Goodbye Eugene Peterson

You have probably heard by now that Eugene Peterson died last month. Ever since my friend Dale told me to read A Long Obedience in the Same Direction I was reading everything from Eugene Peterson I could find. Peterson’s contemplative exegesis helped me at a stage when I was struggling to make connections between a biblical theology and a practical pastoral theology. I suspect it was the same for many. Peterson will not be remembered primarily as a preacher. Instead, he will likely be remembered as the guy responsible for The Message or as an author of many books. Yet, as evidenced by As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire, a book of sermons that were preached by Peterson, he was a preacher. I suspect there is a long list of preachers who considered Peterson to be their pastor.

As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire can be read as a devotional or as a sermon primer. It certainly helps us to understand a little how Peterson thought about scripture. It helps us understand a little bit about this one who desired to be like a kingfisher “catching and reflecting sun brightness.” It helps us to understand a little about this one who desired Christ to be “playing through our limbs” in ways that we can live the Christ life “almost in spite of ourselves.” He calls these written sermons “kingfisher sermons” because he knows that capturing a sermon on paper is like trying to “sketch a kingfisher in flight.”

I love what his son Leif Peterson said about his father at his recent funeral. “The writer of Genesis tells us that at the end of each day of creation, God looked around the world that He had done, and saw that it was good.” He goes on to say “I think my dad did that a lot. He was always looking around at the mountains, at the flowers, at the birds, at the relationships forming and playing all around him, and you could tell from that signature twinkle in his eyes, what he was thinking ‘oh man that’s good, that’s really good.'”

He continues by saying that he used to joke with his father and tell him that he “only had one sermon, one message… It’s almost laughable how you fooled them, how for 30 years every week you made them think you were saying something new… They thought you were a magician in your long black robe hiding so much in your ample sleeves, always pulling something fresh and making them think it was just for them… They didn’t know how simple it all was. They were blind to your secret.”

Leif Peterson said that he knew his father’s secret, however, as he had been telling him for 50 years. “For 50 years you steal into my room at night and whispered softly to my sleeping head. It’s the same message over and over: ‘God loves you. He’s on your side. He’s coming after you. He’s relentless.’”

I love that. Thank you, Eugene, for a life well lived.


Complaint and Hospitality

Acts 6.1-7: A Written Sermon

At the start of this text, things are good. Disciples are increasing and the word is spreading. At the end of this text, things are good. Disciples are increasing and the word is spreading, things continue to be good.

That tells us that whatever happens in between the beginning and end of this text doesn’t stop disciples from increasing and doesn’t stop the word from spreading. It might surprise us then to discover that what happens in between is a complaint.

Complaining? Grumbling? Disagreement? Is that supposed to happen at church? Isn’t the church supposed to be a grumble free zone? Should we be telling attenders to leave complaints outside? We already have a prominent “No Skateboarding” sign, should we add a sign that says “No Complaining?”

We are told what this complaint is about. It is about food. Some are being left out during the daily distribution of food. No wonder a complaint is made.

But no one holds up a sign that says “no complaining.” Instead, the complaint is heard and not only is it heard, it is treated with dignity. It becomes important enough that everyone pitches in and they decide to call seven people specifically to serve as table waiters. They call people to make sure no one gets left out at dinnertime again.

These aren’t adolescents coming home from school and rummaging through a pantry full of things they do not want and claiming “there’s nothing to eat.”

No, these are widows who are likely without income or assistance and likely not getting anything to eat. So, the church calls seven people to wait on tables. We get the feeling this is an important part of the church’s story because we get the names of the seven. These are not just seven anonymous bodies called to perform a necessary task because they are the only ones available.

We may tend to think of things like waiting on tables as something necessary but less important than other work. But the New Testament tends to measure things differently. We may tend to value jobs by the level of compensation they offer but the New Testament appears to consider some other factors.

So, in this text we find serving to be something important. Serving becomes a priority. As soon as the need becomes known, the church begins to take care of it. We do not know how many people were being considered as table waiter, but we do know the seven who were chosen had rather impressive qualifications… these table waiters are to be “full of the Spirit” and “full of wisdom” and of “good reputation.” If nothing else, we discover that waiting on tables is not menial activity.

Maybe we overlook the significance of those who serve. Maybe we should see the whole table gathering differently. There is something valuable going on here… it is much more than physical sustenance. It is more than vitamins and minerals and nutrients. It is more than proteins and carbohydrates and antioxidants. There is something going on here that causes the church to grow.

Maybe we should think differently of those who grow food, think differently of those who harvest food, think differently of those who prepare food… maybe we should think of those who serve food differently. Maybe we should think differently of those who sit with us at table. Gathering at table around food is a bigger event than when we first imagined.

I am currently enrolled in a class and we were given an assignment to write a paper on this very text. We were to write 7500 words, for those curious that comes out to 28 pages double spaced. While involved in this project, I read this text over and over. I read it in different rooms. I read it in the car. I read it in a different language. Upstairs, downstairs, I read it standing on my head. I read it as if I was an apostle and as if I were a complainer. I read it as a widow and as a priest. I read it as if I was auditioning to be a table waiter.

Have you ever been involved in a project that no matter what else you were doing, you were still working on that project? It was that kind of project. And what became very obvious was that everyone mentioned in the text is very important. Overlooking others is not an option.

The idea of serving at table is not a new phenomenon with Acts. In the Gospel we find a scene at a table. In this scene the apostles are arguing over “who is the greatest?” Jesus interrupts to say “I am here at the table with you as one who serves.” We realize that those called to serve at table are following in the steps of Jesus.

In the Gospel we have a scene where Jesus introduces “serving” in a conversation about being the greatest. Here in Acts we have a scene where the church hears a complaint and responds by making serving a priority. We can’t help but notice how important serving becomes in potentially divisive situations. We cannot help but notice here the priority given to serve those who have been overlooked.

From the beginning, God desired to dwell among his people. That started way back in Genesis. God called a people to show the world the ways of God. A people to show the world what it looks like when God dwells among them. What began so long ago grew to include a gathering in Jerusalem where some were being overlooked. This grants importance to that gathering. This is a gathering that is taking seriously God’s plan by hearing a complaint and by serving those in need. The church is God’s plan to show the world what it is like for God to live here.

This text reminds us that serving is to be a priority. It also reminds us that love is more than polite agreement. Speaking up on behalf of others is also evidence of love. The text brings with it a complaint but the world takes notice of the way the church responds and the church grows. Overlooked widows, Greeks and Jews, priests and apostles, and table servers are all equal in this episode because they are all equal at God’s table.

We are reminded that complaints do not stop the work of the church. Instead it seems things that are not going well become opportunities for the ways of God to be demonstrated in the world.



A Clash of Kings

In the Thessalonian correspondence we are saturated with reminders that Jesus is the coming king. This is significant considering our introduction to the Thessalonian church is that they are preaching a king other than Caesar (Acts 17). This is no less than treason. History tells us the city had some level of infatuation with Rome and Caesar. The close ties with Rome were evidenced by a shrine in Thessalonica for the emperor cult. The emperor was seen as the universal savior whose benefactions were declared as good news. Such benefactions were enjoyed and the residents were under some responsibility to protect such a favored status. Added to this was a decree from Caesar banning any predictions of a new king (Witherington, New Testament History, 262).

It was not enough for those raised to be faithful to Rome to hear that this Jesus who had been crucified had also been risen from the dead. Now there was talk about him coming as king. I and II Thessalonians, in fact, cannot stop talking about Jesus as coming king. For those who may have lived their lives desiring to experience a visit from Caesar, the portrayals of Jesus arrival are particularly interesting. What might a coming of Caesar look like? How would a royal entrance be announced? Perhaps with a herald’s proclamation and royal trumpets?

This should not be lost on us when we read about the coming of King Jesus in I Thessalonians 4. Jesus comes from heaven, with a loud command, the voice of the archangel, and the trumpet of God. It sounds so royal. We are almost expecting the text to add that a red carpet is rolled out. On his best day, Caesar coming from the capital city, with a human herald, and roman trumpets is no match for that. And then, if that isn’t enough, II Thessalonians 1 tells us that he comes from heaven in blazing fire and powerful angels. Just saying, if this is a clash of kings, Caesar doesn’t stand much of a chance.

Politics of a Holy Kingdom

I Thessalonians 5.12-24: A Written Sermon

Acts 17 tells us about a church that came to be in what we might call a delicate political climate. Paul and Silas were banished from the city and forced to leave under cover of darkness. A local named Jason, along with others, had been dragged through town and placed in jail. All because of politics. In this church, they were preaching a king other than Caesar. First in the synagogue, now perhaps at Jason’s house. And ever since the letter we call I Thessalonians arrived, they were constantly reminded that this was the message. There is another king, and this king is on the way to establish a new kingdom.

This made people nervous. Especially since, in I Thessalonians this is not just casually mentioned. The reader is reminded in chapter one that King Jesus is coming. And again in chapter two “we will glory in his presence.” In chapter three a prayer that we will be “holy and blameless” when he comes. And in chapter four, nothing less than a royal welcome as a herald announces his coming as trumpets blast. And again, sanctified and blameless at his coming in chapter five. This is not a peripheral message in I Thessalonians. This is not an accidental political statement. The true king is coming to set up his reign.

Caesar had issued a decree. It was against the law to predict a new king during the reign of Caesar. In fact, Caesar declared that he himself was a god.

We cannot escape the fact that when I Thessalonians talks about a king… one who is truly God… it is a political statement. We should not be surprised by this. If we have been reading our bibles, we already know that when the New Testament began it began with a prophet in the desert who kept crying out “repent! A new kingdom is coming.” I think we can hear in his words and actions that he wanted to be sure we understood that this meant a new king was coming.

And then Jesus walked onto the scene. And he came with an announcement “the kingdom is here!” By the end of the gospel we surely understand that he meant “the new king has arrived!”

This conversation about the Thessalonians reminds us there may be tendencies for us, perhaps a majority of us, to become loyal to the kings of the world. We should be able to understand why the residents of the city might get nervous when someone came claiming another king than Caesar. We might be able to understand why they might drag someone across town to restore order. But this conversation about Thessalonians also reminds us that kings like Caesar do not last for long. The fact is, all of earth’s kings are on the way out. We can fall in behind them, but we would be placing trust in a system doomed to failure.

This kingdom I Thessalonians is talking about comes with expectations. We read some of them in our text from chapter five. They come as a list of characteristics that those in the kingdom should exhibit. This is what one with a holy heart looks like. Paul does not spend a lot of time on any of them. We do not get detailed definitions of what any of them mean for us. He shoots them out in rapid fire and we hear things like;

Acknowledge those who work on your behalf and those who care for you. Live in peace with one another. Warn those with idle tendencies and warn those who are disruptive. Encourage the downhearted. Help the weak. Be patient with everyone (sounds so simple, we know it’s not). Do not pay back wrong with more wrong. Do good for one another. Do good for others. Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in everything. Do not quench the Spirit. Be careful with prophecy.

Reject evil. Yesterday morning, here in PA, an armed shooter entered a place of worship during a naming ceremony and killed eleven people, including four officers. In this kingdom, we hear words like reject evil. We hear do not pay back wrong with more wrong. We condemn such attacks. We pray for our Jewish neighbors. We call on people to turn from violent ways. We call on the church to be God’s agents of love and reconciliation and change.

I Thessalonians is an encouraging message of hope. It tells us peace is possible, but only through the God of peace. We get a prayer here in our text this morning. A prayer that the “God of peace will sanctify you entirely in preparation for the coming of the true King.” Thessalonians calls us to live like we are in the presence of the King.

This is how we are to live on days that seem normal. This is how we are to live when we are seriously wondering if the person driving ahead of us really has a driver’s license. This is how we are to live if forced to leave town under cover of darkness. This is how we are to live if dragged across town for our politics. This is how we are to live if a girl named Gwendolyn steals all our change. This is how we are to live if we encounter one who sends packages of hate to people who think differently. This is how we are to live if someone walks into a place of worship and kills people because of their nationality.

We are a people who live in peace with one another. A people who encourage the downhearted. We are people who help the weak, who are patient, and do not repay wrong with more wrong. We are a people who rejoice and pray and give thanks. We are a people who reject evil.

We are a people who believe in another kingdom, one ruled by the true King – Jesus.

I Thessalonians: Politics, Holiness, and the Coming Kingdom

The historical context that lies behind I Thessalonians may provide some insight into the meaning of the letter. We could start with the back story of Julius Caesar, the one made famous by William Shakespeare. After the assassination, there was a struggle between Octavian and Antony. Thessalonica threw its support behind Octavian who later became known as Caesar Augustus. Thessalonica had been in a favorable position ever since. Therefore, the citizens were very sensitive about anything that might threaten their status with Rome.

Our introduction to the Thessalonians is political. Acts tells us that the preaching in the city was not in vain. Many Jews and prominent Greek women were converted. This aroused anger and perhaps jealousy that led to complaints about Paul and Silas. The complaint is that the men who turned the world upside down are upsetting the status quo by proclaiming a king other than Caesar. As it turns out, the complaint is valid. In defense of the residents, they were only behaving as expected by banishing Paul and Silas from the city and dragging Jason across town to be jailed.

When one considers those things, it makes one wonder about the intention of I Thessalonians when we read;

– About grace and peace that does not come from the emperor (1.1).

– That these people have been chosen by God. For those who were raised with a longing to receive a blessing from Caesar, this may be unexpected but glad news (1.4).

– Of good news that is preached not to receive praise from mortals, not even the emperor (2.4). This may not be a direct slap to Caesar, but is likely a slap to the ways of Caesar’s world. Whatever the intentions, God is the more important audience.

– About a call into the kingdom of God, even better news than being welcomed into the kingdom of Rome (2.12).

– That this is no human word, but God’s word at work in them. Caesar’s tidings do not compare (2.13).

– A reference to a “crown” (2.19), wonder what went through the minds of the recipients?

– A prayer to be prepared for the coming of a king. Holy and blameless are the preparation for this king (3.13).

– A statement about rejection. To reject this word is not rejecting a human, but a rejection of God (4.8). This is more serious than rejecting words from Caesar.

– Of a commanding voice, an archangels call, and the sound of God’s trumpet (4.16). The coming of Jesus is portrayed as a royal announcement. I Thessalonians, as well as Paul’s preaching, was treasonous. It was against Roman law to predict the coming of a new king or kingdom.

– People talking about “peace and security” offered by the emperor, yet destruction will come to those who are unprepared (5.3).

– About breastplates and helmets (5.8). But, Roman attire does not offer the faith, love, or the hope of salvation offered here.

– That it is God who offers “peace” and prepares one with the necessary holiness for the coming of the real king, Jesus (5.23).

I Thessalonians is a letter written during a politically delicate situation to people who live in a pro Caesar city. There was a decree that banned the prediction of a new king. Yet, in a gathering at Jason’s house they keep talking about a king other than Caesar. And now they have in their hand a letter that repeatedly (1.9-10;2.19;3.13;4.16;5.23) announces that this king is coming from heaven. It is difficult to overlook the political tone of this letter.

Preaching Acts

One of the first things about Acts that stands out is the way it moves. It is undeniable that the narrative begins in Jerusalem and concludes in Rome. In between these two geographical locations the gospel is carried on foot, by ship, and even chariot as a convert rides toward Africa. At one point, the Holy Spirit seemingly picks Philip up at one place in order to drop him off at another. Yet, Acts is not moving only to get from one place to another. Movement becomes an important part of Acts on account of the message that is carried along. This is evident as the first verse (1.1) conveys that a prior account was about the beginnings of what Jesus taught and the final verse is about the teachings of Jesus continuing unhindered (28.31).

Wherever the text goes, the reader discovers what appears to be a challenge or barrier to the gospel. This collection of stories suggests that the good news of Jesus is able to overcome any obstacle. Perhaps we find this at the very beginning as they are “down an apostle.” Acts tells us how this is resolved and proceeds to tell how a language barrier was unable to prevent the news of Pentecost. Eventually imprisonment of apostles, floggings, the Ananias and Saphira episode, and the murder of Stephen are reported. Later, countless obstacles emerge including a violent Pharisee, a storm, shipwreck, and snakebite. Yet, the Holy Spirit continues to make a way for the Good News to move through the empire.

Barth, Calvin, and a Sunday Morning

Karl Barth once pointed out the tendency for biblical commentaries to be “no commentary at all, but merely the first step towards a commentary.” Barth did go on to highlight the type of commentary he was talking about. He claimed that John Calvin’s Romans was “a real commentary.” Of it, he said “how energetically Calvin, having first established what stands in the text, sets himself to rethink the whole material and to wrestle with it, till the walls which seperate the sixteenth century from the first become transparent! Paul speaks, and the child of the sixteenth century hears.”

We do not wish to minimize this counsel. If this is sound advice for commentaries, how much more for sermons. When we stand in front of God’s people, we are expected to do more than simply share our exegesis. Or worse, I fear sometimes we have stood before the assembly and simply shared the exegesis of another. May we energetically “rethink” and “wrestle” the text in ways that it’s voice can be heard clearly in our century.