Easter 6B: Abide

 

Power-of-His-PresenceFIRST READING: Acts 10: 44-48

To read the Lectionary passage from Acts, click here

Backing up just a little bit, Peter has summarized Jesus’ earthly ministry in the preceding verses. In verse 38, he tells the crowd that in Jesus’ baptism, God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power. But then the Holy Spirit comes, as a “gift” on all who were there listening to him speak. But what is surprising to those good circumcised believers that are standing there listening, the ones who have done everything right, the ones who have followed all of the religious rules, is that the Spirit comes upon all who are present—even on the Gentiles.

Here, “speaking in tongues” is a sign of the presence of the Spirit. The pouring out of the Spirit and baptism are closely associated in Acts and Baptism follows the coming of the Spirit. Peter’s question is an important one: If someone has received the Holy Spirit, if God has somehow compelled someone to come forth, if God has somehow some way shown up in their life, then how can we withhold baptism? So he orders them to be baptized under his authority.

Once again, the coming of the Spirit was sudden and unexpected—and unplanned as to who was going to receive it! This now removes any lingering doubt that the Kingdom of God was open to Gentiles and others. The idea of “speaking in tongues” is sort of foreign to us. We’re not really sure to what this was actually referring. Clearly there is language content, but, like the Pentecost experience, perhaps it has more to do with listening than the actual speaking. Once again, the writer of Acts focuses on hospitality and welcome. This speaks loudly to those that are more comfortable with God’s grace being carefully mediated to those that have done everything right.

But the point is that, in all honesty, these people that were of Jewish descent that have become a part of this new Christian movement had already begun to define and limit what the movement was about. So, they were utterly astounded when suddenly Gentiles started showing up with evidence that somehow God had burst into their life. On his blog, Episcopal priest Rick Morley writes a reflection on this passage:

In other words, they have no clue. They have no idea what God is doing, what God is capable of, or who God is able to reach. Instead of being open to the infinite possibilities of God they are closed-minded, thinking that the only way to God is a way that looks like the way that they came to God. As if God can’t be reached by other routes. As if their understanding of God is the only right way. The only possible way.

Of course, this is the quintessential struggle in the New Testament Church between Jewish and Gentile Christianity. The question, “Can one follow Jesus without also being Jewish,” sat over the nascent church like a wet blanket. But, of course, this is also the quintessential struggle of the church today. Most of us can’t imagine a church, or “doing church,” differently than what we have already. As our rolls and pews slowly empty out, we talk about “tweaking this” and “tweaking that.” We’ll add a few drums and post what we’re doing to Facebook. Because that’ll draw them in.

And so, what we have in the Book of Acts is a glimpse into a mirror. Just like the first Church couldn’t see the reign of God past their own paltry view of the possibilities, neither can we. Towards the end of the third chapter of Paul’s Letter to Ephesians, we see a glimmer of someone who “gets it”: Glory to God, whose power working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. (Ephesians 3:28)

It’s like when we look out into the world around us, we see just a sliver—just the tiniest wedge of possibilities. But, God sees the whole sky. The whole infinite expanse of the universe brimming with possibilities. New things to be done. New people to be reached with His love. New ways to crash the reign of God into creation. What gives me the slightest glimmer is that the church in Acts was “astounded.” At least they weren’t “disgusted,” or “dismayed.”

Sometimes when I hear prophets and dreamers in our own day spin visions of what the church can become, the reaction I see is disgust and dismay. I think we need to summon the ability to see the world, the church, and our lives from God’s perspective. We need to pray for that. And then work to make it happen. But, if we’re unable to do that—and I admit that it’s a large task—then at least we need to recapture the ability to be “astounded” when God begins to do something new in our midst, and breathes life into these dry bones we’re always rattling. (From “Even Astonished”, by Rick Morley, May 1, 2012, available at http://www.rickmorley.com/archives/1585, accessed 9 May, 2012.)

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. How does this speak to our churches today?
  3. How does this speak to our world today?
  4. What meaning does this passage bring to baptism for you?
  5. When are you “astounded” by God?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: 1 John 5: 1-6

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This passage sort of repeats the same theme that we found in the Acts passage—that all who believe are adopted children of God. The mark of loving God and obeying God is not “burdensome”, for we are given the power that compels us to follow God and to love our fellow brothers and sisters. To believe in Jesus as the Son of God is at the very core of our faith and through this faith, God reigns.

As people come to Christ, come to God, God’s power is shown more widely throughout the world. And through the mention of water and blood, we are reminded that Jesus experienced both baptism and crucifixion. The Spirit was part of both of these events and is continually present as the soul of the church.  The writer goes on into the following verses and tells us that there are three things that together testify to our belief in Jesus Christ: Holy Spirit at work in the community, Baptism, and Crucifixion as shown in the Eucharist. This is probably a statement against those who believe that Jesus came by water but not through the Spirit that was present in other ways. They were perhaps espousing that Jesus, as God, did not really die, denying Jesus’ very humanness, denying that Jesus was one of us.

The passage depicts love as obedience to God. I don’t think it means that our obedience proves our love for God but rather that if we love God and abide in God’s love, then our obedience to God, our listening to who we are and who we are called to be, is what we do. In essence, our love for God leads us to do nothing less. We tend to think of “obedience” in a bad way, as something that in some way makes us do something other than we want, other than we would do naturally. But here, obedience to God is actually being who we are, tapping into the real us, the real love of God at our very core of being and then living that out in every aspect of our lives. Every aspect of Jesus’ life was for God and for us. We are called to be and do no less.

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What happens if we deny Jesus’ humanness?
  3. What does “obedience” to God mean to you?
  4. What would it mean for you for every aspect of your life to be for God and for others?

 

GOSPEL: John 15: 9-17

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

Jesus continues to prepare his disciples for his physical departure from them. In last week’s passage, he told them that he is the true vine, God’s agent, and that they are the fruit. They represent him in the world—to bear fruit, to do in his name. This is how God’s power will be extended among humans. Jesus has loved them as God has loved them. They are continuing to love him by being obedient to his commandments, to continue to be in a loving relationship with God even after Jesus is gone. This is the kind of love that leads to ultimate joy. Jesus is the model for our behavior and Jesus is the one that loves others so much that he gave his life for them.

The word servant is difficult for us, but to be a servant of God was an honor in Old Testament times. Jesus, then, had chosen these and appointed them to see converts who would be servants. And Jesus depicts what happens when this great love is fulfilled—the fruit of love is abundant joy. The goal, then, is not purity or spotlessness, but a joy that fulfills itself in love.

The way that Jesus addresses the issue of status is interesting. Essentially, the image of servant is abandoned in favor of one of abiding friendship. While the language of serving and servitude has dominated Christian tradition, this little correction deserves more reflection. Perhaps it means that God does not want slaves but, rather companions. It creates a different model of spirituality. Of course friendship also means letting the other be and acknowledging that otherness in its integrity and sacredness. Certainly there is no thought of ‘pocketing’ God or Jesus in a way which reduces either – a kind of power-play which makes them manageable (pocket-able and in my control). Some people either want to dominate or be dominated. They live lives as if it is either-or. The model here is different. It does not compromise the integrity or holiness of the other, but affirms companionship in such holiness. We are not just asked to be friends; we are friends for a purpose; we are friends to bear fruit in Christ.

And, once again, if we love God, if we abide in God, we will keep God’s commandment. It will not be merely that we choose to do so. God chose us. And as children of God, we can do nothing else. It is who we are. From that standpoint, “disobedience” to God is not just doing wrong. It’s more than just ignoring the speed limit. Rather, it is not being and living out who we are. It is being someone other than who God made us to be. It means that we love God and that we love each other. It means that we are no longer estranged from God are separated from others. It calls us all to the table and invites us to sit down and share a meal. No one is excluded. No one is left out.  No one is waiting in the wings wondering if they will be welcomed or shunned. Emily Dickinson once said, “my friends are my estate.” In other words, those with whom we share our lives ARE our lives. Love them as you love your life. Love them the way that Jesus loved. Love them enough that when the chips are down, you can do no other than to love them more than life itself. It is that kind of love that IS fruit, that IS life. It is the love into which God calls us.

In Scripture, hospitality reflects a larger reality than mere survival. It links us to each other and to God. It is understood as a way of meeting and receiving holy presence. Sure it was risky, probably even more risky than it is today, but it was the expectation. It was what we are called to do—to meet God in every face we encounter. It doesn’t mean that we all have to like each other or even get along. A stranger is still a stranger. But we are called to recognize that running beneath all of our lives is a common humanity and a common Creator. It’s not about overcoming differences but rather transcending them and being reconciled to one another in love. And our love for each other is a reflection of our love for God. And letting each of us be who we are is letting God be God.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does this “friendship” in and with Christ mean for you?
  3. How does that change our relationship to God?
  4. What would the world look like if we loved each other more than life itself?
  5. How does this speak to the commonly-used phrase “a personal relationship in Jesus Christ”?
  6. What does this say about hospitality?
  7. What if we had that same “expectation” of hospitality as we find in Scripture?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

Today we are bombarded with a theology of certitude. I don’t find much biblical support for the stance of “God told me and I’m telling you, and if you don’t believe as I do, you’re doomed.” A sort of “My God can whip your god” posture. From Abraham, going out by faith not knowing where he was being sent, to Jesus on the cross, beseeching [God] for a better way, there was always more inquiring faith than conceited certainty. (Will D. Campbell)

My business is not to remake myself, but to make the absolute best of what God made. (Robert Browning)

 

We are what we repeatedly do. (Aristotle)

 

 

Closing

Close by reading the words of “The Servants Song” (Richard Gillard, in The Faith We Sing, # 2222):

Brother, sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you; pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.

We are pilgrims on a journey; we’re together on this road. We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.

I will hold the Christlight for you in the night-time of your fear; I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping; when you laugh, I’ll laught with you. I will share your joy and sorrow till we’ve seen this journey through.

 

When we sing to God in heaven, we shall find such harmony, born of all we’ve known together of Christ’s love and agony.

Easter 4B: All We Like Sheep

Shepherd and sheepOLD TESTAMENT: Acts 4: 5-12

To read the Lectionary passage from Acts, click here

Last week, we read that Peter and John had gone to the Temple to pray and Peter had healed a crippled man. Peter then exhorted the crowd to repent and turn to God that their sins might be wiped out. While all this was happening, the religious authorities became very annoyed and arrested them. John and Peter now appear before the council and are asked to explain their actions: Who empowered you to cure the lame beggar? Peter, “filled with the Holy Spirit”, responds that it was done in the power and name of Jesus Christ (whom, he reminds them, “they” had crucified.) (There’s quite a bit of perceived anti-Semitism that you have to weed through here. Think of it more in terms of the “powers of the day”, the religious authorities, rather than the “Jews”. Remember, Jesus was a Jew.)

He then proclaims Jesus as the “cornerstone” of the Church, God’s agent and affirms that salvation is available through Christ. Following this, (I don’t know why the Lectionary wouldn’t have included it—odd!)  the members of the Sanhedrin (the council) are “amazed…and recognized…them as companions of Jesus.” They note that a notable sign has been done and order the two not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. The two inform them that they will continue to do just that.

You know what’s interesting—if you remember, Peter was never the strong one. In fact, wasn’t he the one who denied Jesus—three times, in fact? Something had changed. God had taken someone fearful, someone cowardly, and turned him into a bold proclaimer.

It is obvious, though, that the “powers” of the day sense the threat that was there. After all, the whole priestly entourage turns out. But that concluding statement has always caused problems in history. Christians have gone to war through the centuries armed with that last statement—that “no other name under heaven….” But the truth here is that Jesus was the one who confounded the whole system—turning the tables, so to speak. Here’s a quote from Walter Wink—he says it better than I do:

If “saved” means being united and reconciled with God, then Acts 4:12 is palpably false. There are many authentic roads to God, and no religion holds the franchise for illumination. But if “saved” here means being delivered from the bondage and delusions of the domination system, and being empowered to set others free–if it means ultimately transforming the system itself and renouncing domination in all its forms–then Jesus is indeed the one who can yet save the world from the domination system. And that, it seems to me, is a factual statement with which persons of all religions might agree. (From “Those Obstreperous Idiots”, in The Christian Century, April 13, 1994)

The point of it all is that Jesus promises a new wholeness, a new unity that will restore an otherwise broken world. I mean, when you think about, it had already healed Peter, already made Peter more of who God was calling him to be—strong, courageous, bold. So, how can good come out of a corrupt world? Good comes because God will never let corruption, or rejection, or despair, or injustice, or even crucifixion have the last word. Essentially, resurrection is always happening. In his blog on this Scripture, Dr. John Holbert says it like this:

It is nothing less than tragic that the idea of “being saved” has too often done precisely the opposite; it has divided people rather than united them. Ironically it will do that as well in the ongoing story of Acts, as Jews and early Christians grew further and further apart. Still, as the famous, and infamous, John 3:16 proclaims, “God so loved the cosmos” and sent Jesus, “not to condemn the cosmos,” but in order that the “cosmos might be made whole,” restored, made one again. By implication, any time that the name of Jesus is used to divide, and not unite, to generate hatred and not love, to separate person from person rather than join them together, that name has been besmirched, misused, profaned. We Christians, all of us, would do well to meditate on our use of Jesus’ name and ask ourselves what use we have made and make of it in our own faith lives. (From “A Fresh Wholeness”, available at http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Fresh-Wholeness-John-Holbert-04-23-2012, accessed 25 April, 2012.

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What do the abuses of this passage that exist do to its meaning?
  3. What does it mean for you to be “saved” through Christ?
  4. From what systems of domination does Christ deliver us today?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: 1 John 3: 16-24

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

In this passage, the author (we’re not sure who that is really!) begins by addressing the nature of love, pointing to Christ’s love that involved Christ laying down his life for us. It implies here that this is not a vicarious sacrifice but, rather, a total self-giving for others. That, then, is what love really is—giving oneself for others. The focus is not on sacrifice or atonement here, but on love and generosity.

Even though this letter is written within the context of the Christian community, it does not seem to limit the directive to love for that community only. This love is limitless. From love comes the right thoughts, the right actions, the truth, and the boldness to proclaim belief in the name of Jesus Christ. For the author, confidence comes from relating to God, rather than a notion of piety that separates one from God because of sin.

Through loving one another, we obey God and abide in God. It affirms the sufficiency of God and God’s love. By loving one another, by loving God, by abiding in God, we will get the sustenance that we need to live. In fact, in a community in which God’s love abounds, all will get what they need and all will live together in unity and wholeness. It is not the rule; it’s just the way it is. This clearly envisions a world where people are not diminished but are allowed to stand on their own beliefs with confidence. And the “right” belief means that they will love and respect each other.

This epistle was written to a community that saw themselves within the broken world in which they lived. But they are reminded here that God is ever-present and always-loving. Perhaps we need to be reminded of the same thing. After all, what does God’s Presence look like in our lives, in our world? What shape does God’s Presence take in our lives? What does a world look like that overflows with God’s love?

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What happens to these thoughts in our consumer-driven society?
  3. Why do we not live our lives this way?
  4. What does God’s Presence look like in our lives?

 

 

GOSPEL: John 10: 11-18

To read the Lectionary Gospel Passage, click here

The ancient shepherd of Palestine had to be tough, worked often in areas of sparse growth, and frequently was amid dangers from wild animals and sheep stealers. But it was his job, his very livelihood, to protect the flock, particularly at night. The use of the shepherd image reflects both strength and nurture. This was not leadership that just sat back and told people what to do—it was, rather fully engaged in the workings of life.

It’s hard for us to grasp, but a shepherd does not care for a flock of no-name, generic animals. A shepherd that does his job well would know each and every one of the sheep for which he is responsible. (My grandfather could name every cow on our ranch—it always amazed me.) The point is, this is not a removed role of leadership but fully participatory and engaged. But, when you think about it, it has little to do with control. After all, have you ever tried to control a bunch of sheep? The image is of a shepherd, not a controller.

So, Jesus as the shepherd may not be the peaceful, pastoral Jesus we envision. This was hard work. This was dangerous work. This was work that few “respectable” people would do. So what does that say? It says that Christ does not stand on the principles of this society or this world. The passage reminds us that Christ never gave in to his own preservation but instead gave himself to and for the world. And, so we are called to do the same, to be like Christ.

I think, though, the image of sheep is something that we should not omit. We tend to concentrate on the shepherd part and we forget the image of the sheep. After all, we don’t like to admit it, but we make pretty good sheep. We stand protected by our ranks, assured of our stance because others think the same within the boundaries of our lives, and secure in our walls we’ve built because we have company that’s helped us build them. And then someone comes along, honks a horn, and we take off running, not because there’s really a threat, but because everyone else is doing it.

And so, what about the other sheep? What about those that Christ invites into the flock? You know, it’s interesting—when we want to set limits, God tells us that it is precisely those on the other side of the wall who belong to the fold. And that’s what often makes us run or at least put our guard up a bit.

Sure, sheep are communal animals. The herd is the very essence of their survival. And, yet, they know that it’s the shepherd to whom they look. They’re really not worried about who is in the flock. Whoever follows the shepherd is one of them.

We all know what a “herd mentality” is. It is that thing that sends panic through a crowded space if someone claims they have a weapon. It is that thing that makes us drive above the speed limit if all the cars around you are doing just that—after all, I, personally, don’t like it when people pass me. Some would say, sadly, that it affects our very democratic process, as polls of who everyone else thinks should win come rolling out. In our world, a “herd mentality” somehow convinces people to not think for themselves. All we like sheep herd ourselves into the place that everyone else is and we expect the world to get in line behind us.

So you see, I’m not convinced that the character in this passage with which we should identify is actually the Good Shepherd. I’m thinking it is, rather, the sheep. Have you ever thought that the word “sheep” is the same for both singular and plural tenses? Isn’t that interesting? It’s as if it doesn’t matter, because it’s all the same.

Perhaps we are called to a new herd mentality—to a new way of living. In the society in which we live, we are encouraged to act as individuals, to do the things that preserve our own self-interest and our own self-preservation. And, yet, we sometimes struggle to think for ourselves. What would people think? But Christ calls us to a new herd mentality. Perhaps it is one where the singular and the plural no longer matter, where we act as a herd, as a group that follows Christ. But don’t get me wrong…we are meant to think for ourselves. That is called belief. That is called faith.

For the writer, the fact that Jesus laid down his life meant that Jesus brought life. It was not really a “sacrificial lamb” here, though. It meant that Jesus, the shepherd, loved the flock enough to ensure them life. And, as part of the “flock”, following the Good Shepherd means following and receiving life.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What meaning does the “shepherd” image evoke for you?
  3. What meaning does the notion of the sheep evoke for you?
  4. How does that image speak to our lives today?

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

If I look at the mass I will never act, if I look at the one, I will. (Mother Teresa)

 

Sure, people need Jesus, but most of the time, what they really need is for someone to be Jesus to them. (Reuben Welch)

 

Experiments have shown how much of our behavior is determined by the mental images to which our minds are constantly returning. If we bring our minds back again and again to God, we shall by the same inevitable law be gradually giving the central place to God, not only in our inner selves, but also in our practical everyday lives. (Paul Tournier)

 

 

Closing

PSALM 23  LORD God, divine shepherd; in the days ahead, just as it has been all my life,  I shall not want for anything. You will rest me in rich pasture  and lead me beside calm waters. You will bring my inner being back where it belongs, and lead me along the right paths,  for the sake of your name. Even when things seem at their darkest, sensing your presence, I fear nothing; you are sure of the way ahead, and you protect me. Indeed, in spite of the adversity surrounding me you continue to provide abundantly for my well-being; anointing me with your hospitality and pouring out blessing upon blessing. Surely good and loving kindness will pursue me all my days, I will return, and you, O LORD,  shall be my dwelling-place for days without end.

                                    (by Jeff Snowden)