” The cords of kindness and bands of love have been loosened, and the people have gone back to their own way. Perhaps we remember times in our own life when we have faced the natural consequences of thinking that we know best.

Yet, judgment is not the end for God’s people. Judgment can never be the final word. Just as God looked upon the Israelite slaves in Egypt with mercy, so too does God look upon these people who have been enslaved by their sin with compassion and mercy. But I think, having wrestled with the pain of punishment, we have to see God’s mercy a little bit differently. We have to see the pain of God’s love that remains with us even when we are facing the consequences of our actions. After all, God really is like a loving parent who remains with his children through trials and joys. God shows mercy as a parent shows mercy to a child who has made the wrong choice.

In the final word of hope in our text from Hosea, we are given an image that sums up what it means to understand God’s mercy after coming through judgment: the image of a lion. In his book “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” C.S. Lewis draws on this image of the lion to express the complex nature of God. In the magical land of Narnia, a witch has cast a spell which makes it always winter, but never Christmas. As the characters search for a way to save Narnia from the witch, they hear of one named Aslan who has even greater power than the witch.

If you’ve seen the movie or read the book, you might remember the conversation that Susan has with Mr. Beaver, as he tells her about Aslan, this lion who will come to save them from evil. Susan responds to the revelation that Aslan is a lion by saying, “I thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” Mr. Beaver responds, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

How true that is! Our God may not be safe. The word of the Lord may be challenging to us, as was the harsh word of judgment for Israel. If God is like a lion, we probably should not try and test God. After all, God has power over our life and death. But God is profoundly good! God is merciful and gracious, abounding in steadfast love. That is what it means that our Lord is “God and no mortal.” It means that we receive far more grace than we deserve.

Since our own personal exodus moment, we’ve made a few mistakes. We’ve found ourselves stuck in the depth of our own sin on more than one occasion. We’ve found ourselves face to face with the terrifying lion that is our God, but remember in good times and in bad: God loves his children. Remember the story of Israel’s exodus and your own exodus from sin. Remember the ways that God has rejoiced with us in good times and has had compassion for us in bad times. Best of all, remember that God will lead and guide us with cords of kindness and bands of love until we enter the eternal kingdom. Amen.