Monday, June 19, 2006

“Second Sight”[1]

2 Cor. 5:6-10, 11-17; Mk. 4:26-34

It is common to say that those who are impaired in some way tend to develop their other abilities to compensate. For example, a person who cannot see may develop the ability to do almost everything a sighted person can do—without the aid of high-tech implants. A fellow in our neighborhood actually jogs with his seeing-eye dog! In fact, sometimes a blind people develop such an acute sensitivity to the world around them that they may be said to have “Second Sight.”

I think this serves as a paradigm for life in general. Our lives are so filled with details, distractions, and disruptions that we often say we’re like “chickens running around with their heads cut off.” I wonder if we realize just how true that is. Or to use a different idiom, we “can’t see the forest for the trees.” We go from one “urgent” crisis to the next without even stopping to ask whether our lives have any rhyme or reason.

Somehow, we have to find a way to see past all the obvious commotion in our lives. I didn’t say “look” past the obvious, but rather “see” past it.

Our eyes are amazing organs. Like our ears, our noses, and even our brains, they develop a way of “filtering” out extraneous things. That’s what so-called “speed reading” is all about—learning a technique to overlook what is obvious and to only actually see what is necessary to understand what is being communicated.

I think that the Christian faith provides a way of “seeing” past the obvious disorder that makes up our hectic lives to find a meaning that brings everything into place.

That’s what Paul was trying to do with the church at Corinth—help them find a way to hold onto the truth that would set them free from the chaos of their lives. Make no mistake about it; the church at Corinth was full of chaos! They were so divided against each other that you might say they were really four churches instead of one! They had so confused Christian freedom that they actually boasted about the decadent behavior of one of their members! Some were so rigid about religious rules that they changed their diets to avoid eating contaminated foods, while others indulged themselves without giving any thought to the consequences of their behavior. They even publicly humiliated Paul himself, their founder and mentor! This was a church in trouble!

But Paul didn’t give up on them. He kept right on preaching the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, patiently teaching and correctly them, above all by his own example. One of the things he tried to teach them was the principle that “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). I like the way Gene Peterson translates it: “It's what we trust in but don't yet see that keeps us going” (2 Cor. 5:7, The Message). It’s all too human to get caught up in the obvious distractions and disruptions that fill life. But Paul urges the Christians at Corinth to find a way to see past the obvious.

For Paul, the key to seeing past the obvious was to focus his attention on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Again, I like Gene Peterson’s translation of this passage: “Our firm decision is to work from this focused center: One man died for everyone. That puts everyone in the same boat. He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own” (2 Cor. 5:14-15, The Message). And from that vantage point, Paul could see past the obvious chaos of this life to a more profound reality: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” What Paul could see was the restoration God had already begun.

Jesus called that the “Kingdom of God.” When we think of a “kingdom,” we normally think of something powerful, large—something obvious. But Jesus speaks of a different kingdom, one that grows without anyone knowing how. Jesus speaks of a kingdom that is like a tiny seed—although it may not look like much, the seed will eventually grown into a huge shrub. It is the kingdom that Ezekiel envisioned—it begins as a tiny sprig but grows into a huge Sequoia that towers overhead.

The point is that God’s work in this world is not obvious. At times it may even be downright invisible. At times it is all to easy to find ourselves caught up in the torrent of turmoil that rushes through our lives and find it impossible to believe that God is doing anything in this corrupt world.

But that’s when we need to find the faith to see past the obvious. That’s when we need to find a focal point that can serve as an organizing center for our lives. That’s when we need to remind ourselves that the Kingdom of God is not found in the spectacular buildings or lavish performances of the mega-churches. At least not the Kingdom Jesus preached. He preached a kingdom that was unlikely, easy to doubt, hidden, and vulnerable. We really ought not be surprised at that. As the story of Samuel’s choosing David as King to replace Saul illustrates, God often chooses unlikely people to accomplish the work of the Kingdom. In fact, story after story in Scripture points to the conclusion that God delights in choosing unlikely people to accomplish the work of the Kingdom! I would say that is God’s preferred way of accomplishing the word of the Kingdom.

Yes, this makes it harder for us. This means that we have to truly embrace the Gospel we say we believe—that God is working to restore all creation. That God sent Jesus the Christ to overcome all the powers that enslave creation by his death and resurrection. Because it is only as we truly embrace this good news that we will be able to make it the focal point that serves as an organizing center for our lives.

And it is only as we acquire this “second sight” that we will be able to see past the obvious turmoil in which we live and find the new creation already growing among us. Then we can have confidence because we entrust the kingdom to God who alone gives the growth. Then we can move past differences over worship styles, fears about finances, embarrassment about our size, and frustrations over the obstacles we face, and carry out our calling: to promote the Kingdom of God in everything we do.

[1] A sermon preached 6/18/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

“Shall We Dance?”[1]

Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17

One of the most widespread folk tales in human history is the one we know as “Cinderella.” There have been over 500 varieties of it found in European cultures alone! There are African “Cinderellas”, Asian “Cinderellas”, even Native American “Cinderellas.” The German Cinderella is known as “Aschenputtel,” the Chinese Cinderella is “Yeh Shen,” and the Celtic Cinderella is “Rashen Coatie.” While the tales are all very different, they deal with the difficulty of a King (or in this case a Prince) in matters of love.

The King and I. The dilemma was summarized by the Danish Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.[2] “Suppose there was a King who loved a humble maiden,” Kierkegaard begins. If he truly loves the maiden, he will both long for what is best for her, and he will long to be loved by her as an equal. But if he proceeds to make her his equal, would she ever truly be happy? What’s more, would she ever love him for who he is, and not simply because he is King? If he only becomes an anonymous benefactor to ensure her happiness, she would never love him at all. The only possibility, Kierkegaard says, is for the King to humble himself. He must not do this merely by pretending to be lowly, simply by wearing common clothes instead of regal robes. He must actually become humble and common in order to seek out the maiden’s love.

I think it is fitting on this Trinity Sunday to reflect on how we imagine God. For example, if we think of God as “king” sitting on a throne in light of Isaiah’s experience in the Temple, I think we tend to come up with an image of God as an absolute monarch, imposing and lofty, untouched by common life, unconcerned and above all, distant. I don’t know about you, but that image of God doesn’t appeal to me.

If we can enter into the world of “Cinderella” when we think about God as the one seated on the throne, then I think we can come closer to understanding the God of the Bible. Our God is not monarch who is untouched by common life, unconcerned, and above all distant from common human beings. In fact, if we begin with the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, we find that God is something altogether different!

God is Love. The God revealed to us by Jesus Christ is the God whose very being is defined by love.[3] If we want to understand who God is, we have to use love as the key. My favorite Reformed theologian asks this question: how can a God who is by definition love be remote, aloof, or unconcerned?[4] The very idea of love implies a relationship! It was to that end that the God who is by definition love brought forth the beloved Son and the Spirit of Life—in order to share his love! It was also to that end that the God who is by definition love created all things and continues to sustain, nurture, and redeem God’s beloved creation!

In fact, the only way to conceive of the God who is by definition love is through the language of Trinity. It is only the language of Trinity that enables us to say, for example, that Jesus showed us more clearly than anyone else the God defined by love. It is only the language of Trinity that enables us to say that Jesus’ death on the cross was an act of God’s redeeming love. It is only the language of the Trinity that enables us to claim that we now have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

The God Who Dances. Of course, this might not make you feel any better—language of the Trinity is notoriously confusing. And images of the Trinity range from obscure (God as the lover, the beloved, and the love) to cliché (God plays different roles like an actor playing different parts) to ridiculous (a triangular shaped sign that continually rotates).

But in fact, there is an analogy for the triune God that makes a lot of sense. It is the analogy of the dance. It originated in the Eastern Orthodox Church—which is why most of us have never heard of it. John of Damascus, a 7th century Greek Father, said that the unity between the Father, Son, and Spirit is the relationship of love that they share with each other.[5] This love so profound that, while we can distinguish them from one another, we must also recognize that everything one does, the others do also. That’s why the analogy of the dance is so important. It’s as if the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are joined in an eternal dance by the love they share for each other. If you’ve ever had the privilege of dancing with a partner, you know that you have to move as one, or you don’t move at all!

But the really good news is that from the very beginning, the purpose of this eternal dance of God’s has been to open the dance for all of us to join in.[6] That’s what the incarnation is about—making clear to us that God loves us by not just pretending to be one of us, but by actually becoming one of us in order to invite us to the dance. And that’s also what salvation is about—the Spirit taking our hand, not taking no for an answer, and leading us gently but persistently into the divine eternal dance of love. We can protest all we want—I don’t know how to dance!—the Spirit of the triune God will not take no for an answer! The God who loves us will not only become one of us, but will also patiently, gently, but persistently, teach us to join in the dance of love.

And once we learn to dance, it’s our job to go out and become God’s messengers to invite others to dance, to become God’s agents to teach others to dance.[7] So, on this Trinity Sunday, the question we must answer is this: “Shall we dance?”

[1] A sermon preached 6/11/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] See Thomas Oden, ed., The Parables of Kierkegaard, 40-45.

[3] William Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God, xiii, 3-6, 10, 15-16, 19-21, 55, 62

[4] Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 53, 151.

[5] Moltmann, Trinity, 174-75.

[6] Moltmann, Trinity, 72-75, 89-90, 95-96, 157, 178

[7] Moltmann, Trinity, 158, 191-92, 198-200, 202, 216-18.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

“Spirit of Life”[1]

Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27, 16:4-15

I think it is especially fitting that we are observing both of our sacraments on this day of Pentecost. And yet, sad to say, it is precisely the ongoing dispute over the sacraments that continues to divide the church today. Roman Catholics insist that there are seven sacraments, and that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus. “Free Church” groups like Baptists insists that there are no sacraments, only ordinances that are “mere symbols.”

In one respect, this dispute is understandable. But in another respect, it is regrettable in that it misses the point. It seems to me that the witness of Scripture and the testimony of our revered spiritual guides throughout history has been that all of life is to be viewed as a sacrament! If we understand a sacrament as the experience of the grace of God in the Word, incarnate and proclaimed, through the Spirit,[2] then what part of our lives doesn’t fall under that grace? We may recognize the acts of baptism and communion as special instances of the experience of grace, but in a very real sense the outpouring of the Spirit on that first Pentecost had the effect of making every experience of life at least potentially sacramental.

The Work Of The Spirit. Talking about the Spirit makes some of us uncomfortable. Others embrace the spirituality at the core of life by any and every means. Either way, everything we are and do as Christians is defined by the Spirit of God.

In our Psalm text for today, the Spirit is the one who brings life, the one who renews creation, the one who promotes the glory of God (Ps. 104). I’m not sure how radically we are prepared to take that, but in Scripture there is nothing that falls outside the purview of the Spirit. The Scriptures affirm that the Spirit is constantly present in everyone and everything that lives (“all flesh” in Acts 2:17/Joel 2:28). Indeed, the Spirit is said to sustain the whole of creation (Ps. 104:29-30)![3]

I think it’s all too easy for us to take the marvelous gifts of the Spirit for granted. Life, breath, the created order, new life—all of that and more is due in a very real sense to the continuous life-giving presence of the Spirit (that’s not a scientific statement, but a theological one)! The ability to praise God in song, or to proclaim the promise of the Gospel, or to teach the Bible, or to build up the body of Christ—all of that and more is a demonstration of the work of the Spirit. The church lives by the presence of the Spirit of Life, or it does not live at all!

Everything that Jesus offers us with the gift of salvation—new life, love, hope, joy, freedom from everything that binds us, the restoration of all things—is the work of the Spirit of Life (Rom. 8:11, CEV).[4]

Presence Of The Spirit. One of the most bewildering aspects of the Spirit’s life among us is that the Spirit seems to “hide” more often than not (this seems to be God’s nature in general!). But if we will open our hearts, we will find that the Spirit is the loving and life-giving presence of God in all things.[5] In one sense, it’s a matter of looking at things from a different point of view—from the perspective of Scripture. The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost opens the relationship of love and joy shared between the Father and the Son for all people to experience![6] It may seem hard for us to imagine or explain, but the Spirit of Life really does open the way for us to have the kind of relationship with God that Jesus envisioned when he prayed, “As you Father, are in me and I am in you, may that also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn. 17:21).

Conclusion. In another sense, however, like everything else in the Christian life the experience of the presence of the life-giving Spirit is something that comes as a result of intentional, habitual practice. As Calvin said, we have to “get outside ourselves” in order to experience the presence of God![7] But we must also go deep within, to the place that some have called the “inner sanctuary of the soul” or the “Divine Center” within. The only way to experience the Spirit of Life within us is “by quiet, persistent practice in turning all of our being, day and night, in prayer and inward worship and surrender, toward him who calls in the deeps of our souls.” [8] When we do that, we will experience the presence, the new life, the healing, and the freedom of the Spirit in everything we do. When we do that, we will find that all of life is a sacrament of God’s grace in Jesus the Christ through the Spirit of Life!

[1] A sermon preached 6/4/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2]Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 199-206.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 9-10, 96, 98-103.

[4] Moltmann, Church, 204-5; Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 296

[5] Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 34-35.

[6] Moltmann, Spirit, 289; J. Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 72, 95-96.

[7] Calvin, Institutes 3.7.1-5; Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 299;

[8] Thomas Kelly, Testament of Devotion, 38.


1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19

Back in the 80’s, computer geeks came up with an idea that revolutionized the computer industry. Prior to that time, you had to be fluent in several programming languages in order to even begin to use a computer. Even basic word processing programs contained thousands of codes that the user had to input in order to print a document. Then the graphical interface came along. What it made possible was programs that were called WYSIWYG—what you see is what you get. With a graphical interface, all you had to do was “point and click,” which meant that anyone could use a computer. After the power brokers at Microsoft “imported” it into their Windows operating system, it became a way of life.

World Of Smoke And Mirrors. I think we are all called to be witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus the Christ. And the only way we can truly carry out that calling is to be WYSIWYG people. Unfortunately, we live in a world where that is extremely difficult. We live in a world of fog and veils, a world of smoke and mirrors, a world of deception. We live in a culture where lies are promoted as the truth, where blowing smoke in someone’s face is raised to a higher level each year, where nobody—absolutely nobody—is who they appear to be.

We see it at every level of our culture. When we go to war and tragically kill innocent people, we call it “collateral damage”—forgetting that we’re talking about men, women, and children. When someone goes on TV to tell blatant lies to get us all to believe the “party line,” we call it “spin doctoring.” This is especially likely to be the case where “plausible deniability” is available. In other words, if you can cover your back by lying through your teeth, and if you can get away with it, that’s what you should do!

When corporations throw thousands of people out of work in order to bolster their artificially-high stock values and in order to award CEO’s with multi-million dollar bonuses on top of the tens of millions they make in salary, we used to call it “downsizing.” Then we called it “rightsizing.” Now we call it “corporate realignment.” As if there’s something out of whack about every-day down-to-earth people to making a decent living!

The underlying problem is not just with our words. The problem is that our words reflect our reality. Ours is a culture where cosmetic surgery substitutes for beauty, where having toys substitute for having a life, and where simply hopping from one lover to another in the incessant quest for the perfect sex partner substitutes for spending a lifetime learning to love another human being. Money, prestige, possessions, glamour, fame, success—we live in a world where people are obsessed with getting more and more stuff, while what they are lacking is life.

Witnesses of the Resurrection. The good news of the Gospel is that by his resurrection Jesus made it possible for everyone to have life[2]—new life, real life, life that is defined by genuine love, lasting joy, living hope.[3] That is the good news with which we have been entrusted. And we have also been called to bear witness to it in this world. How can we bear witness to the new life of Jesus’ resurrection in our day? I think the answer is this: we must be people of whom Jesus can say, “my life is on display in them” (Jn 17:10, The Message). And I think that means we must demonstrate that the new life in Jesus Christ defines who we are.

I believe that is one of the greatest challenges we face as Christians today. Oh, we can show our compassion, we can show our concern. But as one wise scholar puts it, the real question is: “How much life-changing power flows from you?”[4]

I think it’s fundamentally a matter of opening yourself to God through the practice of three spiritual disciplines: solitude, silence, and submission.[5] Now, I realize that may sound daunting. These are not practices that come easily for us. But they are necessary. Solitude before God in prayer, the silence of listening for God’s word, and submitting ourselves completely to God’s mercy—these are indispensable for opening our lives to the presence of God.[6] And it is only as we open our lives to God’s presence that the new life of Jesus’ resurrection will define who we are. It’s only as we do this that we will be “sanctified in the truth” (Jn. 17:17: “let this truth make them completely yours” CEV).

I believe that we are called to bear witness to the resurrection in this world of smoke an mirrors. Obviously—or perhaps it’s not so obvious—we have to move beyond “letting your light shine” to actually telling people the good news. But it has to start with demonstrating that the new life in Jesus Christ defines who we are.

[1] A Sermon preached 5/28/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] See Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge: A Shortened Version of On Being a Christian, 284—86.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 191-94, 278-79.

[4] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation, 322.

[5] See Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 5-6.

[6] See Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart; see also Thomas Keating, Invitation to Love, 98-99; 118-19.

“Believing is Seeing”[1]

1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

In the movie “Field of Dreams,” Kevin Costner portrays a farmer named Ray Kinsella who hears a voice in his cornfield one day. “If you build it, he will come,” it said. After wrestling with the insanity of it all, he decides that he’s supposed to plow up a portion of his cornfield and build a baseball diamond. So that’s what he does! As you can imagine, he become the laughingstock of the Iowa farm community where he lives. But one night he hears voices out on the field. When he goes to check it out, he finds men from the 1919 White Sox (“Black Sox”) team playing ball on his field! His wife and daughter also see them, but his extended family doesn’t. Ray’s story is a powerful example of how faith, although it may seem crazy, opens our eyes to see what may have been there all along, but we were either too distracted or simply unable to see

Seeing vs. Believing. For most of my life, I wouldn’t say that I have been a shining example of the truth that “faith is the victory that overcomes the world.” I’m much more a skeptic by nature—I question everything. I also tend to be a pessimist—a glass-half-empty kind of person. Oh I can explain theology and scripture with the best of them. I can take just about any passage from the Bible and give you a pretty good explanation of its meaning. And I can tell you all the historical and theological mistakes that lie behind the Da Vinci Code, for example.

But that doesn’t necessarily translate into being a person of faith. Especially when it comes to my personal life, I’ve tended to take the approach of “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

If I’ve learned anything from that experience, it’s this—it’s a hard way to live! Your life is defined by constantly striving rather than resting. You’re much more likely to try to control the outcome of just about everything than to let go and let God. Worry, fear, anxiety, stress—that’s what goes along with being skeptical. All you have to hang onto is how much you’ve achieved, or how much money you make, or how many things you have. And in all three of those categories, it’s never enough no matter how much you have.

Do we Believe what we Say? When it comes down to it, I guess we have to ask ourselves if we really believe the stuff that we confess! That God loves each one of us unconditionally, which means regardless of where you’ve been and what you’ve done. That Jesus the Christ really was and is the one who embodies God—whether we can explain it or not. That God raised Jesus from the dead, and in so doing broke the power of death that threatens to destroy any shred of meaning our lives might have. That God is powerfully at work in each of our lives—not only guiding us, but also bringing wholeness into our lives.

One of our confessions, the Short Declaration of Faith adopted by the PCUS in 1977, puts it this way: “God calls us to hope for more than we have yet seen. … In Christ God gives hope for a new heaven and earth, certainty of victory over death, assurance of mercy and [life] beyond death.”[2]

I think that’s one of the reasons why faith is so hard. Sometimes I think it’s a little like what it must feel to be flying blind. You have to believe in what you’ve been taught, in the documents you’re using to find your way, in the people who are helping you. You have to believe that they are leading you in the right direction; that you really are headed for a landing strip out there!

Faith is the Victory. Jesus said that faith can move mountains. I don’t really believe he was thinking literally when he made that statement. But I think he was talking about the victory of faith. Faith enables us to see things with different eyes, so that what seemed like an impossible obstacle no longer blocks our path.

Faith shows us that the lies that we either hear or tell ourselves are false and strips them of their power over us. Faith breaks the chains of fear that can bind us and paralyze us and sets us free to live. Faith is like a light shining in the darkness of despair that no one can extinguish: if we will only open our eyes, really open our eyes, we’ll see the light and the darkness won’t be quite so dark and overwhelming.

Conclusion. I probably would have been one of the other farmers who mocked Ray for plowing up good corn for a pipe dream. Or one of his family members who thought he was crazy for “seeing” dead baseball players come back to life. But it turned out that Ray’s “folly” was wiser than that so-called wisdom. Because Ray’s faith brought healing to himself, to a disillusioned writer, and to a man who just wanted another chance at bat.

That’s true about our faith also. When we make the choice not just to “believe” our faith intellectually, but to trust God with all that we are, it brings into our lives and the lives of those around us the healing power of God’s love, new life, hope, joy, and freedom.

[1] A Sermon preached 5/21/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] From A Declaration of Faith, PCUS, 1977.

“The Power of Love”[1]

1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

The “Power” of Love? John tells us that God is love and that those who know God practice love. What exactly does “love” mean? I’m not sure we are at all clear about that these days.

Some of us may think of love as something soft, or warm and cuddly like a teddy bear. Or some may think of love as something elusive, like trying to find gold at the end of a rainbow. Some may think of love as something that belongs in fairy tales, stories that are too good to be true.

I dare say that none of us would think of love as something powerful. Unless we are thinking not about love, but about desire, or physical attraction, that is. You know, there’s Huey Lewis’ version of the “power of love”: Love can “Make a one man weep, make another man sing.” Or there’s Celine Dion’s version: “Lost is how I'm feeling lying in your arms … that all ends when I’m with you.”

But I dare say that none of us would think of connecting the worlds “love” and “power.” For us power—“real” power—means control, clout, authority, dominance, force. From that perspective, we see love as the opposite of power: love is a weakness, a shortcoming, something inadequate about us. In fact, the famous and highly influential psychologist Carl Jung basically said that power and love are mutually exclusive![2]

So what does that say about “God is love”?

The Power of Love! The fact is that true love is powerful. It has the power to bring the dead back to life. It has the power to call things into being. It has the power to grant freedom to the captives, new sight to the blind, healing for the lame. It has the power to relieve the suffering, to comfort the lonely, and to wipe away tears from every eye. Love even has the power to take the sting out of death itself!

Now, you may not believe me. But would you believe me if I told you I’ve seen one man courageously stop a tank just by standing in front of it? I’ve seen a government fall without a single shot being fired because people refused to be afraid [1989—East Germany]. Believe it or not, I’ve seen a broken man heal and return to a disrupted vocation simply because a good woman gave him love.

Are you beginning to get the picture? We could also talk about how plain old everyday people changed a nation by being willing to let hateful people curse them, attack them, and even beat them for protesting for their rights [Rosa Parks, the children of Memphis, the freedom riders]. Or how about the man who brought the British Empire to its knees simply by refusing to eat [Mohandas Ghandi]. Or then there’s the man who invited his former captors to his inauguration as President of South Africa, and then shared his government with those who formerly enforced the rule of Apartheid [Nelson Mandela].

Love is the power of God at work among us. Look at the life of Jesus the Christ—through him compassion and healing flowed together to those whose lives he touched. And they were never the same. The good news of the Gospel of Jesus the Christ is that God freely gives love to each of us. When we really understand that God loves us no matter what, we are set free from the chains of fear and anger and selfishness that bind us. We can then take that love to others bound by fear and anger and selfishness. Then we get a glimpse of the Kingdom of God right here and now—we see God’s hand working to heal and restore us all. Then we see the power of the resurrection bringing new life where there was only death.

Love is the power that liberates people from everything that binds them and empowers them to become all that God intends for them to be. Love does that—not control, not manipulation, not force, not clout, not dominance, not violence, not war—none of those things can accomplish that! That’s the true power of love!

How do we love? But what are we supposed to do about it? How can we really love one another in a dog-eat-dog, do-unto-others-before-they-do-unto-you, look-out-for-number-one world? By granting the same acceptance to others that we have received from God through Jesus the Christ—total, unconditional, absolute, irreversible, unqualified, and unlimited acceptance. It’s all about showing mercy because we’ve been shown mercy; it’s about extending grace because we’ve received grace. It’s about forgiving because we’ve been forgiven.

To love one another, we have to seek the fulfillment not of our own hopes and dreams but the hopes and dreams of one another—even if it means working for the success of worship style that is different from the one we prefer! Now that’s where the water hits the wheel!

If we have the courage to try relating to each other with that kind of love, then we’ll begin to see the power of the risen Lord Jesus revitalizing our congregation and our community!

[1] A Sermon preached 5/14/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Carl Jung, On the Psychology of the Unconscious

“The Face of Love”[1]

1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

The Face of Jesus. In the 1995 movie, “Dead Man Walking,” Susan Sarandon plays the role of Sister Helen Prejean.[2] She is a nun at a New Orleans convent who begins to correspond with a prisoner on death row named Matthew Poncelet. She visits him at his request and is so disturbed by the cruelty of the process of executing a criminal that she becomes his advocate and spiritual advisor. In that capacity she leads him to own up to his heinous crime, and through his repentance he finds forgiveness.

When he is finally executed, Sister Helen Prejean actually accompanies him throughout the ordeal. As he walks to the execution chamber, she reassures him that “Christ is here.” In the final moment, she tells him, “I want the last face you see in this world to be the face of love, so you look at me when they do this thing. I’ll be the face of love for you.”

You may or may not be aware that Sister Helen Prejean is a real-life nun with a ministry to death row inmates. Regardless of how you view the death penalty, it seems to me that there is no disputing the fact that she is a powerful witness to the presence of the risen Jesus! Talk about freedom from fears! Or service to the left out! Or even loving the “unlovable”! I think she clearly embodies the kind of love that our scripture lesson speaks of.

Whose Face Are We? Her story leads me to ask, “Who is the face of love for the people in our world?”—those who are hurting, who perhaps have fallen through the cracks, or have done something terrible that they regret? Who is the face of love for the inmate in Huntsville, or the homeless transient sleeping on the streets in Galveston, or the illegal alien right here?

It is common to acknowledge that we are the only face that some people will ever put to the Christian faith. What that means is we are the only ones who can show them God’s love and mercy and grace. But do we? Are we like sister Helen Prejean, showing love to one who is undeserving solely because God loves him? Or are we like the mob chanting and clamoring for his execution? You know, something like “Crucify, Crucify him!” Are we still crucifying Christ in the “throw away” people around us?

First Steps. How do we do this? We have to start with our first steps; we can’t just walk out the door one day and decide to run a marathon! And Sister Helen Prejean is an accomplished distance runner in this field!

Learning to relate to others with love begins in the family of faith. That’s one of the reasons why we’re called to community—because it’s so hard to relate to one another! It may come as a surprise to you to learn that I’m a human being, with lots of flaws and foibles. But don’t be too shocked at that; so are you! We are called to community so we can learn to “lay down our lives” for one another just as Jesus laid down his life for us.

What does that mean to “lay down our lives” for one another in the body of Christ? Eugene Peterson gives us a hint in his translation of Jesus’ words from our gospel lesson: “I am the Good Shepherd. … I put the sheep before myself, sacrificing myself if necessary” (John 10:11, 15, The Message).

But make no mistake about it—John doesn’t put any conditions to loving one another and laying down our lives for one another. It is a command, right up there with loving God and putting your faith in Jesus! It is the essence of being a Christian! It is indispensable and non-negotiable!

Conclusion. So the question is, can we do that for one another? I know that sometimes we all can be pretty hard to love. But I’m not talking about how we feel towards one another. I’m talking about making a commitment to relate to one another with the love that Christ has shown us. I’m talking about making a commitment to live the Christian life in community with one another.

There are times when that’s not easy. It takes the same kind of commitment that we bring to a marriage or to a family. We love one another through thick and thin, through joy and pain, through fighting and hugging, through hell and yes even through high water! We stick with each other, we forgive each other, we let each other off the hook, we work at seeing things from the other point of view, we support and respect and treat one another with dignity—the dignity of a human being created in the image of God and made the object of God’s love.[3] When we can do that, then the power and presence of the risen Lord Jesus will be experienced among us.[4]

[1] A Sermon preached 5/6/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2]See Frederic & Mary Ann Brussat, review of “Dead Man Walking,” at

[3] Cf. Paul Tillich, Love, Power, and Justice, 84-86, where he articulates that love’s “first task” in relationships is to listen; then it is to give, whether respect or self-sacrifice; then it is to forgive.

[4] See Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning Into Dancing, 83; J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 260-63.