The Spirit of Christmas Past

Series: The Spirit of Christ

#2: The Spirit of Christmas Past*

Matthew 11:2-6  (NRSV)

It was a cold and dreary Christmas Eve in London.  A crotchety old “humbug” of a man came home from his counting house having worked late into the evening.  He made his way through the dark and dank rooms of his house to his upstairs bedroom, and settled down to eat his Christmas dinner, a bowl of gruel.  There was no Christmas cheer for Ebenezer Scrooge.  While the rest of Christendom celebrated, Scrooge sulked.  The coming of Christ meant only a business day wasted, and the loss of profits.  This Christmas would be no different from all the others,  he would suffer through the holiday again, locking himself away in his cell until all the wasteful frivolity had passed.  As he sat there in the gloomy prison of his own making, he resigned himself to his fate.

Of course, I’m describing that wonderful Christmas classic, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.  Our sermons during this Advent and Christmas take their inspiration from the story that Dickens published way back in 1843, a parable of the transformation that the Advent of Christ can make in us when we allow the Spirit of Christmas to work his magic in our hearts.  It reminds us that, no matter how spiritually dead we may be, by the power of God’s grace, we can be born again to a new resurrected life,  an abundant life that is ours when Christ comes to live within us.

Last Sunday, we reflected on this hope that a new life is possible as we focused on the visit by the fearful ghost of Jacob Marley. We took heart that the hope he offered to Scrooge, is also offered to us.  But key to Scrooge’s transformation would be the visits of three Spirits of Christmas: The Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.  And, if we are to experience a Christmas transformation in our lives, we too will be confronted by the visits of three Spirits.  During these remaining Sundays of Advent, we will reflect on our own Spirits of Christmas:  Past, Present, and Future – Christ came in the past, Christ still comes to us in the present, and Christ will come again in the future.  Until we are able to affirm those three truths, our lives cannot experience transformation.  But when we have accepted the message of these three “spirits,” we can receive the joy and abundant life Jesus offers us.  Our “humbugs” will be transformed into “hallelujahs!”

So, this morning let us consider “The Spirit of Christmas Past.”

I’m sure everyone here in worship today can accept the historical fact that Christ has come in the past.  We all are familiar with the biblical story of how Jesus was born some 2000 years ago.  Even secular people don’t question the reality that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that he preached throughout Israel, and finally died at the hands of the Romans.  The fact is that lots of people who are not active Christians would even go so far as accept the claim that the baby born to Mary was actually the Son of God, the Messiah that for centuries the Jews had been waiting for.  They might even go so far as to say that Jesus rose from the dead.  Yet for some reason, in spite of all those claims, they still fail to live the faith they profess.

But, as professing Christians, we believe.  Don’t we?  We say we do, we profess it with our creeds, we sing it in our hymns and carols, we call ourselves Christians.  Over and over during these weeks of Advent and Christmas, we will declare our faith that Jesus is indeed the Messiah God has sent into the world to save us from our sins and offer us eternal life,  that he is our Emmanuel, the very presence of God with us. As good Christians, our faith in Jesus is unshakable.  Isn’t it?

Or is it?  If there is anything A Christmas Carol teaches us, it is that we ought not to be too smug about our claims to unwavering faith.  We can claim to have faith, but when something happens in lives that calls our faith into question, we can become cynical and even reject our faith.

I suspect that was what had happened to Ebenezer Scrooge.  No doubt, he had been exposed to Christianity in his early years, and may have even at one time considered himself a “Christian.” But somewhere along the way, things happened that soured his faith,  episodes in his life that the Spirit of Christmas Past wanted to reveal to him.  Scrooge had become a jaded Christian.  And that’s why he chose to spend “the most joyous night of the year” alone at home, brooding, sitting in the dark.

If we are honest, you and I have to admit that there is a dark side to our Christmas faith, as well.  We may have faith in public, or when life is going well,  in good times it’s easy to accept the claim that Jesus is the Christ and be joyful. But then, something happens that causes us to doubt our own faith.  When trials and tribulations come into our lives, we begin to question whether Jesus is who he claims to be, or if he actually is a fraud playing a cruel joke on us,  an imposter of a Messiah, not able to deliver on his promises.  The Season proclaims hope, peace, love, and joy, but we don’t feel it.  Instead, we feel imprisoned by circumstances, anxious and fearful.  There is no Christmas cheer for us.

Now, don’t be so smug, you know there are times in our lives when the claims of the Christmas story are a little hard for us to swallow.  In the secret places of your heart, maybe you’re feeling that way today.  We’re told to be cheerful,  we WANT to be cheerful.  But we’re not.  Perhaps you can identify with Scrooge’s dark and somber disposition. Perhaps, for you, Christmas is just one big “humbug.”

Of course, if we were feeling that way, none of us would have the nerve to admit it,  at least not at church. We’d hide it from the preacher; we’d hide it from our friends and family. We’d even try to hide it from God.  To admit our doubts would be tantamount to blasphemy.

But there was one person of outstanding faith who had the audacity to question whether Jesus was who he claimed to be,  a person whose faith seemed to be unshakable.

As you must have already guessed from this morning’s scripture, I’m speaking of John the Baptist.  John the Baptist was the one God sent to announce to the world that God had finally come through, that he had sent the world a Savior, the long-awaited Messiah.  And John was faithful in carrying out his mission.

You’ll recall that it was John the Baptist who baptized Jesus and witnessed the heavens opening, and heard the voice of God announce, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  It was John who directed his disciples that they ought to begin to follow Jesus instead of him, saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  Yes, John seemed to have an unshakable faith in Jesus as the Christ.

Until he landed in Herod’s prison, that is.  As he sat in Herod’s dungeon, doubts began to creep into to John’s mind.  He began to question whether or not he had been right about Jesus.  Could it be that he was about to sacrifice his life based on a case of mistaken identity?  Not John’s identity, but Jesus’!

You see, since that day he baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, John had devoted his ministry to announcing to the world that God had finally sent the Messiah.  Do you remember the boldness of his declaration?  He proclaimed: “Even now the axe is being laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire…  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  That’s who John expected the Messiah to be, one who would come on like gang-busters, using his divine authority to mete out judgment against the kingdoms of this world, and usher in the reign of God.

Yes, John was sure of his words.  Therefore, he was willing to risk everything,  even putting his very life on the line, betting that Jesus was the one who would fulfill that prophecy.

But the problem was that Jesus wasn’t acting much like a Messiah. Like most Jews, John may have longed for a nationalistic Messiah, a savior of the oppressed Jewish people. This Messiah would call the people back to faithfulness to God, and then rally them to throw off the yoke of Roman oppression.  He would usher in a new era of greatness for God’s people.  But Jesus wasn’t fulfilling his expectations.

Rev. Patricia Gillespie was an Episcopal priest in Minnesota, who passed away in 2014.  In her wonderful sermon entitled “Are You the One?” (that inspired much of my message today), she describes how John might have been feeling:

“I kind of think John saw himself as a blocker in a football game — a blocker for the running back — the Messiah.  John was clearing the way through the defense, the obstacles, opening up a path for the Messiah to score a victory over the enemy. John had made some beautiful blocks… preaching his heart out, baptizing until he was waterlogged, even sacrificing his BODY blocking for the Messiah.”

“But John looks back and the Messiah doesn’t even seem to be running. Indeed, Jesus appears to have stopped and is helping some injured players, who are not even on his team!  That’s not what the Messiah should be doing! Should he?  Today’s gospel lesson finds John behind bars. He might be thinking, God, where did I go wrong? I did what I thought you wanted. I said what I thought you wanted me to say. You told me that the Messiah was coming. But where is he?”

“’Where’s the fire, the axe, the judgment he’s supposed to bring? And why, if he’s here, would he let me stay in this place? I thought I knew my cousin pretty well. I remember that day in the Jordan when I baptized him, what a glorious day. God, your whole plan was being put into play. But where is he now? Why isn’t he doing what I said he would do? Is he really the one or should I look for another?’”

As he sat in chains John began to ask, “What if I had been wrong?”  He was about to lose his head (literally), and he wanted to make certain that his martyrdom would be worth the price.  He had to find out.

So, from his prison cell, he sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask a question that must have cut Jesus to the quick;  “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Ouch!

I think we can all identify with the question John puts to Jesus. It’s one each of us have asked from time to time.  That’s because we all have invested a lot in our faith that Jesus is the Christ.  We have made sacrifices to remain true to our convictions.  We sometimes have risked a great deal for Jesus.  But life has turned hard, and we begin to doubt.  And so, like John, as we sit in our own prisons of circumstance, we may feel like asking Jesus, “Are you really the One, or should I look for someone else to save me?”

*This holiday season finds many people feeling like John might have:  imprisoned, wondering to themselves, “Are you the One, Jesus? Can you speak to me in my prison? Behind my bars of pain? Are you the One? Or should we look for another?”

Many people find themselves in a prison called loneliness this time of year:  Military personnel serving far from home, retirees far from families up north, families broken by divorce or separation, shut-ins, even those with family and friends, but who strangely feel very much alone.  Lonely people often think nobody cares about what they need or think. Well-meaning people ask, “How are you doing?” But don’t really want to take the time to listen to the answer. It seems that no one cares. In loneliness it’s easy to wonder if even God cares.

Are you the One, Jesus? Can you help us cut through these prison bars of loneliness? Or should we look for another?

Others find themselves imprisoned in a fortress of fear at Christmas: fear about the future, fear for their families, fear for their own health and well-being. John the Baptist must have felt fear as he waited day after day for word of his own fate.  Or imagine the fear for the family whose main wage earner has just lost his or her job!  What’s this going to do to the family?  What about the future?  It could be a lean Christmas for a family in that situation.

Are you the One, Jesus? Can you help us face and overcome our fears? Or should we look for another?

Christmas finds many people locked in prisons of grief; the loss of a parent, a grandparent, a child, sibling, or friend;  a husband or wife who’s died during the year and won’t be here for the holiday.  Can the light of Christmas penetrate such deep darkness? How can Christmas ever be the same?

Are you the One, Jesus? Can you bring light into this darkest of prison cells? Or should we look for another?

John the Baptist sent some of his followers to Jesus, to ask this same question: Are you the one? And, basically, Jesus said, “Look around you at the evidence, and decide for yourselves. What does the evidence show?”

Have the blind received sight?  Remember the blind man Jesus met on the road?  Making a paste from the dust in the road, Jesus touched his eyes and his vision returned.  Ask that man, “Is he the One?” And ask the millions of others who have been blind to the truth about themselves and about God, but who’ve found that Jesus opened their eyes.  Ask them, “Is he the One?”

Have the lame walked? Go and ask the man whose friends lowered him through the roof on a mat before Jesus because the man was paralyzed.  Ask him, if you can catch up with him, “Is he the One?” And ask the thousands whose feet never seemed strong enough to stay on the right paths, but in Jesus have found the strength to turn around and walk with God.  Ask them, “Is he the One?”

Have the prisoners been released? Ask that dying thief beside Jesus on the cross, who that very day knew paradise.  Ask him, “Is he the One?” And ask the countless numbers who have found Jesus to be the liberator from the prison of drugs, greed, loneliness, and fear. Ask them, “Is he the One?”

But what of that greatest fear, that great prison?  What of death?  Matthew, who wrote the gospel our text comes from, would encourage us to ask the father whose daughter had died, who heard those simple words, “Little one, arise.”  Ask that father, “Is he the One?” And ask all those who have received in Jesus a resurrection from the dead, an abundant life, a new beginning. Ask them how much difference it makes facing death when the One who rose from the dead promises eternal life to all who believe in him. Ask them, “Is he the One?”

Are you the One, Jesus?  Can you speak to us behind our thick prison walls this Christmas?  Can you give strength to our feet?  Sight to our eyes?  Hope to our hearts?  Wholeness to our brokenness?  Life to our death?  Are you the One, Jesus?

Jesus assured John by telling him to consider the evidence.  John was right that Jesus is the Messiah – he was just mistaken about the kind of Messiah Jesus came to be.  All that talk of “axes laid to the root of the trees, and burning the chaff in unquenchable fire” is a little premature. That will occur in the future, at Christ’s Second Coming.  But for now, the Messiah has come to liberate all those who are in prisons of despair,  to shine light on those who sit in dark dungeons of doubt,  to give hope to all those who have given up all hope.

So, take heart Ebenezer Scrooge.  Because Christ has come, there is hope, even for you.

*Note: Large portions of the material and ideas for this message (especially from the * on) come from an excellent sermon by Rev. Patricia Gillespie who was rector of the East Range Episcopal Churches of the Diocese of Minnesota. Http://www.speravi.com/church/river.htm  Rev. Gillespie died in 2014.  This (my) sermon was preached first in 2009 while Rev. Gillespie was living and I communicated with her asking for her permission to draw from and quote her sermon.  She graciously gave permission.  I offer this sermon in gratitude and tribute to her life and ministry.

The Spirit of Christmas Foretold

Sermon Series: The Gospel according to Scrooge

#1:  The Spirit of Christmas Foretold

Isaiah 8:20 – 9:3a  (NLT)

This morning is the first Sunday of Advent as we prepare ourselves to receive Christ once again. Year after year, we need to be reminded that, in order for our faith to be genuine, we must constantly be open to welcoming Jesus into our world and into our lives.  It’s also a time when we are reminded of the transformation Christ makes in our lives when we invite him to dwell in our hearts and in our midst.

That’s why, for our Advent and Christmas season this year, our sermons will be inspired by the most beloved Christmas story found outside of the Scriptures.  No Christmas story is more adored, or illustrates the impact Christ’s advent can make on our lives better than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Why has this story about that old curmudgeon named Ebenezer Scrooge become so venerated by generations – so much so that it doesn’t seem like Christmas unless we’ve watched one of the many tellings of the story on film?  I think it is because, we instinctively recognize Christian values and truths that are woven throughout this story.  It is something of a parable that explains the meaning of Christ’s coming in ways all of us can understand.

Many people don’t realize it, but Charles Dickens was a devout Christian.  Even though he was never overt in writing about his faith, all throughout his books and stories Christian principles are held up as the standard we are to live by.  In fact, on the night before his death in 1870, Charles Dickens wrote this in a letter to a friend:  “I have always striven in my writings to express veneration for the life and lessons of our Savior.”

Nowhere is this more clear than in his little book, A Christmas Carol. Hidden in the story are deep insights and truths about the meaning of Christ’s coming, and the impact the advent of Christ has on the hearts of individuals.  There have been countless retellings of this beloved story.  It’s been adapted by the Muppets and cartoon characters.  It’s been turned into stage plays and musicals.  It’s been set in other times and places, in children’s books and television specials.  And of course, there have been multiple movies made of this Dickens tale – it seems that a new one comes out every Christmas season. Even non-Christians and unbelievers have fallen in love with this story of the transformation that is possible when the Spirit of Christ breaks into our lives.

It could be argued that Charles Dickens should be considered one of the most effective evangelists who have ever lived – especially in today’s world where the vast majority of people seldom darken the doors of a church.  Through his story, the seed of the Gospel is planted in unsuspecting hearts, that by God’s grace, may one day grow.  That’s why I have decided that we would spend our Christmas season reflecting on the Spirit of Christmas as seen through the lens of Dickens’ story.  This morning, we will consider “the Spirit of Christmas: Foretold.”

In the Peanuts cartoon strip, Snoopy is sometime depicted as a frustrated author, hoping to write the next great American novel.  There he sits atop his doghouse with an old manual typewriter.  And do you recall the first line of his novel? “It was a dark and stormy night…”

It’s amazing how often authors set their stories in darkness, or in the midst of storms, as if to underscore the seriousness of the drama that is unfolding.  Dickens certainly does this in his novel. For it is in Scrooges’ dark and gloomy bedroom that he is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley to warn Scrooge that unless he changes his ways, he too will end up in eternal chains.  Such a gloomy and even frightening scene – it seems an odd choice for a Christmas story.   But in fact, it was perfect – because the darkness of Scrooges house reflects the darkness of Scrooges soul.

Our scripture text from Isaiah speaks of spiritual darkness, as well.  This passage is one of many examples from Jewish scripture that foretell the coming of the Messiah.  There are dozens of Old Testament passages that point to the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  But our scripture for this morning is probably among the most famous and most important of those prophecies.

Isaiah prophesied to the people of Judah warning them to change their ways.  God’s chosen people had turned their back on God and were living self-centered and sinful lives, following idols of their own making.  For centuries prophets had been calling the Jewish people to repent and return to faithfulness. But they continued in their disobedience.  In our text, Isaiah, like Dickens, speaks of the spiritual darkness in which the people were living. But then, he allows a glimmer of hope to shine through:

Hear again, Isaiah’s words, and see if they don’t describe Ebenezer Scrooge: “People who contradict (God’s) word are completely in the dark… They will look up to heaven and down at the earth, but wherever they look, there will be trouble and anguish and dark despair. They will be thrown out into the darkness.  Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever… The people who walk in darkness will see a great light.  For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.”

The people of Judah walked in spiritual darkness. By their words and actions they denied and mocked God’s Spirit.  They were unaware of how lost and in the dark they really were.  If they continued to live in the darkness of their sin, they would face a grim future.  Isaiah and the other prophets God sent named the darkness and foretold the coming of the Light.

That’s why I selected this passage for us to reflect on this morning.  In many ways, Ebenezer Scrooge was just like the people of Judah.  Like them, he lived a selfish life following idols of his own making.  He had denied and mocked God.  He was a lost soul living in spiritual darkness.  Unless he had a change of heart, he was doomed. And like the Jewish people, he didn’t know how lost and in the dark he truly was.

At least, until that dark December night when he was haunted by the ghostly appearance of his former business partner, Jacob Marley.  Just like the prophets of old, Marley named Scrooges darkness and offered him the opportunity to repent, so he could receive the light of God’s Spirit. In the midst of the darkness and gloom, Marley offers Scrooge an opportunity to change his destiny – he holds out a glimmer of hope.

Marley’s ghost tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three Spirits who will point his way out of the darkness and into the light.  Scrooge’s life and eternal destiny can be transformed, if only he will take to heart the lessons the three Spirits wish to teach him.

I think the reason A Christmas Carolis so enduring is because so many people in our world today are just like the people of Judah and like Ebenezer Scrooge.  In fact, there is a little bit of Ebenezer in each one of us, too.  We live self-centered lives, following idols of our own making.  By the way we live, we deny and mock God. We reject God’s Spirit. Many of us are living in spiritual darkness, and we don’t even realize it.  The ghost of Jacob Marley haunts the dark chambers of our hearts – unless we change, we are doomed.

But there is hope. The words the Prophet Isaiah spoke to Judah are for us, as well.  The “time of darkness and despair will not go on forever (Isaiah says)… (We) will be humbled, but there will be a time in the future when… (we) will be filled with glory.”

There will be “no more gloom for those in anguish,”for a glorious light will shine, dispelling the darkness – the dawning of the Christ.

When Marley departed the gloom of that bedroom, Scrooge was left with anticipation, laced with fear and with hope – fear that the ghosts would force him to look on the dark recesses of his heart; and hope that beyond the darkness of the night, there might be the hope of a new dawn in the morning.

In the three remaining Sundays of Advent, we also will be visited by three Spirits – what I am calling the three Spirits of Christmas:  Past, Present, Future.  Over the next three weeks, we will consider Christ’s coming in history asGod’s incarnate Son in Bethlehem;  we will rejoice that Christ comes to us even today, in the form of his Spirit dwelling in our hearts:  and we will look forward to the coming of Christ in glory at the close of the age.  Then finally, on Christmas Eve, you and I will celebrate with joy the coming of the light of Christ – a dawn that has the power to transform all our “humbugs,” into “hallelujahs!”

The promise of the prophet is good news for us this Advent: 

“The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.”

*Video: David C. Scott version.  From when Marley sits through exit out window.  5 min.

That the World May Know

Series:  The Other Lord’s Prayer

#6:  That the World May Know

John 17:20-26 (NCV)

It was “Show and Tell” day for a 3rd Grade class at the local elementary school.  The teacher had asked her students to bring something for Show and Tell that symbolizes their core values or belief system.

A boy named Ali was the first to come forward, holding something rolled up under his arm:  “I am Muslim,” he said, “and this is a prayer rug.”  After he unrolled it so the class could look at it, he returned to his seat.

A boy named Benjamin headed to the front of the room and pulled something out of his backpack.  He said, “I’m Jewish.  This is a menorah, and is a symbol of my religion.”  He then sat down.

Next a little girl named Anna came forward.  She removed something from her pocket and said, “This is a rosary, and it’s a symbol of my Catholic religion.”

Finally a boy named Pete moved to the front of the room and carefully pulled something out of a paper sack and said, “I go to the Methodist Church, and this is a casserole dish.”

As I was growing up, I fondly remember “show and tell” days at school. Teachers often used it as a way for them and the other students to get to know one-another better.  It was always interesting to see what items other children selected to bring to school and share with the class – as you might imagine, sometimes the things they brought would be bizarre.  It was even more fascinating to listen to their explanations as to why they chose that particular item.  Show and Tell revealed a lot about who people were and what they thought to be important.  When we had all finished our Show and Tell, we felt we knew one another much better, and had a clearer understanding about what motivated each person.

As I was reflecting on our text this morning, I kept being reminded of those Show and Tell days in elementary school.  Show and Tell is not just a great teaching technique that elementary school teachers have developed, it was a method Jesus used, as well.  Like the “master teacher” he was, Jesus gives his students an assignment, to announce to the world what our core values or belief system is.  He challenges us to go Show and Tell.  And in our Showing and Telling, the world would come to know the God we serve.

Yes, Jesus calls us to Show and Tell.  But he wasn’t about to ask anything of us that he wasn’t willing to do, himself.

The context of our scripture today is the prayer Jesus prayed in the Upper Room the night before his crucifixion.  During that week we call “holy,” over and over Jesus “shows” and “tells” the world who he is, and why he came.

The week began with Palm Sunday.  Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, with adoring crowds who waved palm branches and proclaimed him to be their king.  It was a day filled with symbolic gestures, each one deliberately chosen by Jesus to fulfill Old Testament prophecy about the coming of the Messiah.  Like the kids in that 3rdgrade class, Jesus was “showing” the world that he was the Messiah and the Son of God.  And, as the week progressed, over and over again, in many and varied ways, he would “show and tell” the world who he is.  Through his actions and words throughout that holy week, we become well acquainted with who Jesus is, and come to better understand what Jesus believed was important.  I think it’s fair to describe Holy Week as God’s “Show and Tell” week.  It was God’s last-ditch effort to “show and tell” by deed and word just how much he loves us.

Our scripture today is smack dab in the middle of God’s “show and tell” week.  Our lesson this morning is the concluding verses of Jesus’ extensive prayer we find recorded in the 17thchapter of John’s Gospel, a prayer that we have been focusing on now for the past month or so.  In the Upper Room following the Last Supper, Jesus prayed for his Disciples, and for all those who would one day come to believe in him through their witness.  And in his prayer, he thanks his Father that, by his coming death on the cross and the glorious resurrection to follow, he would finally show his disciples and all the world who he truly is.  He also thanks God that he has been able to tell the disciples the truth of the Gospel, and that they have been receptive to that truth.  In other words, by his deeds and his words, Jesus has both “shown and told” us who he is.

So, one of the main themes of Jesus’ prayer revolves around Jesus’ Show and Tell, as he reveals his identity to the world in the cross and the empty tomb.  But there is another aspect of Show and Tell at work in the prayer:  Jesus calls on you and me, as his disciples, to also be about the business of “showing and telling.”  It is Jesus’ prayer that, as his disciples, we can also be empowered by the Spirit to “Show and Tell,” – so “that the world may know.”  That for me is the key verse for understanding the meaning of Jesus’ prayer:

“I pray for these followers, but I am also praying for all those who will believe in me because of their teaching.  Father, I pray that they can be one…  Then the world will believe that you sent me. I have given these people the glory that you gave me so that they can be one, just as you and I are one… Then the world will know that you sent me… “  (John 17:20-23, excerpts  NCV)

What was Jesus’ dying wish?  That you and I might be faithful disciples who will Show and Tell the world who he is.

But sadly, the world around us is far from knowing Jesus. Our society is lost, and it seems to be headed to destruction, yet good faithful churchgoers like you and me often pretend not to see notice.  The lives of the neighbors around us are devoid of meaning and are spiritually hungry, and yet we withhold the spiritual nourishment that would satisfy them and give their lives purpose.  Even members of our own families are floundering through life without a spiritual compass, and we seem not to be overly concerned.  In his prayer, it is Jesus’ most ardent desire that you and I Show and Tell the truth about Jesus, “that the world might know.”

Tragically, that prayer of Jesu is yet to be fully answered. If our mission as disciples of Jesus is to Show and Tell the Good News of salvation through Christ, frankly, we aren’t doing a very good job.  The undeniable fact is that many people in the world around us don’t know Jesus. We’ve failed at our Show and Tell.

In his prayer, Jesus warns us of two pitfalls that can hamper our witness – the reasons unbelievers around us haven’t come to faith:  One is our failure to Show; the other is our failure to Tell.

First, we don’t Show our faith the way we ought to.  At the very close of his prayer, Jesus prays that his love might be evident in our lives…  He says to his Father, “Then they will have the same love that you have for me, and I will live in them.”  Earlier that same evening, Jesus said much the same: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples – when they see the love you have for one another.” (John 13:35)

When our unbelieving neighbors and friends look at our lives, sometimes they don’t see the Glory of Christ dwelling in us.  We don’t always love the way we should.  And since our actions speak louder than our words, people decide all this talk about love they hear from Christians is just that – all talk.  And so, they turn away.  (the ‘nones’ and the ‘dones’)

Another way we fail to show our faith to an unbelieving world is our lack of unity as the church.  (This is a timely word to our denomination right now, as we are struggling with what it means for us to be “united.”)

All throughout his long prayer, Jesus prays for the unity of the Church.  Listen again to what Jesus prays:  “Father, I pray that they can be one.  As you are in me and I am in you, I pray that they can also be one in us. Then the world will believe that you sent me.”

The secular world looks at all the division and infighting within the Christian church and concludes that they don’t want anything to do with our God.  We preach love and unity, but we practice suspicion, envy, and hostility toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. If Christians don’t even love each other, how can they claim to love the world?  It’s no wonder many unbelievers are not interested – we have failed to Show them Christ by our love.

But we also have neglected to Tell them about Jesus, as well.  Showing is essential – but Telling is equally important.  Our words must match our deeds, and visa versa.

Jesus’ prayer is that his disciples would tell all the world about the good news of salvation through him.  “I pray for these followers, but I am also praying for all those who will believe in me because of their teaching.”  The disciples were to testify to the world about Jesus, so that the world would come to believe.

And those first disciples followed through.  They did a miraculous job at spreading the gospel, and you and I are the fruit of their labor.  We believe, because they, and untold millions of other followers of Jesus, have been faithful in passing the truth of God down to us.

But, how well do we do at Telling the story of Jesus?  How quick are we to speak a good word for Christ?  Are we prepared to share our faith when the opportunity presents itself – to tell others about Jesus?  As Peter counseled us in his first letter, “Always be ready to answer everyone who asks you to explain about the hope you have.” (1 Pet 3:15 NCV)

Can you explain your hope in Christ?  The unbelieving world has never heard us share the truth of the gospel in a compelling enough way to cause them to want to surrender their lives to Jesus.  Do we know how to share our faith?  Do we even have a faith to share?  Most of us don’t do as good a job as we ought to in Telling others of our faith.

But there is another way we fall short in Telling others about Jesus: We fail to invite unbelievers and skeptics to come and see for themselves.   Maybe we feel we don’t have the answers or the courage to witness to someone about Jesus.  But we could, at the very least, invite them to church so they might hear the Gospel for themselves.  Many of you do this, I know.  But we could all be much more intentional about this than we are.

In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, we find a story that illustrates the importance of Telling, both in sharing our faith, and by inviting others.  There, we find the story of Jesus as he called his disciples.  The first two disciples who followed Jesus were Andrew and Philip.  Andrew didn’t hesitate to witness to his new-found faith when he told his brother Simon Peter, “We have found the Messiah.”  And Philip simply invited his brother, Nathaniel, to “come and see” and discover Jesus for himself.  Both approaches to evangelism (witnessing and inviting) are essential if the unbelieving world is to come to faith.  We must Tell how Jesus has saved us whenever we get the opportunity, and we must look for opportunities to invite others to worship so they can meet Jesus themselves.  Showing and Telling are both key to helping others to come to Christ. Jesus knew it – and now we do too.

 

So “class,” as your “teacher,” I am giving you an assignment to complete – an assignment for Show and Tell.  I want to challenge each of you to not only Show your faith in Jesus by how you live your life, but also to Tell the truth of God’s love by sharing your own journey of faith with all those who will listen.  Too hard to do?  Then, at the very least, I am asking you to invite two or three people who don’t have a relationship with Christ, or don’t have an active involvement in a congregation, to come and see for themselves, so they might have an encounter with Jesus.  And we’re going to help you do just that:

As you leave this morning, you will be given a couple of invitation cards for you to use as you invite neighbors and friends who are not currently active in a church to join you for our Christmas Eve services.  All the details are printed on the card. (Now, don’t just throw them away or drop them on the floor of your car.  Take them home and pray about who you will give the invitations to, and then follow through, and do it!)

Christmas is a great time to reach out.  Many unchurched people are open to attending these special holiday services –  if they are invited.  One study showed that 41% of people who were formerly churched said that they would return to the local church if a friend or acquaintance invited them. You may be surprised just how many will say “yes,” when they know that the person who invited them really cares about them.

So, I want to challenge you to step out of your comfort zone in the next few weeks and invite folks to come with you to worship during the holidays, especially Christmas Eve.  In fact, why not pick them up and bring them with you? The more welcomed they feel in their visit, the more open they will be to the movement of the Holy Spirit in their hearts.

The goal is not just to “fill the church” on Christmas Eve (although that would be wonderful to see).  It is so that “the world may know” the Good News of salvation.  Our purpose comes directly from the lips of Jesus:

“I want them to see my glory,” Jesus says plainly in our text. It is Jesus’ hope and prayer that all the unbelieving world would one day behold his glory, and believe. Friends, there are no days in the church year when we see Jesus in all his glory more vividly than the High Holy Days of Christmas and Easter.  It’s a great opportunity for people struggling to find meaning in their lives to have an encounter with Jesus, God’s gift to the world!

So, class, that is your assignment for Show and Tell this week.  Bring a friend with you to worship.  And, who knows?  By your faithfulness in “Showing and Telling,” you may actually win them for Jesus!

And with that, my friends, YOU just might become the answer to Jesus’ prayer.

1Thom Rainer & Sam Rainer—From Outreach magazine, “Features,” July/August 2007.

#5:  Christ’s Gift of Joy

Series:  The Other Lord’s Prayer

#5:  Christ’s Gift of Joy

John 16:19-22  and  17:12-13 (NIV)

Joy.  That’s an odd theme for a service on All Saint’s Sunday!  We usually associate joy with the season of Advent, as we light the Advent candles, one of which is “The Candle of Joy.”  That’s the time of year we sing “Joy to the World,” and are reminded of the joy of those shepherds “abiding in the fields,” to whom the choir of angels sang, “I bring you good tidings of great joy.”

Or we associate joy with Easter Sunday, as we celebrate the resurrection of Christ from the dead. The women and men who visited the tomb and found it empty rejoiced that Jesus was raised to life on the third day, just as he had promised.  There is no day in the Christian calendar more joyful than Easter.

But All Saints’ Sunday?  Today is a somber day of remembrance of those we have lost.  This is a service for comforting those who are continuing to grieve the death of someone they have loved.  It’s not a day we associate with Joy.

Yet, here we are – All Saints’ Sunday, and we are focusing on joy.  Of course, the reason we are doing so is because, during this sermon series, I am preaching through the 17thchapter of John – a chapter that records the longest prayer of Jesus, the prayer he prayed in the Upper Room just before he was arrested, tried, and crucified.  He prayed that his coming death and resurrection might reveal God’s glory, and that God’s glory might come to rest upon all those who place their faith in him.  Then he prayed that all believers who put their trust in him might be one in heart and mind, so that the unbelieving world may come to faith.  And now, he asks his Father to bless his disciples with a full-measure of joy.

Joy.  It still seems out of place, doesn’t it? Here Jesus is, about to endure unimagined anguish and suffering, and his prayer is that his disciples experience – joy.  Even though he knows that the disciples are about to face trials and tribulations far beyond anything they could imagine, even though he is aware that less than 24 hours from that moment they would have to watch him die in agony, Jesus asks God to give them joy.  How can they have joy? Their master and friend was about to be nailed to a cross and die a gruesome death, and they are expected to have joy?!  It doesn’t make sense, does it?

The reason we have difficulty making sense of this is because we misunderstand what Jesus means by joy.  The joy Jesus desires for us has very little in common with the watered-down anemic understanding you and I often have of joy, a joy that is fleeting and conditional.  Just as in another place in John’s Gospel, Jesus prays that we might have peace, but not a peace like the world offers us, here he prays that we might have joy, but not the empty joy the world offers. And, just as he says that he came to bring us a more abundant life, he offers us a more abundant joy.

What is the nature of this joy for which Jesus prayed?  Well, before we look at what this joy is, maybe it’s helpful to say what it isn’t:

It’s not a false joy, the kind of phony “joy” we find in our world.  There are people who always seem to be on an emotional high – they are so Pollyannaish that you know they are faking it sometimes.  Their “joy” is so sickeningly sweet that they send you into sugar shock. They put on a show of joy – perhaps to impress others, but sometimes they do it to mask the sadness and desperation of their lives.  Phony joy is not what Jesus is talking about.

He also not referring to those people who have a “grin and bear it” kind of joy.  They know they are supposed to be joyful , so they say, “I’m going to be joyful, even it kills me!”  They may say they have joy, but you’d never know it to look at their lives. You’ve known people like that: they call themselves Christians, but look like they were baptized in vinegar. They smile through clinched teeth. Their version of “joy” is just as phony as the sweet syrupy kind.

And Christian joy is also not “fair-weather” joy– a “joy” that is on-again, off-again, dependent on how our lives are going at the time.  Jesus warned about this kind of shallow joy when he told the parable of the soils in Mark 4 (:16-17), as he described seeds that fall on rocky ground, that sprouted but soon dried up because they didn’t put down roots.  16… “When they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. 17 But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.”  They lose their joy.

Most of us are guilty of this anemic kind of “joy” – I know I am.  My joy is often “fair-weather” only.  I’m great at being positive and enthusiastic when life is going well.  But let something go wrong in my life, and I’m a “Gloomy Gus.”  (You can just ask my wife…)

I’m not a “Gloomy Gus” right now in my life, but honestly, I can’t really say I am “joyful,” either. Perhaps it’s the tensions and conflicts we are seeing in America these days.  Maybe it has to do with the fact that for the past eight years, my life and health has been overshadowed by prostate cancer and the uncertainty such a diagnosis brings to your life.  Perhaps it’s just a “funk” I am in at the moment.   I don’t know.

It’s hard to focus on Joy this morning when we are feeling so much sorrow, remembering the saints. Today we are focusing our thoughts and prayers not only on those we have lost, we are also supporting those who continue to grieve.  We can almost empathize with those disciples facing their own troubles and grief.  Just as they needed to be reminded to be joyful, so do we.

It’s amazing how easy it is for us to lose our joy when life is hard.  If our joy is genuine, it shouldn’t be that way, Jesus is saying.

So, the joy Jesus is referring to isn’t phony, or forced, or fair-weather.  True Christian joy is deeper and more resilient than that.  It’s a joy that flows out of our faith.

I think the problem we have in comprehending this kind of joy is that we have confused joy with happiness.  In his prayer, Jesus isn’t speaking of a shallow happiness.   He is referring to a deep abiding sense of joy. Happiness is dependent on circumstances – we get a job, and we’re happy; we get married, and we’re happy; we have a baby, and we’re happy;  we retire, and we are happy.  But what happens when circumstances turn against us – when we lose our job; or our house is in foreclosure, or a loved one dies; or we get sick – what then?  We definitely are not happy.  But we still can be joyful – in spite of our circumstances.

It is a joy that carries us through the dark and troubled times of our lives.  It can do that because it is not dependent upon circumstances.  Instead it is grounded in a relationship with the One who gives joy – Jesus Christ.  Our circumstances may change, but our relationship with God through our faith in Jesus Christ remains constant.

That’s what Jesus was praying for that night.  Of course, as we read the text, it is obvious that he was praying for his friends that, despite the horror that was about to unfold before them, they might not lose the joy they had found in following him.  They would need his joy within them if they were to survive what was to come.

But elsewhere in his prayer, he makes it clear that he also was praying for all those who would ever come to believe in him; He prayed that no matter how challenging the situations of our lives may become, God will grant us a deep and abiding joy that transcends our circumstances  – a joy that rests solely on our relationship with God.

That was good news to the disciples in that Upper Room, whose lives were about to become exponentially more difficult.  And it is good news to each of us on this All Saints’ Sunday.  It is good news to know that no matter how problematic our personal lives may be – in spite of the trials and tribulations you and I are going through, we can still experience joy – the “full-measure” of joy Jesus makes available to us when we have faith in the promises of God.

So, that’s why joy is an appropriate theme for us to reflect on All Saints’ Sunday – it reminds us that no matter how dark and difficult our journey may be, even leading to a cross and a tomb, there is joy, because there is the promise of an Easter dawn.  The journey those Disciples were on led to Good Friday, but it didn’t stop there – Easter was just around the corner! And there is an Easter around the corner for us, as well!

As Jesus said to his confused and discouraged disciples in John chapter 16, he says to you and me, “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” (John 16:22)

A thousand years before the night Jesus prayed for us, King David put the same truth beautifully and simply (Ps. 30:5) when he wrote:  “Tears may flow in the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (GNT)

You and I are able to endure the gloom of our own Calvaries, because God has promised that joy will come in the morning!

Those we remember today have experienced that Easter joy.  And the good news is that you can, too.

___________

Much of the structure and content of this sermon is based on an audio sermon online, preached by James Jones Jr. http://www.deridderpresbyterian.org/Sermons/john.htm

 

 

Sent to the World

Series:  The Other Lord’s Prayer

#4:  Sent to the World

John 17:14-19 (New Century Version)

 

Have you ever walked into someplace that was new to you, only to have the overwhelming feeling that you had been in that place before?  Or have you been talking to someone and suddenly had the feeling that you’ve had that same conversation before – so much so that you already know the exact words they will say to you before they say them? Psychologists call these kinds of experience, “déjà vu.” They tell us that it’s a trick our minds play on us, and that it’s completely normal – but it can sure give you the willies!

Well, if you’ve been in worship over the past few Sundays, you probably have begun having déjà vu flash-backs.  Each week during this Sermon Series, we have been looking at a few verses from the 17thchapter of John’s Gospel, as we continue our study of the longest prayer of Jesus – his prayer at the Last Supper when he prayed for his Disciples, and through their witness, for you and me.  As we read each new section of the prayer, you may have said to yourself, “Hey, I think I’ve heard that before.”  And that’s because, you have.  As that great philosopher, Yogi Berra, once said, “It’s déjà vu, all over again!”

Like a composer of a great symphony or opera, Jesus skillfully weaves several beautiful themes all throughout this great prayer – motifs that keep resurfacing over-and-over-again, that bring a unity and harmony to the entire prayer.

Nowhere is this more true than in our scripture this morning.  Here Jesus is recapitulating a theme he has already introduced – what it means to be in the world, but not of the world.  In fact, just so we don’t miss it, throughout these six verses, Jesus uses the word “world” eight times.  Whenever Jesus repeats himself, it is for emphasis – he doesn’t want us to miss his point.  In as many ways he can think to say it, Jesus lifts up one of the main themes of his prayer: how we, as his disciples, are to relate to the world around us.

Since, in his prayer, Jesus places so much emphasis on how we should be relating to the world, it is important that we understand what Jesus means when he says, “the world.” When the word “world” is used in this context, The Reformation Bible defines it this way: “The word ‘world’ in the New Testament … designates humanity as a whole, now fallen into sin and moral disorder, radically opposed to God”1  In other words, it refers to the world after the Fall of Adam and Eve, when sin gained a foothold and began spreading like wildfire until all creation has become tainted by sin.

In a sermon preached at First Baptist Church of Powell, Tennessee, the pastor described the “world” that Jesus was referring to like this:

“In this context the world is not a geographical place; it is society that has fallen into sin and leaves God out, and that has a value system that is the direct opposite of God’s values revealed in the Bible… The world doesn’t necessarily deny the existence of God; they either re-make him as they want him to be or see Him as being irrelevant – except for days when terrorists attack, the country faces war, or you discover you have terminal cancer.  So much of this prayer that Jesus prays for His disciples has to do with our attitude toward, and our time spent, in the world. For every generation of Christians, this has been a critical issue. What in the world are we to do?”2

He raises a great question: What, in this fallen and broken world, are we to do?  How are you and I as Christians supposed to relate to the sinful world around us?  How can we interact with a world whose value system is so diametrically opposed to the ways of God?2

There are really only two options for us as Christians or as the Church:  we can retreat from the world, or we can engage the world.

We could do what some believers down through the centuries have done – we could retreat – we could run off into the desert or climb up to some remote mountaintop so that we can make certain we don’t allow ourselves to be contaminated by the sin of the world. There we can put the sinful world out of our minds and just wait for Christ to come and take us home to heaven.  After all, didn’t we just read that Jesus said we are not of the world?  When we look at the mess our world is in, it’s tempting to pray for the rapture and sing “I’ll fly away,” and write the world off as a lost cause.  Yes, our first impulse is to escape the world.  Lots of people have chosen to retreat from the world.

But, that’s not practical for most of us.  We can’t just drop everything and retreat from the world.  So, what should we do?  Should we be like the Amish or other groups who live in enclaves that shun the world and its ways?  Should we, as Christian parents, shield our children from our society’s bad influences?  Should we home-school them, not allow them watch television, go to movies, or go on the internet, and lock them in their rooms until they are 18 – or better yet 21?  Is that what Jesus is telling us to do?  As a disciple of Jesus struggling to remain pure and untainted by sin, it’s hard to know what to do.

And, this issue isn’t just something only individual disciples are concerned about.  The church, as a whole, faces the very same dilemma.  Is the church simply to turn inward, gathering together for worship, sharing in the sacraments, engaging in Bible study, upholding one another in prayer, and comforting one another in our sorrows?  All those things are good and important.  No one could fault us if we retreated behind the cloistered walls of Mims United Methodist Church.

After all, the world out there is a dangerous place – it’s risky business standing up for God in the world “out there.”  No one knew that better than Jesus – his stand for God would end in a bloody cross.  And as the disciples who were in the room with him that evening took their stands for God, they too (all but one) would face a violent end.

Jesus says that the world will hate us because, when we live as his disciples, the light of our lives will shine a spotlight on their sin, and they will lash out at us.  We’re not sure we want to risk the wrath of the world.  The world around us is so corrupt with sin, isn’t it best that we in the church just insulate ourselves as much as possible so we aren’t tainted by the world and just wait to “go home to heaven?”  That’s what lots of congregations choose to do.

That same pastor in Tennessee said this:  “The greatest challenge for the church today is to determine how it relates to and responds to the world.  Jesus is praying for individual disciples, and also churches, that we will know what in the world we are to do.”2

What in the world ARE we to do?  In our verses this morning, Jesus gives us the answer.  He tells us that, “Yes, because we belong to God, we are to remain unstained by the world – but isolating ourselves isn’t the answer.  While we are to keep our lives pure, we are also given a mission – we are sent into the world to win the world for God.” Jesus is calling us to dive head-first into this messy world of sin.

How are we supposed to swim in a world awash in sin, and still remain pure ourselves?  In these few verses, we find the answer.

The first thing Jesus reminds us is that we have been sanctified.

In the translation we read this morning, verses 17 and 19 are expressed like this:  “Make them ready for your service through your truth…I am making myself ready to serve so that they can be ready for their service.”

I like that translation because it says what Jesus meant in plain English that anyone can understand. But other translations may be more helpful in uncovering the full meaning of what Jesus is saying here. In them, Jesus asks his Father to “consecrate” his disciples, or to “dedicate them,” or to “make them holy.”  In other words, Jesus is asking that God “sanctify” them.

So, the first thing to remember is that you and I have been sanctified or made holy.  But what does that mean?  Well, it doesn’t mean what most people think of when they hear those words.

To be sanctified or holy doesn’t mean you are more “religious,” or that you are better than anyone else.  Being sanctified does not entitle you to have a “holier than thou” attitude or to arrogantly pass judgment on other people’s sins.

Being sanctified simply means to be “set apart for holy purposes.”  In the Old Testament, as the tabernacle (the place of worship) was being established, all the special furnishings were sanctified, along with the priests who would serve God.  They were “set apart.”  The dishes and utensils used in the tabernacle were consecrated for holy uses – people were not to take them home and use them to cook their dinner! They were “set apart” for holy purposes.  They had been “sanctified.”

In his prayer, Jesus prays that he (Jesus) might be sanctified – That seems to an odd thing for Jesus to ask.  He wasn’t asking God to purify him or make him more holy – he was already pure and holy.  So, what was he asking of his Father?  As he prepares to face the cross, he asks that he might be “set apart” and consecrated to fulfill God’s purpose for his life – and he is praying that God might also “set apart” his disciples, including you and me, that our lives might be devoted to fulfilling God’s purposes, as well – that you and I might be made holy.

As the New Revised Standard Version translates these verses, “Sanctify them in the truth… For their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”

The challenging question is this:  Are you and I willing to allow God to “set us apart” for God’s purposes – to sanctify us that God’s will for our lives might be done?  If we want to be his disciples, we must join Jesus in asking God to use our lives as he sees fit.  We must invite God to sanctify us – to set us apart.

So, as sanctified people who God has set apart, doesn’t that imply that we should also set ourselves apart from the world?   We are called to march to a different drummer than those in the world –  we are to live by a different world-view – we are to live holy lives that give glory to God.

That seems like a very good reason to pull away from our world that is so mired in sin.  And if that were all Jesus said in this prayer, then the Amish are right – we shouldn’t be concerned about the world, but should insulate ourselves as best we can from the world, lest we be dragged down by the world.  You can see how some Christians can come to that conclusion.

But that’s not all Jesus says, is it?  He prays to his Father, not that God might take us out of the world, but that we might be kept safe from the evil one as we live in the world.  In fact, Jesus makes it clear that the purpose of our being set apart or sanctified, is not so that we can avoid the world, but so that we are better prepared to be sent into the world to win the world for him.  We have been set apart for a mission.  We have been sanctified for service.

That is the other aspect of what it means to be made holy.  Sanctification is also God’s way of equipping us so we can succeed in our mission.

A pastor friend of mine was sharing with me one day about how proud he was of his son, who volunteered for the Marines.  At that time, his son was training for the elite Special Forces unit. These are the brave highly trained soldiers who are sent on the most high-risk missions.  From what my friend told me, if his son made it through all the rigorous training, he and his comrades would be dropped behind enemy lines with a dangerous mission to accomplish.  Our military wouldn’t think of sending a Marine who hadn’t been properly trained on such a hazardous mission.  They would do everything they could to equip him succeed.

Well, in these verses, Jesus is reminding us that, as his disciples, the world is not our home. We are aliens in the world. Because of our faith in Jesus, we are already citizens of heaven – and while we are on earth, we are on a mission for Christ.  As members of God’s Special Forces unit, God has dropped us behind enemy lines with a vital and dangerous mission to accomplish – to win the world for Christ. We can’t face the world, we can’t stand up for Christ in our own strength and power, but only with the strength God gives us. He knows we will need all the protection and training we can get in order to succeed.  In this prayer, Jesus tells us how he will equip us, so we can engage in spiritual warfare in the world, without ourselves becoming corrupted by the world.  He names two things available to us to help us accomplish our mission:

First, Jesus tells us to hold fast to the Word of God. “Make them ready for your service through your truth; your teaching is truth.”  Jesus assures us that one way we can be equipped to succeed in our mission to win over the sinful world is by claiming the truth of God’s Word.

Without immersing ourselves in Scripture, we won’t have the foundation we need to remain true to our own faith while we confront the evils of the world around us.  If we don’t feed on God’s word, we will faint in the battle because we have allowed ourselves to become flabby and spiritually malnourished.  And we will be vulnerable to allowing the sin of the world to take root in our lives.

If we are to engage a sinful world without allowing our own lives to be tainted by sin – if we are to be successful in winning the world for Jesus, then we need to immerse ourselves in the Word of God so that we know we are on the right track.

So, first of all, Jesus reminds us that God’s Word is a resource available to us.  The other thing we can count on is the protection of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus knows that when the people of God stand up for what is right and proclaim the truth of God, Satan will fight back with a vengeance.  If we attempt to engage the enemy in our own strength, we are either going to go down in defeat, or are going to allow ourselves to be enticed by the world and let sin gain a foothold in our lives.  But Jesus promises that God’s Spirit will protect us, just like the armor that protected the knights of old.  With the Holy Spirit as our shield, we can fight the good fight of faith.  With God by our side, we can boldly speak the truth to a world filled with lies.  We don’t need to be afraid of the evil one when we have God watching over us.

Jesus doesn’t send us to do spiritual battle in our sinful world without the resources we need to succeed.  He promises us his presence and protection through his Holy Spirit, and he gives us our training manual through his Word.

So, there you have it, the answer to the riddle the Pastor in Tennessee posed:  What in the world are we to do?  Are we to retreat from the world, or are we to engage the world?

I said those were the only two options.  But it’s actually a trick question.  It’s really both/and.  We retreat so we can engage.

In his prayer, Jesus tells us what we must do:  We are “set apart” from the world, to serve the world, so that the world might come to faith in Jesus.  That is his prayer.  And that is our mission.

Friends, there is no higher calling than that.

1The Reformation Study Bible, Page 1732

2The pastor of First Baptist Church of Powell, Tennessee. “What in the World are We to Do? Preached 10/18/09.

#3 One Family of God

Series:  The Other Lord’s Prayer

#3 – One Family of God

John 17:11 and Ephesians 2:13-18 (NRSV)

I build walls:

Walls that protect,

Walls that shield,

Walls that say I shall not yield

Or reveal

Who I am or how I feel.

I build walls:

Walls that hide,

Walls that cover what’s inside,

Walls that stare or smile or look away,

Silent lies,

Walls that even block my eyes

From the tears I might have cried.

I build walls:

Walls that never let me

Truly touch

Those I love so very much.

Walls that need to fall!

Walls meant to be fortresses

Are prisons after all.1

I build walls.  And I suspect I’m not the only one here who does that. It seems that it is human nature to build walls – walls to hide behind, and walls to keep others out.  Of course, this poem is talking about the psychological walls we hide behind, thinking they will protect us from being hurt, but instead we discover that they become walls that imprison us, and lead to loneliness and isolation.  We all know how damaging psychological walls can be – they are the root causes of most of the problems we face in our relationship with others, especially those closest to us.  Counselors spend their entire careers helping their clients tear down the walls they have spent a lifetime erecting. It can take years of therapy for someone who has barricaded themselves behind walls to finally break out of their emotional prisons.

The damage wall-building can do might start with our interpersonal relationships, but it certainly doesn’t end there. As societies, we have resorted to wall building as a strategy to make ourselves feel more secure, or to keep those we feel threatened by out.   It seems we just can’t help ourselves – whenever we feel threatened, we instinctively built up walls.

Another poet described our impulse to construct walls like this:

Oh! the walls we build, the chasms we create,

The Us versus Them that we proliferate!

Oh! the bonds that we share that we choose to ignore,

As we search and search, then search even more,

For things to separate and keep us apart,

For differences we decide to take to heart.

Oh! the walls we create full of fear, doubt and hate,

Self-fulfilling prophecies we choose to generate,

As we slice and dice the human race into bits,

By religion, by income, by “race”, by politics,

By history and nationality, and oh! so many ways,

Oh! the walls we build, that consume our days! 2

Yes, we do love to build walls:  We do it to designate who is “US,” and who is “THEM.”  Those on our side of the fence are people like us, people we assume are “good.”  And all the other “bad” people – those not like us – are on the outside of the fence.  That is the way it is, and the way it has always been.

This morning, we are continuing our sermon series, based on Jesus’ prayer in the Upper Room just before the events leading up to his crucifixion were to begin unfolding.  He lifted his eyes to heaven, and launched into the longest prayer of Jesus we find in any Gospel.  In this prayer, Jesus prays to his Father on behalf of his disciples, both those in the room with him that night, and those down through the centuries who would one day come to believe in him.  On the even of his crucifixion, Jesus was praying for us!

In the verse we have read from the prayer this morning, as well as our scripture from Ephesians, we hear the desire of God’s heart that we might be united in faith and love.   In other words, it was Jesus’ hope and prayer that there be no walls to separates us from one another – that instead, we might be One Family of God.  That may have been Jesus’ desire for us, but that is far from the reality in which we live.

In our first lesson from the pen of Paul, we actually find references to the ancient “walls” which divided the ancient world into “US” and “THEM.”  One of the many “walls” that separated people in Biblical times was the historic animosity that existed between Jews and non-Jews (who were commonly referred to as “Gentiles,” or simply as “Greeks”).  In the verses just before our text from Ephesians, Paul names the two sides, the “circumcised” and the “un-circumcised.”

In our sermons and Bible studies, we have all become familiar with the hate that existed between Jews and (people who where considered half-Jews), but we may be less aware of the depth of animosity which existed between Jews and Gentiles, between the circumcised and the un-circumcised.  The Jews despised non-Jews.

For instance:  Some Jewish Rabbis taught that God had created Gentiles to be the fuel for the fires of hell . . . that, of all the nations that He had made, God loved ONLY Israel.  It was even unlawful for a Jew to help a Gentile woman in childbirth, because that would mean bringing another Gentile into the world.

The barrier between Jew and Greek was absolute.  If a Jew married a Gentile, the family would hold a funeral for that son or daughter . . . he or she was considered dead and buried.

Yes, there WAS a great “wall of hostility” dividing Jews and Greeks.  So you can imagine what troubles this caused in the early Church.  After all, the early church was made up of both Jews AND Greeks who had to overcome ancient hatreds in order to become one family of God.

But the ancient walls of division weren’t limited to Jews and Greeks.  In the Gentile world, there were also barriers between Greeks and non-Greeks. Cicero wrote, “As the Greeks say, ‘All men are divided into two classes, Greeks and barbarians.’”  Aristotle described the non-Greek peoples as “the remote tribes of barbarians belonging to the bestial class.”  And Plato put it even more bluntly by saying that those barbarians are “our enemies by nature.”  So, you see, no culture is immune from hatred and bigotry.

It’s true that there were many “dividing walls of hostility” in Biblical times.  But fence-building didn’t’ stop with the advance of history.  Every people in every generation have managed to fine someone to hate.  All cultures have erected “walls” to separate “US” from “THEM,” often with tragic results.

And today, it seems we have more “walls” than ever:  We have walls of hostility separating nations from one another as they fight and kill each other’s sons and daughters over where boundaries should be, and other trivial matters.  There are fences of hatred which ethnic groups have built, neighbors who are intent on exterminating one another in the name of “ethnic purity.”  There are barriers which history has erected that cause people of different races or religions to despise and oppress one another out of ignorance and fear.  And there are economic-class divisions, caused by the “HAVES” of the world building walls of exclusion to keep the “HAVE NOTS” in their place.  And politically, we in the American family are practically at each other’s throats, spewing hate and event threatening violence against those who support the other “evil” party.  (That is what our political discourse has degenerated into.)

Yes, our world today is fractured and broken by many walls and fences, perhaps today more than ever.

But “walls” are not limited to the secular world.  One of the greatest tragedies I know of is the fact that the Church of Jesus Christ, itself, has built “walls” of separation and exclusion.  Like our Christian sisters and brothers of the first century, the walls of division that fracture societies divide the Church today, as well.

In some parts of the world, Roman Catholics and Protestants have had such an historic hatred for each other that they would murder one another in the name of God.  Thankfully, over the years, great strides have been made in tearing down that wall of hostility.  But the movement toward church unity was set back several decades ago when the Pope at the time decreed that salvation was only possible through the Roman Catholic Church!  (Perhaps the current Pope believes differently – it seems he might.) And, we’ve heard the same type of arrogant declarations made by a number of Protestant denominations and preachers, as well!  Unfortunately, even many Christians have felt the need to build fences of exclusion and hostility.

The church in the developed countries of North America and Europe are suspicious of Christians in third world countries because those Christian-leaders in the third world accuse us of complicity in the oppression of the world’s poor . . . a charge that may well have some merit.

And within American Christianity, there are plenty of walls to separate “US” and “THEM:”  Evangelicals don’t trust “mainline” Christians;  Black and white churches continue to be the most segregated institutions in our nation;  Conservative Christians question the motives of liberal Christians, and visa versa.

Even within our own beloved United Methodist Church, walls have been erected.  As you know, there is an ongoing debate in our denomination about how scripture should be interpreted and lived out.  We have become divided almost to the point of schism because we can’t seem to agree on how we as United Methodist Christians ought to address the moral and social issues of our day.

And even within our own congregation, we are not completely of one mind on all things.  While, I don’t think we have built walls of US and THEM, it can’t really be said that we are completely of one mind. The same tensions that exist in the United Methodist Church in general exist here at Mims UMC.  We don’t all believe exactly the same, we approach social issues differently, we have a variety of political perspectives, we don’t all agree on the style of music or worship, we have different priorities concerning the use of our resources, and we don’t share one uniform vision for the future of our church.  Our Mims congregation may not be fractured by a “dividing wall of hostility,” but we are not completely united, either.

Where is the unity of the Body of Christ? How can the “walls” that we have built to separate us from one another be demolished?

Our scripture gives us the answer:  Listen again to our scripture from Ephesians, this time from the Good News Translation: “But now, in union with Christ Jesus, you, who used to be far away, have been brought near by the sacrificial death of Christ.  For Christ Himself has brought us peace by making Jews and Gentiles one people.  With His own Body, He broke down the walls that separated them and kept them enemies.  He . . . create(d) out of the two races one new people in union with himself, in this way making peace.  By his death on the cross, Christ destroyed our enmity;  by means of the cross He united both races into one Body and brought them back to God.”

The Good News is that, by His sacrificial death on the cross, Christ has demolished all the walls that WE have built to separate “US” from “THEM.” In Christ, there IS no “THEM,”  . . . only “US.”

Jesus prayed, “that they may be one, as we are one.”  Do you realize what that means?  His people, his disciples, his followers should be just as close with one another as the Father is with the Son.  And, you can’t be any more united than that!

We are one people of God, brothers and sisters in Christ, children of the same Heavenly Father.  We are no longer strangers to one another, but fellow citizens of God’s eternal kingdom, and members together of the “Family of God.” And it’s time we all finally began to act like it.

In France during the Second World War, some soldiers brought the body of a dead comrade to a French cemetery to have him buried.  The priest told them gently that he was required to ask whether or not their friend had been baptized in the Roman Catholic Church.  They said that they did not know.  The priest said that he was very sorry, but in that case, he could not permit burial in his churchyard.  Saddened, the soldiers took their friend’s body and buried him just OUTSIDE of the fence of the graveyard.

The next day, they came back to make sure that the grave was alright, and to their astonishment, they could not find it! They searched and searched, but they could fine no trace of the freshly dug soil.  As they were about to leave in bewilderment, the priest walked out to meet them.

He told them that his heart had been troubled because of his refusal to allow their dead friend to be buried in the churchyard.  So, early in the morning, he had gotten up and, with his own hands, the priest MOVED THE FENCE OUT to include the grave of the young soldier.

If you listen carefully, you can almost hear the walls begin to crumble and the fences being re-moved.

As Paul described it in our text: Christ is breaking down the walls that separate us and keep us enemies . . . “reconciling us to God in ONE BODY through the cross,”and . . . “bringing us near by the blood of Christ.”

You see, it was the greatest desire of Jesus’ heart that all his followers might one day become One Body, through His Blood. This morning’s focus verse from Jesus’ prayer is echoed later on in his prayer, a text we will be addressing in a few weeks.  But, it has special meaning for us this morning.  Listen to how The Messagebible translates John 17:21-23:

21”The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—just as you, Father, are in me and I in you, so they might be one heart and mind with us.  Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me.   22The same glory you gave me, I gave them, so they’ll be as unified and together as we are–23I in them and you in me.  Then they’ll be mature in this oneness, and give the godless world evidence that you’ve sent me . . .”

Jesus couldn’t be any more clear.  We are not to be in the business of building walls.  Instead, we should work to tear down walls that cause division and fracture the Body of Christ.

One of my favorite poems is “Mending Wall” by the great American poet, Robert Frost.  You probably know it is one of my favorites because I quote it all the time.  In closing, listen carefully to his wise words:

Something there is, that doesn’t love a wall,…

…Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know

                        what I was walling in, or walling out,

                        and to whom I was like to give offense.                                                   

                       Something there is, that doesn’t love a wall,

                        that wants it down.3

I don’t know if Robert Frost was a Christian, but in these words, he certainly was echoing the prayer Jesus prayed that night in the Upper Room – that those of us who call ourselves God’s children might finally begin to dismantle the walls that divide us – that we might finally set aside our differences, and arguments, and debates, and become “of one heart and mind,”- one Family of God, –  one Church of Jesus Christ, – one Body of Christ for the world.

As Jesus prayed, “And now I am no longer in the world, (Jesus said) but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

_____________

Prayer for Unity (from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer)

O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace:Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 4

____________

1http://www.rhlschool.com/read8n3.htm

2http://worldunderstandingandpeace.com/2007/05/14/break-down-the-walls-poem/

3http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/frost-mending.html

4Book of Common Prayer.  14. For the Unity of the Church, Rite One

#2:  “Is Jesus Glorified in Your Life?

Series:  The Other Lord’s Prayer

#2:  “Is Jesus Glorified in Your Life?

John 17:6-10 (NRSV)

As any preacher can tell you, one of the challenges of being a pastor is listening to people’s critiques of you.  But throughout my ministry I have had no greater critics than my own children.  They have kept me humble!  Growing up, our middle son Ben, often complained whenever I offered the Pastoral Prayer.  “Why do you have to pray so long?”

I confess that I would sometimes get carried away and pray long prayers – long enough to cause my children to squirm or fall asleep.  I suppose I’m still guilty of long prayers.  But when it comes to long prayers, I can’t begin to compete with Jesus.  According to John’s Gospel, Jesus was prone to long drawn out prayers, too. And at least his Disciples didn’t seem to mind.

This morning we are continuing our reflections in our sermon series on the longest prayer of Jesus we find in any of the Gospels.  The entire 17thchapter of John is devoted to recording this prayer of Jesus; a prayer he offered to his Father on behalf of his Disciples, and through their witness, on behalf of all those who would later come to believe in Christ.  We are humbled and amazed to realize that, in the final hours before he was to be arrested, tried and crucified, Jesus was praying for you and me!

Last Sunday, the focus was on God’s Glory, and that Jesus came into the world for the purpose of transmitting God’s glory to us.  We heard Jesus ask that in the cross, the Father might glorify the Son, so that the world might give glory to God.  The theme in the first five verses of the prayer was God’s Glory.

This morning, as we pick up with the 6thverse, the focus shifts.  The emphasis isn’t so much on the status of Christ as the Son of God, as it is on the faith of the Disciples in believing in Jesus as the Son of God.  The theme is not centered around God’s Glory – but on God’s Name.

According to the New Revised Standard Version which I’ve chosen for our scripture this morning, Jesus prays, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world…”  “I have made your name known…”

Now, if you were to pull out your Bible and read this verse, there is a good probably it wouldn’t read exactly that way – it may say nothing about the “name” of God at all.  Instead, many translations will have Jesus say something like, “I have revealed you to them…”  I suppose that is an OK translation –  In general, that’s what the verse means.  But that isn’t what the Greek original says.  Jesus literally prayed, “I have made your name known…”

Now, why is that significant?  Because the “Name of God” has special meaning in scripture. To simply translate this verse, “I have revealed you…” misses a lot of the depth of meaning – we fail to see some of what Jesus is saying here.

If you have been in Bible Studies or heard many sermons in your life, you probably already are aware that there is great significance given to Names in the Bible – much more so than names mean in our day.  So, what might Jesus have meant when he prayed, “I have made your name known?”

I think he probably meant it in a number of different ways:

First, in biblical times, names were more than mere labels, simply some random collection of syllables we use to distinguish ourselves from one another.  A name in Bible times did  “not simply mean the name by which a person is called.  It means the whole character of the person in so far as it can be known.”1

Even today, we have this concept.  We speak of trying to protect our good name, or making a name for ourselves.  We lament when our name has been besmirched, or when we have brought shame on our family name.  Our names and our identities are inseparable.

We see this in the names of those we read about in scripture:  A name in those days had great meaning – it often described the circumstances of a person’s birth, a blessing upon the child, or their characteristics or the role they would play in the salvation story.  For instance, consider the meaning of these biblical names:  Adam = earth being; Eve = mother; Moses = saved from the water; David = Beloved; Daniel = God is my judge; Peter = rock; John = gracious gift of God; Jesus = God is my salvation.  Their names tell us something significant about who they were as people.

Does your name have a meaning?  Is it an accurate description of who you are?

So, names in the Bible often  give us a clue as to the role the person bearing that name would play in the story of Salvation.  They tell us something of their character, of who they really are.

If all this is true for human beings, it is even more true for God.  When scripture refers to the name of God, it is speaking of God’s character and nature.  When we know God’s name, it is a way of saying that we have been given a glimpse into who God truly is – God’s nature and character.

We see this throughout the scriptures;  in Psalm 9:10, “Those who know your name put their trust in you.”  Or, in Psalm 22:22, “I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters.”  And as Isaiah envisions the new age to come, he quotes God as saying, “My people shall know my name.”  (Is. 52:6)

So, when Jesus says that “I have made your name known,” his is really saying, “I have enabled people to see what the real nature of God is like.. .” It’s another way of saying , “Those who have seen me, have seen the Father.” (John 14:9)

William Barclay, the great Bible commentator, expressed it like this, “It is Jesus’ supreme claim that in him, men see the mind, the character, the heart of God.”1

So, to say that by his life and death Jesus revealed God’s name, that means (first of all) that, as we look at Jesus we are given a glimpse into the very nature and character of God himself.

But there is a second meaning to Jesus’ words.  The phrase “Name of God” may also refer to the Proper Name by which God is known.

Do you remember the story of Moses’ call, where the voice of God speaks to Moses from the burning bush?  After being raised in the palaces of Egypt, Moses had killed an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating an Israelite slave.  He fled into exile in the Land of Midian, where he established a new life for himself as a shepherd.  One day, as he was caring for his flocks, he saw a burning bush that was not consumed, and heard the voice of God, calling him to return to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and liberate the Hebrew people.  As you will remember, Moses tries to weasel out of the assignment, at one point asking, “If I go back, people will want to know the name of the God who sent me.  What should I tell them?”  And God answered by saying; “I am.  Tell them ‘I Am’ has sent you.”

From that day on, the Hebrew people have accepted as the Proper Name of God – a name that is really no name at all; a name that in Hebrew is spelled YHWH, Yahweh (Jehovah in our English Bibles).  It was as if God was saying, “No name is adequate to capture my character, my nature.  It’s enough that you just know that ‘I Am.’”  Now why would God be so evasive with Moses?

God refuses to give an actual name to Moses because of another commonly accepted idea the ancient people had about names.  As we have already seen, names and the persons they name are almost interchangeable.  That led to the belief that if you knew someone’s name, that would give you some mystical power over them.  We even see that in modern times there are those who believe this – for instance, voodoo.  You could use a person’s name in curses, in blessings, in incantations.

Moses and the Israelite people would have loved to have served a God with a name.  In fact, so would we.  With that name we could be in control, we could make God do our bidding. But God wasn’t about to let the Israelites believe he could be manipulated or controlled.  He wasn’t about to give them a name. And so he answered, “I Am.”

I suspect that Jesus may have had this in mind, because all throughout the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus referring to himself with those words. Over and over again, he uses the phrase when speaking of himself:  “I am the Bread of Life.”  “I am the Living Water.”  “I am the Vine.”  “I am the Good Shepherd.”  “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”  It’s as if Jesus was saying to anyone who was listening, “I Am – God!”  It’s no wonder he gets into so much trouble with the religious leaders.  He is making a claim that was considered blasphemy!

When Jesus says in his prayer, “I revealed your name” to my disciples, he may as well have been saying that he was indeed the Son of God, who along with God, was worthy of Glory.

But I think he may have been saying something even more meaningful.  And that is that in Christ, the God who refused to be known completely by the Jewish people, now can be fully known through Jesus.

You see, the name God gave Moses was considered holy… So holy, it was not to ever be spoken.  This was probably to make sure God’s name could never be taken in vain, breaking one of the 10 Commandments.  There was only one exception:  God’s name was allowed to be uttered by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), and then, only in the confines of the Holy of Holies of the Temple.  It was a name that was veiled in mystery.

But, of course, the name did appear in written form in the scriptures. How would they guard against the possibility that it might be accidentally voiced?  What they did was to substitute the Hebrew word “Adonai,” a generic word for God, often translated “Lord.”  Every time a person would read from the Torah and came across the name of God, Yahweh, they would substitute the word “Adonai.“

We have this reflected in most English Bibles.  Wherever you see LORD (all caps), you can know that in Hebrew, the name of God appears there.

This emphasis on the holiness of God’s name only served to reinforce the idea that our God is distant and unapproachable – that he is unknowable.

But Jesus says in the prayer, “I have made your name known.” He was telling us that the unknowable God, veiled in mystery, is knowable after all.

Or as Paul writes in Ephesians (2:13):  “In Christ Jesus you, who once were far off, have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

Listen to the way William Barclay put it:

“In the time of Jesus the name of God was so sacred that ordinary people were not even supposed to know it, far less to speak it.  God was the remote invisible king, whose name was not for ordinary men to speak.  So Jesus is saying: ‘I have told you God’s name; that name which is so sacred can be spoken now because of what I have done.  I have brought the remote, invisible God so close that even the simplest people can speak to him and take his name upon their lips.”1

Wow!  All that from verse 6 of the prayer.  But with that understanding, the other four verses of our text make more sense.  This is what I hear Jesus saying in this part of his prayer:  “Because Jesus has revealed God’s nature and character to us, we accept as truth that Jesus is the Son who has come from the Father.  Therefore, we now belong to God, and our lives are to give glory to Christ.”

Did you catch the movement there:  verse 6-10 actually map out the journey any person makes in coming to faith:  1) Christ reveals God’s love to us, 2)  we accept Christ as Lord and Savior.  3) As a result we belong to God, and 4) our lives give glory to Christ.

So, where are you along that journey of faith?  Have you looked to Jesus, allowing him to reveal the love of God to you?  If so, have you taken the step of accepting Christ as your Lord and Savior? If not, my prayer is that you will do so today.

And for the rest of us, which may be most of us.  We already have accepted Christ, and know we belong to God.  For us, the challenge comes in verse 10, where Jesus says “I have been glorified in them:”  Do our lives give glory to Christ?  Can those around us look at our lives and see Jesus?  If not, then something is wrong, and we need to make it right this morning.

It may be that Christ is not being “glorified” in your life. Maybe you’ve asked Christ into your heart.  Or perhaps, you did at one time, but realize that the life you are living today doesn’t bring glory to Christ.  In a few moments as we sing our final song, you will have the opportunity to come forward to the altar to make things right again in your relationship with God.

In closing, listen with fresh ears to this part of Jesus’ prayer, this time from The Message bible, and take Jesus’ words to heart:

 

“I spelled out your character in detail to the men and women you gave me. They were yours in the first place; Then you gave them to me, and they have now done what you said.  They know now, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that everything you gave me is firsthand from you,  For the message you gave me, I gave them; and they took it, and were convinced that I came from you. They believed that you sent me. I pray for them. I’m not praying for the God-rejecting world but for those you gave me, for they are yours by right.  Everything mine is yours, and yours mine, and my life is on display in them.”

May it be said of all of us, that the life of Christ is on display in us.   Amen.

1Barclay, William.  The Gospel of John, pp. 209-211

#1 The Glory of Christ

Series: The Other Lord’s Prayer

1:  The Glory of Christ

John 17:1-5 (NLT)

Last Sunday, we completed our sermon series on Holy Communion.  This morning, we begin a new series of sermons based on the 17thchapter of John’s Gospel, a series I’m calling “The Other Lord’s Prayer.”

Every Sunday in our church we close our prayer time with the words of Jesus we have come to refer to as “The Lord’s Prayer,” as we ought to.  It’s a wonderful prayer that is worthy of repeating often.  In fact, since I’ve been pastor here at Mims UMC, I have preached a series of sermons on that prayer.

But when you go back and read that familiar prayer in its context within the Gospels, you discover that it isn’t really Jesus’ prayer, so much as it is our prayer.  The Disciples had asked him to teach them how to pray.   And Jesus responded, “When you pray, pray like this: ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…’”  and then he proceeded to give them a template they should use to guide their own prayer life.

Most all of us are so familiar with that prayer that we have committed it to memory.  But many of us may not be as familiar with the other prayers of Jesus that are recorded in the Gospels. It would be a fascinating study to reflect on each prayer Jesus is reported to have prayed.

But, of all the prayers that passed the lips of Jesus, none compares with the prayer we find recorded in John 17, the one I am calling “The Other Lord’s Prayer;” and some biblical scholars have named Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer.”  One reason it is significant is that it is by far the longest prayer of Jesus we have – it is an entire chapter long.  But what makes it even more important is where it falls in the events of Jesus’ life.  Jesus launches into this prayer at the close of the Last Supper with his Disciples, just before they leave the Upper Room and Jesus is arrested, tried, and killed.  It is at this most crucial moment, which marks the transition between his ministry and his passion and death, that Jesus offers this prayer.  In a way, the prayer functions as Jesus’ “Farewell” speech – a prayer that sums up his life and mission, and prepares his Disciples to carry on after he has left them.

And that is perhaps the paramount reason for us to focus on this prayer of Jesus – because in it, he prays for his followers – both his Disciples in the room with him that night, as well as for all those who would believe in him down through the centuries.  After they left the Upper Room and went to the Garden of Gethsemane, the other Gospels tell us that Jesus prayed an agonizing prayer for himself, asking his Father that, if possible, he might avoid the cross –  but nonetheless, let God’s “will be done.”  In the Garden, Jesus prayed for himself.  But not here.  In John 17, Jesus doesn’t pray for his own concerns or needs.  The focus of Jesus’ prayer in the Upper Room – is on us.  He is interceding with his Father on our behalf.  It’s amazing to realize that, as the agony of the cross loomed and Jesus was preparing to lay down his life for the world, he was thinking of you and me!

So, what is it that Jesus asks God for on our behalf?  During the next six weeks, we will eves drop on his prayer to find out:

This morning, we read just the first five verses of Jesus’ prayer.  But within those few verses we already pick up a theme – Glory!  Four times in these verses, Jesus uses the words glory or glorify.  “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son so he can give glory back to you…  I brought you glory here on earth by doing everything you told me to do. And now, Father, bring me into the glory we shared before the world began.”

Now, these statements from Jesus don’t strike us as particularly radical – we’ve all grown up assuming that we should give glory to Jesus.  But when Jesus spoke them in that Upper Room, it would have caused quite a stir among his followers.  That’s because throughout the Jewish scripture, the only one worthy of receiving glory is God himself.  References in the Bible to God’s glory are almost too many to count:

“Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” (Ex. 40:34)

“Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples.” (1 Chron 16:24)

“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” (Ps. 19:1)

“Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.” (Ps. 24:7)

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace…” (Luke 2)

Only God is worthy of Glory.  But here, Jesus uses the glory language to refer to himself.  “Glorify your Son… bring me into my glory…”  Jesus is declaring that He and the Father are both worthy of Glory.  It’s as if here, as he prepares for his rendezvous with destiny, Jesus is declaring in no uncertain terms his identity as the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity.  Throughout his ministry, over and over Jesus says, “My time has not yet come.”  But now in the Upper Room, he declares that His hour had finally come.  It was time to lay it all on the line.  It was time for him to be glorified before the world.

What Jesus is referring to, of course, is the cross.  It is in laying down his life for our sakes, that Jesus reveals the glory of God. And it is in the willingness of Jesus to endure the cross that we witness the glory of God’s Son.  Jesus prays that he is willing to suffer the shame of the cross if that is what it would take for all the world to behold the glory of God.

So, Christ’s glory is revealed, most perfectly in the cross.  But this glory isn’t a new status for Jesus. According to John’s Gospel, Christ has always and will always be worthy of glory.  It is in John’s Gospel that we are told that Jesus is the Logos, the Word of God that spoke all creation into existence, and it is John that emphasizes that after the cross, Jesus will return to the Father to share God’s glory eternally.  John is the one who quotes Jesus saying, “I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.”  For John, Jesus has always and will always be worthy of glory.

In fact, in order to make sense of this prayer, we have to understand this insight that John has about the work of Christ.  Bible scholars who study John’s Gospel tell us that for John, there is a pattern of descent and ascent – that Jesus came down to earth from glory (the Word made flesh that dwelt among us), revealed his glory on the cross, and returned to reign with the Father in glory.

The way John describes the mission of Christ reminds me of the old stories of the gallant knights of old that were sent out from the castle to kill that dragon and rescue the damsel in distress, bringing her back with him to the castle in victory, so that he might marry her and they might live happily ever after.

The story of Jesus as John tells it is like that.  Jesus, the ultimate “knight in shining armor,” is sent from heaven on a rescue mission, and we are the prize.  In the cross he defeats the dragon, proclaims victory, and brings his bride, the Church, back to the castle to live happily ever after.

Peter captures the same idea in his first Letter.  He writes, “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.  He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake.  Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.” (1 Peter 1:18-21)

So, in our prayer, Jesus prays that in his obedience to his mission, the Son has given glory to his Father.  And now as he completes his mission on the cross, the Father will glorify him.  And the only reason for this elaborate rescue mission – that you and I might have the opportunity to experience eternal life. We are the damsel in distress, who needs rescuing from the dragon.  We are the object of God’s passion and love.

With that in mind, I think there are four insightsthese five verses we should hears – ways the glory of Christ reveal God’s love for us:

The first thing we can learn from Jesus’ prayer is that Christ came into the world to reveal God’s Glory.

This is obvious by what I have just said.  Jesus says this plainly in the 12thchapter of John “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. 45 And whoever sees me sees him who sent me.” (v 44-45)

As you may know from my recent sermon series on the four gospels, each of the four gospel writers presents a little different picture of who Jesus is.  As I mentioned in my sermon on the Gospel of John, one of my seminary professors described John’s understanding of Jesus like this. He said it’s like taking a piece of onion skin paper (some of us a little older will know what that is), and writing with a magic marker the word GOD on one side and JESUS on the other. When you hold up to the light the side that says Jesus, God shows through.  That’s how John describes the mission of Jesus:  When we look at Jesus, we can see the glory of God.

The next insight from our scripture this morning follows naturally from the first:  You and I can also access the Glory of God, but only when we acknowledge, recognize, and accept the glory of the God’s Son.

Jesus makes this clear over and over in John’s Gospel.  It is in this gospel that Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

This claim that Jesus is the only way to God is sometimes called “The Scandal of Particularity,” the assertion by the Christian Church that, because Jesus as the second person of the Trinity is the pure revelation of God, and because of the transformative work of Christ on the cross, there is only one way to have full access to the Father – and that is through faith in Jesus Christ.  In our pluralistic and politically correct society, this claim to particularity is scandalous, and makes many people in our society uncomfortable, even some within the church.  But no matter how you feel about this understanding of salvation, no one can deny that scripture is clear – especially in John – that faith in Jesus is the key to salvation and eternal life.

Hear Jesus’ words again, this time from John 6:38-40;  “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.  And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose none of those he has given me, but raise them up on the last day.  This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”

And of course, from our text this morning, Jesus prays, ”For you have given (the Son) authority over everyone in all the earth. He gives eternal life to each one you have given him.  And this is the way to have eternal life – to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one you sent to earth.”

John is pretty clear – access to the Father is possible only through the Son.  We must recognize the Glory of Christ if we are to hope to see the Glory of God.

The third insight we can glean from the first part of Jesus’ prayer is this:  While faith is Christ is key to our salvation, that salvation is available to all people.  Everyone has access to God’s Glory through Christ.

As I just quoted from the prayer, ”For you have given (the Son) authority over everyone in all the earth. He gives eternal life to each one you have given him.”  Or even more plainly, we find this truth in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life…”

There are some Christian groups and denominations who teach that God has predestined (or predetermined) who should be saved and who should be damned.  That is not our Wesleyan or United Methodist belief. We actually believe Jesus actually meant what he said in John 3:16:  “that whosoeverbelieveth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

My favorite seminary professor put it like this, “John 3:16 is God’s ‘Yes’ to the world; if there is (a) ‘No,’ the world will have to say it.”1

Charles Wesley, the great Methodist hymn writer, put this truth to poetry in his hymn, Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast:

Come, sinners, to the gospel feast;

let every soul be Jesus’ guest.

Ye need not one be left behind,

for God hath bid all humankind.

Christ came to offer salvation to ALL – it is God’s hope and desire that EVERY soul will accept his invitation to the Gospel Feast – In Christ, “God hath bid ALL humankind.”

The final lesson from our morning scripture is wonderful news for each of us.  Because Christ has returned to heaven to share God’s glory, Christ has sent the Holy Spirit to us so that the Glory of God can shine through us.

I said that only God is worthy of Glory – certainly not us.  But when we give Christ the glory he is due, the glory of God comes to rest upon us!

In the chapter that immediately precedes this prayer of Jesus, he says this to his disciples:

“The Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.  I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.”  “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”  (16:27-28, 7)

Paul also teaches us in his Letter to the Romans, that in Christ, we can share God’s Glory:  “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access  to this grace in which we stand; and we  boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” (Rom 5:1-2)

What both John and Paul are telling us is that the mission of Christ’s coming into the world was to transfer God’s glory to you and me!  The Glory of God – can rest on US!

I’m not much into sports, but I love watching the Olympic games.  The couple of weeks when the Games are held captivate the world’s attention.  But preparations for the games begin long before.  Weeks before the Games begin, the Olympic flame must make a long and arduous journey, from the moment it is kindled in Greece, then carried by relay runners throughout the world, until it finally reaches its destination, and the caldron is lit at the opening ceremonies.

I think that image sums up what Jesus is saying about the glory he came to share.  Like the runner who carries the Olympic flame, Jesus bears the glory of God from the heights of heaven, through the dark valleys of the world, until that glory is lit within the caldron of our hearts. We are not complete until the flame of God’s glory burns within us!

Paul expresses it like this in 2 Cor. 4:6: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

So, the challenge we hear from this part of Jesus’ prayer is this:  Do you recognize the Son that God has sent?  Have you beheld the glory of the Son of God, so that God’s glory might come to rest on you?

If not, my prayer for you during this sermon series, is that, as you behold the Glory of Christ on the cross, you might finally see there the Glory of God.

For it’s just as Paul wrote in Second Thessalonians:  “For this purpose (God)called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Thes. 2:14)

1 Fred Craddock. John.  John Knox Press 1982. p. 12

We Are What We Eat

Series: “Taste and See”
#5: “We Are What We Eat”
John 6:47-56 and 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 (NLT)

Today, we have come to the final Sunday in our series on the Lord Supper, the Banquet of God’s Grace spread before us. Throughout this series, I hope you have begun to experience Holy Communion as far more than just a ritual of remembrance, something rote that has little impact on your life. I trust that, by now you are beginning to get an inkling of the transformative power of the sacrament – that as we break the bread and share the cup together each one of us is experiencing the presence of Christ – that we are finding that, as we feed on Christ each Sunday, we are strengthened in our faith and nourished for our journey.

Throughout this series, we have gained a richer understanding of Holy Communion. The first week we learned that remembrance is an action verb – that as we reenact that Last Supper, we are doing more than just recalling an event in ancient history, we are participating in it and are changed by the experience. The second week, we were reminded that, while Holy Communion is based on the meal Jesus shared with his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion, it also calls to mind the Easter supper on the road to Emmaus where the risen Christ was “known in the breaking of the bread.” Two weeks ago, we were reminded how, in the great banquet in the Kingdom of God, God will go out of his way to welcome anyone and everyone who will respond to the invitation to sit at his table. Then last week, we were reminded of the bounty of God’s grace that is available to us all, and how God multiplies His love through us as we share spiritual “Bread” with those who are starving for God.

Now, as we come to the close of our series on Holy Communion, I’d like for us to reflect on why it is that Jesus commands us to eat his body and drink his blood when we share in the bread and wine of communion. As we read in our scripture for today, Jesus says, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life within you.” If you’re like most people, that verse makes you cringe – in fact, it’s sort of grotesque to imagine, it sounds as if Christians are called to be cannibalistic. We know that isn’t true – in our tradition we don’t believe that the bread and wine change substance – that they gorging on are actually the physical body and blood of Christ. And yet, Jesus is very clear that unless we feed on him, we cannot know eternal life: He says plainly, “Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks by blood remains in me and I in him.” We are to eat Jesus. So, what happens to us when we eat the bread and wine of Holy Communion? To understand that, we have to reflect on what it means to eat, and what it means to go hungry.

Eating is essential to life. It is something we take for granted, until we don’t have enough food to eat. And then, eating becomes all we can think about. But few of us know anything about that.

You and I live in one of the wealthiest nations on earth where so much food spoils in our refrigerators, in our fields, and on our grocery store shelves, that it would be enough to feed the entire population of some third world countries. While it is true that there are some people in our own nation who go hungry at night, the vast majority of us, not only have access to plenty of food, we struggle with ways to prevent ourselves from over-eating. For us, the problem is not “famine” but “obesity.” We ingest too much food – and, too much of the wrong types of food.

You see, just because we have available to us a veritable cornucopia of foods doesn’t mean that we eat well. In America, our “malnutrition” is self-imposed.
Just consider most American families. We have to make certain that all of us take vitamin supplements every day because we don’t eat a very balanced diet. The majority of families today have schedules that are so crowded that there often is no time to prepare a balanced healthy meal, so we tend to eat on the go. We will drive-thru and grab a burger and fries, or get take-out. Or sometimes we will just settle for a handful of cookies or crackers, and call it supper.

It’s not surprising, then, that more and more people are facing health problems. The increase in heart disease, cancer, hypertension, diabetes, and many other ailments have been linked to poor diet. It seems that the old maxim may be truer than we want to admit: “You are what you eat.”

If that is true, then we shouldn’t be surprised that, when God wanted to come up with a way to illustrate what it means to be a follower of Jesus, he used a meal to do it. If “we are what we eat,” then it is of utmost importance what we eat, because that will determine our health and vitality.

All human beings need to eat, both physically and spiritually. And just as we can fill our stomachs with junk food and empty calories that do our body little good (and may do them harm), so we often seek out spiritual junk food that leaves us spiritually unsatisfied and malnourished.

Our culture today is a smorgasbord of philosophies, cults, worldviews, and religions that Americans freely sample, hoping they will satisfy – only to discover that they still have that gnawing hunger for meaning and purpose in their lives. You see, “they are what they eat” – they are gorging on empty spiritual calories that cannot satisfy. They don’t realize it, but they long for the banquet table of God – the only food that can fill their emptiness and give them life.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the story of a man and his two sons. You probably know it, The Parable of the Prodigal Son. If you’ll recall, in the story, the younger son takes his inheritance and sets off into “the far country” to “live it up” on his own, and soon discovers that he has made a terrible mistake. It’s interesting that in the story, there are two references to “eating” that I think beautifully illustrate the vast difference between the junk food of the world, and the spiritual banquet that God offers. The Prodigal Son follows the ways of the world, squanders his inheritance, and ends up trying to survive eating pig slop. But then he remembers the dinner table back home at his father’s house, a feast overflowing with wonderful things to eat. And so, he comes home looking for leftovers, but the father will not hear of it – he kills the fatted calf and throws party, because his lost son is home again.

Our scriptures for this morning also tell us that it makes a huge difference how we go about trying to satisfy the spiritual hunger we all feel. We can eat the pig slop the world offers, or we can share in the banquet of grace that God provides. The diet which the world offers is unsatisfying and leads to death. The food that God provides brings fulfillment and eternal life.

As Jesus said in John’s Gospel, “I am the Bread of Life! Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, but they all died. Anyone who eats the bread from heaven . . . will live forever.” Or, he could have simply said, “You are what you eat, so feed on me.”

To say “we are what we eat” in relation to the Lord’s Supper means that something transformative happens when we partake in Holy Communion – we are somehow changed. Eating the body and blood of Jesus together brings about two transformations: it changes us individually, and it changes us corporately.
First, let’s see how eating Jesus’ body and blood changes us individually:
When Jesus says, “this is my body” and “this is my blood,” the early Christians would not have been grossed out and sickened at the thought. They knew Jesus wasn’t speaking literally. He was drawing upon concepts the ancients were very familiar with.
In all ancient religions, animals were sacrificed to their gods as part of their worship. Typically, in pagan cults, the entire animal was dedicated and offered, but only a portion of it would be burned up on the altar. Portions would be given to the priests as their share and to provide them meat to eat. And a portion would be given to the worshiper to consume at a feast to be shared in the god’s honor. It was believed that, when an animal was sacrificed to a god, that god’s spirit resided with the animal, so that anyone who ate the flesh of the sacrifice would actually be taking into their body the spirit and strength of the god. They literally became what they ate – or so they believed.
This is precisely what Paul is giving advice about in First Corinthians, in the sections that come before and after our text this morning. The issue was whether or not a Christian could eat meat that had been sacrificed to one of the pagan gods. If you know that text, you remember that Paul said it wasn’t tainted meat, since the god to which it was offered didn’t exist. But he also said that, if it bothered anyone in the church, everyone should refrain from eating that meat, so not to cause a fellow believer to stumble in his or her faith.

So it’s clear that the early followers of Jesus would have understood the implications of what Jesus was saying when he said they must “eat his flesh.” They must “feed” on him to receive his spirit and his strength.

But, what about Jesus’ instruction to “drink my blood?” To us, that sounds ghoulish, as if we are supposed to become vampires. But any Jew who heard this allusion to blood would have understood the power of that command.

In the Old Testament, Jews were forbidden to drink blood. When animals were slaughtered, they took great care to make certain that all the blood was drained from the carcass before it was eaten. That is because they believed that blood represented life, and that life was given by God – so that meant that blood was sacred. In the temple, when sacrifices were offered, the blood ran freely from the place of sacrifice, and some was splattered in the holy of holies. Why? – because the blood was sacred and was the giver of life.

So, when Jesus commanded that we must drink his blood, he was saying that this most sacred life-giving blood that belongs to God himself, poured out on the cross of Calvary would convey life to all who would receive it. As we sing sometimes, “There is power, power, wonderworking power in the blood of the Lamb.” Again, we are what we eat.

So, when you and I receive the body and blood of Christ, symbolized by the bread and wine of Holy Communion, something miraculous happens: our lives are transformed. In a mysterious way we can’t quite explain, the spirit of Jesus that is present as we eat the bread comes to dwell within us; and the life-giving power of Christ present in the wine that we drink fills us with new and everlasting life. Our lives are changed!
As Paul expressed it in our text from First Corinthians: “When we bless the cup at the Lord’s Table, aren’t we sharing in the blood of Christ? And when we break the bread, aren’t we sharing in the body of Christ?” When we do it by faith, the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

So, sharing in the body of Christ changes us individually. But an even more amazing transformation happens to those of us who share together in Holy Communion – we are transformed from individual believers partaking of the body of Christ, into the Body of Christ for the world today.

Something incarnational happens in Holy Communion. One of the great theological teachings of the Christian faith is the Doctrine of the Incarnation. The Doctrine of Incarnation (which literally means “enfleshment”) is the belief we emphasize every Advent and Christmas – that God himself chose to enter the world as a human baby, to live life as a man teaching us how we should live in relationship with God, and to die our death so that we might be have everlasting life. God took on a human body, the body of Christ.

We all are familiar with that “incarnation.” But there is another incarnation that happens every time we share in the Lord’s Supper. As we receive the body of Christ, Christ becomes incarnate in us, not just individually, but corporately. That’s why Paul speaks in several places of the church being “a body with many members” with Christ as the head. As he has written in 1 Cor. 12:27 “You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”

When you and I partake of the body of Christ through the sacrament, we are transformed into Christ’s Body in the world – Jesus becomes incarnate in us – Jesus’ mission and ministry in the world becomes our mission and ministry. The Kingdom he came to declare is ours to proclaim and to strive for – we become the hands and feet and mouth of Jesus, his ambassadors of love and grace.

In the 16th century, Teresa of Avila beautifully expressed how, in Holy Communion, Christ becomes incarnate in you and me, his Body in the world. She wrote:

Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
with compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands,
Yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes,
You are his body.

Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
with compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Yes, when it comes to the broken body and shed blood of the Lord’s Supper, as we feast on the body of Christ, “we BECOME what we eat.”

So, we have concluded our series on Holy Communion. But the truth is – we have scarcely even begun to scratch the surface of the Lord’s Supper, or to plumb the depths of its significance. In truth, we will never understand all that this sacrament means – it is a holy mystery. That’s the nature of a sacrament – it conveys meaning and the power of God’s grace, even when we can’t explain it. All we can do is offer God prayers of thanksgiving and praise that we can encounter his presence whenever we come to the Table by faith, and there “taste and see that the Lord is good,” indeed!

Multiplying God’s Love

 Series: “Taste and See”

#4:  Multiplying God’s Love (communion version)

John 6:1-15 (NRSV)

By John Gill

Every time a pastor is appointed to a new church, he or she inherits certain traditions and customs started by their predecessor – programs that may be wonderful, but ones that the new pastor probably would not have begun if it had been up to him or her. I know that has been true for me at every new appointment I have received.

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