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Monday, April 30, 2018

Joined to Christ

Is it obvious that a vine branch cut off from the vine will soon be worthless?  If it is a grapevine, grapes will no longer grow on it.  The branch will die.  Then what do we have? 
            Actually the prophet Ezekiel points out that the dried, dead vine branch is useful as kindling (15:1-8).  We need fire for warmth, for cooking, and for light.  Good kindling is very valuable, once.  However, after the fire has burned out, all that’s left of that once needed kindling is dead ash.  Ezekiel uses the image of the burned up vine branch to envision the faithless inhabitants of Jerusalem.  They turned away from God to neglect the poor among them.  They worshiped idols.  And they burned.  “I will make the land desolate, because they have acted faithlessly, says the Lord” (Ezek. 15:8).
            It’s kind of a depressing opening, don’t you think?  But it does show a few things.  One, it seems Jesus has Ezekiel in mind as much as the Gospel writers did Isaiah and the Psalms.  His imagery recalls the word pictures used by the prophet of the exile.  Two, the halting image of a city razed, burned to the ground, amplifies Jesus’ “I am the vine” picture.  A disconnected vine is a dead thing, only good to be burned.  A person cut off from Christ is destined for death. 
            A third truth to glean from the Ezekiel message is the either-or nature of what both Ezekiel and Jesus believe.  Judah and Jerusalem were cut off because they acted faithlessly.  As much as any prophet, Ezekiel ties faithful living to justice and proper worship.  One either lives faithfully, or is cut off.  There’s no other option.  Jesus picks this up.  “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (v.6).
            Branches = people, human beings, you and me.  Cut off from Christ, we are destined for death, an eternity apart from God.  Whatever the experience of that eternity is, Jesus is clear about one thing.  It is an eternity spent cut off from him.  So, we branches either stay connected to the vine, Jesus himself, or, we are bound for destruction.  Obviously then, if we want eternal life, we stay connected to Christ.  But, how do we do that?
            Before dealing with the “how-to,” we look at meaning.  Jesus tells each one of us, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”  What does that mean, that phrase “abide in me?” The problem as I see it is ‘abide’ is not a word most English speakers use in every day conversations.  Any time a Biblical idea or a phrase is used exclusively in a church-setting, it fails to influences our lives.  If church is the only place you say or hear a word, it will be the only place that word has an effect.  We live most of our lives away from the church building, outside the worship service.  If ‘abide’ only means something when I am reading John chapter 15, then the idea that I am to ‘abide in Christ’ lacks any real punch in the 99.9% of the time I am not sitting with John 15 open before me.
We are blessed (or cursed as the case may be) to have many options when it comes to Bibles in English.  Normally, I read the New Revised Standard Version.  The Greek word for abide in verse 4 is ‘meinate.  That Greek verb is in a different verb tense in verse 7, ‘meinhte.’  The NRSV translates this verb ‘abide,’ as do several other English versions including the King James, the English Standard Version, and the New American Standard.  As that word is used in English today, is ‘abide’ the best word to convey what Jesus had to say? 
The Greek verb means ‘to stay in a place,’ or ‘remain in a sphere,’ or ‘to endure.’  The Holman Standard Christian Bible, as well as the NIV, the Good New Translation, and the New Living Translation, render it ‘remain.’  In these versions, Jesus says, “Remain in me.”  Remain?  Abide?  Are there other, better options?  The J.B. Phillips Bible says, “Live your life in me.”  The Message says, “Make your home in me.”
All these options could lead us to the conclusion that in order to live the lives Jesus wants us to live and is calling us to live, we have to live in a way that keeps us connected to God through faith in Jesus, with the help of the Holy Spirit.  I firmly believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding us as we read the Bible and will enable us to get the message even when we read different English versions.  Reading the Bible is not just a solitary Christian or a gathered group in church on Sunday morning.  The Holy Spirit is an active player when we read, carrying the message deeper than even our conscious understanding. 
That said, great value comes from accurate translation.  Two tools deepen our knowledge of God’s word, the ongoing study of Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, and ongoing awareness of the evolution of language, in our case the English language.  Of all the Bible versions, the one I think best gets at what Jesus is telling us when he says, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” is the Contemporary English Version. 
In that version, verse 4 reads, “Stay joined to me, and I will stay joined to you.  Just as a branch cannot produce fruit unless it stays joined to the vine, you cannot produce fruit unless you stay joined to me.”  And verse 7 in the CEV renders Jesus words, “Stay joined to me and let my teaching become a part of you.  Then you can pray for whatever you want and your prayer will be answered.” 
Note please that before we receive whatever we pray for, Jesus’ teaching becomes a part of us.  We might hear “pray for whatever you want your prayer will be answered,” and we might get big ideas.  ‘I am going to pray for a Rolls Royce.  I am going to pray for a private jet.  I am going to ask that the Detroit Tigers win the World Series.’  On practical note, I couldn’t afford the insurance on a Rolls, I don’t know how to fly the private jet I’d be praying for, and what if while I am praying for the Tigers to win the series, John Folliard is every bit as joined to Christ, and he’s praying for the Chicago White Sox to win the series?  More significantly, if Jesus’ teaching becomes a part of me, becomes a part of John, are he and I praying for cars and planes and World Series winners?  Connected to Christ, his teaching coloring the desires of our hearts, we will be inclined to pray for different things.  We will have a heart like his. 
The vine imagery Jesus uses in John 15 tells us that the Christian life, the disciple life is a life joined to Christ.  The one in this life cannot go out and party in a way that disregards the morals valued by God.  We can’t leave our faith on the shelf for just this one night of debauchery.  We’re connected, permanently joined.  Where we go, Jesus goes.  Living this way, we find life is at its best when we go where He guides us. 
The one in this life cannot spend money in a way that ignore the heart of God for all people.  We cannot disassociate our money with our faith because He is Lord of our entire lives.  When we go on vacation, when we go shopping, when open the check book, or make the electronic purchase online, Jesus is there.  We’re thoroughly connected, joined to Christ.  Living this way, we find life is at its best when we strive to be extravagantly generous and at the same time thoroughly wise, always looking to our Lord in terms of what to do with our money. 
In our relationships; in our decisions about sex; in thinking about what we put in our bodies; regarding what our eyes see on the screen, online, on TV; in all things, we are joined to Christ.  He is there.  He is not part of our lives.  He is at the center of our lives.  Being a Christian is not one aspect of our lives.  Every aspect of our lives is determined by Christ. 
Anyone tempted to think, you mean Jesus is everywhere I go?  Everywhere?
Jesus says, “Abide in my love” (v.9).  Remain in the embrace of Jesus.  For him the entire vine-branches idea illustrates relationship.  For Jesus obedience to God is an expression of love just as his coming is God’s statement of love for all of us.  To stay with him is to be in a close relationship with someone who love us, wants the best for us, and will sacrifice on our behalf.  Greek has different words that can be translated “love” in English.  When he says “abide in my love” in verse 9, the verb is ‘agape.’  Jesus means stay in this relationship in which I will do whatever I have to for your good. 
And “for our good” is not the elimination of joy or the end of freedom or shackles on our self-expression.  The passage leads up to verse 11 where this is what we hear from Jesus.  “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.”  Jesus has no intention of stripping the fun, laughter, and whimsy out of life.  In fact, the life full of the richest smiles, greatest happiness, and the most potent of loves is the life of a disciple of Jesus. 
The word joy, in verse 11, is the same root as the word grace.  Jesus doesn’t just save us from death and Hell.  Jesus also saves us from misery, from bitterness, jealousy, and greed.  As Jesus saves us from a life cut off from God, Jesus also saves us for a life of great meaning; a life in which we walk in God’s light; a life defined both by pleasure and purity. 
How then do we live a life joined to Christ?  Obviously we stay connected to the body Christ, the church, and we do this by being deeply involved in a local congregation.  We stay in the word of God, through regular Bible reading and study under good Bible teachers.  We commit to worship, making the regular, weekly participation in church a part of our lives.  We serve in the church and in the world, working for justice and sharing the good news of life in Christ.  These are things we do.
At a deeper level, we resolve to live in absolute honesty before God.  Even the 12 disciples, who went everywhere with Jesus in the body, messed up.  They sinned as close as they were to him.  We do too.  Even joined to Christ, we slip.  But when we mess up, we don’t put on masks and pretend to be perfect.  We do not pretend everything is OK all the time.  We live in awareness of God’s presence.  And in God’s presence, we walk in raw, exposed honesty.  We confess when we need to confess.  We ask for help when we need it.  And sometimes we just fall on our knees before God weeping because tears are the only language that adequately name our wounds and our inner hunger. 
How do we live a life joined to Christ?  There are things we do.  There’s a posture we adopt – the honesty of broken people.  Finally we let go of self-reliance and we receive.  We receive the grace God gives, the love we cannot earn, the joy that is a gift; a gift God gives to overflowing. 
I pray that you can have this God-defined life.  You’ll never know happiness like the joy Jesus gives.  Whatever you’re holding onto, keeping from him, let it go right now.  Right now, come back to the vine.  Come into the embrace of our Lord Jesus and see your life in the light He shines. 

Monday, April 23, 2018

I Am the Good Shepherd (John 10:11-18)

4th Sunday of Easter, April 22, 2018

            To understand what Jesus means in John 10, listen to the prophet Ezekiel, chapter 34.  In this prophecy, it seems God is quite angry. 
What made God so mad?  When God looks at the world today, how humans treat each other, is He still as mad?
34 The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals.
11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.
14 I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
            Ezekiel wrote his prophecy in Babylon, modern day Iraq.  Why was this Jewish prophet in Babylon? He was with the exiles in the 6th century B.C.  The Babylonians would not let him or any of the educated Jews return home.  Bible scholar James Ward commented on Ezekiel’s scathing rebuke of the leaders of Judah and Israel.  “According to the prophet, it was the failure of Israel’s rulers to be true shepherds” that brought about exile.[i] “Instead of using their power for the benefit of the people the [kings of Israel] fed themselves.”  Before he anointed Saul as the first King of Israel 100’s of years earlier, the prophet and judge Samuel warned this would happen.  The rulers served themselves at the expense of the people.  Samuel’s prescient statement proved true.   
            This picture of failed leadership at the level of national government, depicted as shepherds who did not protect the sheep, the people of the nation – this is the picture to keep in mind when Jesus says he is the good shepherd. 
One of the gripes that pastors hear often is church is too political.  I don’t go to church to hear about politics!  Another frequent comment from worshipers is that they want the pastor to preach the Bible.  Stick with the word, preacher!  That’s spoken as a command. Well, we can’t have it both ways.  I completely agree.  We preachers have to preach the word!  But, the word, the Bible, is thoroughly political.  In Ezekiel 34 the prophet comments directly about Israel’s bad governance.   In John 10, Jesus, using the same imagery, contrasts bad leadership with himself, the good shepherd. 
What mistakes of the kings of Judah and Israel lead to the fall of the nation?  They did not strengthen the weak, or heal the sick.  They did not bind the injured or bring back the strayed.  They did not seek the lost.  Instead they ruled with harshness, fattening up themselves, while the poor suffered.
In their failures, we clearly see what God expects of leaders.  What kind of leaders do we follow?  In our church family, we have people who make a political sport of lampooning the liberals (read: anything related to the Democratic Party).  In our church family, we have people who cannot say a single good thing about Republicans.  I find blind partisan thinking uninteresting and inherently harmful.  Are we following leaders who strengthen the weak and heal the sick?  That’s what God says the nation’s shepherds should do. 
Look at your own life, your own voting history, opinions you have stated or tweeted or posted or blogged.  Would the leaders you support match up, or would they fall under Ezekiel’s prophetic hammer of justice?  I have not espoused any position here.  I simply ask questions we must ask if we choose to read Ezekiel 34 and John 10 together.  I pose the question that must considered if we sit before the open Bible and take what it says seriously. 
Who are we, as a people?  We hear Jesus, and we have to come to grips with this.  At the end of the service we all go out from here, back to the places of our lives.  We return to our homes and relax; it’s Sunday afternoon; maybe watch some TV; maybe meet some friends downtown at a favorite Franklin Street spot; maybe mow the lawn.  Tomorrow, it’s back to work; maybe you drive your child and spend a few moments together in the carpool line; maybe you have an important meeting some night this week; maybe someone you love is in the hospital and you’ll visit, maybe Tuesday.  In this normal stuff of life, you may not think about John chapter 10 at all. 
If we are truly Christ-followers, we stay connected to Him, mindful of His ways, even in the midst of the normal flow of life, on a busy, banal Tuesday, when Sunday seems as far away as Christmas.  We might forget Sunday’s sermon, but the message contained in it continues to shape our psyche. In unspiritual places, we remember Jesus is there.  The Holy Spirit with us.  We live in his promise, “I am the Good Shepherd.”  Because he is, whether we are mowing the lawn, at the office coffee pot, or sitting at home at the kitchen table, we are pushed to ask ourselves, who am I?

Jesus declares, “I am the Good Shepherd,” the one who does strengthen the weak, heal the sick, and seek the lost.”
He contrasts the good shepherd with the hired hand who flees at the first sign of danger, leaving the sheep – people, us – on their own. 
He restates his claim and expands on it.  “I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and they know me.  … I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15).  Three times in his description of himself as the Good Shepherd, Jesus makes the point that he lays his life down.  This mustn’t be missed.  Not long after this statement, Jesus did what he said.  After talking the talk, he walked the walk.  He went to the cross, took death on himself, the penalty for sin.  He shouldered it, taking it off us.  He gave his life for us. 
The death of Jesus in our place and the forgiveness of our sins: we call this the Gospel, the good news of salvation.  Even this is a thoroughly political act.  Jesus, the Gospels insisted, and not Caesar, is Lord.  Jesus is Lord.  No one else can be.  Not Napolean.  Not Hitler.  Not Kim Jun Un.  Not Obama.  Not Trump. 
Through the mouth of the prophet Ezekiel, God condemned failed shepherds, kings of Israel who neglected the poor, served themselves, and ignored justice.  The prophet also voiced God’s promise “I will be the shepherd of my sheep.”  It was promise and prophecy.  The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was promise and prophecy fulfillment.  He stood in the flesh as the good shepherd God promised to be in the days of Babylonian exile. 
We belong to Him.  A follower of Christ does not say, I’m a Republican or I’m a Democrat.  You or I might vote for the Republican candidate or the Democratic candidate or the Green Party candidate.  But when we listen to the Bible, which as Baptist Christians we claim to believe is an authority in our lives, then we hear our shepherd’s voice.  And if we listen to our shepherd’s voice, then we aren’t listening to other voices.  When asked, who are you? Or what are you?  We respond, I am a disciple of Jesus Christ.  I follow Jesus.  He defines me and gives me my identity.  In all places and times, I am tuned in to the voice of my shepherd. 
            Jesus defines us.  He also shows us how to live.  Throughout the four gospels, he did all the things the failed kings in Ezekiel 34 did not do.  He strengthened the weak.  Following our shepherd, we look at the world around us.  Are people suffering from poverty and injustice?  We come alongside them because Jesus did so in his day and because where the poor are, there Jesus is.  On the margins, to which the socially disadvantaged have been pushed, Jesus sits.  He’s never aligned with the privileged.  Go through the Gospels with a fine tooth comb.  He is with the weak, so in our day and time, we work to help the weak.
            Following our shepherd, we look at the world around us.  Are people sick?  We come alongside them.  We pray for cures.  We offer care and comfort.  We uplift the human dignity of those society marginalizes under epithets like “special needs,” “handicapped,” and “disabled.”  We bring love and grace to the ailing.
            Following our shepherd, we look at the world around us.  Are people lost?  The isolating loneliness plaguing our virtual reality age, the lie that sex equals intimacy and companionship, and the mixing and matching of ideas from various religions shows how far people are from life in Christ.  We speak the truth, all are sinners, destined for death.  We speak the good news, God, through his son Jesus Christ, has made a way for forgiveness and eternal life.
            We hear our shepherds tell us who we are.  We follow our shepherd forward as He shows us how to live. Supposedly the two things not to be discussed in polite company are religion and politics.  But we cannot avoid that the world is political.  And in all places, we live our lives in Christ, of the Kingdom of God. 
            Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  We live life under his protection, following his lead.  At the beginning of this message, we read prophecy from Ezekiel in which it was clear that God was frustrated with His people.  And I asked, is God still that angry with the world?  No. 
            God sent Jesus to be the fulfillment of prophecy, and Jesus came to guide people into life.  In the Good Shepherd, there is hope for the world and for each one of us.

[i] J. Ward (1991), Thus Says the Lord: the Message of the Prophets, Abingdon Press (Nashville), p.190.

Monday, April 16, 2018

What we see in the Light (John 8:12)

Sunday, April 15, 2018

            “I am the light of the world,” Jesus said.  The Light.  No more darkness or confusion; all is revealed.  The problem is, I don’t think a lot of people come to church looking for light, revelation, or God.
            Ask yourself why you come?  In our country and in our culture, we are free to choose whatever religion we prefer, or no religion at all if that’s to our liking.  Why do you follow the way of Jesus? 
            Maybe you don’t.  Maybe you attend church every Sunday, or many Sundays, or today at least, but the fact that you are here does not mean you’ve given your life to God and you live in service to the Lord Jesus.  Not only does our culture provide for freedom of religion, but our religion, Christianity, allows people to participate in worship even if they have not committed to faith in Christ.  We welcome seekers.  If you are not a Christian or are not sure if you are a Christian, we’re happy to see you.
            I know many here do claim to be Christian.  The question is why?  In Christianity, in the way of Jesus Christ, what are we looking for?  Over and over, in conversations I have with church goers, I find that Christians don’t have a Biblical view of what our faith is about. 
What I hear over and over is that people are Christians because they hope to go to Heaven when they die.  People want to know that the afterlife is secured.  And, of course!  I want that too.  And our faith does promise eternal life.  But if we read the New Testament, we don’t see very much about going to Heaven when we die.  It’s not the primary message; not the heart of what God promises; not the essence of what God expects of us. 
Many of us come to church looking for this one thing.  The Bible promises something else.  Keep your eyes on John 8:12 as I talk.  This section of John begins in chapter 7.  The Festival of Tabernacles was about to begin.  Jesus traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem to be there for the festival (7:10). 
This celebration hearkened back to Moses leading the Israelite slaves out of Egypt.[i]   In Jerusalem, on the opening night of the festival, in the area of the temple called the court of women where water was drawn, there were four golden candlesticks lit.  The wicks floated in golden bowls that sat atop pillars that were so high, the priest had to climb a ladder to light each one.  When these wicks burned “it is said that all Jerusalem reflected the light.”
The opening night of the Festival of the Tabernacles under the light of Jerusalem, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.”  We hope to get to heaven when they die, and in Christ we are promised a blessed eternity as sons and daughters of God, but ‘going to heaven when we die’ is not a major focus of the New Testament.  Where does God wants us to be paying the closest attention? Into what is our Lord inviting us?
Under the light of Jerusalem, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.”  The Feast of the Tabernacles was meant to draw the people into their story and to turn their hearts to God.  In his pronouncement, Jesus says, “God is here among you and here for you; for your blessing and your benefit.”
Let it sink in.  The things God did in Jesus and continues to do among us in the Holy Spirit; it is all for our good.  It might not always be what we want.  We think we have a vision of life, of what makes us happy, but God know what gives us joy.  God knows better than we do what is for our good.  The things Jesus did and continue, in the Spirit, to do, is for our good.  The life into which Jesus calls us is the best life we can live. 
In John 6:35 Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  In 7:37 he said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” Now here in 8:12, we see his claim.  He is the light of the world. 
In the statements of Jesus in John, his identity is revealed.  We begin to see who Jesus is. Elsewhere in John he says, “I am the way,” and, “I am the gate.” 
By the light, we see.  There’s no nighttime fumbling and bumping in the house, knocking over the unseen glass of water on the bedside table, stepping barefoot on Legos and pushpins hiding in the hallway carpet.  All is seen.  All the uncertain alleyways of life are illuminated.
Taking Jesus to be the light, fixing our gaze on him and standing in his light, we are enlightened and thus our lives are exposed.  John 8:1-11, tells of an angry mob that drags a woman before Jesus caught in the act of adultery.  That’s a sin committed unclothed.  She’s cowed to the ground wearing only a bedsheet and her shame.  The crowd, stones in hand, condemning scriptures in their mouths, demand a verdict from Jesus.  He does not deny her sin.  He simply invited whomever in the mob is without sin to cast the first stone. 
In their hypocritical judgment they exposed her sin, but He is the light.  In Jesus’ wisdom, their sins are exposed.  They quietly depart, shame, a black cloud hovering over them.  Jesus did not shame anyone.  He just exposed what had been hidden.
In the next chapter, John 9, the disciples want to blame a man’s blindness on the sins of his parents.  The religious leaders want to kill Jesus.  He exposes the holes in the theology of his followers and the murderous intentions of the religious leaders in Jerusalem.  He is the light and all is exposed in the light, including all sins – yours, mine.  Light is wonderful until we realize there are things in our lives we want to keep hidden.  We cannot come to Jesus and keep things hidden.  We can hide things from friends in church, but not from him.  And we don’t truly come to him until our lives are exposed in His light. 
Jesus is the light of the world and in him we are enlightened and exposed.  What else?
We’ve heard the claims he makes, bread of life, giver of living water.  We are nourished by his light.  We have to have vitamin D for healthy bones and for numerous other health benefits.  The best source for vitamin D is sunlight similarly, he gives what we need and it is impossible to be healthy apart from him. 
And, the light guides us to right choices.  By his light we see the right pathways for our lives, and those paths we must avoid.  In his light, we walk the pathway of forgiveness.  Relationships are restored, grudges dropped, and reconciliation possible.  In his light, greed, jealousy, rage, and selfishness are avoided.  We see the way to go and the way not to go by walking in step with Jesus. 
He is the light who enlightens us, exposes all, nourishes our spirit and mind and soul, and guides our path.  As C.S. Lewis said,  “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”[ii]
The overall picture the Gospel of John paints of Jesus is of one who comes from outside of creation, from the divine realm.[iii]  The messianic language in John “tells of events that are outside the usual reach of human historical experience,” but that are “foundational for human relationship with [God].”[iv]  We cannot use empirical data to prove that Jesus is the light of the world.  All we have is the witness of scripture, the testimony of others who know God in Christ, and the words the Holy Spirit speaks to our hearts and minds.  But this is enough.  The Gospel of John speaks from direct observation, the writer an eye-witness to the life of Jesus. We feel the force of his testimony as the Spirit leads us to meet Jesus in the pages of his gospel.
Heaven, afterlife, blessing – that all comes later.  Right now, in the moment we open John, the light is turned on. We are knocked flat because in these pages, we come face to face with the living God.
Thus we see the solution to the original problem.  People come to church looking for the wrong thing – a passport to Heaven.  That’s not why we’re here.  If that’s why you’re hear, you’ll never understand what’s going in the Bible.  Heaven is real.  Heaven is important.  It’s not the story, nor is it the goal.  Heaven is an after affect.  The story is the relationship we have with God.  “By doing God’s deeds and speaking God’s words of love and life, Jesus reveals God, making it possible not only to know about God, but to know God, and so to have eternal life.”[v]
“I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).  Following Jesus - that’s the right reason to come to church, to attend worship, and live a Christian life.  Jesus has no use for admirers.  He is not impressed by believers.  Even the demons believe in God (James 2:19).  He is looking for followers.  Jesus calls us – every one of us – to be disciples. 
In John 8:32.  “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make your free.”
The disciple life is the only life worth living.  I promise.  Confess your sins before God.  Turn away from those sins and receive forgiveness.  Invite Jesus into your life and fully surrender to him.  Acknowledge him as the master of your marriage and your career.  Follow him in times leisure, as the Master of what you look at on TV, on your phone, and on your computer.  Fully, surrender to him the most important things in your life. 
We might have to give up, some relationships, and dreams. We keep others, but they are changed in the light of Christ.  Some things stay as they are, but we are changed as we pursue those dreams and live in those relationships because of who we have become in Christ.  Other things fall to second place.  Following our Lord becomes primary. 
I promise.  No other life compares.  I say it that way, as a promise, because I cannot prove it.  So, you need to test this yourself.  Turn to Jesus.  Seek Him.  And see what happens in your life when you do. 

[i] R.Brown (1983), The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John I-XII, Doubleday & Company (Garden City, NY), p.344.
[ii] A. McGrath (2009), A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Technology, Westminister John Knox Press (Louisville), p21.  I have more frequently in McGrath’s writings and speeches (watched on Youtube) than in actually reading Lewis. 
[iii] D. Rensberger (2001), “The Messiah who has Come into the World,” in Jesus in the Johannine Tradition, Robert t. Fortna and Tom Thatcher, eds, Westminster John Knox Press (Louisville), p.17
[iv] Ibid, p.19.
[v] Ibid, p.22.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Big Plans for the Doubter (John 20:24-29)

April 8, 2018

            In my final year of seminary in Richmond, VA, I shared an apartment with my sister. One day we had a knock at the door; a Jehovah’s Witness stopped by.  I asked him in.  We exchanged pleasantries.  It was a nice talk until the conversation took a turn.  I told him about some spiritual struggles I was having.  He was ready to pounce and fill my questioning mind with his version of truth, but I wouldn't have it.  I wanted to talk about the mystery of God.  I wanted to raise difficult questions about God that no one can answer.  He wouldn't even accept that there is a mystery.  He wanted to have all of the answers.  I said, "No one has all the answers."  He got agitated.  He said, "Why does there have to be a mystery about God?"  We were unable to resolve our differences. 
            Are we threatened by mystery, especially mysteries of God?  Does mystery or pain or suffering fill us with uncomfortable doubt?  Does doubt lead to a loss of faith?  Can people of real faith have doubts?
            Richard Donovan was a student at a Bible college when he felt doubts about God creep into his mind.[i]  He thought his classmates looked confident and assured in their Christianity.  The professors were so bold in talking about missions and complimentary as they described the faith of the young students. 
Donovan didn't feel comfortable in that environment saying, "Hey, wait a minute!  I am not so sure about all of this.  I have some questions.  I have some doubts."  He felt pressure to be as positive about his relationship with God as his classmates were.  So he put on a mask and acted like he was secure in his faith.  Later on he wondered if all of his classmates had the same doubts he had but they too were acting.  Maybe, like him, they were afraid to voice their doubts?  Maybe they were afraid of what it might mean?
            The doubts didn't go away when he went to seminary.  They increased.  Questions about the reality of God tormented him.  He made an appointment with the dean to tell him of his plan to drop out of seminary.  He said, "I can't preach things I don't believe."  The dean said, "Go ahead.  Drop out."  He wasn’t mean about it.  He simply told Richard to go out and seek.  If God led him back, the seminary would accept him with open arms.
            God did lead him back.  He graduated, was ordained, served a full career as an army chaplain and then as a pastor. 
What if the seminary dean had jumped down his throat?  "What do you mean you have doubts?  If you doubt the Lord, then you're not fit to be a minister.  Leave and never come back."  What then?
What does God do when we doubt?
            From 1988-1998 one of the most popular tv sitcoms was Murphy Brown, a show about news reporters.  In one episode, they were talking about God and church.  Murphy knew Frank, her colleague of many years, a polished, hardened, veteran news anchor went to church with his wife every Sunday.  She didn't understand why?  She was legitimately trying to figure the whole 'God-thing' out, so she quizzed Frank.  "Why do you go to church?"  "Murphy, we just go.  We do it every week."  She stayed on him and pecked at him until he admitted, "Murphy, I don't know.  I don't even believe in God.  I don't believe at all.  I just go to church to feel better about myself, and it works." He looked very defeated when he said it because he and Murphy were both struck by his own hypocrisy.  He spoke the language of faith, but there was no faith in his heart.  He didn't have doubts, he had unbelief.
            The show did not concoct a false narrative.  In real life, every Sunday in Churches around our country people play the part of being a good Christian, but, in their hearts, they aren't truly dealing with God or wrestling with the deep truths of the faith.  They just make sure they have a nice clothes, bring a great casserole for the pot luck, and put their money in the plate.  They've gotten their religious fix for the week.  They can go on with their lives. 
They completely miss out on the dynamic relationship believers have with God in Jesus Christ. 
            The people around Jesus were constantly confronted with the realities of God, discovering God in new ways with each new thing Jesus did.  In the stories he told, the wisdom he shared, the miracles he worked and the way he loved, he revealed God to them.  The most incredible sign was the resurrection.  Each disciple had to figure out how to cope the notion that Jesus, whom they followed and whom they saw die, had risen.  This man they loved but did not understand truly was God.
            The different reactions to Jesus before and after the crucifixion and resurrection earned the disciples nicknames.  Jesus called John and his brother James the "sons of Thunder."  There were two Simons.  One of them was called the Zealot because he was a part of a militant political party.  The other Simon was renamed by Jesus.  Jesus called him Cephas which in Greek is translated Petra and means rock.  Simon Peter - Simon the rock.  These nicknames, given by Jesus or by the Gospel writers, have stuck. And the one that rolls off the tongue more easily than any of the others, and is Doubting Thomas. 
            How would you like to go through time remembered for a moment when you failed to believe?  Following John's Gospel, we go with Mary Magdalene to the tomb a couple of days after Jesus was crucified.  There she discovers that it is empty.  Just outside the tomb, she back bumps into a man she believes is the gardener until he says her name.  When he says, "Mary!" she recognizes him. 
Later Jesus appears to the disciples, but Thomas is not with them.  Jesus appears, shows his nail-scarred hands, and his pierced side.  Then Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on them.  Thomas misses all of this.
            He gave up his life as a Galilean fisherman to follow Jesus.  He gave up everything.  He was there when Jesus gave the 12 the power to drive demons and do miracle healings.  He received that power.  When Lazarus died and everyone was weeping and mourning, it was Thomas the twin who said, "Let us go that we may die with him."  Thomas was not an anonymous disciple that just faded into the background.  He thought about things.  He listened to what Jesus said.  He was ready to throw away life itself.  He imagined Lazarus experiencing resurrection.  He believed in Jesus and thought it was time to go and join Lazarus in death because he believed what Jesus said.   
            That wasn't the plan, and it's possible that when they didn't join Lazarus in death, questions began to creep into Thomas’ mind.  He still followed Jesus.  He hung in there until the end.  But, prior to seeing the risen Lord, confusion rose in his mind.
One of Jesus’ most famous quotes from the Last Supper is "I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me."  He said this in response to a question asked by Thomas.  Jesus said, "I am going to prepare a place for you."  Thomas said, "Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?"  And Jesus says, "I am the way."
            After that meal, Thomas saw his Lord dragged off in chains.  In that moment, the faith of Thomas failed.  He ran off, and he was even absent on the Sunday, two days afterward.  The rest of the disciples, except for Judas, met the resurrected Jesus and were transformed.  So, they got together again after that, and this time, they made sure that Thomas was with them.
            Have you had that experience where someone tells a joke, everyone laughs, and you’re the only one who doesn’t get it?
            The disciples and Mary and Mary Magdalene were abuzz with excitement Thomas had never seen before.  In jubilation that kept saying, "He's alive!  He's alive!"  Thomas was still stuck on that Friday, the image of Jesus on the cross fixed on his mind.  He was as depressed and sad as they were happy, and he stubbornly refused to believe their joy.    "Show me!"  Thomas demanded.  "I've followed Jesus, given up my own life to be his disciple, and I watched him die.  I saw that.  That was real!  Now you want me to accept that he's alive just because you say so?" 
            He was doubting Thomas.  The mystery was too much.  He needed something he could see and touch.  He said, "Unless I put my finger in the nail holes, I will not believe." 
A week goes by.  Everyone is hopping around happy.  Thomas just wants to slap every one of them.  He wants them to wake up and realize it's over.  So, after a week, they're all together again, and this time, Thomas is there.  He's hurt, angry and disillusioned, but he shows up.  And the risen Lord shows up. 
            Jesus says to them "Peace be with you."  I imagine Thomas standing there trembling.  He felt strong in his anger a week ago.  He makes a declaration in the face of all of the others.  "I won't believe until I can touch the holes in His hands."  He was logical and defiant.  No one could change his mind.  But now before Jesus, that boldness, defiance, and strength was gone.  Jesus offered to take Thomas up on his claim.  He offered his hands and invited Thomas to touch so that Thomas would stop doubting.  Jesus had big plans for Thomas and he needed to get past this doubting.
            Thomas did not need to touch the nail-scarred hands. Being in the Lord's presence was all he needed.  Thomas made the proclamation about Jesus that we all need to make.  He said to Jesus, "My Lord and My God."  A second time, Thomas gave himself to Jesus completely. 
            A post-Biblical tradition reports that Thomas eventually traveled east - all the way to India.  There he preached the good news about Jesus Christ and led many people to salvation.  We remember him as Doubting Thomas because he had a moment when his faith wavered.  But, he was a man Jesus strengthened.  He was man Jesus called to build the early church.  He was seated on one of the 24 thrones we read about in the book of Revelation. 
            Jesus asked Thomas.  "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."  It was a little beatitude that he shared with Thomas and the others.  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.  Thomas would go on to meet a lot of people.  He had the assignment of telling them about Jesus, and he knew they wouldn't see Jesus in the flesh as he had.  Yet, he would try to tell of Jesus' love and salvation, and he would state his belief that Jesus was present in the form of the Holy Spirit.
            We carry on the work of Thomas today.  We are a room full of people who haven't laid eyes on the physical form of the risen Christ.  I have not seen His nail-scarred hands.  I have not physically embraced Him.  I don't believe others who here have seen Jesus either.  When we say that Jesus is our Savior and Lord and Master and Friend and God, we are speaking in Faith. 
We are speaking of a great mystery.  Sometimes doubt creeps in.  But, Jesus doesn't send us away.  He says, look at me.  In prayer, in worship, in the Bible, and in the deepest pars of ourselves, we look to Jesus. 
            Doubt born of scrutiny and critical thought is not a sin.  Numerous things can raise doubts in us.  If you have doubts about God or questions about God or questions for God, seek Him.  In prayer, in conversation, in worship, in research – seek Him with great intensity.  Don’t give up on God.
When you come to church, don’t come as a matter of course, out of habit, or as cultural expression.  Come to church looking for God.  Even if you don't believe in Him, look for Him.  Open your mind and honestly seek Him. 
Beware.  God doesn't play around.  If you are serious about getting to know Him, he'll enter your heart and rock your world.  He'll call you to new places and He'll make you a new person in your old places.  The people around you will have to deal with the new you, like it or not.  Faith is real and it is not something that just comes up from 11-12 on Sunday.  Faith affects every area of life.  Thomas knew this.  He knew what was at stake.  That's why he didn't just believe because his friends, the other disciples, told him to believe.  He made up his own mind.  And when he was face to face with the risen Lord, nothing could stop him from believing and loving God. 
            In this place and time, we won't come face to face with the risen Lord, I don't think.  But He is here.  His Holy Spirit is here.  He lives in the hearts of the people of faith who are here.  His word is before us.  We sing songs of worship to Him and He hears them.  Yes, Jesus is here today. 
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.  Do you believe?  Will move from questions and doubt into life-changing faith today?

[i] Richard Niell Donovan’s bio is listed here -; I have an article I have photocopied from 1996 (July-August), I don’t know the magazine.