Saturday, November 2, 2019

Where can I find God's Kingdom?

Jesus begins his ministry with the a simple invitation. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  (Mark 1:15 NRSV) 

I want to talk about where to find God's kingdom rather than when. Many people over the centuries have been focused on the timing of God's Kingdom.   They see that when Jesus uses the word near he was talking about time, but what if Jesus was using the word in its other sense in order to talk about space. What if Jesus meant that the Kingdom of God is close?   It's right here, you can find it if you look.

Since the earliest gathering of the church the core Christian confession about Christ is that "Jesus is Lord."  He is the king.   As Jesus debates with Pilate in the Gospel of John, one of the things that Pilate seems to misunderstand is where Jesus is the King of.   For Pilate the Roman politician the only reason anyone could claim to be a king is because they actually have a kingdom.  Jesus replies  “My kingdom is not from this world” (John 18:36 NRSV)  The grammar matters; Jesus speaks about the kingdom in present tense, therefore it already exists.  You may well ask,  if as Jesus says. his kingdom is not from this world, then how can it be close to us spatially? 

When Jesus spoke about God's kingdom being not from this world he appears to be explaining that the nature of it is different than anything else we experience in this life.  We can infer this because Jesus himself asks a rhetorical question about God's kingdom   “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?" (Mark 4:30 NRSV) He then uses a variety of parables from a variety of life experiences to help us grasp the mystery.  It is the fact that God's kingdom is such a singular phenomenon that we might miss where we can actually find it.

One thing we can not do is bring about the kingdom on our terms.  We must find the kingdom on God's terms.   It is God who gives the kingdom.   A parable such as the seed growing secretly points this out.  "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how." (Mark 4:26-27 NRSV)

Some may say that we can not find it in this life, it is in the afterlife.   But when I read a verse such as   “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62 NRSV) this limited view of the kingdom seems to make little sense.   Instead, from my reading of the Gospels I see that kingdom includes both this life and the next.   The next life, like this life is a component of God's kingdom.  So, part of the good news of the kingdom is that we do not have to wait until we die to see it. 

So where can we find the kingdom?  The answer is simple, find the king and you will find the kingdom.  We know that king is found wherever the body of Christ is found.  In other words,  the kingdom is not so much a place as a people.  Jesus explains  Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. (Luke 13:29 NRSV). 

The two metaphors for the kingdom fully experienced (which is what heaven really is) are the great feast and the great worship.   The feast was Jesus' primary metaphor for the complete kingdom.  John of Patmos gave the church the vision of worship as a metaphor in the final book of the Bible.   The thing that holds these two visions of the kingdom together is the faithful gathered.  A great church service in this life can be a "foretaste of the feast to come."   Now I realize that church services (even at my own church) are not always great, however one can always catch glimpses.  One can grab hold of the reality that the kingdom is close. 

Additionally. worship is only one of many ways that the faithful gather.  We gather for study, fellowship, and service as well, and the kingdom promise works when or wherever the faithful gather to love God and neighbor.  The hope that the kingdom is near to me, you, and anyone in this world is good news in the midst of the strife that we experience in this world.   I invite you to come along with us this November and find how close God's kingdom really is.

Be blessed
Pastor Knecht

Friday, October 4, 2019

Blessings: The Strength for the Fight

We often misunderstand what blessings are.   Most people focus on blessings as a result of some action on our part.   We think we are blessed because we did… (insert a random pious action here).  But Jesus turns this all on its head in the Sermon on the Mount.  Mathew Chapters 5-7 are Jesus’ most important teaching about how people should live out a life that is faithful to God, world, and neighbor.   Jesus’ manifesto in Matthew 5 not only focuses on blessings as a result of following God, but also more importantly, as gifts from God to follow God.   Blessings are grace.  Blessings are also the fuel that helps us in the daily fight of living in a broken and sinful word.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus directly contradicts the pagan messages of the so called “prosperity gospel” or the American cultural idea of “the power of positive thinking.”   We are given encouragement to be honest with ourselves and our real situation in life.   The times when things are not going right, and we are losing heart, are precisely the times when God promises to come.  Jesus reminds us elsewhere that he came not for the righteous but the sinners.  To paraphrase, not for those who stuff is together, but those whose lives are falling apart.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Grief and loss are part of living in a world in bondage to death, blessings are that which God gives us so that we do not give into despair.  The gospel of Jesus Christ is for those times when we experience the most profound losses.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” 

We are culturally conditioned to honor the assertive, aggressive, and narcissistic.  Celebrities, athletes and CEO’s have replaced Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite and Apollo in our modern pagan pantheon.  We would rather choose a celebrity to lord it over us than a committed public servant. In contrast, God honors the humble, empowers the kind, and inspires those who consider the lives of others as well as themselves.  Because we can’t love our neighbors if no one even bother to think about them.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Those who want things to improve are working for the healing of our world, therefore why wouldn’t God bless them to continue their important work?  These are the people we don’t like while they are alive and lionize when they are dead.  In order to fix things, we must do things, and our laziness demands we put targets on these people’s backs. Those who work for justice are God’s allies in the healing of our world.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

Mercy is how God chooses to engage us.  When we show mercy, we conform our lives to Christ.  We often don’t like mercy because it is inherently unfair, we are letting someone off the hook.  Yet as the incarnation reminds us, God choose maintaining a relationship over abstract fairness.   Without mercy we remain in a prison of our own making.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

If we can’t see the good in our world, our fellow human beings. and life itself, it will be hard to see God because God is good.   When we give into cynicism, we build a wall around ourselves neighbors and world.  The pure heart keeps the door open to the good and therefore God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Jesus was sent by God to put a fractured world, broken communities and divided hearts back together.   The Hebrew/Aramaic word for peace that Jesus used meant to be whole.   Those who do and make peace help make people, families, communities and nations whole.  They are blessed because they are part of the healing.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Our society and often even our churches will not honor those who are the most faithful; we will judge others using our own fallible criteria.   So, we need a Godly vision, lest we perish, and that vision is the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Apostle Paul writes: And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. 2 Corinthians 5:15 (NRSV) The Kingdom of God is predicated on a single common humanity.  This core idea of our faith is under direct assault.  Those who work for it are persecuted and abused, yet they keep up the fight.  They are able to because they are blessed.  Blessing is the fuel for our Spiritual warfare, so be blessed and keep the faith.

Pastor Knecht

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Jeremiah: God's Voice for His Time and Ours

What do you do when the world you grew up in changes beyond all recognition?   What do you do when the institutions that you have relied upon appear to be breaking apart?   What do you do when your society is threatened by forces that are beyond your control?  How can one go on when your community is devouring itself through conflict?  These are all questions the prophet Jeremiah wrestled with as he followed God's call to bring God's Word to a people in crisis. 

The prophet Jeremiah was called to be God's voice to the people of Israel while their society was falling apart from within and being assailed from without by the superpowers of the day.  As a prophet, he was not called so much to predict the future, but rather tell the truth about what God was doing right in the moment Israel was living through.   This was no easy task for him then, or us today.  As a prophet who served in trying times, Jeremiah has much to say to anyone facing adversity now.   

At times, Jeremiah would be called to bring a hard word that told people where they were going astray and accelerating the decline of their community, such as when he spoke:  "But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit." Jeremiah 2:11 (NRSV).  Jeremiah would often face the anger of the community because of the message he had to bring.   He would lament his isolation from, and ostracization by his community.  Other times, Jeremiah would be caught up in the conflicts of a divided society.  One faction, angry that he had chosen the wrong side, would abduct him and take him into exile in Egypt. (Chapter 43) What the community could not realize as it lived into its worst fears, is the love that Jeremiah had for God and the people he served.  Jeremiah suffered because he loved his people and his land and would not give up on either. 

Yet, through all of this adversity Jeremiah remains a prophet of hope.   When the chips are down, he puts his money where his mouth is and invests in his community. (chapter 32)  When given the offer to seek safety in Babylon, he decides to follow God stay with the people in Jerusalem despite the risk. (chapter 40) He ends up being abducted (chapter 43) because he tells the people not to flee, but to trust in the power of God.  He gives messages of hope to those who have been exiled to Babylon, to open their eyes to the power of God's Spirit, which is stronger than any of the forces of the age.  

This hope is culminated in Jeremiah's vision of a New Covenant written on people's hearts where they no longer have to guess what God's thinking because they will know God with an intimacy we can only imagine.  But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Jeremiah 31:33 (NRSV)

So, if you have courage to look at where the faults of our time may be and if you have the desire to find hope in surprising places, I invite you to follow the story of Jeremiah with us this fall in worship and study.   For in our time we are seeing pressures from without and pressures from within that threaten to devour us and our world.  Yet, like the prophet we hold onto the promise of healing (chapter 8).  I pray that by reading, contemplating, studying and praying about God's Voice in the time of Jeremiah we can find the hope of what God may be saying to us today.  Come along with us at Holy Cross Sundays 10 AM this fall. 

Be blessed 

Pastor Knecht 

Friday, June 14, 2019

Pastor's Annual Report to Holy Cross 2019

Matthew 5:14-16 (NRSV) “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

I would like to thank everyone who contributes their time, effort and prayers for the sake of our ministry together.   I realize that with all the transitions going on within our church it can make it hard to figure out what to do to help.   So, I appreciate everyone who has stuck with us over the past year as we prepare for our new model of ministry in partnership with Lutheran Social Ministries.   Even though it has been a year that has been spent in waiting for something new to happen, we have still accomplished much together.   As you read the contributions from our ministry leaders contained in this report, you will see that God is doing wonderful things at Holy Cross with and through you. 

I also want to thank you for contributing financially to our ministry.  Right now, is one of the most critical times for our church financially.   We can see the light at the end of the tunnel when we will have new model of ministry, where our 2002 building will be transformed from an object of ministry into a resource for ministry.    The rental payments, utilities costs and the covering of half of my salary by Lutheran Social Ministries of New Jersey will place our congregation on solid fiscal ground.   More importantly, it can model to other churches a new way of doing ministry in a time when the role of the church is rapidly changing in society.  Your gifts will help make this happen by helping us navigate the transition, which will last until early next year.   Please consider increasing your weekly giving for the summer to help us make the transition easier.  A one time gift this summer would be another way to help prepare us for future fruitfulness.

During this past year we have said goodbye to some old faces and said hello to some new ones, so our worship attendance remained relatively stable.   Our Nursery School ministry has been stable during the past few years, but there may be some challenges to overcome as it will have to adapt to the new use of our space.

It has been a joy to see our youth grow into using their gift for the glory of God.   Our elders have done a wonderful job in leading our food ministry to Springfield to help our neighbors in need.   Our women’s bible study has been faithfully reestablished, and we look forward to a new men’s Bible study starting in the coming months.    We have combined our confirmation ministry with St. Mark’s in Morristown, which gives our young people a larger and more fun group to work with.    We will be looking for other opportunities to partner with other churches for a more fruitful ministry. 
Most of the year has been a time in between our past and the new reality that God is giving birth to.  I am very excited about the possibilities for ministry by partnering with the PACE program of Union county.    It will provide an opportunity to help those in need and be a chance for our congregation to use our gifts for God’s purpose. 

An important piece of the plan is that I will serve as both Chaplain for the PACE program and Pastor of our Congregation.   This means that we will be offering some worship and bible study opportunities during the week that members of our congregation can participate in.   I am also hopeful that by working with families in critical times of their lives, we will have the ability to share the Good News of Jesus Christ in new ways that offer people peace now and the hope of the better life to come in the Kingdom of Heaven.

I chose the verses from Matthew in the hope is that by moving in the direction that God has shown we can let our light shine before those in our neighborhood so that God may be glorified.   In this time of uncertainty nothing is needed more for the health of our community than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.   We are called to bring God’s people together from every generation, ethnicity, and identity so that we can glorify the one who has given us life.  Our proclamation will gain traction only if we act out Jesus’ message of hope as well as speak about it.   In the Bible and the history of the church when these work in concert God does great things.   I pray that God is leading us to place where our worship is powerful and our service compassionate and effective.

Thank you for being part of our community.  I am very blessed by everyone who is part of our church family and I look forward to the great future that God is doing with us.

Respectfully Submitted in Jesus Christ,

Pastor Knecht

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Is Christ an Avenger?

With all the buzz about the latest Marvel Avengers film about, I recently noticed a meme in my social media feed that portrayed Jesus as an avenger.  It even had him dressed in a superhero costume. I'm sure this is all just some good clean fun!   However, until archaeologists dig up said costume, I will assume Jesus didn't really have one.  The verse quoted in the meme is:

 that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things,1 Thessalonians 4:6 (NRSV)

This is the only time that Paul or any other New Testament writer calls Christ an avenger.  Jesus never speaks of himself using this term.

An a avenger is one who brings vengeance, and the Bible has much to say on this topic. For example St. Paul writes:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:19-21 (NRSV)

So vengeance is the province of God and does not belong to us.  So one can speak of God and Jesus as avengers only in the sense that ultimate justice is determined by God.  Looking at some of the other ways we describe Christ might help us see why the term may not really explain who Christ really is. 

The first confession of the early followers of Christ was to call him "Lord". This was the confession that Christ is sovereign and one with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.   Avengers are reactive. They are responding to the actions of others.  When we confess Jesus as Lord, we are confessing that God is in control.   The outcome is assured. God is acting first for the salvation of all and we are the one's responding to events initiated by God.  In superhero movies like the Avengers series, they are never in control of events they are reacting and surviving.

The followers of Christ, shortly after his resurrection began to call Jesus "Savior." Jesus doesn't merely avenge,  Christ saves. Salvation looks very different than vengeance.  Vengeance is temporary and cyclical, it only lasts until the next slight.   Salvation is permanent and eternal; it breaks the cycle of sin and retribution.  Vengeance is about hurting the perpetrator back and causing wounds as payback.  Salvation is healing and making whole.  Vengeance is filled with anxiety while salvation is peace in every sense of the word. Vengeance kills, but salvation gives life.

So the central witness of Scripture shows that Christ is God's Son who is sovereign and wills that all who believe will be saved.   God jealously holds on to vengeance because of its destructiveness, while Christ offers salvation freely because it renews, redeems and restores people and things.  Scripture teaches us that God is Justice and God determines what Justice is.   While vengeance may be a tool in bringing about Justice, it is rough and incomplete one.   It can only get one so far.

This is clearly seen in the only instance I could find where God was called an avenger in the Old Testament.  The verse is in Psalm 99.

O Lord our God, you answered them;
you were a forgiving God to them,but an avenger of their wrongdoings. Psalms 99:8 (NRSV)

The psalmist is describing God as the King who loves and is committed to Justice.  In this psalm the avenger is also the forgiver.   God drives out the evil but restores the relationship with the evil doer.  The psalmist then advocates that our appropriate response to this is worship.   This theme is picked up in the last book of the Bible, the Revelation of St.John.   In your Bible you may notice that Christ is called that "Almighty'.   This is the English translation of the Greek term ὁ παντοκράτωρ which really means ruler of all.  The Bible concludes with a picture of God's promised salvation in the new heaven and earth that requires no sequel.

So, is Christ an avenger? Well, yes he is, but He is so much more. I pray that you may nurture your faith by seeking out God through your interaction with Scripture.   This way your picture of God will be defined by the Word of God Himself and not merely the culture.  For we have a Lord and we have a Savior for whom a costume is not necessary.

Be blessed

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Worship: Are you Experienced?

I noticed that lots of churches today are calling their Sunday gatherings an “experience” rather than a “service”. Changing the names of doing things Christians have done for centuries is a peculiar characteristic of the American Protestant branch of Christianity.  It is one thing that unites both liberal and conservative Christians in this country. It probably has to do with the fact that the United States religious landscape is characterized by competition and we are all trying to get an edge to help our congregations grow.  I understand that changing the descriptor of worship from service to experience is usually done for evangelistic reasons.  The idea of having an experience may seem less threatening than performing a service to people who have demands on their time coming from all directions.

However, worship is the primary action of the Christian community, so we should really take a step back and ask ourselves, is this a good thing?  Does the word experience communicate what we are seeking have happen in our worship?  We should also ask the same question of service.  I would start by taking a looking at our sources and see what they say about what our worship should be. 

St. Paul gave a quick model for worship in his dialog with the Christians in Corinth: What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 1 Corinthians 14:26 (NRSV)  So, is this experience, service or something different?

To the Christians in Rome Paul would describe worship in the following way: I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Romans 12:1 (NRSV) This one seems move us in the direction of service.   One doesn’t just attend worship but presents oneself as a sacrifice.  But still I think there is more than service going on.

In John 4, Jesus has a dialog about worship with a woman at well in Samaria: But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  John 4:23-24 (NRSV) Do the words experience or service capture what Jesus is trying to communicate to this woman who was need of acceptance and healing?

If you asked me which term is more biblical overall, it would be the word “service”.  Forms of the Greek verb λειτουργια are used about 15 times in the New Testament and it can be translated as “to serve” or “offer service” and used on several occasions to describe worship.  The English word “liturgy” which traditional churches use to describe worship, is the loan word derived from this New Testament term.

Words that can translated to the English word experience occur 10 times in the New Revised Standard Version.  The King James only uses them 4 times.  No Bible translation uses the word to describe worship.  So, calling worship “an experience” is obviously a modern innovation.  That need not be deal breaker if we keep to the core of what our worship should be but does it?

My gut reaction to using the word experience to describe worship is a negative one.  The word is too passive.   It has connotations of entertainment and its goal seems selfish and unfulfilling.  It is too much like going to a concert or watching a movie and worship should be more.  Yet, I must admit that as a pastor one of the blessings in my current ministry is “experiencing” the ministry of our worship leader and team he has assembled to lead our congregation in song.  On countless Sundays over the years I have had to drag myself out of bed wondering how I could face the congregation I serve, only to have the worship inspire and encourage me to give. So yeah, part of great worship is the experience.

Even though the word service has a Biblical basis, I think it also is lacking.   Worship is not just about what I can bring to God, it is what God can do with, for, and to me.  If it is only about what we do, then worship can become drudgery.   Unfortunately, I have witnessed this happen when we in the church make too many demands of those who attend.   In summary, I suppose we should be careful about limiting the phenomenon of worship to the words we use to describe it or qualify it.

My choice for the congregation I currently serve is to let the word “worship” stand alone. I no longer use words like traditional or contemporary to qualify it.   Keeping it simple helps preserve the idea of majesty and even mystery.  For worship in Spirit and Truth that Christ describes will always be more majestic than our words.   Worship should be “an experience”, but remember we are saved for a purpose which means it should be a “service” to live out our call.   In all its unfathomable majesty worship should encourage, challenge, stimulate, comfort, heal, and all kinds of other things.   For indeed our best worship is when we meet and come face to face with the unfathomable God.

As we come into the church’s great season of worship, I pray that worship in your congregation may be so wonderful as to be indescribable.

Be blessed,
Pastor Knecht

Friday, March 1, 2019

What’s Up with Lent?

The season of Lent has been a time when Christians have focused on the core principles of their faith.   Early Church historians point out that Lent was at first the time when early Christians began to teach people about the faith in preparation for their baptism.  Many Christians in the first few centuries of the church were baptized during the Easter Vigil Service (a service that starts sometime after sundown on the Saturday before Easter) to accentuate the believer participating in the event at which Jesus Christ saved the world. So basically, the season was a time prepare new disciples of Jesus Christ.  What ended up happening is that rather than segregate these new disciples to work on their faith alone, the church decided it was best if we all work on this together.  Lent has been and is a time to get serious about our faith ever since.

Lent has always included the following elements to help people commit or recommit to a life of discipleship:

1. A call to repentance: we recognize our need for God and our need to be forgiven for the things that we have done or failed to do.   The words “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” spoken as ashes are imparted in the beginning of Lent, remind us of our limited nature and our inability to save ourselves.   Since Hebrew Bible times ashes communicate the realization of the believer that life is transient and that only by appealing to the Eternal One can he or she have any real hope.

2. A re-commitment to living out the faith daily: sometimes our healthy patterns of practicing the faith can drift away due to the demands of living in a sinful world.   The repentance spoken of above is characterized by the Bible in one of two ways.  Changing one’s mind or changing one’s direction.   So, Lent can be a time recommit to a practice that has been left behind in the chaos of our living in broken world.  Restarting Bible reading or a prayer practice, or attending worship more often are some common examples.

3. The exploration of new ways to live out the faith: changing one’s mind about one’s faith and starting a new direction in the faith can mean picking up a new practice or new way of living the faith that you might lead you to a closer relationship with God. If you haven’t had a regular devotional life before, Lent is a perfect time to start.

4. The denial of those things that obscure our faith: perhaps the idea of “giving something up for Lent” is the most common way people think about Lent.   People fast so they can remember what it is like to be hungry for something.   This opens the heart of the believer for God.   Lent is perfect time to drop a behavior that is leading your life astray.   It is a perfect time to do away with those things which make us unhealthy and weigh on us.  An essential part of a life of discipleship is to care for the life we have been given because that is what those who love us would like us to do, and nobody loves more that God who sent Christ to save us.

5. The preparation of the heart for the coming joy of Christ’s resurrection: reliving the story of God sending Jesus to the Cross and Resurrection is the best thing one can do with Lent.    We are reminded of our own dignity as well as our brokenness and God’s answer to the dilemma of living in the tension between these two things.   The best part of Lent is about making the story of Jesus real again.  This can kindle hope which strengthens our faith, which in turn can empower us to love others as Christ loves us.

Just as we set time apart for God Sunday of each week, we also set six weeks out of the year to focus on the essentials of our faith.  Lent is a gift to help us not to take the essential elements of our faith for granted.  It enables us to remain grounded in the faith that gives life.  It is this faith that kindles in  us hope for each day and that
hope helps us persevere through all the challenges that we face in life.

Be blessed
Pastor Knecht

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Have You Suffered Yet?

Perhaps if I told you of the things that cause me to suffer you would dismiss me, saying by what right do you have to bother us with this?  Perhaps you would point out my race, my class, my gender, my education level, my citizenship and marital status and label me as someone just trying to justify a sense of entitlement.  Indeed, you could point out that I have a variety of privileges, and you would be right.  I am privileged in many ways.  I am able to live with things and do things that others are not able to do.  However, just because I am privileged doesn't mean that I do not suffer, I do.   You can minimize my suffering all you want and I can minimize yours, but it will not change the fact the suffering exists in all of our lives to one degree or another.  For to suffer is to be human.

One of the signposts to Jesus being fully human in traditional Christian thought is the simple fact that Jesus suffered.  One hundred and one years ago the world suffered the Spanish Flu pandemic, it respected no boundaries of gender, race, class, or ethnic affiliation.  If you were infected you suffered or maybe even died.  The existence of suffering in our lives is evidence of our belonging to a single common humanity. The spiritual question of suffering is not so much about whether one suffers or not, but rather what does someone do when they suffer.  In our church we read the following verses from Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians at funerals:

2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (NRSV) Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.

There are two things going on in this short passage, which will cause problems for those with simplistic world views.  The first is that suffering represents a spiritual opportunity.   The God of all consolation named by St. Paul consoles us in our suffering.   Suffering is an opportunity to rely on  God.  Many people will stop me here and complain, so what?  The answer to this is that until one suffers, the person doesn't really know who his or her friends are.  Those who stick by you in suffering show their love for you.   If they walk away, they don't love you.   Paul tells the community in Corinth that because of the cross and resurrection we have proof that God sticks with us.  We know that we are loved by God, and that can change things.

The second point that Paul makes is particularly relevant for today.  Paul sees the purpose of one's suffering as opening the heart to the other.  The spiritually mature person is called to use their suffering to direct her or himself toward empathy, compassion and acts of consolation.   Our suffering should be directed to find common ground with others who suffer.  It is a call to transform the bad that happens in our lives to good by connecting with someone who has something bad going on in their life.

This Christ-like attitude of using one's suffering to connect to another person has been used by countless of the faithful to promote the healing and well-being of others.  For example, during his imprisonment by the Gestapo, Dietrich Bonhoeffer befriended, prayed for, and offered spiritual care to his guards.   Additionally, one of the most meaningful books written by acclaimed author Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love was gleaned from his journals while he was hospitalized for depression.   The book had a profound impact on me, and helped me find some healing while going through a difficult time in my own life.  This is exactly the type of thing that Paul was alluding to when he wrote the Corinthians so long ago.

As you are probably aware, this is not always how people respond to suffering.  Some of those suffering may act out of their pain and condemn others because they are envious of people they perceive as having an easier life.  Others may fall into despair and give up life all together.   Some may lash out at those whom they blame rightly or wrongly for their afflictions.   These negative responses to suffering are indeed understandable in some cases, but are never very healthy in the end.   Those who respond with envy end up in prison of bitterness.  Those who respond in despair end up in a prison of meaninglessness.  Those who respond with revenge end up in a prison of violence.

The only way out of these traps is to choose life over death. This is done through the twin spiritual gifts of compassion and forgiveness.   This is the core message contained in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Forgiveness given in love transforms the suffering afflicted upon God's son into love for our world.  God's response to Christ's suffering was resurrection and reconciliation. To forgive frees the sufferer from control of the perpetrator of the suffering.   Compassion transforms what was once a detriment into an asset bring hope and healing to others.

Please understand I am not wishing suffering upon anyone.   Any person who has suffered and has compassion for others could never do that.   What I am saying,
is that if suffering comes your way, we have a God who is more powerful than anything that causes us to suffer.   This God is able to take the evil of our suffering and transform it for good.  This essay is to written to give you strength and encouragement today and in the future.   It is a call to rely on the one who has suffered for us, Jesus Christ Our Lord.

Be blessed
Pastor Knecht