As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”
This morning, we encounter a scene that ought to leave us filled with an awesome wonder. Here, Jesus empowers his followers to be his ensigns—literally, those who en-sign the presence of the Father’s kingdom in the world. And the way they do so is itself a kind of sign, a sign of the character of God. For as they proclaim the nearness of the kingdom, they do not do so with the coercive might of earthly empire or exploitive trappings of worldly rulers.
“Cure the sick,” Jesus says, “raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” The sign of the kingdom of heaven is this unitive, healing, gathering action of raising, cleansing, and casting out. It is a mark of a Spirit that is boundlessly generous. “You received without payment;” continues Jesus, “give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.” Not only does the nearness of the kingdom of heaven become en-signed on the world by a generosity, but it is a generosity sourced in creaturely poverty, without gold or silver, no containers of excess or tools of defense. Instead, these human beings sent by Jesus are to embody the true Humanity he has come to enflesh: a humanity empty enough to receive the boundless love and light of the Father.
Luke 6:27-38, Genesis 46:4-15
There’s an old story about the author and theologian C.S. Lewis, on his way out for drinks with a friend. Approached by a beggar asking for money, Lewis emptied his wallet and gave the stranger everything. His friend then said to Lewis, disapprovingly, “He’ll only spend it on drink,” to which Lewis responded, “If I kept it, so would I.”
Today’s Gospel reading is about love. More specifically than that, though, it’s about the risk inherent to genuine love. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. …love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” This is not just about doing good and being loving; Jesus is talking here about showing others love even when it is obviously risky, even when it obviously might result in our own pain or loss.
This is not the law and order Jesus many of us may have grown up with, the Jesus who commands us to do what is socially acceptable for the sake of a well-ordered society. Equally, though, this isn’t the Jesus we’re often likely to encounter in progressive, well-educated circles either. I grew up being told not to give money to beggars, because they should get a job. Once grown, and having rejected that teaching, and having moved from a red state to a blue state, I still get told not to give money to beggars, because I should really be giving that money to a shelter, and voting for the right people to enact official homelessness policies, because I don’t want to encourage someone not to use services that may better their situation, and I don’t want to fuel a person’s addiction or irresponsible use of money.
Have you heard the news? That question often makes my heart sink, because it’s usually bad news! The year started with the violent attack on the US Capitol. Then all those cataclysmic climate events, racial attacks, mass shootings, a deeply broken and divided nation and world. And perhaps most disheartening of all, the devastating effects of the Covid virus. Such a diet of bad news, day after day, can profoundly affect the way that we see our own lives. We can look back over this year and see only the bad news: bad news for ourselves, our families, our lives.
And if certain newspapers, eager for a story, honed in on you, wanting to dig up some bad news about you, that you’d rather the public didn’t know, I wonder what they would find? They would likely find something sooner or later, because there is bad news about all of us, if you look hard enough: things we have done or said, which we maybe wished we hadn’t, and which we’d hate to be made known.
But today is Christmas. We are here to celebrate GOOD NEWS; wonderful, joyful good news. Not make believe, or wishful thinking. The good news is this: that ‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ Yes, there is darkness – God knows there is darkness, darkness and all sorts of sinful, hurtful, shameful things in all of us and in our society. But the good news is that when God looks closely at you and at me, he is not like that newspaper looking for bad news. When God looks at us he looks at us with the eyes of love. Just as when you look at the person you love, you see how lovely they are: all that is beautiful and good about them. And when the person we love – our spouse, our children, our partner, our brother – when they are in trouble, or mess up, or fail an exam, or lose a job, or do something stupid or wrong, we don’t point the finger at them, or condemn them, or tell everyone about it. No, we love them even more, and we do everything in our power to help them – because we love them. And when things go wrong we love them all the more.
When I’m working on a sermon, I usually keep a couple of questions in my mind. One is, where’s the good news? If I can’t answer that, then none of my listeners will be able to either. The other is, can I sum this whole sermon up in one sentence? If it takes me a whole paragraph to explain my sermon, then it’s not focused, it’s too complicated, or too long.
Using that same principle, I’m wondering this morning how I would sum up the entire Acts of the Apostles into one sentence. How would I do that? There is a lot going on in Acts, but in a sense there is only one thing going on. Luke tells us at the end of his gospel, and he repeats it at the beginning of Acts. You are my witnesses Jesus says to the assembled disciples in the Upper Room on that first Easter, and again just before his Ascension. You will be my witnesses.[2
If that is Acts in one sentence, what about my other question? Where is the good news? We hear it repeatedly throughout Acts, and we hear it again today. The good news of Acts is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. That is the whole point of Acts, and it is certainly the whole point of the Council of Jerusalem which determined that it was good to the Holy Spirit and to [the Apostles and elders] to impose on [the Gentiles] no further burden than [certain] essentials. Had the decision been otherwise, in those days shortly after Pentecost, the tiny Christian community would have remained a small Jewish sect, probably being absorbed and finally disappearing into the dominant Jewish mainstream within a generation, and we would not be here. But this decision to impose no further burden than [certain] essentials breathed life into the Jesus movement in its earliest days.
As followers of Jesus, that remains our purpose, indeed it is the purpose of the Church, and the vocation of all the baptized: to be Christ’s witnesses. Part of our job as witnesses, is simply to state what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life, and what we know to be true. After that, we need to back off, get out of the way, and impose no further burden than [these certain] essentials. In that way we allow the Spirit to do its work in bringing people into an encounter with the living Lord, rather than our personal and singular concept of God.
That, it seems to me, is the good news of Acts, and while we have been invited to join in the work of introducing people to an encounter with the living God, it is our real privilege and great joy to step back and watch God at work, in the lives of those whom we serve.
Lectionary Year and Proper: Friday in the Fifth Week of Easter, Year 1
 Luke 24: 48
 Acts 1: 8
 Acts 15: 28
 1 John 1: 1
Acts 28:16-20, 30-31
I finished a novel the other day. It was a really good one. And now that it’s over I’m left a bit forlorn. I would have loved this one to be a big multi-book series that could get turned into 8 or 9 movies. But it’s not. And it’s over now. As we’ve been working our way through this final chapter of John I’ve had the same kind of feelings I have at the end of a book or a great film. This longing for more, one more scene, one more chapter.
I think I must have been around 19 years old when I first heard someone talk about this passage at the end of John and it has stuck with me for 20 years. “There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
The good news of Jesus continues to be written on your hearts, in your lives among those you share life with. You are the gospel of Christ. And not in some gauzy, divine essence hidden in the deepest cavern of your soul. The good news of Jesus is present and active in the tangible ways that you have been met by love. In the ways that you have been rescued from sin and shame. In the ways that love has defied the pattern of this world and transformed you by the renewing of your mind in Christ. And it does keep going.
I can’t say that this feels like some glittering moment of grace. Right now, I feel more like one of those bumbling disciples, just not quite getting it, struggling to make sense of where I am. And it’s painful and confusing. But I keep showing up. ‘Twas grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.
Hugh of Lincoln
Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. […]Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.
I sometimes wonder what it would be like if the gospel writers had left us a few more details about the delivery and reception of Jesus’ parables, and this morning’s lesson piques my curiosity. We know, for instance, that they would have been markedly longer than the forms in which they come to us and the form itself—the parable—would have elicited from the crowd objections and almost certainly some good, old-fashioned heckling. While we know this would have occurred, we have no record of the content.
If you’re anything like me, you may be inclined to heckle Jesus over the parable he tells us today. In fact—and I’m outing myself here—these words of Jesus do not always come to me as “good news.” They may even bring up dread, anger, and even incredulity. And so I heckled Jesus this week.
I was born and raised a Roman Catholic, or at least I’m pretty sure the plan was for me to be raised Roman Catholic. When I was still very young I turned away from the church, because parts of my early experience served to alienate me from all things religious or spiritual. But, one thing I do remember enjoying as a child was all the great stories.
Even the gospels considered on their own are filled will wonderful stories about the life and ministry of Jesus, and we know that Jesus himself used stories and parables as one of his primary ways of sharing the good news of God’s Kingdom. Maybe that’s because Jesus grew up formed by the rich tapestry of story and poetry in Hebrew scripture, and maybe it’s because these kinds of stories can offer us so many levels of meaning through which God speaks to us. Today, for example, we heard the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, stories about the joy of finding something lost, some small part of the whole that needs to be recovered and embraced. We’ll begin by looking at the inner meaning, the message leading us to our heart of hearts.