Monthly Archives: May 2017

Awakening to Surrender – Sermon on John 14:1-14

May 14, 2017
Mothers’ Day – Easter 5A
Watch the video of this sermon here. 

What troubles your heart these days?

There’s plenty of stuff to trouble us: wars all over the globe, crime, the economy, politics … and on a more personal level, trouble can haunt us in our families: our marriages, our children’s lives, our parents’ lives, our own health – there’s plenty of trouble to go around.

I grew up in a church that was convinced it had the Right Answers to all the Big Questions, and most of the little ones. We knew without a doubt that once you were saved, you were always saved. But if you weren’t saved the way we were saved, you probably weren’t really saved.

We practiced “closed communion” for church members only. This meant observing the Lord’s Supper on Sunday nights, when visitors were less likely to show up. Ours was a very exclusive community of faith, and we were proud of it. We knew who was In and who was Out. We did not let the things of this world trouble us. Or at least, we wouldn’t admit it if they did.

We were nothing at all like the community of faith gathered around the table on the night Jesus was betrayed.

We had answers. … The disciples had questions.

We were full of assurance. … The disciples were full of fear.

We allowed only bona fide church members to receive Communion. … Jesus offered bread and cup to all his followers, even Judas, and said, “Take and eat. Take and drink.”

We were certain: we knew who was In and who was Out. … The disciples were confused: they had thought Jesus would become the King Forever. Here he was talking about dying. And it sounded like he meant “soon.”

As those confused and fearful disciples gathered around the Table, Jesus talked openly with them. He knew it would be his last chance to help them understand what was about to happen, and what they would need to know after he was no longer with them. But his words were not comforting to the disciples. They were troubling words. So Jesus gathered his friends closer.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”  Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. (John 14:1-14)

It may seem strange to hear these words in the middle of the season of Eastertide. We should be celebrating the risen Lord, not going back to the gloom and doom of Holy Week, right? And many of us may associate this particular passage more with the sadness of funerals than with the joy of resurrection.

But Jesus wasn’t only teaching his disciples how to deal with his impending death, nor was he only concerned with a far-distant heavenly future. Jesus was preparing his disciples for carrying on the ministry he had begun. The Kingdom of God had broken into the world, and it would be up to Christ’s followers to continue the work of bringing it to full reality.

For us, the question “who are we following?” never even comes up. We all know from the beginning that the faith we are exploring is Christian faith. Those early disciples didn’t have it so easy. As Jews, they were still caught up in thousands of years of interwoven spiritual and physical DNA. Like my childhood church, they thought they had it all figured out.

They knew how the story was supposed to end. And they knew it wasn’t supposed to end with the Messiah preparing them for his own death. The question they were all asking themselves, but no one wanted to say out loud was this: Have we made a mistake? Did we follow the wrong guy?

So when Jesus promises to come get them later, and tells them that they know the way to where he is going, our good friend Thomas blurts out, “You’ve got to be kidding! We don’t even know where you are going! How can we possibly know the way?”

A couple of weeks ago, the Wednesday night Bible study group took a look at the seven “I AM” statements in John’s gospel. We heard two of them last week, when Jesus announced, “I am the Good Shepherd. I am the gate for the sheep.” Now, to answer Thomas, Jesus makes another claim to his identity.

“Thomas, Thomas, look me in the eye and listen to me. I AM the Way. I am the Truth. The Word was made flesh – that’s me. I am the Life. You don’t need to look for another Messiah. You got it right the first time. I am the way you can get to the Father. Believe me.”

At that moment, Thomas might not have known how the story was going to end, but he must have recognized that Jesus wasn’t declaring a threat – “Believe in me and only me, or else!” Jesus was offering a promise. And that promise was not only for the future, it was a promise to be with the disciples in the here and now, as they figured out how to carry forward the ministry Christ had begun.

We need to be careful about the way we interpret this particular “I AM” statement. We need to make sure we keep it in the context of this conversation between Jesus and the chosen few who have followed him most closely throughout his ministry.

When we pull this statement out of its setting, Karoline Lewis writes, it “stands as contradictory to every other “I AM” statement in the Fourth Gospel. ‘I AM the way, the truth, and the life’ becomes an indication of God’s judgment, exclusion, and absence,” rather than a word of promise.

Lewis continues, “These are words of comfort, not condition, for the disciples. There is nothing uncertain for their present or their future because of their relationship with Jesus. Of that, Jesus wants them to be secure.”[1] In other words, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” is a promise for believers, not a threat for unbelievers.

Thomas must have been paying attention. We know that, after the Resurrection, Thomas will make the most powerful declaration of faith found in any of the gospels. He will kneel at Jesus’ feet and proclaim with certainty, “My Lord and my God.”

And that is what we are called to do. We are called to say with full assurance, “Yes, I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and I want to commit my life to following him as my Lord and Savior.” Accepting Christ as Savior is not the end, but the beginning of a life where Jesus is Lord. This is the promise Christ makes when he says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I’m how you get to the Father.”

David Lose writes that this statement is “Sheer promise. And just in case we’re not sure, Jesus heaps on another promise to boot: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” All of which adds a twist to our usual conception of heaven. When Jesus talks about going to prepare a place for us, we tend to think in very far-off, eternal terms. And yet Jesus’ departure to the Father not only secures our place in God’s presence but also creates the possibility to follow Jesus, do his works, and even do greater works … right now, in this very present moment. Heaven, for John, is as much a present-tense category as it is future one.”[2]

But let’s back up for a moment. Let’s go back to that first verse again, the one where Jesus says, “Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me.” This week, I studied these familiar words as they fit into the broader story, and I was suddenly struck by their connection to something Jesus says way back in chapter 12.

Jesus has entered Jerusalem in the Palm Procession, and some Greeks have come to Phillip to ask, “Sir, we would see Jesus” (12:21). When Philip tells Jesus about their request, Jesus begins to talk about his impending death. Listen to what he says in verses 27 and 28: “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.  Father, glorify your name.”

Shortly after this conversation, Jesus will gather his friends in the upper room. Just as his own soul was troubled back in chapter 12, he will see that his disciples’ hearts are troubled as they gather around his table. They will argue about who is to be the greatest in his kingdom, and he will wrap a towel around his waist and get down on his knees to do the job of the lowliest servant. He will wash their stinky feet.

When Jesus’ soul is troubled, instead of asking the Father to save him from what is coming, he surrenders to God’s will, to glorify God’s name.

When Jesus washes his disciples feet, and then tells them, “ Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me,” he is inviting them to a life of surrender, so that God’s name will be glorified.

When Jesus says, “Those who believe in me will do the works I do, and even greater works than these, because I’m going to the Father,” he is inviting us to a life of surrender, so that God’s name will be glorified.

Becoming a member of Christ’s church gives us a lot of power. Christ expects great things of us, and has given us the Holy Spirit to accomplish that work. Just as Jesus healed the sick, cared for the poor, and preached the Good News of the Kingdom of God, so we are to bind up the broken-hearted, feed the hungry, and share God’s love.

But we can only do this when our service comes out of humble surrender to God’s will, giving glory to God’s name. That’s what it means to follow Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. That’s what it means to come to the Father through him. It means surrender.

The Way is the way of surrender to God’s will for us. The Truth is that giving God glory is all that really matters. The Life is a life of surrender, lived in relationship with God the Father through his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

David Lose points out that the questions Thomas and Philip pose aren’t really questions of “How.” They are “why” questions. Why do you have to leave us now, Jesus? Why can’t we go with you? Why are you leaving us in this broken, miserable world? We might wonder the same thing. Why are we here? What is our purpose? What reason do we have to continue on the journey toward Christ-likeness?

Often, when we want answers, what we really need is relationship. The answer Jesus gives to “Why?” is not “Because.” The answer Jesus gives is his very self. ”Whatever the disciples may ask, Jesus will keep offering not simply answers but himself.”[3]

This is what he means when he says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” (14:14) Jesus does not promise to be our short order cook, serving up whatever we demand of him to satisfy our own desires.

Jesus promises himself, fully surrendered to glorify the Father. As we act on his behalf to do the works he did, and even greater works than these, he invites us to that same life of surrender.

[1] Karoline Lewis, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1994
[2] David Lose, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3218
[3] David Lose, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/05/easter-5-a-jesus-real-presence/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28…In+the+Meantime%29

Awakening to Fellowship – Brief Homily on Luke 24:13-35

April 30, 2017 (Easter 3A)
Watch video here.

Two Sundays ago on Easter Day, we saw the Resurrection from the viewpoint of those women who were the first to arrive at the empty tomb, and last week we heard the same story from the perspective of those disciples who were closest to Jesus, but Thomas was missing that day. He had to come back a week later, to experience the risen Lord. Today, we hear the same day’s story, but it’s from the perspective of those other followers of Jesus who were not part of the inner circle, not among the twelve. But they were close enough followers of Jesus to have been deeply affected by the events of the previous 72 hours.

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?”

They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 

Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. – Luke 24:13-35

A few verses later in this chapter, as the disciples are all gathered together, Jesus will stand among them and “open their minds to understand the scriptures” (v. 45), just as he did on the road to Emmaus with these two.

And who are these two disciples? Cleopas is only mentioned in this one story, and only Luke tells it. The disciple walking with Cleopas is never named, but – as I mentioned on Wednesday night – there is nothing in the text that tells us this other disciple had to be a man. It could just as easily have been Mrs. Cleopas.[1] That would make sense, when they invite Jesus into the home they apparently share.

But it doesn’t really matter if the other disciple was friend or spouse. What matters is that Luke tells this story in such a way that we can each put ourselves right there on the road, walking and talking intensely about these things that have just occurred. Things that disturb us. Things that have shaken our world.

These disciples are in the pit of despair. When they tell the stranger who joins them “we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel,” it’s clear that those hopes have been dashed. We had hoped … In Greek the imperfect tense indicates continuous action that flows from the past, but it doesn’t tell us if that action is still going on.[2] How long had they been hoping? However long it had been, the events of the past few days had brought an end to their hoping. Hope was behind them, in the imperfect past.

We like to think in future tense – things will get better, the sun will come up tomorrow, life will go on, even after deep disappointment and even through grief. But often, life hands us the imperfect tense: we had hoped …

Maybe you have experienced that kind of deep disappointment. Maybe your long held hopes have been dashed. Maybe it is hard for you to recognize that Christ is walking beside you, just as he walked beside two disciples who didn’t recognize him on their way home from Jerusalem. Despair can do that. It can make us blind to the One who walks with us through our deepest hurt.

But resurrection is just as real as dashed hopes. Maybe you can’t bring yourself to hope just yet, but know that Jesus died in order to be raised from death, so that you could experience resurrection, too. So don’t worry if hope seems a thing of the past for now. The risen Christ walks beside you, even if you don’t recognize him. And this church is here to help you see him.

There were two things that Cleopas and (maybe) Mrs. Cleopas described that we should pay attention to. First, their hearts were burning as Jesus opened their minds to the scriptures. Scripture was an integral part of their walk with Jesus. Second, they recognized Jesus when he broke bread, acting as host, even though he was their guest. Fellowship is at the heart of following Jesus – fellowship around the Word and fellowship around the Table.

You can be a believer by yourself, but if you want to be a true follower of Jesus, it has to happen in community, keeping fellowship with other followers of Jesus. Walking together, we teach one another what scripture means, and we remember together Christ’s great sacrifice for us in the sacrament of Holy Communion, that meal we share at Christ’s Table.

Walking together, we also remind one another that our future is filled with hope. This church is here to walk beside you, to help you recognize Jesus and come to believe in resurrection. This church is here to offer hope when you have given up hoping. This church is here to be the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood, so that together we can stay centered on Christ, be sent by Christ to offer Christ, as we follow Christ.

[1] Thanks to Martha Spong (also of revgalblogpals.org) for suggesting the possibility of “Mrs. Cleopas.”

[2] Richard Swanson. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1992