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Grace To You, And Peace

Sermons on the Second Readings
Series II, Cycle B
The weeklong pastor's training event was about halfway through its course and the pastor coordinating the event was enjoying her break with a leisurely stroll across the grounds. But what began as a beautiful leisurely spring day soon turned somewhat anxious when she returned to her room and found a message taped to her door, "Call the bishop's assistant as soon as possible." She spent part of the afternoon playing phone tag between class sessions. "Whatever could it be?" she pondered.

The week was flowing smoothly and the participants seemed pleased with the whole event. All had been well with her congregation when she had left the previous Sunday. She could not think of a single reason the assistant to the bishop would be urgently trying to reach her. She reviewed the previous weeks in her memory. "What have I done now?" she thought and "Who is upset about it?"

When connections were finally made, her worst fears were banished and the day turned sunny again. The matter turned out to be important, but was, in fact, an opportunity rather than a punishment. The pastor learned a lesson about negative thinking.

Most of us have likely had those, "What have I done now?" moments -- a mysterious summons into the presence of someone with authority over our lives or careers. Maybe it was the time in second grade when the loudspeaker summoned you to the principal's office and you were sure it was big trouble but you didn't know what you'd done wrong. Maybe it was seeing a police cruiser pull into your driveway -- just to turn around. Perhaps it was an invitation to your boss's office amidst a weak economy or a corporate buyout.

When a personal summons comes from someone with authority over your future, it is a whole lot of scary! Take, for instance a fellow named Denny Robson of Bethesda, Ohio, who sent invitations to the family's annual reunion picnic in the form of a very official-looking court summons -- with all the legal jargon included. Only by reading the fine print could the cousins get the joke. Most had a good laugh, but a few were ready to grab their passports and flee the country.

The book we call "The Revelation to John" is written in the form of an official letter customary to the author's place and time. But, in many ways, it is a kind of summons. Just who "John" is -- whether the "beloved disciple" or someone else -- the text does not say, but we can be sure that his audience knew. Just as the name of Paul or Peter would have been recognized, his name carried its own authority; no other credentials are given or needed. The "seven churches" to which the letter is addressed are named in chapter 2. But, of course, there were many more than those seven who were meant to hear and to heed. Certainly our congregation is one.

As best we know, The Revelation to John was written near the end of the first century. By that time, those who confessed "Jesus is Lord" were facing increasing conflict with Roman officials demanding public professions of faith in the emperor. John, himself, was one of the casualties, exiled to the barely hospitable island of Patmos in the Mediterranean Sea on account of his testimony. The churches are struggling with many of the same issues that plague congregations today: waning passion, compromised loyalties, internal conflicts, misplaced priorities. "Church growth" was no easier then than now.

We can imagine perhaps how those congregations might have felt by this personal summons. "What now?" they might have asked. "Why us?" and "How bad is it going to be?"

That is what makes John's salutation so striking. "Grace to you, and peace," he says. We recognize the greeting from other places in the New Testament, but hardly any other literature.

Grace: defined as unmerited favor. In our world favors are earned with a price. The rule is "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours."

Peace: the conflict is resolved and wholeness is restored. That's a scarce word these days on CNN.

"Grace to you, and peace." Such a pronouncement is as much a surprise to us as it must have been to them. These are hardly the words we expect to hear coming from the school principal, from the attorney's office, or on the lips of our employer. Are those the words we anticipate hearing from God as we approach the throne in prayer?

Over the last few weeks we have been pondering the Jewish experience of the Old Testament tabernacle and its priesthood, as interpreted through the book of Hebrews. The temple, the priests, and the cultic ceremonies embodied the scriptural pathway to God for a people "a long time ago and far, far away." What paths do we modern folk trek to connect with God, given all the stuff that stands between? And once we have arrived, just what pronouncement do we expect to hear from the Almighty?

Far too often, we approach in a manner like the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, expecting a thunderous disembodied shout, "How dare you approach!" Perhaps one reason we spend so little time and energy on the hard path of intimate prayer is that we expect the same condemnation from God that we too often hear from the people around us -- and even from those voices inside us. Too often we approach intimacy with God expecting a job-performance review instead of a candlelit dinner with our true love.

Do we hear the words? Grace to you, and peace from the one is and who was and who is to come ... and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness.... Despite the trials and challenges confronting us, despite the reality of our own faults and failures, God is not out to get us! (or anybody else for that matter). This Jesus, "who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, made us to be a kingdom of priests serving his God and Father."

A new priesthood has been established by God, initiated by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, our great high priest. No longer does our sinfulness stand between us and our holy God. Through Jesus we now have direct access to enter God's presence with no fear of punishment and no words of condemnation.

But the story goes on -- we are now called to priesthood. We are anointed to be intermediaries between divine love and an unholy loveless world. Through Christ and his commissioned royal priesthood a new regime has entered the human realm. Unlike Rome, we do not adore political and military power, nor give homage to its idols.

Hold up a second. Is that Roman power, as in "Hail Caesar"? Or is it "Hail Furer" that we dare not utter? Or maybe it's "Hail to the Chief" that we ought beware!

Different centuries, different countries, different titles -- it doesn't matter -- Jesus is Lord of all! Jesus, in his love for us and his complete submission to divine love is yet the King of kings on earth -- even of those who pierced him, and those who continue to pierce him and his followers even yet.

That's why John was in exile on Patmos. That's why believers were suffering, and are suffering even today -- because they recognized the superiority of love's power and refused allegiance to anything less, to any one less.

That is the foundation of our priesthood. That's the job -- announcing forgiveness and healing to sin-sick souls, sharing divine love with human beings, and guiding those human beings into the glory of divine love. What a calling!

That is your job -- every day, should you decide to accept it: pronouncing grace and peace rather than doling out criticism and condemnation. What would it look like? What if we replaced competition with co-operation in the workplace -- or the marketplace? What if we spoke only words of forgiveness and encouragement to our families despite the negative comments or spiteful deeds? What if we came to our church board meetings offering words of praise for a job well done, and offering help when it isn't? If we intend to live together by the dominion of Christ's love for all eternity, we'd best get used to it now!

That's our job: to be a royal priest rather than a royal pain. You are the only access to divine love that some person might have. Let that message be one of grace and peace each and every day that you live, and deliver that message with confidence and joy as long as you live. Accept that commission, and the grace and peace and glory of God will abide in you. Amen.
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