Posts From May, 2019

Save the Dates: March 23-31, 2020 ECSW Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

Join Bishop Mansholt and fellow ECSW Lutherans for a synodical group pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Planned stops include, Nazareth, Capernaum, Sea of Galilea, Jordan River baptismal site, Dome of

the Rock, Western Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Mount of Olives, Bethlehem, with an optional home stay and more. We’ll break bread with local religious and community leaders, peace-builders, and community members, including partner ministries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land and Lutheran World Federation. For three days, we’ll experience MEJDI’s UN award-winning Dual Narrative touring program, with Israeli and Palestinian guides in dialogue on contested issues and sites.

Pricing: $2290-$2450, depending upon number registering. Space is limited to 34 so register early. Also, watch for information on an optional extension to Jordan. Contact Darlene Kalfahs for more

information. darlene.kalfahs@ecsw.com or 920-734-5381.

Sermon: May 12, 2019 John 10:22-30, the Good Shepherdess/Good Mother

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

Today is the Good Shepherd Sunday. We celebrate Jesus, the Good Shepherd. We live in an urban area far from the countryside where livestock is raised. Most of us lost direct contact with cattle and sheep. Some of you owned or worked on a farm but not anymore. Shepherding is no longer an attractive job. In Jesus time, shepherding was a noble occupation. People made their livings through agriculture and raising livestock. Shepherding was a prevalent occupation in antiquity. A shepherd tends, herds, feeds and protects sheep. Shepherd also plays the flute with sheep to while away the time as he tends his flock.

 

We assume that shepherding is a male-dominated occupation. Scripture tells us stories about shepherdess (a female Shepherd); for example, Rachel as a shepherdess: “Rachel came with her father’s sheep for she was their shepherd” (Gen. 29:6, 9).

 

Scripture introduces us to Zipporah (the wife of Moses) as a shepherdess: “Now a priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came to draw water and fill the troughs to water their father’s flock” (Exod. 2:16).

 

Shepherding is like mothering. The good Shepherd is like a good mother. Jesus says that “I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Good Shepherd is selfless as a good mother is selfless and is willing to lay down her life for her children. Today we are celebrating Mother’s Day. All women have been mothered in some way. Aunt, pastor, godmother, and teacher are mothers. Jesus demonstrates how good shepherd should be or how good mother/good parent should be. Since today is Mother’s Day, I invite you to envision another image of Jesus not only as of the Good Shepherd but also a good mother. Since today is Mother’s Day, I am going to address Jesus as The Good Shepherdess or Good Mother. In the gospel reading today, Jesus gives us four qualifications of Good Mother.

 

Firstly, Jesus saysMy sheep hear my voice.” Jesus the Good Mother spends time with his sheep to the point that sheep recognize his voice. Good mother recognizes her children’s voice. Children can distinguish the voice of their mothers from many voices. I love to video chat with my family. I noticed that my little niece Joelle enjoys playing with my family, but the moment she hears her mother’s voice, she cries until her mom holds her in her arms. Then Joelle stops crying and begins to touch her mom’s face and put her little hand in her mom’s mouth. Joelle turns her tears into joy and laughter.

 

Secondly, Jesus says, I know them, and they follow me.” Jesus teaches us that a good shepherd knows his sheep. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus teaches that “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (v.3). The good shepherdess develops a personal relationship with each sheep. Likewise, a good mother knows her children. She knows their habits and characters. She knows what they like and dislike.

 

My niece Joelle was born on May 25, 2018. My sister loves to share Joelle’s pictures with the family. One day, I put Joelle’s picture next to the picture of my older niece Jezel when she was a baby. I made the two photos to look like one picture. I wanted to compare them to one another when they were at the same age. I shared the picture with my parents who assumed that the two girls in the picture are one girl and that is Joelle. Even though my parents have been spending lots of time with Gisele since she was born, they did not remember her picture when she was a baby. I was surprised and decided to show the picture to my sister who immediately noticed the difference. I asked her how she recognized the difference. She was surprised by my question and replied, “These are my daughters. I know my daughters!”

 

Thirdly, Jesus says,I give them eternal life. and they will never perish.” The Lord Jesus, our Good Mother, knows the name and voice of each one of you. Like a good mother, Jesus shepherds us gently and disciplines us. He demonstrates tender love and tough love to transform us to be more like him. He does not want to harm us. He disciplines us because he wants to give us eternal life.

 

Finally, Jesus says,No one will snatch them out of my hand.” The last character of the good shepherd is protector and preserver. Jesus protects his sheep from the wolf. Jesus lays down his life for us, and as a good mother, he will not allow anyone to snatch us out of his hand. If somebody tries to kidnap or snatch your child or grandchild, how you handle this situation. I believe you will fight to keep your child. Good mothers will do anything to protect their children. They will not let anyone snatch their children from their hand. A good mother will fight for her child. She will kick and scream to protect her child from abduction. She will do anything to keep her child safe.

"I know my own and my own know me," says Jesus the Good Mother and Good Shepherdess. Jesus, the one who knows the sound of our voices and knows our names. Jesus, the Good Mother, loves us unconditionally, and out of love and compassion, he disciplines us. Blessed be the name of Jesus Christ henceforth and forevermore.

 

Sermon: May 5, 2019 John 21 - Martyrdom

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

Martyrdom is a big part of Christians identity. Christian Martyrdom is ongoing and not limited to the early centuries of Christianity. Christians have endured persecution because of their faith in Jesus Christ. What does it mean to be a martyr? The word martyr comes from the Greek word, μάρτυς, mártys, "witness." A martyr is the Christian who bears witness to Christ.

“The reason why this word became synonymous with dying for one’s religious beliefs is that the early Christian witnesses were often persecuted and/or killed for their witness.”[1]

All of us are martyrs when we bear witness to the risen Lord Jesus Christ and bear the fruit of faith. Let me talk about the martyrdom that leads to death.

 

The early church was built on the blood of the first martyr Jesus Christ and the early martyrs. The Christian martyrs accepted death for the sake of their faith. Since the beginning of the Christian movement until this present day, Christians have been slaughtered.

 

Our Lord Jesus in John chapter 21 predicts the martyrdom of the apostle Peter (vs. 18-19), and then he asks Peter to “Follow him.” In July 19, 64 AD, the great fire of Rome broke out, Nero blamed Christians and ordered to destroy them. He also ordered to execute the apostle Peter. The early Christian historian, Jerome, wrote that Peter was crucified with his head down and his feet up because he thought himself unworthy to be crucified in the same form and manner as the Lord.[2] The apostle Peter knew that he would suffer for the sake of Jesus; however, he followed him to the end. Nero tortured Christians brutally. “During gladiator matches, he would feed Christians to lions, and he often lit his garden parties with the burning carcasses of Christian human torches.[3]

In 250 AD, Emperor Decius issued an edict demanding all of the citizens of the Roman empire to offer sacrifices to the gods and to pray for the well-being of the Emperor.” The sacrifices had to be performed in the presence of a Roman magistrate, and a signed and witnessed certificate be issued to that effect.”[4] Christians refused to offer sacrifices. It is like refusing to pledge allegiance to the state. In this case, you become a potential traitor. Christians accepted to be sewn up in skins of wild beasts and thrown to the dogs rather than to deny Christ. Some Christians accepted to be burned alive. This persecution increased the devotion and commitment of Christians to the lord Jesus Christ.

 

In 1915 AD a group called The Young Turks persecuted Armenians by deporting them from the Ottoman Empire and let them die of thirst and hunger.

The Young Turks also crucified Armenian women. They exterminated 1.5 million Armenian Christian martyrs, who decided to follow Christ no matter what. Finally, you know about ISIS killing 21 Egyptian Christian Coptic men in Libya on February 12, 2015. Those Christians followed Christ and laid down their lives for him

 

Those Christian martyrs could live and enjoy privileges if they had renounced their faith in the risen Lord. Some Christians were like the apostle Peter. They denied Christ, and after the persecution was over, they came back to their faith. Some Christians accepted martyrdom rather than to worship false gods. Our martyrs accepted martyrdom because they were confident that Christ rose from the dead and they would rise, too. They believed that Jesus is worth to lose everything they had, even their life. They joined the choir of angels and creatures in heaven singing:

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”

 

You might find yourself in circumstances where your faith in Jesus Christ is tested. You might accept martyrdom rather than denying him. Alternatively, you might become a refugee like my big sister and her husband who escaped Christian persecution in Gaza, Palestine and went to Belgium. They accepted to live in a foreign land and to learn a new language and to stay in refugees center for three years to keep their faith. They considered Jesus worthy of their suffering. You might deny Jesus Christ to avoid persecution as Peter did. However, later you repent and jump off the boat naked and swim fast to meet him and to profess your love. Jesus forgives those who deny him but pay attention that Peter accepted to lay down his life for Jesus rather than denying him again.

Pray to Jesus to give you the strength to keep your faith. Teach your children and grandchildren that Christ is worthy of our suffering and struggle. Teach them that Christ is more valuable than their life. He is the most valuable pearl among many pearls that a merchant sold everything he had and bought it.

 

[2] Foxe John 1516-1587, Fox's Book Of Martyrs: Or, A History Of The Lives, Sufferings, And Triumphant Deaths Of Many Of The Primitive As Well As Protestant Martyrs Hardcover (Andesite Press, 2005), 5.

[4]

Sermon: April 28, 2019 John 20:19 Anti-Semitism

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

The apostle John describes the disciples hiding in a house for fear of the Jews. If Jesus and his disciples were Jews, then what does the apostle John mean by the Jews? For many centuries, Christians used the gospel of John to justify oppression of the Jews and making them responsible for killing the Lord Jesus. In the 19th century, the term anti-Semitism was invented and meant specifically prejudice against Jews. We thought that anti-Semitism is over, but unfortunately anti-Semitic rhetoric and attacks are increasing across Europe. More traditional forms of anti-Semitism have re-emerged in the United States. We are upset by the anti-Semitic attack on Chabad of Poway synagogue in California. All of us remember the attack at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue in October 2018.

 

Some Christians and Jews claim that Jesus and his disciples were anti-Semites. For example, the apostle John is anti-Semite because he describes the enemies of Jesus collectively as "the Jews.” The harshest anti-Semitism in the gospel of John is where the Jews are demonized as children of the devil. Jesus says, “ You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires” (8:44).

How do we understand the usage of the term Jews in the gospel of John? The gospel of John uses the term “the Jews” 70 times. The expression frequently refers to the opponents of Jesus who rejected his mission and did not believe that he is the Messiah. Jesus and his disciples were Jews and the apostle John does not deny the Jewish identity of Jesus and his disciples. To understand the expression of anti-Jewish sentiments, we need to understand the context of the gospel of John.

 

The Gospel was written "in response to the exclusion of the Johannine church from the synagogue and the subsequent dialogue between these two religious parties”… the hostile quality tells more about "the evangelist and the Johannine community than it witnesses to the ontological status of the Jews or Judaism."[1]

 

The gospel of John is intended to be a theological gospel reflecting the theology of John community. It does not intend to provide historical information. For this reason, we find lots of dialogues in the gospel as the Jews and Christians talking to one another. Who were the Jews whom the disciples were afraid?

 

The first point I need to make is that the term “the Jews” in the gospel of John does not necessarily refer to the entire Jews. It is a more exclusive term than inclusive.

The apostle John employs the term “the Jews” in four ways. Firstly, the ethnic usage of the term relates to Jewish practice such as the Festival of the Jews, or a Jewish person. In this case, the apostle John uses it positively.

Secondly, the term is used to designate the residents of Judea, particularly the Jews who lived in Jerusalem.[2]

Thirdly, “the Jews” refers to “ordinary individuals who are hostile or authority figures who are hostile.”[3]

The final usage of the term is to designate to the hostile Jewish authorities, particularly religious authority in Jerusalem. Most of the 70 references to “the Jews” in the gospel of John is to the religious authorities.

Not all the Jews wanted to kill Jesus; to the contrary, the followers of Jesus were Jews who believed that he is the Messiah. Therefore, instead of stating that the Jews were Jesus’ enemies, we need to assert that Jesus’ enemies were among the Jews.

 

The religious authorities do not represent the whole Jews. The phrase anti-Semitism refers to the discrimination against the Jews based on their race much more than their faith. The apostle John is criticizing the Jewish leaders and their followers because of rejecting the Christian faith.

 

The disciples hid in a house after the crucifixion of Jesus because they were afraid of the Jewish religious leaders and their followers. The disciples supposed that the religious leaders would harm them as they harmed Jesus. The disciples were not afraid of all the Jews as a race.

 

The gospel of John and the three epistles of John emphasize the divine love, agape. The apostle John encourages his community to love one another. He does not exclude the Jews from this love. Jesus’ resurrection teaches us that love is stronger than sin and death. Jesus commands us to approach our sisters and brothers who are different than us with love, agape love, which means to have the best interest in our mind toward our neighbor.

 

Most Christians belong to two groups. The first group is afraid to be labeled anti-Semitic, so they do not challenge Jews when they express hostility toward their neighbors. Unfortunately, we are in a time where labeling a person as an anti-Semitic becomes a convenient way to deal with people you want to silence.

The second group is aggressive toward the Jews because they are Jews. They think they are doing a favor to Jesus if they are hostile toward the Jews.

These two groups do not represent Christianity. Jesus defeated sin and death, and he calls to implement this victory by resisting the sin of anti-Semitism and calls us to love one another. This love entails to speak up against any attempt to deprive any person of their dignity. All of us are created according to God’s image, including the Jews and non-Jews. Arabs, Africans, and Americans are created according to God’s image and deserve love and respect.

 

 

 

 

[1] Robert Kysar, “Anti-Semitism and the Gospel of John," in Anti-Semitism and Early Christianity, ed. Craig A Evans and Donald A Hagner (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 120, 122.

[2] Thomas D. Lea, “Who Killed the Lord? A Defense Against The Charge Of Anti -Semitism In John's Gospel,” Criswell Theological Review 7.2 (1994) 115.

[3] Thomas D. Lea, “Who Killed the Lord? 116.