Sunday, May 26, 2019

Unwrapping Christ’s gift of peace (John 14:23-29)


 Keep in mind that in John’s Gospel Jesus teaches in the language of the teachers in John’s community/church. This is how they imagined the living Christ speaking to them. Perhaps we should do the same. These are not so much the words of the historical Jesus, as they are the words of the living Christ, the universal Christ speaking to us. Christ says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” I would urge you to take these words personally. This is the universal Christ, the cosmic Christ, the risen Christ speaking to you and to me. He gives us the gift of his peace. But it’s not automatic. This is a gift that has to be unwrapped, and that takes some trust and effort on our part.

The Christ says, “My peace I give you. But I do not give to you as the world gives.” What does that mean? Does it mean that Christ gives more graciously and generously and unconditionally than the world gives? That is true, but I suspect that what John is getting at is that the peace that comes from Christ is of a different kind and nature as that which comes from the world.

God loves the world. Let’s not question that. God is committed to the healing and well-being and redemption of the world. But the world is broken. Its values are skewed. And we, of course, are part of that world, and so our values get skewed. The world is God’s good creation, and we are God’s children. The light of God, which became incarnate in Jesus, is the light that is within every human being. John says as much in his prologue/introduction in the opening chapter. He says, “in him [the Word made flesh] was life, and the life was the light of all people . . . He was the true light that enlightens everyone coming into the world.” The light of Christ dwells with us and in us. The light of Christ is everywhere and in everyone. But too often that light is never allowed to shine. It gets covered up and pushed to the side by our selfish ego. We live in blindness and darkness, when we follow our ego rather than the light of Christ. And this produces a world of fear, conflict, hate, and violence. When our egos both individually and collectively as a group or community channel and mirror the fears, prejudices, greed, divisiveness, and brokenness of the world we have no peace or we have a false peace. So what is the difference between the peace of Christ and the peace of the world that is rooted in our ego both personally and collectively?

For one thing, the peace of Christ is born out of trust, rather than fear and control. In order to unwrap the gift of Christ’s peace, we must allow the Christ or the Holy Spirit to be at home in our hearts and souls. (And by the way, whether we talk about Christ, or the Holy Spirit, or the Spirit of God, or the Spirit of Christ, or our Father in heaven, or for that matter our Mother in heaven, we are talking about the same divine reality. The one God takes different forms and functions in diverse ways, and we use different images to talk about the one God.)  Trust is an important part of Christ being at home in our hearts.

In John’s Gospel whenever you see the word “believe” you can substitute for the word believe the word “trust” or the word “faithful” or use both words depending on the context, and you will have a better understanding of the meaning. The problem in translation has to do with how we use the word “believe” today in common speech. Most commonly today the word “believe” means believing something intellectually as a fact, giving assent with one’s mind that something is correct. That’s not what the word means in our sacred texts. For example, in 14:1 Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me.” That does not mean believe in your mind that God is real. That in itself is not going to comfort a troubled heart. It’s best to substitute the word “trust” for “believe.” “Trust in God, trust also in me,” says Jesus. If we take this as a word from the living Christ, Christ is telling us to trust with our whole hearts in the love and grace of God that we see embodied in Jesus. It’s our trust in the love of Christ, and our faithfulness to the way of love that will dispel our fears and worries. Belief alone won’t do it sisters and brothers. Trust in the gift of Christ’s love and presence with us and in us, and faithfulness to the way of love is the kind of faith that will overcome the fears of the world. That’s what brings about God’s peace.

I heard about a successful banker who had everything he could possibly want. He seemed to have a good marriage, beautiful kids, didn’t want for anything really. Everything was going his way. Then his eldest son began to suffer from a psychotic disorder and was admitted into a psychiatric hospital. Quite suddenly, this man’s carefully ordered and managed world was disrupted. This man became angry, because it was not something he could control. He thought he had built up this barrier against all threats to his peace and his family’s peace. He was in control of his work. He was in control of his life. He thought he was in control of his family, but he wasn’t. He couldn’t control this. Suddenly, he realized he was powerless to do anything about this. It filled him with anger and anguish. But then something happened. He met other parents who were living is similar unpredictable situations. He could see how some of them, even though their lives had been upended and the future was uncertain, nevertheless, they trusted in love and they allowed their own suffering to make them more humble and compassionate. And it changed him. That man, who was all about his career and his success retired early and began investing time in his son and in others nurturing relationships of mutual care and compassion. He began working with others to create a world where there is more love and a deeper sense of community and belonging. He went form a place where he tried to maintain a kind of superficial peace by controlling as much as he could, working to eliminate all fears, he went from that place to a place where he realized that there was much he couldn’t control, and therefore had to face his fears. And face his fears he did by trusting in the power of love and friendship. He had to learn how to trust in the love and support of others.

If we want the peace of Christ then we have to look our fears right in the face, and begin trusting in the power of love. We have to trust in the support of community, because we can’t do this alone. I think one reason so many Christians today support policies of hate and exclusion is because they have given into their fears. Instead of finding healing and the power to be transformed in their churches, their churches have fostered a culture of fear. They have a faith rooted in fear – fear of hell, fear of God’s punishment, fear of losing control, fear of others. So they are willing to believe the lies and deceptions being propagated today about the undocumented and those who come seeking asylum, because they live in fear, and their fear stokes false images that foster contempt and hate. It is a sad commentary on American Christianity that so many churches and Christians are willing to believe lies and stoke hate, because they are afraid to face their fears and trust in God’s love that extends to everyone. And many popular and powerful Christian leaders are stoking that fear. If we are going to unwrap God’s gift of peace and experience Christ’s peace in our hearts and in our relationships then we have to face our fears, and learn how to trust in God’s love, not just for ourselves, but for everyone. God’s gift of peace is born out of trust, rather than fear.

A second thing about God’s peace is that God’s gift of peace is sustained by love, rather than coercive power and force. God’s gift of peace is born out of trust, rather than fear, and sustained by love, rather than coercive force. So if we are going to unwrap and experience Christ’s gift of peace, then we must learn how to love, and let go of our need and desire to exert power over others and make them conform to our wants and expectations. So many folks today want to use their power to control the circumstances of their lives. But that never works. We can’t control life. But we keep trying. How many in our country today have bought into this idea that if can just keep people out, and close ourselves within a fortress we will have peace. And yet look what is happening. Violence is erupting from within. How many people are walking time bombs just waiting to explode? School shootings are becoming so common place we don’t even pause from what we are doing when we hear about another one. And sure seems like we are about to get into another war because we think we have the right to control other countries just to protect American interests. What a gigantic ego we have. The peace the world offers is no peace at all. I am reminded of what Paul says in his letter to the Thessalonians, “When they say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will no escape.” We hunker down in our fortress, we exert force and even violence in our claim to bring peace, and in doing so we bring destruction upon ourselves.

A third thing about God’s peace when compared to the world’s peace is that God’s peace is based on forgiveness, rather than punishment. Its goal is restoration and reconciliation, rather than retribution. There can be no peace without forgiveness. Theologian Walter Wink tells about two peacemakers who visited a group of Polish Christians ten years after the end of World War II. The peacemakers asked, “Would you be willing to meet with other Christians from West Germany? They want to ask forgiveness for what Germany did to Poland during the war and begin to build a new relationship.” At first there was silence. Then someone spoke up, “What you are asking is impossible. Each stone of Warsaw is soaked in Polish blood! We cannot forgive.” Before they parted they said the Lord’s Prayer together. They came to the part about forgiveness – forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us – and everyone stopped praying. Tension welled up in the room. The one who was outspoken said, “I must say ‘yes’ to you or I could no longer call myself a Christian and pray to the Father. And I must tell you that humanly speaking, I cannot do it, but God will give us strength.” Eighteen months later the Polish and West German Christians met together in Vienna to begin a process of reconciliation.

We can’t do this on our own. This is why we must allow Christ and his love to be at home within our hearts. Our ego wants vengeance. We want to make those who hurt us and the people we love the most pay. Forgiveness is not easy. It is a process we must work through with the help of Christ and the help of a community that is grounded in forgiveness, which is what the church is supposed to be. We should be learning how to forgive in our faith communities. The fact that forgiveness is so rare even in our churches is just another indication of how far we have drifted from the teaching of Jesus and the Spirit of the one we call our Lord. We have to grow a spirit of forgiveness. And we need fertile soil to do that – in our hearts and souls, and in our faith community – to grow a spirit of forgiveness.

Have you ever hit a big pothole and afterward start to feel your car vibrate and shake. You take your car to a mechanic and he says you need a wheel alignment. Your car is out of balance. This is how many of us go through life. Our lives and relationships are in a constant state of agitation and disintegration. They are out of balance. And the reason we are so out of balance is that we are governed by our ego. We get caught up in a culture of competition and rivalry. We think forgiveness is weakness. So we are constantly trying to defend ourselves and prove that we are better than others. Our families suffer. Our communities suffer. Our relationships suffer. We suffer in the depths of souls, but we refuse to admit it. The solution to that state of disruption and alienation is an alignment with the will of God. The way we do that is by allowing the love of Christ, the Spirit of Christ to become at home in our souls, in our families, and in our relationships.

If we are to unwrap the gift of Christ’s peace, first, we must trust in the love of Christ, rather than give in to fear. Second, we must learn how to practice the love of Christ, rather than try to control others. And third, we must practice forgiveness and pursue reconciliation, rather than harbor resentment and bitterness in pursuit of retaliation. For this is how Christ comes to dwell – to be at home – in our souls.

Now, briefly let me make one final point. We will never unwrap and experience the gift of Christ’s peace until we trust and are convinced that every person, whatever his or her abilities or disabilities, whatever his or her ethnic origins, culture, or religion is precious and loved by God. God’s Spirit is in them just as God’s Spirit is in us. Until we trust that we all belong, that we are all family, and accept that we all have a responsibility to care for one another, we will not know the peace of Christ. Until we recognize the dignity and worth of every person, and let go of the need to make them like us, we cannot know the peace of Christ.  

O God, help us to let go of our fears, and our need to control people and circumstances, and learn to trust in the love you have for every one of us. Help us to realize that we all belong, that we are all your children and all are precious to you. Help us to let go of our need to retaliate for offenses done to us. Teach us how to practice forgiveness so that peace has a chance and so we will not be burdened with bitterness and resentment, and keep replaying these grievance stories over and over again in our mind. Show us how to love the way you love that we might pursue peace and reconciliation with those we are separated from. We ask all of this, Lord, so that Christ might be free to dwell, to be at home in our lives, our families, our church, and in our relationships. Amen.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

A growing faith means an expanding love (Acts 11:1-18; John 13:34-35)


In Flannery O’Connor’s story titled “Revelation” Ruby Turpin has the habit of judging and classifying people based on how they look, how they talk, and the color of their skin. In the opening scene, Mrs Turpin is sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, forming judgments about all present. Among those in the room is a mother in a sweat shirt and bedroom slippers whom she regards as “white trash.” Across from her is a teenage girl in Girl Scout shoes, reading the book Human Development. There is another young looking woman present that Mrs. Turpin judges as not white trash, but just common. And there is a well-dressed woman as well, with suede shoes whom she considers her peer. (Mrs Turpin always noticed people’s feet.) Mrs Turpin would sometimes occupy herself at night, when she couldn’t go to sleep, with the question of who she would have chosen to be if she couldn’t have been herself. She developed an entire “pecking order” of societal worth, with herself and her husband Claude positioned comfortably near the top.

In a conversation between Mrs Turpin and the well-dressed woman there are  subtleties that reflect her classism and racism. She tells the woman that she is grateful for who she is. She says, “When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, “Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is.”

The girl reading the book becomes more and more irritated as the conversation goes on. Finally, she loses control. She hurls the book across the room, hitting Mrs Turpin above her eye. Then she lunges at her, grasping her neck in a death grip. The doctor rushes in to separate them and sedate the girl. But before the girl becomes unconscious, she stares directly at Mrs Turpin. Mrs Turpin feels as if the girl “knew her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and condition.” Mrs Turpin says to the girl hoarsely, “What you got to say to me?” The girl raised her head and locked her eyes onto Mrs Turpin’s. She whispered, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.” Her voice was low but clear. And her eyes burned for a moment as if she saw with pleasure that her message had struck its target. Mrs Turpin senses that she has been singled out for the message. Of all people, she thinks, why me? She was a respectable, hard-working, church-going woman.
Back home she decides to go out and hose down the hogs. As she aggressively squirts the hogs she begins to argue and rave against God. “Why do you send me a message like that for?” she says. She raises a fist with one hand and grips the water hose tightly with other.  As she blasts the poor old hogs she says to God, “How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too? Why me? There was plenty of trash there. It didn’t have to be me. If you like trash better, go get yourself some trash then,” she rails. “It’s no trash around here, black or white that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church.” “Go on,” she yells, “call me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell. . . Who do you think you are?”

Then it came. The Revelation. (Perhaps like Saul on the road to Damascus). She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. And out in front were all the folks that Mrs Turpin had relegated to the bottom of the social ladder. They were out in front leading the way into heaven. Flannery O’Conner writes: “And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.” As she makes her way back to her house O’Conner says, “around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”

That’s the end of the story. We are left to imagine what this “broken” woman does  with the “revelation.” We are left to wonder what impact, if any, it makes. Would she deny it? Repress it? Ignore it? Rave against it? Harbor resentment and bitterness? Or would she yield to it? Would she learn and grow from it? Would she allow this to be an experience of enlightenment that transforms her into a more humble, empathetic, compassionate person? We don’t know. But it certainly turned her world upside down.

Jesus of Nazareth was known for turning people’s worlds upside down. Several times in the Gospels Jesus says that in the kingdom of God, “the first shall be last, and the last first.” (That phrase occurs several times in different contexts which would suggest that among Jesus’ followers there was a memory that he used that phrase often.) The reversal of the world’s pecking order is a key theme in Jesus’ teaching, and more so in Luke than in any of the Gospels. Mary sings in her Magnificat (Song of Praise),  which is part of the birth and infancy narrative in Luke’s Gospel: God scatters the proud, but gives strength to the weak. God brings down the powerful, but lifts up the lowly. God sends the rich away empty, but fills the hungry with good things. In the parable of the great banquet in Luke 14 God’s house is filled with “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” In God’s household everything is turned upside down. Do you ever wonder why the preachers in our past never taught us these things? Maybe they didn’t want to hear it, just the way we don’t want to hear it.

The passage today in the book of Acts is about a revelation that came to Peter that turned his world upside down. Luke considers this vision of paramount importance because he narrates it twice. Luke tells the story in chapter 10 and then has Peter repeat it in chapter 11. This is almost as important as Paul’s revelation on the road to Damascus which Luke describes in chapter 9, and then Paul retells two other times. In Peter’s vision a large sheet descends from above with all sorts of unclean animals. Peter is told to prepare the meat of the animals and eat, in direct violation of the laws of purity that Peter’s Bible says came from God. This rocks his boat. And apparently Peter needed some persuading because this scene with the sheet dropping and Peter being told to eat occurs three times in the vision. In the words of Yoda, Jedi master, “Slow of heart we all are.”  

Cornelius, a Roman centurion, we are told revered God (which is what “fear” means in that context), gave alms generously, and prayed constantly. He has a vision that synchronizes with Peter’s vision. In response to the vision, he sends a formal request for Peter to come to his house. Now, under normal circumstances Peter would not have dared associate himself with an unclean Roman military leader no matter how pious that leader was. But these are not normal circumstances are they? So Peter, having had his vision, returns with the messengers to Cornelius’ house and shares with Cornelius, his household, and his other close friends who were present the good news of Jesus. Luke tells us in chapter 10 that as Peter spoke the “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” Throughout this narrative Luke uses several different images to describe what happens to Cornelius and the others who respond to the message. He says the Spirit fell on them and was poured out on them just as the Spirit fell and was poured out on him and the other Apostles at the beginning. He says that Cornelius and those present received the Holy Spirit just as he and his fellow Jews received the Spirit. And he says that they were baptized or immersed with the Holy Spirit and received the same gift of the Spirit that they received when they trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ.   

Now, it’s really important to understand that the only way we can talk about our experiences of God is by using language and imagery we are familiar with. So all these images of the Spirit – such as the Spirit falling upon them, the Spirit being poured out on them, their being baptized or immersed in the Spirit, and their receiving the gift of the Spirit – all these descriptions are symbolic ways of talking about experiences we have of God. All religious language is symbolic language. The Holy Spirit who is within us, who is already a part of our lives, breaks into our awareness and consciousness and human experience when we open our hearts and minds to the Spirit. We experience the Holy Spirit when we center our lives in the Spirit, when we are receptive to the Spirit. And sometimes it takes a “revelation” to bring about that break through. Sometimes it’s a great experience of suffering that brings it about. Sometimes it’s a great experience of love. And sometimes it comes through a vision, a revelation that we cannot really explain.

The Gospel reading for this Fifth Sunday of Easter emphasizes the foundational core of authentic faith. It gets to the heart of what all authentic religion is about. Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” In reality, this isn’t new. This was at the heart and core of Judaism. This has always been basic to who God is and what God wants. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus draws out from the Hebrew Scriptures the commands to love God and love others as ourselves, and says that these two commands are everything. The whole law, says Jesus, all of God’s expectations with regard to human life are about loving God and loving others. So how is this a new commandment? Well, it’s new for us who call Jesus Lord in the sense that Jesus breaks into the world and gives us a beautiful example of what love looks like. “By this,” says Jesus, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” It seems to me that for many American Christians (I can only speak about what I know), for many Christians in our Western culture today this is not central at all. If one’s faith does not make one a more loving person, then it’s not worth much. I would say there’s a lot of Christians today who have a faith that’s not worth much. A growing faith always enlarges our capacity to love others. When Paul speaks of faith, hope, and love together, he says the greatest of these is love. Love is the center of everything. God is Love. God is not faith or hope, but God is love.  

Peter’s experience of enlightenment enlarges his capacity to love people. In chapter 10 Peter explains to Cornelius and those gathered at his house what the “revelation” taught him. He says, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” He goes on, “I truly understand now that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God (that is, reveres or respects God) and does what is right (which is to love others, to do what is right is to treat people right, to treat them with dignity and compassion”) is acceptable to him.” It may have taken Peter seeing the vision three times, but he got it. His eyes were opened. Peter’s expanding faith led to a greater love that embraced people outside his religious and national group. Peter realized that a person didn’t have to become a Jew to be acceptable to God. Peter was able to see outside the boundaries where he felt God operated. He was able to let go of deeply entrenched longstanding prejudices and biases. Most Christians today are like Peter before his saw the “revelation.” Most Christians today mirror Peter’s exclusiveness prior to his vision. We turn around and say, “Unless one is a Christian, then one cannot be acceptable to God.” But what Peter learned in his vision is that God accepts all people who respects God by doing what is right, by loving and caring for God’s children.

I am convinced God is constantly working to move us away from beliefs and practices of exclusion into beliefs and practices of inclusion. As we grow in faith we grow in love. If we are not growing in love, then we are not growing in faith. I don’t care how many Bible studies you attend. What some people call growing in faith is actually regressing in faith, because they use their faith to draw tighter boundaries that exclude and condemn those who are different. Authentic encounters and experiences of God will always move us to be more generous, gracious, and welcoming of people who are different than us.

Our Good God, sometimes we become so entrenched in negative attitudes and hurtful beliefs and destructive behaviors that it takes a revelation for us to see our sin and our blindness. May we be open to such revelations. May we not rail against them, but welcome them, and allow them to have a healing and liberating effect in our lives. Healing us from our spiritual sickness caused by our negative and biased attitudes and actions. And liberating us from our prejudices, resentments, fears, and intolerance. May each of us personally, and collectively as a faith community be open to your transforming grace that always leads us to be more inclusive and compassionate and understanding of others. Let us be teachable and moldable. Give us the courage we need to acknowledged and leave behind hurtful beliefs and actions, so we can be more fully centered in and expressive of the love of Jesus, our Lord.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

You are gods (A sermon from John 10:22-39)


Some of the earliest commentators of John’s Gospel called John’s Gospel a “spiritual” Gospel. Of course, all four of our canonical Gospels in our New Testament are spiritual in the sense that that they teach spiritual truth, and also in the sense that they are primarily intended to be read and applied symbolically and metaphorically, rather than literally or historically. Yet, when these early commentators called John’s Gospel a “spiritual” Gospel it was there way of trying to distinguish it from the other three Gospels, that are called today the “Synoptic” Gospels, because they share so much in common. Just a casual reading of the Gospels reveals how different John’s Gospel is. The style, content, and imagery of Jesus’ teaching in John is so very different from the style, content, and imagery of Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptics. In John, Jesus teaches the way the leaders in John’s faith community taught. Most scholars think that John takes a single image or saying or parable of Jesus, and then develops it into a full blown discourse. John imagines what Jesus would say if he were speaking to John’s spiritual community.

In the passage today Jesus responds to his fellow Jews, some of whom were undecided about him, but others were negative and antagonistic towards him. Earlier in this passage, Jesus delivered his discourse on the Good Shepherd and the sheep, and he draws from that imagery here. He says, “My sheep here my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.” The last phrase seems redundant, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.” Isn’t it obvious that you don’t perish if you have “eternal life?” Maybe not, because eternal life is more than just life that never ends, and the spiritual meaning of “perish” is about anything that diminishes and destroys our humanity. When John uses the phrase, eternal life, and when he places it on the lips of Jesus (which he does numerous times), he is not primarily emphasizing the duration of life. It is forever, but it’s so much more. Eternal life is God’s own life. It’s the kind of life or quality of life that is emphasized. It’s eternal because God is eternal. In John, Jesus embodies God’s life. If I were writing a paraphrase of the New Testament I would call this “God’s own life.” As the good shepherd Jesus gives or shares this life with the sheep.

So, eternal life is life that partakes of the nature and character of God. Eternal life is life that partakes of God’s grace, God’s goodness, God’s generosity, God’s compassion, God’s righteousness or justice, God’s integrity, God’s truth, and so forth. The central theme of John’s Gospel, which is introduced in John’s introduction or prologue, is that Jesus fully and completely embodies God’s life. Jesus is the “Word made flesh.” Jesus is the revelation of the will of God to all who will receive his word as God’s word to them. In the language of John, Jesus and God are one, because Jesus lives in harmony with God and faithfully carries out God’s will.

When the Jews who are antagonistic toward Jesus, hear him claim to be one with the Father, they take up stones to stone him. They are enraged. Jesus asks them,
“For which of the good works that I have done are you going to stone me?” There response is, “It is not for any good work you have done, rather, it’s for the blasphemy that comes out of your mouth. For you are making yourself equal to God.”

It’s really important that we not read into this claim of oneness with God by Jesus the creeds and confessions of the church that developed much later. Jesus is not claiming to be God. No good Jewish monotheist would ever make such a claim. He is claiming to be in union with God, and because he is in union with God, because he knows God, because he is listening to the Spirit of God, he is able to speak and act with the authority of God as God’s son, as God’s agent and redeemer. They accuse Jesus of blasphemy because in their mind Jesus has no right to claim to be God’s son and to act on God’s behalf. Jesus is uncredentialed. They are offended, because they consider themselves to be the gatekeepers, to be the credentialed spokespersons for God. They see Jesus claiming an authority that he does have. An authority that belongs exclusively to them. Isn’t this how exclusive forms of religion and Christianity work. How many churches get kicked out of denominations and groups because they go against the authority of the gatekeepers. This is how exclusive religion works.

Jesus’ response to these who accuse him of blasphemy in 10:31-39 may be one of the most important passages in the New Testament. Jesus says, “Is it not written in your scriptures where God says, ‘You are gods.’” The passage he references is Psalm 82:6. Psalm 82 begins by saying that God holds council “in the midst of the gods.” Who are the gods the Psalmist is talking about? The people of Israel, the covenant people of God. The problem is that they are not living like gods. The Psalmist says, “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?” The Psalmist speaking with the voice of God calls them out for their injustice and favoritism, and tells them what they need to do: “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” The covenant people of God, whom the Psalmist speaking as the voice of God calls “gods,” should be doing the will of God, they should be doing works of righteousness in caring for the most vulnerable and needy. They should be doing works of healing, justice, and liberation.

Next, comes the verse that Jesus quotes in John 10, “I say, you are gods” – this is the verse Jesus quotes to the Jews who accused him of blasphemy. The Psalmist says next, “children of the Most High, all of you.” Hebrew poetry is about parallelism. The second line often explains or expands the first line. The first line is “You are gods.” The second line explains and expands that affirmation, “I say you are gods, that is, you are children of the Most High, all of you.” What Jesus is telling the Jewish leaders is that it is within his right and authority to speak for God and do the works of God, because we are all children of God. They are accusing Jesus of usurping authority he does not have, and Jesus says in response that he is simply using the authority that we all have. They are accusing Jesus of blasphemy because he claims to be God’s son, and Jesus says that we are all gods, we are all children of the Most High. We all have this authority.

The late Fred Craddock was a beloved Disciples of Christ minister and a professor of preaching and New Testament for many years. He loved to tell stories in his sermons. And preachers like me love to tell his stories in sermons. One of my favorite stories is the story he tells about a conversation he had in a restaurant. I make a point to be tell this story every year, because there will inevitably be someone here who hasn’t heard it, and I want all of you to remember it. So here is the story for 2019. He and his wife were on a vacation together. They had left their children with grandparents. They were seated at a table in a restaurant in the Smokey Mountains next to a glass wall (a wall of windows) with a scenic view that overlooked the valley below. An elderly gentleman engaged them in conversation and when he found out Fred was a Disciples of Christ minister, he pulled up a seat, and said I have to tell you a story. Little did Fred know at the time that the man who pulled up a seat was a former two time governor of Tennessee, Ben Hooper.

He said, “I owe a great deal to a minister of the Christian church. I grew up in these mountains. My mother was not married and the whole community knew it. In those days that brought shame. The reproach that fell on my mother, fell also on me. When I went into town with her, I could see people staring at me, making guesses as to who my father was. At school the children said ugly things to me, and so I stayed to myself during recess and I ate my lunch alone. In my early teens I began to attend a little church back in the mountains called Laurel Springs Christian Church. They had a minister who was both attractive and frightening. He had a chiseled face, a heavy beard, and a deep voice. I went just to hear him preach. I don’t know exactly why, but it did something for me. However, I was afraid that I was not welcome since I was, as they put it, a bastard. So I would arrive just in time for the sermon, and when it was over I would get out of there quick because I was afraid someone would say, ‘What’s a boy like you doing in church?’”

“One Sunday some people queued up the aisle before I could get out. Before I could make my way through the group, I felt a hand on my shoulder, a heavy hand. I could see out the corner of my eye his beard and his chin, and knew it was the minister. I trembled in fear. He turned his face around so he could see mine and he seemed to stare at me for a while. I knew what he was doing. I knew that he was going to make a guess as to who my father was. A moment later he said, ‘Well, boy, you’re a child of . . .’ and he paused. And I knew what was coming. I knew I would have my feelings hurt. I knew I would not go back again. He said, ‘Boy, you’re a child of God. I see a striking resemblance.’ Then he swatted me on the backside and said, ‘Now, you go claim your inheritance.’ Then the former governor of Tennessee told Fred, “I left the building a different person. In fact, that was really the beginning of my life.”

“You are a child of God.” That’s who you are. That’s who I am. We are children of God. Every single one of us. The first creation story describes this as being created in the image of God. There is work to do to recover that image. But God’s image is God’s gift to all. In the second creation story it is God breathing into the human creature God’s own spirit, God’s own life, and the human creature becomes a living being. The writer of 1 John puts it this way, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are.” We share God’s life, we share God’s nature. In the words of the Psalmist and in the words of Jesus who quotes the Psalmist, “We are gods, children of the Most High, all of you.” Paul, in Acts 17, says we are all God’s offspring and in God we live, move, and have our existence. No one is excluded.

Spiritual teachers call this original goodness, or original participation, or original blessing. It’s the first thing and the most important thing about us. Original goodness comes before original sin, and original sin does not erase our original goodness. Richard Rohr says, “It is not ours to decide who has it or does not have it, which had been most of our problem up to now. [Which is what exclusive religion does. Exclusive religion says, we have it, and you have to become like us, believe like us, act like us, be part of our group to get it.] It is pure and total gift, given equally to all.” Rohr is so right. We don’t get to decide. We don’t get to judge. We don’t get to say who is in or who is out. And yet today, that is what a lot of Christianity is about. This is the problem with exclusive versions of Christianity. They so easily lead us into Christian exceptionalism and elitism and into feelings and claims of superiority. We become just like the ones who accused Jesus of blasphemy – we want to be able to control who gets in.

We are all God’s children. Evangelism is not inviting a non-child of God to be a child of God. Evangelism is inviting people to claim who they already are. The question is: Will we claim our inheritance? Will we become who we already are? You are already in. You don’t have to do anything to get in. Once you know you are in the question is: What am I going to do about it? Richard Rohr says, “The true and essential work of all religion is to help us recognize and recover the divine image in everything.” The writer of 2 Peter says that God has given us everything we need for life and godliness (or God likeness), so that we can fully participate in the divine nature. God has given us everything we need, so that we can daily participate in the very life and will and purpose of God. God has already given us everything we need to mirror, to reflect the beauty and goodness and grace of God. We already have the image of God. We just have to recover it or uncover it from all the crud that is keeping it hidden. Will we claim it? Will we live it? That’s the issue.

When Jesus claimed, “I and my Father are one” he wasn’t making a claim that only applied to him. Clearly, for all of us who go by the title Christian, the life of Jesus functions as a definitive expression of the life of God and a definitive incarnation of the love of God. But that doesn't make Jesus unique. What makes Jesus unique is the degree to which he lived in union with God and the degree to which he expressed and manifested the life of God and the love of God. The same divine life that was in the man, Jesus of Nazareth is in all of us, and we have the same privilege and authority as God's daughters and sons to live in union with God and do the works of God as Jesus did, which, of course, are always works of love. We are already in union with God. The question is: Will we intentionally and consciously cooperate with God and be channels through whom God’s life, which is to say, God’s love can flow? Will we intentionally and purposefully cooperate with God? Will we dance with God, will we do the two step with God, so that we, like Jesus, can do the works of God.

Jesus told his accusers, “If you can’t accept that I am living in union with God on the basis of what I say, then just look at what I do. Look at the works I do.” We are invited to do the same kind of works. The works of God are many and manifold. They are diverse and varied. What they have in common is this: They are all works of love. They are works of healing and liberation. Jesus in cooperation with God’s Spirit went about healing people’s soul sickness as well as their physical sickness by welcoming and accepting them as God’s children. Jesus went about liberating people from their false selves and from all the demonic forces within and without that would oppress and diminish their lives. We are called to do the same kind of works. Such works can take many different shapes and forms, but they are all works of love. They are works of kindness and compassion and justice or righteousness. That’s what we do when we participate in the flow of God’s eternal life. That’s what we do when we allow the eternal life of God to be channeled through us. We become channels of blessing to others, and as the old hymn reminds, that is what we need. Today, in our American culture, where fear and hate is on the rise, where greed and power and selfish ambition occupies center stage, works of love are desperately needed more than ever.

As we share now in the bread and the cup may we in the act of eating the bread and drinking the cup consciously and intentionally open our hearts and minds and wills, our total selves to you, so that your life fills us and flows out to all those in relationship with us.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Coming to See (A sermon on Acts 9:1-19)


Given the nature of reality in the world, science is able to predict certain things with great accuracy, like eclipses and full moons and the ebb and flow of tides. Our lives have been significantly improved by the discoveries and inventions that are based on predictable patterns in our world. Certain generalities regarding human behavior are also fairly predictable. For example, had we been born in India, there is more than a 99 percent likelihood that we would be Hindu, or something other than Christian. Our individual human freedom is limited by any number of factors besides just where we live, such as genetics, our early childhood experiences, the nurturing we received or didn’t receive, our opportunities or lack thereof, our education, and the list goes on and on. A lot of what we are, what we have, and who we become is based on luck of the draw, and many factors over which we have no control. However, we are not locked in. The good news we preach is good news because at the heart of the message is that we can change. And though we have a strong tendency to resist change, in our better moments, we can see the value of change, and in our best moments we can see areas where we need to change, and make efforts to change.  

Our text today is about an experience of enlightenment that leads to a major change in the life of Saul of Tarsus, who we know as the Apostle Paul. Positive change will rarely happen without experiences of enlightenment. We first meet Paul in the book of Acts at the death of Stephen. The crowd was so infuriated at Stephen’s preaching Christ that they dragged him out of the city of Jerusalem and stoned him. Paul was present granting his approval, perhaps even inciting the crowd. Luke tells us that “Saul approved of their killing him.” After Stephen’s death Luke says a “a severe persecution” broke out against the disciples of Jesus, and Paul, according to Luke, “was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women” committing them to prison. Here is a man inflamed with such zeal and passion for what he thinks is the purity of his faith, he is willing to imprison and even kill opponents he considers heretics. As Paul makes his way to Damascus to arrest disciples of Jesus he encounters a bright light that leaves him blind. Luke says that he “got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could not see.” You will probably not find a better description of our need for enlightenment anywhere. How many of us walk around with our eyes wide open, but we cannot see. Enlightenment is a spiritual work of grace in our lives whereby we come to see truth in a deeper, transformative way that moves to become more loving, grateful, and compassionate persons. Drawing from Paul’s experience in this passage of scripture I want to develop two points.  

First, like Paul we need to have an experience of grace that enlightens us to our sins and addictions, which prior to such an experience we did not recognize as sins or addictions, and justified due to our blindness. Prior to this experience Paul appears to be absolutely confident thinking he is doing God’s will by ridding the land of these heretical followers of the way of Jesus. Paul is completely blind to his own self-righteousness, and the deeper fear and hate from which his actions spring. Luke leaves us no sense that Paul ever questioned his actions or had any remorse or regret or guilt about what he was doing to these followers of the way. He seems perfectly at ease and happy to go about, as Luke puts it, “breathing out murderous threats against the disciples of Jesus.” Paul was addicted to a negative, exclusive version of Judaism that fostered prejudice, hate, and self-righteousness. You have heard me say often, religion can be the best thing in the world, or the worst thing in the world. When we use our religious faith (in our case our Christianity) to justify our sin, then our Christianity becomes the worst thing in the world. We would be better off not having any faith at all.

Luke describes in our text today an experience Paul had of the living Christ that altered his world-view, his God-view, and his self-view. When Paul describes this experience in his letter to the Galatians he describes it as a revelation and an experience of grace. Paul says “God called me through his grace.” In his First letter to the Corinthians Paul says, “But by the grace of God I am what I am.” Grace is the only appropriate word to describe any experience of enlightenment. From Paul’s perspective the experience that enabled him to see was completely due to the grace of God.

In the movie “Flight” Denzel Washington plays a pilot, Whip Whitaker, who is an alcoholic. He does this amazing maneuver with the plane in order to crash land, which was his only recourse. The maneuver that he performed, flipping the plane upside down, saves most of the people on board. Four passengers and two flight attendants are killed, and others, of course, are injured, but his ability to rotate the plane saved the rest on board. The amazing thing is that he performed this phenomenal maneuver while legally intoxicated.

Well, there is an investigation and because he has this high powered legal team with the know how to work the system, all he has to do is lie one final time to get off free (and of course, he has been lying all along, lying most of his life – to others and to himself about his alcoholism and drug use.) This final lie, however, is different. Because this lie would send a friend and coworker to prison. They found empty alcohol bottles in the trash on the plane. Somebody has to go down. If it’s not him (they were his bottles) then someone else to has to become a scapegoat and take the hit. Well, when that moment came, he just couldn’t do it. He couldn’t justify himself, he just could not lie this time. He finally had to own it. So he went to prison.

The movie concludes with Whitaker’s confession to a group in prison. He had been in prison for a while and he tells his story and what he is currently doing to make amends, to make restitution. It’s a story of coming to see. It’s a story of enlightenment. He ends by saying, “This is going to sound real stupid from a man locked up in prison, but for the first time in my life I’m free.” He is in prison. But he is free. He is free from the control of his addiction over him. He is free from all the deceptions and lies. He is free from that downward, destructive cycle of denial and avoidance. To put it in the language of a healthy spirituality – he is now free to discover and become his true self. In the language of Christian spirituality we would say, he is free to discover and become his Christ self.

What sort of experience would it take for us (you and me) to come to see the truth about ourselves, to see and own our false attachments and addictions? What would it take for us to see God and others and ourselves in a more potentially transformative way? What sort of experience would draw us in to the goodness and grace and love of God? What would it take? Would it take some great experience of suffering? Or maybe some great experience of love that unleashes a profound, overwhelming sense of gratitude that wells up and overflows from our hearts. What kind of experience would it take? Perhaps only God knows. I don’t know. We are all unique. We are each one different. We can only really understand these things in retrospect. It takes what it takes. I don’t know what that is for you. To be honest, I don’t even know what it is for me. It takes what it takes – whatever that may be. So first, enlightenment is an experience of grace that enables us to see our sins as sins. It enables us to see our false attachments and negative addictions for what the are. It enables us to see our need for transformation, and sparks a passion for transformation.  

Second, enlightenment is about coming to see our common connection to one another and to the Divine Life that binds us all together. Experiences of enlightenment open our minds and hearts in ways that enable to see that we all belong. We are all one people. We are all children of God. We all share the divine life of God. This was a startling revelation to Paul.

As Luke tells it, there is a blinding light and then a voice that says, “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?” Saul asks, “Who are you?” The voice responds, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Why does the voice say “I am Jesus,” and not I am Christ? Because Paul, who never met Jesus as far as we know, needed to understand the connection. The eternal Christ, the universal Christ, the cosmic Christ that Paul will come to preach became incarnate in the man, Jesus of Nazareth. Paul needed to see that connection. It’s interesting that in his letters Paul never uses the name “Jesus” alone. Often Paul simply speaks of “Christ” using the single word. But in those instances where he does use the name Jesus it’s always in connection with Christ – either “Christ Jesus” or “Jesus Christ.” In this experience of enlightenment, which Paul attributes completely to the grace of God, Paul gets the connection. But that is not all he gets. The other connection he gets is that the divine life that became incarnate in the man, Jesus of Nazareth, is the same divine life that dwells in all of Jesus’ followers. The divine voice who identifies himself as Jesus says, “Why do you persecute me?” To persecute the followers of Jesus is to persecute the risen Lord because they/we share the same divine life. The life that became incarnate in Jesus lives in Jesus’ followers. That life lives in you and me.

Paul would later come to understand, perhaps after additional experiences of enlightenment, that the divine life, the Christ life, not only dwells in Jesus’ followers, but in all humanity and all creation. According to Luke, in Acts 17 Paul speaks to the philosophers of Athens and tells them that the one true Lord is Lord of heaven and earth, and gives to all mortals life and breath. Paul goes on to say we all are “God’s offspring” (God’s sons and daughters, God’s children) and in God, the Lord of heaven and earth (the Christ) “we live and move and have our existence.” It would seem that experiences of enlightenment continue to expand Paul’s horizons. And in his letter to the Romans (8:22-23) Paul even broadens this to include “the whole creation” which, he says, “groans” for ultimate redemption. Paul understands that the redemption of the creation is tied to the redemption of humankind, the children of God. The Spirit of Christ that is in us exists in all the creation too.

Paul’s encounter with Christ that Luke describe in Acts (not just once, by the way, but three times) explains the mystical language Paul uses in his letters about being “in Christ” and about Christ dwelling and living in us, which language he uses over and over again. Marcus Borg rightly, I think, calls Paul a Jewish Christ mystic. We are one people. We share the Christ life. The Spirit of Christ resides in us all. We all constitute the universal body of Christ that Paul envisions being gathered up and reconciled in Christ in the fullness of time.

Thomas Merton, was something of a Christian mystic, who wrote about the Christ life or the Christ self as a reality dwelling in each of us. And like Paul, his understanding flowed out of his own experience. Merton writes about an experience of enlightenment that he had while standing on a busy street corner in Louisville: “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I love all those people that they are mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. . . . Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of the heart, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor doubt nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person [-] that each one has God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more wars, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…

Dr. Bailey did his Ph.D dissertation on Thomas Merton. Recently he revisited Merton and presented a paper on Merton. Dr. Bailey points out in his paper that Merton believed that union in the life of God would be inevitably expressed through union in the Love of God. Dr. Bailey describes Merton’s view this way, “Union in the love of God regenerates the creature through that love. Love is the sign of union, the sign of the new person. If the individual’s life is characterized by love, it takes on the new image, the form of God. One who has experienced the pure love of God in union becomes a source of love for others.”

It’s all about love, sisters and brothers, because as 1 John puts it, “God is love.”  Living life in Christ is not just learning how to love like Christ (it is that, but it’s even more), it’s Christ loving in us and through us. It’s the Christ self doing the loving. The Christ who indwells us is love. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ is Love. This is why Paul says, “the greatest of these is love.” This is why he says that “the fruit of the Spirit is love,” first of all, before it is anything else. It’s why Paul says to the Colossians, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Love is the center that holds everything together.

When we, by the grace of God, experience enlightenment, then we, like Paul, and like Merton, and like many other Christian mystics, and mystics of other religious faiths, will see that we all share the Divine Life, whose essence is Love. We will come to see that we are all one people, we are all connected, we all belong, and we will proclaim like Paul, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of us are one in Christ Jesus.”  

O God, open our eyes, for we have been blinded by our false selves. We have been blinded by all the messages we have internalized that tell us we are better than others or less than others. We have been blinded by our pride. We have been blinded by feelings of superiority and by feelings of inferiority. We have been blinded by our attachments and addictions. Visit us in your grace, O God, that we might see all of this and see where we need to change. Open our eyes, Lord, that we might see that the beauty and goodness and grace of Christ reside in every human being and in all creation. Open our eyes, Lord, so that we will see how we are to love your creation, and how we are to love all people, and how we are to love one another, and how we are to love ourselves. For only then will we actually experience what is already true – that you are all in all. Amen.