Monday, January 25, 2016

Being the Body of Christ (a sermon from 1 Cor. 12:11-31a)

The church secretary was reading the minutes of the previous church business meeting and she read: Forty voted yes, seven voted no, and one said, “Over my dead body.” I’m sure for those of  you who have been involved in church much of your lives you can recall a contentious business meeting or two. Maybe you heard about the little ditty that was found on the back of a church bulletin. It read: “To dwell above, with the saints we love: O that will be glory. But to dwell below, with the saints we know; well, that’s a different story.”

Paul is well aware of the divisions that are tearing at the Corinthian church. He opens the letter by informing them that reports have reached him that there are divisions and factions among them. And from Paul’s point of view, regardless of the surface issues dividing them, Paul argues they such divisiveness is rooted in spiritual immaturity and selfishness. He says to them early in the letter, “I cannot speak to you as spiritual women and men, but as worldly; you are mere infants in Christ.” You are babies, he says. Their capacity for spiritual understanding, their level of spiritual consciousness is at the stage of spiritual infancy.   

What Paul says here has universal application and there are a couple of really important things we learn.  

First, we learn that in the church, in the body of Christ, we are both diverse and interdependent. A few weeks ago I talked about how baptism symbolizes our immersion by the Spirit into a community where we are all equal partners. In this community all social and cultural distinctions are simply irrelevant. We constitute one body in Christ, whose Spirit indwells the entire body and each member within the community without distinction.

There will always be some tension between our desire to be our own persons and our need for community. Obviously we all need a measure of autonomy and independence and need to establish our identity separate from others. (Sometimes children push away from their parents awfully hard as they grow older because of this need, and parents have to be careful not to smother them with their wisdom.) Each person must be able to stand by himself or herself in order to be an emotionally healthy person.

On the other hand, basic to human maturity and relationships is our need to be bound to others in community. We were not made to be an island to ourselves. The call to Christian faith is a call into community. 

I heard about a Northerner who was ordering breakfast during a trip through the South. He saw grits on the menu, and being a Dutchman who spent most of his life in Michigan, he had never been very clear on the nature of the item. So he asked the waitress, “What exactly is a grit?” She said, “Honey, they don’t come by themselves.” 

Well, neither do Christians. We are called to belong and participate in Christian community. You will not find in the New Testament such a thing as an isolated, unchurched Christian. Are such folks around today? Certainly. I have been working on a couple who grew up in our household. But this is a different time and place. In that time and place to be a Christ follower was to be in community with other Christ followers.  

A local church better represents the body of Christ and the kingdom of God the more diverse its membership. A little boy came out of Sunday School disheartened. His mother could visibly see that he was upset and so she immediately inquired. The little boy explained that his teacher had said that God made us with different parts – that God made us with a nose to smell and with feet to run. His mother said, “Yes, so what’s the problem?” He said, “God made me all wrong. It’s my nose that runs and my feet that smell.” I think sometimes we are like the little boy in that we are not always sure how each part of the body is suppose to work. And it may just be the part that we are.

Now, at the end of this passage, Paul, on the surface seems to contradict what he says earlier because he tells the church to strive for the “greater gifts,” possibly suggesting that some members are more important than others. But that is not really what he is saying at all.

What he seems to be saying is that some gifts (not members, but gifts) are more important to the healthy functioning of the body because of their impact on the body as a whole. He is not suggesting that members of the body are more important than other members.

However, some gifts like teaching or prophesy or leadership are very critical to the overall health and spiritual development of the community. But, and this is important, those who exercise these gifts are not any more valued or loved or appreciated by God than anyone else. So while there are some gifts that are greater than others for helping the body mature and grow spiritually, no member of the body is greater than any other member. There may be greater gifts, but there are no greater members. All are valued and loved equally.

And this brings me to the second point. While all are valued and loved equally, God bestows special honor on some of whom we would never expect. The truly radical thing here, much like Jesus’ identification with the poor and the marginalized, is what Paul says in vv. 22–26: namely, God bestows special honor on members in the community who appear to be “weaker.” Paul writes, “But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension in the body.” This echoes the special attention and focus Jesus placed on those who were outcasts and oppressed. Paul says that these parts of the body that seem to be weaker, are actually “indispensable” to the health and well-being of the body.

What Paul says here is the reversal of the normal order expressed in other organizations and institutions. In the normalcy of this world’s structures and organizations, these “weaker” members would be considered expendable.

I remember as a junior on our high school basketball team we lost a game on a Friday night that we should have easily won. In fact, the whole season was a disappointment. The year before we had won the region starting three sophmores, so expectations wer high. We were all frustrated, but our coach was furious. With our last defeat the coach had reached his tipping point. So he scheduled practice on Saturday. I knew we were in trouble when I walked into the gym and I didn’t see any basketballs on the floor. We didn’t touch a basketball. We ran and ran and ran some more until we couldn’t run any more. It was grueling. After we finished he gathered us up on the bleachers and lit into us.

In the midst of the cursing and scolding he looked at us and said, “You are all expendable.” Then he paused and added, “Except Row.” David Rowe was our 6’ 6’ center who led our region in rebounds and blocked shots. The rest of us were expendable. Not David.  

What Paul says about the church is that no one is expendable. Rather, we are all indispensable, especially those of us who appear “weak.” I’m not exactly sure what Paul means by this word. I suspect Paul is echoing the same language some of the Corinthians were using. Perhaps some of them who considered themselves “strong” were disparaging the “weak.”

So Paul is saying: “Those of you who fancy yourselves to be ‘strong’, to be more spiritual or knowledgeable than others, you better be careful. Because the very ones you consider ‘weaker’ are the ones on whom God bestows special honor and dignity. These so called ‘weaker’ ones are the very ones God deems indispensable.” These are members of the body who can show and teach us Christ’s love in ways that we cannot learn and experience in any other way. (We might do better if we replace the word “weak” with the word “vulnerable.” God grants special honor to those that seem to be more vulnerable.)

There is a legend about a famous monastery in which every monk was an expert in some high art—except for one little fellow, who had no expertise in any of the celebrated gifts of his brothers. Feeling terribly inadequate, one day he decided to give to the Lord the only thing he had to offer. Before joining the monastery he had been a tumbler in the circus and so he decided to perform for the Lord.

Several days later, when all the monks were up in the chapel participating in the high mass, the little monk went down into the crypt. He was such a nobody in the monastery that no one missed him or even noticed he was gone. He found himself totally alone before a statue of Jesus and there he offered his tumbling act to the Lord. 

Well, this went on for several weeks, until one day another monk came down to the crypt to get some candles and witnessed this strange scene. He found this offensive and went immediately to the abbot. The next day, the informer and the abbot during High Mass, left the sanctuary and went down into the crypt where they witnessed the little monk doing his tumbling before the statue of Jesus. The informer was outraged, and wanted to intervene immediately, but the abbot wisely held him back. When the tumbling was over, the Lord Jesus appeared before the statue, held out his hand, and blessed the little monk. The abbot turned to the informer and said, “More real worship goes on here than takes place upstairs.”

The point of the story, of course, is that God does not judge as we judge. What God considers valuable may not be what we consider valuable at all. The very ones that many would consider “weaker” or more “vulnerable,” are truly the indispensable ones and given special dignity and value by God.

In this passage Paul is calling for a kind of synergy of the Spirit, where members share one another’s sorrows and joys. He says, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” Here is where the church as the body of Christ differs radically from all other organizations and systems and institutions.

Everyone knows how a pain in the foot or hand can absorb the entire body’s energy and attention for days. No other institution whose primary mission is to be effective or to make a profit or grow the institution would put up with that. They would simply cut off the unhealthy part of the body, the part that is causing all the pain and replace it with a more effective member.

But in the body of Christ, effectiveness is not the first concern. In the church no one is expendable. We are all expected to suffer and celebrate together and to participate in embodying the love of Christ. When a church functions in this healthy way it becomes an outpost for God’s kingdom. The church then offers its community a taste of new wine, a taste of what community is like in God’s new creation and what it means to be the body of Christ in the world.   

Our gracious God, help us to see more clearly what you have called us to be as an alternative community in the world. Help us to see how delighted you are when we truly live as the body of Christ, celebrating our diversity and our interdependence, and truly sharing in each other’s hurts, pains, joys, and celebrations. Forgive our failures and offenses, for they are many, and may we learn from our past mistakes. Inspire us to trust in your grace and continued presence so that we might grow. Expand our capacity to love you and love one another. Empower us to be the body of Christ in the world.

What does it mean to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord?

To say that Jesus is Lord is to echo one the earliest and most basic Christian confessions. Lordship language came right out of the Roman culture: Caesar claimed for himself the titles “son of God” and “Lord.” To claim the Lordship of Jesus flew in the face of the powerful Roman Empire. No wonder Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3b). Of course, anyone might say it and not mean it, but in the context of the Roman empire why would you make such a claim and put your self, your family, and your faith community in danger unless you were serious?

But even before the Roman emperor was called “Lord,” this was a title ascribed to God. The Greek word kyrios was employed in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) as a substitute for the unspeakable name of God. The early Christians did not claim that Jesus was God, but they believed as the “Son of God” he acted as God’s mediator and representative incarnating the character of God, which is why Paul talks about seeing “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).

When I confess that Jesus is Lord I am not confessing belief in some theoretical or doctrinal belief about Jesus. Rather, I am confessing my allegiance to the way of Jesus: the way of forgiveness, grace, peace, and compassion, as opposed to the way of empire: the way of retribution, greed, and rule by force. When I say Jesus is Lord I am saying that my first priority and central commitment is to emulate the life of Jesus and embody the teachings of Jesus. Brother David Steindl-Rast captures this well,
Faith in Jesus Christ as Lord means ultimate trust in the power of God’s love shining forth in him. It implies facing up to the demands of such love by living accordingly. A world in which the sovereignty of love determines relationships and events is diametrically opposed to the alienated dog-eat-dog world we have created. The divine lordship of love will inevitable clash with the authoritarian claims of power structures in the world in which we live. Faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord implies courage to engage in this struggle.
Deeper Than Words: Living the Apostles Creed, p. 60
What I don't mean when I confess that Jesus is Lord is that Jesus is the only way I or anyone else can experience and know God. A person who has never been taught about Jesus may know God through other means and mediators, but inevitably the consequence of such encounters will reflect something of the way of Jesus, which is the way of love.

In the very passage where Paul says that no one can confess that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit he says also, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). Here, I believe, is what the appropriation of the Lordship of Jesus looks like. Paul clearly has the local church in mind, but the principle applies individually as well as communally and globally.

What if all Christians who confessed Jesus as Lord were committed to the common good? We would be living in a different world wouldn’t we? 

In fact, if just a small percentage of Christians connected the Lordship of Jesus not to some theological or doctrinal affirmation, but to the common good of all people I have no doubt it would make a profound difference. Surely we would be living in a more just, equitable, and compassionate society.

This article was first published at the Unfundamentalist Christians blog.

Monday, January 11, 2016

What’s In a Baptism? (a sermon from Luke 3:15-22)

John, the Baptizer drew people from the villages and towns out into the desert. He believed a new order, a new reality was about to break forth and in preparation he called people out to the desert for repentance and renewal. According to Luke John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Now, here is Jesus going out into the desert and being baptized by John. Did Jesus feel the need for personal repentance and renewal or was he simply identifying collectively with his people? You can think about that later because I don’t intend to go down that road.  

I want us today to think about baptism in our own experience and tradition. What does it signify for us? What’s in a baptism? Of course, it’s very possible we could have different perspectives on this, which is okay. Certainly Christians of different traditions have different ideas and not all Baptists believe the same things when it comes to baptism. So, here’s what I think.

First of all, I think baptism can signify the beginning of a new journey or it can signify affirmation of a spiritual journey that has been going on for some time.

The late Fred Craddock tells about the time he ministered in a little community in southwest Oklahoma. On a good day the population was around 450. There were four churches: a Methodist church, a Baptist church, a Nazarene church, and a Christian church. Each had its share of the population, and on Wednesday nights and Sundays, each church had a collection of young people. The attendance rose and fell according to the weather and whether it was time to harvest wheat.

The best and most consistent attendance in town, however, was at the little café where all the pickup trucks were parked and all the men were gathered inside discussing the weather and the cattle and what kind of crop they were going to have, while their wives and children were in one of the four churches. The attendance of the churches wavered, up and down as church attendance goes, but the café consistently had good attendance.

Once in a while, says Craddock, the café would lose one of their members because the wife or the kids finally got to him, and off he would go kind of sheepishly to one of the churches. But the men felt they were the largest and strongest group in town. These were not bad men, says Craddock, they were mostly family men and hard working men, but did not see a need for the church.

The patron saint of the group at the café was Frank. Frank was 77 years old when Craddock first met him. He was a farmer and a cattleman. He had been born in a sod house, and he had prospered. He was a real pioneer and with his credentials he was considered the patron saint of the café.

One day Craddock met Frank on the street. Craddock said he had no intention of accosting him in the name of Jesus, it was not his way, but old Frank decided to take the offensive anyway. He said to Craddock, “I work hard and I take care of my family and I mind my own business.” He told Craddock that as far as he was concerned, everything else was fluff. He was basically saying, “I’m not a prospect for your church, so don’t’ bother me. Leave me alone.”

So Craddock left him alone; he didn’t bother him. But then one Sunday, Frank surprised everyone, especially the men at the café, when at 77 years of age he presented himself at the Christian church for baptism. Some in the community thought Frank must have been sick, must have got heart trouble or something and got scarred. There were all kinds of stories floating about as to why Frank would be baptised.

So Craddock asked him, “Frank, do you remember that little saying you use to give me: I work hard, I take care of my family, and I mind my own business.” He said, “Yea. I remember. I said that a lot.” Craddock asked, “Do you still say that?” He said, “Yes.” Craddock said, “Then what’s the difference?” And Frank said, “Brother Fred, I didn’t know then what my business was.” Craddock baptized Frank and Frank discovered what his business was.

Baptism can signify a new beginning, a new journey where we, like Frank, discover what our real business is. This is what John’s baptism signified – a new beginning in light of what God was going to do. And Jesus after his baptism went about God’s business. In the very next verse after Jesus’ baptism and the voice from heaven Luke says, “Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work.”

I also believe that baptism can signify affirmation of a journey that one has been on for some time. Can one be a disciple of Jesus and not be baptized? Yes, one can. However, in New Testament times that would have been highly unlikely because of the way baptism was practiced and functioned in the early Messianic communities. Of course, we live in a different context where unbaptized followers of Jesus are not unusual or all that uncommon. So baptism can function as an affirmation of a path already chosen.

In our particular Christian tradition church membership is based on baptism. One does not have to be baptized in this church to be a member in this church, but one does have to be baptized. And this, I believe, is in keeping with the New Testament practice of baptism into a local body of Christ.

Many interpreters of Paul believe that the great text in Galatians 3:27-28, which I like to call Paul’s magna charta of Christian equality, was actually a baptismal proclamation that was proclaimed at Christian baptisms. In that passage Paul says, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one (that is, equal and united in an inseparable bond) in Christ Jesus.” Through baptism we proclaim by faith who we believe we are in Christ.

It’s interesting in our Gospel reading that between references to John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism by John Luke mentions Herod who imprisoned John. Luke describes Herod as a ruler who has done evil things, which presents quite the contrast with Jesus who is endorsed by the heavenly voice.

The heavenly voice makes use of two OT scriptures. The first line, “You are my Son” is taken from Psalm 2, which was spoken on the occasion of the crowning of the king of Israel. So Jesus is being acknowledged as king and as lord. By the way this sort of language was also applied to Rome’s king, Rome’s emperor. He was called “Son of God” and “God manifest” and the title “Lord” was attributed to him.

But is Jesus that kind of lord, a lord like Caesar? The next line makes clear what kind of Lord Jesus is. The next line which says, “My Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” is a phrase from Isaiah 42. It’s a line from the description of the suffering servant of God, the one who gives his life for the cause of God and the good of others. It has to do with loving, caring service for others. The voice is saying, “Here is my Son who is king, he is a suffering servant who loves others and gives his life for others.” Jesus’ baptism is an affirmation of who he is. Our baptism is an affirmation of who we are – that we are God’s beloved daughters and sons called to participate in God’s work.

After the baptism and the voice of affirmation Jesus leaves the Jordan and embarks on God’s mission. Jesus goes about doing God’s business. And what did God’s business involve? Did it involve wielding power and controlling servants and demanding submission? No. And why is that? Because God’s kingdom is really God’s kin-dom – it’s about caring, loving, just, and compassionate relationships. It’s about loving others and serving others, not exercising control over them. God’s kingdom or kin-dom is unlike earthly kingdoms. God’s kingdom is a nonviolent kingdom rooted in forgiveness, not a controlling kingdom governed by force.

Christian baptism then is a public proclamation of our commitment to God’s kingdom and our participation in a local community committed to be faithful to that kingdom.

This means participation in a larger story than just our little stories. Maybe this is one reason Luke highlights Jesus’ prayer life in his Gospel. Interestingly, only Luke’s version of Jesus’ baptism mentions that Jesus was praying when he had this spiritual encounter and heard the heavenly voice. We must be people of prayer. I don’t mean prayer in the sense of constantly asking things from God, but prayer in the sense of being open and receptive and aligned with God’s love and purpose. The baptized life is a life that is open to and trusts in the love and grace and spiritual power of God.

One other thing about Christian baptism. Christian baptism highlights the spiritual significance of death and rebirth in the life of Christian discipleship. The Apostle Paul makes this connection in his letter to the Romans when he says, “Therefore we have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in the newness of life (Rom. 6:4).”

We remember our baptism, sisters and brothers, not simply by remembering a certain event that took place in our lives once upon a time as a child or as an adult. Rather, we remember our baptism by waking up each day remembering who we are – that we are God’s beloved daughters and sons.

We remember our baptism by deciding to die daily to those things that diminish our lives and the lives of others. We remember our baptism when we let go of petty jealousies, old grudges, personal prejudices, painful hurts, and decide to live as simply, graciously, forgivingly, and compassionately as we are able with God’s help.

And that sisters and brothers, is what’s in a baptism.

O God, as we join together as the body of Christ, as your visible, incarnate presence in the world and celebrate through bread and cup your living reality in us and in our midst, let us remember who we are. Help us commit ourselves once again, for the hundredth time, or thousandth time, or maybe the first time to your good purpose for our lives and our church. In Christ’s name. Amen.

Monday, January 4, 2016

What Does Incarnation Mean? (John 1:1-18)

In light of the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke, John’s prologue might not be something we get too excited about. Joseph and Mary, shepherds, magi, angels and prophets in the temple are much easier to imagine than words like light, glory, grace, and truth that are used here.

John’s prologue employs the concept of word, the Greek term is logos, to talk about God’s revelation of God’s self in the world. The prologue functions as a kind of overture or outline of John’s gospel. Words like “light”, “life,” “glory,” and “truth” will be used throughout this Gospel.

While all the Gospels are in essence theological presentations or proclamations of the Christ, it is a common assumption among scholars that John’s Gospel is less historical and more symbolic than the others. This Gospel often employs symbolical, mystical, and metaphorical language and it starts right here in the beginning with the Logos or Word in John’s introduction.

The theological term often used for talking about this is the term incarnation. Theologians like to debate and argue about the manner and degree to which the divine essence or nature became incarnate in Jesus. Some Christians are very specific about what this means. Others like myself are not. Unfortunately, throughout Christian history there has been a tendency to draw rather tight boundaries labeling those whose views and beliefs are outside those boundaries as heretical. There has also, unfortunately, been a tendency in our Christian history to treat heretics very badly. We have got to stop it sisters and brothers. We can talk about good and bad religion, healthy and unhealthy religion, religion that transforms and religion that hurts and harms, but let’s rid the English language of the word heresy.

In considering the question of what incarnation means I want to broaden this idea a bit. So let’s ask: What does it mean not just for Jesus, but for each of us, individually and as a faith community to incarnate the divine reality – that is, to live out God’s presence, to manifest God’s presence in flesh and blood, in our relationships, and in our communities?

Let me begin by saying that as a species we have to get past this idea that everyone else has to submit to our Christian view of incarnation and trust in Jesus in order to know God. The future of our world may depend on Christians becoming more inclusive, more generous, and more welcoming of others of different religious traditions or of no tradition at all.

For us to say that Jesus is our Savior, or that Jesus is our Lord, or that Jesus is the way that leads to truth and life, does not mean that Jesus is the only way anyone else can come to know God.

I heard about a young man who believed he was called to vocational Christian ministry and went through the appropriate training in the denomination that he grew up in. Toward the end of this process that took several years he met with an ordination board who would discern his suitability for ministry. This denomination was riddled with factious theological disputes at the time and one on the board asked the young man, “Do you believe Jesus is the only way to God?” Even those on the board had different ideas about that.

Spying a map of Indiana on the wall, he asked the members, “How many roads lead to Indianapolis?” No one said anything. Then this young man walked over to the map and pointed, “I get to Indianapolis this way.” And he showed them the route he takes. Then he said, “But I have friends who live over here” pointing to a very different place on the map. Then he marked with his finger a different route and said, “They get to Indianapolis this way.” He made his point. There are different ways to know God and experience God that are legitimate. That, of course, doesn’t that every way leads to God; there is both good and bad religion.

Whenever I get in a discussion about this someone always brings up John 14:6 where Jesus is purported as saying, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” I always respond by pointing out two things. First, I point out that this is a theological statement by John’s church, not a historical saying by the historical Jesus. It highly unlikely that the historical Jesus actually said this. That, of course, doesn’t resolve the issue, but it’s important to know. Second, John’s church was declaring what was true in their experience. For that community of believers Jesus was indeed the only way to God. They were not stating what is true for everyone, but they were stating what was true in their community and in their spiritual experience, which, by the way, is all any of us can do.

We should not assume today that if people don’t know Jesus the way we do they don’t know God. You and I look to Jesus as our definitive revelation of God and he is – for us. For us, Jesus is the Word made flesh. Jesus is the wisdom, grace, and truth of God. Jesus reveals to us the way to know God, experience God, and participate in God’s will. But that doesn’t mean there are not other mediators, other God bearers who reveal God in profound ways that lead people to know God and experience God and engage in God’s will in the world. Who are we to make our own experience definitive for everyone else? We must learn to appreciate and honor other peoples’ experience as well as our own.

I believe we are all called to be God bearers. We are all called to embody the divine and reflect God’s image, but not all in the same way. And God is so immense we can never reflect all there is to see and know about God. Someone has said that all our beliefs are like fingers pointing at the moon. God is so much more than our beliefs about God.

The first story of creation in Genesis which John’s prologue alludes teaches that the human couple was created in the image of God. The very life of the human couple is derived from God. God’s Spirit is the source of life. In fact, there is no life apart from God. I interpret that to mean that we are all potential God bearers.

The uniqueness of Jesus is one of degree. As Philip Gulley points out in the quote in your worship bulletin what distinguishes God bearers like Jesus from the rest of us is the degree of response to the Divine Spirit who indwells each of us.

You will notice in John’s prologue John extends the concept of incarnation to the rest of us as well. It’s not limited to Jesus, though without question Jesus is the word made flesh par excellent. We look to Jesus as the quintessential revelation of God, but Jesus is not alone. As Barbara Brown Taylor points out we are each one invited to participate in this word-made-flesh business.

For Christians Jesus is the prototype or archetype of God pouring out God’s self in human form, but the really good news is that God is available to pour God’s self out in your life and mine. God is the God of today. God is in the now.

John says in verse 12 that while many within Jesus’ own religious and cultural tradition rejected his message and witness to God, there were those who received him. To those who trusted in his message and witness God gave them the power to become children of God. That is, God gave them the power to become what Jesus became. Jesus appropriated and lived out his sonship to God by listening to God’s voice and fulfilling God’s will. By trusting Jesus and appropriating his teaching we can do the same, we can live out our sonship and daughtership to God.

I think it is really important that we understand that being a child of God is not a relationship we earn, it’s a gift we claim and live out. John says that we are born of God and it has nothing to do with what we believe or do or don’t do. It’s simply who we are. He says that we are born not of blood, or the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God. In other words, it’s a divine gift. It’s who we are. This connection, this birthright transcends all other connections and identifications. Now we might go through life and never realize this divine gift, but it’s ours nonetheless. We might forget who we are, and need to be reminded. This is a big part of my job: To remind us who we are.

According to a Greek legend Helen of Troy was kidnapped and whisked across the seas to a distant city where she suffered from amnesia. In time she escaped from her captors and became a prostitute on the streets in order to survive. Back in her homeland, her friends refused to give up on her. 

One admiring adventurer who never lost faith set out on a journey to find her and bring her back. One day as he was wandering through the streets of a strange city he came across a prostitute who looked strangely familiar. He asked about her name and she responded with a name that he didn’t know. Then he asked if he could see her hands. He knew the lines of Helen’s hands.

When he looked at her hands and realized who it was he exclaimed, “You are Helen! You are Helen of Troy!” “Helen” she replied. When she spoke her name, her true name, the fog began to clear and a sense of recognition registered on her face. She discovered her lost self. Immediately she reclaimed the name and life she had forgotten and became the queen she always was and called to be.

Sophie, my granddaughter, went through a stage, where if I said, “Sophie, you’re silly.” She would say, “I’m not silly, I’m Sophie Jordan Griffith” How silly of me not to know that. She’s Sophie Jordan Griffith. She knew who she was. When it comes to our true self and our identity in God, not all of us know who we are. Some of us may have known and forgotten.

What I am saying is that Jesus is not alone as the son of God. We are sons and daughters of God too. Jesus is the son par excellent – the quintessential son – but we are Jesus’ sisters and brothers and have the privilege and responsibility of living out the grace and truth of God in our unique way. The incarnation of God – the visible, material flesh and blood manifestation of God – is ongoing as we participate in the word made flesh, as we allow God to shine in and through us.

Later in this Gospel Jesus is purported as saying, “The one who trusts in me, that is, the one who is faithful to the God I have lived for and made visible in my own flesh, will also do the works that I do.” If that is not enough John has Jesus blowing our minds when he says, “in fact, those who trust me will do even greater works that these you see me doing.” I’m guessing that greater here means greater in terms of the impact such works have in the world.

We don’t have to do astounding things. We don’t have to raise the dead. We are invited to participate in the incarnation of God in the world in our unique way. We don’t all do it the same way. We have different gifts. Different personalities. Different interests and abilities. We talk about Jesus being unique in his revelation of God, but we are all unique in our revelation of God.

Philip Gulley tells about an elderly woman in a church he pastored who had committed herself to engaging in works of mercy. As he got to know her, he was astounded at the many ways her little acts of generosity and kindness blessed hurting people. Even though her income was modest, she decided to live simply so she could give generously. She was very reluctant to talk about the ways she gave and served her community, but one day she told Gulley, “Little is much when God is in it.”

John says that Jesus who is close to the Father’s heart has made God known. But this can be true of us as well. We are invited to share in the fullness of God that Jesus knew.  We are invited to receive grace upon grace, grace in exchange for grace – because it’s all freely given. And once we receive we give away because we cannot exhaust the supply of grace coming from God. The paradox of the spiritual life is that by giving we receive. We participate in the fullness of God by giving away the life of God, not hoarding it.

God can use our little acts of goodness and kindness to make a difference. Even the smallest gestures of love and grace can bring light into very dark places and create hope out of despair. When love is present little becomes much.

When we allow the Spirit to flow through us, when we share in God’s fullness by being channels through which God’s love and grace can flow, then we too like Jesus participate in the ongoing process of divine incarnation, of God pouring God’s self out into this physical world where life can be wonderful and life can be tragic – sometimes at the same time. 

Perhaps we might consider the following questions: First, how can I be more open to the Divine Presence that is in me and all around me? Second, am I willing to claim and live out my sonship or daughtership and do my part in the work and process of divine incarnation? And third we might consider our own uniqueness and ask: How can I, with my unique gifts, abilities, opportunities visibly live out God’s love and grace and truth?

Our good God, help us to be open and receptive to the ways we can incarnate your Presence in the world. Let us personally and as a church be faithful to live out in our bodies, in our relationships, and in the way we listen to and care for one another the reality of the living Christ. Amen.