Christ’s Blessings Are Everywhere
A sermon based on Luke 24:44-53
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on June 2, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Jesus offers a blessing in the reading this morning. So I thought we’d talk a little about blessings.
As I was preparing this sermon I wondered when most blessings are offered. The strangest answer came to mind. They are blessings offered for centuries, world-wide. These particular blessings are always in response to an involuntary act that occurs millions of times a day. All around the globe when people . . . sneeze it is customary to say a blessing of sorts.
In the western world even the Church long ago sanctioned saying “God bless you” when someone sneezes. Back in the 6th Century when it was a sign of the plague Pope Gregory the Great suggested that it might be a good idea to bless people when they sneezed. So “God bless you” or “Bless you” is said to have caught on. Unlike coughs, or nose blowing, or throat clearing or other sign of illness, sneezing alone has – as I said– an almost universal response in human cultures with blessing customs. 1.
Think about that. Despite its physical purpose of expelling troubling matters, sneezing also brings out the best in us, in the sense that blessings are offered. Anytime day or night humanity is offering blessings at the drop of, well . . . a sneeze. This practice is old, even older than Pope Gregory the Great. Offering a blessing after a sneeze goes back way back in history to at least Greco-Romans times. And it is thought that not just physical health was a concern, but ancient superstitions had it that
a sneeze causes the soul to escape the body through the nose [and] [s]aying “bless you” would stop the devil from claiming the person’s freed soul. Others believed the opposite: that evil spirits use the sneeze as an opportunity to enter a person’s body. There was also the misconception that the heart momentarily stops during a sneeze (it doesn’t), and that saying “bless you” was a way of welcoming the person back to life. 2
Whatever the original reason, millions of times a day people all over the world are offered blessings by family, friends and strangers for the involuntary act of sneezing. Blessings world wide millions of times a day snuck in by the Holy Spirit in the least expected place.
As I said , I am focusing on blessings because Luke tells us that before Jesus ascended his very last act was to bless his followers . . . Verse 50 reads: “lifting up his hands [Jesus] blessed them.” Lifting up hands and blessing goes back to Aaron. In Leviticus (9:22) we are told Aaron “lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them.” The implicit blessing Aaron pronounced is the “Priestly Benediction” in Numbers 6 God says
“Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them, ‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.’”
Because the author of Luke chose to echo the Aaron’s Leviticus blessing his audience may have thought of that priestly blessing, and maybe even thought Jesus offered it. But that is not certain since no words are set out, which Luke may have done so readers would consider how Jesus’ Followers then – and now– have been blessed by Jesus. Either way, it is important that we know what a blessing is. Even if Jesus gave the priestly benediction it is a blessing that calls for a blessing so it still begs the question of what constitutes a blessing. Church and church people, even the culture at large – at least during sneezes– mention blessings a lot. It’s the last thing Jesus did before ascending so it is very important in the context of our story too, indeed in the whole of the Gospel.
Blessings are important in the Bible and in our lives. So what are they? According to my desktop theological dictionary, a blessing is:
“to praise, petition for divine favor, wish someone well, convey favor . . .” and “a particular goodness received or given” . . . 3.
That matches up how we tend to think of it, as seeking or getting a benefit from God through God’s favor. Put another way a blessing is asking for, or experiencing, or acknowledging God’s presence or action. The Priestly Benediction set out in Numbers hints at this with its petitions for God’s presence, peace and grace. Humans generally speaking throughout history have wanted to experience God’s presence, peace and grace. Although we do not ask for them by involuntarily sneezing, there is at least an attempt to provide them in the custom of blessing those who sneeze.
Humans, of course(!), have many other ways of seeking, offering and acknowledging blessings. There are intentional actions and words that aim at regularly experiencing or recognizing God’s presence and actions. Christians often call them blessings by name in prayers and rituals. But we also act to experience them when we do something like go to worship, or meditate, or sing, or participate in some Sacred happening. When we experience God, we often say we “feel blessed.” Blessings can be both experiencing God and calling for experiences of God. We can also say that both aspects are prayerful, in that they have the expressed intention of connecting or communing with God.
The bottom line is a blessing is evoking, acknowledging or experiencing the presence of God. . . . evoking, acknowledging or experiencing the presence of God. So everything from “God bless you” after sneeze, to prayers, to benedictions, to walks in a park, to being in church, to – actually– well, anything that brings our attention to God can be called a blessing. In that respect, the blessing Jesus provides in our lesson can be understood as more than just words, which may be why Luke did not quote any. Jesus blesses his followers with his teachings of love, his life of love, his courageous death for love and his continuing existence through love. All of which evoked, acknowledged and created experiences of love. And we know God is love. Jesus’ loving Way is a blessing. It gives us experiences of God. The care and desire for the well-being of others played out brings in the realm of God, we feel it, we notice it. We want to be a part of it.
Jesus’ Way provides an awareness of God-soaking us and others and creation. We feel blessed. This fits with Luke pointing out after Jesus blessed the followers and ascended “they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” At the ascension moment in Luke, Jesus is understood to be the Christ – that is the incarnation of God in the world.
Christ is one way that Christians name and understand our experiences of God. With Jesus’ ascension and the descending of the Spirit on Pentecost, Jesus becomes for Christians God’s earthly presence, Christ that we worship and are grateful for. The Book of Luke ends with this notion. Interestingly the Gospel of John starts with it. Referring to Jesus Christ the author of John poignantly writes:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life . . .
So, see, Jesus Christ’s blessings for us go beyond the Way of Love. Christ’s blessings, as the Word that created and continues to soak creation, blesses us with life! All the beauty in our lives from family to friends to flora and fauna and terra firma is Christ and we know them as blessings when we notice that. The French mystic Simone Weil put it like this “The beauty of the world is Christ’s tender smile coming through matter.” 4
I noted in the Parish Visitor that June in Ohio is particular good at drawing attention to beauty of the world, to God. This time of year especially shows us our blessings with the beauty of the world just popping out at us. The face of God, of Christ, is smiling at us as the greenery unfurls numerous birds arrive and flowers and blossoms abound. The warmth of the season is settling in, gardens and farms show promise of harvests to be, the awesome Schnormeir Gardens are about to open, summer is on the horizon – and for me one of the great wonders of the world, lightening bugs, are begining to appear with stunning light shows in fields far and wide.
Theologically all of this splendor that we live in, is more than the blessing of the handiwork of the Divine artist, it is part and parcel of the Divine artist herself, God. We are in the womb of God. One of my favorite Bible verses quoted in the newsletter and partially in last week’s message is Paul’s famous poetic description in Acts (17:27-28) pointing out that
“[God] is not far from each one of us. For ‘In [God] we live and move and have our being’ . . .”
I also pointed out how Paul’s assertion fits well with the prayer to God in Psalm 139(8-10) that
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
See, everywhere we go, there is God. It’s not just in June or in spring,, but all year long, 24 hours, 7 days a week . . . and it has been that way for eternity. God is all reality.
Religion’s task it to point to the Scared nature of reality, and also assert how best to relate to it and within it. While there are both theists and atheists who choose to not call all that we live and move and have our being in God, their choice does not alter the Holy nature of reality. Nor should it alter our perception of it as Divine. It certainly does not for me. Every spring I am reminded of the words on this matter from Elizabeth Barrett Browning a portion of which Charlotte read last week. Browning wrote
Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God, But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
I love that.
Last week Charlotte and I pointed out both Paul and Browning’s words, and we also hinted at Augustine’s assertion that God’s written a book without ink. Augustine called it “a great book: the very appearance of created things.” Martin Luther phrased it better, I think, when he claimed,
God’s writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and sky.
A more recent poet, Peter Mayer, captures this idea that creation is all Christ– all God incarnate– consequently it is all a blessing if we stop and notice. Mr. Mayer wrote a song called “Holy Now.” The entire song is great but the lyrics that capture the blessings of Christ, God incarnate in our Ohio spring experiences, are these–and notice how they echo the Psalmist, Paul, Augustine, Luther and Barrett Browning.
See another new morning come/And say it’s not a sacrament/I tell you that it can’t be done/This morning, outside I stood/And saw a little red-winged bird/Shining like a burning bush/Singing like a scripture verse/It made me want to bow my head.
Christ has blessed us, and Christ continues to bless us, on the way of love Jesus gave us; and in the way Christ is understood to soak every nook and cranny of existence. “The beauty of the world is Christ’s tender smile coming through matter.” May we smile back. May we all notice that everywhere there is God. May we stop and listen to a bird or see a bush this spring and experience God’s Word singing and aflame in them. God spoke creation into being and her Word lingers there making it all Holy now . . . and forever.
3. Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms (See, “bless/blessing” and “a blessing.”)
4. The Green Bible, p I-110
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2019 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED