Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Breath of God

The Breath of God
Ps. 104:29-30; Jn 15:26-27[1]
It’s amazing how complex our bodies are, and yet how frail they can be.  We take for granted seemingly simple actions like walking, seeing, eating, and breathing—until something goes wrong.  The heart is one of the strongest muscles in the body, but if the arteries that feed it with oxygen-rich blood cells get blocked, over time that muscle can become weak and even stop.  The lungs are incredibly complex organs, and there are over 40 different types of diseases that can affect them.  We take a simple thing like breathing for granted, until something keeps us from breathing normally.  When that happens, it affects everything we do.  Like many functions of our bodies, breathing is essential for life!
In a very real sense, the day of Pentecost is a celebration of the Spirit of God breathing life into the community of Christians.  Just as the Spirit of God breathed life into God’s human creatures in the beginning, at Pentecost the Spirit of God breathed life into the infant church, enabling  them to do amazing things, and to bear witness to all that Jesus had done for them and meant to them. [2] This is precisely what Jesus says the Spirit would do for the disciples according to John’s Gospel.  In our lesson for today, Jesus promises that the Spirit would testify to him, and that would enable them to testify also (Jn. 15:26-27).  That follows a pattern in John’s Gospel.[3]  Just as Jesus did the work God sent him to do, so they would also do the same work (Jn. 14:12).  Just as Jesus taught what God had given him to teach, so the Spirit would continue to teach them, and in turn they would teach (Jn. 14:25-26).  ).[4]
I’ve always maintained that churches thrive to the extent that they become living demonstrations of the love of God, the presence of Jesus, and the new life of the Spirit.  It has always been my conviction that we may generate short-term results through our own ingenuity and cleverness, but anything lasting that we hope to do for the sake of the kingdom of God must be done by the power of the Spirit working through us.  Or should I say, it must be done as the Spirit breathes the life of God in and through us.
I guess the practical question is how do we become “filled with the Spirit”?  I must confess I’ve always struggled with this.  How can people like you and me—average, normal, day in and day out people—become the kind of people who display God’s love and the presence of Christ and the new life of the Spirit the way the first Apostles did?  The usual answer is that it’s a matter of practicing the traditional disciplines of the faith: prayer, testimony, silence, service, and worship.[5]  These practices have sustained the life of the church for centuries, and for some of us, they continue to sustain our faith and life.  But the fact of the matter is that Bible Study and prayer simply leaves some of us cold.  That’s why another suggestion is that we find the presence of God in our lives through the everyday routines of life—from washing dishes to working in the yard to simply taking the time to look the people behind the cash register in the eye and acknowledge them as human beings.[6]  I personally find exercising—whether practicing yoga or going on a rigorous bike ride, or even walking—to be particularly effective for me.  The key is to turn off the constant “noise” within us that keeps us from even being aware of God’s life-giving presence in and around us.  When we can silence all that mental chatter and simply be in the presence of God’s Spirit, we discover a whole new Pentecost every day[7]—we discover that are constantly living in God’s presence. 
I don’t think there’s only one method to achieving this.  And I also don’t think there’s a quick path to getting spiritual.  In fact, it’s something we really can’t do at all!  In a very real sense, all we can do is show up. [8]  All we can do is to open ourselves to the presence of the life-giving Spirit, praying for the breath of God to create in us something new.  I guess the first step in that direction is to try to live in constant awareness of the presence of God.[9]  When we can do that, when we can live every aspect of life, from work to family to play to worship to eating to sleeping to walking, to the very breathing we do, [10] in the constant awareness of God’s presence, then we can become living witnesses to the life and love that the Spirit breathes into us all.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/27/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] It’s interesting to note that while the actors in the book of the Acts of the Apostles continually attribute their authority and power to Jesus, the author of the book never ceases to remind us that they do what they do in the name of Jesus because they are “filled with the Spirit”; e.g., Peter: Acts 4:8, 10:19; Stephen: Acts 7:55; Philip: Acts 8:29; Barnabas: Acts 11:24; Paul: Acts 13:9;
[3] Cf. Eugene Peterson, “The Story Behind the Story: John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15,” Journal for Preachers 26 (no. 4 Pentecost) 2003:6-7, where he points out that according to Jn. 16:12-15, Jesus hadn’t finished teaching them yet; there is still more that the Spirit would show them.
[4] Cf. Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible IX:765: “the witness of the Paraclete and that of the community are not two distinct acts; rather, the community’s witness is the visible sign of the Paraclete’s work as witness.”  Cf. similarly, Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel of John XIII-XXI, 700; 1139-40.
[5] Cf. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline; cf. also Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us.  She recounts her study of several mainline churches experiencing renewal through the practice of the traditional disciplines.
[6] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, xv, where she describes it as the process of “becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.” 
[7] Cf. Alyce M. McKenzie, “Everyday Pentecost,” Patheos May 20, 2012; accessed at .
[8] Peterson, “The Story Behind the Story,” 7.  He says, “Spiritual formation is primarily what the Spirit does, forming the life of Christ in us. There is not a whole lot we can do here any more than we can create the cosmos (the work of the Spirit in creation), any more than we can outfit Jesus for salvation (the work of the Spirit at Jesus baptism). But there is a great deal that the Spirit can do—this is the Spirit's work. But what we can do, need to do, is be there …. Be there to accept what is sent by the Father in Jesus’ name. Be there, receptive and obedient.”
[9] Cf. Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, 29, 38-39
[10] Cf. Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap, 39-41, where she talks about the importance simply pausing and breathing.  See also Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step, 8-10.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Seeing the Light

Seeing the Light
1 Jn. 5:9-13; Jn 17:11-18[1]
I still remember my first inter-faith encounter, even though it was almost 30 years ago.  I had already completed my college degree in Bible, and I was a seminary student in my second year—and I thought I knew quite a bit about spiritual things.  One evening, a friend told me he had met two Muslim men who just moved to our apartment complex in Fort Worth, and asked me to go with him to talk to them.  Well, of course I went. When we got there, we started talking with them, and the conversation quickly moved toward faith.  Assuming that their religion was completely “man-made,” I began to talk about how I experienced the presence of God in my faith.  I will never forget my feeling of shock when one of the men said, “I, too, experience God’s presence through my faith”!  I was young, and had not been prepared adequately to dialogue in a meaningful way with people of other faiths.  I had operated with the standard prejudices that the Christians I knew cherished about other faiths—that they were simply human substitutes for the “real thing,” faith in Jesus Christ! My encounter with those two men was the beginning of a fundamental shift in my outlook toward people of other faiths.
When we read our lessons from Scripture for today, it shouldn’t surprise us that so many Christians throughout the ages have tended to hold some kind of prejudice or another toward those “outside” the church.  In 1 John, the distinction seems clear enough—those who believe in Jesus as the Son of God have life, those who don’t believe don’t have life (1 Jn. 5:12).  Similarly, the reading from John 17 sounds like the Christians were under attack from the outside world.[2]  At the very least, the “world” was something from which one had to protect oneself.  While these kinds of negative statements can be found in various parts of our Scriptures, what we have to understand is that they were addressed to a very specific time and place.  
It would seem that, for the most part the Christians for whom the Scriptures bearing John’s name were intended lived in Asia Minor—modern day Turkey.  Toward the end of the First Century, we have evidence that these Christian communities were under mounting pressure—both from the outside as well as from within.  They felt their very existence was threatened.  So it’s no wonder that they looked at the outside world as something dangerous.  They even viewed former members of their communities to be a threat because they disagreed over the question of Jesus’ identity as human and divine.[3]
While we can certainly understand thoughts like these when a community that feels threatened, we have to remember that taking Scriptures that were intended to address a specific situation and lifting them out of context to apply them to our day and time can be a risky venture.  In a very real sense, it can enable the “oppressed” to become the “oppressors.”  And in fact, you don’t have to work very hard to find all kinds of examples throughout the history of the church where that was exactly what happened—Christians took Scriptures like these and used them to justify all kinds of hateful and even violent acts against those deemed “other” and “outside.” 
But the very Scriptures themselves point us to a higher road.  Some of the very books of the Bible that suggest the “world” is such a threat to the Christian communities also clearly speak of the “world” as the object of God’s redemptive love in Jesus Christ.[4]  In fact, in the same prayer that expresses concern for the Christians due to the threat of the world, Jesus also speaks of sending them out into the world just as he was sent into the world (Jn. 17:18)! 
I think that part of what we find in 1 John might help us out here as well.  The Scripture says that those who believe “have the witness in themselves” (1 Jn. 5:10).  There is some debate about what this means, but I think it means that when someone’s faith in Jesus is real you can see the life that is in them.[5]  It’s obvious by who they are and how they live.  You can’t miss it.  But I think the same can be said for a lot of people who are “outside” the church. There are a lot of people out there who have the light of God’s life within them.  All we have to do is open our eyes and see it.[6]  Whether we’re talking about Mohandas Ghandi, a Hindu, or the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist, or Mother Theresa, a Catholic nun, or Pearl Buck, a Presbyterian missionary.  You can see the light of God’s life in and through their lives.  They “have the witness in themselves.”
I think this kind of approach is a much better option for us in our day and time.  Instead of looking at others with shallow prejudices and dismissing their religions, if we will open our eyes we can see many people of all faiths who shine the light of God’s love all around them.  Rather than getting them to “see the light” and come around to our way of looking at things, perhaps we should first be open to seeing the light they already have within them.  We may be surprised to find that it looks a lot like the light of God’s life in us, and that we have a lot more in common that we expected!

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/20/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.a
[2] Cf. Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible IX:793; contrast the overly subtle approach of Paul Minear, Interpretation 32 (April 1978): 178-79, where he insists that the “world” is not humanity or those outside the church, but “the hidden jurisdiction of the Evil One.”
[3] Cf. Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John, 31–35; cf. also Stephen S. Smalley, 1,2,3 John, 291. The group that left had so emphasized Jesus as divine as to deny that he was human.
[4] In John’s Gospel, it is clear that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” and that “God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved” (Jn. 3:16-17).  On this ambiguity regarding the “world” in John’s Gospel, cf. Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, 763-65.  Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1:73-76, where he points to a similar dynamic in Paul’s writings, and yet emphasizes that Paul says “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19).
[5] Cf. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 285-86; and C. Clifton Black, “The First, Second and Third Letters of John,” New Interpreters Bible XII:440.  Cf. also G. Strecker, and H. W. Attridge, The Johannine letters, 195–196: “The Christ-event is not a thing of the past to which one may look back with an objectifying glance. … It occurs hic et nunc in the community, as a reconciling, life-giving reality. Christian life before God is life in the Son.”
[6] Cf. Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance, 301, where she speaks of this in terms of recognizing “the spark of God in others.”  Cf. similarly, Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 92, where she recognizes that this is a challenge, the challenge of “escaping the small self long enough to glimpse the wholeness” in which everything that is exists.  She says, “Everything that lives, lives in this light”!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Defining Truth

Defining Truth
1 Jn. 5:1-6[1]
It seems to me that our culture is locked in a battle over truth.  Unfortunately, in our debate over truth, we are simply talking past each other rather than actually discussing our differences.  I think part of the problem is that we have very different views on “truth.”  We differ greatly over the central idea that shapes us, forms us, and defines how we live our lives.  Is it that we are a society governed of the people, by the people, and for the people?  Or is it that common people have to be supervised by the millionaires and billionaires that have the money to buy out our government?  Is our defining truth that we are a beacon of freedom and compassion for the whole world, seeking to help those who are suffering and struggling?  Or is it that we are the world’s only remaining superpower, able to exert our will wherever and whenever we please?  Is our defining truth that we are an increasingly diverse people, and that diversity is our strength?  Or is it that we are a people who insist that everybody conform to the same ideals—mine!
We might call these central ideas our “defining truths.”  Defining truths are very powerful.  They determine a great deal about us—from what we think about political and social issues to how we relate to others and ourselves to what we hold as our faith convictions.  Unfortunately, many of us were instilled from childhood with defining truths like, “you’ll never do it right,” or “you’ll never be good enough to be worthy of love,” or “you don’t deserve to be here.”[2]  These kinds of statements may have been imposed verbally on us by parents who couldn’t handle their own feelings.  Or for some of us, our childish minds came to the conclusion that they must be true based on the way we were treated.  Sadly, those defining truths have a way of controlling our whole lives.  From work to family to money to faith, our defining truths have a way of running our whole lives.  And they can have a way of ruining our lives.
Our lesson from 1 John for today tells us that our faith gives us victory. [3]  I think part of the victory that our faith gives to us is to expose the lies that masquerade as our defining truths.  As we discussed last week, the Christian Gospel is that in Jesus God somehow came among us to walk in our shoes, to experience the fullness of our suffering, our struggles, and even our loneliness. One of the most important reasons why God went to all that trouble was to make it clear that we are not worthless, rejected, unloved people.  Rather we are—all of us and every single one of us—the focus of God’s unconditional and irrevocable love!
Some in our day will debate whether this version of “faith” as a “truth” that defines our lives is really all that helpful.  They will point instead to the idea that faith is simply a matter of trust.  I certainly would not want to minimize trust as an important aspect of our faith.  And I agree that when our defining truth becomes “THE defining truth,” we can do great harm in the name of that truth.  But that doesn’t mean that we should discard the notion of truth entirely from our faith.[4] 
One of the most important facets of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death, and resurrection is that all of it is a magnificent demonstration of a defining truth.  It is the truth that God loves us all, and will stop at nothing to reach us with that love.  It is the truth that there is no depth to which God will not go to embrace each and every human being with that love.  It is the truth that even death and hell itself cannot prevent God from reaching us with that love. When I think of faith as the “victory,” I think of it as not overcoming the “world,” so much as overcoming the fear and the shame and the pain that the defining lies we have lived with have inflicted on us all.  I think our faith that Jesus shows us God’s love for us all is a “defining truth,” an idea that sets us free to live the lives we were meant to live.
And when we can embrace that defining truth so completely that it frees us from the lies that have kept us bound—some of us for decades!—then we can also take that freedom and share it with the people around us, most of whom also have their own lies that defined them and have kept them bound and chained.  Then we can become the kind of people who love one another like Jesus loved us, by laying down our lives for our friends (Jn. 15:13).[5]  And when we embrace the truth that God loves us all unconditionally and irrevocably, then we can understand that there’s nobody out there who falls outside the definition of a “friend” we are called to love by laying down our lives for them.[6]

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/13/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha, 20. She calls this “the trance of unworthiness.”
[3] Cf. G. Strecker and H. W. Attridge, The Johannine Letters, 182; cf. even more definitively Stephen S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 271: faith “ amounts to a ‘confession,’ or ‘acknowledgment,’ about Jesus as both divine and human.”
[4] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 20: “We all need a ‘way,’ I am not denying that, but I deny that anyone has the authority to Capitalize their way.”
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:835, where he defines the “victory” of faith in terms of the love that St. Paul describes in 1 Cor. 13:7 as “bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things.” He compares it to  “the victory which takes place in and with the fact that love cannot waver, tire or cease in relation either to God or the neighbor …. It bears and believes and hopes and endures.”
[6] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 117, 120-21, where he defines this attitude as “open and total friendship.”  Cf. also Brach, Radical Acceptance, 301, where offers an excellent definition of “friendliness” when she says, “We only need to pause, see clearly who is before us and open wide our heart.”

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Living Witnesses

Living Witnesses
1 Jn. 4:7-21[1]
It’s not hard to see when we look around us that we find ourselves living a world in which a lot of people are looking for love in all the wrong places.  We are one of the most connected generations of all time, and yet we are more isolated from those around us, more separated from friends, family, God, and even ourselves, and therefore lonelier than any generation of humankind.  In a recent article, one observer argued that all of our “connectedness” through social media like Facebook is in fact only an unsatisfying substitute for real relationships.[2]  The study shows that it seems the more “connected” we are through our social networks, the more lonely we’re actually likely to be!
We who have looked to the church as a place of community are, to some extent, more fortunate than most.  Communities of faith like ours serve as extended families and support groups for many of us.  But I think even those of us who continue to actively participate in church would have to admit that the Church doesn’t always do a very good job of practicing the central command that we love one another as we love ourselves.  Sadly, as much as we might wish it were not true, in the church we are all too often guilty of “shooting our wounded.”
Our lesson from 1 John for today suggests that we look to a different source to meet our needs for love.  The elder John calls us to love one another based on the fact that God is love and is the source of love.  More than that, John points to the ultimate demonstration of God’s love in Jesus.  There is some significant theology behind this.  We call it the incarnation, the belief that in Jesus, God somehow came to walk in our shoes, to experience the fullness of our suffering, our struggles, and even our loneliness. Through this amazing demonstration of love, John says that we come to know and “believe in” the love God has for us (1 Jn. 4:16). 
Now, I think the theology of incarnation is an important basis for understanding God’s love for us.[3]  But I doubt seriously that most of us came to know and “believe in” God’s love for us in the first place through dogma.  It seems to me that most of us come to know and “believe in” God’s love because somebody at some point or another in our lives served as a “living witness” of God’s love.[4]  And because we have received that love, that means that we in turn have the opportunity in each and every interaction with other human beings to be the one who helps them know and believe in God’s love for them.
Unfortunately, we often fall short in this. Even in the earliest days, the church fell short.  John the elder, who says that anyone who doesn’t love a brother or sister cannot love God (1 Jn. 4:20), also attacks people who had separated from his community over doctrinal disagreement (1 Jn. 2:22-23).  In fact, he condemns them as “antichrists” (1 Jn. 3:18-19) and children of Satan (1 Jn. 3:10)!  Doesn’t sound like there’s much love there.[5] But if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to confess that we have all been there.  We have all fallen short of relating to those around us as living witnesses of God’s love.
 I myself have to confess that I have in fact cherished hatred in my heart toward other human beings.  The sad thing about it is that when we retreat behind our walls of bitterness and hatred, we are only increasing the isolation, the separation, and the loneliness in our world.  And we do it by isolating and separating ourselves from the world of humanity around us—a world crying out for some indication that there is someone out there somewhere who cares about them, who loves them, who values them as human beings.[6]
But because we know and believe in the love God has for us, we have the opportunity to turn all that around every time we encounter another person.[7]  We have the opportunity to choose compassion, to choose to be living witnesses of God’s love for that person.  We talk a lot about God’s love; we sing songs about God’s love; God’s love and grace and mercy are at the center of our whole approach to Christian faith.  But the real question is whether we actually show that love toward the real-life people we relate to everyday. 
The challenge is that relating to other human beings can be a messy proposition; even on Facebook our relationships can get complicated.  But that’s the way life is.  It’s complicated; it can hurt to relate to another human being; it’s frustrating and challenging to try to show love.  And that’s precisely why God’s incredible love for us calls us to love each other.  God’s love for us calls us to enter into the messy, complex world of flawed people and live as witnesses to God’s love for each and every one of them.[8]

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/6/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Stephen Marche, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” The Atlantic (May 2012):60-69. He cites a 2004 study that suggested 25 percent of Americans reported that they had nobody they could talk to, and 20 percent only had one confidant!
[3] Cf. D. Moody Smith, First, Second and Third John, 107; cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1:275: “The love of God, or God as love, is therefore interpreted in 1 Jn. 4 as the completed act of divine loving in sending Jesus Christ.”  See further, Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 83.
[4] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 127: “All human relationships, …, are meant to be signs of God’s love for humanity as a whole and each person in particular. … Jesus reveals that we are called by God to be living witnesses of God’s love.”
[5] Cf. Raymond Brown, The Epistles of John, 85.
[6] Cf. Smith, First, Second and Third John, 108: “Apart from love shared, whether by God for us or by ourselves for one another, it is meaningless to inquire about God’s reality or being.” (!)
[7] Cf. Paul Tillich, “The Golden Rule,” in The New Being, 30: “For the other one and I and we together in this moment in this place are a unique, unrepeatable occasion, calling for a unique unrepeatable act of uniting love.”  Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 121: “Christians must show the friendship of Jesus in openness for others and totally.”
[8] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 115: “if we say ‘God is love,’ that means we are expected to get off our haunches and do something, make that truth happen, amidst our sisters and our brothers.”