Message Archive

Sermons

24
Apr

Love beyond fear

Acts 11:1-18 Psalm 148 Revelation 21:1-6 John 13:31-35

As described in John’s Gospel account of the Crucifixion, as Jesus was dying on the cross, his last words were, “It is finished.” We might interpret these words to mean, “It is over, done, ended, forecast is doom and gloom.”

When we step back, however, reading more closely Jesus’ words to his disciples in the hours before he would go to the cross, we begin to better understand, “It is finished” to mean more accurately, “It is complete; it is perfected.”

If Michelangelo stood gazing up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and spoke the words, “It is finished,” his meaning would not be indicating an ending but a beginning. “It is finished.” [Though it is well-known to have been quite a miserable four-year experience for the artist] But rather, his statement would mean for us, “My work is completed, with God’s help it is perfected to the best of my ability;” generations going forward will be inspired and enlightened by this magnificent work of art.

Understanding that Jesus’ death and resurrection completed our salvation causes us to look more closely at the words we read from our Gospel lesson for this 5th Sunday of Easter. These words from our Gospel lesson are a portion of Jesus’ last discourse – a discourse that consumes four full chapters of John’s Gospel – chapters that preceded the account of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Jesus is speaking to his followers, trying as best he can to prepare them for the horrific events that are to come, planting seeds of insight that would be nurtured and understood as the events unfold, planting seeds of insight that would guide them in the days when Jesus would no longer be physically present with them, and it would be up to these first followers to see that the seeds of the Good News would be spread throughout all the world.

Jesus spoke to his followers of the New Commandment – a new understanding of what it is to be the people of God – a new way of understanding that the Crucifixion was not an ending, but a beginning.

Certainly, Jesus’ command that we love one another is not a “new” commandment for us, for the disciples to whom Jesus is speaking, or for the audience to whom John is writing.

Our lesson in John follows the departure of Judas into the night for the purpose of betraying Jesus to the authorities who would arrest, convict, and crucify him. Just prior to Judas’ departure, in the essence of ultimate humility and servanthood, Jesus had bathed the feet of the disciples as they gathered in this upper room where they shared their last meal together.
Jesus’ time for instruction of his disciples was coming to a close; these are among his last words to his followers during the last hours of their time together. There are no parables or allegories to tease their understanding of his message. This setting creates the paradox of Jesus’ words. And, Jesus gets right to the point.

How odd that Jesus would speak of the Son of Man being glorified and God being glorified in him. This gloomy setting would seem to be the opposite of glorification. Yet, without question, Jesus is speaking of the fulfillment of God’s work through him, fulfillment that would come in the next hours and days.

God would be glorified. The horrors of the darkness of this night were just beginning. But, the evil darkness would be overcome by Jesus’ Resurrection on the third day, and the truth of Jesus Christ as the Messiah would be illumined for all the world to see and believe. God would be glorified.

Jesus exemplified humility and servanthood in the washing of his disciples’ feet – even the feet of Judas. Now, Judas had departed to commit his evil deed. Jesus knew of the physical, emotional, and spiritual torment that he was to face and, yet, he spoke of love, forgiveness, and peace as he went forth willingly to the cross.

These last hours are most sacred and intimate for Jesus and his followers. His address, “little children,” emphasizes the intimacy.

Certainly, Jesus’ command to love one another is not new, but the background and the circumstances of this intimate setting broadens and clarifies the meaning of loving one another in a way that challenges the disciples – in a way that challenges all of us – to love beyond the limits of our fears, beyond our surface understanding of love, beyond our preconceived opinions of one another.

Jesus demonstrates the servanthood of love.

In our lesson from Acts, the seeds of understanding the new commandment of love beyond fear are beginning to sprout for Peter. In this mysterious rather bazaar dream, Peter is the first perhaps to experience this new understanding. For Peter, God’s people were those of the Jewish faith, circumcised believers, children of Abraham. Anyone outside the faith was a condemned sinner, outcast, not worthy or even capable of receiving and understanding the Word of God.

This dream, about which we read in our lesson from Acts, changes that interpretation of God’s plan for all creation. Peter, prior to this time had been criticized for his violation of the strict dietary laws of his Jewish faith. In his dream, he is assured of the cleanliness of all foods, kosher or otherwise. In interpreting the dream, Peter comes to see that the message doesn’t really apply only to food for human consumption and dietary laws so strictly enforced; the message applies to people. All people – men/women; Jew/Gentile/Greek/Roman; young/old; black/brown/white; familiar/foreign – all people are to be the recipients of the spread of the seeds of the Good News. “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

The ministry of Jesus Christ was not “ended” on the cross; it was “perfected.” Now, it would be up to his followers to carry that message of perfection to the world – to carry that new understanding of the new commandment – a clarified understanding through the mission and ministry of Christ – a new commandment of just how we are to love one another – loving beyond our fears, loving beyond our prejudices.

Love is loving others more than our earthly selves – accepting, embracing, forgiving, upholding, loving each other even when we are so hard to love. In love, the glory of God is fulfilled as our lives, our community, and our relationships are centered in Christ. In these last hours, Christ breathed peace into his disciples. The peace of his love overcame the betrayal and the denials. The peace of his love overcomes our betrayals and denials.

Listen again to the words of Jesus – words among the last that he would speak to his disciples before being condemned to death on the cross, “Little children, I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. I have loved you in order that you also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Thus, Jesus’ time on earth was finished, completed, perfected.

Through the servanthood of love beyond fear, in peace and forgiveness, everyone will know that we are disciples of Jesus Christ.

17
Apr

The Good Shepherd

Easter 4C
Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Rev. 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

For just a few moments I’d like for you to close your eyes and imagine that you are seated in a chair across from Jesus. The two or you are discussing the week that has passed. What were the good things about the week? What were the difficult or frustrating experiences? Were there times when the two of you felt particularly close? Or, were you two ships passing in the night?
Can you relate at least one particularly incident of the past week in which you were quite surprised to find Jesus present? Were there times that Jesus was present with you, but you turned and walked away? What are Jesus’ words to you? Are they encouraging and complimentary? Comforting? Or, are they judgmental and reprimanding? Perhaps they even seem quite harsh. Jesus is often depicted as a tough disciplinarian. How do you see Jesus in your face-to-face one-on-one conversation?

The setting of our Gospel lesson is the Temple. This conversation between Jesus and “the Jews” is quite heated. Remember that the writer of John is angry and frustrated with his fellow Jews for their lack of belief in Jesus and for their persecution of the followers of Jesus. His anger pervades his writing and we shouldn’t see this as grounds for anti-Semitism. Rather, we use these writings as a mirror to look at our own misconceptions and actions that inhibit the Christian message.

Historically, the Jews see the Temple as the place where God lived. From near and far, they would make pilgrimage to Jerusalem, preferably yearly, to worship and bring their appropriate sacrifice to the Temple. From their time of their sojourn through the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt, God had resided in a tangible place – the Ark of the Covenant – a large box containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, a jar of manna, and Aaron’s rod. The people carried the ark through the wilderness. Many years later when King Solomon constructed the great Temple, the Ark was placed in the Holy of Holies. Finally, God had a house.

But, Jesus’ message is that God does not live in a physical house built of mortar and stone. Jesus’ message is that God’s laws are not in a box, maintained there for the purpose of strict obedience to tangible earthly rules.

Jesus’ message is that God lives in him – Jesus the Messiah – and that his laws are guidance in the ways his people are to live in relationship with one another. This clarity of God’s law – this new interpretation is something that those charged with policing Jewish laws and traditions find it difficult to accept. For some of these religious leaders, God was a god of harsh judgment who needed these leaders to enforce his brutal authority. All faith traditions have leaders such as these, even today. And, too often, we see our selves in relation to God’s harsh judgment rather than unconditional love.

Jesus is asking these leaders – these “religious police” to believe that he, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Father God are one – that God lives in Jesus rather than this earthly Temple. Jesus knew that it was difficult for them to believe.

The imagery of the Good Shepherd would be something to which the inhabitants of this culture could relate. Jesus uses this imagery to emphasize their failure to believe the evidence that had been presented to them throughout his ministry.

This 4th Sunday of Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday. Each year on this Sunday our focus is on the Good Shepherd imagery. On this Good Shepherd Sunday especially, I invite you to take time before you leave today to stand before the Good Shepherd Window that for too much of the time rests in the dark recess of our parish hall. Much unappreciated, the window dates back to the very early years of the history of this parish. Stand there and imagine a face-to-face conversation with Jesus, the Good Shepherd. What variety of emotions do you experience – perhaps a balance of both senses of compassion and discipline.

Stand there and reflect on your relationship with Jesus and the emotions that well up from your connection with that image.

There are numerous bits of symbolism expressed by the Good Shepherd. The imagery of the 23rd Psalm is endless and we could spend hours exploring the symbolism. There is an article from the December 1949 issue of the National Wool Grower that has been reprinted a number of times. The article describes sheepherding in the Holy Land. It takes Psalm 23 line-by-line to connect the imagery of shepherding with the guidance of Jesus, our Good Shepherd.
Among the most fascinating imagery within the article is that of “the valley of death” through which we are to “fear no evil” for the Good Shepherd’s rod and staff comfort us. To help us visualize the profound message of this verse of the psalm, the shepherd describes for us a valley known as the South Defile through which climate and grazing conditions make it is necessary for the herders to move their sheep each season.

“The valley is four and a half miles long. Its sidewalls are over 1500 feet high in places and it is only 10 or 12 feet wide at the bottom. Travel through the valley is dangerous, because its floor, badly eroded by cloudbursts, has deep gullies. Actual footing on solid rock is so narrow in places that a sheep cannot turn around, and it is an unwritten law of shepherds that flocks must go up the valley in the morning hours and down towards the eventide, lest flocks meet in the defile. Mules have not been able to make the trip for centuries, but sheep and goat herders from earliest Old Testament days have maintained a passage for their stock.

“About halfway through the valley the walk crossed from one side to the other at a place where the path is cut in two by an eight-foot gully. One section of the path is about 18 inches higher than the other; the sheep must jump across it. The shepherd stands at this break and coaxes or forces the sheep to make the leap. If the sheep slips and lands in the gully, the shepherd’s staff is brought into play. The old-style crook is encircled around a large sheep’s neck or a small sheep’s chest, and it is lifted to safely. If a more modern narrow crook is used, the sheep is caught about the hoofs and lifted up to the walk.

“Many wild dogs lurk in the shadows of the valley looking for prey. After a band of sheep has entered the defile, the leader may come upon such a dog. Unable to retreat, the leader baas a warning. The shepherd, skilled in throwing his rod, hurls it at the dog and knocks it into the washed-out gully where it is easily killed. Thus the sheep have learned to fear no evil, even in the valley of the shadow of death for their master is there to aid them and protect them from harm.”

This shepherd describes his rod and his staff as implements of protection. What we know as the shepherd’s crook, symbolized by our bishop’s crozier, is known to provide protection as well as discipline. Certainly, the shepherd would use his crook or rod to direct the sheep down the appropriate path, and, as described above to rescue a sheep that had fallen off the path.

The Good Shepherd is a profound symbol of our Lord Jesus Christ – our Lord who comforts us in the valley of death. Our Lord comforts us, not only by protecting us with his staff as he rescues us from dangerous pitfalls, but, also, with his rod, as he directs and judges us – sometimes gently, sometimes more harshly.

Like the Jews gathered around him at the temple, Jesus directs us to believe in him and to observe God’s laws by his example – not as a means for punishment but as guidance in our relationship with one another – believing and guidance received through our intentional efforts to come to know Jesus and make him known – to recognize Jesus in our day to day encounters – to recognize the rod and the staff as the rescuer, the comforter, and the gentle disciplinarian.

So, how is that conversation going between the two of you?