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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Trinity Sunday (John 3:1-16)




Sunday, May 27, 2018



            By the authority vested in me, as minister of the Gospel, an ordained Baptist Pastor, I hereby grant to all present, every one of you, the sanctified permission to say, “I don’t know.”  It’s OK.  It’s alright to not know everything there is to know about God. 
            That’s true all of the time, but this truth is of special import today – Trinity Sunday. 
            Just imagine yourself.  You go to church.  You sing the songs and listen, really listen, to the sermons.  You read the Bible on your own, and attend a midweek Bible study.  You can, in your own words, explain that you know you are a sinner and Jesus died for you.  You can give your own story, of how and when you gave your heart to Jesus and began living life under His rule, with Him as your Lord.
            Then, a non-church going friend, in the course of casual conversation asks that question.  “I get that you believe in God and everything, but what about the trinity?  Can you explain that?”
            Ooh. At that point, the collar gets a little tight, the mouth a little dry.  Beads of sweat appear on the forehead.  Explain the trinity?  Okay.  The trinity is God, 3-in-1; kind of like water, which is ice, liquid water, and steam; solid, liquid, and gas. 
            That explanation doesn’t work!  Those are just different modes of H2O, just different forms.  The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each God, the one God, but distinct from the other two. It’s how Jesus could pray to the Father.  They’re distinct, but also one.  It is how, as we see in Mark 1:12, the Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness.  Jesus does not evaporate and become the Holy Spirit.  The Father does not melt to become Jesus.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct from each other, and the analogy of water fails to explain that. 
            Let’s try again.  How to explain the trinity?  The trinity is like the sun that produces light and heat and gives vitamin D!
            Again, that explanation is a no go!  The Son and the Holy Spirit are not produced by the Father.  Heat and light are things the sun produces as it gives off energy.  God the Son is fully God; so is God the Spirit.  Neither emanates as a product of God.  Both are eternal.  Both are persons existing as personalities, distinct.  And yet, the three together exist as one God and there’s no separating them. 
            We cannot claim the Father, Son, and Spirit are modes of God.  One could make such a claim, but that would not be an orthodox Christian claim.  Nor can we say the Son and the Spirit are produced from the Father, not if we want to align with the traditional claims of Christianity. 
            One more try?  Here goes: just as an apple is the core, the pulp, and the skin – all of the apple – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are all equal parts of God. Does that work?
            No!  The Father is not 1/3 of God.  The Father is fully God.  The Son and the Holy Spirit each are fully God.  The three persons of the trinity are not parts.  They are not modes.  They are not emanations.  Each one is distinctly, fully God – the one God; God, 3-in-1.

            Remember!  You have sanctified permission to say, “I don’t know!”  Your unchurched friend says, “Hey, Christian, what about the Trinity?”  Your response?  “The triune nature of God is an unexplainable mystery.  The Father is eternal, fully God, and distinct.  The Son, is eternal, pre-existent, and is fully God.  And the Spirit, is fully God.  The three together are one, existing in a perfect relationship of love and cooperation within the Godhead. 

            Regarding Trinitarian theology, we all have the permission to say, “This is confusing.  I don’t quite understand it.  It’s an incomprehensible mystery.”  However, we do not need to fear the conversation about the trinity.  Don’t be afraid of talking about and thinking about God in this way.  In fact, God as trinity is cause for rejoicing!  How so?

            In our reading, John chapter 3, we meet a great Pharisee, Nicodemus.  Jesus affords him the highest of respect, calling him a “teacher of Israel” (v.10).  Nicodemus also gives Jesus great recognition.  He says to Jesus, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God.  Nicodemus, the “teacher of Israel,” has come to Jesus, the carpenter-rabbi from Nazareth, to be taught.  He’s not prepared for the lesson Jesus will give.  It is as hard for him to understand as it us for us to wrap our brains around the notion of trinity. 
            Jesus tells him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above” (3:3).  All who want to follow Jesus, all who want to go to Heaven and not Hell, and all who want to be Christian must be born again.  All Christians are “born again” Christians.  Any who have not undergone second birth have are not followers of Jesus.
            I know this can be distressing.  I have talked to people desiring to be Christians who have said to me, “Rob, I cannot sense the Holy Spirit in me.”  Or, “I don’t remember a definitive time of being born again.”  People who want to be with Christ, but lack such a clearly identifiable divine encounter, have obvious concern.  Maybe they aren’t truly Christians.  Maybe you have such worries.
            Jesus explains in verse 5 that “No one can enter the Kingdom without being born of water and of Spirit.”  Nicodemus might hear “born of water” and think of a several different things.  There’s natural child birth.  He might remember the Noah story: the world was remade in a flood.  He would definitely call to mind Israel’s defining moment.  The nation escaped slavery in Egypt, and then received the 10 commandments and the written law at Mount Sinai.  The centerpiece of that story comes when God parts the Red Sea and the people pass through those waters. 
Nicodemus would remember that.  He also knew that his own day, John the Baptist and other radical teachers were baptizing in the Jordan River.  He would have known that Jesus himself was baptized by John.  So when he hears Jesus say, “Born of water,” familiar thoughts come to mind.
            What is “born of Spirit?”  Nicodemus is absolutely perplexed.
            Jesus has told him that he cannot enter the Kingdom of God without being born of the Spirit and he doesn’t know what that means.  I insist that this teaching, for us in our time, means each one of us has to be born of the Spirit to be with Christ.  I say that knowing many people who want to be Christians but cannot, in their own story, identify that specific time when they were “born again.”  It’s hard to pinpoint.
            The crux of the matter comes when Jesus talks about the wind in verse 8.  In both Biblical Greek and Biblical Hebrew, the same word means wind, breath, and Spirit.  As we said a few weeks ago, as the writer of this gospel set pen to parchment, he surely had the prophet Ezekiel on his mind.  Ezekiel tells of a time when God set him down in a valley of dry bones and commanded Ezekiel to tell the bones to come to life.  He obeyed, and the commanded the bones rattled and came together and took on muscle and tissue and skin.  And there before Ezekiel stood a multitude of lifeless people.
            They did not come to life until Ezekiel prophesied a second time, this time to the breath.  He did that, and the multitude came alive.  God told Ezekiel, in exile, the nation of Israel completely destroyed, “Mortal man, these bones are the house of Israel” (37:11).  God told him to tell the people in exile, “I will open up your graves” and restore your life.  “I will put my spirit in you.”  They would not be the people of God until God put God’s spirit in them. 
            Nicodemus may not have thought of Ezekiel when he spoke with Jesus.  But looking back on the encounter, later, after he gained understanding, I imagine he made the association.  God promised to put his spirit in the people, through the mouth of the prophet.  And God the Son, Jesus, told Nicodemus, you must be born of the Spirit to see and enter the Kingdom of God.  I think Nicodemus understood that when Jesus told him this, he, Nicodemus, was having his own Ezekiel moment.  I think he figured this out later, probably with a lot of help from the Holy Spirit.  He’s probably the one who shared the entire story that’s told in John 3 with the writer of the Gospel.
            In the moment, he was thoroughly lost.  “How can these things be?”  Jesus let him ponder.  He didn’t clear it up right away, but rather, he let Nicodemus sit with it.  All he said to Nicodemus was, “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things” (3:10)?  That’s how utterly new and unexpected the Gospel was.  Neither uneducated people nor the most educated of people were ready for what God would do in Jesus.  The only way understanding could come would be by the Spirit.
            Yet, Jesus says in verse 8, “The wind [the spirit] blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”  We have no control over the Holy Spirit.  It seems hardly fair for God the Son to tell us that we need God the Spirit to enter the Kingdom of God the Father, when we cannot grab hold of the God the Spirit.  Does that mean that anyone who has not felt the touch of the Spirit is just left out?
            Of course not!  Jesus mentions in verse 13 that he is the one descended from heaven, and then in verse 14, he references another story Nicodemus would have known.  This comes from the book of Numbers and might be less familiar to us.  The people of God were in the wilderness and rebelled against God.  Poisonous snakes came and began biting the people and they were dying.  God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and to display it atop a tall pole.  Anyone who had been bitten should fix his gaze upon this serpent that had been lifted up and he or she would be healed of the poisonous snake bite.
            Jesus tells Nicodemus and all of us, John’s readers, that he must be lifted up like that snake.   If you fear that you lack of that experience with the Holy Spirit that tells you that you’ve been born again, look at Jesus, lifted up on the cross.  Verse 15, “Whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” 
            This illustrates both the beautiful dance of the Trinity and the reason our understanding of God as Trinity is cause for rejoicing.  The Kingdom of God the Father is eternal life, eternal joy, and eternal love.  We all want to be in it.  We need the Spirit to get there.  But we can’t control the Spirit.  However, we can fix our gaze upon the God the Son, who inhabited human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth.  We can look at Jesus, believe in him, worship and follow him, and we are saved.  Even if you don’t feel it, per se, the Spirit is working.  Believe in Jesus. 
            The next verse, maybe the most famous in the Bible, ties together God’s love and the salvation of the world.  Remember what we’ve stressed throughout our 9 weeks spent in the Gospel of John.  “The world,” as presented in this Gospel, it opposed to God.  It is the realm of the enemy.  John 3:16 says God loved this world so much, he came – gave his only son – that whoever believes in him may not die, but rather may have eternal life.

            Can’t explain the Trinity?  It’s OK.  The Trinity is a mystery beyond comprehension.  What you can share with friends and what you can count on, if you’re trembling in the shadow of doubts about your own relationship with God, is the Gospel.  We can rest secure in the Gospel. 
God is love.  God’s love is on display in the beautiful dance within God – the perfect love and cooperation between Father, Son, and Spirit.  The Son went to the cross for our sins.  The Spirit is about in the world, convicting people of sin so that they might repent and turn to God.  The Spirit is also residing in your heart and in the body of Christ – his Church.  Instead of trying to reduce this beautiful mystery to an easily contained explanation, live in it.  God invites us to join in the dance and live in relationship with God.  And not just at Pentecost or on Trinity Sunday, but every day.  Every day, His love is real and present for us.  Every day, God walks with us that we might have life and live in His joy.
AMEN

Monday, May 21, 2018

“The Holy Spirit: God-Breathed Love” (John 14:16-17; 15:26-27; 16:4b-15)





Sunday, May 20, 2018

            We pray, hoping that someone is listening.  Does this make sense?  As Christians, we believe that good wins in the end.  More specifically, we believe God, expressing God’s love, ultimately prevails over evil.  Under this audacious belief, we live lives in which we expect things to turn out well.  Should we?  We hope for the good and live as if we’ll get what we’re hoping for.  Does this make sense?  Such hope stands on what, exactly?  What’s the foundation of our faith?
            Reading an Edgar Allen Poe poem last week, I was swallowed by a damp, thick, vague, darkness.  It is what Han Solo means when he says, “I have a bad feeling about this.”  People familiar with Poe might tell me I have just described all his poems, not just the one I was reading last Thursday.  Yet poets and Star Wars characters are not the only ones to trust their gut instincts instead of evidence.  I have seen the most down-to-earth of people fall prey to indescribable, untouchable yet still palpable feelings.   Something is there.  Intuition. I have heard the most sober-minded of church members talk about the feeling of being blanketed by a thick spiritual heaviness. 
            I’m no poet and I wasn’t in star wars.  But I have had my own moments where feelings existing outside the realm of 5 senses have overcome me. 
            I was on the streets of Washington DC in 1993 outside an establishment that featured exotic dancing.  As men with lust in their eyes and wads of cash in their hands lined up to pay the cover charge, I felt evil in the air.  It clung to my skin like the steamy air after a hot summer rain. 
            Indeed, why should we Christians have optimism or hope or faith?  Evil is about in the world.  Demons; temptation; the sin of man against man, woman against woman; what good news can we offer?  To what hope can we cling?
            We stand at a border in a war zone.  Before us is no man’s land.  That phrase originated in World War I.  Between the German trench line and the French trench line was a space uncontrolled by either side.  Any venture in might mean poisonous gas, bombs, or exposure to enemy gunfire.  To go into no man’s land was to stare into death.  But there was no winning the war without advancing.
            After the resurrection of Jesus and the ascension, where Jesus went to sit at the right hand of the Father, the disciples sat in utter uncertainty.  Were they destined to be executed as Jesus was?  If so, would it do any good?  If death was before them, did they have the courage to face it?  They had become dependent upon the physical, bodily presence of Jesus.  Were they ready for life without him with them?  Staring into the void, exposed in no man’s land, the disciples saw God’s love for them in the coming of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit came as Jesus promised the Spirit would. 
            We cannot see the Holy Spirit.  We cannot measure the Holy Spirit through any form of scientific observation.  Relating to God the Spirit, even believing in God the Spirit, is an act of faith.  We live in this condition, in faith.  And that lands us right in that most dangerous of places – no man’s land.
            We have our life experiences.  I live with what I have seen and felt.  I have severely sprained both ankles in pick-up basketball games.  The pain is alive in my memory.  When I am watching a game on TV, and player is injured, and the broadcast shows it over and over in super-slow motion, I can’t even watch.  I feel the horrible pain. 
I remember a time in a Hardees restaurant, 27 years ago.  I was visiting my friends at Radford University.  We were in the restaurant laughing about something, and a Radford student thought I was laughing at him.  The next thing I knew, this guy was threatening to fight me.  I was so shocked to go from carefree laughter to fight or flight mode, I didn’t even really size up my attacker.  Thankfully that confrontation was posturing, not an actual fight.  Still, all these years later, I remember.
I remember the best hugs I have ever had. I remember times my dad and brother and I laughed at the silliest of things, laughed until we cried.
I remember watching my son joyfully run up the garage steps upon returning home from school.  I delighted in his happiness.  Then his foot slipped and he went down, face first, breaking his tooth in half on the steps; all that blood.  I get a little nervous now, when the kids run up those steps.  I walk up those steps with a little more care.
These are tactile experiences, memories with taste and touch, emotions and reactions.  I cannot recall “seeing” the Holy Spirit of God in any of these experiences.  From this no man’s land, this space of memory, I – we – stand at the border of the physical world and the great unknown.  We have deeper cuts than sprained ankles and broken teeth.  We have injuries to the soul, wounds only God can heal and we cannot see this God we desperately need.  We have no choice.  We have to step forward into the unknown future.  Where is God?
We were made for relationships.  Even those among us who enjoy quiet and solitude need others.  We all need intimacy.  Yet, nothing hurts us as much as the person we love who rejects us.  We cannot look into the mind and heart of another person.  So we step into relationship not knowing if we will be laughed at or loved.  And if we are laughed at, then who picks us up?  Where is God?
All we can do is step into the future.  We cannot be squatters in No Man’s Land.  We can live isolated from relationships, a life lived alone, but that leads to intolerable emptiness.  We must step into the unknown.  But how?
            I mentioned the uncertainty of the disciples at Jesus’ death.  Even seeing him resurrected, still they were unsure of what was next.  They had lived life with him, in his bodily presence.  They were in the boat when he calmed the raging storm.  They saw him raise dead people to life.  Being so close with him, they discovered their very best selves.  Once he ascended to the Father was gone, no longer with them in body, could they continue to be their very best selves?
            I doubt they really understood the mission or the message at this point.  We venerate Peter and Andrew, James and John, Matthew and Thomas and the rest, and rightly so.  But in that short time between ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit, I believe the disciples had greater anxiety than the spiritual uncertainty we live with daily.  They surely felt that their lives were on the line.
            The teaching of Jesus at the Last Supper, recorded in the Gospel of John, specifically what’s in chapters 14, 15, & 16 is God’s answer to the disciples’ tremulous confusion in the days after the ascension.  What Jesus says there is for us in the moments when we desperately ask, “Where is God?”
            God is here!  “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate” said Jesus (14:16).  “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf” (15:26).  The New Revised Standard Version uses the word ‘Advocate’ to translate the Greek word ‘Paraclete.’  In reality, no single word in English adequately captures the meaning of this word; we might even say of this name. 
            The Paraclete is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit sent by God.  English translators have called this one ‘Advocate,’ ‘Comforter,’ ‘Helper,’ ‘Teacher,’ and ‘Mediator.’  The Spirit fills all of these roles.  The presence of the Holy Spirit is so important for living the life of a follower of Jesus, he actually said it was for the best that he depart.  His ascension was the best thing that could come for the disciples because the Holy Spirit would not come until he departed.  I find it hard to understand how I am better off apart from Jesus’ bodily presence, and I never met Jesus in the body.  How much more would these disciples whose feet were washed by him become incredulous when he said his departure was for the best?  But that’s what he said.  They, we, need the Spirit more than we need Jesus present in the body.  We cannot be disciples apart from the Holy Spirit.  We cannot be Christians apart from the Holy Spirit.
            However, this does not mean we strain to see or hear or feel the Holy Spirit.  Yes, we can listen, quiet our minds, open our hearts, and truly listen.  But, communing with the Spirit is not something we accomplish.  It’s something we receive, a gift of God’s grace.  The Spirit is sent by God as God’s presence with us.  We have this gift and God won’t ever go away.  God may sit patiently waiting for us to be responsive to the Spirit, or the Spirit may act in ways we cannot easily see, but the Spirit is God’s promise that God is always with us.  As we come to understand this, we see that No Man’s Land is transformed and becomes God’s Space.
            In John 16:8-11, the Spirit is an accuser who proves the depths of error found in the world.  Remember, in the Gospel of John, the world is fallen and dying, and is a dangerous place.  If we get too wrapped with the world, apart from God, we die with it.  The Spirit shows that world does not understand sin, righteousness, or judgment.  Sin is life lived in rebellion against God.  Righteousness is life lived in right relationship with God.  Judgment is God’s verdict that the world will die and be destroyed before entering the resurrection and being made new.  The Spirit exists within the evil world to teach this lesson about sin, righteousness, and judgment and at the same to time to speak God’s condemnation. 
            Such wrath-filled rhetoric might give us pause, raise our fears a little, but we can be comforted.  The same Spirit that speaks judgment to the world takes the church, the followers of Jesus, by the hand.  The Spirit guides us to the path of absolute joy and eternal life.  I would say the Spirit guides us gently and much of the time that is so.  But sometimes, some of us need more than an arm on the shoulder.  We need a swift kick to get us moving in the direction of God.  When need be, the Holy Spirit provides the necessary nudge. 
            Jesus said, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth” (16:12).  He’s called the Spirit of truth and he guides us into the truth.  And by the way, the Holy Spirit has no gender.  I say “He” because of the insufficiency of language. Earlier in John 14, we hear Jesus say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  So when Jesus declares that the Spirit will guide us he means two things.  The Holy Spirit enables us to truly see the world as it is, and guides us to Jesus. 
            Jesus says that he sends the Spirit.  He also says the Spirit comes from the Father.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus and the Father are one and whenever one acts, we are assured it is as if the other said that word or performed that deed.  All that I am saying does nothing to clarify the mystery of the Holy Trinity.  I cannot make the 3-in-one nature of God simple.  Next week we will talk more about our Trinitarian understanding of God.  I fear confusions will persist.  What I offer – what the Bible offers – what Jesus promised is not answers, but presence.
            God knows that John’s gospel presents the world as evil.   God knows the struggles, the uncertainty, and the sense of isolation that we face.  God knows.  God loves us and what God has done for us is to come to us.  God is with us in the person of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit is the ultimate testimony that God is love.  God’s ultimate value is love.  When you or I feel abandoned or defeated or collapsed in guilt or lost, God says to us, “I love you.  I will show you my love by being with you.”  This is God: love.  God is love. 
            Many years on Pentecost Sunday – today – we would read Acts 2 and see how the dramatic coming of the Holy Spirit launched the beginning of the age of the church, the body of Christ alive and active in the world.  This year on Pentecost Sunday, rest in who God is.  God is the one who loves you and is with you.  The world is dying in sin, but you are rescued for eternal joy, eternal love, and eternal life.  The Spirit has come and is here.  We need not fear.  Because of who God is, we can live in the midst of evil as witnesses to the truth.
AMEN

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Jesus at MacDonald's (John 17:6-19)





Sunday, May 13, 2018

            A booth in a MacDonald’s, 10:00 in the evening; what are you doing there?
            Your friend is there with you, a pretty good friend.  You’ve been there a while, talking in easy, natural conversation. Someone familiar, walks by and you smile and she smiles and your friend smiles.  This passerby sits to join you.  You’re certain you’ve seen this person before, but you think your friend knows her really well.  Your friend thinks you know the woman, this third person.  She, Gretchen, never clears it up, never indicates how she knows either of you.  She just enters the conversation you’ve been having as if she’d always been in it; as if she started it.
            It is a good, deep conversation.  It is not a conversation about God, but somehow, God comes up in the conversation, at first in just a passing way.  But, as the conversation flows like a peaceful river, seamlessly from one topic to the next, God sticks around.  Which person at the table is the one with deep faith, you, your friend, or Gretchen? 

            Here, the last two weeks, in different ways, in this space, preaching the Sunday morning sermon, I made a specific point.  God is Lord in our daily, normal lives.  In what appears to be the most mundane, least spiritual of places, God is there, active, participating.  God is Lord and Master there.  I’ve tried to strongly assert that and now I fear such efforts have become nothing more than white noise.  Oh yeah, the preacher says God is everywhere.  Preachers say that sort of thing.  We leave here and go to our normal places and we don’t expect to see God and we think and speak and act in ways oblivious to God’s presence. 
            So, the booth at MacDonald’s, the cold fries, the melting milkshake, you, your friend, and Gretchen.  Could any place be more normal, everyday, more mundane, and less spiritual? 
            Don’t miss the point!  If you loathe MacDonald, imagine it is Breadman’s or Suton’s or Bruegger’s Bagels, or Café Carolina, or Wendy’s.  If the only place you find yourself at 10:00PM is home in bed, then imagine it is 10 in the morning.  This is real.  You and your friend and Gretchen are together talking.  God is lingering around the edges of the conversation.  Everyone at this table is there because they want to be there.
            You want to be there with this friend.  You’re wondering where you know Gretchen from and how long she will stay.  But she’s not really a bother.  God is wondering if anyone else at the table will open space for Him to have a bigger role in the conversation.  He won’t force his way in.  And he won’t leave. 
            About that time, without warning, Gretchen gets up and heads for the door.  You can’t decide if you’re happy she’s leaving or if you’ll miss when she’s gone.  At the last second, she breaks left, and stops at the drink machine to refill her diet Dr. Pepper.  You look back to your friend.  Gretchen seems to materialize, sitting back down to rejoin you.  At this point you’re so lost, you’re not sure if she wasn’t the first one to sit down.
            Was she the one who went on that profanity laced tirade at the little game, going off on the ump?  Was that her?  In the lull, a serious look falls over your friend’s face.  He wasn’t going to tell you, but now he can’t hold it in.  Wait, was Gretchen at that wedding?  Was she the one who fell in the bushes outside the club after one too many cocktails?   Maybe.
            A tear rolls out of the corner of your friend’s eye.   With shaky voice, he says his wife has cancer and it doesn’t look good.  Before you can react, Gretchen, as if on cue, reaches a tender hand across the table, rests it on your friend’s hand, and says, “I’ll pray for you.”  Are Gretchen’s eyes misty? 
            Surreal. 

            I’ll pray for you.  Prayer is one way, maybe the way, God is openly invited into everyday conversations in everyday places where people are otherwise uncomfortable with God’s participation.  I have never seen someone scornfully reject an offer of prayer.  Even people who have no thoughts about God whatsoever somberly accept prayers.  When someone says words like “cancer” or “death” or “hospital” or “devastating life loss,” and we Christians respond with an offer to pray, most of the time, people accept the offer. 
            Your friend’s report of his wife’s cancer has made a place at the table for God, and Gretchen pulled out the chair to help God sit down.  This is a normal every day place in the comings and goings of your life and mine. 
            Does John 17 help us piece this all together – the scene, God, faith?  It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to see that chapter is a record of Jesus praying out loud for his disciples.  He’s with them at the last supper.  Judas has already gone to fetch the temple police who will arrest Jesus.  He looks to heaven and says, “Father, the hour has come.”
Spoiler alert: he gets caught and crucified. 
Additional spoiler alert: after he dies on the cross, as he said he would, he rises from death.
I believe Jesus actually did pray this prayer with his disciples, for his disciples, as John says he did.  John’s entire gospel is stylized, arranged to get the reader to the point that he or she would believe that Jesus is the Lord, the Son of God, and in believing, the reader would come to faith and have life in Jesus’ name.  John is trying to get you, his reader, to that point.  This chapter, 17, is set right before they head out to the garden where he will be arrested. 
After praying for glory, in verse 6, Jesus says, “I have made your name [the Father’s name] known to those whom you gave me from the world.”  That phrase, the world, is intentionally oppositional in John.  The world, the spaces that exist outside of the sphere of Jesus, is evil precisely because it is outside of the circle of Jesus.  This is because Jesus is the revealer of God.  To be separated from him is to be cut off from the revelation of God.  There are no neutral spaces.  Either one is with Christ and in Christ, or, one is cut off and is in the world, and the world is evil.
The booth at MacDonald’s is in the world. 
From verse 6 on in this chapter, Jesus talks to God about his disciples.  By the time John was read in the church, most of those disciples had died and Jesus had ascended.  John understands this prayer to be for the original 12 disciples as well as the succeeding generations of Jesus-followers who become disciples.  In other words, in John 17, we can understand this to be Jesus praying for us. 
“I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I am asking you to protect them from the evil one,” Jesus prays (v.15).  Jesus wants us sitting in that MacDonald’s booth.  He wants us to be there.  But it is dangerous place.  God is there, but is only heard when He’s invited to the table.  The enemy, the evil one and his dark minions, barge in uninvited.  For some reason, it is much easier for us to listen to their malevolent siren song than to the truth and love and grace God has for us.  Part of it is just what Jesus said: the world is evil.  Temptations abound.  We tend toward sin.  So we have to focus.  We can’t just come up from the baptismal waters and come from church and think, I’m in with God; it’s all good.
It is all good, except evil has not exited stage right.  Even though you might be born again, a new creation in Jesus Christ, in that MacDonald’s you’re another fast food consumer; just like the addict two booths behind you, eating three super-sized fries purchased with money he stole; just like the guy in the rumpled dress shirt a few booths over, on his way from a 14-hour day, eating the same meal he has every night since he left his wife and kids last year.  You’re in the same boat as the rowdy group of teens in the back who can’t stop cussing, lying, or telling dirty jokes.  The MacDonald’s is a den of iniquity, just as the country club is, just as the boardroom is, just as the cocktail lounge is.  And the classroom.  And the grocery story.  It is all the world.
The Gospel of John sets the world against God. 

“And now I am no longer in the world, but they [my disciples] are in the world.  … Holy Father, protect them” (17:11).
Jesus does not say, “Holy Father, get them out of the world.”  He doesn’t say that.  Throughout this gospel, the world is seen as evil, in opposition to Jesus.  He acknowledges that we – his family – live in this place of opposition.  He does not ask God to get us out of here; just the opposite. 
“As you have sent me into the world,” he prays, for us, “As you have sent me … so I have sent them into the world” (17:18).  No, he doesn’t ask God to rescue us; he sends us to this evil place.  Why would Jesus do that?  John 20:21 – “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  Why?  The world is evil.  John 20:31 – “[This gospel] is written so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and through believing we may have life in his name.” 
The prayer for us is to prepare us for the rescue mission ahead of us.  The world is perishing and Jesus sends us to it to help people reach the lifeline – Himself.  We are sent to so many places, including the booth at the McDonald’s. 
It’s you and your good friend.  After hours of talking, he told you he’s devastated because his wife has cancer.  There you are, the four of you: you, your friend, Gretchen, and God huddled around the table.  In this moment, Jesus’ words, “I have sent them into the world,” leap off the page, out of John 17, and into real life – your very real life. 
Is this a burden?  Are we overwhelmed with a sense of evangelistic responsibility?  Is this a task to be feared, or even avoided?  Do we just chalk all this up to some preacher talk to be forgotten before the last notes in the final song are sung? 

The booth at the MacDonald’s; who would ever imagine a raucous, Heavenly celebration might break out because of this subdued, normal conversation?  “I speak these things in the world,” Jesus said, “so that [my own, my people,] may have my joy made complete in them” (17:13).  That’s what Jesus hopes will come out of this conversation in the MacDonald’s, in everyday encounters.
How does the joy of Jesus become complete in our lives?  We already have that joy if we have Him.  His joy is complete as we share him.  How does it happen at MacDonalds?  Gretchen prayed for your friend.  You and your friend welcomed Gretchen to the table.  Or she welcomed you?  Everyone stay engaged and even made a place for God. 
We surrender ourselves to Jesus that he would define us, and once defined, we go into the world; we are sent into the world.  Once there, we are ourselves when we’re with people.  Because He is in us, the see Him when we are ourselves.  Seeing him, truly seeing Jesus, they see how messed up the world is and how much they need that lifeline.  We hand it to them.  We help them know Him.  We help them see how to surrender their lives to Jesus.  And joy is made complete, right there are MacDonald’s. 
Finish up that milkshake.  It’s time to go home.
AMEN

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Named (John 15:12-17)


"Named" (John 15:12-17)
Sunday, May 6, 2018

            “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
            How, exactly, did Jesus show love?  John’s gospel tells us. 
            In chapter 2, Jesus is at a wedding.  The wine runs out, a potential social embarrassment for the groom.  At his mother’s prompting, Jesus works his first miracle, turning water into wine – superior wine.  Not only does he keep the party going; he steps outside of convention.  Typically, the good wine is served first, but when they taste Jesus’ wine, they are shocked that what came last was the best of all.  God in human skin, Jesus, lived in everyday human life – the simple joy of a wedding.  Turning water into wine, Jesus said “no” to joylessness.
            How, exactly, did Jesus show love? 
Flip to John chapter 4.  There he met a rejected woman in her lonely, daily labor.  Set outside the social group of village women, she trekked to the well alone.  Jesus began with this woman, asking for her offering.  “Give me a drink of water.”  This solitary Samaritan woman was astounded and appalled that this Jewish man would talk to her in a public place.  No one made room for her, she five times dumped by heartless husbands and now living with a man who would not even afford her the protection of marriage.  Jesus saw her and spoke with kindness.  Getting over her shock, she talked with this strange Jew who gently led her to the moment in which she realized she was talking to her Savior.  Jesus made space for the outcast and in doing so, said “no” to the dehumanizing effects of prejudice, sexism, and chauvinism. 
How, exactly did Jesus show love? 
In John 5, he healed an invalid man who lay by the pool near the sheep gate in Jerusalem.  Temple denizens supposed the water possessed mystical powers.  Nonsense!  Jesus showed that healing comes from God.  In his act of healing the man, we hear Heaven’s resounding “no” to the dehumanizing effects of illness.”
In John 6, with a crowd gathered to feed on the words of Jesus, he would not send them away.  Instead, he accepted an offering, a boy’s simple lunch of fish and bread.  With that food, he fed 5000, with 12 baskets of leftovers to spare.  Jesus shouted “no” to hunger.
How, exactly did Jesus show love?
John 8: a woman caught in adultery is thrown down in the dust at Jesus’ feet by a blood-thirsty crowd demanding a condemning verdict.  From their vantage point, this is a contest with law and order and tradition on one side and Jesus, agent of chaos, on the other.  They show no regard for the woman they’re preparing to stone to death.  Jesus won’t have it.  He sees her.  “Whoever among you has not sinned may cast the first stone,” he says.   That woman, adulteress though she may be, is a child of God.  Every human language offers a score of scornful terms for this woman, derogatory names by which she will henceforth be known.  Jesus has a name for her too.  He calls her daughter, and he gives her peace.  Jesus closes the case with his deafening “no” to the isolating effects of sin.
In the healing of the blind man in John 9, Jesus says “no” to us when we push certain people to the margins.  In John 11, the raising of Lazarus is a foreshadowing of God’s “no” to death that will come in full force in the resurrection.  In John 13, Jesus says to “no” to the hierarchies we so willingly accept, when He, the Lord and master, drops to his knees to wash his disciples’ feet.

How did Jesus love?
He redefined life when he said “no” to all the ways we destroy each other.  
He also loved sacrificially.  “No one has greater love than this,” he said, “than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  In John 10, when Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd,” he three times promised to lay down his life for the sheep.  Now, he makes the same point as he tries to help us see what he means when he talks about love.  Godly love is the readiness to give everything, life itself.
When Jesus tells us to love each other as he loved us, we know that love is seen in his rejection of the things that destroy us and his willingness to sacrifice his own life for us by taking on himself the death sin brings.  There’s a third way Jesus loves us. He names us. 
“I do not call you servants any longer, … but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (v.15).  Nope, that woman caught in adultery is not a “slut.”  She is a beloved daughter of God.  Nope, that blind man is not to be blamed for being blind.[i]  In him, the glory of God will be seen.  He, the recipient of God’s healing, is a son of God. 
What names have been heaped on you so often you’ve begun to accept them?  Jerk?  Loser?  Failure?  Reject?  Outsider?  Stranger?  Foreigner?  Uninvited?  Bum?  Idiot?  I won’t say the more hideous derogatory epithets, but I bet you’ve heard them.  I bet you’ve heard hateful words from an overzealous relative, a racist classmate, an overbearing boss, a loudmouth on the street, or a judgmental, shortsighted pastor.  Have you heard the damning names so often, you think they might be true? 
John’s gospel tells us that Jesus has something for you.  You are named.  Jesus looks into your eyes and says, “I call you friend.”  The woman from Magdala recognized Jesus when he said, “Mary.”  The risen one knows your name.  On his lips your name becomes new – Cathy, John, Nooshin, Igor, Lucio, Siqing, Alan, David, Laura.  My daughter is the only Merone in our church, but my flights back from Ethiopia a few years ago, four the flight attendants were named Meron.  Maybe there are 100,000 people in the world that have the same name as you, but when Jesus looks in your eyes and speaks your name, and calls you friend, no one on earth can claim what you have with Jesus in that moment.  You are named.  You are His.  You are adopted as a child of God.

OK, that which would destroy us is rejected by Jesus. He says “No” to death.  He lays down his life for us.  And, he names us.  Now what?  Now, what?

“I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.”  If one of the new names Jesus gives us is “producer of new life,” or, “fruit bearer,” how do we understand that and live into it? 
We have to grow.  Fruit is a living thing and living things grow.  Where do we grow in our relationship with God in Christ?  Generally speaking, we grow in worship, in prayer, in time alone with God, in Bible reading, study, and meditation, and in ministry and mission.  Where and when do you specifically grow in Christ, or where do I experience growth?  I think it varies from person to person. Everyone who follows Jesus, must be intentional about.  It doesn’t happen by accident. 
After that woman caught in adultery received forgiveness, the only way she would then grow close to God is to stay in the community of followers of Jesus.  If she just turned around and went back to the life in which she rejected God’s ways, then the forgiveness Jesus gave would not take root.  She moves from adulteress to daughter, from outsider to family member, from lost to saved.  We have to live into the new name Jesus gives.
Also, fruit reproduces.  Fruit is a seed and from that seed comes more fruit.  There’s no such thing as non-evangelistic Christ follower.  To be in Christ is to invite others to Christ.  We know people who have accepted the cruel names society has foisted upon them. We have friends, neighbors, family members who live into the names – idiot, loser, no-good.  To love as Jesus loved, we must help people come to meet Jesus so they can learn their new names.  We grow and we name just as we are named.
We are named.  Now what?
Just as Jesus laid down his life on the cross for us, following his lead, we learn to live sacrificially.  The only way to give ourselves for the blessing of others is to be intentional about it, but we can only live this way in the grace of Jesus.  Sponsoring a child, volunteering with the mentally disabled, visiting the jail as part of a prison ministry, mentoring troubled teens, speaking out for racial justice, advocating for the rural poor – numerous opportunities for us to give of ourselves at the prompting of the Holy Spirit.  We step into those opportunities because of who Christ has created us to be – new creations.  The disciple who does great thing on behalf of others is no super saint.  She’s simply living out of the work Jesus has done in her. 
We bear fruit. We live sacrificially. 
Finally, remember the times John’s Gospel Jesus says, “No.”  We inhabit that space created by the “no” of Jesus.  No, Jesus said, the party does not end.  More wine!  Thus, we live lives of joy; abundant, abiding joy.  No, Jesus says, the Samaritan woman will not be outcast.  We live lives of welcome – even welcoming people we previously would have rejected. 
No, Jesus says, the man will not be blamed for his blindness, the invalid will not spend his life longingly staring into waters that cannot heal, the hungry will not leave with empty hearts or empty bellies, and the sinner will not stay in sin.  Thus, in our lives, as an expression of the Gospel, we help people be healthy.  We help all people eat their fill.  We spread the word that in Christ there is forgiveness and in forgiveness, we stand before God clean, every one of us.  
No, Jesus says, humanity will not be divided into the pampered rich and the downtrodden poor who do all the dirty work.  It won’t be that way in the Kingdom of God.  In the Kingdom, the King himself will joyfully wash the servants’ feet.  And, death is the not end because death has been defeated.  Like our king, we kneel to wash others’ feet so they can know they are honored, loved, and named.  And we never stop insisting that in the coming of Jesus, the Kingdom of God has come near and all who repent of sin can have life in His name. 

Jesus came to invite us into a specific life – the life of Christ.  In that life, we are named and we are called.  Have your received the name He has for you – friend of God?  As we sing our final song, listen.  With your voice, sing praise to God.  With your heart, listen for God’s voice.  He loves you.   He wants you to know it.  He wants you to know He’s with you as you go through life. 
Jesus has named you.  Live into your name.
AMEN


[i] John 9:2-3.