Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Power of His Presence

Today is Pentecost Sunday, when we remember the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Church as recorded in Acts 2. But here is a different way of looking at Pentecost from the Gospel of John....
Nicholas Herman, known to the world as Brother Lawrence, was a 17th century lay brother; his assignment was to kitchen duty in a Carmelite monastery in Paris. He was born to peasant parents in Lorraine in 1611. As a young man of eighteen, he suddenly awoke to the presence of God when, on a winter’s day, he looked upon a bare tree and thought of its approaching renewal. Herman subsequently served as a soldier in the Thirty Years’ War. The enemy captured him as a spy but he escaped hanging. Later, he received a severe wound in the leg and returned to his own village with a resolve never to be a soldier again. After this, he made the great decision to become a monk. Under the encouragement of his uncle who was a Carmelite, he applied and the order accepted him. He was forty years old at the time and served in various manual tasks until his death forty years later in 1691.
Brother Lawrence once said, as quoted in a little booklet entitled The Practice of the Presence of God,
The time of action is not different from that of prayer. I enjoy God with as great tranquility in the hurry of my kitchen, where frequently many people call upon me at the same time for different things, as if I was on my knees at the holy sacrament.
Nor is it in any ways necessary to be concerned with great matters. I put my little egg-cake into the frying-pan for the love of God. When it is done, and if I have nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself on the ground, and I adore my God who assists me in everything by His grace; after which I rise up more contented than a king….
Were I a preacher, I should preach above all other things, the practice of the Presence of God: Were I a teacher, I should advise all the world to it; so necessary do I think it, and so easy.
Staying in touch with the presence of God throughout every moment of every day should indeed be the life-long goal of every believer, though I am not certain it is as easy as Brother Lawrence suggests.
In our passage for today from the Gospel of John, we will see several important results of the presence of the risen Lord Jesus Christ in our lives. 
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:19-23)

As I have already suggested, we see here a few important results of the presence of the risen Lord Jesus Christ in the life of the believer. The first result is peace.

Is it not interesting that the first word the risen Lord Jesus speaks to his disciples in this encounter is “peace”? Perhaps that is his first word because he knows how much we need it. Then, as if that is not enough, Jesus repeats the same blessing, “Peace be with you!”

William Barclay notes that this was “the normal everyday eastern greeting”. However, Barclay says, it means far more than: “May you be saved from trouble.” It means: “May God give you every good thing.”

The first disciples had anything but peace after Jesus’ death on the cross. They were no doubt worried that they would be next in line for execution by the Roman authorities, at the instigation of the Jewish leaders. Furthermore, they must have lacked peace about the direction of their lives. What were they now to do? They had pinned all their hopes on Jesus of Nazareth and dedicated their lives completely to his service, giving up their jobs and even their families for a time. Now what were they to do since Jesus was dead?

However, then, all of a sudden, they see he is not dead. Jesus appears to his disciples while they are hiding behind locked doors for fear of the Jewish leaders. Locked doors provide no obstacle to the risen Lord Jesus. He comes and stands among them anyway and speaks his word of peace.

Junior Seau was a passionate, fist-pumping, emotional leader and superstar for the NFL’s San Diego Chargers. In his 13-year pro football career, Seau made the Pro Bowl 12 times. He was also part of the NFL 1990s All-Decade Team. Sadly, on May 2, 2012, at the age of 43, Seau took his own life.

Seau’s death in northern San Diego County stunned the community who adored him for his service and outgoing personality. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, his former teammate and friend, Rodney Harrison, explained that in Seau’s last days he was desperately searching for peace. Harrison said:

He would tell me that the only time he truly felt at peace was when he was with his children or in the surf. He would say, “When I’m on those waves, it’s the greatest feeling. I have no worries, no stress, no problems. I just forget about everything.” Junior was always searching for peace.

Even the world’s most successful people still have a deep spiritual hunger, a restlessness that can only be satisfied in Christ. Like Junior Seau we are all searching for peace, but we will not find that peace in success or fame. It only comes by experiencing the power of the presence of the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

That is the first result of encountering the risen Lord: peace. The second result is joy.

After Jesus spoke that blessing of peace to his disciples, he showed them his nail-scarred hands and his sword-pierced side. We read that the disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. That is, when they realized he had actually risen from the dead, that this same Jesus whom they had known for three years, whom they had heard preach and seen heal countless people, this same Jesus who had died seemingly helpless on a cross, had overcome the final obstacle: death. When they realized this, joy spilled over from their previously broken hearts.

Richard Stearns, the president of World Vision, reflected on his visit to a church in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, nearly a year after the devastating earthquake. The church’s building consisted of a tent made from white tarps and duct tape, pitched in the midst of a sprawling camp for thousands of people still homeless from the earthquake. This is how he describes the church and the lesson he learned in Haiti:

In the front row sat six amputees ranging in age from 6 to 60. They were clapping and smiling as they sang song after song and lifted their prayers to God. The worship was full of hope … [and] with thanksgiving to the Lord.

No one was singing louder or praying more fervently than Demosi Louphine, a 32-year-old unemployed single mother of two. During the earthquake, a collapsed building crushed her right arm and left leg. After four days both limbs had to be amputated.

She was leading the choir, leading prayers, standing on her prosthesis and lifting her one hand high in praise to God .… Following the service, I met Demosi’s two daughters, ages eight and ten. The three of them now live in a tent five feet tall and perhaps eight feet wide. Despite losing her job, her home, and two limbs, she is deeply grateful because God spared her life … “He brought me back like Lazarus, giving me the gift of life,” says Demosi … [who] believes she survived the devastating quake for two reasons: to raise her girls and to serve her Lord for a few more years.[1]

What an example of what happens when a person experiences the power of the presence of the risen Lord Jesus Christ in their life! They overflow with joy despite the most miserable of circumstances. If Demosi in Haiti can overflow with joy, perhaps you and I can too.

A third result we see here from the presence of the risen Lord Jesus Christ is mission.

After filling them with his peace and joy, Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”

How did the Father send Jesus? He did it in love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Jesus the Son is sending us in love, just as he the Father sent him as a love message to the world. The Father gave his Son, even unto death to bring us new life. Just so, we must be willing to sacrifice ourselves, even unto death, for the life of the world.

We do not have to go to the other side of the world to carry the message of Jesus’ love to those in need. We can begin spreading that message right where we are among our families and friends and co-workers and neighbors. We can begin here and now to sacrifice ourselves for the life of the world.

Joe Stowell writes this in his book, Jesus Nation, about how simple it can be to demonstrate the love and self-sacrifice of Jesus in everyday life….

Every day there are opportunities for each of us to reach out to others to demonstrate the excellencies of Jesus. There are family members, colleagues at work, and strangers that happen to intersect the trajectory of our lives who are waiting to be touched by a [follower of Jesus]. In fact, my recommendation is that you plan to commit one intentional act of [goodness] every day just to stay in shape.

It was six o’clock in the morning, and I had just finished my early run. As I passed the local Starbucks, I decided to stop in and get a couple cups of our favorite lattes and take them home to [my wife], who would be waking up. Since the cafĂ© had just opened, there was only one other person in line in front of me. But it wasn’t your ordinary wait-in-line-for-coffee drill. The guy in front of me was in a tense argument with the clerk. In loud and no uncertain terms, the customer was complaining that all he wanted was the copy of the New York Times that he was holding in one hand while he was waving a fifty-dollar bill in the other. The fight was over the fact that the clerk did not have enough change yet to break the fifty-dollar bill, which made it impossible for him to sell the paper.

It dawned on me that this was an early morning opportunity to commit one intentional act of [goodness] by demonstrating the excellence of the generous spirit of Jesus. So I said to the clerk, “Hey, put the paper on my bill; I’ll buy it for him.” This immediately defused the tension, and the grateful New York Times guy walked away saying, “Thanks a lot. All I have is yours!” Which evidently did not include the fifty-dollar bill.
To my surprise, when the barista handed me my coffee, he said, “Mister, that was a really nice thing for you to do. This world would be a lot better place to live if more people were like you.” What he didn’t know was that if he really knew me, he probably wouldn’t say that.

His comments caught me totally off guard, and I knew that I could say something at that point that would point the glory upward…but nothing came. So I made some self-deprecating remark and walked out, haunted that I had missed a great opportunity to glorify God. As I was walking down the sidewalk, it came to me. I should have said, “Well, this world would not be a better place if more people were like me. But it would be a better place if more people were like Jesus, because he taught me how to do that.”

I turned around to go back and tell him that, only to remember that by the time I left there was a line waiting for coffee. It didn’t seem to me that it would be a great idea to break into the line and make a religious speech. My only conclusion was the thought that I was wearing my Moody Bible Institute hat. So I prayed that he would have noticed my hat. That he would always remember that Bible people do things like that, and that the world would be a better place if there were more Bible people around.[2]

Your opportunity to demonstrate the love and self-sacrifice of Jesus may not come while standing in an early morning line-up at Starbucks, but there are countless opportunities for each one of us, in a variety of situations, to carry forth the mission of the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

However, if we are going to do that, and be effective in doing it, then we desperately need the fourth result of the presence of the risen Lord Jesus Christ in our lives; that is the indwelling Holy Spirit.

After giving to his first disciples their mission in life, Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Without the Holy Spirit of Jesus, we cannot carry out the mission of Jesus. We cannot demonstrate real love and true self-sacrifice without God’s help, without God’s power working in us and through us, from the inside out.

How does Jesus breathe his Holy Spirit into us today? Often it happens through reading the Bible, especially the Gospels and letters of the New Testament. Sometimes Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into us when we pray. Other times it happens while we are sitting in church, worshipping the Lord or receiving the sacrament. There are, perhaps, countless ways that Jesus can breathe the Holy Spirit into us. The question is: are we open and ready to receive?
Chuck Swindoll has written the following in his book entitled Embraced by the Spirit….

By the time I graduated from [seminary], I had many convictions and few questions, especially regarding the Holy Spirit …. But during a lifetime of ministry that has taken me around the United States and to many countries abroad, I have found that the work of the Holy Spirit continually keeps me off balance. I’m not alone in that. Those in church leadership seem afraid the Spirit is going to do something we can’t explain. I’ve found that disturbs many folks … but I’ll admit it energizes me.

I’ve come to realize there are dimensions of the Spirit’s ministry I have never tapped and places in this study about which I know very little. I’m on a strong learning curve. I have witnessed a dynamic power in his presence that I long to know more of firsthand. I now have questions and a strong interest in many of the things of the Spirit I once felt were settled. To say it plainly, I am hungry for more of him. I long to know God more deeply and more intimately.[3]

I think that hunger is the key to unlocking a deeper experience of the Holy Spirit. If we are open, if we are asking the Lord Jesus to breathe his Spirit into us, then it will happen, perhaps in ways we do not expect and cannot fully understand, but it will happen. Then we will be empowered for mission … and for one thing more….

The fifth result we see here of the presence of the risen Lord Jesus Christ in the life of his disciples is forgiveness.

After breathing the Holy Spirit into his disciples, Jesus said, “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Perhaps the most powerful gift we have to share with others as part of being representatives of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, is the gift of forgiveness. As we proclaim and live out the message of the Good News, we carry forgiveness of sins to others. Conversely, as we fail to proclaim and live out that message, we hinder others in receiving forgiveness.

Evangelist Luis Palau once wrote the following about forgiveness:

Years ago in Guatemala, a man came to me who had dishonored our Lord’s name. He was truly broken and had repented. Yet he was still without joy. It was obvious he needed to be assured that he was forgiven; otherwise Satan would have gained an advantage over him.

I did something then which until that day I had never done. I put my arm around him and said, “Brother, you’ve repented; your sins are forgiven. Let me pray with you.” And this broken, humble Guatemalan said, “Oh, thank you, thank you. Now I'm free!”

With tears running down our faces, we hugged each other. He was so excited, because a fellow brother in Christ had reassured him.

But this man should have been reassured earlier by his local church. When someone is obviously broken and repentant, the church must stand up and say, “In the name of the Lord Jesus, rejoice! He has forgiven you, and we forgive you too.” The assurance from such corporate forgiveness brings healing and joy to the entire congregation.[4]

There is, perhaps, no more important part of any Christian worship service than the declaration of forgiveness that it is my privilege to declare as a representative of Jesus Christ. Though we can read about forgiveness in the Bible and hear it preached about in a sermon, we all need to have another human being look us in the eye and say, “Jesus loves you and forgives you.” This is the miracle experienced in the rite of confession in the Catholic Church as well as other branches of the Christian Church. However, I do not believe it is a miracle to be restricted to the proclamation of a priest or minister. Each of us, as disciples of Jesus Christ has the privilege of declaring God’s forgiveness to others.

Who is there, within your spheres of influence, that desperately needs to hear and know the forgiveness and love of Jesus Christ? Why not ask the Holy Spirit to give you an opportunity, even this week, to declare the love and forgiveness of the risen Lord Jesus Christ to that person?

When we experience the power of the presence of the risen Lord Jesus, the result is peace, joy, mission, the Holy Spirit and forgiveness. Those results are not something we can keep to ourselves. The power of the presence is something that simply must be shared.

[1] Richard Stearns, “Suffering and Rejoicing in a Haitian Tent Camp,” (1-12-11)
[2] Joe Stowell, Jesus Nation (Tyndale, 2009), pp. 80-81
[3] Charles R. Swindoll, Embraced By the Spirit (Zondervan, 2010), pp. 25-26
[4] Luis Palau, “Discipline in the Church,” Discipleship Journal (July/August 1983)

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Power to Follow

The movie Pearl Harbor tells of the events leading up to and immediately following the Japanese attack on the U.S. on December 7, 1941. The film follows the fictional lives of two fighter pilots, Raph and Danny, who have been inseparable friends since childhood and are stationed at the same base in Hawaii.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Raph (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) are called into Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s office. They have succeeded in downing seven Japanese planes.

Doolittle (Alec Baldwin) stands behind his desk and addresses the cocky pilots somberly. “You’ve both been awarded the silver star. You’re just about the only pilots with combat experience. I need you for a mission I’ve been ordered to put together.”

Raph and Danny look nervously pleased. Doolittle looks them over carefully.

“Do you know what ‘top secret’ is?” he asks.

Raph responds with a wry smile. “Yes, sir! It’s the kind of mission when you get medals, but they send them to your relatives.”

Ignoring the remark, Doolittle continues, “Top secret means you train for something never done before in aviation history—and you go without knowing where you’re going. You do it on that basis or not at all.”

Honored to be asked, yet unsure of what they are committing to, both men agree to go.

In many ways, God recruits us to follow him in the same way that Doolittle recruited these pilots for this mission. God trains us in ways unique to us to fulfill unique purposes, and we know little or nothing about where we are going. We go on that basis, or we do not go at all.[1]

In the final words of his Gospel, John tells us about the power to follow Jesus Christ.... 

Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”
Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”
This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.
Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. (John 21:20-25)

I think we can learn at least three things about the power to follow Jesus Christ from these final verses of John’s Gospel. First, we learn that the power to follow Jesus comes into our lives when we take our eyes off others.

Often in the Gospels, we learn something positive from the negative example of the apostle Peter. Remember the story of Jesus: walking on the Sea of Galilee and how Peter asked the Master to bid him come to him on the water? Peter steps out of the boat and he does fine for the first few steps. However, then he takes his eyes off Jesus and looks at the waves and then he begins to sink.

On another occasion, when Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers: “You are the Messiah, the Son of God.” So far, so good. However, in the very next moment when Jesus announces that he is going to the cross, Peter urges Jesus not to, and Peter gets rebuked for it.

Then, of course, there is Peter’s famous denial of Jesus on the night of Jesus’ arrest. Last week we saw how Jesus forgave Peter and reinstated him. Hardly a second has passed since that reinstatement and Peter slips up again. You have to love Peter! He is so human, so fallible, just like us.

So how does Peter mess up this time? Jesus has just suggested to Peter that at the end of his life he is going to be led by others where he does not want to go. In other words, Peter is going to die a martyr’s death. You would think such news would be so sobering that Peter would keep his mouth shut, at least for a little bit … but he does not. No sooner has Jesus finished speaking, Peter takes his eyes off Jesus, turns around, and sees the disciple whom Jesus loved following them. That was Peter’s first mistake. He took his eyes off Jesus, turned around and started focusing on this other disciple whom Jesus loved. Then Peter’s second mistake was to ask Jesus this question: “Lord, what about him?” In other words, Peter was asking: “What kind of death is he going to die?” The problem here is that Peter was jealous of the other disciple whom Jesus loved.

Who was the disciple whom Jesus loved and how did Jesus love him?

This phrase is used six times in The Gospel of John. By a process of examination of the text and elimination of possible candidates, scholars have deduced that the Apostle John was the Beloved Disciple. A second century quote of Polycrates of Ephesus (c. 130s - 196), recorded by Eusebius in his Church History, supports the idea of John as the Beloved Disciple.
However, we must also ask, “What does the Gospel of John mean when it refers to this one follower of Jesus as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’?”
The Greek word that is translated “love” (five out of the six times that this phrase is used) is “agape”. As we have seen many times before: this is a word that was rarely, if at all used, outside the New Testament; the New Testament writers use this word to refer to God’s unconditional love for humanity. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) The word is also used to describe the love that Christians ought to have for others; it is sometimes translated as “charity”. When we think of Jesus’ love for his disciple John as “agape”, we are forced to realize that Jesus must have loved his other disciples in this same fashion.
However, in John 20, the word that is used for love in the phrase “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is different. In this instance, the word “phileo” is used. This refers to a friendship type of love. This word is part of the compound that makes up the name of the city: Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. The use of this word suggests that Jesus must have had a special friendship with John. We know from other verses in the Gospels that out of the twelve disciples Jesus was closest to Peter, James and John (the latter two being brothers, the sons of Zebedee). It was these three whom Jesus took with him up on the mountain when his appearance was transformed in their presence and Moses and Elijah appeared with him. Apparently, out of these three, Jesus had the closest friendship with John, perhaps because he was the youngest, but we do not know exactly why.
This relationship, between Jesus and John, points out for us the truth that, as Christians, we ought to love everyone with agape love but that does not obligate us to be friends with everyone. Friendship is a unique kind of love that strikes up wherever two or more people share something in common.
Jesus was not doing anything wrong by sharing a special friendship with John. However, apparently, Peter was jealous of this friendship and so he asked Jesus, “What about him Lord, what kind of death is he going to die?”
What can we learn from Peter’s negative example? Allow me to tell a little story that I think illustrates what we can learn….
As I have told you before, when I was in high school, I got involved in theatre for the first time. I tried out for a high school play and landed the lead part. I imagine that some others in the play, who had been involved in theatre far longer than me, might have been jealous of my role. Who knows? Maybe the director made a mistake by casting me in that particular part. I do not know.
However, what we can know is this: God makes no mistakes in casting. God has created you and me with certain gifts and talents. He has caused us to be born at a particular time and in a particular place, into a particular family. If we allow God to do so, he can use all of our experiences and circumstances to shape us, to mold us, and to fit us perfectly to play the exact role he wants us to play, right where we are. There is no need to be jealous of the roles that others are playing in God’s kingdom, whether those roles are bigger than ours, or not. God has created each of us with unique gifts and a unique role to play that no one else can play. As I have said before, humility is the belief that you are incomparable, that you are incapable of being compared to anyone else. Therefore, why should we waste our lives making comparisons? Rather, we should get on with playing the roles God has created us and called us to play … and play them to the hilt!
How exactly do we go about doing that? We do it first by getting our eyes off others, and secondly by keeping our eyes focused on Jesus.
Jesus’ response to Peter’s question, “What about him?” was not to say: “Oh, that is a very natural question Peter. Let me answer that for you.” No. Jesus’ answer was a gentle rebuke. “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”
This sort of conversational exchange used to happen more often in our household when my sons were younger. I might ask one son to wash the dishes on a certain night, or clean the bathrooms, or help with the yard work, and that son might say to me, “But what about my brothers, Dad, what are they going to do?”
I doubt that I ever answered that sort of question in the following manner but I could have said: “Suppose I want him to travel to outer space and back, what has that got to do with you? You do what I am asking you to do.”
That is the essence of what Jesus is saying to Peter. He is not really saying that John is going to live forever. Jesus’ point to Peter is: do not focus on what I have for the other guy to do; you focus on what I have called you to do.
In C. S. Lewis’ story for children entitled The Horse and His Boy, the great lion Aslan (who is the Christ-figure of the story) says on more than one occasion: “I tell no one any story but their own.”
I think that line expresses very much what Jesus is saying here. “I am telling you your story Peter. Do not worry about anyone else’s story but your own. Work on living out your own story with your eyes fixed firmly on me.”
As Tom Wright has said, “We are called to follow Jesus wherever he leads us, not wherever he leads the person next to us.”
However, Peter must have wondered later on, when Jesus ascended to heaven: “What does it look like to follow Jesus now?” After all, the first time Jesus issued that invitation to follow, he was standing right next to Peter. What would it look like for Peter to follow Jesus when Jesus’ physical presence was taken away?
All of us have to ask that question, and for each of us the answer may be slightly different. For Peter, following Jesus involved feeding his sheep and caring for his lambs; it meant being a leader of the Church and giving up his life in martyrdom.
For John, following Jesus looked different. He did not end up in Rome, like Peter, he ended up in Ephesus, as far as we know. For John, following Jesus meant caring for Jesus’ mother Mary, and eventually writing down his memories of his years with Jesus and what it all meant. John’s following of Jesus and Peter’s following of Jesus looked very different in some ways, but perhaps similar in others. The same will be true for each one of us. The way you follow Jesus and the way I follow Jesus may not look the same. I am a preacher; you are not. However, we all can follow Jesus in different ways.
Yuko Maruyama, a Japanese organist working in Minneapolis, was once a devout Buddhist. Now she is a Christian. How did that change in her life take place? Yuko says, “Bach introduced me to God, Jesus, and Christianity. When I play a fugue, I can feel Bach talking to God.” Masashi Masuda, a Jesuit priest, came to faith in almost the same way: “Listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations first aroused my interest in Christianity.” Today Masuda teaches theology at Tokyo’s Sophia University.[2]
You may not be able to compose a fugue like Bach, play the organ like Yuko, or teach like Masuda, but you and I each have unique talents given to us by God and unique ways of following Jesus with those talents.
So how are we to know which way to go? How are we to know what each one of our followings of Jesus should look like?
That is where a third step comes into play. Though the way each of us follows Jesus and what that looks like may be different, we each need to trust Scripture as our guide in the process.
Now I realize this is not explicitly stated in our text for today. However, I do believe it is implied or inferred. We read…

This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.
The Apostle John, an eyewitness to the events he recounts, has written down for us the words and deeds of Jesus. He has written down for us an account of what other people following Jesus looks like. In fact, John gives us more individual portraits of the followers of Jesus than any other Gospel. Those portraits are detailed; they provide us with much guidance for our own journeys. Furthermore, most importantly: “We know that his testimony is true.” Perhaps, these words were written down by a trusted friend of the Apostle, a member of what has been called the Johannine community, a group of disciples who gathered around John and learned from him, perhaps in Ephesus. 

What can we learn from this? I believe that as we prayerfully read Scripture in community as a living Church today, and in the communion and guidance of the saints down through the ages, Jesus will show each one of us what he wants our following of him to look like.

The Gospel of John ends with an interesting note:

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

Chapter 21 of John’s Gospel was obviously added by a member of the Johannine community. Whoever wrote these words knew that the Gospel of John already had a proper ending at the conclusion of chapter 20. There we read…

Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Now the author or authors of chapter 21 begin their conclusion in a similar way. They write that: “Jesus did many other things as well.” Like most people telling a story, John and his community both selected and arranged, out of all the stories they knew about Jesus, certain ones to tell to achieve a certain purpose: that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing we might have life in his name.

Furthermore, the author or authors of chapter 21 tell us that if all the things Jesus said and did were written down, the world could not contain the books.

Today we know of much larger libraries than were ever dreamed of in the first century. In November 2012, I spent time in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England. Like our Library of Congress here in the United States, the Bodleian is a repository for every book printed in the United Kingdom. The Bodleian is one of the oldest libraries in Europe and is second in size only to the British Library in London. It occupies a group of five buildings in central Oxford plus additional off-site storage space and a number of underground storage units built since the nineteenth century. The Bodleian has millions of books in its collection, and the Bodleian Library is among one hundred libraries in Oxford alone.

In addition to libraries that hold physical books, of course today we have the capacity to digitize. Naturally, electronic storage systems today have a greater capacity to hold information than our physical libraries. Therefore, on a very literal level, if everything Jesus said and did had been written down, the world would have enough space to hold that information.

However, there is another way in which the world cannot contain all the information about Jesus’ life and words. The world cannot contain that information because it is too explosive. The stories of Jesus’ life and words are powerful. The Greek word for this is “dunamis” from which we get our word “dynamite”. The New Testament is TNT.

While the world cannot quite handle such power, God does continue to channel that power through human beings. We receive the power of Jesus’ life through prayerful, Holy Spirit empowered, community based, reading of Scripture. As we receive that power to follow Jesus in our world today, the Word that was in the beginning with God continues to manifest himself in human flesh, our flesh.

Thanks be to God!

[1] Pearl Harbor (Touchstone, 2001), rated PG-13, written by Randall Wallace, directed by Michael Bay; submitted by Greg Asimakoupoulos, Naperville, Illinois
[2] Uwe Simon-Netto, “Bach in Japan,” Christian History & Biography (Summer 2007)

Friday, May 22, 2015

Power to Start Over Again

Once again, I have something a bit different for today's post. Instead of text, I have a bit of audio for you to listen to. Here is a link to a message I preached on the lectionary text for today: John 21:1-19. This is one of my favorite passages in the Bible, one that has meant a lot to me personally. I have entitled the message: The Power to Start Over Again. I know it is something everyone needs at some point in life....

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Power of Jesus' Prayer

I thought I might try something new for this blog and see how it goes. My new idea is to try to write something every day based upon the lectionary reading from the Bible for that day. My plan is to follow the lectionary Gospel reading from Sacred Space, an online devotional resource I have been using for some years. On some days my thoughts may be brief, on others I may have a sermon I have preached in the past on the particular lectionary text. So I begin today with one of those longer pieces. Let me know what you think....

I want you to imagine for a moment some great historical person, perhaps even someone from the distant past, someone you admire. Perhaps it is a great leader like George Washington or Eisenhower. Maybe it is a great writer or thinker, like Socrates or Shakespeare. Perhaps it is a humanitarian like William Wilberforce or Florence Nightingale. Do you have that person in mind?
Now imagine further that historians have recently uncovered some hitherto unpublished manuscript in which this great historical figure mentions … you. That is right … you. How does that make you feel?
It should make you feel very important, special, valued. That is also how you should feel as we read the closing of Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17:20-26, because in these verses he is praying for you and me. Hear the words of Jesus….
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.
Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.

In these verses, Jesus is praying for you, and for me, and for all those who have and will come to faith in him through the message carried forth by his disciples. In fact, in these verses Jesus prays for the whole world.

Now, it would be easy to cast this aside as mere sentimentality, unless we stop and think about who is praying these words. What I mean is this: we have probably all heard a child pray something like, “Dear God, bless the whole world. Amen.” That is a lovely, generous, and touching prayer for a child to pray. However, as adults we know that the whole world is not blessed. Thus, in the end it would seem this child’s prayer is sweet but merely sentimental and ineffective.

Thus, we need to stop and think about who is praying this prayer. It is Jesus of Nazareth, the Jesus whom we have seen performing great signs, great miracles in this Gospel of John. It is the same Jesus, the one who has made seven great “I AM” claims, the Jesus who has taken on the prerogative of doing and saying the kind of things only Yahweh gets to do and say in the Hebrew Scriptures. This Jesus is praying for the whole world.

While we may understandably doubt whether a little child’s unreflective, sentimental prayer will ever make a difference in the world, we should (if we have read and understood anything of the Gospel of John) pause and think: “Maybe, just maybe, Jesus’ prayer will make a difference.” Perhaps this prayer matters.

Thus, having paused to think about this, let us think a little further along the lines of what Jesus prays for in these seven verses. There are three things.

First, Jesus prays for the unity of all who will come to believe in him through his disciples’ testimony.

The unity for which Jesus prays is a supernatural unity. It is the same unity shared by the Father and the Son. It is a unity achieved only as we are in the Father and the Son. Therefore, it is a unity brought about, not by human effort, but by Jesus giving us the glory given to him by his Father.

Second, this unity is a tangible one. The unity for which Jesus prays brings about change in the world. “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
We cannot produce the unity Jesus prays for by our own human efforts; nonetheless, the world needs to see this unity in us. It must be a visible unity. The world needs to see the love of God at work in us and through us.

This leads to a third aspect of the unity Jesus prays for: it must be “worked out” in mission. We achieve unity as we work side by side as Christians, carrying God’s love to the world. Jesus’ prayer speaks of his disciples carrying a message. As we carry this message to the world, and as we live out this message before the world, then God, in his grace, will work this unity in and through us.

Pastor Lee Eclov writes,

A young friend called me to say she’d admitted herself to a psychiatric hospital. While she was there, I visited her when I could. One of my visits was on Good Friday. I asked her if she’d like for me to bring Communion to her. She said she would and asked if some of the other hospitalized Christians could join us.

On that spring afternoon, five or six of us gathered in her room and shared the sacred meal. I think it was the most meaningful Communion service I ever shared—half a dozen strangers, each scarred by heartache, sitting helpless in a locked ward.

Yet Jesus was there because we were there as his beloved. He was not only among us, but he was there within us. Even as broken people, we were one with each other. We were strengthened by his presence; we were healed, in a way. We were nourished, washed, and rejuvenated all because we had Communion.

What a picture that is of the unity for which Jesus prayed! As I look at my own life and the world around me, I tend to think we are all living in a psychiatric ward. Yet, in the midst of the craziness, God has called us into a relationship with himself through his Son Jesus Christ. That vertical relationship also leads to a horizontal one—it leads us into the family of God, the Church. As we commune with God and one another through Christ, we can present a great picture, dramatic evidence of the love of God, to the world.

That makes me wonder: what are the other patients on the ward thinking as they witness our communion? Asking that question leads to the second thing Jesus prays for: Jesus prays that the world will believe through our unified witness.

“May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me … May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

As Bruce Milne has written, “The heart of Jesus is as wide and broad as the heart of the God who so loved the world as to send his only son.”

Jesus doesn’t simply pray here for the Church in some exclusive sense, he indeed prays for the whole world, not just the people alive in the world in AD 30, but all those who will ever live. He prays that the whole world will come to believe in him through the witness of his followers.

However, this raises the question: how are we to be his witnesses? How exactly do we go about it?

I love the answer of Emmanuel Suhard, a French Cardinal of the Catholic Church, who lived from 1874 to 1949. He once wrote,

To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.[1]

The mystery God calls us to live out is the mystery of a family. The kind of witness Jesus wants is not simply that of one person here or there going and telling one other person about him. The witness Jesus calls us to live is one we must live out as a team. Often our unity with other Christians is the greatest witness to the world.
Roger Frederickson, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, recounts how a congregation he served once shared in a public service of reconciliation with another congregation more than twenty years after a bitter split. Frederickson writes of that worship service:

As we sang, “Great is Thy Faithfulness” many people embraced in the crowded sanctuary and their tears of gratitude and joy were mingled. The next day on the street people stopped some of us saying they had heard the “good news”. The message we proclaimed had become … credible.

Jesus longs and prays for this kind of unity for us as believers. Furthermore, Jesus prays that our unified witness will win the world to himself. Finally, Jesus prays for the completion of his work.

The third aspect of Jesus’ prayer for us goes like this:

Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.
Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.

Bruce Milne describes this prayer most eloquently when he writes:

‘With me’ is the language of love. The beloved longs for the lover’s presence. So Jesus, in these final moments, as the last grains of sand trickle through the hour glass before his rendezvous with darkness, gazes across the rolling aeons of the future and anticipates the embrace of his beloved bride in the glory that is to be.

That will be heaven, when God the Father finally and forever joins us together in Christ at the wedding supper of the lamb by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Meanwhile, we struggle along through this vale of tears, attempting to live out a unity that is, in fact, still very broken, and a witness to the world that is still very weak. It would seem that Jesus’ prayer for us two thousand years ago, has still gone largely unanswered. Perhaps Jesus’ prayer is, after all, not very far different in its sentimentality or ineffectiveness, than the child’s prayer, “Dear God, bless the world. Amen.”

But is this the whole truth? Can any of us truly claim that we have seen the end of the story?

Jesus prays this beautiful prayer on Thursday night. On Friday, he goes to the cross. On Saturday, he lays still and dead in the grave. But on Sunday, he strides forth from that tomb alive.

Just so, the Church today often seems to be in a perpetual Holy Saturday. The world often accounts us as dead in the tomb. But if Jesus’ story teaches us anything, it shows us that God has many surprises still up his sleeve. And maybe, just maybe, one of those future surprises will be his people: renewed, reinvigorated, resurrected, united with one another and in Christ. And if that happens, then perhaps the world will truly be won to him. Perhaps Jesus’ prayer on Thursday night will prove to be powerful and real after all … in an everlasting Sunday.

We are a people who live by faith, not by sight. We are a people who live by hope.

John Shea expressed it well when he wrote,

Now there was only the morning and the dancing man of the broken tomb. The story says he dances still. That is why down to this day we lean over the beds of our babies and in the seconds before sleep, tell the story of the undying dancing man, so the dream of Jesus will carry them to dawn.[2]

[1] Lee Eclov, Vernon Hills, Illinois; source: Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection (Eerdmans, 2010), p. 185.
[2] John Shea, The Storyteller of God