So here is the activity for the week. To do this, you will need one fresh (not moist) wintergreen Life Saver, a room with a mirror that can be completely dark, and a good set of teeth. Go into the room, stand in front of the mirror, unwrap the Life Saver, turn off the light, and chomp away with your mouth open. You will notice a blue violet glow emanating from your mouth. Pretty cool! I know most of you probably did this as a child. At one point I could remember the scientific explanation behind this phenomenon, but that is not really important here. What is important in this example is the light in the darkness.
Even that little bit of light can make a whole lot of difference in the room. Yet that light is not sustainable. It is only lasts for one or two good chomps. Now if you are really eager, you can light a match. It is amazing how bright one match can be in a dark room. With the match lit, you can probably make out most of the furniture. But, again, it lasts only a few seconds until you need to blow out the match. You can substitute all kinds of light sources, gradually bringing more and more light to the space for longer periods of time. But, ultimately, all of that lighting is temporary. Yes, even the switch on the wall can break or the power can go out.
Back in the time of Christ, they obviously did not have electricity or wintergreen Life Savers. At night the city streets were dark, and while fire and candles were around, most of the light that was present would have come from the night sky. For those who were writing down the biblical stories, the prime examples of light in the darkness would have been the stars. When you are away from city lights, you recognize how powerful and bright they can be!
The stars stood out and played many important roles in society. I will focus on two, which I call “illumination” and “direction.” The first is illumination. In sermons, this is the imagery that often focuses on Christ being the light. As the earlier experiments show, a little bit of light can illumine a lot of the world around you. Although at one point you could not see in the dark, with just a spark, your environment became a bit clearer.
As a tradition, Christianity did not develop to answer all questions or problems. One thing that was true at the time of Christ as well as today is that situations are difficult, and answers are not easy to give. Look at the rules of Sabbath, which Christ took on. In principle, Christ does not say they are inherently bad, and in many places advocates for them, but when one is in need, the laws of the Sabbath must be set aside to do what is right for the betterment of society.
The truth that Christ teaches is that we live in a world of darkness, because we cannot always see where God is calling us to act or be present. Things get funny, even with religious laws, since even the laws create more confusion then help at times. But when we give ourselves over to Christ, we live in the light, and the light that is in Christ will always show us a new and fuller way.
So the first example of light in the darkness shows us how in the midst of confusion, even when we think we cannot see fully, when we give ourselves over to Christ, we can begin to see the world in better focus. While a little illumination can make a big difference, I think direction is even more interesting. It is how a little light in darkness can actually give more clarity and direction then a flood of light all the time. We often forget that before GPS and other technologies, the stars were the map used to get from one place to the other. It is no coincidence that the “wise ones” and shepherds followed the star. It showed a clear way even in the darkness. In a world where things are often hard to navigate, we can count on Christ to direct a beacon that shows us how we should live and what we should be doing.
One of the big problems with light in the darkness is coming to understand what the light is telling us or directing us to do. The directional cues that come from the light are not always apparent. Just think, if we were sent out into the desert and told we had to navigate our way home by the stars, most of us would be unable to do so immediately. We would need to use a lot of trial and error to discern where each star was “pointing.”
That brings us to another and very important aspect of the faith: answers are rarely clear! So we must take time to study the light that we are given. As a community, we witness the light, and together, try to discern what it means. This is where everything is brought in, and we look at all the information that is given.
To return to the example of the wintergreen Life Saver, to gain understanding, we might talk about all of our experiences with it, look at the scientific explanation of triboluminescence, examine other information and anecdotes to bring meaning and relevance to what we saw, and then discern how important or unimportant each are. If we are researching triboluminescence, then that becomes important, but for most of us, it’s just a cool phenomenon, and there is nothing wrong with that! But when it comes to faith, discerning both the light and its direction does make a big difference. It enables us to better follow where God is calling us.
For the full scientific explanation of what is happening with the wintergreen Life Saver, click here
Some Christians have a myth among them that the early church was pure and without problems. However, long before either a scientific study or psychological analysis, the early church recognized a major human tendency: the desire for power through judgment and persecution.
Interestingly, as the Christians themselves were being persecuted, even killed, they were setting up systems of exclusion. We know this because many of Paul’s writings address these issues head on, though many people overlook them, either intentionally, or at times, unintentionally.
There is an interesting study within Paul’s epistles concerning hierarchy and faith. Very much in line with the gospels, one of the essential tenets of the faith is the fact that when it comes to humanity, there is a very simple hierarchy. It goes like this: there is God, then there is humankind. Humans are not, nor can they be, God; and thus no human can assert a hierarchy over another.
Much of this comes from a debate in the early church about who was “in” and who was “out” when it came to the new Christian sect. Many argued that people needed to be born a Jew, others claimed that they could convert, and others still, with Paul being the biggest proponent, argued that they could bypass Judaism and just become a Christian through a profession of faith. Obviously our tradition, as well as most of western Christianity, follows the Pauline understanding.
But the reality of superiority, along with the judgment of who is welcome and who is not, is very present in Christianity, as it is within our society. This is problematic for the expression of faith in the same way as the misuse of witness we explored last week. There we saw that everyone witnesses things differently, and those witnesses are often shaded by our past and our influences. The same is true when it comes to hierarchy.
Though often unintentional, most organizations have a litmus test for who belongs and who does not. Sometimes it is silly things, like when I lived in New Jersey, people took pride when they drove around with the older version of the license plates. It showed that they had something on everyone else. OK, that might have just been in their minds. But you can see how that plays out every time you are in a situation where people have differing amounts of time with the organization or of life experience. Have you ever heard someone say “Oh, that was before your time?”
That is not an earthshattering thing, but it is an example of hierarchies we set, and how often those with power are able to assert it over others. I have seen this through many of the testimonies that I have heard in our work with the Beloved Community and the Black Lives Matter movement. I see that there are many assertions of power we make over other groups within our community, many that we don’t even recognize!
There are some who believe that the purpose of church is to put people in their place. The Westboro Baptist Church is a good example of that. But this is not the gospel Christ preaches. Our call is to put ourselves with people, meeting them where they are at, and if that makes us uncomfortable, all the better! It is in our discomfort that we are able to begin to see the struggles and difficulties of their lives, and recognize the ways in which we can meet them where they are.
Early in my ministry, I had to go to court for a member of my congregation to give testimony in a custody situation. I was taken aback when I was told I needed to sit in a room outside the courtroom until my time was called. All I was doing was acting as a character witness, but the lawyer said that if I heard the others before me, it might shade my testimony, and, of course, it was the law.
After that experience, I began to look into the topic of witness. In Christianity, witness is a central aspect of how we develop our relationship with God. In many churches there is actually a time in the service which is dedicated to formally witnessing God’s presence. In our tradition, we would say that the service as a whole is a witness to God.
Unfortunately, there is a real problem with witness. In recent years, many studies, including famous ones from Stanford and Harvard, suggest that witnesses in legal matters are neither accurate nor consistent. In fact, one can change or modify testimony without even realizing the change. While we are not looking at witness from a legal standpoint, the witness that we work with in the church is just as valid and maybe even more important, because when we give witness and it turns out not to be accurate, it will affect the way that others approach their relationship with God.
In reality, this is a big reason why so many people have a problem with Christianity¾they have a perception that there is no consistency and a lot of hypocrisy. Honestly, it is a fair critique, especially in a time when we are more and more certain that we can ascertain the fundamental truths of life, particularly as we continue to get closer and closer to learning ways to create life. We live in a time that expects the witness to be right or wrong, to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt.
Again, the problem is, doubt and faith are two sides of the same coin. It is doubt that makes us explore our faith, and faith that often brings us to places where we doubt. All of that shades the way in which we witness, and makes every individual witness both incomplete and unreliable. It would be like reading the gospel of Mark while ignoring Matthew, Luke, and John. You would have a very different and very incomplete understanding of Jesus.
We often forget that the four gospels represent four different and unique gospels. And even though there is overlap and repetition, the construction and layout of each reveals a very different side of Christ. With all four gospels, and even many of the writings that did not make it into the canon, we get a fuller picture of Christ, and can begin to understand both his complexity and power.
For the Christian, witness is not a one-time thing, but something that evolves. Over and over, Christ reminds those who follow him that the real blessings come to those who have not seen yet come to believe. And why is that important? Often, it is because when you truly listen to all of the witnesses, you can get a much better picture than you would working solely from your own perspective.
This is why witness is so important in churches. Unlike the court, we are not just looking for facts in a testimony or witness; rather, we are looking for better understanding. When we combine the witness of many people together, all of a sudden we have a much clearer picture of God, even though it may still not be complete.
This was what went on in the courtroom when I was asked to give the character witness. As I listened after I finished my testimony, I began to see how my understanding of the person was only a part of the whole, and, as the judge let me know later, gave a very important missing piece to who this person was at that point in their life. The judge did not base the decision on just one witness, but used testimony from many to come to the best decision, just like we all need to listen to each other and witness to each other to better understand God.
Before Easter, in my sermon to the Revive Community, I posited the question, “What was worse: Judas’ betrayal or Peter’s denial?” At first you want to answer Judas, because that is what tradition has taught us. We are predisposed to him being the bad guy and all of the other disciples good.
The problem is that when you really take time to think about it, while Judas’ betrayal is bad, so is Peter’s. It would be hard to designate one as bad and the other as worse, but to focus on Judas and not Peter is to miss a big part of the Resurrection story.
For Judas, his betrayal represented a true severance from God. It was such a powerful severance that he felt that his only choice was suicide. But when we look at the story, what really was at the root of the suicide was not the guilt as much as it was the feeling of true separation from God.
But Peter did the same, even though he did not see it the same way. His threefold denial of Christ was a true moment of separation from God. But something unique happens in the story. Christ, in his resurrected state, confronts Peter and gives him a gift, the chance for reconciliation. Christ challenges Peter to show his love. And Peter does, but not without some frustration. By the third time Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” we see Peter’s frustration boiling: “And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’”
So Peter makes the commitment and is reconciled to Christ. But he is reconciled at a price. He must now be a leader, and in that role, he will have to follow the desires of Christ, rather than his own. The scripture states: “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go."
For most modern Americans, this is a very scary thing. Even recent immigrants who come to this country do so to have some control of their own future, to have the freedom to do as they please. But the problem with always doing as you please is that often the things that please us do not please God. In fact, often we find ourselves in situations where we are denying Christ, not just through our words, but through what we do.
This is where we find hope and is really where we see the difference between Judas and Peter. Peter found redemption (even though, arguably, he was not looking for it). Christ gave him the opportunity to come around and accept him once again. Judas never had that opportunity, because he took his life before it could happen. It often makes me wonder what might have happened if Judas had not taken his life. Would he have been given the same opportunity as Peter? Let the theological debate commence!
But really, the truth is that Christ wants us to be his disciples, and no matter what we have done in the past, no matter how real our denials have been, Christ wants us back. The only problem is that when we are reconciled to Christ, there is a catch. Just as Christ gave himself for us, we must dedicate ourselves to him and serve him where he leads us, even if that is a really uncomfortable place¾moreover, even if it is a place where we are no longer able to choose our own destiny. So how do you answer the question when Christ asks, “Do you love me?”
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen