Satan Unabashed

This is such a sad story, even though no one was killed: ISIS destroys Al Nuri Mosque

Those in my congregation love our church building, but imagine a much grander version that had been around for 1000 years, blown to bits.  No one needs to be convinced that ISIS is evil; I could cite another story this morning that they are shooting families with children who are fleeing the battle, trying to frighten people into remaining so they will be human shields.

Many of us are so embarrassed by the idea of Satan, the devil.  I read Silas a version of the temptation of Jesus by the devil the other night, and in response to his questions found myself offering a clever metaphorical explanation of the devil, assuring him that an actual devil doesn’t exist like a person.  And I believe that, of course.  It goes with our Christian faith that Christ has conquered Satan, and also that in Christ grace has been extended to all, even the fiends of ISIS.  That’s why we pray for enemies.  We’ve also seen invocations of a real Satan used to great harm, by Christians and others.  Perhaps too conveniently, my disbelief in the devil also go along nicely with modern, Enlightenment, and liberal values in the inherent goodness and rationality of each person. True enough also.  No baby is destined to become an ISIS thug.

But then people fall into a path that leads them to love death and destruction.  We’ve seen recent examples of this by white and sometimes Christian terrorists, too.  Happily, they act alone.  ISIS manages to embody this same evil spirit on a grand scale, pushing a love of death beyond all bounds. Despite our sincerest hopes for them and our optimism that is embarrassed by words like “evil”–not to mention all the words that no longer ring with gravity, like “nefarious,” “villainous,” “dastardly,” words that only call to mind clownish images like Snidely Whiplash– these people continue to demand our belief in Satan.

We do not need to dwell on them to excess, but I can’t help think of how somewhere, ISIS commanders are admiring a sight like I am now admiring–tall trees set against a blue sky.  Somewhere they are feeling with delight the sun on their face, as I am now feeling delight.  And somewhere a little deeper than that, Satan is ruling within them.  And not in me, thanks be to God.

 

 

June 18, 2017: “Trinity Time”

Since our Children’s Sunday was last week, I moved Trinity Sunday to the 18th,  I felt like the sermon was a bit too busy.  The main point I set out to make is that the Trinity reconfigures our experience of time.  But based on the reading from 2 Cor., I went off on an interesting digression about grace as distinct from love.  I used the Genesis 1 reading as an enacted call to worship, connecting it to the elements of light, water, and flowers in our worship space.   

Genesis 1:1-2:4a; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

 

We are celebrating Trinity Sunday today. Immersing ourselves in the mystery of the Trinity will be quite a leap from the “Life for Others” sermon series during the seven weeks of Easter. There I emphasized that the essence of the Christian faith is simple and practical. If you can live for others, you can be a Christian; there are no great leaps of intellectual comprehension or belief required. That’s still true. But while I want to continue to emphasize that we welcome a flexible and diverse approach to belief in this church, this is an appropriate time to revel in the richness of traditional Christian faith. For on this Sunday we have just reached a milestone in our church year. Over the last six months our liturgical year has celebrated the presence and work of God in our own likeness as Jesus the Christ, and two weeks ago we celebrated the continuing work of Jesus Christ among the disciples in the form of the Holy Spirit, all according to the plan and all to the glory of God the source of all, the one we call Father. So after these six months, we are now in the position to survey and admire the totality of God’s works as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—one God in what have been called three persons, but we might also call these three dimensions of God’s one being. This is the Trinity, and already it sounds superfluously abstract and intellectually vain—a delight for theological nerds that is lacking in any practical importance. I think it’s a shame, but we are used to thinking about the Trinity as mostly pointless speculation about God’s eternal being, far removed from our everyday life in the here and now of time.

But I noticed that in each one of our readings today, words evocative of the Trinity show up in relation to time. The Trinity is hinted at in the very beginning of creation in Gen 1. It appears again at the very end of Paul’s contentious letter to the Second Corinthians. And the Trinity is invoked as Jesus sends his disciples out on their mission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, along with the promise that Jesus will be with us until the end of “the age.” So it seems that the Trinity is not just about the arcane truths of God in heaven; the Trinity ought to frame our whole relation to time, which means that the Trinity is all about here and now.

Now, I have labored hard to understand the Trinity; I’ve read many explanations of the Trinity; and I wrote one myself in an academic journal, which I think holds its own against the many others out there. [Story] This labor has helped me understand God, but also what we do here in church and what really matters about what we do. And it has even affected my understanding of the world all around me. And not just understand, but love God and the world better.

I’m pretty sure that clarifying the Trinity is not going to solve all our problems. But it is just possible that some of our confusion, lack of unity, lack of direction; some of our hesitance to really live into the Christian faith, comes from this dark cloud that forms in our mind whenever we hear the word, Trinity. “Oh yeah, I’m supposed to know about that, and I’m supposed to believe in it. But I don’t know how, so I’m just going to pretend it’s not too important for right now.” We can’t be sure how much that dark cloud is affecting us until we dispel it with the beautiful luminosity of God as a one in three.

That will take some time. It’s not a matter of a quick and easy formula. A good explanation of the Trinity leads you to the brink of what lies beyond comprehension. I can’t just define the Trinity for you, and you have it. Along the way to really understanding it, you also have to understand everything else afresh, now seeing it in light of the Trinity. After all, everything is created by God, right? And if God is three-in-one, then that will leave some kind of stamp on everything God made, including time—which we fancy can be adequately understood by a watch and a calendar app. But already in the very beginning of time, as Genesis 1 describes it, we see the Trinity present, or at least alluded to. The triune God is already there in the beginning of all things. We see this first when Genesis tells us that “a spirit from God swept over the face of the waters,” although the word “spirit” can also be translated as wind or breath. We never hear anything else about this spirit in chapter one. It’s mysterious. You get the sense that this windy Spirit is perhaps stirring up the water, “making waves,” quietly bringing about momentous change. But the Spirit is invisible; like the wind, you only feel and see it by its effects. And surely, God is also invisible, and we never see or completely understand God.

But God doesn’t just silently move and blow, God also speaks. “Let there be…” In most of the world’s creation stories, the gods form and shape something (that goes for Genesis 2 also), and sometimes the gods have to kill a beast in order to create. It’s so unusual in Genesis 1 that God creates so calmly and peacefully by speaking the Word. As it happens, the word, “Word,” is one of the key words that Christians use for the second person of the Trinity, also called the Son. John begins his Gospel by evoking Genesis 1: “In the beginning / was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The language is simple but the idea is very difficult: the Word was with God and was God. How’s that work? Welcome to the Trinity.

Now, what does it mean that part of the reality of God can be described as “Word?” A Word is simply anything God does or says, typically through a spokesman, that unlike the invisible movement of the Spirit, becomes a permanent marker by which we can recognize God, or identify an action as typical of God. A Word of God is repeatable, visible, and intelligible. A Word can take the form of a command, or a promise. It can be a saying of the prophets or a parable of Jesus. The Word can also be a song, or a ritual like our sacraments, which we repeat in order to better understand God and our relation to God.

But here in Genesis the primary Word is, “Let there be.” God is letting all this non-divine stuff come into being, all organized by the fundamental differences that make up our world, as between day and night, land and sea, and the great diversity of living creatures. God isn’t engineering all this stuff. Genesis doesn’t describe how God lets it all be. There shouldn’t be any problem saying that God lets the universe be by way of the scientific theory of the Big Bang, or that God lets the diverse array of creatures be / by way of evolution. God isn’t portrayed as a micromanager In Genesis. Just as one who lets be. And God doesn’t say so, but we are told that God saw that all of this diversity was good.

Now, what does it mean to let something be by pronouncement, while silently judging to oneself that it is good?   I think we call this “grace.” As in the reading we had from Second Corinthians: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” In his closing Trinitarian benediction, Paul doesn’t start with the first person of the Trinity, the “Father,” but with the second person, “the Son,” the Word, whom he identifies as Lord Jesus Christ. And Paul associates grace with Jesus Christ, just as he associates love with the Father and communion or fellowship with the Holy Spirit. Now why, you might ask, does Paul associate grace with Jesus Christ and love with God the Father? Well, let’s keep in mind that all of these qualities belong to God. But Paul’s way of assigning a particular divine trait to each person of the Trinity can help us understand why there is a three-ness to God.   And the most visible and identifiable and repeatable characteristic of God, made known to us by the Word of Jesus Christ, is grace.

Grace, charis in Greek, means having favor toward someone or having a good disposition toward someone. In Paul’s use of the word especially in Romans, grace is something unearned from God, the result of a free gift. God’s good favor is something we don’t earn or deserve, something that isn’t obviously and self-evidently our right or our property. Paul mentions the “Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,” and then “The Love of God.” These are not quite the same. Parents know that they love their children. Spouses know of their own love for the other. But we all get angry and dismayed with even our dearest loved ones. And we all feel guilt and shame at what we do, or at least at our strange and uncontrollable inner thoughts. It isn’t always obvious in our anger and dismay that we love those most dear, and it isn’t always obvious that we should be loved by those most dear. That’s why it needs to be said. We need to say, and to hear, the words, “I love you.” Love needs to be a stated commitment, because what you are committing to is not yet mutually firm and fully in place. As true as this is in human relationships, it is much more true for God’s relationship to humanity. God tells the Israelites through Moses, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Neither part of that commitment was obvious; neither part could be taken for granted. Words both affirm what is not yet obvious, and make it possible for us to aim at fulfilling that commitment.

It is not obvious that the Israelites were God’s people; they never really fulfilled that promise, just as we, the New Israel, have yet to fulfill that promise. It is not obvious that human beings are created in the image of God, nor that we have a justifiable dominion over a planet that we are placing in peril. It is not obvious that we have some special favor or grace from God, a special calling or honor, when you consider the awful things we do or let happen. We need Jesus Christ to reveal this far-from-obvious grace to us. We need a Word of grace that we can perceive outside of us to this effect, assuring us of our favor with God. It needs to be objective and to come from outside of us, because we do not usually feel worthy of God’s favor; true enough. But also, in a way, we really are not worthy. We really are sinful, our world is a mess and all of us are tainted by and implicated in our messed up world, especially when we consider the absolute holiness and perfection of God. And Jesus Christ is this perfected Word of Grace from God, both assuring of God’s forgiveness and also embodying in himself a humanity that is truly faithful and just and loving, like we all should be. Jesus is the pride and joy of all humanity, which otherwise often has little to show for itself.

That is why Jesus is also our judge, the one who will come to judge the world. We’ve told ourselves “God is love” until those words barely have meaning any more, or at least they have long since ceased to pack a punch. That’s why, first of all, Jesus Christ is the grace of God, because through him we realize that God’s love is not our right or entitlement. Jesus Christ is grace, because he brings both the good news of God’s mercy as well as the awakening to our need for repentance. Christ Jesus remains ours and yet is distinct from us, one standing apart from us and taking our place.

Only through him and the grace Christ represents do we properly arrive at what Paul calls “the love of God,” or we might say, the love of the Father, the first person of the Trinity, the source and destiny of all. This deepest dimension of God’s being is, whether we realize it or not, invisible and incomprehensible to us. This is the God who told Moses, “You cannot see me face to face and live.” If we arrogantly assume we know exactly who and what God is, we will quickly end up with an idol, a little god of our own making who is indeed a false god, a golden calf. The God of love can also become our idol, a god created according to our need, an idol we make to give us assurance, rather than to be our Lord. Only when we know this incomprehensible God through the Word, through Jesus the Christ, crucified for the sin of the world and risen to bring the world reconciliation, can we know the love of God, without making that loving God into our idol—as if all if right with us and the world, it only needs a heavenly sheen of blessing. No. The world is God’s creation but it has all gone wrong; the Kingdom of God comes to turn our world upside down, and Jesus Christ will come again to judge the world. And yet: God has offered us peace and reconciliation in the midst of this quagmire, a world where children die unnecessarily every day and the world shrugs. This is a troubling paradox, this grace amidst our fallen world. Only a paradoxically triune God can hold together grace and love with a world so unworthy.

We are now in ordinary time, which covers the six months or so from Pentecost until the new liturgical year that begins with Advent. We’ve just finished hearing the story of Jesus’ birth, ministry, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension as our own story, the story that tells us the most important truths about ourselves and all humanity. And that time concluded with the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples, giving them the power to be the community that continues to testify to God in Jesus and that acts as the continuing presence of Christ and of his kingdom here on earth, while awaiting what is to come (that’s who we really are, folks). This has been Trinity story time, a story about the Son and the Spirit granting the world a participation in the glory of God the Source and End of all, beyond all time.   This is what time is for us: it comes from a past of timeless truth with the Word, continues into an open presence with the Spirit, and leads us into union with the Eternal God.

It is an open-ended story. 2000 years later, despite some fresh challenges, we still have everything in this room to be the Spirit-filled Kingdom in Christ’s name, participating in God’s eternal life here and now. The Bible is still our extraordinary window onto divine truths, even if we have to work a little to interpret its truths. Our sacraments are still effective in connecting us to our origin in Jesus as our Word of God. We don’t have to live one day after another, same old same old, until our allotted years come to an end. We can instead live each day in the drama of Trinity Time. Each day can begin with God the creator as its ultimate origin; each day can be made possible by the grace of Jesus the Christ, who has revived human life so that it can experience mercy and love amidst terror and heartache; and each day can bring us the feeling of the Spirit rippling across our depths, moving us by a power we don’t own but that we cannot deny. What a shame that we just got all the pieces of the Trinity in place for Trinity Time, right as summer is starting and most of us are about to scatter (including me). Don’t forget about the Trinity this summer. Repeat Paul’s nice benediction in your prayers every day. Let it sink in to you, let take you over, and it will bear you up and sweep you along like the perfect wave at the beach. Come summer’s end, I want Trinity Time to start here in earnest.

There is neither Red nor Blue in Christ Jesus, part 1

In the fall I am planning on a sermon series addressing the intersection of political attitudes and the church.  This article is precisely on point for that topic.  Partisanship in America is becoming more and more hostile, as this NYT piece documents: Partisanship worsening-NYT.  I think the import of this for the church is clear.  The church needs to be a place where people can come together across the political spectrum, just as it was from the start a place where Jew and Greek, slave and free, and men and women could come together as one.  The UCC and other churches have rightly focused on racism; but as the above article purports to show, prejudice is now worse across partisan lines than across racial lines.  (Prejudice, it should be noted, is only one part of racism; the economic factor has no corollary in the partisan divide.)

Just bringing people together will do some good for our social cohesion.  But it will not by itself help us mend our political vision to find commonality.   Besides, it is not the church’s God-given mission to promote social cohesion.  Jesus hardly did that!  (“I come not to bring peace but a sword…”)  So for both reasons, our coming-together needs to have some political content; we need to work toward crafting a shared political vision.  (“Political vision” here just means ideas about how to live together in a society.)

I am thinking carefully about how we can do that as a church.  I am highly critical of how churches typically do this, whether on the right or the left.  Both sides have thoughtlessly promoted and even called down divine sanction on our growing partisan divide.  Those on the right have done so more forcefully and therefore with more harm, I think, but those on the left have dominated small, old line denominations like ours (the UCC); so I feel a keen responsibility to challenge those nearest to me.

Here’s some guidelines I have come up with so far.  Please comment on these and give me your thoughts and advice!

  1. It should be made clear from the outset that a pastor in the pulpit does little good by advocating particular government policies.  I have no government officials in my congregation.  The most I could do is sway some votes, which would almost certainly have no effect anyway.  The real point of pronouncements on public policy seems to be to make the preacher feel like he or she is making a stand.  But such a mostly ineffectual stand would cause political division for no purpose, unless the proper understanding of the gospel is at stake.  As I’ve written about elsewhere, political advocacy from the pulpit should focus on local political issues that can actually be affected by our involvement.
  2. That also means that ‘hot button’ political topics should be avoided.  Our political-media machine has effectively used polarizing topics to organize our political discourse into polarizing issues (abortion, gay rights, social programs).  A dialogue on politics in the church will be refreshing if it looks at fundamental political ideas: what is the meaning of freedom? What is the nature of a human being?  What is our highest good?  These are topics that the Gospel can shed real light on.
  3. That the Gospel is the source of light here will be all the more evident and convincing if the preacher contrasts the gospel message with political views of both the left and the right.  The worst offense is cherry-picking biblical passages to match one’s pre-determined political bias.  A politics based on the gospel will not be nationalistic, nor will it be secularist; it will not defend tradition and our ways, nor will it defend individual rights as such; it will not justify economic disparities, nor will it take purely economic equality as the chief goal; it will not be libertarian in either a conservative or liberal way.  I am convinced that partisan thinking and the polarized structure of our political discourse has resulted in simplistic and false thinking for us all.
  4. Because a gospel politics will provide little support for libertarian or nationalist views and will tend to be critical of economic disparity, a gospel politics will tend toward the left on these matters. (It is hard to square the Bible with the conservative side of these views.  On the other hand, the personal moral relativism that crops up on the left will find little support in the gospel.)  What needs to be made clear, then, is that this “gospel politics” applies first and foremost to the political values that the church considers as a body politic.  The question of how they apply beyond the church to our national political institutions should be left quite open.  For instance, it is impossible for the church as a church to subscribe to libertarianism, but one could still argue that libertarianism is the best ideology for governing our national political policy.  In any event, public policy should be crafted by paying careful attention to social scientific research, which is not the domain of the preacher.  But for the church’s political action, social science is not as relevant.

My thinking about how to talk about politics in church continues to evolve.  It helps a lot to listen to people in my congregation as full-bodied, complicated human beings who also express political views!  Again, please click on “comment” to share your thoughts.

I know most people–nearly everyone–is uncomfortable with the topic of faith and politics.  But avoiding it, or dealing with it as we have done, is not really working.  And the crisis in our society around politics is undeniable.  If the church can’t find a way to bring us meaningfully together, we will be failing in our calling.  And already the church has been horribly scarred by politics; the wound is already inflicted and we need to find a way to heal.  Look at Protestantism: we are almost perfectly divided along ideological lines between the old-line denominations and the evangelical denominations and movements.  Christ’s body is already rent asunder.  Is this a peace worth preserving?

7th in Easter: “Life for Others: The Church of Mutual Love”

I was away at Jessica’s 20th college reunion last week, but I hear the confirmand class did a beautiful job leading worship. Today is Memorial Day; I just offered upon request a prayer at the Granby Memorial Day parade, a lovely event, that probably came off a little odd.  I remain unsure as a pastor in this patriotic small town how to connect the Gospel to a desire among some in the community for the church to offer a kind of general blessing upon civic life.  

On this seventh Sunday in Easter, we only brought Memorial Day into the liturgy by including veterans in our prayers; someone also decided to make “America the Beautiful” into our recessional music.  But with this Sunday being the last in our regular Easter season (the pinnacle of the Christian sacred year), and with this also being the Sunday after Ascension, and the last Sunday in my “Life for Others” series, I had plenty to deal with in the liturgy.   

1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11 ; John 17:1-11

I am at week seven of my series on “Life for Others.” It’s not easy spinning out a seven-week series on three little words, especially when I’m using as much of the set lectionary Scripture readings as I can. Perhaps it has not been easy for you, either. In seven weeks, I think I’ve exhausted all the possible wordplays on “life for others,” except that at times this phrase has felt like a “life sentence” for us all.

But I have no regrets about having so much to say about “life for others.” The idea has been that this phrase conveniently distills the simple essence of Christian life. It really is that simple: being a Christian requires no elaborate mental gymnastics, no belief in arcane and mystical realities. Being a Christian is not primarily about mental belief. It is about your life taking on a certain shape: being for others. For those of you who are new to church, I hope it is helpful to see that at heart, being a Christian is at its most basic about how you live your life. That basic insight can also be a helpful reminder for us long-time Christians, too. In essence, what we are about here is very simple, and anyone is able to join us. There’s no great expertise required.

But to be sure, I also made the phrase “life for others” into a window into the deeper mysteries at the center of our worship. I do not think Christianity would be the same if we got rid of worship and our special, sometimes obscure language about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and if we left off the sacraments. I don’t think the sermon for every week could just be reduced to: “Go live for others!” (Although I can feel the lovers of short services begin to fantasize: “with no communion and a four-word sermon, we could be in and out of here in five minutes!”) So I made the case, at some length and requiring a good deal of patience on your part, that the phrase “life for others” implies and perhaps requires us to believe that Jesus Christ is life for others, even and especially in his death on a cross. It is mysterious but true, that because Jesus gave his life all to God for all, we do not have to sacrifice ourselves to God and give away our lives for others, because first off, God wanted to give us life to live and enjoy and share. But we in the church are also called, to various extents, to give ourselves to others in imitation of Jesus. This is not just a nice but idealistic gesture; it is a participation in the supernatural life of Christ that constitutes our eternal life. This is why 1st Peter tells us to “rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, [and notice that means that we do not have to share fully in his sufferings] so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.”

So even while we enjoy for ourselves the goodness of creation, we are called as a church to take on the self-giving life for others that Jesus perfected; and I’ll say more later about how this life for others is grounded eternally in God. It is because life for others rests on God’s own life that we really welcome all here, and why we continually try to reach out to the whole world, if only through small efforts of prayer and support for our denomination’s ministry to the far corners of the world.

But today, on this last Sunday before Pentecost when we celebrate the birth of the church, I want to talk about life for others as the unique shape of our community. For there is something particularly beautiful and inspiring about what we are called to be as a church community. And that is a community of mutual love. Because that is what you get when “life for others” becomes the shape of a stable, local community: mutual love. I live for you, and you live for me, and we all live for each other.

And isn’t that the kind of community you want to live in, deep down in your created nature? Isn’t that what everyone wants, deep down? At least, my faith tells me that this is what we all want. But I suppose that is only obvious to the eyes of faith. You know why? Because we’ve all been conditioned to think that what we actually want is that I live for me, and you should just mind your own damn business. That’s the gist of all our deserted island fantasies and our suburban utopia dreams. I’ll do whatever I want to do here, and you can do whatever you want over there, and if I decide I need anything from you, I’ll call your people and we’ll negotiate a deal.

This is not life for others, it is capitalism. It is business, it is commerce. And that’s ok. Once people no longer feel like they belong to each other, once we no longer love and implicitly trust one another, if we ever really did, capitalism can successfully step into the breach as a successful system for negotiating relationships of mutual benefit. And “mutual benefit” sounds almost like life for others, which I just described in the church as “mutual love.” But the difference is crucial. God in Christ has not offered us a mutually beneficial deal, even if in 1st Peter it almost sounds like we suffer so that God will pay us back; but in reality God has given himself to us so that we can give ourselves to God and to the world. We need to attend carefully to the difference, and insist upon it, because capitalism has been if anything too successful, so that it wants to imagine itself as the only system, the only way to be a community. Capitalism wants to recreate the whole world, including the church, in its image.

I was just talking to an acquaintance—a good guy—who is very successful at finance, and he is quick to talk as if everything we are or we do is a product, and everyone is in competition to make and acquire the best product. It’s a useful way to talk, in some contexts; maybe even the church can talk about our “product”—but in doing so we run the risk of losing our soul. Because at heart we are about loving and giving, not competition over products. Even the most ardent capitalist knows—God help him if he doesn’t—that our own families are not about products and competition. I am not offering Silas the product of fatherhood which he, being a child, is in the market for. That does sound absurd, right? I am his father; he is my son; we love each other, we give ourselves to one another, we belong to one another. The shape of our relationship is not producer and consumer; it is life for one another or mutual love. No one is foolish enough to let one’s relationship to a lover or to family become a commodity, although capitalism has no doubt encouraged us to see even love as something I choose to do because it benefits me. But any parent can see that this is false.

Capitalism has been an effective system, but it robs us of our deep belonging to one another; it cannot do love. When it tries, it ends up with prostitution. We don’t want that; we want real, authentic love. And so the community of mutual love that we are as a church is something that people will realize they really do want, eventually. We could call it our sure-fire “product;” but it is not a product, because you don’t own love, love owns you. And love is our deepest desire because God created us for love.

The Gospel of John develops this idea of love with a particular profundity. Our reading this week comes from the four chapters of the gospel in which Jesus is having a long, last talk with his disciples after the last supper. In chapter 13 he announces the great commandment that we celebrate at Maundy Thursday: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” That is the theme for the next four chapters of John.

In our reading today, Jesus is wrapping up his talk with a final prayer, that grounds this new commandment in God’s love. First he prays to God above, the Father: “Glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.” At the origin of everything Jesus does is a mutual love and mutual giving between the Son and the Father. As later theologians thinking about the Trinity would realize more deeply, this mutual glorifying goes well beyond the human Jesus, all the way back to a mutual relationship in God’s eternal being. Jesus prays, “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” That’s mysterious language. Let’s translate it like this: Jesus began as an intention or plan of God from before all time, called “the Word,” and then he was born in time according to that intention (“and the Word was made flesh”). He proclaims now that he has fulfilled God’s intention, for he sees the cross and resurrection right around the corner; and we rightly read this speech after Easter because it is as if Jesus is summing up his whole ministry in retrospect. Now he wishes to return to the eternal presence of God. But we should realize that he’s not literally talking about going back to some place in the universe whence he came. No: he’s talking about ascending into God’s power and presence to all times and places. God is everywhere and in all times. Now Christ is about to be everywhere and in all times.

And therefore, this eternal presence of God in Christ is available here and now to us. We get used to thinking of “eternal life” as some heavenly realm far away. And the allusions to “eternal life” in the Gospel of John allow for several different interpretations of what eternal life is; just read the end of chapter 17. But in this passage Jesus explicitly defines it as simply understanding this relationship of mutual love between God and Jesus: “And this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Eternal life does not refer here to a place, or even a time. It is just knowing the mutual love that lies at the very heart of God, at the heart of the Trinity. I’ve written an academic essay about the Trinity, but don’t ask me to explain what this eternal love between the Father and Son at the heart of the Trinity looks like. But like I said last time, it means that for us, God really is love. God doesn’t just intend to love or desire to love. God’s very being involves an eternal love between the Father and Son, even though we can’t picture how that works.

Only after he prays to God above, the Father or Mother, does Jesus turn to praying for his disciples. This gets to the central insight of John’s gospel: our life for others as a mutual love here in the church is based on the reality of God as mutual love within the Trinity. In our acts and attitudes of loving one another, we are participating in God’s eternal life, this eternal love on which all things have been founded and created.

When Jesus finally gets around to praying to God for something on our behalf, the request is simple: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Do you see how he connects our love to his own love within God’s being? We, Jesus’ disciples, are part of the mutual giving between the Father and Son. “You [God] gave them to me,” says Jesus. And then Jesus taught us who God is: “The words that you have given to me, I have given to them.” So by sharing with us his intimate knowledge with God, we disciples are led from the Jesus we came to know in person, and the words and stories in scripture, to the inner reality of God that defines who Jesus most truly is. And so Jesus wasn’t really making us his disciples. He was showing us God the Father, and making us to participate in the eternal loving and mutual giving between God and the Son. It’s not so important that we memorize all of Jesus’ words, or preserve every fact about him: how he dressed, how he ate, remarkable things he said or did. Muslims have the delightful hadith about Mohammed, which are the stories collected about him outside of the Qur’an. We Christians have nothing like this about Jesus. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is living this life for others that Jesus showed us, this mutual love of giving ourselves to one another, for in doing so, we are participating in the shape of God’s own life, the mutual giving and glorifying between Father and Son. So we are not just followers of Jesus, we are participants in God’s eternal life. He prays to the Father: “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.” We are the glory of Christ. And because we are Jesus’, we are God’s.

This participating in God’s own life is not ours as individuals. It’s is not a divine spark that is found within each one of us individually. (That’s an inside joke with Connie Brown, whom I am shamelessly teasing because I am a rascal. Connie deserves a better pastor.) God is not in me and then again in you. I am told that the Hindu greeting, “Namaste,” means something like, “The god in me greets the god in you.” That’s lovely, but it’s not what John’s Gospel is talking about. It is not as if we each individually are God or each have our own piece of God. We only participate in God by loving one another. Jesus prays to God that his disciples “may be one, as we are one.” The ultimate reality of God is one. Not as we sometimes picture God, a grand paternalistic old man sitting alone on a throne in heaven. The oneness of God is an act of loving. If we could see this oneness of God, it wouldn’t look like a single person or thing; we would only see something like a Mother or Father, a source or origin, and a Son, or expression of that invisible origin. There is not one person in God, one entity, as we often think. There is ultimately a oneness but it is itself love: the mutual giving and receiving, the sharing of these two. This is what God finally is for John’s gospel, and we have to think of this love that is God as existing before any distinction of Father and Son—but now we are into deep and mind-blowing mysteries.

Because we inevitably think love comes second. First there’s me. And I meet some attractive girl and then we decide to get married. And then from the two of us come some children, and then I love them. But that’s not the truth./ You may think that you visited this church one day, and you liked the people and the reverent but informal worship. The sermon was long and ponderous, but you endured it, and finally you decided you love this place. Maybe you even thought you had found a bargain: you’ll pledge some money, maybe volunteer here and there, and in return you’ll get that communal good-feeling and a place for your child to learn some wholesome values. But that’s not the truth. That’s not what is really happening, according to John. The love that we enact here is a participation in God’s eternal life that has preceded us and our decisions. That’s why Jesus can talk about “those you [God] gave to me.” The love we participate in here stands at the origin of all things, and that love is more real and enduring than your calculations and decisions about how to spend your time and where to raise your kids. That love has created all the mutual giving in our cosmos: the mutual attraction of neutron and proton in each little atom of your body, the mutual attraction between sun and earth that makes all life possible, the explosive giving forth of the Big Bang as it continues to fan out in loving encounters across the universe. It’s all love, because the eternal loving trinity has created it all. And what we do here when we love each other, in our life for others, is to further show forth that eternal love, here and now. We know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom God sent. Next week we’ll add the Spirit, and then we got the whole shebang.

4th in Easter (May 7): Meditations on the Sacraments

A service featuring two baptisms and two first communions for our young folk provided the occasion for an informal meditation on baptism (“for all ages”) and a brief sermon on communion. 

On Baptism:

Jesus told his disciples make disciples of all peoples or nations, baptizing them. But he didn’t explain what baptism is and why we do it. Baptism looks kind of like a rite of initiation. Ever join a secret club? Or the scouts? Secret groups love to have special initiations to distinguish the members from those who are outside, in the dark.

Well, baptism isn’t quite like that. Baptism doesn’t distinguish us from those outside. You know why? Because Christ Jesus came for all. And all are saved in Jesus whether they know it or not. Baptism doesn’t unite you with us into some private club. It is for you and for us to recognize that we, and even everyone, are united with Christ and with God. Baptism unites us with Jesus Christ, it makes his life our life, but in Jesus Christ God united with all of humanity.

In fact, do you know when you were baptized? Well, in a weird way, you were baptized about 2000 years ago when Jesus was baptized in the river Jordan by John the Baptist, because he was baptized for us and for all humanity. We sprinkled some water on you a few years ago, or we will in a few years, but you are baptized into Christ’s baptism. So baptism isn’t something that makes you different; it just shows you that you belong to Jesus, but so does everyone.

Baptism is weird, because when God acts, it is once and forever and always. (Can you say that with me: always, once, and forever.) So Liam and Isaac will be baptized today, but that baptism won’t happen just today. They may or may not feel changed today. And you might not remember the day of your own baptism, but that doesn’t matter. But because it’s by God, our baptism is always happening. You may find it means something different to you next week than it means today. It may feel different in 20 years.

Baptism and communion are our two sacraments. One uses water, the other uses bread and juice; both these sacraments unite us to God. God loves to take some good created stuff, add the Words esp. of Jesus, and then add the Spirit or power of God right now. God mixed all those together like a recipe, and what God makes is a people of God’s own—us. That’s what happened at Jesus’ baptism: God took water, added the Spirit who came down like a dove, and added a word: “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased.” And why water? … I think God uses created stuff that means more than words can possibly say. Otherwise God would just use words and Spirit. But for all the reasons you suggest: water washes and purifies, it nourishes and refreshes, it can be calm or bubbly and splashing, we are born from water, and we can drown in water—it means both life and death; God created from water, God saved the Israelites by bringing them through the water of the Red Sea. Water holds all of that meaning, and so your baptism can mean all of that to you. So may your baptism never stop speaking to you. It is as deep as the ocean.

•••••

Sermon: “Life for Others: A Service of Baptism and First Communion”

Matthew 28:16-20; Luke 24:13-35

This is a truly blessed Sunday in Easter, blessed by baptism and communion, by the fullness of the two sacraments that we recognize as a denomination, blessed by milestones of grace in the lives of three children—let me take advantage of the fact that Silas and Jessica are away this weekend—three of the most wonderful children we could ever ask for. And two of them we’ve only been blessed to know for a few months, but already they have changed us and blessed us. And this Sunday is blessed yet in one other way, for both me and you, by having a shortened sermon.

We are puzzled by these sacraments, aren’t we? We like them, I think; we like the symbol and the ritual of them. You realize very quickly as a parent that children just naturally love symbol and ritual. And that means human beings naturally love symbol and ritual; archeological evidence of our earliest human ancestors, some 40,000 years ago, shows that they buried the dead, at least, with symbol and ritual. And hardly anyone in the intervening 40,000 years ever thought twice about having symbol and ritual, although many people reinterpreted and reimagined symbols and rituals, perhaps none did this as remarkably and with such impact as Jesus and his first disciples. But something has happened to some of us adults in just the last several hundred years to turn symbol and ritual into something alien, odd, perplexing. And so over several centuries, we’ve made worship into a time during which you don’t do much of anything. You sit. You don’t move. You don’t say much. Singing is ok. But you mostly sit and listen, and you get a message. And it better be a clear message, one that you can understand and that is useful. We—not us here but mostly our ancestors—have worked hard to suck all the ritual and symbol out of worship—all the elements that imply we are up against a great mystery. God, apparently, is a being easily and concisely grasped.

Granted, not without good reason were our ancestors suspicious of ritual and symbol. Our longer church tradition bears responsibility here for abusing the power of its symbol and ritual. Communion or the Eucharist came to be understood as the church’s to dispense as it saw fit; and if the church withheld communion—the meaning of “excommunicate”—then you were no longer receiving God’s grace and your salvation was in peril. As if God’s grace is a literal substance to be dispensed; and as if God’s grace really belonged to the church. I’m not just talking about medieval Catholicism, unfortunately; our forefather Jonathan Edwards was in favor of withholding communion until churchgoers could demonstrate that they had had a proper conversion experience. If you demonstrated this, you received a token—maybe you’ve seen these in local museums—and you presented this token at the time of communion.

Well, even we have a kind of mandated class for our young people to go through for first communion. And it was a beautiful thing to see every Sunday, as I rushed up to my office, passing Liam and Lydia, and often some parents or friends sitting in too, sitting around the table in the “upper room” of the parish hall, being guided by Marion Mason who has led this first communion class with joy and sincerity over many years. It was a beautiful thing.

Now, we started a discussion last year about how to state our requirements for communion, a discussion I look forward to getting back to—sorry Dennis that I got distracted from it. I learned in my UCC Polity and History course recently that we take seriously the Reformation slogan: Reformed and Always Reforming! Thoughts have changed about communion since our last official statement on it, and so we should revisit the issue. But no one here really believes that this first communion class is about fulfilling requirements to receive communion. Communion is about God’s grace, which in essence is always freely given to all. And we’ve never denied anyone communion here. No tokens required. But that doesn’t mean we can’t designate opportunities to deepen our understanding of what we are doing and what our symbols mean when we take communion, and how receiving the bread and juice as the body and blood of Jesus should change our lives.

Unfortunately, as Paul knew, Law has its perils. Whenever we set up an age at which you can properly do something with official approval, we often fall into the delusion that once you have that approval, you are done. You’re good. You’ve learned it all. Once you turn 18 and graduate from high school, you are an adult. / Those of us who have continued to suffer serious lapses of judgment into our 20s, our 30s, our 40s (that’s as far as I can go, I don’t know about you), we “adults” realize how artificial our markers of maturity are. We come to realize that whatever the law says, we never stop being sinners and fools. I don’t know if you make fewer mistakes as you ‘mature,’ or if you just have fewer excuses to make for them. And who is going to claim that once you reach 21, you are not fully competent to responsibly consume alcohol.

So I hate to break it to Liam and Lydia, but in fact you are not done understanding the meaning of communion, and how your lives should change in response to this gift. But that’s not because you didn’t do well in class. It’s because none of us understands communion fully. If we did, we wouldn’t have to do it. Jesus said, “Do this.” He didn’t say, make sure you understand this. Kind of like the old Nike ad, “Just do it,” (in other words, don’t overthink it). Communion is not exhausted by our mental understanding of it, no more than you can replace a meal with just thinking about food. On the other hand, ( because I cannot preach a gospel of Nike, who is a pagan goddess after all), Jesus said “Do this in remembrance of me.” It is something we do towards remembering Jesus, towards understanding Jesus anew and keeping him as a part of our lives—a part as essential as food and drink. But we will never be done with the doing. And we will never be done with the symbol, the poetry, of: “This is my body”–certainly not by taking it literally. We will never be able to fully flatten out the poetry of communion into a message, so that we can finally say: it means this. This meal that is food at the same time as it is a covenant, the bread of presence, the blood of the Passover, the blood sprinkled on the people to ratify the covenant, the body broken for us—death, the blood spilled, yet still food and nourishment for life; the body that makes us into the body, we gathered as Christ’s continuing presence even as it was on the night he was betrayed—and are we not also betrayers? You have to learn to love the poetry, the symbol in all its ambiguity and disown the desire to flatten it out into something you can grasp and hold.

And is that not the message of the Road to Emmaus story in Luke? Jesus did teach his disciples on the road and made everything clear, although we aren’t given the details of that part, and the disciples do not recognize Jesus in his stunningly clear and useful—but still not short!—sermon. They recognize him not by what he says but by what he does. “He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” And then he vanishes from their midst, leaving them with the bread. Recall that the risen Christ told Mary, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” It is not for us to hold on to the Jesus who walked and talked with his disciples. It is not for us to grasp Jesus and have him in our minds, with nice clear words. Even his own disciples understood him only poorly. / In Bible study Tuesday, we had a fascinating conversation about whether it would be good if we had Jesus’ own writings, the way Muslims have the mostly reliable words of Mohammed, for instance. I thought no. Jesus is a living presence who cannot be grasped and fixed mentally in word by any fundamentalist. We must always actively—“do this”—seek him through the poetry of symbol as the created, limited bodies that we are. So even if this is your 500th communion—as it may indeed be for our 50 year members—it is still something we can all do as our first communion.

 

 

 

 

 

3rd in Easter (4/30): “Life for Others: Life Also for Me”

Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 1:17-23

In this Easter series, I am speaking of “Life for others” as the shape of Christian life. Now, I don’t think normally that we live too much for others; I don’t think  we are usually too selfless. It is easy in our culture to focus on yourself and to ignore others. But a total life for others sounds a little frightening. As a Christian, do I no longer have a life to myself anymore? Is life all for others? Our reading in Acts might make us wonder. It describes the heady days of the community among the first Christians. “Day by day, they spent much time together in the temple. they broke bread at home [which suggests that they were eating together in each other’s houses] and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” It sounds lovely, doesn’t it? We should all desire to have that kind of closeness as a community—and indeed, in some respects we do. But I skipped a line: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Hmm. That’s really lovely too. Imagine if we all sold our possessions and goods and shared the proceeds. Yeah. Still with me? This practice of sharing is picked up again in chapter four: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul”—that’s nice—“and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” (I thought I just heard purses being clutched a little more tightly.) It goes on to say that they sold everything and then laid the money at the Apostles’ feet. Yikes. And in chapter 5 we get the infamous story of Ananias and Saphira, a believing husband and wife who sell their property but keep back “some of the proceeds for themselves.” Do you know what supposedly happened to them? They fell dead at Peter’s feet.

No, this is not a stewardship lesson. This is horrifying. According to Act’s description of the early church, they practiced a kind of communism, abolishing private property. Acts has the first church really practicing what we’ve been calling life for others. And the beauty of it is, we are told, “There was not a needy person among them.” That’s really great; we could do more to emulate them in this regard. We could expand our use of the Deacons’ fund, for instance. But I don’t think we want God slaying some of us for holding back a little private property. (Maybe I’m wrong—are you ready to give up all your property?)

But why not? What could be more “life-for-others” than what Acts describes?  If we owe everything to God, as we say, why should we expect to have private property? Why shouldn’t we give it all up?

And let’s not talk just about property. The apostles and others in the community were sent out to preach the good news. It became their life. Paul worked a little on the side to support his ministry, which he did for free; and he could do this because he had no family or anything else going on. How much ministry are we doing? Like I said last week, a few of you put in incredible amounts of work for this church and in others forms of ministry. Most of us don’t. I don’t do my ministry here for free by working a little on the side. And unlike Paul I enjoy being married—fortunately to someone making more than I do. But none of us, I imagine, are avidly pursuing ministry the way Paul and the early disciples did. Well, why not? Is our Christian life not a life for others? Did the apostles not exemplify life for others? You know, we wouldn’t be here if they had not done this ministry; the church would not have expanded so rapidly and become a worldwide body of faith, extending well beyond its local Jewish roots, without this selfless work of apostles like Paul.

There is a genuine dilemma for us here that we need to dwell on. I believe it is a dilemma that helps us make sense of the cross—the suffering and death of Jesus. Now, usually we think of the cross as God’s answer to our personal sinfulness. Jesus had to die in order for God to forgive me. You will hear in our closing hymn a line to that effect. There may still be some insight in this way of thinking about the cross, but nowadays we pretty much assume that God is loving and merciful, and our sin is not so grave. Our need for forgiveness no longer poses the kind of great dilemma to which the cross is the clear answer.

In fact, for many UCC-type Christians, sin is no longer in our vocabulary. (A mistake, I think; but we need to think about sin in fresh ways.) Without sin, the cross is no longer very important. What matters is trying to inspire people to do more good works and to support the church—which is good. But I worry about losing the cross, and about perhaps getting so wrapped up in good works and social justice that we no longer can understand why we gather to worship—shouldn’t we just be out doing good things?

I think the dilemma that our Acts reading poses for us might help us get a better perspective on the cross. Again it was this: Why aren’t we sharing all our property? Why aren’t we subordinating everything else about our lives—our career and family and friends—to spreading the good news of Jesus Christ, like the first apostles did? It’s not impossible for us to do this, and I hope and pray that some of us will. But let’s face it, we don’t, and that’s our dilemma. If a Christian life is life for others, why do we get anything for ourselves? Jesus told his disciples: take up your cross and follow me. We’re not doing that, mostly. Sure, we obey the ten commandments, mostly. But why aren’t we sacrificing ourselves to others they way Jesus did? What gives us permission to disobey Jesus, and not take up our cross?

The simple answer is, God’s grace. God gives us permission to not sacrifice ourselves. Remember that before we are life for others, God is life for others, and Jesus is life for others—and that means life for me. I’ve thought a lot about this, and it seems to me that it is helpful to understand that much of our life is not horribly sinful, but just, for want of a better word, “natural.” Living for myself and those close to me is not so much sinful as natural. This is the created life we share with God’s creatures: be fruitful, and multiply. It’s not completely selfish, although of course it includes tending to my bodily and psychological needs. But almost no one devotes himself solely to himself. We enter into all kinds of relationships—with friends, lovers, parents, children—by which we yoke our own interests and desires with those of others, often giving up some our desires for the sake of others. And we enter or are born into communities and institutions that, if basic justice prevails, provide mutual benefit. I pay taxes and participate in our democratic governance, and the United States protects me and makes my peaceful and productive life possible. I work for my employer (that’s you, actually), and my employer pays me and gives me benefits. Sometimes these relationships are more just than others; sometimes individuals are selfish, and sometimes institutions are oppressive. But the basic principle is mutual benefit. That’s natural, and we see relationships like that among creatures in nature as well. /

What Jesus did on the cross was not natural. To give one’s life to God on behalf not of just your friends or your own children but on behalf of everyone—including those who are crucifying you—is not natural. It is supernatural. We usually think that supernatural stuff entails magical powers or defying the laws of physics; but with Jesus supernatural means above all that he goes above and beyond the law of human nature—that I’ll do something for you with the expectation that you will pay me back. I’ll live for others if others also live for me. But Jesus goes above and beyond that rule—infinitely. He gives up his life for all others, in all times, in all places, no matter what they have done for him. / We won’t get to the bottom of how Jesus does this today. Our reading in First Peter tells us that we were ransomed from our futile ways by the blood of Christ. It tells us that “through him you have come to trust in God…so that your faith and hope are set on God.”   But it doesn’t explain how that works very clearly.

Here’s one clue: It compares Jesus to a “lamb without defect or blemish.” The supernatural work of Jesus is his perfect self-giving for others, like a sacrificial Passover lamb by whose blood the Israelites were delivered. This self-giving of Jesus destines him for sharing in God: We are told that God “raised him from the dead and gave him glory,” which for us is the origin of our Easter faith. But the real origin of Jesus’ self-giving goes back to God’s eternal plan: “He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake.” Jesus’ perfect, supernatural self-giving has its source in God. God didn’t have to create the world. God wasn’t lonely or incomplete without creation. God is always, even now, absolute fulfillment and perfection, dwelling in eternity beyond all need and suffering. God is perfect, but sacrifices perfection to give life for others. God is infinite, but sacrifices infinity to give life to a finite world. God blesses a world that is chaotic and finite, where death and life are inseparably joined, so that life—even the imperfect variety, the kind that would inevitably sin—can be abundant. So God is the ultimate source of Jesus’ selflessness and sacrifice.

Now, we could all imitate Jesus, take up our cross, and give our lives completely away to others. We could give away all our property and devote our time completely to ministry. The perfection of God might even seem to demand this of us. But in this regard I believe the cross gives us this message: only Jesus Christ, because he was God in the flesh, was required to give himself up like this. We are not God. It is ok for us to be natural, not supernatural. It’s ok to be just creation—taking pleasure in fulfilling our needs, receiving our daily bread, enjoying friendship and family and lovers, being fruitful and multiplying. God created us for this. We human beings are still natural creatures. Jesus Christ took our human form to the limit, beyond the natural, so that we don’t have to; he took the cross so that we don’t have to.

But at the same time, Jesus shows us that it is possible for our human form to be supernatural. It is possible and beautiful and divine for us to be life for others without restriction or qualification. We do not need to do this in a self-sacrificing way; no one need ever literally give up his life to God for others again. We can participate in the supernatural life of Jesus while still living our natural lives.

Now, the natural response at this point is: how much? How much do I have to give up to God’s supernatural life for others, and how much do I get to keep to myself? I urge you not to rush to that question. It is easy for us to think that there must be some minimum requirement, something we must do to get our reward, rather than leaving everything to God’s grace. Our Christian traditional has unfortunately encouraged us to see salvation as an all-or-nothing game: if you do enough, you get it all—heaven—and if you do too little, you get worse than nothing. This way of thinking about salvation—which after all is a mystery that we do not understand—encourages us to return to what is in it for me. We end up always thinking in the back of our mind: am I doing enough to get into heaven?

Try this instead: God has by grace given you your natural life. God through Christ has not made you sacrifice this life; it is yours. God asks two things of us natural creatures: we should not sin, but treat each other justly, honoring our commitments to mutual benefit. And we should receive this natural life as a gift from God. God could demand our life of us, but does not, by grace through Christ. And of course we live our natural life on borrowed time. But as long as we have it, and if no one is oppressing us, it is ours.

All of us live this natural life. But it is, in the words of First Peter, ultimately futile. It is finite and limited. The good it achieves is limited and ending. The justice it achieves is partial and local. It is not bad, but futile. First Peter does not say Christ ransomed us from sin; it says “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors.” In other words, Christ has liberated us and called us, the church, to participate in his supernatural life, a life for others without qualification. We are all living this supernatural life, all sharing in it. This is God’s life, and by sharing in it we are living eternal life. None of us is giving up our natural life completely, but all of us are living it, even just by acknowledging God’s grace in Christ and by praying for others. And we live this supernatural life in many other small ways, like giving to our denomination and supporting its worldwide ministry of peace and justice. We do not each have our own individual portion of this eternal life. That’s how we sometimes think: am I saved? Are you saved? No: our eternal life is in Christ, and we the body of Christ all share in it together. And that makes sense. Life for others can’t be mine exclusively; it means always going out of myself. It has to be shared.

So salvation or eternal life is not all or nothing. Only Christ’s life was all for others; we share in that life by the work we do together, by worship, and by uniting ourselves to Christ through baptism and communion. On the other hand, none of us has nothing; we all have our natural life as a gift from God, and we participate in this supernatural life through the church as much as we feel called.

And that’s the key. You shouldn’t have to anxiously deciding how much of your life to devote to God and to the church. This isn’t some bill you have to pay, some sacrifice you have to make until it hurts. Sometimes we do suffer when we live life for others, but that’s because of the sin of the world. But our participation in Christ’s eternal life, life for others without price, is itself a gift from God, not a tough decision you have to make. If it isn’t inspired and joyful—although joyful does not mean painless—then it isn’t life for others without qualification, it is life for yourself in disguise, masquerading as charity or duty or obligation to your community or whatever. Don’t confuse genuine, supernatural life for others with natural life consisting of exchanges and contracts. The love that we have in our Christian life for others is far above the love that we have in our exclusive, mutual agreements, even if there are some similarities. First Peter tells us that keeping this supernatural life for others pure and holy is the key to real Christian love: “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.” Let it be so.

 

2nd in Easter (4/23): “Life for Others: Life in His Name”

Scripture: 1 Peter 1:3-9 ; John 20:19-31

Our seven-part Easter series—remember that Easter is seven weeks long!—is called “Life for others.” I chose the phrase to describe what we are all about here. I like it, because you can in three words describe what we are about without reference to any obscure belief in Jesus or even God. Of course, I love those obscure and mysteriously beautiful doctrines of Christian faith. But as we say, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. So it makes sense to start as openly as we can. But as we go on, we’ll see just how essential the story of God and Jesus are to this life for others. And we’ll discover more and more meanings to the phrase “life for others.” It means first of all that I do not live for myself, I live for others and out of love for others. But it also means that we are for each other; we love one another and give life to one another. And as one loving body our church is also life for others, working to extend our love and provide abundant life for others. Life for others does not mean no life for myself; it does not mean I work myself to death for others. Jesus alone can be said to be life for others in this sense, as we will see. Because Jesus completes and perfects life for others, we are first of all recipients of life, before we are givers. And at the foundation of all life for others is God. Let’s suppose that all our knowledge about who and what God is might be uncertain; but we can still define God this way: God is life for others, life for those who are not God, life for us.

We’ll have to be wary of common misunderstandings as we go. It’s not that God will be for us if we are for others. It’s not a quid pro quo. We are only life for others in response to God, not out of some deal with God. Why? Well on one hand, our relationship of faith in God amounts to much less than a deal. We don’t get to bargain with God. We don’t name our price. Of course, we submit our petitions to God in prayer, our joys and concerns. We can and should ask God to do things for us. But there is no negotiation. Some imagine that God rewards his faithful with protection from all harm and maybe with prosperity, romance, success, fun.   That’s what some imagine when they hear First Peter say that God “has given us…an inheritance…kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith.” That’s what they imagine; then sometimes they lose faith when life doesn’t go so well. But the relationship to God by faith is not a protection racket with the ultimate strong man. If we just attend to Jesus briefly, we see that this can only be a misunderstanding. God did not protect his own son from all the vulnerabilities of human flesh. God did not grant Jesus peace and success and prosperity and unadulterated good times. God vindicated Jesus as God has vindicated no other, but did not spare him dreadful sorrow and suffering. Why should we expect God to spare us from our human vulnerability? Consider Paul; Paul describes his service as including: “Great endurance, …afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger…” etc. Faithful service to God is no picnic. Why should we expect an easy, carefree life instead of persecution for the sake of the Gospel? (Indeed, we probably should wonder why we haven’t made more enemies for the sake of the Gospel.) So if we suffer it is not a sign that God has failed to keep some bargain; it may be a sign that we are being faithful. But we don’t with our faith buy God’s protection from all harm.

On the other hand, our relationship of faith to God is much more than a deal or a quid pro quo. God is irrevocably for us, and for others. We can’t mess that up. If we had a deal with God, we could fail to carry out our end of the bargain; indeed, we would certainly fail, because God doesn’t miss anything. But God has shown himself to be for us in Jesus Christ, once and forever. That’s why Peter exclaims: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfailing….” By faith we can see that this inheritance is so much more than protecting us from suffering. Sure, God can act to save us from disease and even death—remember Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead? But Jesus did this to direct people to the eternal life that we have in union with Jesus even though we suffer. Lazarus would die again. But Jesus told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” By faith in Christ we come to believe that God is for others, for us. God is life for others, for us.

But we’re not ready to think through how it is that Jesus’ death and resurrection shows us that God is life for others—our life. That will come later. For now, for the benefit of those of us (that’s all of us) whose grasp on Christ and the cross is a little shaky, let’s focus on what we can see and experience first-hand. Our life as Christians is a life for others. Maybe you don’t feel personally that your life is for others. I don’t feel like my life is for others; in some ways it is, since I’m a minister of the gospel, but then again I am making a living off of my ministry, which ruins my bragging rights. Instead, look at some of the great servants in this church. There are people here who work tirelessly for the church—for our ministry, our missions, our young people. There are those among us who have adopted people who needed help as their own family members. Dennis has had two guys he met on the street living with him who were going through detox and needed a place to feel safe. I gather this is no picnic. These great servants among us are not doing it because God is dangling a reward out in front of them. And they are not doing it because they are just goody-goody types who are naturally sweethearts. If you know them well enough to know their great deeds, then you probably know their faults also. (Dennis, I’m going to go to you once more as the perfect example.) Rather, they are great servants because God is life for others, and this life for others has become the shape of their life by the grace of God. They and we find joy in being life for others, in bringing life to others.

It’s this life for others that is the only true and abiding source of life for this church. This is our imperishable inheritance. If we think that our inheritance lies in having the classiest piece of architecture in town, or in carrying on a vaunted historical legacy in the town of Granby, or in being the place where everybody who is anybody in town comes to be seen, then our inheritance will be death. If we instead, as a church, practice life for others—and again that includes for strangers, for each other, and for God—then we will live in God, because through life for others we have “a new birth into a living hope.” I believe people are searching for an authentic life for others. Everyone knows that this is the right and true shape of life. Everyone knows that life based on selfishness is empty and false. And on Earth Day weekend, we should recall that life based on selfishness is destroying life on this planet.  And everyone knows that life that is only for some but against others is a denial of our one humanity let alone of the one God over us all. Everyone knows this; and even those who try to believe that human beings are naturally selfish or tribal are clearly wrong. Life for others is in fact deeply natural. Nature is never either wholly selfish nor against others, even when creatures prey on others for their own survival while protecting their own. Because in earth’s natural systems, everything depends on an integrated and balanced system within which species depend on one another. In this way, nature is always life for others, and all creatures are living for others, even if they are unaware of doing so. We children of God are called to live a higher way, to be knowingly for others, and not a lower one—knowingly for ourselves. If we are life for others, people will be drawn to us.

Everyone believes in life for others, but some try to deny it. Indeed, our world promotes and encourages people to deny it. It’s so easy for people to fall into a a steely, macho cynicism that masquerades as “realism.” And then they challenge us: “Life for others is for suckers,” they say. “You have to be tough in this life, or people just take advantage of you. People don’t respect weakness, only strength. Real men live for themselves; namby-pambies live for others.” (That’s my best macho imitation, I’m afraid; not very convincing, I know.)

I suppose their way of thinking is not all wrong. It might apply to a caricature of liberal Christians who believe that everyone is really very good, including ourselves, we just need some love and acceptance and we’ll give as good as we get. The Bible of course says nothing like that; it takes the sinfulness of the world very seriously. But unlike the tough guyz, the Bible makes us look at our own sinfulness first, before the sin of those others out there. And the Bible only considers sin in light of the love which God has for us and which God commands us to show ourselves and others. The tough guyz, however, use the sin of others to justify hatred and disregard for them. But by baptizing themselves in the bloody water of hatred and sin, they only ensure the perpetuation of death for others.

I find nothing attractive or life-giving in tough guy cynicism. And whatever accuracy their criticism of an extreme liberal version of Christianity, they don’t understand the gospel of Jesus at all. But what our reading in John’s Gospel shows us is that the life for others that the risen Lord Jesus is bequeathing to his disciples is not at all weak or namby-pamby. To be sure, when the reading begins, the disciples are huddled together in fear. “The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews,” that is, the leaders in Jerusalem. The disciples were afraid, reasonably so, that the authorities would come after them next. Now, they, like us, had already heard from Mary that Jesus was alive. And two of them had seen the empty tomb themselves. But they hadn’t personally received the Spirit yet.

Jesus suddenly came and stood among them. (How did he get through the locked doors? you might wonder.) He greets them and shows them his wounds. The story doesn’t explain why that was important. Did Jesus have to reassure them that he was alive despite what he had gone through? That the wounds and piercings were indeed very real, very deadly, but even so not enough to defeat God’s chosen? That, like we were just saying, the Bible takes sin and its destructive power very seriously, but only in the light of God’s love and indeed, God’s victory over it?

Then Jesus greeted them again and added: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And he breathed on them [breathe] and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Now first, the word spirit in both Greek and Hebrew means the same thing as breath and is associated with the breath of God. God breathed his spirit or breath into Adam, you may recall. God’s Spirit is simply God’s power, that which makes God’s will active and alive in us; the Spirit is God’s life for others. But we have to take Jesus’ two actions together to see their significance. He breathes into them the Holy Spirit, and also says that he is sending them as God sent him. Now, in the Gospel of John, Jesus over and over again says that he was sent by the Father to bring knowledge of God and with that knowledge, a call to decision. Jesus does not come as a judge. He brings the truth about God and shows people the Father, and they judge themselves by their reaction. From John 3:17: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned, but those who do not believe in him are condemned already, because they have not believed…. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Jesus does many signs and wonders, but they are all just meant to call attention to the truth and knowledge of God that he brings. And it’s this knowledge of what God is like and his ability to show that to others that makes Jesus a partaker in God’s being, so that he can say: “I and the Father are one.” That breakthrough by which Jesus definitively shows the world who God is / can never be repeated or exceeded: Jesus is unique, the only begotten Son.

But look what he just did. He shares his spirit with the disciples, and sends them as he was sent by God. He is making them partakers in God’s own life, God’s truth, God’s power, as he himself partakes in God. He is investing them with divine authority. And that’s why he adds that shocking and befuddling statement (that no one at Bible study could figure out at all—talk about blank stares, when I asked them what it means): “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

So, first of all, who forgives or refuses to forgive sins besides God? ….Well, we do, apparently. We are being given divine authority. We are now the judges of the world. This theme is found in the other gospels, like Luke 22, where Jesus tells his disciples, “You will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” This is not namby-pamby life for others, where we let people walk all over us. We are the judges of the world. /But that doesn’t mean exactly what you might think or fear it means. We aren’t swaggering judges who get to impose life or death on people depending on how we feel. Of that sense of judgment, Jesus said in John 8, “I judge no one.” Rather, like Jesus we are now entrusted and empowered with the truth about God, and we simply present it to the world in word and deed, and they judge themselves. So Jesus doesn’t mean that we forgive sins or not, depending on whether we are feeling generous or fancy a particular person. In John, sin all comes down to believing in the truth when it is made plain, or not believing. The truth about God is self-empowering. For our purposes it means this: We show the world what life for others looks like. Some will believe in it, even if they don’t understand what Jesus has to do with that. Some will reject it deliberately, saying, “Who needs that? I’d rather look out for number one.” John tells us that Jesus’ opponents “loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God.”

Life for others is the shape of the Christian life; the phrase is just another way to describe love. The rightness of life for others should be self-evident to us and to everyone. But it’s not, because the world prefers untruth. So the first thing that Jesus teaches us about life for others is that it is not weak and meek, timid and submissive: it is mighty and bold. It gives those who practice it divine power and authority. In those three simple words, and by living them out, we have the truth, against which the world will never prevail. So, have compassion and mercy on those who dwell in falsehood, but do not for one second envy them. Do not doubt this mighty truth we have been given. But believe, as our reading concluded, “that through believing you may have life in his name.”