Jesus Prays for Evangelists

I’ll spare you a long rant about the RCL and its oddball usage of John’s Gospel, and simply note that on Sunday, like every Seventh Sunday After Easter (see A and C) we will hear a portion of Jesus’ final prayer for his disciples, ripped from its context and nonsensically placed on the final Sunday of Eastertide.  As such, we hear Jesus using pronouns for which there is no direct antecedent.  As the preacher, I’m privy to the larger story, as I should be, but since we, like many Episcopal congregations, have no Bibles in the pews, those who show up on Sunday, will only get a small glimpse into Jesus’ prayer, and will likely be left wondering what Jesus is talking about when he says:

“I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.”

Asking what, exactly?  The pericope appointed for Year B skips what Jesus is asking for.  As we look back to the opening verses of John 17, we note that despite the section heading that has been inserted into the text, “Jesus prays for his disciples,” what Jesus is really praying for in this moment is that the Father might “glorify the son, so that the Son my glorify you.”  In John, this language of glorification is a clear reference to the crucifixion.  In being lifted up on the cross, Jesus is raised upon his throng as king.  Paradoxically, through his brutal and embarrassing death, Jesus is glorified as the Savior of the World and the King of the Jews.

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With that context in mind, we return to the appointed lesson for Sunday.  When Jesus says that he is asking for his glorification, it isn’t so that world, which in John’s Gospel is synonymous with sin, will see it and be changed, but rather, that those who already believe might be further empowered.  As the disciples will soon look upon the glorification of Jesus, it is his hope that they might be encouraged, rather than dejected.  In verse 18, Jesus makes hope this overt, when he prays to the Father, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have them them into the world.”

If those words sound familiar, it is because they appear almost verbatim in the much more popular John 20:21, which we hear every Easter 2 and on the Day of Pentecost in Year A.  There, the now resurrected Jesus enters a locked room where his disciples were gathered, clearly dejected and afraid, having failed to live into his prayer from a few days before.  He breathes upon them, and essentially answers this prayer for them in saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

In praying for his glorification, on behalf of his disciples and not the world, Jesus prays that the Father might encourage future evangelists.  His prayer is that those who have experienced relationship with God through Christ might have the ability and desire to share that Good News with a world that is evil and fallen.  In praying for the disciples to be empowered through his death, he prays for us as well, that we too might be sent, as the Father sent his only Son, into the world, empowered by the Spirit, to tell the story of God’s saving love.

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The Open Font

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For the second Sunday in a row, congregations following the Revised Common Lectionary will hear of the profound power of the open font.  Last Sunday, it was Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch from Acts 8.  In that story, the Spirit compelled Deacon Philip to come alongside a foreigner who also happened to be a Eunuch, and share with him the Good News of Jesus Christ.  After Philip takes him from the Suffering Servant in Isaiah all the way through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Eunuch comes to faith, sees some water along the side of the road and asks, “What is to keep me from being baptized?”

The answer, of course, is nothing.  Nothing would keep him from being baptized.  It would be easy to consider this an aberration: a one off event with details so out of the ordinary as to be ignored.  It is as if the RCL folks knew this, and so, in this week’s lesson from Acts, we hear of a similar situation involving Peter and a group of Gentiles.  Here, instead of it being the outsider who asks, we hear from Peter, the rock upon which Jesus would build the Church, asking, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?”

The answer, again, is no.  No one can withhold the waters of baptism.  Nothing would prevent someone who desires it from being baptized.  This is why, in proper Episcopal architecture, one passes by the font en route to the table.  It serves as a weekly reminder that we walk through the waters of baptism to be nourished weekly at the Table.

As you might suspect, I am not an advocate of so-called “open communion.”  I am a firm believer that our fonts should be wide open, that nothing should keep anyone from being baptized, but that it is through baptism, the outward and visible sign of “union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit” that we are then brought to the Table to receive the Body and Blood of our Savior Jesus Christ (BCP, 858).

There isn’t, I don’t think, a need to preach on these theological arguments.  My guess is that the average Peggy Pewsitter doesn’t much care about the battles that get waged at General Convention.  There is, however, a teaching/preaching opportunity to highlight the hows/whys of our open font, architecture, and the call that all Christians share to bring people to faith in Jesus Christ.  If you didn’t preach Acts 8 last week, despite my pleas that you would, maybe this week’s short passage from Acts 10 will offer you the opportunity to share with your community God’s love for everyone, no exceptions.

The Irrational Logic of Love

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Under normal circumstances, the use of circular logic is not recommended.  It is a logical fallacy to use the end to justify the question at hand.  Describing the love of God, however, is not something that can be defined by logic.  God’s love is, as I’ve said elsewhere, prodigal.  It is poured out in abundance, with reckless abandon, such that all of humanity, good and evil, believer and heathen, sinner and saint, fall within the reach of God’s saving embrace.  Sunday’s Gospel lesson is one of those moments when the irrational logic of love becomes abundantly clear.  Well, clear as mud anyway.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  (John 15:10-12)

If we keep the commandments of Jesus, we will abide in his love.  OK, great, so what are the commandments of Jesus?  To love one another as he has loved us.  Right, so we love like Jesus loves in order to abide in Jesus’ love?  That’s a lot of love.  So much love that these words from Jesus to his disciples on the night before he died fill me with a mixture of comfort and fear.  There is no way I can love my neighbor like Jesus loves me.  Yet, I take some solace in the promise that if I do, I will abide in Jesus’ love, for it is out of that love that I will be able to love.

Wait… what did I just type?

See, the love of God is irrational.  We who would follow Jesus are invited into that irrationality.  We are called upon to love beyond our means precisely because it will teach us to rely on God who is love.  We love because God loved us first, and it is in that relationship of receiving God’s abundant love in order to share it with the world that we ultimately experience the fullness of joy that is our promise from God.

So love the world recklessly and extravagantly, just as God does, because God loves you recklessly and extravagantly.

It is all about love

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Some thirteen years later, I can still remember sitting in my homiletics class critiquing the sermons of my colleagues.  Between that and a similar practice in our liturgics practicum, to this day, I am incapable of simply attending a church service.  My eyes are always looking for things I would do differently.  My ears are always fixed on ways I would have preached the text.  When I get frustrated with this inner critic, I think back to those homiletics classes and remember that one time that I really got bent out of shape with a classmate who preached a sermon entitled, “it is all about love.”

“We don’t have a good working definition of love,” I said, indignantly, “so to preach ‘its all about love’ is to only exacerbate the misunderstanding.”  More than a decade later, I still stand by that critique, but I see how maybe I could have helped more by suggesting a working definition of love rather than just throwing my hands up and saying, “quit with all this love garbage.”  With our Presiding Bishop’s inaugural sermon forever floating around the internet as an Episcopal meme, it seems that maybe Sunday’s epistle lesson is begging Episcopal preachers to spend some time talking about Christian love.

Not including the two times John refers to his readers as “beloved,” the word love appears no less than 26 times in 15 verses.  Twice, the author simply says “God is love.”  It would behoove us, I think, to help people understand what this means.  In every case, all twenty-six times, the Greek word translated as love is agape.  Agape describes a love that is deeper than feelz.  It isn’t just about butterflies in your stomach or safe-church-side-hugs or I’m-ok-you’re-ok-crappy-theology.  Agape love is about giving oneself for another.  It is a kind of love that has to be decided upon.  It is love that requires action.  It is a self-sacrificial love that seeks the betterment of the one who is loved.  Agape love is the love that brings Jesus to earth in the form of a human being.  It is the love that takes him to the cross that we might have life eternal.  It is the love that invites us to share the Good News of God with a world that desperately needs it.

Before you spend 12 minutes talking about love this Sunday, please spend twice as much time considering what agape means for the people in your pews.  Our Presiding Bishop is right, if it’s not about love, then it’s not about God, but there are so many different, sometimes unhelpful, definitions of love, that we owe it to our people to unpack what it all means.

Spiritual Work

As many of you know, I am part of a group of disciples who are working to proclaim resurrection in the Episcopal Church.  Our mission, as articulated in the founding blog posts of the movement, finds is roots in the eighth chapter of Acts.  This is a turning point in the life of the fledgling Church.  Stephen has just been martyred, while Saul looked on approvingly, and the first significant persecution is underway.  Because of the faithfulness of those early Christians, who fled Jerusalem but not their faith in Christ, the Christian faith is still around today.  It is a story of hope, of evangelism, and of perseverance.  It is a story that has motivated the Acts 8 Movement to continue to call Episcopalians to share the good news of God in Christ with a world that desperately needs it.

As one who has spent a lot of time immersed in Acts 8, it is always exciting to me when it rolls around in the lectionary cycle.  This is especially true on Easter 5B, as we hear the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.  I could probably write a book on this passage, but blogs are supposed to be short form, so I’ll spare you the long diatribe and jump right in to the word that leaped off the screen at me this morning.  Philip, having been brought to the wilderness road by the Holy Spirit, overhears the Eunuch reading from Isaiah.  In a manner that is quite forward, Philip approaches the Eunuch and asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?”  He responded, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

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This word, “guide,” caught my attention this morning.  Digging into it a bit, I found that the Greek word, hodegeo, is used only four other places in the New Testament.  Twice, in Luke and Matthew, it is used in variations of the idiom “the blind leading the blind.”  In Revelation, it is used to describe what the lamb at the center of throne will do for the rest of us sheep, “guiding us to the springs of the water of life.”  Of most interest, however, is how it gets used by John in the Gospel.  Late in Jesus’ ministry, as part of his farewell discourse, Jesus promises his disciples another advocate, the Spirit, who will guide (hodegeo) them into all truth.

Of further interest, is the etymology of hodegeo, which, according to Robertson, comes from hodos meaning way and hegeomai meaning to lead.  Beyond simply guiding, what the Spirit is sent to do, and what the Spirit does through Philip for the Eunuch, is to lead him in the Way.  The Spiritual work, then, for all of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus, is to lead others in the Way of Jesus.  This assumes that we will, ourselves, be disciples, having been lead in the Way by others.  It assumes that we will all be growing in our faith and in our understanding of the Gospel and of God, in order to teach others.  It assumes, more than anything else, that we will be in tune with the Spirit, who will guide us, as was the case for Philip, into all truth and into opportunities to guide others.

Lessons from the Shepherd – a sermon

According to the centennial history of Christ Episcopal Church, Bowling Green, compiled in 1944 by Elizabeth Coombs, the window behind me, depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd, was given in memory of Mary Wilkins.  It was originally placed in the second Christ Church, which was built in the late 1860s, on College Street between Seventh and Eighth, somewhere near Cecelia Memorial Presbyterian Church, to replace the original church that had been destroyed during the Civil War.  The Mary Wilkins window replaced the original altar window in the College Street church after it was destroyed in a storm, and was eventually moved, along with the altar, pews, and several other furnishings to 1215 State Street in 1912. The Juliette Adams Carson and John M. Wilkins windows were then added to the right and left.  When the nave was expanded in 1991, all three windows were moved to their current location.  I tell you all of this to note that the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd has long been an important one in the life of Christ Church.  In fact, for more than 100 years, until the expansion and the addition of nine new Christ windows, Christ the Good Shepherd was the only image of Jesus we had in stained glass. For centuries, stained glass was a primary teaching tool for the church.  In a world where illiteracy was the norm prior to the Reformation, the images depicted in windows helped the uneducated learn the story of God’s redemptive love.  For the people of Christ Church, since before the turn of the 20th century, the prevailing image we have had of Jesus is that of Christ the Good Shepherd.

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This Mary Wilkins window has been helpful to me this week because I often struggle to preach on what we commonly call Good Shepherd Sunday.  Each year, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we hear a portion of Jesus’ Good Shepherd discourse from John’s Gospel.  Not only is this teaching removed from its larger context, but we don’t even hear the whole thing, just small pieces of it spread out over a three-year period.  What happens when we do that, I think, is that we end up with a sappy Hallmark image of Jesus, lovingly carrying a sheep, with no real sense as to why this image is important.  Couple that with the reality that 21st century Americans don’t really have much contact with shepherds, and this lesson easily becomes a feels-fest about a Jesus who likes to give hugs.  Thanks to the Friends of Music, who commissioned John David Thompson to paint the window, I’ve been able to find some deeper meaning.

The first thing I noticed when I saw John David’s painting was how stern Jesus looks.  Even as you look behind me, while there is a subtle softness to Jesus’ expression, there is a steely look in his eyes, and a startling lack of a smile on his lips.  This image of Jesus, not as a meek and mild shepherd, but as one who knew the hardships of such labor, is in keeping with the larger narrative into which the Good Shepherd discourse falls.  It all begins a chapter earlier when Jesus healed a man born blind on the Sabbath.  In the back and forth of the story, the once-blind man was expelled from the Synagogue and a controversy arose between Jesus and the Pharisees in which Jesus ultimately accused the Pharisees of being blind to the work of God in the world.  He then launches into this good shepherd teaching, where he places himself, as the Good Shepherd, over and against the thieves, bandits, and hired hands who don’t care about the sheep, but are only concerned about themselves.

If Jesus as the Good Shepherd isn’t simply an image of a gentle Jesus, what can we learn from this challenging Sunday?  This week, I’ve discovered three lessons from the shepherd image.  The first two come from the 23rd Psalm that we also read every Fourth Sunday of Easter.  In the opening line of the Psalm we hear these words, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.”  Sheep aren’t primarily raised as food.  As such, the goal of the shepherd isn’t to plump up the sheep as quickly as possible to put a lean cut of meat on our plates in as little time as possible and at the lowest cost. Sheep are raised for the long-haul.  They are raised to provide wool season after season and to provide milk for cheese, year after year.  The provision that the shepherd gives to the sheep isn’t about immediate gratification, but about the quality of the final product.  To our 21st century American ears, not being in want sounds extravagant.  It means a shiny new iPhone every year to connect to the blue tooth in our shiny new SUVs.  In context, to not be in want means to be taken care of with our best interests in mind.  Rather than being a call to engage in the commercialism of today, following God as a providing shepherd means trusting that what we have in our lives is what we need for the moment.  I guess it means really believing when we pray, “give us this day our daily bread.”  The Good Shepherd has our long-term spiritual health in mind.  We are being prepared not for today or tomorrow, but for eternal life.  As such, we are called to follow the shepherd who provides all we need, not for the immediate, but for the eternal.

Which leads me to the second lesson I learned about the Lord our Shepherd this week.  Moving to the fourth verse, we come to the reason why the 23rd Psalm is read at so many funerals.  “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with my; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”  Thinking of God, and by extension Jesus the Good Shepherd, as being present with us, even in the depths of the valley of the shadow of death, is important.  It is part of why the cross is so important as well.  Without God having experienced the fullness of our human experience, highs and lows, joys and sorrows, excitements and fears, the redemption that occurs through Christ is less than whole.

It is only in the cry of dereliction that the truth of Psalm 23, verse 4 is made full.  God walks with us, not only in those times of joy, but even into the depths of hardship.  The solace that comes in knowing that even in our darkest moments God has been there and God is still there, is part of what makes the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd so appealing.  In those moments when it seems as though we have nothing left, when it feels like everyone has abandoned us, this image of Christ as the Good Shepherd reminds us that God is always there.  It assures us, as Jesus asserts in the Gospel lesson, that as the Good Shepherd, he is willing to go so far as to lay down his life for the sheep.

Finally, then, this image of the Good Shepherd teaches us that Jesus isn’t merely a tender shepherd, but a strong savior.  In the Old Testament tradition, we learn that the ideal shepherd is one who is willing to “sacrifice himself for the welfare of the community, to give one’s life so that others may live.”[1]  By calling himself the Good Shepherd, Jesus takes on the fullness of that Hebrew Bible imagery.  In the larger narrative arc of John’s Gospel, this is all looking ahead to the Garden scene wherein Jesus isn’t approached by Judas, but rather, walks out and hands himself over for arrest, torture, and death.  From the Good Shepherd in John in Year B, we learn about the self-giving love of God in Christ.

Sure, these pictures of the Good Shepherd as a provider, as one who is with us in the tough times, and as one who will lay down his life for the good of the sheep are comforting, but they are all also rooted in the darkness of this world.  It isn’t meek and mild Jesus the Good Shepherd, but Jesus the Good Shepherd who knows adversity, knows what it means to be in want, and knows that he will one day die so that we might live.  I think we see all of that in the face of Jesus in the window behind me: the face of deep love, tinged with sadness. The face of one who has walked through death to open for all of us sheep the gates of eternal life.  The face of a truly Good Shepherd.  Amen.

[1] Working Preacher commentary by Osvaldo Vena http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3628

Lessons from the Shepherd #3

As promised, today I turn my attention to the Gospel lesson appointed for Easter 4, Year B.  Each year, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we hear a portion of Jesus’ Good Shepherd monologue.  That’s how Good Shepherd Sunday is a thing.  And, each year, the focus is slightly different.  In Year A, it is about Jesus as the gate to the sheepfold.  In Year C, the focus is on hearing and knowing the voice of the shepherd.  Here in Year B, the message of the Good Shepherd is all about death and resurrection.

According to Osvoldo Vena of Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, in the Old Testament tradition, the ideal shepherd was one who was willing “to sacrifice themselves for the welfare of the community, to give one’s life so that others may live.”  By calling himself the Good Shepherd, Jesus takes on the fullness of that Hebrew Bible imagery and places it over and against the image of leadership that he sees in the Pharisees (an image that John sees even more clearly in the post-Temple Pharisees of c. 90AD) that is “exclusive and self-serving.”

Of course, for John, this is all looking ahead to the Garden scene wherein Jesus isn’t approached by his betrayer, but rather, hands himself over for arrest, torture, and death.  From the Good Shepherd in John in Year B, we learn about self-giving love.  What we, as preachers, should be careful of, however, is lifting this ideal up as something that we can attain.  Despite several commentaries that suggest that God is calling us to be good shepherds, I’m off the mind that says this isn’t a simple moral lesson that Jesus is giving.  He isn’t saying, “look at me and do as I do,” but rather, Jesus is the only Good Shepherd, and we are and always will be the sheep.

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A good shepherd, not The Good Shepherd

What we learn from this lesson isn’t how we can be good shepherds, but rather, that we ought to follow, and even worship, the one Good Shepherd.  In Christ, God has established us as part of the one flock whose pasture is the fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven.  As sheep, we ought to listen for the voice of the one who was willing to lay down his life for us, and then follow where he leads.  That is our prayer, after all.  Each Easter 4, we ask God to help us both to have ears to hear and hearts to follow.  May our ears be open to the call of the Good Shepherd and may we be blessed to graze in the pastures of the Kingdom of God.