Stretch out your hands and live – Br. James Koester

Br. James KoesterActs 11: 19-26
Psalm 87
John 10: 22-30

I have found the news these last several month to be quite disturbing as we have witnessed the atrocities of war and persecution all over again. The tenuous grasp that Christian hold in places where we have lived and thrived for nearly 2000 years is further frayed as ancient churches and monasteries are destroyed and Christian communities expelled from their historic homes and lands. Whole Christian villages have been attacked and the inhabitants taken hostage, killed or driven into exile.

What is even more disturbing are the accounts of the deaths and martyrdoms of Christians. Christians have been thrown overboard from dinghies full of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, for the simple act of praying.(1) In Pakistan a young teenager died from burns to his body after having gasoline poured over him and being set on fire.(2) We know about the 148 Christians killed at the university campus in Kenya(3) or the 21 Copts(4) and 28 Ethiopian Christians(5) martyred in Libya. The list could and does go on, and it is incredibly disturbing.

But we have seen this before, and that is what is so disturbing. We saw it in the 1990’s as Yugoslavia broke apart, except then it was Christians killing Muslims.(6) We saw it in Germany during World War II when 6 million Jews and countless others were killed by the Nazis, and in the Ottoman Empire when over 1.5 million Armenians were killed and many others driven from their homes.

What is disturbing is that in the name of God people seem to be quite willing to kill others, who don’t hold the same understanding of God as they do. And we see glimmers of that same urge to kill today in the Gospel. Our reading stops at verse 30, but the very next verse tells us that after their encounter with Jesus, they “took up stones again to stone him.”(7) It all sounds so terribly, terribly familiar.

So what is going on?

Regrettably, I am not sure that I can answer that question. At least I can’t answer that question in terms of what we read in the newspaper, or the pages of history, at least not in the next few minutes. I don’t know why people of faith feel justified killing other people of faith in the name of God. What I do know is that this is not the vision that Jesus holds out for us.

We catch a glimpse of that vision in tonight’s Gospel. The crowd asks Jesus to speak plainly about his identity: “how long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah tell us plainly.”(8) They were hoping for a simple answer. They were hoping he would say: “Yes, I am the Messiah” or maybe even “No, I am not the Messiah”. But we all know that simple answers, ‘though perhaps what we want, usually only lead to more questions. So Jesus doesn’t offer a simple answer. Instead he goes straight to the proof and asks his audience to make up their own minds. “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me….”(9) The proof is not in what Jesus says, it is in what he has done.

So what, according to John’s Gospel has Jesus actually done? What are his works that he has done “in his Father’s name?” Often in John’s Gospel, we hear of the “works” or “signs” that Jesus does to “reveal his glory” and to demonstrate that he has indeed been sent by the Father, not as an itinerant preacher or roving miracle worker but as the only begotten who is close to the Father’s heart, and who makes God known. These works or signs: the miracle at Cana; the healings at Capernaum, Bethesda and the man born blind; the feeding of the 5000; the walking on water; the raising of Lazarus and the great catch of fish all point to who Jesus is, so that all who see the works and believe in his name, may become children of God.

It is this vision which Jesus holds up for us so that we may have life and have it abundantly (10) as the children of God. This is why Jesus came into the world. It is to this abundant life that the works of Jesus point “so that through believing [we] may have life in his name.” (11)

It is life, abundant life, to which Jesus invites us. Yet what we see around us often is not life but death. We see it wherever people of faith are killing one another. We see it too where blacks in this country continue to live with the legacy of slavery. Just as we see death and not life on the beaches of Libya, the campuses of Kenya and the streets of Pakistan, so too de we see it on the streets of Ferguson, Brooklyn, Charleston and now Baltimore.

The life to which Jesus invites us is a life made abundant through the gift of love. Yet throughout history we have squandered that gift of love through hatred, fear and hostility. The life so many live is a life not marked by love, but by death.

So what on earth do we do? What can we do? What can we do, not just to embrace the abundant life which Jesus offers, for ourselves, but for others as well? What can we do to embrace that abundant life for Christians living in fear of the threat of martyrdom? What can we do to embrace that abundant life for those who, in the name of faith, would kill others of faith? What can we do to embrace that abundant life and move this country, even an inch, toward greater racial equality?

For the last several years, the Anglican Communion has been working on what has been called the Five Marks of Mission. One of those Marks of Mission is “to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation.”(12) It is a tall order: to transform unjust structures, to challenge violence, to pursue peace and reconciliation and yet there we find, for some at least, the hint and hope of abundant life.

But what can we do to begin this work of transformation, challenging and pursuing? How can we not only be faithful to the abundant life we have been given in Christ but open the world to that same life and love?
I would suggest that it can begin here, tonight, with the simple gesture of stretching out your hands.

In a different time, in a different place, under different circumstance, but in an all too familiar situation, the Christians of Eastern Europe lived under the watchful eye of a hostile state. It was difficult, if not impossible, for people holding certain jobs to be open about their faith. They were not free to attend church, or receive the Sacrament. And so there began the practice of receiving Holy Communion on behalf of another. People would attend the Eucharist in one church in the morning to receive the Sacrament and then later in the day parents and grandparents would receive communion again in another church on behalf of the believing children and grandchildren, who because of their jobs, could not themselves be seen to attend church.

Perhaps today you could do the same. Stretch out your hands to receive the abundant life promised to us by Jesus and receive that life, not just for yourself but for Christians around the world living in fear of their own lives, or for those Christians whose lives have been cut short by the hands of another. Stretch out your hands to receive the abundant life promised to us by Jesus and receive that life, not just for your own conversion to greater love, but for the conversion to love of someone who heart is filled with hatred and hostility, and who is bent on doing evil. Stretch out your hands to receive the abundant life promised to us by Jesus and receive that life, not just so that you may be reconciled with God but so that the sin of racism may be purged from this land. Stretch out your hands and begin the work of transformation, by being transformed yourself. Stretch out your hands and begin the work of challenging violence, by challenging the violence and prejudice in your own heart. Stretch out your hands and begin the work of peacemaking by inviting the Lord of peace into your heart. Stretch out your hands and begin the work of reconciliation by offering to God the world for which He died and for which He surely weeps.

I don’t know why people of faith do what we do to other people of faith, or even of no faith. I don’t know why people of one race do what we do to people of another race. But I know what we can do about it. And it begins by stretching your hands to receive the Bread of Life. So go ahead and risk stretching out your hands for yourself and for someone who lives in fear. Stretch out your hands for yourself and for someone whose heart is filled with hate. Stretch out your hands for yourself and for someone whose life is scarred by the legacy of slavery. Stretch our your hands and lay hold of the abundant life promised to all those who see the works of God and believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and that in believing have life in his name. Stretch our your hands and begin the work of transforming injustice, challenging violence and pursing peace and reconciliation and in that way begin to share the abundant life of Jesus with all who live in the shadow of death.

  • John 10: 31
  • John 10: 24
  • John 10: 25
  • John 10:10
  • John 20:31

Support SSJE

Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.

Click here to Donate

1 Comment

  1. Sue Tidwell on May 5, 2015 at 06:29

    I hope I will remember this every time I stretch out my hands to receive the Body of Christ. Thank you for this meaningful sermon.

Leave a Comment