Author Archives: Jeff Rudy

Pursuing Simplicity by Jeff Rudy

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress. (Philippians 4:4-14, NRSV)

What comes to your mind when you hear the word “simplicity”? Perhaps you think of the communities of people who we might describe as primitive or at least aren’t bogged down by the “stuff” of the material world, like Mennonites and Amish or Quakers and Shakers, the latter being the tradition from whom the song Simple Gifts comes. Perhaps hearing the word simplicity calls to mind a nostalgic feeling of when things were far less complicated and messy.

I think of a rusted metal sign out in front of my Papaw and Granny’s old house that read “Friendship.” It was attached to a metal pole and sat inside a planter next to the sidewalk that led to the front door. My cousins and I would often go out in the yard during the summer and play whiffle ball. We would pretend to be announcers and say, “Broadcasting today from Friendship Field, it’s a great day for baseball!” It was a simple time, but there is a story behind that “Friendship” sign. It paid tribute to a moment in my family’s history when things weren’t so great. Papaw owned several farms in other nearby communities named “Monkey’s Eyebrow” and “Needmore” and a farm store he owned with my father in “Bandana”…and yes, those are real names of real places in Kentucky.

The mid-1980’s were not so easy on a lot of small town farmers in rural areas like western Kentucky. The business, all the farms, and even their house was in jeopardy of being lost and they would have lost everything if it weren’t for the community coming to their aid. The community sponsored an event at the local high school called “Bill Rudy Day” and raised enough funds to save the house and a few acres around it, though everything else was lost. And so, Papaw and Granny and the whole family came to an intimate awareness of the significance of “friendship.”

I think of that time when I hear “simplicity.” It has been quipped about the modern tendency of humans in Western civilization that, “we buy things we do not need with money we do not have to impress people we do not like.” Richard Foster added to the description of this pressure placed on those who desire to live in simplicity when he said:

We are made to feel ashamed to wear clothes or drive cars until they are worn out. The mass media have convinced us that to be out of step with fashion is to be out of step with reality…[Consider that] The modern hero is the poor boy who purposefully becomes rich rather than the rich boy who voluntarily becomes poor. (We still find it hard to imagine that a girl can do either!)…It is time we awaken to the fact that conformity to a sick society is to be sick. Until we see how unbalanced our culture has become at this point, we will not be able to deal with the mammon spirit within ourselves nor will we desire Christian simplicity.

People who enter a monastery have to take vows and they typically center on three virtues that become the benchmark for the life of a monk: poverty, chastity and obedience. There is a monastic community in the British Isles known as The Community of Aidan and Hilda that has reworded the first two, such that their three life-giving vows are these: simplicity, purity, and obedience. At a conference I attended several years ago in Edinburgh, Scotland, a representative from Aidan and Hilda named John Bell described how life-giving these vows are. He said this: “Simplicity leads us into a deeper experience of the generosity of God; purity leads us into a deeper experience of the love of God; obedience leads us into a deeper experience of the freedom of God.”

This ideal is so counter-cultural; we discover that the more and more inundated we become with “stuff,” with the increased pace of the world, the more difficult it is to be contented and serene with living in simplicity. Indeed, we could see it as challenging as Jesus’ injunction that to be his followers, we must deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow him.

I used to think that the words “easy” and “simple” could be used interchangeably because both words could be used to describe when a task didn’t require much mental or physical sweat – both meant, “no big deal!” But now when it comes to living in simplicity, I’ve discovered that there is a tremendous difference between easiness and simplicity. 

We are far from truly understanding Jesus’ admonitions in the Sermon on the Mount to not worry about anything, but to do just one thing – seek God’s kingdom. We are so caught up in the modern cry for “more!” that we know next to nothing about Paul’s contentment that God’s grace is “enough!”

What comes to your mind when you hear “simplicity”? Listen to this wisdom from Thomas á Kempis, who said: “Simplicity and purity are the two wings that lift the soul up to heaven.” François Fénelon, a French theologian from the 17th century who had an impact on the Wesleys, said: “True simplicity is that grace whereby the soul is delivered from all unprofitable reflections upon itself.”

I once knew a Navy pilot who fought in World War II who lived this simplicity well. He had humility and valued the betterment of his neighbors rather than seeking his own prosperity. His son said that he feared of having too much money more than he worried of not having enough! Similarly, a quote often linked to John Wesley – although there is no definitive proof he said it, it sounds like something he would say – is, “when I have money, I get rid of it quickly lest it find its way into my heart.”

Wesley exhorted the Methodists to live in simplicity, specifically with regard to contentment. He gave these three simple rules: “Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” Some will abide by the first two suggestions, but ignore the third. But Wesley said this:

And yet nothing can be more plain than that all who observe the two first rules without the third will be twofold more the children of hell than ever they were before…Many of your brethren, beloved of God, have not food to eat; they have not raiment to put on; they have not a place where to lay their head. And why are they thus distressed Because you impiously, unjustly, and cruelly detain from them what your Master and theirs lodges in your hands on purpose to supply their wants! So as long as we gain and save, we must give…otherwise I can have no more hope of your salvation than for that of Judas.”

Again, that’s Wesley, not me. So hold your tomatoes! And then this – again Wesley – “The Methodists grow more and more self-indulgent because they grow rich…many are twenty, thirty, yea, a hundred times richer than they were when they first entered the [Methodist] society. And it is an observation which admits of few exceptions, that nine in ten of these decreased in grace in the same proportion as they increased in wealth.”

What does this have to do with a sermon series where we are supposed to be focusing on serenity? Let me give you an example, from among the early Methodists. (The following example is illustrated in Wesley’s Sermon, The More Excellent Way.)

A young man budgeted his yearly needs for living and determined that he needed 28 pounds to live on. The first year he earned 30 pounds, so he gave away the remaining two. The next year he received 60 pounds, he still lived on the 28, and gave away the other 32. The third year he received 90 pounds, he still lived on the 28 and gave away 62. The fourth year he received 120 pounds. Still he lived as before on 28, and gave to the poor 92.

I don’t know that I could do that. To bring this point home, Wesley suggests this piercing question as the guide for how to practice simplicity: “How can you on principles of reason spend your money in a way which God may possibly forgive, instead of spending it in a manner which God will certainly reward?”

Consider this – the first sin in the Bible is a sin of consumerism. A perceived need was portrayed to humans – “Hey you can be like God…just eat this fruit. Be powerful, live extravagantly; partake of its sweet juice.” It is as though you can hear the serpent saying, “Take and eat; this is how you become like God.”

In the story of our redemption, we have a Jewish man who grew up in a peasant family who lived and walked in simplicity. And, on the night he was betrayed, he offered a different vision of who God is and how we can be human, when in contrast to the perpetual temptation for love of gain, Jesus said, “Take and eat; this is how God has given and become like you.”

The redeemed, the serene, the peaceful ones who are reconciled with God will find our God-aimed identity not in what we buy, accumulate, save, or consume, but in how we give.

And we will discover not a false security of peace, but a freeing life, simply enjoying and sharing God’s friendship, God’s generous grace.


This piece from the archives first appeared on Wesleyan Accent in 2015.

Jeff Rudy ~ Third Day Dimension

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?  If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. – I Corinthians 15:12-20

My friend Kevin is a professor of New Testament at my alma mater. He told me about the time several years ago when his father died. He recalled vividly people coming up to him to tell him not to cry, not to grieve because, “That’s not really your father. That’s just a shell.” They were well-intended words, but it was frustrating for Kevin and it came to the point he challenged their words in a most poignant way when he said in reply, “What do you mean, that’s not my father? Those are the hands that cared for me. Those are the arms that took me up and hugged me. Those are the lips that spoke to me; the eyes that searched for me; the chest on which I fell asleep, knowing I was safe in his care. Everything I have ever known of my father was through this body. Don’t tell me that’s not him.”

Now what I’m about to say might sound a little jarring at first, but hear this, and hear me out:

Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead just so you could go to heaven when you die.

That’s not the end game. The goal is something greater than just going to heaven when you die. Because if it was just about that, then what the ancient pagans and Gnostics believed about the body must be true – that our bodies are prisons, that they are merely shells for some sort of immaterial soul within that ultimately longs to be free. To be clear, that sort of picture can be a picture of salvation and of hope, but it is not the picture of Christian salvation and hope that we have in the New Testament. The picture of salvation and hope in the New Testament is very clearly based on an event that took place 2,000 years ago – the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth who had been crucified and died, was buried, and on the third day rose again.

In both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, there are two statements about the resurrection – (1) that Jesus was resurrected on the third day; and (2) the belief “in the resurrection of the body” or “resurrection of the dead” which is about the resurrection that we still await – what we call the “general resurrection.” These doctrines are not euphemisms or merely metaphors to talk about an ethereal reality or our need to “escape” our earthly tents, so to speak. No, Jesus’ body departed the tomb with its scars, though they had healed, and apparently with some new abilities that they had not yet seen. (More on that in a moment.)

In this section of 1 Corinthians, Paul is in the midst of his theological discourse about the content of Christian hope. He’s already established that there are over 500 eyewitnesses to Jesus’ bodily resurrection (verses 1-11). And he now turns to address what appears to be a faction of the Corinthians who weren’t necessarily denying that Jesus was raised (though some were perhaps teaching that), but who were at least denying that a future resurrection was still in store for the people of God.

Most of the world in the first century didn’t believe in an eternity that was based upon the idea of the resurrection of the body. By the time Jesus was around, there was a sect within Judaism called the Sadducees who did not believe in a future resurrection. It was the Pharisees who believed that the resurrection would one day happen as the final reckoning of God’s judgment, when God would right the wrongs and vindicate the faithful by raising them from the dead to enjoy eternity in the presence of God. But the Sadducees and others like them focused their message of salvation in the “now,” which is one reason why the Sadducees frequently are seen in the Gospels in cahoots with the powers that be…to get as much power and prestige in this life as possible.

However, the teaching of the Pharisees and most other Jews was that the resurrection of the dead would mark the final day of God’s judgment: the picture of hope for God’s faithful. It’s what Jesus held to, what Paul held to, what Jesus’ friends and followers believed as well. In John 11, right before Jesus raised Lazarus, he told Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” She replied, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” And what Jesus did next for Martha, Mary and all of Lazarus’ friends was to give them a glimpse of that in resuscitating Lazarus. I say “resuscitate” rather than “resurrect” because Lazarus was raised by Jesus but would one day die again. However, the resurrection would be to life for eternity. And here, my friends, is where the resurrection of Jesus was so surprising: not because they didn’t believe it wouldn’t one day happen, but that it happened on the third day. When Jesus was raised, it wasn’t just a resuscitation, it was something more: he was raised to never die again. That’s resurrection.

And Paul’s point here, as he says elsewhere in his letters, is that what is true of Jesus the Messiah is true of us. What happened to Jesus will one day happen to us. If it won’t happen to us – if we deny that the resurrection of the body will happen – then what is the purpose of Jesus’ resurrection? Paul goes further and says that if we won’t be raised then it must be that Christ was not raised. And if that is the case, then we are still in our sins, because sin and death are intertwined in Paul’s worldview. We would still be in our sins and death would remain the victor.

But, Paul, says, Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the “first fruits” of those who have died. The language of “first fruits” is why we affirm that what happened to Jesus on the third day will happen to us on the final day: that will be the harvest from when we have been buried, planted, interred, or returned to the earth or laid to rest.

So, I say again, Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead just so you could go to heaven when you die. He was raised so that one day we, too, will be raised. God will do more than resuscitate our mortal bodies…but restore, redeem, and endow our bodies, this creation, with amazing new possibilities that will leave us eternally in awe of God’s ability to make all things new.

The resurrection is part of why we ought not treat our world like trash. The resurrection is why my family recycles. The resurrection is why we should be good stewards of our bodies. The resurrection is why we should strive to fight for the dignity and well-being of all humans on the face of the planet. The resurrection is why we seek to be Christ’s hands, feet, and voice now, getting to experience the beauty of salvation now, living for the kingdom of God in Christ now, even while we wait for the later when God will give life to these mortal bodies. And at the end of the day and the end of life, the resurrection is why we do grieve even to the point of breaking down and weeping, because of how much we love and will miss the person who has died. And the resurrection is why we don’t believe these bodies are prisons or shells but when we die, await a glorious time when God will do with our bodies what he did with Jesus’ on the third day. And what do we see Jesus doing after the third day? Well, the same sort of things we do even now: eating fish, breaking bread, walking and talking, showing the scars of our past. Only now, he could do more! As if given a new dimension, he was able to show up behind a closed, locked door; travel to Galilee in no time; and so on.

A new dimension. In geometry, a line is one-dimensional – length; when lines form to make a shape, it’s two-dimensional – length and width. But it remains two-dimensional until you add depth or height. Is that third dimension separate from the other dimensions? No. It is made up of them but adds more.

That’s one way to see the resurrection: it’s something mysterious and amazing and beyond the world as we currently know it. And yet while it is beyond and more than it, it is not so “other” that it is less than whatever truth and goodness and beauty we currently know. Believing this means that we are not to be pitied but that we live in hope.

Note from the Editor: The featured artwork is titled “Harbingers of the Resurrection” by Nikolai Ge, 1867.

Jeff Rudy ~ When Simplicity Is Difficult

Simplicity isn’t easy.

I used to think that “simple” and “easy” could always be used interchangeably, like when asked about a particular task that didn’t require a lot of physical or mental sweat, one could say, “it was simple” or “it was easy” and both would mean the same thing: “No big deal!” But when it comes to what Richard Foster calls the “discipline of simplicity,” whatever other descriptors one may attempt to describe simplicity, “easy” cannot be one of them.

People who enter into a monastery take vows and they typically center on three virtues that become the benchmark for the life of a monk: poverty, chastity and obedience. A monastic community in the British Isles known as The Community of Aidan and Hilda has reworded the first two, such that their three life-giving vows are these: simplicity, purity, and obedience. At a conference on Christian revitalization I attended several years ago in Edinburgh, Scotland, John Bell, a representative from Aidan and Hilda, described how these vows are life-giving. He said this: “Simplicity leads us into a deeper experience of the generosity of God; purity leads us into a deeper experience of the love of God; obedience leads us into a deeper experience of the freedom of God.” This sort of simplicity is of a centering sort and narrows our focus in a similar way with what Wesley called “The One thing Needful.”

It has been quipped about the modern tendency of humans in Western civilization that, “we buy things we do not need with money we do not have to impress people we do not like.” Richard Foster adds to this that the pressure placed on those who desire to live in simplicity when he said:

We are made to feel ashamed to wear clothes or drive cars until they are worn out. The mass media have convinced us that to be out of step with fashion is to be out of step with reality…[Consider that] the modern hero is the poor boy who purposefully becomes rich rather than the rich boy who voluntarily becomes poor. (We still find it hard to imagine that a girl can do either!)…It is time we awaken to the fact that conformity to a sick society is to be sick. Until we see how unbalanced our culture has become at this point, we will not be able to deal with the mammon spirit within ourselves nor will we desire Christian simplicity.

So it becomes clear that simplicity isn’t easy!

A couple of years ago, I was honored to preach at the memorial service of a man who served as a Navy pilot in World War II. It wasn’t something that he talked about, for he was a very unassuming fellow who quietly lived out his days, not seeking attention or accolades for his achievements. But when I scripted his eulogy, I kept coming back to two characteristics that I felt defined his life: simplicity and perfection, both of which are central to Wesleyan theology and spirituality. Here’s why I say that.

There is a quote attributed to several people in the last few centuries, including Elizabeth Seton, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa: “Live simply so that others can simply live.” When I think of that man who exuded simplicity so well, of course I do not mean he was simple-minded. Even to the very end of his life as he struggled with severe Parkinson’s he had a sharp mind, keenly aware of his surroundings, of his identity, of his story, of Scripture and of his world. Rather, by simplicity I mean the way he lived and shared the grace of God he had been given. It was that trademark of humility and valuing the betterment of his neighbors rather than seeking his own prosperity. The man’s son said that he “feared of having too much money more than he worried of not having enough.”

This brings to mind the wisdom about simplicity and stewardship shared by John Wesley, who is (falsely) attributed to have said, “When I have money, I get rid of it quickly lest it find its way into my heart.” Though this statement is nowhere in his writings, I think we can say that it at least sounds “Wesleyan.” Wesley did, however, explicitly lay out three simple rules to guide about the use of money/resources: gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can. Some will abide by the first two, but the mark of a true Christian is to follow it to the end, and give all you can. Whether this man knew that rule or not, he lived by it.

Now let me tell you one more thing about this Navy pilot and why he made me think of “perfection.” He flew fighter planes over the ocean that took off and landed on aircraft carriers. Because of the moving target that is an aircraft carrier, it is not that uncommon for a plane to be waved off, circle around and try again if the controller aboard the ship discerns that a safe landing is in doubt or question. Well, in over 900 landings, this pilot I knew never had to be waved around a single time. He always stuck the landing on the first attempt. Whatever negative connotations may be heard in the notion of “perfection” in today’s world, I can’t really think of any word to use to describe the fact of this man’s flawless landing streak other than “perfect.” Perfection, as any student of Wesley knows well, isn’t about an absolutist sort of ideal where there is no more room for growth. It is, however, about aiming at “the one thing needful.”

And so we come to see that living in simplicity goes hand in hand with a life in pursuit of holiness, or sanctifying grace. For if you do a word search of “simplicity” through Wesley’s works, you will quite often find that he speaks of it in relation to Mary’s action of sitting by Jesus feet, drawing deeply from the well of the “one thing” known as intimate discipleship rather than Martha’s actions of being concerned about “many things.”

To bring the point to a close, Wesley wrote in his sermon Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity the following:

Why has Christianity done so little good, even among us? Among the Methodists? Among them that hear and receive the whole Christian doctrine, and that have Christian discipline added thereto, in the most essential parts of it? Plainly because we have forgot, or at least not duly attended to those solemn words of our Lord, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow me’…The Methodists grow more and more self-indulgent because they grow rich…many are twenty, thirty, yea, a hundred times richer than they were when they first entered the [Methodist] society. And it is an observation which admits of few exceptions, that nine in ten of these decreased in grace in the same proportion as they increased in wealth.

So it is that when more and more resources become available to be used and disposed by us, the more and more difficult it is to live in simplicity. But to live as Christ would have us live means that we ought to define ourselves not by what we consume or possess, but how, in modeling our God who gave of himself, we deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Christ, giving ourselves for others.

That may be simple, but it isn’t easy.

May the Spirit empower us to live in simplicity!


This post from our archives originally appeared on Wesleyan Accent in 2015.

The featured image, Cranes from Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing ca. 1823, is by Katsushika Hokusai.

Jeff Rudy ~ What Good Is a Dead Shepherd?

The texts for this sermon come from Psalm 23 and John 10:11-18.

In the middle of the Easter season every year is what some call “Good Shepherd Sunday,” which falls on the fourth Sunday of Easter. The revised common lectionary readings for this Sunday are always related to the image of the shepherd – Psalm 23 is the psalm all three years, and the Gospel reading always comes from the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel, which prominently displays Jesus’ referring to himself as the “good shepherd.”

Good shepherds develop a sort of bond with their sheep. Some say that the bond is such that the sheep consider the shepherd as one of their own. This can shed a little light on the idea that not only is Jesus our “good shepherd” but is also deemed as “the lamb of God.” The bond of trust between sheep and shepherd is confirmed by David’s meditation on how God is the shepherd of God’s people and by Jesus’ use of this analogy: “I know my own and my own know me.” The sheep know the shepherd by the sound of the shepherd’s voice.

My father concurs with this. Until he suffered a heart attack, my Dad had a flock of about 100 sheep. I talked with him a few weeks ago, reminiscing on those days and pondering on this beautiful metaphor. He said that Jesus’ statement that the sheep know his voice is right on target.

Whenever the sheep got out and Dad was at the farm store several miles away, one of the neighbors would call him to let him know the sheep were out of their pen. The question became, how would he respond? If he wanted the task to not consume the whole day, he couldn’t dispatch one of his employees…the hired hands, if you will…but would have to go down to the farm himself. There was a powerful combination of the sound of the feed hitting the trough along with the unique sound of his voice that would be the key to fully inviting and bringing them back home.

The 23rd Psalm, Jesus’ comforting words, and experiences like my dad’s that confirm these truths evoke a sort of pleasant rural image. But other than these pleasantries, the picture of a shepherd is one that, frankly, we have overly romanticized when in reality, the life of a shepherd, especially in the ancient world, was anything but warm and fuzzy. It wasn’t glamorous; it was messy, risky, tedious, and dangerous. It was really a thankless job, but think about this: shepherds were tasked with caring for the very animals that would be slaughtered as the sacrificial offerings of the worshiping community. Because of the value of the commodity of sheep in the ancient middle east, whenever a sheep or a lamb had been attacked or killed by a predator, the shepherd would have to bring proof by retrieving a part of the sheep, which meant fighting the wolves or whatever the predator was.

And this is the part of the analogy. Jesus said, memorably, that he is the good shepherd, and that means that he is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. This, of course, speaks to a sort of quality that is hailed as wonderful – sacrificial, self-giving, love. It’s a simple picture that emerges really – the sheep face danger; the shepherd goes out to meet the danger, and, if necessary, takes upon himself the fate that would have befallen the sheep. “I lay down my life for the sheep.”

But all of this begs the question about the nature of this good shepherd, which is this: “What good is a dead shepherd?”

“I lay down my life for the sheep.” If that is where Jesus’ analogy had ended, then this question would be even more puzzling. This is more than a theological question; it’s a practical one. If a predator kills the shepherd, what is to stop that predator from destroying the sheep? At the very least, as the prophecy said, when the shepherd is struck down the sheep will scatter. At worst, the wolf eats the flock.

The tragic scene of Aslan’s death in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and what the evil witch says to him as she slays him speaks to this very problem that makes a sacrificial shepherd seem so pointless. The lion Aslan, in the fashion of the good shepherd, had gone to meet the witch and had agreed to trade his life in exchange for the life of Edmund Pevensie who had betrayed the Narnians by leading the witch to them. Edmund regretted his traitorous action, but his punishment was supposed to be death. However, Aslan stepped in and appealed to an ancient agreement that would establish the balance of justice. An innocent life (Aslan, in this case) could be given so that the guilty party (in this case Edmund) wouldn’t have to be condemned to death.

But for the witch, this was more than just about an exacting of punishment or a balancing of the scales – it was a battle in which she was seeking to rule the whole world and destroy or enslave all her enemies. So, after Aslan is tied up, his mane is completely shaved, and he’s beaten to within an inch of his life, the witch drew near to the lion’s ear with an attempt to crush his spirit in defeat as she dealt the death blow. She said this:

And now, who has won? Fool, did you think that by all this you would save the human traitor? Now I will kill you instead of him as our pact was and so the Deep Magic will be appeased. But when you are dead what will prevent me from killing him as well? And who will take him out of my hand then? Understand that you have given me Narnia forever, you have lost your own life and you have not saved his. In that knowledge, despair and die.

What good is a dead Aslan? What good is a dead shepherd? What is to stop the wolf from destroying the sheep too? The answer to these questions is, nothing.

Unless…The shepherd’s not actually dead anymore. Did you hear? The shepherd’s not dead anymore!

As he did in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, so also here in John, Jesus gives a premonition of his death – “I lay down my life for the sheep.” But once again, he also follows it up with the glimpse of hope on the other side of that valley of the shadow of death. “I lay down my life…in order to take it up again.

This is why this passage finds its way into the season of Easter. Because what’s good about the dead shepherd is that he isn’t dead anymore and, in his return, has brought in a bigger flock of sheep than what had been known before. Jesus speaks of another flock to add to the fold – a way of speaking about salvation being not only for those inside the Jewish community, but also for the rest of the world. It was after the resurrection when this reality would come into being. The shepherd’s not dead anymore…and he’s even more powerful than before.

In Narnia, Aslan was resurrected as the White Witch went to battle against the good Narnians led by the humans who were all loyal to Aslan. When Aslan came back to life, the first witnesses were two girls, who laughed and danced and played with him until it was time to gather more troops for the battle. So while the battle is out on the field, Aslan stormed the witch’s castle, breathed upon the creatures that the witch had frozen and they thawed, coming back to life. They then ran out to defeat the witch and sent her comrades into full retreat. In describing his resurrection, Aslan appealed to the “deeper magic from before the dawn of time,” which said, “that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table [on which Aslan was killed] would crack and Death itself would start working backwards…”

What’s good about the dead shepherd who has taken up his life again? The sheep who aren’t in the flock yet but are waiting to come alive are seen as the shepherd to be potential sheep.

Jesus was trying to get them to see that the Gentiles were not really their enemies: they were sheep who weren’t in the fold yet.

And maybe that ought to speak to us about our role in relation to the mission of the good shepherd. The once dead, but now resurrected good shepherd, I would suggest, is telling us – I have other sheep…potential sheep outside of your fences, outside of your walls, that are waiting for the life-giving word, for the life-giving witness, for the life-giving invitation of the good shepherd, whose voice we are called to bear in the world.

Will we introduce them to the good shepherd or will we run and hide like the hired hand?

Jeff Rudy ~ To Be the Body of Christ

Something happens to our bodies about the time we turn 30. Things stop working like they once could and illnesses take a greater toll and become much more difficult to get over. The Avett Brothers recently released a song that says this:

Call the Smithsonian I made a discovery
Life ain’t forever and lunch isn’t free
Loved ones will break your heart with or without you
Turns out we don’t get to know everything

Get the young scientists, tell them come quick
I must be the first man that’s ever seen this
Lines on my face, my teeth are not white
My eyes do not work and my legs don’t move right.

–  The Avett Brothers, Smithsonian

Several weeks ago on a Sunday morning I woke up queasy and I knew it wasn’t just nervousness about preaching. My daughter had had a stomach virus a couple of days earlier. So when I woke up feeling unsettled, and then when my wife woke up a few minutes after me and she said she felt queasy, too, I knew some rough hours were coming. I prayed right then and there – “God, if you can help me hold it together until 12:15 so that I can get this sermon preached in both services, after I get home you can let this hit me as hard as it has to.”

Well, God was faithful to God’s end of the deal. I kept my distance from the congregation that morning, and I made it to 12:15, put on my Green Bay Packers gear and then collapsed onto my bed, which I did not leave except to go to the bathroom for the next 36 hours. I couldn’t even get up and cheer when Mason Crosby kicked the winning field goal. My body has never felt that bad in my whole life. I ached in places I didn’t know you could ache. My body was getting all out of sorts and I couldn’t get comfortable…just miserable.

Now after I recovered, I’ve had several weeks to ponder about not so much the getting older part, but the mystery of how a body processes and responds to an illness. The body is an amazing thing – sometimes extremely fragile, at other times remarkably resilient. It’s amazing how all the parts of the body are intertwined and interconnected, to such a degree that when one part hurts, the whole body hurts with it. Yet at the same time, while the body might be wiped out, there are still some things that you have to do to sustain you through those rough times; even when you have the stomach flu, you have to keep eating and drinking to stay hydrated and get some nourishment to the body for the sake of its survival and recovery.

And then there’s the first meal you have after the virus is finally gone – is there anything quite like that satisfaction? It’s not like you’re able to eat a filet mignon and lobster tail right away, but just the feeling of health and life and strength come back; it’s so refreshing to eat and know it’s going to stay down.

To put it another way – during the sickness, at times it felt like I was getting dismembered – my body was being torn in pieces. And the last thing I felt I had the strength to do was to piece my body together and eat and drink. When my feet couldn’t get me to the kitchen, what had to happen? My wife or the kids had to bring me something.

When our bodies are all out sorts and we feel dismembered, the way to get well again is through a process we might call re-membering, putting the members back together, and this is best done through nourishment of a meal – to practice and celebrate recovery from an ailment, to get healthy again, to gain strength so that the body, now made well, can go on about its purpose – vitality! Life!

There are times when the body, that is, the church, is out of sorts too. Fractured relationships, broken trust, as Paul alludes to in his letter to the contentious Corinthians, jealousy over not getting to be the part of the body you want to be, pride – all of these and more tend to dismember us, if not in actual people leaving the church, at least in a virtual distance even if we’re in the same space to worship or to learn or to break bread. There are times where you just don’t “feel like” it…like breaking bread with him or her or them. “Ugh! I have to share at the table with them?”

But Jesus has said that when we come together to break this bread and drink this cup, we are to remember him. Remember by recalling the mighty acts of redemption through Jesus Christ, but also by re-membering: putting the members of the body back together, through a meal of reconciliation – a meal to restore fellowship, to practice the presence of God and to be truly present to one other, to gain nourishment so that the body, being made well by the mystery of God’s grace, can go on as a body sent out into the world to share that grace with those who are broken and hurting, with those who for some reason or another haven’t made it to the table yet.

We come to the table and the words are spoken – make these elements Christ’s body and blood so that we, that is, the church, might be the body of Christ for the world around us – the world outside these walls. This isn’t a private meal, but an open one so that we all can experience God’s healing grace and become more faithful and empowered to be, as we have envisioned – “…the hands, feet, and voice – the whole body – of Jesus Christ.”

Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you and never be the same.
In your company I’ll go where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow in you and you in me.

Jeff Rudy ~ Bucking the System

Gerard Sloyan, a 95-year-old Catholic priest from New Jersey, made a statement on which I would like to meditate: “Faith in the cross is the world’s great exorcism. Anything else, whatever its flamboyance, is powerless.” Now let that thought settle in the back of your mind.

This message of Jesus is a message about atonement, but not in the way that atonement is often understood or presented. It is a message about “the System,” or the ways of the world that seek to draw us under its own power and to play by its rules. It is about evil and our search for the means by which evil is overcome. So how do we typically envision that?

Perhaps, when thinking of atonement as a victory over the powers of evil, we think of something like the heroic actions of the sailor man we know as Popeye, who in ransoming his true love, Olive Oil, from the grips of the evil, burly bully Bluto, opens his can of spinach which bulks up his muscles so he can knock him out and then rescue his dame from whatever entrapment Bluto had placed her in. Sometimes that sort of caricature gets read into our understanding of the way in which Christ redeems us or rescues us from evil. Or, more often, we go to the pragmatic side of things and search for how we think we are to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves,” as our vows of faith in Christ put it.

To buck the system, in other words, we think we have to play by the rules of the system – which often abides in a cycle of violence. It’s clear, based on the evil we see and experience in the world, that we need an exorcism of the system, and it certainly looks as though the only potential for a successful exorcism is a violent one. The way to bring order out of the chaos of “the System” is through violently defeating the “other.”

The revolution of Jesus as the Son of Man, the Messiah, came to a head, and the sign that the time was nearly there was when a group of Greeks, or outsiders, came to the disciples and wanted to see Jesus. This can be a sermon unto itself. When the “others,” the outcasts, the ones who ain’t our kin, come and want to see Jesus or just want a cup of coffee, how do we respond? Suspicion? Do our defense mechanisms come into play?

When the request makes its way to Jesus, he doesn’t say, “Well, bring them here.” Instead he goes into an odd diatribe of some agricultural reference of a grain of wheat being planted, dying, and bringing about a harvest; then speaks about the honor to be conferred upon those who serve him; and then expresses his inner turmoil about the fact that “this hour” had come and that it would glorify God. And after a mysterious encounter between earth and heaven, between a voice from the sky and Jesus in the flesh that sounded like thunder, Jesus says these words: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” Before we get to what he says next let’s think about what this means.

This is a cry of revolution: a seeming appeal for a great exorcism of the evil ruler of the world. Time to overthrow the empire, time to buck the system! This is the point at which it would be oh, so inviting, for everyone to grab their swords and weapons of destruction to take out the enemy. This is what so many had been waiting for! Time to end the evil regime that has oppressed us for years, decades, centuries! Time to, as they say, “open a can” of spinach…or of something else that you’re likely familiar with…and wipe ‘em out!

Now here is the turning point. Jesus is going to buck the system, alright; he will perform the great exorcism, but after he says the time has come for it to happen, he uncovers the means by which it will be done; and that means is not by opening a can, or taking up a sword, but – “I, when I am lifted up from the earth…” – to indicate, as John interprets for us, “the kind of death he was to die.” Now, this is an exorcism that does more than turn heads; it is one that Jesus says will draw the whole world to itself, to a love so amazing, so divine; and this is done not through violence, but through the death of God’s own Son. How odd!

Why didn’t Jesus take up the sword? Why isn’t that the means by which to overcome evil? Walter Wink says something quite remarkable about Jesus’ point here: “Violent revolution fails because it is not revolutionary enough. It changes the rulers but not the rules, the ends but not the means.”

On the contrary, Jesus changes not merely one throne of tyranny for another but changes the entire system. He bucks the system not by playing according to the rules of the system, but by exposing the system for what it is and where it will lead by his own willingness to die at the hands of that very system. Jesus changes not only the end but the means, by appealing to a tradition that sounds equally odd to our modern ears – “being lifted up.”

This is an allusion to the somewhat obscure passage in Numbers 21 when God, so it seemed, sent poisonous snakes into the camp of the Israelites because they complained about having a hard time in the wilderness. But when the Israelites confessed their sins and asked Moses for a means by which to be saved from the poisonous snakes, God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and lift it up on a pole; if a poisonous snake bit an Israelite, she or he could look at the bronze serpent and be healed. Now digging deeply into that passage would uncover some interesting and heavy questions about what in the world is going on there. But where this meets Jesus’ words is that a poison had infiltrated the system of the world and of God’s people. And the means by which to be healed of the poison is not to fight back with poison but to look upon the one who is lifted up, and see the poisonous system for what it is and where it leads.

To use another metaphor, the world is caught up in a seemingly never-ending cycle of violence that operates like a whirlpool. Think of The Hunger Games and you’re really in a no-win situation where the world grimaces at you saying, “May the odds be ever in your favor,” all the while pleading for a bloodbath to keep the system going the way it always has. The human tendency is to think that the way to stop the whirlpool is to react violently by spinning in the opposite direction, or by joining in so long as you’re the last one standing.

But Jesus’ action is something wholly different. His action, as theologian Mark Baker put it, was like that of a rock in a river that absorbs the energy of the whirlpool and stops it. Baker writes:

In a definitive way the cross broke the cycle of increasing alienation and violence because it absorbed the worst act of violence in the world—the killing of God Incarnate. God did not respond to this by lashing out with a vengeful counter blow, but with forgiving love, thus responding to the root causes of a violent society. The ultimate act of hatred was answered with the ultimate act of forgiving love.

What does this look like, practically speaking, for us? Maybe something like this: I was in a covenant group with an elementary school teacher. One day my friend came to our group on edge and broke down before us about a student in his class who was having difficulty at home and appeared to be caught up in a cycle of violence for generation upon generation in his family. My friend looked at the future of this boy and wept over what seemed an inevitability of the continuation of the cycle. But what we were able to encourage our friend to do was, with the help of Christ, to be like the rock for this young man to be drawn in and see an alternative way to be human that doesn’t have to go with the flow nor attempt to fight against it alone. The world needs some rocks, not to be thrown at it, but to stop the whirlpool.

Jesus’ way of bucking the system is this: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.

“Faith in the cross is the world’s great exorcism. Anything else, whatever its flamboyance, is powerless.” – Fr. Gerard Sloyan

Let’s pray…

Oh Christ, who was lifted up and has drawn us unto yourself.

Forgive us of the times when we have caved to the systems of the world and fought using its weapons rather than allowing them to be transformed into plows and pruning hooks.

Help us to mind the good ground and patiently wait for the bearing of fruit that comes not through suspicion or drawing boundaries around which we demarcate “us” from “them,” but through the faithful following of your way of obedience, humility, and putting others before ourselves.

Grant us the freedom that comes with learning the art of “letting go” rather than tightening our grips to the ways that ultimately lead to the destruction of others and ourselves.

May we join your loving embrace of drawing the world to yourself.

In your holy name, Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God the Father, we pray. Amen.

Jeff Rudy ~ The Greater Light

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. – John 1:6-9

There is something that is inherently musical to this season, isn’t there? Our anticipation of the celebration of Christ’s birth begs a prelude in which to set the stage for Christmas.

The Advent season and its accompanying passages of Scripture are filled with some of the best songs – from Mary and Zechariah to the angels and prophets – all of these and more sing in preparation for the main event. That was part of John the Baptist’s message that we spoke of and that carries over today. And even John the Gospel author gets lyrical as he writes what is called the prologue to his gospel.

In his introductory words to his story of Jesus, John uses language and structure that takes the story of Christ all the way back to the beginning and he sings, in a way, that this Word made flesh who we celebrate was God and was with God “in the beginning.”

It’s a new telling of the creation story. We could even call that ancient creation story “the creation song,” for Genesis 1 carries with it a rhythmic beat that puts the creation of the heavens and the earth in a sort of musical tempo. There is call and response, the voice of God saying, “Let there be…” and the creation responding in an echo, “and so it was…” The author of Genesis puts the creation of the sun and the moon (or as they were referred to in the Scripture the “greater” and “lesser” lights) in the middle of the creation song, which leads to the crescendo of humans made in God’s image to share in the care for the creation along with being fruitful and multiplying.

And the writer John does the same, in a way, as he alludes to John the Baptist, setting the stage for the crescendo of the Word Made Flesh, the new Adam, Jesus Christ. He uses the familiar language of “light and dark,” “day and night” to speak of the sort of world in which the true light was entering. It is clear that John, the gospel author, is alluding to Genesis, and many scholars have suggested that this opening to the gospel was in the poetic structure of a hymn, not unlike what is under the surface in the creation account of Genesis 1.

As I’ve reflected on these creation songs, I wonder if there is a connection regarding the clarity of John not being the true light and Jesus being the light and the reference to the greater and lesser light in Genesis. The greater light in the song of creation is the sun. The lesser is the moon. And we know that the moon does not generate its own light, but reflects the light of the sun. The moon, therefore, only lights the way in a derivative sense.

But it does so, at its best, in the dark of the night – a metaphor for this preparatory season of Advent. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the nights are longest right around this time. But as we look up in the night sky at a silver moon softly gleaming, we can examine it as the sign of expectant hope, that the sun will be up and the day, the greater light, will be here very soon.

The sun is present at night…it’s just not directly visible. And so, the sun can use the reflecting light of the moon to guide those in the dark to prepare the way of the Lord. Jesus Christ, John says, is the true light who was coming to enlighten everyone in the world in the more direct and expansive way, like the sun. He is, in the language of Genesis, the greater light. The moon, a type of foreshadowing of John, is the lesser. In the third chapter of this gospel, John the Baptist will say of Jesus – “He must increase, but I must decrease.” John got it. Jesus is the greater light, and as the lesser light, John knew his role of reflecting the light to the world.

As we join the songs of the angels and Mary, of Zechariah and the shepherds, and John, as we join the song with all creation, let us reflect the greater light, Jesus Christ, into the world, our neighborhood.


Note from the Editor: the accompanying featured image is the work “Fire, Full Moon,” by Paul Klee.

Jeff Rudy ~ Return! A Sermon on the Jubilee Year

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. – Luke 4:14-30 (NRSV) 

What happened in this gospel story? Jesus stands up to read the passage for the day and then proceeds to proclaim a brief word on that passage. However, the hometown crowd didn’t care much for what Jesus, a young man they watched grow up, had to say about it. It was a message of justice, hope, and healing for the people who were not of their town or politics or religion or race. After some time away, Jesus returned home just like the Jubilee year instructed, and he announced that the Jubilee year had begun. This was supposed to be a celebratory declaration! Good news for the poor, liberty for the enslaved and oppressed, healing for the sick – the year of the Lord’s favor. “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Here we go!  

And so, the Jubilee became central to Jesus’ identity and mission – to sound and to bring the good news through his words and through his deeds. When the Jubilee Year was prescribed in Leviticus 25 and when it was alluded to later in the prophets, it was truly good news for the people and their children, for it brought a promise of a new start, of freedom.  

In the tribal culture in which the ancient world operated, whenever someone fell into abject poverty, they had no welfare system, no unemployment office, no social security benefits, no insurance, no banks to loan money. Therefore, people would sell themselves into slavery just to be able to stay alive. It was a normal part of the culture, yet right there in Leviticus, we see a more graceful way, a merciful and redeeming way of caring for those than the rest of the world would treat them. (You see, Leviticus isn’t just a boring book of codes about what to do and what not to do!)  

The people of God were called to exude that more gracious and merciful identity and action all the time. As the promise to Abram said, they were blessed to be a blessing; and as the prophets said later, they were to be “a light to the Gentiles.” Through the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, God revealed a special concern for immigrants, widows, and orphans. Though the rest of the world would see these as the weakest and mistreat them, it should not be so among God’s covenant people!  

And then there would be even more grace in the restart promised every 50 years, when everyone was given a reset. It was a time for all to return home, to set free those who were in bondage, to cancel debts, to give the land some rest, and to return the land back to the family to whom it originally belonged. Do you see this constant reference to “returning”? It reminds me of a certain parable about a return home. 

I’m talking about the story in which Jesus tells of the father with two sons in Luke 15. It illustrates well these elements of the tribal culture and the Jubilee promise offered in contrast with it – a younger son wastes the freedom and resources entrusted to him and an elder son fails to realize the freedom he already has. And yet even having failed to truly live into the freedom so generously given to them, there remains a party to welcome them home – both of them. Both of them are invited to the party, just like the Jubilee year had prescribed. The younger son, as you might remember, had gone to a far-off land and ran out of resources. He had to hire himself out, to put himself in bondage, to an oppressing overlord. He finds himself at rock bottom. When he was at rock bottom, he remembers the grace at home. So he decides merely to ask for forgiveness and to become a slave for his father instead, which would’ve been grace enough.  

But he gets more than that. He returns home and gets the freedom of Jubilee. His sonship had been returned back to him – the father put a ring on his finger and a robe on him to convey this. And then, the father has shoes put back on his feet. The shoes on his feet show that his freedom is returned. We ought not to miss the fact that this was a risky move by the father, but it was a move that speaks to the Jubilee and its restoration. Sometimes I wonder what happened on those next days after the younger son comes back. Will the elder swallow his pride and relinquish his unforgiveness and join the Jubilee, too? How will the younger son adjust to these new shoes? How will he respond to this grace that he really didn’t expect?  

And what about us? The church? What might a return look like for us? It seems clear that we need a moment in which we truly “come to our senses” and start making plans for a return. 

Much of the church is teetering on the line of relevancy in the modern world. What we’ve often done is to think that the only way to survive is to talk about worship style or language, to have better events that will entertain more people, or to have the best facilities that are state-of-the-art – that these are what will “attract” young people. But they only matter in a secondary sense. These peripherals only matter insofar as they contribute to a church who understands and lives into its identity and its strengths for mission and ministry. If a church can’t do that, no matter how technically perfect our worship might be, in God’s view, we’re fighting over pig slop. If we’re not truly making a difference in the lives of people and the community, then we’re just a popular group that will one day be forgotten. No matter how flawless our blueprints or formidable these walls are, in the kingdom view, if they’re not for the sort of mission Jesus’ life was all about, then they are built on sand and will fall when any serious wave hits.  

Then there’s my denominational family, The United Methodist Church, which faces many challenging realities. The UMC in the United States has faced declining numbers every year since the merger in 1968 took place. What might a return for our tradition look like? If we’re on the brink of drastic change, how can we make the most of it?  

Do you know what made Methodism flourish and grow into a sustainable movement? As much as I love a hearty potluck meal, that wasn’t it. And fundraising didn’t make Methodism take off. Instead, there were two central activities that made Methodism truly become a movement with the promise of fruitfulness:

  1. They got together in small groups and asked one another a set of questions that centered on this overarching question: “How is it with your soul?” In that setting they would search the Scriptures together, they would pray, and they would ask difficult questions to prompt one another toward growing in holiness, in God’s grace. Kevin Watson writes at length about this in The Class Meeting, speaking of how this was the way in which the early Methodists were “watching over one another in love.” 
  2. They cared for their hurting neighbors and reached out to those that the rest of the comfortable world preferred to forget – they preached and gave good news for the poor. They made a difference in their world through mission – they visited prisoners, they visited the sick and fought for the cause of healthcare at a systematic level, especially for the most vulnerable of their society. They did things like tutoring children who were struggling in school, they feed the hungry, and they preached “the glad tidings of salvation” to the common folks, who when they saw they were actually cared for in body realized: “You know what? Maybe these Methodists have something to say that is worth listening to.”  

Furthermore, they did these things not haphazardly or aimlessly or in some sort of generic sense, but they were methodical about all this – that’s why they were called Methodists. They went all the way back to their roots, the roots of Christianity, all the way back to Jesus’ mission.  

But the movement transformed into an institution. Over time, the membrane of the living organism calcified into an impenetrable wall that is now on the brink of fracturing. Many of us have ceased to be part of a movement, and when facing decline, we’ve hired ourselves out. We have become in bondage and enslaved to other empires, realities, and ideals – and they’re not all tangible things – the comfort zones of similarity, the security of nationalism, the allure and sweetness and satisfaction of consumerism – the things that are “just for us” or help us pay the bills. Keep in mind that this was the mentality of the younger son when he departed – looking out for himself and his wishes and to make sure he had enough money to enjoy whatever he wanted.  

Might we come to our senses about the pig food we’ve grown content to feed upon and wake up to the promise of the feast and fruitfulness of our foremothers and forefathers? For there we just might find the sort of Jubilee that inspired Charles Wesley to write: 

Ye who have sold for nought your heritage above 
shall have it back unbought, the gift of Jesus’ love: 
The year of Jubilee is come! The year of Jubilee is come! 

Return, ye ransomed sinners, home. 

The gospel trumpet hear, the news of heavenly grace; 
and saved from earth, appear before your Savior’s face: 
The year of Jubilee is come! The year of Jubilee is come! 
Return, ye ransomed sinners, home. 

The year of Jubilee is come! The year of Jubilee is come! 

Return, ye ransomed sinners, home! 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Jeff Rudy ~ Inseparable

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: 

“For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

~ Romans 8:31-39 


One of the more popular Scriptures read at weddings is the love chapter – 1 Corinthians 13. “Love is patient, love is kind…” This Romans passage is more familiar in the setting of funerals and memorial services – appropriately so, given its conclusion that even death can’t separate us from God’s love. But as I read through this passage again and again, I was drawn toward this language of inseparability when Paul speaks of God’s love for us. John Wesley considered love to be God’s reigning attribute. Compare what Paul speaks of here with what we use in celebrations of the marriage covenant. Maybe this ought to be the chapter we refer to as the love chapter.  

Things in life threaten to separate us from God, from one another, from creation, and even from our own identity and calling. Paul lays down the gauntlet of these threats here. Weakness and suffering, unspeakable pain and brokenness that leave others incapable of saying anything that will make it better. The Spirit intercedes with sighs, with groans too deep for words. Sometimes when I look at the brokenness of our world, the walls of separation and anger that we build against one another, the senseless suffering, unspeakable evil, global threats…all I can do is groan.  

But even in less newsworthy moments of life, experiences of separation are part of what it is to be human. Every choice we make necessarily separates us from some other option, some other path. It’s not always related to choices, either. As we grow up, we part ways, or separate, from the stage of life we were previously in. Naturally these transitions have some element of grief and loss, though we may show our emotions differently depending on the circumstance and our own coping mechanisms. But finally, though, there is the sorrow and grief we experience when we are separated from our loved ones by death.  

By acknowledging those moments when there are no words, God can speak good news of his commitment to us; Paul spells out what looks like God’s marriage vow to us. It’s a promise that says that God is working all things together for our good. Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s all well and good at the moment. Paul knew that as well as anyone. And to be sure that the Christians in Rome didn’t get discouraged, Paul spoke of those cosmic powers that cause separation and affirms again and again and again that whatever these things separate us from, they do not and cannot separate us from God’s love.  

The list of things that threaten to separate us from God goes on. Hardship…life is hard. “The Struggle is Real.” What hardships have you faced? Economic? Health challenges or illness? Difficulties in relationships? Overcoming an addiction? Facing a system that is unwilling to bend or adapt? Say it out loud: Life. Is. Hard. And the reality is that hardships separate us from a sense of security and certainty. But, Paul retorts, they cannot separate us from the love of Christ.  

Distress? We exhaust every resource we have and it’s still not enough; we go from the generalized anxiety that many of us face to the more acute moments of a debilitating panic attack. It’s a helpless feeling and it feels like the world is crashing in on you. Stress and anxiety separate us from being in control or even poised and can completely immobilize us. But it cannot separate us from the love of Christ. 

Persecution? There is real persecution in the world – violence done to women and men and children, persecution and imprisonment for simply identifying with Jesus…or with another leader or religion, depending on where you are. Persecution is how worldly forces separate “us” from “them”but whatever persecution there might be, however it might separate you from a loved one, it will not separate you from the love of Christ.  

The list goes on…Famine separates from nourishment and daily bread. Nakedness, a shaming mechanism in the ancient world, separates from the warmth of clothing and shelter and comfort and a sense of belonging. Danger separates from safety and health and exposes vulnerable humans. And Paul concludes with the sword, the very purpose of which is to separate, to break apart members of the body from one another. Yet these things, however they might separate us in powerful ways, cannot separate us from the love of Christ.  

To this point, God’s vow of love sounds a lot like ours in weddings: …to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish…In weakness and suffering, in hardship and distress…None of that will separate us from God’s love. But then comes a new level.  

For our part in weddings, we say “…until we are parted by death.” In God’s commitment, however, as Paul affirms, even those things not covered in our marriage vows – the powers, angels, “anything else in all creation,” life, even death, which can separate us from a loved one, will not separate us from God’s love. You see, the point is that when God in love bound himself to us, it meant he would not ever let go; not even death can keep its grip over God’s love for us in Christ.  

The blessing at our weddings says, “what God has joined together, let no one separate.” The blessing of God’s vow to us says, “God has joined us to himself in love, let no one or no thing separate.” 

Reflecting on the entirety of Romans 8, I return back to how it started. I wonder if what we think would separate us from God’s love more than anything is ourselves – our guilt, our past, our shame, our unworthiness. Some of you may not struggle with this, but many of you have gone through times…perhaps even right now…when you feel unlovable. It’s impossible on our own to escape that feeling. I affirm, though, that just because you might feel unlovable, doesn’t mean that you are. I believe, as Michael W. Smith wrote so simply and beautifully, that we have “Never Been Unloved”:  

I have been unfaithful; I have been unworthy
I have been unrighteous; And I have been unmerciful
I have been unreachable; I have been unteachable
I have been unwilling; And I’ve been undesirable
And sometimes I have been unwise; I’ve been undone by what I’m unsure of

But because of you and all that you went through
I know that I have never been unloved
I have been unbroken; I have been unmended
I have been uneasy; And I’ve been unapproachable
I’ve been unemotional; I’ve been unexceptional
I’ve been undecided; And I have been unqualified
Unaware – I have been unfair; I’ve been unfit for blessings from above

But even I can see; The sacrifice You made for me
To show that I have never been unloved

Friends, there is nothing that can separate you from the love of God. You have never been and you will never be unloved. 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Jeff Rudy ~ What Do You Expect? Promise and Wesleyan Grace

“Is anything too wonderful for God?”  

The question posed by the three heavenly visitors challenged Sarah’s unbelieving laughter (Genesis 18.13-14). Abraham had laughed when God told him (Genesis 17) about Sarah’s impending pregnancy. Had he not told her?

Abraham and Sarah provided a lavish meal for the visitors – each got a steak and each got a cake – hospitality at its finest. And as they place their napkins down at the conclusion of the meal, the strangers make a surprising announcement. Abraham had heard it before, but not Sarah.

“She’s going to have a baby by this time next year.”


“Is anything too wonderful for God?”  

What about God visiting us? What about God actually caring about me, loving you, forgiving us, even taking the mess of a life that I’ve made and transforming it into a thing of beauty? Or what about God doing that for him? Or her? Or them?

“HA! No way! That’s not possible!”

Among the questions asked of pastors who get ordained in The United Methodist Church is: “Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?” Subdued yet audible chuckles can be heard throughout the conference gathered, laughing at the seeming impossibility of perfection. Or perhaps the disbelief manifests as a quiet smile that holds back a laugh, thinking it’s not really possible.

But the ordinand, in the spirit of Sarah here, says “yes” to the question because that’s what the Discipline requires. What will you expect, if not that? Fading off into a fruitless life and ministry? Relying solely on the change of others who show more promise, like Sarah had expected of Hagar in bearing Ishmael for Abraham? But the question is posed in the passive voice – to be made perfect” – meaning that while we make ourselves available, while we make room for God, it is a gift, the work of God, not a human attainment. 

When Wesley spoke of the possibility of perfection in love, he didn’t mean that we are capable of this on our own power or merit, but rather he meant to challenge anyone daring to say that God can’t do it in us. Who are we, really, to answer the question, “Is anything too wonderful for God?” with a definitive, “Yes, that is too wonderful…you can’t change me/us/him/her/them that much!”?

In the three visitors, God wasn’t telling Abraham and Sarah that they would do this on their own; they simply made a promise. Is it not true of us with Jesus’ command to “be perfect”? C.S. Lewis said that that command isn’t “idealistic gas,” but that God “is going to make us into creatures who can obey that command.” Who are we to limit God’s ability to do just that – to transform us into the sort of people who can love perfectly? Remember, this is not the same as perfect performance, but when a life is fully transformed by God so that you love God and neighbor with no trace of fear, a new sort of laughter arises…one like Sarah offered after Isaac’s birth. Her laughter of disbelief had transformed into the laughter of amazement and hope. Maybe a year from now, God will visit again and will have given us a gift of grace on top of grace – lives transformed. And maybe we’ll be able to laugh with Sarah while saying, “Well by golly, look what God did!”

Well, what do you expect?

“Learn to laugh and sing and worship, trust and love God more than all.”