Thursday, May 09, 2013
Keeping Our Word
There was a day when “your word is your bond” was one of the primary codes of our culture. I doubt anyone would say that these days. I don’t believe that integrity has completely vanished from our society, but for most of us, these days the watchword is, “don’t believe everything you hear!” Keeping our word sounds simple, but there are so many ways in which life in our world complicates things. Sometimes keeping our word is relatively easy—you make a promise to do something and you do it. But “keeping our word” goes beyond that, it seems to me. Integrity means living a life that is the same in private as it is in public. That’s a different matter altogether. That kind of “keeping our word” isn’t so easy or straightforward.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus gives us another of the characteristics that are to define those who follow him: they keep his words (Jn. 14:23). Earlier in the chapter, he said it a little differently: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15). That might sound strange to those of us who are used to the language of grace promising us freedom from the bondage of living by rules. But in Jesus’ day and time, “keeping” the commandments was a perfectly normal way of expressing a life of faithfulness to God. “Keeping” God’s word meant internalizing the teachings of Torah to the extent that they shaped every aspect of one’s daily life. It meant living in harmony with God’s truth and God’s justice, with God’s love and God’s mercy.
I think people get confused about all that these days. We tend to fall into one of two extremes—we either obsess about every little detail of Scripture in an compulsive effort to obey God perfectly, or we ignore biblical teachings altogether and “fly by the seat of our pants.” It seems like we have an “all-or-nothing approach” to “keeping” God’s word. Unfortunately, life is rarely that cut-and-dried. We are often placed in situations where the “correct” answer is far from clear. That’s when the true test of “keeping” God’s word comes out. If we’ve really internalized the central principles of Scripture—principles like doing justly, and loving mercy, and walking humbly with God—then we can follow them as guideposts when we are uncertain. In our ever-changing world, we are going to be placed more and more into situations where we have to live somewhere between “all” or “nothing” when it comes to keeping God’s word.
One of the challenges this lesson presents us with is that Jesus doesn’t exactly say to “keep” God’s commands, he says those who love him will keep his commands. I think many of us still think that Jesus’ commands are easier than God’s. With Jesus, all we have to do is believe, love God, and love others, and we’re just fine. But a quick overview of just a portion of Jesus’ teachings--the Sermon on the Mount--makes it clear that Jesus doesn’t make it easier for us to obey God, he makes it harder. When it comes to the commandment, “You shall not kill,” Jesus said not only should you not kill another, you should also not give in to the hateful anger that devalues the life of others by the way you speak to them! Time and again, Jesus didn’t make it easier to live a life of “keeping” God’s word, he made it harder.  And for the record, there’s really no distinction at all between the essential commands of God in the Hebrew Bible and the teachings of Jesus. Throughout the Scriptures, the calling is to love God with everything we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves. That’s infinitely harder than a checklist of “do’s and don’ts” that you can mark off. I don’t think any of us will ever be able to mark off that we “loved our neighbor as ourselves” in every circumstance of life. And when it comes to “loving God with all our being,” I don’t think we even have to go there.
And yet, Jesus said that one of the distinguishing marks of those who follow him, of those who love him, is whether or not we “keep” his word. This doesn’t mean that our relationship with God is something we have to earn by our obedience. Rather, it’s like a relationship where two people love each other and want the best for each other—not because of some external rule or code of conduct, but because of the love they have for each other. Jesus said that if we love him, we’ll follow his teachings, his way of life, his example—simply because the love we have for him compels us to do so. That’s how we practice the kind of integrity where our private lives match up with our public lives.
Jesus said that one of the ways we can demonstrate the new life of the resurrection is through the way we put his teachings into practice. When our love for God and for Jesus Christ truly define who we are, then our lives will be public display of what it means to keep God’s word. Fortunately, it’s not a do-it-yourself project. Jesus promised the disciples that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (Jn. 14:26).  With the Spirit’s help, we can live a life of keeping God’s ways, which means a life of fulfilling our promise to follow Jesus. When we keep our word in that way, then we can truly demonstrate a new and different way of living to the world around us.
 © 2013 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX on 5/5/2013.
 Cf. Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, 638; cf. also Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible IX:746.
 Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 127; Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 323.
 Cf. Ernst Haenchen, John: A commentary on the Gospel of John. , 127: “The ethic of the spirit is not ethical anarchy, but a true ethic with the highest requirements one can imagine: the unlimited sacrifice, like the love with which Jesus loved them in his entire human existence”
 Cf. Brown, Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, 646: “love and keeping the commandments are but two different facets of the same way of life.” Cf. also O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” NIB IX:747: “the sign of faithfulness to Jesus’ commandments is to live a life of love grounded in Jesus’ own love.”
 Cf. the Heidelberg Catechism 4.090-091, which defines eternal life as “Complete joy in God through Christ and a strong desire to live according to the will of God in all good works.” Cf. also Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 69: “faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience”; cf. also ibid., 76: “Only those who obey can believe, and only those who believe can obey.”
 Cf. Gerard S. Sloyan, John, 183: “Obedience is the hallmark of Jesus’ disciples, the proof that they love”; cf. also
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 1.2:277–278, where he uses Paul’s teaching in 2 Cor. 3:12-18 about the Spirit of the Lord changing believers into Christ’s likeness as a means of understanding what it means in John’s Gospel to “keep” Jesus’ word and/or commandments (Jn. 8:51; 14:15, 21, 23; 15:10).
Tuesday, May 07, 2013
As I mentioned last week, it is unfortunate that the church doesn’t have a very positive image in our culture. I think if you set up a kiosk at Baybrook Mall and interviewed people who don’t go to church, you’d be disappointed at what they had to say about those of us who do go. There are a lot of people out there who have been burned by church people at some point in their lives. Some of them might say that we who go to church are hypocrites, overlooking our own sins while we sharply criticize the sins of others. Others might point out how church people are always fighting with each other over the most insignificant things. Unfortunately, most of what I think you’d hear wouldn’t be the full story. There are plenty of people in church who practice the compassion and mercy of Christ on a daily basis. But sadly, that doesn’t translate into the perception most people have about us.
In our gospel lesson, Jesus told the Apostles that the defining mark of their life as his disciples was to be their love for one another. Now, I’m sure we can all sing the song, “They’ll Know We are Christians By Our Love.” But I’m afraid the warm, fuzzy feelings we may have when we sing that song fall far short of the kind of love Jesus had in mind. He told them, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (Jn. 13:34). He had in mind a very specific kind of love. In fact, he demonstrated that love for them earlier when he washed their feet. It was a kind of love that was so different from what they expected that Peter insisted, “You will never wash my feet” (Jn. 13:8).
I think we can all appreciate the difficultly Peter must have had with the idea of Jesus washing his feet. In the first place, it is a very personal thing to have someone wash your feet. But more than that, in that setting it was a task that you normally did for yourself, or one that a slave did for you. It certainly was not something you would expect from your teacher, your mentor, and the one you believed to be the Messiah--God’s agent of redemption in the world! That kind of thing went way beyond the bounds of what Jesus’ disciples would have considered an expression of love.
And yet there Jesus was, washing their feet, doing for them all what none of them would ever have done for each other. In fact, when Peter objected, Jesus said, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (Jn. 13:8). Peter misunderstood this as well. It would seem that what Jesus was trying to impress on him and on the rest of the disciples was that this was the quality of love that defined God’s very character. It was the quality of love that God shared with Jesus. It was the quality of love that Jesus had shown to them. And it was the quality of love that Jesus commanded them to show one another.
Even at this, we might still be able to get over the menial nature of washing someone’s feet--or the modern-day equivalent. But so that we can see the true nature of the quality of love that Jesus expected us to show one another, we have to remember the situation. He had just washed the feet of 12 men, one of whom was about to betray him. Another of them, Peter, would publicly deny even knowing Jesus. And the rest of them would abandon him and run for their lives when the crucial moment came. It would seem that Jesus knew all of this ahead of time, and still he demonstrated his love for each and every one of them by washing their feet.
This is the kind of love that Jesus said would be the defining mark of those who claimed to follow him. It is not just a warm, fuzzy feeling we have when we sing familiar songs together. It is the willingness to humble ourselves to do for one another what we would not normally do. It is the decision to give ourselves away for the sake of one another. It is the commitment that our lives are to be lived not just for ourselves, but for the benefit of one another. It is a love that is incredibly difficult. It is the ultimate “tough love.” The love that Jesus modeled for is a love that is willing to do whatever it takes to meet the needs of one another. It is a love that leads us to make sacrifices for one another, even when it is unconventional, or inconvenient, or even uncomfortable. The love that Jesus commanded has always been tough love.
I believe this is one of the most important ways that we can bear witness to our new life through faith in Jesus Christ. In our day and time, Christians are divided by race, divided by class, divided by politics, divided by dogma. All of these divisions contradict what Jesus said should be our defining trait: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:35). Because we come from different perspectives and backgrounds, the kind of love Jesus commanded us to show one another is tough. It takes all that we have to give. But in a world that seems increasingly lacking in love, it seems to me that maintaining this tough love for one another is the most important way that we can demonstrate the new life of our risen Lord.
 © 2013 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX on 4/28/2013.
 Cf. Margaret Guenther, “No Exceptions Permitted,” in The Christian Century (May 3, 1995): 479: “Yes, love can be warm, enfolding and sheltering. Yes, love can feel good. But love can also be strong and difficult. It can be an impossible challenge.”
 Cf. Ernst Haenchen, John: A commentary on the Gospel of John, 117.
 Cf. Mary L. Coloe, “Welcome into the Household of God: The Foot Washing in John 13,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 66 (Jul 2004):408.
 Cf. Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible IX:723: the foot washing “draws the disciple into the love that marks God’s and Jesus’ relationship to each other and to the world.” Contrast Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, 568, where he presents the idea that “Jesus performed this servile task to prophesy symbolically that he was about to be humiliated in death.”
 Cf. Guenther, “No Exceptions,” 479: “I tend to love with my fingers crossed. I'm ready to love almost everyone, .... Surely I am allowed one holdout, one person whom I may judge unworthy of love. But the commandment has no loopholes”
 cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:235-36, where he argues that the essential revelation in the Gospel of John is the mutual love between the Father and the Son which Jesus demonstrates as a love that draws the world into this fellowship. On that basis, then, he can say that “He Himself is the pledge” that is “the world which is loved by God and loves Him in return” even in spite of its ignorance of that fact. He continues, “And with Him, as His disciples, those who believe in Him, the community of His followers, are a similar pledge.” He concludes, “It is, therefore, the love which is in God Himself, which goes forth and breaks into the world in the existence of the man Jesus, and which is first actualised in those who believe in Him that they should be its witnesses—it is this love which the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel reveals as He manifests His glory.” And it is this love that draws others to faith.
 Cf. Richard B. Hayes, “Emergency Directive,” in The Christian Century (Apr 22, 1992): 425: “Sacrificial love ... presents a transformative witness to a world where the pursuit of self-actualization is the highest value, a world where self-asserting violence is the norm.” Cf. similarly George R. Beasley-Murray, John, 264
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Listening For God
The church in our day is known for a lot of things. Unfortunately, not many of them are positive. At least not in our culture at large. In our day, the church is known for things like covering up serious abuses by the clergy. And at the same time, it is known for heaping loads of guilt on people who don’t seem to “fit in.” The church in our day is known for manipulating well-meaning people into giving what amounts to huge sums of money. Almost in the same breath we could say it is known for spending extravagant amounts of money on itself. Or it is known for the extravagant amounts of money its “leaders” spend to create their own versions of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. I’m not sure much of what the average person on the street thinks about church seems very positive.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus makes some interesting remarks about what characterizes those who at least claim to follow him. He says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me” (Jn. 10:27). Earlier in this chapter, he makes a similar statement: “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father” (Jn. 10:14-15). Those who belong to Jesus know him in the same way that Jesus and the Father know each other. They hear his voice and follow him. That seems to me to be a remarkable way to describe the church: the fellowship of those who know Jesus, who hear his voice, and follow him.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Talk of hearing voices in a religious or spiritual context can make people think you’ve lost touch with reality. And, of course, the claim that “God told me” has been used and abused in every conceivable way. And yet, when it comes down to it, what Jesus says distinguishes those who believe from those who don’t believe is this: “I know my own and my own know me” and “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” It would seem to me that some kind of spiritual relationship with God is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Christ. And that includes an active attempt to know God, to hear God’s voice, and to put into practice what we hear.
I don’t think that means that we turn loose all moorings and leave the church at the mercy of whatever someone claims God told them. For one thing, I think we can assume that the voice of God in our day will not speak in a significantly different way than the generations before us have experienced it. This particularly relates to Scripture as the primary witness to the living interaction between God and the human family over the centuries. So paying attention to Scripture can help us in our effort to listen for the voice of God. Another check on an “anything goes” approach to spirituality is that we tend to hear God’s voice better when we do so in community with others than when we are listening alone. I think a final test for the quality of our attempt to listen for God’s voice has to be the fruit it bears in our lives. If our discernment of God’s voice leads us to be more patient, more kind, more merciful, more understanding, more loving--in short, if it leads us to live in a way that is more like Christ--then I think we’re on the right track. 
At the end of the day, however, there has to be some kind of effort on our part to actually seek God: his presence, his truth, and his will for our lives. That is an inherently personal endeavor. You can do it together with others, but no one can do it for you. Somehow, sometime, somewhere in your being you have to make the decision that seeking God’s presence is a vital part of your life. Somehow, sometime, somewhere in your heart you have to decide that aligning your life with God’s will and God’s way is of central importance. Somehow, sometime, somewhere in your soul you have to come to the place where you realize it’s essential to at least try to listen for God’s voice.
I think this is one more way that we can bear witness to our new life through faith in Jesus Christ.  Can you imagine the response from our world if the church came to be known as the people who truly seek to listen for God’s voice? Can you imagine what would happen if the church became known as the people who know Christ and who truly seek to follow him? I’m not sure I can. But I’d like to try. I think we have to begin by making the decision that listening for God and seeking to follow Christ is something vital to our ability to experience what Jesus called “eternal life.” When we are living out the mercy and compassion of Christ, it seems to me that we’re doing a pretty good job of listening for God. Then maybe we can become the kind of people who are known for knowing Christ truly and for seeking to follow him sincerely.
 © 2013 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX on 4/21/2013.
 Cf. Ernst Haenchen, John: A commentary on the Gospel of John, 48. He points out that this kind of relationship “does not mean to be acquainted; rather, it means to have a living bond.” Cf. also Margaret Guenther, “Known by the Shepherd,” The Christian Century (Apr 26, 1995): 453, where she points out the double edge to this: “To be known, fully known, is both painful and profoundly comforting. We accept the humble status of sheep, let our masks and defenses drop away, and allow the shepherd to carry us on his shoulder and occasionally poke us with his staff.”
 Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:279: “The voice of Jesus Christ is the voice of God Himself, who wills to have us for Himself, to make us free and ready for eternal life.”
 Cf. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 33, where he says, ““In prayer, real prayer, we begin to think God’s thoughts after him: to desire the things he desires, to love the things he loves, to will the things he wills.”
 Cf. Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, 121: “From the earliest Christian thinkers onward, tradition has insisted that faith, rightly understood, is a quest to know oneself in God. To run from the self is to run from God. People need silence to find their way back to interior wisdom.”
 Cf. Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, 34: “To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude.” He says further (p. 44), “In this solitude we can slowly become aware of a a presence of him who embraces friends and lovers and offers us the freedom to love each other, because he loved us first.”
 Cf. The Book of Order 2007-2009, G-3.0200, where we say that we believe we are called to be “a sign in and for the world” of the “new creation, a new beginning for human life” that has occurred in Jesus Christ.
 Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, 69, where he reminds us that “Jesus says: ‘Dwell in me as I dwell in you.’ It is this divine in-dwelling that is eternal life. It is the active presence of God at the center of my living--the movement of God’s Spirit within us--that gives us the eternal life.”
I’ve never raised livestock myself. But you can’t grow up in a small town in Texas without being around livestock. And yet I wouldn’t claim to know the first thing about raising sheep. The only time I’ve been around sheep was when I was a much younger man, serving as the pastor of a little country church in central Texas. Most of the folks in that area raised cattle. But one of the leaders of that little church raised sheep. It seemed to me that raising sheep was a pretty simple task. You made sure they had enough land to graze, you had sheep dogs to keep them from getting themselves in trouble, and every once in a while you had to get rid of predators that were lurking on your land. I’m sure my take on it is probably too simple, but it seemed that tending sheep wasn’t a complicated job.
As I’ve mentioned before, the lessons during these weeks of the Easter season repeatedly express the idea that the purpose of our experience of new life through Jesus Christ is so that we might spread the news far and wide. I think some of us may think that task is reserved for someone with more knowledge and training, like a pastor. I think we tend to see ourselves as either unqualified or unable to talk to other people about our faith. And so when we hear that we’re supposed to bear witness to the new life we have found through our faith, we effectively “count ourselves out,” thinking that there are others who are much more suited to the task.
Our Gospel lesson for today may speak to that reluctance. I can’t think of any of the apostles who would have better reason to be reluctant to speak about Jesus than Simon Peter. After boasting that though all the others might desert Jesus, he would die before doing so (cf. Matt. 26:33/Mk. 14:29), Peter publicly denied even knowing Jesus. Not once, but three times. I think Peter had all kinds of reasons for going back to fishing. I wouldn’t be surprised if he thought his career as a disciple of Jesus was over. I think it would have been easy for him to think he had forfeited any right to serve as a witness to the new life through faith in Jesus.
But I think Jesus had different plans for Peter. As Peter and the others were fishing, Jesus revealed himself to them again. After they shared a meal together, Jesus had an unusual conversation with Peter. He began by asking, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” (Jn. 21:15). Although it’s unclear, it would seem that Jesus’ question alluded to Peter’s boast, which implied that he loved Jesus more than the others. Peter, now a much humbler man after his bitter failure, simply answered, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” And in response, Jesus simply told Peter, “Feed my lambs.” Nothing spectacular. Nothing that would bring him any special distinction. Just a simple task, yet one that would take all the love he had to give. And to leave no room for doubt about what Jesus had in mind, he asked Peter the same question three times, and each time he told Peter that if he loved him, Peter should show it by tending the flock.
I think there’s an important lesson for us all in this unusual conversation between Jesus and Peter. I think we are likely to view those who do things like serving on the mission field as the ones who really love God. In so doing, we discount our ability to do anything significant for God. But Jesus told Peter that his love for God and for Jesus were to be channeled through the simple act of tending the flock. And I think the same thing applies to us. We’re all called to “tend sheep.” Nothing spectacular. Nothing that will bring us any special distinction. Just a simple task, yet one that will take all the love we have to give.
You might think that tending the flock is the job of the pastor. And you’re right, that is one of my most important roles as your pastor. But tending the flock is not just the pastor’s calling. It’s a calling that belongs to all of us. And in a very real sense, the “flock” that we’re called to tend is not limited to the members and friends of this congregation. The “flock” we’re called to tend consists of the world of people around us. Everyone we come into contact with, whatever the extent of that contact. The people we meet in our daily lives are the “sheep” we’re called to tend. And we tend them just like any shepherd tends sheep--we care for them, we value them, and we try to help meet their basic needs. It’s a simple task, yet it’s one that will take all the love we have to give.
I think this is one of the most important ways in which we can share our experience of new life through faith in Jesus Christ. But in order to do that, we may have to change our outlook toward the people we come in contact with every day. Rather than being suspicious or defensive, we may have to try to see them as “sheep without a shepherd” so that we can have compassion for them as Jesus did (Mt. 9:36/Mk. 6:34). It is only when we care for the people we encounter that we can really share the love we have for God and for Jesus Christ. If we want to share our experience of new life, we first have to demonstrate it by doing the simple, but demanding task of tending the sheep around us.
 © 2013 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX on 4/14/2013.
 There is significant discussion about whether Jesus’ commission to Peter in Jn. 21:15-17 constitutes designating him as the leader of the Apostles. On this, see G. R. Beasley-Murray, John, 406-7. The circumstances of the conversation don’t seem to support that in my view.
 Cf. Beasley-Murray, John, 405; cf. also Ernst Haenchen, John: A commentary on the Gospel of John, 226, 232; and R. E. Brown, “The Resurrection in John 21 --Missionary and Pastoral Directives for the Church,” Worship 64 (no. 5, S 1990): 441.
 Cf. Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible IX:864: “Peter’s love of Jesus will be evidenced when he cares for Jesus’ sheep, not apart from that care.” Cf. also Paul S. Minear, "The Original Functions Of John 21," Journal of Biblical Literature 102 (Mar 1983): 94: “Love for Jesus must be seen to be inseparable from care for his flock.” Cf. also Beasley-Murray, John, 405.
 Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, 103: “the compassionate life is mostly hidden in the ordinariness of everyday living.”
 Cf. O’Day, “Gospel of John,” NIB IX:861: “the charge to ‘feed my sheep’ does not distinguish Peter as the true successor of Jesus, but rather describes what it means to ‘live out one’s love for Jesus.’”
 Cf. A Declaration of Faith, 1977, 7.6: “We are called to live now as God's servants in the service of people everywhere.” Cf. Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, 94-95, where she says, “At its most basic level, the everyday practice of being with other people is the practice of loving the neighbor as the self. More intricately, it is the practice of coming face-to-face with another human being,” which can be as simple as meeting his or her eyes.