Sermon for Sixth Sunday in Easter 2020
Acts 17:22-31 Psalms 66:7-18 I Peter 3:13-22 John 14:15-21
Two dog owners are arguing about whose dog is smarter. The first owner says, “My dog is so smart, that every morning he goes to the store and buys me a sesame-seed bagel with chive cream cheese, stops at Starbucks and picks up a mocha latte, and then comes home and turns on ESPN, all before I get out of bed.” “I know,” says the second owner. “How do you know?” asks the first owner. “My dog told me.”
Talk about unrealistic expectations. First Peter seems to be calling us to an unrealistic standard. “Do not be afraid of those who want to harm you.” Really? “Do not get upset”? On one hand we understand this standard, but when push comes to shove, is it doable? Of course, for Jesus it was. But we are surely not Jesus. The point of this text is not to put distance between Jesus and the reader, between us, but to do the opposite – to help us grow closer to being able to live like Jesus in our own lives.
We may not want to live like Jesus, as his life was filled with scorn, mockery, violence and misunderstanding. However, we who believe Jesus to be the most complete revelation of the nature of God’s love, and those who seek to make that love known in our lives, can look to Jesus as the model. The question floating around our heads, is how? How does the reading allow us to grow closer to living a life like Jesus, when it so easily sets an unreachable standard that only Jesus can meet?
The end of the text draws our attention to baptism. The process of growing closer to living a life like Jesus begins with the recognition of the meaning of our baptism. Our baptism represents the notion that before anything else, God loved us. What came first in each of our lives was a love from God, which is unaffected by whether or not we choose to respond to or recognize that love. God loves us and wants to be in relationship with us – period. We may not feel it. Some may not want it. Others choose to ignore it and keep busy with their lives. Whatever we feel, God’s love endures. It is good to remember that the purpose of baptism is not conversion: “Because God loves us first, we need to love God back.” Baptism is an invitation to perceive our lives through a new lens, from a perspective that is broader than our own limited assessment of ourselves.
The lens is God, whose assessment of our hopes and dreams, gifts and value is positive, so positive that Jesus was willing to die for us. To begin to see our lives, our value, our worth through God’s lens, is to begin to free ourselves from our false selves. To free us from believing we are who we created ourselves to be. To begin to embrace who God has created us to be. To see our true selves – our God-created selves. To begin to see ourselves as first and foremost loved by God, whether we deserve it or not, is to begin to widen our spiritual, emotional, and intellectual horizons, to see beyond those things that oppress us here and now. Rather than being consumed by suffering, we are rejuvenated by the recognition of a larger purpose, a connection to God.
In this way, we enable ourselves to grow closer to living as Jesus did – to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to love those who torment us, to lift up in prayer those who seek to tear us down. In this way, we build up our confidence in God – to trust God’s plan for each of us. The more able we are to reveal our confidence in God through proper choices, the more closely we grow to living like Jesus, whose entire life was a picture of living confidently in God.
The last portion of First Peter deals with being obedient. The call to obey has existed for many, many years; it goes back to Adam and Eve, who didn’t obey God. The word “obey” in Hebrew and Greek means to listen closely, to listen acutely. God is saying, “Listen closely to me.” What made Jesus so great was that he listened so closely to God, which led him to serve and to love humanity in radical and selfless ways. By talking about obedience, the author is trying to awaken in us the desire to listen closely to God, to listen to God in a way that reveals our confidence in God. He encourages our story to be about listening, following, trusting, loving and serving. To live this way is to grow closer to living as Jesus did.
In the Gospel reading, the tiny word “in” strikes a heavy note. It seems it shouldn’t matter all that much, but it does. Here is Jesus promising to be “in” the people who keep his commandments, his earliest disciples, and also promising that his disciples will be “in” him. So, we are here, we who may think of ourselves as heirs to those disciples. Maybe we are wondering about Jesus being in us, too. The key is the Advocate, the Paraclete, the Spirit of truth, who Jesus promised will be with them – with us – forever. In Greek, “paraclete” means “one who has been called to our side” to stand up for us, and to explain us to the court. Think of a trial attorney and you will understand a force on the move. It’s easy for us to hear “Holy Spirit” and immediately think of warm, personal feelings – feelings of security, and connection with God. We get comfort from this when our world seems to spin out of control.
Jesus calls the Spirit another Advocate. Jesus was the first Advocate for us. Jesus was definitely a force on the move. Think of his meals with outcasts and sinners. Think of the healing and preaching. The travels between Galilee and Jerusalem. The story of Jesus is not a story of private feelings and comfort, but of action.
This Advocate, Jesus promises, will be “with us….in us.” Jesus himself will be “in” the disciples, as he is “in the Father” and as the disciples will be “in” him. Is it enough to imagine some kind of mystical union? Is the indwelling of Christ, or the Spirit of truth like a sense of warmth or a feeling of confidence? Is it an abstract notion or a state of grace?
When Jesus stands in front of Pilate to answer the “truth question,” we see the truth standing there. Watch Jesus and we will find out what truth is. We can’t see the Spirit, but we can see Jesus. We can see him healing and teaching and dying in his faithfulness. In the Gospel, we see Jesus operating in community, with his disciples and with others he serves. Jesus is present and active with groups of people – real people who sometimes struggle just to get along and who at other times enjoy sharing their successes, their hopes, and their questions. Sounds a little like us these days.
So, when Jesus promises to be “in” his disciples, and promises that they will be “in” him, it seems clear that he is promising more than mystical union with people. Everything we know about Jesus suggests someone operating as an active presence in a community. Could this help lead us to dwell less on ourselves, our own worthiness and focus our energy, our gifts on an active life of faithful service?
To better understand today’s readings that joins love and obedience, we must first think of love as more than a feeling. Feelings are not commanded, but love can be, for to love is to be there for another person, to act for another’s good, to do things that benefit others. This devotion is more than liking a person. To love obediently is to submit to God’s call, and even if loving costs dearly, as God’s love did. By placing love and obedience at the beginning of this passage, it is clear that the promises offered are for those who love and act obediently.
In these verses, the presence of the Spirit and the presence of Christ in the church are not clearly differentiated. Whatever the distinctions between, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the fact remains that “God with us,” “Christ with us,” or “Spirit with us” are for the church promises of power, guidance, and comfort without which the church cannot live faithfully.
Eastertide is the celebration of hope over despair. The tomb from which Jesus rises is the one we call our hearts. How are our hearts? Is hope, life, Jesus, dead or alive in our hearts now? What would it take for us to rise? The world depends on the Christ rising in each of us as much as it ever did on the opening of the tomb in Jerusalem. Hope is the certainty that what God must do, God will do – provided we do our parts to enable the process. So we can courageously invite folks into a conversation about God. Jesus not only claims that God’s love is true; he also claims that God’s love is the source of life. This love is both the source of our lives and the goal of our lives. It’s time for us to get busy! Amen.