4 June 2023: The Holy Trinity

Faithful Conversations #16

Note to readers:
Bible study is an essential part of our Lutheran heritage, and I appreciate your involvement here! If you know someone in our parish (or outside) who would benefit from this weekly process, please recruit them — one on one conversations are key! And, a reminder this week as you work through the readings: keep Jesus Christ at the center — all scripture points to Christ. One of Luther’s tenets regarding Bible study was, “Scripture Interprets Scripture.” In a nutshell, the New Testament allows us to witness how Jesus and the Apostles interpreted what they referred to as “the scriptures” (think, Old Testament). The Lectionary offers believers a great tool for doing that!  Keep this idea “front of mind” as you tackle the readings for Trinity Sunday! My reflections will focus on the creation story from Genesis and the Gospel. And, one more thing. You will note a text of the Nicene Creed below for reference purposes as you get into the reflection.

Readings for the Holy Trinity Sunday:
Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a

Psalm 8 (a response to the first reading)
2 Corinthians 13: 11-13
Matthew 28: 16-20

The First Reading: Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a
When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was complete chaos, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. 6 And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 

11 Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

20 And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” 21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind and the cattle of every kind and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 26 Then God said, “Let us make humans in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over the cattle and over all the wild animals of the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27 So God created humans in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” 29 God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the air and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished and all their multitude. On the sixth day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

The Gospel: Matthew 28: 16-20
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him, but they doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The Nicene Creed (think about the concept of the Trinity as you read this):

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

This Week’s Reflection: The Eternal Trinity

The confessional writings that govern the ELCA include three ecumenical statements of faith: the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds. We say the Apostles’ Creed each Sunday and occasionally the Nicene Creed (you may have heard of the Athanasian Creed, but I will leave that to your further exploration!). Creeds embody our essential belief statements and historically arose from disputes among early Christians, primarily related to the true nature of Christ. Trinity Sunday is significant in this regard because it focuses our minds on the Triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). The Nicene Creed has been on my mind this week, especially while grappling with the creation story from the first chapter of Genesis. Hold that thought for a few moments!

Earthrise: Christmas Eve, 1968

My formative years (born 1957) neatly coincided with NASA’s Saturn, Gemini, and Apollo space flights and the race to the moon. Exploring the stars crackled with excitement and our heroes were those daring astronauts. Among my flashbulb memories from those years, one stands out. It happened on Christmas Eve, 1968 during the flight of Apollo 8.  Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders traveled to the far side of the moon and were the first human beings to view (and photograph) an “Earthrise,” from space. In a stunning live broadcast witnessed by millions, the three explorers, overwhelmed by what they were experiencing, used the moment to share those ancient and poetic words from Genesis (Chapter 1: 1-10). What a powerful moment for my eleven year old self! (You can find that moment on-line).

Reading the creation account this week reminded me of that beautiful moment, and also those endless debates about the creation story I heard growing up (frankly, I never saw a conflict between the Biblical creation story and the world of science). Further, I was intrigued that the creation account is included with this week’s readings (remember, “Scripture Interprets Scripture”). Clearly, the message for us to ponder is that the Triune God was present from the beginning. God, of course is mentioned immediately (verse 1), followed by the Holy Spirit (verse 2 — note the “wind from God” which is translated as “Spirit”). But, what about Christ? In our understanding of the Trinity, Christ was present from the beginning. And this is where the Nicene Creed proves helpful:  We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. Though the mystery of the Trinity is beyond my grasp, I am now hearing those words from the Nicene Creed differently (you may also want to look up John 1: 1-5 to see how the Apostle understood the creation). In addition, I’m intrigued by Genesis 1, verse 26, in which God speaks in the plural. So much to think about here! My understanding is limited!**

And that leads me to this week’s Gospel reading from Matthew. We are with Jesus and the disciples on the mountain and he offers them what has come to be known as the great commission. This passage is meaningful to me because I chose it for my Confirmation in 1972. Along with Luther’s Explanation of the Small Catechism, we had to commit a passage from scripture to memory. I suspect many of you had a similar experience if you grew up Lutheran, and, yes, I do think memorization is a powerful tool for young learners (and old ones!).  Notable to me in the verses from Matthew, is the emphasis on the Trinity and also the EXTENT of the commission to all nations. Quite a challenge! Interestingly, the corresponding passage in Mark says this: “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” I like that interpretation even more. Clearly, we are charged to share Christ’s love widely and deeply in the name of the Triune God. Would you agree with me that our community and wider world need this message in 2023 more than ever? We have much work to do.

Soli Deo Gloria

Note: Beyond the reading from Genesis, Astronaut Frank Borman offered this prayer during the journey of Apollo 8. It is especially poignant considering the turmoil humanity was experiencing in 1968. It is a timeless prayer and is equally fitting for 2023!

Frank Borman

Give us, O God, the vision which can see Your love in the world in spite of human failure. Give us the faith to trust Your goodness in spite of our ignorance and weakness. Give us the knowledge that we may continue to pray with understanding hearts. And show us what each one of us can do to set forward the coming of the day of universal peace. Amen. 




**Note: For further references to Christ being present at the creation of the world, spend some time with the first chapter of Hebrews and also Colossians 1:16.

28 May 2023: Day of Pentecost

Faithful Conversations #15

Note to readers: As is the case this week, the Revised Common Lectionary often offers choices in the readings. Pastor Jen and I are in ongoing discussion regarding the Lectionary and we will match up most of the time, but perhaps not always, particularly as other “preaching series” may arise. I bolded those that will be emphasized at ELC on Sunday (remember, one service at Hatfield). This week’s reflections will focus on Acts and 1 Corinthians and inform your reading of the Gospel.

Readings for the Day of Pentecost:
Acts 2: 1-21
(or Numbers 11: 24-30)
Psalm 104: 24-34, 35b
1 Corinthians 12: 3b-13
 John 7: 37-39 (or John 20: 19-23)

The First Reading: Acts 2: 1-21: The Coming of the Holy Spirit
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every people under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Fellow Jews and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit,
        and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
        before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

The Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12: 3b-13
Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. Now there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit, and there are varieties of services but the same Lord, and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of powerful deeds, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. 12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

This Week’s Reflection:

“Without Pentecost, the Christ-event –- the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus –- remains imprisoned in history as something to remember, think about and reflect on. The Spirit of Jesus comes to dwell within us, so that we can become living Christs here and now.”
(Henri Nouwen, 1932-1996)

Dutch Catholic priest and theologian Henri Nouwen, wrote prolifically during his lifetime. His statement regarding Pentecost caught my eye, especially the idea of Christ becoming “imprisoned in history” (chilling). That said, do we give this celebration of Pentecost enough attention in our church calendar? This question is on my mind as I grapple with the lectionary readings.

In Jewish tradition, the celebration of Pentecost derives from the “Festival of Weeks” coming 50 days after the Passover (“penta” is Greek for 50). Celebrating the spring wheat harvest, among other things, Jews made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem offering thanks to God. This is the setting for this week’s reading from Acts 2. The disciples and 120 other followers of Christ are in Jerusalem and are hiding, in part, due to their fear of the religious authorities. Suddenly, they experience a “violent wind” and “tongues of fire” (verses 2-3) signaling the Holy Spirit’s presence — let’s imagine how astonishing this must have been! In turn, the Spirit moves them to speak of God’s power in multiple languages (verses 6-13), a dazzling moment. Amazed, perplexed, and in some cases even skeptical about what they are experiencing, Peter offers a powerful explanation of the events to his Jewish brothers and sisters, citing beautiful and prophetic language from Joel (verse 17-21) affirming God’s promise and gift of the Holy Spirit. Recounting Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, the Apostle calls for repentance and baptism, leading to the conversion of three thousand souls, the first in the Church’s history (see verses 37-42).

St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost by Benjamin West (1738-1820)

So, back to the Nouwen quote and my initial question. Why is Pentecost so significant, so central to our journey through this life? First, Jesus promised the gift of his Spirit as noted in this week’s Gospel reading, and  Pentecost marked the fulfillment of that promise. We affirm our reliance on the Holy Spirit every time we say the third article of the Apostle’s Creed: I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. AmenIt is hard to overstate this central core of our belief system. Remember Luther’s explanation of the Third Article? I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith (Note 1 Corinthians 12: 3).

Second, Pentecost is a compelling reminder that the Holy Spirit breaks down barriers in our world — differences due to race, gender, cultural background, religion, and politics, to name a few. The diversity of languages depicted in Acts 2 enforces that truth. Peter’s citing of Joel (“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh . . . “) further affirms this. As Christians, we are not members of an exclusive club, even though we often may be tempted to act in that way. God equips us through his Spirit to face the challenges we face day to day, and to bring healing and hope into a world often filled with despair.    

Finally, as voiced in Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians, the Holy Spirit is manifested in a multitude of ways and is all around us everyday. We often may not recognize it! That suggests to me that we need to remain open to the work of the Spirit, we need to look for it, and especially when it leads us out of our “comfort zones.” God’s love for us is everlasting, and stronger than anything life may send our way. In the words of Henri Nouwen, we are called to be “living Christs” here and now. Happy Pentecost, fellow travelers! 

Soli Deo Gloria.

This Week’s Prayer:
I have long been a fan of  Sister Joan Chittister, Benedictine Nun and theologian. I offer her poetic prayer here, “Come Holy Spirit.” I suggest praying it aloud — she offers beautiful language. She also offers the opportunity to personalize the prayer at the very end.

“Come, Holy Spirit” – Sister Joan Chittister

Sister Joan Chittister

May the Gifts of the Holy Spirit
bring fire to the earth
so that the presence of God
may be seen
in a new light,
in new places,
in new ways.

May our own hearts
burst into flame
so that no obstacle,
no matter how great,
ever obstructs the message
of the God within each of us.

May we come to trust
the Word of God in our heart,
to speak it with courage,
to follow it faithfully
and to fan it to flame in others.

May the Jesus
who filled women
with his Holy Spirit
fill the world and the church
with new respect
for women’s power and presence.

Give me, Great God,
a sense of the Breath of Spirit
within me as I…
(State the intention
in your own life at this time
for which you are praying.)


21 May 2023: The Ascension of our Lord

Faithful Conversations #14

Reminder to readers: The Lectionary includes four scripture passages for each Sunday:
1. An Old Testament reading (Acts is featured during the Easter season);
2. A Psalm that is intended as a response to the first reading;
3. A New Testament reading;
4. The Gospel reading from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.

My reflections this week will focus on the second reading and the Gospel. 

Readings for the Ascension of our Lord Sunday:
Acts 1: 1-11
Psalm 47 or 93
Ephesians 1: 15-23
Luke 24: 44-53

Second Reading: Ephesians 1: 15-23: The Prayer of St. Paul
15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers, 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may perceive what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

The Gospel Reading: Luke 24: 44-53: The Ascension of Jesus
44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised, so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” 50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Today’s Reflection: Changing Hearts and Minds

Gordon Thunder

Ho-Chunk elder Gordon Thunder visited my classroom a number of times during my tenure at BRFHS.  He said something I never forgot during his first visit in the early 1990s: “Education is much more a matter of the heart than of the head.” Pointing to his heart, he recounted his childhood memory of walking in the woods with his Cooka (pronounced “cho-ka,” meaning grandfather) who would periodically stop and teach him things along the path. A beautiful memory, and a reminder that authentic learning starts with inspiration.  

Gordon’s words resonated with me this week as I read the passage from Ephesians and the Gospel. In the first chapter of Ephesians, Paul asks God to grant believers the spirit of wisdom and that the eyes of their heart be enlightened. I’m intrigued by Paul’s language here. One commentator I read suggests that the heart represents our core — our inner self — encompassing our mind, will, and emotions (is this our soul?). Thus, utilizing the eyes of our heart means to fully perceive, to become enlightened. It strikes me that we should recall this prayer every time we read from the scriptures. 

And while Paul PRAYED FOR the believers to become enlightened, Jesus GRANTED such insight, as noted in the Gospel reading (Luke 24:45). First, some context. Recall that in the immediate aftermath of his resurrection, Christ appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, then vanished while breaking bread with them in the village. In this week’s passage, he reappears to them in Jerusalem where they had gathered. He again identifies himself as the fulfillment of the prophecies from the Jewish scriptures (verse 44). Then Luke interjects that succinct statement in verse 45: Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. Read this passage in conjunction with the this discussion on the road to Emmaus — Luke 24: 13-35, and take special note of verse 31. Further, in verses 46-49, Jesus provides a summary of the Christian faith and, in effect, sets up the work that will be undertaken by those first generation Christians as documented in Acts. After naming them as witnesses to his reality, he promises the gift of the Holy Spirit (stay tuned for that next week!).  Luke ends with that stunning vision of Jesus ascending to heaven, and repeats that scene in the first chapter of Acts. Interestingly, Matthew, Mark, and John do not present the ascension story in this manner.

“Jesus Ascending into Heaven” by
John Singleton Copley, 1775

How should we interpret Luke’s account of this dramatic and mysterious moment?  I have much yet to reflect on regarding the ascension story — I need to know more. The Copley painting I included here reminds me that we often attempt to place the mysteries and wonders of our Creator into our imperfect understanding of space and time. A commentary from philosopher Stephen Davis of Claremont University resonated with me this week and is helpful:   

“I do not believe that in the Ascension Jesus went up, kept going until he achieved escape velocity from the earth, and then kept moving until he got to heaven, as if heaven were located somewhere in space. The Ascension of Jesus was primarily a change of state rather than a change of location. Jesus changed in the Ascension from being present in the realm of space and time to being present in the realm of eternity, in the transcendent heavenly realm.”

Clearly, our spiritual ancestors experienced something miraculous two thousand years ago. Like them, we are witnesses to God’s reality in our time and in this place. Guided by the Holy Spirit and praying that the eyes of our hearts be opened,  we  are called to be a light for those around us. Yes, the world desperately needs the message of Jesus Christ.  

Soli Deo Gloria.    

Prayer (inspired by Psalms 47 and 93): 

God, our Creator: You grant us life and are are an awesome God. There is nothing in this world that can separate us from you. While everything in our lives is fleeting and transitory, YOU are everlasting. You are more majestic than “the thunders of mighty waters.” Grant us strength when we falter in our faith and open our hearts and minds to your word. Amen. 

** Note: If you want to spend more time on the ascension story, this link will take you to a terrific reflection by a man named Dan Clendenin. He founded the website, Journey With Jesus in 2004 and writes extensively on many topics related to the Christian faith.    

14 May 2023, 6th Sunday of Easter

Faithful Conversations #13

Note to readers: My reflection this week focuses on the Gospel and the reading from Acts. You will also note that I have included the Apostles’ Creed and will be referencing that.           

Readings for the Sixth Sunday in Easter:
Acts 17: 22-31
Psalm 66: 8-20
1 Peter 13: 13-22
John 14:15-21

The Apostle’s Creed 
(First Article) I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
(Second Article) I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. (or, into hell)
On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
(Third Article) I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

The Gospel: John 14: 15-21: The Promise of the Holy Spirit
15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him because he abides with you, and he will be in you. 18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me, and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

The Reading from Acts 17: 22-31: Paul in Athens
22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely spiritual you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all peoples to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps fumble about for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we, too, are his offspring.’ 29 “Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

This Week’s Reflection
Let’s all picture the most enthusiastic person you know. One of my college friends, Steve Clute, immediately comes to mind for me. He naturally spreads infectious laughter and joy in any situation. As mentioned in a prior post, the word enthusiasm derives from the Greek “entheos,” literally meaning “God in us.” As Christians and Lutherans, this makes perfect sense and we are reminded of this throughout the scriptures. Like many of our brothers and sisters in the faith here and across the globe, we believe in the doctrine of the Trinity — that God is manifested in three persons, God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. The belief statements in the three articles of the Apostles’ Creed illustrate this. Sunday’s Gospel reading prompts our thinking in this regard, especially regarding the Holy Spirit.

We are hearing from Jesus after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and he is foreshadowing what will happen when he is gone. In verse 16, he speaks of the gift of the Holy Spirit, one who will be alongside us — an advocate — and what a beautiful image that conjures in my mind. His Spirit, in fact, will be in us as the Spirit of Truth (verse 17), something the “world” will not understand. He further assures us we will not be orphaned (verse 18).  And, take a few moments and meditate on verse 20, a powerful passage alluding to the Trinity! (And, if you’re interested, take time to look up Luther’s explanation of the Third Article of the Creed — maybe you learned it many years ago!)  

Let’s carry the idea of “God in us” as we reflect on the passage from Acts. This has always been one of my favorite moments in the life of St. Paul. First, some context. Paul converted to Christianity in 34 CE (one year after the crucifixion), and roughly 12 years later began the first of several missionary journeys. It is estimated that between 46-60 CE, he traveled more than 10,000 miles throughout the Mediterranean world, most on foot!  In this week’s reading, we catch up with him on his second missionary trip (51 CE) and he and his companions are in Athens (prior to this, by the way, they had been run out from both Thessalonica and Berea due to the various controversies swirling around them!). Let’s imagine what it would have been like to travel with Paul and these early Christians!

View of the Areopagus (foreground) and the Acropolis (atop the hill)

In Athens, we see Paul carrying the story of Christ to the “wider world.” He preaches in the local synagogues, and bustling marketplaces of the famous city. In chapter 17, we find him preaching at the Areopagus, a famous site northwest of the Acropolis, addressing a diverse crowd of curious people. Ever the missionary, Paul appeals to them on their own turf, challenging their belief in many gods (which he has witnessed in the various shrines around the city), and pointing them toward God and his son, Jesus Christ who “gives to all mortals life and breath” (verse 25). He further reinforces the idea that we are God’s “offspring,” (verse 28) by referencing lines from ancient Greek poetry (Epimenides and Aratus), a crafty move on his part. If we read on a bit (verses 32-33), we learn that some were converted that day, including Dionysius and his wife Damaris, two of those fascinating characters that briefly appear in scripture (these individuals always intrigue me because of their brief “cameo” appearances).  

What practical lessons can we draw from this week’s Gospel and the story of Paul at the Areopagus? First, God’s love extends to all people and the gift of the Holy Spirit is open to all — we are all “God’s offspring.”  This is an incredibly challenging truth for many of us to accept. We live in a broken world that promotes division and hate, and we must somehow navigate that grim reality. Second, it is that same Holy Spirit that moves us beyond ourselves and into the wider world — we cannot do it on our own! If we become insulated as Christians, if we spend all our time talking to people who are “like us,” if we isolate ourselves, we fall into self-absorption and become frozen with indifference and susceptible to the divisions that surround us. The Spirit says GO! Go into all aspects of our shared lives and “practice what we preach.” We were made for that work. We have a powerful story to share. 

Soli Deo Gloria!    

Prayer (in response to events of this week and inspired by 1 Peter 3: 14-15)
Dear God, Our hearts are broken and souls pierced by the violence afflicting our nation and world. We pray for the victims of violence, including wars and mass shootings, and those that have lost loved ones, and all those who mourn. We pray for community, state, and national leaders that must grapple with the challenges imposed on them by tragic events. We also pray for the broken souls that perpetrate such violence in our world — may you change their hearts and minds. We ask, Lord, for strength and courage, not to be intimidated by the circumstances of this world, but instead to share the hope that we have in you with those around us. We rely on your Spirit for courage and realize that we cannot do this on our own. In your strong name we pray, Amen.

And finally, a bit of humor for today . . .  Another installment of 1950s and 60s Lutheran humor! These come from the world of Charles Schultz, the same guy that did the Peanuts comic strip for all those years!


7 May 2023: Fifth Sunday of Easter

Faithful Conversations #12

Note to readers: Remember to read through the entire set of readings, in whatever fashion you are doing that. I include the text of one of the readings, or perhaps parts of several here, for easy reference while reading the reflection. This week I am focusing on the reading from Acts and parts of the Gospel.     

Readings for the Fifth Sunday in Easter:

Acts 7:55-60 (Below)
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

The First Reading: Acts 7: 55-60: The Stoning of Stephen 
55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him, and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. ( And Saul approved of their killing him). 

The Gospel Reading: John 14: 1-10: Jesus the Way to the Father
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, but if you do not, then believe because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

Today’s Reflection (focusing on the first reading and a portion of the Gospel)
Grappling with the lectionary week to week reminds me of the line attributed to Albert Einstein: “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” Someone told  me once that grasping the scriptures is like being handed a small cup and being told to move Lake Michigan — seems apt. Anyway, I’m reading a book right now that is causing me to “think anew” — a good process. The book is A More Christlike Word: Reading Scripture the Emmaus Way (2021) by Canadian theologian Bradley Jersak. In a nutshell, the “Emmaus Way” of exploring the Bible focuses on what is known as the Christotelic view, meaning reading all of scripture as pointing to Christ (“telos” refers to the end or completion of something). Keep that concept in mind for the next few moments.

So, what is going on in this gruesome story from Acts 7? As always, context is key. Stephen, one of seven men chosen as deacons to aid the disciples in their work, comes under suspicion by members of one of the various Jewish sects in Jerusalem, and is arrested. His speech in chapter 7, the longest among the various speeches recorded in Acts,  provides a Christotelic interpretation of Jewish history, harshly calling out the leaders of the Sanhedrin (elders) who have charged him — I especially like the part where they cover their ears! (verse 57) In turn, they call for his death by stoning (verse 58). Stephen is dragged “out of the city” and put to death (verse 58). At a moment of high drama, he gazes into heaven and asks God to forgive his executioners (verse 60). And, in one of the chilling moments in all of scripture, Saul (later Paul), the great persecutor of the early Christians, approves of Stephen’s death (Chapter 8:1). The death of Stephen, by the way, is one of three executions recorded in the New Testament. The other two are John the Baptist and Christ.

Rembrandt: The Stoning of Stephen (1625)

What are we to make of all this? Stephen is known as the first Christian martyr (protomartyr) and his arrest, trial, and execution mirror the crucifixion of Christ, including his call for mercy on his executioners. Much has been made of his gaze into heaven, his singular fixation on God at the moment of his death. The renowned Dutch artist Rembrandt, in fact, highlighted this gaze in his first painting in 1625 (I have included the image here, but if you want to see it in greater detail, click on the image).



Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait

A bit of research on this painting proved enlightening. First, note that the face of Stephen and the face of Paul are the same (Paul is seated in the top center of the painting). The artist seems to be foreshadowing Paul’s conversion to Christianity, as documented in Acts 9. In addition, Rembrandt included a self-portrait in the scene, placing himself within the story (he is peeking out from behind the man who is ready to strike Stephen). The painful expression on his face suggests to me that the artist was implicating humanity in our unwillingness to confront injustice in our world. Just a thought. You may have other ideas.

But, back to Stephen’s gaze and what it symbolizes. I’m intrigued that at the moment of his death, he did not fixate on those who were about to kill him. Instead, he focused on God. Further, he has a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God (verse 56). One commentator I read emphasized in a compelling way, that Christ’s posture of “standing” and not sitting, indicated his willingness to “stand with us,” as opposed to sitting in judgement.

And, here seems to be a clear link between the story of the first Christian martyr and this week’s Gospel from John. In an intriguing exchange with Thomas and Phillip, Jesus utters those famous words, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (John 14: 6-7). Clearly, Christ identifies himself as “the way” (remember that those first generation Christians were called “People of the Way”). Our gaze needs to remain fixed on him. All scripture points to him (Christotelic). In the world of 2023, a world filled with so much division, hatred, violence, and despair, we need to hear this. This is the message we are compelled to share in our community and in our world. We have a powerful God who loves us, who gazes into our hearts, restores our souls, and fills us with hope.   

Soli Deo Gloria

Today’s Prayer (from the Book of Common Prayer, Church of England)
“Almighty God unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no Secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy holy spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

The day the Mormon Tabernacle Choir stopped in Black River Falls, 2013.

Finally, on a personal note today . . .
My father was a consummate teacher, and it is impossible for me to read Acts 7 and not be reminded that Unk (his nickname) named me (Paul Stephen) for this passage of scripture (such is the life of a PK — preacher’s kid!). He first explained this to me around the time of my confirmation in the early 1970s. “I want you to be reminded of the power of conversion,” he said. He affirmed this in a conversation I had with him two weeks before he died in 2013. We were talking about names, and I asked him for permission to add his first name (Thorwald) as a second middle name. He laughed and said, “Are you sure you want to do that?” I said yes, and I did. 

Have a great week!




30 April 2023: Fourth Sunday of Easter

Faithful Conversations #11

Note to readers: Take the time to read through the four readings in full so you can see the connections — sometimes they are clear, other times not. I include the text of one of the readings, or perhaps parts of several here, for easy reference while reading the reflection. This week, I am focusing primarily on the reading from Acts and utilizing the 23rd Psalm as a prayer.    

Readings for the Fourth Sunday in Easter:

Acts 2: 42-47
1 Peter 2: 19-25
Psalm 23
John 10: 1-10

The First Reading: Acts 2: 42-47: Life Among the Believers
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone because many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Today’s Reflection (focusing on the reading from Acts)

As Christians, how do we balance the three time dimensions — past, present, and future — in a healthy way? This question has been on my mind this week. Let me explain.

For more than 40 years, I have been engaged in teaching history — I spend much time journeying into the past. That said, history can be perilous, particularly if we get stuck there. For example, wallowing in the dark chapters of yesteryear, individually or collectively, often prevents us from moving forward with our lives. Instead of a liberating source of knowledge providing context for our present reality, history becomes a crushing burden. In addition, looking back often prompts feelings of nostalgia, a painful homesickness for a “better time” when life seemed simpler (you may want to look up the derivation of that word — nostalgia). While some nostalgia is fun, it can be debilitating. In either case, it seems to me, history may prevent us from meeting life head on in our present circumstances. The converse is also true, of course. How many times do we experience fears and anxiety about the future? Fear of what is lurking around the corner, especially in light of the challenges humanity is facing in 2023, can produce a sense of cynicism and, if unchecked, despair. 

Statue of Saint Richard in front of the Cathedral of Chichester

As I read (and reread) the passage from Acts this week, the line day by day (which appears twice) jumped out at me. Among other things, it took me back to high school days (1973) and the movie, “Godspell.” Perhaps you remember it. It was a contemporary take on the story of the first Christians, wrapped in the vibe of the early 70s counter-culture movement. (“Godspell,” by the way is where we get the term “gospel,” and it means “good news” or “good story”).  The third song in the movie, and most memorable to me, is “Day by Day” (linked below). The lyric clearly references this week’s passage from Acts and, so I learned, also the “Prayer of Saint Richard of Chichester” (1197-1253), the patron saint of the sick, lepers, and travelers (note the picture on the right). The relevant portion of Saint Richard’s prayer is this:

O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,
may I know thee more clearly,
love thee more dearly,
and follow thee more nearly, day by day.

(Take a few moments and listen to the song from 1971 by clicking here!)

The earliest Christians, our spiritual ancestors, possessed a living memory of the resurrection of Jesus. Can you imagine how electric that atmosphere must have been? They experienced “wonders and signs” (verse 43) and lived in the moment — day by day (verses 46-47). They shared their possessions, they were united in a grand adventure, a cause bigger than themselves. Thousands of people joined the movement and were saved (verse 47). One can sense the joy they felt in their work, day by day. And, herein lies the answer to our sometimes unhealthy fixation on the past or the future. Focus on today. It is the only day we have. Stay the course. We cannot change the past, nor can we control the future. Indeed, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (Psalm 118)

Prayer (Psalm 23: The Divine Shepherd)

Note: It may not surprise you to learn that Psalm 23 is the most popular for people of faith, as evidenced by being the “most searched on Google” (the next four in order are 91, 139, 27, and 121, in case you’re interested in such things). For this week’s prayer, I encourage you to pray the Psalm aloud — let the language settle in your heart. David was an excellent poet.    

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; 3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. Amen. 

Soli Deo Gloria.


And, a bit of history for you today regarding the worship space at ELC:

The chapel off the sanctuary, I have learned, was originally called the “Pioneer Chapel,” a nod to the original Norwegian settlers in Jackson County that established the parish (originally, Little Norway). The statue and altar are from the original church structure, built in 1876, that was located east of the Courthouse on Third Street, at least that is the best information I have on it now.  In 1953, ELC moved up the hill to its present location. 

23 April 2023: Third Sunday in Easter

Faithful Conversations #10
Readings for the Third Sunday in Easter:

Acts 2: 14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
1 Peter 1: 17-23
Luke 24: 13-35 (Below)

Sunday’s Gospel: Luke 24: 13-35 (On the Road to Emmaus)

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem, and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Today’s Reflection (focusing on the Gospel)

Those of you that have been following the Lectionary Blog for a few weeks realize that I am intrigued with artistic interpretations of Biblical stories. Today’s Gospel, the encounter between Cleopas and an unnamed disciple and Jesus in that seven mile walk between Jerusalem and the village of Emmaus, remains one of my favorite passages in scripture. In part, this is due to an 1877 painting by the Swiss artist Robert Zund.  This beautiful piece of artwork hung in one of the parishes my father served in his more than 50 years of ministry — Faith Lutheran Church in West Fargo, North Dakota. I’ll circle back to the painting.

There are eight instances of Christ appearing to people in the forty days after his resurrection recorded in scripture, eight times where people on this earth saw and, in some cases, directly interacted with him. In this week’s Gospel reading, we are walking along a road with Cleopas and his friend, both of whom are feeling dejected and without hope (verse 21). It is Sunday evening, three days after the crucifixion,  and they are headed out of Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus. They are attempting to sort out the climactic events of the past several days and we sense their despondency. Versed in the tradition of Judaism, they expected a different sort of Messiah. Jesus’ death, and the fact that they had not seen him, (though some had spoken of his miraculous resurrection) leaves them puzzled and without hope. Suddenly Jesus appears and joins them on the path, though they fail to recognize him. In fact, they are taken aback that this “stranger” has not heard about the dramatic events of recent days. Jesus listens. Then he confronts them with a powerful interpretation of the Hebrew prophecies, clearly identifying himself as the promised Messiah, but they still don’t get it (verses 25-27). As they reach their destination, they invite the stranger to join them since it is late. And, in one of the truly powerful moments in the post-resurrection period, Jesus breaks bread with them, then vanishes. They suddenly realize WHO he is (verse 31) and in their excitement, they rush back to Jerusalem and recount their experience to the eleven disciples. I suspect they covered that seven miles in a hurry!

Now, back to Robert Zund’s interpretative artwork. Many commentators note that he got the flora and fauna all wrong here. Instead of a Middle Eastern scene, the road to Emmaus is set in what appears to be the countryside of Switzerland, his home. It is a gorgeous setting, and , in fact, resembles the place that you and I live. Perhaps the artist did this with intent. Encounters with Christ can happen anywhere and he meets people, often unexpectedly,  wherever they are. (As a sidebar, I have talked with Native American people who have recounted stories of Christ appearing to their ancestors in North America, something that seems entirely plausible to me).

Beyond that, the special appeal of this painting for me is that we are witnessing Christ as teacher. We learn that Cleopas and his unnamed companion do not recognize him (verse 16). Cleopas, by the way, is identified in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions as the brother of Joseph, which adds an interesting dimension to the story — he is Jesus’ uncle! And, as my father once suggested to me, his companion remains unnamed, perhaps to invite us into the story. He represents us. Christ patiently joins their conversation and gradually leads them to the doorstep of a greater understanding. I’m reminded of that line from Zen philosophy, “When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear.”

What lessons can we draw from the Emmaus story? Let me suggest three. First, as we walk the path of our lives, encounters with Christ may happen “out of the blue” and we need to be open to them. Second, such encounters happen when we explore and seek understanding of God’s word (remember, Jesus explained the Jewish prophecies) and when we experience Communion on Sunday mornings (remember, Jesus broke bread with them and their eyes were opened!). And third, encounters with Jesus motivate action. Like Cleopas and his friend, we need to share the story with those we encounter! Our eyes have been opened!

Prayer (inspired by 1 Peter 1: 17-23)
Heavenly Father, You are present in our world and have been since even before creation. You have shown us the path for trusting in God — it is clear. We thank you for the gift of faith and our new birth in Christ, and we pray for the insight and motivation to share your abiding love within our community and the wider world. Amen.

Soli Deo Gloria.

16 April, 2023: Second Sunday in Easter

Faithful Conversations #9
Readings FOR the 2nd sunday of easter:
acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
1 peter 1:3-9
john 20:19-31 (Below)

** Note:  We have experienced the climactic events of Holy Week and the dust has settled. The readings from Acts and 1 Peter both provide a summary and commentary of the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, while the Gospel picks up the post-resurrection story.   

Sunday’s Gospel: John 20: 19-31
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors were locked where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Today’s Reflection (focusing on the Gospel)

Thomas Jefferson at age 80

Thomas Jefferson has been on my mind this week. Arguably one of the most brilliant Presidents in our history, the highly educated Jefferson was a complex individual. Among other things, the man who penned those stirring words in the Declaration of Independence — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” — was a lifelong slaveowner, a puzzling contradiction. Jefferson’s religious views were controversial during his time in public life and remain so yet today. Raised in the Anglican Christian tradition, he believed in God but could never accept the divinity of Jesus Christ, nor the other miracles recounted in scripture. In fact, he literally “clipped” the miracles from the New Testament, creating what has been termed the “Jefferson Bible.” He admired Christ and studied him as a moral exemplar and nothing more. His rational and intelligent mind simply could not get past his doubts about Jesus as God.

In today’s Gospel, we resume the post-resurrection story and are offered an example of doubt. It’s Sunday night and the disciples have gathered in secret and are afraid for their own lives. As followers of Christ, perhaps they too felt threatened by the power of the Jewish religious authorities. And suddenly, Jesus appears to them. He shows them the marks of the nails in his hands and the wound in his side. He then breathes his Spirit into them, granting them the power of forgiveness. What must they have been thinking?

“Doubting Thomas” (1620s) Giovanni Serodine, (Swiss-Italian Painter)

We are then introduced to Thomas who was not with them in the initial Sunday meeting (no explanation is given as to why he was not there). A week has passed and they inform him they have seen Jesus, but he is not convinced. He tells them that unless he can see Jesus and those wounds, he cannot accept the resurrection. Once again, Jesus appears and confronts Thomas, shows him the wounds and tells him to believe. What a moment that must have been!  Thomas then utters those five powerful words, “My Lord and my God!”

Curiously, the compelling story of “Doubting Thomas” is only found in John’s Gospel. I suspect he is there for a reason. Note Christ’s statement to him in verse 29. He does not scold or denigrate Thomas, but he makes the point that those that have NOT seen, yet believe, are blessed. That’s us! And this sentiment is voiced in the reading from 1 Peter today as well: “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” That’s us again! As Pastor Jen said in her Easter Sermon, as we look forward to the coming of God’s Kingdom, we are also assured that the Kingdom is already here. May we continue to journey forward in the light of that great and powerful gift of faith.

God’s Peace.

Prayer (inspired, in part, by the words of psalm 16)

Heavenly Father, you show us the path of life and instruct us in how to live. You are our refuge and our strength and because you are with us, we will not choose other gods or let the many distractions of this world turn us away from you. In your strong name we pray, Amen.

And, finally a bit of humor for us today — let’s hope that people can see our faith in action!  

9 April Easter Sunday

Faithful Conversations #8
Jeremiah 31:1-6
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 28:1-10

Prelude: The Three Days (Triduum)
Last week, I sent you the readings for Holy Week and challenged you to walk through them in preparation for Easter.  Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday are referred to as “The Three Days” in our tradition, and their roots hearken back to the Jewish celebration of the Passover. Part of that tradition among our spiritual ancestors involved slaughtering a lamb and sharing a meal — a reminder of the Israelite’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. Recall that God visited a number of plagues (think water turning to blood, frogs, lice, etc.) on Pharoah Ramesses II to convince him to free the Israelites, including sending the “angel of death” to slaughter the Egyptian’s firstborn sons. The Jewish slaves marked their doorposts with the blood of a lamb so the “angel of death” would pass over them, sparing their sons.

Drawing from this tradition, early Christians observed the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the sacrificial “Lamb of God,” to commemorate the “Pascha,” — Christ’s passage from death to new life. Further, this new life was marked by the liberating gift of baptism. If you go to pages 30-31 in the ELW (which we have been using since 2006), you will see in the inclusion of the Three Days as part of the “Sundays and Principal Festivals” of the Church Year. (Apparently, that is the first time it has been included in the hymnals of our denomination). Again, if you have not taken on those readings yet, I would encourage you to do so this week! We do observe Maundy Thursday and Good Friday with worship experiences at ELC.

After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers and sisters to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

(And additional verses from John 20:1-4) 

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.

TODAY’S REFLECTION (Based on Matthew 28:1-10 . . . See also John 20:3)

** Note: I am constantly reminded while doing this Blog that the more I learn, the more I am confronted with the limitations of my knowledge of scripture! It is so vast. The version of events at the tomb of Jesus vary in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, a good example of how stories translate across time. You may want to read the different accounts. I included the portion from John here, in part, to illustrate that point. 

Mary Magdalene by Koorosh Orooj, Iranian Artist, 2018. Accessed via Wikicommons.

It has been said that history must first be imagined in order to be understood. Let’s imagine the dramatic events outside Jesus’ tomb recounted in the Easter Gospel! First, some background on the two Mary’s mentioned in the text. Mary Magdalene  is a fascinating individual. She is mentioned in all four Gospels as a follower of Jesus and witness to his crucifixion and resurrection. There are twelve references to her in the Gospels, more than any other woman, besides Mary, the mother of Jesus. Honored as a Saint within the Catholic Church, there is much we do not know about Mary of Magdala (another name for her). We commemorate her in the ELCA as “Mary the Apostle” on July 22nd (see “Lesser Festivals and Commemorations” on page 15 of the ELW). It is likely the “other Mary,” at the tomb was Jesus’ mother, but there is some dispute about that among Biblical scholars. We know the two were friends.

Peter and John running to the sepulchre on the morning of the Resurrection by Eugene Burnand (1898).
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Back to the story. As the two Marys approach the tomb, the ground shakes and an angel appears who rolls the stone away, showing an empty tomb. (Note that the guards, strong military men, were stunned and shaken to the point of appearing to be dead!). The angel informs the women that Jesus has risen, as he said he would! Viewing the empty tomb, they breathlessly run to tell the disciples what they have seen. It is at that point they are confronted by the risen Jesus who greets them! What must they have been thinking at that moment? In John’s account, Peter and “the other disciple” (thought to be John) race to the tomb to see for themselves — one of my favorite moments in this story (note the image I have included here). The Gospel writer indicates that the “other disciple” wins that race to the tomb — an interesting detail! Their excitement is palpable and echoes across the centuries.

What are we to make of all this? The deep, rich, and powerful mysteries we encounter during Holy Week remind me that as Christians, we are fundamentally an Easter people, racing toward that tomb, trying to grasp what happened there. Our faith journey is predicated on the acceptance of miracles — water turned to wine, blind people regaining their site, liberation from demonic possession — things we cannot explain. To many in our midst, this acceptance of the unexplainable is simply folly — to them, we are chasing a fairy tale. But, as children of the light, we race on. The central miracle involves our Creator God sending his Son to share in our humanity, to walk the earth for roughly 33 years, to face betrayal, suffering, and a torturous death at the hands of Roman authorities. This Jesus took the dysfunction of the world, including the sins of humankind, upon himself, ultimately liberating us from sin and death, our greatest fear. The moment of his resurrection from the dead shines like a beacon in this unfolding drama we annually replay at this time of year.

And, because he liberates us from sin and death, we are free to love and forgive others. Such forgiveness, at times, is a miracle in itself and runs contrary to the instincts of our broken and revenge oriented culture. I was thinking this week about the greatest example of miraculous forgiveness that I have ever seen. On 17 June of 2015, a 21 year old man named Dylan Roof entered Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina and was welcomed by parishioners to a Bible study. Shortly thereafter, he proceeded to massacre nine people in the midst of prayer and study. At his bond hearing two days later, relatives of the slain victims spoke directly to Roof. In what can only be described as miraculous and amazing grace, one by one, these grieving people offered Dylan Roof forgiveness, not anger.  “I forgive you,” Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, said at the hearing, her voice breaking with emotion. “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

Miraculous forgiveness and victory over death — as Christians, our great gifts. Yes, we are an Easter people. We have a God who is faithful. Let us walk in the sunlight of his glorious resurrection!

PRAYER (inspired by Jeremiah 31: 1-6 and Acts  10:34-43)
Creator God, You assure us of your everlasting love and faithfulness over and over again. And, we know that this love is for all humanity. Grant us the courage to be your witnesses within our community and our world as we grow in faith. Help us to be an Easter people. Amen.  

POSTSCRIPT (prompted by a conversation with Rollie Lee at the Lunda Center. Rollie is a wealth of information regarding church history, among other things!)

This seems fitting for this week. A reminder why Protestant Churches, like the ELCA, primarily display the empty cross, while Roman Catholic Churches primarily display the Crucifix. Here is an explanation of that from “The Compass,” a publication of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay.

“Displaying the corpus of Jesus on the cross is a stark visual aid that helps us to more easily focus on the very real sacrifice Jesus offered for us for our salvation . . . Our brothers and sisters of mainline Protestant and non-denominational traditions typically display an empty cross in recognition that Jesus died once and for all for us, and is now risen from the dead. The cross, like the tomb, is empty. We should see these not as opposing viewpoints, but as complimentary emphasis.”

I appreciate that explanation and certainly both are powerful symbols for Christians! Both reflect the dynamic story of Holy Week and beyond and we utilize both in our home.

Have a joyous Easter!


2 April 2023: Palm/Passion Sunday

Faithful Conversations #7

John 12: 12-19 (Procession with Palms)
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 27:11-54 (Passion Story)

Update on our Process
We are up to 61 members, and as my ancestors liked to say, “mange tak!” Our goal is to promote the spiritual practice of Bible reading through the Revised Common Lectionary — the series of readings for the church year followed by multiple Christian denominations. This statement is from the ELCA website:  “This lectionary provides a three-year series of readings for Sunday . . . three readings and a psalm are suggested and include: a Gospel reading, an Old Testament reading, and a New Testament reading.”  Note that the Lectionary is “suggested,” and therefore not mandated. There is flexibility for those leading worship regarding its use. For example, another option promoted by Luther Seminary is called the “Narrative Lectionary,” a four-year cycle of readings. Various “Preaching Series” are also offered as options for churches. If you want more information on these other approaches, you can visit the Luther Seminary website and go to the “Working Preacher” area (https://www.luthersem.edu/). In conversations with both Pastor Jen and Jerry Humphrey on Sunday, we agreed that reading the Lectionary texts PRIOR to Sunday worship ENHANCES the worship experience, and that really is the whole point! The readings provide context and details for the grand story that we are exploring together! 

And a special note about Sunday’s readings . . . 
Take a moment and look at the list of readings for Sunday (again), and note there are two passages from the Gospels listed. The first one (John 12:12-19) focuses on Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem (more on that in a minute). The second one (Matthew 27: 11-54) is the Passion Story and is repeated on Good Friday, starting with Pilate’s questioning of Jesus and ending with his death. Interestingly, if we traveled back to a Lutheran Church at some point before roughly 1970, the Passion Story would NOT have been included on Palm Sunday. Changes in the Lectionary that came out of something called “Vatican II” prompted this change in the late 1960s. If you want to explore that further, please do so! I won’t get into the details here. The bottom line is that both are included and prompt us to experience a range of emotions on Palm/Passion Sunday. One way to absorb these two readings is to place ourselves within the drama — imagine being in the crowd the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem on that donkey, and also among those who later witnessed his crucifixion!

TODAY’S REFLECTION (focusing on John 12: 12-19)

“The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem” Louis Felix Leullier (1811-82)

One of my history professors at Concordia College liked to say with emphasis, “the three most important words when studying history are context, context, and context!” His point, of course, was that we have to do our best to understand the time, place, and people we are studying through their eyes, their experiences. Recall that just prior to his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:38-44). This dramatic miracle inspired an outpouring of adulation for Jesus among the common people, while invoking fear and foreboding among the Pharisees. The pious religious leaders simply did not know what to do with this young holy man. In fact, they even plotted the death of Lazarus (John 12:9-11) so as to diminish Jesus’ act among the people! One can sense their fear of Jesus and how the people reacted to him, and perhaps their jealousy of him. 

In that regard, it is good remind ourselves, again, that those people waving palm branches and yelling “Hosanna!” were Jewish and carried with them the Old Testament prophecy concerning this event. The “King of Glory” entered the city “humble and riding on a donkey” (see Psalm 24:7-10 and Zechariah 9:9). Their response, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” came directly from Psalm 118: 26. This was the fulfillment of the prophecies they learned in their youth.   And yet, this Jesus came not as a warrior-conqueror on a gallant horse, as some expected, but rather in humility, riding a donkey (in the ancient world, donkeys were a symbol of peace). The symbolism is important, is crucial. It is also important to remember that they experienced this story first hand and DID NOT know its ending.

And that points us to that second reading — the Passion Story. The glorious entry into Jerusalem would be followed by the horrific betrayal and death of Christ, inflicted on him by Roman authorities at the behest of his own people. In John 12:19, we hear that chilling statement from the Pharisees: “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” We know that they had begun to plot the Lord’s death by this time (John 11:53).  What are we to make of this mysterious paradox? Listen to the words of Catholic theologian Bishop Robert Barron  (of Minnesota): “He (Christ) fought, of course, not in the conventional manner. Instead, he took all of the dysfunction of the world upon himself and swallowed it up in the ocean of divine mercy and forgiveness. He thereby dealt with the enemies of the nation and emerged as the properly constituted king of the world.” That phrase from Bishop Barron — the “dysfunction of the world” — hit me hard today. As I write this, we are experiencing yet another school shooting in our nation, this time in Nashville, Tennessee at a Christian school. We are a fallen and dysfunctional people, in need of God’s grace, and our world desperately needs to hear the powerful message of Jesus Christ in 2023!   

PRAYER (inspired by Isaiah 50: 4-9)
Heavenly Father, As we journey through the mysteries of Holy Week, grant us insight into your word. Waken us each morning to listen as those who have been taught. Help us to sustain those who may be weary with a good word, to be your voice within our community and our broken world. We ask this in your strong and loving name. Amen.   

Today is the 30th day of the Lenten journey (40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, not counting Sundays). Palm/Passion Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, a climactic moment in our church year. I have listed the Holy Week readings here and am suggesting that you take them on, especially focusing on the readings from John (as highlighted). You will receive the next installment of Faithful Conversations on Wednesday (5 April), and I will explore the “Three Days” (Easter Triduum) with you at that time, along with the readings for Easter Sunday.    

Holy Week Readings:

*Monday (3 April)
Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 36: 11-15
Hebrews 9:11-15
John 12: 1-11

*Tuesday (4 April)
Isaiah 49:1-17
Psalm 71:1-14
1 Cor 1: 18-31
John 12:20-36

*Wednesday (5 April)
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 70
Hebrews 12:1-3
John 13:21-32

The Three Days: 

*Maundy Thursday (6 April)
Exodus 12: 1-14
Psalm 116: 1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13: 1-17, 31b-35

*Good Friday (7 April)
Isaiah 52: 13-53
Psalm 22
Hebrews 10: 16-25
John 18: 1 – 19:42 (Passion Story)

*Holy Saturday (8 April)
Job 14: 1-14
Psalm 31: 1-4, 15-16
1 Peter 4: 1-8
John 19: 38-42

Let me leave you with the quote from Martin Luther that Jerry Humphrey offered in the comments related to last week’s blog:

“Therefore the call is: Watch, study, attende lectoni (attend to reading). In truth, you cannot read too much in Scripture; and what you read you cannot read too carefully, and what you read carefully you cannot understand too well, and what you understand well you cannot teach too well, and what you teach well you cannot live too well.”

God’s Peace!