Living in the Light – Sermon on 1 John 1:1-2:2

Easter 2B
April 12, 2015

He calls himself “The Elder” and we don’t even discover that much about him unless we read into the second and third letters that bear his name. Elder is an appropriate name for him. John was an old man. He’d seen a lot happen in his long life. He’d been one of the first followers of Jesus of Nazareth, and he had seen the risen Lord with his own eyes. John had somehow survived the persecutions that had erupted in the early years of the church. Most of the other apostles had died, and a second generation of leaders had stepped up to keep telling the good news.

Based in Ephesus, John served as the pastor for a network of house churches that were scattered over the region. These were churches that had been established by the Apostle Paul, and now John was left in charge of them. He had already written his account of the Good News, but it had been a few years since those words made their way through the community, encouraging the church with the story of Jesus.

In the meantime, false teachers had tried to lead the believing community astray. They had twisted the gospel message, and were teaching people that Jesus had not been a real person. Some had even left the church, following a belief system that would come to be called Gnosticism, after the Greek word ‘gnosis’ – to know.

Not only did the Gnostics insist that God could not have become flesh, because flesh is corruptible and God must remain pure spirit, they also promoted the idea that, in order to move from the fleshly realm to the spiritual realm, which was the goal of life, you had to acquire secret knowledge. This system of secret information was arranged in a progression, and you could only move up the system as you proved yourself worthy to receive it. This was a religion for the elite, for the intelligent, for insiders only. Common people – like the ones Jesus actually spent time with during his life – they weren’t invited.

As Gnosticism evolved, it developed practices that ignored personal hygiene or care of the physical body, because the body wasn’t important. And since sin had to do with satisfying the desires of the body, and the body didn’t matter, the Gnostics didn’t concern themselves with sin. Real sin was wrong thinking, not wrong doing, as far as they were concerned. It didn’t matter what you did or how you behaved. What mattered was the quest for spiritual knowledge, and hoarding that knowledge as some mystical secret that could not be shared.

This heresy was threatening to tear apart the church. John wrote to encourage believers to stand fast in the gospel, to remain firm against attacks from those who wanted to dilute the power of the good news.

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. – 1 John 1:1-2:2

Those of us who have grown up in the church may not recognize that sometimes, we talk in secret code, just as those Gnostics did. We use words that have special meaning only in church. Secular society doesn’t use the same definitions for these words, so people who come into the church for the first time might be confused by the way we use language inside these walls.

For example, take the word “witness.” In the secular world, a witness might be someone who sees a crime committed, or who testifies in a court of law. My brother-in-law is an “expert witness” for an automobile maker. He’s a mechanical engineer, who evaluates the evidence whenever someone tries to sue the company for damages from an accident. If the case goes to trial, he takes the stand to give his expert opinion. My brother-in-law testifies to what he knows to be true, from his own experience and training as a mechanical engineer.

In the church, though, the word “witness” might bring to mind people going door to door, handing out tracts or asking strangers on the street if they’ve been saved. It might mean wearing T-shirts with Bible verses printed on them, or sitting down with a friend to share the plan of salvation. Witness, in the evangelical sense, often carries with it a negative feeling of being pushy or loud.

But in John’s first letter to his church, witness means something else. Here in the Prologue, John describes Jesus as the real deal. “We bear witness to what we have seen with our own eyes, heard with our own ears, and touched with our own hands,” he writes. You just heard the story of Thomas demanding to see the risen Lord with his own eyes and put his own finger in Christ’s wounds. Here’s John, saying, “he’s real, and we’ve experienced him ourselves.”

That’s all a witness does. A witness may not know all the facts, but a witness can give a first-hand account of personal experience.

When we bear witness to Jesus, we don’t need to memorize certain Bible references or practice a sales pitch to win people to Christ. We share our own story. We don’t tell more, and we don’t tell less than what we know for ourselves to be true. We can’t know everything, so what we say must be shared in humility, but if there’s one area where we are the expert, it’s our own experience of the living God in the person of Jesus Christ.

That’s what the Samaritan woman at the well did (John 4). She ran back to her village saying, “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did.”

When Jesus sent a man’s demons into a herd of pigs, the man wanted to follow Jesus into the boat that would take him across the lake. But Jesus said, “No, go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him.” (Mark 4:19-20)

When Mary Magdalene recognized Jesus at the empty tomb, she hurried back to the disciples with the news: ’I have seen the Lord!’ (John 20: 18) She didn’t go into a deep theological discussion about theophanies or try to impress the disciples with her wisdom. She just told them her own story of encountering the living Christ.

As witnesses, we share our own personal experience, no more and no less.

Here’s another word that people outside the church don’t use very much, but even insiders have trouble defining sometimes: fellowship. Ask someone under the age of 40 what they think of when they hear the word “fellowship” and you’re likely to get something about hobbits and elves and dwarves.

But that isn’t what fellowship means in the New Testament. In fact, the word we see translated as “fellowship” means quite a bit more than coffee and cookies after worship, or the time we spend visiting with each other in the narthex. The word koinonia means partnership, communion, working together as we share something beyond ourselves with each other. The members of The Fellowship of the Ring had very little in common with each other, but they shared a single purpose. In that respect, they had a lot in common with what we mean when we talk about Christian fellowship, or koinonia.

Christian koinonia is about participation. In the words of the Communion liturgy, taken from 1 Corinthians 10, we could say, “the cup which we bless, is it not a koinonia in the blood of Christ? And the bread we break, is it not a koinonia in the body of Christ?”

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and the koinonia of his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11)

In the passage we heard earlier from Acts 4, the koinonia of believers held everything in common, worshipping together daily in the temple and eating in one another’s homes. Koinonia, or fellowship, means sharing life, and Christian fellowship is grounded in fellowship with God. That means we participate in the life of God, as God participates in our lives. We walk in partnership with God.

And, according to John, that walk needs to stay in the light. This brings us to the core truth of John’s message: This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.

John follows this proclamation with a series of comparisons.

If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true;  But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, who is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

Those who were threatening the Christian community with Gnostic heresy claimed to be in right relationship with God. They claimed to be without sin, because sin belonged to the world of flesh and blood, and they claimed to be completely spiritual. But John says, “it doesn’t work that way.”

Participating in God’s fellowship, God’s koinonia, means recognizing our sin, confessing our sin, and claiming forgiveness for our sin. Walking in the light, as he is in the light, means allowing that light to shine into the dark corners of our soul, where sin likes to hide, where sin likes to pretend it doesn’t matter. But sin does matter. John mentions sin 27 times in this first letter to the church.

Sin is what separates us from God. Walking in the light, confessing our sin and seeking forgiveness, keeps us connected to God. Sin divides us from each other, but walking in God’s light connects us to one another through the blood of Jesus that cleanses us from all sin. Sin is a big deal, but Christ’s ‘atoning sacrifice’ is bigger than all the world’s sin put together.

That word, “atonement” is another one that people often don’t understand. But the simplest definition is the word itself: at-one-ment. Christ sacrificed himself so we could be ‘at one’ with God, and ‘at one’ with each other.

We are witnesses of what we know. We have experienced the risen Lord in our own lives. He is real. He lives and reigns, the Son of God. We participate in his reign by walking in the light of God, as he is in the light. That light shines into our darkness, and shows us our sin. But if we confess our sin, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sin, and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness.

He died to make us one with him and the Father. He died so we could be at one with each other. Let us keep walking in the light, with Jesus and each other, free of sin – not because of anything we have done, but because Christ died for us, Christ rose again in a real body, and Christ reigns over this whole world he came to save. Alleluia! Amen.

He Isn’t Here! Sermon on Mark 16:1-8 for Easter B

April 5, 2015

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. – Mark 16:1–8

You would think that Mark would end his story of the “the beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1) with a satisfying resolution, a happy ending. But he doesn’t.

Anxiety rises after Jesus has been laid in the tomb. It has been growing all through the quiet of the Sabbath. The women are so eager to get back to the tomb with their spices and ointments, they can barely wait for sunrise.

2015-01-15 16.52.20stone rolledOn their way, they wonder who will move the stone for them. In all their preparations and planning, they seem to have forgotten this very important detail. The women apparently didn’t know the tomb was sealed and guarded, or they might have expected the guards to help them move the stone. It’s big, and they know they can’t move it themselves. The anxiety builds.

When they arrive at the garden tomb, they are surprised to find the stone already removed, but this does not bring them comfort. It only raises their concern. Who would have done such a thing? How would they have done it?

2015-01-15 16.49.17better cropped troughThe heavy, custom-cut stone had rolled down a sloped trough to its destination over the door of the cave. Pushing it back up the slope would mean working against the law of gravity. Moving that stone would take a miracle.

The women step into the tomb. If it’s like the one we saw at the end of our trip to the Holy Land, there are two small rooms, carved out of the rock hillside near Golgotha. There is a small chamber just inside the entrance, and it opens into the place where a body would be laid.

Bodies were not embalmed after death, but were laid in a place where they could decompose undisturbed. The spices were to cover up the smell of decomposition, which the women assumed had already begun. After a year or two, the bones would be placed in an ossuary, and the tomb would be cleaned and prepared for another family member.

2015-01-15 16.51.58inside the tombThere would be places for two or three bodies to occupy the tomb at one time. Jesus must have been laid in the place on the left, because a young man dressed in white is occupying the place on the right.

According to the other gospels, this is an angel. He certainly speaks with more authority than a human would. And he knows things the women don’t know.

The anxiety meter rises again. Now the women are experiencing more than concern about possible vandals or thieves. They begin to recognize that what they are seeing is evidence of something beyond human knowledge. They realize that they are listening to a messenger from God, and any encounter with the living God is cause for fear and trembling.

This messenger tells the women five things:

  1. Do not be alarmed – that’s usually how angels start their conversations with people
  2. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified – you’re in the right tomb, this is the place
  3. He has been raised – apparently, this needed clarification
  4. he is not here – and finally, to convince them,
  5. Look, there is the place they laid him!

2015-01-15 16.50.57he is not hereThese poor women don’t even have time to process so much information before the messenger gives them an order. “Go,” he says. “Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Elias Chacour is the retired archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and All Galilee of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. He describes himself as a “Palestinian-Arab-Christian-Israeli” but he’s quick to tell you than he was not born any of these things. He was born a baby, just like all of us were. Chacour has worked for peace among Israelis and Arabs throughout his life. Now that he is retired, he spends his time in Ibillin, where he built a school for all children, whether they are Christian, Muslim, or Jewish. This is where we heard him speak.

Before he would share his thoughts with us, he asked us to answer a question: “Why have you come to the Holy Land?” He didn’t get very many responses, so he kept prodding us. “Why are you here? Did you come looking for Jesus? He’s gone. Didn’t you get the memo? He isn’t here! He is risen! He has sent you out to spread the good news into all the world. Go do it!”

Archbishop Chacour was, for us, like that young man waiting for the women at the tomb. It wasn’t comfortable hearing Chacour’s questions, and it was even less comfortable hearing his urgent call to action. Listening to him, I could understand why the women were frightened. But why does Mark choose to let the story end at this point, with the women running away, too afraid to speak?

There’s a lot of speculation among New Testament scholars about the ending of Mark’s gospel. These eight verses are the only ones we can be certain belong to the original manuscript. Somewhere along the way, some copyist decided this was not a satisfactory ending. It’s too abrupt. It doesn’t include any post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. There isn’t any joyful realization that he is truly alive, just as he said he would be. So, over time, different endings were tacked onto Mark’s story, to make it more complete.

Maybe Mark intended to write more. Maybe he actually did, and that ending disappeared before there were any copies made from it. Most scholars think Mark knew exactly what he was doing. But if Mark wanted to shock his readers with an abrupt ending, wouldn’t it have been great for the story to have stopped right after verse seven, at the announcement of the resurrection?

Yet, it doesn’t. Mark gives us one more verse. He tells us that the women are terrified, and they run away, telling no one anything of what they have just seen. And that’s the end of the story, according to Mark.

Or is it?

What if Mark wrote an incomplete ending on purpose? What if he left the story hanging on fear and failure for a reason? Maybe Mark knew that no story about death and resurrection can have a tidy “The End” bound up in ribbons and bows. Maybe he wanted to make the point that this story isn’t over yet. The title he gave the whole book, after all, is “the beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (1:1) Maybe Mark leaves the ending open so that we can pick it up and continue the story.

Theologian David Lose notices a “persistent two-part pattern throughout Mark,” that reaches a climax here at the end. The first part is that those who are closest to Jesus often don’t get that he is the Son of God. Even when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, he doesn’t understand what that means. Every time the disciples or the religious leaders miss the point, they miss an opportunity to share the good news.

The second part of the pattern is that those who do understand who Jesus is aren’t reliable witnesses. Demons recognize him, but you can’t really count on a demon for a good testimony. The Centurion at the crucifixion realizes that Jesus is the Son of God, but who’s going to trust a Roman in first century Palestine? By the end of Mark’s gospel, we should be prepared for the disciples, even the women who have been most faithful, to follow the pattern, to miss the point. They run away, too afraid to tell anyone the good news. And that leaves us, as the least reliable witnesses of all, to tell the rest of the story. Because that story isn’t over at the empty tomb. It’s just getting started.

Lose writes, “Resurrection isn’t a conclusion, it’s an invitation. And Jesus’ triumph over death, sin, and hate isn’t what Mark’s Gospel is all about. Rather, Mark’s Gospel is all about setting us up to live resurrection lives and continue the story of God’s redemption of the world.”[1]

 

St. John Chrysostom was Archbishop of Constantinople and a great preacher of the Church in the Fourth Century. His name translates “John the Golden Throated One.” In many churches, John’s Homily for Easter Vigil is repeated every year, either during the Saturday night vigil, or at the earliest service on Easter morning.

The tradition in the Eastern Church for this meditation is that, at the mention of word “death,” people stomp their feet with joy because Christ’s death has trampled Death. In some churches, people also ring bells whenever heaven is mentioned.

This message from one of the early church fathers is so full of hope and joy, it serves as a wonderful answer to Mark’s gospel ending. Mark ends his story abruptly so that we might pick up the challenge to bear witness to the resurrection, no matter how unworthy we feel, no matter how “unreliable” we may see ourselves as proclaimers of the Good News.

So, get ready to stomp your foot when you hear the word “death.” If you don’t have a bell near you, you can jingle your keys when you hear the word “heaven.” When I get to the part that says “Christ is risen” I invite you to repeat that phrase after me each time I say it. This is an interactive sermon, and you get to help preach it. Are you ready? (Find the sermon here.)

 

The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!

We stand as witnesses to this truth, and as such witnesses, knowing our reliability does not depend on who we are, but on what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, our Lord now invites us to his heavenly banquet. Alleluia! Let us keep the feast! Amen.

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2015/03/easter-b-only-the-beginning/

Opening the Door to Holy Week

When I arrived at First Church, I noticed a sign on the inside of the “front” door – the original main entrance to the church, before the parking lot was added, and people started using the “back” entrance as the main door of the church. The sign said, “Do Not Open This Door.” Not even “please leave this door closed.” Do. Not. Open. This. Door.

I preached about it. I asked the congregation to consider the implications of that sign. What did it say, not only to the community on the other side of the door, but to us on the inside? I mentioned it in Trustee meetings and Council meetings. It’s been a year and a half, and last Sunday, I asked if we could open the door for Palm Sunday and Easter, as a sign of radical hospitality to the many people who drive past our church on Sunday mornings. The chair of the Trustees said, “Yes.”

This morning, before anyone else arrived at church, I opened the door. It doesn’t have a key anymore, just a crash bar that has to be locked open or closed with an Allen wrench.

There’s an Allen wrench, just the right size, in my desk. I always wondered what it was for.

But before I could use the wrench, I had to get my toolbox out, and find a screwdriver to remove the three-inch screws from a block of wood that had been wedged under the crash bar, then fastened to the door.

Once I got the door opened, and located a rubber doorstop to hold it open, I found a broom, and swept down the cobwebs that had collected in the formerly dark entryway. Then I swept the sidewalk in front of the door, and turned on the lights, so it looked like someone was home.

And people came to church.

Not in droves, and I don’t think anyone used the old front door. But they saw it as they pulled around the corner to head into the parking lot. And it looked good, a few people said. It looked good to have the door open again. It was a fitting start to Holy Week.

I didn’t preach this morning. This is one of those Sundays when the scripture preaches itself. We read the passion story from Mark’s Gospel, interspersed with hymns and songs. We ended the service singing “Were You There” unaccompanied, and I told the congregation there would be no benediction, no three-fold ‘Amen,’ no postlude – because the service doesn’t end here.

road up to high priest
The way up to the High Priests house, Jerusalem.

It continues through the coming week, and we are invited to find our place in the story, to gather for worship on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, to observe a quiet Holy Saturday, in preparation for the great “Amen” (and that other “A” word we finally get to say) on Easter morning.

Maybe you’d like to find your place in the story. Here are some scripture passages, a psalm and a gospel reading for each day of Holy Week, to help you do just that. The screws and the cobwebs have been removed. The door is open. You are invited into Holy Week.

Monday – Psalm 36:5-11; John 12:1-11
Tuesday – Psalm 71:1-14; John 12:20-36
Wednesday – Psalm 70; John 13:21-32
Thursday – Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19; John 13:1-17. 31b-35
Friday – Psalm 22; John 18:1-19:42
Saturday – Psalm 31:1-4, 15-16; Matthew 27:57-66

2015-01-12 15.49.26 door detail Luke 22 34
Door to the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, Jerusalem.

 

We Want to See Jesus – Sermon on John 12:20-33 Lent 5B

March 22, 2015

20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. – John 12:20-33

When Bruce and I lived in Kansas City, we belonged to Westport Presbyterian Church. In the pulpit of that church, there was a brass plate, installed there by Stuart Paterson, who was pastor of Westport Pres for more than thirty years. Stuart read the message engraved on that brass plate every time he stepped into the pulpit, and he wasn’t alone. Apparently, during the middle of the 20th century in America, it was quite the fashion for John 12:20 to be posted somewhere in the pulpit where the preacher could see it. “Sir, we would see Jesus” encouraged a whole generation of preachers to remember their primary task: showing Jesus to people who need a Savior.

In fact, the entire Gospel of John was written with this very purpose in mind. Near the end of the book, John writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)

If seeing is believing, we can imagine that these Greeks who came to Philip were hoping for more than a glimpse of a celebrity. They were hoping for more than an autograph. They not only wanted to see Jesus, they wanted to believe.

The phrase “we would see Jesus” or “we wish to see Jesus” can’t be fully translated into English so simply, but the literal translation sounds awkward to our ears. It sounds awkward, but to get a better understanding of what they meant, the literal translation might be helpful. Here’s what they were saying: “Mister, we are willing to be perceiving Jesus.”

Not just “we’d kinda like to see this Jesus guy” or “we want to see him so we can tell our friends back home that we did.”

We are willing. Our desire includes the understanding that this encounter is going to change us in some way, and we are willing to take the risk.

We are willing to be perceiving. We want more than the opportunity to lay eyes on Jesus. We want to perceive him, to know him, to understand him, to recognize him as the Son of God. And we realize this isn’t a one-time-and-we’re-done sort of thing. It’s an ongoing relationship. We are willing to be perceiving Jesus now and indefinitely into the future. Mister Philip, sir, we want more than a backstage pass. We are willing to know Jesus personally, whatever that means.

John’s account doesn’t tell us if they get a face-to-face meeting with Jesus, but it does describe the way such an encounter usually happens. The Greeks approach Philip, and he goes to Andrew, and together they go to Jesus. Why do the Greeks go to Philip first, and then why does Philip go to Andrew? Their hometown was Bethsaida, a place that had a history of sometimes being Jewish and sometimes being Gentile. Philip and Andrew both have Greek-sounding names, so that might have something to do with it. It’s possible that these Gentiles came to Philip first simply because they were more comfortable approaching someone who seemed a little bit more like them.

That’s often how evangelism works. It’s a chain reaction. One person experiences God’s love, and shares that good news with a friend or family member. They usually don’t go out looking for someone they don’t even know to tell about Jesus – they share their experience with people they know and trust, people who are a lot like themselves. And when those people experience the same life-changing love of God, they tell their family and friends. And those people’s lives are changed, and they tell more people…

It works the other way around, too. If you are thinking about buying a new car, or maybe a computer, you do a little internet research, and then you ask people close to you for recommendations. You trust the people who are most like you to have the same values and viewpoint you do. As every marketing expert will tell you, word of mouth is the best form of advertising, whether you’re telling someone about your own experience, or asking them for advice and help.

So it’s no wonder that these Greek worshipers approach the disciples who look and sound most like them, when they try to get an audience with Jesus. But the very fact that Gentiles are looking for Jesus is a signal, and Jesus recognizes his cue.

The “very truly” (amen, amen) that opens verse 24 is an attention device: Jesus is about to say something really important. But what follows is not comforting news. He announces that his hour has now come, and the seed must die to bear fruit.

Jesus knows he has come to save more than the Jews – he has come for everyone, Jew or Gentile. Now that the Gentiles desire to “perceive” him, he recognizes that the time has come for him to die, like a seed planted in the ground, so that new life can begin. And it’s hard news for us, too. Jesus says, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” Only by embracing death, hating life, and following Jesus through death to life can we be true disciples.

We might not like the idea of dying to self, or “hating” ourselves – it doesn’t sit well with our culture’s emphasis on self-esteem, and even Jesus said “love your neighbor as you love yourself,” But that isn’t what he’s talking about here. Jesus is referring to the life we live in this broken world, where self-centeredness prevents us from being God-centered. That life is doomed to death, but by dying to it, Christ offers us eternal life.

John uses two different words here for the word we see as “life.” When Jesus says, “Those who love their life” and “those who hate their life in this world,” the word for ‘life’ refers to our inward being, our sinful soul. But when Jesus talks about eternal life, he uses the word “zoe” – which means a way of living. So giving up our inward selfishness, dying to sin, as a seed planted in the ground must die, makes it possible for us to experience new life, an eternal way of living.

And this is what brings glory to God. Throughout the Old Testament, “glory” is used to describe the evidence of God’s presence among his people. God’s glory was the pillar of cloud or smoke that stayed with the Israelites as they wandered in the desert. This same cloud of smoke filled the temple to indicate God had moved into his home among the people of Israel. In the psalms, when David speaks of his own ‘glory’ he means “all my being.’

Likewise, a name embodied all of a person’s being. A name’s meaning described that person’s deepest identity. To be named is to be recognized for who we are at our very core. When Jesus says, “Glorify your name,” there are rich, deep layers of understanding involved. In effect, Jesus is asking his Father to make himself completely known to all humanity, to show that he is present among all people, and to reveal his core identity to everyone.

And a voice from heaven answers him. We have heard this voice in the other gospels at Jesus’ baptism and the transfiguration, but in John’s account, this is the only time “the voice from heaven” is heard. What does that voice say? “I have already done it, and I’m going to keep on doing it. I have revealed the deepest core of my identity to everyone, and I will continue to do so.”

And what, exactly, is God’s identity? Love. God is love (1 John 4:8). God’s love has been poured out for us so that, “while we were still sinners” who didn’t deserve it, “Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

“Mister, we are willing to be perceiving Jesus,” the guests from out of town said to Philip. “This is a sign that my hour has come,” answered Jesus. “Father, glorify your name. … And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 

John writes, He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.” But John means more than the crucifixion. He means the kind of death that also includes resurrection and ascension. It’s a three-way “being lifted up” – on the cross, from the grave, and into heaven, just as we sang a few minutes ago [Lord I Lift Your Name On High].  The kind of death Jesus was to die was the kind of death that leads to life and eternal victory over death. And Jesus invites us to that same kind of death that defeats death.

So, how do you perceive Jesus? And how can we help others to be perceiving Jesus, on a continuous, present tense basis?

On Thursday, I drove to a retreat center to attend the Clergy Leadership Academy. I’m in the second year of a three-year program, and we meet five times a year to work with a mentor, gather with our peers, and learn from experts who work intensively with us on many aspects of leading congregations well.

This week, Bishop Bruce Ough led our workshops on Radical Hospitality. Radical Hospitality refers to one of Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, as identified by Bishop Robert Schnase. (The other four are: passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission and service, and extravagant generosity.)

To begin our discussion, Bishop Ough asked us to define “radical.” The first thought that came to my mind was “extravagant.” Others called it “extreme” and “beyond the call of duty.” But one person looked up the definition on her phone’s dictionary and said, “it means going to the root” and that was the answer the Bishop was waiting for.

Radical hospitality is not about the quality of our treats at Coffee Hour. In fact, according to our Bishop, Coffee Hour isn’t about hospitality at all – it’s about fellowship. That’s a different thing. A very important, necessary part of being the church, and good treats are important to fellowship, but Radical Hospitality is something different.

Radical Hospitality means going to the purest, deepest root of our identity as God’s beloved children, and finding ways to express that identity to others. Schnase writes, “Radical Hospitality in our personal walk with Christ begins with an extraordinary receptivity to the grace of God. In distinctive and personal ways, we invite God into our hearts and make space for God in our lives. We say Yes to God and open ourselves to the spiritual life. We accept God’s love and acceptance of us. We receive God’s love and offer it to others.”

Here’s the thing, though. As we identify ourselves with Jesus Christ, he calls us to do what he did. He calls us to die to ourselves, so we can bear fruit, like that seed planted in the ground. He calls us to hate our life in this finite, broken world, so we can gain a way of living that is eternal. That way of living, dying to self, hating our earthly limitations, is the core of radical hospitality. When we open ourselves to others, we put their needs ahead of our own, we inconvenience ourselves for their benefit, we make sacrifices for their sake.

Isn’t that love? Putting another’s needs ahead of your own? And isn’t it a sign of being loved to know that someone has done that for you?

Radical hospitality is at the core, the root of what we do to open ourselves to relationship with God and with others. Just as glory and naming describe our core identity, being radical isn’t so much going to the extreme or being extravagant, but about going to the root of who we are as beloved children of God. It follows then, that radical hospitality is all about sharing who we have become as fully and honestly as we can.

What are some ways we could do that here at First Church?

What if we were to open the ‘old’ front door every Sunday, to show the people driving up and down Broadway that we are here, and we want them to know that the door is open for them?

Let’s take it one step further. What if we made it a practice to park over in the public parking lot, or at the attorney’s office across the street, and to walk to church, so that there would be room for more than one visitor space in the parking lot? In fact, what if we made all the spots in our parking lot into visitor or handicapped parking places?

It would mean inconveniencing ourselves. We might have to leave for church a few minutes earlier, to allow for the extra walking time, but imagine what it would look like to our community to see 70 or 80 people walking toward our church from every direction on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings! And the front door would be wide open to welcome each and every one of us! How radical is that?

How does Christ’s death show God’s glory to all people of the world? By the way we, his disciples, die to self so others can experience God. Our radical hospitality introduces people to Jesus so they can perceive and experience that deep, profound love God has for each of us, so they can have eternal life.

This is the good news: God loves you and is always with you, extending to you radical hospitality by revealing his intimate self to you through Jesus Christ. As we die to self and engage in an eternal way of living, Christ calls us to extend the same radical hospitality to others that he has shown to us. It will mean inconveniencing ourselves. It will mean changing the way we do some things, so that ‘others’ can become part of ‘us.’

The hour has come. What shall we say, “Father, save us from this hour?” No, it is for this reason that we have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name. Help us to show radical hospitality to everyone who is “willing to be perceiving” you and your Son, Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Road Trip

We could have flown.
But that idea isn’t so appealing, after spending 13 hours wedged into the middle two of four seats on an international flight a couple of months ago. We aren’t too eager to fly again real soon.

Besides, by the time you drive to the airport, check in, go through security, wait at the gate, and then on the plane for take-off, fly to the destination, wait for luggage, rent a car, and drive to the hotel – might as well just get in the car and hit the road. This way, we can leave when we want to, stop when we want to, and take our sweet time.

But here’s the real bonus: when you’re in the car, driving down the highway, there is absolutely nothing else you can do but drive down the highway. And that is precious. See you next week.

Instant Response: A Biblical Mash-Up

Traditionally, the response in worship to a reading from the Old Testament is the recitation or singing of a psalm. So it’s no surprise when the psalm chosen for a given Sunday reflects the Old Testament reading in some way. But what happens when you realize that a good chunk of the psalm for the third Sunday in Lent fits into an abridged version of the Ten Commandments, the text for the day? This litany, that’s what.

LITANY from Exodus 20 and Psalm 19

LEADER:
God spoke from the mountain and said: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”

PEOPLE:
The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart.

LEADER:
“You shall not make for yourself an idol.”

PEOPLE:
The commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes.

LEADER:
“You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.”

PEOPLE:
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.

LEADER:
“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.”

PEOPLE:
The decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple.

LEADER:
“Honor your father and your mother.”

PEOPLE:
The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever.

LEADER:
“You shall not murder.”

PEOPLE:
The ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.

LEADER:
“You shall not commit adultery.”

PEOPLE:
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.

LEADER:
“You shall not steal.”

PEOPLE:
Moreover by your commands is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.

LEADER:
“You shall not bear false witness.”

PEOPLE:
But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.

LEADER:
“You shall not covet … anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

PEOPLE:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

ALL: Almighty God, write your law upon our hearts.

Counting Past Ten – Sermon on Exodus 20:1-17 Lent 3B

The school principal leaned through the classroom doorway
and caught the teacher’s eye.

“Could I have a word with you?”

It might mean any number of things.

Maybe the Board of Education had voted to give all teachers a raise.
Maybe there would be a fire drill in a few minutes,
or school was being dismissed early.
Maybe the principal wanted the teacher to take recess duty,
or serve on that new district-wide committee,
or turn in grades before the end of the day.

Maybe an angry parent had called.
Maybe contracts were not being renewed for next year.
Maybe someone had been taken by ambulance to the hospital.
Maybe someone had died.

“Could I have a word with you?” might mean anything at all.
It could be good news or bad news.
“A word” could be cause for anxiety or it could be a reason to rejoice.
It could be a word of warning or a word of promise.

As Moses met with God at the top of Mount Sinai, he must have considered all these possibilities. Continue reading Counting Past Ten – Sermon on Exodus 20:1-17 Lent 3B